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ATPM 13.08
August 2007




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by Wes Meltzer,

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!

Seems like, everywhere you turn, the tech news is about the iPhone.

That’s all very fine and well—and there’s some iPhone news in this edition of Bloggable—but I thought I’d do my best to hunt down some important but lost tidbits you might not have seen. Most of it was just lost in the wall-to-wall coverage of the largest technology premiere since the launch of Windows 95.

I’ve been pretty high on the iPhone since it was announced, from reviews of the gadget to the revelatory minutes I’ve spent borrowing someone else’s phone and waiting out my T-Mobile service contract. But all of the iPhone blitz was enough to make even me get up off the sofa, the evening of July 15 or so, and shout, “MARCIA MARCIA MARCIA!”

• • •

OK, that’s a lie. I can’t fool you, faithful readers. You probably know I don’t much like “The Brady Bunch,” anyway. But there’s still two months’ worth of neglected news to cover, and I resolved after last month that I wouldn’t let my columns ramble on as endlessly anymore—so let’s skip the recriminations and get down to brass tacks.

Keeping Pace in June

The Worldwide Developers Conference this year was a real bust, and I was glad that, after I watched the keynote, I was not the only person who felt this way. Apple announced the iPhone at Macworld Expo San Francisco, and the big unveiling day came in late June, so there really wasn’t much left to discuss at WWDC. Or, really, to do.

But the centerpiece was the first public demonstration of Leopard’s forthcoming features, two of which are pretty cool and worth note. Those two are Stacks, kind of like the old OS 9–style pop-up folders (which I miss terribly, even now); and Cover Flow in the Finder, which is probably the first time I’ve seen an improvement in file browsing in a very long time. I should probably disclose that I hate the OS X Finder, hate hate hate, and more all the time, because it makes it so hard for me to use it the way I like to—spatially. A lot of the “improvements” to the Finder, or to Windows Explorer for that matter, have been superficial, like the sidebars that I don’t use or the useless preview-icons that I can never discern between. (This feature has come into OS X, and I sure hope it can be disabled, or I might start channeling Nikita Khrushchev.)

Cover Flow, though, is a major improvement to file browsing. It’s not perfect, and it’s not useful for every application, but I’ve never seen an implementation of file previewing that made sense before. Most of what I use looks alike, in preview mode, and I’d rather just write a better filename than studiously discern the differences between similar files.

Honestly, I think that was all I got out of this year’s WWDC. I looked back on my WWDC coverage from 2004 and 2006, and what a difference a year makes. (In 2005, I lost my hard drive.) Last year, Apple announced the Mac Pro and previewed most of the Leopard features they demonstrated this year, and in 2004, I wrote an entire column about Dashboard widgets. How depressing is this year, in contrast?

My editor here at ATPM, Michael Tsai, gets in the first ding this month. He complains that most of the announced Leopard improvements are either irrelevant or not improvements at all. The offenses vary from mild—Cover Flow is neat but, like me, he doesn’t think it’ll be useful—to extraordinarily egregious, in the case of the translucent menu bar and reflecting Dock. He wrote, “If you had asked me a couple years ago whether this or the gratuitous Dock reflections were Leopard or Vista features, I would have guessed Vista.” Yep.

John Gruber, the ever-present full-time Mac pundit, is a little nicer when he calls this “WWDC 2006 2.0”: Same contents, just improved. But that makes it all the more damning when he remembers that at WWDC 2006, Steve Jobs promised us features that they couldn’t announce now because Microsoft would copy them. What did we get? Gruber wrote:

Apparently, these secret features consist of the new unified window theme and the Cover Flow view in Finder. This is sort of like saying you’re adding a secret new player to your baseball team and then revealing that it’s one of the existing players wearing a new jersey.

Both Gruber and Tsai vent at Jobs, too, for insisting that Web apps are iPhone apps. Web apps are not local applications at all, and I think they’re right to complain: Tsai calls it “insulting” and Gruber wonders why, if they’re good software citizens, none of Apple’s applications are Web applications. Not even the Google Maps application.

Safari 3 is the last bit of good news out of WWDC, and, if you ask me, it’s not all that exciting. The software hasn’t changed much since the 1.0 release, and that’s OK for a utility piece of software. I use OmniWeb, not Safari, but the basics are the same: improvements to my Web browser have to directly affect the way that I work every day, because otherwise they’ll mostly go unnoticed and unappreciated. Mark DeRosa’s played every position except catcher and pitcher for the Chicago Cubs this season, and he’s kept them in contention with heroics at positions he barely knows, but all you ever hear about are Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano, and Ryan Theriot.

To a user, Safari is the neglected but extremely versatile player on the OS X Team. But I’m not a Web developer. Jon Hicks is, and he notices the improvements and changes that I don’t think I would’ve noticed if you had literally hit me over the head with them. From draggable tabs to resizable text areas, he’s got it all. I won’t try to summarize. For one thing, none of these things actually affects my workflow—or would cause me to consider switching back to Safari.

Oh, and one more thing: Safari 3 will run on Windows. Why? I can think of no obvious reason. But Gruber says, in the same post I linked earlier, that apparently Google pays Apple for searches through the search bar. I guess they figured, why not make some easy extra money on search?

This also leads us to some interesting observations on the strangeness of using an Apple application that behaves like an Apple application in Windows. iTunes is weird enough, but Windows is full of multimedia applications that don’t look like ordinary Windows applications, and iTunes fits into that niche. But, Joel Spolsky observes, Safari makes the differences between Windows and Mac software much more obvious, because you can perform head-to-head comparisons. The principal difference seems to be in font anti-aliasing. Apple performs its anti-aliasing in a way that is most faithful to the original typeface, even if it requires a certain amount of blurriness; Microsoft prefers to kill any blurriness at the expense of the appearance of the fonts. Spolsky doesn’t think there’s a “right” way to do it, and there’s no significant research I know of on the topic, but he observes that it makes for significant weirdness when windows using different anti-aliasing algorithms are sitting side by side. Reminds me of my Linux days.

Now. Did you really think that that was all I’d be able to say about WWDC 2007? Uh… But that’s what I’ve got, folks. Write Steve Jobs and ask him to do something meaningful at WWDC 2008.

Tinker to Evers to Chance

  • Andy Ihnatko is not Fake Steve! How many times must the poor man say it? Everyone seems to think that he is Fake Steve Jobs. But he says he is not, and we have no good reason not to believe him. C’mon, guys. Give the poor man a break.
  • Did you ever wonder about the origins of Photoshop? It’s one of the two products that saved the Mac from software oblivion, long ago (the other is PageMaker), and without its Mac-only presence for many years, even graphics people like me would be using PCs. SiliconUser has a great article from Tom Hormby, with the tale of Photoshop’s birth.
  • MacJournals asks if we can look at the comical arrival of iCal Day—July 17, the date iCal’s icon is stuck on until you launch it—as a way to complain about the Dock’s failings. They call it “Understand the Dock Day,” and I think they’re right. The worst part is that third-party developers can’t even write a Dock replacement, unlike the Finder, because all of the trickery that makes the Dock tick is very private. What a shame.
  • Do you want to use Skype without having to use your built-in mic? I wouldn’t mind it; for 2.1 cents a minute anywhere in the US, it’s much cheaper than what the local cable and phone companies are offering. To break even, I’d need to use, oh, 1,400-odd minutes on a land-line. So Joe Kissell’s round-up on how to buy Mac-compatible Skype hardware in TidBITS was a really good read.

Let’s Play Two

I told you there was some iPhone news coming in this Bloggable, didn’t I? I’ve tried to select material that wasn’t just more Oh-gosh-so-great reviews and wasn’t just more gushing about the phone that also toasts your bread, or whatever. Personally, I think it’s an interesting selection.

  • Buzz Anderson’s review of his three weeks with the iPhone was really terrific. So terrific that I reread it and reread it, just to absorb everything. His observations are well worthwhile—like that once you get the hang of the software keyboard, it’s a considerable improvement over hardware keyboards; or that visual voicemail was an idea whose time had come—and give you both reasons to buy one yesterday and to wait.
  • Josh at Business 2.0’s Netly News disagrees that the iPhone is ready for prime-time use yet. He’s right, too, about some things: the iPhone really needs Flash of some kind, and AT&T’s network sucks. But at least one of his complaints doesn’t jibe from my experience using the device; the WiFi seems terrific to me.
  • John C. Welch discovers the Microsoft Exchange team painting IMAP as being a bad second sibling to Exchange. Now, I’m not entirely sure that I blame them, but it’s still idiotic: there are plenty of neat features in Exchange, but its raison d’être is mostly that corporate IT people have always seemed to me not to be comfortable with open-source solutions. Welch, catching them in approximately twelve thousand lies, writes, “[T]his is what happens when you really want to rag on the iPhone, but are pretending to rag on IMAP.”
  • Computer World’s Jon Espenschied, in early July, noted that all of the rampant security FUD about the iPhone is a distraction from the real issues. At that time, the articles from the Big-Name IT Professionals were all based on the commercials and speculation—he calls it, “the nonsense put out by analysts declaring, sans experiential data, that the iPhone is unsuitable for business use, essentially because it does not look like what came before it”—and really didn’t make much sense. (They don’t make vastly more sense now, though.) His remark about the whole thing is spot-on: “I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate queries, stemming from experience, about where the iPhone fits into the corporate picture… [But if] we’ve prepared ourselves reasonably well, we can be confident that whatever comes along will integrate just fine as long as it covers the standards we’re using now.”
  • In vaguely blog-related news, NewsGator has released NewsGator Mobile for iPhone, which is a free HTML-enabled RSS reader. Why might you use this over any service? I know: Synchronization with NetNewsWire! How awesome is that?

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