Frustrated

Where is the missing external keyboard incorporating the new Touch Bar

Where is the external Touch Bar keyboard?

OK, I’ll admit I’m what some would call an “Apple fanboy” and I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to some of their more controversial decisions. I’m certainly prepared to accept higher prices and being required to regularly upgrade peripherals to the latest standards if that gets me a better product. For example, dropping Firewire for Thunderbolt or 30 pin for Lightning connectors.

But I have to say that recently Apple has been annoying the hell out of me. Not yet enough to get me to switch away to another operating system, but certainly enough to make me doubt the competence of the company’s management.

Back in 2010, Apple released the 27 inch Thunderbolt display. I bought one in 2012 for £750 and loved it. If they had upgraded it every 2-3 years, I would have happily given them another £1,500+ by now. They didn’t and have now killed it, instead promoting LG and Dell displays. If they believe that these displays are good enough, why the hell wouldn’t they rebadge one of them and earn a markup and keep that Apple logo front and centre for their customers? If they don’t think the quality is good enough to put their brand on, why are they willing to promote them as the preferred solution?

They neglected the Mac Pro for years and then Phil Schiller finally introduced a new one in 2013 with the line “can’t innovate anymore, my ass”. They have completely failed to update it ever since. Phil’s ass has a lot to answer for at this point.

The Touch Bar introduced yesterday on the new Macbook Pros is a decent new innovation. So why didn’t they launch a new desktop keyboard incorporating it? It would have been straightforward from a technical point of view and would have instantly added value to their existing lineup of desktop machines. A missed opportunity that suggests a culture of neglect for the Mac.

I’m also getting fed up with the dropping of ports. I’m OK with dropping old ports for which there is a better, more modern equivalent. I’m also somewhat sympathetic to the pruning of ports where weight and space are at a premium. But the new Macbook Pros couldn’t squeeze in an SD slot? Or an HDMI port? Neither of these has a more modern equivalent. And whilst USB-C is the successor to standard USB, how problematic would it have been to include at least one for a generation of Macbook Pros whilst in transition? It’s not even as if Apple has come up with any great external options. A drawer full of dongles is a really bad and inelegant solution.

Overall, I can only conclude that the current Apple management is either out of touch or getting the short term / financial considerations out of balance with the long term / customer value ones. Phil Shiller’s ass deserves a kicking and Tim Cook needs to listen to the views of his increasingly disillusioned loyal users.

Confessions of a closet coder

My first computer

My first computer

I promised myself to post more regularly on this blog in 2014 and after a good start, I’ve let things slide a bit recently. Laziness apart, one of the main reasons is that I’ve been busy on other projects, most notably learning to write Mac and iOS applications. “Why on earth have you been doing that?”, I hear you ask. Well if you want to know the answer, read on. However, I should warn that things are going to get a little geeky, so look away now if you are not into that kind of thing. You have been warned!

I’ve always loved programming. My first experiences, as for many others of my generation was with BASIC. In my case, it involved typing programmes into a teletype machine at school, dialling into the local council mainframe. Back in those days, “saving” your programme meant punching holes in a roll of paper tape.

Ease of use regressed further when I got my first personal computer, a Sinclair MK14. Not only did I have to assemble the machine myself, it had to be programmed in machine code, and I don’t mean assembler. I mean inputting the hexadecimal numbers that represent each instruction. Initially, there was no way to save your programmes at all – you had to type them in again after each reboot, no small task using a 20 key membrane keyboard. The only plus point was that with only 256 bytes of RAM to play with, that’s a maximum of 516 hexadecimal digits to type in.

Over the years, I’ve always tried to keep my hand in and I’ve used PASCAL, Visual Basic, Javascript, PHP, Applescript, BASH and Python. I dabbled at times with C, the low level nature of the language appealing to the machine code hacker in me. But until recently, I’ve never attempted to produce any real world programmes using the language as it was all just a bit too much hard work.

About 6 months ago, I decided to learn Objective C – an object oriented version of C that is used by Apple to develop Mac and iOS applications. I was driven by a mixture of intellectual curiosity and a desire to be able to write real Mac and iOS applications for my own use. Specifically, to replace the 45 sheet Excel spreadsheet that I use to manage my personal finances with something easier to use and maintain (I’ve tried but never liked any of the personal finance apps available in the market).

Objective C and Apple’s Cocoa frameworks have a steep learning curve, even for someone with experience of other languages. The learning resources that I found invaluable were the books from Big Nerd Ranch, video tutorials by Simon Allardice on Lynda.com and the Q&As on Stack Overflow. However, despite this learning curve, after six months my personal finances spreadsheet has been retired. The new Mac app has advanced to the point where it does the job much better. I’m not saying that you’ll be able to buy it on the app store any time soon, since it’s definitely an app targetted at a one person niche market segment. But overall I find it quite amazing that the development tools have now advanced to a point where a hobbyist like me, coding in my spare time, can learn how to build a functional Mac application in such a relatively short space of time.

The world of technology being what it is, just as soon as I’d “finished” learning Objective C (in as much as you can ever finish learning anything), Apple duly announced at this month’s WWDC developer conference that they were replacing Objective C with a new language, Swift. Having spent a couple of weeks playing with it, including experimenting with rewriting some parts of my finances application in Swift, I can say that there is much to like about the new language. To me, it brings many of the ease of use attractions of the Python language, whilst retaining the speed advantages of a low level language built on C. It solves many of the “WTF” moments I had when learning Objective C. To give one example, to add two decimal numbers A & B together in Objective C you have to use the syntax [A decimalNumberByAdding: B]. Swift has operator overloading so even for non primitive data types like NSDecimalNumber, you can use the syntax A+B. They’ve also brought across one of the great things about Python – an interactive mode where you can type commands and get an immediate response without needing to compile and run your code first, a real benefit when learning a language.

So all in all I think Swift will make it even easier to get into Mac and iOS application development. However, just at the moment it presents some additional challenges. Swift is still in beta and you still need to learn Objective C if you want to write apps today. It will take some time for the books, training videos and online Q&As that I found so useful to catch up. It has also given me a new language to learn. It’s a good job I like learning new things!

iPad Gripes

iPad screenshot

iPad editing gripes

Well, I’ve had the iPad now for almost two months and disaster has struck. Apple have finally started shipping in the UK, so now everyone will have one. To be fair, they remain in short supply, so maybe I can still feel a little smug for a while longer.

On the plus side, Apple are now allowing us foreigners to buy their iWork apps. I’ve no idea why they restricted sales until now to US registered iTunes accounts. It’s not like you can run out of download copies. Anyway, this means I am writing this using the iPad version of Pages, and jolly nice it is too.

But enough compliments, this post is about my complaints – my accumulated list of gripes as a two month veteran iPadder.  I’m not going to rant about the over-reflective screen, the greasy fingerprint challenge, the lack of flash or the convoluted workflow to get documents on or off the device. These have been much discussed elsewhere. No, it’s the little annoyances that I need to get off my chest. The iPad equivalents of the paper cuts and gnat bites that irritate and annoy out of all proportion to their seriousness.

Top of the list is the lack of cursor keys on the virtual keyboard. Positioning the cursor in a block of text by tapping with your finger works surprisingly well and the magnifying glass feature helps get to the precise spot. But when fat fingers have made you miss your mark by one character, having left and right cursor keys would be so much simpler and quicker. Likewise, when you need to go back and correct something you just typed, having a non-destructive alternative to the backspace key would be great. The OS obviously supports it, because it works when I connect my Apple Bluetooth keyboard. Maybe adding two more virtual keys would have been too expensive….

Next gripe is the auto capitalisation feature. Yes, I know you can turn it off. And I have. The problem is that it is actually very useful and I wish I could leave it on. But it is just slightly too stupid. Why exactly it thinks that capitalising the first letter of an email address when filling in a web form is the right thing to do is beyond me.

I’ve also been experiencing random application crashes, maybe once or twice a day. Playing video sometimes results in a complete system freeze, from which the only escape is a full restart. Whether this is the fault of the iPad or the app developer’s coding is hard to say. But it does somewhat dilute the device’s credentials as an easy to use alternative to a laptop for less sophisticated users.

Overall though, this is a remarkably impressive machine for version 1.0. The most telling verdict is that it has rarely left my side. Here’s hoping that the next OS upgrade will sort out the remaining annoyances and bugs.

iPad first impressions

Steve Jobs with iPad

Steve's latest invention

I was in the US last week, a few days after the release of Apple’s latest invention, the iPad. This was a happy, if expensive, coincidence since us Brits are not permitted to buy one until later this month. Although I now have my hands on the hardware, Apple will still not allow me to buy their iBooks or iWorks apps with my UK registered iTunes account, which is a little frustrating to say the least.

It has been quite hard to get to know the device properly in the four days since I handed over my Amex card to the overworked Apple Store employee in Santa Monica. One problem has been the constant interruptions from friends and passers-by. Whether it is the amazing buzz that Apple have created, or the wonderfully sexy design, but you cannot sit in a hotel lobby and simply use the device. You are in constant demonstration mode. I only wish that Apple paid a referral commission.

Another problem with getting to know the iPad is that, like its smaller predecessors, so much of the experience and functionality of the device is driven by the applications you install. Part of the fun of the last few days has been rediscovering favourite apps, reinvented for the new platform. One such is NetNewsWire, an RSS reader. The iPhone version is excellent, making browsing and reading news stories amazingly easy on such a small screened device. However, on the iPad, it makes it a wonderfully fluid and enjoyable experience. The dedicated media apps like the New York Times viewer are even better. The interesting thing is that I also have NetNewsWire for the Mac and the iPad version provides a superior experience. The combination of a touch interface and a decent sized screen that you can lay on your lap really works for media consumption.

It’s also great for watching video, looking at or showing off photos and reading books. I had a great opportunity to test this out on my eleven hour flight back from LA. The highly reflective screen can be problematic, but overall it is an almost ideal personal entertainment solution when travelling. I also have a Kindle and the backlit screen on iPad works much better on a flight. I will still be using my Kindle though; in bright sunshine or for handholding it wins out. The brilliant thing is that there is a Kindle app for the iPad, which means that I can mix and match, using each for what it is best at.

Ease of use is definitely a strong point. As Steve Jobs told us when announcing the device, anyone who owns an iPhone or iPod Touch already knows how to use it. But the familiarity is deceptive. The vastly larger screen real estate transforms the experience in a way which is both subtle and at the same time addictive. After using the iPad for a while, the previously wonderful iPhone user interface now feels horribly cramped and inelegant.

One advantage of the iPad that it is easy to underestimate at first is the social dimension. Sitting in a meeting or at home with a laptop in front of you is somehow a mildly anti-social thing to do. The screen in front of you acts as an barrier, sending subliminal but strong signals which distance you from others. It is the technological equivalent of reading the paper with it held up in front of your face. An iPad laid flat in front of you leaves you psychologically still part of the group.

It’s less good as a document creation tool. The on screen keyboard works really well and you can also attach a bluetooth keyboard, which helps when writing lots of text. I started writing this post on the iPad, using the WordPress app. I was managing fine, although the app seems to have a cut and paste bug at the moment, but I have to admit that I am now writing this on my laptop. Not only is it a better tool for the job, my iPad has been ‘borrowed’ by my son, who is now merrily killing Zombies on it. This is the iPad’s other great strong point, gaming. I also suspect that it will be the most profitable for Apple and the biggest drain on my own personal productivity!