Carry On Down The Road
By Alex KIDMAN
When I was but a wee nipper, we used to make the trek over the plains from New South Wales to South Australia on quite a regular basis -- and it was boring. Dead boring, with hour after hour of driving, hour after hour of relentless bush heat and only the sounds of complaining to break up the tedium. When, as a kid, I started counting the number of roadside markers and re-setting my count after every thousand, I realised I was truly desperate.
As an adult -- and having this week just done the same trek, something I do with my own kids on a fairly regular basis, I've come to a startling realisation.
It's still pretty darned boring, because, outside of developing warp drive, or speeding -- which isn't recommended, because if you did blow a tyre out there in the middle of nowhere, help is a solid distance away, and the flocks of birds that live out there only do so in order to feast on your tasty pink innards -- there's no way to make an eighteen hour drive any shorter.
That's if you're driving, though. From the back seat view, things are much better than they used to be.
Back when I had much shorter stature and much longer hair, the best we could muster was a portable tape deck that chewed through both tapes and D-cell batteries at a fair rate, and, a little later, an Octopus Game & Watch to keep us happy. I could read (and I did), but books only last so long, and one of my siblings was (and I think still is) prone to terrible carsickness if they read at all. Car trips were therefore long and largely tedious, and I suspect that's what informs my attitudes to long road trips to this day. I'm all about being at point A or point B -- the business of getting between the two really doesn't engage me.
I don't drive a fancy car -- back when my current sedan was brand spanking new, most PCs still ran Windows 3.11 if they were lucky -- but my kids still benefit from all sorts of technology in the car to keep them entertained, and packing it all is part of the routine these days. A handful of iPods, iPads, an in-car DVD player, along with an assortment of books, pencils, and a willingness to play twenty questions, because staring at just a screen will send you a little loopy (and may encourage carsickness). Oh, and at least one Nintendo DS with the Game & Watch Classics cartridge, just so that Octopus still gets played from time to time.
It means the kids are happier with what is still a long and boring drive, and so am I -- it's still long, and it's still boring, but that beats boring along with a hefty dose of "are we there yet" and "I'm bored" from the back seat, which would make it both boring and extremely annoying. Quite how my parents managed this feat on a regular basis without going insane eludes me.
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Hello ...? Can you hear me ...?
Remember good voice quality?
By Ian GRAYSON
I've spent a sizeable proportion of the past week taking part in phone conference calls - for my sins. It was during about the fifth that a thought struck me: when did we forget about voice quality?
With participants dialing in on hands-free devices, via VoIP services, and from mobile phones, the overall audio quality of your average business phone get-together can be pretty scratchy these days.
Network interference, latency, and background noise can often make it challenging to hear what the other party is actually saying. You might be able to connect from just about anywhere, but that doesn't mean that the resulting communication is going to be all that good.
It's as though, despite all the dramatic advances in communications technology during the past five years, we've forgotten all about quality of voice.
When you're involved in a call with multiple parties, it might just be worth reverting to an old, trustworthy desk phone for the duration. Your fellow participants will thank you.
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Is the digital switchover time to switch off?
By Adam TURNER
Is Australia's digital switchover the perfect excuse for us to simply ditch terrestrial TV?
Despite all the talk of a glorious digital future, Australian digital television has turned out to mostly be more of the same. Filling those extra channels has simply meant screening more rubbish. Rubbish which the networks refuse to even start on time and then butcher with intrusive ads and over-the-top promos.
Fans of high-def content have particularly been betrayed by the free-to-air broadcasters who decided that, rather than screening sport in high-def, it makes more sense to run repeats of Gilligan's Island on their HD channels. It's a move that will certainly help Foxtel win over extra subscribers.
I think it's fair to say that many Australians are watching less live television, partly due to the contempt the networks have for viewers and partly because there are so many alternatives at hand. Between optical discs, BitTorrent and the growing range of legit online alternatives, there's very little reason to watch live television these days. A friend of mine bought a new Sony Bravia last year and hasn't even bothered to plug an aerial cable in the back.
I know I'd happily give up live television ahead of any of the other services which are pumped into my home. For now the only thing keeping me with traditional television is the superior picture quality compared to some online services, but that is changing. For starters I'd say the free-to-air digital picture quality has deteriorated in the last few years. Even the Foxtel picture often looks disappointing on some channels, although high-def AFL looks pretty good.
These days a decent BitTorrent or iTunes download often looks better than standard-def digital TV. Movies look far better on DVD/Blu-ray than they do on free-to-air or pay TV. Meanwhile Australia's Catch Up TV services are improving their picture quality. They tend to look better via Smart TV than via a browser and are starting to rival standard-def free-to-air. Unfortunately you get less content via Smart TV than a browser, but that will change with time.
Right now TV broadcasters should be looking to newspapers for a glimpse of the devastation which lies ahead. Viewers will start to switch off if they're not treated with a little respect.
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iOS Podcasts app bypasses iTunes
By Stephen WITHERS
The arrival of the Podcasts app for iOS is another sign that the Mac is no longer the centre of the Apple universe.
Don't get me wrong - I use my iPod mini almost exclusively for listening to podcasts, and I can see why it would be more convenient to download them directly to a device rather than using iTunes as an intermediary. Well, except for the fact that the iPod mini only has 4GB of storage, and I have a lot more than 4GB of material in the queue. I mostly listen to podcast fiction of various kinds, so currency is not an issue.
But Podcasts reportedly makes accommodation for paid podcast subscriptions, and I wouldn't be surprised if that feature appears in a future version of iTunes. Presumably the model will be much the same as for apps, and Apple will take a percentage of the revenue and pay the rest to the podcaster.
We're all aware that 'content providers' from newspaper publishers down to special-interest podcasters and bloggers are struggling to generate sufficient income to justify their time and money investment. Apple does seem to have the process of handling small payments down pat, and many millions of us have iTunes Store accounts.
The other good thing is that podcasters using the iTunes Store to monetise their offerings would have no reason to use MP3 rather than AAC. The latter saves space, and also allows the inclusion of chapter markers which makes it easier to skip over a section that you're not interested in, and - if you're a bedtime listener - easier to find the spot where you fell asleep first time around. There's practically no point in offering a free MP3 version of a podcast alongside paid iTunes subscriptions, as almost everyone would go that way instead.
I'm aware that some people donate to their favourite podcasts, but the impression I get from podcasters is that they are a very small minority. Still, making it easier to pay would presumably raise those numbers.
The downside (from a selfish perspective) is that it may mean that I'll have to decide whether to pay to continue to listen to certain podcasts or find alternatives that remain free. And as we're hearing so often in the context of our two major newspaper publishers' plans for paywalls, it is unlikely that people will pay when there's a free and 'good enough' alternative.
But the more iOS devices are sold and the closer they come to being completely independent of a host computer, the more the Mqc becomes a minority platform within Apple.
Just to ensure this week's piece isn't completely in the realms of Produce and Carry, I'll close with a question: what do you think about the apparent inclusion of an automatic Security Update feature (separate from Software Update) in Mountain Lion? I've got mixed feelings, but if I have to choose, I'll go for prompt patching.
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Is There Anywhere You Can't Buy A Phone?
By Alex KIDMAN
I was browsing through my local computer store -- yes, they do still exist, albeit to a smaller and smaller clientele these days, which is understandable when you realise that nearly everybody's buying non-upgradeable laptops these days rather than desktops that can take individual parts -- when I noticed them.
Row upon row of phone accessories and phones. OK, fair enough, I thought -- I'm in a technology store, and smartphones are just small computers. The logic there is understandable. Given that the number of people who build their own machines is a niche, and that the number that go to a store rather than order online is a smaller sub-niche, I figure they're doing what they can to survive. Having purchased a few parts for the Frankenputer I'm building, I headed out to grab some lunch at the nearby shopping mall.
Only to be hit by more phones. Phones from little stalls in the middle of the mall. Phones from the major telcos -- and for some reason, in my local mall, the Virgin, Optus and Vodafone stores essentially stare each other down from next door and over the way respectively. Just to add a little humour, the middle area has a '3' branded small store. You can't miss the phones there, either.
No phones being openly sold in the food court, although I can spot a small store there and the local Telstra store to boot. Head into Dick Smith… and they'll sell me a phone. Same at JB Hi-Fi, K-Mart or Coles. Hang on… Coles? Who buys a phone along with their lettuce and meat pies?
(Pro tip: Don't combine lettuce and meat pies. Just… don't.)
I've wondered for a while what the figures for those who buy outright versus those who buy on contract are, although anecdotally it appears that as a nation we buy on contract; far too many people don't appreciate the cost of a phone until they destroy or lose it, and suddenly have to pay upfront for a replacement. Those folk aside, do we really need all of these venues for mobile purchasing? Who's keeping all of these businesses afloat, given that we appear to be rapidly approaching the mobile phone sales event horizon?
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