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.  ↩
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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.

WWDC 2010 Predictions

iPhone News

  • New iPhone and OS 4.0 shipping imminently. It appears they are already ramping up production. I might even go out on a limb and say 4.0 will ship within a week of WWDC
  • AT&T to allow tethering
  • More tech details of 4.0

iPad News

  • Sales update
  • OS 4.0 new announcements: better file management, better iCal. Bluetooth tethering and greater bluetooth connectivity options, including 3rd party presenters tools, ability to manipulate Photo library, removal of iTunes initial sync requirement. Apple will begin marketing the iPad as a stand alone device.

Mac news

  • Sales update
  • Mac Pro refresh
  • No OS/X 10.7 details except “we’ve got great new things planned”

Cloud news

  • Apple will roll iWork.com out of beta with better collaboration tools
  • MobileMe syncing and cloud backup will be free for iDevices. Possible free MobileMe for Mail/Calendar. iDisk to remain premium.
  • Apple will begin to focus more on cloud storage and syncing.

App News:

  • Possible: new iWork and iLife with cloud storage.

Thoughts on Mobile Me

My e-mail is hosted on Google Apps, as is my calendar. I also use Google Reader for my RSS feeds. I’ve also been a serial abuser of Mobile Me trial. My blog is hosted on WordPress. I use Dropbox for cloud storage.

I don’t generally get political about my technology choices. I use Apple gear because it works the best for my workflow. Over time, I’ve become very integrated into the Apple infrastructure, and while every computer I use has the Apple logo on it, — and I write about Apple professionally — I don’t really consider myself an Apple fanboy. Apple for me is the best choice for me. It may not be the best choice for you. I’m not going to judge.

The one holdout for me as been Mobile Me. I try it and cancel it. I try it and cancel it. There just never seemed to be a hole in my life Mobile Me would fill.

That’s starting to change.

The Google buzz fiasco has started change how I view Google. I’ve been leery of Google’s motivation; they are in the search business and probably know more about what I do on the Internet than the NSA. I’m starting to have qualms about entrusting my email, calendar, etc to Google.

I’m very happy with Dropbox and have considered upgrading to the 50g plan. However, there is one problem with Dropbox: it’s an all-or-nothing sync. Without putting too fine a point on it, there are things I’m ok with syncing to my work computer and things I am not. However, living as a digital nomad and needing to get access to certain documents when I need them, and not just when I’m at home is crucial. As an example, I told a friend if mime I’d send her something I wrote. Now I have to remember to email it. If the file was in the cloud, I could have just shared it with her.

Now that I own an iPad, iPhone and my Mac, simple things like bookmark syncing become important. I don’t usually bookmark — I use Instapaper and Evernote for a lot of my read later needs. I’ll still run across a site I want to bookmark for later on a mobile device.

Which has lead to yet another Mobile Me trial, only this time I think it’s going to stick. For the short term, it’ll let me have a work-pc-friendly cloud storage device without worrying about my freelance writing stuff getting synced over.

I’m not sure what to do about the e-mail thing. I love that Mobile Me lets me have up to five aliases, which is great for creating throwaway accounts. I can’t, however, host the writersmark e-mail there. One alternative is to simply find a place to park the MX record for writersmark and forward it over. For now, I’m just going to keep it hosted at Google until I give it more thought.

How I didn't want to spend my Friday

This semester, I’m taking a six-week intensive class, and I have a standing date with my parents on Sunday afternoons. Friday is usually game night. I was looking forward to it tonight.

I’ve been working on my MacBook at work a lot and was in the middle of working on a presentation when OS X started acting weird. I’d get little freezes and lockups, even though my processor and memory utilization were low. It felt like I was getting hard lockups every 10 min or so.

Since the Mac was in an unresponsive state, I hit the power button. Usually, OS X springs back to life and everything is wonderful. This time, it took forever to clear the startup gray screen and it hung at the blue screen, alternating showing a gray spinning wheel and not. Trying the usual suspects did nothing. I reset the PMY, NVRAM, and tried a safe boot. No joy. I was able to boot into my Windows 7 partition so I knew it wasn’t likely a hardware fault. A quick Google showed this wasn’t uncommon, and an Archive and Reinstall usually fixed it.

The problem was game night, and my on going belief that Murphy has a sense of humor. If I didn’t go to game night, I’d come home and the reinstall would work. If I went, tomorrow it’d be a nightmare of a reinstall, and I’d probably end up at the Apple Store on a Saturday. So, I sent my regrets.

Naturally, the reinstall went fairly well. There were a few post-install issues, but for the most part everything worked well. I just wish I could have made game night.

Apple Fanboism and the Inevitable Windows/Apple Comparison.

In this article I wrote for The Apple Blog, I mentioned I’m fairly platform agnostic with this statement:

While I live and play in the land of Apple, where rainbow-farting unicorns frolic in the meadows, I work in a Windows world. While being a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Apple Pundits dictates otherwise, I don’t view Microsoft as the Great Satan; a computer is but a tool to do a job. While I believe OS X is far superior to Windows, I’m not going to think a great injustice has been done if you make me use Windows.

We had a lively discussion and a brave soul from Microsoft chimed in, and a comment on his blog struck me as a topic for here:

I had to laugh at a recent development on a thread I have been following. For the most part the conversation has been lively, relevant and fun with a little good natured MS and Apple ribbing here and there, but one comment posted tonight kind of quantified the type of “Stockholm Syndrome” that many Apple users seem to have to the almighty fruit.

I’m not unbiased in this. I write about Apple for money. I use OS X as my primary computer. I have no real interest in buying a computer that runs a Windows operating system. I don’t follow Microsoft news except for the coverage it gets in the Mac press, and that coverage I largely ignore because of its bias. So, suffice it to say, I drink from the Apple Kool-Aid with the gusto of a drunk on St. Paddy’s day.

While many refer to Apple users as being in a high-and-mighty club, in many ways it’s more like The Breakfast Club. A 1997 Apple ad campaign prompted people to Think Different, and that’s certainly true. Being an Apple user comes with certain sacrifices: I can’t just walk into Best Buy or Wal-Mart and get a software package; my hardware and software are made by the same company and if Apple decides I don’t need a Firewire port, well, I don’t get a Firewire port.

That said, I think the iPhone is going to increase OS X’s market share, and I’m not talking about the books cooking Schiller sold us on the OS X install base by adding iPhone users to the numbers — yeah, I know it’s running a mobile version of OS X, but that’s not OS X as we know it. The development tools require a Mac, so if you want to get on that land rush, you need a Mac. I use Cultured Code’s Things on the iPhone and desktop to sync my task list and the desktop version is Mac only. I think we’ll see a lot of applications that sync between the iPhone and the desktop require OS X on the desktop side.

Apple is unique in the consumer marketplace with the control it has on the hardware and software. A Windows-based computer bought three years ago will run Windows 7 when it’s released — although maybe not with all the bells and whistles. Three years ago, Apple switched from Power PC chips to Intel chips, and if you bought a Power PC-based computer before the change-over, you’re SOL on Snow Leopard. As Jason said:

“Apple began a transition to Intel chips in Macs. I think it was a great move. OS X supports universal binaries so apps can be written to support both platforms, sweet right? Except here we are in 2009, and your Three year old “Super Computer” they sold you is at it’s end of life as far as being able to run Apple’s newest OS. To think people give Microsoft shit about Vista requiring something newer and up to date for decent performance, G5s and below are cut off for good. Ouch.”

Now, there are two ways to look at this: there’s a certain amount of questioning I feel is valid if you make a heavy investment in a hardware platform during an announced transition; and Snow Leopard’s release won’t cause the Power PC Mac to stop running. And since Snow Leopard is kinda low on the features, and the under-the-hood changes are really only  useful to Intel-based users, I don’t think sitting this one out for Power PC users is going to be a hardship.

One aspect of the Apple community I can’t stand is the notion that Microsoft is the devil. One big focus change Jobs started when he became CEO was to get Apple off the mindset that in order for Apple to succeed, Microsoft must fail. The users themselves, though, still cling to this ancient way of thinking. Forums are littered with people who steer clear of Office for the Mac simply because it’s made by Microsoft. Look, you can not use the product because it’s bloated, takes forever to load and costs $300+ when iWork costs $70 and likely does everything you need. But don’t stab yourself in the eye simply because a boycott on Microsoft products forces you to try and do heavy word processing tasks or number crunching, or needing to round-trip with Word users on a daily basis in a software package where the focus is on making things look pretty. Now, not all Mac users are like this, but it’s clear some people never got the memo about the armistice. In some ways, it’s laughably hypocritical; Apple users get their panties in a bunch over the laptop hunter commercials, but view the “I’m a Mac” ads as Gems of Flawless Truth. I think the “I’m a Mac” ads are fantastic ads that I enjoy watching, but the laptop hunter ads do as good as job at attacking Apple’s price point as the Mac ads do of attacking public perception on Vista’s struggles.

I’ll admit to some prejudice on my part. I’ll walk through South Station and see a Windows user and think “you poor bastard.” While I don’t view Microsoft as the Great Satan, using Windows inevitably makes me go, “oh, jesus fuck” way more often than OS X does. Also, I enjoy how the iLife suite integrates with other products, and, for me, the OS is much more crash resistant than Windows XP. Since my company hasn’t moved to Vista, and that’s where I use Windows the most, I can’t tell if Vista is much better. The only anecdotal evidence I have is my wife uses Vista on her laptop and has no problems with it. I do believe a computer is but a tool, I do think OS X is the better tool for consumers and Windows being the better tool for enterprise users.

So, I have no problems spending $1200 dollars on a laptop with a 13″ screen because I know the OS and the hardware are built to last. I got my 13″ Whitebook in June 2006 and it’s still going strong; my wife has gone through two cheaper laptops in that period. If I were to get a Windows laptop, I’d likely get a Thinkpad since those are built to last. That gets us into the over-$1000 range.

That’s not to say I think Apple is perfect. I can’t stand the Finder and use Pathfinder instead. I think forcing users to manually move icons around to organize your iPhone apps is a clear sign of Apple Thinking It Knows Better Than You. These quibbles are minor though. While at work I’m more productive on my Windows machine because it’s fully tied into the domain, in all other aspects of my life, I’m more productive on my Mac. I’ve made fun of Apple’s “It just works” ad campaign before, but truthfully I’ve found I spend more time simply using OS X than I have spent fighting to get something done.

I think the big difference between the two companies is in their management style. I show you these two images from this Presentation Zen post:

Steve Jobs giving a presentation:

jobs_intel_1

zen_master

A Bill Gates slide:

complicated_bill2

The Jobs’ slides are very focused. There’s one idea per slide (or no ideas). The Gates slide has a lot going on. I think this shows in how the organizations are run. Apple under Jobs is very focused and on message. “We’re here to talk about the Iphone/Desktops/iPods today.” Microsoft tends to have a lot going on, and much of that makes me scratch my head. Microsoft will get up in front of a stage and tout products that are years from being released like Surface, and waste their time trying to acquire companies like Yahoo. Steve Jobs gets on stage, and that product is coming out within 6 months, if it’s not “shipping today.” Microsoft is also the “many things to many people” company. They rule the desktop and enterprise market shares, but that spread I think fractures the company’s focus. What I’d love to see is a Microsoft keynote address focusing on Windows 7’s improvements similar to the one Bertrand Serlet gave at WWDC about Snow Leopard.

That doesn’t mean I think either company is run better or worse. Most of Apple’s success is driven by Steve Jobs’ relentless personality. By all accounts the man is hard to work for. However, I think that drive results in a better product. While people joke about Apple’s Reality Distortion Field, I think the company has an almost unparalleled level of loyalty and enthusiasm around it. There’s likely to be a line for Snow Leopard; I doubt there will be one for Windows 7. The lines make good press which only helps Apple’s image.

Microsoft, though, wins as the Wal-Mart of OSs. If my wife’s laptop dies, we’re a 20 minute drive from a Best Buy where she has her choice of laptops. That choice, though, can lend to over-analyzing (do I want the 500g drive, or the one with 6 USB ports?). If my Mac dies, I’m 45 min from an Apple store where I have a choice of four models. If I’m in a region without Apple’s retail presence, I need to order it online.

Where the hell was I again? Oh yeah, Apple fanbois. What’s interesting to note is the fanboism, or anti-fanboism runs rampant on both sides. Apple pundits jump on every misstep Microsoft makes, and Microsoft pundits jump on Apple for not adhering to how they think things should be done. Being stereotypical, Microsoft users look at Apple users as smug assholes who pay extra money for a glowing logo on the back of their laptops. Apple users tend to look at Windows users as people who use Windows simply because they can’t Think Differently.

Look, I’d be thrilled if my wife said she wanted a Mac for her next computer. She’s a former Mac user herself. But, in many ways she’s a Lauren from the first laptop hunter ad: the $800 15″ laptop  she got from Best Buy will serve her just as well as the $1600 or so 15″ MacBook. For me, though, I’m ok with the $1200 13″ from Apple.