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Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
November 12, 2007

The pod invasion started simply enough. When I am not coaxing my two Rokus to work as Internet radios, I use them to listen to the music and podcasts residing on my server/PC. Getting this all to happen involved installing some "music server" software, where is not something that the Roku people provide; instead, it comes bundled into various media players or as a separate "service" that runs in the background. After I unsuccessfully tried to upgrade from Windows Media Player 10 to 11 (which has a media server built into it), I settled for installing the now-obsolete Windows Media Connect on my machine. It works, but is primitive. Eventually, I broke down and installed iTunes on the PC just for its server capabilities. It was the first Apple software that I had installed in ages because of bad experiences I had with QuickTime attempting to take over my computer in the past. Of course, in typical Apple manner, as part of installing iTunes you must also allow QuickTime to invade your machine. So far, it hasn't taken over, so someone at Apple must have heard all the angry Windows users.

Well, iTunes worked much better than Windows Media Connect. It does appear to have broken Windows Media Connect, but after a reinstall of WMC the two now peacefully coexist. Although iTunes does not follow Windows user interface conventions (no surprise there), iTunes is worth it for me because it does some things that Windows Media Player and WinAmp do not. In particular, podcast support is excellent and smart playlists are useful, especially as a way of directing podcasts to the Rokus. Since I live in an MP3 and WMA only household, there were no iPods hanging around to hook into iTunes, but I got the impression from looking at iTunes that it did a good job of managing music with iPods.

Let me get one thing straight: I am not a pod person in the sense of one who walks around in public with earphones, white or otherwise, stuck into my ears. I still have several Walkmen stashed away in the basement (I don't have the heart to toss them out) and even carried around a portable CD player long before they become a commodity. My travel habits have changed, however, and even when I am "on the road" I can get music without hauling around another device. My wife, however, is a pod person and since her birthday was coming up and everyone was talking about the iPhone, I figured I'd get her the new iPod Touch. (There is no way that I'm signing up with AT&T, at least not until I move out of Verizon territory.)

I originally ordered the iPod Touch in early September through Amazon. Then I started to stake out the local Apple Store, snagged a "pre-release" Touch, and canceled my Amazon order.

I took custody of the iPod for much of the first week it was in the house to "set it up," which included getting iTunes running on her Dell (the last computer from that company that will ever come inside my house). At getting the exploding USB ports on the Dell into a seemingly stable configuration, she was ready to use it without my involvement. Things worked as planned and she is now addicted to podcasts, which still require some user intervention to update.

The iPod Touch, like its big brother the iPhone, is an impressive piece of technology. Many reviews have focused on how it's merely a "crippled" iPhone, but it has a much more pleasing and svelte form factor and uses a normal headphone minijack. Personally, I cannot see talking into a small brick to make phone calls; however, the one smartphone owner that I am in communication with tells me that one is supposed to use a Bluetooth headset with such devices.

The iPod Touch works nicely with iTunes even if synching requires the manual intervention of going to the proper screen in iTunes and pushing the "Sync" button. The Touch could be more responsive, especially when being turned from portrait to landscape and vice versa, but the overall experience is wonderful. The iPhone not only deserves Time Magazine's Invention of the Year award, it is on track to be the invention of the decade, especially if the FCC set the iPhone free by forcing AT&T and its ilk to unbundle their phones from cellular service.

As pre-Linux Unix user turned Windows guy, the iPod Touch got me to thinking that maybe I should drink some of the Jobsian Kool-Aid and buy an Apple computer of my own. I am one of the many Windows folk who's stymied by this whole Vista thing. I want each new generation of computer I get to run faster than the previous generation, not slower. I dropped into the local CompUSA and ventured for the first time into its Apple section.  All but two of the Macs on display were either laptops with the standard Apple toy keyboards or had the processor bundled into the monitor. I like my monitors; indeed, I believe that the more monitors (and the more monitor real estate), the better. CompUSA only had two units made for external monitors, a Mac Mini and some kind of Mac Pro, and neither of them were hooked up to anything—not a keyboard, not a monitor, not a dimwitted single-button mouse, nothing.

I did, however, end up getting a new computer (of sorts). Inspired by the iPod Touch and lured in by a TigerDirect e-mail flyer, I purchased a Nokia N800 at a hefty discount to its original $399 list price. It runs an obscure flavor of Linux and I named him Tux, after the self-satisfied, overweight penguin. I haven't had that much time to play with Tux, but he's no Touch. Tux's browser is not as good as the Touch's and in just about every way Tux is clunkier—he weighs more and is not of uniform thickness. He does accept stylus input, something the Touch, which seems to require human warmth to operate, cannot do. Tux sucks in WiFi much better than the Touch and Tux also works as a WiFi phone with Skype, Google Talk, and the like, which AT&T would never let the Touch, as a downgraded iPhone, do. 

Tux does have a gorgeous screen that is much sharper and somewhat larger than the Touch. Photos from a 5-megapixel camera look great on Tux. I haven't done an audio comparison with the Touch, but Tux sounds great for his size. Unlike every other small audio device and laptop computer that I've ever used, Tux pumps enough juice out of his headphone jack to just about drive a big pair of Sennheiser cans.

The Nokia N800 (or the new N810 that includes a keyboard at roughly double the price) is not about to take over the world any time soon, but serves as an interesting contrast to Apple's vastly more successful offering. Apple represents the totalitarian approach to computing. You get what they give you, which is admittedly clever stuff much of the time, and that's it. If you want what Apple has to give, then you are all set. If you want something else, like flexibility, you can forget Apple. The Nokia N800, in contrast, is theoretically infinitely adaptable because it is not an appliance, but a real computer. Of course, one is stuck using the sort of software written by guys who make Sheldon on "The Big Bang Theory" look like Ashton Kutcher, who needs no hyperlink..

The Nokia definitely provides the true Linux experience. I tried to install the freeware periodic table program for Tux and got a bunch of "library not found" error messages. (You never know when you'll need to know what the orbitals of Gallium look like.) Eventually, I'll find something useful to do with Tux and I may even learn Python or wait until some flavor of LISP is ported to it. If I don't find something to do with him, Tux can join the other gadgets in the basement that I haven't the heart to throw out.

This is my last commentary for 2007. In an effort to be more productive, I'm taking both December and January off from commenting this time around.  I will be back with 10 new commentaries for 2008. Appropriate for February, my first commentary is about Cupid. It looks to be a random year, deal with it.

Copyright 2007 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to