The Mac at 30: The last laugh

I bought my first Macintosh thirty years ago this month, within days of the original Mac going on sale. It was my first personal computer purchase. I had used Apple II’s and even Atari’s where I worked, but I had never owned a computer. Until January 1984.

I had been deliberating for several months prior to January, trying to decide what computer to get. Should it be an Apple IIe, an IBM PC, or this Macintosh thing that was coming? I decided to wait and check out the Mac. I was glad I did. After playing with one at a computer store for all of about two minutes, I was sold. I bought a Mac that day.

The only mystery to me at the time was why everyone in the market for a personal computer did not instantly come to the same conclusion. Why didn’t IBM and Microsoft simply go out of business by the end of the year? For me, the comparison was as if you were back in the days of the earliest mobile phones (the ones that were about the size of a shoebox, which were coincidentally the models available around 1984) and suddenly a company came out with the equivalent of a fully functional iPhone 5S — and the reaction of most consumers was something like “Eh! That iPhone is just a toy. You can’t make real phone calls with it. I’ll stick with my Motorola DynaTAC.”

Yes, the original Mac was that much of a leap forward. Unless you were there back in 1984, it’s hard to imagine how startlingly radical it all was. Heck, I was there and it’s still hard for me to imagine. The Mac featured a graphical display navigated by a mouse; it had an intuitive Finder desktop metaphor, WYSIWYG fonts and the ability to create pictures with the likes of MacPaint. No other computer had anything close to this (except perhaps for Apple’s own Lisa computer, which cost 4X as much). The rest of the bunch were all still stuck using a command line.

The rational part of my brain understood that the original Mac had significant limitations. With only 128K of memory, a single floppy drive and virtually no application software, it clearly wasn’t ready to replace existing PCs. But the emotional part of me would have none of that. At the very least, you had to be rooting for the Mac to succeed, even if you weren’t ready to buy one. Or so I thought.

As you likely know, my expectations did not translate into reality. Many people were not rooting for the Mac. At least not at first. The Mac did not become an overnight blockbuster — despite generally rave reviews. Numerous obstacles, some quite huge, blocked Apple’s (and Mac’s) path to a successful future.

But the story has a happy ending. Apple’s vision for the Mac — and my initial reaction to it — were eventually vindicated. Within less than a decade, with Microsoft “translating” the Mac OS into its Windows software, every personal computer in existence was using a mouse and a Mac-like graphical user interface. Apple had won the war, even if they almost died in doing so.

But Apple didn’t die. Further, not one of the companies that was making personal computers back in 1984 is still in the business of doing so today. Not one of the original computer model names is still in use. Except for Apple and the Mac.

It may not be a tactful, socially correct thing to do, but I can’t resist a bit of gloating here on Apple’s behalf. To all those who laughed at the Mac back in 1984: the last laugh’s on you. The Mac has survived, continues to thrive, and stands alone. Apple itself has become the biggest company on earth!

That’s certainly something worth celebrating. So Happy Anniversary, Mac! Congratulations. Well done. It’s been a fantastic 30 years.

On personal note, as is true of many others, I owe my career to Apple. Without the tools that the Mac provided and the culture that surrounded the Mac, I would not be where I am today. Thank you, Apple.

And now…let the next thirty years of Mac begin…

[For Apple’s take on the Mac’s 30th anniversary, including a look back at highlights from the past three decades, check out Apple’s website.]

Posted in Apple Inc, Mac | 1 Comment

Setting the record straight re my article on Adobe Reader

I’d like to set the record straight regarding my recent Bugs & Fixes article for Macworld — the one on problems opening PDF files in the latest version of Safari when the Adobe Reader plug-in is installed. To put it as kindly as possible, I could have done a better job on this one.

In a nutshell, the problem cited in the article is that, after installing Adobe Reader, you get continually warned by Safari every time you try to a load a PDF file—requiring a couple of clicks before the PDF will load. I found this so annoying that I decided I’d rather bypass any security advantage and eliminate the warnings altogether. I then detailed how I had some trouble figuring out where and how to do this.

I placed the onus of the blame for this on Adobe and its Reader app. In retrospect, I should have placed the lion’s share of the “blame” (if the term is even appropriate here) on Safari itself. And on myself. Adobe was only making use of a new feature in Safari, one that Apple touts as a providing enhanced security for Internet plug-ins. At some level, this was obvious to me: The fix I cited (which I should have recalled without needing to search for it) required going to a Safari Preferences setting (as shown in a figure in the Bugs & Fixes article). Further, the Preferences screen lists numerous plug-ins besides the one for Adobe Reader. This is a clear tip-off that the situation extends beyond the Reader plug-in. Still, partly because of my prior bias against the Reader, as well as because Apple’s own PDF software does not trigger the same warnings and because I had not had any similar problems with any other plug-in, I viewed it as an Adobe failing. Not so.

I compounded my error by adding a comment that said Adobe “could have handled {the matter} much better.” What could Adobe have done to help ameliorate this? Actually, not much. However, I would have suggested two things. First, on the assumption that many Adobe Reader users may not be clear as to what is going on here, the Adobe Reader app (perhaps in its Preferences screens) should have included the pertinent information—bypassing the need to search Adobe’s or Apple’s support sites. Second (although I understand Adobe would be reluctant to do this), Adobe could provide a simple way to disable or uninstall the plug-in altogether (short of manually having to drag the plug-in files out of the /Library/Internet Plug-Ins folder)—for the benefit those who would like to keep Reader around but not use the plug-in (if there is a setting that does this, I couldn’t find it). Still, as I said, this is minor stuff. And to its credit, Adobe Reader’s Preferences>Internet screen does link to a relevant article on how to manually disable the plug-in.

On a related note, my Bugs & Fixes article also raised the question as to what is the difference between the “Allow” and “Always Allow” options in the Safari settings. I found none. This, as it turns out, is explained in an Apple support document. The answer is: when selecting “Always Allow,” “Safari loads and displays the content without prompting, even if the Internet plug-in is blocked by OS X File Quarantine.” With “Allow,” the Quarantine content remains blocked.

Overall, I fell down on the job with this article. More than once. For that, I apologize. Thankfully, it’s quite rare for this to happen. And I’ll do my best to make sure that it never happens again.

Posted in Apple Inc, Mac | 1 Comment

Letterpress “house rules”

Recently, Jim Biancolo alerted me to an article he posted regarding informal “house rules” for playing Letterpress. The article linked to two other similar postings by other players (Brent Simmons and Daniel Jalkut). As a fan of this great game (I’ve previously written two articles on Letterpress strategy), I want to offer my thoughts regarding these “rules.”

First off, I completely agree with two of the rules cited by the above players:

• If you win a game, let your opponent go first on a rematch. That is, allow the loser the advantage of the first move on the next game. Usually, this happens automatically in games I play, as the loser challenges the winner for a rematch.

• Don’t use any “cheater” apps or websites while playing a game. This should be obvious. There’s a reason they call these programs “cheats.” And that’s the reason you should stay away from them. After the game is over, it’s okay to look at them to potentially learn words you might have otherwise played. But not during the game.

There is one minor exception to this for me. I am still waiting for Loren to update Letterpress (as he previously informed me he was planning to do) so that you can check the validity of a word when it is your turn. As it now stands, you can only do this when it is your opponent’s turn. If you enter a valid word when it’s your turn, it plays…period.

There are many times when I want to know if a word is valid without necessarily playing it. In fact, there are times when I have no intention of ever playing a given word. I instead want to know if I need to worry about my opponent playing it. So, in such cases, I look up the word. I don’t consider this cheating.

As to the rest of the suggested rules, I generally do not agree with them. In particular:

• I wouldn’t end a game in a tie after 50 moves. Rather, I plow on until someone wins or resigns.

• I don’t consider it off-limits to play a word like STOPPED if my opponent plays a similar word of the same length, like STOPPER. I especially wouldn’t consider abiding by this when I have no idea if my opponent is doing so, as is usually the case.

Similarly, I make no effort to avoid playing a word with a prefix or suffix added to my opponent’s word. I do check to see if there is a better word I could play instead. But if I can’t find one, I would have no hesitation about playing REACTIONS, for example, after my opponent played REACTION.

More than that, I believe this is a positive part of the strategy of the game. For example, I might see that the words STOPPER, STOPPERED, STOPPERS, STOPPED and STOPS are all available. Before I would play any of those words, I try to think through the implications of my opponent playing the other words in response. Figuring out how best to play the sequence takes skill. Perhaps the best strategy will be not to play any of the words until your opponent plays one first.

Such sequences sometimes lead me to try unusual approaches. For example, there are situations where I might play ADVISE even though I know ADVISES is playable. The reason is that I see that ADVISED is also available. By playing ADVISE, if my opponent replies with ADVISES, I can come back with ADVISED. If I played ADVISES first, and my opponent played ADVISED, I would have no come back.

• Finally, I don’t try to win with the smallest possible advantage. To the contrary, I go for the largest margin of victory I can get. Once again, I view knowing how to maximize your win as part of the skill of the game. However, I do have a limit. The limit is I will not unduly prolong a game simply to up the score differential. Once it’s clear that I have the game won, I try to expedite the ending. However, if I see a game ending in about the same number of moves, and I wind up with a bigger score by using word A rather than word B, I will take word A every time.

One rule I would add to the list:

• If you give up on a game, resign. Don’t just abandon the game and leave your opponent dangling, unsure if you ever intend to play again.

Posted in Games, General, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Letterpress | 1 Comment

Smaller is the new larger

Back in the old days (of less than a decade ago), for any device that had a screen, users most lusted for the largest size they could get. Cost and space considerations might prohibit such a purchase, but “bigger is better” remained the mantra.

Old: Bigger is better

Interested in buying a laptop? It was the 17-inch model that turned the most heads. Deciding on a new iMac? If you had the dough, you got the one with the largest display.

Over the years, Apple’s Cinema/Thunderbolt Displays have increased in size from 22” to 27”. You can’t buy a smaller one today even if you wanted to do so.

Getting a new flat-panel television? The preferred choice has been the largest one that fits within your room and your budget.

New: Smaller is better

In the last few years, however, the apple of a tech user’s eye has often taken a U-turn.

Apple has eliminated any 17-inch laptop from its lineup. Even the 15-inch MacBook Pro seems to be falling out of favor, as the 13-inch size emerges as the new standard. For the MacBook Air, many reviewers cite the 11-inch model as preferable to the 13-inch. A similar situation exists with the iPad Air vs. iPad mini, with a majority of reviews (at least among the ones that I’ve read) leaning towards a preference for the mini.

That’s right…even techno-savvy “power users” that write reviews, and for whom price is usually not a prime consideration, often say they want the smallest model they can get. What a turn-around!

Apple’s new Mac Pro is being lauded for its small size, compared to the old Mac Pro behemoth…even though the size reduction comes at the expense of internal expandability.

Among flat-panel TVs, larger sizes still rule. But even here, I’ve noticed a trend towards downsizing from a few years ago. Buyers now seem more averse to getting a television that overpowers their room — unless they are setting up the room as a dedicated home theater. Users also seem increasingly content to watch movies on their iPads, skipping the larger television entirely.

What’s going on?

What exactly is going on here? What’s behind this seismic shift, with smaller now the new larger?

To some extent, it’s been developing for quite some time. Sales of laptops have long ago eclipsed desktop machines, despite a laptop’s much smaller display. In fact, many analysts predict that consumer desktop computers will disappear from the landscape altogether in the not-too-distant future. For most, the convenience of being able to move around with the computer outweighs all other considerations.

However, I trace the origins of the more recent surge to the arrival of the iPhone. The iPhone was the first device to offer most of the functionality of a laptop computer, but with a size that could fit in your pocket. Suddenly, mobility and portability were the buzz words of the day.

With the advent of the iPad, even laptops are now viewed as heavy and clunky in comparison. Tablets are well on their way to replacing laptops as the primary computing device of the masses.

Helping to fuel this transition are improvements in display quality. In the past, buying a small-sized device often required accepting a trade-off of an impractically tiny display. But with today’s higher resolution screens, including Apple’s Retina display, a small display can show an incredible amount of real estate and still have legible text.

The result is that smaller is not only more acceptable these days, but preferred — especially for those who place a high value on mobility. Such users increasingly extol the advantages of smaller. They complain that you can’t use a full-sized iPad with one hand or that a 15-inch laptop is too big to use within the confines of an airline seat. Smaller sizes are deemed more convenient for any sort of travel.

There remains one major exception to this shift: smartphones. Although Apple has so far largely resisted the trend, Android users have shown a preference for the largest phone that can fit in their pocket (or, in some cases, one too large to fit). There are now 6-inch Android smartphones! Perhaps conceding to this trend, there are rumors that Apple will release a larger iPhone later this year.

Of course, even a 6-inch phone is still quite small — compared to a tablet, a laptop or a desktop computer.

Overall, I view the shift towards “smaller is better” as part of a larger technological and cultural shift away from viewing computers as a “destination” (something you go to an office to sit down and use) towards becoming a transparent and ever-present part of our lives. I suppose the inevitable end-point will be when computers are implanted in our brains and have no external size at all. Not to worry. That’s still at least a few years away.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Technology | Comments Off on Smaller is the new larger