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ATPM 13.12
December 2007




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by Wes Meltzer,

Would You Like a Cup of Coffee With That?

You can’t go to a tech-related conference without wandering through a thicket of Apple portables of all different sizes and shapes: MacBooks, PowerBooks, iBooks, even the old black-and-white Wall Street PowerBooks occasionally. Just about every computer geek I know uses a Mac, which is amazing for those of us who remember being pariahs. And every time I turn around, someone new is replacing a PC with a Mac.

But some nasty invective about Java on OS X posed the question: is the honeymoon over for Apple?

At Javalobby, Michael Urban put the kindling in the fireplace with a post telling Apple to buzz off. The absence of version 6 of Java on Leopard is a mortal wound, Urban says, and Apple doesn’t care about developers and is dragging its feet on Java because it’s being distracted by other things. He’s giving up Macs to prove the point:

Apple has basically spit in our face. Not only did Leopard not ship with Java 6, but Apple, in typical fashion, apparently thinks it has no obligation to its customers to inform them about why the plans changed, and when (or even if at this point?) Apple will ever have a working copy of Java 6. Apparently, Apple has even been just deleting threads in their forums where people are complaining that Java 6 doesn’t exist, rather than actually respond to them and let them know if there is any kind of time line for Java 6. But wait… It gets worse…

As most know by now, Apple has yanked the Java 6 developer previews. No sign or trace of them left on the ADC site. Apple gave no indication as to why it yanked them, if and when there would be new ones, etc. So effectively, we are currently left with Leopard having NO fully working version of Java available for it. You can’t get Java 6, and Java 5 is so broken that parts of it are flat out unusable on Leopard. As a Java developer, this is a situation I obviously cannot live with.

Urban says that he’s going to use his MacBook Pro as a dual-boot machine for the time being, spending most of his time in Windows. I’m not sure why anyone would volunteer for that kind of torture, but I guess you have to prove a point somehow, especially when you’re slinging harsh words about the “unprecedented arrogance of Steve Jobs.”

James Gosling has another idea for someone like Urban: just don’t use a Mac at all. He says that he’s been using Solaris on his laptop, a Sony VAIO, and he has a whole laundry list of benefits that it provides, like network auto-configuration and some of the cool ZFS features. (Apparently he didn’t read last month’s column, or he would know—Q.E.D.!—that HFS+ is vastly superior.) He notes, in a follow-up post, that he knows he’s not really Apple’s target demographic and is OK with that.

But before we get too far afield, some ask, is this Java 5 so broken in Leopard? Adrian Sutton doesn’t think so, and isn’t afraid to say it. He even calls it “a significant improvement” over the 10.4 implementation. That’s pretty stiff.

Then there’s the timing issue. John Gruber and Eric Burke both did a double-take at the assertion that Apple had been dragging their feet on Java 6 for Leopard. Burke looked up the history of Java on OS X and put together a nice little graphical time line showing the gap between the releases of Java, OS X, and OS X implementations of Java. His conclusion is that the 11-month gap he anticipates between the release of Leopard and the release of Java 6 is in character for previous OS X releases. So far, it’s been a month and I haven’t seen Java 6 for Leopard, but I’m not in the Conspiracy Against Java Developers camp either.

But Gruber went straight for the jugular. He commented, in a link to Urban’s first post, that the only people who would care about the absence of Java 6 on Leopard were Java developers, and in a very narrow sense that’s true, since I can’t think of a single major OS X application written in Java. This hit a nerve, so he posted a full-length follow-up:

The only way to ship software is to prioritize, and prioritizing means dropping things that are less essential in exchange for things that are more essential. Obviously, for Apple, Java 6 is not a priority. And, judging by reports that even Java 5 support is worse on Leopard than it was on Tiger, Java as a whole is not a priority for Apple.

But it’s not like Apple is sitting on a top-notch Java-6-for-Mac-OS-X and withholding it out of spite. They simply decided to allocate engineering resources elsewhere. In the case of Java, I don’t think it was even a close call. What should they have done? Delayed Leopard even further? Pulled engineering resources from something that did ship with Leopard for Java? Java simply isn’t relevant to the Mac.

Several irritated Java developers suggested that I’d feel differently if it were a developer runtime that I personally cared about—that I’d be irate if, say, Perl or Ruby or Python were dropped or degraded in Leopard. But that’s not a good comparison; Perl, Python, and Ruby pretty much compile out of the box on Mac OS X. Apple doesn’t have to do much at all—at least relative to Java—to include them on Mac OS X. Why? Because that’s how these tools are designed and engineered—they’re made to “just build” on any Unix-like OS. It’s not Apple’s responsibility that Java isn’t like that—it’s Sun’s.

Now Gruber’s schtick is often to find the polemic where I didn’t think there was one, and insisting that Java is basically irrelevant to the Mac is surely ignoring plenty of Java-based enterprise software he’s never had the misfortune of using. (I have, on the other hand, and I can safely say that if you think Java is bad on modern Mac hardware in OS X, imagine using it on a 600MHz Celeron in Windows XP. I was never so glad to have my work computer replaced.)

The compromise position belongs to Ted Leung. He writes that a lot of developers started to buy Macs, and push to be able to use them at work, based on the influence of Java developers, who had the luxury of switching before many tech people could. They’re the ones who are being hung out to dry, Leung notes. One of the issues is that, although it’s true that Java doesn’t compile without any problems on OS X, the hang-up is when Java has to talk to the Mac parts (like Carbon) rather than the Unix back-end.

But the real meat of Leung’s post is at the very end. He says Java’s second-rate status has a lot to do with its licensing. The big improvements to Python and Ruby in Leopard, Leung writes, came from outside Apple, and that was made possible by open-source licensing. (The inference is that Apple has better things to care about.) But Java’s not open source, and more to the point, most Java developers don’t seem to care. If Java were an open-source product, he says, it might have brought Java 6 to Leopard already.

As Leung says, we’ll have to wait and see. But Gruber’s still right on one thing: if a Java release falls behind in the release-timeline forest and no one but enterprise users are around to hear it (and those enterprise users are still going to be using 10.4 or even 10.3 for another six to nine months), does it make a sound?

Throw Some of That on the Fire

Every so often, a non-Apple product strikes a nerve in this little corner of the blogworld. We Mac users may be the Shire, just a sliver of Middle-Earth—but J.R.R. Tolkien made Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ Shire very important for a reason, too.

Late in November, Amazon released its Kindle. It’s an e-book reader using E Ink technology, which I’ll explain in a moment, and which downloads books formatted specially for it (not PDFs, pointedly) using Sprint’s EV-DO data network. The screen is about the size of a paperback novel, and the whole device close to an undersized hardcover book. Amazon claims there are about 90,000 books available for purchase in their library, mostly back-catalogue items that publishing houses aren’t marketing anymore.

The device is a little like Sony’s Reader, in that the two devices share similar sizes and similar screens, but the Reader uses PDFs with digital rights management. And, of course, that limits the available number of books for sale to about 20,000. Life is worth living, and the Sony interface looks a lot more user-friendly, but I should disclaim that I have not used either device. It’s also worth note that the Reader has to be synchronized with a computer, like an iPod, whereas the Kindle uses a cellular data connection to reach the outside world. (The iPod touch and iPhone can use WiFi to connect to the iTunes Store, but not cellular data.)

What first intrigued me about the Kindle was that it seemed like it could be what the Sony Reader ought to have been. E Ink, the leading (by which I mean only) commercial purveyor of so-called “electronic ink” displays, is the vendor of some astonishingly cool technology (which I’ve actually written about before). The display uses completely passive technology, using very small bubbles filled with black and white toner chips with opposing electrical charges. Using the same principles as an LCD, the display driver applies a charge to specific bubbles, making them either white or black, and they stay that way until you flip them over again. The result is a high-resolution, high-contrast display that reads with a resolution approaching that of a consumer-grade laser printer and requires very little electricity and no backlighting.

But I could write a book about what could’ve been with the Kindle. Maybe someday, someone will make a device this revolutionary without the Kindle’s limitations, or maybe the Kindle 2 will come along someday and fix its flaws.

Many of the choices that Amazon made in the technology behind the product are sound. EV-DO is a good choice for data connectivity; E Ink displays look astonishingly like paper (well, paper behind glass, but still); and harnessing the device to Amazon’s good relationships with publishers is a no-brainer. They’re the perfect vendors for this device. BusinessWeek thinks the Kindle will be the iPod of books.

But what everyone seems to be talking about, other than its clearly revolutionary potential (potential), is its dreadful user interface. I alluded to that earlier, and it’s painful to see a device that sounds so crippled by a couple of flaws. The device just doesn’t look like a book; it looks like my dad’s Tablet PC convertible laptop or an oversized Treo more than anything else. There are buttons everywhere, including a keyboard, and the device is white and does not match the grayish tint of the E Ink screen. (E Ink screens are about as white as paper towels, at 40%, about half the 80% of typical copier paper, much less the extra-extra-extra-extra white of inkjet paper.)

Now, I have not used the device, and I’d like to before I say anything too dramatic. But I’m not hearing anything positive about the usability of the Kindle, suffice it to say. Thibaut Sailly, who writes Well…, is a product designer who is pretty hard on the Kindle’s form factor and some of the hardware decisions that Amazon made. He strikes, again and again, the one important question about hardware design: what purpose does this serve? The Kindle looks vaguely like a book, but not very much; some elements are symmetrical and some are not; some of the buttons are duplicated; and there’s a curious white strip separating the scroll indicator from the face of the book, reminiscent of that odd triangle of black plastic on the rear passenger windows of the Ford 500.

Craig Hunter, too, notices one particular interface foible that the Kindle suffers from. He’s not sure it needs a physical keyboard at all, since its interface doesn’t rely very heavily on a keyboard. If the Kindle wants to be the iPod of books, he says, it needs to take a cue from the iPhone. He asks us to imagine a Kindle with no hardware buttons and a gesture-based interface. (I doubt that’s possible with current E Ink technology, but perhaps someday.) What a device that would be!

I leave it to TidBITS’ Glenn Fleishman to find the other big flaws the Kindle suffers from. He enumerates a few: no PDF support; limited Web browsing; and an unbelievably high price for a single-purpose device.

Not everyone thinks the Kindle’s flaws are technological. Steven Poole wants his ideal device to be a book, for all intents and purposes, since his list of requirements includes certain stipulations only printed paper can meet. And’s Daniel O’Brien puts the contrarian view best when he says, “You know what else feels like real paper and doesn’t require cables or monthly bills? Fucking books.

If you want to know what I want to see from the Kindle 2, I want the hardware buttons limited to four: next page; previous page; menu; select. I want more than 4 shades of gray, because I know E Ink has 8 shades of grey working on the Sony Reader, and because I’m sure they’re working on even higher-performance displays. I want higher resolution. And I want the device to look and feel like a book, which means it should be about the size of a trade paperback when closed, and have a 30mm physical bezel and a half-inch book “margins” built into the display, and PDF display supporting either embedded fonts or EPS outlines so the book designer is still in charge. After all, he or she knows better than a computer what makes a book easy to read, and the best books are set in typefaces that are both legible and match the book. And most important of all, as Ars Technica’s Jon Stokes also noticed, the device should flip open, like a book, to show two side-by-side pages at a time, and, when closed, it should have the profile of a closed book, preferably with a little display on the front, showing the title of the current book, like a cell phone.

(An aside: Too many reviewers are hung up on the lack of typeface choices on the Kindle. It doesn’t matter. If I ran a publishing house, pretty much every book would be typeset in either Hoefler & Frere-Jones’ Mercury Text, which is about as readable a 9pt serif there ever were and which will stand up on virtually any kind of printing. What matters is the placement of text on the page, the right combination of leading and point size, the consideration of margins and justification and tracking to make the page melt away and the words pop. But computer users have substituted typeface changes for good type management for so long that even technology reviewers are confused.)

But if Amazon wants to send me a Kindle and see what I think, I’d be happy to offer my thoughts. Do you have one? Comment, or send me an e-mail at, and I’ll make note of it for my next column.

Fire Starters

  • Michael S. Kaplan, who apparently works for Microsoft, has a nice post on usability and Plug-and-Play keyboards. I’ve never tried to do this with Windows, since all of my Windows keyboards have been PS/2 models, but he has some neat screen-captures of how Windows and OS X deal with the problem of identifying unidentified keyboards. I wouldn’t want to try to do it the Windows way, and that’s not just a personal preference.
  • Bryan Bell, he of the gorgeous icon work, noticed that Aperture has a solid menu bar even though the rest of Leopard does not. I cheated by putting a white stripe on top of my background image, but it’s a good question: I wasn’t aware that there was a preference that changed live. Hm. Apple, please share.
  • On the theme of neat odds and ends in 10.5, Jens Ayton uncovers how Apple makes the iCal icon show the current date in the Dock. Remember that?
  • TidBITS’ Matt Neuberg has a fantastic round-up of all of the new features in Leopard’s Spotlight. The long and short of it is that it’s much more usable than in 10.4. With something like Spotlight, “more usable” means “more useful.” I find myself using it a whole lot more than in 10.4, myself.
  • John C. Welch realized, and wrote a Macworld column about, the death of NetInfo in Leopard. Ding dong, the witch is dead, I say. God only knows how many times I found myself frustrated by NetInfo, in the early days of using OS X, when simple tasks that I could perform from the command line didn’t work because I had to make NetInfo changes. But it is no more, he says.
  • ZDNet’s David Berlind thinks Apple is going to be forced to license OS X by hacked copies of the OS floating around on the Internet, which bypass the software locks on installing OS X on non-Macintosh computers. I doubt they ever would, but even if they did, my anecdotal experience is that most non-technically inclined Mac users use whatever version of OS X is on their computers pretty much until they’re forced to upgrade for one reason or another. The percentage of computer users who might use these cracks to use OS X on their PC is so microscopic I doubt Apple’s worried about it at all, because the percentage of computer users who would buy OS X to run on their non-Macintosh computer is smaller than tech bloggers like David Berlind think.

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Reader Comments (2)

michael · December 1, 2007 - 20:01 EST #1
Nice coverage of topics. On the Kindle, I think a lot of reviewers are missing the point. It's so easy to look at features and missing features and industrial design and forget that it's just a device to display text.

I got the opportunity to use a friend's Kindle for an afternoon. After about a half an hour it just disappears. I got involved in a reading Omnivore's Dilemma, which my wife owns in hard cover, and totally forgot that I was reading from a gadget. That's the real bottom line.

I picked up reading where I had left of in the regular book, read for a couple of hours, went back to the printed book the next day at home. No sense of loss or difficulty. It's easier to read than many paperbacks.

The screen is crisp, the text very readable and font resizing allowed me to read the Kindle comfortably on my exercise bike. The book holder places the book about two and a half feet from my eyes, an awkward distance for middle aged eyes with reading glasses. The one touch page "turn" works beautifully in that situation. No lifting the book out of the holder flipping pages then returning it.

Don't worry about contrast. It's fine. Don't worry about boring design. The thing works. When the price drops to about half and the number of books increases, I'll get one.

This is the future.
Gregory Tetrault · December 3, 2007 - 21:09 EST #2
I do not understand the desire to have e-books resemble paperbacks, right down to a foldable, split page format. I must be unusual, because I read only one page at a time. I dislike holding a book open. I would be quite happy with a single page view e-book that had crisp text at a choice of font sizes. It also would have to complete page changes in <1 second and support encoded e-book formats as well as PDF, HTML, text, RTF, etc. No e-books meet these criteria, so I stick with paper.

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