• Newsletter Issue #746

    March 17th, 2014


    Is the media overplaying the cable cord cutting meme? That’s a good question, because the cable and satellite companies have only recently begun shedding some subscribers, although the cable companies will give you various and sundry levels of excuses as to why.

    At the same time, independent services, such as Netflix, appear to be gaining in popularity, but not necessarily at the expense of traditional services. More to the point, it does appear that young people are not as apt to subscribe to traditional TV delivery services.

    But that may be due to a combination of factors, such as not having the spare cash, or just focusing their lives on other matters, such as education and working overtime to establish a career. Spare time might be at a premium, so it doesn’t make sense to pay for services that just aren’t needed.

    This doesn’t mean that ratings for the traditional broadcast networks aren’t going down. They are. Sometimes it’s due to time-shifting, as more and more people watch shows via a DVR. Or maybe they are watching something else, such as a cable TV network or even a premium network, such as HBO. So very recently, the season finale of a procedural drama on HBO, “True Detective,” starring Oscar winner Mathew McConaughey and Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson, received record ratings. In fact viewership was so high, it brought down the HBO Go streaming service, and that service requires a cable or satellite account.

    Obviously the members of that audience haven’t cut the cable cord, at least not yet.

    In any case, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, tech columnist and commentator Dann Berg held forth on such issues as the iOS 7 update, Microsoft’s reported decision to supply Windows Phone free to some low-end handset makers, and how he succeeded in cutting the cable TV cord.

    You’ll also heard from columnist Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer, who also talked about cord cutting, the iOS 7 update, Microsoft’s lower Windows licensing costs for cheap PCs and free Windows Phone licensing for cheap mobile handsets, and how this will be the year that defines Apple CEO Tim Cook.

    We also presented Lloyd Klarke, director of product management for Roku, who discussed the history of the company and the current lineup of video streaming products and services.

    The Night Owl plans to review a Roku box in the near future, and I’ll be comparing it against my Apple TV, may the better streaming system win.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris welcome long-time paranormal researcher Rosemary Ellen Guiley, author of “Dream Messages from the Afterlife.” So are some dreams the result of contact with the dead? According to the blurb from Rosemary’s latest book, “We can have contact with the dead, and the most common and powerful way is in dreams. This book is a ground-breaking validation of dreams that reach into the afterlife for reunions, messages, and previews of what lies beyond earthly life.” This discussion surely takes us in a direction that’s out of the normal comfort zone for The Paracast.

    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.


    So CEO Satya Nadella has only led Microsoft for a few weeks, so it would be unfair to judge his performance. He deserves to chance to prove his mettle. At the same time, the company remains in deep trouble, despite still delivering decent sales and profits, particularly for software and services. And, yes, the Xbox One has sold well.

    But Microsoft has confronted a dilemma of its own creation. Despite announcing that support for Windows XP, circa 2001, will end on April 8th of this year, some 30% of Windows users going online are still using it. That number doesn’t include PCs that contact private networks, such as ATM machines. Indeed, I’ve seen estimates that as many as 95% of those ATMs are still running Windows XP.

    Indeed, it’s enough to encourage me to make all withdrawals inside a bank branch, and I would if I didn’t have any online bank accounts. Oh well, I suppose there’s always a mattress, but don’t assume I’m going to take that approach. I can always hope banks will update their systems after XP support ends.

    Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t seem to have a sensible plan to persuade people to upgrade their PCs. A recent Microsoft blog was touting the presumed benefits of Windows 8, none of which are of any concern to a business. Businesses deserve a sensible, relatively seamless method to migrate their stuff to a new PC or to upgrade an existing PC to, say, Windows 7. As it stands, they are on their own here, but the process involves backing up their data and reinstalling everything from scratch on a new or upgraded PC.

    PC makers can hope that office computers will finally be replaced as the result of the required changeover. But that depends on how many actually abandon Windows XP. Third-party security companies will continue to support the OS so long as they can sell user licenses, but that’s not the same thing as getting critical patches from Microsoft.

    At the same time, Microsoft is trying to roll back some of the changes in Windows 8 with the 8.1 and Update 1 releases, but it’s not the same thing as releasing a Windows 7.5 or something that more closely resembles the traditional desktop environment.

    Meantime, the hits keep on coming.

    There’s a published report this week that Mozilla has given up on plans to make a Modern UI/Metro version of Firefox. There were few beta testers, which clearly demonstrated a lack of interest, so why invest resources on such a project? Indeed, there still isn’t a true Modern UI version of Office either.

    Just as bad, Microsoft may have lost out on billions of dollars in potential sales by delaying release of iOS versions of Office for the iPhone and iPad. There were rumors dating back to 2011 indicating that Microsoft was about ready to release these mobile versions, but it never happened.

    It appears the company may have been hoping and dreaming that Office support would be used as a vehicle to sell Surface tablets. Indeed, Microsoft is still running TV ads touting this presumed advantage, but customers aren’t lining up to buy them. Curiously, such ads were even run during the holidays, when potential customers had other reasons to evaluate new tablets.

    Meantime, Apple has put the screws to Microsoft by making iWork free on new Macs, iPads and iPhones, and offering free upgrades to anyone who already had a previous version. For most users, iWork, or one of the other productivity apps available from the App Store, offer all the features they need on a mobile platform.

    For those still using Office on a Mac, iWork offers a reasonable level of file compatibility. Not perfect, but for documents that aren’t heavily formatted or customized with macros, the results should be quite satisfactory. They are for me. And Apple’s track changes feature in Pages is mostly compatible with Word’s, so Microsoft’s is really losing the ability to find new customers for Office.

    After folding the Mac Business Unit into the Office group at Microsoft, there are new rumblings of a 2014 version of Office for the Mac. Will that release be accompanied by an iOS version too?

    Sure, existing Office users who haven’t already switched to iWork or Google Apps might be tempted to buy upgrades. But the longer Microsoft delays, the lower the number of potential sales.

    So what’s Nadella’s plan anyway? Will he be able to make the changes necessary for Microsoft to finally embrace the 21st century. Inquiring minds want to know, unless it’s already too late.


    Those who publish or comment about the auto industry aren’t always happy with the way Consumer Reports handles reviews about motor vehicles. Talk show host Jerry Reynolds, host of the nationally syndicated “Car Pro” radio show, believes CR favors foreign cars, mostly from Japan, over American car makers, though this is less true than it used to be.

    To Reynolds, this is the result of a built-in bias, rather than a verdict based on test results. In CR’s favor is the fact that tested products are actually purchased. They don’t take loaners, and thus there’s no chance a product will be specially configured to deliver better test results.

    Now I wouldn’t presume to suggest that CR’s test results are wrong. But their conclusions are often questionable. Part of the problem is that autos tend to be considered via a single set of criteria that often eschews such things as great looks and fun-to-drive quotients. So a car that maybe rides too hard, and has limited space for rear passengers, but looks and handles great, will receive lower ratings. Customers will often have other priorities.

    This sort of explains why vehicles that most people consider bland and efficient, rather than exciting, will tend to get higher ratings. So consider a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, both of which are well-built, safe and reliable, but they’re decidedly boring.

    All right, the top rated car is the Tesla S, an electric-powered sports car selling for upwards of $70,000. Luxury cars with lots of flash do seem to get priority.

    CR will also come to curious decisions about the choices you should make in picking that new car. So, for example, the April 2014 auto issue lists three features under the “Don’t bother” category. Some might be debatable, such as adaptive headlights, which turn with the front wheels. But that feature is usually bundled with other premium doodads and thus isn’t something you would normally check separately on an option list.

    The same goes for HD radio, which delivers digital versions of many AM and FM stations. CR’s complaint is that “the signals tend to come and go, resulting in annoying changes in sound quality.” That’s true if you’re in a poor signal area, or far away from a station’s transmitting tower. But when it works, it works well, particularly with AM, where reception is static free and audio quality comes fairly close to analog FM. FM signals, in turn, also improve noticeably. But CR doesn’t seem to notice these improvements either.

    But HD radio is not normally a single option for a car. It may be included with a premium sound system, or is sometimes standard issue even on entry-level models. Depending on the model, and that’s how it works on my Kia, you can even switch HD radio off if you don’t like it, or the signal frequently jumps back and forth between analog and digital and becomes annoying. So what’s the fuss?

    CR also doesn’t like touch-sensitive switches, and I can see the point if the system is poorly designed and doesn’t immediately respond to your fingers, or replaces touch for too many functions that used to be the province of physical switches. Once again, touch-based buttons aren’t standalone options that you can just avoid. If you want other features, such as navigation or superior sound, you have to take the good with the bad. But this may be a valid reason to avoid one model over another all things being equal.

    So the troubled MyFord Touch system, and the buggy touch-screens on a Cadillac, may be reason enough to avoid these brands. The real advice is to test drive all aspects of a vehicle, and not just the seats, the steering, and the ride and handling. The infotainment system has taken on greater importance, particularly if you want to do more with your car or truck than just play the AM or FM radio. If the controls are difficult to understand and use, and threaten to distract you from driving safely, that’s a reason to choose another brand.

    CR’s focus on these features as individual things you don’t have to bother with ignores how they are integrated into a vehicle. Much of the advice might make sense from a practical point of view. A new car does far more than take you from here to there and back again. There are loads of new features, safety and entertainment, that are likely to complicate your purchase decision.

    But if you fall in love with a particular car, you will want to spend a little time looking at the negatives to make sure that the affair will last mile after mile. The things that endear a car to you on a test drive may become downright annoying as time goes by.


    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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