Once upon a time, I had three “full service” phone numbers, plus my mobile number. Two (including the mobile number) were used for business, another number for personal calls, and the last for faxing.
Faxes, of course, are yesterday’s news for the most part. But some companies and some individuals still use them, so I needed that capability. I also wanted to keep the other phone numbers active to separate personal and business activities.
But there was the cost of maintaining extra phone numbers, and I wanted to cut costs. My solution is as economical as I can make it without giving up those numbers and faxing capability.
So my fax number has been ported to Metrofax, but I got a somewhat better deal than the ones advertised. Their cheapest listed package, Essential, is $9.95 per month for up to 500 pages, but I was able to order a cheaper package, limited to maybe 100 pages or so, for $4.00 per month. I have to pay fees for extra faxes, but I’ll never exceed the limit.
Eventually, when the rare need for fax capability is gone and forgotten, I’ll terminate that number.
But what about the others?
One of the better VoIP phone providers, Voipo, offers a Could VoIP Phone Service for $4.95 a month. You get 500 incoming calls free per month and you pay one cent per minute for calls forwarded to another number. At worst, it’ll never be more than a dollar or two extra a month. So I ordered up two of these packages for two of the phone numbers, which were easily ported to the service. Calls from the personal number are forwarded to my iPhone.
The business number? Well, I also signed up for Google Voice, which is free for incoming calls and call forwarding. It sets up a valet or call screening system, so I know who is calling my business line, which forwards to the service. I also have the free Google Voice number. In turn, the screened calls go to my iPhone, and the phone screener alerts me that I’m receiving a business call.
So I have a grand total of four phone numbers (including Google Voice) for $13.90 per month above my wireless bill. Plus, as I said, another dollar or two for incoming calls from the cloud numbers.
At some point, I’ll kill the personal number and, as I said, the fax number, when they are no longer needed.
Now when it comes to printing, I long ago realized that there was no paperless revolution. Sure, magazines and newspapers have largely gone digital, but there are times when a hard copy is needed, so I had to get a printer.
The ideal solution is a black-and-white laser printer. It is much faster than the typical low-cost inkjet, and consumables are far cheaper per page. My Brother HL-L5100dn cost maybe $150 when I bought it several years ago. It appears to have been discontinued, but there is a similar HL-L5200DW for $169.99 available now at Amazon. The original and the new model promise print speeds of up to 42ppm. In the real world, you might get 25-30 based on my estimates.
Now the big expense for a laser printer, as with the inkjet alternative, is toner. If you buy the OEM (Brother) version, Amazon sells the required TN850 cartridge for $109.99 with a rating of up to 8,000 copies. But I learned long ago that third-party toner can be had for a fraction of that price. While your mileage may vary, most of the ones I’ve tried provide print quality just about as good as Brother’s cartridge.
Prices are usually in the $30 range for a TN850 compatible. I recently found a Kingjet compatible priced at $17.99 for a pair of cartridges. I’m still using the second, but it’s not listed as available at Amazon right now. So the best I found, in terms of price, was an EasyPrint selling for $17.83 for a single cartridge. But the product doesn’t have any customer ratings yet, and I’d suggest you read the reviews carefully before buying a compatible replacement for any printer.
For now, until the second Kingston cartridge is spent, I’m paying less than two-tenths of a cent per page, and I buy the very cheapest copying paper I can find.
In order to complete a recent project, though, I needed a printer with copying and scanning capability. I wanted to do it on the cheap, too, and I found a suitable machine. HP makes some of the best printers in the business, and their OfficeJet 3830 All-in-One is an ideal choice with a condition I’ll explain shortly. I was able to find it at Amazon for $49.89; it’s now $69.89.
As multifunction inkjets go, the 3830 is quite good for black and white or color prints, with average print speeds. But, as you know, color ink is expensive. This model uses one black and white and one color cartridge (other models provide separate cartridges for each color). Consumer Reports estimates print costs at 8.3 cents per page for black and white, and 32.6 cents per page for color. That’s on the high side, and you can see where the costs add up.
You can save roughly 50% on third-party ink. Unfortunately, I’ve had bad luck with compatibles for inkjets. But HP has a special service where you can actually save a lot of money on OEM consumables. It’s HP Instant Ink, and you pay monthly for a fixed number of copies. The supplied ink cartridges have a higher capability than the store-bought ones, according to HP, and they are shipped to you before you need them. It’s based on the number of copies you print.
A pretty basic Instant Ink package, suitable for most home or casual users, is $4.99 for 100 copies per month, or roughly 5 cents per page. That’s for either black and white or color. If you need more capacity, there’s a $9.99 package that covers 300 pages per month, or three-and-a-third cents per page. It maxes out at $19.99 per month for up to 700 pages per month, or less than three cents per page. You can also rollover unused pages to the next month. If you exceed the limit plus your rollover pages, you pay extra.
So I’m saving a lot compared to Consumer Reports’ estimates, which I’ll take as accurate.
Now getting color prints for pennies a page is a great deal, and is well worth considering. Yet there is an even more efficient option, a printer with refillable ink tanks, such as the Epson EcoTank ET-2720 Wireless All-In-One, which sells for $179.99 at Amazon and Best Buy. Replacement ink bottles are $13.97 for each of four colors. Epson rates yield from these ink bottles as sufficient to print 4,000 to 6,500 copies; it’s one-and-a-third cents per page for the former. Now we’re getting somewhere!
But an EcoTank printer has a higher upfront cost than equivalent printers with regular ink cartridges. If you print a lot of copies, thought, it won’t take very long to cover the extra cost. While I haven’t had a chance to test an Epson EcoTank, the company’s products generally get high ratings for print quality and speed.
But with my modest needs, such a printer doesn’t make any sense.
So while some of you might look to spending more money on tech gear and services in 2020, I think I’ve found an affordable solution, at least for now.
It was 1989. After using Macs at the office for a couple of years, I decided that I needed one at home since I had begun to take outside assignment. So I went shopping.
To be sure, a Mac was pretty expensive in 1989 dollars. There were no budget models, but I shopped around and found a good deal from the same dealer who sold Macs to my employer.
After an afternoon’s consultation, I weighed my options, and I decided to take a chance, expecting that the freelance work would cover the costs. So I made a lease deal for a complete system. I acquired the Macintosh IIcx, an “affordable” alternative to the Macintosh IIx. It was maxed out with 8MB of RAM and a 100MB hard drive. Add to that a 14-inch Apple color display (later referred to as a “13-inch display,”, a LaserWriter NT PostScript printer, and several productivity apps, including QuarkXPress and Microsoft Word. The bill came to $14,000.
But don’t forget that my choice of a computer system 30 years ago covered, in large part, the middle of the pack. My budget would not cover the top-up-the-line.
As we close out 2019, that original investment explodes to $29,039.61. For that figure, using Apple’s current lineup, you can buy an iMac Pro, a 16-inch MacBook Pro, a 12.9-inch iPad Pro, an iPhone 11 Pro Max and an Apple Watch Series 5, all fully outfitted and still have nearly $5,000 left to cover sales tax, software, backup drives for the Macs, and some leftover cash for productivity apps.
Not that I have that much spare cash around, but it’s fun to wish.
In essence, the price of Apple gear today is actually lower, in proportion to today’s buying power, than it was then.
And then there’s the 2019 Mac Pro, where you can double that $29,039.61 price tag and still not quite get there to a maxed out system and display. In pricing this ultimate system, I checked every option, including wheels for the Mac Pro and a Pro Stand for the Pro Display XDR. It came to $60,797, again plus sales tax.
To put that figure in perspective, I can order a Tesla Model 3 Performance for $50,815 and a well-equipped BMW Model 3 sedan for $47,341.
Well, you get the picture.
But a Mac Pro is not strictly a plaything for the rich and the famous. For a subset of users, it’s the ideal workstation designed for high-end use, say for scientists and movie special effects artists. A director working on a $300 million superhero extravaganza would not mind at all having a network of $60,000 systems. If they went to other major vendors, such as Dell or HP, they’d likely pay more and still not get all the goodies Apple offers, such as the $2,000 Apple Afterburner card.
We’re talking of a flagship machine here, something designed to showcase the best of Apple’s technology, along with the best hardware from AMD and Intel. Other than the SSD, which has to be tuned to the T2 chip and thus must be changed by an Apple authorized repairperson, upgrades are dead simple. This is quite unlike any other Macs nowadays, where upgrades are impossible on notebooks, and of varying degrees of complexity depending on which desktop machine you pick.
Of course, for folks who hoped for something priced in the range if the original Mac Pro tower, only the entry-level model fits the bill. In other words, Apple has reached heights never before attempted. That, and the pro-level features included in the 16-inch MacBook Pro, clearly demonstrates Apple’s renewed commitment to the professional market.
Regardless, I can feel the ardor of Apple’s critics in criticizing the company for gouging its customers. That has been a typical argument for years, and the fact that Apple earns high profits from selling its gear only buttresses that point of view.
The attacks aren’t just focused on the final price, but on Apple’s alleged exorbitant price for upgrades. While you can easily acquire third-party RAM for the desktops, it’s soldered onto the logic boards for notebooks. Sure, Apple may be able to justify that decision on the basis of increased reliability and the fact that only a tiny percentage of buyers really want to do those upgrades.
Of course, nobody outside of Apple and its partners really has access to such statistics. On the surface, it looks credible. I speak with lots of people using Macs, and rarely hear complaints about the inability to do upgrades. Even with desktops, the RAM upgrade schemes may be hostile to the user, particularly with the Mac mini, the 21.5-inch iMac, and the iMac Pro.
I’m particularly disappointed with the decisions made about the latter, since it’s supposed to cater to professional users who want the simplicity of an all-in-one computer and may not be able to afford, or need, the pricy and more powerful components of a Mac Pro. With the iMac Pro, you have to basically remove the display, an annoying and delicate process, to add or replace RAM.
With the regular 27-inch iMac, it’s dead simple, and can be done in less than five minutes. Maybe it’s a compromise made to encompass the improved cooling scheme for the high-powered components? Perhaps, since I can’t believe that Apple would have made the process so difficult for any other reason.
And when it comes to the price offacgtory upgrades, I’ve done comparisons with gear from Dell and HP, and the costs aren’t altogether different. Third-party alternatives, particularly RAM, can be had for far more reasonable prices.
And one more thing: Even if I had the spare cash, and chose to invest it in a computer rather than a luxury car, I wouldn’t go so far. In fact, I can’t conceive of ever requiring the level of performance achieved by the Mac Pro. It’s not designed for me or most of you. Indeed, if someone offered me the equivalent of $60,000 in purchasing power, I’d get a more affordable car, say for up to $35,000, and allocate the rest for my dream collection of Apple gear, the one described above.
Of course, there have been demands, or requests, for Apple to deliver cheaper gear. But as has been said many many times by many analysts and journalists, there’s no profit in commodity gear. Apple has carved out for itself a profitable market niche.
There’s nothing wrong with that. If you don’t want to pay the price — or settle for a refurbished or used Apple product — there are plenty of alternatives if you are prepared to desert the macOS, iOS, iPadOS and watchOS.
SECOND TIME IS A…
Unlike my previous columns, this article has taken more than a month to write. But it’s not because of fine-tuning the prose. It’s more about events that hadn’t yet reached a successful conclusion.
But let me start at the beginning…
Once upon a time, I would buy a brand new Mac every other year or so. Beginning in the mid-1990s, I added a PowerBook to the mix. In order to help finance the purchase, I would routinely sell my old hardware, and even in the dog days of Apple’s existence, they held their value pretty well.
That was then, this is now. I no longer see the value in upgrading so frequently. Most of the time, the new model is only slightly different — and slightly faster — than its predecessor. I also think of all the money I save by keeping 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro and a 2014 27-inch Retina iMac. When I had a weekly tech radio show, I was even able to trade out radio spots for a new Mac.
These days, I’d have to pay full price (or seek out a small discount), and I’ve grown to appreciate the longevity of Apple gear. Indeed one of the factors hurting sales these days is that people prefer to hang onto their existing devices far longer. So once upon a time, it was common for many people to upgrade to a new smartphone after two years, particularly in the U.S. This was the duration of the usual carrier subsidized deal, after which you could start all over again.
But even after you paid off the device, if you didn’t acquire a new one from the carrier, you’d still pay the same amount. Not such a good deal!
Now customers do buy their gear outright, so there is no compelling reason to replace it so long as it continues to operate. Indeed, with the end of subsidy deals in the U.S., largely because of T-Mobile’s “Un-Carrier” promotion that started in 2013, there are other ways to acquire your device without a big upfront payment. Indeed, some of those plans, such as AT&T Next, allow you to upgrade every year or every two years; you just have to return the old unit after receiving its replacement. Oh, and, typical of leases, you pay the sales tax up front for your fancy new iPhone.
Despite the alternative facts spewed by some cyberbullies, I do not continue to boast about all the brand new gadgets I have. As I wrote in the last issue, my wife has an iPhone 6S, circa 2015, and an iPad Air 2, circa 2014. She isn’t asking about the new models even though she’s not so pleased with the sound quality of her iPad’s speakers..
As you probably know, my MacBook Pro is stuck with maOS High Sierra, 13.3. Fitted with a 500GB SSD some years ago, it is fast enough in handling files, but its Geekbench scores are about a third of what current models can deliver.
It doesn’t sound very promising, but it does get the job done, since so much activity on your Mac is drive-related. Well, such actions as converting an AIFF audio file to MP3 take twice as long as on my iMac, but that’s still acceptable.
But I had to use it as my sole computer for a week recently when the iMac’s hard drive failed. It wasn’t a hard failure at first, just random bouts of spinning cursors, and some performance glitches. But one day, after a restart, it never made it past the startup process.
I couldn’t even get it to start from an external clone backup drive, because the system froze trying to load the internal disk. Apple’s built-in hardware test, however, reported that everything was working, but it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as an Apple repair person would run. I still suspected the hard drive.
After nearly five years of heavy use, it made perfect sense.
Now the current iMac form factor, which debuted in 2012, is, as many of you know, extremely hostile to home tinkerers. While RAM upgrades are quick, replacing anything else inside requires removing the display. The prior version required suction cups and care, but it was a workable process. But in its endless quest for thinner, at least at the edges, Apple’s designers opted to seal the display to the chassis with adhesive strips.
Yes, it’s possible to remove it, and you can even buy new adhesive to seal the unit, but enough was enough. Knowing I’d have to pay the piper for this one, I redirected some cash for less-urgent bills. I took the iMac to an Apple Genius at the nearest Apple Store, located in the Santan Village shopping center in Gilbert, AZ.
The “Genius” ran a more extended hardware test, and it came out OK, but he then ran a test that exercised the hard drive. Within a few minutes, the truth was displayed on the screen. Yes, the drive had failed.
Since it was part of a Fusion drive configuration, the hard drive was maybe twice as expensive as a plain old internal drive. But it was still much cheaper than an internal SSD of similar size. Performance would be noticeably faster than the Fusion Drive, which uses a small SSD for the system and frequently used apps and documents, and the hard drive for the rest. Unless you work with positively huge files, it’s good enough.
I told the Genius that I needed to think about my options for a few minutes, so he went to serve another customer while I pondered my situation. I contacted two authorized independent dealers to get a quote, figuring it should be cheaper.
But it wasn’t, by a long shot. Labor charges were between $125-$150, depending on whether the replacement adhesive strips were part of the price. But Apple exacts a flat rate of $79 plus parts. No wonder independent service shops are complaining.
So you can see which choice I made.
Unfortunately, I had to wait a week for the repair. The store didn’t have replacement drives in stock, and had to order one. They were able to check the inventories of other dealers, and the nearest one that had them in stock was located in Tucson, over 100 miles away. And Apple evidently doesn’t exchange parts with other dealers, well at least one that far away, so I gave the go ahead.
Since I haven’t done much traveling in the last few years, that MacBook Pro hadn’t been used very much. When arriving at the home office, I took it out, and plugged in the accessories that I used on the iMac, including the clone drive. I didn’t connect the Time Machine backup drive, because I wanted to keep the files intact when restoring the repaired iMac.
I also had to download and install the last updates to High Sierra, and then install some apps.
Fortunately, most of the ones I use, including Audio Hijack, were fully compatible with 10.13.
The one good sign: The Levelator, a key utility I use for post-production, actually ran perfectly. On my iMac, running macOS Catalina, I had to run it from a Parallels Desktop Windows installation.
Overall, it took a few hours to fine-tune the setup for my workflow. I was able to manage with the smaller display and fuzzier text; the Retina MacBook Pro didn’t arrive until 2012.
After a week, and on schedule, Apple called me to tell me my iMac was ready. The unit was give an extensive test after the installation, and passed with flying colors. They also cleaned up the smudges on the screen, and vacuumed the dust from the interior. Per my request, the new drive came with Catalina preinstalled. Since I had multiple backups, it wasn’t necessary for Apple to waste time attempting to recover data from the broken drive.
Aside from the differences in the port layout between this iMac and the latest model, it otherwise looked identical.
With fingers crossed, I ran through the startup, and selected a Time Machine backup to transfer my files. It may just be that the external 2TB Toshiba drive was very slow, but it took nearly 10 hours to migrate my stuff.
For a few days, everything was all right, until a similar problem appeared. I was able to restart, but it ran dog slow.
So it was back to the Genius Bar on a rush basis. But rush to them meant a nearly one-hour wait since no appointments were available until the following day.
This time the diagnosis runs reported a defective SATA cable, so I turned it in for repair.
My request for a “rush repair” reduced the wait time by two days; so much for rushing. When I was notified that the iMac was ready to pick up, the repair person who called told me that they also had to replace the other half of the Fusion drive, the flash drive, in addition to the cable. Well at least they didn’t charge me for labor.
Yes, I did ask the obvious question: Is it possible that the entire problem was caused by the failure of the cable and the flash drive, that there was nothing wrong with the hard drive? They insisted it wasn’t. Even more curious is the fact that my iMac was supposedly given a thorough test after the first repair, and no problems appeared.
But the excitement didn’t end there. When I got my iMac back, I discovered that they had it loaded with macOS Mojave, against my instructions to use Catalina. As a precaution, I wiped the drive, and used the Internet Recovery feature to get the latest version of Catalina to install, after which I restored my data from a cloned hard drive.
When I called to complain, the repair people gave me some gibberish as to why they felt I was running Mohave. They got it right on the first repair, so I assume they just screwed up but wouldn’t admit it.
So far, my iMac appears to be working normally, but I not happy with Apple. There is no excuse for their failures to get it right the firsts time. It’s not that defective storage devices should be difficult to diagnose. All told, I lost use of my iMac for 12 days between two repairs, and spent hours more doing my own troubleshooting before bringing it in for Apple to each repair.
Now that the storage system is brand new, I hope I’ll be free of hardware problems for another couple of years. Wish me luck.
Juice Jacking, apparently, is a real thing. But at this point it doesn’t sound like it’s a widespread threat. What is it? Well, it involves someone loading malware on public charging stations so that when you plug your phone in via USB, it uploads the malway which might be able to lock your device, or worse - export data and passwords to a scammer. USB, as you may or may not know charges your phone but is also able to upload and download information. Which is exactly what the threat is all about.
LA has warned the public of the threat but when asked by reporters if they knew of any known cases on its books, officials couldn’t come up with any. It really does sound like, while it technically might be possible for someone to hijack your cell phone data in such a way, it’s unlikely to ever happen. After a round of Googling, security researchers across the web do say that they’ve seen proof-of-concepts in regards to such malway, but haven’t yet heard of a working public JuiceJacking prototype.
Finally, the major phones have upgraded protection software to protect against this kind of malware so … again, while it’s possible to get JuiceJacked - you’re probably safe.
That being said, there are a few things you can do to protect your phone:
As most of you know, the next version of macOS is named Catalina, or macOS 10.15. But I wonder how long Apple is going to use the traditional number ten versioning before goes to 11, or somewhere.
No matter. Regardless of the naming scheme, Apple has packed the usual bunch of new features. I suppose the most meaningful for the long-term is Catalyst, which allows for a new range of apps that can run on both iPad and Mac. I suppose it’s possible that this is the first step towards switching Macs to Apple’s brand of A-series ARM processors. It also helps developers build apps for both platforms with, supposedly, some tweaking here and there.
One key goal is to help iOS developers create Mac versions without a lot of time and expense.
Another important change — to some it’ll be the most important— is splitting iTunes into Music, Podcasts and TV apps. Your content libraries for all three remain intact, and the online iTunes store will still be there. If you felt that iTunes had become too bloated, too confusing, the new scheme might be welcome. It basically means that you are running apps that originated on the iPad on your Mac. You get a consistent look and feel on both platforms, minus the interface differences.
Honestly, I don’t really care. I have been using iTunes since the days that Apple acquired SoundJam from Casady & Greene.
So where am I gong with this? So I usually install a macOS beta by this point, but not this time, and it’s frustrating.
Hardware compatibility isn’t the issue, as most any Mac released in the last seven years is compatible, along with the 2013 Mac Pro. That leaves my 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro in the dust, but it hasn’t been supported for a while. It still works quite well, so I’m not about to send it out to pasture. Even that rumored 16-inch MacBook Pro, which may or may not arrive this fall at the earliest, won’t be on my shopping list, largely because of its estimated $3,000 price tag.
But my iMac is fully compatible with Catalina.
My problem is Apple’s decision to finally drop 32-bit support, meaning that many older apps simply won’t launch in Catalina. Even an app that is 64-bit, but maybe has a 32-bit help feature, won’t launch. Apple has been heralding the arrival of this change by putting up messages that 32-bit apps were not “optimized” for a Mac when such an app was opened for the first time.
For the most part, it’ll probably make little difference for most Mac users. If an app is still being developed, a Catalina-savvy version will probably be released, and maybe it’s already there. But there are apps that won’t be updated, perhaps because the developer is no longer in business or working on the product.
So here’s my ongoing road towards 64-bit, and I still have a couple of problems.
It means I finally have to dispense with Adobe Creative Suite 5.5.
I have avoided subscribing to Adobe’s Creative Cloud partly because I don’t want to add another monthly bill, and I am no fan of the “pay forever” marketing scheme. For individuals it’s $9.99 for a Photography package that includes Lightroom and Photoshop. Any other single app is $20.99 per month; the full app suite is $52.99 per month.
Now Creative Suite 5.5 is not just 32-bit, but requires a now-obsolete version of Java to launch. I’m trying out Affinity Photo and Pixelmator to see if either, or both, can offer the features I need from Photoshop. So far it’s promising.
But I’ve yet to resolve the audio question. As part of my production workflow for The Paracast, I use The Levelator, from The Conversations Network. As the title implies, it fixes level differences in an audio file, a sort of normalize on steroids. It is designed for drag and drop use.
Our network, GCN, requires 12 separate files for a single episode. But our premium ad-free version for The Paracast+, is combined into a single file courtesy of a scripting app, Stitch, which is supplied as part of the Monbots package offered by Felt Tip, publishers of Sound Studio.
These apps are 32-bit. As far a upgrading to Catalina is concerned, they are the deal breakers.
Now there are other ways, free or low-cost, to combine files in a single batch operation. Felt Tip is also working on a solution, but The Levelator is another story.
Audio apps do have a normalize function, which provides a consistent gain to an audio file. But that feature is nowhere near as powerful as The Levelator. It’s near-perfect, broadcast quality, though it doesn’t do anything to help with background noise.
There are automatic gain control (AGC) plugins that promise to achieve a result similar to The Levelator. But the most promising ones aren’t free. Some podcasters recommend Auphonic, an online audio processing service that optimizes levels, noise and other settings. Auphonic will process up to two hours of files per month free. For more hours, prices range from $11 per month for nine hours to $89 for 100 hours.
As a test, I took a particularly noisy episode of our premium podcast, After The Paracast, and gave it the Auphonic treatment. The process involves uploading to their servers, and when it’s ready, you download the “fixed” version,
I tried two levels of noise reduction, the default(“Auto”), and “High.” The end results were no different from what I could achieve myself with The Levelator and the noise reduction or Denoising feature in another audio editing app, Amadeus Pro. The process involves sampling the noise content (say during a pause between sentences) and basing its fixer-upper algorithm on it.
There is hope for users of The Levelator, however. I was recently informed by someone from The Conversations Network that a true 64-bit person may be possible, and I’m awaiting an update. Obviously lots of people need this app, and I wouldn’t mind paying a small sum to help them keep it going.
Until or unless my audio processing dilemma is resolved, Catalina remains on the back burner.
Update: A support person from Auphonic wrote that the corrected audio file was what they expected considering the issues. But it hardly makes sense to pay for a service that I can largely duplicate myself — well, if The Levelator is updated, or I find an affordable plugin to replace it.
In the scheme of things, not using a new macOS version is not so big a deal. The new features are nice — and I suppose I’ll get used to having to launch three apps to duplicate the functions of iTunes, since I do it now on my iPhone. Catalina will no doubt be faster and more reliable, since that’s been the direction Apple has taken in recent years with mixed results.
But if I never upgrade to Catalina, I won’t lose any sleep over it.
This column has been stewing for a while, and a number of things have changed. The most important, from my standpoint, is the fact that, after a year of living in cheap motels, we are back in an apartment. I have a home office area once again, rather than a single table that barely contains my stuff.
I’ve also been doing a lot of work to boost the business. The Paracast has a staff now, not just a cohost. We are all working to build the show, spread our coverage in unexpected ways, and enhance the premium subscription version, The Paracast+.
At the same time, it is time to retire The Tech Night Owl LIVE.
The show debuted in the fall of 2002 as one of the early online broadcasts. In those days, we were part of MacRadio, an alternative network. When Apple premiered its podcasts repository, I made the move alone, because the rest of the MacRadio hosts were slow to make the change. I left the network shortly thereafter; it folded a year or two later.
As I’ll explain more in the next column, Apple, Inc. is clearly no longer a counter-culture company, and a counter-culture radio show is hardly necessary. As Apple transitioned to become a consumer electronics powerhouse, with hundreds of millions of users worldwide, the Mac press slimmed. Macworld gave up a print edition in favor of a digital one, but most readers confine themselves, I suspect, to the free site.
MacLife? I’m not sure. It is evidently still available in a print edition, but I no longer receive copies in the mail. I found a Facebook page offering a subscriptions of 5 issues for $5, but the link to which it points only offers higher-priced alternatives. The site is just a sales portal; there is no access to any online content other than to sign up for a newsletter.
Now that Apple is a mainstream company, with plenty of coverage in the mainstream and tech media, counter-culture tech radio seems superfluous. So I’ve decided to focus my attention to boost The Paracast. which is, I suppose, another form of counter-culture show. But I won’t be giving up on tech. The Paracast will also feature futurists and other guests discussing advanced technology.
This column will continue on a periodic basis. There’s still plenty to discuss.
Meantime, we wrapped The Tech Night Owl LIVE with the July 6th episode, which is still available to download along with an archive of hundreds of episodes.
For the last show, we gathered some of our favorite guests to reminisce and talk about the present and the near-future of our favorite fruit company, Apple Inc. It all began with the early days of the Internet, its complexities, and Apple’s path from Macintosh to iPod, to its most lucrative product, the iPhone, followed by the iPad, Apple Watch and beyond. There was also an extensive discussion about the prospects for the success of Apple’s fledgling services, which include News+, a premium version of the app offering access to hundreds of magazines and newspapers, and Apple TV+, in which the company is spending billions of dollars to hire top-flight talent to create original TV shows. Where does Apple+ fit in market currently owned by Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and other streaming services? Are there already too many for a newcomer to succeed?
Guests for this very special episode included tech commentator and publisher Adam Engst, Editor and Publisher of TidBITS, outspoken veteran tech commentator Peter Cohen, and cutting-edge commentator and podcaster Kirk McElhearn.
Please Note: Subscribers to The Tech Night Owl+ will be contacted personally about the status of their subscriptions.
On this week’s episode of that other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Randall present the ever-prolific Fortean author, Nick Redfern, to discuss his very latest book, ” Flying Saucers from the Kremlin: UFOs, Russian Meddling, Soviet Spies & Cold War Secrets.” The book presents a compelling case for deep Russian involvement in the UFO field, which may have included recruiting those infamous contactees of the 1950s to become spies, fabricating the MJ-12 documents, feeding faux claims of alien visitation and more. Is it possible that, in addition with meddling with U.S. elections, the Russians are still involved in spreading UFO disinformation? Nick Redfern is the author of more than 40 books covering UFOs and other paranormal events. He’s been featured on a number of radio and TV shows, and is a frequent guest on The Paracast.
Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis
First some history: After using a Mac for several years at the office, I installed my first home system in 1989; yes 30 years ago. And boy was it expensive!
The price tag came to over $14,000, which adds up to over $28,000 in 2019 dollars. In other words, in the neighborhood of a well-equipped version of the Mac Pro that Apple premiered during the June WWDC, and a midsized car. Thank the stars for a low-cost lease.
But my first Mac was no high-end model. The setup consisted of a IIcx, a “junior” version of the Macintosh IIx, a 14-inch Apple color display, an Apple LaserWriter II NT and a collection of productivity software that included FileMaker, Microsoft Word and QuarkXPress. I attempted to duplicate the essence of my office environment so I could begin to work at home.
When I tried to buy more software for my brand new computer, I was treated as an oddball at local stores. If they had any Mac titles at all, they were consigned to dusty shelves at the rear; more often than not they were outdated versions. I soon learned that the best source was an online retailer, such as MacWarehouse. That dealer, by the way, has long since been absorbed into CDW.
Apple’s strategic mistakes over the next few years didn’t help. By the end of 1996, with efforts to build a state-of-the-art operating system floundering and sales tanking, the company made its smartest move, which was to acquire Steve Jobs’ NeXT.
While it once sold hardware, the NeXTSTEP operating system was its remaining product. Built on a tried-and-true Unix core, with platform independence, it seemed to be the ideal candidate to resolve Apple’s OS dilemma. And there was always the prospect of Steve Jobs returning to the company that he co-founded.
As most of you know, however, a working version of what became macOS X didn’t premiere until the fall of 2000, and then only as a public beta, retailing for $29.99. The “real” release came in March of 2001, but it was still basically unfinished. Fortunately, you could still use Mac OS 9 to get some real work done.
Each year Apple improved the beast. In 2006, Apple moved to Intel CPUs, after IBM and Motorola failed to deliver the PowerPC CPU upgrades needed to boost performance and support notebooks without huge cooling systems.
But the real changes in Apple began in 2001, with the release of what appeared to be an outlier, a hobby gadget known as the iPod. It was all about having 1,000 songs in your pocket! When iTunes expanded to Windows, things really took off, and Apple was never quite the same.
In 2007, the release of the “ultimate” iPod, the iPhone cemented Apple’s conversion to mainstream status.
At one time, IBM was the “enemy” when it came to a personal computer. These days, IBM employees can choose the gear they want, and tens of thousands of them have selected Macs, iPhones and iPads. Surveys have shown what we knew for years, that the Mac is easier and cheaper to maintain despite a higher purchase price.
Even the Apple Watch, considered a costly wearable, has become more popular than I ever expected. In my travels, I have seen cashiers at convenience stores and supermarkets — earning salaries not much higher than minimum wage — wearing an Apple Watch. Some even have the more expensive Series 4 with built-in cellular capability.
The Apple Watch is at the top of the heap when it comes to wearables and wristwatches, for that matter.
Despite its undeniable attractions, I’ve held off buying one. So I am still wearing the $12.88 stainless steel calendar watch that I bought from Walmart several years ago. Other than a couple of battery replacements, it works just great. Sure, it runs slightly fast, so I have to adjust the time every month; the calendar is brain-dead to months shorter than 31 days.
Apple is mainstream in other ways. CEO Tim Cook is regularly interviewed. He’s even personally lobbied with the President of the United States to get favorable consideration in the trade war with China. So your iPhone still doesn’t cost any more as a result, although that could change due to the acts of a certain mercurial chief executive.
It’s not that Apple doesn’t have a bunch of critics who attack its every move. But their arguments are old news; let’s call them fake news. Every new product represents the wrong direction, and is destined to fail bigly (don’t you hate that word?). The departure of chief designer Jonathan Ive means death to the company, as if he and only he did all the work, including developing the operating systems. Can you imagine Ive managing the iPhone production lines in China?
Facts don’t matter.
Nevertheless The Night Owl Persists
In the meantime, as with the radio show, I see that I’m probably destined to repeat myself if I stick with daily columns. I can take a 10-year-old column, change a few lines and product names, and present it as something new. That’s no way to be creative and to cover the present and future of personal technology.
Even though I have put The Tech Night Owl LIVE to bed, I will continue to speak out in these columns when the need arises, when there are significant new developments to report. And I’m still keeping up to date on things.
As I write this, I’m running the latest iOS 13 beta on my iPhone. I use it for work, both email and phone calls; I knew I am taking a chance. But if things go bad, I can always restore it to the last release version of iOS and my current backup. I have little to lose except maybe an hour or so, but so far I haven’t had reason to regret my decision. The things I need to work, largely email, the phone, Safari and the Lyft and Uber ride-sharing apps, all function normally.
At the same time, I am avoiding the macOS Catalina betas because it will no longer support apps that are all or partly 32-bit. My vintage version of Adobe Photoshop won’t run, nor will a clever utility, The Levelator, which offers a normalize function on steroids for audio files. A single drag-and-drop pass delivers an output file that reduces levels that are too high and boosts levels that are too low. It delivers broadcast-ready content with ease.
While I can buy a Creative Cloud license for Photoshop, finding a cheap or no-cost replacement for the latter has been difficult. I have urged the publishers of Audio Hijack, which we use to capture audio from an outboard mixer and Skype for the radio shows, to consider acquiring or replacing The Levelator with a 64-bit version. The original developer, the Conversations Network, has abandoned the project.
There are other possible replacements to explore, but I’ve yet to locate a suitable option yet that works in much the same way. One option recommended by other hosts out there is an online solution, Auphonic, an audio and video processing service. Auphonic doesn’t just optimize levels, but reduces noise levels and makes other enhancements. To use the service, you have to upload the file to their servers for processing and retrieve it when the job is done. It also means that you have to pay a monthly fee for anything longer than the free two hours of audio that’s provided each month.
To sign up with Auphonic for The Paracast and the supplementary Paracast+ show, After The Paracast, we’d need the 21-hour package, at $23 per month; there are no rollover minutes. I am not happy with adding another bill, even a small one. I will, however, test a single file of less than two hours to compare it to The Levelator.
I’m just a microcosm here: Many of you will have to judge your needs, and your dependence on 32-bit apps, before deciding whether to upgrade to Catalina. Even though Apple has been warning you about apps not optimized for macOS for a while now, that means nothing if you can’t upgrade to a newer version that supports 64-bit. You may be forced to search for an alternative, if there is one.
So much for Catalina, at least for now.
But drastic changes are nothing new for Apple. After moving to Intel CPUs, Apple provided an emulation component, Rosetta, to allow you to use PowerPC apps. That feature was dumped beginning with OS X Lion. Either replace incompatible apps, or don’t install the upgrade.
After apparently losing interest in the Mac for a while, regular updates have resumed. But major model refreshes, such as the MacBook Pro, come with higher prices. The long-delayed Mac Pro upgrade, which will start at $5,999 when it arrives later this year, can be optioned to a point where the price may exceed $35,000. In other words, similar to entry level models of a BMW 3 series automobile, or a Tesla Model 3.
In other words, it’s not dissimilar to what a top-of-the-line Macintosh Iix cost 30 years ago when you allow for inflation. And, no, I’m not signing up.
Despite Apple’s mainstream status, I remain curious about what it’s up to. I still use Apple gear, but I hardly see the need for daily columns anymore. Still, when something of interest, at least to me, develops, you’ll hear from me. You can depend on it!
We’re living in the future, for sure.
Why do I say that, you ask? Well, a few scientists have recently discovered that, in a galaxy, far, far away...something is sending radio waves our direction. Now, before you get excited at the thought of visitors from benevolent galaxies, or terrified that green tentacled horrors are invading, be aware that the “something,” I just mentioned - is probably "nothing." In fact, GCN's very own paranormal phenomenon radio program, "The Paracast," (host: Gene Steinberg) brings all this up in the opening of their most recent program, which you can find here.
And now, I would like to mention that when I wrote “nothing," up above, I did not mean “absolutely nothing,” just - probably, not aliens. The most likely theory being tossed around is that the radio signals are created by, “astrological phenomenon.” Editor's note: Which, thanks, by the way, Scientist Folks - because "astrological phenomenon" tells us absolutely nothing at all! The phrase could literally mean "anything happening out in space!" (But, in this case, probably means something like - a black hole).
Anyway, this is not the first time radio waves have been discovered heading our direction. In the way back time of 2007 (before there was even an iPad!) an astrophysicist at Australia's Parkes Observatory was analyzing data from 2001 and discovered radio bursts. Movie pun not intended. That’s actually when it happened. Of course, astronomers of the day were skeptical and most thought it was just "interference;" but he published his findings and has since been proven accurate. And now we have multiple “fast radio bursts” on record but the 2007 case, and now a brand new one uncovered a few days-have something unique in common - a repeating signal.
Now, to my understanding (which, is limited to some very recent Googling, lots of wiki reading and some science journal perusing) the 2001 burst had a “single repeating fast radio burst.” The Jan. 9th, 2019 discovery has - six repeat bursts. Which as far as I understand, is extremely unusual to find that many repeating bursts occurring naturally; and while it certainly does not prove the existence of our beloved masters and eventual overlords … errr, I mean, aliens … it is still cool.
“The discovery of a repeating fast radio burst (FRB) source. 1,2, FRB 121102, eliminated models involving cataclysmic events for this source. No other repeating FRB has hitherto been detected despite many recent discoveries and follow-ups. 3–5, suggesting that repeaters may be rare in the FRB population. Here we report the detection of six repeat bursts from FRB 180814.J0422+73, one of the 13 FRBs detected. 6 by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) FRB project7 during its pre-commissioning phase in July and August 2018. These repeat bursts are consistent with originating from a single position on the sky, with the same dispersion measure, about 189 pc cm−3. This traces approximately twice the expected Milky Way column density, and implies an upper limit on the source redshift of 0.1, at least a factor of about 2 closer than FRB 1211028. In some of the repeat bursts, we observe sub-pulse frequency structure, drifting, and spectral variation reminiscent of that seen in FRB 1211029,10, suggesting similar emission mechanisms and/or propagation effects. This second repeater, found among the first few CHIME/FRB discoveries, suggests that there exists—and that CHIME/FRB and other wide-field, sensitive radio telescopes will find—a substantial population of repeating FRBs.”
If you’re a gamer you are already well versed in Twitch and know the name Ninja like the back of your hand, but for most folks, mentioning either will make them say, “What, who?” and “Ninja’s are cool.”
Well, I mean - obviously that’s what they’d say because ninjas are cool (and by cool I mean, totally sweet!). And also, because - Ninja’s have real ultimate power!
But I digress.
So, what is exactly is Twitch and how does one make $10 million dollars on it?
Well, according to Wikipedia:
“Twitch is a live streaming video platform owned by Twitch Interactive, a subsidiary of Amazon. Introduced in June 2011 as a spin-off of the general-interest streaming platform, Justin.tv, the site primarily focuses on video game live streaming, including broadcasts of eSports competitions, in addition to music broadcasts, creative content, and more recently, "in real life" streams. Content on the site can be viewed either live or via video on demand.”
Um, okay. But where exactly did this Twitch thing come from?
Well, Justin.tv used to be a site where anyone could broadcast a video about … well, whatever they wanted. They idea was supposed to be - broadcast about life. And people did. And Justintv kept adding new content, eventually expanding and including all the good and bad content you can expect when you allow anyone to broadcast anything they want. Then, in 2011 Justintv added a “broadcast about your gaming experience” section, called - Twitch.
And Twitch was popular. I mean, hugely, mind bendingly popular. Far more popular than anything else on Justintv. Suddenly, Justintv exploded upwards of 45 million unique monthly viewers. The company saw opportunity and rebranded as Twitch Interactive and most of (if not all of) the content outside gaming - was shut down.
And then, megacorporation Amazon snapped up Twitch Interactive for a measly $970 million. Now, Twitch has about 27 thousand partner channels, approx. 2.5 million broadcasters, approx. 15 million daily users with about 100 million monthly viewers.
Which means it was probably a $1 billion dollars well spent.
Okay. But how does it work?
Well, you or me, or anyone - create an account on Twitch and then you play games and stream them online. And Twitch broadcasts the game. Live. And folks can watch. And then folks can choose to give you money - so you play more games. Online. So that folk can watch. And give you more money. So you can play more games. Online. On Twitch. So folks can watch. And give you more money. So you can play more games. Online - you know what? I think you see where this is going.
Basically, Twitch provides the platform for you to stream games online. And if you’re good enough, or entertaining enough, or cute enough - you can build an audience. And your audiences pays you. Or not.
And you become a success. Or not.
But that’s how you make money (or not). And Ninja (Tyler Blevins) just happens to be the number one earner on Twitch. At one point Ninja had almost 250 thousand subscribers to his Twitch account. Most of which paid him $5. To watch him play games. Some quick math tells me - that’s $1,250,000. After Amazon and Twitch took their fee Ninja still cleared over $800,000.
He’s so popular- he has advertisers. Lots of them. He has merchandise. Lots of it. And he’s sponsored by Red Bull. He’s Red Bull’s official gamer.
Now, Ninja is an extreme example. Not everyone is as popular, or makes as much money as Ninja. But still. There is actually a thing now, that’s out there where you, or me, or your kid - can make $$ - by playing video games. And, I kind of love that.
And that's not ALL because of Twitch. But it mostly is.
From their website:
“Welcome to Twitch. We are a global community of millions who come together each day to create their own entertainment: unique, live, unpredictable, never-to-be repeated experiences created by the magical interactions of the many. With chat built into every stream, you don’t just watch on Twitch, you’re a part of the show.”
For the very first time in 19 years, I’ve been on hiatus for a while, with only occasional update to this site. I’ve also been going through a painful period of financial instability, which has certainly put a damper on my creative process.
At the same time, the rush of news from Apple hasn’t been nearly as frequent or interesting as it used to be, and repeating the old tropes about tech pundits attacking the company for the usual bogus reasons has become boring.
In this week’s main column, below, I also wonder for the first time about Apple at last becoming a “normal” company, in which its new products may not seem so exciting and innovative as they used to be. But I’ll get to that and its ramifications shortly.
In the meantime, I am working on lots of new articles, including a review of the Beats Studio 3 Wireless headset that debuted last month. I have always been a reluctant headphone user, even going back to the days when I worked in a traditional radio station studio. With its emphasis on style and comfort, I have high hopes for the new Beats gear, and I was able to get a review sample from the manufacturer.
Is the new Beats bass-heavy, as older models were supposed to be? Is it worth its $349 purchase price, the same range as the equivalent Bose Quiet Comfort? I’ll let you know soon.
That takes us to this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, in which we presented a special holiday season segment, featuring security guru Scott Nusbaum, senior incident response at TrustedSec (a white hat hacking firm). Its main focus was a frightening new risk to online shoppers called “formgrabbing.” Nusbaum also explained what this means when you place an order, and how online criminals can gather your personal information, such as your address and credit card numbers and use them to steal your money. Are there ways to protect yourself from this threat? Nusbaum covered the whole gamut of online shopping dangers and how to navigate through the troubled waters.
In a special encore segment, you also heard from commentator/podcaster Peter Cohen, who focused on “Right to Repair” and the upsides and downsides. Peter offered his personal experiences as the employee of an authorized Apple dealer and how it influenced his opinion about whether Apple and other companies need to allow more repair freedom. There was also a brief discussion about the concept of states’ rights and how it affects customers where such laws vary from state to state. The discussion also covered the HomePod and its possible value as a smart speaker. Both Gene and Peter explained, at length, why a HomePod is still not on their shopping lists, and whether Apple could sell more copies if it loosened its dependence on Apple’s ecosystem when it comes to being able to listen to your stuff.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Randall present long-time UFO researcher and author Jerome Clark, who will discuss the third edition of his multivolume magnum opus, “The UFO Encyclopedia.” You’ll learn about the new material, the conclusions that were altered as the result of new research, particularly the Roswell UFO crash and how the case stands after all these years. Indeed, is any reported UFO crash credible? Randall and Jerry also debate the “experience anomaly,” and its impact on certain cases, such as abductions. Are all UFOs physical craft, or are other forces at work here? Jerry is also a songwriter whose music has been recorded or performed by musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Tom T. Hall.
Has Apple become an old, boring company?
Our image of Apple, Inc. has long been that of a maverick company that defies the conventional wisdom and goes its own way. Here’s to the “crazy ones” indeed!
In the old days, the most famous example was the Macintosh personal computer. Where computers in the early days used an arcane text-based interface, paying lip service to color displays, Apple provided a graphic user interface designed to make it warm and fuzzy even to people who couldn’t adapt to the traditional PC.
Steve Jobs always envisioned the Mac as a computing appliance, and the original model actually offered no way for you to do any upgrades to memory and other components. In passing, the Apple of 2018 has mostly reverted to this concept, and what you buy is as upgradeable as your toaster oven. Period!
But Apple really attained prominence with the original iPhone that, in a few years, became the company’s best-selling product. Indeed, its success gave the more critical pundits ammunition to claim that, if iPhone sales declined — and nothing is forever — the company would be in deep trouble.
Each year, the iPhone received upgrades. Even when the new model seemed little different from its predecessor, at least externally, there were plenty of changes inside. Consider the iPhone 5s, which for all practical purposes wasn’t distinguishable from the iPhone 5. But in addition to faster performance and a better camera, it provided the first iteration of Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor.
If you examine the spec sheets year-over-year, lots of innovative engineering is present. Unlike all other smartphone makers, save for Samsung, Apple designs its own CPUs and, since last year, its own graphics hardware. The proof is in the pudding, as the latest “X” series iPhones tout performance that is in the range of the more powerful notebook computers. The latest iPad Pro promises graphics performance at the Xbox level.
At the same time, the annual double-digit growth of the iPhone is long ago and far away. Except for the poorest third-world countries, most anyone who wants or needs a smartphone has one. So most units sold are replacements, and Apple builds reliable gear and supports it with OS upgrades for several years, which slows the upgrade cycle.
Shorn of the new features, an iPhone 6, running iOS 12, can deliver credible performance that should satisfy most people except for those who require instant response, a better camera, and superior displays. Some features, such as 3D Touch, essentially went nowhere and isn’t even present on the iPhone XR.
Knowing that sales have flattened, Apple has devised other ways to boost revenue, beginning with the $999 iPhone X last year. For 2018, the iPhone XS Max begins at $1,099, and the price goes up fast if you choose larger storage options.
Even though Apple was criticized for ignoring the Mac in recent years, the very newest models are more expensive even as PC makers continue to rush towards the bottom in pricing their hardware. The presence of the controversial Touch Bar meant an increase of several hundred dollars for recent MacBook Pros.
After four years, Apple introduced a new, more powerful Mac mini, but the base price increased from $499 to $799. If you click Customize on Apple’s ordering page, you can increase the price to $4,199, and that’s before you acquire a keyboard, input device and display.
The professional grade iMac Pro starts at $4,999 and maxes out at $13,348 before you get to a VESA mounting kit. Heaven knows what the promised Mac Pro replacement will cost when optioned to the hilt.
This is not to say these prices are too high. When you compare the prices of Apple gear to direct PC competition, it is usually quite competitive. Apple just doesn’t play in the low end of the market.
The new iPad Pros are also more expensive too and so is the Apple Watch Series 4.
What this means is that the average sale price has gone up. So despite the complaints, it’s clear that millions of customers are happy to pay a higher price for a premium product. At the same time, Apple is offering services, such as Apple Music and iCloud, for which you pay monthly fees. The fastest growing segment of Apple’s business is, in fact, services.
Apple realizes that it can earn a lot more money from every satisfied customer.
But has it reached the point where these products have become so sophisticated that most users will never, ever use the new features? As I watched Apple’s Keynote slide shows listing the features of its newest gear at the iPad/Mac event in October, it started to become a blur. Dozens of amazing features, state-of-the-art performance, but how much did it mean for all but a tiny percentage of professionals?
It had a same old same old feel. A slick production, enticing videos to demonstrate the new capabilities and the amazing engineering, and boasting about what you can do with these machines.
This isn’t to say that smartphones, smartwatches, tablets and personal computers are good enough and there’s no need to improve them. As I said, the price of admission is no doubt worth it. By charging more money, and boosting services, Apple earns more revenue. Unit sales don’t matter so much, which is why it joined other companies in no longer revealing them in the quarterly financial reports.
Slick, professional, but is the excitement gone? Has a middle-aged Apple become just another boring multinational corporation? It’s a tricky question no doubt, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about of late.
To understand what the Apple Store meant to me, let me tell you a personal story. In the 1960s, I had a hobby, building radio and general audio gear. Some of it I bought for myself, others I assembled for friends — at no charge. Well, I was a teenager, living at home. I wasn’t rich, but I had a tape recorder and a radio and a mic, so I was mostly happy.
In those days, I made periodic trips to one of the early consumer electronics stores, Lafayette Radio. After going bankrupt in 1980, its assets ended up in the hands of the company that eventually became Circuit City.
After moving to the Phoenix area in 1993, I shopped occasionally at a local Circuit City, but mostly for CDs. If I wanted a new Mac, I went online and saved money. It’s not that Circuit City didn’t carry Macs. They had some, and I remember visiting the retailer a few years later and seeing a few dusty models placed haphazardly on a single display table off to the rear
somewhere. Most had been left off. The few that were running mostly displayed a Hypercard slide show that didn’t really entice anyone to buy anything.
Besides, the salespeople were busy encouraging you to check out the real center of the action, the PC tables.
I recall a report some time later, about Steve Jobs admonishing Apple dealers to give Macs a fair shake. Make that demanding in very raw language. It was, after all, vintage Steve Jobs.
Apple finally decided to go its own way, by establishing its own retail chain. Jobs recruited former Target retail executive Ron Johnson to help him design the new stores.
When the first two Apple stores had their grand openings in 2001, in Glendale, CA and Tyson’s Corner, VA, the tech pundits were skeptical. Other electronics manufacturers, including Sony and Gateway, launched chains of branded stores, but they really didn’t go anywhere.
In large part, it’s because they were just ordinary retailers, only focused on a single brand. So why go to one when you could get the very same merchandise at the same price — or less — at a store with a far greater selection?
Apple’s approach was to customize your shopping experience with a specialty boutique with what appeared to be a remarkably noncommercial approach to retail sales. For one thing, you weren’t confronted with greedy salespeople trolling for a sale. Indeed, nobody pushed you to buy anything, or even to leave if you just wanted to just hang out.
If you had a problem with your Apple gadget, there was the Genius Bar where you could get advice, or authorized repairs by a factory trained specialist.
As a contributor to the Arizona Republic, and later Gannett and its national newspaper, USA Today, I attended two of the openings in the Phoenix area. At the Chandler, AZ Fashion Center, I met Johnson, then Apple’s retail chief. I also got an Apple Store T-shirt.
I remember the opening ceremony, where the newly-minded employees welcomed customers with loud rounds of applause.
In 2002, I received a VIP invite to attend the grand opening of an Apple Store in New York’s SoHo district. I was part of an exclusive group that included Apple executives, even Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller, fellow tech reporters and a smattering of show business types.
While there, I had a chance to speak with Jobs for a few moments before he pulled his usual stunt to end a conversation, which was to walk away in mid-sentence. But I also spent several minutes speaking with the comic actor Tim Allen, who starred in one of my favorite movies, “Galaxy Quest.”
Recalling that the film ended in a way that a sequel might have been filmed, Allen said that one key factor that hurt the effort was a motorcycle accident that actor Daryl Mitchell, who portrayed the starship’s navigator, suffered the previous year. The mishap left him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite the handicap, by the way, Mitchell has remained active in show business. These days, he’s a featured player in a hit CBS series, “NCIS: New Orleans.”
But there’s still hope for a “Galaxy Quest” revival on Amazon, despite the 2016 death of Alan Rickman, another star of the cult classic.
Now my feelings about the arrival of the Apple Store in the Phoenix area were mixed. Before they arrived, I made a decent income as a Mac consultant. But Apple could provide much of what I offered, at least to people who didn’t mind carrying their gear to the store, at no charge. It didn’t take long for most of my clients to choose the obvious alternative, even when I lowered my hourly rates.
At first I focused on older gear, mostly Macs that were too old for Apple to provide direct support. As my customers grew older, however, that business mostly faded.
Despite my bittersweet feelings about the matter, I do get to an Apple Store from time to time to check out the new gear. Overall, the shopping experience remains mostly good, but the Genius Bar is often overwhelmed, so you have to reserve a session before you pay a visit.
As to Ron Johnson, he finally left Apple and went on to JCPenney to overhaul the shopping experience over there. But it proved to be a poor fit, and Johnson departed after the struggling retailer’s situation only worsened from his attempts to move them upscale. These days he’s connected with Enjoy, a startup that hopes to overhaul the shopping experience.