The perfect laptop and the race to the thinnest

Three things have inspired me to write this.

Thinsistence

I know the pictures at 9to5Mac are not of a real MacBook Air, that they are a rendition based on information purportedly received from Apple. But let’s play along and pretend that this is a faithful rendition of the future 12-inch MacBook Air. Am I alone in thinking that it’s overall quite ugly?

Some selected quotes from the article to emphasise what’s driving me nuts lately about laptops, and Apple laptops in particular:

Apple is preparing an all-new MacBook Air for 2015 with a radically new design that jettisons standards such as full-sized USB ports, MagSafe connectors, and SD card slots in favor of a markedly thinner and lighter body with a higher-resolution display.

The 12-inch MacBook Air will be considerably smaller than the current 13-inch version, yet also slightly narrower than the 11-inch model.

Apple has squeezed the keys closer in order for the computer to be as narrow as possible …

Apple has also relocated some of the function keys across the top and simplified the arrow key array in order to keep the keyboard as narrow as possible without taking away from overall usability.

The elimination of physical feedback in the click is part of Apple’s plan to reduce the thickness of the MacBook to a bare minimum.

As can be seen in 9to5Mac artist Michael Steeber‘s rendition above, the new 12-inch Air (on the left) is far thinner than the current 11-inch model (on the right). Taking cues from the current Air, the future model has a teardrop-like, tapered design that gets thinner from top to bottom.

The upcoming laptop is so thin that Apple employees are said to refer to the device as the “MacBook Stealth” internally. In order to reach that new level of portability, Apple not only slimmed down the trackpad and tweaked the speakers but the ports as well …

Thin, thinner, narrow, narrower, as narrow as possible, reducing the thickness, far thinner, slimming down…

Let me get this out of my system: I am sick and tired of this obsession to make laptops as thin as possible. It’s becoming an exercise in design, a race to the thinnest machine. And yes, I believe that usability suffers in the process. What sells thinness to the customer is, I think, the lightness that goes with it. And yes, of course your laptop has to be lightweight and the least bulky there is. But when such thinness and lightness are achieved at the expense of usability (a more cramped keyboard, a bigger trackpad further reducing the palm rest area, a trackpad without physical feedback) and even ports and connections, I simply don’t understand and begin wondering how much sense it all makes.

Yes, as I’ve said I’m assuming that the information revealed in the 9to5Mac article is good, and for the sake of argument I’m taking it at face value. I tend to believe the bit about Apple “planning to ditch standard USB ports, the SD Card slot, and even its Thunderbolt and MagSafe charging standards on this new notebook” and leaving the 12-inch MacBook Air with just one USB Type-C port. Perhaps it won’t remove the MagSafe connector just yet, but Apple is always looking for new solutions and is obsessed with this kind of optimisation. It’s a move that can be expected from Apple. Just look back at the first MacBook Air — it only had one USB port, a Micro-DVI video port, an audio jack and the MagSafe connector, where a regular MacBook of the time had Ethernet, two USB ports, a FireWire port, audio in and out, and a Mini-DVI video port.

In early 2008, I loved the idea of the MacBook Air. It certainly was more compact and lighter than a regular MacBook, weighing only 1.36 kg against the 2.27 kg of the MacBook and the 2.45 kg of the 15-inch MacBook Pro of the time. I’ve had a Mac laptop as primary machine since 2003, when my beloved blueberry iMac G3 broke for the second time. When the first MacBook Air was introduced, my main machine was still a 12-inch PowerBook G4 — believe it or not — and was starting to feel limited for my needs. The future was with the Intel architecture, and for a moment I considered purchasing the MacBook Air as my first entry to Mac Intel machines.

But the MacBook Air wasn’t the ideal laptop for me. I wasn’t really concerned with pure processor performance: lots of reviews said the first-generation MacBook Air was underpowered and slow, due to its small 4,200 rpm hard drive and a lackluster 1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo chip. But hey, I was still using a 1 GHz PowerPC G4 machine. The Air was lightning fast in comparison. What felt limiting to me was the Air’s lack of ports. And not just because I would have also used the Air as a desktop machine. Even when used as a laptop, only one USB port and the lack of Ethernet and FireWire was a deal breaker for me.

I’m digressing. In 2008 I thought that, while the MacBook Air was not the laptop for me, its thinness and lightness were truly revolutionary, and I was sure that the MacBook Air would be the perfect laptop for many other users. And that was an easy prediction. The original 13-inch MacBook Air was light, thin, and quite usable, as usable as a regular 13-inch MacBook (the keyboard was the same size and so was the palm rest area).

When the 11-inch MacBook Air was introduced in late 2010, I was a bit perplexed at first, but again, an even smaller Air made sense for those wanting a truly ultra-portable machine that was also rather powerful. And it was nice to have more choices for the MacBook Air line of products. All the people I know who do a lot of work while flying were quite happy to have such a tiny machine with them in their trips. In late 2010 I was one year into my new Intel laptop, a 15-inch MacBook Pro, so I wasn’t thinking about a new laptop. That 11-inch Air was surely appealing: it had more connections than the original MacBook Air (well, one USB port more, but still), a solid state drive, the maximum RAM was 4 GB instead of 2… And above all, it had a very nice battery performance. But again it wasn’t the ideal laptop for me because I did not find it very usable for long writing sessions.

Indeed, at a later date, I had the opportunity of testing an 11-inch MacBook Air thoroughly. While I’m sure that owners of such a machine will disagree with me on this, I have to say that I didn’t find its size and form factor very usable after spending one day writing on it. And I don’t mean writing the occasional email and doing light typing stuff. I mean writing long-form pieces for hours. I found the 11-inch Air too cramped for my tastes, and I ended up with aching wrists because I couldn’t rest them comfortably in the limited area around the trackpad. I had to take more pauses, frequently readjusting my posture, etc. I remember thinking: I hope it doesn’t get any smaller or more cramped than this.

Where am I going with this? I’m simply saying that while in 2008 a laptop such as the first MacBook Air made sense compared to the other laptops produced by Apple and by Apple’s competitors (the Air was really the thinnest, lightest notebook of the time, there was only one Sony Vaio model, I think, with a similar form factor); and while in late 2010 a smaller, thinner MacBook Air still made sense — what sense does it make to build an even thinner 12-inch MacBook Air now? In 2008, getting a MacBook Air meant saving a lot of bulk and getting a laptop that weighed almost one kilogram less than the lightest Apple laptop of the time. In late 2010, getting an 11-inch MacBook Air meant saving a decent amount of bulk and almost 300 grams compared to the 13-inch model — enough to be worth considering the smaller Air. But I don’t think that a thinner 12-inch Air now is going to offer a comparable weight and bulk loss to justify this obsessive trimming. (Again, assuming Apple is really building such a laptop.)

The purported killing of most ports, and the purported aim to produce an even thinner MacBook Air just seems arbitrary at this point; a mere design exercise, as I already said. You sacrifice connections, keyboard space, trackpad feedback, and usability to have what, a laptop that may weigh 50 grams less than a 13-inch Air and be a couple of millimetres thinner? Can we stop for a second and ask, What’s the point? To beat a record? To claim to have the thinnest computer with a high-resolution screen? At that point, let’s just make an iPad Air with a keyboard attached (hint: still not great ergonomically.)

The perfect laptop

As Ben Brooks said:

The first thing we have to realize is that there is no perfect laptop. What is perfect for one person won’t be for another. It all depends on your values (speed, size, battery, screen, etc).

Having said that, I won’t be stopped from thinking about this a little more. The way I look at a perfect laptop is in the bigger picture of my entire setup. To that end there are two possible setups:

  • Desktop based: either an iMac, or larger 15” laptop at home.
  • Highly portable: MacBook Air as a main machine.

I won’t get into which is better, both have their merits, but to determine what a perfect laptop is I like to think about it in the vein of the above two setup scenarios.

Since 2004, my home office setup has always consisted of a Mac laptop in desktop configuration — attached to a bigger external display, to an extended keyboard and mouse, and attached to any external drives I’ve had on my desk. When I needed the Mac with me, I just disconnected everything and put the laptop in my backpack. The size of the laptop only mattered in one regard: how often I would use the laptop while out and about. Since in 2004 I was often off-site, a compact laptop was in order, so instead of buying a 15-inch PowerBook G4, at the time I opted for the 12-inch model, and it ended up being a very wise move. The 12-inch PowerBook G4 is probably the laptop that’s achieved almost-perfect status in my extended experience. Compact and lightweight enough, a decent battery life for the time, and with enough connections and enough power to be used as a desktop machine, connected to a 20-inch 1680×1050 external display.

By the time I had to upgrade my setup in 2009, I wasn’t commuting or moving around as I used to do five years before, so the need of having a small, highly portable machine with me wasn’t as strong. Also, my sessions at the computer while out and about were getting longer, so it made sense to consider a bigger laptop, and that’s why I got a 15-inch MacBook Pro instead of a 13-inch model (or an Air). The bigger display and trackpad, and the ample space in the palm rest area are great for long writing sessions.

Matt Gemmell, in his piece, emphasises what he looks most in a laptop:

What I do need, though, is true portability: small size, light weight, and the robustness to carry off the first two qualities without compromise. And I certainly need the reassurance that this tool will be ready for use whenever and wherever I might want to work.

Matt is very satisfied with his 2013 11-inch MacBook Air: This laptop already does all those things. It’s tiny, very light, and very solid. Those problems are solved.

He adds:

Portability isn’t a special requirement for a laptop. It’s not a premium feature. It’s the essential promise of the device’s whole concept. And until recently, they came with compromises that were technological, eating away at the ideology of the category. But that problem has pretty much gone away. Now, subnotebooks can find their natural home: the casual user. Me.

To conclude with a thought that ties to the observations I was making earlier, and to follow Matt’s drift, what I’d like to point out is this. Now that we have (Apple) laptops which are sufficiently thin, sufficiently lightweight, extremely portable and with batteries that last a day and let us be highly productive overall, perhaps it’s time to focus on other things that aren’t “how to make this laptop even thinner.” People still use bags and backpacks and briefcases and, as I observe every day in the city, they typically carry around a lot of stuff. I doubt that shaving off two millimetres or 50 grams from an already incredibly thin and light machine is going to make all that difference for the regular user. How about working on comfort? How about making a laptop slightly wider to accommodate a regular keyboard, with enough space to comfortably place your hands when you need to write or navigate the interface with the trackpad? If I buy a laptop with great portability, that allows me to work for hours and hours without needing to charge it, I’d like to have a laptop that’s also comfortable to use it for hours on end.

Category Tech Life Tags , , ,

People and resources added to my reading list in 2014

At the beginning of 2013 I decided to start a series of ‘annual reports’ where I listed the people and resources discovered during the previous year worth adding to my reading list. I also took the chance to talk about how my ever-flowing RSS feeds’ organisation was going. I believe it’s important to do this, to share these findings, because there are a lot of interesting and writers and websites out there deserving of a wider audience.

Last year I wrote:

With regard to reading — both online and offline — I feel my 2013 has been a denser, richer year than 2012. I know for sure I’ve read more books in 2013 than the year before, and as for reading stuff online I’m left with the impression that I’ve found more quality writing overall. Maybe I’m just getting better at instinctively avoiding the bad writing and at filtering out the noise while tuning to the signal.

Well, I have to say that 2014 hasn’t felt as rich. (To me, obviously.) Many times I stumbled on insightful posts and contributions, but didn’t add those authors to my feeds mainly because of the intermittent quality of their production, or because I wasn’t interested in the main topics they usually talk about in their websites and blogs.

Anyway, here are the ‘new entries’ in my RSS feeds, in truly no particular order:

  • getwired.com by Wes Miller. — I love Wes’s style. He’s another tech-oriented author who writes only when he really has something to say, and when he does, he writes thoughtful long-form contributions.
  • Avery Pennarun, discovered thanks to John Gruber when he linked this post by Pennarun on Daring Fireball. Apenwarr, his blog, is updated infrequently, but when he updates, it’s really worth your time. His most recent articles on Wi-Fi technology are rather technical but extremely informative if you want to have a deeper understanding of it.
  • Brent SimmonsInessential — I follow Brent since I first discovered NetNewsWire years ago. I decided to add his site to my feeds when he started updating it more frequently.
  • Michael Tsai is the developer of SpamSieve, among other things, and SpamSieve is the best email spam filter application for the Mac. Like with Brent Simmons, I have been reading Michael for a long time (since I discovered the About This Particular Macintosh e-zine back then) and I used to visit his blog on a fairly regular basis, then last year, after considerably pruning my feeds, and seeing that he too, like Simmons, had started updating more frequently, I decided it was time to finally add his blog to my feeds.
  • Le Journal du Lapin by Pierre Dandumont (in French, for the most part; he sometimes publishes articles in English). — Pierre is another vintage Mac enthusiast and updates his blog frequently. He always finds something interesting to talk about or link to. I was looking for someone who wanted to attempt a project I thought about carrying out — putting a higher-resolution display in my clamshell iBook — and Pierre has done that and thoroughly documented it, too!
  • The Pickle Theory (née The Typist) by Shibel Mansour — Shibel is a great guy and I always enjoy his insightful posts. He’s one of those you wish they updated their blog more often.
  • Aral Balkan and Ind.ie — Aral was a great 2014 find for me: he’s intelligent, articulate, and passionate about what he does and what he wants to build with the Ind.ie project. And we share the same views about privacy, surveillance, and what he calls Spyware 2.0.
  • The Robservatory by Rob Griffiths, and Kirkville by Kirk McElhearn. — I’ve been reading Rob and Kirk for a long time, and even translated some of their Macworld articles into Italian back when I was a collaborator of Macworld Italia Magazine. Like with other old-timers in the Mac community mentioned above, I’ve been checking their websites often over the years, and finally decided to use my RSS reader to consistently keep track of what they write.
  • Alex Roddie — Alex is a writer and a vintage Mac enthusiast like me. If you want to know more about where he comes from and what he writes, here’s a link to his main website. But, he also writes an excellent blog at the website where he offers his professional editing and proofreading services — Pinnacle Editorial. The Pinnacle blog is a great resource, with articles written by Alex himself and by guest authors, featuring contributions on writing, reviews, and commentary related to the book publishing world. Then he also maintains a great blog on vintage Macs called Macintosh HD; he writes less frequently there, but the blog really deserves to be in your bookmarks if you, too, are a vintage Mac enthusiast.
  • Big Mess o’ Wires by Steve Chamberlin. — Steve is one of the good tinkerers. He’s the maker of the Macintosh Floppy Emu (From the Floppy Emu page: “[It’s] a prototype floppy and hard disk drive emulator for vintage Macs. It uses an SD memory card and custom hardware to mimic a 400K, 800K, or 1.4MB floppy disk and drive, or an HD20 hard drive. It plugs into the Mac’s external or internal floppy port, and behaves exactly like a real disk drive, requiring no special software on the Mac”), and it’s a really ingenious device. I discovered Steve exactly by following a link to his emulator, but as you’ll see, his website is full of interesting projects and technical investigations.

Of course, I’m still reading and following the people I discovered in 2012 and 2013 (see links to my old articles at the beginning).

Briefly, on podcasts

I rarely have time to listen to podcasts on a regular basis. There are only three exceptions. The first two are podcasts I subscribed to a long time ago, so I managed to always find the time and the attention for them; the third is the 2014 new entry:

  1. John Gruber’s The Talk Show because, well, John Gruber. Episodes are long and the conversations rambling, but always in an interesting, unpredictable way. That’s what makes me return for the next episode.
  2. The RetroMacCast with James and John, obviously dedicated to the world of vintage Macs. James and John are great guys, long-time Mac fans who know their stuff.
  3. Release Notes, with Joe Cieplinski and Charles Perry. Episodes are generally short compared to many other tech podcasts, about half an hour each, and that’s good. The two hosts have a great pace, and a to-the-point, no-nonsense approach which is quite enjoyable. Well worth my time (and yours).

That’s it.

RSS management and reading software

Considering the subject, I think it’s relevant to mention how my RSS management has changed, and which applications I’m using now to read my RSS feeds.

On the Mac

On my main MacBook Pro, I use Reeder 2, connected to my Feedly account. There I keep basically all the feeds I follow on a daily basis. In the period before Reeder 2 was released, I used ReadKit and has been quite a decent alternative. I still use it every now and then because I love how it manages my Pinboard bookmarks and displays them as feeds.

On my most-used PowerPC Macs — the Power Mac G4 Cube, and the 12-inch and 17-inch PowerBook G4 — I use NetNewsWire (the older version 3.x, of course), and I keep only a subset of feeds, usually those that are considered ‘slow feeds,’ i.e. sources updating less frequently.

On iOS

Both on the iPhone and the iPad I now use Unread, which for me is the best RSS reader, period. If you still use an older device — like the original iPad, stuck at iOS 5.1.1, or the iPhone 3GS on iOS 6.1.6 — I strongly recommend Byline by Phantom Fish. It’s a solid RSS reader which provides a great integration with iOS 5 and 6’s UI.

What I use to ‘read later’

For the most part, I still don’t read later, and I’m still applying more or less the same techniques described in the afore-linked article. In Safari, though, I started doing things a bit differently in 2014. Instead of keeping a lot (and I mean a lot) of tabs open on articles and stuff I want to read/act upon within the day or the day after at the latest, now there are three layers of bookmarking:

  • Open browser tabs, only for articles I want to read straight away once I finished whatever ‘foreground task’ is getting my attention, and articles I want to write about on my blog.
  • Safari’s Reading List, for articles I want to go back to as soon as I can, but that lack the priority of those articles and sources I keep in open tabs. The Reading List feature is also useful because it’s a synchronised bucket — I can save there something I notice while using my iPhone or iPad and then read it later on the Mac’s big screen at my desk.
  • Pinboard, for long-term storage of resources I want to keep for future reference.

That’s all. In the next days I may update this article if I realise I made grave errors of omission.

Category Tech Life Tags ,

The perceived decline in Apple’s software quality

Dr Drang (via John Gruber):

I think a lot of us have lost our spirit, and that’s a problem for Apple. Apple may not think so — its financial statements would argue that it’s in great shape — but it’s being buoyed by an excellent run of hardware releases and a certain amount of inertia. Eventually, though, it runs the risk of becoming another Microsoft, with users who do more complaining than praising. When a company’s best users lose their spirit, it loses their leverage.

I moderately agree. I still think that the use of the verb loss in the past tense — okay, present perfect — feels too final. It’s the same reason I generally agreed with Marco Arment’s article Apple has lost the functional high ground with that “has lost” being one major exception. I believe things to be still in a more flowing state. Just as I don’t think Apple “has lost” its functional high ground in an irreversible fashion, I don’t think a lot of us have irreversibly lost our spirit. In both instances I would rather use the present continuous form — Apple is losing (or may be losing) the functional high ground… A lot of us are losing our spirit… and so on. Nothing is (yet) final at this juncture. You may think I’m being incredibly pedantic here, that it’s a matter of semantics. Well, yes, it’s exactly semantics what makes an article feel like an “Apple is doomed!” piece rather than a more constructive analysis.

Now that I clarified that point, let’s move on.

I’m a long-time Mac user. I’ve known about Apple since the days of the Apple ][ and I finally started using Macs in 1989. Many eminent voices in the current debate over Apple’s software have expressed their frustration at what is generally described as a decline in the quality of Apple’s offerings, the main reason basically being that Apple has a lot on its plate and that it has imposed on itself a pace it just can’t keep up with. (Arment said it best: The problem seems to be quite simple: they’re doing too much, with unrealistic deadlines.)

As a long-time Mac user, as someone who has used almost every version of the Macintosh system software (from System 5 to the latest Mac OS X version), I can say that there have always been little bugs and annoying things in Apple’s software, even when Apple had less on its plate and was developing software at a more leisurely pace than now. Just the other day, while researching information related to the Macintosh SE for a personal project, I stumbled on an archived technical article in the Apple Knowledge Base which explained a serious data corruption problem I encountered first-hand back in 1989 which I simply couldn’t figure out at the time. The article’s summary says it all: A problem was discovered when HD SC Setup Version 1.3 was used to initialize a hard disk inside certain Macintosh SE computers. This recalibration problem may have, in rare cases, caused a loss of data. (HD SC Setup is an old Apple disk utility software, let’s say the grandfather of OS X’s Disk Utility).

I don’t know how rare those cases of data loss actually were — these things were a bit harder to establish in 1989, before the Web — but if you were among those affected by that bug, believe me, it was a far more serious annoyance that any of the problems reported with Yosemite or other first-party applications. Can you imagine using your Mac, saving documents and work files believing everything is fine, only to discover that certain files are corrupted/inaccessible due to that hard drive formatting bug?

If that example seems too specific and remote to you, a more recent serious issue you may remember was the FireWire bug affecting Mac OS X 10.3.0 (Panther), where FireWire drives that used the Oxford Semiconductor 922 bridge chipset experienced loss/corruption of data when connected to a Mac running that version of Panther. (This Macintouch special report is a good refresher of that case.)

The truth is, if we put the Mac OS operating system’s history under a microscope, we’ll find a lot of annoying little (and not so little) issues, system crashes, conflicts among extensions, memory address and bus errors forcing several restarts during a session, and so on. So why did we long-time Mac users put up with all that, then? Because of the user experience, I believe. Because despite the bumps on the road here and there, the Mac road was still the best road to follow. Or, put more cynically, the total amount of the occasional annoyances wasn’t enough to affect the general level of satisfaction of working with Mac OS. Thanks to this, a lot of Mac users endured critical transitions such as the passage from 68K to PowerPC, the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, and the switch from PowerPC to Intel.

The pre-OS X era, however, was also a simpler time. The classic Mac OS wasn’t as complex as OS X, and outside the system software Apple produced fewer applications in-house than today. During the 1990s there were ClarisWorks/AppleWorks and FileMaker Pro, both coming from Claris, which was a subsidiary wholly owned by Apple (a practical approach for compartmentalise software development, surely). Today, in comparison, Apple produces a lot of different applications outside the Mac operating system, many of them being sophisticated, professional-grade applications: Aperture, Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, Motion, then Apple Remote Desktop, Xsan, and of course the two product suites formerly identified as iWork and iLife, which include Keynote, Pages, Numbers and iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand. Not to mention iCloud and all the related online services. Like them or not, these are all complex applications with an incredible amount of features. And this is just the Mac platform. Then there’s iOS and related apps, and now we must also add the Apple Watch software and related apps.

What I’m trying to say is that, if we stop and consider all this from a rational standpoint, if we consider the sheer amount of software Apple has on its plate today, if we consider the relatively low number of engineers Apple has working on all of this software (OS X included), if we consider the pace Apple is keeping today with everything it produces (both software and hardware)… it’s amazing that things are going this well. I don’t think another company with the same scope, resources, products and in-house R&D as Apple could do much better in the same situation. If we could stop for a moment and take the time to go through each Mac OS X version with a fine-tooth comb, we would find frustrating bugs and user interface inconsistencies in each and every one of them. If we had the time to collect samples from discussion forums on Apple’s site and from major Mac forums around the Web, we would see a lot of users complaining of issues, problems, incompatibilities, etc., introduced after every major (and sometimes minor) OS X release.

But looking at things from a more emotional, more personal standpoint, something has indeed changed. Above I said that, in the past, us long-time Mac users were more willing to put up with flaws in the Mac operating system and first-party applications because the total amount of such occasional annoyances wasn’t enough to affect the general level of satisfaction of working with Mac OS. I suspect that this perceived decline in the quality of Apple’s software products (OS X included) is more related to the nature of the flaws/bugs/annoyances, than the sheer number of those. In other words, it’s not that Apple’s software is quantitatively more buggy today than, say, in the Mac OS 8–9 era, but the issues are (or feel) more critical, and that in turn affects the general level of satisfaction of working with the Mac.

When a new OS X version introduces issues that were absent in the previous one, that doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when such issues — like Wi-Fi reliability — are taking two minor OS X releases to be fixed. When a new OS X version makes your Mac feels more sluggish than it was in the previous version, that perception clouds whatever new exciting features the new OS X version brings to the table.

On a personal level, this paragraph in Marco Arment’s Apple has lost the functional high ground resonated a lot:

We don’t need major OS releases every year. We don’t need each OS release to have a huge list of new features. We need our computers, phones, and tablets to work well first so we can enjoy new features released at a healthy, gradual, sustainable pace.

Also, I may have not lost yet the ‘spirit’ Dr Drang talks about, but in recent times I admit that my enthusiasm — not really towards Apple’s software in general but Mac OS X specifically — has indeed waned a bit.

My general complaint towards Mac OS X is more about the focus than the quality itself. If I have to pinpoint a timeframe, I’d say that it was sometime around the release of 10.8 that I started wondering where OS X was going, but for me the excitement surrounding the release of a new major version of Mac OS X had probably peaked with 10.6 Snow Leopard — the last release I felt really improved things on my Mac. As I wrote in Wi-Fi degradation after Mac OS X Snow Leopard:

In recent years, however, I’ve grown wary of new OS X versions mainly because I’ve seen first-hand how they managed to cause problems even to users who, like me, kept their Mac OS X machines clean and perfectly fine-tuned with just the best-quality apps and tools.

Let’s call this the practical side of my diminished enthusiasm towards Mac OS X. The philosophical side, as I was saying, is that I’ve started perceiving a lack of focus in the designing and building of Mac OS X, and I’ve started to think that this yearly upgrade schedule is causing Mac OS X more harm than good in this regard. With OS X Yosemite, for the first time in my long history as a Mac user, I’ve asked myself this question: Why should I upgrade, really? What’s so compelling about it? (And I waited in queue to purchase the box of Mac OS X Tiger back then. And I used to be very eager to upgrade to a new Mac OS X version, often not even bothering backing up because “It’s Apple, what could go wrong?”)

My lukewarm enthusiasm towards OS X Yosemite, despite what you might think, has nothing to do with the fact that I can’t enjoy its most touted features because my main machine lacks the necessary hardware (it’s a mid-2009 MacBook Pro)[1]. It’s this returning, nagging feeling of inconsistency, of a system that has been improved in a few places but feels like a working beta in others. Thoughtful details mixed with afterthoughts. Eye-candy over usability and functionality. The yearly upgrade cycle that Apple has forced on Mac OS X also imposes the search for new features, for something new to add to the OS X bucket every year. And this brings lack of focus (as I perceive it) and a peculiar acceleration that, if not kept in check, might hurt that very integration between hardware and software that’s always been Apple’s strongest advantage.

My favourite part of Gruber’s recent piece, that’ll help you understand what I’m saying, is this (emphasis mine):

But in avoiding the problems of stagnation and hubris, it feels like Apple has run into a different problem: nothing ever feels settled and stable. If the pattern Apple has established the last two years holds, by the time the loose screws get tightened in iOS 8 and OS X 10.10, we’ll be getting developer betas of iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 at WWDC. And as Guy English has keenly remarked numerous times, the annual schedule means that by now — that is, January — a lot of engineering talent in Cupertino is being directed to next year’s OS releases, leaving less talent on the task of tightening the remaining loose screws in last year’s.

The yearly upgrade cycle makes certainly more sense with iOS, and indeed, at this point in time, I feel iOS development to be more focussed than OS X’s. The innovation pace for iOS hardware is much more dramatic; the mobile industry imposes such pace, therefore this relentless research and addition of new features in the software makes a lot of sense for iOS because there is proportionally more innovation in the hardware year after year. But I don’t entirely see the point of forcing a similar pace on Mac OS X. Apple could release OS X versions following an It’s ready when it’s ready approach, and I’m sure that a lot of Mac users would be ultimately fine with that, especially if that brought more focus, consistency and stability in the operating system. Mac OS X Tiger was around for two years and half before Leopard arrived, and went through eleven minor releases. Perhaps there were complaints of stagnation back then, but the truth is that Tiger was a great OS X release which worked consistently well in all supported machines, even the slower Macs with G3 processors. In the period between Tiger and Snow Leopard in particular, the changes and improvements in the operating system, and the features that were added, felt coherent, felt ‘part of the plan’, felt less arbitrary and less ‘new for the sake of new’ than what we have now with OS X Yosemite.

 


  • 1. Although that certainly doesn’t help, either.

 

Category Software Tags , , , ,

The Small Fish Sponsorship

Despite not being updated on a daily basis, this website has been taking an increasing amount of my time in the past three years. Until 2012, my main source of income had been my work as a freelance translator (see Services for more information). Since early 2013, my focus went back to what I’ve really loved doing since I was a teenager — creative writing. After more than thirteen years ‘in the trenches’ of the translation world, I felt it was time for a change, as I was approaching burnout due to the working hours, the difficulties in dealing with mostly terrible clients, and the disheartening process of trying to get paid for my hard work. At the same time, after a peak in translation works and collaborations during the 2010–2012 period, things started to slow down (alarmingly) on the translation front, so that factor was also crucial in driving me back to the path of writing.

After publishing my first volume of short stories, Minigrooves in July 2013, and starting Vantage Point Magazine in June 2014, I wasn’t so naïve as to expect an immediate success, but I admit I expected a little more support, especially from people who seemed quite eager to read my stories and my magazine when I first announced these products.

Meanwhile I noticed that an increasing number of the prominent independent tech-oriented sites/blogs I read on a daily basis, started featuring a sponsorship model à la Daring Fireball, where sponsors purchase a week-long slot on one of these high-traffic sites/blogs, and the author usually publishes a promotional post from the sponsor at the start of the week, followed by another thank-you mention at the end of the week. Of course, with a high-profile site such as Daring Fireball, where the estimated monthly webpage views is 4–5 million, the sponsor is very likely to receive a great, fruitful exposure.

Now, my site is no Daring Fireball. In the tech-oriented independent punditry, I’m a small fish. That’s why I’m about to launch a scaled-down sponsorship model for this place, called The Small Fish Sponsorship.

The Small Fish Sponsorship

I would call what follows a ‘final draft,’ which means that the basics are all outlined, but there might be some refinements from here until the beginning of 2015, which is when this sponsorship model will become officially operational.

The Small Fish Sponsorship should work this way:

  • It should start on January 2015.
  • Every sponsor gets a week, like on Daring Fireball and other similar indie tech blogs/sites.
  • Every sponsor will receive the same basic treatment: a promotional post at the beginning of the scheduled week (Monday), a thank-you mention at the end of the week (Sunday).
  • If I find the sponsor’s product/service particularly interesting or useful to me, or deserving more attention, I could write a review of it. I could even write an Italian version of the review, so as to reach a wider audience. And if the product can also be of interest to an audience of vintage tech enthusiasts, I could mention it on my other blog, System Folder, which is about vintage technology and Macs in particular, and sometimes gets even more traffic than this website.
  • Of course, since I’m a small fish, and the estimated monthly webpage views of this site is about 7,500, the price I’m asking is comparatively more affordable: €450 (or the equivalent in your preferred currency).
  • Speaking of views, every now and then, an article I write gets the attention of bigger players such as MacStories. When that happens, the spike in traffic my site receives is considerable, so if you’re an interested sponsor, bear that in mind as well.
  • If I’m particularly interested in the product promoted by the sponsor, the sponsor can use a unit of the product to cover part of the payment. For instance, if the sponsor is a manufacturer of a piece of hardware or an accessory that costs €100 and it costs €20 to ship the product to me, those €120 will be deducted from the €450 to purchase a week slot (so basically I will receive the product and €330).
  • My blog may not be widely read, but I have a great audience of smart people who like quality stuff, and I respect every one of them. If your product lacks quality, don’t even bother contacting me.
  • Don’t push for a review. As I mentioned above, a review is something I might spontaneously write if I find the sponsor’s product useful, appealing, worthy of more attention, etc. It has to be considered a bonus gesture on my part, not a given.
  • Final reminder, just to be very clear: this is sponsorship. It’s not OK to contact me with advertising proposals for placing banners and similar ads on my website.

To recap

The Small Fish Sponsorship allows a sponsor to purchase a week-long slot for €450. Basic treatment: same as Daring Fireball (and other similar indie tech blogs/websites): post at the beginning of the week, thank-you mention at the end of the week. Main difference: the more I like your product, the more I’ll talk about it during the week. A review is possible if I love the product and think it’s worth spreading the word. If you push for a review, forget about it.

At the end of the day, the spirit behind this is simple: I’m (still) a small fish compared to other prominent tech-oriented blogs and websites, and I can’t offer their kind of traffic or visibility. Thus what I ask in return is relatively modest compared to those blogs. Still, if a sponsor has a particularly compelling product to offer, what I can provide is potentially more than just a mention and a thank you.

So, that’s it, in a nutshell. In the next weeks I may update this post with further clarifications/refinements, so stay tuned if you’re interested. When the Small Fish Sponsorship begins, this post will become a dedicated page on my site, and it will feature a calendar with a slot availability schedule, much like this page on Daring Fireball.

If you’re another ‘small fish’ indie operation like me and would like to propose this kind of model on your site, be kind and mention me on your blog and to your sponsors. Thank you.

Category Et Cetera Tags , ,

Addr is a nice eBook reader for the iPad

The other day I was checking the Technology section on my Flipboard and this article on TechCrunch caught my eye, obviously: Addr Is A Nifty iPad Ebook Reader For Those Who Miss Readmill. Now, I still use Readmill despite being discontinued, but I just can’t say no to eBook reading apps on iOS, so I went and downloaded it even before finishing the TechCrunch article.

Everything you need to know about Addr you’ll find at Addr’s website. I want to share a few more screenshots and some initial impressions.

When you open Addr, you’re presented with your Library:

 

Addr library

 

Books can be arranged by Date, Author, Title. Addr links to Dropbox, and after you authorise the application, when you tap My Dropbox, Addr will scan your Dropbox folder for ePub files. Tap on the files you want to import and the eBook will be imported and formatted according to Addr’s design guidelines. The better the original ePub file, the better the outcome (for example, that copy of Orwell’s Essays I own lacks an index, so no index will be created in the app. I didn’t remember, so at first I thought there had been some error during import).

 

Addr first page

 

This is what you see when you tap on one of the eBooks: you’ll be presented with the first useful page after the cover. This eBook has an index, and I can tap on any chapter or section to get there immediately. I really love this kind of presentation and the typography chosen by Addr’s developers, both the sans-serif font used for titles, subtitles, and menus, and the serif font used to render the text. It’s not very clear in this screenshot, but there are different layers at work here. There’s the ‘menu column’ on the leftmost edge, then there’s the first page of the selected section (that “To Sa…” you can make out is the selected Dedication page), then there’s the ‘minimap’ of the selected section — that dark square you see on the top to the left of the book’s title — which is small preview of the whole text of the selected section (you’ll see it better in the next screenshots); then the book’s title and author, and the index.

 

Addr page

 

This is an example of a page. Here you have a better idea of how the minimap works: you can swipe up and down on it to quickly reach a certain part of the text within a chapter/section.

 

Addr add note

 

I really like the way Addr lets you add notes: instead of highlighting the text, you first drag your finger towards the book’s margin to mark the beginning of the passage you want to highlight or annotate, then, without lifting your finger, you swipe down until you reach the end of the passage. At this point you can add your observations in the margin. While this method may look a bit cumbersome at first, I like it æsthetically because it’s exactly what I usually do with physical books — make annotations with a pencil on their margins.

 

Addr notes summary

 

All notes are gathered in a separate panel and can be accessed directly by tapping, or shared using the Send button.

 

Addr page with note

 

Swiping right hides the minimap, and you can see your annotations in full. Annotated passages show up on the minimap as well (if you go back to the previous screenshot and you squint a bit, you’ll see).

There’s a lot to like about Addr. I like the elegant and minimalistic design, which I find to be a nice mixture of modern and traditional approach in the way you interact with eBooks. As I mentioned above, I also like the choice of typefaces used and the colour palette. As for the annotation system, I agree with Romain Dillet at TechCrunch when he writes: While it sounds like a gimmicky feature, it makes sense when you go back to your previous annotations. You will see them right next to your text in the margin. You won’t have to tap on a button or a sentence to open an impractical and ugly popover.

The developers have made a series of bold design decisions, which might annoy some people who prefer a higher level of customisation:

  • Addr works only in portrait orientation.
  • Font size is fixed.
  • Fonts cannot be changed.
  • Colours cannot be changed. There’s no ‘night theme’ or anything like that.
  • It only works with ePub files, as far as I know.

Bear in mind that this is a 1.0 version, so it’s possible that font and colour customisation and a landscape mode are simply features that have been planned for future versions but weren’t ready when the developers decided to ship. Personally, while I find the current settings good enough (the text font is pleasant and sufficiently big), I’d like to have more options available to tweak my reading experience, especially some sort of night theme to avoid eye strain when reading at night.

For now, the only criticism I have is that certain UI elements are perhaps too subtle and one may need to find the right gesture or the right place to tap or swipe after a bit of trial and error. The app’s performance on my iPad 3 isn’t consistently smooth, but it’s too early to say if it’s the app itself at fault here, or if it’s just the occasional poorly-formatted ePub file that’s causing problems. The import process could also use a progress bar: as soon as you select an ePub file to import from your Dropbox, a modal dialog box (“Importing the book”) appears while the book is being imported, but you don’t exactly know when the import process is complete. The dialog box can be dismissed at any time by tapping ‘OK’ but on one occasion I apparently dismissed it too soon, returned to my Library, and the eBook I chose to import wasn’t showing up.

I think that, overall, Addr is off to a very good start. As far as I’m concerned, it just needs some light UI refinements and some basic customisation options. I’m not sure if I agree with Romain Dillet at TechCrunch about the need of an iPhone version. True, now we have iPhones with bigger screens, but I don’t know if Addr’s gestures and annotation system would work as well on the smaller iPhone screen compared to the iPad’s. We’ll see.

At the time of writing, Addr is free on the App Store and has no In-app purchases.

Category Software Tags , , ,