• Newsletter Issue #675

    November 5th, 2012

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    Does your Mac still have an optical drive? Do you ever actually use it, or does it sit inside your Mac catching dust? If you own a MacBook Air or another Mac without an optical drive, did you buy an external version? Was it worth the cost, or does it go unused too?

    This is a serious issue and it goes to the reasons Apple decided to remove them, and it wasn’t just because their personal computers were destined to get thinner. Apple is looking at the ways in which you’ll acquire software, movies and TV shows not just today, but over the next few years. Their conclusion is that it is all happening online, and not so much with physical media. Fewer and fewer Mac users ever use their optical drives, so why pay for them?

    Soon as you think Apple might just be off base, don’t forget that they decided, in 1998, that you didn’t need floppy disks either, and they were ultimately correct. Sure, I bet a lot of you bought external floppy drives for a year or two as a crutch, and then you didn’t. Apple is making a bet that optical drives must go now, and traditional hard drives are next on the endangered species list. The Fusion Drive available for the new Mac mini and the upcoming revised iMac combines solid state and mechanical. But that’s strictly temporary. Once the cost of solid state drives comes down enough so large capacities are reasonably affordable, mechanical drives will be history.

    Now on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we brought on board Kirk McElhearn, Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” to discuss the rapid disappearance of optical drives from new Macs. He also talked briefly about Apple’s recent executive shakeup.

    Jim Galbraith, the Lab Director for Macworld, detailed the benchmarks of the recent Apple products that he’s tested, and his plans for evaluating the latest mobile gadgets.

    From Adrian Hoppel, who writes a weekly column for Mac|Life called “Law & Apple,” presented his unfiltered opinion about the impending departure of Apple VP Scott Forstall, the latest news about Apple’s legal wrangling with Google and other companies. During this session, you’ll also heard Gene’s early observations after installing Windows 8.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Margie Kay, Assistant State Director for Missouri MUFON for a very nuts and bolts UFO session. The main focus will be what Margie regards as “an extraordinary number of sightings in Kansas City during two UFO flaps in 2011 and 2012 with some amazing close encounters, missing time, and possible abductions. I even had my own sightings along with other witnesses.” She’ll also be discussing various paranormal events, such as weird sounds reported by some people in her area.

    Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt — Now with New Design! We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show, along with a redesigned storefront.

    SHOULD WE DEMAND MORE CONSISTENT MAC AND iOS INTERFACES?

    When Apple decided that the icons on the OS X Finder and iTunes sidebars must be gray, did you accept the decision as something that really made sense? I suppose if you’re color blind, but otherwise, it just makes it that much more difficult to identify them.

    Well, at least the icons are larger in the Finder, but is it large enough? Well, I suppose you could always use one of those third-party system enhancement apps to fix things, but why should that be necessary?

    The move also doesn’t make much sense from a human interface point of view. Why make something gray when you can use different colors to have them stand out and be more discoverable? Isn’t Apple supposed to be the interface champ? Shouldn’t OS X — and the iOS for that matter — be easier to use than all the rest?

    Another curious move has been to make certain apps more strongly resemble their physical counterparts. So with Calendar for OS X and the iOS, you have something that, with the leather stitching effect, appears to resemble the physical calendar you might place on a desk. With Contacts, you have the strong urge to actually open a real address book. So what’s wrong with that?

    The word skeuomorphism is bandied about quite a bit these days. It is defined as “a design element of a product that imitates design elements that were functionally necessary in the original product design, but have become ornamental in the new design.”

    So obviously an app on a computer doesn’t have to resemble the physical object, although we still have hard drive, folder and trash icons even after all these years of using computers with graphical interfaces. Certainly Apple has gotten quite a bit of criticism over such serious departures from the traditional OS X and iOS look and feel with the likes of Calendar, Contacts, Game Center, Notes, Reminders, not to mention Chess. While I suppose a game ought to have a more ornate design, that hardly seems to make sense for other apps. Shouldn’t they simply inherit the look of the OS?

    If you believe the published reports, both Steve Jobs and departing iOS chief Scott Forstall were fans of skeuomorphic design flourishes, even though most had little value in the real world.

    The new regime, however, will put Senior VP of Industrial Design Sir Jonathan Paul Ive in charge of human interfaces, which is apt to mean that his minimalist sense of design will come to dominate OS X and the iOS in time. I’ve already seen some artist renderings of how some of the more tacky app interfaces will change in future updates.

    Of course, lots of would-be designers would just love to design an Apple hardware or software product, or just hope their ideas will be adopted. While some of the predictions seem to make sense, and consider the examples from Cult of Mac, that doesn’t mean Apple will devise anything similar. But you also have to wonder how many ways you can form these apps and retain basic usability. But that’s what Ive and his team get the big bucks for, and I’ll be curious to see what is changed over time.

    While the reactions of the critics shouldn’t necessarily be critical, it does seem that at least some of them have come to regard Apple’s operating systems as somewhat dated in look and feel. But they are looking at features in Android, say, which Apple has yet to support, whether or not they make any sense.

    But it’s never been Apple’s way to just add boatloads of features without good reason. Indeed, they are often criticized for removing features that some of you feel you need, and I do expect there’s a certain level of unhappiness over the departure of optical drives from Macs. By the time the next iMac arrives over the next few weeks, only the Mac Pro will have one (with a slot for a second). By 2013, when Apple’s workstation is supposed to be updated, will Apple kill the optical drive there too? Before you suggest they won’t, remember how quickly Apple’s professional Macs lost floppy drives after the original iMac arrived.

    Besides, when you look at the perceived interface defects in OS X and the iOS, you may want to spend a little time examining the usability of Windows 8. You may just discover that Apple’s design lapses are far less severe than Microsoft’s.

    ARE APPLE SOFTWARE GLITCHES GETTING WORSE?

    As Apple continues to embrace some iOS apps and design concepts in OS X, I suspect some of you long for the good old days. The Mac interface looked like a Mac, and everything was predictable and reliable. Well, unless you forgot, for example, the original release of OS 10.5 Leopard in 2007, the same year that the iPhone arrived.

    Has it really been five years?

    Well, 10.5 was afflicted with a really serious data loss bug. If you elected to move (not copy) files from your Mac to a network drive, there was the risk of data loss. Apple fixed the problem within weeks, but I’m sure some of you were bitten by this bug.

    Back in 2003, the original release of Panther, OS 10.3, had a bug that impacted FireWire drives, ultimately corrupting all your files. But these weren’t the first bugs that could damage your data. Throughout the life of OS X, OS 8, and even OS 7, there were issues that could, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, corrupt your data. To be fair to Apple, the serious problems usually get fixed pretty quickly, but that doesn’t mean some Mac users weren’t impacted.

    When you consider the consequences of such severe problems, the issues that have shown up in OS X and the iOS in recent years seem relatively minor in significance. It seems, for example, that a new Apple release may result in Wi-Fi problems. Battery life might suffer severely for a couple of updates until things settle down.

    Although Apple hasn’t made an official statement about the problem, the first release of Mountain Lion resulted in sharply reduced battery life on certain Mac note-books. It took 10.8.1 and, finally, 10.8.2 to fully restore battery life to previous levels. A similar problem existed in iOS 5, impacting most particularly the iPhone 4 and 4S. While reduced battery life may not seem so harmful in the scheme of things, don’t forget that anyone who wants to use these products in a place where an electrical outlet isn’t readily available will suffer. Consider someone who uses these products for business.

    With iOS 6, Apple took well-deserved brickbats for the failings of Maps. After outgoing Apple VP Scott Forstall praised the new app to the skies at the June Worldwide Developers Conference, millions of IOS 6 users discovered that things weren’t quite what they expected. From flawed 3D images, to actual location and navigation errors, Maps had a very shaky debut.

    Things got so bad that CEO Tim Cook issued a public apology, and it’s reported that the Forstall’s refusal to set his name on that statement may have contributed somewhat to his enforced departure. It also fueled discussion about the decline and fall of OS X and iOS. Has Apple lost their edge?

    In the real world, things aren’t that simple. None of Apple’s presumed software failures these days risk the random loss of data, as in the past. Despite their simple interfaces, such services as Maps and Siri are incredibly complex and rely on worldwide networks to receive, process, and finally transmit data to your computing device. Interpreting the human voice, and millions upon millions of text-based search requests, and making sense of them, involves an incredible amount of work. Perfection may never be achieved.

    I realize the critics are quick to compare Apple Maps with Google Maps. Why did Apple ditch Google when things worked just fine? Well, it wasn’t so simple. Turn-by-turn navigation was one feature Google reportedly wouldn’t add to the iOS version without some severe concessions on the part of Apple. Besides, even though Google still admittedly has the better mapping system, it’s far from perfect. I recall those directions to a nearby health food store that were off by more than two miles.

    Part of Apple’s mapping problem is one of perception. If Maps came with a “beta” label, and a request for user input, especially corrections for wrong directions, the negative publicity would have been far less severe. Even now, Maps is getting better. Many of the worst ills have been fixed, and a few months of fine tuning may be enough to wipe away memories of melting bridges, and getting lost in a field when you’re trying to get to a public meeting on time.

    This doesn’t mean Apple can’t do better. Being number one in the tech universe puts them in the eye of the hurricane. They have to try harder, and more quickly admit to serious failings. Enemies surround Apple on all sides, hoping and praying for a big fall. You know the old saw about the bigger they are and all that.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech 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: Sharon Jarvis



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