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ATPM 14.02
February 2008





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by Wes Meltzer,

Just Indulge Me

At the end of the year, when there’s not a lot to write about, many newspaper columnists turn to the oldest trick in the book: running their favorite excerpts from a year’s worth of columns. To these veteran journalists, for whom the column is a reward for many years of daily beat-writing, it’s a good way to remind readers of their own words and a way to pad out a slow news season. (Sometimes, they even punt on third down: the Miami Herald has been running “classic” Dave Barry columns from my elementary school years on their Web site. Oh, come on, guys.)

This isn’t a slow time of year for Mac news, but this magazine is stuffed full of everything you need to know about this year’s Macworld San Francisco news: the MacBook Air. If what you’re interested in this month is the smallest mostly non-crippled laptop I’ve ever seen advertised, and 2007 is already yesterday’s news, skip ahead; you won’t miss anything Earth-shattering.

2007 was, in some ways, the best of years. As far as I’m aware, every single Macintosh model was updated significantly, from the low-end Mac mini all the way to the awesomely impressive eight-core Mac Pro. But I think 2007 can be summarized thusly:


Sparklines for major tech stock prices, 2007.

You wanna talk about a fantastic year to write about Apple? Believe it or not, I’ve been writing this column for five years now, and I think this is the best year so far. There are a few reasons: the Macintosh and general technology blogs are maturing, and their overall quality is better; OS X is better and Macs are more ubiquitous, which means more meaningful discussions and less wailing and gnashing of teeth over missing or non-working software features; and frankly, the environment is more favorable. But the biggest reason of all has been Apple.

I mean, look at what’s happened in the last five years. The stock really takes off in 2004, but the last year’s been stratospheric.


Apple Stock Sparkline

This is an unbelievable change of direction for those of us who remember when being a Mac user was one of those “weird” things that some people did, like being a vegetarian, that were sometimes a source of pride and at other times a more ignominious trait. It was the scarlet letter of the 1990s.

But what was this 2007?

I Was Wrong

Basically, I blew the biggest story of 2007: the iPhone. You faithful readers may remember that in January 2005, I mocked the entire idea that there would ever be an Apple-branded phone. Oops?

In fact, in ATPM 11.01 I wrote, “[M]y bet instead is on a mid-range co-branded Motorola-Apple GSM phone with flash RAM in it that can synchronize with selected iTunes playlists.” I was right, for almost two years: the ROKR was exactly what I predicted, and even crappier than I thought it would be. Has any phone ever been more of a dud than the ROKR?

That just about convinced me that we were not going to see an iPhone any time soon. Or, really, any other forays into the mobile world.

So in January, Steve Jobs caught me flat-footed when he announced the iPhone. It turned into the Device of the Year, and is so clearly superior to my Dell Axim PDA that I regret buying it.

But that’s not all I got wrong, folks. I mean, isn’t my job to be wrong about 75 percent of the time, and the rest of the time to let someone else be wrong for me?

Wrong—DRM story: In early April, Apple announced that it would sell music tracks from EMI without digital rights management embedded, for $1.29 a track. It’s not quite what the Cory Doctorows and Jon Lech Johansens of the world wanted, but it’s more than I expected: I thought the letter was just to give Steve Jobs leverage in future negotiations.

Wrong—ZFS: Apple is slowly preparing the world for the ZFS filesystem in OS X. The Macintosh’s current filesystem, HFS+ and its predecessor HFS, has been with the Mac since it was released—five months before I was born. Now, I’m going to give myself partial credit here, because I was on the side of the people claiming that it would be an eventual improvement. But it turns out there are a couple of things I botched, and one of them was what ZFS could do for Apple. A reader wrote in to correct me: so far, ZFS does not appear to be usable as a Time Machine target. And the column went to press before I could ever use Time Machine, but now that I have, it’s not clear to me that ZFS’ live snapshot functionality has much to do with Time Machine.

Wrong—Java 6 for Leopard: Apple does not appear to be any closer to releasing Java 6 for Leopard than they were when I wrote about its absence. Now, we’ll come back to this in a few months and see if there still isn’t one, but so far, it looks like I got this wrong, too.

I Was Right

Right—Amazon Kindle: I panned the Kindle in December, on the grounds that it wasn’t very book-like for a book reader. I have not held one yet, although I’d still like to (is anyone from Amazon listening?), but I have yet to read a review that makes me want a Kindle since. The iPhone seems like a much more transformational device, at least so far.

Right—iPhone clones: The iPhone is the kind of transformational device, like the iPod or iMac, which causes every tech manufacturer to try to emulate it rather than coming up with their own good ideas. I predicted this, in February, at the same time that I owned up to blowing the story overall. So far, we have three iPhone-alikes: (1) LG Voyager, which at least mostly looks like an iPhone; (2) Sprint’s Touch, the only touch navigation-suited clone, but also a wider, fatter device; and (3) the AT&T Tilt, which has a horizontal sliding keyboard and enough hardware buttons to power the space shuttle. None of these devices is all that exciting unless you’re one of the gluttons who actually likes Windows Mobile.

Right—Third-party iPhone applications: So far there aren’t any. Apple’s splitting the difference with its new Web Clips features, but I’m not really surprised that so far my prediction that Apple was not going to create a parallel infrastructure to the Apple Developer Connection just to support the iPhone—or that they’d take their sweet time supporting those developers at all, if they ever did.

Right—Vista: Some analysts and tech writers, like the New York Times’ Randall Stross, seemed to be under the impression that once Microsoft got the kinks in Vista ironed out, they would be unstoppable. Apparently they missed the droves of people begging to continue buying new computers with Windows XP installed on them. My dad’s office made the horrendous mistake of buying Vista, and I would just like to reiterate my position: I’d rather have a root canal, but if I had to use Windows, I would use Windows 2000. Windows XP was only “better” if you like pain, and Vista’s a special kind of gruesome.

Right—New iMac keyboards: Have you used these awful things? They’re horrible. I’m not as picky as some people are about their keyboards, but I do like my keyboard to be usable. These new keyboards are no better than using the built-in keyboard on my MacBook, and I find that my heavy-fingered typing style leaves my fingers and wrists sore after typing on these new keyboards. No, thanks, Apple.

What a year that was. Can you forgive me for being wrong on the iPhone?

Now, on with the news!

The Cupertino Diet

This year I missed the MWSF keynote. I had to do this funny thing called “work”—the kind that pays the bills. But one of my co-workers wasn’t quite as busy, to say the least, and he sent me an e-mail saying, “You gotta check this out!”

The MacBook Air is so thin, so sleek and svelte, Tom Brady might break up with Gisele Bundchen for it—after he wins the Super Bowl on Sunday. It’s not exactly Brett Favre, apparently, with a slow hard drive and a customized low-clock-speed CPU. On the other hand, it’s the first mass-market laptop which can use a fully solid state hard drive, although it’s a $1,000 build-to-order option. (!)

Marco Arment, who works at Tumblr, notes that the solid-state option is probably going to be unbelievably fast. But he’s right that the bottom line is that this is really only a good secondary computer.

John Gruber was hoping it would be an ultra-portable revival of the old 12″ PowerBook, rather than a Kate Moss version of the widescreen 13.3″ MacBook. He thinks, though, that it’s positioned more toward the MacBook Pro end of the spectrum.

Slate’s Paul Boutin hits the nail on the head when he notes the MacBook Air’s biggest limitation: it’s odd that a device that calls itself “Air” loses the connectivity edge to a phone, but that’s what the tech world has come to. He thinks Apple should shove an EDGE radio, at a bare minimum, inside the next generation MacBook Air. If it came with a $200 build-to-order option for EDGE access, or, better still, EV-DO, I’d buy one in a heartbeat.

Jason Snell of Macworld is impressed by the incredible number of things Apple had to get just right to make the MacBook Air work. He notes that the power port is different, the USB port is different, the LED backlight in the LCD is new, and the gesture support in the trackpad is new. He sounds impressed, especially by the screen, and I’d like to pause for a moment and imagine a world in which the short-life, slow-to-light fluorescent backlights of LCD displays are gone soon.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press’ Julio Ojeda-Zapata is impressed by the amount of wireless that Apple is pushing into its product line. WiFi for Internet, WiFi for optical drive access and hard drive backups, WiFi for everything. If Apple could figure out how to power a computer wirelessly, they probably would. Bring it on.

The Fishbowl, a.k.a. Charles Miller, remembers the tech pundits wailing when Apple took away ADB, expansion slots, the 3.5-inch floppy drive, and countless other dead computer parts. Is the MacBook Air the beginning of the end of the optical drive?

Oh, and somebody at PC World thinks that the MacBook Air is the reason that Apple should license OS X. I have no idea what this means. Mike Barton, the writer, says that Apple won’t sell a sub-$1,000 laptop, and that only licensing the operating system would do that. The flaw is that licensing OS X would probably kill Apple—its last attempt almost did—and slaughter its one biggest advantage, the tight control over hardware and the operating system that makes Macs work better than PCs. (Let’s pause for a moment: even now that the parts inside your Mac are basically identical to a PC, doesn’t your Mac still work better?) Dude, suck it up. Is $1,000 really too much to spend for a technology writer?

In related news, the San Francisco Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius discovered that the Macintosh has gone so mainstream that even its devotees aren’t that weird anymore. He’s right: Leander Kahney told him, “The cult of Mac really isn’t a cult any more…The iPod and the iPhone brought in lots of everyday people who were thinking about making the switch.”

Hunters and Gatherers

  • NetNewsWire is now free, along with every other NewsGator product. I cannot believe it, and neither could the boys at Rogue Amoeba. They’re worried about what that means for the rest of the paid RSS reader market, and for shareware in general. I’m not so worried, because I hope it’ll help mainstream RSS, but I’m also not a shareware developer.
  • iCab is finally going to use OS X’s built-in WebKit HTML rendering engine. Smokey, of al-Qahira fi Amrika, observes that this is really quite an astonishing turn of events: developer Alexander Clauss wrote the original iCab rendering engines all by himself, and managed somehow to keep up with Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari—and to do a better and more correct job rendering than they did. Whew.
  • Steve Jobs is Money’s most powerful man in business. There’s no question he’s a transformational figure, and I agree. At the same time, it’s a sign of the times that Bill Gates has fallen to No. 7, behind Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Google’s Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and Sergei Brin.
  • The New York Times Magazine’s Virginia Heffernan wrote a beautiful column about how much she hates Microsoft Word. Steven Poole beat her to the punch, but Heffernan is a very eloquent writer, and very convincing. Seriously, people: stop using Word already!
  • David Pogue discovered that Apple has quietly stopped imposing a numeric keypad on its laptop keyboards. I’m not surprised—I’ve never once used this feature—but it’s still a little odd.

And that’s a wrap for February! Have a wonderful month, everyone, and I’ll see you in time for spring break.

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