Category Archives: technology

Life on the Desktop: It's iMac time

iMac lineup

I have a backlog of posts and my lustrous new iMac is to blame. In a very good way.

For the past 3 years I have been using a 15″ PowerBook G4 whose 1Ghz processor had been feeling wheezy for the last year. But worse still, the hard disk was always full and I had filled every FireWire disk I could find too… If one thing OS X doesn't do well with, it's a full hard disk. Slooooow.

So I was very keen to get a MacBook Pro when they emerged from Cupertino, for the love of God they are up to five times faster! But wait, no FireWire 800 port? Just an Expresswhat slot? Not for me, at all. When the 17-incher slipped out with a FireWire 800 port I began to be tempted but I would wait for a second revision to iron out bugs before I fell for it. And I waited…

In the meantime my desktop consisted of:

  • PowerBook on Griffin iCurve stand balanced on top LaCie DVD burner and a Mac Mini. Plus an iSight camera perched on top of the PowerBook screen.
  • Apple 20″ Cinema Display on top a LacCie hard disk and a paperback book to ensure the screen lined up with the PowerBook's.
  • PowerBook charger, USB keyboard, USB mouse, FireWire cables sprouting from everywhere and a USB tangle to printer, dictaphone and scanner.

It was a nice setup but a bit, cluttered and cable infested. I was sitting there one day waiting for a call wondering when the MacBook Pros would be updated when I realised that I was never disconnecting the PowerBook from its umbilical cords. The laptop was never moving, I was happily using my BlackBerry to take notes in meetings. Hmmmm… did I need another laptop after all?

Steve Jobs must have been aware of this dilemma from a hardened laptop owner (2 PowerBooks, 1 tangerine iBook and some PC laptops best not mentioned). He knew what I wanted because he unleashed the beast I'm now typing on… the 24″ iMac.

FireWire 800 port – check, big fat 500GB hard disk – check, Core 2 Duo – check, dual layer DVD burning – check. American Express – warming up.

There were only 2 things I did actually use the PowerBook for off the desktop – presentations and emptying my camera of images when on holiday. The new 80GB iPod solved this by being able to display and store photos and movies. The iPod Camera Connector is just a USB dongle but it works and needs no extra batteries or removing of memory cards like the old Belkin iPod readers did – works a charm. (Note: The iPod's photos will only be recognised by iPhoto if you let the iPod be mounted as a disk – remember to click the new 'Apply' button in iTunes if you want this change to stick)

Anyway, one thing led to another, and needless to say Apple Developer Connection discount later I was checking my order status rather too often. Having souped the big fella up with extra everything I did wait a month to get it, in which time I swear my PowerBook actually did get still slower.

When UPS delivered I couldn't quite believe the size of the box. There's no two ways about this – it is HUGE. I didn't actually realise how big it would be – how much bigger than the 20 incher could it be? You can see the difference my friends. It's a bright, crisp monster of a display. A few days after I'd been using it I suddenly realised that it was bigger than the 'big' TV we have in the living room. Insane.

Truly it's a wonderful machine which has worked like a dream for me from the first instant. The out-of-the-box experience is, as everyone says, quite superb and welcoming. The 24W inbuilt speakers are punchy, much better than previous iMac speakers that I've heard.

I've been following Khoi Vinh's good then less good experiences with his 24-incher which arrived a bit before mine. I have to say it's all been good for me, really wonderful.

Performance has been impeccably fast. Transferring over from my PowerBook has been unbelievably hiccup-free, I'm astonished really. The only complete flop was that PGP 8 stopped working, breaking the built in support MailSmith has for PGP. I had a very bad feeling from reviews of PGP 9.5 which MailSmith doesn't support anyway so I switched to MacGPG very easily (though the preference pane doesn't work for me).

Everything else just worked, but still I spent a good couple of hours updating everything to make sure I had as many Universal versions as possible. Fireworks MX 2004 which has always been a performance dog turned out to be very snappy even under Rosetta. Khoi complained of Rosetta's performance but I've been absolutely astonished at how good it's been, I really have forgotten about it – it's an extraordinary technical triumph.

I chose to transfer files manually over FireWire 800 (wonderfully fast) and forgot a few at first but I'm happier doing this than letting Apple's tool do it, I had some UNIXy things that would have been left behind.

I only have one remaining fly in the ointment. I've setup a RAID array of two 1 Terabyte LaCie drives but scheduled backups crash the wonderful SuperDuper The nice SuperDuper people reckon it's an Apple bug so I'm on manual backups until an update emerges.

My desktop now has only the iMac, wireless keyboard and wireless mighty mouse. That's it. Truly wonderful and it has proven extremely productive. I was transferred in less than a day and have been doing lots and lots of work since. Money well spent then!

BookEnds: My Mac referencing friend

When, at the University of Warwick, I began my academic life back in 1997, I was astonished at how bad reference management software was.

Pretty much everyone recommended using EndNote. But I soon learnt that this wasn't because they liked it. It was because everyone else used it so if you wanted help or to share reference files, EndNote was your best option.

But, in this writer's humble opinion, EndNote's interface is an unequivocal disaster. The software is also slow and just feels heavy on your computer. It's expensive but at least they do Windows and Mac versions.

BookEnds

I was pretty distraught each time I had to do some serious referencing until, somehow, I came across BookEnds four years ago. BookEnds works how I expect referencing software to work. It's easy to use, flexible and powerful… it's fast and affordable. The developer is friendly and responsive and new versions are regularly released. In other words, joy of joys, I can enjoy referencing again.

WriteRoom: Enjoying the Simple Life

I'm straining every cell of my will-power to finish my doctorate this year. So anything that helps with my daily writer's block is extremely welcome indeed.

While nothing will prevent the incredible procrastination skills that develop as the thesis crisis deepens, even the smallest aid is helpful.

The recently released WriteRoom is not just an aid, it's a productivity hand-grenade. An interface-free typing space, it's a full-screen textual experience which gives you no choice but to get on with the work of typing.

WriteRoom

Sure you could approximate the experience in Word with a lot of preferences faffing and closing palettes. But somehow knowing that you just can't bold, bullet and border something lightens the load.

Best yet, WriteRoom is free so enjoy.

(DarkRoom is a free Windows clone of WriteRoom for those that way inclined)

Not a good time to buy home entertainment kit

Phillips Cineos In the last twelve months I've nearly bought a new TV, two different digital video recorders, a Freeview box and a cable TV setup. I say nearly because in the final analysis I always worried that the kit would become obsolete rather too quickly.

We're in an industry crossfire of change – new standards and new ideas are bursting from every angle…

  • The upgrade to High Definition (HD) format TV.
  • The shift to widescreen TVs (which ratio?).
  • The switch in the UK from analogue to digital TV.
  • The Blu-ray vs HD DVD format battle.
  • The start of the Internet becoming a serious delivery medium for video entertainment (e.g. iTunes)
  • The very gradual emergence of viable media PCs suitable for living room usage (instead of dedicated boxes like TiVo).

All this to say… I'm going to keep waiting until the dust settles. There's tons of innovation going on but also plenty of opportunity to get stuck in one of many technological dead ends.

Please sir, Mr Jobs, two things only…

I only have two things to ask of Mr Jobs for August. This developer conference I would like you to unveil, with a flourish, if you please…

  1. Some really galactic improvements to iChat. I'm sick and tired of running Skype and Adium (connected to MSN and AOL/ICQ/.Mac). Give me some cross-network compatibility and some good 'ol calling facilities so I can dial people's real phone numbers. Then I can chuck Skype with its kludgy heavy interface, 1980s style walled garden and closed interface.

  2. A nice little refresh of the MacBook Pro – nothing huge, just some additional processor oomph and fixes for those Rev A niggles. Then I'll bite.

Thank you.

PS. I know lots of people are whining about iPod updates, but I'm real happy with my old one. You know until we can actually download TV shows from the UK iTunes store you're not going to sell me a video iPod.

OpenDNS – case study in goodness

openDNS logo I've been trialling OpenDNS for the past week and I've been very impressed.

What do they do? They offer DNS servers which provide added value compared to the bog-standard ones your ISP provides.

They make three claims at the moment:

  • Safer
    OpenDNS block known phishing sites at the DNS level – thus their protection is operating system and software independent hence providing additional security on top of anything else you already have in place. Personally I'm not a big phishing site clicker but this is an excellent feature. If you have a fixed IP address you can turn this feature off.

  • Faster There's no doubt that slow and poorly configured DNS services create a slow Internet experience. openDNS does a bunch of things to make their service faster. I've noticed a slight boost but I expect more when they open up in London. (Currently they're in Seattle, Palo Alto, New York and Washington,DC with Chicago, London and Hong Kong all billed as coming soon).

  • Smarter Common spelling mistakes are corrected on the fly taking you to the correct website most of the time. This has have been useful to me numerous times this week already. If you have a fixed IP address you can turn this feature off – especially useful if you do some funky spam filtering using real time blacklists.

Plus this service is completely free and there's no lock-in or hassle. You can start or stop using it any time. They make money by showing some ads on a page if they can't find a server to send you to – such as if you type in a really badly mispelled address or a non-existent server name. Seems fair enough to me.

These guys deserve to succeed… It's a good idea well implemented and it's high time DNS got some upgrades.

Apple rejects the Big Bang theory

It's a common temptation in many industries: completing a project, change process or innovation in one massive fell swoop, a big bang. Case history and information systems literature tend to argue strongly against big bang approaches. Yet so many decision makers are oblivious to this and continue to insist on big bang completions for their projects.

Many believe that Apple Computer also takes this kind of approach. We hear nothing about a product, we see no development roadmap and then Steve stands up and unleashes something new on the unsuspecting world. That's, if you will, a big bang-ish approach to marketing.

But when it comes to hardware and software nothing could be further than the truth. Let's look at three examples, briefly…

iPods on iBook

The iPod
The first iPod was developed and brought to market in around a year. This built off three previously cancelled MP3 player projects as well as the work Apple's suppliers such as PortalPlayer had already been developing.

Since the first iPod's launch we've seen continual software and hardware revisions driven by continuous small improvements in ease of use, storage capacity, battery life and functionality. Instead of trying to launch a player which did audio, video, radio and photos each of these features was added slowly over time only once the other features were firmly established.

Many early reviewers complained that the iPod should have video or radio but the iPod is stronger and more stable thanks to Apple's incrementalist approach.

Steve Jobs magazine cover

Mac OS X
Microsoft's Vista was originally an attempt to build a complex, rich new operating system with an advanced file system, search, multimedia and much more. Most of the exciting stuff has actually been left out of Vista's launch as they just were never ready for a big bang launch. Stripping down the features means Microsoft will get something out soon.

Steve Jobs OSX demo In contrast Apple started OS X with betas and then regular major and minor releases of the system which have incrementally added modern graphics, an advanced file system, incredible search and so on.

If Apple had tried to launch the first release of OS X with Spotlight searching, Expose, Automator, the new Finder and so on they would never have got it out (and their market would have shrivelled away while waiting).

So while we don't get everything we want straight away, at least we got solid features which can be iteratively built upon.

Mac on Intel
I don't think Apple have been given enough credit for the huge transition they've so successfully set upon. This success can be directly attributed to a sensible iterative process.

Apple Intel Wafer Rather than bursting onto the scene with a new product/platform on a new chipset Apple have very sensibly first got existing products working with Intel chips. The very first system the public got to experience was the developer machine – a PowerMac G5 with an Intel chip in there.

Now we've got iMacs and PowerBooks (aka MacBook Pros) running on Intel. They're faster (by how much, I don't care) than the previous models and by all accounts run beautifully. The incredible Rosetta technology to support PowerPC software gets a solid set of machines to stretch its legs.

With one set of innovation done now I'm sure Apple will use the Intel chip's strengths to create whole new machine designs. But this is only possible thanks to their sensible incrementalist strategy. (A strategy which, incredibly, has taken veteran Apple watcher Jon Gruber by surprise)

Apple don't bite off more than they can chew, they focus on manageable chunks of change and innovation. Too much results in greater risk and quality declining. Apple don't believe in big bang launches and neither should you.

Comments from the previous version of this blog:

Apple will eat away at Microsoft

…..continually and continually. With the advent of Mac OS X on Intel the Mac will now survive Steve Jobs. Also the Mac will be hacked at some point perhaps soon so that it can run on generic boxes. Apple cannot affect this also but they may choose to accept that they will lose some models to hackers. What will be different is that legal entities are in place so that anyone cannot SELL cloned Mac white boxes. You will be able to build one for yourself, and you may, but Apple will still be in the driver’s seat, thus the “hacker” approach will also help fuel Apple’s growth, and there is no downside here, unless you are Bill Gates and are faced with the company you built up go down the tubes eventually as your operating system is so flawed as to be dangerous. Vista already has viruses out there written for it.
23:30:46 GMT 21-01-2006 Christopher J Smith

Hacking OS X for your box

There’s certainly a small community who find it an attractive idea to run multiple operating systems on one box and more power to them. You’re right, they’ll do it themselves and help spread the Mac word. Legally nobody will be able to package and sell their work so Apple is safe.

I think consumers don’t really care that much about which OS they use and this whole talk of Apple breaking through only if they allow dual booting to Windows is just techie journalist rubbish.

Some corporate IS managers probably like the idea of Windows programs running on more reliable Mac boxes but with Windows comes unreliability. The whole Mac proposition and quality differential comes from integration.

Sure Apple are scary to some by providing the whole shebang – hardware & software. But most people buy all BMW or all Ford when they get a car. I’m not worried and I really don’t think the switch to Intel is that big a deal (now I got over the shock). I think the Intel switch is a great innovation case study though and I’m fascinated to see how their Media Centre-type strategy plays out (for want of a better term).
16:18:43 GMT 25-01-2006 Jason Kitcat

2006 wishes doing well already

I certainly didn't expect my wish for a faster PowerBook to come so soon.

Ok it's called MacBook Pro (which doesn't have quite the same ring to it as PowerBook had) but it's fast and the FireWire ports stayed put (sorta).

Some notes: * I am irked by the loss of the FireWire 800 port as I just love my LaCie FireWire 800 disk and was about to buy a 500Gb one. I hope they at least create an ExpressCard with FireWire 800.

  • I'm not bothered by the loss of PC Card as it's a flipping ancient standard.

  • Also not bothered by slower DVD burn speed, that's hardly the slowest thing in the process when creating video.

  • I was really bugged by the loss of an old-fashioned dial-up modem. At first I just thought it undermined the roadwarrior nature of the machine. But then I had a think and realised I haven't used a dial-up modem in a year and a half so I certainly can live without one. Of course as someone who was heavily into the BBS scene and ran my own BBS I'm nostalgic to lose the modem and the lovely sounds of the connection negotiation. But that's life, constant change.

Have I ordered one? Not yet, I'm probably going to give it 3-4 months. As much of my most used software – Mailsmith, Fireworks, Office, Skype etc is not universal yet, there's no point rushing and who knows what other goodies are in the pipeline…?

P.S. I'm also holding off the iLife / iWork updates not because I don't want them but because my hard disk is nearly full and there's no point replacing if I'm trading up in 3 months.

Islands of Information

Snow on Tree, Poland 2006

The snow and the vodka of Christmas in Poland are but a distant memory now.

I'm knee deep in one of the banes of my professional life: Islands of information.

Years ago we produced a detailed Flash presentation explaining how large companies suffer when their data is stranded in islands of information created by the different software used by various corporate functions such as accounting, stock control, marketing, payroll and so on. Our client was a leading ERP supplier for the construction industry – their message was all about switching to a single integrated system. Despite spending a huge amount of time on this presentation never once did we think the islands of information would be an issue for us and our school clients. (The presentation is still online here [3.3Mb Flash])

Every week I'm presented with a new format for storing alumni, parent, pupil and teacher data. Naturally every vendor has designed their database in a unique way and, if they provide an export feature at all, outputs in their own special layout of columns and rows. Some don't believe in normalisation so you end up with three people per row. Others believe in such levels of customisability it's impossible to create a re-usable tool.

Of course our system uses its own unique data structure too, though it's fully normalised. Which is great apart from when I need to normalise 7,000 rows from someone else's program into 21,000 rows for our system. Dates are a horror too, some use yyyy-mm-dd or dd/mm/yyyy whilst others have a separate column for each portion of the date. sigh

Data conversion and transposition tools aren't new and the problem we face every week isn't new. And that's probably the most depressing thing. We've come so far in so many ways yet when it comes to representing people systems are continuously re-inventing the wheel. There are too many standards floating around to define people and their relationships to each other – the result being that none have been settled on.

If everybody could export and import vCard (or whatever I'm not arguing for any standard here, just a standard) life would be a breeze.

Instead I'm left to keep tweaking our command-line Java tool for data conversion. Because while mapping one field in one database to a different field in another is easy, it's the little yet big problems of normalisation and data formats that take a human to mess up and hence sort out.

Horses in Snow, Poland 2005

Online Communities – it's turned out ok

Barry Wellman's short Communications of the ACM article on the development of online communities over the past 3 decades leaves you with a warm feeling.

Why? Because he concludes that while ICTs have changed the nature of our communities to more specialised, less-geographically based relationships overall our human contact isn't suffering. Our social networks are filling the gaps between face-to-face interactions and not taking away from them… Our networks are becoming ever more interlinked and much more person-to-person, so less place or institutionally based.

We're in the midst in some major shifts in the way social interactions and connections work. I've no idea where we're headed! Exciting.