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For Software Addicts: Yes!MaybeNah!
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September 1st, 2012

Apple v. Samsung: The True Story

Apple v. Samsung. Everyone who thinks Samsung got shafted and/or that the decision was wrong should read this excellent article. It's not an opinion piece, by the way: It's full of actual facts about various patent cases and about the Samsung decisionmaking that the jury was presented with. Clearly, Samsung made a conscious choice to copy the iPhone, and they succeeded. Wildly. Apple was right to take them to court to protect their intellectual property rights, and the jury was right to decide in their favor. If you're on the fence about the decision, this one will definitely tip you over to Apple's side.
    
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July 1st, 2010

White House Freezes IT Projects To Revisit Wasteful IT Contracting

White House, citing waste, freezes IT projects - Computerworld. Wow... this was certainly good news, especially given my rabid views on the subject, as often expressed on Mars in the past. Federal IT spending is grossly mismanaged and embarrassingly costly, driven as it is by decisions made by IT "Beltway Bandits" rather than by knowledgeable Federal managers. Virtually all of the IT contractors are in bed with Microsoft, so you find a strong monopoly of Microsoft solutions at Federal agencies. And yes, Microsoft products are the most expensive to maintain over time, and Office is ridiculously expensive and overkill as a tool for every desktop. Worst of all, IT contractors typically sell solutions that further lock Feds into the Microsoft ecosystem, thereby shutting out the feasibility of implementing less expensive solutions based on open standards. A good first step... Now let's see what becomes of it.
    
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June 4th, 2010

Google Ditching Windows?

FT.com / Technology - Google ditches Windows on security concerns. I do hope this turns out to be true. If so, it's about time some IT folks wised up about Windows. The myth that Windows security problems are all due to the OS' large market share continues to dominate mindshare, but it's just that… a myth. Microsoft is singlehandedly responsible for the Antivirus/Anti-malware growth industry, and all of the security patches needed to keep Windows secure is keeping a lot of IT guys employed. This doesn't mean that Windows insecurity is a good thing, folks.
    
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April 15th, 2010

The Future for Home Computing

The iPad is the future for home computing - Computerworld. My iPad hasn't arrived yet (I opted for the 3G version, since I don't believe in cellphones and their parasitic subscription fees), but from what I know this Computerworld writer is spot-on. Not only am I a cellphone luddite, but a laptop one as well. I bought a MacBook Pro a couple of years back, but just couldn't make myself need or want it. (Ended up giving it to my wife.) But the iPad sounds like the laptop I've been waiting for! And it also means that, as much as I rely on my iPod Touch for eBook reading now, I'm very much looking forward to getting my mitts on the new iBook store. This is a great summary review of the iPad and captures all the salient reasons why Apple has another (and perhaps its biggest yet) hit on its hands.
    
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November 7th, 2008

A Treasure Trove of iPhone eReader Software Part II:
13 Apps for Managing Documents

iPhone Readers illustration. Based on a photo courtesy of the U.S. National Science Foundation.

This second part of my report on the iPhone application marketplace covers the class of software that, while still falling squarely in the overall eReader category, is designed primarily for storing and managing documents. The primary distinctions between this class and the one covered in Part 1 are that the eReader apps discussed here:

  1. Handle a wide variety of common file formats found in the workplace, rather than just text and proprietary eBook formats,
  2. Don't include controls for customizing fonts,
  3. Don't let users do full-text search on documents,
  4. Have good embedded browsers and follow web links,
  5. More easily let users move files to and from their iPhones, and
  6. Typically let users organize and rename files and folders within their interface.

It still surprises me how rapidly this market is evolving, and that evolution makes keeping tabs on the capabilities of each application--and even on the entire set of applications--quite challenging. As I was finalizing this report, a new application in this class came to market that,

Once again, another new iPhone app was released just as I was preparing to publish this report, which would make the 14th eReader in this category. It's too bad, because Discover is one of the best document-manager apps available. Best of all, it's free! I plan to add it to this review when time permits.
it turns out, I've found to have among the very best features of any that came before. I have no doubt that many of the applications reviewed here will continue to be refined, rendering this snapshot fairly obsolete fairly quickly. But the observations here accurately reflect the current state of iPhone eReaders. (As mentioned in Part 1, all of these applications work equally well on both the iPhone and iPod Touch. For simplicity and brevity, therefore, I'll use "iPhone" to refer to both devices.)

This second installment covers 13 applications:

  1. Air Sharing
  2. A.I. Disk
  3. Annotater
  4. Briefcase
  5. Caravan
  6. DataCase
  7. File Magnet
  8. Files
  9. Folders
  10. iStorage
  11. Mobile Studio
  12. TextGuru
  13. TouchFS

As was the case for the applications primarily for reading text, none of the eReaders designed primarily for managing documents fully satisfies all of the requirements I've specified for them. Nearly all of them show red blocks in the matrix of capabilities that follows this introduction. There are also too many "light green" blocks in the requirements designed as key (those in boldface with the shiny highlight). If I could conglomerate the best features of each application, however, I'd have what I consider an ideal eReader, one that would satisfy all of the following requirements (in no particular order):

  • Handles most native file formats (including documents with images)
  • Formats HTML documents appropriately
  • Can organize documents into folders or categories
  • User can add bookmarks within files
  • Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes
  • Follows web hyperlinks
  • Lets user manage files and folders on the iPhone
  • Works offline
  • Easy to read and navigate documents
  • Easy to add documents
  • Provides a "full screen" mode
  • Resizes content automatically for both portrait and landscape modes
  • Remembers where you stopped reading

Because their orientations are quite different, the set of requirements for these "Document Manager" applications differs as well. Most of the above requirements are pretty self-explanatory, and I explained some of them in Part 1 of this review.

As noted in Part 1, any application that fully succeeds as an eReader must be able to read, navigate and appropriately format HTML documents. Whereas most of the applications covered in Part 1 could do that, only two in this list can. By "appropriately," I refer to the ability to wrap text lines while maintaining a given font size. HTML isn't PDF, and shouldn't be formatted as such. Most of these apps do this "appropriate" formatting for Word documents, and there's no reasons why they can't/shouldn't do this for HTML. That said, if an HTML file has been formatted using a rigid table structure, or if its text elements are set to specific widths using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), an eReader can be forgiven for not parsing such files into device-agnostic HTML. (However, eReader software should check to see whether an HTML file has a separate "print" CSS style, which typically removes such formatting and can be re-wrapped with a decent font size for the iPhone.)

Unfortunately, nearly all of these applications have a file-size limit, and I used one long test HTML document (about 700kb) that consistently crashed them. The exceptions were applications like TextGuru, which warned me that it couldn't handle such large files rather than trying to load them and then crashing. The file size limit seems to be much higher for some file types (e.g., PDF and web archives) than for others.

By "Easy to read and navigate documents," I mean the extent to which an application presents a document's text at a readable type size, and to which it provides appropriate navigation controls. Relying solely on the iPhone's native "tap" and "swipe" gestures isn't usually sufficient, since such gestures don't necessarily translate into navigation actions. For example, it's typical for a double-tap to mean "expand text view to fit the display," yet some of these programs also expect such a gesture to move a document forward or backward a page. Confusing the two makes navigation pretty difficult. Similarly, some of these applications use a tap gesture to mean "unhide navigation controls" when a user is in full-screen mode. If this is the case, and the user can only navigate by tapping, the full-screen mode becomes worthless. For navigating and reading documents, the best apps in this list are Air Sharing, Briefcase, File Magnet, and Files.

Since a major distinguishing factor of this group of applications is their ability to let users manage documents, it's pretty important that they provide ways for users to do just that. This means not only being able to move folders of files from your desktop computer, but also being able to rearrange and rename files and folders on the iPhone. Otherwise, the software doesn't really work optimally as a document manager. The best applications for this feature are A.I. Disk, iStorage, and MobileStudio.

One of the tantalizing possibilities that these applications offer is the ability to not only browse the web from within their interface, but also to be able to save web documents to the iPhone. Sadly, only one of these (Caravan) can actually do that at this time; hopefully others will take up the challenge eventually. That said, several of the apps have well-designed, integrated web browsers that let users follow links to the web and easily find their way back to the starting document without having to leave the application's interface. Those that have mastered this trick so far are Air Sharing, A.I. Disk, Caravan, iStorage, MobileStudio, and TouchFS.

A general complaint I have about these application is their inability to display PDF files appropriately in either portrait or landscape mode. In both cases, the display should focus on the text or page margins, not on the page borders. Not doing so makes PDF files difficult to read and navigate. The only app that handles PDF files well is Annotater, which specializes in that format. Annotater (yes, it's really spelled that way) at least eliminates the irritating "page border" and focuses on the page margin. It also automatically resizes PDF files in landscape mode, another important factor in PDF readability. PDF readers could be improved, however, by providing a "zoom" feature that would adjust the display to the text, rather than to the margin. It's difficult to do this by pinching, and after that, navigation can suffer if the document display slides off to the right or left.

As the matrix that follows this introduction shows, all 13 of the reviewed applications have something to recommend them. For specialized uses, nearly any one of them would work well. The only ones I can't recommend at this time are Folders, iStorage, TextGuru, and TouchFS. Of these, iStorage has some remarkably good ideas, but they aren't all well executed in the current release. TextGuru is designed primarily as a text/code editor, and its file-management and eReader features clearly haven't been the focus of the developer's attention.

For overall usability as a tool for reading and managing documents on the iPhone, and other textual material, Of the 13 applications reviewed, I found three that are clearly superior, and three others that, while not as good as the top three overall, are certainly good enough to recommend:

Followed by:

If you already have an account with Apple's MobileMe service, or with any other WebDAV service such as Box.net or MyDisk.se, A.I. Disk is an obvious choice. Not only does it integrate seamlessly with such services, but it comes the closest of this group to meeting all of the requirements for applications in this category of eReader. In fact, it is the only one that doesn't fail a single requirement. Incidentally, A.I. Disk is made by the same company, Readdle, that released the excellent ReaddleDocs application, which I rated as one of the top eReaders in the "text reader" category in Part I of this report. (It's worth noting that A.I. Disk was released after I had nearly finished this review, and in fact its release ended up delaying the review so I could include it.) The main weakness with A.I. Disk, however, is that it relies solely on external WebDAV servers for file management, and can't move files directly from your computer.

WebDAV
Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning, or WebDAV, is a set of extensions to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that allows users to collaboratively edit and manage files on remote World Wide Web servers. The group of developers responsible for these extensions was also known by the same name and was a working group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

The WebDAV protocol allows "Intercreativity," making the Web a readable and writable medium, in line with Tim Berners-Lee's original vision. It allows users to create, change and move documents on a remote server (typically a web server or "web share"). This is useful for authoring the documents that a web server serves, but it can also be used for storing files on the web, so that the files can be accessed from anywhere. The most important features of the WebDAV protocol are: locking ("overwrite prevention"); properties (creation, removal, and querying of information about author, modified date, etc.); name space management (ability to copy and move Web pages within a server's namespace); and collections (creation, removal, and listing of resources). Most modern operating systems provide built-in support for WebDAV. With a fast network and the right client, it is almost as easy to use files on a WebDAV server as those stored in local directories.Courtesy of Wikipedia

Air Sharing makes the top cut on the strength of its terrific navigation tools and overall ease of use. Those and its ability to share documents directly with other iPhone users overcome its biggest weakness: Air Sharing doesn't let users manage their files and folders directly on the iPhone. Rather, you must set up folder structures and populate them with files on your computer and then sync with the iPhone. Hopefully, the developer will address this problem in a future release.

MobileStudio (originally known as MobileFinder until Apple asked the developer to change it) excels at just the task that Air Sharing leaves out: Creating, moving, copying, and renaming files and folders on the iPhone. MobileStudio was also the first app in this class that lets users create and edit text file. It can even read and write .zip files, and you can set specific permissions on each file or folder--all within its interface. However, MobileStudio is weak in document navigation. Although it offers a full-screen mode, its lack of navigation options in that mode make it functionally useless. (For more information on this, see the detailed description of MobileStudio.)

The next three applications in the recommended list (these are designated with a light-green background in the summary matrix) all have some excellent features that may trump those at the top, depending on the weight you place on each requirement. Files is easy to use and makes reading documents pleasant, but it can't manage files on the iPhone and doesn't have an embedded web browser. File Magnet has the best reading environment of any of these apps, as a result of its innovative "tilt scrolling" and "auto-scroll" mechanisms. Its biggest weaknesses are lack of bookmark support and inability to manage files and folders. DataCase has good built-in navigation controls and automatic "full screen mode." It's also one of the easiest to set up and move files to and from the iPhone. However, it doesn't let users create, rename or rearrange files and folders, it's not particularly good at displaying HTML or handling web links.

The remainder of this report consists of a summary matrix showing the various capabilities and usability features of each application. In the matrix, a green block indicates that the app fully meets the requirement, and light green means a partial score. A red block indicates that the app fails the requirement, and light red means if partially fails. The gloss overlay highlights the core requirements for this category.

Following the matrix are separate descriptions of each application, organized into lists of "Special strengths," "Special weaknesses," and "Other notes."

Summary: e-Readers for Managing Documents (Table 1)

Air Sharing

A.I. Disk

Anno-tater

Brief- case

Caravan

DataCase

File Magnet

Capabilities

Handles native file formats, including images

Formats HTML documents appropriately

Can organize documents into folders or categories

Has password protection or supports encrypted files

Includes search tool

User can add bookmarks within files

Provides a table of contents

Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes

Follows web hyperlinks

Can browse and download files from the web

Lets user customize font faces and sizes

Lets user manage files and folders on iPhone

Can create and edit text files

Works offline

Works without external web account

Usability

Easy to set up

Easy to read and navigate documents

Easy to add documents

Provides a full screen mode

Resizes content for both portrait and landscape

Remembers where you stopped reading

Transfer Methods

Includes dedicated desktop software to transfer files

File transfers from documents stored on the web

File transfers from computer via FTP/Bonjour/WebDav

Overall Rating


Summary: e-Readers for Managing Documents (Table 2)

Files

Folders

iStorage

Mobile Studio

TextGuru

TouchFS

Capabilities

Handles native file formats, including images

Formats HTML documents appropriately

Can organize documents into folders or categories

Has password protection or supports encrypted files

Includes search tool

User can add bookmarks within files

Provides a table of contents

Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes

Follows web hyperlinks

Can browse and download files from the web

Lets user customize font faces and sizes

Lets user manage files and folders on iPhone

Can create and edit text files

Works offline

Works without external web account

Usability

Easy to set up

Easy to read and navigate documents

Easy to add documents

Provides a full screen mode

Resizes content for both portrait and landscape

Remembers where you stopped reading

Transfer Methods

Includes dedicated desktop software to transfer files

File transfers from documents stored on the web

File transfers from computer via FTP/Bonjour/WebDav

Overall Rating


image
Air Sharing

Version 1.0.3, $6.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Document lists can be resized by pinching
  • Features navigation menu by clicking the top toolbar
  • Can connect and share files directly with other iPhone users
  • Handy navigation controls overcome some of the limitations of the click/double-click method. The next/last page buttons on the toolbar are especially helpful in navigating PDF files. Air Sharing also has an icon in the top toolbar that takes you back to the beginning of the file� really helpful for long files!
  • Air Sharing remembers where you left off reading, and on launch returns you to the folder of the document you were reading last.
  • Excellent web browser integration: If you link to a web page, you can continue browsing as needed and then use Air Sharing's back/forward buttons to return to where you started. However, you can't download web pages as you browse them.
  • Automatic full-screen mode.
  • Very useful built-in Help.
Special problems
  • Support for RTF documents is still very iffy. Often, opening one crashes Air Sharing. When it doesn't,
  • formatting can become goofy--for example, everything starts to become underlined, and hyperlinked words or phrases get changed to "hyperlink." However, Air Sharing's documentation lists RTF and RTFD as supported formats.
  • Doesn't follow links in PDF files
  • Air Sharing doesn't let you set up files and folders on the iPhone, or move files or folders around within the folder hierarchy. To set up folders, you need to design the hierarchy on your desktop computer and then synch with the iPhone.
  • Has a little difficulty switching between landscape and portrait modes, often getting stuck in between modes, or changing very slowly.
Other notes
  • Air Sharing supports the file formats that Safari does (including .webarchive files written from Safari), as well as Microsoft Office formats supported on the iPhone. Support for iWork files is limited to the file preview embedded in the file package, and support for RTF/RTFD isn't reliable. One extra class of formats Air Sharing supports is source code, which it can display with appropriate syntax colors.


image
A.I. Disk

Version 1.0.1, $7.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Developed by Readdle, makers of the excellent ReaddleDocs reader, A.I. Disk is extremely easy to set up if you have an account with one of the supported WebDAV servers. Out of the box, A.I. Disk can connect to your MobileMe, Box.net, or MyDisk.se accounts, and you can add whatever other WebDAV servers you may use.
  • A.I. Disk makes it quite easy to create new folders and to move documents and folders around within its interface.
  • You can easily follow hyperlinks to web pages using the build-in browser, and A.I. Disk maintains back/forward buttons so you can find your way "home." Like most other apps in this category, however, you can't save web files to A.I. Disk.
  • Supports adding bookmarks within your files.
  • You can add an extra layer of security to your document store by setting a separate passkey.
  • A.I. Disk offers a handy slider for moving quickly through large files.
  • The software adds an "automatic bookmark" to return you to where you left off reading a document, though it always defaults to show you your root library folder when starting up.
  • You can email documents from within the software's interface.
  • In addition to Microsoft Office, HTML, and PDF formats, A.I. Disk offers full support for Apple-specific formats like those from iWork as well as Safari web archives. Curiously, it can't read RTF files, though.
  • For relatively short files, A.I. Disk does an excellent job at resizing to fit both portrait and landscape mode, and it also reformats HTML files appropriately to fit the display (excluding files that have pre-formatted tables or CSS styles).
Special weaknesses
  • A.I. Disk doesn't handle the display of large documents very well. It seems to take an unusually long time to finish loading such files, although it starts to display some of it fairly quickly. I found the early display more frustrating than endearing, since I couldn't use any of the controls or otherwise navigate the document until the entire file was loaded.
  • On a related note, although you can manually activate full-screen mode, the change can take quite awhile for long documents, and equally long switching back. In addition, when in landscape view, the control for restoring the navigation bars disappears, so you have to switch back to portrait mode to close the document or do anything else.
  • One of A.I. Disk's biggest weaknesses is its inability to transfer files from your computer. If you want to get such a file to A.I. Disk, you must first upload it to your favorite WebDAV account, and then download it to the iPhone.
  • It would be nice if A.I. Disk offered a way to upload files to your WebDAV servers, but it doesn't at this point.


image
Annotater

Version 1.2.619, $4.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Annotater is unique among the current crop of eBook readers for iPhone in that it is based solely on the PDF format, for which it has the best support. It is the only app that includes full-text search of PDF files, and the only one that supports PDF bookmarks (or the table of contents you can set up in Acrobat).
  • Another unique characteristic of Annotater is that it supports PDF annotations, including drawing (in various colors, with your finger), text notes, and bookmarks.
  • Annotator is the only application that does a good job of eliminating the screen-real-estate-wasting border that seems to be the default way of presenting PDF files.
  • Synchronization through Annotater's desktop "Annotater Service" application is automatic and very fast. Once done, you can browse the files and decide which ones to keep. Whenever you launch the app, you can resynchronize, or add new folders to transfer. If you add more files to a desktop folder, you can have Annotater Service "reindex" the folder, making the iPhone aware of the new documents.
Special weaknesses
  • The desktop app only accepts folders to synchronize with the iPhone, not individual files. The folders, however, can be deeply nested if necessary. You cannot change the folder structure on the iPhone, or in the desktop app. The organization must be set up on your file system. Annotater will only synchronize any PDF files it finds in the folder structure
  • To use other file types, you need to first convert them to PDF, as Annotater cannot read HTML or any other native file types.
  • Annotater does not support encrypted PDF files.
  • No full-screen mode, although Annotater's settings let you define the toolbar's transparency, making it possible to read through.
  • The application provides no navigation controls while reading documents.
Other notes
  • Annotater relies on a wireless, Bonjour-aware desktop application ("Annotater Service") that supports only Mac OS X (at the moment). The restriction to Mac OS X support probably reflects the fact that any file on the Mac can be "printed" out to a PDF file.


image
Briefcase

Version 1.1, $4.99 (Lite version, free) Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Briefcase is the most impressive application so far with respect to ease of connection to your computer and the ease of transferring files back and forth. You literally have to do nothing but log in. Briefcase identified any Bonjour-enabled computers on your network and presents them instantly in its interface. You have the option of having Briefcase remember your password, but the app warns you to use the iPhone's password-lock tool if you do.
  • You can not only connect to local computers, but also to any remote computers on which you have accounts. Even more useful for most users, iPhone users can transfer files among each other, assuming they have appropriate permission to do so.
  • Downloads that are interrupted when you quit Briefcase will be automatically resumed the next time the software is started.
  • Briefcase remembers where you left off reading and returns you there. But it doesn't remember which file you last had open or offer to reopen it.
  • For Mac users, Briefcase offers a plethora of special features for uploading files to your Mac, including:
  • Adding image files to iPhoto
  • Adding audio files to iTunes
  • Opening files automatically on the Mac
  • Setting images as your desktop background
  • Selecting specific folders to upload files, which you can bookmark in Briefcase for quick access later
Special weaknesses
  • Although you can download folders from your computer to Briefcase, there's no way to move files to folders, create new folders, or rename files or folders from within Briefcase.
  • In a typical first-release symptom, Briefcase's interface remains in portrait mode when you switch to landscape, making navigation and bookmark-setting awkward. Also, bookmarks you set in landscape mode don't take you to the same location when in portrait mode.
  • In the 1.0 release, I found Briefcase frequently ran out of memory and started acting erratic or bumped me back to the iPhone screen.
  • Many of Briefcase's special features are only relevant to Mac users. That doesn't make them any less special, but from the perspective of a Windows user, it makes Briefcase less useful. As the developer explains in his FAQ for Briefcase,
    While Briefcase was designed to work optimally with Macs, Windows users (with a solid amount of technical knowledge) can use Briefcase as well. Windows does not support any open standards for remote login out of the box, including SSH which Briefcase uses. This means that one must install and set up an SSH server under Windows before Briefcase can connect.
    Presumably, a Windows user would also need to install Bonjour for the automatic network detection to work.
  • Briefcase has a good built-in web browser that lets you follow links without leaving the app. Two problems, however, that hopefully will be fixed in a future release:
    1. Once you follow a link, there's no way to get back to your previous page (or to the Briefcase document you started with), and
    2. You can't save documents you browse to into Briefcase.


image
Caravan

Version 1.3, $2.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Caravan is another impressive iPhone app, which provides among the best integration between web, iPhone, and computer desktop. For connectivity to the desktop, Caravan relies on Bonjour and FTP. (Windows users will need to install Bonjour for Windows on their systems in order to use Caravan.) Unlike Mobile Studio, though, Caravan presents your file system on the iPhone, and lets you browse and download contents from within Caravan.
  • Using the same Bonjour connection, Caravan also lets users transfer files from the iPhone back to your computer's file system.
  • Caravan has among the best embedded web browser solutions in this roundup. Not only is the browser truly "embedded," so you can browse without leaving Caravan, but Caravan provides a "Download" button for every page you visit.
  • Caravan has an excellent interface for creating and editing folders on your iPhone. In addition, when downloading files, the user can browse to the correct folder--or even create it--before saving the file. Once downloaded or created, file and folder names can be changed as needed.
  • Caravan also lets users create and edit text files within its file system. These files are searchable.
  • Caravan has a related feature called "Edit as Text," which can be used to make changes to text files (including HTML) you download from your PC or from the web.
  • In addition to Microsoft Office formats, PDF, HTML, .webarchive, and text files, Caravan can also store and play audio and video files, and supports picture viewing.
  • A nice feature missing from too many others in this category is that Caravan follows HTML bookmarks within files. (Often, other apps try to reload the entire page to the bookmark which can cause your session to be transferred to the iPhone's web browser.)
Special weaknesses
  • Caravan doesn't let you move files to or from folders once they're created or transferred.
  • The "Edit as Text" feature, though great in concept, can destroy Word files if you try to use it with them. In fact, the main weakness in this feature is that it appears as an action for all file formats� even videos and images� whether or not they're actually "editable."
  • Caravan has no support for RTF or iWork file formats.
  • The application does not have any facility for adding bookmarks or other annotations to files.
  • Caravan has no full-screen mode and provides no in-document navigation tools.


image
DataCase

Version 1.1.1, $6.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Connects to Mac or Windows through Bonjour, setting up a drive in Finder or Explorer. Users can drag files to the drive(s) like any other folder on their system. This occurred without any action on my part.
  • In DataCase, you set up drives on the iPhone, and each drive can have a separate set of permissions, including read/write/browse. You can also set the drive as hidden and can have the contents of the drive backed up via iTunes' normal iPhone backup.
  • In addition, you can use a web browser to browse Database's content on the iPhone, using the iPhone's IP address at port 8080. Or, you can connect to DataCase's file store using FTP.
  • DataCase lets you filter file your document library by type, and it supports in-document bookmarks.
  • DataCase remembers where you left off reading a document, but not which document that was.

Bonjour
Bonjour iconBonjour, formerly Rendezvous, is Apple Inc.'s trade name for its implementation of Zeroconf, a service discovery protocol. Bonjour locates devices such as printers, as well as other computers, and the services that those devices offer on a local network using multicast Domain Name System service records. The software is built into Apple's Mac OS X operating system from version 10.2 onwards, and can be installed onto computers using Microsoft Windows operating systems (it is installed with iTunes, for example).Courtesy of Wikipedia

Special weaknesses
  • Built-in navigation support is OK, with forward/backward and end/beginning buttons in the top toolbar. However, these aren't available in "full screen" mode, and DataCase doesn't support navigation of HTML files in this mode except by swipe. Further, there's no way to initiate full screen mode� it just seems to happen when you resize HTML to fit the display. I couldn't get full-screen mode to activate in PDF files at all.
  • Follows web links in files, but doing so takes you outside of DataCase. This will close DataCase's connection with your PC, but DataCase warns you that this will happen.
  • DataCase takes a long time, and often freezes, when trying to load long HTML documents. In general, the app is just not reliable for viewing HTML.
  • A bug causes the DataCase interface to get confused now and then, with some buttons appearing where they shouldn't, etc. This requires closing and restarting the app.
Other notes
  • Supports standard Office documents (Word, Excel), PDF, HTML, audio, video, and images. (I had no luck with video files, however). It doesn't read RTF files, nor .webarchive files saved from Safari.
  • For PDF files, DataCase resizes content when switching from landscape to portrait mode, but doesn't do this for HTML.


image
File Magnet

Version 1.1, $4.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Very sophisticated and innovative navigation options, including a (for now) unique feature called "tilt scrolling." Using this method, you just tilt the iPhone to scroll the text� the more you tilt, the faster the scroll. File Magnet also includes a nice "page down" button that animates the text down one page, as well as a horizontal slider for moving quickly through the document.
  • File Magnet has a very good embedded web browser that will follow hyperlinks within Word and RTF documents, including links to external PDF files. Within the browser, you can navigate to other web pages, but you can't get back to the document you started with from within this interface.
  • File Magnet's file/folder list is better than most, since it provides very good icon previews as well as subtitles indicating file type.
  • Though the application doesn't appropriately size text in HTML files, it does do this for RTF and Word documents.
  • File Magnet has a very robust, automatic full screen mode, and it resizes documents automatically when switching from portrait to landscape mode.
  • File Magnet remembers where you left off reading in all file types it supports, and it also remembers the folder you were last in. Most of the time, it also automatically re-opened the last file I was reading on launch.
Special weaknesses
  • No support for PDF bookmarks or hyperlinks.
  • Doesn't support bookmarks within documents.
  • File Magnet doesn't support any kind of file or folder organization on the iPhone. Likewise, you can't rename or create files or folders. All of this must be done before adding files through File Magnet's desktop application.
Other notes
  • Uses a simple desktop application, available for both Mac OS X and Windows, for moving files and folders to the iPhone.
  • Supports jpeg, gif, tif, png, html, rtf, rtfd, doc, txt, pdf, iPhone compatible movies and audio files. Now also supports native Excel, Powerpoint, and iWork files, as well as .webarchive files.


image
Files

Version 1.1.1, $6.99 (Lite version, free) Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Files does an excellent job at handling a very wide variety of file formats. Although it doesn't resize HTML content to fit the display correctly, it does preserve HTML formatting, images, and CSS styles quite accurately. Besides handling the usual baseline of PDF and Microsoft Office formats, Files also fully supports Apple's iWork formats (Numbers, Pages, and Keynote), as well as web archive files.
  • Files remembers where you left off reading� an unusual gift in this category of eReaders. However, it doesn't remember which file you last had open or give the option to start there.
  • Files has good navigation features� in particular, providing a page up/page down button is useful for content that a user has resized with a pinch-type touch. This keeps the page from sliding left or right and maintains a steady reading view. Files also has "go to page" and bookmark navigation options, and users can move quickly up or down a document by holding the page up/page down buttons rather than tapping them.
  • Although Files doesn't win any special points for readability in general, reading PDFs in Files seems to be especially practical. For whatever reason, text in PDF files are very sharp in Files compared with some other apps. That said, it's disappointing that the app doesn't automatically resize PDFs or HTML files when switching from portrait to landscape view.
Special weaknesses
  • Users can add files and folders to Files when uploading from their computer, but there's no way to modify the folder structure or file names on the iPhone. Users can, however, delete files from the iPhone.
  • Files can follow web links in HTML and Office documents, but not in PDF or other file types. Further, following links takes the user out of Files, making it difficult to continue reading your original document.
Other notes
  • Files runs a WebDAV-enabled server that users can connect to from their desktop PC. Files provides the WebDAV URL on startup, and connecting to it is a simple matter (apparently a bit more complicated from a Windows PC than from a Mac). Files allows you to start and stop the server from within its interface. Once connected, the Files document store appears as a folder in the Finder or Explorer, and you can move files to the iPhone from this interface.
  • To access Files on the iPhone, you must authenticate with a username and password. This security setting is optional and can be configured in the Files options window. In addition, you can optionally password-protect the Files store itself.


image
Folders

Version 1.4, $1.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Users can add folders and change the names of files (but not folders).
  • Folders provides a built-in web browser that offers the capability of download HTML and other documents from the web. (However, see entry for this function in next section.)
  • Folders lets users password-protect individual files and folders� in effect, "hiding" them from intruders.
Special weaknesses
  • Downloading files from web is a great idea but is buggy and not very usable. The app reports an error with each file you try to download, and seems to download some of them multiple times. It wouldn't display a .txt file, but did display a .pdf one. The .html file I tried to download never made it.
  • Many screens display a "tool" icon that doesn't work.
  • Folders provides no way to transfer files to or from your computer, except by running your computer as a web server and connecting to that. The software description on iTunes speaks of being able to export files to your computer with WiFi, but I found no built-in way of doing that.
  • Sometimes you lose the navigation icon back to your "home" list of folders and documents.
  • You can't move files from one folder to another, nor can you add nested folders.
  • Folders provides nothing in the way of in-document navigation.


image
iStorage

Version 1.0.4, $5.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • iStorage has the best tools of any of these apps for connecting to network file systems and servers, navigating them, and uploading or downloading files. You can set up numerous network drives, which can read FTP sites, your iDisk (and other WebDAV servers), nearby Bonjour devices (such as other iPhones), and any computers on your local network you have access to. You can define and have iStorage remember the connection information for each server for later use.
  • With iStorage, you can bookmark files and/or folders on any of these network drives for quick access later on. The bookmark feature also applies to web pages you might encounter. This capability is unique among these apps, and it's almost enough to overlook iStorage's lack of in-document bookmarks.
  • Although the rest of the application's interface is confusing, inconsistent, and just plain buggy, the home screen is very nicely set up and very easy to use.
  • It's easy to create new folders (and subfolders) in iStorage and to move files into them.
Special weaknesses
  • iStorage has a number of excellent ideas, poorly executed. It's not clear what kind of application it wants to be. For example:
  • You can download HTML files just fine, but you can't view it except as source code. (You can, however, edit the source.) The HTML view provides good tools for zooming in text, but no control over font color (white) and background (black). In any case, since you have to read source code, what's the point?
  • iStorage has a nice built-in web browser, and a setting that lets it "Switch To Downloads." However, the interface provides no way to download files using the web browser.
  • iStorage has terrific connectivity to various document stores, but every document you try to download generates an error. Even if a document downloads, often the downloads are incomplete.
  • The application has poor navigation and toolbar functions. When browsing a network drive, it's easy to completely lose a way back to iStorage's home screen, for example. Likewise, when viewing a document list, there's both an "Edit" button, which only lets you delete files, and an unclear icon on the bottom toolbar, which you must use to move files into folders; as in other similar apps, these should be combined. Finally, one of the icons just duplicates the action of selecting a file from the list.
  • iStorage's file format support is weaker than most. In the latest version, I could now read Word and Excel documents in addition to PDF and images. However, that leaves HTML, RTF, .webarchives, and iWork formats, among others, that it can't help you with. Even text files I created on the iPod couldn't be viewed in iStorage.
  • Prone to crashing fairly frequently.
  • When you follow a hyperlink from a Word document and then close it to return to iStorage, the application returns you to document directory rather than to the document you were reading.
  • iStorage doesn't remember where you left off reading, loading each document from scratch on each access. I also found it annoying that you have to go through a set of menu choices when clicking on a file, one of which is to open it. The choices are great ("Info," which is how you'd change the file's name among other things, and "Upload," which lets you move the file to a server), but since I hardly ever used them, I'd rather have my choice of defaults (which would be "open").
Other notes
  • iStorage does a great job with switching from landscape to portrait mode when viewing documents, but it doesn't support this mode when traversing directories or using any other parts of the top-level interface.
  • iStorage supports full-screen mode, but it's a manual process that's not totally intuitive.
  • iStorage can follow hyperlinks from Word documents, but not from any other file type at this point.
  • iStorage has a search feature that lets you search on filenames in a directory.
  • For Word documents, iStorage resizes the file content when switching from portrait to landscape modes, but it doesn't do this for other file types that it can read (e.g., PDF).


image
Mobile Studio

Version 1.1, $1.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • One of the many impressive features of Mobile Studio is the ease with which users can copy, move, create, and rename files and folders, without relying on a desktop application.
  • Mobile Studio is also one of the only apps reviewed that lets users create and edit text files within the Mobile Studio hierarchy.
  • Mobile Studio also supports zip files. It can decompress zip files, and it can also compress files into zip format.
  • This application has excellent security features. It lets you lock the application with a password, in addition to the password lock available for the iPhone itself. In addition, Mobile Studio lets users define whether a given file is readable/writeable/executable, effectively letting you "hide" files from external sources.
  • Although it cannot download files from the web, Mobile Studio has an excellent embedded web browser, which lets users browse websites without leaving the app, as well as navigating backwards and forwards among the web pages they visit. Mobile Studio can follow hyperlinks in Word and HTML documents, but not in PDF or iWork files.
  • The application provides a very responsive slider control for navigating long documents.
  • Mobile Studio remembers where you left off reading (though not which file you last read).
  • This app has unique tricks like importing images from your photo library with the option to resize and/or crop them before placing them in MobileStudio. Cool!
  • Another unique feature of Mobile Studio is that it maintains a "trash can" that contains all the files and folders you delete� thus letting you restore files if necessary before deleting them for good.
Special weaknesses
  • Mobile Studio does a good job of appropriately resizing Word and plain text document content to fit the iPhone screen, but it fails to do the same with HTML files.
  • Users have no way to add bookmarks within their files, and there are no search or sort options.
  • Setting up Mobile Studio for file transfer is harder than necessary, and is perhaps the most difficult of this group of apps.
  • Navigating documents (I confirmed this in HTML, Word, and PDF) is a bit of a pain, since you can't use any kind of tap gesture to move back or forward. Doing so takes you out of full screen mode to use the slider. For HTML, this is also a problem since a double-tap gesture usually resizes the text to full width if it isn't already there.
  • Mobile Studio has a handy "Home" button on the bottom toolbar, but every time I used it I ended up with a black screen and had to exit the application to actually return "Home."
Other notes
  • Mobile Studio relies on FTP (and an FTP client) for transferring files to the iPhone. The app has built-in instructions for doing so from Mac OS X, Windows XP, and Windows Vista.


image
TextGuru

Version 1.0.7, $4.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Reading PDF and native Office documents with TextGuru is very good, with both landscape and portrait modes supported. Both of these modes offer full screen view and a slider for fast navigation. (The slider works better for Word documents than for PDFs.)
  • TextGuru is first and foremost a text editor, so many of its greatest strengths pertain to those functions. Though irrelevant to its use as an eReader, TextGuru's ability to edit (including search and replace, cut and paste, etc.) HTML and text files is remarkable. Other file formats (such as a test Pages document) can be viewed/edited as ASCII or HEX.
  • This application offers full-text search across your document store, and it can also do search and replace for editable files. For editable files, TextGuru navigates to the first instance of the search term and highlights it. However, there's no way to navigate to the subsequent instances.
  • TextGuru not only remembers where you left off reading, it remembers which file you last had open and takes you there first by default. You can change this setting in the Settings pane.
  • TextGuru is the only application in this review that by default reformat HTML content to a font size appropriate for the iPhone display. (Except, of course, where the HTML content is inflexibly formatted using tables or CSS styles.)
Special weaknesses
  • No landscape mode for HTML files.
  • No support for adding folders or editing document names. TextGuru's otherwise nifty FileServer software (available for both Mac OS X and Windows) also cannot share folders.
  • The interface can become a little confusing as you switch from document viewing to document editing to document searching. Another confusing aspect is in the search feature for editable files. Doing a search here launches the "Search and Replace" screen, but the implication is that if you just enter a search, the term will be replaced with nothing if you don't enter a "Replace" term. (In fact, that doesn't happen, but this could be much clearer.)
  • The search feature promises more than it delivers, in two respects:
  • It delivers some false results (for example, a PDF file showed up in a search for the word "bold", but I determined that the word does not in fact exist in that file).
  • It doesn't display the instances of the search text in the files when you open them. In the case of files of more than 1 or 2 pages, this renders the search feature less than useful.
  • TextGuru reads neither RTF nor web archive files, and to read HTML files you must first bring the file up into its text editor, and then switch to a web preview mode.


image
TouchFS

Version 1.2, $14.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • TouchFS can follow hyperlinks in Word and HTML documents (but not in PDF files). It has an excellent implementation of an embedded web browser that doesn't take users outside of the TouchFS interface. The interface also lets user navigate backwards and forwards while they are browsing the web.
  • For HTML files, TouchFS follows in-document bookmarks as well as external links.
  • TouchFS lets users set up a username and password to authenticate against to protect access to the iPhone document store.
Special weaknesses
  • TouchFS offers no ability to annotate or add bookmarks to your files on the iPhone.
  • Users can't change the names of files or folders, or create or move them within the TouchFS interface.
  • TouchFS has no built-in navigation tools to help users while reading long documents. All navigation relies on swipes, which don't work very well if you've enlarged a particular document (as you frequently want to do with PDF files.) Lack of navigation aids also hinders reading of HTML files, since a double-tap changes the page zoom as often as it causes a page scroll.
  • The file list is difficult to use, since icons are so small you can't always tell what file type you're loading, and filenames typically don't display completely with the very large font size.
  • TouchFS has no full-screen view.
  • TouchFS resizes PDF files when switching from landscape to portrait view, but doesn't do the same for HTML. Like most of the apps in this category, it also doesn't attempt to appropriately format HTML to fit the screen with a readable font size.
  • Expensive. Considering how many other, better eReaders there are in this category--all for much less money--TouchFS is clearly overpriced. It's by far the most expensive of the bunch ($14.99, almost twice that of the top-rated app here, A.I. Disk, at $7.99).
Other notes
  • TouchFS supports display of PDF, Microsoft Office documents, HTML, and text files The application will display image files, but won't play audio or video files. It supports iWork formats using the document's PDF preview.
  • Like some of the other apps reviewed here, TouchFS uses WebDAV and Bonjour to connect the iPhone to your PC. The user connects to the iPhone server, which sets up a folder in Finder or Explorer from which you can add files and folders.

The summary table below uses some advanced CSS techniques that aren't yet possible with your browser. WebKit, the open-source browser engine underlying Apple's Safari browser (for both Windows and Mac), has implemented numerous features of CSS 3.0, as well as pioneered some candidates for new graphics functions using CSS. (For more information on these, see the Mars article on the subject, or visit CSS3.info.
In particular, the table uses CSS border-radius (which produces the table's rounded edge), CSS box-shadow (which gives the table a drop shadow), CSS gradient (which produces a gradient in the table headers), and CSS background-size together with background-attachment and background-clip (which lets me automatically resize a small tiled image-- --both horizontally and vertically to fit the various-sized table cells).

Here is a screenshot of how the top part of a similar table looks in Safari:

Screenshot of table utilizing CSS techniques not available except in Safari
    
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Posted in:Reviews, eReaders, iPhone/TouchTags: |
October 14th, 2008

Discover a Treasure Trove of iPhone eReader Software
Part I: Eight Apps for Reading Books

iPhone Readers illustration. Based on a photo courtesy of the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Updated 11.14.08 to update information for Evernote, Instapaper, and Stanza to their latest versions. Updates to Bookshelf, Bookz, eReader, iSilo, and Readdle are forthcoming.

The iPhone application marketplace now offers a tantalizing variety of tools that can be used as eBook readers and file managers. As I concluded in the September 2008 report, "Without Even Trying, Apple's iPhone Takes the eBook Reader Sweepstakes," the iPhone and iPod Touch hardware finally enables truly practical eBooks, and the software now available for the iPhone platform just clinches the deal.

Having worked with the growing number of these applications since the first started appearing in June, I've concluded that the market is clearly divided into two major objectives:

  • Applications designed primarily for reading text (books), and
  • As I finalized this report, a 20th eReader for the iPhone was released, but is not included here yet. Libris is an application specializing in text reading and has features similar to eReader. Its interface is--how shall I put it?--quite ugly, and so far I've found it rather annoying and somewhat difficult to navigate. However, it does seem to do the job and has a desktop application that's much better than Stanza's for converting documents to PalmDoc format and transferring them to the iPhone.
  • Applications designed primarily for storing and managing documents.

As I compiled notes and usability data on this group of applications, it became clear that trying to cover all 19 different applications for the iPhone that can serve as e-document readers in one article (a 20th was released just as I was finalizing this report) would be a bit much--for me as well as for readers. As a result, this will be the first of two installments of the overall report. (Note: All of these applications, with one exception, work equally well on both the iPhone and iPod Touch. For simplicity and brevity, I'll use "iPhone" to refer to both devices going forward.)

This first part covers the following iPhone applications, which are primarily aimed at reading text and HTML documents:

  1. Bookshelf
  2. Bookz
  3. eReader
  4. Evernote
  5. Instapaper
  6. iSilo
  7. ReaddleDocs
  8. Stanza

The second installment will cover applications that specialize in enabling document repositories on the iPhone: Air Sharing, Annotater, Caravan, DataCase, File Magnet, Files, Folders, iStorage, Mobile Finder, TextGuru, and TouchFS.image

It's important to note that like any categories one devises for grouping things, theses two categories of necessity form a Venn Diagram. Some of the applications discussed in this article have characteristics that also make them useful for managing documents, whereas some of the applications that are most useful for managing documents are also quite good at reading text. Hence, my use of the qualifier "primarily" in the article title.

Venn diagram
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Venn diagrams or set diagrams are diagrams that show all hypothetically possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets (groups of things). Venn diagrams were invented around 1880 by John Venn. They are used in many fields, including set theory, probability, logic, statistics, and computer science.

Although most of these "Reading Text" applications are quite good--especially given how little time they've been in production--one of the frustrating aspects of this crop is that there is no single one that incorporates all of the potentially desirable characteristics. Some of the lacking abilities are, admittedly, optional. However, once you encounter the ability in one app, its absence in others becomes noticeable.

Again, because their overall orientation differs significantly, I found it fairer--and more helpful--to draw up separate sets of basic requirements for the two groups of applications. I'll go into the requirements for the "Document Manager" applications in Part II, but here are the requirements for those reviewed this time (in no particular order):

  • Formats HTML documents appropriately
  • Can organize documents into folders or categories
  • Includes search tool
  • User can add bookmarks within files
  • Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes
  • Lets user customize font faces and sizes
  • Easy to read text
  • Easy to add documents
  • Provides a "full screen" mode
  • Resizes content automatically for both portrait and landscape modes
  • Remembers where you stopped reading

I think most of these are pretty self-explanatory, but let me elaborate on a couple of them.

To traditional publishers of eBooks, use of HTML as a document format has been troublesome for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the difficulty of protecting copyrighted content using HTML. HTML is also perceived as being unable to easily handle included images, which some eBooks require. However, both Apple and Microsoft have developed archival formats for web pages, which encode the text and images into a single package. Although the package itself doesn't securely protect the content (there are "un-archivers" for both formats freely available), doing so is probably not beyond technical feasibility.

Sadly, only one of the applications in this review can handle .webarchive files (which you can create by saving web pages from Safari), which is a shame because this is the ideal, unlicensed format that preserves not only text, but also text formatting, tabular material, and images.

Still, a non-negotiable requirement, as far as I'm concerned, is the ability to read and appropriately format HTML. Fortunately, most of the applications in this list can do that.

By "Easy to read text," my main consideration is giving the user some control over the size of type that's displayed. If you can also change the typeface and/or display colors, that's a nice bonus. All of the applications in Part I provide this feature, and it's a major distinguishing factor compared with the applications in Part II, none of which provide any sort of font customization tools.

Finally, after some use I've determined that any e-Reader I'll use must work even if I have no wireless or other network connection. It's simply unreasonable to expect that Internet access will be available during my backpacking trip to Sequoia National Park or while taking in some rays at a remote beach on St. John. And those are just some of the places I'll want to have a good book along with me. A book that simply "stops working" is obviously no good, is it? As a result, I can't recommend some iPhone applications that have otherwise terrific features. My books must work offline. (Frankly, even if you do have wireless Internet, I've found that sometimes the servers hosting my online books report that they're unavailable. When was the last time a book you were reading told you it was busy and couldn't be read right now?)

As the matrix that follows this introduction shows, all 8 of the reviewed applications have something to recommend them. For specialized uses, nearly any one of them would work well. The only exception at this time is iSilo, which is just so badly designed that it's not only hard to navigate, but impossible to use in any practical manner.

For overall usability as a tool for reading books and other textual material, I've found five of the eight good enough to recommend:

Bookshelf and Stanza are both excellent choices for general text reading, though they're quite limited in the range of document formats they support. Stanza has superior annotation capabilities, as well as full-text search that Bookshelf lacks, but Bookshelf makes it much easier to get content onto the iPhone and does a superior job of converting documents. Unfortunately, Stanza's desktop application, still in beta, is unusable for converting non-text document formats (particularly HTML and PDF) to text files, yet it leads users to believe that it can. To use files with Stanza, you really need to convert to plain text format before opening in Stanza Desktop, which is the only way to get personal/business content onto the iPhone.

One of the major weaknesses of both Bookshelf and Stanza is their lack of integration with any kind of commercial e-bookstore. This reflects their current inability to display DRM (digital rights management) content, which of course is the security wrapper commerical bookstores use to protect copyright. This means that your book choices are pretty much limited to public domain classics and other free books. I, however, want a reader that will easily let me buy the latest novels by my favorite authors, and that's the reason eReader is among the recommended applications. eReader has allowed me to completely eliminate reliance on paperbacks and other tree-killing book forms for casual pleasure reading. It's delightful and very reliable for this kind of reading, even though it lacks some of the primary requirements noted earlier. To purchase a book, I log in to the eReader bookstore and buy a book online. This places the book in my online "shelf," and when I launch eReader on my iPhone, the new book is there, waiting to be downloaded.

Readdle is on the recommended list because it's a terrific cross-breed between the text reader category and the document-storage category. Readdle can handle many kinds of native document formats as well as HTML, it excels at folder and file organization, and it has a well integrated web browser with which you can download files to your Readdle library. Readdle users also have an online account, which is a password-protected repository of their files. The repository accepts files through a web form, from email, or, for Mac OS X users, from a simple, drag-and-drop desktop application. Readdle lacks some of the standard features of the best text readers, such as customizable fonts and the ability to remember where you stopped reading. This latter weakness is mitigated, however, by Readdle's excellent bookmark support.

With its latest improvements, Evernote is now one of the applications I recommend in this category. Like ReaddleDocs, Evernote spans the "text reading" and "document management" categories, and it's chock-full of great features for gathering and managing a document and text collection that most of the other applications lack. Besides handling your everyday work or personal documents, Evernote can clip web content (similar to Instapaper) and, using its desktop or web interfaces, be used to create and edit content for the iPhone. Previously, its signature weakness that prevented me from recommending Evernote was its inability to work offline. However, you can now designate "Favorites" to be stored on the iPhone. Unlike any of the other eReader applications for the iPhone, Evernote's desktop software adds greatly to its overall value, with features approaching those of a full-fledged personal information manager. Still, it's not perfect: Evernote doesn't remember where you left off reading, so it isn't good for long documents. In addition, it doesn't support bookmarks or landscape viewing.

I really like Instapaper as well, but its use is limited to clipping web content and can't be used for storing/viewing personal or business documents. That said, Instapaper excels at saving web content for later use, and its ability to specially format HTML content for the iPhone is remarkable. For clipping full articles to read later, nothing beats Instapaper at the moment.

The remainder of this report consists of a summary matrix showing the various capabilities and usability features of each application. In the matrix, a green block indicates that the app fully meets the requirement, and light green means a partial score. The gloss overlay highlights the core requirements for this category, and red blocks show which application fails to meet those requirements.

Following the matrix are separate descriptions of each application, organized into lists of "Special strengths," "Special weaknesses," and "Other notes."

Summary: e-Readers Primarily for Reading

Book- shelf

Bookz

eReader

Ever- note

Insta- paper

iSilo

Readdle

Stanza

Capabilities

Handles native file formats, including images

Formats HTML documents appropriately

Can organize documents into folders or categories

Has password protection or supports encrypted files

Includes search tool

User can add bookmarks within files

Provides a table of contents

Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes

Follows web hyperlinks

Can browse and download files from the web

Lets user customize font faces and sizes

Lets user manage files and folders on iPhone

Can create and edit text files

Works without external web account

Usability

Easy to set up

Easy to read text

Easy to add documents

Provides a full screen mode

Resizes content for both portrait and landscape

Remembers where you stopped reading

Transfer Methods

Includes dedicated desktop software to transfer files

File transfers from documents stored on the web

File transfers from computer via FTP/Bonjour/WebDav

Overall Rating


image
Bookshelf

Version 1.2.1309, $9.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Excellent for reading text and HTML files, since the Bookshelf reader reformats them for the iPhone display and lets the user select font and font size for viewing.
  • A recent update added welcome support for RTF files (but not for RTFD).
  • Excellent navigation tools. Besides the usual click up and down to move from page to page, Bookshelf now includes a nice slider that lets you skip multiple pages forward or back.
  • Has a customizable auto-scroll mode.
  • Easy to use bookmarks function, and remembers which document you were reading and where you left off.
  • Excellent website support and bug-tracking/feature enhancements section.
Special weaknesses
  • Only supports HTML and text formats, plus some eReader formats (e.g., PalmDocs). Bookshelf tries to convert Word documents, but doesn't do so well enough to be useful.
  • Hyperlinks in HTML files do not work.
  • Doesn't support image files (in the documents I transferred).
  • Although you can organize files into folders prior to transferring them to Bookshelf, after that you can't change the file names, or move them to folders, etc, on the iPhone Touch.
Other notes
  • Uses free Java QuickStart desktop app to move files to iPhone (through a wireless Bonjour connection).


image
Bookz

Version 1.3.2, $4.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Remembers where you left off reading
  • Integrated full-text search
  • Has cool page-flip animation for turning pages.
  • Excellent support for bookmarks and tags.
  • Portrait or landscape mode, but must be changed manually with the toolbar button (not by tilting device)
  • Very readable with good customization for colors, fonts, and margins.
  • Well integrated web browser includes support for bookmarks.
  • Useful navigation widget lets you see, by percentage, how much of the document you've read and then use the slider to move backward or forward.
  • Provides fine-grained customization for click control. Bookz lets users divide the display into 9 quadrants, each of which can be set to handle next page, previous page, toggle full-screen mode, show bookmarks, or add bookmark.
Special weaknesses
  • Supports only text files for now; displays only source code for HTML.
  • No facility for transferring files from computer. (The idea is that you'll get text files from web downloads or from libraries like Project Gutenberg.)
  • Can't add folders to device's library
  • Uploaded a .txt file to Google's Pages site, but the software wouldn't download it per the developer's instructions
  • Can't activate landscape mode when using the web browser.
  • Web browser offers to download "web pages," but then the application won't display it (except as source code).


image
eReader
image

Version 1.2, Free

Special strengths
  • Integrated search, including easy tool for finding next instance, and ability specify the starting page for the search.
  • Provides an integrated table of contents, from which you can select the desired chapter.
  • Remembers where you left off reading.
  • For books purchased from a compatible online store, eReader is the best application available today for overall readability.
  • Though it doesn't support the use of folders, eReader has built-in sorting tools for books by name, author, and date.
  • Excellent, customizable navigation controls and automatic full-screen mode (toolbars can be re-summoned with a small swipe).
Special weaknesses
  • Besides its own and some other eReader formats, this app only reads HTML, .rtf, and .txt files, and it removes or simplifies formatting in the process. In my test, images were stored but not viewable in the reader. The $30 eBook Studio software with which you can convert files to palmDoc format is outdated and has limited and rather clunky options for compiling eBooks from source files.
  • eReader's lack of support for common office file formats makes it unsuitable for business use.
  • eReader provides no way to move files to and from your PC/Mac.
  • There's no way to edit titles or other metadata (author, date) about the files in your eReader library.


image
Evernote

Version 1.5, Free Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Evernote is a multifunction content manager, capable of storing documents as well as text notes. In addition, Evernote can work with the iPhone or desktop computer to take photo, video, or voice notes. Further, it provides a browser "clipper" that lets you capture web pages (or portions of them) to your Evernote store. You can also email documents to add them to Evernote.
  • In addition to the Evernote iPhone application, Evernote provides a desktop application for both Mac OS X and Windows, as well as similar functionality on the Evernote website (when you log in). The desktop application and website let you do rich-text editing of notes, and even web pages. All three apps let you add and edit text notes to any kind of document.
  • Evernote supports full-text search for PDF, Word, Excel, HTML, and other kinds of documents. In addition to identifying files with search terms in them, the web and desktop versions navigate and display the terms at their locations in the documents. (The iPhone version also displays search terms in HTML files, but has no way to navigate to them.)
  • With Evernote, you can access a wide variety of attributes for the files in your collection, including: Information on modification and creation dates, attachments, source of note, and "To Do" information. All of these attributes can be included with search terms, tags, and notebook names as filters for searches on your document store. Such "smart" searches can be stored for reuse.
  • Evernote is very good for reading most HTML files, since it rewraps them to fit the display. Using the desktop application, you can further customize the display of HTML and text files by changing text fonts and sizes.
Special weaknesses
  • Evernote is one of the few iPhone apps in this category that does not support landscape as well as portrait mode.
  • Evernote's support for PDF viewing is weak. When opening one on the iPhone, Evernote doesn't download and display it automatically. Instead, it shows a small PDF icon that you must press to initiate the download. Once downloaded, Evernote provides no navigation tools or other assistance, so actually reading PDFs is all but impossible.
  • Evernote does not provide a way to add bookmarks to documents, nor does it return you to the document--and the location in the document--when you reopen the application.
Other notes
  • To use Evernote, you must set up a password-protected account at the Evernote website. Accounts are free up to 40 MB per month of storage, and there are $5/month and $45/month subscriptions as well.
  • With Evernote, users organize documents into "notebooks." This can only be done via the web or desktop interfaces. Although you can't set up "sub-notebooks," Evernote emphasizes the use of tags, which you can use as an organizing tool. You can add and apply tags in all three versions of Evernote.
  • In setting up notebooks, you can specify "local" notebooks, which are accessible only on your desktop computer, as well as "public" notebooks, which contain documents you can share over the web. The default is "synchronized" notebooks.


image
Instapaper

Version 1.2, $9.99 (Free version also available) Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Excellent readability, since web content is reformatted to a text display on the iPhone.
  • Extremely easy and effective bookmarklet for adding content.
  • Introduced innovative "tilt-scrolling" feature, soon adopted by FileMagnet, which lets you scroll a document without touching the screen.
  • When viewing on the iPhone, you can toggle between the original "web" view, and the reformatted "text" view.
  • Instapaper is an excellent tool for gathering web content for later viewing, and its ability to save just portions of a page is very helpful.
  • The Pro version remembers where you left off reading and returns you there by default.
Special weaknesses
  • No search feature.
  • Only supports HTML and text files.
  • Follows hyperlinks, but frustratingly, can't add web content for later reading from the iPhone itself. Also, the application exits Instapaper when following a link.
  • Files can be manually added if they are located on a web server, but only from the web version of your Instapaper store not from the iPhone application.
  • Can't categorize, tag, or otherwise organize articles, either on the iPhone or on the Instapaper website.
  • Instapaper can't handle articles that are published in multiple "pages," which is the norm on commercial websites nowadays. Each page has to be bookmarked separately. I tried bookmarking the "print" view of an article on Information Week, but Instapaper couldn't access it later. (This isn't true of all such "print" views, however.)
  • Instapaper does not provide a way to add bookmarks to documents.
Other notes
  • Instapaper requires registration at the Instapaper website, which is the repository for notes you collect from the web. Instapaper is designed to easily save web pages, or snippets of text from them, for later reading.
  • A $9.99 Pro version is available which adds some useful features such as "tilt scrolling," remembering where you left off reading, and a few others.


image
iSilo

Version 1.20, $9.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Nice integrated web browsing, though it's unfortunate you can't save documents you browse to.
  • Full-text search.
  • Conversion from web pages to iSilo format (Palm format) works extremely well in most cases. If the HTML is not well formed or uses "clever" CSS tricks for formatting, the result is not so good. When the HTML result is good, the files are extremely readable.
  • From a converted web page, iSilo easily lets you navigate to other linked pages, displaying them in a likewise quite readable format. (Again, it's not clear why iSilo can't save these other pages directly.)
  • iSilo attempts to build a table of contents from the page's HTML structure. It loads these into the document's Bookmarks menu.
  • iSilo documents can have much richer elements than other eReaders reviewed here, including support for tables, images, linked sections, and others.
  • iSiloX, the desktop tool for converting HTML files to iSilo format, does very well when handling well formatted and structured HTML. It did a remarkably good job, for example, with a long Word document that was opened in Open Office and then saved as HTML. I was impressed that the conversion preserved the formatting of tabular data in the file. The conversion also resulted in a useful set of bookmarks for the document's table of contents.
Special weaknesses
  • Navigation and access to options is confusing. In many cases, the options either don't work or are too difficult to use. For example, the option to change a document's font face doesn't work. In another case, the option to enable auto-scrolling must be activated by navigating to another screen; when you return to the document, any click on the screen deactivates auto-scroll, and you must return to the option screen. Even worse, it's impossible to activate both auto-scroll and full-screen view at the same time, since each activation returns you to do the document view, and each access to the options view turns off the other option.
  • In general, too many useful options are hidden in submenu screens.
  • The application provides no useful navigation tools.
  • iSilo utilizes too many non-standard user interface methods that are therefore nonintuitive. As a result, too often I had to resort either to reading the manual or (more often) consulting the company's online support forum. For example, the function to delete files is "hidden" as a popup menu accessible only if you hold your finger on a document's icon in document view. Once you know this, it works fine, but this means there's an unnecessary learning curve and with it additional user support.
  • Loading one long document converted from a PDF file consistently froze my iPhone, requiring a reboot.


image
Readdle

Version 1.0.5, $14.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Supports a variety of native office document and image formats, as well as PalmDoc format.
  • Has a well integrated web browser from which you can bookmark and/or save documents from the web, including web pages.
  • Remembers where you left off reading
  • Provides a nifty slider for navigation within documents, as well as a good bookmarking tool. Files can be navigated with a click or double-click at top or bottom of the display.
  • Supports "full screen" reading mode.
  • Documents can be organized into folders and into subfolders, both within your Readdle Storage area and on the device. You can also move files into any of the folders on your iPhone.
Special weaknesses
  • Readdle lacks support for RTF (despite what they say), RTFD, web archives, and iWork document formats.
  • Unfortunately, Readdle can't save web documents that you link to from within one of your saved documents only when you manually switch to its integrated browser. This is an oversight that hopefully will be fixed in a future release.
  • No search capabilities.
  • To rename your documents or folders, you must visit your Readdle Storage area online.
Other notes
  • Readdle provides a desktop application (Mac OS X only) for uploading content to Readdle's server, or files can be uploaded with a web browser. You can also email documents to your Readdle account to add them to your library. Content stored on the Readdle server is password-protected.
  • The Readdle iPhone app synchs with your Readdle storage, and files can be read remotely or downloaded for offline reading. Note that the synchronization isn't really that, since changes made in one repository aren't automatically made in the other. For example, deleting a document on your iPhone won't delete it from your online library.
  • Users can register for a free account, which is limited in storage and has some other restrictions. An "optimum" service is $5 a month.


image
Stanza

Version 1.5, Free iPhone app, beta Desktop app Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Integrated search.
  • User can group documents within the iPhone app and easily add downloaded files to them.
  • User can increase or decrease font size, adjust color, font. Also customize background color, margins, justification of text. In addition, Stanza provides various other customization preferences, including navigation and display options.
  • The application tries to automatically add chapter information derived from the text, but gives the user no way to change them. However, it does let users add bookmarks to the documents.
  • Stanza's navigation mechanisms are terrific. Besides the chapter and/or bookmark options, Stanza has a slider that's particularly useful for moving within large documents. Navigation from page to page is similar to eReader just a tap on the left or right side of the display slides pages into view.
  • Stanza has a great online library of content available for download. Besides free books available ubiquitously these days for eReaders, Stanza's library includes content from newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, BBC, and Wired. These are all nicely formatted and very readable on the iPhone.
  • Remembers where you left off reading, and even returns you by default to the last document you had open.
  • Version 1.5 introduces some cool visual features that let users add custom images to their books and then displays them in a Cover flow view (when you switch to landscape mode).
Special weaknesses
  • Stanza's support for standard office document formats is very limited. Its desktop software claims to read Amazon Kindle, Mobipocket, Microsoft LIT, PalmDoc, Microsoft Word, Rich Text Format, HTML, and PDF formats, but in my extensive testing of HTML, RTF, Word, and PDF, Stanza failed to format the content in any reasonable way. Most documents had such badly garbled page elements (headings, line breaks, lists, vertical white space, paragraph breaks) that they were unreadable when transferred to an iPhone.
  • Besides page formatting, Stanza strips all documents of all character formatting (font size, color, style), tabular content, and images.
  • Stanza provides no mechanism for transferring content from the iPhone back to your computer.
  • I was frustrated that although Stanza offers the option of viewing text in left-justified format, all the documents I transferred showed up full-justified. This happened even when I specified left-justification on the Stanza desktop app.
Other notes
  • Stanza relies on a desktop application (currently in beta development) that can be used to open supported files and transfer them wirelessly to the iPhone. The app supports both Mac OS X and Windows. Lexcycle currently plans to charge "a small fee" for the software once released.

The summary table below uses some advanced CSS techniques that aren't yet possible with your browser. WebKit, the open-source browser engine underlying Apple's Safari browser (for both Windows and Mac), has implemented numerous features of CSS 3.0, as well as pioneered some candidates for new graphics functions using CSS. (For more information on these, see the Mars article on the subject, or visit CSS3.info.
In particular, the table uses CSS border-radius (which produces the table's rounded edge), CSS box-shadow (which gives the table a drop shadow), CSS gradient (which produces a gradient in the table headers), and CSS background-size together with background-attachment and background-clip (which lets me automatically resize a small tiled image-- --both horizontally and vertically to fit the various-sized table cells).

Here is a screenshot of how the top part of the table looks in Safari:

Screenshot of table utilizing CSS techniques not available except in Safari
    
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Posted in:Reviews, eReaders, iPhone/TouchTags: |
October 1st, 2008

Amar Sagoo: Software Design for Usability

Amar's blog

I first encountered this programmer several years ago when I downloaded and was awed by his Tofu application. For a very long time, I feared that Sagoo had abandoned the project, but today I was delighted to see that he has put out a new (2.0) version of that little eReading marvel.

In checking out the rest of his site, and some of his newer (freeware) software projects, I also found he's written some very insightful essays on the subject of interface design and usability. Definitely worth bookmarking for future reference...

Meanwhile, I've got to try to convince him to develop an iPhone version of Tofu. It puts similar eReader attempts like Stanza to shame!

    
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Posted in:Usability, eReadersTags: |
September 8th, 2008

Without Even Trying, Apple’s iPhone Takes the eBook Reader Sweepstakes

I recently decided it was time to look again at the state-of-the-art in eBook reader hardware. It seems like I've waited forever for a company to design one I could really use in place of the traditional paper-filled parallelepiped. I first got excited by the possibility while implementing the PDF format for a magazine on CD-ROM back in 1995. "Wow!," I thought, "Whoever wrestles PDF onto a small electronic device is going to make a mint!"

Technical Note:

This article utilizes some WebKit-specific CSS coolness, which those of you running Firefox, Opera, or other browsers will miss out on. (Even users of Safari 3.1 can't see the image reflections... that CSS feature is as yet only available in the latest versions of WebKit.) These CSS 3.0 tricks eliminate the need for a whole slew of graphics, JavaScript, and other code that were previously needed to produce them. Instead, with one simple CSS style element, I can add shadows to page elements (like tables or boxes), set elements with rounded corners (even table cells!), and set reflections on images. It not only makes the page download faster, but it saves me a heckuva lot of time to boot! I'll be documenting more of these CSS advances in the ongoing Mars article, WebKit/Safari Keep Blazing the Trail to CSS 3.0.

Here are some screenshots in case you can't see what I'm talking about: Fancy image, Fancy table, Fancy box.

Of course, PDF turned out to be not particularly well suited to small viewing screens, since publishers would have to make a special layout for the PDF version. And so, years went by, with talk of E-Ink, electrowetting, electronic paper, and other exotic technologies appearing to be on the verge of practicality.

What most of the would-be designers of eBook readers have seemingly failed to grasp, however, is that to replace paper books, eBooks must be nearly as light and portable as a paperback. They must work without cords, and be compatible companions to one's daily trip to the little boy's room. (I've honestly never met a woman who reads in the john, but it seems nearly all men do.) They must be able to accompany you to the beach, the pool, or the mountains. I'd really like something I could read while holding it in one hand, like I do a paperback. I don't want a reader that will break the bank, either. And most of all, an eBook reader needs to be comfortable to use in bed or in your favorite armchair.

Even today, with devices shrinking towards the ideal size and weight, nearly all fail to meet my needs for one reason or another. Quite surprisingly, one device has in fact replaced books for me, and it's not one I ever thought would or could. Because I had bought the device for another purpose entirely, this eBook reader has actually cost me nothing whatsoever.

This article covers five eBook reader devices, including two that are full-fledged personal computers serving as an eBook reader by way of third-party software, and another that is a multifunction "smart phone" with eBook reader capabilities. All five devices have strongly positive characteristics, and two of of them possess the full range that would allow them to serve as portable eBook readers for organizations that need access to technical and policy documentation. Even though I personally need a reader that's useful for novels and such, I'm evaluating these based on their utility as devices for storing and reading technical and other documentation rather than literature, each of which have quite different requirements for eBook reading. The five devices reviewed are:

  1. Eee PC 901
  2. Iliad
  3. iPhone / iPod Touch
  4. Kindle
  5. Samsung Q1 Ultra Premium

OfiPhone as eBook Reader these five devices, the one that emerged as the runaway winner for both literature and documentation--much to my surprise--is Apple's iPhone or iPod Touch. The iPhone's small display, it turns out, is plenty big for comfortable reading, and its form factor make it the ideal eBook reader I've been looking for. Given its numerous other capabilities besides eBook reading, the iPhone / iPod Touch is an obvious choice. Among its virtues are its

  • Ability to manage all the relevant native-format files an organization is likely to produce,
  • Instantaneous availability,
  • Easy navigation,
  • Wide variety of eBook reader software,
  • Simple and powerful connectivity,
  • Integrated web browser and mail client,
  • Bright screen,
  • Excellent readability, and
  • Advanced security.

In addition to its use as an eBook reader, the iPhone has many other enterprise uses, not the least of which are its built-in cellular phone, Bluetooth receiver, GPS, and synchronized email. The iPhone also has excellent support for Windows users and can be centrally managed by an IT organization to enforce configuration and security standards.

EEE PC as eBook ReaderFor personnel who require a highly portable, full-featured PC, the Eee PC is an excellent choice. Given its very reasonable price, this device is an engineering marvel:

  • Tiny, yet with a decent-sized keyboard,
  • External controls for essentials like screen resolution and brightness,
  • Built-in state-of-the-art Wi-Fi and Bluetooth,
  • Ethernet port and 3 USB 2.0 hubs,
  • Video camera and microphone.

With dedicated eBook reading software such as MobiPocket installed on the Eee PC's Windows XP operating system, this micro-laptop can serve users well as an eBook Reader. The only downside is the eBook reader software's lack of support for native document formats, which must be converted to the MobiPocket format (and many cannot be so converted). For users who do not need the resources of a full-blown PC, the iPhone or iPod Touch would be a better solution.

Iliad as eBook ReaderThe Iliad's primary virtue is its wonderfully readable e-Ink text display, and it also has a good, portable form factor and hardware navigation controls. The Iliad also allows users to set a PIN number to protect content stored on it. Beyond those positive characteristics, there's not much to recommend the Iliad as an eBook reader for use in storing and accessing documents other than literature. And the price one has to pay for this one-trick pony, literature-only reader is far too high, in my opinion.

The Amazon Kindle is an impressive dedicated eBook Reader. The device's

  • Reading software,
  • Navigation ease,
  • Annotation support,
  • Searchability,
  • Readability,
  • Rapid start-up time,
  • and
  • Form factor
are all among the strongest in the group. However, the Kindle falls down in its support for the kinds of document formats most organizations will be using and in not providing some means of securing Amazon's Kindle eBook Readeraccess to content stored on it. The Kindle does not accept USB "sticks," either, so the possibility of storing sensitive documents externally is limited to Amazon's online Kindle service. Unfortunately, in my testing, that service was not always available, so in emergency situations I would not want to rely on it (for now, at least). Like the Iliad, the Kindle serves no purpose other than as an eBook reader, and as such its price seems quite high.

The Samsung micro-laptop gets excellent scores for search, document-format support, ease of adding documents, bookmarking, networking, and eBook navigation. However, all of these scores reflect attributes of the top-notch MobiPocket reader software, as well as its accompanying Creator software, which does a good job at converting common office-type files to HTML and/or Mobi format. Unfortunately, the Samsung hardware, combined with its reliance on the underlying Windows XP operating system, make this a poor choice as a portable eBook reader. The device is very slow to start up, has a very tiny and hard-to-use keyboard, and offers navigation options that aren't suitable for the onscreen software. The Samsung supports touch control, but the display targets that one must interact with to navigate are much too small. The same problem holds for the device's Samsung Q1 as eBook Readerwand, which requires a very steady hand and precise accuracy to reliably trigger onscreen controls. The device's external keypad is horrible and requires far too much effort for an emergency operation. Using a portable keyboard is probably not a practical alternative, either, since it requires the user to have access to a table and chair to enter data or navigate the Samsung. Finally, when not plugged in to an electrical outlet, the display's screen is so dim that I had to bring out a magnifying glass in order to navigate. I won't even mention here how ridiculously expensive the Samsung is, since it can also be used (*wink* *wink*) as a portable PC.

The summary table below presents a matrix of the various attributes used for this review. Items in light green indicate the basic criteria were met, and items in the darker gradient green indicate that the device excelled in fulfilling that particular requirement. White cells are those where the given reader failed to meet a requirement. Following the summary table are detailed tables for each of the five devices, with my review notes organized into Pros and Cons for each.


Functions/Usability Matrix

Device Characteristics

Iliad
($699)

Kindle
($359)

Samsung w/ MobiPocket
($1,299)

iPhone
($199)
iPod Touch
($299)

EeePC w/ MobiPocket
($599)

Supports native formats including images

Can organize documents into folders

Is password protected or supports encryption

Enables full-text search

Documents can be easily transferred from a computer

Bookmarks can be added within files

Documents can have a table of contents

Provides both portrait and landscape modes

Support web hyperlinks

Can browse and download files from the web

Font faces and sizes can be customized

Accessing and navigating content is easy

Documents are easy to read

Hardware design is well suited to reading

Has easy connectivity to local networks, or supports USB

Provides speedy access in emergencies

Has good hardware navigation (pen, keypad, touch screen, other controls)


Eee PC 901
(with MobiPocket Reader Software)

Pros

Cons

  • Nice design very small, but with relatively large keyboard.
  • Bright screen, and device includes external brightness controls to change it.
  • Networking upgrades that make this device very easy to connect: Built-in Bluetooth, and the latest, fastest 802.11n wireless receiver.
  • Standard Windows XP security features, including support for enterprise-grade standards.
  • Very quick to boot up (about 30 seconds).
  • Device has plenty of hardware ports, including 3 USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, external display, and memory card.
  • The device's trackpad is a commonly used alternative to the mouse, and this one works similarly to others.
  • Device has some surprisingly advanced features for its size and price, such as a built-in video camera, microphone, and high-quality and audio output ports that support 5-1 speaker configurations.
  • Besides wireless connectivity, I could use Ethernet to add this computer to my network, and I could also use a USB thumb drive.
  • I had no trouble connecting to my wireless network or to my Mac's Bluetooth service for file sharing (etc.)
  • Given its impressive and wide-ranging functionality, the Eee PC's price (about $600 retail) makes it a great value.
  • Despite the larger keyboard, I still found that it required quite a bit of practice to use efficiently... especially if you're frequently switching from a regular-sized keyboard.
  • In the toolbox of busy geeks, it's important that the tools don't fight with each other all the time, which they tend to do if they are all activated the same way.
  • Somewhat slow to boot down.
  • Using the Eee PC requires navigating through the full-blown Windows XP or Vista interface, which is way overkill for an eBook reader. Despite the bright screen, high resolution, and large keyboard, these versions of Windows are more difficult to use than the iPhone's interface or that of dedicated readers. In addition, the EeePC doesn't come with any eBook reader software built-in. For the purposes of this review, I downloaded and installed the MobiPocket Reader, which is a very good option for Windows users.
  • The EeePC has no built-in Wand or Touch-Screen capability.


Irex Iliad

Pros

Cons

  • The text display on the Iliad is excellent in normal indoor lighting. (I haven't yet tried it outdoors on a sunny day.)
  • The Iliad provides a wand for use in navigation, and I found that it works quite well (once I was able to locate the "real" one... the case includes a backup that's inactive).
  • Besides the wand, the Iliad has external navigation controls that are reasonably intuitive.
  • The device remembers where you left off reading a particular book.
  • The Iliad can be configured to display text in landscape as well as portrait mode.
  • The page navigation tools work well and are quite simple.
  • The Iliad supports use of a PIN number to protect the device. I set one up, and this works well.
  • iRex uses an embedded Linux operating system for the Iliad, and provides an extensive site for developers who want to help develop the software.
  • The Iliad's hardware is well designed. Its size is small enough, and its viewing screen generous enough to make a pleasant eBook reader for novels and other nontechnical works of fiction and nonfiction.
  • The Iliad is very slow to start up.
  • I would prefer a touch navigation system or easy-to-use keypad rather than (or in addition to ) the wand.
  • Navigation can be very confusing without reading the manual. Iliad relies on a variety of unlabeled icons and unnamed buttons, few of which are immediately intuitive to use.
  • Iliad is very slow in responding to movement from page to page during this session certainly not useful for anyone who was working in an emergency situation.
  • The Iliad can be configured to display documents page-by-page or as a continuous page. However, in the continuous mode it doesn't provide any way of "scrolling", so it's of questionable value. I would prefer a device that supports scrolling as well as page-by-page reading.
  • In landscape mode, the Iliad's navigation controls remain in portrait mode, which can be disconcerting.
  • The device provides no easy, accessible way to increase or decrease font size while reading.
  • Iliad's search function merely applies to the names of files on the device. It appears the Iliad cannot do full-text search, or otherwise search the contents of files.
  • The search function is only accessible when you're at the folder level. You can't invoke search while reading a document.
  • Getting around a large document with many parts can be quite cumbersome. A device like this needs to provide easy access to the document's TOC, or otherwise provide a tool to skip from chapter to chapter. The Iliad's only capability is to skip 5 pages forward or backward at a time, but the user has no way of knowing where 5 pages will take them, so it's a matter of guesswork, or you must return to the TOC and proceed from there. I suspect that the Iliad was designed primarily for reading novels, books that have no TOC and that you read sequentially from front to back. In this respect, it is not suitable to complex documents with many parts, such as the NSF COOP.
  • The electronic paper on this device leaves a smudgy-looking "ghost" print of the previous page in many cases (e.g., when going through the network profile setup screens). This is only a minor annoyance.
  • Setting up a wireless network profile did not work. I used the same settings as for all my network devices, including my iPod Touch. Iliad could not connect. I reentered my password and tried again, but no luck. I removed Iliad from its case and tried again, but nothing.
  • From what I could tell by navigating through the small number of documents that come installed on the Iliad, this device's navigation system will not be useful for a large document store. Navigation is too slow, and the number of documents viewable per screen is too small.
  • The Iliad does not support hyperlinks in PDF files, only in HTML files. From this, I assume (but haven't yet tested) that it doesn't support PDF bookmarks either. This is a serious drawback, since otherwise it is impossible to prepare a TOC for multiple documents the only option is using an Iliad folder, which, as noted previously, isn't suitable for a large number of documents.
  • Many business and personal documents have embedded tables, charts, and images of various sizes. Most are in color, which the Iliad does not support. I had difficulty moving such a document onto the Iliad to test its display for page elements like these, but this is a concern.
  • The 4-digit PIN supported by the Iliad is probably not sufficient to satisfy enterprise security requirements these days. Unlike the iPhone, iRex offers no enterprise-level solution for configuring and protecting the Iliad in an organizational setting. Still, the Iliad's PIN is more protection than Amazon offers for the Kindle.
  • I tried moving documents from my computer via USB and via a USB stick to the Iliad. I couldn't get any connection going with my Mac, but I could read documents from the USB stick. To do so, I had to find the appropriate setting, however, and change it back when not using the USB stick. Further, I found no way to move documents from the stick to the Iliad.
  • The MobiPocket reader on the Iliad is nothing like the desktop version. It has none of the additional features such as search and annotations. Apparently, the Iliad can read MobiPocket files, but that's the extent of its support.
  • Given the device's limited functionality (it's clearly meant to be nothing more than a dedicated eBook reader), its high price ($699 retail) makes it a questionable value.


iPhone/iPod Touch

Pros

Cons

  • Extremely compact form factor---nothing other than a shirt pocket (or similar) required to carry it around.
  • Bright screen, and device includes easy to use brightness controls (as well as auto-brightness) to change it. Also aiding readability are the IPhone's high resolution and font anti-aliasing.
  • The device's touch screen controls are currently the best in the industry response is excellent, and Apple's innovative "Multitouch" technology helps avoid "missed" touches.
  • Includes support for wireless 802.11b/g networking. The iPhone 3G also includes connectivity through Bluetooth 2.0.
  • For security, the iPhone has the following features for enterprise use (text taken from Apple's Enterprise Use overview):
  • Supports Cisco IPSec VPN to ensure the highest level of IP-based encryption for transmission of sensitive company information.
  • Employees can authenticate via password, two-factor token, or digital certificate.
  • iPhone also supports WPA2 Enterprise with 802.1X authentication � the standard for Wi-Fi network protection.
  • IT administrators can securely manage any iPhone that contains confidential company information using remote wipe and enforced security and password policies.
  • Instantly available from sleep mode. The boot down time is almost instantaneous, and the reboot time is about 30 seconds--the same amount of time as the EeePC.
  • iPod Touch and iPhone can connect to computers via USB 2.0.
  • Connecting to wireless networks for Internet and file-sharing was very easy and reliable.
  • The iPhone has some additional advanced features, such as a built-in video camera, microphone, GPS, push Email (both POP and IMAP), and (of course) the 3G data service for telephone use.
  • The iPhone OS, a version of Mac OS X 10.5, also includes other useful connectivity services, such as FTP and HTTP, enabling file-sharing and access through those methods.
  • Unlike dedicated eBook readers like the Iliad, Kindle, and MobiPocket, which require that documents be converted to proprietary formats or text/HTML, the iPod can view a wide variety of documents in their native formats, including:
    • Images (.jpg, .gif, .tiff)
    • Microsoft Office files (Word, Excel, Powerpoint)
    • HTML (web pages)
    • iWork files (Keynote, Numbers, Pages)
    • PDF
    • Text and RTF
  • For document viewing, the iPhone/iPod Touch supports both portrait and landscape modes. Landscape mode is activated simply by rotating the device, a technique made possible by Apple's "Accelerometer" technology.
  • The built-in App Store is a powerful way to expand the iPhone/iPod Touch's capabilities. Many of the applications that have become available are directly relevant not only for eBook use, but for other enterprise uses. For example, a recent addition called WinAdmin lets Windows users view and run their desktop applications through the iPhone interface. In a separate report, I have reviewed and made recommendations for the following eBook reader (and related) applications for the iPhone/iPod Touch:
    • Annotater
    • Bookshelf
    • Bookz
    • Caravan
    • DataCase
    • eReader
    • Evernote
    • File Magnet
    • Files
    • Instapaper
    • Mobile Finder
    • Readdle
    • Stanza
    • TouchFS
  • With its 8- or 16 GB hard drive, the iPhone/iPod Touch can serve as a USB thumb drive for loading or transferring files among an organization's computers.
  • The iPhone/iPod Touch is the least expensive of the 5 reviewed devices. If you don't want the cellphone/GPS/video/audio features of the iPhone, the iPod Touch, starting at $299 for an 8GB hard drive, is a bargain... even compared with the Amazon Kindle, which retails for $359. If you want the cellphone and other features of the iPhone, $199 is quite low when factoring in its many uses beyond those of the typical smart-phone.
  • The viewing screen is small compared with dedicated eBook readers, though it's larger than other cellphones.
  • The onscreen keyboard takes some getting used to, regardless of how thoughtfully designed it is. That said, it's far better than the tiny keyboards used on other devices like the Samsung Q1U V.
  • The standard type size for navigation on the iPhone is a bit too large for displaying long document or folder names, and the font size for these user interface elements cannot be changed.


Amazon Kindle

Pros

Cons

  • The Kindle has a very good start-up experience. The "Quick Start" guide is an excellent introduction to the device's main features.
  • I found navigation very intuitive and quite like the "silver cursor" the Kindle uses to navigate within pages.
  • I was immediately impressed with the Kindle's ability to add notes anywhere on a page.
  • After registering the Kindle with Amazon, a required step for using the Kindle, I emailed 3 test files to see how their conversion service works. I used the "free" option at the address llscotts@free.kindle.com, which will email them back to me at my Amazon-account email address. Sending the files to llscotts@kindle.com costs 10 cents per doc, for which fee Amazon will then load the files directly to the Kindle.
  • I tried both methods of conversion, and received Kindle files from each within minutes. The Word conversion is very good, and preserves hyperlinks.
  • The Kindle can follow hyperlinks to web pages and to some internal links in some (but not all) documents.
  • Kindle search functions are excellent. My only quibble--and it's not minor--is that there's no way to search a single document. The Kindle searches all the content on the Kindle. My main concern here is the time required for a lookup. Presentation of search results is excellent.
  • Adding bookmarks on the Kindle is childishly simple. Besides using the menu and scrollwheel device, you can click on the "dog-ear" graphic at the top of any page to add a bookmark. Pages with bookmarks show an active "dog-ear" icon.
  • The Kindle supports several other types of annotations that could be useful. You can "Highlight" text, add "Notes" to documents, or "Clip" whole pages for permanent storage. Using the first two can be used for navigation, like bookmarks.
  • The Kindle preserves and displays images from converted documents.
  • The Kindle's keyboard is large enough to be quite useful far superior to devices like the Samsung, for example.
  • Connecting to my Mac via USB was an iffy proposition. It took several attempts to do so I'm not sure what the problem was, but certainly the connection was very slow to be established, compared to, say, a digital camera, camcorder, or USB stick.
  • After two days of use I concluded that the USB connection was so bad as to be unusable. The device kept connecting and disconnecting every few seconds. I reset the device twice, per Amazon's instructions.
  • The Kindle only supports a few file formats natively (Kindle (.azw), Text (.txt), and Mobi (.mobi, .prc). It can also handle mp3 and audible files. Some other formats (Word, HTML, and various image formats) can be converted to Kindle format using Amazon's online service. Documents to be converted are emailed to an account set up for a specific Kindle. Kindle has an experimental service for converting PDFs as well.
  • The on/off switch is in a nonintuitive location
  • Doesn't support landscape mode.
  • The Kindle doesn't reliably support links within HTML documents, though it does support external links.
  • The text converted from Word can be a little jarring, since it displays an abundance of unnecessary vertical white space, shifts fonts and font sizes for no apparent reason, and shifts between fully justified text and ragged text layouts. You can't change the converted documents, but it would be interesting to figure out what causes the irregularities. In addition, the conversion doesn't do well with formatting such as lists.
  • The Kindle doesn't allow users to organize files into folders.
  • On the Kindle Media Manager website, you can add tags to documents, but these aren't transferred to the Kindle.
  • The Kindle's web-page access is extremely slow. After several minutes of waiting for the device to connect to http://gets.ncs.gov, Kindle reported that the server was not responding. However, when I immediately entered the URL in my computer's web browser, the site came up instantly. I tried this twice with the same results.
  • Regarding access, several times during my test the Kindle reported that it could not connect to Amazon's Kindle server. This might suggest that the Kindle server should not our primary repository for NSF's COOP documents, though it would be useful as a backup location.
  • Since Kindle doesn't support spreadsheet documents, I converted the critical personnel roster to HTML and sent it off for conversion. Received an email from Amazon saying the HTML file (a format they are supposed to support) could not be converted:
    The following attachment(s), sent at 10:17 AM on Wed, Jul 23, 2008 could not be converted and delivered to your Amazon Kindle account:
    * COOP - Critical Personnel Roster - April 2008.html
    The following document and image types are supported as attachments:
    Personal documents: Unprotected Microsoft Word documents (*.doc), HTML documents (*.html, *.htm), and Text documents (*.txt)
    Images: JPEGs (*.jpg), GIFs (*.gif), Bitmaps (*.bmp), and PNG images (*.png)
    If your attachment(s) is one of the above file types, please ensure the document is not password protected or encrypted. If you need further assistance, please contact customer support at 1-866-321-8851.
  • The Kindle remembers where you left off while reading a document.
  • The type size on the Kindle's list of documents is too large it's hard to tell which document is which when the document names are so similar. You can't adjust the font size for this screen.
  • The Kindle's documentation says that it natively supports MobiPocket files (.mobi, .prc), but it didn't recognize two that I transferred, which were created using the MobiPocket software.


Samsung Q1 Ultra Premium
(with MobiPocket Reader Software)

Pros

Cons

  • The device is compact, though surprisingly heavy.
  • The Samsung PC offers three different modes for navigating and entering data: External keyboard, a wand, and a touch screen. Unfortunately, none of them worked well for me.
  • Standard Windows XP security features, including support for enterprise-grade standards.
  • I had no trouble connecting to my wireless network. The Samsung has a decent array of external connectivity options: Besides wi-fi (802.11g), there's Bluetooth and Ethernet.
  • The display on this device is so dim I couldn't read the password screen. It's bright only when connected to a power source, even if its battery is fully charged. It has no external brightness control, and despite numerous searches (even turning it over to my teenage son, who failed, too) I couldn't locate the magic switch in Windows' control panels to change it. Eventually, I took a magnifying glass to the extremely dim screen and went through the relevant control panels for half an hour or so, but I never succeeded in changing the screen brightness so I could use the device on battery power. Since one of the selling points of this micro-laptop is supposed to be its "ultra-bright LED backlit touchscreen LCD," (what is an LED LCD, anyway?) I either had a dud, the machine was badly configured, or the task was too hard for me.
  • I would not want to be the one who has to enter my organization's 13-character password regularly. The keyboard is too small, and having to use various shift keys is terribly cumbersome. Certainly, you wouldn't want to be doing that in case of an emergency, which is one of the scenarios for which the eBook I'm looking for is intended.
  • The touch screen, and the Windows-OS widgets that you must navigate with, are too small to easily manipulate the interface.
  • The Samsung has only one USB outlet, so you can't use an external keyboard and have it plugged into a PC at the same time.
  • An external keyboard isn't practical for mobile use, anyway, since you need to have a desk or table at hand for it to be used... and they may not be handy in an emergency.
  • Windows applications don't open with a single touch you have to "double-touch" them, which can be tricky. I located a setting that lets you specify "press once and hold" to open apps, but that was finicky, and I often ended up merely dragging the icon around. When I did succeed in getting a "launch" response, the app didn't launch directly. Instead, I got a contextual menu and had to press the item "Open" to launch the application.
  • The Windows OS requires that both the pen and the touch interface position the cursor in the target control area precisely. Thus, hitting a control with the pen spot-on is not sufficient in many cases. Controlling windows with your finger also becomes difficult when they lie on the right edge of the screen, since the control is abutting the device's case, and your (or, well, mine anyway) finger is too big to make the necessary connection.
  • The device couldn't connect to my Mac via USB, Bluetooth, or wi-fi, so I used a USB thumb drive to move my test documents to the Samsung.
  • As noted in my comments on the Eee PC, the full-blown Windows OS isn't well suited to eBook reading, because its navigation paradigm is difficult to use on small screens like this. Windows doesn't come with any eBook reader software built-in. For the purposes of this review, I downloaded and installed the MobiPocket Reader, which is a very good option for Windows users.
  • The Samsung Q1 Ultra Premium micro-laptop is the most expensive of the devices reviewed as possible eBook readers. In fact, it was almost twice as expensive as the Kindle, the second most expensive device. This computer retails for over $2,000, though Amazon has it for around $1,300. As an eBook reader, or even as a computer, it's difficult to imagine why anyone would think that price was worthwhile. Perhaps they haven't looked at the Eee PC, which has better specs, is only half the price, and is only slightly larger.
Image Reflections with CSS

Image Reflections with CSS

Box Shadows and Rounded Corners with CSS

Box Shadows and Rounded Corners with CSS

Box Shadows and Rounded Corners with CSS

Box Shadows and Rounded Corners with CSS

    
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January 12th, 2007

Living With A Windows PC: If It’s Not Malware, It’s Crapware!

$60 to keep crapware off of a Windows PC? I just happened to notice this ArsTechnica report on the troubles of Windows users who have to put up with all sorts of attention-grabbing "crapware" that gets installed on their machines by the vendors who put them together. Gee, there's one more reason I'm glad I don't bother with Windows. Imagine if my Mac came with all sorts of not only bad software, but software that popped up periodically to ask me to buy something, or software that insisted that it be the prime image-viewing application, or whatever. Good grief... the only thing we get on Macs is high-quality software and higher-quality software.
    
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Posted in:MS Windows, Macs vs. PCs, TechnologyTags: |
December 25th, 2006

Windows Vista Set To Poison HD Video?

A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection This is a very disturbing analysis of the underlying---and largely hidden from discussion thus far---content protection system for "premium content" from Blu-Ray and HD-DVD sources. The author argues that Microsoft's scheme will end up raising costs for everyone, even those who use Linux and Mac OS X, because it will drive up costs for HD content and players. Not only that, but it will effectively grant Microsoft a monopoly on HD content distribution since the HD content providers will be forced to adhere to Vista's system.

The "executive executive summary" of the study is "The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history." My only question is, who will be killed in the end? I don't get the impression that the author thinks it will be Microsoft. Nor does he think this future is avoidable if Microsoft's desktop monopoly were reduced, either as a whole, or for just the Vista portion if Windows users refuse to upgrade.

It's also a shame that he thinks there's a parallel between Apple's success with iTunes/iPod and Microsoft's desktop monopoly. I totally reject any such comparison, since Apple's success was achieved against all odds and on the merit of its products and services, whereas Microsoft's monopoly was achieved largely by the fortunate accident of riding on IBM's coattails, as IBM's mainframe and typewriter monopoly was essentially transferred to Microsoft on corporate desktops. The merits of Microsoft's products had virtually nothing to do with it... nor were consumers ever really given a choice, since their employers ended up dictating their choice of a home computer.

    
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December 6th, 2006

ZDNet Blogger Finds Apple Pro Laptop Cheaper Than Dell

Apple vs. Dell price war | Ed Burnette’s Dev Connection | ZDNet.com Here's another recent article confirming what I had reported a year and a half ago: Apple computers are no more expensive---and often less expensive---than comparable Dell computers. That comparison is even easier now that Apple is shipping its computers with the same kind of processor as Dell. All in all, Macs are simply better values all around, plus you get to use the best consumer operating system on the planet.
    
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October 19th, 2006

With a 30% Annual Gain, Mac Market Share Shoots Up To 6%

Macworld: News: Apple's Mac market share tops 5% with over 30% growth Pretty impressive numbers... Apple was the fastest growing PC maker in the last 12 months. Starting from such a small base, Apple has huge amounts of room for growth---and for rewarding shareholders---in the years ahead. I keep saying it's the best time ever to be a Mac user... and I'm glad to see others finally joining the party.
    
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August 9th, 2006

CNET Blog: Macs are cheaper than PCs? Yes!

Alpha--The CNET Blog: Macs are cheaper than PCs? Yes OK, folks, this isn't me saying this... it's CNET. Take a look at the data for yourself. It's black and white. The new Mac Pro is much cheaper than comparable high-end PC's.
    
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August 4th, 2006

TransGaming’s Cider: Will This Make “Macs Have No Games” A Thing of the Past?

Cider: Mac portability engine gets Apple users to the core of gaming Wow! If the Mac becomes a good gaming machine, that's just one more nail in the lid of Windows' coffin. This is definitely worth keeping an eye on.
    
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July 31st, 2006

Protecting Windows: How PC Malware Became A Way of Life

Article Summary

Waving the White Flag To the Windows Virus PlagueThis is a very long article that covers several different, but related, topics. If you are interested, but don’t have time to read the entire article, here’s a summary of the main themes, with links to the sections of text that cover them:

  1. Required Security Awareness Classes Reinforce Windows Monopoly in Federal Agencies.
    For the third straight year, I’ve been forced to take online “security awareness” training at my Federal agency that includes modules entirely irrelevant–and in fact, quite insulting–to Macintosh users (myself included). The online training requires the use of Internet Explorer, which doesn’t even exist for Mac OS X and in fact is the weakest possible browser to use from a security perspective. It also reinforces the myth that computer viruses, adware, and malicious email attachments are a problem for all users, when in fact they only are a concern to users of Microsoft Windows. In presenting best practices for improved security, the training says absolutely nothing about the inherent security advantages of switching to Mac OS X or Linux, even though this is an increasingly well known and non-controversial solution. This part of the article describes the online training class and the false assumptions behind it in detail.
  2. IT Managers Are Spreading and Sustaining Myths About the Cause of the Malware Plague.
    These myths serve to protect the status quo and their own jobs at the expense of users and corporate IT dollars. None of the following “well known” facts are true, and once you realize that malware is not inevitable–at the intensity Windows users have come to expect–you realize there actually are options that can attack the root cause of the problem.
    1. Windows is the primary target of malware because it’s on 95% of the world’s desktops,
    2. Malware has worsened because there are so many more hackers now thanks to the Internet, and
    3. All the hackers attack Windows because it’s the biggest target.
    4. This section of the article describes the history of the malware plague and its actual root causes.

  3. U.S. IT Management Practices Aren’t Designed for Today’s Fast-Moving Technology Environment.
    This part of the article discusses why IT management failed to respond effectively to the disruptive plague of malware in this century, and then presents a long list of proposed “Best Practices” for today’s Information Technology organizations. The primary theme is that IT shops cover roughly two kinds of activity: (1) Operations, and (2) Development. Most IT shops are dominated by Operations managers, whose impulse is to preserve the status quo rather than investigate new technologies and alternatives to current practice. A major thrust of my proposed best practices is that the influence of operations managers in the strategic thinking of IT management needs to be minimized and carefully monitored. More emphasis needs to be accorded to the Development thinkers in the organization, who are likely to be more attuned to important new trends in IT and less resistant to and fearful of change, which is the essence of 21st century technology.

Ah, computer security training. Don’t you just love it? Doesn’t it make you feel secure to know that your alert IT department is on patrol against the evil malware that slinks in and takes the network down every now and then, giving you a free afternoon off? Look at all the resources those wise caretakers have activated to keep you safe!

  • Virulent antivirus software, which wakes up and takes over your PC several times a day (always, it seems, just at the moment when you actually needed to type something important).
  • Very expensive, enterprise-class desktop-management software that happily recommends to management when you need more RAM, when you’ve downloaded peer-to-peer software contrary to company rules, and when you replaced the antivirus software the company provides with a brand that’s a little easier on your CPU.
  • Silent, deadly, expensive, and nosy mail server software that reads your mail and removes files with suspicious-looking extensions, or with suspicious-looking subject lines like “I Love You“, while letting creepy-looking email with subject lines like “You didnt answer deniable antecedent” or “in beef gunk” get through.
  • Expensive new security personnel, who get to hire even more expensive security contractors, who go on intrusion-detection rampages once or twice a year, spend lots of money, gum up the network, and make recommendations for the company to spend even more money on security the next year.
  • Field trips to Redmond, Washington, to hear what Microsoft has to say for itself, returning with expensive new licenses for Groove and SharePoint Portal Server (why both? why either?), and other security-related software.
  • New daily meetings that let everyone involved in protecting the network sit and wring their hands while listening to news about the latest computing vulnerabilities that have been discovered.
  • And let’s not forget security training! My favorite! By all means, we need to educate the staff on the proper “code of conduct” for handling company information technology gear. Later in the article, I’ll tell you all about the interesting things I learned this year, which earned me an anonymous certificate for passing a new security test. Yay!

In fact, this article started out as a simple expose on the somewhat insulting online training I just took. But one thought led to another, and soon I was ruminating on the Information Technology organization as a whole, and about the effectiveness and rationality of its response to the troublesome invasion of micro-cyberorganisms of the last 6 or 7 years.

Protecting the network

Who makes decisions about computer security for your organization? Chances are, it’s the same guys who set up your network and desktop computer to begin with. When the plague of computer viruses, worms, and other malware began in earnest, the first instinct of these security Tzars was understandable: Protect!
          Protect the investment…
                    Protect the users…
                              Protect the network!

And the plague itself, which still ravages our computer systems… was this an event that our wise IT leaders had foreseen? Had they been warning employees about the danger of email, the sanctity of passwords, and the evil of internet downloads prior to the first big virus that struck? If your company’s IT staff is anything like mine, I seriously doubt it. Like everyone else, the IT folks in charge of our computing systems at the office only started paying attention after a high-profile disaster or two. Prior to that, it was business as usual for the IT operations types: “Ignore it until you can’t do so anymore.” A vulgar translation of this “code of conduct” is often used instead: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Unfortunately, the IT Powers-That-Be never moved beyond their initial defensive response. They never actually tried to investigate and treat the underlying cause of the plague. No, after they had finished setting up a shield around the perimeter, investing in enterprise antivirus and spam software, and other easy measures, it’s doubtful that your IT department ever stepped back to ask one simple question: How much of the plague has to do with our reliance on Microsoft Windows? Would we be better off by switching to another platform?

It’s doubtful that the question ever crossed their minds, but even if someone did raise it, someone else was ready with an easy put-down or three:

  1. It’s only because Windows is on 95% of the world’s desktops.
  2. It’s only because there are so many more hackers now.
  3. And all the hackers attack Windows because it’s the biggest target.

At about this time in the Computer Virus Wars, the rallying cry of the typical IT shop transitioned from “Protect the network… users… etc.” to simply:
            Protect Windows!

Windows security myths

The “facts” about the root causes of the Virus Wars have been repeated so often in every forum where computer security is discussed—from the evening news to talk shows to internal memos and water-cooler chat—that most people quickly learned to simply shut the question out of their minds. There are so many things humans worry about in 2006, and so many things we wonder about, that the more answers we can actually find, the better. People nowadays cling to firm answers like lifelines, because there’s nothing worse than an unsolved mystery that could have a negative impact on you or your loved ones.

Only problem is, the computer security answers IT gave you are wrong. The rise of computer viruses, email worms, adware, spyware, and indeed the whole category now known as “malware” simply could not have happened without the Microsoft Windows monopoly of both PC’s and web browsing and the way the product’s corporate owners responded to the threat. In fact, the rise of the myth helped prolong the outbreak, and perhaps just made it worse, since it took Microsoft off the hook of responsibility… thus conveniently keeping the company’s consideration of the potentially expensive solutions at a very low priority.

Nasty CyberorganismsEven though the IT managers who actually get to make decisions didn’t see this coming, it’s been several years now since some smart, brave (in at least one case, a job was lost) people raised a red flag about the vulnerability of our Microsoft “monoculture” to attack. They warned us that reliance on Microsoft Windows, and the impulse to consolidate an entire organization onto one company’s operating system, was a recipe for disaster. Because no one actually raised this warning beforehand, the folks in the mid-to-late 1990’s who were busily wiping out all competing desktops in their native habitat can perhaps be forgiven for doing so. However, IT leaders today who still don’t recognize the danger—and in fact actively resist or ignore the suggestion by others in their organization to change that policy—are being recklessly negligent with their organization’s IT infrastructure. It’s now generally accepted by knowledgeable, objective security experts that the Microsoft Windows “monoculture” is a key component that let the virus outbreak get so bad and stay around for so long. They strongly encourage organizations to loosen the reins on their “Windows only” desktop policy and allow a healthy “heteroculture” to thrive in their organization’s computer desktop environment.

Full disclosure: I was one of the folks who warned their IT organization about the Windows security problem and urged a change of course several years ago. From a white paper delivered to my CIO in November 2002, this was one of my arguments for allowing Mac OS X into my organization as a supported platform:

Promoting a heterogeneous computing environment is in NNN’s best interest from a security perspective. Mactinoshes continue to be far more resistant to computer viruses than Windows systems. The latest studies show that this is not just a matter of Windows being the dominant desktop operating system, but rather it relates to basic security flaws in Windows.

About a year later, when Cyberinsecurity was released, I provided a copy to my company’s Security Officer. But sadly, both efforts fell on deaf ears, and continue to do so.

1999: The plague begins

The first significant computer virus—probably the first one you and I noticed—was actually a worm. The “Melissa Worm” was introduced in March 1999 and quickly clogged Usenet newsgroups, shutting down a significant number of servers. Melissa spread as a worm in Microsoft Word documents. (Note: Wikipedia now maintains a Timeline of Notable Viruses and Worms from the 1980’s to the present.)

Now, as it so happens, 1999 was also the year when it became clear that Microsoft would win the browser war. In 1998, Internet Explorer had only 35% of the market, still a distant second to Netscape, with about 60%. Yet in 1999, Microsoft’s various illegal actions to extend its desktop monopoly to the browser produced a complete reversal: When history finished counting the year, IE had 65% of the market, and Netscape only 30%. IE’s share rose to over 80% the following year. This development is highly significant to the history of the virus/worm outbreak, yet how many of you have an IT department enlightened enough to help you switch from IE back to Firefox (Netscape’s great grandchild)? The browser war extended the growing desktop-OS monoculture to the web browser, which was the window through which a large chunk of malware was to enter the personal computer.

Chart from Wikipedia shows browser usage for major browser types from 1994-2006.

NCSA Mosaic Browser LogoYou see, by 1994, a year or so before the World Wide Web became widely known through the Mosaic and Netscape browsers, Microsoft had already achieved dominance of the desktop computer market, having a market share of more than 90%. A year later, Windows 95 nailed the lid on the coffin of its only significant competitor, Apple’s Macintosh operating system, which in that year had only about 9% of corporate desktops. Netscape was the only remaining threat to a true computing monoculture, since as the company had recognized, the web browser was going to become the operating system of the future.

Microsoft’s hardball tactics in beating back Netscape led directly to the insecure computer desktops of the 2000 decade by ensuring that viruses written in “Windows DNA” would be easy to disseminate through Internet Explorer’s Active/X layer. Active/X basically let Microsoft’s legions of Visual Basic semi-developers write garbage programs that could run inside IE, and it became a simple matter to write garbage programs as Trojan Horses to infect a Windows PC. Active/X was a heckuva lot easier to write to than Netscape’s cross-platform plug-in API, which gave IE a huge advantage as developers sought to include Windows OS and MS Office functionality directly in the web browser.

A similar strategy was taking place on the server side of the web, as Microsoft’s web server, Internet Information Server (IIS), had similarly magical tie-in’s to everybody’s favorite desktop OS. Fortunately for the business world, the guys in IT who had the job of managing servers were always a little bit brighter than the ones who managed desktops. They understood the virtues of Unix systems, especially in the realm of security. IT managers weren’t willing to fight for Windows at the server end of the business once IIS was revealed to have so many security holes. As a result, Windows, and IIS, never achieved the dominance of the server market that Microsoft hoped for, although you can be sure that the company hasn’t given up on that quest.

The other major avenue for viruses and worms has been Microsoft Office. As noted, Melissa attacked Microsoft Word documents, but this was a fairly unsophisticated tactic compared with the opportunity presented by Microsoft’s email program, Outlook. Companies with Microsoft Exchange servers in the background and Outlook mail clients up front, which by the late 1990’s had become the dominant culture for email in corporate America, presented irresistable targets for hackers.

Hacking in the NewsThrough the web browser, the email program, the word processor, and the web server, the opportunities for cybermischief simply multiplied. Heck, you didn’t even have to be a particularly good programmer to take advantage of all the security holes Microsoft offered, which numbered at least as many as would be needed to fill the Albert Hall (I’m still not sure how many that is).

So… the answer to the question of why viruses and worms disproportionately took down Windows servers, networks, and desktops starting in 1999 isn’t that Microsoft was the biggest target… It was because Microsoft Windows was the easiest target.

And the answer to why viruses and worms proliferated so rapidly in the 2000’s and with them the Windows-hacker hordes is simply that hacking Microsoft Windows became a rite of passage on your way to programmer immortality. Why try to attack the really difficult targets in the Unix world, which had already erected mature defenses by the time the Web arrived, when you could wreak havoc for a day or a week by letting your creation loose at another clueless Microsoft-Windows-dominated company? Once everyone was using both Windows and IE, spreading malware became child’s play. You could just put your code in a web page! IE would happily swallow the goodie, and once inside, the host was defenseless.

Which leads me to the next question whose answer has been obscured in myth: Exactly why was the host defenseless? That is, why couldn’t Windows fight off viruses and worms that it encountered? It doesn’t take a physician to know the answer to that one, folks. When you encounter an organism in nature that keeps getting sick when others don’t, it’s a pretty good bet that there’s something wrong with its immune system.

The trusting computer

It’s not commonly known or understood outside of the computer security field that Windows represents a kind of security model called “trusted computing.” Although you’d think this model would have been thoroughly discredited by our collective experience with it over the last decade, it’s a model that Microsoft and its allies still believe in… and still plan to include in their future products such as Windows Vista. Trusted computing has a meaning that’s shifted over the years, but as embodied by Microsoft Windows variants since the beginning of the species, it means that the operating system trusts the software that gets installed on it by default, rather than being suspicious of unknown software by default.

That description is admittedly a simplification, but this debate needs to be simplified so people can understand the difference between Windows and the competition (to the extent that Windows has competition, I’m talking about Mac OS X and Linux). The difference, which clearly explains why Windows is unable to defend itself from attack by viruses and worms, stems from the way Windows handles user accounts, compared with the way Unix-like systems, such as Linux and Mac OS X, handle them. Once you understand this, I think it will be obvious why the virus plague has so lopsidedly affected Windows systems, and it will dispel another of the myths that have been spread around to explain it.

Windows has always been a single-user system, and to do anything meaningful in configuring Windows, you had to be set up as an administrator for the system. If you’ve ever worked at a company that tried to prevent its users from being administrators of their desktop PC’s, you already know how impossible it is. You might as well ask employees to voluntarily replace their personal computer with a dumb terminal. [Update 8/7/06: I think some readers rolled their eyes at this characterization (I saw you!). You must be one of the folks stuck at a company that has more power over its employees than the ones I've worked for in the last 20-odd years. Lucky you! I don't have data on whose experience is more common, but naturally I suspect it's not yours. No matter... this is certainly true for home users ....] And home users are always administrators by default… besides, there’s nothing in the setup of a Windows PC at home that would clearly inform the owner that they had an alternative to setting up their user accounts. (Update 8/7/06: Note to Microsoft fans who take umbrage at this characterization of their favorite operating system: Here’s Microsoft’s own explanation of the User Accounts options in Windows XP Professional.)

The Unix difference: “Don’t trust anyone!”

On Unix systems, which have always been multiuser systems, the system permissions of a Windows administrator are virtually the same as those granted to the “superuser,” or “root” user. In the Unix world, ordinary users grow up living in awe of the person who has root access to the system, since it’s typically only one or two system administrators. Root users can do anything, just as a Windows administrator can.

But here’s the huge difference: A root user can give administrator access to other users, granting them privileges that let them do the things a Windows administrator normally needs to do—system administration, configuration, software installing and testing, etc—but without giving them all the keys to the kingdom. A Unix user with administrator access can’t overwrite most of the key files that hackers like to fool with—passwords, system-level files that maintain the OS, files that establish trusted relationships with other computers in the network, and so on.

The Unix DifferenceWindows lacks this intermediate-level administrator account, as well as other finer-grained account types, primarily because Windows has always been designed as a single-user system. As a result, software that a Windows user installs is typically running with privileges equivalent to those of a Unix superuser, so it can do anything it wants on their system. A virus or worm that infects a Unix system, on the other hand, can only do damage to that user’s files and to the settings they have access to as a Unix administrator. It can’t touch the system files or the sensitive files that would help a virus replicate itself across the network.

This crucial difference is one of the main ways in which Mac OS X and Linux are inherently more secure than Windows is. On Mac OS X, the root user isn’t even activated by default. Therefore, there’s absolutely no chance that a hacker could log in as root: The root user exists only as a background-system entity until a Mac user deliberately instantiates her, and very few people ever do. I don’t think this is the case on Linux or other Unix OS’s, but it’s one of the things that makes Mac OS X one of the most secure operating systems available today.

There are many other mistakes Microsoft has made in designing its insecure operating system—things it could have learned from the Unix experience if it had wanted to. But this one is the doozy that all by itself puts to rest the notion that Microsoft Windows has been attacked more because people don’t like Microsoft, or because it’s the biggest target, or all the other excuses that have been promulgated.

The security awareness class

In response to the cybersecurity crisis, one of the steps our Nation’s IT cowards leaders have taken across the country is to purchase and customize computer security “training.” Such training is now mandatory in the Federal Government and is widely employed in the private sector. I have been forced to endure it for three years now, and I’ve had to pass a quiz at the end for the last two. As a Macintosh user, I naturally find the training offensive, because so much of it is irrelevant to me. It’s also offensive because it is the byproduct of decisions my organization’s IT management has made over the years that in my view are patently absurd. If the decisions had been mine, I would never have allowed my company to become completely dependent on the technological leadership of a single company, especially not one whose product was so difficult to maintain.

It’s a truism to me, and has been for several years now, that Windows computers should simply not be allowed to connect to the Internet. They are too hard to keep secure. Despite the millions that have been spent at my organization alone, does anybody actually believe that our Windows monoculture is free from worry about another worm- or virus-induced network meltdown? Of course not. And why not? Why, it’s because these same IT cowards leaders think such meltdowns are inevitable.

The inevitability of this century’s computer virus outbreaks is one of the implicit myths about their origin:

“Why switch to another operating system, since all operating systems are equally vulnerable? As soon as the alternative OS becomes dominant, viruses geared to that OS will simply return, and we’ll have to fight all over again in an unknown environment.”

My hope is that if you’ve been following my argument thus far, you now realize that this type of attitude is baseless, and simply an excuse to maintain the status quo.

Indeed, the same IT cowards leaders who actually believe this are feeding Microsoft propaganda about computer security to their frightened and techno-ignorant employees through “security awareness” courses such as this. Keep in mind that, as some of the notions point out, companies attempting to train their employees in computer security are doing so not only for their office PC, but for their home PC as well. The rise of telecommuting, another social upheaval caused by the Internet’s easy availability, means that the two are often the same nowadays. So the lessons American workers are learning are true only if they have Windows computers at home, and only if Windows computers are an inevitable and immutable technology in the corporate landscape, like desks and chairs.

Here are some of the things I learned from my organization’s “Computer Security Awareness” class:

This computer security online training requires Internet Explorer.

  1. Always use Internet Explorer when browsing the web.
    How many times must employees beg their companies to use Firefox, merely because it’s faster and has better features, before they will listen? In the meantime, to ensure that as many viruses and worms can enter the organization as possible, so that the expensive antivirus software we’ve purchased has something to do, IT management makes sure that as many people continue using IE as possible. I’m being facetious here. The reason they do this is that it’s what the training vendor told them to say, and today’s Federal IT managers always do as instructed by their contractors.

    While you can find data on the web to support the view that IE is at least as secure as Firefox, common sense should guide your decisionmaking here rather than the questionable advice of dueling experts. The presence of Active/X in IE, all by itself, should be enough to make anyone in charge of an organization’s security jump up and down to keep IE from being the default browser. And that’s not even usually listed as a vulnerability, because it’s no longer “new”. Students learned to fear the kinds of files Windows users exchange on a day-to-day basis. The “shootouts” that you read now and then pertain to new vulnerabilities that are found, and to the tally of vulnerabilities a given browser maker has “fixed”… not to inherent architectural vulnerabilities like Active/X and JScript (Microsoft’s proprietary extension to JavaScript).

  2. Use Windows computers at home.
    The belief among IT management in recent years is that if we can get everyone to use the same desktop “image” at work and at home, we can control the configuration and everything will be better. Um, no. Mac users don’t have any fear of these strange Windows file types, and organizations that encourage users to switch to Mac OS X or to Linux, instead of discouraging such switching, immediately improve their security posture. For example, here’s some recent advice from a security expert at Sophos:
    “It seems likely that Macs will continue to be the safer place for computer users for some time to come.”

    And from a top expert at Symantec comes this recent news:

    Simply put, at the time of writing this article, there are no file-infecting viruses that can infect Mac OS X… From the 30,000 foot viewpoint of the current security landscape, … Mac OS X security threats are almost completely lost in the shadows cast by the rocky security mountains of other platforms.

  3. All computers on the Internet can be infected within 30 minutes if not protected.
    The course taught us that all computers need to be "configured" to be secure and that otherwise, they would be infected by a virus in 30 minutes on the web.No… of all currently available operating systems, this is true only of Microsoft Windows. Mac OS X is an example of a Unix system that’s been designed to use the best security features of the Unix platform by default, and no user action or configuration is required to ensure this.
    Here’s one of the URL’s (from the SANS Institute) that the course provided, which actually makes pretty clear that Windows systems are the most insecure computers you can give your employees today: Computer Survival History.
  4. Spyware is a problem for all computers.
    I imagine that spyware is the most crippling These instructions on viruses assume that the employee runs Windows at home.day-to-day aspect of using Windows. My son insisted on trying Virtual PC a couple of years ago, and on his own, his virtual Windows XP was completely unusable because of malware of various kinds within about 20 minutes. He was using Internet Explorer, of course, because that’s what he had on his computer. I installed Firefox for him, and his web surfing in Windows has been much smoother since then. He still has to run antivirus and antiadware software to keep the place “clean,” but needless to say, he has never asked to use IE again. This experience alone demonstrated what I had already read to be true: The web is not a safe place in the 21st century if you’re using Windows. This is one of the primary reasons I use Mac OS X: In all the 5 years I’ve used Mac OS X, I have never once encountered adware. And that has absolutely nothing to do with what websites I surf, or don’t surf, on the web. (And that’s all I’m going to say about it!)
  5. Viruses are a threat to all home computers.
    What I said previously about adware, The course taught me to be afraid and wary when using the Internet at home.ditto for computer viruses. To this day, there is not a single virus that has successfully infected a Mac OS X machine. (The one you heard about earlier this year was a worm, not a virus, and it only affected a handful of Macs, doing very little damage in any case.) As even Apple will warn you, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible and will never happen. However, it does mean that if Macs rise up and take over the world, amateur virus writers will all have to retire, and you’ll cut the supply line of new virus hackers to the bone. Without Windows to hack, it simply won’t be fun anymore. No quick kills. No instant wins. Creating a successful virus for Mac OS X will take years, not days. Human nature being what it is, I just know there aren’t many hackers who would have the patience for that.

    A huge side benefit for Mac users in not having to worry about viruses and worms is that you don’t have to run CPU-sucking antivirus software constantly. Scheduling it to run once a week wouldn’t be a bad idea, but you can do that when you’re sleeping and not have to suffer the annoying slowdowns that are a fact of PC users’ lives every time those antivirus hordes sally forth to fight the evil intruders. Or… you could disconnect your Windows PC from the Internet, and then you could turn that antivirus/antispyware thingy off for good.

  6. Apparently, you have to be really careful when opening email attachments, since they might attack your computer.Malicious email attachments are a threat to all.
    **Y A W N** Can we go home now?
    Sometimes, I open evil Windows attachments just for the fun of it… to show that I can do so with impunity. Then I send them on to the Help Desk to study.:-) (Just kidding.)

Change resisters in charge

Other than Microsoft, why would anyone with a degree in computer science or otherwise holding the keys to a company’s IT resources want to promulgate such tales and ignore the truth behind the virus plague? That’s a simple one: They fear change.

To admit that Windows is fundamentally flawed and needs to be replaced or phased out in an organization is to face the gargantuan task of transitioning a company’s user base from one OS to another. In most companies, this has never been done, except to exorcise the stubborn Mac population. Although its operating system is to blame for the millions of dollars a company typically has had to spend in the name of IT security over the last 5 years, Microsoft represents a big security blanket for the IT managers and executives who must make that decision. Windows means the status quo… it means “business as usual”… it means understood support contracts and costs. All of these things are comforting to the typical IT exec, who would rather spend huge amounts of his organization’s money and endure sleepless nights worrying about the next virus outbreak than to seriously investigate the alternatives.

Change Resisters In CommandManagers like this, who have a vested interest in protecting Microsoft’s monopoly, are the main source of the Windows security myths, and it’s a very expensive National embarrassment. The IT organization is simply no place for people who resist change, because change is the very essence of IT. And yet, the very nature of IT operations management has ensured that change-resisters predominate.

Note that I said IT operations. As a subject for a future article, I would very much like to elaborate on my increasingly firm belief that IT management should never be handed to the IT segment that’s responsible for operations—for “keeping the trains running.” Operations is an activity that likes routines, well defined processes, and known components. People who like operations work have a fondness for standard procedures. They like to know exactly which steps to take in a given situation, and they prefer that those steps be written down and well-thumbed.

By contrast, the developer side of the IT organization is where new ideas originate, where change is welcomed, where innovation occurs. Both sides of the operation are needed, but all too often the purse strings and decisionmaking reside with the operations group, which is always going to resist the new ideas generated by the other guys. In this particular situation, solutions can only come from the developer mindset, and organizations need to learn how to let the developer’s voice be heard above the fearful, warning voices of Operations.

Custer’s last stand… again

So please, Mr. or Ms. CIO, no more silly security training that teaches me how to [try to] keep secure an operating system I don’t use, one that I don’t want to use, and one that I wish to hell my organization wouldn’t use. Please don’t waste any more precious IT resources spreading myths about computer security to my fellow staffers, all the while ignoring every piece of advice you receive on how to make fundamental improvements to our network and desktop security, just because the advice contradicts what you “already know.”

It really is true that switching from Windows to a Unix-based OS will make our computers and network more secure. I recommend switching to Mac OS X only because it’s got the best designed, most usable interface to the complex and powerful computing platform that lies beneath its attractive surface. Hopefully, Linux variants like Ubuntu will continue to thrive and provide Apple a run for its money. The world would be a much safer place if the cowards leaders who make decisions about our computing desktop would wake up, get their heads out of the sand, smell the roses, and see Microsoft Windows for what it is: The worst thing to happen to computing since… well, … since ever!

2002 Report on Integrating iMacs into a Windows-Dominated Desktop EnvironmentBefore my recommendation is distorted beyond recognition, let me make clear that I don’t advocate ripping out all the Windows desktops in your company and replacing them with Macs. Although that’s an end-point that here, today seems like a worthy goal, it would be too disruptive to force users to switch, and you’d just end up with the kind of resentment that the Macintosh purges left behind as the 1990’s ended. Instead, I’ve always recommended a sane, transitional approach, such as this one from my November 2002 paper on the subject (note that names have been changed to protect the guilty):

Allow employees to choose a Macintosh for desktop computing at NNN. This option is particularly important for employees who come to NNN from an environment where Macintoshes are currently supported, as they typically are in academia. In an ideal environment, DITS would offer Macintoshes (I would recommend the flat-panel iMacs) as one of the options for desktop support at NNN. These users can perform all necessary functions for working at NNN without a Windows PC.

This approach simply opens the door to allow employees who want to use Macs to do so without feeling like pariah or second-class citizens.

As long ago as 2002, Mac OS X was able to navigate a Windows network with ease, and assuming your company already has a Citrix server in place, Mac users can access your legacy Windows client-server apps just as well as Windows clients can. This strategy will gradually lower security costs—and probably support costs as well—as the ratio of Windows PCs to Macs in your organization goes down, while lowering the risk of successful malware attacks. As a side benefit, I would expect this strategy to improve user satisfaction as well. Since the cost of Apple desktops today is roughly the same as big-brand PCs like Dell, the ongoing operational cost of buying new and replacement machines wouldn’t take a hit, as the IT mythmakers would have you believe. In fact, did you know that all new Apple computers come with built-in support for grid computing? Certainly! Flick a switch, and your organization can tap into all the Mac desktops you own to supplement the company’s gross computing power. What’s not to like? (My 2002 report didn’t cover grid computing — it was a new feature in Mac OS X 10.4 last year — but it did address all the issues, pros, and cons an organization would face in integrating Macs with PCs; however, it’s too large a subject to discuss further here.)

But how do you convince IT managers of this, when operating systems from Microsoft are the only kind they’ve ever known? I certainly had no luck with mine. Heck, I didn’t even gain an audience to discuss it, and my fellow mid-level IT managers were aghast that I had even broached the subject. After all, many of them were still smarting from the bruising—but successful—war against Mac users they had waged during 1994-96. The fact that in the meantime Apple had completely rewritten its operating system, abandoning the largely proprietary one it built for the original Macintosh and building a new, much more powerful one on top of the secure and open foundation of Unix made no difference to these folks whatsoever. It’s not that they disagreed with any of the points I was trying to make… they didn’t even want to hear the points in the first place!

A new approach for IT managers

Hear No EvilFor the most part, the managers who, like “hear no evil” chimps, muffled their ears back in 2002 were in charge of IT operations. To them, change itself is evil, and the thought of changing your decision of 5 years ago for any reason was simply unthinkable. And yet… consider how much the computer landscape changes in a single year nowadays, let alone in 5 years. Individuals with good technical skills for operations management but no tolerance for change should simply not be allowed to participate in decisions that require objective analysis of the alternatives to current practice. And at the pace of change in today’s technology market, inquiry into alternatives needs to become an embedded component of IT management.

For what it’s worth, here are a few principles from the Martian Code of Conduct for IT management:

  1. Make decisions, and make them quickly.
  2. Decisions should always consider your escape route in case you make a bad choice
  3. Escape routes should enable quick recovery with as little disruption to users as possible
  4. Open source options should always be considered along with commercial ones.
  5. COTS doesn’t stand for “Choose Only The Software” Microsoft makes.
  6. Sometimes it’s better to build than to buy. Sometimes it’s better to buy than to build. A wise IT manager knows the difference.
  7. Reevaluate your decisions every year, to determine if improvements can be made.
  8. Don’t cling to past decisions just because they were yours.
  9. Never lock yourself in to one vendor’s solution. Always have an escape route. (Wait… I said that already, didn’t I?)
  10. Know thy enemy. Or at least know thy vendor’s enemy.
  11. Be prepared to throw out facts you’ve learned if new information proves them wrong.
  12. IT is a service function, not a police function. Remember that the purpose of the IT group is to skillfully deploy the power of information technology to improve productivity, communictions, and information management at your organization.
  13. Never let contractors make strategic IT decisions for your company.
  14. Never take the recommendation of a contractor who stands to gain if you do. (In other fields, this is called “conflict of interest.” In some IT shops I know, it’s called “standard practice.”)
  15. Don’t be afraid to consider new products and services. When you reject a technology or tool a customer inquires about, be sure you understand why, and be prepared to explain the pros and cons of that particular technology or tool in language the customer will understand.
  16. Make sure your IT organization has components to manage the following two primary activities on an ongoing basis, each of which has its requirements at the table when you compile budget requests for a given year:
    • Application developers capable of handling a multitude of RAD tasks. This group should maintain an up-to-date laboratory where new technology and tools can be evaluated quickly.
    • Operations group with subcomponents for dealing with networking, telecommunications, desktop management, security, data, and application/server maintenance.
  17. Always obtain independent estimates of whatever resource requirements the operations group tells you are needed to make significant changes in technology platforms at your organization, because an operations manager will always exaggerate the true costs.
  18. The success of your organization is measured not by the size of the desktop support group’s Help Desk, but rather by continued progress in reducing the number of requests and complaints that are referred to the Help Desk. A rise in Help Desk requests over time is a symptom that something is probably wrong—not a signal to ask for a larger Help Desk budget.
  19. Similarly, the percentage of a company’s budget that gets devoted to IT should become smaller over time if the IT group is successfully discharging its mission. Calls for larger IT budgets should be viewed skeptically by the COO, since it often symptomizes an IT group that is unable or unwilling to find better alternatives to current practice.

From the perspective of an IT manager who has never worked with anything but Windows desktops, the prospect of having to welcome Macintosh or Linux systems into your Windows-only network must be a frightening one indeed. If you know absolutely nothing about Mac OS X and your only experience with a Mac was a brief hour or two with OS 7 a decade ago, your brain will very likely shut down at such a thought, and your hands will plant themselves on your ears if a colleague begins speaking in that direction. This is entirely understandable, and it’s equally understandable that the vast majority of your existing Windows users will want to remain on the only computing platform they’ve ever known.

But don’t you see that this fear doesn’t mean a decision to support Mac OS X in your organization is wrong! Such fears should certainly be considered in a transition plan, but they shouldn’t be considered as a reason to oppose development of a transition plan. Fears like these, and the sometimes irrational attitudes they bring to bear in technology decisionmaking, is why we desperately need new blood in the Nation’s IT departments, and why applicants to the job whose only (or only recent) training has been in MCSE shops should be filtered out from the get-go. You often hear Macintosh users “accused” of being cultish, but from my perspective, steadfast Microsoft Windows partisans are much more likely to meet the following definition of “cultish” than the Mac users I’ve known:

A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.

By fostering the myths about malware threats, the cult of Microsoft has already poisoned the computing experience for millions of people and wasted billions of dollars trying to shore up the bad past decisions of its Microsoft-trained hordes.

It’s time to give some new ideas a shot. It’s time to begin a migration off of the Microsoft Windows platform in U.S. corporate and government offices. Only once we dismantle the Microsoft computing monoculture will we begin to beat back the malware plague. Until then, IT security will simply spin its wheels, implement security policies that punish the whole software development life cycle because of Microsoft’s sins, Back To Topand require Mac OS X users to take online security training that simply teaches all the things we have to fear from using Windows computers.


Addendum: A few articles for further reading:
  • Macs And Viruses. Fact vs. FUD, Mac360, May 2006
  • Melissa and Monoculture, Gerry McGovern, April 1999
  • Cyberinsecurity, CCIA, September 2003
  • Beware the Microsoft Monoculture, CNET, May 2006
  • Fears Over New Mac OS X Trojan Unfounded, Ars Technica, February 2006.
  • Network Managers Flee IE, trimMail, January 2006
  • A Crawler Based Study of Spyware on the Web, University of Washington, February 2006
  • Mad As Hell, Switching to Mac, Winn Schwartau in NetworkWorld, May 2005.
  • Colophon

    This article is the first time I’ve used a new, very useful JavaScript called Image Caption from the Arc90 lab site. Image Caption makes it easy to include text captions with the graphics you publish to illustrate your text. It includes a small JavaScript file and some sample CSS code. To implement, you simply add a class attribute to the images you want to caption, add the caption text as a “title” attribute, and include the script in the head of your HTML code.

    I also had fun using the terrific JavaScript called simply Reflection.js. It’s recently shed about 30kb of file size and is down to only about 5kb, works great alongside Prototype/Script.aculo.us, and is childishly simple to execute. Besides adding a link to the JavaScript file, you add a class attribute to the images you want to reflect. For each reflection, you can tweak the reflection height and its opacity by adding specific measures in two additional class attributes. Unlike other reflection scripts I’ve tried, this one automatically reflows the text once the reflected image is added to the layout.

        
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    July 23rd, 2006

    Will iPods Become eBooks, Too?

    Engadget: Apple to do eBooks? Here's a very interesting--and, I think, likely--rumor. It would be a logical upgrade from the iPod's current text-only notes capability. And highly welcome, too! There are many things one wants to say that are best said with pictures rather than words, and at the moment, you can't say them on an iPod. This would be great news, but they'd have to once again think about how to fit a larger display onto the iPod's tiny frame.
        
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    July 14th, 2006

    Customers Complain About Dell’s Pricing Practices

    Bloomberg.com: Dell Will Cut Promotions, Adopt More Uniform Pricing Dell's customers finally wizing up to the fact that the company is playing games with its prices. I pointed this out in an article over a year ago, reporting that it was obvious to me they were engaged in a bait-and-switch game. Here, Dell reports customers' reaction is more about the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of Dell's "specials." I'm sure there will be some relief among those shopping for a Dell. But I tell you, the experience will still be nowhere near as relaxing and enjoyable as shopping for a Mac!
        
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    Posted in:Macs vs. PCs, TechnologyTags: |
    July 10th, 2006

    Needham & Co. Analyst Thinks Corporate IT Will Continue To Ignore Macs

    From Macworld: Analysts Say Windows on Macs will not open corporate doors I certainly agree that Boot Camp won't cause corporate IT departments to suddenly start buying Macs. Did anyone ever suggest such a thing? In fact, as the Macworld article notes, Apple has been promoting Parallels as the "run Windows on your Mac" choice rather than Boot Camp. No, I think other things will eventually sway IT... for example, if home users start to buy Macs, they'll start to put pressure on their companies to let them use their Mac notebooks. Once that starts to happen, IT will be forced to deal with the issue.
        
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    July 6th, 2006

    Survey Shows Jump in PC Users Interested in Buying Macs

    From Yahoo!: Mac The Apple Of More PC Buyers' Eyes: Financial News This is the kind of headline I enjoy seeing! The odds of people actually making the switch are so low that any headway is cause for celebration. The report has a nice graph showing flat-to-falling interest in Dells and fairly steady increases in interest in Macs. Apple's moves to make the Mac more Windows-friendly this year (Boot Camp, Intel chips) are cited as major incentives.
        
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    July 4th, 2006

    CrossOver for Mac Coming Soon: Run Windows Apps Without Windows

    CrossOver lets Windows apps run on OS X, sans Windows CodeWeavers plans to release a Mac OS X Version of its WINE-based CrossOver application this summer.  CrossOver doesn't require a full version of Windows running in emulation... rather, it uses the open-source WINE project to run individual Windows applications just like any other app on your Mac.  Word is, the apps run about the same as they would on a Windows computer.  Theoretically, PC games would run fine, too, but it's not certain this will be the case in reality.  If CrossOver works as advertised, it would be even a step above Parallels Desktop in making it simple to run Windows apps on the Mac.  Besides convenience, CrossOver would be less susceptible to Windows viruses since there's no actual Windows OS running.  
        
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    June 21st, 2006

    On Open Formats and Closed Minds: A Love Story

    Ancient storage formatsWith growing interest and amazement, I read the back-and-forth argument between two long-time, highly respected Mac nerds yesterday on the subject of Mark Pilgrim’s decision to abandon Mac OS X for Ubuntu Linux. John Gruber is simply one of the best Mac writers there is, and regardless of what he has to say on a particular subject, you have to admire the elegance, precision, and logic of his writing. So when Gruber raised questions about the wisdom of Pilgrim’s move in a recent blog post, his large readership weighed in, and Pilgrim responded, you can be sure that a great many Mac users like me paid attention.

    As usual, I agreed with nearly everything Gruber had to say, and the couple of niggles I have are not worth mentioning here since they would distract from the purpose of this article. And what is that purpose, you are wondering? Before I get to that, let me briefly summarize (if I dare) the exchange so far between Gruber and Pilgrim.

    1. Pilgrim has become fed up with Apple’s “closed”-edness. After 22 years as a sophisticated, high-end user, he’s decided Apple’s “closed” ecosystem of software and hardware is too closed for him. His primary concern is that the integrity of the data he stores in that ecosystem is at risk, because Apple doesn’t always document its data formats and doesn’t respect for long the proprietary formats it develops for storage. Pilgrim feels jerked around from one closed format to another and is tired of the data conversions and consequent data loss they inevitably entail.
    2. Gruber is surprised and a bit incredulous that Pilgrim would have suddenly been bitten by this bug. He agrees that closed formats aren’t good for long-term archival purposes, but questions whether losing his iTunes metadata and other format problems is worth chucking his expertise with the Mac operating system for something completely different. He points out that a good backup strategy is part of the solution to preserving precious content. He also devotes a large part of his response to criticizing the Mac blog writers who had knee-jerk reactions against Pilgrim’s decision, and who cited old “Mac is better than Windows because…” arguments without realizing the advances Windows has made since Windows XP (or 95, or whatever). Gruber argues against black-and-white thinking in general and for the very reasonable position of respecting other people’s choices even if you don’t agree with them.
    3. Pilgrim replies that Gruber missed his point and reemphasizes that his feeling “closed in” by proprietary formats has been coming on for a long time. Apple’s decision to abandon the widely used and understood mbox format for Mail was just the last straw. He feels betrayed that Apple switched formats in Tiger without informing its users, without providing them a way to back out, and without documenting the new format.

    So why do I want to wander into this disagreement between two Macintosh heavyweights I don’t know, but greatly admire and respect? As I read their separate articles, I saw something with my Martian eyes that may not be clear to them. What I saw wasn’t an OS switch story, but rather a love story.

    I’m coming to believe that the human brain just isn’t very reliable. Long ago I concluded that humans would never understand their own behavior, simply because they’re not capable of analyzing behavior without affecting it. The mind is too complex, there are too many variables that define behavior, and how can you stand outside human-ness and study it without reflecting your own beliefs and preconceptions? It just can’t be done, which is why we’ve made so little progress in psychotherapy and instead are becoming more and more dependent on the “objective” injection of drugs (which we also don’t fully understand).

    So the prospect of someone as intelligent and knowledgeable (those are different things) as Mark Pilgrim abandoning an OS as highly evolved as Mac OS X over a file format issue is incredible. This is clearly an emotional response, and that’s the only way I can understand it. As a heavily invested Apple user myself, I have become incensed at the way Apple often treats its customer base. I’ve only been a Mac user for 10 years–less than half of Pilgrim’s 22–but I definitely feel Apple “owes me” something for my “loyalty”, especially after not abandoning the platform in the sad years of the late 1990’s when Apple lost its way. Like Pilgrim–and Gruber–I have many criticisms of the Apple platform and software, and if that Automator action interrupts my work one more time I’m gonna scream! (Why can’t it work in the background when it doesn’t require any input from me?) I have tried–and abandoned–and tried–and abandoned–using a local iDisk with .Mac so many times it’s not at all funny. Each time Apple says they’re improving webdav for .Mac, my hopes go up, and I try again. I’m currently trying again, in fact… we’ll see how long it lasts.

    One of the advantages of being a Martian, though, is that I do have the ability to stand outside myself and see when I’m being silly. (It’s the antennae.) So I would recognize when my “fed-up”-ness was wresting control of my good judgment and rein it in. In this case, I think Pilgrim has failed to recognize that his beef isn’t with Mac OS X or the physical entity he calls his Mac, but rather it’s with the faceless corporate entity called Apple, run by its arrogant and righteous managers and programmers.

    As Gruber points out, the question isn’t whether Apple is open or not, but whether they’re open enough. One of the things I value about Apple and its products is the new ideas they bring to computing and their willingness to take risks with new approaches. I’m a “love new stuff” kind of guy, so I welcome anything new with open arms. This can be a problem when the new thing turns out to be a skunk in disguise, but with Apple that’s pretty rare. As a New-loving guy, though, I realize that nothing lasts forever. New things always displace old things, and they’re only new for a short time.

    As I reminded a web developer colleague of mine recently, when you’re in the business of building websites, you simply have to accept the fact that whatever you think you know today is not going to be sufficient 2 years from now. API’s change, languages change, programming techniques change, graphics technology changes, browser technology changes, hardware capabilities change… you name it! It’s all malleable, and you have to be able to roll with it.

    This constant “newness” in computing means that if you want to play and create in the digital world, you have to be prepared to convert from one format to another many times over in the course of your lifetime, or risk leaving valuable creations behind, locked in some old file format (or hardware format) nothing can read anymore. (The alternative, of course, is to stick with easels and canvas and pencil and paper.) I can easily identify with Pilgrim’s concern here… all creative individuals can. What we make we want to keep (the good stuff, anyway), and we want to be able to enjoy it again 5 years from now, or whenever the mood strikes. (I better do something about that large reel of magnetic tape with the original copies of my 1978 recordings on it before it’s too late!) Like Pilgrim, this is a constant worry. I try not to go into any new technology or tool without understanding how I’ll get my content out again. If I find I can’t, I abandon the technology before I’ve invested more of myself than can be easily migrated manually.

    A couple of recent examples from my world… Bloglines is a great RSS service, and after having used NetNewsWire for about a year, I switched because Bloglines had this very cool “clip” function. In Bloglines, you can easily “clip” an article and assign it to a folder. Sounds like a great way to archive content you’re interested in, no? No. It turns out Bloglines provides no way either to present that content except through their administrative interface, and no way to export the metadata the clips represent. So, bye bye Bloglines.

    Del.icio.us is another terrific service for Web 2.0, and I still use it. But when a series of service interruptions meant I had no access to my bookmarks a few days last fall, I panicked. I used a free plugin to Wordpress called Mysqlicious to import all of my Del.icio.us content and metadata into a MySQL database, and I now keep a mirror of all my Del.icio.us bookmarks there.

    In fact, these two conversions are what led to the evolution of Musings from Mars. The “library” of News, Resources, and Software I keep here is nothing more than my bookmarks, all grown up with a great deal more content and metadata than I could store in Del.icio.us or Bloglines. I’m completely at ease now, because relational databases and SQL are standard, well understood data stores and methods of retrieval. The content itself is simply Unicode text, in some cases tagged with HTML. As a web guy, I’m very comfortable with HTML as an archival storage method, and with standard graphics formats like GIF, JPEG, PNG, and TIFF to store the images.

    So, what about some of the conversions Pilgrim has had trouble with? Mail, for example? I’ve had lots of fun with mail formats over the years, but it’s possible that the solutions that work for me just wouldn’t do it for him. First, regarding Apple’s new “closed” format that replaces mbox. Is this such a tragedy? I’m of the mind that the engineers at Apple are a lot smarter than me about this kind of thing, and if they felt the need to change mbox in order to optimize Spotlight, I say, go for it! Being able to search across all of my past email is the most important thing anyway, isn’t it? What’s the good of having your mail in an “open” format, if it’s not easy to search? Pilgrim’s beef seems very strange to me, especially after I did a couple of quick experiments this morning with the .emlx format. (Actually, it looks to me like Apple still uses mbox for the mailboxes themselves, and emlx for the individual mail items. In any case, .emlx refers to the mail items, not to the mailboxes.)

    File Juicer directory

    First, I tried a new (to me) piece of shareware called File Juicer just to see what would happen when I fed it a folder-full of .emlx files. I was pleasantly surprised to find that everything converted very neatly to .txt, .html, .gif, .jpg, etc files. File Juicer put each file type in its own folder at the end. Lo and behold, all those ads I’d trashed still had their HTML files gloriously preserved! All of the attachments were neatly dumped out for me. Now, this isn’t an email archive, but if it’s the content you want to get at, it’s certainly an easy way to do that.

    Second, I used a tried-and-true piece of shareware called Emailchemy, which I had previously used when archiving my Exchange mail to Apple Mail last year. Emailchemy makes it wonderfully easy to convert from just about any email format to another. You just point it at your Mail folder, and Emailchemy will preserve the directory structure, setting up mbox files, Eudora files, Thunderbird files, and more, which you can then import into another mail program. If you want to use a Mail client interface for accessing your archived mail, this is a very easy way to do that. It didn’t take long to import my Apple Mail mail into the terrific Opera mail client this way.

    MHonArc HTML PageThird, I went ahead and tried a piece of freeware I’d downloaded earlier this year called MHonArc, which is specifically designed to convert from email formats to HTML as an archival utility. Now, this is thinking outside the box, folks! MHonArc is a command-line utility, but there’s a Mac OS X interface (also free) that makes it easy to use without having to learn the command syntax. You just point the software at your mail files, and it converts them to linked HTML. After I combined my “sent” and “inbox” folder in the same archive, I really saw the wisdom of this approach. Since the software preserves threads, now I could easily find my replies and my receipts in the same thread! And honestly, I think data in HTML is pretty darn safe!

    Matrix for MailStewardA last option I didn’t bother to try, but which I find also very compelling is a tool like MailSteward, which converts your email to a relational database. Now honestly, Mark, doesn’t this sound better than switching to Linux? For $50, you can sock your email in a safe database from which you can output text files, SQL files, mbox files (yes!), and print (PDF) files, and which you can search much more flexibly than any Mail client can.

    See, Mark… it’s not Mail, and it’s not iTunes, and it’s not AppleWriter, or whatever. Slowly, over many years of frustrations, you’ve developed a negative attitude toward Apple, and the bough has now broken. Apple is a lucky company in that they instill intense loyalty, verging on worship, in their users. But like love, loyalty has a dark side. Like someone we love who has betrayed us, Apple has a way of pissing off its loyal customers through neglect and indifference. Everyone who has used the Apple support forums has found them useful, but also quite cold. I have never ever seen an Apple employee step in to one of them to help people out. In fact, they seem to deliberately avoid doing so. Not good PR, in my view.

    Apple and PR

    A lot of Windows tech writers think Apple is great at PR, and that we all love Apple products because we love the packaging, or the advertising, or whatever. But Apple is actually pretty lousy at PR, except the very quiet kind at a very safe distance. Their website is wonderful… easy to use, inviting, attractive, informative, filled with tutorials and videos, and other fun stuff. The support site is great, too, but you never sense there’s anyone at Apple actually at home when you visit.

    As an introvert personality, I can understand this: I like to provide interesting things and hope people enjoy them or find them stimulating. But I don’t want to shake hands with anybody or stand in a room filled with readers and give a talk. Still, you gotta admit it’s not a great PR approach.

    When Apple does get noticed–its latest TV commercials, for example–they’re flashy and interesting and well made, but they aren’t going to change anyone’s minds. I don’t think the iPod ads ever sold an iPod, actually. What sold the iPod was friends meeting friends who showed them their iPod. It’s such a great product it “advertises itself.” If iPods were priced like PC’s, this would not have happened, but once Apple got the iTunes music store going on Windows, and an iPod for under $300, that’s when the gates really opened up for the iPod economy.

    After having spent $7,000 in one year at my local Apple store, I became livid at a manager there who refused to give me my Federal employee discount, simply because I’d forgot to bring it to the store with me. I said, “Just look me up in your database.” He said, “We don’t have access to that information.” “What!? How can you provide top-notch customer service when you have no way of getting to know your customers?” He just shrugged his shoulders and acted like he didn’t know, didn’t care.

    If Apple’s customers sometimes feel like they have a personal relationship with the company, then it can be a particularly bruising relationship for guys like Pilgrim who are digitally gifted and technologically savvy. It would be like being married to a spouse who you admire because they’re a little bit smarter than you. The spouse does many wonderful things and makes many fine decisions. But lots of decisions get made without consulting you. You argue about this, and she promises to get your opinion the next time before going off in a different direction. But then she doesn’t. Never does, in fact. Even when you think she’s brilliant, you bristle at her superior attitude. Finally, it’s too much for your ego, and off you go.

    For “the rest of us,” Apple is simply brilliant so much of the time that we just forgive the few blunders. I personally stand in awe of so much about Mac OS X that I could give a rat’s ass about the mailbox format it uses. My issue is, “Make Mail play nice with Exchange 2000!” I’m delighted that Apple uses XML as a core data format, including the format for my iTunes metadata. I’m in love with QuickTime because it’s completely interoperable with open video and audio standards, and it’s extremely easy to convert from one format to another. Unlike Microsoft, Apple hasn’t tried to develop its own formats for the sake of controlling the standard and locking up the market. At least, I don’t believe that’s their motivation. This is why there is no Apple video codec, or audio “codec,” or graphics “codec.” Apple uses PostScript (PDF) as the basis for its graphics engine rather than developing one of its own. Isn’t that pretty darn open?

    No, the beef isn’t with Apple’s openness or about conversion issues, which are generally very easy to work out. Actually, one of the risk factors for data that Pilgrim leaves out is the degree of support the format has from developers. To that extent, as Gruber says, the era of being at risk by using a Mac is now over, and if anything the pendulum is swinging the other way. There are so many developers building quality Mac OS X applications nowadays, that Cocoa is well on its way to being a factor that converts users to the Mac all by itself.

    On the other hand, a format like mbox is used less often nowadays. Thunderbird doesn’t use it, and neither does Outlook, or Opera mail. Eudora has a shrinking slice of the pie, and Apple Mail’s slice is rising. I’m not saying mbox is at risk, but I wouldn’t count on it being around forever. It’ll be around only so long as there are developers willing to support it, which requires customers who are demanding it. Moving from one minority platform to an OS with even smaller support–especially when the platform you’re leaving supports everything the minority platform does–seems a little odd. Especially when the platform you’re leaving is more open than it has ever been before, as Gruber points out.

    So odd, in fact, that I think it can’t be explained logically. None of the reasons Pilgrim gives make any sense. I’m not arguing for Mac OS X or against Linux here, I’m just saying a switch like this takes a great deal of effort, and why turn your world upside down over a change in mail formats? Especially when all you really have to do is switch mail clients. That, I could understand. I’ve done it often enough myself.

    No, what we are witnessing is the end of a love affair. And when someone falls “out of love” with a company like Apple, there are no counselors the couple can turn to for help. So they do the only thing possible… a clean break, get away from everything that reminds you of the great things you accomplished with that beautiful spouse over the last 20 years.

    You write up your reasons for breaking up, and everyone but you realizes you can’t see the full picture. But certainly I, like many Mac users in a similar position vis a vis Apple, mourn the breakup and wish it didn’t have to be so. Powerful emotions can close minds as surely as any proprietary format. And unlike that closed format, prying open a closed mind is nearly impossible.

        
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    June 13th, 2006

    Apple Posts Three New TV Ads… Work vs. Home Is A Classic!

    Apple: Why you'll love a Mac (3 new TV ads) I've already admitted I'm a fan of Apple's latest set of ads, though I have to admit I got kinda tired of seeing them over and over again, especially right on their home page (so declasse!) But now they have 3 new fresh ones, and the last one (Work vs. Home) made me laugh out loud. Really great stuff. (I think they've been reading my articles... don't you?)
        
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    June 13th, 2006

    ZDNet: Microsoft Presses the Stupid Button (Again… and Again… )

    ZDNet, Ed Bott: Microsoft presses the Stupid button I'm really glad to see Windows users noticing and shouting about the latest Microsoft stupidity, which naturally comes at their expense. The question I always have is, Why do you put up with it? Is familiarity with the Windows OS worth all the crap you have to endure from Microsoft, as well as all the attacks that take place constantly against your PC? There really is a better alternative... in fact, two good alternatives, to Windows. Switch to Linux or switch to the Mac, and at least you'll have your digital life back!
        
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    June 13th, 2006

    Apple Takes the Microsoft Pain Away

    Fairfax Digital, Australia: Apple today takes the MS pain away Australian tech writer describes his relief at finally making the switch to Mac OS X. The article details how he came to the decision to take the plunge. This guy is as fed up at Microsoft as anybody I've read lately, and if you're looking for a good Microsoft-bashing, it's a great read.
        
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    June 10th, 2006

    Wired Magazine Likes iMac Best As Media Center PC

    Wired: Kings of All Media Wired reviews some of the current crop of Windows "Media Center" PC's, alongside the latest Apple iMac. Although Apple doesn't specifically bill the iMac as a "media center" PC, it is, of course, right out of the box. With the new FrontRow and Apple Remote, you've got everything you need but EyeTV, which is the best TV-to-PC solution on either platform anyway. Wired rates the iMac tops in this little shootout. Notice how the Media Center PC's lost even though they have a built-in TV tuner... it's good to see Wired understanding that a TV tuner is not an essential feature to have in a living room PC.
        
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    Posted in:Macs vs. PCs, TechnologyTags: |
    June 9th, 2006

    Time Says MacBook’s Price Point a Threat to Dell, HP

    TIME.com: Our first look at Apple's newest notebook Another day, another great reaction to Apple's latest notebook... this one, the Intel-based replacement for Apple's very popular iBook. What Time is most amazed at is the MacBook's price:
    The first thing that startled me about the MacBooks were not their glossy white or matte black finishes, nor the fact that they had Intel dual-core processors rather than lower-powered single-core ones. I had expected all that. What surprised me was the price: they start at $1,099, even lower if you are a student.... The MacBook is a powerful and affordable option, especially for people who are uncertain about their Windows future. The next version, Vista, might be a success, but with a MacBook you can hedge your bet. You get a computer that runs both Mac OS X and Windows XP today, and even appears to meet the minimum requirements for Vista once it gets here. Dell and HP should be very worried indeed.
        
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    June 7th, 2006

    Analysts Predict Apple Market Share Gains To Resume

    Forbes.com: When Will Apple's Harvest Start? Everybody likes to speculate on Apple's market share. No one knows what's going to happen, but if anecdotal evidence is any indicator, Apple's share has got to continue rising. A really meaningful number won't appear until someone figures out how to remove business computer sales from the total shipments, because Apple's sales of both iPods and iMacs are to consumers, not businesses.
        
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    June 1st, 2006

    Trying To Debunk The “Mac Is More Expensive” Myth

    Gene Steinberg: Perpetuation The Myth of Expensive Macs Here's a short but sweet attempt to put down the continued myth that Macs are more expensive than PCs. Some people just won't believe it, and they keep making up irrelevant arguments to prove their point. Why? Are they mad because they didn't buy a Mac originally? Why does the truth hurt so much?
        
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    May 17th, 2006

    TUAW Posts Essay Analyzing “The love/hate relationship with Apple”

    The love/hate relationship with Apple - The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW) This is actually pretty interesting, and the subject of how we Mac users feel about Apple is very pertinent to our everyday discussions about the computers we love. It's often difficult to explain to Windows users why we hold Apple in such high regard, since, as the author points out, it's rare for "brand loyalty" to reach so high a pedestal. It's a subject I'd like to ruminate on at length about myself one of these days...
        
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    May 17th, 2006

    Blogger Reveals “Why I Will Probably Continue To Buy Macs”

    Indigo Jo Blogs: Why I will probably continue to buy Macs This is an "answer piece" to another blogger's chronicle of why he probably will not buy another Mac. Haven't read either of them yet, but I look forward to doing so. The current aritlcle apparently sets out to debunk the various resons the first blogger sets forth to justify abandoning the Mac.
        
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    Posted in:Apple, Macs vs. PCs, TechnologyTags: |
    May 17th, 2006

    Piper Jaffray says Macs cost only slightly more than PCs

    AppleInsider reports on a Piper Jaffray study that finds today's Macs cost only slightly more than PCs Good to see this effort being championed by people with some influence, finally! I'll be curious to learn more about their methodology, but I'm glad they're actually looking into the question of Mac vs. PC pricing. My own studies have found Macs to be slightly less than PC's in price, once software bundles are included in the equation.
        
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    May 16th, 2006

    Mossberg Sees Apple’s “Device Model” Gaining Respect

    Mossberg: In Our Post-PC Era, Apple's Device Model Beats the PC Way This reinforces a theme I and many others have been hammering away at for the last year or two... namely, the "open" PC platform was a mistake that purchasers--mostly business IT departments--swallowed without question, thereby handing Microsoft its current monopoly power. Apple's "tightly coupled" approach was dissed universally among the PC literate as the wrong way. You'd hear these folks talking about PC's being a "commodity" marketplace (whatever that means) that Apple was out of step with. The PC crowd's willingness to buy this argument without question is one of the behaviors that's evidence of what I'm starting to refer to as PC Prejudice. However, in the last few years, the problems with the PC approach have tarnished that model's image a bit, and here Mossberg tries to smear a little more rust to its surface.
        
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    May 5th, 2006

    Latest Consumer Reports Survey Still Finds Apple Tops in Customer Support

    Free tech support from most computer manufacturers is dismal, Consumer Reports survey finds Good to see this. Of course, where are all the people who normally buy products based on Consumer Reports ratings? Why don't they buy Apple products, especially when they don't cost any more than PC's these days? Silliness, is all.
        
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    May 5th, 2006

    Puzzling Out Why Apple Hasn’t Failed

    Sci-Tech Today: Learning Lessons from the Mac It's always nice to read an article by someone who's beginning to understand what's been going on and what the real differences are between Apple's approach and Microsoft's.
        
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    May 3rd, 2006

    Backpedaling on the “Mac Virus Outbreak” Non-Story

    MacDailyNews: Unix expert: Mac OS X much more secure than Windows; recent Mac OS X security stories are media hype One of the bad journalists who started this week's anti-Mac ruckus is back, apparently trying to make amends. At his side is a respected Unix security expert who verifies that the outcry the journalist has been hearing from Mac users is justified. Macs are not susceptible to viruses, and Windows is. Macs are better protected by design, not by market share, and Windows are attacked often because it's easy to do so, not because there are so many of them. Makes sense. Of course, as the MacDailyNews editor asks the journalist in question, Stan Beer, "Why the truth now?... Get it right the first time, before you publish it."
        
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    April 30th, 2006

    Excellent Explanation of Why Apple’s Product Approach Is Best

    Vertical Quality And McNealy: Why Apple, Sun & Google Have It Right Here's a great analysis of the "closed" versus "open" systems approach that so often defines the reason why people won't buy Apple computers. You know, the argument that Apple should do it like Dell and Microsoft... let everyone else in on the goodness. As this author defines it, we're talking about "vertical" versus "horizontal" markets, and it's been a horizontal world for quite some time now. He argues that the approach taken by Apple, Google, and Sun is ultimately better for consumers, as well as being better for innovation.
        
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    April 28th, 2006

    New $600 Mini Shootouts Prove Mac Offers Much More For Less

    Mac vs. PC System Shootouts - $600 Mini Desktops 02/28/06 Someone has done a herculean job of delineating all the dozens of attributes that make up a modern personal computer and compiling data for the new Mac Mini ($600 version) and a PC clone of it for slightly more. It's amazing to me, who has actually done this exercise myself, how much more you get with a Mac these days... and in this case, I'm not just talking software. See for yourself and pick it apart if you can.
        
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    April 26th, 2006

    MacDailyNews Shreds Columnist Who Perpetuates Myth That Apples Are Pricier Than Dells

    MacDailyNews: Confused columnist on Apple's 17" MacBook Pro: 'you can get a couple of decent Dells' for that price As the MacDailyNews writer correctly points out, a comparable Dell would cost over $4,000 instead of the Apple's $2,999, and even then you wouldn't have a machine nearly as good as the MacBook. Great read.
        
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    April 3rd, 2006

    MacDailyNews: Rob Enderle Has A Stupid Daydream

    MacDailyNews Reports on Enderle's New Dream of Microsoft Buying Apple What has brought this daydream on is Rob's realization that Microsoft is royally screwed up inside the Redmond gates. Employees, suppliers, partners, governments... everybody is mad at Microsoft. So what's the solution? Well, they could buy Apple...! LOL (I do hope this is Rob's stupid daydream rather than my worst nightmare...)
        
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    March 30th, 2006

    Macworld: 30 Pivotal Moments in Apple History

    Macworld: Feature: 30 pivotal moments in Apple's history Macworld has published a timeline and this "30 pivotal moments" list in honor of Apple's 30th birthday.
        
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    Posted in:Apple, Innovation, TechnologyTags: |
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