• Newsletter Issue #754

    May 12th, 2014


    There’s an intensity in the speculation about the iPhone 6 that, on the surface at least, seems more enthusiastic than last year. I suppose that was to be expected, considering that the refresh in alternate years tends to be relatively minor, though I don’t regard the iPhone 5s as just a minor upgrade to the iPhone 5.

    Sure, it looks about the same, but Touch ID, the A7 processor and M7 coprocessor were huge improvements. Unlike a certain smartphone from a South Korean company that I shall not name, Apple’s fingerprint sensor actually works most of the time. While it’s true that some regard a 64-bit mobile processor as gimmicky, it’s also true Apple’s competitors are rushing to get one out, while iOS developers are busy working on more and more apps that exploit the new chips. Apple is known to be forward-looking, and you’ll see the benefits in the years to come, particularly as newer iOS gear becomes all 64-bit.

    And, no, I do not look at these mobile processors as potential replacements for the Intel chips in desktop Macs, even if performance could be brought to the level of a traditional PC chip. Sure, iOS and OS X will look more and more alike, particularly if the rumored interface overhaul for the latter actually happens this year. But that doesn’t mean you’ll interact with iPhones and Macs in the same way. That sort of scheme, exemplified on a Surface tablet from Microsoft, has been shown to be unworkable.

    Well, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured Josh Centers, Managing Editor for TidBITS, and author of “Take Control of Apple TV.” who discussed what we might expect from the forthcoming Apple developer event, WWDC, where new versions of OS X and iOS are expected to be unveiled. You also heard his early reactions to the Amazon Fire TV set-top box, and the foolish move by Amazon to remove in-app purchases from ComiXology, the popular comic book reading app they recently acquired.

    Outspoken commentator Peter Cohen. Managing Editor for iMore, held forth on the possible new features in the next versions of OS X and iOS, which are reportedly going to be demonstrated at the WWDC beginning June 2. We also discussed what features ought to change, particularly with Apple Mail, which had a shaky rollout in OS X Mavericks.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Loyd Auerbach, considered by many to be our top expert on the “paranormal.” According to his bio, Loyd is Director of the Office of Paranormal Investigations, and is the 2013/2014 President of the Forever Family Foundation, an organization supporting research on Life After Death and the work of spirit mediums in the grieving process. He has served on their Scientific Advisory Board for a number of years. He was appointed to the faculty of Atlantic University of Virginia Beach, VA, in late 2010, where he teaches an online Parapsychology course. You’ll learn about his ongoing research and even some case histories. There will also be some myth busting, so you’ll know what those reality TV shows present that’s just not so.

    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.


    The story has spread like wildfire. Apple is in talks with Beats Audio to acquire the company for $3.2 billion. Now that figure really is chump change for Apple, with over $150 billion dollars on hand, but it’s nonetheless far more than the company has previously spent on any single transaction of this sort. Apple, you see, rarely budgets more than a tenth of that amount in acquiring smaller companies for technology.

    Indeed, Apple’s purchase of Steve Jobs’ NeXT for $429 million in 1996 was regarded as the biggest deal ever, particularly when viewed in 2014 dollars. Today, that transaction would be valued at over $651 million, so you see where I’m heading.

    While other companies have spent a lot more money for mergers and acquisitions, this is Apple, and that number is extremely high for them. So the logical question, then, is why? Why would Apple want to acquire a company managed by a couple of record industry moguls? Where’s the logic in that?

    First and foremost, however, that Apple might be negotiating to acquire a company doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. The best laid plans might fall apart at the last minute for a variety of reasons, and until it’s announced officially, anything might happen.

    But the story has been taken seriously by supposedly respected publications, including The New York Times, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal. So you have to think it has some basis in fact, at least insofar as the report that negotiations are ongoing.

    Aside from the relatively high number, at least for Apple, the larger question is what buying Beats Audio will bring to Apple. The company is run by two notables in the music industry: One is long-time recording industry executive Jimmy Iovine, whose work years ago as a producer included such artists as John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Meat Loaf, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Dire Straits. In other words, he’s an A-list person who nowadays heads Interscope Geffen A&M records.

    His partner in the Beats Audio venture is one Andre Young, best known to hip-hop fans as Dr. Dre. Together their emphasis has been on premium (or at least expensive) audio products, such as Beats headphones, which generally start at around $100, and cost upwards of $450 for some models. While not as expensive as some headphones with high-end pretensions, there’s a general feeling among reviewers that Beats is very much about pomp and circumstances and not so much substance. Sound quality is generally not regarded as near as good as most premium headphones, with overemphasized bass, a thick midrange and brittle highs, although recent models are said to do better. A notable exception among the reviewers is Consumer Reports, which listed the $299.95 Executive as the magazine’s top-rated noise-canceling headphone.

    Of course, until I actually have a chance to review one (and I haven’t gone out of my way to contact Beats), I’ll withhold comment.

    The product lineup also includes speakers, accessories and BeatsAudio technology for HP computers, HTC smartphones and some Chrysler automobiles. But if Apple acquires the company, you can bet the first two will disappear as soon as licensing issues are dealt with.

    But the deal is said to be less about the audio hardware, which Apple can surely create with better results. It’s said to be more about the Beats Audio music subscription service, known as Beats Music. Available for an individual price of $9.99 per month, the service supposedly relies less on algorithms to build your preferred music playlist, and more on humans who serve as curators of a library said to include over 20 million tracks. Since there is no free version, there are no ads.

    Now it’s no secret that Apple is hot to deal with the ongoing changes in the way people get their music. iTunes downloads have, for the first time, actually dropped slightly. More and more people rely on such services as Pandora and Spotify to give them the music they want, when they want it, without having to actually buy their favorite songs. Some opt for free ad-driven packages when available, while others choose to pay a small monthly fee to be rid of the interruptions.

    Even Apple got into the game with iTunes Radio, though it’s regarded as less successful. My occasional experiences with the service occur in the car, where I use Bluetooth audio to grab the content from my iPhone. As a subscriber to the $24.95 annual service, iTunes Match, which lets me store up to 25,000 songs in the cloud, I don’t have to endure any advertising.

    But it’s not that I’ve given it a comprehensive trial. I chose “The Beatles” as the core on which to build a playlist, and have been mostly rewarded with fairly accurate choices. So I might hear not just the original hits from the Fab Four, but the various songs the individual Beatles did as solo artists, along with Beatles songs covered by other artists. You also hear from artists who in some ways influenced them, such as the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley (at least his earlier stuff).

    My biggest complaint is the fact that, if you don’t want to hear a track, you can only skip three before you have to endure a bunch more that may or may not suit your tastes. Actually, it’s supposed to be a total of six per hour, but that hasn’t quite worked out in my experience. Some suggest you just switch to another playlist and back again to reset the skips, though that seems an awkward process if you’re in the car and want to benefit from handsfree operation.

    I wouldn’t presume to guess why this limitation exists. One would think it would improve the accuracy of the playlist by storing data about the tracks you skip, but maybe it’s a matter of industry contracts, and music industry paranoia.

    Would Beats Music serve as a worthy replacement? Hard to say without having given the system a thorough going over, but Apple clearly wants to advance the services business, and this may be a reasonably quick way to do that, assuming the purchase price makes sense, which is debatable. But it’s also expected that, if this deal goes through, Iovine and Dr. Dre will become Apple executives or advisors, thus allowing Tim Cook to benefit from their music industry clout in future negotiations with the industry for streaming and other services. After all, if the deal goes through, those contracts will reportedly have to be redone.

    Regardless of how this deal ends up, it’s clear it will be controversial. But Apple isn’t inclined to just spend money on a wing and a prayer — and I sometimes wonder if other companies have done that. There will have to be the potential of a real benefit for this acquisition to happen. But until it’s a done deal, officially announced by one or both sides, it’s all still speculation.


    Ford gets high praise from the media for hiring the right CEO, the now-departing Alan Mulally, and getting its affairs in order without taking a Federal bailout. For the most part, sales have grown, although the Lincoln luxury brand hasn’t kept pace with Cadillac, let alone the prestige European brands. Indeed, a Lincoln is built on a Ford platform, gussied up with a fancier body, and a higher level of interior trim. But if I was in the mood, and had the finances to support spending upwards of $40,000 for a new car, I’d choose something other than a fancy rebadged Ford.

    But Ford has gotten well-deserved brickbats for the MyFord Touch that uses Microsoft technology. Even though the cars are well built and reliable, the ratings drop big time when people encounter difficult-to-use and flaky voice-driven and touch interfaces. Complaints about the inability to recognize one’s voice, or slow and inconsistent touch response ,were legion. I wonder whether these bugs, which are apparently being fixed, could increase the potential for an accident. Fighting with an infotainment system while driving could be considered distracted don’t you think?

    In passing, it’s curious that Mulally was actually considered for the CEO post at Microsoft. Or maybe he felt he could egg Microsoft’s developers on to fix their buggy auto infotainment software.

    Yet that doesn’t mean that all Microsoft auto systems are necessarily fatally flawed. Kia, the South Korean auto maker affiliated with Hyundai, uses a Microsoft system known as UVO, short for “Your Voice,” which is installed as standard equipment or as an option in a number of their vehicles. It starts with the Forte compact and ranges up to the $60,000 K900 that is intended to compete, though not yet successful, with the best from BMW and Mercedes Benz.

    I’ve had a fair amount of face time with the UVO system on a 2014 Kia Optima without the navigation option, and I’ve been mostly impressed. The system offers “Advanced Voice Control” and an “eServices” feature that’s displayed on a bright, crisp 4.3 touchscreen. If your Kia is equipped with navigation, you also get “Tablet Style Swipe Gestures,” but I have not had the chance, yet, to test such a system.

    On the standard UVO setup, you’ll need to install the UVO app on your iOS or Android smartphone to make all the help features function. Once you complete the registration and setup process, UVO eServices will allow you to use a single touch-based button or your voice to call for roadside assistance in the event your vehicle is somehow disabled, or just runs out of gas. There’s also an automatic 911 feature, which will contact the nearest emergency services should the airbag on your vehicle deploy.

    Thank heavens I did not need to use either during my test.

    Now routine voice-activated functions include controlling normal features, such as changing the station on your car radio, or using your smartphone to dial someone via number or from a name stored on your stored contact list. With an iPhone and other handsets, UVO will download your contact list every time it syncs via Bluetooth, so you can call whatever name is listed there. So, for example, to phone home I would say, “Call Gene Steinberg at home.” The “home,” “mobile” and “office” designations are intended to call people at the appropriate location, though it doesn’t support less obvious choices, such as “Call Fred at Warren’s home.” Changing stations is as simple as saying, “AM 1480” or “FM 100.7.” The system is smart enough not to require you to utter “zero.”

    On the whole, UVO is actually quite reliable out of the box. Commands are recognized and acted upon within two to five seconds, usually, which is fairly good. Indeed, it’s better than the voice recognition systems I tried on some other cars, such as an older Honda Accord. There’s even an option, reminiscent of what you find on dictation software on your Mac and PC, where you can train the voice recognition software to possibly recognize your commands more accurately. During the setup period, you read 10 different short phrases to complete the setup process, and it only works while the vehicle is parked for safety reasons.

    In practice, the stored profile works against accuracy, because you don’t speak in a particularly structured pattern while driving. On a personal computer, when using dictation software, you will read aloud or dictate in a highly uniform rhythm. In a car, you may be driving at a speed where road and wind noise tends to be audible, or when the climate control system’s fan is operating at a higher speed. Varying levels of background noise, and the fact that the rhythm of your speech tends to be more casual, less rigid, only confuses the system.

    So in the end, I got near perfect accuracy without a profile. With the profile, it tended to be hit or miss, and the recognition process often took longer. I suppose if you have a strong regional or foreign accent, a stored profile might work better, but not for me.

    In the end, though, the Kia’s infotainment system worked quite well. As I said, voice recognition accuracy was quite good, and the touch screens were reasonably sensitive and accurate, though short of what an iPhone delivers. I regard it as similar to the touchscreen on my HP Officejet Pro 8600 Plus all-in-one printer. That’s actually a pretty decent standard overall.

    Even better, if your Kia is equipped with the premium audio option, such as the eight speaker Harmon Infinity sound system offered on recent Kia Optimas, you’ll benefit from above-average sound to enjoy whether you’re driving to the convenience store, or across the country. It’s also encouraging to see that Microsoft is actually capable of developing infotainment software that, by and large, actually works. Maybe Ford could learn a few tricks from Kia.


    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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