Apple’s March Madness: In Like a Lion

If you nauseate easily at the prospect of non-stop Apple announcements, right now might be a good time to take a long hike in the woods, weather permitting. Apple’s given developers a brand-new preview of OS X Lion; next week we’ll see an announcement that’s almost certainly going to be all about iPad 2; and there are rumors that iOS 4.3 is just around the corner.

Previews and just-about-there hearsay aside, Apple also pulled off an actual product release this week. A new batch of MacBook Pros washed ashore, and in terms of design, they’re really very similar to last year’s models. There were a few notable steps forward, though, including a new technology Intel has been talking up over the last few months.

But first, processors: All three models — 13, 15 and 17 inches — have Intel’s latest Core processors, and the bigger two offer quad-core options. In graphics, the larger models have ditched Nvidia and jumped over to AMD’s camp.

Apple’s also polished up the webcam to provide 720p HD video-calling abilities. You can use FaceTime, too, if you happen to have an extra dollar.

Then there’s Thunderbolt, the new input/output system built on Intel’s Light Peak technology. It’s all about fast data transfer speeds — up to 10 gigabits per second. So you can move lots of data into and out of the computer — as long as that other data bucket happens to be have a Thunderbolt port as well. Several companies say they have stuff on the way, but it’s going to be a while before you’ll find it everywhere you turn.

Listen to the podcast (10:32 minutes).

Everyone’s Gone to the Movies

There are two kinds of Amazon Prime members: 1) People who buy lots of stuff on Amazon and figure they probably save money by paying a flat $79 per year to get free express shipping on anything, any time; and 2) People who signed up for a free one-month membership in order to save a few bucks shipping one item, then forgot to cancel the automatic renewal.

But Amazon’s Prime membership isn’t just about shipping; the latest perk the retailer’s given its VIPs is movie streaming. Anyone familiar with Netflix’s system should recognize how it works: Choose the night’s entertainment from a catalog of thousands of movies and TV shows, then just sit back and watch, commercial-free, either through a computer or any of the various set-top boxes that already work with Amazon’s video download service. No limits as far as Amazon’s concerned, though your ISP might have a different theory about that.

Amazon’s providing this at no extra charge above the annual fee Prime members already pay. And it just so happens that the fee actually comes out to a few bucks less than what Netflix charges for 12 months of its own streaming-only plan.

But you can’t call Amazon’s offering just flat-out better than Netflix’s, not yet anyway. For one thing, Amazon’s streaming library is about 5,000 titles strong; the Netflix instant catalog is about five times that amount. Also, there’s no sign Amazon is about to budge from its annual membership system and open up some kind of pay-by-the-month offering. Maybe they figure they’d get too many hop-ons. So after that first free month, new users will have to commit for a full year.

Finally, Amazon currently offers no way to stream video directly to a mobile device through an app. Netflix, on the other hand, has an iOS app — though that’s exactly the kind of app that seems like it could quickly suffocate if Apple intends to enforce its new subscription rules across the board, not just for magazines and newspapers.

Fail Deadly

Microsoft’s plans to keep a foot in the mobile game with Windows Phone 7 are well under way, and it even has the massive, hulking Nokia on its side. But in terms of basic mobile OS childhood development, WinPho 7 has a few skills it still needs to acquire in order to catch up with the rest of the class.

One of these is copy and paste. Might not be a feature everyone uses all the time, but it’s sort of the technological equivalent of being able to dress and feed yourself — if you don’t know how to do it, the perception is that you’re definitely behind the curve.

Perhaps copy and paste were what a lot of Windows Phone 7 users were hoping for when they started installing the OS’s latest update this week. It’s not what they got, though — this update seemed to be focused on improving the update process. A meta-update, or something.

And that’s if the whole exercise worked properly. But as some owners of Samsung Windows Phones soon learned, the process was not universally smooth. Some reported that it kept freezing up mid-stride, and in certain cases, it more or less bricked their phones — in other words, scrambled their firmware so bad they were rendered inoperable. Microsoft quickly pulled the update from Samsung models.

Some feel that Microsoft really ought to graduate to a system that does over-the-air updates, where you don’t have to plug your phone into a computer in order to get the latest version of the OS. That might have its advantages from a convenience perspective, but if the software’s botched to begin with, it doesn’t matter what the phone is or is not plugged into; its brains are still gonna get scrambled.

Over-the-air is no guarantee against defective updates. I remember that last summer, Sprint’s EVO 4G, an Android phone from HTC, had its own little problem with a bum update, and that one was done over-the-air. If you have to plug it in, at least you might have a chance to back up and create a restore point — if the management software’s designed that way.

It’ll Probably Come Down to a Game of Snooker

Much doubt has been raised about Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ role at the company right now. Technically he’s on a leave of absence, putting COO Tim Cook in charge. Tabloids report his health issues have taken a turn for the worse. Yet he’s said to be calling Apple’s major shots from home, he was well enough to join a who’s-who-in-technology dinner with President Obama last week, and those cryptic, one-liner responses to random emails from the public are still trickling in every now and then.

Just like the last time Steve Jobs had to take a major break from full-time duties, his absence has made some shareholders very anxious. They want to know what the board’s plan is for when Jobs isn’t in charge anymore, whether that happens tomorrow or many years from now. Will Cook officially take over immediately, or will the job be open to applicants? Will it only consider current top Apple execs, or will there be some outside head-hunting? Or will it reorganize into some kind of new-agey council of elders where no one person officially wears the turtleneck?

Apple’s board says it does indeed have a plan, and it’s not difficult to believe that’s true. Not having any kind of plan at all would be so fiscally irresponsible that it makes me wonder whether someone might end up in jail over it. So the board knows what it’ll do; it just doesn’t want to talk about it publicly.

Not all shareholders agree with that strategy, though, and the issue came to a head this week at a shareholder meeting in which the board squared off with the Laborers’ International Union of America, backed by Institutional Shareholder Services. LIUNA wants that succession plan publicly known, and it put it up for a shareholder vote.

Apple’s board is thoroughly against this; it maintains that disclosing its plan would hurt its ability to recruit and retain top executives. Those who see that they’re clearly nowhere near on the right track to the crown might be less inclined to work with Apple. Apparently that’s what most shareholders think too; preliminary results indicate the board won the standoff.

Not exactly surprising — Apple’s one of the most secretive publicly traded companies on Earth. It’s also been one of the most successful over the past decade or so. Hard to say whether that’s because of all the secrecy or in spite of it, but it seems most Apple shareholders are happy enough with its performance that they’ll allow the board to keep yet another secret tucked away if that’s what it thinks is best.

Metabolic Frolic

You always hear about how much tougher previous generations were, how they worked harder and put up without the comforts we take for granted today. But I say the people who are alive today are pretty tough too, in our own way. We gobble up fish saturated with mercury, we breathe air full of toxic exhaust fumes, we walk around under a depleted ozone layer, and a lot of our food is so heavily processed it would hardly be recognizable to someone from 200 years ago. Yet our life expectancy is still greater than it was back when it was all blue skies and clean living. Progress!

We can even take a radiological kick to the head without even blinking, which is kind of what happens every time you use a cellphone. The thing making it work is a microwave radio that uses the same frequency as a microwave oven, and although it probably won’t boil your brain matter in two minutes, it still does a little something to your gray goo, according to recent research. What that something is, and whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, is still unclear.

For the study, researchers pumped 47 people with a fluid used to measure brain glucose metabolism, then strapped phones to their ears and let ’em rip for about an hour. Then they monitored them for the same amount of time with the phones turned off.

What they found was that metabolism in the brain region closest to the antenna was 7 percent higher when the phone was on. They said that suggests the human brain is indeed sensitive to the kind of radiation cellphones put out.

What’s more difficult to figure out is exactly how harmful that is, if at all. It might be more dangerous to younger people whose brains are still developing, and adults with neurological problems or brain injuries. But the technology’s still too new to know the full life-long affects of cellphone use, if any.

It’s been a quarter century since Gordon Gecko wowed the world with his fruitcake-sized Motorola, but it’ll be at least that much longer before we’ll know exactly what happens to a human brain after using a cellphone daily from adolescence well into adulthood.

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