• Newsletter Issue #924

    August 14th, 2017


    Have you saved up for an iPhone 8 yet? What’s it going to cost? $1,000? $1,400? More?

    Having seen the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar rise in price by several hundred dollars, you might think that Apple is capable of anything when it comes to pricing. When the iMac debuted in 1998 as a low-end consumer computer, at $1,299, did you expect to see a professional version arrive 19 years later at a starting price of $4,999? That’s the entry-level model promised for December delivery. While final prices of maxed out configurations can only be estimated, it may soar to more than three times that.

    Didn’t you think Mac prices should be moving in the other direction? And with the supposed saturation of the smartphone market, can Apple get away with higher prices for a premium model?

    I’m not about to deal with the latest MacBook Pro, except to hope prices will come down over time. But don’t forget that, with sales taxes, you can already buy an unlocked iPhone 7 Plus for over $1,000. It’s $969, US, for the model with 256GB storage. And, as I said, local taxes are added to that price.

    Now on this weekend’s episode of  The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured outspoken columnist John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer. The discussion began with the potentially costly gear Apple is expected to introduce for the fall of 2017. You heard the latest rumors about the iPhone 8 — the rumored 10th anniversary model — and other gear, and just how well is Apple really doing in education? Is the new iPad enough, or does Apple have to find better ways to deliver an affordable notebook computer to classrooms? The discussion moved to expectations for the next Apple TV, which may include 4K and HDR support, plus other features. Is this a product whose time might have come and gone, or is does it still have potential against the competition? Gene and John also speculated on reports that the next Apple Watch may include LTE support, which could allow them to make and receive phone calls, shades of Dick Tracy.

    You also heard from columnist and podcaster Kirk McElhearn, who joined Gene in a pop culture discussion, focusing on summer movies. What about a recent newspaper report about famous singers, most recently Adelle, who are losing their voices and have to undergo delicate microsurgery to resume their careers? Are they following the wrong singing techniques? There was also a lengthy discussion about the potential for Apple TV, and whether cord cutting makes sense. Is it possible to get all the TV shows you want with such streaming services as Netflix, or is there the danger of getting so many services and apps that you end up spending more than with a traditional cable and satellite TV package with hundreds of channels?

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: With the help of a section called “Saucer Club News” in Ray Palmer’s Flying Saucers magazine in the 1950s and 1960s, enterprising young people got together to form their own UFO clubs, or just looked to meet up with others with the same interests. That’s where such people as your humble host of The Paracast and such notables as Tim Beckley, Jerome Clark, Allen Greenfield and Rick Hilberg got their starts. In a single virtual room, Gene’s old friends will reminisce about their early work in the UFO field. The political and cultural climate, how both may have impacted early research efforts, are also debated. Guest co-host is J. Randall Murphy.


    So leave it to Apple to figure out what other companies haven’t figured out, which is how to simplify and enhance the living room experience. By that I mean doing something about the TV watching experience, as if it’s something that needs fixing.

    At its core, of course, watching TV is very much the same as it was in the late 1940s, when such gear first began to show up in people’s homes in decent quantities. Before TVs arrived en masse, families would assemble for a shared experience in front of a radio. Some of them were large, in huge cabinets, demanding your attention.

    Well, maybe some families. My parents had a couple of small table radios. As I grew older, they even bought me a so-called portable radio, battery operated, which I could take with me to my own room. I appreciated the independence even after my dad finally had a 21-inch black and white set delivered to our home, which meant that I didn’t have to walk over to my uncle Abe’s apartment to watch my favorite shows on his set. Abe was a tolerant sort, but it was mostly about the fact that he didn’t return home from work until later in the evening. But my aunt Lillian, who lived downstairs, had his house key.

    Now today’s TV is, based on inflation alone, much cheaper than those big sets with CRTs. So you can buy a 43-inch 4K set for less than $400 at the local Best Buy. That would be roughly $44 in 1955 dollars; our first family TV back then cost over $200.

    But a cheap 4K set, from such budget makers as Insignia, delivers decent color and an image that’s close to perfect from edge to edge. Compare that to even the better CRT sets of old, which had all sorts of edge distortion. So pictures might tilt, or expand or contract slightly the closer you get to the bezel.

    Past the technological achievements, the viewing experience has also undergone a change — for the worse.

    In those days, you turned it on, maybe switched the channel, and sat down. These days, you probably have a cable or satellite box, perhaps an Apple TV or a similar appliance, not to mention the Blu-ray player and gaming console, but it all adds up to a roughly similar process. With a handy remote, you don’t even have to go to the set to do anything. Just push or tap some buttons, relax and enjoy.

    After over 70 years, is this something that has to change?

    Well, consider the hassle of managing multiple boxes and services. It’s not so easy anymore. And that’s the dilemma being confronted by set makers, cable/satellite companies, broadcasters, entertainment conglomerates, and such companies as Apple, Alphabet (Google), Amazon and Netflix. Microsoft? Well, they seem to be concentrating more heavily on cloud services after years of extolling multimedia PCs that failed badly.

    Now if you are hooked up solely to a cable or satellite provider. your TV viewing experience isn’t altogether different from the early days. You still select the channel you want to watch and get on with your business. Sure, it’s easier today, because you can choose from a menu of channels, and usually fast forward through a show to skip the commercials or the boring scenes.

    But there have been alternatives to complicate matters. Starting with VCRs in the 1970s, you a way to time-shift your favorite shows or watch a recorded movie without the ads. The VCR’s replacements complicate the picture. You put physical media — discs — in a Blu-ray player, but there are streaming set-top boxes, such as Apple TV and Roku, which grab the signal from your broadband connection. I’m not going to dwell on gaming consoles; it’s just another option to complicate your search for entertainment.

    Finding something to watch with so many choices can’t be easy.

    Dealing with multiple sources also means you need a single universal remote or multiple remotes to select the source you want. Each of those sources will have its own user interface of some sort. So with a streamer, you may to navigate through dozens or hundreds of apps to find the one you want. You then drill down to a list of available programs.

    Streamers may abstract the process with search. The fourth generation Apple TV uses Siri to help guide you along the way.

    So many choices, so little time, so how do you sort things out?

    With all these options, some of you have decided to give the cable/satellite service the heave-ho. The traditional marketing scheme means offering packages with dozens or hundreds of channels at a monthly price that seems to rise every year. Well, unless you find a special short-term discount to sign up to a new service, or just threaten the one you’re using with cancellation if they don’t cut the price.

    Entertainment companies regularly battle cable/satellite companies for a greater piece of the monthly fee. Sometimes they even withhold their channels — in effect go on strike — until a deal can be made. The customer? Well, even when your favorite channels are unavailable for a short while, the prices are fated to increase. Something has to give.

    Cord cutting means you find a way to cheap out by ordering up only the services you want, not a package of hundreds of channels you don’t care about. Netflix offers a mixture of movies, TV shows and award-winning original fare, such as House of Cards. If you can survive with Netflix, and maybe set up an antenna to grab your local TV stations, you’ll save plenty of money.

    But entertainment companies still want your business. Such satellite companies as Dish Network and AT&T’s DirecTV now stream low-end services based on a subset of available channels, along with a few extra-cost options. It’s not altogether different from what we used to call “basic cable,” but it doesn’t require a set-top box, just an app.

    I won’t get into the issue of running up your ISP’s bandwidth to watch content streamed by other companies.

    In addition, some of the cable channels have set up their own streaming services, such as HBO and Showtime. CBS offers All Access, and is using the forthcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” series as a way to rope you in to becoming a subscriber. Disney has announced plans to pull its content from Netflix — where several of Marvel’s best super hero shows have found a home — and put up its own service.

    So instead of paying one bill to the cable/satellite company, and possibly adding Netflix and some movie rentals from Amazon, iTunes or VUDU, cord-cutting can become its own worst nightmare.

    Take Netflix and, if it’s not sufficient, you add a few more a la carte services, and the price begins to add up. Instead of paying one fee every month, you pay several. One day you calculate the total, and you see that you really haven’t saved a whole lot of money. You’ve also made your life more difficult, because you now have to navigate multiple services instead of just one or two. Even if you have Siri to help you along, it’s still bound to be a more complicated process.

    All you want to do is to sit down and watch the family TV, not fiddle with a remote and make multiple choices from multiple sources. How does that mess simplify your life? Is it time yet to give it all up, install a TV antenna and be done with it?

    Maybe not. Some sets nowadays, such as recent entrants from VIZIO, don’t even include a TV tuner. That means you have to install yet another box to watch something unless you sign up for somebody’s service.

    At one time, Apple loomed as the great hope to simplify your living room experience. So far, all they’ve done is to conspire with the rest of the industry to complicate matters. It seems that things can only get worse, or maybe it’s time to just start over. I never for a moment thought that the simple joy of watching TV would go so far off the rails.


    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
    Sales and Marketing: Andy Schopick
    Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis

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    3 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #924”

    1. dfs says:

      Traditional family t. fare includes plenty of regional and local news and weather coverage and plenty of sports. And cable gives you a wealth of offerings ranging from Meet The Press to House Hunters to cooking shows and programming for kids. Cord-cutting reduces some of this stuff to a mere trickle and cuts you off from the rest of it altogether. If limiting yourself to fare like Game of Thrones and House of Cards is sufficient to float your boat, go ahead and cable-cut. If not, not. Personally, I would find this a very poverty-stricken diet.

    2. Kaleberg says:

      The current situation is great for people like me who like to pick something to watch and watch it. It is just not all that useful for someone who just wants to watch television, that is, whatever is on.

      • gene says:

        I suspect most people accustomed to just turning on the set and letting it play, and only selecting a channel to catch a favorite show. The advantage of big buckets of channels, if you’re patient enough, is to let you discover potential treasures that you may not have discovered if you just concentrated on the few channels you watch regularly.

        That’s how I first stumbled upon USA Network and the magnificent comedy procedural “Monk” in the early 2000s. I added the network to my regular diet. Every year, there’s a series of two worth my attention.

        These days, however, I can still count the number of channels I watch regularly on the fingers of my hand for the most part.

        I read an article the other day suggesting that the proliferation of subscription streaming networks can easily get out of control, raising your monthly bill more than you expect. That’s what I’ve been saying for quite some time.


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