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Newsletter Issue #656

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

As you’ve noticed from my recent articles about Microsoft’s product announcements this week, I’m highly skeptical. Yes, perhaps there will be a Surface tablet that is not a coffee table. Perhaps one of those models will ship this fall along with Windows 8. But it may also be that Microsoft staged that demonstration — where it wasn’t even clear the products were even close to ready to ship — as a wakeup call to OEMs who are doing pathetic work developing tablets for Windows 8.

So in that sense, maybe the Surface is intended to be a reference platform, a starting point where such OEMs as Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and all the rest, will be expected to build variations on the same theme. However, if the customers aren’t attracted to Microsoft’s choices of making the Surface essentially a mini-PC, the whole effort may come to naught. Or if Microsoft ignores the needs of its partners and ships the Surface anyway, it may be another Zune in the making.

I’m also concerned about the product’s name, since it’s already taken by another product that resembles the tablet version strictly by virtue of having a touch screen. Is that meant as a smart branding move, or did Microsoft not have a more suitable trademark in their repertoire? Or maybe the Surface was never meant to go into production. It’s just another of those vapor demonstrations for which Microsoft is notorious that may or may not lead to a little more innovation from the long-suffering OEMs. Let’s just say that the OEMs are clearly not happy, regardless of what they might say in public, and I’ll have more to say about this later in this issue.

On this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we focus on this week’s announcements from Microsoft that have dominated tech news, such as the demonstration of the 10.6-inch version of the Surface, and the first presentation about the new features forthcoming in Windows Phone 8. We’ll also cover the potential and some of the key problems that have appeared in the forthcoming Windows 8 upgrade.

Our guests include outspoken columnist and former industry analyst Joe Wilcox, from BetaNews, commentator Jim Dalrymple, Editor in Chief of The Loop, and Mike Prospero, Reviews Editor of Laptop magazine.

We’ll also continue our coverage of Apple’s amazing new MacBook Pro with Retina display, and its impact to the note-book market.

On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: On the anniversary of the fabled sighting of nine disc shaped objects by Kenneth Arnold in 1947, Nick Redfern returns to discuss his new book: “The Pyramids and the Pentagon: The Government’s Top Secret Pursuit of Mystical Relics, Ancient Astronauts, and Lost Civilizations.” Explore ancient artifacts, the faces on Mars, crop circles and other mysteries the Pentagon may or may not know about.

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.

DOES MOUNTAIN LION FULFILL THE PROMISE OF LION?

Although over 40% of Mac users have already migrated to Lion, that OS hasn’t exactly gotten the love. A fair number of people won’t upgrade simply because they need to run PowerPC software, and Apple removed the Rosetta translation capability from 10.7. This makes Lion a non-starter to them, and it’s clear Apple has no intention of restoring Rosetta in 10.8 Mountain Lion.

I also get the impression that some of you are put off by the iOS-inspired elements of Lion, particularly Launchpad, the app launch system that, of course, you never have to launch. A couple of interface elements, such as scrollbars that require a mouseover to appear, and reversing the direction of scrolling, are readily disabled in System Preferences.

From our Comments section, it’s also clear some of you are a mite confused by Apple’s decision to hide the User > Library folder by default. Yes, it’s visible if you Option click the Finder’s Go menu, but I suppose there’s reason to be concerned that such places will ultimately become impossible to access. At the same time, the main Library and System folders, where anyone who knows an admin password can do all sorts of dire mischief, remain unchanged.

Now the usual reason to browse through your Library folder is diagnosis. You may want to dump an app’s preference file because it’s not running properly. But otherwise rummaging through there may not be something you’d do very often except, perhaps, to check Apple Mail message files and for backups.

I do suppose there’s some reason to be concerned about Lion’s Auto Save system, since the cherished Save As feature was removed. But it’s restored under Mountain Lion with a new keystroke (Command-Option-Shift-S). The real issue of Auto Save is that few apps really support the feature, other than Apple’s. Eleven months after the debut of Lion, neither Microsoft nor Adobe seem to have come aboard, although a number of simpler third-party apps have gotten with the program.

My impression of Lion is that it was somewhat unfinished, as if Apple ran out of time to add and perfect new features, so they simply set them aside for Mountain Lion. Yes, the adoption rate was high, with Lion and its predecessor, Snow Leopard, sporting similar user bases. But a lot of Lion’s apparent success appears due to the fact that Apple sold millions of computers on which 10.7 was preloaded. It’s not the same situation as a Windows PC, where it’s often possible to downgrade to an older OS. That, and Microsoft’s troubles making new Windows versions must-haves, has meant that over 40% of the world’s Windows user base still uses XP, which was first released in 2001.

Apple, in turn, is quick to make older Macs ineligible for OS upgrades because of critical changes that make them unable to run with good performance, or at all. So we have a ragtag collection of recent Macs from three to five years old that will be forever stuck with Lion as the latest OS they can support. Yes, I suppose some will hack their way into somehow installing 10.8.

Here’s the official Apple list of hardware that’s compatible with Mountain Lion:

I see that my son’s 2008 black MacBook, which is otherwise barely functioning because of endless hardware issues, is officially being abandoned by Apple. But the list is too wide and varied to actually estimate the total number of Macs that are part of this list, other than the fact that Apple wants to move forward with as few restrictions as possible.

When you examine the feature set for Mountain Lion at Apple’s site, you’ll see that, yes, there are over 200 new features, although, typical for such listings, a reasonable number come across as minor enhancements rather than major changes. Regardless, most of what’s there appears to represent positive improvements for your Mac. Yes, some apps are renamed and redesigned to more closely match their iOS counterparts, but that’s not a reason to regard Mountain Lion as an insignificant upgrade. Compared to previous OS X versions, the number of improvements is fairly similar.

I’m actually anxious to experiment with the system-wide Dictation feature, which, according to Apple, “works with any app.” You don’t need a special mic, nor do you have to subject yourself to training the system to recognize your voice. I’m certainly planning on experimenting with that — well, one of these days. I’ve grown too used to just typing, and I have been lucky enough to avoid serious wrist injuries after decades of intense typing. Or maybe I have right keyboard: The magnificent and expensive Matias Tactile Pro.

The buzz from the developer community and others who have worked with the prerelease versions is extremely positive. For the most part, Mountain Lion appears to be a credible and compelling upgrade. It’s good to see the enhanced security and direct support for social networking. For any Lion user that has a compatible Mac, I don’t see any significant downsides. And, assuming the final release is stable and snappy, the $19.99 purchase price would seem to make it an upgrade that vindicates the promise of Lion and makes OS X a lot more useful.

THE MICROSOFT SMOKE AND MIRRORS REPORT: LOOK, BUT TOUCH QUICKLY

Some members of the media are still struggling to make Microsoft’s demonstration of a line of Surface tablets seem credible. As they’ve done many times in the past, Microsoft staged a media event last Monday to introduce a new product initiative. After selling a line of expensive touchscreen-based coffee tables known as Surface for several years, they decided to use the very same product name for a line of 10.6-inch tablets.

Now I don’t pretend to understand the fuzzy logic behind that decision beyond the fact that Microsoft needed a trademark real fast, and that one was readily available. Regardless, it’s all for naught if the product itself doesn’t pass muster — in fact, it’s not at all certain if the Surface tablets will ever see the light of day.

With lots of pomp and circumstance, Microsoft tried to outdo Apple in preparing for the media presentation. Normally, with an Apple event, selected journalists receive an invitation, usually via email, about a week in advance. The invitation will give the date, time and location, and some sort of hint about the products and services that will be introduced. In contrast, Microsoft withheld the actual location of their Los Angeles-based session until the morning of the event. If that was meant to trump Apple’s secrecy approach, they failed.

The rollout of the Surface is regarded by at least some members of the media as disappointing; others believe that the iPad is facing a real challenge even though they couldn’t actually spend extended facetime with a Surface that’s supposedly close to shipping.

The specs are barebones so far, and don’t reveal such things as display resolution or estimated battery life. The original version didn’t even mention Wi-Fi, though Microsoft later confessed the first units will be Wi-Fi only. So no LTE. The battery in the ARM-based Windows RT version has a much lower capacity than the one in the new iPad, and Microsoft has yet to estimate battery life. Remember that Microsoft has no history building such gear (the Zune music player doesn’t really count) and, unlike Apple, they aren’t using custom components to improve power efficiency.

Worse, the assembled members of the media were given very little opportunity to play with a prototype. An AP reporter seemed impressed by one of the physical keyboards that’s installed on the inside accessory cover for the Surface. But, while Microsoft’s demonstrators claimed you could type upwards of 50 words per minute on the thing, the AP person wrote that “I didn’t have access to the device long enough to test my ability to input “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

Is Microsoft serious?

Where reporters had a chance to experience the touch interface, it was found to be slow and buggy. The AP reporter commented, “I detected a lag when swiping, which just seems wrong on a touch screen.”

Wrong indeed! Even the very first iPad demonstrated to the press ahead of its release had a touch interface that was snappy and fluid. More than two years later, Microsoft’s PR stunt reveals a product that, in its present shape, still cannot match the iPad released in 2010. That’s not a very promising beginning.

Consider the promised ship date. If Microsoft is to be believed, the Windows RT Surface will arrive this fall when Windows 8 goes on sale. Assuming an October shipping date, that would mean that they are but weeks away from committing to volume production. You’d think at this point that the prototypes available to the media would be in near-final shape, that they’d be able to perform the basics credibly.

Now it may well be that the Surface isn’t meant for production, and it’s not that Microsoft plans mass distribution if it does appear, since availability will be limited to their online store and the tiny number of Microsoft retail outlets. Nowhere else. But Microsoft can’t ignore those awful Windows 8 tablets that are being shown by their OEMs, so maybe they are hoping the Surface will be regarded as either a threat or a wakeup call.

But even if the Surface goes on sale, it appears to be designed as basically a small PC, rather than a tablet. Microsoft believes in PC/mobile hegemony, the marriage of the refrigerator and the toaster oven. But Apple has shown that the marketplace still regards the two platforms as separate. So perhaps the Surface isn’t meant to be a direct competitor.

For now, though, considering Microsoft’s past questionable history about technology demonstrations, it’s safe to label the Surface just more vaporware. If it truly appears, don’t expect it to fare any better than existing potential iPad-killers.

THE FINAL WORD

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

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