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Newsletter Issue #650

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

So is Apple starting to “get” security? You’d think so with the recent flurry of updates that, in part, fixed security issues. Certainly there was a serious one, involving FileVault, the result of a programming error in OS 10.7.3. The problem? If you used the older FileVault encrypted database in Lion, the password would be copied in clear text, meaning someone who had access to your Mac could see it and gain access to your stuff.

Well, that’s an awfully clumsy mistake to make, and I don’t envy the software engineer responsible for allowing it to happen. Regardless, this past week’s 10.7.4 update fixed that and a number of other Lion issues. Other than security fixes, this may be the last 10.7 update (other than critical security fixes), because of the forthcoming arrival of Mountain Lion.

My real concern is whether Apple will stop delivering security fixes for Snow Leopard, 10.6, after Mountain Lion appears. That would be in the tradition of previous releases, but there are far too many Mac users who will be abandoned as a result. Many cannot upgrade to Lion because they own an older Mac, or require software that uses the Rosetta PowerPC translation software. Apple would prefer they buy new Macs, but that may not be a practical solution.

In any case, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, Jim Dalrymple, Editor in Chief of The Loop, discussed Apple’s recent security updates, and the key issues involving both desktop and mobile computing platforms from Apple and the competition.

Adam Engst, from TidBITS and Take Control Books, offered a detailed discussion of Apple’s approach to Mac security, and how recent updates have the effect of disabling older or unused versions of Flash and Java.

For a fascinating change of pace, Avram Piltch, Online Editorial Director of Laptop magazine, talked about the “Top 10 Tech Stupidity Taxes You Should Never Pay,” which include rent-to-own stores, extended warranties, and other products and services that he regards as questionable or even fraudulent.

On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a special “Voices of the Past” episode featuring Jim Moseley, Editor of Saucer Smear, and long-time broadcaster Bob Zanotti. We will revisit the active UFO and occult scene of the New York area in the 1960s, and present long-forgotten show excerpts featuring such researchers as August C. Roberts, Dominic Lucchesi, John J. Robinson, and Yonah Fortner. For a change of pace, we’ll also present two of the more outrageous contactees of the period: Andy Sinatra, “The Mystic Barber,” and Alexander McNeil.

Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt — Now with New Design! We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show, along with a redesigned storefront.

THEY WANT TO DESIGN APPLE HARDWARE

When Apple was struggling to stay afloat in the 1990s, tech pundits and so-called industry analysts went hog-wild telling them what they should do to stay in business. Now that Apple is amazingly successful, they haven’t stopped talking. To them, Apple’s ride on the gravy train is about to reach the end of the line, and they have to change real fast.

The objections usually cover a narrow range, and thus are predictable. Also, you’d think Apple’s executives can read, so they know full well what the media is saying, and are quite smart enough to know what they have to do to succeed.

Over the years, one of the most popular admonitions was for Apple to open up their OS platform. They used Microsoft as the example. Open platforms work, closed platforms fail. However, opening the Mac platform in the 1990s nearly killed the company, which is why Steve Jobs shut it down. But facts don’t matter when they get in the way of advancing one’s agenda.

Apple followed their well-honed playbook when the iPod arrived. They combined the iPod with iTunes, and even offered a Windows version. It wasn’t that you couldn’t get music elsewhere, or rip CDs into iTunes to download to your iPod. But the ecosystem was tightly integrated and, to the critics, destined to fail some day.

But “some day” never came. When the iPod “killers” all failed miserably, Microsoft, no doubt desperate to find a workable strategy, decided to build their own closed ecosystem with the Zune. Suddenly partners who depended on Microsoft’s PlaysForSure digital rights management scheme for their products, were left abandoned, although at least some of those also-ran music players remained on the market.

Even though Microsoft attempted to clone Apple’s approach, they failed. As usual, Microsoft released a product that didn’t quite match up to the competition, particularly the iPod. They promised to do better, as they did in the Windows days with success. But the iPod had already taken control of the market, and few listened to Microsoft’s excuses.

With the iPhone, Apple simply extended the iTunes model, and added a carefully curated App Store for customers to buy apps. Yes, Apple’s inconsistent behavior in approving or rejecting apps became controversial, but they still offered iPhone users a secure, predictable, safe environment with which to purchase software. Developers prospered, so hundreds of thousands of software titles became available.

But the Apple critics embraced Google’s Android OS instead. Android was open. You weren’t tied to a single software vendor (unless your iPhone was jailbroken). With freedom came choice, except that the Android app selection, though hundreds of thousands of titles strong, doesn’t have the breadth or depth of the App Store. Open means that handset makers and wireless carriers aren’t forced to upgrade the OS on hundreds of millions of handsets. It could take many months before a new Android release is available on a decent number of smartphones. The latest Android OS, version 4 “Ice Cream Sandwich,” has an estimated user base in the low single digits.

From the standpoint of a developer, that’s a bad thing, because they cannot build apps that are compatible with the best features of the new release if they want to reach the largest number of potential customers. That’s only part of the fragmentation issue, because each manufacturer or wireless carrier may clutter the OS with their own apps and user interface offerings. So the Android OS you get on one smartphone may be very different from the one on another, even from the same company or carrier.

It confuses the customer, it reduces the profitability potential for app developers, and it also means that critical security updates may never be deployed to the people who need them the most. Indeed, Android could become the equivalent of Microsoft years back, with a growing malware problem that could get out of control. But, no, I’m not fear mongering. I’m just stating the obvious. If Android users can’t get critical security updates, you do the math.

When it comes to the iPad, the critics state that Apple must release a smaller iPad, and there have been lots of rumors about a 7.85-inch version that will allegedly appear later this year. I’m not sure whether it’s supposed to include sandpaper so you can reduce the size of your fingers to deal with the smaller display. But remember that, except for the temporary success of the Amazon Kindle Fire, there’s really no evidence that smaller tablets have any potential for success. So tell me, again, why does Apple need to enter that market?

Or is that just another lame effort by outsiders to design Apple’s products for them? I think Apple is doing quite well enough with their own design team, and I’m sure most of you will agree.

DUMB AND DUMBER ADS

These days, I watch most TV via time-shifting. I use my DirecTV DVR to record my favorite shows, and watch them later at my convenience. When the commercials start, a single press of a button on the remote will jump the playback forward by 30 seconds. Six or eight of those button presses will usually take me right to the next segment. Yes, I know we have lots of ads on my radio shows too, but that’s the price of free radio.

But sometimes I do catch the live broadcast, so I’m inundated with silly messages from such characters as tiny talking lizards trying to sell me auto insurance, a heavy-set former IRS auditor who wants to solve my tax problems, and loud, noisy, special effects laden ads announcing “Droid” this or “Droid” that. Droid, of course, is the brand name of some Android powered smartphones sold by Verizon Wireless.

One particularly annoying ad features two women, one I presume to be the daughter who is moving away from home, crying crocodile tears as they enter a Verizon Wireless store to buy a pair of Droid smartphones with which to stay in touch. The ad never actually explains why these two hysterical people should buy that phone and no other. Their overacting is just plain annoying. Maybe they should have gone to an acting school rather than a cell phone dealer.

And please don’t get me started about those silly AT&T ads with people at parties or at work announcing, in ping pong fashion, the immediate updates of useless information on their smartphones. It’s all about the speed of AT&T’s 4G network, they say. But what about the T-Mobile ads showing someone on a motorcycle, signifying a smartphone on their answer to a 4G network, speeding past a slow rider on a motorcycle that allegedly represents an iPhone on AT&T’s network?

In case you forget, one of the reasons that T-Mobile is losing business is because they don’t sell the iPhone. Although some people with jailbroken iPhones do sign up with T-Mobile, in large part they can’t even get 3G speeds, because the carrier’s fastest networks use the wrong frequencies. That supposedly is beginning to change because T-Mobile is deploying spectrum they acquired as a consolation prize when the effort to merge with AT&T fell apart. That means, I suppose, that they will be in a position to offer the iPhone, if they strike a deal with Apple. After that, just who is going to ride the motorcycles in those ads?

There are also those particularly bland spots announcing the arrival of Ultrabook portables from HP and other companies that look suspiciously like MacBook Airs. Sure, an HP executive wants you to believe that, even though they are selling note-books that look like MacBook Air knockoffs, they aren’t MacBook Air knockoffs because they aren’t made of aluminum and have keyboards that are configured somewhat differently. But they are still silver with black keyboards, same as the MacBook Air.

But not all TV ads are so irritating. Consider those two watchable iPhone spots that feature two popular entertainers to showcase the joys of the Siri personal assistant.

As TV spots go, they aren’t the best of the breed, but they are rather cute. One  features actress/singer Zooey Deschanel, star of the Fox TV sitcom, “New Girl,” and also chosen to play the role of country singer Loretta Lynn in a forthcoming Broadway version of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” It’s a rainy day, and Zooey wants Siri to tell her where she can order some tomato soup for takeout.

Another spot features actor Samuel L. Jackson, best known to fans of the blockbuster film, “The Avengers,” as Nick Fury. Jackson holds the record of having appeared in movies with total box-office receipts that are higher than those of any other actor, even Tom Cruise. He’s also reputed to pretty much accept any role offered to him, because he just wants to keep working. And, no, I won’t assume that’s why he’s appearing in that iPhone ad. Regardless, the spot depicts Jackson at home preparing for a “date night” (I suppose with his wife, LaTanya Richardson), and seeking some cooking advice from Siri. This one works because it plays against Jackson’s well-hewn action movie persona. The timing is great, too, what with that movie breaking box office records around the world (it soared past one billion dollars this weekend).

To me, the best Apple ad of all time was “Think Different.” The rest were all right, but not nearly as memorable, and that goes for the “Mac Versus PC” campaign. But at least you don’t feel the need to rush to the Fast Forward button when those spots come on.

When it comes to talking lizards and loud Droids, I wonder if the companies who produce those ads understand, even for a moment, that they might be losing business by driving their potential customers away.

THE FINAL WORD

The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis