• Newsletter Issue #651

    May 21st, 2012

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    The question of Mac security remains front and center. This past week, one of those security software publishers, Kaspersky Labs, or at least one of their executives, claimed they were working with Apple on security matters. The story was widely quoted in the tech media, who, in large part, never bothered to ask Apple to verify the claim.

    Well Apple evidently never responded to media requests, yet it didn’t take long for Kaspersky to walk back that story. In short, it just wasn’t true, and you also have to wonder about that questionable comment that Mac security was ten years behind Windows security. Nonsense and more nonsense, as one prominent security expert told me.

    On the other hand, maybe Kaspersky merely wants to sell you their product. If there’s a malware threat, if they can sow the seeds of fear in the minds of Mac users, they will rush online and download someone’s product to protect themselves. Sure, the Mac malware threat has grown worse in recent months, and Apple was slow to react to the Flashback outbreak. But it appears to me that they do finally “get it,” based on recent OS X updates. They won’t be caught flat-footed again.

    In any case, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer, offers some pointed tips on what other companies need to do to compete with Apple — and changing the CEO is on the list.

    Avram Piltch, Online Editorial Director of Laptop magazine, returns for an encore appearance. This week he’ll tell you about “15 Ways to Accelerate Your PC’s Slowest Component: You!,” and we’ll be offering both Mac and Windows tips. Hint: Take typing lessons if you still hunt and peck. You can’t imagine how more productive you’ll be, though I agree it won’t count for much on your iPhone’s virtual keyboard.

    You’ll also hear from best-selling author Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus,” who will discuss the state of Mac security, the sad state of security fear-mongering, and the security potential of Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion. But that, my friends, is precisely where we started.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present an episode about one of the most controversial cases in the annals of UFO history is the Aztec crash, which supposedly occurred in 1948. But the case has long played second fiddle to the Roswell crash, and hasn’t been taken seriously over the years by many researchers into the subject. But Scott and Suzanne Ramsey have spent 25 years gathering evidence that they believe proves the crash really occurred, and involved a craft of unknown origin. After some delays, the results of their research appears in their new book: The Aztec Incident: Recovery at Hart Canyon.

    Coming May 27: Gene and Chris present ghost hunter Jeff Stewart, of P.I.N.E., short for Paranormal Investigators of New England, an organization that has been active in the investigation of weird events 2004. You’ll hear about case histories and the techniques the organization uses to evaluate paranormal events.

    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.

    IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF — IMITATION

    Apple remains embroiled in serious intellectual property lawsuits. Some companies are being sued by Apple, while others are suing Apple. While there’s probably little end in sight, Apple has had some notable victories in recent weeks, but whether there’s going to be a permanent alteration in the consumer electronics business as a result is anyone’s guess.

    Meantime, there are loads of products available that sorta/kinda look like they might have been made by Apple, although a closer look will reveal a few differences, and a different manufacturer’s branding. However, if you bring these clear and present resemblances to the attention of those companies, they will attempt to redirect your attention to the alleged differences. Maybe the smartphone that resembles an iPhone, more or less, has a larger screen or lets you use a stylus, as if anyone cares.

    There are even rumors these days that Steve Jobs actually approved the design of a bigger iPhone as one of his final acts before his passing. As with most Apple rumors, however, the truth won’t be known until the next iPhone appears. It will either have a larger screen or it won’t. If it does, it won’t be because the competition features bigger displays on their high-end products.

    The hot-selling MacBook Air is also rife for imitation. While the first generation of Apple’s thin and light note-book didn’t fare so well, no doubt because it was overpriced and underpowered, Apple didn’t give up. A revised even lighter design vindicated the concept. With prices starting at $999 for the 11.6-inch version, sales have soared. Since half of the new Mac customers are new to the platform, that means that Windows PC makers are losing sales.

    Take HP, which has suffered from flattened PC sales and reduced profits from that division. At one time, they were prepared to shed the PC line. Just imagine an HP without a PC line. However, new CEO Meg Whitman, who once upon a time helped eBay become an online retailing powerhouse, decided, as one of her first acts, to keep that division. She has not, however, been able to express a coherent vision for the company’s future. There are even published reports that thousands of HP workers are going to be given green slips soon, although it appears they will try to persuade their older workers to take early retirements before the ax falls on the others.

    We have, therefore, the image of a fading tech powerhouse that is desperately seeking a new identity. Meantime, HP continues to ply their trade, and introduce new PCs. Recently they came out with a note-book lineup that used Intel’s Ultrabook reference design. An Ultrabook is Intel’s attempt to confer MacBook Air greatness on their other partners, so they can sell more of those low-powered chips.

    The basic Ultrabook, like the MacBook Air, generally adheres to the thin, tapered form factor. Such interior appointments as optical drives and other features, such as swiveling touch screens, are optional to a manufacturer. But these Ultrabooks still come across as basically imitations of the MacBook Air with a few minor changes to confer the veneer of difference.

    Naturally, HP got dinged for their newest Ultrabook, the Envy Spectre XT, because of the clear resemblance to the MacBook Air. In response, HP design executive Stacy Wolff claimed that Apple doesn’t “own silver,” which also means they have the perfect right to offer a black keyboard. Wolff went on to point out some minor differences between the Envy Spectre and a MacBook Air, but you have to wonder why HP didn’t simply choose another color for the case and the keyboard. It’s not as if there can only be one!

    Besides, building a note-book computer using someone else’s reference design and part lists doesn’t actually demonstrate the capacity to innovate. It’s more like taking an order slip, checking a few options, and submitting the order. The blueprints are sent to a contract manufacturer, some lamebrain comes up with a totally useless name, and the ad agency is called on to create some TV spots.

    Now I know nothing about designing personal computers, but I think that, in Wolff’s position, I’d actually be able to come up with something that’s at least interesting and perhaps different. Let’s start with the name. Why can’t PC makers figure out how to create memorable names for their products? Indeed, why can’t they cure the product clutter epidemic and make it easy for customers to choose the PC that best suits their needs, and allow a reasonable amount of customization?

    Will anyone be talking about the Envy Spectre XT even a year from now, or even remember the name five minutes after they hear it? Or maybe that dumb name was chosen because it didn’t sound like the MacBook Air, even though they look very much alike. But, no, it’s not an imitation.

    Understand that I don’t know how Apple will fare with the remaining lawsuits. They’ll probably win a few, lose some others, or end up with a draw on the rest. Perhaps some companies will have to alter their products to avoid infringing on Apple’s patents, and Apple might have to pay some money to license certain industry-standard technologies.

    But the PC industry will still produce the same old junk, clueless as to why their imitations are not as good as the real thing. Innovation just isn’t a word they understand.

    HOW NOT TO MAKE THE MEDIA FEEL WARM AND FUZZY

    Supposedly a PR agency is hired by a company to enhance their public image, make their stuff look good, and to encourage the media to write favorable reviews. When they receive a request to send a product for review, or give the media access to a new service, you assume they will fairly evaluate the request, consider the reputation or influence of the journalist in question, and decide whether to grant the request.

    The review package will generally include the product and some accompanying materials, such as a reviewer’s guide. Certainly, the PR agency, or a company’s corporate communications people, will want us to use that guide to write the review, in the hopes coverage will be appropriately slanted in their favor.

    In passing, I only casually glance at the written materials to get a sense of the major features and how they can be used. After that, I simply try to approach the review as just another customer, and react appropriately. I will look at features that aren’t even mentioned if they seem important, or detract from the quality of the product.

    When I request a printer for review, the PR agency will usually send an extra supply of consumables, to give me sufficient page capacity to afford a decent workout. The printer will replace the comparable unit I use at my office, where possible, or assume a new position in my daily workflow. I will log any significant glitches, and will note where the product truly excels.

    But when things go wrong, as they sometimes do, the PR agency will usually do something to address the problem. So when I reviewed a Brother multifunction laser, the MFC-9325CW, a while back, I ran into a defective black toner cartridge. Within days, I had the replacement and an apology from Brother, but I expect any Brother customer would receive the same treatment.

    That takes us to the HP Officejet Pro 8600 Plus, a large multifunction device that lists for $299.99 (there’s an instant $70 rebate from the manufacturer that’s in effect until June 30, 2012). I received a review sample a few weeks back, and set it up this week.

    Now the 8600 Plus exudes quality. It’s heavy, solidly built, and everything is fast and fluid, even the 4.3-inch touchscreen color display. This is the first time where I’ve actually encountered a responsive display on a printer. Most are hit or miss, pausing annoyingly as you move from one key function to another, such as bringing up a settings menu. The Mac setup app is also surprisingly snappy as printer utility software goes.

    Forgetting the specs, the printer is fast, only moderately noisy, and delivers credible output quality. It’s not quite laser quality, mind you, despite what you read in the reviews for the 8600 Plus. But it’s close enough for normal purposes. Color quality is also pretty good. I haven’t used it long enough to see how many pages I can eke out from a cartridge, but other reviews indicate a fairly low per page cost.

    Unfortunately, the black cartridge installed in the printer when it shipped was defective. I found an extra set of consumables packaged with HP’s special inkjet paper in a separate box. That left me one short, so I asked the PR agency for a replacement. They said no, claiming they were out of stock and, evidently, had no interest in asking HP for another. Compare that to Brother’s PR agency, who was only too glad to make sure that the bad toner was replaced. I had several email exchanges with the PR rep, where I tried to explain that it is normal for a company to replace defective parts, but no dice.

    Now I am inclined to give the HP Officejet Pro 8600 Plus a favorable review. No doubt the black cartridge was damaged during shipment. It happens. But that favorable review will not extend to HP’s agency.

    Yes, maybe HP won’t send me any more products to review as a result, but I think people like me deserve a little courtesy and respect in exchange for evaluating a company’s products fairly.

    Update: My interactions with HP’s PR agency have taken on the surreal. After about a week, another PR person wrote back, apologized for the delay in responding, and came back with the same excuse about not being able to replace a defective ink cartridge with a street price of roughly $35. I asked why it wasn’t possible to ask HP to assist, and received no response. This is the week where HP’s CEO, Meg Whitman, announced that another 8% of the company’s worldwide workforce would be dismissed over the next two years, and she is still unable to express a clear vision for the company’s future.

    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



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    2 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #651”

    1. Andrew says:

      Those Ultrabooks are doing a very good job of matching the size/price/performance ratio of the current MacBook Air. The problem for them is that the Air is a moving target. My current MacBook Air (11.6″ Core i7) is already 8-months-old, and a replacement is due any time now. Will that replacement be a simple speed-bump to the new Ivy Bridge CPU? Will if offer something completely new?

      Honestly, I buy the next Air either way as I’m due to replace a 4-year-old iMac at my office and that secretary will be better served by a laptop than another desktop. What better laptop for a secretary who frequently works plugged-in at her desk, but also takes notes in meetings than a MacBook Air? Ultrabook? No thanks, I’ll stick to the real deal.

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