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  • Newsletter Issue #756

    May 26th, 2014

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    Last week, the expected $3.2 billion deal between Apple and Beats Audio didn’t happen. Whether it will ever happen isn’t known, probably, except by those who are directly involved in the negotiations. But that hasn’t stopped a procession of reports of delays, excuses, and reasons why the deal might not go through.

    What is expected to occur, assuming regulatory approval, however, is AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV. This comes in the wake of the decision of Comcast to buy Time Warner cable. Indeed, it may well be that one deal depends on the other to succeed. But there’s also a potential domino effect, where other cable and telecoms will consider mergers too. And then there’s Dish Network, which has tried to acquire other companies without success. What happens to the second largest satellite service next, or will this be an ongoing soap opera?

    In any case, on the latest episode of  The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented discussions about the impact of the proposed AT&T/DirecTV merger, first from Dorothy Pomerantz, who covers the business end of the world of entertainment for Forbes. Is this proposed deal good for consumers, or just a way for large companies to increase dominance?

    Cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider, joined us to talk about the ongoing mobile platform wars, the essence of the deal between Apple and Google to call off their patent lawsuits against each other, and the prospects for the success of Microsoft’s new note-book replacement, the Surface 3.

    Tech writer Rob Pegoraro, a columnist for USA Today and Yahoo!, offered his reactions to the mergers of Comcast and Time Warner, AT&T and DirecTV, and whether the latest net neutrality proposal from the FCC makes any sense. He talked about Apple’s “never mind” patent litigation settlement with Google, and about the “right to be forgotten,” involving Google and the European Union, and whether you can get a search engine to delete unfavorable links about you.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a special episode about “the inside story of the world’s best-documented UFO incident” featuring Nick Pope and John Burroughs, authors of “Encounter in Rendlesham Forest.” Nick was a former head of the UFO research project at the UK Ministry of Defense, and John Burroughs, USAF (Ret.) was one of the witnesses. You will hear not just summaries of this incredible and sometimes frightening encounter, but details about the strange phenomenon and its impact upon eyewitnesses that you may not have heard about before, including recently-released government documents about the case.

    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.

    SOME OH-SO-OBVIOUS WWCC EXPECTATIONS

    You don’t have to spend much time with your favorite search engine to find loads of articles about what Apple might launch at the WWDC. Certainly the question about new operating systems is the given, but it’s fascinating to see what directions the next versions of iOS and OS X might take.

    So with OS 10.10, regardless of what popular California place name Apple uses — and Malibu would be nice if it weren’t for a certain car that has reserved that name — there is a lot of chatter that the interface will at last be overhauled in the spirit of iOS. Certainly this can be controversial, as some believe Apple is moving too far to make the desktop OS seem more like the mobile OS.

    But changing a bunch of artwork doesn’t mean the OS is all that different. Remember the jump from Mac OS to OS X. Yes, some things were controversial, such as the way the Apple menu was overhauled, but most things worked pretty much the same. That meant that what you learned about using Macs as far back as 1984 didn’t change that much in 2001 when the OS went Unix.

    From a marketing standpoint, it surely makes sense to tout a strong brand identity. Apple wants you to be able to switch from iPhone, to iPad, and to a Mac without having to undergo a fast learning curve. Remember how the keyboard on a MacBook now feels essentially the same as the one supplied with new Macs; well at least those Macs that come with a keyboard.

    Of course, I deliberately avoid all that by using a totally different keyboard on my Mac, the Matias Quiet Pro, which is designed to offer the feel of an original Apple Extended Keyboard, with physical switches and superb keyboard accuracy, all without the noise.

    In any case, OS critics have spent years complaining about inconsistencies in OS X, so if Apple can smooth the way to efficiency, more power to Sir Jonathan Ive and crew for the effort. But that merely assumes the interface changes are really forthcoming. I would also expect there will be more changes you can see and use with OS 10.10. Mavericks, despite some new apps and features, was very much about improving the plumbing of the OS to use RAM more efficiently, and provide better power efficiency for note-books.

    And mess up the Mail experience, although 10.9.3 fixed most of that.

    Since Apple has consistently touted 200 or more new or improved features with an OS update, I would expect OS X 10.10 to achieve the same standard. Some of the improvements may be minor, and barely noticeable, but there is plenty of room to make things better, beyond a smoother, flatter look and feel. Mail is still a tad shaky, and perhaps third party alternatives — despite also being flaky here and there — ought to provide some influences. But I realize Apple is not going to look to the ancient Eudora design for inspiration.

    With iOS, another year might mean some interface refinement. Apple got the basics down with iOS 7, but so much of it seemed a tad unfinished, conveying the feeling that it was rushed to meet a deadline rather than a specific state of completion. With iOS 7.1.1, it’s better. Most things work fine, but there is plenty of room for improvement with the core apps, such as Mail and Safari.

    The wish lists are abundant, but there’s also the severe constraint under which Apple operates. Yes, the hardware is more powerful, but modest amounts of RAM and storage space clearly put the brakes on how many features can be offered with decent efficiency and performance. What’s more, Apple is not going to pull the Samsung or Microsoft stunt and fill these devices with bloatware and sacrifice available storage space.

    But there are some critical changes that I hope will appear. One is a real centralized file repository for all your documents. As it is now, each app has its own data, which can’t be terribly efficient. I realize Apple wants to preserve a high degree of security, and here is where Android is left in the dust. But surely there’s a way to do this without reducing the safety factor.

    For the iPad, what about the important multitasking feature of all, the ability to run multiple apps and documents side by side? With the arrival of Office for iPad, this is absolutely essential. You can already do that on an Android device, even a smartphone, though it doesn’t make a lot of sense in that restricted environment.

    Surely Apple can find a better way. And, while we’re at it, where is Version 2 of the cut, copy and paste process? It’s still highly awkward and not always accurate.

    Surprises? Well, if there’s going to be an iWatch in our future, I would think Apple might offer special opportunities for developers to build apps that are tailored to the new device. If that’s the case, it’s quite possible there will be an iWatch preview at the WWDC. It’s not unusual for Apple to show a brand new product weeks or months ahead of release if there’s no existing model and thus the threat of lost sales. Don’t forget the first iPhone, but the next model will likely not show up until August or September, without any extended preview.

    Sure, this iWatch preview suggestion is not something that’s given a high degree of probability. This week there’s also a rumor about Apple getting involved in a connected or smart home platform, a sort of last-minute revelation of what might be forthcoming at the WWDC. But news about either would honor the tradition of Apple’s penchant for surprises, and it’s been quite some time since we’ve seen anything resembling a “one more thing.”

    THE ROKU 3 AND ANOTHER FAST LOOK AT STREAMING VIDEO

    When you first look at the box in which the Roku 3 set-top box ships, you realize you are no longer within the Apple comfort zone. This is one of those traditional containers in which tech gear ships that will usually tear apart when you first attempt to open it. The labeling is flashy and loud, and promises that the gadget is “Fully loaded and lightning fast,” although, as you’ll see in a moment, that’s not quite true.

    A thin black piece of cardboard is used to store the unit and accessories for shipping, and it’s serviceable, but not much more. This is where you realize how Apple thinks, or overthinks, every aspect of the user experience including unboxing. Getting started is also less seamless as you’ll see in a moment.

    The Ruku 3 is, typical for this product category, small, but the power supply is embedded in the tip of the power cord, rather than placed within the unit, which is Apple’s way.

    Within short order, I disconnected an HDMI cable from my Apple TV, unplugged it, and inserted the Roku 3 in its place. The power up process was fairly quick, as are most functions on this device, and I soon had to go through the initial setup assistant where you select the type of Internet connection (Wi-Fi or Ethernet) and do the appropriate login.

    The Roku’s virtual keyboard seemed a tad less intuitive to operate from the remote than the Apple TV, but I got the job done and soon, as with Windows, I had to endure a few moments for a software update. Once the unit restarted, I saw a four letter code that I had to insert to link it to an online Roku account that I had to access from a regular PC or Mac.

    Fully loaded my eye!

    Once I went to www.roku.com/link, it was clear I was no longer in Apple’s ecosystem. A Roku doesn’t connect to your iTunes account, nor does it allow you to use AirPlay to send content from your Mac, iPhone or iPad to your set-top box. Yes, you can use the Roku iOS or Android app to deliver music and non-encrypted movies to the device; the movies you buy from iTunes have DRM and are thus excluded. If you want to bring stuff over from a Mac or a PC, you have to install a separate streaming media server, such as the one from Plex.

    In short, some things no longer just work without some extra effort. You’re in a new world, which may nor may not be a better. For those who don’t care about Apple content, however, it’s not so much of a problem.

    Once I setup my Roku account, which includes a place to enter your credit card or PayPal account information so you can pay for video rentals and other services, I was asked to choose which channels I wanted other than the default lineup that includes Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video. You have over 1,000 channels from which to choose, but the Roku’s interface, while pretty fluid and straightforward, gets mighty overwhelmed if you choose too many.

    If you’re a cable/satellite cord cutter, however, you’ll be in your element. There’s plenty of content from which to choose here, although you won’t exactly replace what the cable company offers; not even close.

    With an Apple TV, the few dozen channels offered are available by default, and hiding any is the option. Once again, the Roku is not fully loaded. It may not quite be “lightning fast,” but it’s quick enough compared to a normal TV or cable box interface.

    I’ve only spent a short amount of time with the unit, but I was pleased to encounter a superior Netflix interface. Once I logged into my account, I saw a single button to access the next episode of “House of Cards.” So it remembered what I had been watching on the Apple TV via the same account. The presentation is far superior to the one offered by Apple, which requires multiple clicks of the remote to get to the same place. I don’t know if Netflix is relying on Apple and iOS conventions, or just chooses to offer a better way on the Roku.

    But the sheer wealth of content reveals the fatal flaw of these streaming boxes. With the cable or satellite setup, you have a single interface for all your channels and programming features. On one of these streaming appliances, you are confronted with loads of apps, each of which has its own programming lineup, look and feel. With the fully outfitted Roku, it might take literally hours to answer this question from a family member: “What’s on TV tonight?”

    I’ll have more to say in the next update, but the Roku remote is a traditional black rectangular box with a decent layout for the navigation and OK buttons. Streaming from Netflix was smooth and picture quality was about the same as on the Apple TV. Roku has designed the product to be fairly easy to use, though it’s clear the company’s developers expect their customers to be more accustomed to Windows than a Mac. But that doesn’t make for a bad experience.

    As Apple TV alternatives go, the Roku appears to be the best out there according to the general flavor of reviews. I regard both products as roughly equal, despite the differences. The real job for Apple is somehow taking the concept to the next step and providing a smooth interface that reduces the clutter. I don’t expect to see anything at WWDC, but maybe we’ll see a glimmer of Apple’s game plan by fall. It’s about time the media set-top box business received an Apple-inspired shakeup.

    THE FINAL WORD

    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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    4 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #756”

    1. Richard Briscoe says:

      The first, and most important, change that needs to be made is with the iOS development team. It’s senior leadership, Jon Ive needs to go. The man has the most unbelievably screwed up priorities. He focuses on the superficial, meaningless, and irrelevant concepts of transparency, crayola colors, icons and “stuff” that does not improve the functionality of iOS at all. The highest priority that Apple should attach to iOS development is a decent memory management capability, including something similar to “Memory Clean” as a default app. iOS suffers from horrendous memory leaks resulting in the devices running out of RAM and needing a restart like…a PC. (The hardware team needs to include more RAM too.)

      • @Richard Briscoe, You’re entitled to your opinion, but Ive doesn’t get fired in any scenario I can see right now. As to devices “running out of RAM and needing a restart,” I have rarely had to restart any of my iOS gear running iOS 7.1.1. Doesn’t mean it’s not happening to you, of course.

        Peace,
        Gene

    2. dfs says:

      OSX needs some more compelling “hooks” than an interface makeover if Apple wants anybody to bother downloading it. I’m surprised they included improved 4k scaling in OS9.3 since that could have been touted as one such “hook.”

      As for the next version of iOS, i. m. h. o. the most obvious improvement that could be made is for some scheme for filtering out spam in Mail. If this filtration were done on the iCloud end rather than locally on individual devices, this shouldn’t be all that hard to do.

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