• Newsletter Issue #309

    October 31st, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    Do you ever listen to all-night radio? If you stay up late, or just wake a little too early, and want something a little more adventurous than popular music interrupted by half a dozen ads, you will discover people who spend hours talking about any topic you can imagine under the sun, and sometimes way beyond the sun.

    Long, long ago, I was a fan of the late Long John Nebel, regarded by many as the inventor of the late night radio talk show. He would cover politics and the paranormal with equal facility. Long John would often tell you he didn’t “buy” the strange stories his guests would tell, but he’d always give them a platform. More recently, Art Bell and George Noory have picked up the gavel and carried on that worthy tradition.

    Well, I was talking with one of The Tech Night Owl LIVE regulars one morning and we found we had a mutual curiosity about subjects that extended way beyond Apple Computer and personal technology. An idea was quickly developed. No, not an all-night show, at least not yet. But something in the tradition of the best of the breed. We are now busy developing that second radio show, and, I’ll expand upon the not-too-subtle hints about its content in the next couple of weeks.

    Back to that “other” show we do, well, on October 27th, multimedia expert Jim Heid, author of “The Macintosh iLife ’05,” came onboard to talk about Apple’s newest product developments. Author Steven Sande joined us to talk about his new book, “Take Control of Your iPod: Beyond the Music,” and the conversation expanded to cover other hot topics. And if you ever wondered about some of the technology behind Rosetta, the emulation scheme that will allow you to run older apps on a Mac with Intel Inside, we answered some of those questions when we talked with Bob Wiederhold, CEO of Transitive Corporation. Transitive’s pacesetting emulation technique is, in part, used in Rosetta, and it holds out a lot of promise for unexpected speed and compatibility.

    On November 3rd, we’ll be joined by outspoken industry analyst and columnist Rob Enderle and Lucius Kwok, author of one of our favorite sound editing programs, Sound Studio. Another guest will be announced soon.

    And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, iPod accessories, memory upgrades, network music players, software and books. More great prizes will be offered in the weeks to come.

    If you haven’t heard our program, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives or download the Podcast version. Enjoy.

    THE LEOPARD REPORT: DO WE NEED A NEW FINDER?

    To some, Apple has had five chances to build a proper Mac OS X Finder and has failed each and every time. The Classic Mac Finder was a magnificent achievement in software engineering and the Mac OS X version was a pathetic imitation. Their logic has it that Apple should have just ported it over to its “world class” operating system without any alteration whatever. That would have been a great accomplishment and they should not have tampered with success.

    I will not, for the sake of this commentary, get involved in any speculation about the alleged desire on the part of the Mac OS X programming team, headed in large part by former NeXT people, to ditch as many traditional Mac elements as they could. That sort of speculation isn’t going to change the situation one whit. Instead, let’s look at the existing Finder, and see if there’s room for improvement.

    Some of the folks delivering their own wish lists for Leopard suggest that the Finder is way overdue for a major overhaul. It’s time for Apple to sacrifice some of the needless eye candy visual effects and do something practical that will provide a true 21st century file viewing mechanism.

    Now maybe it’s already here. The arrival of Spotlight means that you can usually find any file you want without having to invoke the Finder. The Finder-like interface in the Open and Save dialogs also means that you can retrieve files without leaving an application. But is that enough, or must we go farther down the path to Finder salvation?

    This is really a difficult question to answer in a practical way. Apple needs to provide a consistent user interface, both for existing users and newcomers. When things operate in unexpected ways or change suddenly, the argument that the Mac “just works” goes out the window. If you move from Tiger to Leopard and suddenly have to relearn key functions of the operating system, you risk alienating customers and just confusing people. Tossing out the Finder with a totally different version may not be a terribly good idea.

    In fact, to my way of thinking, Apple is stuck with key elements of today’s Finder and has to proceed carefully in changing it. One way, of course, is to make it less and less relevant, by providing other tools to get your files, such as Spotlight. But a search tool requires an extra step, which is to ask it what you want. Just clicking on a Finder window is sufficient to provide a list of what’s contained in a drive or folder. You don’t have to initiate a request, but simply look, and that requires less work on your part.

    So what’s wrong with the Finder as it is? Well, one thing is that it is laced with bugs, and even before Apple considers how its functionality might change, it ought to make it work more predictably. Take Finder views. You check off the Finder preference to “Open new windows in column view,” but that’s one sick joke! How often do you open a Finder window, only to find that it’s stuck in icon view? And not a neat icon view, but one that’s messy, with overlapping icons, as if they were thrown about at random in a fit of rage.

    So first and foremost, make the preference work, 100% of the time. Is that too much to ask?

    Next is performance. The Tiger Finder seems fast enough, particularly on a speedy Mac. But take a moment to watch how it behaves. You open a folder with lots of files inside, and it seems to pause a second to cache the icons before displaying the list. Move through a folder too fast and it stops briefly to think about what to do next. And that behavior will be typical of even a dual processor Power Mac G5. I don’t know about those dual-core models, but I’m not expecting miracles.

    There are also things that can slow the Finder to a crawl, such as initiating a couple of file copying operations while trying to look through the contents of a folder. Isn’t the Finder multithreaded? Can’t it take advantage of two processors to hand off the viewing task to one processor, while letting the other handle the file copying process? What about an abrupt disconnect from a networked volume? Everything seems to stop dead in its tracks for far too long.

    To some, the fault lies in the fact that the Finder was programmed in Carbon rather than Cocoa. I won’t even begin to tackle programming issues and the logic behind Apple’s choices. I just want it fixed. Before adding new features, make the existing ones work.

    That takes us to the Open and Save dialogs, which are supposed to mimic the Finder. But half a loaf isn’t enough. Why, for example, can’t you add items to the Sidebar? What about renaming or deleting a file and, like the system add-on, Default Folder, make it possible to rebound to the last file and folder you accessed?

    Indeed there may be many imaginative ways to enhance the Finder or even make it less relevant going forward. Perhaps Apple is considering some of the possibilities as it works on the feature set for Leopard. At the same time, I really don’t have any particular objections to the existing Finder, other than to make it work faster and more reliably. That should be the starting point. Apple should consider adding the extra features after the fundamentals are worked out, but that, unfortunately, may not sound sexy enough when it comes time to build a laundry list of the new features for 10.5.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: YES, SALES AND SUPPORT REPS ARE PEOPLE TOO

    I’m sure you’ve felt this way. All too often, you are sorely tempted to yell at a support person when all you wanted was a little help. They seem obtuse, uninformed, far too ready to repeat the company line or read a canned response when you ask what seems to you to be a very sensible question.

    Sales people? Well, it depends. Those consumer electronic chains seem far too ready to hire people who seem more intent on writing orders and selling you useless extended warranties than providing the information you really need to make a purchase decision. In fact, some sales people, such as those who work at your local car dealerships are, as a class, rated extremely low in the trust department.

    Yet I dare say most of you have someone in your family, or among your closest circle of friends, who works in sales or support. I’ll assume, for the moment, that you don’t regard most of them as stupid, greedy, dishonest, or any combination of the three. Your kids go to school with their kids. Or, if they are really young, your kids are their schoolmates.

    The support department at most technology companies often occupies the entry level as far as salary and skills are concerned. Someone just out of school looking for a job, or a student who needs the extra cash to cover education expenses. Quite often, they aren’t looking for a career, just a place to pick up a paycheck until a better opportunity comes along. I’m sure some do not feel much loyalty to the company beyond coming to work on time. At the same time, the company is responsible for training and quality control, and if support is regarded as an afterthought, as it is far too often, you can’t expect much, even if the people themselves are trying real hard to do the right thing, as they often are.

    The sales person who works at a consumer electronics chain is also often a student or someone just entering the work force. The job is regarded as nothing more than a way station to a more prestigious position, such as management, or just a paycheck until a better opportunity appears. Some are intelligent self starters, but often have to depend on minimal training to acquire their skills.

    Car sales? Well, the fellow who sold me the last car I purchased calls me on occasion for Mac advice. He knows full well I won’t be buying anything for a while, but he regards me as a friend. The dealership he works at is one of those very rare stores where the sales manager will come over and say hello to his customers while they are waiting at the service lounge months after they made their deals, again knowing it’ll be a long while before they return for another vehicle. Yes, he’s a smart salesman, a very tough negotiator, but he also regards his customers as people who should be treated with courtesy and respect, not just as the sale he needs that day to cover his mortgage. He knows that if they feel good about the dealership, they’ll be back when they need another car. That’s, unfortunately, a level of logic that escapes far too many in the car business.

    I have a relative who sells cars. No, he doesn’t work for that dealership. The one he joined handles low-cost Japanese-built compacts, and most customers are students, young families, or, in general, have somewhat lower-than-average incomes. He tries hard, but management can get a little too greedy trying to cement that deal. They’ll jack up the interest rates something fierce for folks with mediocre credit scores, and add unneeded extended warranties and dealer “packs,” such as undercoating, to eke out as much profit as possible. Why does the relative work there? Well, he’s new to the car business, and he needs the time to hone his skills. He also has a family to support, so he tries his best to work within the system, but will eventually leave to a store that doesn’t seem so ready to take unfair advantage of its customers.

    So how to you survive in this world of untrained, unskilled support people and greedy sales representatives? Well, if you hold your temper and try to be courteous, you’ll meet some really nice people. While preparing to move to a new home, I had a chance to talk with a lot of people at the cable and utility companies. While waiting for them to look up account records, I would usually ask them which support office they occupy, and suddenly the conversation turns to the weather and other subjects. Suddenly you begin to realize that, despite all the obstacles their employers put in their way, they are just regular people like you and I. You might share a laugh, and the work they have to do for you seems to go smoother. They actually seem to enjoy the conversation and, surprise, surprise, you get good customer service too, sometimes far better than you have the right to expect.

    As to the car dealers with the vultures who stand in front of the doors waiting for the next victim, just give them a wide berth. Except, of course, if that member of my family happens a reluctant member of the crew.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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