Living in the future

William Gibson famously said:The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

I am living proof of Gibson’s observation. I am one of the fortunate few who reside at the future end of the curve. Indeed, over these past few months, I feel as if I have catapulted farther to the bleeding edge than I have ever been before.

Here’s one example:

A few days ago, my wife and I were at a local restaurant waiting for a friend to meet us for dinner. As we sat there, a sound from the Ring app on my iPhone went off, indicating that someone was at our front door. A quick tap on my iPhone screen and I was staring at a live video feed of the front of our house. Standing there was our friend. He had mistakenly thought he was supposed to meet us at our house instead of the restaurant. Via the Ring software, I was able to converse with him and tell him to head over to the restaurant ASAP.

My friend was incredulous. At first, he was sure I was joking and that I was really inside the house. I was eventually able to convince him that this was not a joke and I was truly waiting at the restaurant.

Even though I have had the Ring doorbell for several months now, I was almost as impressed with this technological magic as was my friend. Welcome to the future!

Want another example? Okay…

The battery for our electronic scale died the other day. It’s one of those flat watch-type batteries, a CR2032 to be specific. So, standing over the scale, without any digital device in my hand or pocket, I made a request: “Alexa, put CR2032 battery on the shopping list.” And that’s exactly what my Amazon Echo did. Later, when I was at our pharmacy, I opened the Echo app and checked its shopping list. Sure enough, the battery was listed there, allowing me to confirm that I was getting the correct size.

This is just one of an assortment of tasks — from checking news to getting weather updates to playing music — that you can do with the Echo. Although its range of tasks remains limited for now, its abilities keep growing. But what’s already amazing about the Echo is not what it can do, but how doing it makes you feel like you just landed in the middle of a science-fiction movie.

Speaking of science-fiction, merely answering a phone call on my Apple Watch would impress Dick Tracy. If he also saw how I can use it to view text messages or track directions to a destination, he would probably faint from shock.

Or how about the combination of my iPhone, Siri, Shazam and Apple Music? I can use Siri to ask Shazam to identify a song and then have Apple Music play it. As little as a decade ago, I could not have even imagined having such an ability in the palm of my hands.

It’s the Internet of Things. We are on the cusp of the next major step in the digital (r)evolution. And I believe it’s all about to explode. I may be one of the lucky few living in this particular future for the moment. But we’re all going to be there very soon.

For an expanded discussion of this topic, check out the MacVoices podcast I did with Chuck Joiner.

 

Posted in iPhone, Technology | Leave a comment

Searching for my next Mac

My desktop computer is a 2009 Mac Pro. That makes it six years old.

Whoa! I’ve haven’t owned the same Mac for that long since…since ever. And yet, while I never expected my Mac Pro to last this long, it remains a competent relatively speedy machine. As a bonus, it has superb internal storage capabilities combined with easy accessibility that no currently selling Mac can match.

Of course, it isn’t exactly the same Mac Pro I purchased back in 2009. It now sports a zippy 512GB SSD drive with two 2TB Toshiba drives for storage and backup. With these in place, I could probably keep the machine humming along for another few years.

Still, the old Mac Pro is showing signs of age. On some tasks, I can tell that processing speed lags behind newer Macs. Also, there are no Thunderbolt ports and it doesn’t support a 4K/5K  display. Finally, it remains a somewhat noisy heat-generating behemoth. So I’m ready to consider a replacement.

Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to me getting a new desktop Mac is the limited, and ultimately unsatisfactory, alternatives currently available.

The Mac mini? Forget it. Although it has the (“headless Mac”) form factor I prefer, Apple has kept it deliberately underpowered — marketing it as an “entry level” machine. The least expensive 27-inch iMac has superior specs to the most expensive Mac mini — starting with the fact that the mini is a dual-core CPU, compared to the iMac’s quad-core.

So what about the iMac? As it turns out, I just bought one for my wife: a decked-out iMac Retina 5K display — the 3.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 model upgraded to 16GB of RAM and a 3TB Fusion drive — for a final price of $2,649.

I have to admit…it’s a gorgeous machine. I still gasp every time I glance at the display. And it’s impressively fast, certainly faster than my Mac Pro.

Is this the Mac for me? Probably. If I got one, I would almost certainly add an OWC Thunderbay for external storage. It would be a great set-up. Still, it would not be my ideal Mac. I would prefer a machine that doesn’t have a built-in display and that has internal expansion options for drives and cards.

This brings me to the current “new” (2013) Mac Pro. Why not replace my old Mac Pro with a new Mac Pro? For starters, as with the iMac, the new Mac Pro is missing the desired internal expansion options.

Further, as I have argued previously, the new Mac Pro is such a specialized super-costly machine that it no longer fits my needs or budget. I was struck by this all over again when I bought my wife’s 5K iMac last week.

Forgive me for a bit of rehashing, but I believe it’s worth another look. For comparison purposes, let’s assume I bought the cheapest quad-core Mac Pro base model (anything else would would so far exceed my needs and come with such a high sticker price as to be ridiculous). To match my iMac, let’s go with the minor upgrade to 16GB of RAM for a final total cost of $3,099.

You can’t get a 3TB Fusion drive with a Mac Pro. The closest (and least expensive) match I could make is to stick with the default 256GB SSD internal storage and add a 3TB USB drive. I chose a Western Digital My Book ($87 on Amazon). Finally, I needed a 27-inch 5K display. I suppose I could settle for a less expensive 4K one, but I wanted to match the iMac specs as closely as possible. I came up with a Dell Ultra HD 5K model on sale at Amazon for $1,800. [By the way, the reason I didn’t get an Apple-branded 5K display here is that Apple doesn’t sell one — unless you buy it as part of an iMac.] This added up to a final price of $4,986 — or $2,337 more than I paid for my comparable iMac. That’s enough for me to have gotten a second iMac Retina display instead!

Yes, I know there are specs in the Mac Pro that exceed those in the iMac, features that can make the extra money worth it for some users. But I am not one of those users. As Macworld pointed out, in several tests of things I might actually do (including Finder and iTunes tests), the iMac is faster than an 8-core Mac Pro. In the end, the Mac Pro makes no sense for me (echoing the sentiments of Dan Frakes).

Thinking about it, I believe the Mac Pro makes no sense for anyone save a very small high-end segment of the Mac market. For most of Apple’s history, “less-than-high-end” power users like myself gravitated towards the most expensive Mac models. Even if the machines were overkill, they remained in a competitive price range and offered practical advantages than none of the lesser models could match. This gave Apple’s top models a relatively broad appeal. This is no longer true.

Accepting that no new Mac will come with much in the way of internal expansion options, my ideal replacement for my 2009 Mac Pro would be either a scaled-down new Mac Pro (for less than $2000) or a souped-up Mac mini (for less than $1500). But Apple appears to have no intention of offering either of these Macs at any price. As long as I’m dreaming, I’d want to combine these Macs with a stand-alone version of Apple’s 5K display, ideally for under $1500.

Instead, Apple’s message to me (and others in a similar boat) is simple and direct: “Get an iMac.” And that, with just a wee bit of grumbling, is what I expect I will do. Eventually.

As to the bigger picture, when I additionally consider the implications of Apple’s latest ultra-portable 12-inch MacBook, Apple’s message appears to be:

“We are moving more and more in the direction of a strictly consumer-focused company. While machines like the Mac Pro and the MacBook Pro are not likely to be phased out anytime soon, we no longer see them as in the mainstream of our product line. And we no longer view the customers who buy them as our prime target audience. Similarly, options to open up and modify the internals of a Mac will be minimal to non-existent — even for our Pro lines. If that doesn’t meet with your expectations or desires, either change your desires or buy some other company’s product. We’ll do fine either way.”

Although I might not like all its implications, Apple’s position does make sense. Think about it: What consumer electronic product can you buy today that encourages you (or even allows you) to open up and modify its insides? Not televisions. Not AV receivers. Not microwaves. Not smartphones. Not even automobiles (where, especially with hybrid and electric cars, lifting the hood is increasingly meant to be done only by professionals). Apple’s Macs are simply mirroring the rest of the electronic world. In case you hadn’t noticed, the days of tinkering inside your Mac are over — and have been for quite some time.

Get ready iMac, ’cause here I come.

Posted in Apple Inc, Mac, Technology | 3 Comments

iOS 9 and the return of the iPad

For people who own (or are considering purchasing) an iPad, the forthcoming release of iOS 9 is the biggest most exciting event since the iPad was released in 2010.

There’s been a long-standing debate about the iPad. The question is: For those who use a MacBook to get work done, is it practical to replace your MacBook with an iPad? I mean completely replace, as in selling your MacBook and going “all in” with the iPad. For people such as myself, whose work (at least prior to my retirement) consists mainly of writing, the question boils down to: Can the iPad function as one’s primary (maybe even exclusive) writing tool?

For the fortunate few (and I include myself here), the question can seem inconsequential. I own both a MacBook and an iPad. I typically take both with me when I travel. And, at any given moment, I grab whichever device seems best suited to the task at hand. End of story.

But for many others — due to financial constraints or a need to limit one’s travel load or perhaps just for the sake of simplicity — there is a preference to get by with just one of these devices. The question is: Which one?

For most, the answer these days has been trending towards MacBook. There has certainly been a significant decline in iPad sales in the past year, while laptop sales continue to grow. One of the popular proposed explanations for this trend is the success of the iPhone 6 Plus: its larger size can eliminate the need to own both an iPhone and an iPad.

Whatever the explanation, I can tell you this: The iPad has been far from the ideal digital device for serious writing. A MacBook bests an iPad on almost every measure here. True, you can make do with an iPad. But you’ll have to work harder to do so. And, no matter how hard you work, there will still be a significant productivity cost.

If you’ve ever done extensive typing and editing on an iPad, you know what I mean. Using the loupe tool to move the cursor around is a pain. Cut and paste is much more time-consuming and prone to error on an iPad than on a Mac — especially if you are working across applications. Style formatting is more difficult. Simply adding web links can be a major chore. And on and on.

Yes, a few iOS text apps (my favorite is still Textilus) offer features (such as cursor keys and short cut toolbars) that overcome many of the hassles (although there is an irony in touting the advantages of cursor keys, a feature that the Mac largely abandoned when it introduced the mouse). Adding a Bluetooth keyboard to an iPad can similarly be a huge productivity boon. Even so, it’s still more work to do writing work on an iPad than a MacBook.

iOS 9 to the rescue

This is where iOS 9 potentially changes the game — bringing the iPad to near parity with a MacBook. Coming exclusively to iPads are QuickType and Multitasking features that represent the final pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that Apple has been assembling since it first added cut-and-paste to iOS devices years ago.

With Split View (available only in the iPad Air 2 for now), Slide Over and Picture in Picture, you can finally interact with two apps simultaneously. With the new QuickType “trackpad simulator,” you can move the cursor around much like you do on a Mac, eliminating the need for the loupe tool. There’s now a system-wide shortcut toolbar. There’s even a Mac-like app switcher than you can call up with Command-Tab on a Bluetooth keyboard. I’ve tested all these out with the iOS 9 beta and can attest that they work pretty much as advertised.

The jigsaw puzzle metaphor is not perfect; there are still improvements I’d like to see (the ability to drag-and-drop selections across split-screen apps is one obvious example). As with any digital technology, the picture will never be completely finished. But you get the idea. The major pieces are all in place, the refinements are coming.

Originally, I planned to delve into far more detail here as to why these new features are so compelling. However, Federico Viticci has saved me the trouble. I recommend that you read his excellent analysis, which concludes:

“iOS 9 is going to be a watershed moment for iPad users. For many, the iPad is about to graduate from utility to computer.”

These new iOS 9 features are just the software side of the equation. On the hardware side, if the rumor mills are accurate (and I believe they are), a new larger “iPad Pro” will be coming this fall. It should introduce further productivity enhancements. I’ve recently expressed some doubts about the viability of an iPad Pro. But after seeing iOS 9, I’m much more positive. I’ll reserve final judgement until the end of the year, but I’m feeling optimistic.

The bottom line? For those who need a computer to get work done (especially writing work) and have been hoping for a time when the iPad alone could function as that computer without significant compromises, it looks like that time is about to arrive.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, Mac, Technology | 4 Comments

Hanging up my virtual pen

The first time I was paid for writing about the Mac was in 1985 when A+ magazine published a reader’s tip I submitted. It detailed how to use ResEdit to modify the Welcome to Macintosh message. For 300 words, I got paid $50. It was far from a momentous event. At the time, I didn’t expect it to lead anywhere. My day job was still as a professor of psychology. But, as it turned out, the reader’s tip was the spark that ignited a flame.

I had the good fortune to be around for the dawn of some of the most significant technological developments in human history: the arrival of personal computers, the emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web, and the current dominance of social media and mobile devices. These and other technological advances continue to alter our world at an ever accelerating pace. One day Apple is on the verge of bankruptcy. The next day (or so it sometimes seems), it is the largest most profitable company on earth. Who’d have guessed?

At a personal level, these changes became the impetus for a new career direction — a career I did not foresee and would never have predicted. That initial reader’s submission led to me becoming a contributing editor for several Mac magazines, a book author (most notably of Sad Macs, Bombs & Other Disasters) and the creator/editor of one of the earliest Mac websites (MacFixIt). Again, who’d have guessed? Certainly not me.

The result has been three decades of doing things I thoroughly enjoyed and getting paid for doing them. Who could ask for more?

Which brings me to today. I’ve decided to call it quits and hang up my virtual pen. What I expect to be the last article I get paid to write was posted to Macworld last December.

To any of you who have followed my work, this should not be a surprise. In fact, some of you may feel this announcement is more than a bit anti-climactic. I’ve been flirting with retirement for the past two years, gradually diminishing my published output — even giving a “retirement” session at Macworld/iWorld last year. For the past year, the only paid writing I did was a small number of articles for Macworld. A few weeks ago, I “gave notice” and told the folks at Macworld that I was done. That made it official — and made it real to me in a way that it had not been before.

Why now? There’s no mystery. I’m old enough that it seems appropriate and financially well-off enough to manage it, so why not? While I could keep writing occasional articles for Macworld, it seemed better to make a clean break. Recent events helped move me in this direction.

In the past year, Macworld ended its print publication (as well as laying off almost its entire editorial staff, who just happened to be the people I had known and worked with for more than a decade). Around the same time, Macworld/iWorld announced its demise. Several notable Mac websites similarly came to an end in the last year or so, including TUAW and my own MacFixIt (which, subsequent to my leaving it, had been run by CNET).

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I began to feel that these were all signs of a “torch-passing” moment. There is a generation of tech writers (of which I am a member) whose careers date back to the 80’s. We still vividly recall “highlight reel” moments from prior decades — like Steve Jobs unveiling the original Mac or the Boston Macworld Expo keynote that kicked off Steve’s triumphant return to Apple. For much of a younger generation, these events are tantamount to ancient history.

For now, these two generations co-exist in many work environments. However, as is inevitable and appropriate, the balance is steadily shifting towards the younger generation. Over the next decade, I expect the older generation to exit the stage in increasing numbers. As one of the oldest members of that generation, I am merely at the leading edge of this trend — which makes now seem like a perfect time to leave. I expect there will be times when I miss being “part of the action.” But I leave without regrets.

I don’t intend to entirely disappear from the online world. I plan to write columns here at Slanted Viewpoint from time to time. And I may still do occasional podcasts at MacVoices. Of course, I will continue to post tweets. Beyond that, my life will be lived offline.

One last thing

Whatever success I have had, I could not have achieved it without help. Lots of help — from a great bunch of people. To all of those listed below (and to any I may have forgotten), I offer my heartfelt thanks…

Bob LeVitus. In addition to giving me my start as a freelance writer (when he was editor of MACazine), Bob was essential in getting me started as a book author and as a speaker at Macworld Expo.

Dan Frakes. A colleague of mine at MacUser and later Macworld, Dan was also my co-author for Mac OS X Help Line. For a while, he was even an editor at MacFixIt. He remains a good friend.

Chris Breen. Another friend and colleague from both MacUser and Macworld. Prior to his recent move to Apple, Chris, as an editor at Macworld, was the editor of my Bugs & Fixes column.

Chuck Joiner. As the person behind MacNotables and MacVoices, Chuck was my conduit into the world of podcasting. Thanks to Chuck, I was able to have all the fun of podcasting without having to do any of the work.

Dave Rogelberg. While at Addison-Wesley, Dave was the incredibly patient editor of my first edition of Sad Macs. He also generously provided advice that helped further my book authoring career.

Cliff Colby. Cliff was the project editor of the books I wrote for Peachpit Press. His friendship and encouragement were a big part of what made it such a delight to work for Peachpit.

Ric Ford, Eric Belsley, Kurt Christensen and Stan Flack. When I first started MacFixIt, these four ran competing websites (MacInTouch, The Macintosh Resource Page, VersionTracker and MacCentral, respectively). Yet each one went far out of their way to provide the help I needed to get MacFixIt up and running.

Robert DeLaurentis, Ilene Hoffman and Shawn Platkus. When the work at MacFixIt became more than one person could handle, these three joined the site and became essential in preventing me from collapsing under the load.

Ralph Risch. When I was looking to sell MacFixIt, Ralph, as CEO of TechTracker, made me an “offer I couldn’t refuse.” I’m glad he did.

Jason Snell. As the editor of Macworld, Jason consistently made it easy for me to work there.

Scholle McFarland. As a copy editor at Macworld, Scholle never failed to improve whatever I submitted.

Dave Hamilton, Bryan Chaffin, Jeff Gamet and John Martellero. For several years, I did a column for The Mac Observer called User Friendly View. It was my first gig writing op-ed columns — which I had long wanted to do.  As a bonus, I got to work with these great guys every day.

Tonya Engst and Adam Engst. As the publishers of the Take Control book series, Tonya and Adam gave me the opportunity to write one of the first books about the iPhone.

Paul Kent and Kathy Moran. During my almost two decades as a speaker at Macworld Expo, Paul and Kathy were the hard-working duo most responsible for making it such a fantastic experience.

Jonathan Cerf and George Sullivan. Back in the early 1980’s, I worked with Jonathan and George on a journal about the game of Othello. They helped me hone the skills I would later use when writing about Macs.

And many many more, including…

John Anderson, Marjorie Baer, Neil Bauman, Jeff Baudin, Gordon Bell, Jennifer Bell, P.A.M Borys, John Braun, Gleb Budman, Jim Bruce, Serenity Caldwell, Jeff Carlson, John Chaffee, Adam Christianson, John Christopher, Raines Cohen, Robert Coffman, Peter Cohen, Marty Cortinas, Colin Crawford, Matt Deatherage, Albert Dion, Charles Downs, Glenn Fleishman, Lex Friedman, Lynda Gousha, Anne Griffin, Rob Griffiths, Jon Gotow, Andy Ihnatko, Russ Ito, Susan Janus, Shawn King, Rocky LaRochelle, Chuck LaTournas, Robert Leeds, Dan Littman, Jean MacDonald, Carol McClendon, Kirk McElhearn, Philip Michaels, Dan Miller, Dan Moren, David Morgenstern, Rik Myslewski, Tom Negrino, Gary-Paul Prince, Naomi Pearce, Nancy Peterson, Elissa Rabellino, Schoun Regan, Nadyne Richmond, John Rizzo, Lorene Romero, Michael Rose, Nancy Ruenzel, Ian Schray, Jon Seff, Sal Soghoian, Dori Smith, David Sparks, David Stillman, Derrick Story, Duane Straub, Dave Taylor, Neil Ticktin, Ladd Van Tol, John Welch, Ben Wilson, Dan Wood and Jon Zilber.

Of course, a special thanks to my wife Naomi. None of this would have been possible without her support.

Finally, thanks to Apple and all the people who have worked there. Without them, I would have had nothing to write about. As a related postscript, I was recently contacted by Apple about a potential job. Bad timing…given that I was on the verge of retirement. But I was none-the-less flattered, surprised, intrigued and very much tempted. As you might imagine, much internal conflict ensued. In the end, I remained on my retirement path.

Update: May 19: I made a few additions and corrections to the “thank you” list.

Posted in General, Technology | 27 Comments