Patronage model? Good luck with that

In Castro is now free with patronage, Samantha Bielefeld writes:

Castro was updated to version 1.5 today with some great new features like Spotlight search, in-app Safari, and support for 3D Touch. Another change that went live today? It’s now a free app, every feature is available without charge, and they added an optional non-renewing patronage model. Sound familiar? In my original Arment piece, The Elephant in the Room, I said: “What he is most certainly doing is increasing the odds that no other third party podcast app will feel viable in the market by charging up front for their offering.”

Are we now seeing this theory become a reality? Absolutely, and this is only the first of many in the category who will likely do the same. You can argue that Arment is only one developer in a sea of many, that he can’t alter the revenue model of the entire App Store ecosystem, but you simply cannot argue that his recent change doesn’t signal a fear amongst other podcast apps, and Castro becoming entirely free is proof of this.

[…][T]he fact remains that it would be disingenuous to believe this isn’t in response to Overcast becoming entirely free. Marco has indeed accelerated the race to the bottom, and he comes bearing a well made app that is difficult not to feel satisfied with as a user when faced with other apps that charge up-front. Why should I pay for an app when this developer has made it seem unnecessary? The patronage-only model is so new, and very experimental, but has that stopped others from replicating it? No, and this is because they are being forced into adopting it in order to hold onto their existing customers, and hopefully bring some new ones on as well. The only good thing about this move by Castro is that perhaps Overcast won’t remain the default choice champion simply because of having a price of zero.

This piece is worth a full read, as is the quoted The Elephant in the Room (in case you had missed it). It made me think about this new patronage model, and I’m quite sceptical about it. Just a few personal observations:

1. I’m not a particularly eager podcast listener, I only follow four podcasts currently: Release Notes, with Joe Cieplinski and Charles Perry; The RetroMacCast with James & John; John Gruber’s The Talk Show; and Covered, by and with Harry C. Marks. Apple’s built-in Podcasts app should be more than enough for my listening needs, and I also tried Arment’s Overcast. Still, I opted for ShiftyJelly’s Pocket Casts because I like the app itself, but more importantly because I want to support developers who offer reasonably-priced iOS apps that I can pay up-front (and, if it’s the case, pay any major update that might be released at a later date). I like the occasional free app like anybody else. I don’t like ‘freemium’ models, of any kind.

2. I appreciate many, many great iOS (and Mac) developers and the apps they’ve created and maintained over the years, and I also appreciate — as a struggling author myself — what it means for indie developers to try to turn their hard work into something profitable. That’s why sometimes I purchase paid apps which are so well made that I don’t really care if they overlap or replicate features of apps I already purchased. By doing this (when I can), and/or spreading the word, I express my support for this or that developer. I don’t think I’m alone in this, but I do think I’m in a minority.

3. I also think that the so-called patronage model doesn’t scale well and may ultimately be unsustainable. While in principle I could decide to offer my support by basically ‘subscribing’ to an app instead of making a one-time purchase or In-app purchase, if more developers decided to move to a free-with-patronage structure for their apps, I simply wouldn’t be able to offer my support to all of them — not even to all those among them I’d theoretically love to support.

4. I believe that the patronage model isn’t for everyone. I think it may work out for those developers who have already established an audience of fans of their app(s), and that it may work as an option after a certain amount of success/notoriety. I see patronage as a sort of pension which could potentially sustain apps that have already worked their way to success.[1] I don’t see how it could work as a starting option for any app. A lot of App Store customers are cheapskates: they look for the free app or — when there’s not a free app for the task they’re after or that fits their needs — they tend to settle for the cheapest among the ‘good enough’ apps. If you’re a little-known indie developer debuting on the App Store with a free-with-patronage app, I guarantee you’ll hardly make a penny out of it. If your app is great and gets popular, maybe you’ll start getting patrons later. My educated guess is that you have better chances if you price your app at $0.99 from the start.

5. Finally, another aspect of patronage’s probable unsustainability is that — always assuming more developers decide to follow this route — patronage might end up working reasonably well only for the early proposers. True, App A may get the patronage support of many fans of App A’s developer, while App B could very well thrive thanks to App B’s developer’s fan club, and the same might happen to App C thanks to its supporters. But since we’re talking of already moderately successful operations (as per what I postulated in point 4), sooner or later it’s possible to find people who equally love App A, App B and App C. What are the chances of finding people willing to be patrons of all three apps? (Or five, or eight, etc.)

As a regular App Store customer who is simultaneously budget-conscious and willing to support paid apps where possible, if you’re a developer considering the switch to a free-with-patronage model for your app, my humble suggestion is to think hard about it before doing something you may have difficulties undoing.

Some have said that, if the patronage model starts spreading, it may exacerbate the already serious problem of the race to the bottom in the App Store, but I think that its probable unsustainability may make it backfire first on the developers themselves. Because what do you do when a lot of people grab your app for free, but very few of them are willing to support it as patrons? How long can you go on updating and maintaining an app that generates little to no profit? Not many indie developers can afford that.


  • 1. The only three cases I know of free apps with an optional patronage/subscription option are — in chronological order — the original Instapaper (before Arment sold it), Overcast 2, and now Castro. In Instapaper’s case, people were willing to support it because it was a useful app that quickly became truly popular and successful. In Overcast 2’s case we have another well-made app by a prominent developer (Arment again) with a huge audience and lots of fans. In Castro’s case — well, it’s too soon to say, but the app is by now well-known, has good ratings on the App Store, and has certainly built up enough audience to make support via patronage an option worth considering (see also Bielefeld’s remarks I quoted at the beginning of the article.)


Category Software Tags ,

f.lux must be allowed on iOS

I’m in my living-room, after a long day spent at the computer. It’s late night, and I’ve just finished watching something on TV. The only light comes from a small lamp on the dining table across the room. I’m comfortable on the sofa, and my iPhone is right next to me. This is the typical moment in a day where I catch up a bit on some reading — it might be an ebook, or RSS feeds, or Twitter. I wake the iPhone… and I’m glad I was able to sideload f.lux before Apple asked the developers to stop providing this option. Thanks to the altered screen colour temperature, f.lux makes reading a strain-free experience for my eyes, and I’ve finally stopped going to bed with tired, teary eyes from too much looking at the iPhone or iPad screen at night.

f.lux is an essential utility (I’ve previously mentioned it here among other essentials) that I’ve been using on the Mac since day one. What it does is described in very simple language on f.lux home page:

Ever notice how people texting at night have that eerie blue glow?

Or wake up ready to write down the Next Great Idea, and get blinded by your computer screen?

During the day, computer screens look good—they’re designed to look like the sun. But, at 9PM, 10PM, or 3AM, you probably shouldn’t be looking at the sun.

f.lux fixes this: it makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day.

It’s even possible that you’re staying up too late because of your computer. You could use f.lux because it makes you sleep better, or you could just use it just because it makes your computer look better.

f.lux makes your computer screen look like the room you’re in, all the time. When the sun sets, it makes your computer look like your indoor lights. In the morning, it makes things look like sunlight again.

Tell f.lux what kind of lighting you have, and where you live. Then forget about it. f.lux will do the rest, automatically.

This isn’t hype — f.lux works. It works as advertised, and it’s great. I’m a night owl, I write a lot at night because it’s peaceful and I can concentrate better. Before using f.lux on my Macs, I always went to bed with red, teary, sore eyes. The strain was perceivable, and I had to take frequent breaks and turn the desk lamp off for a bit. And when I had to stay up until the wee hours of the morning, I never ended up sleeping very well, either. After installing f.lux, everything changed instantly. At first it was strange to look at the altered colour temperature of the Mac’s screen, but I adjusted quickly, and the eye strain disappeared right away. As I’ve often said, f.lux saved my eyes.

Now, for technical reasons f.lux cannot be made available for iOS through canonical means. As the developers have written, f.lux cannot ship an iOS App using the Documented APIs, because the APIs we use are not there. If you wanted f.lux on your iOS device, you had to jailbreak it — something I didn’t want to do on my iPhone because, as much as I love f.lux, not jailbreaking my iPhone is more important to me.

Imagine my joy when the other day I saw on f.lux’s site new instructions for installing f.lux on iOS devices without jailbreaking. f.lux’s developers made available an Xcode project to download, and the idea was basically to use Xcode 7 to compile and install f.lux directly on your device physically tethered to the Mac, as if it were an app you developed yourself. Naturally, I installed it right away. The app is in beta state, but so far I haven’t had a single problem with it, and it works like a charm.

iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 with f-lux

This photo I quickly took with my iPad shows the difference in colour temperature between my iPhone 4 (without f.lux) and iPhone 5 (with f.lux). I took the photo with just one dim lamp as light source. Notice how harsh the whites on the iPhone 4 are, especially in the top rows of apps and in app icons with lots of white (Calendar, Photos, VSCO Cam, Notes); so harsh that the iPad’s camera struggled to focus properly. It’s not a great photo overall, I’m aware of that, but it perfectly renders the different impact the two screens have on my eyes at night.


Of course the news spread rapidly. Of course it didn’t take long before Apple intervened and urged f.lux’s developers to stop making available f.lux this way.

Well, I urge Apple to reconsider and look the other way, or to work with f.lux’s developers to find a way to allow them to ship a regular iOS app. It saddens me that something this useful is not allowed on the App Store, while a generous quantity of utter, useless crap is. If you read a lot on your iOS devices in the evening and at night, f.lux has a really beneficial impact on your health: it leads to much less eye strain and a better sleep. It deserves a place on iOS.

Category Software Tags ,

The death of the PC and the rise of the tablet

Survival of the fittest

A lot of PCs that were sold in the past years (pre-iPad era) were purchased by people who actually needed simpler computing tools. But when you only had desktop/laptop computers and operating systems designed for these machines, what choice did you have? So, people who basically needed to do email, Web browsing, some word processing, and the occasional chat, bought a full-fledged computer even if it was overkill for them.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, mobile devices were essentially PDAs. PDAs could handle some of those basic tasks, but they were limited devices: the hardware was barely adequate (small storage, limited connectivity options, small screens, slow CPUs…), and the software was often bare-bones in terms of features — but above all the user interface was just poor (remember browsing the Web via WAP?). Having just a PDA or one of the first-generation smartphones without a PC was largely unfeasible, because these mobile devices weren’t perceived as powerful or flexible, and most of them needed a PC anyway to take advantage of all their features and functionality. They were satellite, not standalone devices.

In more recent years — let’s say roughly from the mid-2000s on — new devices have gradually appeared, more fine-grained tools to address the simpler computing needs of a lot of people. First we had netbooks, then more advanced smartphones and tablets. The netbook’s idea of simplification was largely hardware-oriented: a netbook was a smaller, cheaper, and less powerful laptop. Being cheaper and even more portable than a traditional laptop computer was a winning combination for a lot of people I know and, I guess, for a lot of people in general. There was a (brief) period where every less-tech-savvy person seemed keen on getting one. In my corner of the world, Asus sold a lot of these. Obviously, as the interest for these smaller, cheaper machines rose, their sales increased and sales of regular PCs started to slow down.

With iOS, first on the iPhone then on the iPad, the idea of simplification was not only in the hardware but, most importantly, in the software. Why was the iPad an instant success? I believe because, for the first time, people needing simpler computing tools for the most basic tasks had a well-designed device in their hands, with an operating system that really made things easier to understand and accomplish, making the whole ‘computing experience’ much less intimidating. And, on top of it, an iPad was even more portable than a netbook, with a better user experience, and with an app ecosystem that was already compelling when the iPad debuted and only got better from then on.

An iPad was enough for a lot of people — especially for whom a desktop or laptop PC had been overkill previously. So again, another decline in PC sales. And specifically at this point, I’m really meaning PCs as opposed to Macs. Is it really surprising, in this scenario, that Mac sales didn’t experience the same decline? No, because adding iOS-like touches (no pun intended) in Mac OS X and shipping very portable machines such as the MacBook Air helped Macs become (even) more friendly computers for computer-shy users. (On Windows, we had to wait until Windows 8 for things to move in a similar direction.)

The so-called Post-PC era is really becoming a ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario. PC sales have been eroded by devices and platforms that have been able to address different computing needs in a more finely-grained fashion. People who today do all or most of their computing on tablets or even big-screen smartphones are people who never needed a full-fledged computer in the first place, but they owned one when there was really no other alternative. So they never upgraded their old PC by getting a new one — they switched to another class of device entirely. Then there are new users who never had a computer, whose first personal device is a modern smartphone, and who instantly realise that they have no need for a computer, so they either update their smartphone or, if they want a bigger screen, they get a tablet.

The reports of their death are greatly exaggerated

Having said that, is the personal computer’s traditional form factor dying? And what about its role? We’re certainly in the middle of a very transformative period, yet I think the ‘death of the PC’ is going to happen later than sooner. We’re at a stage where users have an unprecedented selection of devices, platforms, ecosystems they can choose from. But desktop and laptop computers are still the best option for — I was about to say ‘professionals’ and ‘power users’ — but I think it’s better to say ‘for a category of people who are more comfortable with the flexibility of computers’ operating systems, the type of multitasking and workflows they provide, not to mention the various kinds of peripherals they can interface with.’

Lately, the debate on this subject — “mobile is the future, PCs are doomed” — has taken tones I don’t like. For some people and tech pundits, it seems that if you still like your traditional desktop or laptop computer, you’re the old guard, resisting change and not understanding where technology is headed. That if you keep holding on to your machines, tools and ways of working, not taking devices like the iPad seriously, you’ll soon find yourself on the wrong side of the fence.

I’m happy that some power users are finding new ways to work with their iPad (and now iPad Pro), and I don’t doubt that, as an operating system like iOS becomes more powerful and flexible, the devices it runs on will become even more sophisticated, modular, able to fulfill even more needs, and satisfy even more types of users. But that day hasn’t come yet, and while I’m truly open to change and to evaluate new ways to work with and enjoy the tools I use, I don’t feel wrong or short-sighted for wanting to hold on to my Macs for a while longer.

I prefer using a traditional computer as my main machine because it has a mature, powerful and versatile operating system (Mac OS X) and applications; because lots of banal tasks and actions are still easier to carry out on the Mac (first example off the top of my head: you drop font files in a folder and the fonts are readily available system-wide); because despite the improvements in iOS 9, the kind of multitasking iOS offers is still rudimentary for how I work; because I need big screens and a spatial interface where I can keep multiple documents and apps open and visible at the same time; I also need a visible filesystem because I deal with a lot of files all the time and such files need to go in different folders, sometimes even on different volumes, and I need to have all this hierarchy visible and reachable without effort and waste of time; not to mention the whole user interface and user interaction — the great familiarity with the operating system, years of using keyboard shortcuts to carry out most tasks and navigate throughout the interface, have made me rather fast, efficient, productive when I work with my Macs.

Now, for an increasing number of pundits, the mobile ecosystem, the touch interface, and devices like the iPad Pro, Microsoft Surface, and the like, are ‘the future’ — they’re the direction where we’re headed, and the traditional PC (personal computer) is a paradigm that’s starting to see its sunset, et cetera. I can believe this. I can, in theory, even be okay with this. I have no problem in seeing myself using an iPad-Pro-like device as primary working machine in the future. But it has to be better than a Mac, it has to be worth the switch and the adjustment. Working ‘in new ways,’ taking ‘different approaches to the workflow’ is all fine and dandy; but if the user experience and the interface paradigm are inadequate, if they lead me to do things less productively because I have to jump through hoops to accomplish the same tasks I used to do on a Mac in half the time and one third of the steps, then I fail to see the advantages of leaving the traditional computer and its desktop metaphor behind.

Where do we go from here?

Let’s take iOS, this young(ish) operating system that’s full of promise. I have to generalise a bit here, but humour me: the current opinion, especially when talking about iOS and the iPad, is that iOS still needs refinements, improvements, cohesion, to make a device like the iPad Pro express its full potential. It needs an even better multitasking. It needs better, deeper, more consistent ways to interface with the Smart Keyboard and other external keyboards. It needs to be more flexible. Applications and the data they produce need more interoperability. And so on and so forth.

To recap and simplify: iOS needs to be more complex and less ‘rigid’ than it is now. And here lies the problem I see ahead: maintaining the balance between simplicity, transparency, and user-friendliness — all qualities that have won so many people over — and a certain amount of necessary complexity to transform a device like the iPad Pro into a powerful machine truly capable of replacing a computer even for ‘serious,’ professional work.

Because one of the risks I see on the horizon is that iOS and similar mobile operating systems could evolve in a direction of complexity that ultimately brings them to function — guess how? — just like the operating systems we have on traditional computers today. Following this reasoning, in ten years we could be using devices that are as complex as computers today, only with a multi-touch interface and a bit more portability/convenience. Sure, maybe more people would be using them than PCs today, and more proficiently. Perhaps that would be enough to call it a victory and a great step in the evolution of computing. To me, it looks a bit like going round in circles. We end up with personal computers anyway, only with a different form factor and a slightly different way of doing things on them.

This vision may seem a bit extreme, but look at the iPad today. I’ve heard a lot of people say that they could switch to an iPad as their only machine if it behaved in a certain way (read: more like my computer). Look at an iPad in its more ‘productive’ configuration — it looks like a smaller laptop. Look at the new Microsoft Surface line, look at the Surface Book — do you see a tablet or a laptop computer? I find ironic that for these tablets to fully replace traditional computers, they have to behave more like them.

In the end, I think that the most likely scenario is still the one described by Steve Jobs’s famous metaphor, the one about trucks and cars. At the D8 conference in 2010, he said:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular. Innovations like automatic transmission and power steering and things that you didn’t care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars. … PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of X people.

We should celebrate the diversity of the technological tools we have available, and push every one of them to do what they do best. Why not have an even more finely-grained scenario where everybody wins because they can choose whatever tool best fits their needs or their ways of working? Why — to use Jobs’s metaphor — do certain neomaniacs in the current tech debate keep insisting that in the future we should only have cars just because they don’t have a need for trucks? Better yet, the future they see is a future of hybrid vehicles — cars that can be modified to do truck-oriented work through a series of accessories and add-ons, if the need arises. But at that point, isn’t it better to have the right tool for the job instead of Swiss-Army-knife devices that can potentially carry out many tasks, but actually, really excel at just a few of them?

Tim Cook said that Apple won’t merge iOS and OS X anytime soon, and that the Mac isn’t going anywhere. More recently, talking about the iPad Pro, Cook said to view it as ‘the future of personal computing’ and, as quoted by Macworld, in an interview with The Telegraph he also said:

I think if you’re looking at a PC, why would you buy a PC anymore? No really, why would you buy one? Yes, the iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people. They will start using it and conclude they no longer need to use anything else, other than their phones.

I think Apple is going exactly in the direction of that finely-grained scenario I was mentioning above, offering people a wide range of different devices to cover every degree of complexity they need, wherever they are, whatever they’re doing or working on. From big-screen 5K retina iMacs, to Mac Pros, to notebooks, subnotebooks, tablets, smartphones, smartwatches, entertainment devices for the living-room (Apple TV), to cars (a real car, we’re now out of Jobs’s metaphor). “Many, many people” will use iPads as a replacement for notebooks, but there will also be people who will still use traditional computers, and perhaps iPads and iPhones as satellite devices or secondary machines. Things don’t need to be clear-cut at all costs, and I think Apple knows it. Apple is making sure that, whatever is the fittest device or platform to survive, you’ll be able to buy it from them.


To conclude: use whatever device and platform you’re comfortable with, that works best for you and fits your needs best. Keep an open mind, and change habits and workflows if a different device or approach brings concrete advantages and benefits. The future of computing is marked by the hardware and software that is actually shipped, and how people react to those, not by idle talk and the topic du jour in tech debates.

Category Tech Life Tags , , , ,

Again, on keyboards and thinness

Addicted to thin

The other day, my friend Alex Roddie pointed me to this article on MacRumors: Apple Patents Switch-Less Force Touch Keyboard, Could Lead to Thinner Macs. Alex’s further comments were: I know Apple patents things all the time, but this one seems particularly ominous. — I think they have an end goal in mind of paper-thin (or completely insubstantial) computers for the sake of fashion. — And the rest of the industry will inevitably copy Apple, as it always has.

There’s a key quote in MacRumors’ article — taken from AppleInsider — that describes the workings of such type of keyboard:

Apple’s current MacBook and Mac accessory lineups employ modified scissor switches, or butterfly switches on the 12-inch Retina MacBook, nestled within hollow key caps. Today’s patent mirrors the aesthetic of existing designs, but deviates from established technology by replacing mechanical switches for a stack of sensors, actuators and supporting circuitry.

Theoretically the system operates akin to Apple’s Force Touch trackpads, but on a much larger scale; one force sensor package for each keyboard key. Force sensors configured to measure downward pressure are integrated beneath the keyboard’s key caps, while integrated actuators — part of the key stack — generate haptic feedback.

Part of me thinks it’s a fascinating concept. It’s the part of me that loves technology and admires Apple’s ingenuity. The part of me that loves writing, instead, is rather concerned by the direction Apple is taking when it comes to keyboard design. And completely agrees with Roddie’s remarks above.

I’m generally exhausted by Apple’s fixation with thinness. Don’t get me wrong: what they did with the innards of the 12-inch retina MacBook is marvellous: the tiny motherboard, the custom design of the battery’s shape, the keyboard’s butterfly mechanism, all ingenious ideas and solutions. But a force-touch keyboard just seems an unnecessary step too far in a direction that puts design over everything else — functionality, usability, typing comfort.

Perhaps I’m worrying too much. Perhaps Apple’s final design of a force-touch keyboard will be so great that the taptic feedback will be indistinguishable from the usual feedback of a keyboard with moving parts. But if the keyboard in the 12-inch MacBook and the Magic Keyboard are any indication, I don’t think this theoretical force-touch keyboard is going to be a great instrument for writers. It’s probably going to be good enough for people who type occasionally and with a hunt-and-peck typing style. People who are usually comfortable with just using the virtual keyboard on an iPad, for example.

I’m not a professional typist, I don’t use all ten fingers to type — more like 7–8. My fingers don’t strike the key caps all with the same force. I have a rhythm, a cadence, when I type. I need good feedback under my fingertips, I need to feel the keys move, if you know what I mean. I need the key travel. While I like what Apple did with force touch on the MacBook’s trackpad and the new Magic Trackpad, a whole keyboard is a different matter than ‘virtualising’ the mechanical click of a single trackpad button. I don’t like the idea of upgrading to a Mac laptop with an ultrathin, force-touch keyboard, and having to attach an external keyboard (with traditional key mechanisms) simply to be able to ‘write professionally,’ so to speak.

In the design of a keyboard, in my opinion, function and comfort should always trump æsthetics. Flattened keyboards might look cool, but may not be suitable for long writing sessions. Short key travel might reduce stress in the fingers, but in my terrible experience with the 12-inch retina MacBook’s keyboard, it also leads to striking the keys with a bit more force, which in turn is painful for your fingertips. A force-touch keyboard might be a cool-looking solution for the next generation of Mac laptops, yet I can’t help wondering whether the loss of usability is worth the 2–3 millimetres shaved once more for the sake of having absurdly thin machines. ‘Reinventing’ the keyboard in this way to me feels like a case of Not Invented Here syndrome.

I’ll reiterate a point I’ve already made several times now: you can certainly adapt to these new keyboard designs, but a) that doesn’t mean they’re good for typing, and b) it’s certainly easier if you just use the one keyboard on your new Mac. Once you have to use other traditional keyboards, adjusting is certainly more problematic.

Some past Apple keyboard designs for laptops — a brief overview

I’m not a typical Mac user; I own several vintage Macs I still use on a frequent basis, and I often switch keyboard type (and layout). This is, without doubt, the main reason why I’m having a hard time adjusting to less traditional Apple keyboards, why my experience with the 12-inch MacBook’s keyboard was disappointing, and why I’ve found the new Magic Keyboard a bit weird, too.

Here are a few examples of other Apple keyboards I type on. The main takeaway is that Apple keyboard designs have generally been a hit-or-miss affair over the years, but past hits have also generally been better than today’s latest offerings.

PowerBook Duo 280c
PowerBook Duo 280c (1994) — Definitely not a great keyboard. Key travel is okay, but the feedback is terrible and keys feel mushy. You have to exercise more force than the mushy feel suggests, otherwise some keys may not register while typing at a decent speed, and you end up with mssing leters. The spacebar is too small. And that arrow keys arrangement, while more common twenty years ago, was even worse than the one featured in the retina MacBook and Magic Keyboard.


PowerBook 1400
PowerBook 1400c/166 (1996–97) — Just a couple of years later, Apple introduces a line of PowerBooks with possibly the best keyboard Apple has even included in a laptop. The PowerBook 1400’s keyboard is simply a joy to type on, it’s the closest we have in a laptop to an external mechanical keyboard. Key travel is right, key cap size and contour are well-balanced, keys are springy and responsive without being too noisy. Too bad it still has that awful arrow keys arrangement. (Even the trackpad button is great, considering the times.)


eMate 300
eMate 300 (1997) — The Apple eMate 300’s keyboard is nice. The key caps are smaller than the ones in Mac laptops (the eMate 300 is a smaller device, after all), so there’s always a bit of adjustment when I use this for writing — but the keyboard overall is well designed and is much better than the external Newton Keyboard produced for smaller, handheld Newtons — especially with regard to key feel and feedback. And oh, look, the arrow keys finally sport the ‘inverted T’ design.


PowerBook G3
PowerBook G3 “Lombard” (Bronze Keyboard) (1999) — This is one of the Mac laptops I most enjoy using as a writing machine, because it’s a combination of decent keyboard, great palm rest area, and texture of the PowerBook’s top case. I find this keyboard to be a good compromise between the scissor switch mechanism’s typical response and the springiness of certain mechanical keyboards (though this is subjective and your mileage may vary). From this point onward, keyboards in Apple laptops start getting thinner, but key travel is still good.


iBook G3
iBook G3/466 SE (FireWire) (2000) — The clamshell iBook was my main Mac for three years, and has been a secondary machine for an even longer period. I’ve typed a lot on this Mac and it’s been a very comfortable experience. Very similar to the PowerBook G3 Lombard, but the iBook’s keyboard, while retaining the same feedback as the PowerBook G3’s, features slightly wider key caps, so it feels even better. The curved lines of the palm rest, and the general sturdiness of the whole iBook, make for a great typing experience when you have to keep the machine on your lap.


Titanium PowerBook G4 (2001) — Essentially the same keyboard (and the same typing experience) as the PowerBook G3 Lombard and Pismo models. The palm rest area in this PowerBook is flat, which makes typing slightly less comfortable than on the PowerBook G3 and clamshell iBook pictured above. On the other hand, it’s also a wider area, and that mitigates the issue.


PowerBook G4 17
Aluminium PowerBook G4 (17-inch, 1.33GHz) (2003) — This is my favourite keyboard, though I know many will disagree with me. As I wrote previously, “The last truly comfortable keyboard on an Apple laptop is, in my experience, the one featured in the aluminium PowerBook line and the pre-unibody MacBook Pros. The key travel feels right and when you hit a key, there’s a soft, cushioned return that really makes typing for hours a very pleasant and comfortable affair. My main machine from 2004 to mid-2009 has been a 12-inch PowerBook G4, and I still use it as a second machine, especially when I’m out and about and I know that I’m going to write a lot, because my fingers and hands never get tired on its keyboard. […] [A]nother detail that makes the PowerBook’s keys more comfortable is that they’re not flat, but slightly concave — typing on them is more pleasant, but for me also more precise, and I never have to stop and look at the keyboard to find the right key, so to speak.”


Except for the PowerBook Duo 280c and the eMate 300, typing on all these keyboards has been, overall, a great experience and a better experience for my fingers, hands, and wrists than typing on more recent Apple keyboards. In some cases — like the PowerBook G3 and the iBook — the shape and design of the laptop’s top case really helps and works in synergy with the keyboard in making the typing experience pleasant. It is precisely the absence of thinness and flatness (of the computer and the keys) that makes typing better. In other cases — like the aluminium PowerBook G4 — despite the top case being flat, the keyboard’s design and feedback are good enough to prevent typing fatigue. (This is especially true on the 12-inch PowerBook G4, whose palm rest area is really small). Some find this keyboard to be too mushy, and in my experience it’s usually people who hunt-and-peck when they type. Exactly those who are now very happy with the latest Apple keyboard designs. For those who type a lot and with more than four fingers, the feeling seems to be the very opposite.

Perhaps all these keyboard designs weren’t as stylish as the latest flat and thin Apple trend, but they were certainly keyboards that did their job quite well, no matter how long the typing session. And, most importantly, they were keyboards that didn’t need ‘adjusting’. I spent years typing on them and my fingers, hands, wrists are still pain-free and stress-free. Three days typing on a 12-inch retina MacBook, and my fingertips hurt as if I had been tapping on a block of marble.

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Colossus — A brief review

About a month ago, when I upgraded to Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan, I found out that one of my favourite system/network monitoring tool, MenuMeters, was not compatible with the latest version of Mac OS X. I had been using MenuMeters since Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, mostly for monitoring network throughput because my wireless home network has been experiencing periods of high instability. Having the ability to just glance at the menubar and see the network activity and throughput is quite handy, and once you get accustomed to a monitoring tool such as MenuMeters, you can’t fathom being without one.

So I immediately looked for alternatives, and the first two solutions that were recommended to me — as mentioned in my previous article — were iStat Menus 5 by Bjango, and Colossus by Sparkfield. Later mentions included Monity by Lukasz Kulis, and MenuBar Stats 2 by Fabrice Leyne. And finally, I was notified by email that Yuji Tachikawa has written a port of MenuMeters to work under Mac OS X 10.11.

As I wrote previously, I quickly opted for iStat Menus because I’m already familiar with Bjango’s products, and I appreciate the high level of customisation iStat Menus provides. Then, a few days after publishing my article, Saxby Brown at Sparkfield, developer of Colossus, contacted me and kindly provided me with a copy of the app. The least I can do is talking about it a bit more.

I have used Colossus for the past couple of weeks, sometimes instead of iStat Menus, sometimes along with it. I think that Colossus is a very nice application that does its job quite well. If you don’t need all the features and customisation options provided by iStat Menus, you should consider Colossus as a valid and more affordable alternative. Brown said to me: I know that iStat Menus has more features but I tried to keep Colossus clean and simple, and I’d say he’s done a good job in that department.

Colossus can display information about CPU, memory, network, battery and storage. You can customise what kind of information you want displayed on the menubar, and more, by entering the Preferences panel:

Colossus Preferences 1

At the top, in the Menubar Widgets area, you can see a preview of how the widgets you choose will look in the menubar. The Add Widget drop-down menu lets you choose which kind of widget you want on the menubar, and how it should display the data:

Colossus Preferences 2

If you’re feeling minimalist, with Colossus you can even choose to remove all widgets from the menubar, and just have the Dock icon display two different sets of data in a more fuzzy, analogue way. Just choose from the drop-down menus in the Dock Icon area of the Preferences.

One last feature worth noting is Clean Memory, a quick way to free and release unused memory.

Once you have everything set up, no matter which widgets you chose to have in the menubar, when you click on any one of them, you’ll see a comprehensive info window listing all data Colossus is monitoring (see the screenshots on Colossus’ website for an example).

I’ll say it again, if you’re looking for a solid replacement to MenuMeters that works seamlessly under Mac OS X 10.11, you should definitely check out Colossus.

Colossus is available on the Mac App Store at the very reasonable price of $3.99.

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