Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 2002 / 26 Elul, 5762

How's that? A tech critic reflects, briefly

By Mark Kellner | Writing on the Newsweek/MSNBC Web site on Aug. 29, David Ansen, veteran film critic for Newsweek, offered this incisive thought: "It would be healthy if critics were allowed to revisit their own opinions our judgments are better carved in soap or sand than in stone."

I read Mr. Ansen's words after an exchange of e-mails with a Jewish World Review reader who, to put it mildly, did not share my enthusiasm for XM Satellite Radio.

"Is Kellner a shill for the satellite industry?" was the reader's first question. He then went on to opine that, (a) his car radio is fine for him; (b) XM and competitor Sirius (stet) are in financial straits and may go out of business, and (c) I should have noted the company's financial state when writing the review.

Let me explain one thing out of the box: JWR, kindly, reprints my reviews from The Washington Times, where I have rather strict word limits. Thus, my writing has to fit a given allocation of space, and I stick to the main technical details and if I'm out of room, that's where it ends. My columns are, generally, about technology and not stock investing.

That XM and Sirius have not achieved the kind of "critical mass" some would like to see is obvious, but there are encouraging signs. On July 23, XM reported its second-quarter results, noting, "XM ended the quarter reporting 136,718 subscribers and continued to show quarter-to-quarter subscriber growth, adding 60,476 subscribers, representing a 79% subscriber growth compared to the first quarter of 2002." By my rough calculation, that's $1.3 million in subscriber revenue per month for XM, not a lot, perhaps, but it ain't chopped liver, as the saying goes.

I cannot say, here, with certainty, that satellite radio will or won't succeed as it exists today. I'm still waiting, for example, to test Sirius and see how it works versus XM. That said, I can affirm - and quite heartily - my earlier opinion that XM is a "transformative" technology. For one thing, it allows consistency in a channel of entertaining across wide distances, something I cover more often living in Los Angeles than I typically did living in Washington, where I resided for 10 years. Going from L.A. to Palm Springs and back, I could listen to one (or several) XM channels and never miss a beat, something that can't be done as easily with FM or AM radio.

And, yes, I can affirm a great difference in the sound. The other day, I was driving during Sean Hannity's talk show period, when the program is aired both on KABC-AM and on the XM Satellite Radio channel for ABC talk programming. I was able to "flip" between the two feeds, and there was a marked, noticeable and distinct difference in the sound quality: the XM signal was better, the sound deeper and sharper. I'm sold on the sound quality of satellite radio. (And, no, I'm not being paid to "shill" for the industry.)

That isn't to say, like Newsweek magazine's Mr. Ansen, that I don't have second thoughts about products I've reviewed in the past. I fear I may have been to kind to Microsoft's various incarnations of Windows: each starts fine but ends up muddied. I wish I had been kinder to Lotus' SmartSuite, partly to help foster competition in the office applications part of the software business, and partly because it has some good features.

And I wish I could find some nicer things to say about some of the products I've panned: each represents someone's hard work, and that effort should be acknowledged.

But I'm asked to "call 'em as I see 'em," and I try to write from the reader's main perspective: is this something I should spend money to obtain? With more choices, and less capital, these days, I feel it's important to be tough when necessary, and encouraging when something good comes along. What happens in the marketplace, however, is usually beyond my control!

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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