My month with a Mac

Aside from an occasional few minutes playing with a Mac, I’ve spend the majority of my two decade involvement with computers with Microsoft-based systems (including several versions of MS-DOS). I had purchased a Mac about 6 months ago to experiment with iOS development, but still didn’t use the 13″ MacBook Pro much more than occasionally.

More recently, I’ve taken a job with a large consulting firm that has a fairly reasonable BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy, and I’ve converted my Mac to my “daily driver.” The primary reason was not what one might expect. Basically, the standard-issue Windows computer supplied by the company is loaded with corporate “crapware” (management, monitoring, asset tracking, etc) that essentially slows the otherwise capable system to a crawl. While most of the business-critical applications I use work on the Mac, the preponderance of corporate crapware does not, allowing me to run a fairly “clean” system and still comply with corporate policy. Furthermore, I prefer not to put personal applications on a company machine, and BYOD flips the equation, allowing me to carry only a single laptop.

I’ve not experienced the magical and revolutionary enlightenment, singing choirs of angels, or inner peace most Mac advocates describe, but I can say that it’s a high-quality bit of hardware, married to what’s essentially a commercially supported and tightly integrated UNIX-style OS.

At clients I’ve seen increasing numbers of Macs wandering corporate hallways, and it’s fairly easy to see why. Most companies are loading their machines with “lowest common denominator” images, and software that appeals to IT but ruins the end-user experience. With attractive hardware and a quick, crapware-free, modern OS, it’s hard not to like the Mac.

The Business Traveler’s Take on the iPhone 5

I received my iPhone 5 last week, and was excited to upgrade from my aging iPhone 4. I travel regularly for business, and my phone is a key tool as I traipse around the world.

The internet is rife with detailed technical reviews of the new iPhone, but I wanted to put together a some brief thoughts for those that are considering the iPhone 5 as a business tool, particularly those who travel frequently.

Hardware

Like most previous iPhones, the iPhone 5 looks nice. With the width being the same, and the device being a touch thinner, the increased height goes almost unnoticed in your hand. The phone is also a bit lighter, adding to the feeling that the larger screen comes with no perceived size penalty. I find the lightness of the device attractive, and have never understood the equation of weight with quality. If you’ve ever held a well-built titanium part, that’s about what the new iPhone feels like: uncannily light but well-built. I personally find the back of my white iPhone 5 with it’s overly shiny lettering and branding to look a bit chintzy, but I’ve never been accused of being fashionable so take than with a grain of salt.

The larger screen is a nice addition, particularly for reading. I often use my phone to catch up on books, news, and the WSJ, and the longer screen makes this a nicer experience. When reading, one really doesn’t notice apps that aren’t yet optimized for the larger screen (more about that later).

Supposedly there’s more “magic and revolutionary” in this new screen than the iPhone 4, and it seemed slightly nicer to me in terms of how it renders colors, but nothing earth shattering.

Speed

Yup, it’s faster than the iPhone 4. In some areas like loading certain applications, the speed increase is fairly dramatic. Not Earth-shattering, but certainly noticeable. Superlatives aside, this really is a noticeable benefit.

Passbook

Much ado has been made about Apple’s toe dipped into the world of mobile payments in the form of Passbook, a document/coupon/loyalty card storage application. For me, it’s essentially useless at this point. A couple of airlines I don’t regularly fly (United and American) are the only travel-related offerings, as are a bunch of stores I don’t really frequent.

When you open the application, you essentially get a “hey, this doesn’t do anything until you add apps” screen. Like all the mobile wallet systems, there’s promise, but little current benefit. In theory, Passbook has some neat features whereby it will figure out when you’re at the airport and make your boarding pass available on the lock screen, saving a few taps, but until US Air hops on board I generally won’t use it.

From a technology standpoint, it’s a bit disappointing Apple is essentially adding one more standard to an increasingly convoluted mix. While 5 million units sold during “opening weekend” is motivation to jump aboard Apple’s bandwagon, I think it will be another 5-10 years before mobile wallets are commonly used, and vendors now need to wonder whether they support Apple’s closed standard, Google’s “standard” or just stick with cross-platform tools like current mobile boarding passes that rely on the web browser.

Maps

Ahhh, the red-headed stepchild of the iPhone 5: Maps. Without beating a dead horse, Apple has taken some justified flack for its maps app. For a US-based business traveller, thus far I find Apple Maps to be helpful. You get more information about points of interest, and direct links to Yelp, which is a key tool for me as I seek food options on the road.

In terms of navigation, the iPhone goes from no inbuilt navigation, to a reasonably competent system, assuming the location you’re trying to navigate to exists in its database. This is the big flaw in Apple Maps: it looks nice and works reasonably well from a functional standpoint, but the data isn’t up to Google Maps quality. Exit numbers on major roads are incorrect, and handy details like exact building locations aren’t present in Apple’s mapping program.

Where things get particularly nasty is for the international traveler. I rely heavily on mapping when visiting a foreign city, and Google Maps has rarely let me down from Tulsa, to Thessaloniki, to Tianjin. Maps are detailed and accurate, and this has literally changed my travel experience. I can wander a foreign city aimlessly, and know that Google Maps will get me back to my hotel. Some preliminary browsing of foreign cities in Apple Maps paints a less rosy picture. The absence of public transit, something I’m more likely to partake in internationally is a glaring miss, and the level of detail Google provides in places like China seems to be missing. At this point I wouldn’t fully trust Apple Maps for an afternoon of wandering in a non-US or Western European city.

Siri

I was looking forward to Siri, a feature absent on the iPhone 4. The idea of an semi-intelligent robotic assistant is quite compelling, and something I’ve been following and yearning after for decades (although I wish we’d get the flying car out of the way first). Apple’s commercials make Siri look like an amazing tool for the harried traveler, but my experience has been a bit less impressive.

While it has only been a few days, Siri is batting around 0.300 for me, accurately fulfilling my request about 30% of the time. She’s diligently created a couple of reminders, but struggles mightily with transcribing emails or text messages to the point that it’s faster to enter them manually. She’s also failed several seemingly simple queries (like “When is the Beijing marathon”), and occasionally takes 2-8 seconds to “process” what I’ve said, or gets stuck in an infinite “processing” cycle, so she’s rapidly bumping against the point of diminishing returns.

I love the smart assistant concept, and thus far have been slightly more impressed with Android on this one. A recently-acquired Android phone prompted me that it seemed I muted my phone before going to bed each night, and asked if it should automatically mute at bedtime, and only allow calls from emergency contacts. I find that sort of functionality far more intelligent and helpful than telling bad jokes during celebrity TV commercials.

In both cases, at least this type of functionality is finally moving out of the labs and into the public, where it will presumably only get better.

Battery, Lightening, and Network

The battery in the iPhone 5 seems up to snuff for a full business day, and I’ve managed to go from 6AM to 11PM with around 20% left in the tank. The negative of course is that Apple’s new “Lightening” connector precludes you from borrowing a colleagues cable, or taking advantage of the ubiquitous iPhone docks now present in many hotels. There’s also an absolute dearth of accessories at the moment, so no adding an external battery or battery case unless it’s a “generic” USB unit. This will presumably change in the coming months, and again, the sales numbers of the iPhone 5 certainly bode well for a diverse aftermarket. I do find the new connector easier to use, and less annoying to pack, so the new connector is a positive in the long run, but a negative in the here and now, especially when I have a drawer full of “old” Apple cables, and the new Lightening cables border on highway robbery at their current $40 a whack.

On the data side, yep, the 4G/LTE stuff is actually faster, and in some cases startlingly so, particularly when downloading attachments. I can’t say my life was particularly lacking when I had to wait a whopping 8 seconds to download a picture or email attachment, but that same download now takes less than a second.

Closing thoughts and Apple’s Big Miss (it’s actually not maps!)

There’s a lot to like in Apple’s latest iPhone. The battery is solid, it uses the latest mobile networks, and checks the “lighter, faster, thinner” boxes. You also get the global network of Apple retail stores, which make for easy service and exchanges when needed, a feature I’ve used to painless exchange two defective iPhone 4’s and an often-underestimated “feature” on the Apple product.

The biggest miss in my experience is not maps, but the “letterbox” mode that accommodates applications that aren’t yet compatible with the longer screen. In this mode, black bars appear above and below the application to fill in the missing 0.5” of the older application.

Visually this is no problem, and for apps where you’re not typing all is well. The problem comes when you need to type. The black bar at the bottom of the screen moves the keyboard up a few millimeters, and thus changes the location of all the keys. I’m not a touch-typist on these tiny keyboards, but apparently my brain naturally expects certain things, for instance that the space bar is located at the border of the screen. My typing on the new phone grows noticeably worse when I switch between “old” and new apps, due to the keyboard moving up or down. This is a major productivity killer in my mind.

While this will be alleviated to some extent as apps update for the newer screen size, I would imagine it’s something that we’ll be stuck with to a large extent, and something that will make typing on this device sub-optimal. I hope Apple will correct this by putting all the “filler” for legacy apps on the top of the screen, so the keyboard stays in the same place, but I would imagine the company’s preference for the visual will win out over the needs of boring pragmatists that want to write things rather than gaze at pretty pictures.

Some of the major negatives are imminently fixable, and part of the early adopter penalty. The problems with Apple Maps are primarily around it’s data, something stored “in the cloud” that will presumably improve rather rapidly. The dearth of accessories will certainly improve, and I hope Apple with revisit it’s “moving keyboard” problem. If you like Apple products and own an older iPhone, the iPhone 5 seems like a sure winner for the business traveller, although you may consider waiting a few months if you’re troubled by the current problems, most of which should soon be things of the past.

Google’s $1.5B Market?

While I hate to harp on Apple’s map woes twice in one day, this interesting post notes that Apple has removed traffic, transit, and street view from 1.5 billion potential customers, and stripped one or more of those features from a total of 5 billion potential customers (these numbers represent the affected populations of countries where these data have changed, not iPhone owners).

If Google were to offer even just the standard, old Google Maps for iOS, and charge a buck for it, there’s a pretty nice market. Good luck with that thermonuclear war, boys.

The first casualty of “thermonuclear war”

Steve Jobs famously quipped that he would go to “thermonuclear war” with Google, over his perception that the latter “stole” many of the concepts and design of the iPhone and iOS. While there’s little benefit to arguing that point one way or another, it appears we have our first major casualty of Apple’s war with Google on the mapping front.

If you haven’t followed the usual brouhaha that accompanies the release of a new iPhone, among the new features of the device is an in-house mapping program, that replaces Google Maps. Google Maps was included with every version of iOS, but slowly began to lag behind the version of the product shipped with Google’s own Android mobile OS, missing key features like spoken navigation and detailed reviews of local establishments.

Apple announced it would part ways with Google, and dumped Google’s You Tube video service from the iPhone while announcing it’s own mapping application. A raft of “he said, she said” emanated from both camps, with Google claiming it would gladly update it’s iOS maps application, and Apple declining. However, today it became clear that Apple has some “work to do” (as admitted by their PR folks) on the mapping application, while end users are a lot less generous. Apple’s maps have problems ranging from landmarks like the Washington Monument misplaced, to so little detail in some countries as to make them useless, to a complete absence of transit directions, a really great feature when you’re in an unfamiliar city. The navigation component even suggests a swim, or perhaps really long leap, over the Hudson River in Manhattan rather than a nearby bridge or tunnel.

With Google having reduced mapping to what amounts to a commodity, and Microsoft also a major player, one wonders what Apple hopes to gain investing hundreds of millions merely to reach parity with these two giants, all while frustrating and angering users. While Apple users are inordinately loyal to the company, history is littered with companies that got distracted, or took customers for granted, arguably including Apple during it’s “dark days” without Jobs. While there are surely some benefits to controlling all aspects of your mobile OS, bringing mapping in house looks like a high-risk proposition with correspondingly little upside.

I’m looking forward to the arrival of my own iPhone 5, and will be interested to see how Apple copes with its mapping problems. As someone who travels frequently and has come to rely on mobile mapping, I hope Apples seemingly misdirected efforts don’t literally misdirect me.

Xbox and the Gift that keeps on Giving

I have a Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming console, that I originally purchased for the occasional online game with far-flung friends. It continues to amaze me that a half-dozen of us from around the world, sporting goofy call-center operator style headphones, can chat and catch up while tossing virtual grenades at each other. The other aspect of Xbox that amazes me is that the device has evolved well beyond gaming. It can play movies, check the weather, suggest interesting songs and movies, and remains easy to use, with a fluid and intuitive interface.

Technology companies are constantly touting “partnerships” and “value-added content,” but this usually comes in the form of technical feature porn, or thinly-veiled advertisements for you to buy more, the worst offenders also appearing on a Microsoft product in the form of dozens of “crapware” applications that litter a new computer.

Where Microsoft gets it right with Xbox is that new features and capabilities are truly beneficial to the user. One gets the sense that the Xbox team is looking to make the product better for the end consumer, rather than add spec-sheet puffery, or squeeze another dime out of the consumer by loading the product with ads and junk. While most products lose utility and value over their lifespan, Xbox grows in utility with every software update. Does your product or service do the same?

Android works out

As I’ve frequently mentioned, I’m a Grade A gadget geek, and require little excuse to get a new gadget, especially when it can be couched as something that aids fitness, and has an IT-management spin. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks running with Motorola’s Android-powered Motoactv fitness watch. It’s a neat device in that it interfaces with my existing heart-rate strap, plays MP3s to bluetooth-connected headphones, and even contains a WiFi radio that uploads workout data automagically when I return from a run.

It’s a nice feature set, and frankly amazes me that all of this fits in a watch-sized package. From an IT management perspective, you have a highly connected device sporting Bluetooth, ANT+ (a fitness device radio standard), GPS, and WiFi, all running on a connected, standards-based operating system at a commodity price, that fits in a water resistant, watch-sized case. This would have been unfathomable a decade ago, in a world of proprietary industrial controllers that cost the same as dozens of Motoactvs.

At these price points and feature sets, the world of “an internet of things” seems more of a possibility. Think of the capabilities (and management challenges) of tiny connected devices that could be embedded in everything from a machine on the shop floor, to a shipping container, each device reporting anything from location, to the status of various connected sensors. A device like the Motoactv not only represents the future of IT, but shows that innovation is truly happening in the consumer space, both in terms of capabilities and increasingly commoditized pricing.

Is four a crowd?

Poor Research in Motion can’t catch a break these days. From dismal earnings, to missed deadlines for BlackBerry OS 10, the company has largely been written off in many corners.

From an “ecosystem” perspective, the dust appears to be settling on the big three players in mobile, with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android the obvious market leaders, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone occupying a distant third spot in the running. Most of those writing off RIM suggest the market simply can’t support a forth major mobile operating system.

What many forget as they automatically write off RIM and BlackBerry 10 was that market-dominating iOS was once the fourth player in a smartphone field dominated by BlackBerry OS, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile (the previous incarnation of Windows Phone) and Palm OS. That playing field has effectively been decimated, with Microsoft the only remaining entity, and their Windows Phone an upstart rather than key player.

While we’re certainly in a different mobile market than we were a decade ago when RIM, Microsoft, and Palm ruled the roost, I believe there’s still a chance for a well-positioned innovator to parlay fourth place into something more. RIM lacks Apple’s distinct advantage of having a hot-selling consumer device (the iPod) that was easy to transition into a phone, but they do have a recognizable brand and history in mobile.

While there’s a lot RIM has to do right to succeed, a long-shot based on recent history, I’m not quite ready to consign RIM to the mobile dust bin.

The iPhone 4S: Strategic move or chinks in the King’s armor?

Apple announced it’s latest iPhone, the iPhone 4S, largely to critical comments from a press corps expecting the iPhone 5, and entirely new device. The phone is a gussied-up version of the company’s iPhone 4, and hardware-wise offers better “feature porn”: more gigahertz, gigabytes, and megapixels while remaining outwardly the same. The company’s flagship operating system, iOS received several noteworthy updates, but again many were evolutionary rather than magical.

The usual superlative-laced commentary was on offer, with Apple introducing “pioneering” antenna diversity, which my 1991 Nissan Maxima also prominently featured. For gadget lovers, the announcement was largely a let down, but seems a repeat of the company’s prior strategy to carefully manage new releases, essentially selling the same customer two devices, a “major” and “minor” release of sorts, rather than a single major release.

The one problem with this strategy is that the mobile world has changed quite a bit since Apple “refreshed” the iPhone 3G with the iPhone 3GS. For one thing, there are now four major mobile operating systems: Android, iOS, Windows Mobile, and Blackberry OS (the latter being debatable). When Apple introduced the 3GS, Android was still a new kid on the block, Microsoft was irrelevant, and Blackberry was looking a bit long in the tooth for a “smart” OS. The iPhone 3GS was a Porsche in a world of Hondas, but in October of 2011 it might be a Porsche in a world of Ferraris and Lamborghinis. An iPhone that looks the same as last years model sitting next to the latest Android with a larger screen and newer hardware makes the average consumer pause before automatically checking the iPhone box.

While I have no insider information and am going off pure speculation here, I would guess some combination of three factors are at work here:

  1. Apple is either trying to milk customers with an interim upgrade, knowing that some of those customers will buy whatever the company puts out. Good for shareholders, bad for consumers.
  2. The iPhone 5 simply isn’t ready, and Apple is sweating bullets wondering if incremental upgrades can ward off the Android assault.
  3. Apple has become arrogant or too inwardly focused, and thinks it will retain the #1 position by playing it safe.

Amazon’s on Fire?

Amazon’s new tablet device, called the Amazon Fire is set to challenge Apple for Tablet dominance, and just might be the one to expose some chinks in Apple’s armor. I find the software running on these devices effectively irrelevant when done well; it should be easy to use, and effectively transparent to the user as they jump between lightweight applications and content. Apple got this right, but also had the advantage of a strong developer network and existing content relationships, providing a well-executed OS and stuff worth using on that platform. Contrast this with HP/Palm’s WebOS, also well-executed but severely lacking in the “stuff” department.

Now Amazon enters the foray, armed with the leading e-book library, a budding collection of video assets, a few years of tablet-like devices under its belt, and a well-loved brand on par with Apple. Amazon also has the distinct advantage of a compelling store for physical goods in addition to digital content, something Apple obviously lacks. If the Fire provides easy access to this wealth of “stuff” and delivers an OS that gets out of the way, we may finally have a viable iPad competitor.

I commented briefly on this with the Christian Science Monitor, and the full text of their article can be viewed free here. Look for my comments towards the end of the piece.

Geeking Out

It has been decades since I’ve been intimately involved with the technical side of IT, but every once in a while I like to reestablish touch with my inner geek. Usually this involves writing an Excel or Outlook macro to accomplish some mundane task, and I get that thrill one experiences when a couple hundred lines of code work together to accomplish something useful.

Recently, my Dell desktop computer went on the fritz, and as these things usually happen, it occurred well out of warranty. The motherboard is a proprietary part, and no longer cost effective to replace, so I elected to build a custom desktop, something I haven’t done in several years.

In my teens, building a computer was usually more economical than buying, and I would map out the number of lawns I needed to mow for that hot new graphics card, or speedier processor. Now, any of the major brand-names beat home-built PC’s on cost, but building allows one to customize the computer to their particular needs, and allows the use of standardized commodity parts that can be quickly replaced. With overnight shipping nearly free, this allows for better service than most available warranties while allowing me to build a powerful computer that is also virtually silent.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon (who walked to school uphill both ways) modern computer builds are much easier than my middle school days. No longer must one source all manner of expansion cards, wrestle with the nuances of IRQs, and spend the better part of a day connecting component, hitting the power switch, and sighing as nothing appears on the screen for the umpteenth time, or a floppy drive spins endlessly due to an upside down connector.

While not for everyone, assembling a custom computer takes about the same level of effort as most household projects, no more tools than a screwdriver, and is a neat way to reconnect with your inner geek.