The Mac

Lost in all this shuffle over me going iPad-primary is that I still love the Mac. There is a lot of dogma and rigidness from the iPad-only crowd regarding the Mac and I don’t share it. Steve Jobs famously said that (paraphrasing) that PCs are trucks and iOS devices are cars.

I still drive a truck. Both a physical version and electronic.

My 11″ MacBook Air doesn’t get used on a daily basis anymore, but it’s still one of my favorite devices of all time. There was a brief period of time recently where I regretted getting it and not a MacBook Pro 13″. I missed it because I really couldn’t play games on it, but I realized that playing games on my Mac didn’t add much value to my life. After that epiphany I felt much more comfortable about the purchase. I do wish it had a retina screen, so when it comes time to upgrade it I will likely get the baseline MacBook 12″

There are some things I do that I either flat out can’t do on iOS (like de-DRM my Kindle collection for archiving) or are a gigantic pain in the ass on iOS (like copying a ton of PDFs from iCloud to OneDrive. Plus there is iOS development which I want to I get into.1

iOS still has enough roadblocks for it to replace my MacBook completely. I expect I will still need some form of Mac for the next three years, at least.

When I upgrade my beloved Air at some point, I’m not a traitor to the iOS-primary cause, but simply a realist who believes in the right tool for the job.

  1. My gut feeling is by WWDC 2018 some type of native development environment for iOS apps will be available on iOS.

Apple and organizational change

There’s one thing about Apple that has been in the back of my mind since WWDC: Apple has done a fantastic job at organizational change in the last year or so. Every organization I’ve worked at has handled change poorly. Either people refuse to accept the change, or the leaders don’t change enough, or, sometimes they change too much.

It’s pretty much a given: Large organizations handle large changes poorly. Look at Blackberry and Microsoft. Both of these companies saw their markets were being disrupted, but still did a piss-poor job at reacting to it.

Apple, on the other hand, is a market leader and on the outside had little need to change how they did things. Yet they did, in some key ways.

Opening up the betas

Up until earlier this year, it was laughable that Apple would ever open up the OS X betas. Yet, starting with a dot release for Mavericks they opened up the betas. Even now, there is a public beta for their new OS, Yosemite. Hopefully, this will clear up some issues like the whole Gmail Mavericks issue.

That said, I don’t think Apple will open up the iOS betas. There are too many risks for key systems. Apple had enough problems with a small subset of users having problems with a failed 8.0.1 update. Imagine if a bad beta got out for an OS Apple isn’t actively supporting.

Opening up iOS

I don’t’ know if iOS 8 extensions and keyboards would have happened if Jobs and Forestall were still with Apple. Part of me can see it happening if Jobs were still alive (he did accept that sometimes Apple needed to change). If Forestall still stayed on after Jobs died, I doubt it.

At WWDC, it was announced that now 3rd party keyboards would be available for iOS, and now apps can talk to each other in a more logical manner without the need for some crazy workarounds.

Gizmodo is off the shit list

Gizmodo got an invite to the September 9 event. This is the same organization that got their hands on a stolen iPhone and told Jobs to shove it. I thought the odds were better I would get an invite to an Apple event before Gizmodo would. Lo and behold, both Gizmodo and Brian Lam got invites. Even with Jobs and Cotton gone, I thought someone at Apple would have a long enough memory to still stick it to them.

Final thoughts

I look at some of the changes other organizations have tried to make and seen how they have failed first hand. That so far, this hasn’t blown up in Apple’s face is remarkable. So far, a few bugs in iOS have given them egg on their face.

Egg is far easier to clean up than shit, though.

ComiXology and the Curious Case of the App Store

I’ve long thought of ComiXology as the Amazon of comic books. It became a truer statement when Amazon bought Comixology a few weeks ago. Andy Ihnatko summed up my inital reaction with this Sun Times post in which he said:

“I’m hoping that this ultimately ends with ComiXology making comics on Kindle better, and not Amazon making ComiXology’s comics … like Kindles.”

This week, Amazon dropped one hammer by removing in app purchases from the ComiXology app. Now, ComiXology behaves exactly like the Kindle app: you have to go outside the app to purchase content.

Some background on the matter at hand

In July 2011, Apple began enforcing in-app purchasing restrictions for e-reading apps. The Kindle, Kobo, and Nook apps released new versions that removed bookstores from their iOS apps. These restrictions said that 30% of any in-app purchase (IAP) went to Apple. Some people viewed this as Apple collecting a rent, similar to the rent a brick-and-mortar store pays. The other end of the spectrum had people feeling like Apple was acting akin the Corleone family, where they simply “didn’t want anything bad to happen to the developers app.” My opinion was that Apple was taking the view that any exception granted opens a can of worms they don’t want to deal with.

Policies work best when they are applied to everyone equally. In this case, everyone is treated equally by Apple. If you offer an IAP, pay Apple 30%. I don’t generally have a problem with this policy but almost three years later it’s still a little jarring when I have to quit the Kindle app and go to Safari to buy an ebook.

In this Tech Hive article Moises Chiullan has this quote from Chip Mosher, ComiXology’s VP Communications & Marketing:

“As we move to complete the acquisition with Amazon, we are shifting to the web-based purchasing model they’ve successfully used with Kindle, which we expect will allow us to strike the best balance between prices, selection and customer experience.”—Chip Mosher, ComiXology

IAPs work for me because it limits the sites that have my credit card and I can buy a couple of gift cards to Amazon or Apple to use as an allowance of sorts. In this case, the balance of customer experience has not tipped in my favor.

Changes to ComiXology

Comics are a somewhat unique form of content to consume. For the most part, comics don’t take as long as say, Game of Thrones, to read a volume of. In my case, I’d buy the first comic in a series and when I got to the end of it, ComiXology nicely told me there were more issues in the series and did I want to purchase it? This was incredibly convenient for me, but perhaps not so convenient for my bank account. The one saving grace is that I don’t generally buy a lot of comics – enough $2.99 purchases and soon you’re taking about real money. In my case right now, about one purchase – but it was certainly nice to have. If it was a series that’s in the middle of its publishing run I could tell Comixology to auto-purchase the new issues.

Now, when you reach the end of a series of which you don’t own the next issue, Comixology simply stops. There’s no clue there are any more issues; not even a hint to go to the ComiXology web site and purchase it. It simply has a button “back to Library.”

I don’t foresee ComiXology’s changes affecting how I buy comics. I’ve always thought long and hard about any comic I buy anyway. Going to a website as opposed to an app isn’t likely to change the amount of comics I purchase. The big problem, though, is ComiXology’s site doesn’t have a lot of search refinements. As a consolation prize for removing IAPs, ComiXology credited everyone’s account with five bucks. I figured I could buy about 5 $.99 comics. I went to the Top Sellers page, but I couldn’t sort by price or average rating. This is something that I’m a little surprised that ComiXology doesn’t offer.

The Apple morality clause

In that same Tech Hive artile, Moises states something that has been on my mind for a while:

ComiXology also found its content running afoul of Apple’s rigid guidelines about what could be sold through the App Store. Take the case of the series Sex Criminals, banned from being sold through the in-app purchase feature on ComiXology, and yet, still available for sale within Apple’s own iBookstore.

Remember that line I had earlier about policies working best when they are applied to everyone equally? This is a case where Apple violates their own policy of acceptable content they hold developers to. It’s absolutely ludicrous for Apple to ban something from a 3rd-party developer’s app while selling it on the Apple store. Note: This fell off my radar screen after it happened and I can’t find out if the decision was ever reversed.

The problem gets even worse. A quick search through the iTunes store yields plenty of erotic fiction, unrated movies, and season one of the Starz show Spartacus, which has the rare scene where there isn’t a decapitation or a naughty bit doing the things that naughty bits do.

There are many things I think Apple does very well, but this is one thing with Apple that drives me nuts. If they don’t want adult content available on their platforms, fine. Just don’t also sell it through your own in-app store.

Is this problem solvable?

In the case of ComiXology, they had two problems: Apple taking a 30% cut and the worry that another comic would run afoul of Apple’s censors.

Apple eliminating (or even reducing) the 30% cut, well, isn’t really going to happen. The issue surrounding most ereaders is that they are middlemen in the distribution chain and the margins probably aren’t there to give Apple a 30% cut. Back to my comment about policies, if Apple created an exeception for resellers you possibly have the problem of a lot of developers trying to get lumped into that. Apple will continue to stick to thier belief that they get 30% of anything bought on an iOS device for consumption on an iOS device. By and large, I don’t have a problem with this. If a game developer releases an expansion for an iPad game, Apple should get their cut.

Apple being the final arbiter of content is a thornier issue. While this is something that I’m not overly fond of, I think I’d like to see what would happen if Apple didn’t curate this content. The mens rooms of truck stops comes to mind.

The best solution is probably the one ComiXology took: decide that paying 30% for the headache of them curating their content was too much.

Now lets just hope Apple doest take away the ability for apps like Amazon and Comixology to download content from outside the app store. I doubt that will ever happen, though.

Thoughts on the stagnation of iPad sales

Apple yesterday announced its Q2 2014 earnings. iPad sales were down almost 3M units from Q2 2013. According to Macworld.com:

Apple sold 16.35 million of the tablets this past quarter, compared to 19.48 million in the second quarter of 2013. Revenues from the iPad fell as well, from $8.7 billion to $7.6 billion. The iPad had a smaller impact on Apple’s revenues, too, accounting for 17 percent of sales, compared to 20 percent last year.

I have some thoughts on why that may have happened.

Last year, Apple announced the iPad Air and the iPad mini with Retina Display. While both have the new A7 chip, of the two I think the iPad mini with Retina Display is the more tempting upgrade if you own a previous gen iPad. This is because the previous mini did not have the retina display, and was a gimped model with a lower-specced processor. The new mini that actually had feature parity with the larger iPad was a nice upgrade.

The 64-bit processor in the new Air (and mini) is a great upgrade, but I don’t think enough people were taxing their iPads to the point they felt needed a faster processor if they already had a retina iPad. I’m not sure there is even enough RAM on the iPad to fully take advantage of the 64-bit chip. It also doesn’t have the Touch ID sensor, either, which could be a factor.

So, I think a lot of the sales are people who  are probably very happy with their iPad 3 or 4. I know I am. I need the iPad with the largest memory, so I’m on a 2–3 year upgrade cycle on my iPad.

Jean-Louis Gassée had a great article called: The iPad is a Tease

Despite the inspiring ads, Apple’s hopes for the iPad overshot what the product can actually deliver. Although there’s a large numbers of iPad-only users, there’s also a substantial population of dual-use customers for whom both tablets and conventional PCs are now part of daily life.

I see the lull in iPad sales as a coming down to reality after unrealistic expectations, a realization that iPads aren’t as ready to replace PCs as many initially hoped.

Gruber has his take here.

We might have overestimated the eventual role of tablets and underestimated the role of phones — and the whole argument is further muddled by the industry-wide move toward 5-inch-ish phone displays.

I’m not sure about this. A larger screen iPhone is certainly appealing to me. It would take place for a lot of the tasks I would consider a mini for, as long as the resolution also increases – I’d like my Kindle documents have more words on the horizontal size.

I wrote earlier this year that 2014 is the year of the iPad for me. That is largely playing out. Rarely does my MacBook Pro leave the house. My next OS X device will be an iMac. As iOS continues to mature, I will be able to put off buying a new Mac as long as this one keeps running. The largest barrier to going iOS all the time is games, and GigaOM’s WordPress install. Other than that, when I leave the house these days, I only need my iPad. I can write, post to this site, surf, read, and even play some games (just not World of Warcraft).

I’m expecting to get another full year out of my iPad 3. By September 2015, this one will be getting long in the tooth and require replacement. I expect that to be why iPad sales are down. Now that the product has matured, there’s no need to upgrade every year.

Apple does the unexpected; opens OS X betas to everyone

I will admit, I did not see this one coming. Apple announced on April 22, 2014 that they are now allowing anyone with an Apple ID, and is 18 years of older, to participate in their beta program. Previously, this required an Apple Developer Account ($99/year). Now, it’s free, as in beer.

I think this is a great idea. Personally, I’ve been in the iOS and OS X developer programs solely for research. As a freelancer specializing in Apple products, I needed to be comfortable with the new OSs before launch to write about the new features. Now, at least, I don’t have to worry about the OS X program.

When I reached out to Apple PR about their motives, they declined to comment. My uneducated guess is that Apple needed more feedback on beta releases than they were getting from the developer pool. I know that the betas leading up to a GM get a lot of testing from developers, but I don’t know about the dot relases. This could also be a general security issue since betas for the new versions of OS X usually hit the torrent sites. That’s not a good way for people to get their hands on operating systems.

How it works is pretty straightforward. You sign up and download a DMG file which has a MavericksBetaAccessUtility.pkg file in it. Installing this allows he prerelease iTunes 11.1.6 and OS X 10.9.3 betas to be downloaded from the Mac App Store. What is not explicitly stated is whether this will still be in place when the beta for OS X 10.10 starts this summer. There is an FAQ here, but it’s a little vague on how forthcoming betas will be handled. I think that 10.10 will be included. At least, I hope it is. A concern, however, is that the DMG and the PKG file say “Mavericks” and not “OS X”. So, it’s possible this is only for Mavericks. We will see in two months.

My next question is whether this will be available on iOS. I am split on this, and the 51% of me thinks it will not be. OS X has a much smaller install base than iOS. It’s also easier to recover your Mac from a bad beta than your iPhone. Also, you download the files for iOS betas from the developer page; not the iOS App Store.[1] Were Apple to introduce free iOS betas, they would include it in the free developer accounts. You’d have to pay to use iTunes Connect. This would also eliminate the selling of device provisions that generally drive Apple nuts.


  1. Technically, you also do this for the OS X betas, but once you’ve entered in a reclamation code, the beta software appears in the App Store.  ↩

Hands-on: Scrivener 2.0

The iPad forced Scrivener, a great Mac writing app, out of my workflow. I’ve been using various writing tools for the iPad pretty much exclusively, and there wasn’t a need for Scrivener in the process. Now, new features introduced in version 2.0 have earned Scrivener its place back.

Big Feature Number 1: Sync with External Folder

This feature alone was worth the $25 upgrade fee. As you’d expect, it lets you, well, sync with an external folder. The intent here is for you to use a service like Dropbox as your sync folder, although you don’t have to. When you sync a Scrivener project it creates subfolders with the bits that make up a project — a Scrivener project isn’t a single file like a Word (s msft) document; instead it’s a package made up of  files — be it text files as part of the manuscript, or images or PDFs for your research.

When you set this project to sync, it’ll create subfolders for all those nested bits, and you can edit them on any computer that has access to that folder and can edit the text files. This is a fantastic feature for use with iPad editing tools. I’ll export all my current projects to Dropbox. When I edit the project on the iPad, it’ll auto-sync when I open the project up in Scrivener. Also, text files created in the sync folder will auto import. All my TAB stuff goes into one project, so if I create a new article on the iPad, it’ll get imported. This feature is also very handy if you’re collaborating on a project with another Scrivener user.

Big Feature Number 2: Create E-books

Creating an e-book from your work has been somewhat challenging up until now. Open-source tools like Sigil can create e-books, but my experiences with it showed me it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s probably not something the average writer is likely to want to deal with. When Apple recently introduced ePub exporting in Pages, I felt it was the first e-book creation tool average users can work with. Now, Scrivener can create both ePub and Mobi-formatted books.

I haven’t played with this feature much other than to export a project and view it on my iPad and Stanza (s amzn) in OS X, but, it worked, and looked quite good. I did notice the iPad was a little more font-sensitive than Stanza (it didn’t see all the font overrides I set in Scrivener). Using the supplied novel template I also noticed that the table of contents were auto created.

I haven’t tried to send a compiled e-book off to one of the self-publishing services, so I have no idea how well that aspect works.

Not-so-big Features

Better Academic Usage

My experiences using Scrivener for academic work were frustrating. While it was great at storing research, getting Scrivener to bend to MLA formatting just wasn’t worth the hassle. Now, Scrivener includes templates for MLA and other academic standards. There are also now presets for things like block quoting that really help alleviate some of the frustration of formatting.

Also greatly improved is footnoting. Footnotes (and comments) now appear in the Inspector rather than in-line. The combination of these two improvements makes Scrivener a more appealing tool for student use.

Better Outlining

Most of my work doesn’t involve outlining. That said, there are some impressive new additions to outlining in Scrivener. The biggest one for me is custom columns. I live or die by word counts, and now the outline view can show the word count for all my drafts. I can also add columns for progress to a target word count, modified date, etc. This is especially handy for files like my TAB binder, which can become very congested.

Collections

This is going to be the feature I’m glad was included later, even though I don’t currently use it. Basically, collections let you grab scrivenings without changing their place in the overall structure. If you’re working on a large manuscript and you’ve identified scrivenings that are to be the focus of the day’s editing, you can drag those into a collection and not screw up their position. I haven’t figured if there’s a way to create a smart collection based on keywords. I can easily see using this as a to-do list.

Conclusion

Scrivener 2.0 was one of my most-anticipated upgrades this year. It hasn’t disappointed me. The folder sync feature is a boon to us iPad users and lets me use Scrivener as the Grand Central Terminal for my writing. The upgrade is $25 and the full version is $45. It’s a tremendous bargain for such an awesome writing tool.

World of Warcraft Cataclysm Review

Azeroth is sundered! A dormant dragon awakens. A colony of dwarves lose their ancestral home and need a hobbit to get it back — oh wait, sorry, wrong fantasy series. While Cataclysm ($39.99) is World of Warcraft’s third expansion, the overall changes to the world make this more like WoW 2.0, or, at the least WoW 1.5. What’s nice is a lot of the changes will be available to all current subscribers, even if you don’t buy the expansion.

What You Get For Free

As part of the — wait for it — Cataclysmic event that sundered Azeroth, almost every area in the game has seen its geography change; the only unchanged areas are the ones from the previous two expansions. An ancient dragon, Deathwing, has risen from within the world, and his hatching effected something similar to the movie 2012, only with better acting.

Blizzard has also learned from past mistakes and greatly streamlined leveling your character. Previous quests involved a gigantic amount of running around for little reward; now the quest hubs are gathered closer together and the game does a much better job at guiding you along your path.

New Starting Areas

Blizzard has introduced two new races: the Worgen (a lyncanthropic race) and the Goblins (short little green men with a love of explosives). Each race receives their own new starting area for new characters, complete with new and improved beginner quest mechanics. Each starting area takes about 5-6 hours to complete before you can enter the main game.

Of the two new areas, I enjoyed the Goblin one the best. Blizzard does well when it lets its irreverence and sense of humor shine, and the Goblin area is lighthearted, fun, and full of explosives. The Worgen area is much more serious. You’re cursed to become a lycan and during the starting experience you’re fighting to take back your city. Which would you rather do: watch the game fight a huge battle for you (your involvement in this epic event is limited), or roast zombies on a pair of rocket boots? I’m going with rocket boots, every time.

The Worgen area also shows an odd lack of polish by Blizzard’s standards.  Usually when there’s an epic battle at the end of a quest line, the game shows a “next battle in 10 minutes” popup so you know you should hang around for a few, or maybe see what the baby has been crying about all this time. There isn’t one in the last battle for the Worgens, and it’s easy to get thoroughly confused about what you need to do.

Raised Level Cap and New High-Level Areas

Cataclysm raises the level cap from 80 to 85, and it’s a much shorter journey to max level than in previous expansions. We were seeing “server first” announcements for level 85s less than 24 hours into the expansion launch, and even with my slow-paced leveling my character was 85 in less than a week. Previous expansions took me several months to reach max level. Frankly, I wasn’t upset at how quickly it happened. I enjoy the game more without the need to grind out levels, and taking new characters through the revamped zones is keeping me occupied.

There are roughly seven new zones in Cataclysm, a slight reduction in the number of new areas usually included in a new expansion. I found two particularly notable: Vashj’ir is an entirely underwater area, and Uldum is basically the plot of the three Indiana Jones movies rolled into one quest line. In Uldum, Blizzard again shows its sense of humor, and it’s my favorite of the new areas.

One drawback to the new areas, though, is how Blizzard has phased the zones. In Wrath of the Lich King, the previous expansion, Blizzard introduced phasing as a way of having your adventure area change as you completed quests. A town might be intact during one part, but destroyed later on in the story.With Wrath, the phasing was limited to a couple of high-end zones. In Cataclysm, it’s much more prevalent. Unfortunately, if you’re not on the exact same point in the story as a friend, you won’t be able to play with them. A friend of mine and I were “out of phase” and it was simply because I had accepted two more quests than she had. As a result, Cataclysm is likely to feel a lot more like a single-player game than an MMO at times.

Playing Well With the Mac

Blizzard has always released its products simultaneously for Mac (s aapl) and Windows(s msft), and Cataclysm is no different. Since it’s a native build and not a port using Cider, it runs very well on the Mac. I played through the entire expansion using a mid-2009 13-inch MacBook Pro with the Nvidia (s nvda) 9400M chip, and even with that anemic graphics processor it ran very well. I experienced no crashes or unusual hangups, although the main cities can drag your frame rates down.

Verdict

I like that rather than tack on more “previously undiscovered” zones to the game, Cataclysm focuses on the continents that launched six years ago. Other MMOs (I’m looking at you, EverQuest) have added so many new areas, that it becomes a little ridiculous. The hard mode in Cataclysm dungeons, called Heroics, are indeed fairly hard and require more player skill to complete than players will be used to — Wrath’s Heroics were fairly tame and a lot of us got lazy.

Highs: Big changes to the WoW game world, for all players.

Lows: Phasing takes quite a bit of the multiplayer out of this MMO.

If you’ve got a character that can take advantage of the new high-level zones, Cataclysm is a lot of fun. But even if you’re not a current subscriber, this is one of the best times to start playing. With the revamped low-level requiring only an active subscription, and with lots of old players creating new characters, there’s a ton of new people running around to play with, which is the point after all.