Botched?

More about the iPad, with a layman’s take on positioning your product and “inventing” a whole new type of computer.

This started as a reply to a comment on the other post, but it quickly got away from me and turned into something else. First, the comment:

my whole issue with the ipad is pretty much summed up by my tweet of “a better name for it would have been the Segway.”

Like the Segway, the iPad fell victim to unofficial, unverified rumor mongering and bullshit hype. The ipad has a forward facing camera for videoconferencing. The ipad has a revolutionary input mechanism. The ipad cures rabies.

At the end of the day, fanboys will say “but none of that was confirmed!” … but alas, hype is hype, whether official or unofficial. Apple is a big boy, and ultimately responsible for their own rep, for better or for worse. Same with the Segway. And note: just like the segway, there were plenty of nerds who still loved it when it finally debuted. I’m not trying to claim the iPad isn’t lovable. Only that it didn’t live up to its rumored reputation.

So this time, there wasn’t a fanboy in the house who could legitimately claim they were blown away. Everything Apple showed us was fine. It was good. It just *didn’t match the hype*.
[…]
That’s not to say the iPad won’t be a success. I’m only saying its launch goes down in history as one of Apple’s most botched. This time, an apple product will truly live or die based on it’s qualities, rather than its hype. Because in my mind, the hype failed.

Whether you like it, hate it, or are indifferent, saying that the iPad announcement was “botched” is completely ludicrous.

The main mistake is over-inflating the importance of “fanboys,” just like all the end-of-open-computing Cassandras are over-inflating the importance of hackers. You (or technically, “we”) have to come to terms with the fact that Apple’s Just Not That Into You.

The iPad is targeted squarely at a “casual” audience. Not even casual computer users, like I’d originally typed, but people who don’t even think of what they do in terms of “computing.” It’s the consumer-level appliance computer that Jobs has always wanted. It’s the original Mac that required a special tool just to open it, but you don’t have to teach people how to use the mouse. It’s the iMac that advertised only having to plug in one cord, but you don’t have to plug in anything. It’s not aimed at people who would be buying a Linux netbook or even a MacBook; it’s aimed more at people who would be buying digital picture frames or portable DVD players or Kindles.

The most telling line from the whole keynote was when Jobs said Amazon did a great job with the Kindle, and Apple was “standing on their shoulders.” It was specifically about their new bookstore, but you can extrapolate that to the whole product launch. Ebook readers existed before the Kindle. There are, and were, other models that have “better” specs and features, at least on paper. But Amazon succeeded on three counts:

  1. Backing up the device with a distribution model that already had tons of content.
  2. Marketing the product not based on features but utility.
  3. Understanding that their target audience wasn’t people shopping for ebook readers, but people who wouldn’t even have thought of getting an ebook reader.

The hard part wasn’t convincing people that their ebook reader was better than the other ebook readers — in a lot of ways, it probably was, but not in such a dramatic way that anyone would instantly rush out and buy one. The hard part was convincing people that they needed an ebook reader at all. And because they understood that, they ended up Kleenexing their product name — everybody knows what an ebook reader is now, and more often than not, they call it a “Kindle.”

And by that measure, calling Apple’s iPad announcement and the build-up to it “botched” is nonsense. It’s already done most of what it needed to do, and for free. Everybody was talking about this thing for months before its release, and Apple had officially said nothing. After the announcement, every blog had a reaction — not just the tech ones, either, but every blog. What you call “hype” I call “genius.” They only had to spend about the same marketing budget as they’d have spent on a new iPod release, but they instantly became the major player in a market, without even doing anything.

They didn’t have to live up to any hype. The hype had already done its job, which was convincing people that this was something that they needed to pay attention to. All Apple had to do was not blow it. The thing could’ve been priced out of the range of people who just want a “casual” computer, but it wasn’t. It could’ve been running OS X, convincing a lot of people that it was just another Mac or that they’d have to “learn” a new operating system, but they don’t. It could’ve been announced with just the built-in apps and come across as a glorified ebook reader or video player with no real indication of what apps for it would be like, but it comes with the App Store. They could’ve tied it to an expensive data plan, but you can get it Wi-Fi only or you can pay a monthly fee with no contract.

Compare it to the HP Slate, which is closest in terms of form factor, and which had its own mini-keynote announcement from Ballmer at CES. You could look at a side-by-side feature list and quite reasonably assume that the HP Slate is a no-brainer, and that Apple’s product launch was “botched.” But you’d be missing the point to a colossal degree. The people that Apple is trying to reach don’t care about feature lists. I’m not being condescending or patronizing with that, either — I’m one of those people. I’m a nerd with a CS degree, so I’m ostensibly supposed to care about feature lists, but I don’t unless I’m buying a “real” computer. I don’t care what kind of processor is in my DVD player, I don’t care what fuzzy-logic ever-brown crispness sensor is in my toaster. I just want them to do what they’re made to do.

What does the Kindle do? It lets you buy and read books, in grayscale on a non-backlit screen. I don’t read enough to spend $250 for that. No sale on account of limited use.

What do any of the Android tablets do? Web surfing, e-mail, date book, contact list. I’ve already got a phone that handles some of that stuff and a laptop that handles the rest. Presumably there’s an Android app store, but I haven’t heard much about it or seen any specific examples of Android apps. I’ve never seen any screenshots or video of an Android device that didn’t look like a pre-iPhone cell phone display. I keep hearing that it’s an “open” platform, and keep being reminded how great that is, but as far as I’m concerned it’s like any Linux distribution — yeah, great it’s open, but there’s nothing I really want or need to do on it since all my favorite apps are for another OS. No sale on account of vague usefulness.

What does the HP Slate do? Everything that Windows 7 does, in a thin and ultraportable form factor. Unlike Android, I know exactly what Windows is and how it works. Which browser do I use? Any one I want. Where do I get applications for it? Anywhere I want. Are those apps going to run well on a machine this small? Try it and see. What about viruses? Windows 7 comes with a free virus scanner that works well. So I have to run a virus-scanner on a handheld computer? No sale on account of a surfeit of choices.

What does the iPad do? Not everything, but a lot of things. I, like millions of other people, know exactly what iPhone OS is and how it works. Which browser do I use? Mobile Safari. Where do I get applications for it? From the App Store. Are those apps going to run well on a machine like this? They will say “designed for iPad.” What about viruses? Apple controls the App Store. Here, I’m tempted, because what over-heated tech bloggers describe as a closed system with a lack of choice, I see as something that keeps me from having to make choices I don’t care about.

That focus, combined with the “it just works” philosophy, is why Apple can branch out into consumer electronics with more success than other companies. Even companies with technically superior hardware. It’s subtle enough — or people just fail to “get” it — that a lot of people dismiss it as the “reality distortion field.” They blather that Apple “fanboys” will buy anything with the Apple logo on it and then insist that it’s the most awesome thing ever created, even when confronted with objective proof that brand X has more storage/Flash support/a camera/open source operating system/whatever. But for a lot of people, I would even say most people, it’s about getting something that does exactly what we want, no more and no less, and doing it well.

Again, all Apple had to do was get people believing that a computer in between a phone and a full-size laptop or desktop machine is a useful thing to have. And it’s not just that they didn’t “botch” that; they succeeded beyond the level anybody could’ve imagined or predicted. People who’d never have considered getting a netbook (like myself) are now debating the merits of a $500 “casual-use” portable computer, and everybody in the target market at least knows the name “iPad” and has an idea of what it does. (And again, they got much of that for free). Marketing material aside, they didn’t make a revolutionary device that absolutely no one else could make. They made a very good device that does exactly what it needs to do. And where Apple succeeds while others fail is that they didn’t stop with the hardware or even the OS: they presented the entire thing from processor to form factor to how people will actually use it and to how they can extend it.

First World Rebellion

Post-iPad announcement entry as required by Over-entitled Internet Blogger Code Section 12510.1


On Wednesday of this week, Apple announced a magical and revolutionary device that will herald the future of personal computing. But it’s not a bright future, no, but a tragic, deeply cynical, disturbing one. People will be powerless to stave off the onslaught of evil, locked into a frightening future of a tightly-controlled app store. That is why it is imperative that no one must buy the iPad, or that the only moral, ethical way to save the future is to buy one and then hack it.

At least, that’s if you believe everything you read on the internet. If you’re still at all grounded in reality, you realize that Apple announced a big iPod Touch.

(That’s if you’re not still giggling over the name. And for the record, I never would’ve made the obvious joke had I known a) they were actually going to call it that, and b) it would so quickly become the 2010 equivalent of abbreviating Microsoft as M$ by YouTube & blog commenters).

iPhone Gigante

I still don’t understand why so many Internet types — both criticizing and defending — seem to think that calling it “a big iPod Touch” is such a devastating ice burn. John Gruber insists that the iPad is what Apple’s had in mind all along; the iPad isn’t a bigger iPhone, but the iPhone is a stripped-down iPad. Whichever way you want to look at it: the iPhone is pretty cool.

The iPad announcement confirmed my own worst suspicions of the thing — not that I’m particularly prescient or even in the loop of the tech world, but just because it was the most straightforward and obvious thing that Apple could’ve announced. It’s designed for consuming media, not creating it. And according to people who’ve had a hands-on with it, it does a really good job at that. I’m inclined to believe Stephen Fry’s claim that you have to see it in person to really appreciate it — not because he’s any more or less reliable than anyone else as a technology commentator, but because I had the same experience with the iPhone. I’d been trying to talk myself out of getting an iPhone, but was completely won over as soon as I used a display model and saw the clarity of the screen and all the polish that’d been given to the UI.

And the iPhone is still pretty damn neat. It’s already obviated a laptop computer for a lot of the “casual computing” stuff I tend to do, and the app store has expanded its functionality several times over. And yes, I have often thought, “a faster version of this, with a larger screen, would be ideal.” So what’s the problem?

Continue reading “First World Rebellion”

Objective C tutorial

Learn iPhone programming the dated and not particularly funny way.

@implementation Wind
-(int) Blow {
	int roadCount;
	NSSet allRoads;
	Man man;

	roadCount = 0;
	for (Road aRoad in allRoads) {
		[man walkDown:aRoad];
		if ([man isAMan]) {
			break;
		} else {
			++roadCount;
		}
	}
	return roadCount;
}
@end

@implementation BestClassOfAllTime
-(void) run {
	NSSet allLadies;
	try {
		for (Lady lady in allLadies) {
			if (lady.isSingle) {
				[lady putHand:UP];
			}
		}
	} catch (NSExceptionLiked) {
		throw(exception("Ring not found."));
	}
}
@end

My Pen! He took my pen!

Adding to all the noise about the Apple Tablet, and pretending that I’ve still got some control over my conspicuous consumption.

kithmypen.jpgIt’s Internet Law that every website, no matter what its topic or area of expertise, has to have at least one post about the Apple tablet, and I’ve already done mine. But people keep writing things that keep getting me all worked up about it. And if the rumors are true, I’ve only got two weeks left to pretend that I have enough willpower to make a discriminating purchasing decision.

The latest thing that set me off was Dan Moren’s column on MacWorld speculating on how the tablet would handle text input. In particular:

Stylus – The stylus was a great idea back in the days of the Palm Pilot and the Newton, when everybody still used pens all the time, but we’ve moved on, folks. I mean, have you seen kids’ handwriting these days? Aside from appealing to the hardcore Newton aficionados out there, I doubt that Apple wants to evoke the ghost of that particular device. Not to mention styli are easy to lose. That said, Apple has had a handwriting-recognition technology called Inkwell squirreled away inside OS X since Jaguar, though right now it’s only really useful if you’ve got a graphics tablet or are using OWC’s ModBook. It wouldn’t be impossible for them to have dusted that off and given it an update to today’s technology. Odds: 200 to 1

Moren actually guesses that the stylus is even less likely than voice recognition or no text entry at all.

This kind of thing concerns me. Not so much for text entry, since even on a tiny keypad, I can type much faster than I can write longhand. But the whole appeal of this thing — not just Apple’s version, but every one of these devices back to the Palm Pilot — was the idea of having an infinite notebook. It would keep track of everything I wanted to carry around with me, and be smart enough to keep it all organized. No device designed to be handheld is going to do that. The iPhone is great at keeping phone numbers, reminders, calendar appointments (entered on a desktop computer), web pages, and songs and videos for quick access, but it’s not great at data entry. Have you ever been at a meeting and tried taking notes with the iPhone or even a PDA? Or doing a quick sketch? It’s clearly not designed for it.

newtonpayphone.jpgPeople keep mentioning the Apple Newton in terms of what the new tablet won’t be. And you just have to watch this awesome “Getting Started” video to be reminded how much of the Newton mystique is due to nostalgia; even calling it “ahead of its time” might be a little too generous. The basic premise of a PDA is still valid, and it obviously did wonders for Palm for about a decade, but the notion of exactly what a PDA would do seems shockingly short-sighted in retrospect. That video is clearly a product of the early 90s: from Shoulder Pad Lady and Be-Earringed Goatee Guy sitting at a business meeting around an overhead projector, to the section on how easy it is to send faxes, to the guy struggling to use the Newton two-handed while talking at a pay phone.

Plus the obvious fact that half of the video is devoted to telling you how to use the thing. This isn’t like the Jobs-era how-to videos that Apple puts out, where a yuppie clad in black steps out of a white void to explain multitouch displays. Those are a combination of product branding, extended marketing, and an attempt to make the device as non-threatening as possible to the most technophobic of consumers. (That’s something else that’s made clear by the old Newton video — just how much more success Apple has had by targeting consumers instead of business people). For the majority of people, Apple’s how-tos aren’t strictly necessary. The company is obsessed — even to a fault — with making devices that you can just pick up and start using. The Newton’s big selling point was the handwriting recognition, and the failure of the handwriting recognition is the first thing anybody remembers about the Newton. That doesn’t signal “ahead of its time,” but “not ready for release.”

But the idea behind your basic interaction with the Newton is exactly the kind of thing I still want to see (and buy and use). Every demo I saw of the Newton back in the 90s defined what interacting with a personal computer should be like. You draw a line across the page, and it starts a new document. You scribble through a word and it disappears in a puff of smoke. You write notes and it understands not only the words you’re writing but the context — putting appointments into your calendar, phone numbers into your address book, sketches into a personal folder. (I’m not sure if that last part was possible or even conceived of back during the Newton days, or if it’s a more modern variation. Still, the demos made me believe that that was what was happening). You interacted with a page but weren’t limited to the page. It captured everything.

Plus I’d like to be able to draw on it, which requires a stylus. I’ve tried Autodesk SketchBook for the iPhone, and it’s about as good as a drawing program can get for a mobile phone, which is to say not very. Sure, if you already good at what you’re doing, you can probably get good results. If you’re a normal human with limited motor skills, then it’s frustrating. Because it’s not drawing, it’s finger painting.

And all this is leading me to suspect that the tablet won’t be about input at all. Apple’s had the bulk of its success not just by targeting the consumer market, but by targeting the consumer media market. The iPhone was originally described as three devices in one, but it’s really become one and a half: a communication device with a media player. (Or if you’re like me and never get or make phone calls, it’s reversed: a personal media player that can occasionally send text messages). All of the speculation about the tablet that I’ve seen seems to be gravitating towards its being a portable media player more than a personal computer — the talk is about how it’ll compete with the Kindle but add color and let you watch videos and revolutionize the newspaper, magazine, and/or comic book industry and even redefine page-based multimedia.

Which is all stuff you can do with a tablet PC. People complained about the iPhone being nothing but hype, because their existing cell phones could do everything the iPhone did. And the new smartphones coming out prove that there’s nothing inherently magical about the technology. But that’s missing the point: what was revolutionary about the iPhone wasn’t just the technology but the way the technology was used. The entire thing was designed with a purpose in mind and a specific interface in mind. The whole UI was designed around finger presses on a small screen, and all the functions from making phone calls to listening to music were designed to work in conjunction with each other (more or less). The reason things like the HP Slate won’t have the same mystique as the iPhone is because they take existing software and shoehorn it into a new form factor, instead of treating the whole thing as a single, unified device. All the new tablets coming out of CES aren’t ever going to be as big a deal as whatever Apple’s got planned, simply because they don’t take the same approach to their releases as Apple does. (A hybrid laptop/tablet running two separate OSes seems like a particularly goofy idea).

There’s no reason to believe that Apple wouldn’t do a fine job delivering another glorified ebook reader or “larger iPod touch,” or that it wouldn’t be every bit as polished as the iPhone and iPod Touch and the new iMac. I’d probably get one and use it and like it, and may even start reading again. But it wouldn’t be the “infinite notebook” I’m looking for.

The Microsoft Courier tablet — if it actually exists and ever comes out — could be just that. Looking at their demo video, I think that’s about 90% of what I want, minus all the shoes. They even use the term “infinite journal.” But there’s little indication of how long it’d be before something like that could get released, or how feasible the concept videos even are in the first place (I’m still highly skeptical about being able to drag things across two separate physical screens with a finger, for instance). And the whole thing, even in concept form, feels vaguely Microsoft-ish. Everything feels somewhat disjointed, and as if there’s more attention to slickness than usability. Even though I’m an admitted whore for all things Apple, I’ll more than gladly acknowledge when Microsoft gets stuff right: Windows Media Center blows away anything available for the Mac, and even the Zune appeals to me a lot more aesthetically than any of the iPod/iPhone variations. But nothing from Microsoft ever has that feeling of being a Grand Unified Vision; it all seems designed by committee, and the seams become more and more apparent the more you use it.

At least the Microsoft version would be guaranteed to have a better version of Solitaire. But at this point I’m thinking the device I really want to get will only ever exist in concept videos and in science fiction.

First and 20

My favorite iPhone apps. I should be an Apple pundit, dammit.

Mobile Photo Jan 1, 2010 6 41 09 PM.jpgThere’s a very slick-looking website called First & 20 with this premise: ask a bunch of “talented designers, developers, and tech writers” to send in a screenshot of their iPhone home screens, to see what apps they use most.

They may be having problem with their ISP, because the site’s been around for a while, and i haven’t gotten an e-mail from them yet. I can only assume they’re having technical difficulties. Either that, or they define Apple notables as “people who have contributed to the Apple/Mac community in some way.” So apparently I’m going to have to do this myself.

My home screen’s pretty boring, though, and I don’t use the apps there a whole lot more than on the other pages. I’d rather list everything I like a lot, ordered by how frequently I use them (built-in apps not included):

1. Tweetie 2
The best Twitter client on any platform. I wish he’d hurry up and put the same features into the desktop version, already.

2. 1Password
I was skeptical at first, especially since Firefox (and Mobile Safari) has gotten better at remembering passwords and auto-filling them, but this has been surprisingly useful. You need the desktop version to get the most benefit, which means you need a Mac, but having all your passwords on your phone is really useful, too.

3. Drop7
This is a dangerous recommendation, since it will take up all your free time if you install it. The whole “seconds to learn, lifetime to master” thing is overused, but it genuinely applies here: once you start thinking about chains and combos, the game gets more complex and interesting.

4. Instapaper
Save web pages for off-line reading. It’s free, it’s fast, it’s dead-simple to use. Perfect.

5. Things
I tried OmniFocus and was convinced I liked it, but I was wrong: Things is simpler, so I end up using it more. There are definitely cheaper and simpler To-Do lists, but this one hits the sweet spot between complexity and usefulness. Again, you probably get the most use out of it when in conjunction with the desktop version, but it’s useful just on the phone.

6. Now Playing
Movie listings, reviews, showtimes, online tickets, and now it has access to your Netflix queue. It’s free, but I like it enough to pay for the author’s “PocketFlicks” app.

7. Dropbox
I’ve already gotten all the extra free space I can get by recommending other people to Dropbox, so now you know I’m 100% sincere when I say that Dropbox is awesome and everybody should get it. Perfectly seamless cloud storage for Macs, PCs, and now the iPhone.

8. Byline
Considering how much time I spend online reading RSS feeds, I’d have figured an RSS reader on the phone would get constant use. Turns out I don’t really use it all that often, but this is still the best one: syncs with Google Reader, gives you a webkit view, all the bells and whistles (except Google contacts). Second-best candidate is NetNewsWire.

9. Words with Friends
Competitive Scrabble. I’m taking a brief hiatus because I keep getting beaten so bad by everybody I know, and it’s a little humiliating. I’m SolGrundy on there if you want to join in the pile-on.

10. Harbor Master
I kind of feel bad recommending this instead of Flight Control, since Flight Control has a much better sense of humor, and it was as far as I’m aware the first game of its type. But I just think Harbor Master is more fun.

11. Comics
Online comics from Comixology. The reader works surprisingly well, and the catalog keeps improving (they just added much of the Marvel catalog). I bought the entire Action Philosophers! series, which turns out to be a great fit for the phone.

12. Kindle
Not a replacement for a full-sized reader, probably, but great for traveling. So far I’ve only read The Book of Vice by Peter Sagal and a couple of travel guides by Rick Steeves, so I don’t know how tolerable it’d be to read a whole novel.

13. Civilization Revolution
It’s every bit as complex and feature-complete as Civ Rev for the Xbox (but not Civ 4, obviously), crammed onto the phone. The only down-side, assuming you like the Civ Rev games, is that it’s not perfectly suited to quick sessions. I keep forgetting what it was I was supposed to be doing.

14. Peggle
This will no doubt get replaced by Plants vs. Zombies as soon as that’s released for the iPhone. PopCap are masters at this stuff for a reason, and Peggle is a pixel-perfect port of the desktop version.

15. Kotoba!
It’s a complete Japanese dictionary for the iPhone. Turn on the international keyboard to make it easier to use.

16. Remote
Apple’s remote for iTunes, does everything you could want — for iTunes.

17. Air Mouse
Remote control for everything else, over your wireless network. The “air mouse” they advertise as the main feature on the website doesn’t work all that well, frankly. But as a remote trackpad/keyboard, it’s the best I’ve used.

18. Rogue Planet
An Advance Wars-alike for the iPhone. The attempt at a story and characters are pretty insipid, and nowhere near as interesting as Advance Wars’ wackiness or charm, but the gameplay is there.

19. Bebot
An animated synthesizer that seems like a toy at first, but then seems really full-featured and powerful, and then goes back to seeming like a toy. But it’s a really, really charming toy.

20. Pantscast
Complex audio enhancement for your audio podcasts. From my experience: guys think it’s absolutely hilarious and women think it’s stupid. Whatever. They can replace this with an app about shoes or something.

Defective

My shameful break from the Cult of Mac, and a detailed account of the trouble I went to in order to keep from getting up off the couch.

win7party.jpg
Update: As usual it only takes a few weeks after I buy something for the world to release something better and cheaper. If you’re considering setting up a home theater PC, check out the Dell Zino HD instead of a Mac mini; I wish I’d gotten one instead, since I could’ve saved at least 200 bucks.

For somebody who’s been so smug about cutting the cord to live TV, I’ve spent a hell of a lot of my free time (and extra money) getting a functional entertainment center. The problem is that the whole process hits just the right sweet spot at the intersection of TV addict, gadget nerd, and ex-programmer with mild OCD: I’ll jump through all kinds of hoops just for the sake of getting something that works as simply as just subscribing to cable.

But I finally got something that works. As far as cost is concerned, I think I’ve only managed to just barely break even versus my satellite bill. And it’s meant throwing out all my brand loyalties and assumptions about who’s best at handling media — I’m running WIndows! Hulu Desktop is actually pretty slick! There are plenty of “how to make your own home theater computer” articles out there, from The Unofficial Apple Weblog and Macworld and Gizmodo, but they either focus on people starting from scratch, or they’re based on something that just wouldn’t work for me. So I’m posting my setup in the hopes that anyone who’s planning something similar can avoid all the dead ends I ran into.

Hardware

I’m using a Mac mini, because Apple has finally released a version that’s actually usable at the “base” spec (2.26GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB HD). Since I ended up using Windows, I could’ve saved a good bit by just getting a mini PC; check out that Gizmodo article for suggestions. I still firmly believe that the Apple/Wintel price difference is way over-exaggerated, and I’m still firmly in the Macs-are-worth-it-camp for my “main” computer, but if you’re just looking for something to hook up to a television, the Mac mini is still overpriced.

I’d started out with an AppleTV, but it’s designed to be limited, and you’ll run into those limitations quickly. It exists to get you to buy stuff from the iTunes Store — which I’d assumed was fine, since I use the iTunes Store anyway — but if you want to break out of their interface, you have to jump through a lot of hoops. Getting a bonafide computer is more effort, but it keeps your options open.

For the TV connection, I’m using the Elgato EyeTV Hybrid. Again, there’s a “Mac tax:” if you’re building a Windows machine, you can find a tuner from Hauppauge for at least $50 cheaper. It’s not made explicit anywhere, but the EyeTV Hybrid does work with Windows, you just might have to download some drivers and make some simple edits to text files to get it to work with Windows 7. A Google Search for “eyetv hybrid windows 7” eventually led to something that worked on my machine.

I’ve never had much luck with external hard drives in the past, including the Western Digital one I got for this experiment and had it fail after one day. But I returned it for an Iomega Prestige drive, which is silent, looks pretty slick, and has worked flawlessly so far. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

If you do use a Mac, the site Monoprice is the best place to get cables. I needed a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter to connect the mini to the TV and a Toslink to Mini cable to get optical audio to my receiver.

Software

This was the biggest surprise for me, because I’ve been using Vista on my Mac ever since it was released, I’ve hated every minute of it, and I’ve dreaded having to leave OS X to boot into Windows because of it. But whether Microsoft really did fix things with Windows 7, or if it’s just the Mojave effect, it’s finally a workable alternative to OS X. Everything works about on par with its OS X equivalent, except for one thing: Windows Media Center.

Windows Media Center (at least the version included with Windows 7) is miles ahead of anything on the Mac as far as home media’s concerned. I’m sure that part of it is just personal preference, and Media Center’s interface is slicker than Apple’s FrontRow. And if you don’t care about live TV, you may not notice a huge difference. But Media Center’s programming guide is by far the nicest I’ve ever used, including open-source projects and dedicated boxes like TiVo.

Elgato ships their own guide software with the EyeTV, and it’s adequate, but it looks and feels kind of clumsy and pieced-together compared to Microsoft’s. And what’s better: Microsoft’s is free for Windows users, while EyeTV’s TV Guide charges a yearly fee after the first year — only $19, but still, it’s the principle. (I also kept running into a bug where the TV Guide would say my service had expired after one day but then recover with no explanation, which isn’t cool for something you just want to set up and forget about). As much as I complain about Microsoft, when they get it right, they knock it out of the park.

I’m also back to using Hulu Desktop, despite the fact I still believe Hulu is pretty evil. No doubt they will reveal their true evil and start charging for service or something equally sinister, but for now it’s a fantastic interface for watching ad-supported content on a home theater PC. One of the nicest features is the programming queue and subscriptions, so you don’t have to search for the shows you watch regularly. There’s a free Media Center plug-in that lets you launch Hulu Desktop without switching apps, and it works great.

Netflix has been pushing their streaming onto any device they can, and I’ve tried most of them. For me, it’s a toss-up between the Windows Media Center and Xbox 360 support: the nicest interface is on Media Center, but I get the best picture quality on the Xbox. Microsoft is also pushing their Internet TV via Media Center, but at the moment it’s still not quite there; Hulu not only has a thousand times more content, but their picture quality is better as well.

I still use iTunes for the shows that aren’t available from my antenna (which gets High Definition broadcasts these days, I’ll remind everybody); or aren’t available on Hulu; or are available on Hulu, but I want to watch in high definition. And, frankly, the shows that I just feel like paying for because I want to support them, like “How I Met Your Mother” and “Community.”

The new Home Sharing in iTunes 9 replaces the missing sync functionality from AppleTV. I can browse for TV shows, get season passes, and download them on my desktop machine (where they’re backed up, which is important since Apple doesn’t let you re-download purchased files), and then have the Mac mini running iTunes for Windows automatically sync up the new stuff in the background.

I still haven’t found a great way to get iTunes to work within Windows Media Center, or to get it to work with a remote, so I’m still mousing it. (I did buy a plug-in called MCE Tunes, but I don’t recommend it. It’s very expensive for the little it does. And for me, it was a total waste of money, since it’s not yet Windows 7 compatible, assuming it ever worked at all). But on the bright side, the iTunes SDK for Windows has been available for a while, and it’s actually a little bit easier to program add-ons and plug-ins for the Windows version than it is for the OS X version! Plus, Microsoft has released a Windows Media Center SDK which works with their free version of Visual Studio Express, so even hobbyists can start writing plug-ins. I’m trying to write something that will control iTunes from Media Center, and I’ll put it up on here if I make any progress.

Remotes

I’ve been using the Logitech Harmony Remote for Xbox 360 for over four years now, and I never had problems with it. They don’t make that model anymore, but at this point I’d say that any of their remotes would be a good investment. (Back when I got it, I thought it was a ridiculously over-priced extravagance). Considering an iPod Touch goes for $200, though, I’m not sure why anyone would be getting the Harmony remotes that are more expensive than that.

If you’re using a Mac, then Remote Buddy is perfect. It lets you switch between apps, with controls for the most common media-PC-centric apps like EyeTV, DVDPlayer, boxee, Plex, FrontRow, iTunes, and Safari built in. (Plus, they fix a bug that currently exists in Snow Leopard with the IR remote).

On Windows, IR remote support is built into Windows Media Center and Hulu Desktop. Note that for reasons beyond my limited understanding of how all this stuff works, the IR sensor built into the Mac mini doesn’t cooperate well with Windows under Boot Camp. But most “Windows Media Center Remotes” or Home Theater remotes come with a USB IR Receiver which works fine. (I happened to have an old one my brother gave me, I plugged it in, and it worked immediately).

There are also plenty of remote control apps for the iPhone and iPod touch that work over your wireless network to control a Mac or a PC. Apple’s “Remote” app is free and works perfectly for controlling iTunes, but keeping with Apple’s philosophy, that’s all it does. I’ve tried almost all of the other ones, and my favorite is still Mobile Air Mouse. It’s got the trackpad and keyboard support that all of them have, but what sets it apart are the specialized keypads that automatically pop up when you start a recognized app. (The “accelerometer-based mouse” just doesn’t work for me).

Worth it?

In the end, I could’ve saved a lot of time, money, and effort by just getting back into reading books. And any notion I had about weaning myself from the media has long since been abandoned. But it’s nice finally having everything in one place, all working together. And it’s a little bit liberating feeling like I’m not missing out on anything, I can do what I want with the stuff I record instead of having it trapped on some proprietary device, and the only monthly fee I have to pay is for the internet connection (which is pretty much essential, anyway).

iTunes–

Apparently, at some point today (while I was sick in bed waiting and hoping for death to come), Apple announced that it was switching its iTunes store music tracks to DRM-free versions.

Fair enough, but nothing special: Amazon has been selling DRM-free MP3 downloads for a while now. And I switched to Amazon about a year ago, partly because of an exceptionally good example of customer service, but mostly because they sell standard, unlocked MP3 files with no strings attached.

Now, I don’t have any major problem with DRM in principle, as long as it’s done reasonably. As somebody whose livelihood is based on digital downloads at the moment — and who’s seen his work being distributed on torrent sites, even though the pricing structure and availability of legal versions couldn’t be more reasonable — I recognize the importance of making sure people are compensated for their work. One of the reasons I had to stop reading Boing Boing was because of the rabid and sanctimonious anti-DRM sentiment, and the glee they seem to take at the sight of people breaking end-user legal agreements.

Plus, from a purely practical standpoint, I’m just barely inconvenienced by it. I’m a model Apple customer with all the pre-requisite Apple-branded hardware, and they’ve kept the licensing reasonable enough that I hardly ever run into problems. So it’s not onerous, but still: if there’s the option of a locked or an unlocked version at the same price (or lower) and the same level of convenience, I’ll take the unlocked one.

Here’s the problem: before Amazon opened up its service, I downloaded quite a bit from iTunes music store. Apple offers a “special offer” to “upgrade my library” to the DRM free versions, for 30 cents a song, or 30% of the album price. When I last checked, it would cost me over $100 to upgrade my entire library, and the figure keeps going up as they update more of their database. If it sounds like I’ve bought an obscene amount of stuff from iTunes, that’s because: a) that’s over the course of several years; and b) I’ve bought an obscene amount of stuff from iTunes.

But you can only “upgrade” your entire library, not individual tracks or albums. And even worse: that includes everything you’ve ever bought from the iTunes store, regardless of whether it’s still in your library. Over four years, I can get a lot of stupid stuff — albums I’m not sure why I bought in the first place, songs I wanted to hear at 2 in the morning but never want to hear again, stuff that seemed like it’d be good but turned out otherwise, and just plain lapses in judgement for which I have no excuse. Most of those got deleted long ago, and they’re not missed. But I’d get to pay to download them again if I ever wanted to go “iTunes Plus” for the stuff I still like.

Or, buy them again from Amazon and end up paying less overall or more per track. Which is the confusing part: it seems like it’d be in Apple’s best interest to get some more money out of me, instead of insisting on $100 or nothing.

But as I said, the DRM stuff is no more inconvenient to me today than it was yesterday, so there’s no compelling reason to “upgrade” at all. And it’s not as if re-buying music is a totally alien concept: most of the stuff I got off iTunes in the first place was from albums I’d already bought in college and had to sell back for textbooks or food. So in the end, it’s just another example of weird business practices by Apple. And another weird side effect of living during a cross-over from one type of media to another. (Expect to hear me complaining more loudly once all the video content starts going DRM-free).

iList

Because I’m in a year-end list-making mood, and I’ve got insomnia, here’s a handy list of my favorite iPhone apps. All links go to the App Store page on iTunes, so don’t be alarmed.

Tweetie
iPhone client for twitter.com
This is the best twitter client for any platform, as far as I’m concerned. I bought a copy of Twitterriffic and don’t regret it, and I’m still using the desktop version on my other machines. But this is one case where the “less is more” philosophy doesn’t quite hold up. Tweetie lets you separate messages into replies and direct messages, search for keywords and on more general “trends,” and most useful: examine profile details. Seeing who’s following you (and who’s following them, and so on) is the best way to build up a network of people you don’t know.

Speaking of people you don’t know: I never saw the appeal of twitter initially, but now I’ve become one of those annoying types who says it’s “indispensable.” My favorite of the people I don’t know that I’m following is Joshua Green Allen, or @fireland, who’s so funny it kind of pisses me off.

Stanza
Free e-book reader
I don’t understand this one at all; it came out almost as soon as the app store opened, it’s completely full-featured and works perfectly, and it’s still free. You can download books from within the app, directly to the phone, or you can add your own. I haven’t tried reading a full-length novel on it yet, but at least for reading short fiction, it’s perfect.

NetNewsWire
Free RSS feed reader
This is especially useful if you use NetNewsWire as your desktop RSS feed reader (as you should, if you use a Mac), since it keeps your read/unread count in sync with the desktop version. The author updates the app frequently, and he’s always looking for ways to make it faster, simpler, and easier to use.

Air Sharing
File transfer and viewing utility
This lets you copy files directly to the iPhone, without going through iTunes or a desktop client app. It contains viewers for most common file types like video, audio, and iWork/MS Office documents.

SimCity
City-building game
This is a surprisingly full-featured port of SimCity; it doesn’t feel like they had to sacrifice much to get it to work on a phone. It’s roughly “SimCity 2800,” since it’s got the art assets and most of the concepts of SimCity 3000, but not quite the entire game (no subways, for instance). Seeing as how SimCity 3K is the only game that I’ve spent literally an entire day playing, this could be dangerous — luckily, the game drains the iPhone’s battery pretty quickly, and doesn’t scale that well to huge cities.

Now Playing
Free browser for movie showtimes and reviews

Kotoba!
Free Japanese/English dictionary
Works best if you enable the Japanese keyboard(s) via Settings->General->International->Keyboards.

Instapaper
Free & Paid versions, saves web pages for offline reading
Simple and easy to use, works perfectly even in the free version. Great for plane flights.

OmniFocus
Task management software
This one is overpriced and a little over-complicated, but it’s the best one available for the phone right now. The UI just plain works like it’s supposed to, and it turns out to be the fastest and easiest at entering new tasks (which is what you do most often) and sorting them into different contexts. It’s very hard to justify paying $20 for a to-do list app (and much, much more than that if you want to sync your list with the desktop!) but if it’s something you use a lot, it’s the best you can buy.

Windows: No doing, no thinking

hehasabeard.jpgMicrosoft’s ads with Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld generated a lot of “controversy” and media attention, for some reason; I thought they were over-long and unfocused, but ultimately harmless. They managed to make a subtle, self-deprecating acknowledgement that Microsoft is perceived as being out of touch, and spun that into a positive: hey look, Windows helps people stay connected and get back in touch!

So they were nothing spectacular (especially considering how much they must’ve cost), but they were a damn sight better than the campaign that ended up taking focus. If you haven’t seen it — and I have no idea how you could’ve avoided seeing it, since I don’t even watch that much TV anymore, and I’ve seen it over a dozen times — it’s the one that starts with a John Hodgman look-alike complaining that PCs have been reduced to a stereotype, and then cycles through dozens of people all around the world saying stupid things like “I have a beard!” Here it is on YouTube.

This campaign fails on every conceivable level, and it makes me angry thinking how much money was spent on it. Here’s just a small sample of the failure:

  • It puts Microsoft on the defensive. It’s purely a counter-ad, which would be fine if it didn’t so blatantly say, “You know those ads that everybody loves? We can do those too!”
  • As if it weren’t enough to steal the successful Apple campaign’s spokesperson and tag-line, it even rips off Apple’s music gimmick, with its little synthesized jingle screaming “God DAMN we’re quirky!” Does Microsoft really want to dredge up another look-and-feel complaint?
  • It’s indistinguishable from hundreds of other ads. They have to keep the Windows logo on-screen the whole time, so you can tell they’re not trying to sell you shoes or body spray or an American Express card.
  • It misses the whole point of the campaign it rips off. The people in that ad aren’t PCs, they’re people who (have to) use PCs. In the Apple ads, Hodgman and the Dodgeball guy are really supposed to be a PC and a Mac, not PC and Mac users. That is exactly why those ads are clever.
  • That line from Deepak Chopra where he says, “not a human doing, not a human thinking, a human being.” That fails on two sub-levels:
    • It’s bullshit that is supposed to sound like it’s saying something deep.
    • I don’t think it’s wise to emphasize “not doing or thinking” when you’re talking about a computer operating system. Those are pretty much exactly the things that an OS is supposed to help with. Nobody needs to boot up Windows before they can “be.”
  • It doesn’t say anything about Windows other than “a lot of people use Windows.” A lot of people get root canals, too; that doesn’t mean they enjoy it. When Coca-Cola runs ad campaigns that are just brand-retention “Hey, Coke still exists,” at least they usually mention that it tastes good, or at least that it can be chilled.

And as terrible as that ad campaign is, they’ve done worse. They’re also touting “The Mojave Experiment”, a “blind taste test” type gimmick whose message is “We have to trick people into liking Windows Vista.”

After you’ve installed Microsoft’s crappy doomed-to-failure Flash rip-off (or better yet, just skipped the whole thing and forgotten it ever happened), there’s a suite of crappy videos where you can watch two anti-charismatic Microsoft PR guys try their damnedest to emulate the creepy black-T-shirt-wearing Apple demodroids. The videos are full of little jump-cuts and “oh are we recording now?” gimmicks that make you want to start punching whoever made them and just never stop.

The premise is that they took a few people, showed them a new version of Windows in development, recorded their squeals of delight at how fast and pretty it is, and then oh my God would you look at that pulled the rug out from under them and told them they’d been using Windows Vista all along!

So apparently, Microsoft is aware that Vista is a miserable failure, and it has terrible word of mouth. Good for them. It’d be nicer if they were actually paying attention though, because they would’ve known that no one has complained about the first impression of Vista. It is pretty. All the little window effects are neat. You can believe for the first few minutes that Microsoft made something as slick-looking and enjoyable to use as OS X, and that even better, you can actually play games on it.

But it takes five minutes or less to run into your first “security” confirmation pop-up. And the eight different pop-ups warning you that some users have been the victims of phishing scams by using their keyboards, and are you sure you meant to type that letter? You’d better hope you don’t have to change a setting, because the Control Panel now has more icons than Ramses’s tomb, half of which are named “DreamFlight” or “SilverShade” or “ActionCenter” or some other boneheaded PR-driven non-name that has nothing to do with “I just want to copy a damn file over the network.”

And you definitely better hope you don’t have to turn the damn thing off, because re-booting it will take up 10-15 minutes of your life, especially since it’s constantly downloading updates every 5 minutes and then failing to install them. But at least you can run it in a virtual machine while you’re actually being productive in a different OS except oh no wait, you can’t, unless you blow $300 on the “Ultimate” edition of Vista.

But at least it’s incompatible with a ton of videogames, since playing games is the only reason left to have Windows installed on a machine. I’m a PC, and I log into an account with Administrator privileges and still have to explicitly say “Run as Administrator” and click away two or three confirmation dialogs whenever I want to launch a game!

They copied so much of Vista from Leopard, and got it wrong. Now they’re copying the ads from Apple, and getting those wrong. As a Mac user, I paid to have that smug sense of superiority over Windows. I need that. But I can’t enjoy it if Windows just keeps failing so badly.

(And the really baffling thing is that Xbox Live is so well done. How can these two products be from the same company?)

I’ve come to kill your monstah!

beowulf.jpg
Over three years ago, I wrote on here about a slick app for the Mac called Delicious Library. It’s a database for your books, movies, CDs, and videogames that presents everything by letting you scan through shelves of the covers.

The first version got a ton of coverage on the internet, mostly because of its extremely slick presentation. Everything was glossy and animated, it let you use your iSight camera to scan in bar codes, it grabbed contacts from your Address Book to let you keep track of who borrowed what. This was what Mac apps were supposed to be like. The presentation actually made it fun to keep track of your conspicuous consumerism, and that’s pretty much the Apple philosophy right there.

In fact, there was so much buzz around the app that it spawned a counter movement among fairly embittered Mac software developers who didn’t cotton to this new wave of style over substance.

Now, after a few years of hype and previews, version 2.0 of the app is out (available from the link at the top of this post). It’s Leopard-only, it’s supposedly faster (I don’t have a large enough library to tell the difference), and it has a few more export features, including exporting your library to a web version.

(Anyone curious can check out my library, which hasn’t been updated in a year or so, and contains most of my DVDs and a few of my books that I entered before I got bored with the process).

To say that I’m not impressed is something of an understatement; I’ve hit the embarrassed-that-I-used-to-think-this-was-kind-of-cool level of disillusionment. It’s $40 for the full program, or $20 if you’re upgrading from a previous version. The HTML export was the bit I was interested in, but with all the data it dumps into the result, the process of generating the export takes a long time and the process of actually uploading it is interminable. Plus, you can see from the example above that a huge chunk of the page is taken up by their gigantic logo, and most of the space on the page is given to their faux wood grain.

The feature I was most interested in was getting a version of my library I could check out on the iPhone. So if I’m at a bookstore, for example, wondering which Terry Pratchett books I’ve already got but haven’t read yet, I could make sure I don’t end up with a duplicate. Delicious Library does generate a special version tailored for the iPhone, but again, most of the space is taken up by stuff that you don’t need. And worst of all: no search. Which pretty much renders the whole thing useless.

I like to think I’m not a jerk, and normally I wouldn’t bother making a blog post about an app I don’t like and wouldn’t recommend. But it’s interesting to me what this app in particular says about the state of Mac development, not to mention web services and the like.

I haven’t heard much lately about the “Delicious Generation;” whether that means it all fizzled out, or I just haven’t been paying attention, I can’t say.

I can say that with all the new features included in Leopard — Core Data, Core Animation, improved Interface Builder, improvements to Objective C — writing something that does the same thing as Delicious Library seems really easy. The latest edition of Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X (an outstanding book) includes retrieving and presenting information from Amazon as one of its short example apps. And there’s definitely no shortage of documentation and example code for Amazon’s API.

The only part of Delicious Library that doesn’t strike me as simple and easy to implement is the iSight barcode scanner. And that’s more of a gimmick than a feature; using it requires you to turn on every light in the room, have an extremely steady hand, and have the patience to repeat the scan over and over again. It’s faster just to type in titles and ISBNs.

But again, this isn’t intended as a jerkish, “You’re not so smart! I could do all that!” post (although I have to say there is a little bit of arrogance surrounding Delicious Monster that I’d like to see dispelled). I’m really pointing out how impressive it is that this kind of thing is included at the operating system level these days. I’ve spent so much time lamenting the death of HyperCard that I never clued into how quickly “real” programming was developing.

With Leopard and the Interface Builder and XCode included free (like HyperCard), you can build a completely functional interface with no code (like HyperCard), you can hook it up to a database with no code (like HyperCard), you can drop whatever media and data you’ve got from other apps into your own (like HyperCard), and you can quickly and easily design really slick-looking transitions and other “fluff” stuff that just makes the app more enjoyable to use (like HyperCard). But you’re not bound to the card/stack metaphor, and you’ve got the entire internet at your disposal as a data source. Things that I never would’ve thought possible when I started programming, are trivial now.

So I’m not saying the “delicious generation” fizzled out. Considering that some flashy indie apps have made their way into the operating system itself, maybe Apple really did take their inspiration from these outside developers, but systemized it and legitimized it so that you get the flash without sacrificing the functionality. It makes me realize that the company is really living up to its publicized philosophy: taking computers from being just a necessity, to being things that are actually fun to use.

Whatever the case, I’m still not paying $40 or even $20 to organize my damn DVD collection. I’d rather write my own program.