In Memorium – Steve Jobs – 1955-2011

Somewhere in the early 1980’s, my father took me to a bookstore in Manhattan. I don’t remember why, exactly, we were there, but it was a defining moment in my life. On display was a new wonder, a Macintosh computer.

Being young, I wasn’t aware of social protocol. I was supposed to be awed by this machine, afraid to touch it. Instead, as my father says, I pushed my way over, grabbed the mouse, and went to town. While all of the adults around me looked on in horror, I quickly figured out the interface and was able to make the machine do what I wanted.

It would be over 20 years before I really became a Mac user, but that first experience helped define my love of computers and technology.

Thank you, Steve.

Much Ado About Lion

Apple released the latest version of it’s OS X operating system, Lion, on July 20th. With this release came a myriad of changes in both the UI and back-end systems. Many of these features are denounced by critics as Apple slowly killing off OS X in favor of iOS. After spending some time with Lion, I have to disagree.

Many of the new UI features are very iOS-like, but I’m convinced that this is not a move to dumb down OS X. I believe this is a move by Apple to make the OS work better with the hardware it sells. Hear me out before you declare me a fanboy and move on.

Since the advent of the unibody Macbook, Apple has been shipping buttonless input devices. The Macbook itself has a large touchpad, sans button. Later, they released the magic mouse, sort of a transition device between mice and trackpads. I’m not a fan of that particular device. And finally, they’re shipping the trackpad today. No buttons, lots of room for gestures. Just check out the copy direct from their website.

If you look at a lot of the changes made in Lion, they go hand-in-hand with new gestures. Natural scrolling allows you to move the screen in the same direction your fingers are moving. Swipe three fingers to the left and right, the desktop you’re on moves along with it. Explode your fingers outwards and Launchpad appears, a quick, simple way to access your applications folder. Similar gestures are available for the Magic Mouse as well.

These gestures allow for quick and simple access to many of the more advanced features of Lion. Sure, iOS had some of these features first, but just because they’ve moved to another platform doesn’t mean that the platforms are merging.

Another really interesting feature in Lion is one that has been around for a while in iOS. When Apple first designed iOS, they likely realized that standard scrollbars chew up a significant amount of screen real estate. Sure, on a regular computer it may be a relatively small percentage, but on a small screen like a phone, it’s significant. So, they designed a thinner scrollbar, minus the arrows normally seen at the top and bottom, and made it auto-hide when the screen isn’t being scrolled. This saved a lot of room on the screen.

Apple has taken the scrollbar feature and integrated it into the desktop OS. And the effect is pretty significant. The amount of room saved on-screen is quite noticeable. I have seen a few complaints about this new feature, however, mostly complaining that it’s difficult to grab the scrollbar with the mouse pointer, or that the arrow buttons are gone. I think the former is just a general “they changed something” complaint while the latter is truly legitimate. There have been a few situations where I’ve looked for the arrow buttons and their absence was noticeable., I wonder, however, whether this is a function of habit, or if their use is truly necessary. I’ve been able to work around this pretty easily on my Macbook, but after I install Lion on my Mac Pro, I expect that I’ll have a slightly harder time. Unless, that is, I buy a trackpad. As I said, I believe Apple has built this new OS with their newer input devices in mind.

On the back end, Lion is, from what I can tell, completely 64-bit. They have removed Java and Flash, and, interestingly, banned both from their online App Store. No apps that require Java or Flash can be sold there. Interesting move. Additionally, Rosetta, the emulation software that allows older PowerPC software to run, has been removed as well.

Overall, I’m enjoying my Lion experience. I still have the power of a unix-based system with the simplicity of a well thought out GUI interface. I can still do all of the programming I’m used to as well as watch videos, listen to music, and play games. I think I’ll still keep a traditional multi-button mouse around for gaming, though.

The Third Category

“Is there room for a third category of device in the middle, something that’s between a laptop and smartphone?”

And with that, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, ushered in the iPad.

So what is the iPad, exactly? I’ve been seeing it referred to as merely a gigantic iPod Touch. But is there more to it than that? Is this thing just a glorified iPod, or can there be more there?

On the surface, it truly is an oversized iPod Touch. It has the same basic layout as an iPod Touch with the home button at the bottom. It has a thick border around the screen where the user can hold the unit without interfering with the multitouch display.

The screen itself is an LCD display using IPS technology. According to Wikipedia, IPS (In-Plane Switching) is a technology designed by Hitachi. It offers a wide viewing angle and accurate color reproduction. The screen is backlit using LEDs, offering much longer battery life, uniform backlighting, and longer life.

Apple is introducing a total of 6 units, varying only in the size of the built-in flash storage, and the presence of 3G connectivity. Storage comes in either 16, 32, or 64 GB varieties. 3G access requires a data plan from a participating 3G provider, AT&T to start, and will entail a monthly fee. 3G access will also require the use of a micro-SIM card. AT&T is currently the only US provider using these cards. The base 16GB model will go for $499, while the 64GB 3G model will run you $829, plus a monthly data plan. As it stands now, however, the data plan is on a month by month basis, no contract required.

Ok, so with the standard descriptive details out of the way, what is this thing? Is it worth the money? What is the “killer feature,” if there is one?

On the surface, the iPad seems to be just a big iPod Touch, nothing more. In fact, the iPad runs an enhanced version of the iPhone OS, the same OS the iPod Touch runs. Apple claims that most of the existing apps in the iTunes App Store will run on the iPad, both in original size, as well as an enhanced mode that will allow the app to take up the entire screen.

Based on the demonstration that Steve Jobs gave, as well as various other reports, there’s more to this enhanced OS, though. For starters, it looks like there will be pop-out or drop-down menus, something the current iPhone OS does not have. Additionally, apps will be able to take advantage of file sharing, split screen views, custom fonts, and external displays.

One of the more touted features of the iPad was the inclusion of the iBook store. It seems that Apple wants a piece of the burgeoning eBook market and has decided to approach it just like they approached the music market. The problem here is that the iPad is still a backlit LCD screen at its core. Staring at a backlit display for long periods of time generally leads to headaches and/or eye strain. This is why eInk based units such as the Kindle or the Sony Reader do so well. It’s not the aesthetics of the Kindle that people like, it’s the comfort of using the unit.

It would be nice to see the eBook market opened up the way the music market has been. In fact, I look forward to the day that the majority of eBooks are available without DRM. Apple’s choice of using the ePub format for books is an auspicious one. The ePub format is fast becoming the standard of choice for eBooks and includes support for both a DRM and non-DRM format. Additionally, the format uses standard open formats as a base.

But what else does the iPad offer? Is it just a fancy book reader with some extra multimedia functionality? Or is there something more?

There has been some speculation that the iPad represents more than just an entry into the tablet market. That it, instead, represents an entry into the mobile processor market. After all, Apple put together their own processor, the Apple A4, specifically for this product. So is Apple merely using this as a platform for a launch into the mobile processor market? If so, early reports indicate that they may have something spectacular. Reports from those able to get hands-on time with the iPad report that the unit is very responsive and incredibly fast.

But for all of the design and power behind the iPad, there is one glaring hole. Flash support. And Apple isn’t hiding it, either. On stage, during the announcement of the iPad, Steve Jobs demonstrated web browsing by heading to the New York Times homepage. If you’ve ever been to their homepage, it’s dotted by various flash objects with video, slideshows, and more. On the iPad, these shows up as big white boxes with the Safari plugin icon showing.

So what is Apple playing at? Flash is pretty prevalent on the web, so not supporting it will result in a lot of missing content, as one Adobe employee demonstrated. Of course, the iPhone and iPod Touch have the same problem. Or, do they? If a device is popular, developers adapt. This can easily be seen by the number of websites that have adapted to the iPhone. But even more than that, look at the number of sites that adapt to the various web browsers, creating special markup to work with each one. This is nothing new for developers, it happens today.

Flash is unique, though, in that it gives the developers capabilities that don’t otherwise exist in HTML, right? Well, not exactly. HTML5 gives developers a standardized way to deploy video, handle offline storage, draw, and more. Couple this with CSS and you can replicate much of what Flash already does. There are lots of examples already of what HTML5 can do.

So what does the iPad truly mean to computing? Will it be as revolutionary as Apple wants us to believe it will be? I’m still not 100% sold on it, but it’s definitely something to watch. Microsoft has tried tablets in the past and failed, will Apple succeed?


Snow Kitty

Well, it’s finally out. Snow Leopard, Apple’s latest and greatest OS. Officially released on August 28th, they did a hell of a job getting it delivered on time. It arrived, on time, at my house yesterday afternoon. I had it installed on my Macbook Pro that evening.

OS X 10.6 brings full 64-bit application support to the OS. According to Apple, almost every single core app has been re-built to be 64-bit. This means that these applications can access more memory, if necessary, run faster, and actually take up less space on the hard drive. After installing the latest OS, I gained an extra 10 Gig of space on the hard drive.. Finally, an upgrade that really delivers on savings!

In addition to 64-bit, Apple has also included some new technology. First up is Grand Central Dispatch [pdf], a multi-core threading technology. Grand Central is responsible for handling threads, removing the burden from the developer. As long as an application is programmed to use GCD, the OS will take care of optimizing thread usage. Apple claims GCD is extremely efficient at what it does and will dynamically scale with the number of processors in the computer. As a result, programs will run faster, taking full advantage of the system.

Another new technology is OpenCL. OpenCL, or Open Computing Language, is a way for developers to take advantage of extra processing power by utilizing the GPU of the graphics card. I’m a bit on the fence about this particular technology. On the one hand, using the extra power can help programs run faster. On the other hand, it seems that an irresponsible programmer, or perhaps even a well-intentioned one, could use up GPU cycles, impacting overall graphics performance. Though my fear may be misplaced as I’m sure Apple has put some sort of check in place to ensure this doesn’t happen. Regardless, it’s a pretty cool technology, and I’d like to see it in action.

In addition to all of the “under the hood” stuff, OS X 10.6 includes a few new features. One of the more touted features is support for Microsoft Exchange. Mail, iCal, and the Address Book now have built-in support for Microsoft Exchange, allowing business users to easily access their data on a Mac. I don’t have much use for this, and no way to test any of it, so I don’t have much to say about it.

Other features include some additional UI improvements. Snow Leopard allows you to drill down into folders when you’re looking at a stack on the dock. I find this to be a really cool feature, letting me zip around my documents folder without popping up additional windows I don’t really need. Expose has also been updated and integrated into the dock. If you click and hold on an icon in the dock, Expose activates and shows you all of the open windows for that application. From there you can switch to a window, close the application, show it in the finder, and even set it up to launch at login.

There’s a whole bunch of other enhancements as well. You can read about them here.

Since the install, I’ve run into a few problems, but nothing I didn’t really expect. The install itself went smoothly, taking the better part of an hour to complete. I experienced no data loss at all, and it appears that none of my applications were marked as incompatible. I do have a few apps that are not Snow Leopard ready, though.

After launching Mail, I was notified that both the GPGMail and GrowlMail plugins had been disabled due to incompatibilities. GrowlMail is more of a flashy app, nothing I rely heavily on. GPGMail was a blow, however, as I use it daily. And to make matters worse, it looks like GPGMail won’t be updated anytime soon. The short story is that the internals of Mail changed significantly with the new release. To make matters worse, Apple apparently doesn’t publish any sort of Mail API, so it becomes even more difficult to create a Mail plugin. This is a real killer for me, as I really relied on this plugin. Hopefully someone will be able to step in and get this fixed soon.

I also noticed that Cisco’s Clean Access Agent is no longer functioning. It seems to run, but won’t identify the OS properly, so the system is rejected by the network. Supposedly the 4.6 release of CCA fixes this, but I haven’t been able to locate a copy to test yet.

Another broken app was Blogo, my blogging application. As usual, though, Brainjuice was on top of things and I’m currently running a new beta version that seems to work properly. The real test is when I’m done writing this and try to post it…

Beyond these few apps, everything appears to be working properly. Hopefully the apps I have will be updated to 64-bit over the next few weeks and months and I’ll see even more performance out of this system. As it is, the system seems to be running much quicker now. Unfortunately, I don’t have any definitive benchmarks to prove this, though.

So overall, I’m happy with the Snow Leopard upgrade. The speed and performance improvements thus far are great, and the extra new features are quite useful. The extra 10 Gig of disk space doesn’t hurt much either. I definitely recommend the update, but make sure your apps are compatible beforehand.


Switching Gears…

Ok, so I did it. I made the switch. I bought a Mac. Or, more specifically, I bought a Macbook Pro.

Why? Well, I had a few reasons. Windows is the standard for most office applications, and it’s great for gaming, but I find it to be a real pain to code in. I’m not talking code for Windows applications, I’m talking code for web applications. Most of my code is perl and PHP and I really have no interest in fighting with Windows to get a stable development platform for these. Sure, I can remotely access the files I need, but then I’m tethered to an Internet connection. I had gotten around this (somewhat) by installing Linux on my Windows machine via VirtualBox. It worked wonderfully, but it’s slower that way, and there are still minor problems with accessibility, things not working, etc.

OSX seemed to fit the bill, though. By default, it comes with apache and PHP, you can install MySQL easily, and it’s built on top of BSD. I can drop to a terminal prompt and interact with it the same way I interact with a Linux machine. In fact, almost every standard command I use on my Linux servers is already on my Macbook.

Installing Apple’s XCode developer tools gives me just about everything else I could need, including a free IDE! Though, this particular IDE is more suited for C++, Java, Ruby, Python, and Cocoa. Still, it’s free and that’s nothing to scoff at. I have been using a trial of Komodo, though, and I’m leaning towards buying myself a copy. $295 is steep, though.

What really sold me on a Mac is the move to Intel processors and their Bootcamp software. I play games, and Mac doesn’t have the widest library of games, so having a Windows machine available is a must. Thanks to Bootcamp, I can continue to play games while keeping my development platform as well. Now I have OSX as my primary OS and a smaller Bootcamp partition for playing games. With the nVidia GeForce card in this beast, as well as a fast processor and 2GB of RAM, I’m set for a while..

There are times, though, when I’d like to have Windows apps at my fingertips, while I’m in OSX. For that, I’ve tried both Parallels and VMWare Fusion. Parallels is nice, and it’s been around for a while. It seems to work really well, and I had no real problems trying it out. VMWare Fusion 2 is currently in beta, and I installed that as well. I’m definitely leaning towards VMWare, though, because I’ve used them in the past, and they really know virtual machines. Both programs have a nifty feature that lets you run Windows apps in such as way as to make it seem like they’re running in OSX. In parallels it’s called Coherence, and in VMWare it’s called Unity. Neat features!

So far I’ve been quite pleased with my purchase. The machine is sleak, runs fast, and allows me more flexibility than I’ve ever had in a laptop. It does run a bit hot at times, but that’s what lapdesks are for.. :)

So now I’m an Apple fan… I’m sure you’ll be seeing posts about OSX applications as I learn more about my Mac. I definitely recommend checking them out if you’ve never used one. And, if you have used one in the past, pre-OSX days, check them out now. I hates the old Mac OS, but OSX is something completely different, definitely work a second look.

A Sweet Breeze

At Macworld this week, Steve Jobs announced a number of new products for Apple.  While most built on existing product lines, one stand out from the crowd as both unique and, quite possibly, daring.  Betting on the ubiquitous presence of wireless access, Jobs announced a new member of the MacBook family, the MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air is Apple’s entry into the so-called Ultra-Light notebook category.  Sporting a 1.6 or 1.8 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2 GB SDRAM, and 802.11n wireless access, this tiny notebook is nothing to scoff at.  Internal storage comes in two flavors, a 4800 RPM 80 GB hard drive, or a 64 GB Solid-State drive.

Conspicuously missing from the Air is an optical drive and an Ethernet jack, though external versions of these are available.  A notebook designed for a wireless world, the Air comes with special software to allow your desktop computer to become a file server, of sorts, so you can install cd and DVD based software over the air.  With the enhanced speed of 802.11n, even large installs should take a relatively short amount of time.

The Air has a few other innovations as well.  The keyboard is backlit, containing an ambient light sensor that automatically lights the keyboard in low-light conditions.  The touchpad now has multi-touch technology, allowing touchpad gestures to rotate, resize, etc.  A micro-DVI port, hidden behind a small hatch on the side, allows the user to connect to a number of different types of external displays ranging from DVI to VGA and even S-Video.  The 13.3″ widescreen display is backlit, reducing power consumption while providing brilliant graphics.  And finally, for the eco-conscious, the entire MacBook Air is built to be environmentally friendly.

But can Apple pull this off?  Will the MacBook Air become as popular as they believe it will?  Has the time come for such a wireless device?  Remember, Palm tried to get into this game with the Foleo.  The problem with the Foleo, of course, was that it was nothing more than a glorified phone accessory, depending heavily on the mobile phone for network access.  And while typing email on a full keyboard with a larger display was nice, there was no real “killer app” for the Foleo.

Critics of the MacBook air point to problems such as the sealed enclosure, or the lack of an Ethernet port.  Being completely sealed, users cannot replace the battery, or switch out to a larger hard drive.  In fact, though not announced, it appears that the Air will suffer the same battery replacement problems that the iPod does.  Is this necessarily a killer, though?  I don’t believe so.  In fact, I think it might be time for a fully wireless device such as this, and I’m eager to see where it leads.

iPhone… A revolution?

So the cat’s out of the bag. Apple is already in the computer business, the music business, the video/TV business, and now they’re joining the cell phone business. Wow, they’ve come pretty far in the last 7 years alone.

So what is this iPhone thing anyway? Steve says it’s going to revolutionize phones, and that it’s 5 years ahead of the current generation. So does it really stack up? Well, since it’s only a prototype at this point, that’s a little hard to say. The feature set is impressive, as was the demonstration given at Macworld. Most of the reviews I’ve read have been pretty positive too.

So let’s break this down a little bit and see what we have. The most noticeable difference is the complete and total lack of a keypad/keyboard. In fact, there are a grant total of four buttons on this thing, five if you count up/down volume as two. And only one of them is on the actual face of the device. This may seem odd at first, but the beauty here is that any application developed for the iPhone can arbitrarily create their own buttons. How? Why?

Well, the entire face of the phone is one giant touchscreen. In fact, it’s a multi-touch screen meaning that you can touch multiple points on the screen at the same time for some special effects such as zooming in on a picture. This means that developers are not tied to a pre-defined keypad and can create what they need as the application is run. So, for instance, the phone itself has a large keypad for dialing a telephone number. In SMS and email mode, the keypad is shrunk slightly and becomes a full keyboard.

As Steve pointed out in his keynote, this is very similar to what happens on a PC today. A PC application can display buttons and controls in any configuration it needs, allowing the user to interact with it through use of a mouse. Now imagine the iPhone taking the place of the PC and your finger taking the place of the mouse. Your finger is a superb pointing device and it’s pretty handy too.

The iPhone runs an embedded version of OSX, allowing it access to a full array of rich applications. It should also allow developers a access to a familiar API for programming. While no mention of third-party development has been made yet, you can bet that Apple will release some sort of SDK. The full touchscreen capabilities of this device will definitely make for some innovative applications.

It supports WiFi, EDGE, and Bluetooth 2.0 in addition to Quad-Band GSM for telephony. WiFi access is touted as “automatic” and requires no user intervention. While this is likely true in situations where there is no WiFi security in place, the experience when in a secure environment is unknown. More details will likely be released over the coming months.

Cingular is the provider of choice right now. Apple signed an exclusivity contract with Cingular, so you’re tied to their network for the time being. Being a Cingular customer myself, this isn’t such a bad thing. I like Cingular’s network as I’ve had better luck with it than the other networks I’ve been on.

In addition to phone capabilities, the iPhone is a fully functional iPod. It syncs with iTunes as you would expect, has an iPod docking connector, and supports audio and video playback. One of the cooler features is the ability to tip the iPhone on it’s side to enable landscape mode. The iPhone automatically switches to landscape mode when it detects the change in pitch. Video must be viewed in landscape mode.

So it looks like the iPhone has all of the current smartphone capabilities and then some. But how will it do in the market? The two models announced at Macworld are priced pretty high. The 4 Gig model will run you $499 for the 4 Gig model, and $599 for the 8 Gig. This makes the iPhone one of the more expensive phones on the market. However, it seems that Apple is betting that a unified device, phone/iPod/camera/Internet, will be worth the premium price. They may be right, but only time will tell.

UPDATE : According to an article in the New York Times, Jobs is looking to restrict third-party applications on the iPhone. From the article :

“These are devices that need to work, and you can’t do that if you load any software on them,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there’s not going to be software to buy that you can load on them coming from us. It doesn’t mean we have to write it all, but it means it has to be more of a controlled environment.”

So it sounds like Apple is interested in third-party apps, but in a controlled manner. This means extra hoops that third-party developers need to jump through. This may also entail additional costs for the official Apple stamp of approval, meaning that smaller developers may be locked out of the system. Given the price point of the phone, I hope Apple realizes the importance of third-party apps and the impact they have. Without additional applications, Apple just has a fancy phone with little or no draw.