Category Archives: MSFT

Five myths about Apple’s tax avoidance

Tuesday’s hearing on Apple’s tax avoidance schemes made for pretty good Washington, D.C. theater. Apple CEO Tim Cook was friendly and forthcoming and most of the senators went out of their way to proffer their love of Apple products. So I doubt the hearing will help advance the much needed cause of corporate tax reform — probably the opposite. But Cook & Company also left the public with more than a few misconceptions, which I will try to clear up.

MYTH 1: Apple doesn’t owe U.S. taxes on its sales outside of the United States

U.S. tax law is clear. U.S. companies must pay corporate income tax on all profits earned anywhere in the world (here’s a good primer). The same is true for ordinary folk – if you have overseas income, you still owe Uncle Sam. There’s a credit for taxes paid to other countries and, for companies, an option to defer taxation until the money comes home. But the law of the land is U.S. taxation of worldwide income. Of course, the option to defer has long been abused, which leads to the next point.

MYTH 2: Apple is following the spirit of the tax laws

John F. Kennedy must have been rolling over in his grave when Tim Cook uttered this one. When multinational corporations avoided paying income tax by sending profits overseas and using sneaky methods to bring back the cash, President Kennedy pushed Congress to close the loopholes and we ended up with a 1962 law known as “Subpart F.” The very core of the law is to look past corporate shenanigans and tax overseas profits. Sound familiar? That’s exactly what Apple’s various Irish machinations achieved through loopholes that clever lawyers have found in Subpart F and behind-the-scenes lobbying made bigger.

MYTH 3: Apple doesn’t use tax gimmicks

Apple’s testimony on Tuesday claimed the company does not use tax gimmicks and then offered a list of a couple gimmicks it does not use – no Cayman Islands bank account, no revolving loans from foreign subsidiaries and so on. But, surprise, surprise, it’s a limited list that simply left out all of the tax gimmicks Apple does use and even invented, like the so-called Double Irish Dutch sandwich that shifts and shovels products and profits from here to there until deductible expenses end up in places with high tax rates like the United States and much of the profit – $74 billion in four years – ends up where there’s no taxes at all.

Richard Harvey, who worked in Ronald Reagan’s Treasury Department, at a Big 4 accounting firm and then at the IRS, said he nearly fell out of his chair when he read Apple’s no gimmicks claim. Apple’s denial is like notorious bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde saying they never robbed a 7-Eleven or a Safeway. About 4% of Apple’s employees and 1% of it sales are in Ireland but the Emerald Isle somehow ended up with 64% of Apple’s 2011 profits upon which it paid nearly zero tax. No gimmicks?

MYTH 4:  Apple pays the least taxes the law allows

As a couple of tax experts noted at Tuesday’s hearing, Apple’s tax maneuvers are aggressive but hardly the most aggressive in corporate America, where 30 large companies paid no taxes at all from 2008 to 2010. Just as an example, Apple has chosen to re-route almost all its profits outside of the Americas through no-tax subsidiaries in Ireland. But profits coming from Canada, Brazil and Mexico come home to be taxed in the U.S.

The whole argument that Apple is just doing what it must doesn’t stand up. Apple and other tech companies regularly make decisions that cost them money, such as to address poor working conditions at factories owned and run by subcontractors or to make their products more environmentally friendly. A variety of short and long term concerns can come into play when Apple decides what to do, not just what maximizes profits in the current financial quarter. With corporations gaming the tax system, contributing near 65-year lows in taxes as a proportion of the economy, society suffers – the very society where Apple must find its employees, customers and shareholders.

And it’s arguably worse than that specifically for Apple shareholders. As tax guru Ed Kleinbard has pointed out, the kinds of tax games Apple has played can be detrimental to the future prosperity of the company. So much cash has been piled up outside the United States that it cannot be deployed profitably or returned to shareholders through dividends. As a result, Apple is disappointing investors and depressing its stock price (Apple’s recent bond issue was a partial attempt to address this mess).

MYTH 5: Apple was singled out for criticism

Although Tuesday’s hearing was solely about Apple, the same Senate committee had execs from Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft up last September to air their tax avoidance dirty laundry. And two years ago, it was CEOs of the major oil companies under Congressional fire for their most beloved tax breaks. Next time it will probably be some executives from big pharmaceuticals.

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Yikes, Microsoft’s Time Machine clone leaves out tons of important stuff

(Updated to include a way to unhide files and add them to a “library” for backup)

Basically, this post is a warning to anyone using the new File History backup program in Windows 8. The program is severely limited because it will only back up files in a few preset locations that can’t be expanded. If you have almost any third-party program that saves its own data, File History is leaving you exposed. There is a fix, but it takes a little mucking around.

In my case, for example, I have gazillions of email messages stored by the program Postbox. The mail is kept in a huge folder in my personal Windows user folder under PostBox’s own folder in the application data area. None of the stuff that your applications have saved here is backed up by File History — none. And you can’t add it, either.

Update: As several commenters have noted, there is a way to get this data added to the backup set. In the Windows File Explorer, navigate to your personal directory and under the View section of the ribbon bar, click for a check in the box called “hidden files.” Then a folder in your directory called AppData should be exposed. Right click on the folder and choose “Include in library…” and add the folder to one of the libraries which is backed up by File History. Phew!

All that File History will save by default are “files that are in your libraries, contacts, favorites, Microsoft SkyDrive and on your desktop,” according to Microsoft. That is a huge hole, especially if you don’t rely on the My Documents, My Pictures and other “library” folders set up in Windows. Even if you do, third-party programs that store their data exactly where they are supposed to will not benefit from File History unless you use the trick above to add them.

That’s a shame because File History is supposed to be Microsoft’s version of the drop-dead easy to use Apple backup program Time Machine. Both work behind the scenes to back stuff up on an automatic schedule without the user having to remember. And both give quick access to old versions of files within the File Explorer/Finder program. But you can set Time Machine to backup anything from just a few files to your entire disk.

One of these things is not like the other: Apple store, Microsoft store

Boston Apple store I was an hour early for dinner with fabulous wife Whitney Connaughton and friends last Friday so I thought I’d tool around the local Apple store for a bit. The Back Bay Apple store in Boston is a thing of beauty — and it only took two years to get Boston’s historical commission to approve the design.

It’s a typical big format Apple store. I took some cool pictures and got to meet Ron Johnson back in 2008 when it opened. Spinning off the central spiral staircase, the store is spread over three floors with computers mostly the focus on one, iPhones, iPods and accessories on two and training space and more accessories on three. I needed to get Whitney a keyboard for her iPad and selected this lovely one from Logitech. I was surprised to discover that there were no wandering, wireless cashiers in the store. I actually had to go back down to the second floor and wait in line — the horror — to get to a regular register to pay.

One aspect was completely consistent with every other Apple store visit I’ve ever made. Not only were there tons of people in the store, there were tons of people buying stuff — all kinds of stuff — in the store. It’s one of those amazing retail chains like Target, Costco and Whole Foods where there just seems to be something in the air that makes people want to empty their wallets and purses at high speed.

Mission completed, I crossed the street to the Prudential Center mall where I was surprised to see, right at the very center of it all and in the highest foot traffic spot, a brand new Microsoft store. On first glance, it looked just as busy as the Apple store.

Boston Microsoft store

I cruised around the store and noticed a few things right away. Although well staffed and attractive, it was a lot more cramped and harder to move through than any Apple store. Also, the tables featured a wide mix of brands. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but I noticed laptops from Acer, Vizio, Samsung and all-in-one type PCs from Lenovo and HP, I think. Most were running Windows 7 although there were a few computers and tablets running Windows 8 to try — not to buy. They definitely did not have the Lenovo X1 Carbon I have my eye on, however. Phones from Nokia and others were all running older versions of Windows Phone, not the new 8 system.

There were also XBox stations set up at each end of the store and lots of people were playing or watching others play. All of the accessories, like laptop cases and boxed software, were set on shelves at the two ends of the store. Yep, right below the XBox television screens thus requiring a potential customer to get in way of all those people focused on the XBox playing. So the physical layout left a lot to be desired.

But the punchline, of course, was that in the 20 minutes I spent perusing the store I did not see a single person buy anything. Not one thing. Why would that be? I’m open to anyone’s theories. A couple of things occured to me:

  • Lack of consistency: At Apple, distinct areas of each store are dedicated to one thing, such as iPods or laptops. In each area, there’s just a whole bunch of the same machines to play with. The message is pretty clear and there’s not much comparing to be done. At Microsoft, too much was jumbled together and yet everything was split apart. I am in the market for a laptop. Should I go to the table called “laptops,” “ultrabooks” or “entertainment laptops”? And each table had a half dozen compeletly different models each with its own tiny sign filled with tiny print showing the specs.
  • Poor layout: As I mentioned above, everything felt cramped, packed together and in the way of everything else. I went to look at the laptop cases but quickly realized I was blocking the view of some people watching an XBox player on a big screen TV on the wall above where the cases were. Embarrassing. And where would I pay? No idea. It made me feel confused. So cramped, embarrased and confused. Not emotions I associate with a positive buying experience.
  • Mixed branding: People see Apple ads on TV or otherwise decide they want to buy an Apple product. So they head to an Apple store. Makes sense. I see a Samsung ad on TV. Where do I go? Is there a Samsung store? What do they have to do with Microsoft? Is Samsung’s Android phone there? I want a Lenovo laptop running Microsoft Windows. It’s actually not here.

Other thoughts?

p.s. Dinner was at Bin 26 Enoteca, an upscale Italian place on Charles Street near the Boston Common with good food and a ridiculous wine list. Recommended.

Microsoft has great news for retina display Mac users

One of the biggest problems for Mac users wanting to upgrade to a retina display has just been resolved. Microsoft issued version 14.2.4 of its super popular Office suite today expressly to include support for the higher resolution display. That means millions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint users on the Mac can now safely upgrade to a retina display without all of their writing suddenly looking like total crap. So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s no longer the “worst of times” to buy a new Mac. It will be even less worse, maybe even a great time, if Adobe quickly follows suit with retina-ready upgrades and/or Apple issues that rumored 13″ retina MacBook Air.

Now if only we could upgrade to iOS 6 without fear of driving into a ditch.

A Mac user’s travels in Ultrabook land

I spent the long weekend with my family tooling around Cape Cod, which ended up offering two unexpected opportunities to sample the latest and greatest light weight laptops, or ultrabooks as they’re known, in Windows land. My 13″ MacBook Pro is getting near replacement age and I’m keeping an open mind so far about which way to go with my next machine.

Saving the best for first, the most impressive potential piece of kit was a pre-release Lenovo X1 Carbon Thinkpad running Windows 8. This was a fascinating and attractive piece of gear, extremely light in the hand yet with a solid feel from the carbon fiber shell. Lenovo specs say it weighs 3 pounds, just a hair over the weight of a 13″ MacBook Air. But it felt a lot lighter than the Mac perhaps because the weight was spread out over a larger area. The 14″ screen was gorgeous and bright at 1600 by 900 pixels.

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I am bored and out of love with Apple’s aluminum unibody styling, an unergonomic and occasionally knife-like pain in the wrists. It’s a turn-off from the legions of Windows laptop makers who have aped it, too. So I also especially liked the Lenovo’s more grippable and stylish black outer jacket. The keyboard was as good as any laptop I’ve tried lately, too. The trackpad was very nice although a bit smaller than I’d like. I’m not a big fan of the Lenovo stick mouse, or whatever that little red nib is officially called, but if you are, this is the laptop for you.

Windows 8 is a strange creature on a laptop. You must start in what used to be called the “Metro” view, where icons to activate programs are mixed on a grid of widgets and other kinds of active panels, showing you the weather, incoming emails, and so on. I love that kind of mixed display on my phone but at least at first blush it wasn’t doing much for me on a laptop. One click takes you to a traditional Windows style desktop, just as good as the one you see in Windows 7. I felt like I’d need a few weeks of use, really trying to get the most out of the Metro interface, to render a proper verdict. To be clear, the X1 does not have a touch sensitive screen so you have to operate Metro, which seems more apt for tablets, with the mouse pointer, track pad etc.

A day later, due to a cousin’s need to return an ill fitting pair of shorts at Macy’s, my son and I had an hour to wander the aisles of a local Best Buy. While he shopped for new Xbox games to put on his wish list, I perused the laptop offerings. At one end of a row, getting prominent play, were three recent Ultrabooks, all running the current issue Windows 7 operating system. If memory serves, they were the Samsung Series 9 15″ model, Toshiba’s Satellite U845W with a very wide 14″ screen and a 13″ MacBook Air clone from Acer, I think the Aspire S3.

These were all slightly to much less appealing than the X1 in my brief examination. The Samsung was just too darn big and heavy. Close to 4 pounds in weight and just massive when folded shut and held in one arm, it’s not what I need for my next flagship, I don’t think. And the screen’s resolution is the same as the X1 just spread over slightly more screen space so the actual gain in productivity from the larger screen would be small.

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The Toshiba had some very appealing features. I really liked the grippy, rubberized outer skin that covered a portion of the outside and the bits where you rest your hands inside. One of my biggest gripes about the MacBook Airs is their hard metal and sharp edges. But I couldn’t quite get my head around the screen dimensions. Already many laptops and monitors have gone from the traditional 4 by 3 scale to a more HD-movie friendly 16 by 9. The Toshiba takes the screen another step into Hollywood dream land with a scaling of 21 by 9. The actual pixel count is 1792 by 768, so you are only getting the height of an 11″ MacBook Air screen, for example, with the width more commonly seen on a 17″ notebook. Playing around with a few programs, I could probably get used to using two short, wide windows next to each other instead of the narrower, taller dimensions I typically use now.

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Unfortunately, other aspects of the Toshiba seemed less than cutting edge. It had an old-fashioned, spinning disk drive instead of a solid state drive. And battery life of four hours is among the weakest for this niche. The giant screen also left you with an awkward and heavy bundle of tech to tote around when you closed the screen and picked it up.

The Acer was seemingly a 13″ MacBook Air for people who really don’t like Apple. You can run Windows on any current Apple laptop these days thus reducing the decision-making dilemma to one of hardware. Price wise, the Acer running a prior generation of Intel CPU and graphics chips was about $900 versus $1,200 for the entry-level Air.

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And that gets to one of the big changes in purchasing decisions from years gone by, the cheapie Acer not withstanding. It used be that Apple offered premium products at a premium price. Today, thanks in part to the company’s amazing efficiencies and massive buying power, Apple offers premium products at the best price. Comparably equipped competing laptops cost more, especially when you start to add to base configurations. A 13″ MacBook Air with a 256 GB SSD and 8 GB of RAM is $1,600 versus $1,960 for the Thinkpad X1 Carbon, similarly specced. Apple also lets you go up to 512 GB on the SSD, not even an option on the X1.

The were some key questions for my needs which I could not answer in these brief peeks, such as how well the laptops worked in “clamshell” mode, sitting closed on a desk hooked up to a full size monitor and keyboard. That’s a real strength of my current MacBook Pro. Some of the tech web sites that get advance releases of these laptops have already posted their reviews, so for a more detailed and less impressionistic run down, check them out:

Wired: Paint it, Black: Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon

Engadget: Samsung Series 9 review (15-inch, mid-2012)

Theverge: Toshiba Satellite U845W and U845 review

Pocket-lint: Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook review - External elegance, functional design averageness

Note: I usually like to post pictures I’ve taken myself on the blog but stores frown on photogs and the pre-release X1 seemed a little out of bounds to be snapped.

Reality Bites: DOJ takes down Apple, publishers ebook defenses

Since the Department of Justice stood up for fans of digital books a few months ago and sued the major publishers and Apple over their 2010 conspiracy to raise prices, the amount of whining, spin and flat out lies emanating from some of the publishers and Apple has been both impressive and depressing. That so many journalists and bloggers who should know better repeated much of this truthy crap storm is even more depressing.

So it was like a breath of fresh air yesterday when the Department of Justice released, along with some 868 comments it received, a powerful and straightforward brief refuting much of the garbage that lately passed for analysis and history of the ebook market. The whole 66-page brief (PDF) is worth reading — actually should be required reading for reporters and bloggers covering the issue — so I’ll limit myself to highlighting just a few key points. To start, the brief offers a simple, concise explanation of what went wrong:

When Apple launched its iBookstore in April of 2010, virtually overnight the retail prices of many bestselling and newly released e-books published in this country jumped 30 to 50 percent—affecting millions of consumers. The United States conducted a lengthy investigation into this steep price increase and uncovered significant evidence that the seismic shift in e-book prices was not the result of market forces, but rather came about through the collusive efforts of Apple and five of the six largest publishers in the country. That conduct, which is detailed in the United States’ Complaint against those entities, is per se illegal under the federal antitrust laws.

It’s really as simple as that.

Among the many detailed refutations and take-downs in the brief, the main one I want to focus on is about the role of Amazon. Recall that for more than a decade, the ebook market was nearly moribund. It wasn’t until November, 2007, when Amazon introduced its Kindle ereader and related ecosystem that the market exploded. A critical component, of course, was the deep discounts Amazon offered on some Kindle books, although that was far from the only innovative and important feature that helped the platform succeed where so many others had failed.

Publishers and their allies have centered their defense on outlandish claims that Amazon was simultaneously discounting them to death (even though they still had full control over how much Amazon paid them) and creating a monopoly to rip off consumers (even though Amazon’s entire business was predicated on low prices).

The Justice Department’s brief offers at least three powerful rejoinders:
-Amazon wasn’t do anything wrong
-The ebook market was vibrant and competitive
-”He hit me first” isn’t actually a viable legal defense

First, the Justice Department noted that it investigated allegations against Amazon and found no evidence of predatory pricing or other illegal conduct. Amazon’s ebook effort was consistently profitable, as only some ebooks, such as best sellers, were sold at $9.99, the money-losing price point so hated by publishers.

“Loss leaders,” two-for-one specials, deep discounting, and other aggressive price strategies are common in many industries, including among booksellers. This is to be celebrated, not outlawed. Unlawful “predatory pricing,” therefore, is something more than prices that are “too low.” Antitrust law prohibits low prices only if the price is “below an appropriate measure of . . . cost,” and there exists “a dangerous probability” that the discounter will be able to drive out competition, raise prices, and thereby “recoup[] its investment in below-cost pricing.” Brooke Group v. Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp., 509 U.S. 209, 222-24 (1993). No objector to the proposed Final Judgment has supplied evidence that, in the dynamic and evolving e-book industry, Amazon threatens to drive out competition and obtain the monopoly pricing power which is the ultimate concern of predatory pricing law. The presence and continued investment by technology giants, multinational book publishers, and national retailers in e-books businesses renders such a prospect highly speculative. Of course, should Amazon or any other firm commit future antitrust violations, the United States (as well as private parties) will remain free to challenge that conduct.

Second, the agency reviewed some of the history of the ebook market after the Kindle arrived and before the illegal price-fixing conspiracy, which has been the subject of some of the most ridiculous propaganda from Apple and the publishers. And what was the condition of that market? Highly competitive and filled with innovation. Barnes & Noble, for example, not only had already introduced its popular Nook reader and garnered over half of ereader sales, but Google and Apple were far along in planning to launch their own offerings as well. Color ebooks, to pick one particularly silly example offered by Apple, were coming soon whether or not publishers colluded to raise prices.

The idea that somehow Amazon could now gain a monopoly is even sillier. The company has only a fraction of the profits and cash flows of its competitors, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Sony. Barnes & Noble was in a bit of financial turmoil earlier this year but got a $300 million injection from Microsoft as part of a wide-ranging alliance and remains a highly competitive number 2 in the market.

Third and finally, even if Amazon was in the midst of some heinous scheme to monopolize the ebook market, U.S. law still does not permit a bunch of companies to get together and agree to raise prices.

When Congress enacted the Sherman Act, it did “not permit[] the age-old cry of ruinous competition and competitive evils to be a defense to price fixing,” no matter if such practices were “genuine or fancied competitive abuses” of the antitrust laws. See United States v. SoconyVacuum Oil, 310 U.S. 150, 221-22 (1940); see also, e.g., FTC v. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Ass’n, 493 U.S. 411, 421-22 (1990) (“[I]t is not our task to pass upon the social utility or political wisdom of price-fixing agreements.”). Competitors may not “take the law into their own hands” to collectively punish an economic actor whose conduct displeases them, even if they believe that conduct to be illegal. See FTC v. Ind. Fed’n of Dentists, 476 U.S. 447, 465 (1986) (“That a particular practice may be unlawful is not, in itself, a sufficient justification for collusion among competitors to prevent it.”); Fashion Originators’ Guild of Am. v. FTC, 312 U.S. 457, 467-68 (1941) (rejecting defendants’ argument that their conduct “is not within the ban of the policies of the Sherman and Clayton Acts because the practices . . . were reasonable and necessary to protect the manufacturer, laborer, retailer and consumer against” practices they believed violated the law (internal quote omitted)); Am. Med. Ass’n v. United States, 130 F.2d 233, 249 (D.C. Cir. 1942), aff’d 317 U.S. 519 (1943) (“Neither the fact that the conspiracy may be intended to promote the public welfare, or that of the industry nor the fact that it is designed to eliminate unfair, fraudulent and unlawful practices, is sufficient to avoid the penalties of the Sherman Act.”). Thus, whatever defendants’ and commenters’ perceived grievances against Amazon or any other firm are, they are no excuse for the conduct remedied by the proposed Final Judgment.

No excuse, indeed…

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New version of Civ? New Windows box

Innards of the Shuttle bare bones PC

Well, it happens every four or five years and it’s happening again. Firaxis is about to release a new version of the extremely fun and highly addictive computer game Civilization (Civ V, if you must know) and so we need to build a new Windows PC. It could be months or even years before the powers that be get around to issuing a Mac port of the game and we just don’t want to wait around. As I blogged about the last few times, here are few key choices I made in building the PC and why I made them.

1. I bought a Shuttle mini PC case

We had gone away from Shuttle the past few iterations, using MSI and Acer ASUS bare bones boxes. But the Shuttle is considerably smaller and more elegant. There is no need for extra hard drives or other bulky components that would not fit in the compact Shuttle case. And Shuttle has expanded interior room available for the graphics card. So I spent a little extra and got an SH55-J2-BK-V1. Now how about improving those model names?

2. I picked an Intel i5 CPU running at 3.33 GHz with dual cores

This is not a cheap chip but has a fast clock speed and 4 MB of speedy cache memory as well (more detail). I could have spent more for more cores but we’re not going to be using a lot of software built to take advantage of multi-cores. In some recent computer reviews, chips with higher clock speeds and fewer cores actually outperformed much more expensive chips with lots of cores and slower clock speeds.

3. I spent more than usual on the graphics card

I bought a Powercolor AX5770 running a Radeon HD5770 chip with 512 MB of RAM, which the Tomshardware site recently picked as one of the best video card under $200. In the past, assuming graphics weren’t that important to a game of Civ, I have cheaped out on video cards. But the folks over at Firaxis seem determined to add as much eye candy as possible. Thay left our system crawling a bit sometimes with Civ IV, so I’ve spent a little more (about $150) this time around.

4. I went a little crazy and decided to try an SSD hard drive

There are a gazillion spinning platters covered with bits of data around our house but the latest fashion in computer storage is a disk that doesn’t spin. So-called solid-state drives are pretty much just like the flash memory drives you use in your digital camera to store pictures. They’re a lot faster and quieter than ordinary hard drives though a lot more expensive per gigabyte. I could only afford an 80 GB model in this PC’s budget and it was still the most expensive single component. We’ll see…

5. I bought a copy of Windows 7 Home premium

Past gaming boxes made due with really old versions of Windows until I picked up some copies of Windows Vista at a CompUSA going out of business sale. But now XP is just too ancient and copies of the well-reviewed latest OS from Redmond are running at less than $99.

More as we play it out.

New AppleTV may be great but it solves nothing

“I, for one, do not think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.”

Steve Jobs gives great gadget and he was in fine form on Wednesday introducing new iPods, a revamped iTunes and a completely overhauled AppleTV. Can the mighty Jobs finally jump-start the digital living room entertainment future? I don’t think so. While there’s a lot to like about the new AppleTV, it still fails to address the major impediments. We remain, sadly, stuck in a convoluted and costly transition period.

If you’ve followed the home theater hijinks on the this blog, you may remember that my high definition TV gets one (expensive) set of programming from Verizon cable with tuning and DVR capabilities from a Tivo box. Blu-Ray and DVD come via a separate Samsung player. And downloadable and streamed Internet video from iTunes and web sites arrive on a connected Mac mini. Monthly fees go to Verizon and Tivo with extra charges to iTunes and disc retailers. Occasionally we buy downloadable content from Amazon on the Tivo, too. That’s three boxes, four remotes and a big mess o’ cash.

Digital TV programs and movies come and go from these different platforms, sometimes disappearing to protect other distribution outlets (and revenue streams) while carrying inexplicable price differences and incompatible DRM locks.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Music fans can choose from among millions and millions of songs to buy from a bunch of competing retailers that can be played on any device of their choosing. Or, they can pay a modest monthly fee and get access to the proverbial jukebox in the sky. Sure, the music labels have too much control over pricing but competition among retailers means songs go on sale all the time. We’ve built up a gargantuan digital music library at this point that we can listen to in any room in the house, in the car, on a business trip and so on.

Plenty of folks have great ideas about the real answer should be. Don MaCaskill has a detailed blog post (“What the AppleTV should have been“) seeking a far more open model, with content makers and distributors allowed to hook in and set their own business terms (ie HBO makes programs available only to HBO cable subscribers, Hulu streams to anyone). Khoi Vinh is thinking along the same lines, hoping content makers and gear makers can all get on the same page and simplify (“Apple Blinks in the Living Room“).

Another thing that would help would be a truly converged device. Long ago, Tivo allowed other manufacturers to license its software. We had one of these first generation boxes, made by Toshiba, that included a Tivo plus a DVD player and burner. This eliminated the need for a separate DVD player though it did not have a cable tuner and required a jerry-rigged cable box controller. Since then, Tivo boxes have incorporated cable tuners but eliminated disc players.

So what’s holding up video? To paraphrase the Spinal Tap quote above, I do not think the problem is with the gadget makers. I think that the problem is the entertainment and cable industries’ dwarves trampling on our TVs and iPads and smart phones. And because the old ways of selling and distributing video entertainment remain incredibly lucrative, nothing Apple does is going to be much help. The annoyingly limited, fragmented, inconsistent and costly realities of the digital video marketplace look to be entrenched for the foreseeable future. For anyone with even the slightest bit of optimism about this situation, I’m afraid it’s going to be a long, long wait.

Apple makes deleting a Boot Camp partition super easy

hero_bootcampA couple of years back, when I upgraded the hard drive on my then-new Macbook Pro, I used Apple’s incredible Boot Camp software to install Windows Vista. Using Boot Camp, you’re not just simulating running Windows under Mac OS X — you can actually boot up into “pure” Windows on your Apple hardware. The only complication was that Boot Camp required its own bit of my hard drive, it’s own partition in techno-speak, for the exclusive use of Windows. So I handed over 50 GB of my practically-empty 250 GB drive.

More recently, three trends have come together to make me regret that partitioning decision. First, the remaining 200 GB left to Mac OS X has gotten increasingly tight. With the growing library of all my iPod media on my laptop, I was down to only 25 GB of free space recently. Second, I have VMWare Fusion to run Windows virtually without having to reboot out of Mac OS X. Fusion used to lack some important features, like graphics acceleration, but it has improved and improved to the point where everything I need to do under Windows (stupid Sony digital recorder, I’m talking to you) works fine in Fusion.

And third, the only real reason I needed to run Windows Vista under Boot Camp (instead of just simulating it under VMWare Fusion), was to play games — well, really just one game, Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword, which was never released for the Mac. Until now!

Not needing that Windows partition anymore, I fretted that recovering the space and adding to my main partition would entail some litany of horrors like: back up every single thing, erase the whole drive, reinstall every single thing and, all the while, make plenty of sacrifices to the PC gods of yore.

Instead, it was drop-dead simple and completely painless. How to eliminate a Boot Camp Windows partition without breaking a sweat? Just run Apple’s Boot Camp Assistant program. Choose the option that says add or remove a Boot Camp partition. Recognizing that I already had a Boot Camp partition, the program automatically began the removal sequence. Just follow the directions and watch as 50 GB of ugly fat disappear and your Mac OS X drive gets more room to breath in under 2 minutes:

unbootcamp1jp

For what it’s worth, I also worried that I had to somehow deactivate or uninstall the copy of Windows Vista I was about to blow up in case I every wanted to use the same install disk on some future home brew PC. But there’s no way to deactivate Vista. Basically, you just go ahead and re-use the install disk. If the new OS installation won’t activate, you call Microsoft and tell them what’s what and they let you re-use the software. Or so I’m told, anyway.

How much old software do you really need to save?

Even after the great closet clean-out of December, 2007, my closet is still kinda full. Well, very full actually. One of the things it’s full of is old software program disks and manuals. In this corner, we have the game Master of Orion II for Macs, issued in the mid-1990s. That’s fine as there’s also a copy of the Mac OS 9 install disks not to mention Windows 95, 98 and 2000. In slightly more modern offerings there’s a disk to install the Palm Pilot version of the Zagat Restaurant Guide circa the year 2000 and every version of Microsoft Office going back to floppy disks. Speaking of floppy disks, I see a floppy for the game Railroad Tycoon. That’s the original issue, not even the first deluxe upgrade, that probably came out in 1989 or 1990.

Even my organizing scheme for fairly current software is a mess, with some stuff neatly stacked in my office, other stuff hidden away in drawers and the occasional scattered disks just hanging around the house waiting to be lost or scratched.

So what’s up? Why save old programs? I have two excuses. First, I have this vague theory that I’ll need one of those programs some day to boot up an ancient computer and retrieve a critical, long-lost file. I discovered this year, for example, that the current version of TurboTax can’t actually open tax files prepared in earlier years. Sure, it can read a little data from the previous year’s return, but that’s it. Want to see what you deducted in 2002 as a capital loss? Better have the paper print out.

But that doesn’t quite cover everything that’s saved.

I’m also prepared in case I find some cool, old hardware that one of the kids wants to play with and I need some of the oldies to get it working. That actually happened one time, when we found an old Toshiba hand-held PocketPC running an even more ancient version of Windows CE. It worked as a nifty wireless web browser for a few months until the battery stopped charging (even with a new battery) and we abandon it for the second time. I’ve also recently come back into possession of a seven-year-old Shuttle SV24 mini PC running Windows 98. I wonder what software we have in the closet for that baby?

Hmm — that still doesn’t explain everything, though. I guess in the end I have a nostalgic attachment to some of those oldies. I want to be able to take my future grandchildren up to the attic and show them how computers used to be, back when we had keyboards and mice and printers and fax machines, when computer games were filled with blocky, rectangular graphics and Wordperfect was the order of the day.

So tell me, what are you saving? What’s in your software vault? And what suggestions do you have for keeping things organized?