• Newsletter Issue #691

    February 25th, 2013


    Whether you’re a Mac or a PC user, Apple’s iTunes remains the most important media management app out there. And probably the most popular, since it’s used with hundreds of millions of Apple mobile devices, such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Make that popular and bloated, since I suspect many of you no doubt felt that it had become weighted down with features without offering much improvement in the user interface, which largely dated back to the early 200s.

    Version 11 offered a fairly extensive interface change, reminiscent of iOS, and not everyone felt the joy. I, for one, would probably go back to iTunes 10 if I didn’t have to cover the new version as part of my work. The eye candy doesn’t actually offer me a real advantage in managing my music, videos, books and podcasts.

    And based on what tech commentator Kirk McElhearn, Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” said on the The Tech Night Owl LIVE this week, I don’t think he disagrees. In any case, Apple this week released an 11.0.2 update, which mostly contains bug fixes and the usual performance improvements. There is also a Composer view, which should appeal to classical music lovers, such as Kirk. During his visit on my show, Kirk also delivered his reaction to the rumors about a possible iWatch from Apple, and he didn’t sound too enthusiastic about it.

    Among the most popular segments on the show are those great top 10 lists from Avram Piltch, the Online Editorial Director of Laptop magazine. He discussed two this week. The first detailed the “Top 10 Tech Myths: True or False?,” and the second covered the “10 Worst Tech Rip-Offs and How to Avoid them.” You won’t be surprised by some of the ones Avram and his staff have exposed. He also offered his initial comments about the new HTC One smartphone, the company’s flagship handset, introduced this week at press events in New York and London.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Ardy Sixkiller Clarke, author of “Encounters with Star People: Untold Stories of American Indians,” who is “a noted American Indian researcher [who] offers up a collection of intimate narratives of encounters between contemporary American Indians and the Star People. The first-person accounts, described as conscious experiences and recalled without hypnosis, reveal a worldview that unquestionably accepts the reality of the Star People.”

    Coming March 3: Gene and Chris present TV producer John Greenewald, Jr., founder of The Black Vault, who has scanned hundreds of thousands of documents he retrieved via the Freedom of Information Act, which cover UFOs, the Kennedy assassination and a number of other controversies and conspiracies. He’ll also answer questions from our listeners.

    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.


    This past weekend, we took a long drive from Arizona to Southern California, spending a large portion of the trip on Interstate 8, which skirts the border between the U.S. and Mexico. It had been a while since we decided to just use up an expensive tank of gas to see where it would take us, and this particular trip produced a very surprising, and frankly irritating, result.

    During the course of the trip, I received a text message from AT&T leading off with the phrase, “Welcome abroad!” It went on to tell us the great rates we’d receiving for international roaming, such as 800MB of data for a “mere” $120. When I got home, I rang up AT&T to ask them to explain. After all, I hadn’t gone beyond the borders of the U.S. in a number of years, and certainly not on this occasion.

    AT&T’s explanation, or excuse if you prefer, had it that, even though I never left the borders of the U.S., my wireless handset had apparently been in the range of a cell tower in Mexico. No, I didn’t face any unexpected charges, since I had turned data roaming off. But at the same time, I can almost imagine how many customers of AT&T and its American competitors might find themselves stung with potentially exorbitant charges for which they are not responsible.

    The simple solution would be, I suppose, more robust controls against accidental and costly roaming. Even without using data, what if I made a long phone call when I was in range of the foreign cell tower? Would I have to contest an erroneous charge on my bill, or would the system recognize the reality of the situation?

    Happily, I didn’t have to test the theory. But I did phone AT&T’s international services department, and was offered the option of having roaming to towers in Canada and Mexico blocked. Knowing it would really have no impact on my ability to use the service, I also complained to the representative about AT&T’s excessively high global rates. After giving the company mantra that I was entitled to my opinion, I actually got him to admit that, yes, if he traveled abroad, he’d rent a low-cost prepaid phone.

    Well, at least he was being realistic about the situation. But it nevertheless presents a serious problem with wireless carriers. The decision to exhort high fees for services really costs them business and it also inconveniences customers are forced to look for clever or third-party solutions.

    Sure, if you have money to burn, I suppose it doesn’t matter. But consider that it is possible to escape those excessive fees with some judicious planning. Using Wi-Fi, and Skype, for example, though you’re at a disadvantage if there’s no Wi-Fi in range. That, by the way, is how my son, Grayson, who resides in Madrid, calls his parents on his iPhone 4s. As a resident of Spain, he does use a domestic carrier, but he subscribed to the cheapest package that was practical to his needs.

    But carriers need to consider the larger picture, which is not extorting huge payments from customers who want — or need — to travel beyond the borders of their home country. There ought to be more sensible data sharing plans, since it doesn’t cost a carrier any more to send a megabyte to a handset owned by someone from another country than it does to a local customer. Data is data, and this foolish distinction merely forces customers to take their business elsewhere. Or do without.

    But extracting maximum dollars from customers is only one of the ways in which greedy wireless carriers inconvenience customers. At the same time, subscriber growth is getting more and more difficult, since the market is saturated. There are also more and more prepaid plans from smaller carriers for people who are willing to pay for an unlocked handset and shop around.

    Take Walmart’s Straight Talk service, offered by TracFone, one of the major prepaid carriers. For just $30 a month, you get 1,000 nationwide minutes, 1,000 nationwide text messages, although you’re limited to 30MB of data. For $45, it’s unlimited, including data. Tempting? Well, consider $60 for “Unlimited International,” which sort of means what it says. Yes, you do get unlimited international calling, but texting is limited to the U.S.

    To be fair, “Unlimited International” doesn’t mean anywhere in the world. A few dozen major countries are represented, and only a handful include cellular support. So, for example, I’d have to subscribe to a separate and costlier plan to call my son’s iPhone 4s.

    Now I haven’t considered the service as a serious alternative, although one of my colleagues says it works just fine for his modest needs. Straight Talk’s wireless phone selection, for example, consists largely of older or entry-level handsets. The offerings are apparently based on your location, but in the Phoenix area, you can order a reconditioned Motorola W418G, free, or spend up to $249.99 for something a little more capable. That figure will get you the essentially entry-level LG Optimus Black. Introduced in 2011, this particular LG smartphone is saddled with low-end specs, including the aging Android 2.3 OS.

    I suppose if you’re not picky with the choice of handsets, or you have an iPhone that’s unlocked, Straight Talk might be just the ticket. Not being saddled with horrendous rates if you’re a frequent foreign traveler may be the most compelling feature. And, by the way, it appears that yet another package of services, with somewhat more extensive and somewhat more expensive pay-as-you-go plans, are offered under yet another TracFone moniker, Net10.


    So the story appeared a few days ago claiming that the iPhone 5 is far more reliable than other smartphones. Since that’s the meme in the Mac blogosphere, this story was seized upon and widely quoted. But without actually checking to see whether the survey was properly conducted, and forget about the results.

    Now this report is based on some 772,558 reports via a community site known as FixYa (link not deserved), which is not actually a “mobile device repair company,” which is what one Mac site claimed. According to the “About Us” page on the site, “FixYa is a community based trouble-shooting resource that provides consumer-generated, practical product tips to help consumers solve problems on 8 million products. FixYa is a place where individuals can share real world experiences and connect to provide each other practical advice.”

    In other words, FixYa isn’t fixing anybody’s gear. It’s just collecting reports from people who list their own experiences with products, or seek troubleshooting advice. Understand that such discussion forums are most frequented by people who have problems. Those who simply use their gear in the normal course of their daily lives, and have few complaints, don’t bother. So at the very least, such a survey is weighted towards troubleshooting requests and advice. The other factor is that it’s not a scientific survey; it consists of data collected from visitors to the site, which may or may not represent the smartphone using population at large. More to the point, most people who use Apple gear will go to Apple, an Apple Store, or an authorized dealer for service. Unlike most smartphones, they aren’t tied to an uncaring carrier or an uncaring handset maker for support, which is why such users might be inclined to go elsewhere to report problems.

    So even though the results actually do favor Apple, the accuracy is most likely lacking. I would probably put somewhat more weight into the annual surveys from Consumer Reports magazine, where readers will report their experiences with different products, with a cautionary note. You see, CR’s questions are so general that what you might consider a problem would be regarded by others as perfectly normal behavior.

    On the other hand, if a product suffers from an outright failure of one sort or another, that’s good to know. Unfortunately, CR didn’t have any reliability ratings for smartphones (they call them “smart phones”), and I suppose the short useful lives might be one reason. Then again, CR imagines the battery life of the Samsung Galaxy S III to be better than an iPhone 5, when my experiences with several iPhones and the Samsung indicate the reverse under normal use. And that also appears to be the case with reviews I’ve read comparing the two. AT&T’s specs of the GSM version of the S3 indicate similar talk times, but inferior standby times. So there you go.

    In any case, accepting the accuracy of the FixYa survey without actually checking the methodology, or understanding the implications, is all too typical of the media, and not just the Apple-oriented media. Consider how Apple’s stock price has suffered in recent weeks over apparently erroneous reports about fallen demand for the iPhone 5. That story served the needs of so-called journalists and industry analysts who clearly had an agenda to make Apple look bad. But accepting claims about iPhone reliability from a source with no proven track record of providing reliable surveys beyond a set of raw numbers, which may or may not paint an accurate picture, is no better.


    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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    One Response to “Newsletter Issue #691”

    1. hammeroftruth says:

      I see you have been the recipient of AT&T’s “test bite” of your phone while you were near a tower outside of the US. AT&T has been doing that for years, and before you didn’t have the option to turn of international roaming, it just decided to roam. They used to do it in northern AZ a long time ago when GSM first came out here. They would claim you roamed to another network and soak you pretty good. I had to dispute a bill that claimed I roamed near Show low when I knew that my phone showed an AT&T signal when I made calls. They eventually waived the fees, but they were adamant that I was roaming.

      I read the Wireless phone reliability survey piece and agree with you that the test is flawed. The media prefers flawed tests to sensationalize whatever they are reporting on. Just like I believe a lot of other tests that show the iPhone is unreliable, devoid of any new features, or “stale” when compared to their new favorite tech company, which is still Samsung, for now.

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