Articles from 2005
It was another very sad, almost heartbreaking story about all the lost technophobes out there who made the mistake of buying Windows computers for their homes. In today’s Washington Post, a story called The Computer Geeks Who Saved Christmas chronicles how the geeky or even slightly geeky family member nowadays gets waylaid by his relatives every time he (or she) visits at Christmastime, dragged to their sick Windows computer and made to try to clean up the virus and adware mess that has built up since his last visit.
This is just a quick “thank you”? to Les Posen for his patient defense of iTunes in the face of an incomprehensible attack by RSS and scripting guru Dave Winer yesterday. First, in case you haven’t read it, here is Winer’s opinion of iTunes, excerpted from one of his blogs:
The user interface on iTunes is awful. It’s the worst piece of crap I’ve ever used. People would tell me when I was a Windows user that it was because the Windows version of iTunes is crap but the Mac version is easy. Well, both programs are head-up-butt impossible to figure out. The user model makes no sense. When is something on the iPod? How many copies of the music do I have? Where the fcuk are they? How do you delete something? Is it really gone? Why does it wipe out the contents of the iPod when I don’t say it’s okay to?
Now, I know that Dave Winer thinks he’s a god, and probably a lot of others do, too. However, it’s important to understand that here on earth, if you’re God of Scripting or God of Podcasting, that doesn’t make you God of Interface Design as well. You don’t get to rule in that space. It’s just like the ancient greek gods… each one specialized in a certain field, and didn’t try to tell the other gods how to run their special areas. Can you imagine Poseidon, who was god of of the sea, giving a critique of some musical composition to Apollo, who was god of music? Or, even if he did, would Apollo (or any of the other gods) take him seriously? Of course not.
2. A Freakin’ Awesome Dictionary
I’ll bet those of you who read my first article in this series last spring are either Windows fans who have been chuckling, “See, he could only think of one thing!” Or you’re Mac fans who are disappointed that I started in strong to give the other side “what for,” but then left the match just when it was getting interesting.
Although you’d both be wrong, you have to understand that here on Mars, time moves at a somewhat slower pace than it does on Earth. You see, here it’s only been a month since I wrote that first installment, and I thought I was doing pretty good to be getting a second one in already. Then I realized how it might look from down here, and, well… I’ll try to get the third article done in a time frame that will make more sense to you folks.
Now, you ask, “Exactly how could something as mundane as a dictionary possibly induce envy in a Windows user?” Ah, I see you’re one of those who still hasn’t fully appreciated the awesome Dictionary.app built into Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4). It’s already been highlighted in all the Mac news magazines, glorified in all the Mac blogs, and praised endlessly in the Mac discussion forums. Yet I still encounter good, hardworking Mac users who don’t know about it yet. How could that be?
Well, the Tiger Dictionary ain’t exactly a flashy product, for one thing. It doesn’t sit in your Dock, so it’s easy to not realize it’s there. I don’t think Steve included it in any of his Tiger demos. And, well, it’s just a Dictionary, after all.
This is a tale of two blogs: Blogger, and WordPress. When I looked around for blogging tools and software last March, I settled on Blogger (now owned by Google) because it looked like I could get up and running very quickly. And I did! I don’t think it took me more than a week to customize an existing template and choose the few options available to get something I was pleased with.
Blogger is kind of like Apple’s .mac HomePage tool… mostly, you just point and click and make the best of the few options you have. Still, with very little effort you can end up with something that looks very professional. In my review of tools, I noted wistfully the powerful features of WordPress and Movable Type. As a guy who likes to program and play with code–especially with PHP and MySQL–those two blogging systems loomed on the net like two giant chocolate ocean liners. But I knew I had to be strong and ignore them, in order to get the blog up with a minimum of effort.
At the time, I also looked at desktop blogging tools and settled on Ecto, which I’ve been very pleased with. My only complaint is that Ecto’s developer updates the software so often I’m always having to download new versions! But it’s not really much of a complaint, since I’m very happy the tool keeps getting better.
So, with Blogger and Ecto in hand, I happily began writing down many things, delighting in my newfound ability to express my rants in a more disciplined form. As the number of articles grew, however, I started bumping up against the one feature of Blogger that bothered me in the beginning: No categories. As of this writing, Blogger offers no way to organize posts into categories or to tag them with keywords. This is a pretty serious deficiency, but it only has an impact after you’ve written more than a dozen posts or so, or if you’ve started covering more than one subject area.
Following up on my gushing article about the new iMacs and iPods from yesterday, I sat down to do the math on price/features between Dell and Apple. I once again revisited the “High End Consumer Desktop” specs and pricing to see what impact Apple’s new line has on that shootout. You can read the details, but very briefly, the gap has widened dramatically in Apple’s favor, both in price and in features.
Apple’s latest surprise announcements were so over-the-top that I wanted to write a few paragraphs about them. Once again, a highly anticipated product (this month, a video-capable iPod; last month, an iTunes-capable cell phone) is upstaged by a product no one anticipated. Last month, the iPod nano took everyone by surprise in its sheer audacity and beauty. This month, the new “media center” iMac is an even bigger surprise, and in some ways even more audacious.
I’m diverging a bit from the usual topics to share my discovery of a small software miracle that will truly elicit “Oohs” and “Aahs!” from readers who spend time digitizing their old vinyl records. In the best shareware tradition, a mathematics professor in Australia named Brian Davies has applied his mathematical prowess and his knowledge of digital audio to produce a java application that succeeds in a spectacular way where many commercial packages have failed: With his ClickRepair application, music lovers everywhere can now clean up audio files transferred from old vinyl records without compromising the sound quality of the underlying music. And he makes this possible for an investment of only $25.
The first instance I knew of this was the new Grants.gov website that OMB commissioned last year as one of the Federal Government’s well meaning e-Gov initiatives. A good idea in theory, the site would consolidate all grants throughout the Federal Government into a single portal, letting citizens do one-stop shopping and use one standard form whenever they wanted to apply for a Federal grant. In practice, though, the Feds were in a hurry to complete the work and were able to be convinced by the IT contractor in charge to make a system that could only be used with Windows systems….
OK, I thought… surely this will be an isolated incident…
In August came news that the U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress was planning to change their system for online submissions to restrict use to Windows users only, and even worse, to only those using Internet Explorer…
Just today I learned that FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Agency)–in the midst of its greatest crisis ever with Hurricane Katrina–somehow built a public-facing web system that can only be used by citizens using Windows and IE.
Like zillions of others, I’ve got an iPod. But, unlike every other mammal on the planet, I don’t think it’s all that great. Frankly, I don’t get it. What’s the big deal? I’ve had MP3 players before and I think they’re terrific, but the iPod, frankly, is inferior to all of them. It’s just a hard disk with a Play button….
Jim Turley (firstname.lastname@example.org), editor in chief of Embedded Systems Programming, a sister publication of EE Times. [Full article, such as it is, here.]
It wasn’t too long ago that stupid reviews like this one had me worried that once again consumers were going to be corralled away from superior technology and toward the inferior solutions so favored by Microsoft and its band of brothers. After all, during its first few years, the iPod was so daringly different from the much cheaper flash-RAM mp3 players that dominated the market that it wasn’t at all obvious it would achieve the success and market dominion it has today.
The whole concept of a hard-disk-based mp3 player is one that Apple pioneered, and until last year, most Windows-only technology pundits were convinced that Apple could never succeed against the steady onslaught of would-be imitators that were built to promote Microsoft’s proprietary media solutions. My, weren’t they surprised! Apple wouldn’t have won if they had stopped innovating and let the iPod stand still, but that didn’t happen. (See John Gruber’s prescient August 2004 article “Why 2004 Won’t Be Like 1984.”) And now the competition is running out of steam, looking more and more like sweaty, limping sprinters trying in vain to catch up to the race leader who never seems to tire.
Wow! This project really took me back a few years… and forward a few years as well.
The project took me forward a few years as well, since I got a clear glimpse of what life beyond browser-based HTML will be like a few years from now. I was skeptical at first, but because of both the explosion of Dashboard widgets since May 1 and the amazing usefulness of many of them, I’m now convinced that this new way of getting web information is the future. It’s really the next step beyond Sherlock, and in some ways is just an extension of RSS and an easy way of leveraging web services on your desktop. If I needed any confirmation for my gut feeling on this, Yahoo provided it this week by gobbling up Konfabulator (before Microsoft could get to them, I’m sure)! (More on that later…)
[My wife] and I both use our home computers to do work-related tasks a great deal. Both of our shops use all of the Microsoft Office applications. … So, practically speaking, because of the demands of my job, I cannot boycott Microsoft entirely on my home computers… Basically, the only Microsoft-produced application I could actually boycott is Windows itself.
Even a dedicated Microsoft-boycotter like me has trouble avoiding contributing to Microsoft’s coffers these days. On some level, I know my friend worries about supporting Microsoft products, because he uses Mozilla instead of IE, and Quicken instead of Money. But Microsoft’s empire runs far deeper than just Office, Windows, Money, and Internet Explorer. (Oh, that’s right… IE isn’t a separate product. Sorry, I forgot that for a moment.)
Bill Gates and his gang have been focused on defending the Microsoft monopoly for so long, they’ve managed to gain significant shares in pretty much all technologies and market segments that might pose a threat to Windows. Since my fellow Microsoft-watch writers have been kind of quiet on this particular topic for a few years now, I thought it would be good to survey the scene afresh. Let’s take a quick look at the various outposts of Windows technologies and see just how many tentacles we can find (in no particular order).
Every time I encounter this challenge in person, I’m so overwhelmed by the magnitude of my possible reply that I end up being totally inarticulate. I typically begin with Mac OS features whose benefits are pretty intangible, and which only become obvious after you have to live without them. As wonderful and essential as these are, they are things unlikely to resonate with a Windows user who’s just asked you to give him some practical benefit he or she would gain by using a Mac. Things like
- Clearer, crisper, resizable, 3-D icons
- 3-D window shading
- Superior navigation options, like the numerous ways you can customize the Finder and the Dock
- Much more readable text, due to the system’s advanced graphics engine
- The menubar, which is much more useful and customizable than the Windows taskbar
- Drag and drop, which is an integral Mac feature that too many Windows users just won’t get until they try it
- Colored folder labels, which again don’t become essential until you’ve grown to rely on them
- Spring-loaded folders
- Eye candy like the Dock poofs and genie animations
- The services menu, which for all its power is still a mystery to many Mac users, and whose benefits are not immediately obvious
Mind you, these are all near the top of my list of reasons why the Mac OS is superior to Windows, but they’ve never shown much power for persuasion in a discussion with a Windows user.
So, I’ve decided to start documenting specific, unambiguous, practical tasks that you can only do with a Mac. Perhaps one or two of these will impress that smug Windows user you know enough to take a Mac for a test drive…
I’m starting with one of my favorite features from Apple’s latest operating system–Mac OS X 10.4, “Tiger”: PDF print/workflow services. Now, for heaven’s sake, don’t call it that when you talk to your Windows friend, but that’s the technical name for it. These services were actually enabled in Panther, but you had to configure them manually. They were such a hidden feature that only the truly geeky would seek them out and make use of them.
Essentially, with PDF services, you can combine multiple steps of handling a PDF file into one quick action. By default, Tiger comes with several new, built-in PDF services, which you access from the print menu.
It’s hard for me to see choosing Apple over Microsoft as striking some great blow for populism just because Apple is a smaller company… In my mind, choosing Apple is substituting one greedy corporation for another.
It’s a sad commentary on my peers when I hear them voice opinions like this. What it means is that they think Microsoft’s behavior is the norm, and that all companies would behave like Microsoft if they could. This is the same cynical view that destroyed our faith in politicians after Richard Nixon’s crimes. For some reason, rather than understanding that Nixon was a political outlier, we adopted the view that all politicians would behave like Nixon if they could. And many people appear to be making the same mistake with Microsoft.
Good grief, to a man from Mars this looks like mass insanity. Microsoft is no more the norm than Richard Nixon was. But what they have in common is substantial:
- A total disregard for the truth
- A willingness to engage in dirty tricks against enemies
- Corrupt management from the top down
- A paranoia about–and intolerance of–deviations from any standards they have set for the world.
If you’re a Microsoft fan who’s just wandered into this article, you’ll no doubt think this is pure hyperbole. And though nothing I can say is likely to convince you otherwise, I do intend to try.
Apple recently refreshed both the PowerMac and iMac desktop lines. The PowerMac upgrade was nice, but nothing spectacular.
Today’s iMac upgrade, however, was a doozy! Very much worth taking notice of, so I did.
I’ve revisited the “High End Consumer Desktop” specs and pricing to see what impact Apple’s new line has on that shootout. You can read the details, but very briefly, the gap widened a little in Apple’s favor, though not as spectacularly as the new specs would suggest, thanks to a couple of key “free upgrades” at the Dell store.
A number of readers took me to task yesterday for picking on Dell without considering the other PC vendors. I explained that I chose Dell because that company is by far the largest supplier of Windows-based PC’s, and that it would be beyond the scope of my limited resources to cover all of the possible vendors. That said, I picked up the newspaper today, and here’s a full-page ad in the Washington Post from IBM for a $999 ThinkPad. So I thought, OK, let’s see if this is really a better deal than an iBook. I just paid a quick visit to IBM’s online store, and here’s what I found.
There is also the issue of relative costs. Even to this day, there is a certain premium to be paid for choosing an Apple over a PC. I did two careful comparisons the other day of four systems from Dell and Apple, two desktops and two portables…. The Mac is $270 (20%) more expensive. I also compared the Dell Inspiron 9200 portable with the top-of-the-line 17″ screen Powerbook G4. Again, these are virtually identical computers as far as their specs. The Powerbook is $961 (55%) more expensive than the Dell.
You know, this mythical friend of mine always does his homework carefully when selecting consumer products. And he takes great pride in that careful, intelligent approach. However, in the modern world, it’s become harder and harder to know when you’re comparing apples with apples, or apples with cashews. It started a number of years back for me when I was buying stereo systems. Understanding all the specifications and making sure you were comparing the same spec from two different products was very hard. It’s gotten worse lately. Now, consumers can’t even easily do comparison shopping for TV sets, let alone for cars, personal computers, DVD players, cell phones, etc. How can the careful consumer know when he or she is doing an appropriate comparison and making an intelligent selection?
The answer is that you can’t unless you’re either (a) an expert in the field, (b) know someone who is and ask them, or (c) have a source like Consumer Reports that you can trust to do the comparisons correctly, and follow their judgments. What you certainly can’t do is just sit down and carefully compare the published specifications from two vendors… at least, not without doing a great deal of research first.
In making his comparison, my friend made several basic errors. I don’t point these out to show how stupid he is (because he’s not!), but rather to indicate that these are errors that any intelligent consumer could make. In the case of the Macintosh pricing versus PC pricing, the errors have led to the general impression that comparable PC’s are cheaper than comparable Macs. Now, I won’t debate whether or not that’s always been the case, but I will state categorically that it ain’t true today and hasn’t been for the last 2-3 years.
My third reason for sticking with Windows at home (and, for me, this has been the most significant consideration): It is in the job description of my organization’s 2 IT staff guys that they will do all desired maintenance/troubleshooting/upgrading of our home computers if we bring them into the office. They have installed memory for me, new drives and cards, a wireless network, and remote access software. … Our IT staff doesn’t maintain Macs.
I had to laugh when I read this one… It just goes to show you how absolutely brainwashed PC users are about their computers. Since most (if not all) PC users started interacting with a computer at work, where you come to rely on a Help Desk for support, they naturally assume that unless you’re a technical wizard you’ll need such support for your PC at home, too.
Now, my friend has it extra bad, since his Help Desk support guys come for free with his home PC–a situation that I don’t think is all that common. If those tech support guys come for free–I mean, if my company thinks it’s worth the trouble to pay for this service so I can be productive at home, why it must be because it’s necessary… right? And as long as he has a Windows PC, he’s probably right! I mean, in addition to Windows’ long-standing usability problems, there’s this whole world of hackers and viruses that have turned from a bad nightmare into an even nastier reality over the last 5 years. If I were in charge of IT for a company these days, I’d lock those Windows systems down so tight the user couldn’t install any of their own software or anything else. All it takes is one little virus getting loose, and you’ve lost another day of productivity in corporate America. But that, of course, will be the subject of another little essay. The point here is that a company can justify giving free tech support to its employees’ PC’s nowadays–and not because they’re being nice. This isn’t an employee benefit… it’s a PC desktop management necessity.
Of course, this is only true if we’re talking about Windows systems. My friend’s default assumption is that his experience with a Windows computer at home will be the same as with a Macintosh when it comes to technical support. And that’s the crux of the problem… It’s not the same. In the Mac world, things have always been a little different. (And that’s not just a marketing slogan… honestly!)
It also appears to me that with the iPod and iTunes, Apple is engaging in just the kind of predatory behavior you accuse Microsoft of (i.e., refusing to license other manufacturers to produce players that play AAC songs). No surprise there; all corporations strive to be monopolists if they think they can get away with it. So far, Microsoft has simply been more successful.
Now, where do you suppose my friend got this impression? It comes directly from the FUD (fear, uncertainly, and doubt) seeded by Microsoft and its minions who are trying to–but so far, thankfully, failing to–control the world’s digital music with a proprietary format called Windows Media Audio (WMA). An amazingly stupid example of this kind of FUD appears in a Time Magazine article this week called “Attack of the Anti-iPods” by someone called “Time Morrison.” (Do you think his/her first name is really “Time”? But that’s what it says here…) In this article, Ms./Mr. Morrison opens his/her analysis with a breezy reference to “the proprietary digital-music format that joins you at the hip to Apple’s iTunes online store” as one of the negatives of the iPod experience.
Now, I would have thought someone writing for Time magazine about digital music players would know better. In fact, it’s the fact that they don’t know better that makes me suspicious of their motives. Because, as a matter of fact, Apple does not have a proprietary digital-music format. Apple’s digital music format is AAC, which is an industry standard developed by a coalition headed by Dolby Labs, derived from mpeg-4. (Oh yes, and none of the “A”’s in AAC stands for Apple… another stupid thing some tech writers get wrong. AAC stands for “Advanced Audio Coding”… You can read more about AAC here.) AAC was intended to replace mp3, the popular open-standard format that is still widely used today. Its primary advantages over mp3 are that it can produce smaller files with the same quality, and it is extensible to allow companies to add “ownership” controls, also known as “digital rights management”, or DRM.
I don’t question that Apple is great for multimedia applications… However, I don’t do video or photo editing, compose music on my computer, make graphics, do desk-top publishing, or design web pages.
Yesterday I had a major epiphany* about what to get my Dad for his 86th birthday this weekend. Until yesterday, I had bought into his belief that he would never learn how to use a computer, because he found it too confusing. The implication of this, of course, is that he was never to experience the many positive enhancements to his life that email and the Web could bring. Yesterday I realized there was a great solution, thanks to Apple’s new Mac Mini.
Some background will help explain my thinking…. You see, for years after the Web and email became a standard part of the life of working folks in America, my Dad has poo-poo’d their value. Left out of this huge communications revolution, he had to be content ranting about the negative side of the Web… namely, increased access to pornography and other forms of “dangerous” information (some of legitimate concern, I might add, like how-to sites on building bombs). As far as email goes, he couldn’t see how email would improve on old-fashioned print communication or on the good old telephone. And what about all that spam he keeps reading about? Lucky for him he doesn’t have to deal with it!
So, a couple of years ago one of his wife’s children had the bright idea to buy him a computer and set him up with internet access. They did, and the computer has sat virtually unused on a small table in their bedroom ever since. My Dad says that whenever he tried to use it, he could never figure out what to do.
OK, so he’s had a computer for 2 years and hasn’t used it. What makes me think giving him a Mac Mini will help?
To answer that, let me get back to the title of this essay, which is also related to the quote that opens it, from a friend of mine who doesn’t understand how a Mac would be any better than a Windows system as a personal computer, unless you’re doing multimedia work.
You see, although IBM coined the term “personal computer” when it rolled out its DOS-based systems back in 1981, it has never been marketed at “people”, really. (For an excellent history of the IBM PC, check out this article at about.com.) Instead, the PC was aimed squarely at the business world, which is one of the main reasons for its success over Apple’s computers.
And although there are times when I’m sure I would enjoy listening in shuffle mode, more often I am in the mood for particular kinds of music and don’t want to be switched from Barbara Streisand to U2 to Lyle Lovett at random.
You hear so much about Shuffle mode that I’m afraid some people get the impression that’s all an iPod can do. How else to explain my friend’s misconception that he might be forced to listen to inappropriate musical juxtapositions like Barbra Streisand and U2?
Another thing some humans don’t get until they use an iPod is that half of what makes the iPod a revolutionary experience is its symbiotic relationship with iTunes. When you take your iPod filled with music to the car, you will have any of the following choices in how to listen:
- By Album (CD)
- By Artist
- By Playlist (your custom lists)
- By Genre, or
- By Song, either in order by song name or randomly.