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  • Newsletter Issue #686

    January 21st, 2013


    A year of lemons? Well, perhaps for a friend and frequent guest on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, where commentator Kirk McElhearn, Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” discussed lemons for 2012, a list of the products from Apple and other companies that caused him lots of grief. He also talked about the prospects for an Apple TV set.

    When I listened to Kirk’s list, which included Macs and a scanner from Fujitsu, I was grateful that I seldom end up with defective gear of any sort. The last serious failure occurred in 2009, when a Panasonic plasma TV weeks out of warranty had a power supply failure. It took a few calls to Panasonic to persuade them to grant me an “exception,” a much lower price for the repair, but it was still cheaper than buying an extended warranty. I should consider myself lucky. Good reliability ought to be a given with any electronic product. But it doesn’t always happen that way.

    You’ll also heard from tech journalist Rob Pegoraro, who writes a weekly column for USA Today,” discussing the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, including some of the great and not-so-great product intros.

    This weekend, my wife called my attention to a TV interview featuring someone discussing the best gear from the CES, but when they began to show off a few of those dreadful convertible PC/tablet-style note-books, I returned to other pursuits. The inability of PC makers to “get it” is but one reason why sales were down over the holiday quarter, despite the arrival of Windows 8. But it’s not as if the public is clamoring for Windows 8.

    Special Sci-Fi Update! In November, our second sci-fi novel, “Rockoids II: The Coming of the Protectors” was released. The novel continues the exciting adventures of the unique characters introduced in the first novel in the series, “Attack of the Rockoids.” Rather than retread the same ground as some sequels do, the story moves forward in unique directions. My son, Grayson, and I had lots of fun writing the story, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did. It’s available in both print and Amazon Kindle editions. Why Amazon? Well, since Kindle software is available on various platforms, we only had to make one version to satisfy as many readers as possible.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a special episode focusing on the subject of “cattle mutilations,” which have been popularized by such investigators as Linda Moulton Howe, who have laid the blame for these mysterious livestock deaths on “aliens.” But there are cases of unsolved livestock deaths that have sinister, more down-to-earth overtones. Case in point: Werner Bock and other ranchers of the Maritime Provinces of Canada. For almost 40 years, these ranchers have been victimized by what could be described as a systematic campaign of terror and death. Bock will explain his frustrating attempts over the years to understand what happened to his livestock and who caused it.

    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.


    Remember the very first Mac back in 1984? I suspect many of you weren’t around then, or were too young to notice or care, but it had a singular flaw that received its share of complaints. You couldn’t upgrade the RAM. It was meant to be a computing appliance, and you would no more open the Mac’s case to upgrade anything than you would open your refrigerator to swap out the compressor for a more powerful one.

    Later Macs could be upgraded, but that clearly wasn’t the vision of Steve Jobs. But it didn’t mean that RAM was easy or quick to replace. There were several Mac minitowers in the 1990s that forced you to remove the logic board and disconnect some flimsy cable assemblies to get at those RAM slots. When the first iMac arrived, the computer that signaled the resurrection of Apple, you had to pull out the entire electronic assembly to reach the RAM slots. Why did they design those things this way?

    You could clearly get the impression that Apple was hostile to people who wanted to upgrade RAM. Rather than have you go to an outside supplier to save money, they simply made the process impossible. Even when you could replace RAM, the process remained difficult, with the original Mac mini being the worst offender. Some companies even produced special style putty knives to ease the process of opening the delicate case, and forget about replacing the hard drive in a convenient fashion.

    When it came to later iMacs, the process became better before getting worse. Just open the cover at the bottom of the unit. Even the Mac mini got RAM upgrade religion in later revisions. Maybe Apple had gotten a dose of common sense.

    Until the MacBook Air arrived. In Apple’s quest to make note-books lighter and thinner, you cannot upgrade the RAM on a MacBook Air, since it’s soldered to the logic board. I suppose actually outfitting the thing with real memory slots and a simple scheme to open the case would have detracted from the  thinness and the lightness, and hurt the smoothness of the exterior.

    Since upgrading note-book memory is usually done once, if at all, you’re forced to buy the MacBook Air with the RAM you expect to need during its useful lifetime. The MacBook Pro with Retina display has the very same problem, but at least it ships with enough RAM for most of you direct from the factory.

    With the 2012 iMac, Apple took the schizophrenic approach. The 27-inch iMac has a convenient RAM cover in the rear, making it easy to access the four available slots. Not so for the 21.5-inch version, where RAM upgrades are not officially possible, though you can, I suppose, tear the thing apart and have at it. You can also, I suppose, attempt to solder new memory on your MacBook Air, but why?

    I understand why you might want to upgrade your Mac’s RAM. Your needs change, or you buy a lower cost model to save some money, hoping to upgrade later. That’s something Apple is clearly trying to discourage for more and more Mac users, but it seems more for design than practicality. Apple is presuming to guess what you need, even if it’s not what you want.

    Now we all know how Apple is quickly removing optical drives from the Mac lineup. Among today’s models, only a few MacBook Pros and the Mac Pro have optical drives. Apple has decreed that you will get most of your software and media content online, and thus not need to spend money for a component you will never — or seldom — use. But the one day you do need it, paying $79 for an Apple USB optical drive makes sense. At the same time, it’s not as if the prices of new Macs are lower because internal optical drives are history, and how many of you really care that the new iMac has thin edges?

    At the end of the day, though, I understand why optical drives are disappearing, and not just because Apple selfishly wants you to get your content online — and hopefully from them — but making RAM upgrades difficult or impossible only inconveniences the customer. It’s also not helpful to the third-party vendor who wants to sell you a RAM upgrade, an upgrade that will usually cost a lot less than the price Apple sets for the same part, from the same manufacturer.

    I understand why the iPhone and iPad are sold as closed boxes. The Lightning connector gets you external expansion, and don’t forget the earphone jack and Bluetooth. In saying that, yes, I understand that some of you have the need to change batteries when you’re out of power, and there’s no place to recharge. There are accessories that will provide extra power when needed, and maybe only a few of you will bother, so why add an ugly slide out cover for people who will never use it?

    But I’d be curious to see how Apple VP Philip Schiller explains why easy RAM upgrades on Macs are meant to be an endangered species.


    In the months ahead of the arrival of the iPad mini, Apple was pressured left and right by the media to produce a smaller, cheaper iPad to stay ahead of Amazon and Google. That Apple did release an iPad mini, however, doesn’t necessarily vindicate those demands. It may be all about expanding the lineup in a way that was conceived early on.

    Look, for example, at the way Steve Jobs dissed 7-inch tablets, saying you needed sandpaper to make your fingers small enough to use one. Those tablets are widescreen, hence in the horizontal position, have very little vertical space. This is a key edge in the design of the 7.85-inch iPad mini. With a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, you have far more room to actually do something, such as viewing a Web page, without constant, endless scrolling.

    So Jobs probably wasn’t arguing against a smaller iPad, since he knew one was in the works. He was arguing against a smaller tablet that didn’t provide enough useful screen space. That’s the argument that can be made about those 5-inch tablets, or fablets, which attempt to combine the functions of a smartphone with a tablet. Those gadgets often include a stylus, which is so 1990s.

    When it comes to a lower cost iPhone, on my radio show the other day, a guest remarked that we already had a cheap iPhone — a free one in fact, if you got an iPhone 4 with a two-year contract. But some people don’t want to commit to long-term contracts, or maybe don’t qualify for the basic credit requirements without having to pay a deposit. Once you pay a deposit, the cost advantage is sharply reduced. In some countries, there are no carrier subsidies. If you want a smartphone, you pay the price for the unlocked version, and even a “cheap” iPhone is $400.

    Now it so happens that T-Mobile, who is adding the iPhone some time this year, is going to abandon subsidy deals. Instead, you’ll have to buy your handset up front at the regular price, but it appears they will let you pay it out over, say, 20 months. Once it’s paid off, the price goes down, unlike other carriers where you pay the subsidized price even after the handset’s original cost has been covered. But since many customers buy a new smartphone around the time the contract is up, maybe it doesn’t matter.

    The real question, though, is not whether Apple wants to build an iPhone that’s more affordable, it’s whether they can deliver a product with the same level of quality as any other iPhone, and still make a decent profit. Apple doesn’t play the same game as other companies, trading profits for volume, and hoping to come out of ahead. That marketing approach seldom works.

    There’s no doubt that an iPhone mini, or entry-level iPhone selling for $199 or $299, would be a smashing success around the world. But could Apple retain a high build quality, and deliver the same experience as the more expensive models? These are the questions that probably weigh heavily on the minds of Apple’s executive team. For that cheaper iPhone to launch, those questions will have to be answered in a way that makes sense to the company. It won’t happen because the media demanded it, and it won’t happen because Apple may be losing tens of millions — hundreds of millions of sales — because they don’t do cheap.


    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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