Monday, February 28, 2011

Where 12 cm Square is a Waste of Space.

I have two laptops that both have a piece of equipment which I hardly ever use in either of them... it measures approximately 12.5 cm by 14 cm by 1 cm, are both mounted internally, and both never see more than 3 hours of use a month, but are always powered up for use whenever the system is alive—it is the once-dependable optical disc drive. Once a main source of getting large masses of data into and out of your computer, or the only way to rip and burn music and your home movies onto CDs and DVDs, these optical drives are fast becoming superseded by the ever-more-imperative and ever-so-heavily used network interface.

With inventions such as YouTube™, Flickr!® and the less popular subscription-based MobileMe® service, the distribution of consumable content and software products for personal use has increasingly been made through the Internet. This means, dependency of your computer's optical disc drive would have dropped sharply over the years.

Adding another nail to the coffin for the once dependable optical drive, for Mac users anyway, is a new Internet-based mechanism for obtaining software for your computer. I have, so far, been highlighting the pitfalls of the Mac App Store for a while now, but simultaneously, I have surely realised that there are also some benefits to the new service, particularly if you happen to have one of those new, gorgeously ultra-thin laptops that yours truely have been making the last few years.

But I didn't expect that the latest crop of laptops that Apple recently released were to continue to have built-in optical drives! Maybe it should have been optional for the 17" model, but no, I didn't expect all three models to all have the drives as standard equipment... right down to the eject key on the keyboard! With Apple already providing at least two ways to have software installed straight from DVD if you really need it, why would anyone need to have an optical drive built into their laptop anymore?

Well, perhaps it is because that there are some Mac software manufacturers that still release their software on optical discs, packed in large boxes and complete with phone-book-thick instruction manuals. It will take some time for Apple to convince every single Mac developer to make their software available on the Mac App Store, so in the interim, delivery via optical disc is still expected to be the way to receive software by many a Mac-using folk.

On the other hand, imagine if you could order a brand new 17" MacBook Pro without that hardly-used optical drive... and replace it with a bigger battery, or more memory, a second internal hard disk or even additional internal CPU and cache hardware! Apple have missed an opportunity to make really impressive laptops with capacities that no-one in the industry can match, because let's face it, after the original iMac, it took the PC industry many many years afterwards to ditch the floppy disk drive, and it was only recently that the inventor of the 3.5" floppy disk finally called it quits.

My old but still useful machines are running with their optical drives sitting inside them seizing due to lack of use. I sometimes wish that I could rip them out and put large-capacity SSDs or regular hard drives in their place... to me, that'd be more useful than the optical drives that take ages to write and would write only a fraction of the amount of data that these SSDs would otherwise hold.


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Saturday, February 12, 2011

iPhone Users Twice As Likely to Own a Mac.

I have stumbled on this article at Chitika Insights, a mobile ad data analytics firm, where the article exposes some really interesting, but not surprising, research data about iPhone users who are also Mac users.

And I think I can speculate as to why there is a huge proportion of iPhone users that are also Mac users. It's the simple fact that, if one was to go out and buy a competing mobile phone, the chance it being able to integrate or back up its data to a Mac is near zero.

Out of all the competing mobile phone operating system manufacturers, including Windows Phone, Symbian OS, Android 2... they all have one thing in common: there is no built-in support for transferring, syncing or backing up data to a Mac running Mac OS X (or anything earlier, obviously). There may be third-party developers that have integration tools out there for these competing mobile operating systems to move data to a Mac, but there is no complete, integrated solution. Apple are the only ones who have built integration facilities into iOS (some via iTunes, others through Mac OS X itself), and there are also 3rd-party iOS apps that can extend that capability through their own apps for their own data sets. There are even iOS apps that can extend the many Mac OS X applications and system services themselves! And on a few occasions, there are also apps that help iPhone users interact with various popular on-line services.

It is no wonder that people who own a Mac will turn to iPhone for their mobile phone computing platform of choice. For Mac users like myself, no other mobile computing platform cuts it for this level of integration with their Macs! The same cannot be said for Mac users using other competing mobile phones & computing devices, where most of their backup or data migration solutions are only for Microsoft Windows if to a desktop computer at all (for the time being).

Note: the iTunes Store links in this article refer to the Australian iTunes Store, not an iTunes Store of any other country. This is due to the author's Store account operating under the Australian iTunes Store Terms and Conditions, and links obtained in iTunes or the Mac App Store refer to products available in the Australian iTunes Store.

Article last updated 12th February, 2011: included some extra links to iOS apps that interact with Mac OS X applications and services; tried to use software publisher direct links instead of links to the iTunes Store where possible.


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Monday, February 07, 2011

Mac App Store: Get More Expensive Mac OS X Apps for Your Mac, Too!

I wrote about some drawbacks of the Mac App Store a while ago... when it comes to quality software titles for the Mac, I have to admit it's not all bad.

There are some familiar examples of Macintosh applications on the Mac App Store, mostly from seasonedMacintoshdevelopers, including Apple themselves. But I have noticed a trend amongst such knowledgable developers that may deter or fool potential customers, and I think it directly relates to how Apple charges developers for every sale on the Mac App Store.

I have noticed that some developers prefer to continue to sell their software solutions outside the Mac App Store, for whatever reasons. However, there are some developers who sell their software in both ways, and I have noticed the prices of the (almost) same software sold with both delivery mechanisms: software sold on the Mac App Store are more expensive than the same titles sold outside the Store.

A case of interest was OmniFocus: at the time of this writing, it was selling for USD$79.99 at Omni Group direct. On the Mac App Store, the same product sells for more: AUD$99.99, which is not the same at the current exchange rate of AUD$1.00 = USD$0.986 (according to the Unit Converter widget at the 7th of February, 2011); it's a price hike of a smidgen over 18%!

The Omni Group themselves acknowledge this discrepancy in pricing between their own store and the Mac App Store:

"If I'm purchasing from the Australian Mac App Store, why are your prices so much higher than they are through your own website?" On our website, we sell all our products in our local currency—and since we live in Seattle, that currency happens to be US dollars. For the Mac App Store, we don't set prices directly; we choose a price tier which Apple uses to choose a price for each region. We've chosen the price tier which is closest to our own online store pricing (just a few cents different in our local currency), but exchange rates fluctuate and this week you might happen to get a better deal buying directly from us than you do when purchasing locally. Please feel free to take advantage of that if you wish!

Another more interesting case is an app that only appears on the Mac App Store, where it appears to be more expensive than the advertised price on the developer's own Web site! This developer resides in Australia, and yet is able to advertise a product selling for less than at the only place you can get the product. Isn't this false advertising? Meanwhile, the Australian iTunes Terms and Conditions says that all sales are final, and while it has the right to change prices at any time, there is no price protection or refunds in the event of price reduction or promotion. The Terms and Conditions say nothing else about price adjustments or other purchasing rights for consumers, so once you've bought the product, you can't complain to Apple about the sale unless the product you received is faulty, or you didn't receive the product you paid for. All other complaints would need to be referred to the developer of the product. It's a case of buyer beware, because what the developer is doing isn't documented as offensive conduct by the ACCC, but it is deceptive practice nevertheless.

One thing that is not mentioned by lots of different places all over the Web is the country of purchase and the monetary currency used for the pricing of software products for sale. It's only during or after the actual transaction that you learn of what currency the product was priced at! If you don't know what the developers are charging for their software, research the company you are purchasing from first, and if you are still unsure, ask before you buy!

But it may not be the result of developers and publishers intending to undercut Apple, or even be intentionally misleading. It could be Apple themselves causing the price discrepancy, as the iTunes Store shows for almost every title of media sold outside of the United States. In Australia, iTunes Store and App Store purchases can be compared against the same titles available in the United States by switching between countries and comparing prices, and more often than not, prices of products—whether rented or sold—see an approximate 32-39% price hike in Australia compared to prices for the same products in the United States, even after considering the current foreign exchange rates and bank fees of obtaining products delivered to Australia from United States sources. Since the Mac App Store uses the same infrastructure to promote and sell Macintosh software products, the Mac App Store in Australia could also be seeing the same price discrepancies of software sold to Australian customers.

There are various other reasons why buying directly from the software producer makes more sense, but this is another strike against the Mac App Store, and software developers may use this to reward their loyal overseas customers.

Note: the iTunes Store links in this article refer to the Australian iTunes Store, not an iTunes Store of any other country. This is due to the author's Store account operating under the Australian iTunes Store Terms and Conditions, and links obtained in iTunes or the Mac App Store refer to products available in the Australian iTunes Store.

Article last updated 20th February, 2011: added an interesting FAQ entry from Omni Group's own Web site; added a note about a Mac App Store-only app and its descrepancy with the site's own advertised pricing; added notes about Mac App Store terms and conditions with regard to product pricing.


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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

[Not] Using Flash for Publication of Critical Information.

This Australian Broadcasting Commission web page shows the path of Cyclone Yasi crossing over the shoreline of Queensland, Australia, into Cairns, Innisfail and surrounding towns.

This is seriously scary. I'd classify this information as public-critical-to-know—that is, it's potentially life-saving on a massive scale (> 10,000 people). But what's glaring to me is that the ABC has chosen to implement this live chart as an Adobe Flash presentation.

Why is such critical information presented in such a way that is inaccessible without Adobe's Flash plug-in?!

If you don't have the plug-in installed, you don't see this information at all—as a matter of fact, you get a message that "JavaScript is required to view this page", which is actually the wrong message to tell people about fixing the problem!

This is absurd for the ABC to actually do this! Even if you exclude the introduction of Apple's iOS devices that, by Apple's own intents and purposes, do not support and actually ban the use of technologies such as emulators and code translators that would prevent Adobe Flash from actually running on their machines, there are people who cannot or do not have Adobe Flash installed on their computers, and it is absolutely absurd for a public broadcasting service such as the Australian Broadcasting Commission to assume that people have their computer systems at the ready to receive such critical data. Installing Flash on a computer is an inconvenience for users to install just to show critical information in a Web site—the process can take about 5 minutes, and you need a pretty powerful system (typically, one with a processor with a > 1.5 GHz operating frequency) to actually see the contents of the Flash plug-in. It also promotes the use of an optional technology as mandatory when it essentially shouldn't have to be the case.

It's worth noting here that the PowerBook G4 is running Mac OS X 10.5.8, which influences battery life negatively (compared to its original Mac OS X 10.2.8 system software).

I happen to have a PowerBook G4 running at 533 MHz (on its battery), and running Flash 10.1 on FireFox 3.6.13 on this little machine actually flatlines the CPU! This is significant because it causes the computer to consume much more energy than necessary—on a battery that stores 2043 mAh of electrical charge, and with Wi-Fi working enabled, the system discharges the battery at 1161 mAh, which makes the battery last for only about 2 hours! This is on a system that is supposed to have a 5-hour battery life. And considering how old this machine is, the operating conditions of this machine are not ideal, which amplifies the problem significantly. As a comparison, running the same PowerBook G4 with Firefox displaying the same page with the plug-in disabled drops the consumption to 807 mAh.

However, the plug-in does work (only just), and the information is displayable. Yet, disable or remove the plug-in, and you can't see any of this information, regardless of how powerless your machine is! Relying on the existence of an optional software component in a critical public broadcast such as this makes absolutely no sense since it risks people not being able to view the content on a system capable of doing so otherwise.

Critical information should never, ever be published this way! If there is such critical information to be disseminated to the public, using technologies that are not available absolutely everywhere should be avoided. Luckily, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology offers information to the public as basic XHTML for everyone to see (it'd be better if this was published in HTML4, but perhaps older browsers that do not support HTML4 can still actually read and render the page's contents, since most HTML browsers can downscale their rendering capabilities gracefully, something for which is the purpose of HTML and browser technologies in the first place).

Thanks, ABC! I have never seen such a stupid thing done for a Web site before! Congratulations! How about making plug-in-less version of your page... like what the Bureau of Meteorology has done? It doesn't mean that you have to remove your Flash-driven page... just make your Web site functional without the plug-in as well!

And to Adobe... thanks for promoting your product to the point of critical information distribution failure. Your tyranny towards having people use Flash for fun has indeed segmented the Internet to the point where information is no longer available to everyone at a moment's notice, because developers end up using Flash by mistake to make their publications, in anticipation of Flash being available everywhere, which is simply not true.


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