Tag Archives: Macintosh

Pride Gulp

Swallowed my pride and bought an Air. It was cheaper than the other options and people I respect are happy with theirs. And it’s nice. But the OS is as quirky as any Windows machine. EG:

  • no apparent way to turn off system-wide spellchecking without some system-level hack. 
  • in Pages, wherever you open a document, from whatever folder, the save prompt won’t, by default, be in that folder. 
  • to use the App Store the first time you may need to log in and out again, despite it registering and displaying your credit card details and other account information correctly. No error message appears; just nothing happens when you try to buy something.
  • when programs install, there’s no obvious way to find them. Indeed, to me the installation process is only slightly less cumbersome than in Windows. I’m still confused as to which icon to click to launch an app.
  • backgrounds: Windows gives you many more options for setting colors and tones. Unless I’m missing something. Why can I only have a choice of eight colors for my background? Why not all the colors of the rainbow? 
  • the Mac App Store is cute, but misleading. First off, it’s cheaper to buy the iWorks components there than take up the offer of preinstalled versions. Secondly, you can’t download any trial versions–at least I’ve not found any–at the App Store, whereas many of these apps are available as trial versions if you visit their homepage. I know this is not solely a Mac failing, but it shouldn’t happen. We’re going backwards. 

There’s no question Macs are better designed. The Air is a very nice machine. I’m happy with mine, though I still glance across at my Toughbook. 

But what intrigues me is that there are just as many frustrations for the first time user, let alone a refugee from Microsoft, as with any Windows machine. There are plenty of forums where people exchange their frustrations (and some extremely fiddly solutions). And yet you rarely hear folk talk of these gripes. 

Inevitably one has to adapt to a new UI. I’ve tried to look beyond that and point out areas where I feel the OS is either illogical or deliberately limiting. I hope time (or fanboyz) put me wrong. 

Still Sneaky After All These Years


I still retain the capacity to get bummed out by the intrusiveness of software from companies you’d think would be trying to make us happy these days, not make us madder.

My friend Scotty, the Winpatrol watchdog, has been doing a great job of keeping an eye on these things. The culprits either try to change file associations or add a program to the boot sequence, without telling us. Some recent examples:

Windows Live Mail, without me doing anything at all, suddenly tried to wrest control of my emails by grabbing the extension EML from Thunderbird:


This was unconnected to anything I was doing, or had asked. I didn’t even know I still had Live Mail installed. Shocking. Imagine if I hadn’t been asking Scotty to keep guard? Or that I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing? (OK, don’t answer that one.)

(Just out of interest, launching Outlook Express will do the same thing:)


Still, I suppose the Microsoft defence is that everyone else is doing it. I installed WordPerfect Office the other day and found that, without asking, it tried to take over handling DOC files without asking first. Luckily, Scotty woofed a warning:


No wonder users are baffled about what is going on with their computer and end up heading off to the Apple Store for some TLC. Software companies have got to stop doing this kind of thing. (And no, I’m not saying that Apple are any better at this. It’s just they reduce the choices so people feel their computers behave more predictably. This, after all, is what people yearn for.)

Likewise with starting programs. Once again it’s about predictability: If software starts loading without the user being asked first, then a) the computer is going to slow down and b) the user will have a bunch of new icons and activities to figure out. A couple of examples:

Windows Live forces its Family Safety Client to boot without asking:


as does eFax, the online faxing service:


These companies need to stop this. They need to stop it now. Consumer confidence is low, but so is user confidence. I am inundated with letters from readers of the columns who talk about their bafflement and sense of alienation from their computer. (Meanwhile, I read love stories from those who switch to Macs.) The point is this: Not that people believe Macs are better computers—although they may well be—but they are simpler to use, more predictable, more understandable, more, well, user-friendly.

What’s user-friendly about changing the settings on someone’s computer without asking them? Would a company try that with someone’s car, fridge, or dishwasher?

The Leopard’s Spot (On)

Just gotten back from a demo of the new version of Mac’s operating system, Mac OS X Leopard (must confess I don’t like the names. It’s slightly better than Vista, but still a bit lame in my view.) But that’s not the point. I arrived halfway through the demo and so missed a lot of the stuff, but, still. Wow. There’s something about Mac software that makes you go ‘ooo’ even when you don’t really want to.

I won’t bore you with details, but watching it unfold made me think a few things:

  • Rarely is there anything startlingly new here. It’s intuitive, obvious, like all good innovation. But it’s also “why couldn’t we already do this?” And sometimes we could, at least for a while. Like widgets that are actually just segments of a webpage — a daily cartoon, or a CNN news section. I remember we could do this in 2001 in Windows, courtesy of some company that later went bust. Wish I could remember the name.
    (It also made me think of Active Desktop, which I’ve never seen people use, probably because it was fiddly and because very few of us actually saw our desktop for all the programs we had open.) Of course, Apple made it fun, easy and the kind of thing you want to do, rather than do because you can. But it’s still something that should have been around a half decade ago.
  • Then there’s stuff that’s not new, just better. Spaces lets you have lots of desktops. We could do this on Windows years ago, and even Ubuntu has had it as a standard feature for a while, but on a Mac it just looks good, and works as you would want it to. You can drag programs, for example, between virtual desktops (one day, I hope, you will be able to drag data) and the animation is both fun and strangely helpful.
  • Then there’s stuff that looks a bit like a ripoff — data connectors, for example, that will grab addresses from emails for you. Anagram, among other programs, do this already. It’s good that Mac has recognised the usefulness of this application, but you can’t help feeling sorry for the folks who have spent so long developing a feature like this, only to see themselves being overtaken by the Leopard
  • Then there’s true innovation, based on watching how people work. Like the demo guy (who used the word “cool” about 398 times too many in the presentation) said, a lot of us use email software in a way that wasn’t intended — as a kind of word processor cum note taker cum to do list. Apple realised this, and have turned Mail into exactly that, allowing you to add to do lists with images and stuff embedded. Nothing startling, but acknowledging how we work and making it easier for us.

This is not to detract from Apple’s achievement. Leopard looks hot, and makes Vista look impoverished and, I suspect, somewhat irrelevant, like someone trying to sell aluminum siding to people who realise that while people still have it on their houses, no one really wants it anymore. Apple see what people want and give it to them.

Not once did the guy mention speed, or having lots of applications open, or ‘experience’. I find that telling. Maybe he forgot to, but I always shiver when I hear these words. I know that users don’t think like that; they want to know what they can do, not whether screen redraws are quicker or the edges of windows bend like willow. (They’re happy if they do, but that’s not why they buy an OS.) Neither do they want an “experience” — they want to do stuff. Leopard, it seems will, let them to do that.

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The Death of Writing

James Fallows points out that not everybody back in 1980 believed the computer would replace the typewriter as a writing implement, and that his prediction that the device would be useful incurred the wrath of, among others, the late David Halberstam. James offered to write some articles on a computer, some on a typewriter, and offer a prize to anyone who could tell the difference. No-one took him up.

I recall Bruce Chatwin saying that he could always tell which books had been written on a word processor and which hadn’t. And, funnily enough, I disagree with James’ assertion that:

As is obvious to everyone now, but as was not obvious to most people then, the “sound” of people’s writing is overwhelmingly their own sound, not that of the ThinkPad or the quill pen or the Number 2 pencil or even, gasp, the Macintosh.

I don’t think the ‘sound’ is the issue. The real difference between the two technologies is that a computer transfers some of the creating process from the head to its RAM. Anyone who has written on a typewriter will know that it’s less painful to compose before committing anything to the page, since the price of correction is so high. So the words, once they come out are much more likely to be the final words one uses. Computers meanwhile, allow indefinite revision, so the composition process takes place on the screen.

 I’m not saying one is better, although I think I probably wrote better when I had a typewriter. I used to take more care over my words; I definitely wrote less, too, which has to have been a good thing. When I joined the BBC in 1987, we only had manual typewriters, and my colleagues looked down their nose at my Canon Typestar, which allowed me to compose a line in the tiny LCD before committing it to the paper. In retrospect, I think they were right: My writing went downhill from then on.

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Foiling EMI

Further to my rant yesterday about digital rights management, my friend Mark tells me that getting around the Coldplay X&Y copy protection is easy — just rip it on a Mac. He’s right, at least for me: Works like a dream, after no joy at all on two ThinkPads.

This may not be true with all copies of the CD. I bought mine in Hong Kong in 2005, although it appears to be imported from Europe. A piece on ConsumerAffairs says the “CD’s restrictions also prevent it from being played or copied on Macintosh PCs.” Some folk reported problems playing it on their Macs.

Hopefully this idiocy will not last much longer. Boing Boing reported a couple of weeks ago that EMI was apparently ending copy protection on new CDs, although I’ve not seen anything since. If this is true, I suggest we all send our Coldplay and other copy protected CDs back to EMI and demand copies without DRM on them.

Directory of RSI Software

This is the first in a number of posts about RSI, or Repetitive Strain Injury, the subject of this week’s column, out tomorrow. Here is a collection of software designed to ease RSI. RSI software tries to help in a number of ways:

  • working out how long you’ve been at the keyboard and reminds you to take breaks;
  • suggesting exercises for you to perform while you’re taking those breaks;
  • records macros (shortcuts) to specific tasks you do a lot so you don’t have to use the keyboard as much (especially keystroke combinations);
  • reduces mouse usage by allowing you to control the mouse from the keyboard (including dragging)
  • reducing mouse clicks by automating the process (move the cursor over something you want to click on and hold it there, and the software figures out you want to click and does it for you)

Here are some programs I found. I’m sure there are more. Let me know!

RSI Shield provides breaks, records macros and controls the mouse via hovering or via the keyboard. For Windows only. About $40 from RSI-Shield.

RSI Guard includes a break timer that suggests breaks at appropriate times, mouse automatic-clicking option and shows animations of exercises. Windows only. £81 from Back in Action, or $40 for the Standard and $65 for the Stretch Edition from RSI Guard.

Workrave frequently alerts you to take micro-pauses, rest breaks and restricts you to your daily limit. For GNU/Linux and Windows (can be run on a Mac using Fink). Free from Workrave.

WorkPace Personal charts your activity, reminds you to take breaks and guides you through exercises. For Windows and Mac. $50 from Wellnomics.

AntiRSI forces you to take regular breaks, yet without getting in the way. It also detects natural breaks so it won’t force too many breaks on you. For Macs, free (donations welcome) from TECH.inhelsinki.nl.


Xwrits reminds you to take wrist breaks, with a rather cute but graphic graphic of a wrist which pops up an X window when you should rest. For Unix only. Free from Eddie Kohler’s Little Cambridgeport Design Factory.

OosTime Break Software for reminding yourself to take rest breaks from your computer. For Windows only, from the University of Calgary. Another break reminder: Stress Buster for Windows, £10, from ThreadBuilder. Another break reminder for Windows, also called, er, Break Reminder for $60 a year (that can’t be right) from Cheqsoft.

Stretch Break reminds you to stretch, then shows you how with Yoga-based stretches and relaxing background music. For Windows only, $45 from Paratec.

ergonomix monitors keyboard and mouse activity and helps structure computer use. For Windows only, $50 from publicspace.net.  (A Mac version called MacBreakZ is also available for $20.)

ActiveClick automatically clicks, drags content and makes you stretch. For Windows only, $19 from ActiveClick.

No-RSI monitors keyboard and mouse activity and suggests you to take a break regularly. For Windows only, $15 from BlueChillies.

Also check out the Typing Injury FAQ for some more RSI software. A more recent collection can be found in a piece by Laurie Bouck at The Pacemaker. A good piece, too, by Jono Bacon at ONLamp.com.

There are also mice that try to help counter RSI. The Hoverstop, for example, “detects if your hand is on the mouse. It then monitors if you are actually using it (clicking, scrolling). If you are not using it for more than 10 seconds, it will vibrate softly to remind you to take your hand away and relax.” About $90 from Hoverstop.

My favorite? Workrave, though I must confess I often ignore the breaks. More fool me.

Podcasting Is Big, Led By Mac Lovers

Podcasting is big. Well, not as big as paying bills online, but almost as big as blogs. According to Nielsen//NetRatings (PDF file), 6.6 percent of the U.S. adult online population are downloading audio podcasts. That’s more than 9 million people. But in case you get all excited about that, compare it with viewing and paying bills online (51.6 percent) or online job hunting, (24.6 percent). Still it’s bigger than I thought. Videocasting is also popular, at about 4 percent of the population, which is slightly less than the blogging population (4.8 percent) and a touch larger than the online dating population (3.9 percent).

Most of these folk are, unsurprisingly, young. They’re also Apple fans — and not just in terms of using iPods. Audio and video podcasters (i.e. the folk producing the stuff) are more than three times as likely to be using a Mac (known by the fact they’re using Safari). Given that they’re also two times as likely to be using Firefox, this Mac figure could be higher. Macworld is also the largest visited podcast site by some margin. This is interesting, and perhaps another sign, if one were needed, that the iPod is having a huge impact on the sales of other Apple products.

Apple and Google AdWords

Further to my piece about Apple going after web sites using “iPod” somewhere in their name, is the company Apple going after third party developers using Google AdWords? A piece in TidBITS (“Apple Cracks Down on Google AdWords”) paints a worrying picture of trademark protection gone mad:

some recent unsettling events indicate that Apple may in fact be moving in the direction of preventing third-parties from using Apple trademarks in advertising. Last week, I received a confusing email message from Google AdWords Support, telling me that they had “disapproved” several of the ads I placed for “Take Control of Mac OS X Backups” because the ads used the trademarked term “Mac” in their text (there was no complaint about the fact that I was using “Mac” as one of the keywords that triggered my ads).

It’s a good piece, and errs on the side of caution as to Apple’s motives (suggesting it may be some over eager legal eagle.) But I do worry about this kind of thing. The developers of third party products for Apple have been instrumental in the company’s success, and this kind of misstep will damage their appetite to continue. Also, the non-response to this article by Apple PR is a familiar story and a disappointment. Contrary to what some folk have written I’m a huge fan of Apple’s products, but that’s not the point here. Every company needs to reach some basic standard of transparency and accountability, however great the stuff they put out.

Apple, Nano, and the Cost of Silence

It’s been nearly a week since the first stories about problems with the Apple iPod Nano screen started to surface, and, according to The Register, they’re spreading:

More importantly, the post on Apple’s discussion boards discussing the issue has grown from 188 posts to 583 (at last count), and now includes people who have cancelled their orders. Ooooh dear.

Indeed, the screen-scratching problems don’t seem to be the only ones with the Nano. Some people have been complaining about wholesale screen failures and others about the battery life, which they say doesn’t match the claimed 14 hours, even when you follow Apple’s instructions (backlight off, no skipping songs). Except in the latter, Apple carefully claims “up to 14”, and some have managed more.

What worries me more than anything is Apple’s response. Or rather, its non-response. I had very little joy getting a specific response to my query to them about problems installing iTunes for a piece I wrote in last week’s WSJ.com (subscription only I’m afraid) and it seems they’re adopting the same position with the Nano problem, according to The Register:

So what, we asked Apple, is it going to do about those screens? The reply: “Apple has no comment at this time.” Stores will decide for themselves whether to swap scratched or broken machines.

In the long run this approach can only harm the company. In the case of software, end users can at least clamber to the assistance of flailing fellow users where the company’s own support staff don’t, but what happens in the case of faulty hardware? Inaction and silence merely give free rein to angry customers on Apple’s own discussion boards to lambast the company and persuade uncommitted customers not to buy. Can’t be good for business or Apple’s image.

Another Kind of Portable Device: The SoulPad

ZDNet reports on an interesting tool being developed by IBM — the SoulPad:

The SoulPad could let users carry their computer’s data, applications and personal settings on their mobile phone or digital music player

Researchers at IBM are testing software that would let you tote your home or office desktop around on an iPod or similar portable device, so that you could run it on any PC.

The virtual computer user environment setup is called SoulPad, and consumers install it from an x86-based home or office PC. SoulPad uses a USB or FireWire connection to access the network cards for connecting to the Internet, the computer’s display, the keyboard, the main processor and the memory, but not the hard disk.

As the article points out, this is not dissimlar to the idea of USB keydrive-based programs, which we’ve gone into some detail here in the past.