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Newsletter Issue #699


Although Microsoft did pretty well in quarterly sales and profits for the March quarter, that doesn’t mean they are out of the woods. Far from it. Sure, lots of PC makers may have ordered Windows 8, but sales are flagging, and those results were clearly inevitable. Unless Microsoft does something to address the most serious problems with their new OS, it’s going to be a continuous slide over the years.

One strong possibility is that Microsoft may make it possible for users to default boot into the Windows 8 desktop, and restore the Start menu. There’s already a very popular utility that millions have purchased to do the latter. With Microsoft working on an OS upgrade code-named “Blue,” which is expected to be known as Windows 8.1, this may happen soon enough. In a sense, booting Windows 8 to the desktop may be something akin to a Windows 7.5,  which could satisfy users who wouldn’t touch the interface formerly known as Metro with a ten-foot pole.

Now on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented commentator Kirk McElhearnMacworld’s “iTunes Guy,” and the editor of Mac OS X Hints, who discussed the issues involved in dealing with your personal technology after moving from one country to another. One key question involves handling iTunes content protected by DRM, such as movies and videos. You see, iTunes is country, or region, specific, and requires a local credit card to be active. That means, for example, that Kirk has to keep his French credit card active even though he moved to the UK. Confusing? You bet!

We also featured Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer, who explained how Microsoft is shooting itself in the foot with current policies, how Samsung was caught in the act paying for anonymous bashing of a rival, HTC, how Google’s Eric Schmidt found “religion” on privacy because of mini-drones, and other hot topics.

Special! I was a featured guest on the 200th episode of The Mac Observer’s Apple Context Machine radio show. During the episode, I “beamed in” to give my fearless predictions about future hardware, and list some of my favorite iOS apps.

On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present controversial UFO promoter Blake Cousins, who has posted hundreds of alleged UFO photos on a YouTube channel. This is an unforgettable episode where you may even wonder whether the guest will actually show up. We also feature active forum member Goggs Mackay as a guest panelist.

Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! 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.


Microsoft reportedly relies heavily on focus group testing, though you have to wonder what sort of group they used in light of the Windows 8 debacle. Sure, there is a commentary from one blogger, known to me, who claims that Windows 8 is the next XP, and that it is destined to become the PC workhorse that will fuel a future resurgence.

Do the words “in your dreams” come to mind?

In any case, the argument is based on the fact that XP arrived in 2001 during an economic downturn, and that Windows 8 is in a comparable position. But in 2001 we didn’t have the iPad seriously cannibalizing PC sales. In other words, we didn’t have a resurgent Apple dominating the industry, and even if Apple didn’t do as well in the last quarter as some might have hoped, the company remains a powerhouse that a competitor ignores to their peril.

Now it is well known that Apple doesn’t rely on focus groups to decide which products to build. You might compare that to the legendary comments attributed to Henry Ford that if they relied on what the customer wanted in the early 20th century, they would have built a better horse and buggy.

So there is a recent survey suggesting that 19% of those questioned would buy an iWatch. Now understand that the iWatch is nothing more than a rumor at present. Sure, there is that report that Apple has 100 engineers working on the project. At the same time, Apple might have large groups of engineers working on lots of things, but very few will actually appear as a retail product. If they do show up, it may take years to get them ready.

Don’t forget that the iPad took a number of years to reach fruition and was first forked to create the smartphone, the iPhone, in 2007. The iPad didn’t arrive until 2010. But was it because customers told Apple they had to build a much larger iPhone or iPod touch?

One problem with the smartwatch concept is how such a gadget might be implemented. These days, I suspect most tech commentators look at such products as extensions or peripherals for other mobile gear, which is how a smartwatch works these days. You link them via Bluetooth to a smartphone or a tablet to do their thing.

But what if the rumored iWatch was itself the whole widget? Sure, you can’t stick the entire guts of a fully featured smartphone into the size of a watch, at least not yet, although display size will be a limiting factor. But such a gadget could include a fully functioning telephone, and also offer voice-based navigation and other features. A wearable device would also be ideal for anyone concerned with physical fitness.

And, no, you wouldn’t lift the thing to your mouth to make a phone call, which brings to mind the Dick Tracy comics. Instead, it would probably include a Bluetooth headset, and Siri would handle management of your contact list and making and receiving calls.

No, I have not just attempted to design an iWatch. I’m simply pointing out that we can’t assume what Apple is going to do, and we can’t assume Apple will build an iWatch in the near future because there are tens and tens of millions of potential sales. Sure, that may well be true. But there’s that thing about assuming facts not in evidence.

One important question to consider is how far you can take smartphone technology in its present form. Samsung and other makers want to make them larger, and pile on more and more features, some of which will only be marginally useful. I’m thinking in terms of, for example, the tilt to scroll gimmick, although it may actually work well in normal use. But you get the picture.

Apple’s minimalist design crew might take the concept of the smartphone, morph it into a wearable device, and remove the features that most people don’t need when on the go. Remember, the brilliance of an Apple gadget is the fact that the company’s designers and engineers know when to remove or overlook features that will turn up in competing devices regardless of value.

Of course, knowing that there is a huge and loyal customer base for the next great thing from Apple would surely be encouraging. But if Apple fails to deliver the goods, the halo effect will die really quickly.

There are also millions of customers who might be anticipating an Apple connected TV, but that doesn’t mean such a product is viable or will enhance the Apple brand by upending the industry. Far too many members of the media forget Apple’s mantra of building products you didn’t know you’d need, but, once you use them, you can’t live without them.


When Apple killed the floppy drive starting with the iMac in 1998, the complaints were frequent and loud. How can you use a Mac without a floppy drive? What about all that media stuck in little cases and in boxes? What about your data?

Well, what became obvious to those of us who had huge collections of floppies was that they were notoriously unreliable. I remember working for a prepress outfit that put all their client files on floppies; unfortunately there were few backups. Time and time again, I’d mount a disk and attempt to retrieve a file without success. Sometimes popping the media into another Mac would yield results, sometimes not.

The shop in question opted to store critical files on larger removable media, such as the Iomega Zip and the higher-capacity Jaz drives. But don’t get me started on the rampant media and drive failures users encountered with those devices. I remember once lobbying a publication I wrote for to investigate the problem. I pushed too hard, and found myself cut off from regular assignments, though I never knew if there was any push back from someone in the advertising division.

Regardless, Mac users were able to get accessory floppy drives for several years, giving you plenty of time to transfer your stuff to CD and, later, DVD.

Here in 2013, it has been nearly a year since I used the optical drive on my late 2009 iMac. The one in a 2010 MacBook Pro has probably been used once or twice, just to confirm the drive actually worked, but not thereafter. What changed?

Well, these days, most apps are available in digital form, as downloads from Apple’s App Store or direct from a software publisher. There are still a few productivity apps being distributed on physical media, particularly from Adobe, Microsoft and Quark, but much of this can be had in download form. Starting with Lion in 2011, Apple abandoned DVD versions of OS X. Sure, there was a USB stick version of 10.7, but that scheme didn’t survive 10.8, maybe because there weren’t many buyers.

More and more Macs ship nowadays without the optical drive. The MacBook Air and the Mac mini were the first models to forego the devices. The MacBook Pro with Retina display followed that direction, as did the fancy late 2012 iMac. It’s not that you can’t get an optical drive. Apple sells a USB version for $79, and, as with external floppy drives, I expect many of you will need a crutch for a few years yet.

When it comes to the living room, while Blu-ray players are certainly not obsolete, I find myself using one less and less. Mrs. Steinberg has an exercise video that she plays several times a week, but it’s actually just a digital copy of an old VHS video that never made it to DVD. I still buy an occasional Blu-ray of a popular movie that I want to see over and over again, but that happens only a few times a year. In a year or two, I may only need the drive to view older content; the rest will reside as a file on a hard drive, or in the cloud.

Yes, I realize that putting loads of movies on a hard drive isn’t as convenient as having them on slim and light media. But Apple’s iCloud is designed to make it possible to store your stuff in their server farms for use on any number of devices when you need them. This is particularly useful when you’re on the road, and I’d feel more confident of this move once iCloud actually becomes reliable, but it’s not quite there yet.

Meantime, I still think there’s a use for digital media, at least for a while, even though Apple has decreed that I no longer need it.

My real concern, however, is not whether I’ll need an optical drive on my next Mac. It’s more about the pending loss of printed books. One survey I read a while back claimed that people retain content from a printed book somewhat better than the digital counterpart. There’s also something about the feel of real paper, and the experience of making notes on pages with pencil or pen. Call me old fashioned, but sometimes the traditional methods may still be best.


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

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