Thursday, June 12, 2014

Apple Demonstrates Mac iPhone Integration at WWDC 2014

As the developer of Phone Amego which provides Mac telephone integration,
I was rather surprised by Apple’s announcement since they abandoned telephone integration once before and seemed uninterested in my pleas for help. In Mac OS X Tiger, Apple's Address Book had the ability to connect with a Bluetooth phone to provide two rather nice features:

• It could display caller ID information for incoming calls and bring up the corresponding Address Book entry if any.
• It could dial out by right clicking on a phone number entry and selecting "dial using name-of-device" from the contextual menu.

In Mac OS X Leopard, these features disappeared from Address Book with nary a trace. As for my reaction: I’m glad to see Apple is finally building the solution customers want. I understand Apple will be using WiFi instead of Bluetooth to achieve house-wide reliability. I also expect it will be iPhone only and they’ll leave Call Logging and CRM integration as 3rd party opportunities.

It's interesting that Apple choose WiFi over Bluetooth to achieve a no fuss solution. It certainly speaks to the complexity and lack of reliability I've had to deal with. It's also a solution only Apple could build since other developers don't have access to the phone application running on iPhone.

It’s early to tell, but I believe this could be good for Phone Amego as a “Lite" version that introduces more people to the technology. As users discover they want CRM integration or support for other phones, Phone Amego will be an obvious compliment to Apple's built-in solution. One of my marketing challenges has been to explain what Phone Amego does. Now that Apple has endorsed the concept, this will be easier.

To compete with free, Phone Amego needs to be much better and aimed at users who need more than Apple’s built-in solution. I welcome the challenge and hope to learn from Apple's approach.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Post PC Cars, Trucks, and Motorcycles

Steve Jobs was always about the next big thing.

By now, most people understand "Post PC" to mean the focus of innovation, growth, and profits in the technology sector has shifted away from the PC. In introducing the iPad, Jobs likened the PC to a truck while the iPad was more like a car. Most consumers don't really need a truck he implied, but he never meant to suggest PCs were going away. What if Jobs got the analogy slightly wrong and the iPad is more like a motorcycle?

Motorcycles are wonderfully convenient for quick trips around town. They're easy to ride, quick to park, and economical to run. But they're not well suited for family vacations, long trips, or even inclement whether. A lot of people who own a motorcycle still need a car. Some use their motorcycles mostly for fun.

In some parts of the world, a motorcycle might be all most people can afford. In more developed countries however, most working adults want access to a car. Imagine if there was no such thing as a motorcycle until one company got the idea. At first, demand for this novel and cheaper mode of transportation would skyrocket. Some might even predict the end of the auto industry. Within a few years however, motorcycle sales would level off. The auto industry would be smaller but continue. Someday, the auto industry might even become a hotbed of innovation again.

The iPad is revolutionary and disruptive, the PC is no longer the only mainstream computer in town. Where I differ with some predictions is whether tablets are the future of personal computing. I think people are conflating different things.

Smaller, lighter, instant on, always connected, all day battery life, these things are no brainers. But comparing an iPad to a MacBook Air or similar, I think both have their place. These products are designed around different user experiences. Much of the battle over the future of personal computing is still in the cloud.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why All The Crazy Reporting On Apple (AAPL)?

The purpose of a business organization is to create value by serving customers which Apple is doing just fine.

Stock markets on the other hand are a form of legalized gambling based on forecasting and manipulating the future perceived value of a stock investment. Investors can be ill informed, fickle, and impatient. The more popular a stock becomes, the bigger the opportunity to profit by manipulating its perceived value.

This is why we keep seeing a stream of ridiculous and often conflicting reports predicting tough times ahead for Apple. It has little to do with Apple's actual financial results or management which have been exemplary. There are powerful financial interests seeking to move the stock price up and down. To profit by trading such a stock, you only need to predict its future perceived value better than your trading partner.

Maximizing shareholder value in the short run has very little to do with running a successful business unless management has been so corrupted by drinking the Wall Street Kool Aid that they actually put maximizing their own short term gain ahead of serving their customers. If this ever happens, the original visionary purpose of the company has been lost.

Jack Welch the iconic CEO of GE described "maximizing shareholder value" as the dumbest idea in the world. The reason he used such strong language is because there are a lot of sheep who actually believe this nonsense.

Don't buy it. The purpose of our economy is to provide the goods and services people want, not to enrich Wall Street cronies. Apple is doing just fine at the former. The later is not Apple's job.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Understanding the "Post PC era"

Years after Steve Jobs coined the phrase "Post PC era", people are still debating what this means.

By "Post PC era", I think Apple recognized the focus of innovation, growth, and profits had shifted along with the attention of the masses. Traditional PC software (and hardware) isn't going away, it's just no longer the most dominant thing driving the high tech industry.

Steve Jobs described PCs as trucks compared to the iPad which is more like a car. Most consumers don't need a truck, but that doesn't mean trucks are going away. If you live in the US, almost everything around you was delivered by a truck. Our modern economy is built around moving goods by truck.

To use a simple analogy, virtually all the software for iOS and Android devices was created using PCs (including Macs). The idea that Apple must someday merge their iOS and Mac product lines is like telling Ford Motor Company they'll someday merge their car and truck business because maintaining a separate truck division is too expensive.

For the foreseeable future, this is complete nonsense. The PC and Mac are here to stay.

In the long run, who knows what computers will look like. A good operating system may last 10-20 years. On this scale, Mac OS X is mature while iOS is still young. Interestingly, both are built on top of UNIX whose derivatives have thrived for over 40 years.

Enjoy!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Favorite Keyboards

Years ago before I became a Mac developer I worked on keyboards at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) back in the Video Terminals era. Even at that time, getting keyboards that feel just right and keeping the cost down was a big deal. We did a number of studies to understand what people liked about different key switches and discovered something interesting.
The perception of keyboard feel is correlated with audio feedback.

Keyboards that provide audio feedback for each keystroke are perceived by users to have better tactile response. As a result, DEC keyboards had a built-in keyboard clicker. A few years ago some developer friends were complaining about the feel of their keyboards and this got me thinking. Maybe I could improve the feel of these keyboards by adding audio feedback.

While there were existing programs that imitate the sound of an old fashioned typewriter, they did not appear to be intended as a practical touch typing aid. To be most effective, the feedback needs to be subtle and non-distracting. So I wrote Keyclick to fill this void.

Many long time computer users have fond memories of a favorite keyboard. Perhaps it was the Apple Extended keyboard (saratoga) or IBM Model M. Replacement keyboards with premium mechanical key switches are still available and popular with some programmers (like the Matias TactilePro), but at $70 and up these keyboards may be more than desired. Keyclick is $7.99 and works on laptops. If you've ever longed for the sound and feel of an older keyboard, give Keyclick a try. You might be surprised how much you like the keyboard you already own.

Naturally people wonder what made those old "clickety" keyboards so satisfying? Is it just subjective, or is there something more to it?

I believe there were a number of factors which contributed to the overall experience. First,the Model M used a class of switch known as having a "snap-action". A spring would collect energy and then release it closing the switch contacts before the actuator reached the end of its travel. The sensation of the key giving way corresponded directly with the contacts closing and a snapping sound that provided feedback. A lighter touch could be used since you could release a key moving on to the next one before it bottomed out. There was never an ounce of doubt about whether or not you had properly struck a key. Not having to process this helped free up energy to type more efficiently.

On today's "mushy" keyboards, the rubber dome is designed to provide enough resistance so that when it collapses momentum will carry your finger to the bottom of the stroke where contact is made by pushing conductive material on the underside of the rubber dome onto a set of wire traces. There are two disadvantages to this. First, the sensation of the key buckling doesn't correspond to actual contact closure. On the 109-key Apple Keyboard, if I press a key slowly I can feel it give way without actually generating a keystroke. Second, at the point where the contacts actually close, there's no distinct feel at all other than being close to the bottom of the key's travel, so the tendency is push harder to make sure.

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While this is interesting background, there's another wrinkle to this story. With little or no marketing, Keyclick has been moderately successful with over 1500 licensed users and continues to sell a few copies each week. It was highlighted as a "staff pick" on Mac OS X downloads. It was reviewed and recommended in "Apple-D User" which covers assistive technology for the Mac. Shortly after Keyclick was introduced, it uncovered a bug in the Alert sound playback system which Apple fixed in 10.6. Who else would load an alert sound and then play it thousands of times over a period of days or weeks?

Apple's Mighty Mouse includes an audio clicker to provide the perception of tactile feedback when you scroll. Apple's iPhone and iPad with their on-screen keyboards both provide audio feedback in the form of key clicks.

With the introduction of the Mac App Store last year, several users asked me to produce a Mac App Store version which I did only to have it rejected for not being "useful" or providing "lasting entertainment value". I appealed this rejection pointing out that Keyclick was a proven product with over 1500 licensed users. It seemed to me that customers should decide what is useful to them, and Keyclick had found a warm reception with some users. I have received numerous customer comments like this one:
"I'm so happy with Keyclick! Thanks so much for the obvious effort you've put into it, I was delighted to register it."

Never-the-less, my appeal was rejected. The underlying reason Keyclick is not a good fit for the Mac App Store is that the appeal is subjective and there's no way to try before you buy. Developers are prohibited from even mentioning the availability of a trial version in their Mac App Store listing.

So if you've read this far and would like to try the software that was "Banned in Cupertino", download a free trial of Keyclick and enjoy!

Related Links:

Introducing Keyclick

My Favorite Keyboard (Daring Fireball)

Justin Williams Reviews the Das Keyboard for Mac

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Thoughts on choosing a backup disk

As a long time computer professional, I know backups matter and that hard drives do eventually fail. So how do you choose a good hard drive for Time Machine or other backup?

10 years ago, LaCie was a popular goto vendor for Macintosh compatible hard drives. After a few of my Lacie d2's failed, I decided to try a different hard drive case and found some pleasant surprises. The Macally unit below is the one I chose.

Macally Hi-Speed eSATA/FireWire/USB 2.0 Storage Enclosure for 3.5-Inch SATA Hard Disk G-S350SUAB2 (Silver)

Priced at $65, this is attractive for a high performance Firewire 800/400, USB 2.0, and eSATA hard drive enclosure. Compared to my LaCie d2's, I noticed several improvements.

It's fan-less which makes it very quiet unless the disk is active.

I like that it includes both Firewire 800 and Firewire 400 on the back.

The power supply is a standard 12v wall wart instead of a separate dual voltage unit (12v and 5v) that sits on your floor or desk and uses a custom DIN connector. LaCie had a run of bad power supplies, so I like that the power supply is such a standard part.

The internal design is actually simpler than the d2 since the drive mounts horizontally and plugs directly into a controller card with interface jacks on the back. The aluminum casing is thinner but not insubstantial and much lighter weight. As an external enclosure, there's no issue with voiding the warranty by opening the case. In the LaCie d2, the drive mounts vertically and needs a ribbon cable (or daughter card) to run from the bottom of the drive to the controller with jacks at the back of the unit. A "warranty void if broken" label covers one of the screws you need to open the case.

By choosing a separate case, you can pick any specific hard drive (and warranty) you like instead of taking your chances with whatever the vendor has on hand.

I tried a NewerTech Voyager S2 USB drive dock for a while, but it wasn't reliable enough for Time Machine backups. Every few days it would report some file access error and need to be hot plugged. The Macally case with included Firewire 800 cable has been flawless for weeks (using the exact same hard drive).

As for bare drives, I've had good results with Hitachi drives ordered from OWC.

What About RAID and NAS


RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) and NAS (Network Attached Storage) get a lot of attention for business critical applications. In my opinion, these are not a good investment for home office or small business backup. In theory, RAID allows you to hot swap a failed drive without disrupting your storage array, while NAS can be used to backup several computers from a single convenient appliance. In practice, these are embedded computer systems (typically running Linux) with their own set of software compatibility and upgrade issues. When things go wrong, and they sometimes do, the added complexity makes it much more difficult to recover.

My preferred approach is to make sure any important data is backed up on at least two separate hard drives, with the most critical data also backed up off-site or in the cloud.

Drive capacities are growing so quickly that the current generation large capacity hard drive will often exceed the capacity of a drive array from only two years ago. Unless you need all that capacity on-line now, it's simpler and less expensive to buy a bigger drive any time you are running out of space. If you want the convenience of network attached storage, it's easier to configure an aging Mac as a storage server, than maintain a Linux based network appliance.

By investing in a flexible moderately priced drive case, you can simply upgrade your drive mechanism every few years, and deal directly with the drive manufacturer for any warranty issues.

Enjoy!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Controversy Around Sandboxing

To understand the controversy around Mac App Store Sandboxing, it helps to compare and contrast the problem Sandboxing was designed to solve for some Apps, with the problems it creates for others.

First, consider the problem sandboxing was designed to solve. For a web browser or Email client that handles many kinds of complex media downloaded from the web, how do you protect yourself against deliberately malformed data that uncovers a program vulnerability? With sandboxing, even if an attacker finds a vulnerability in your XYZ media code, it's much harder for them to access other parts of the system. Voluntary sandboxing is a good solution for protecting systems against unknown data from unknown sources.

Next, consider a program like Phone Amego which doesn't download media from untrusted web sites. Its reason for being is to provide Mac to phone integration by working with many other tools (including Bluetooth connectivity to iPhone). It wants to integrate with Apple's Address Book, iCal, Mail, iTunes, Daylite, Contactizer Pro, Launch Bar, Finder, Dropbox, FileMaker, EagleFiler, Skype, be scriptable and use AppleScript to drive other applications. Forcing an application like Phone Amego to be sandboxed puts the developer in the awkward position of choosing between dumbing down the application by removing features, or abandoning the Mac App Store version including the thousands of customers who have already paid for the application and expect future updates and support.

Mandatory sandboxing without careful attention to the needs of 3rd party developers is not always helpful.

The Mac would be a much weaker platform without the hundreds of System/Utility products that are not in the Mac App Store. If these products cannot thrive, they will cease to exist.

I think there's a case to be made for "expanding what the platform allows" instead of dumbing down or excluding System/Utility products from the Mac App Store.

Is Apple prepared to announce that hundreds (or even thousands) of existing Apps in the Mac App Store will no longer be fully supported?


What should we tell customers who are not sure whether to buy the Mac App Store or "Website" version of our Apps? Is the Mac App Store a good venue for buying system/utility software?

On the whole, I think 3rd party developers want Apple to do the right thing for our mutual customers. If Apple can't sandbox Xcode, Finder, iTunes, Disk Utility, and Time Machine, and has just announced a 4 month schedule slip, is it not reasonable to infer that their sandbox model might not be ready, or some exceptions are needed?

In my view, Apple should be moving in the direction of allowing more Apps into the Mac App Store, helping them to be more secure (through vetting, signing, sandboxing, and entitlements), and making a distinction between Apps intended for General Audiences (G), and Apps signed by a reputable developer but requiring more extensive system access. Sandboxing could be big win for users, but only if it's applied judiciously.

The alternative sends a message that the Mac App Store is the best place to go for family entertainment, but independent developers offering system/utility products are not welcome.


Enjoy!