You just know that Microsoft earns most of its revenue from the sale of operating systems and productivity software. Sure, there is the Xbox, which has been somewhat profitable after years of huge losses, but that’s an exception. As to the Surface tablet, after taking a $900 million write-down on unsold stock, Microsoft is again trying to find the silk purse in the sow’s ear with the Surface 2. Predictably reviews have been tepid. Sure, it’s faster, sleeker, and the kickstand now has two positions. But why offer a business-oriented computer as a potential stocking stuffer for the holidays?
As someone once said in a TV show, where’s the logic in that?
Besides, the Surface 2 went on sale on October 22. Do you remember that date? Let me refresh your memory, since the media wasn’t filled with stories about what Microsoft was up to. That’s when Apple launched the iPad Air, the iPad mini with Retina display, new MacBook Pros, and, oh yes, a lot of free stuff.
Now on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, outspoken commentator John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer, covers Apple’s growing investments in R&D, why Microsoft’s strategy for the Surface tablet will flop this holiday season, the real reason Apple is giving away the OS and consumer apps, why Apple is ill-serving customers who have lots of data to back up, and the company’s vision for the forthcoming Mac Pro overhaul.
From Josh Centers, Managing Editor for TidBITS, you’ll get his fearless comments about Apple’s latest financial statement, the Night Owl’s decision to move from Gmail to Microsoft’s Outlook.com, and the positives and possible negatives discovered in OS X Mavericks and iOS 7.
Now about that decision to switch to Outlook.com: For the most part, it’s worked out all right, at least over the first few days. For better or worse, however, Microsoft seems more proactive (or paranoid) about setting security policies. So the first time I sent an email from my Outlook.com account via an iPhone 5s, I had to go to the Outlook site and verify the device. But that appears to be strictly an issue when you send a message from an email client the very first time. I haven’t had problems using Webmail, at least not yet.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: It’s one of the greatest “what ifs” of all time. What if John Kennedy had survived the ambush in Dallas, Texas? What then? That’s the subject of a fascinating new novel, just out in time for the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. It’s called, “Surrounded by Enemies: What if Kennedy Survived Dallas?” and it’s full of twists and surprises. The author is a friend of The Paracast, Bryce Zabel, who last dipped his toe into the alternate JFK timestream when he created NBC’s Emmy winning “Dark Skies” TV series.
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.
Or maybe not. But if you can believe a certain article in a large national newspaper, the iOS 7 upgrade has been an unmitigated disaster. Bugs and more bugs, and one survey concluded it was even worse than Windows Vista. On the other hand, isn’t Windows 8 worse than Vista? After all, customers are avoiding it like the plague.
Now I haven’t read a retraction from the paper in question, although there ought to be. You see, that alleged survey was released by a consulting company that worked for the likes of Google and Samsung, but not Apple. The propriety of depending on such a biased source for a key story eludes me, but the identity of the source was, at the very least, disclosed in the article, so it’s faults were front and center, and you quickly realized what was really going on if you did some checking.
On the other hand, the mainstream media isn’t very tech savvy. For how else would the likes of Rob Enderle, a notorious alleged industry analyst whose credentials list him as being paid by Apple’s rivals, be allowed to comment on our favorite fruit company? At least mention the reasons why he’d be biased.
That practice is, however, no better than some cable TV outlets who hire political commentators who are employed by firms that are engaged in partisan activities. One would think such a job history would violate some sort of ethical policy, but so long as the talking head in question gets good ratings, the large media companies don’t seem to care.
Sure, they will sometimes mention when someone has a potential conflict, but not always.
In any case, I first installed iOS 7 on a third generation iPad on the day of its release, September 18. I did not test the beta version, although I kept close tabs on the development progress. Certainly I was aware of the potential pitfalls and the complaints about the ultra-thin lettering and sometimes amateurish icons. Well, allegedly. Of course, Apple would never engage in creating the sort of stick pin artwork that pollutes Windows 8, but it sure was different.
Now one of the key complaints of iOS 7 is that it’s somewhat poky on older gear. Clearly the iPad Air is several times faster than Mrs. Steinberg’s iPad, though she hasn’t complained very much about performance issues. However, it did seem a tab less snappy with the new iOS. Not to any significant degree, but it’s also true that the incessant zooming effects don’t exactly convey a feeling of speed. One solution for that is just to turn it off, a solution that arrived in the iOS 7.0.3 update. Just go to Settings>General>Accessibility and activate Reduce Motion.
Indeed, the change is dramatic. Apps seem to launch instantly, and switching from one to the other also seems quicker.
Reduce Motion also kills the parallax effect that really doesn’t intrude unless you look real close. But the two changes should eliminate complaints from some users about dizziness and nausea. This is not something I can evaluate myself, but I will accept the complaints as real. Certainly allowing you to quickly kill the zooming effect indicates, to me at least, that Apple was sensitive to the problem.
But let’s continue.
Another complaint about iOS 7 is that it’s still slow on older hardware regardless of shutting off the special effects. One benchmark I saw recently does show that iOS 7 on an iPhone 4 makes apps launch noticeably slower, although we are talking of a fraction of a second in most cases, something that may not be not be so easy to notice. Turning off another setting, General>Background App Refresh, might also help improve performance. But I suspect that this is one feature that improves over time, so give it a few days.
If you don’t like the text styling, well, sorry. The only possible solution is another Accessibility selection, Bold Text. But that makes it too bold. I suppose if enough of you complained — and it doesn’t bother me — Apple could offer some intermediate option. Considering that a hefty portion of the iOS user base has already upgraded, I suppose this is something that would be considered if there are enough complaints. Obviously Apple reacted quickly to complaints about zooming effects causing nasty symptoms.
Having used iOS 7 on my wife’s iPad, and on an iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s, I really do not share the concerns of some. As with anything that has changed drastically, it may take a few days for some of you to get used to the new look and feel. There is one more setting that might be useful from Accessibility, and that’s Increase Contrast. That takes care of a fair amount of the system’s transparency effects, in case they bother you. They don’t bother me.
Yet another complaint has it that too many apps crash. I get them on occasion, but no more than any previous iOS release, and not nearly as much as on an Android smartphone.
The real troublemaker for me, however, is iCloud Keychain. The feature, which debuted in OS X Mavericks, was added to iOS in the 7.0.3 update. For me, it’s sadly broken. When bringing up some login screens, the wrong username is listed. When I try to delete the incorrect entry, text is removed at a glacial pace, with several seconds passing for every single character. So I have disabled it on the iPhone and iPad. It still works on the Mac, and I assume Apple will fix it soon, since it’s a key feature that’s been heavily promoted.
Of course, Apple was in a peculiar situation when releasing iOS 7. The critics said the iOS had grown stale, and the upgrade surely isn’t stale. So now they complain that the changes are too drastic. But, with the 7.0.3 update only recently released, I expect there will be ongoing changes as hundreds of millions of users beat it to death and complain when things go wrong. You will also see more and more apps updated, eventually requiring iOS 7 to run.
In the end, no matter what Apple does, there will be reasons to complain about usability, performance, and compatibility. However, when I look at the competition, I prefer iOS 7 by a huge margin over Android and Windows Phone. But Apple needs to continue to make it better, and innovation has to come fast. Even now, Google is hoping that the latest Android release, KitKat 4.4, will be deployed on larger numbers of smartphones and tablets to help reduce the fragmentation nightmare. We’ll see, but Apple can’t rest on its laurels.
No matter what your political leanings might be, you no doubt agree that the rollout of HealthCare.gov has been a total failure. Instead of fulfilling the promise of an easy one-stop shopping center for health insurance in the U.S., millions of visitors found it impossible to navigate, let alone being able to create a user account. In recent days, it has been reported that this train wreck cost some $600 million to build, although that appears to include funds that were authorized but not yet spent.
The U.S. government should have asked for a refund, but it’s also clear that the people who put this thing together are in way over their heads. They are trying to accomplish something that is, at every level, extremely difficult. And with both political parties fighting over the very existence of the health care law, nicknamed Obamacare, it’s easy to see why it has been hard to complete development in an efficient way.
Democrats will complain, for example, that Republican governors sabotaged the effort by, in large part, refusing to create their own state-run exchanges, and asking the Feds to do it. Some 36 states are managed by the government site, and what it’s being asked to do is far more complicated than any normal commerce site, such as Amazon or even Apple’s online shopping portal.
You see, Amazon may be a sprawling marketplace in its own right, but even third-party vendors are using a single infrastructure, all working together in a pretty seamless fashion. Even then, Amazon has an occasional outage. As for Apple, iCloud still has service interruptions, and don’t forget the flawed rollout of MobileMe, a disaster where you had to wait for several days even to get your email. And, again, these sites are not being asked to do near what HealthCare.gov has to accomplish.
Consider that HealthCare.gov has to instantly communicate with several other government portals, such as Medicare, the IRS and the Social Security Administration, plus state-run insurance sites, including Medicaid. And that’s before they attempt to talk to dozens of insurance companies to handle numerous health plans, rates, and sign-up information. Add to that the fact that many of these sites were developed in very different ways, and not with the latest and greatest technologies. Social Security, for example, has legacy data that takes you back to the era of punch cards. That these systems work at all is a miracle.
Now some would suggest that President Obama should have known it was broken, since he’s supposed to be a tech-savvy chief executive. Well, perhaps. But the fact that he has used a BlackBerry and owns an iPad doesn’t make him an online wiz. He’s a lawyer, and, in his 50s, no doubt mastered many of his work skills before the Internet took over our daily lives.
I could be conspiratorial and suggest that he knew full well that the site would be a disaster, but allowed it to open anyway, making the excuse that nobody could have predicted it would receive so much traffic and fail in so many ways. A smooth rollout might not have garnered much publicity, but the daily condition of HealthCare.gov is front and center on the 24/7 cable news channels. Some say that any publicity is good publicity, and if the site is improved as promised, it may even attract more customers, particularly younger people, which is required to make this sprawling program work.
Of course, the critics will hope that the site will continue to misbehave and that the entire law will collapse under its own weight.
Regardless, it is good to see that even Silicon Valley experts, from such companies as Google and Oracle, are being called in to set things right. As a start, maybe they could make it work properly in Safari for Mavericks, where you can’t even bring up an account page correctly. I know my wife would love to have affordable health coverage, if she could ever complete the enrollment process and actually pick a plan that suits her needs.
Update: After the November 2-3 maintenance, which took the site down for at least 12 hours, content and functionality appears to be more compatible with Safari. Response time is also improving.
I suppose one might hope that this sad episode would convince the U.S. government to find better and more efficient ways to bring services online. As to the contractors who built this mess, I hope their workers haven’t given up their day jobs. And if this is their day job, they need to find other lines of work. There are always openings for greeters at Walmart. But I don’t mean to insult the hard-working people who are employed at those stores.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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