My consistently late review of MacWorld 2014

It's not quite a month yet, so I still have some time.

As usual, I'm finally getting around to writing this late, starting a week after MacWorld 2014 started in San Francisco. So, after a four year absence, I finally returned to see how it was faring without the presence of Apple, itself.

When I first visited MacWorld, back in 2010, the iPad had just been announced, but not released, and Apple had previously announced that they would not attend MacWorld that year, or in any subsequent years. Much was made of how it would transition to a fan based expo of celebrating the community.

So, is it working? For the most part, the expo hall, which is what most people who visit see, is just a collection of iPhone cases, charging solutions, and iPad stands. Fewer actual device and peripheral makers seemed to be present. Only Drobo and Western Digital had any real presence, along with another company selling their Cube solution to add PCIex cards to your 2013 MacPro over Thunderbolt 2. These are all great products, which I wish a) I had a need for, and b) I could afford. (In fairness, I bought a Transporter Sync from Drobo's sister company, and I wish I could afford a Drobo. And I really do want to get WD's big announcement, MyPassport Pro Thunderbolt RAID 2.5 inch portable hdd.)

In terms of the conference, I was less than impressed. Iain US$75 to go to the MacWorld conference track, only to discover that all the interesting talks were on the MacIT track which, even with the early bird discount, was ten times more. The one session I did attend was, to me, underwhelming. Less a how to, than a "here's my expensive rig that I control with my iPad". Yes, technically, you can master multitrack recording with an iPad, but you have to use top line equipment to preserve the sound quality. And I didn't particularly like the song he used as a demo.

So, what is the benefit of MacWorld? Without the really big names to pull people in, why bother? I mean floorspace was given to two electronic massage companies, and a windows installation company. As in a company that installs glass panes in the holes in your house.

There are some interesting small companies there. One company that makes hardware to control guitar effects boxes and amplifiers through your iOS device. Blue showing off their microphone range (although, tellingly, the Lightning version of their Mikey device still isn't available). A number of publishers selling or giving away their (physical) books on Apple hardware and software.

But, really, the value, if there is any, is in "Appapalooza" (proving that the 90s still lives on in the minds of IDG's event planning people). This is where the small software developers, and one or two of the big ones, show off their iOS and MacOS software. Where you can see an ios app that scans in a musical score, and converts it to a midi file that plays on the device. All the processing done on your iPhone, or so they tell me (not yet available for download, so you have to take their word for it - it can certainly play Clare de Lune). Obviously, these are the people the expo is still relevant for, people who don't otherwise get to promote their app outside the App Store itself.

So, whither MacWorld? Trade shows in general seem to be on the way out. As the big tech companies (Apple, Google, Samsung, even Microsoft, and anyone else) move away from the regimented timetable of the next public conference, and towards their own curated events, where they control the message, and particularly the media coverage. This has the effect of cooling some of the enthusiasm, not just of the public or even the press, but of the other technology companies.

By contrast, it also opens up the conference to smaller players. Sadly, while the App focused area of the show floor was certainly worth a look, a lot of the rest of the space is taken up with people selling cases and wraps. (Reports from CES suggest they, too, are being overrun by iPhone cases and iPad stands.)

But it's not just what happens on the show floor, or in the conference halls. MacWorld was also the hub for a number of social gatherings. The problem being that they were somewhat exclusive. Much is made of the big, invite only soirée, but if you don't know the right people, you won't get an invite. Other events are organised by specific interests, leaving some of us out, while others are presumably forced to pick between them.

So, as a poorly socialised outsider in the tech community, will I go again? Maybe. It's a convenient excuse to visit SF at a niceish time of year. You can pick up some swag. I'm not sure about the conference, though. Unless I pay for the technical track, I might not bother. Who knows, maybe next year some of the big players will be back. Not Apple, of course.


2013 - a forgetful review

So, 2014 has gotten off to not much of a start. I was going to write about all the things that happened in 2013, but it occurred to me I didn't really have a clue what actually happened. I know that the leader of one of the world's biggest religious organisations announced his resignation last year. As well as Steve Ballmer, the pope also resigned. The search for a new pope is a lot easier, though. They've had a lot more experience, and Benedict didn't get rid of anybody who might be able to take over from him.

Google Glass came out, and wowed everyone who knew someone with $1500 and an invitation for about ten minutes, before moving on to the next big thing.

Samsung brought out a watch, in the hope to preempt the next nonexistent, unannounced product from Apple, and no one really cared about that, either.

Microsoft had to write down almost a billion on the Surface, before announcing the Surface 2. This may have been linked to Ballmer's resignation. Or not.

The profitable wing of Microsoft had some success with the release of the XBox One, while Sony brought out the PlayStation 4. I still have no idea which one is better, although initially, MS was ridiculed for restrictive game reselling and sharing policies, and requiring an always on Internet connection. They did back down eventually, and the responsible executive was taken out back and shot. Or something. Then Ballmer resigned.

Apple, in addition to spec-bumping its entire line between June and October, announce the first major update to the MacPro in years. Immediately ridiculed for not being exactly the same as previous MacPros, only better, many announced the end of Apple as a serious contender in the personal computer market, making it the 36th consecutive year in which this has occurred. After an extremely delayed release, it turns out that the sealed-in, completely un-upgradable design is completely modular and should be easily upgradable.

Apple, of course, continues it's dominance in product lines it hasn't announced. The Apple branded TV set has still not been seen, and the alleged iWatch caused Samsung to rush to be first to market, while still not actually appearing. Oh, and analysts predicted that Apple needed to do some particular thing, or hit some particular goal. Apple refused to do this, and so presumably is mere moments from the company collapsing into bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Apple's cash reserves, and stock valuation continued to rise.

The main thing Apple failed to do was release a new, cheap iPhone. It released the iPhone 5c, which seems to have been designed to avoid manufacturing problems with the iPhone 5, and replaced it in the "previous generation" slot in the iPhone lineup. This's, of course, means that Apple is mere moments from bankruptcy.

Research In Motion, or RIM as it was better known, became better known as Blackberry, which is what everyone called it anyway. They also seemed to finally realise that their biggest asset was their back end infrastructure, rather than their front end phones.

And, of course, the big news of the year was that the National Security Agency has been spying on everyone, and had been developing back doors into all kinds of IT equipment, services, software, and anything else they could think of. Now it was out in the open, everyone had to stop pretending it wasn't going on and make a fuss. No one is particularly happy it was going on, but also no one really wanted to talk about it until Edward Snowden put it out in public and forced them to pay attention.

I'm sure I've forgotten some really important tech news from last year, but I can't remember anything. I should really take notes, or keep a diary, or something.


A late review - the Kindle Fire HD

NOTE: I originally wrote this about two weeks ago, after starting it a week after the tablet arrived. Loss of Internet, and a number of other distractions have stopped me publishing it until now. None of my thoughts on the product and services have changed in the interim.

About two weeks ago, I received my Kindle Fire HD 7 inch tablet.

I ordered it the moment I heard that it was available for pre-order in Australia. I ordered the 7inch because, as I already have an iPad, I didn't see the need for another 9 inch tablet.

As usual with ordering Kindles from Amazon, I wound up selecting the model I wanted from the Kindle page, only to be told I needed to go to the international page to order from outside the US. To date, I have not found any simple way to get to the international page without first trying to order the product from the home page. Perhaps Amazon could do something about this?

As usual, it recommended I buy some accessories. I bought the "leather" cover, which isn't really leather, and the suggested fast charger (not included with Kindle). These, of course turned up a week before the device itself, and, as I suspected, the fast charger (not included) I bought with my Kindle Fire HD International for delivery to Australia, was a US adapter. Luckily I already have a large number of Kindle chargers, not to mention Apple chargers that can be used with the included USB cable.

On the whole, the Kindle Fire HD is a nice tablet. It's good for reading e-books on, as you might expect, and it generally works well. It has a much easier time of downloading my Audible books than the Audible app on my iPhone does, but I'm not entirely sure about using it as an audio device. For video it's fine, although the lack of a native YouTube app is frustrating.

As part of the deal, Amazon includes a free month of Amazon Prime. They've been trying to lure me into Prime for some time, and now I didn't really have any excuse. Amazon Prime gives me access to their streaming video library, none of which is available in my geographic location. It gives me access to the Kindle Lending Library, which isn't available in my geographic location. And, of course, free two day shipping, not available in my geographic location. So, pretty much, a complete waste of time. But it is free.

Another feature I was looking forward to trying was Whispersynch for Voice, which not only synchronises your Audible content across devices, but also with compatible Kindle books across devices, and, on the Kindle Fire, offers "immersive reading" where it plays the "narration" (or Audible audiobook) while simultaneously highlighting the text in the Kindle version. The synchronised narration and text highlighting works, mostly (I had some issues where it lost track, and the playback control has to be manually hidden if you want to read the bottom of the page), but in general I found I read much faster than the reader did. This isn't terribly unusual, since the reader is aiming for clear diction, and I'm not the target audience for the feature, but it was interesting to watch.

The synching across devices I am still yet to check, since it has taken me this far to find WhisperSynch for Voice compatible material where both the Kindle and Audible components were available in this market.

The chief issue with the Kindle Fire, though, is the availability of apps. Finding apps is a nuisance. The Amazon store has a number of the more popular apps, but, again, random ones are blocked geographically. For example, the Comixology app is in the Amazon store, but not available in Australia.

Other apps aren't in the store, like the Zinio magazine reader, but can be side loaded (if you turn on the control that allows it).

The main problem, is that it doesn't have the Google Play store. Of course, Amazon don't want you to use the Google Play store, but Google does have many more apps, and several that I would find useful.

It must also be said that Google isn't doing me any favours here, either. Trying to load apps from the Google Play web page gets an error because I should be using the Google Play app, which I can't load because it's only available from the Google Play store... (There are a number of ways around this, but doing it without rooting the device, and thus voiding the warranty, is proving less than successful. Loading the Google Framework and Google Play store works, but they haven't been very reliable. More research needed.)

In summary, I like the device. It's a neat tablet. It rivals my Paperwhite as an e-reader, and it's better for reading graphic novels - the screen is gorgeous - but the way Kindle packages them makes me desperately want Comixology on it. The sound quality is also good, although I'm not sure what the point of Dolby Stereo speakers on something that small are. Having it for output makes sense, but then again, who is going to plug this into their stereo?

The shortfalls are largely due to Amazon's business. Amazon Prime is not a selling point outside countries where it's supported. The difficulty in side loading apps, or even accessing a major App Store other than Amazon's, is frustrating. The fact that Amazon suggested a fast charger that didn't match the location I was ordering from is just puzzling.

Since mine arrived, they've started showing up in Dick Smith Electronics, who partner with Amazon to sell Kindles in Australia. The pricing seems more comparable with, although still higher than, ordering directly from Amazon (and, of course, you get it straight away). Whether you should, is another matter. If you don't already have a Kindle, or want to upgrade, it's worth considering. If you do, but you want an Android tablet to complement it (and your iPad, should you have one) then you might be better off buying a Nexus 7 instead, although you won't get all of the Amazon/Audible features available. If you're outside the US, there's a good chance you won't get all of them, anyway.


Anti-Social Networking for Beginners

My Google+ account got suspended last week, because, as with most Social Media platforms, I was using the identity of "Faceless Man" rather than my actual name.

Apart from the slightly confusing nature of the appeal process (which seemed to assume that you thought they were in error, rather than allowing for the possibility that I might agree to give them my real name, or at the very least a less obviously fake one), they were quick(ish) to respond to my request to re-evaluate, and I am now back in Google+ with no restrictions.

But, here's my thing about the whole real name vs pseudonym debate. I use the names "Faceless Man" and "Anome" online for a couple of reasons. The first is that when I first got a computer account at University that allowed for me to change my name, I was reading Jack Vance's Durdane books, and I was taken with the idea that someone looking at a list of people who were on the system couldn't actually see me, but knew I was there. Hence "Faceless Man".

"Anome" comes from trying to register for online services with meaningful usernames. All reasonable convolutions of my name, initials, etc were taken. So I was reaching for something that would be unique, and, recalling my "Faceless Man" persona, I used "Anome". I have managed to use that on almost all networks I have joined (that allow names under 6 characters, otherwise I either used Anome17 or Hazinf, depending on what it was for - I think the only places I didn't manage to secure the "Anome" identity were a Jack Vance forum, and Wikipedia).

Anyway, the fact is that, online at least, more people know me as Anome or Faceless Man than by my real name. If I want to carry across followers from Twitter or other networks, it would be better if they could find me easily. And while I don't mind some of them now knowing my real name, there are others that I'd rather didn't.

On the other hand, going by Faceless Man is a bit jarring when dealing with people I know in "real life" who mainly know me by my real name. Some of them may not have been able to find me, or may be reluctant to friend me due to the odd name, or might think I'm just being a complete tosser over the whole thing. Then again, there is a subset of these people I don't want to connect to (for various reasons), and I don't really want my work colleagues seeing some of the things I might say about them to my friends. (Some of them would be OK with it, and may even agree with me, but one needs to be careful.)

What I guess I'm trying to say, in a round about fashion, is that I want to control my online identity and experience. I want to interact with my peers online on my terms. I don't want to be forced to interact with my friends in a less than open fashion because I'm worried that it might cause me problems at work. At the same time, I don't necessarily want to needlessly expose my employer to public scrutiny over what's particularly annoyed me that day. I want to interact with the people I know from various online forums as Anome, and my friends as me. (Although, to be fair, "Anome" is me, just by another name.It's not like I have multiple identities or anything.) However, Google+ and Facebook seem to think I shouldn't be able to do this.

Now, I'm not against the idea of giving Google my real name and contact details. I understand they might have reasons for needing that, and I am willing to give such information if the service is worth it. I'm just not as OK with giving that same information to anyone who wanders past. There are ways they could both ensure that each profile belongs to a real person, and hold them accountable, without having to force them to use their real names on their outward facing profile.

So, perhaps we need (yet) another social network. One that allows me to control how different groups of people see us, rather than what they can see. If we take the idea of the Google+ circles, I want to have a circle of friends who see me as my real name, and a circle of other people who see me as Anome or Faceless Man. This on top of the other features of the circle idea.

It's not just about privacy. It's not just about controlling who can see what. It's also about controlling who you are. Being the identity you choose for yourself, not a sort of fake identity halfway between who you are and who you think you're supposed to be.

Maybe I'm the only person who feels this way (I am a bit odd), but I don't think so. I know many people have no problem at all with being completely open about everything to everyone. Good luck to them, they can be themselves everywhere. Some of us, however, want a bit more control over how others see us, and interact with us. And that's not a bad thing.


Back to the Mac

So Apple had their big announcement yesterday, and I caught bits of it sitting in a Starbucks in Oxford Street, London. (I should have stayed in the hotel, I would have had better connectivity.)

 I haven’t really had time to go over everything, since I couldn’t watch the whole presentation yet, and have mostly been going from the commentary, but here are some thoughts about the whole thing.

 The key piece of “Back to the Mac” seems to have been that they were taking things learned from the development of iOS and implementing them in MacOS. This has led to (further) speculation that MacOS is on the way out, to be replaced with iOS on all the desktop platforms as well as portable devices, but such an idea seems ridiculous.

 Essentially, iOS and MacOS are designed to do quite different things. As such, while there are opportunities to replicate features from one platform to another, there will always be a need for a desktop OS to be more full featured, and for a phone OS to be simpler and more efficient. (This has been Microsoft’s historic problem with Windows CE/Pocket PC/Windows Mobile/Windows Phone Mobile Series. They tried to make it look exactly like the full Windows OS, assuming people wanted familiarity over ease of use. I haven’t seen Windows Phone 7 etc, so I don’t know if they’ve fixed this problem.)

 The different requirements and constraints of desktop and mobile platforms are also good arguments against a touchscreen desktop or notebook. There are some very niche uses for such a device, but these are outweighed by the problems. “Gorilla arm” has been recognised as a problem since the first attempts at touchscreen computers. On a small, portable device, however, it’s an extremely good solution to a set of problems. Basically, touch is really useful in a situation where you can’t have a keyboard or pointing device. The situations in which this arises with an actual PC are limited. Those touchscreen information booths in shopping malls and the like are the main one, but those have a very limited usage requirement. Some have suggested that a “kitchen PC” (IE a computer used in the kitchen or somewhere else where counter space and free hands are at a premium) would be a good use of touch. This may be, but despite some tech journalists I don’t see this being a big market.

 Of course, Steve mentioned, at least in passing, that they weren’t going to do a touchscreen computer, and yet that hasn’t stopped speculation that they will do it at some point. I don’t see why they would, myself, nor do I feel a great need for it.

 Since the presentation, I have managed to get hands on a MacBook Air at the Apple Store in Regent Street. Apart from being confused by the keyboard configuration, which turned out to be standard for UK keyboards, they are neat little machines. I’m not sure I’ll buy one, I’ll probably upgrade to a 13 inch MacBook Pro if/when they upgrade the processors to i3, but they are tempting.

 I haven’t had a chance to look at iLife or iWork 11 yet. Buying a copy of iLife while in the UK may lead to licensing problems, and it would be yet more stuff I’d have to get home somehow. I have had a chance to look at the beta of Facetime for the Mac, but haven’t been able to use it at all. The security problem seems typical of a beta release, and has allegedly been fixed already, but I tend not to leave my computer unattended in cafes.

 Finally, let me just make a couple of comments about the release of Windows Phone 7. I haven’t seen it myself, nor did I see the apparently awkward early morning release party. I have to say that I’m still surprised that Microsoft have released a phone OS that doesn’t do Flash, or have Copy and Paste (unless they fixed that) and not get the same level of bollocking that Apple did. Maybe it’s just happening on forums that I don’t frequent, or podcasts I don’t listen to. There has been some criticism, but not the same extent. 

Anyway, as I have mentioned earlier, I hope they succeed in some way. Preferably in a way that results in them having a decent product, as opposed to previous versions of Windows Mobile.