Stray thoughts about this week’s Computer Announcements

On Wednesday, Microsoft the Surface Studio:

Immediately followed by Apple announcing the Macbook Pro (2016) the very next day:

These computers show very much where each of these companies are right now. Having recently watched Steve Jobs, it also struck me as how much these companies have changed over the past 20 years, in many ways, each becoming what the other one was.

There is nothing in the new Macbook Pro that still smacks of the old “Think Different” campaigns that Apple used to live by. They’re no longer the plucky underdogs targeting the people who think different — they’re the massively popular overlords who’re targeting their audience: everyone.

Conversely, Microsoft (despite the still-dominance of Windows in corporate installs), has more or less lost the popular mindshare of personal computing. Everyone has macs. And so their audience isn’t everyone anymore. It’s people who’re not being served by Macs.

So, 20 years ago, Apple targeted creatives — who were not well served by Microsoft. Today, the opposite is true — Apple, effectively, has ceded the “pro” space, the people who need all the things on their systems. Michael Tsai’s excellent evisceration of the new Macbook Pro says that better than I could. Whereas the Surface Studio is explicitly aimed at creatives who need something “different” than what is usually available out there.

20-odd years ago, Apple was squarely targeting the 10% of people who were not being served by what Windows offered (nb: I’m not saying they didn’t want everyone using a Mac — they certainly did, and, indeed, their current success indicates their ideas were right). They targeted designers, creatives, thought leaders who helped turn their brand around. What’s weird for everyone who’s been a long-time Mac user is that whereas previously there’s a sense that “they” were the audience for Apple — that’s no longer true. Apple’s now got to appeal for the very general user, in many ways the lowest common denominator user — what used to be the domain of the Microsoft. Given their volumes of devices sold, there’s zero financial incentive to add features that appeal to only a small subset of people anymore. Conversely, and what is a pretty big cognitive shift for everyone — consumers, tech media, probably the company itself, is that it is important for Microsoft to do so: they’ve ceded the mobile space. They appear to have recognized that desktops & even laptops are increasingly niche devices, and, on top of that, they’re no longer the default choice for most shoppers. So, stealing directly from Apple’s playbook, it looks like Microsoft is asking people to Think Different these days. Gabe (from Penny Arcade) wrote a long puff-piecereview of his involvement with the development of, and use of, the new Surface Studio that is incredibly compelling.

A last thought: I’m not arguing that Apple is in any way less innovative than it was. I feel like there’s a pretty direct line of continued hardware innovation from them. What’s dramatically different is where they’re innovating. They’re no longer pushing the bleeding edge for a particular subset of users — they’re finding ways of making the bleeding edge more palatable for the mainstream.

My guess: Whereas for the past 3–4 years I pretty much only saw MacBooks & iMacs on coffee shop tables & office desks, over the next 3–4, we’re going to see an increasing number of Surfaces on both too, because suddenly, the industrial design of Microsoft products has caught up (surpassed?) with Apple, but with Windows 10, there’s a fundamentally different, but also very compelling approach to modern desk(lap)top computing. I’m not sure we’ve had a time (maybe the early-to-mid 80s?) where multiple computing hardware and OS companies have been firing on all cylinders creating such compelling competition for our dollars.

Just-in-time disk

I feel like this is an ongoing complaint from me – but it’s really time for someone – some combination of corporations and likely-existing technologies – to solve the issue of mobile computing + storage.

Here’s my standard problem:

I have, currently on a Drobo in a corner of my home office, my Lightroom catalog. It’s just over 2.5 TB in size – I take a lot of photos. But! I’m not often at my home office. Most of the time, when I’m taking photos, I’ve got my phone, my iPad, my laptop. & I want to edit photos. Lightroom Mobile syncs mobile photos through the cloud to my main Lightroom catalog (on said Drobo).

But – my primary computer is my laptop. It’s got a pretty beefy 500GB drive. And, because it’s a laptop, it’s not always in the same place as my Drobo (it’s actually never plugged into my home Drobo – but it is plugged in sometimes to one at my office). an because my laptop has a retina screen, and the home iMac does not the laptop is an infinitely superior experience when editing photos.

  • So how can I access all those photos, that catalog, on my laptop, when I’m editing?
  • How can I import photos, while travelling somewhere, and have those sync back to my primary photo repository?

When Adobe announced Lightroom Mobile‘s Sync feature, I was pretty excited – this felt like exactly what I wanted. I take photos on my phone, and, magically, they get pushed to my primary catalog. I can also selectively pull photos from that catalog for editing on my iPad (which is also a lovely editing experience). But!

  1. I have to be on my primary catalog computer to indicate which photos I want to push back
  2. You can only sync to 1 primary catalog
  3. You can only use this to push from mobile devices to a computer, not from 1 computer to another.

I also use Dropbox, and pay for 1TB of storage. This is great! I long ago set up the automatic back up of photos to DropBox – however, as I discovered today, this only works if the camera uploads folder is synced to my computer(s). Which means all those photos are also taking up precious space on my laptop. It turns out I have just over 60GB of photos in my camera uploads folder – which, at 1/5 of the total storage on my laptop, was a nice gain to NOT sync. But now the automatic photo-upload feature doesn’t work. Which is dumb – because I don’t want ALL of my camera-upload photos to be synced locally. The last, say, 5GB? sure. but not all forever in history.

So Dropbox doesn’t really solve this problem either.

 

So, here’s what I’m thinking should be possible:

The Adobe Solution

With Creative Cloud, I already am bought into their ecosystem. & Clearly, with how Lightroom Mobile works, they have a way of sending me “pointers” to a photo, without the actual file. So, let’s complete this circle, Adobe. Let me say where I want to keep my photos – this might be in your cloud, this might be a cloud service, this might be a drive attached to a particular device. Then let me open Lightroom anywhere – one of several computers (I currently regularly use 4 different traditional computing devices), mobile devices (where I regularly use 3 different devices). Let me plug in a camera or card, and add photos to my catalog, but edit where I am. If this means some back-and-forth syncing, so be it. Show be small “previews” of recent photos, perhaps a simple text-catalog of older ones until I request more. But stop making me think of how/where I’m adding photos and just let me work. For bonus points, let me easily/selectively share access to my catalog with friends & family.

The Apple Solution

Any third-party solution could be made easier if Apple let me configure and reserve a certain portion of my hard drive as a sort of cloud-storage scratch disk – so that when Adobe needed to download photos, it knew it could safely remove anything else in that drive to give me access to what I need – sort of how memory management currently works. By default, maybe take 10% of the computer’s hard drive – but again, let the user tweak these preferences.

Related, but different, would be a built-in Apple-y way of mapping cloud storage as a local folder or drive – indeed, I hope this is really the promise of iCloud – but it’s certainly not there yet. It works this way, for the most part, with Apple apps – Pages, Numbers, etc – where things are just stored there and we no longer care about “where” it is locally – but this needs to “just work” with other services, and needs to not be completely closed off (so that I could make “my” cloud be a device I control, like in the scenario above) (Also: this is never going to happen. Apple likes walled gardens). But in the same way Mail supports built-in Gmail configuration, I should be able to configure *any* cloud storage as just a place I can drag & drop to like any other folder – a little like how Dropbox works, but without the local copy of *everything*.

The Dropbox solution

This, to me, feels like it should be the easiest, but I could well be wrong. Dropbox, and all sorts of storage tiers, now offers vastly more storage than most computers have (on the assumption that most computers are laptops, and new laptops in general seem to have <1TB storage – particularly if you’ve gone solid state). And Dropbox helpfully offers “Selective Sync”, which prevents this silly duplication of files locally and on their servers for particular folders. But if you turn off Sync for a folder, it can break useful Dropbox features, like automated Camera Uploads & the screen shot sharing service. Which is dumb. Because I really do want all my photos backed up to drop box – but I don’t want to have to keep every last photo locally too in order to do that.

& again, I often don’t need, in order to find what I want, the actual files. Some kind of index of files, that integrates with services like Spotlight, are all I need, so that when I do need a particular file that exists only on Dropbox, I can find it easily, download it and do what I want, before returning it back to Dropbox, removing itself from my local drive again.

Wrap up

I realize as I write this that what I am describing in many ways is a thin-client. But, because connectivity is not ubiquitous, thin clients aren’t totally a fit – I need some local storage/access, but not all the time – for most common scenarios, I can predict when I need to download things locally, and when I can rely on the cloud to store things. And that’s really what I mean by “just-in-time” disks – It feels like there’s very little need for any content-files to exist only locally, but they might need to occasionally. When cloud storage is so cheap as to be essentially free, and laptop hard drives are still so expensive, why do we keep pushing things there? And when multi-device computing is so common, why is sync across them, user-controlled, still so broken?

Thoughts on today’s iBooks announcement

Today’s announcement by Apple of the new iBooks 2 & the iBooks Author app were interesting in that it seemed a very high-level, long-term look by Apple at how they can disrupt the educational & textbook industries. I don’t believe that the textbook industry, as large as it may be, was truly the target here. Getting iPads into schools, replacing the 1000s of cheap, aging Compaqs and Dells that still litter public schools, getting kids to be using iPads for all sorts of educational-related activities is the goal. That they may well completely overhaul textbooks as we know it is just an added bonus.

But! and of course there’s a but or why else would I be writing this? Apple’s major competitor in this endeavour as I see it is not the traditional text book industry (and the crazy regulatory machine that exists around it), but Amazon. Amazon is likewise targeting publishing in all forms. And I’m not convinced that Apple can, as it currently works, “beat” Amazon.

When Apple first introduced the iPod, it was Mac-only. Sales of that device really didn’t take off until it a)introduced a Windows version of iTunes to sync with and b) added USB support. Like many people, I came back to being an Apple user after years of being a Windows user in part because I got an iPod, which led me to using iTunes, which made me pay attention to Apple, until I finally switched back.

The iPad is expensive. the iPod/iPhone is not terribly expensive (but they’re not really the targets for iBooks, despite support, I believe). While other tablets may not be as good, the Kindle Fire costs less than half as much. More importantly, the Kindle app is device-agnostic. I currently have it installed on my Mac, my iPhone, my iPad, my Nexus S AND my Kindle. I can buy a book in 1 place and use it in many different places, easily. when I buy an iBook, I have to use one of my iPhone or my  iPad. And as I learned in the Caribbean this spring, while I can use my Kindle just fine on the beach, I can’t use either of my iPad or iPhone. I’m not saying that education takes place on beaches, but I sure spent a tonne of time as a teenager and in university doing my reading outside, in the sun.

So here’s why it feels like a mistake to not release an iBooks for Android, Windows Phone, Mac, Windows, whatever: Sure, there’s 10s of millions of iDevice users out there. But theres 100s of millions more who aren’t. Many of those will simply use what’s given to them, not choose (because they receive gifts, or school policy, or whatever). Why the iPod was so successful, was that it was a glimpse into the world of Apple without being a major investment in infrastructure. Want to help schools shift to be using iPads instead of books? Let them all load iBooks onto their computers, whatever they may be so that kids start to use the books on whatever they already have. Apple should be confident enough that the experience will be good enough to drive many of those kids to get an iPad for an even better experience. And if not? Hey, at least they’re hooked on iBooks. If they want to create their own, then they need a mac to do so with the iBooks Author app. Which is fine.

When iBooks was first announced, it felt a lot like a “pet project” for Apple, not a major push. But this announcement changes that. In the same way that I think the decision to make the iPod windows compatible is a major reason Apple is the $400B company it is today, I think iBooks could, and should be the same sort of push for ebooks & digital education materials.

Thoughts on the iPad

Like a huge number of people, I was highly anticipating the release of the Apple iPad. After watching the announcement, my initial response was ambivalent. It didn’t hit all the notes I was expecting it to. But a few hours later (and, it should be noted, I still have not seen it in person, only watched videos) I have some additional thoughts on it:

  • Given how much I enjoyed using my iPhone as an eBook reader on my last trip, I can only imagine how awesome it will be to use that screen to read books. That being said, the page-turning animation is horrible, and should go away now.
  • Where is the multimedia magazine-reader app? Can I buy a subscription to National Geographic or Harper’s or the Walrus or anything that’s been formatted & optimized for digital reading yet?
  • The form-factor strikes me as all wrong for watching TVs and movies. As several people have noted, it’s 4:3, when virtually all visual media is in widescreen now. Why not make it skinnier and longer to accommodate that?
  • I really hope I can tether it to the iPhone for internet access. I haven’t seen anything saying I can or can’t. But I can’t afford another data plan – so I certainly hope so.
  • I’m not a big mobile gamer, or mobile video-watcher, outside of travel. And I don’t travel much. The idea of watching movies on a tiny screen, in less-than-optimal resolution, with less-than-optimal sound does NOT sound appealing. Except on an airplane, where this screen kicks-ass over the in-seat screens.
  • The idea of loading up iWork and taking that with me whenever I do a presentation is *really* appealing, and I could legitimately see many small offices buying a communal one for that reason. Plus for note-taking during meetings.
  • Why no over-the-air sync of files/music/etc with my main computer? (I ask this about the iPhone too, but with iWork, it becomes a more serious issue)
  • The lack of forward-facing camera is actually something of a deal-breaker for me – because now, when travelling, I’d still need to take my laptop with me for chatting with Leah & Liam at home. So then it just becomes another device to tote, not a replacement.
  • Overall, this seems like a pretty awesome version 1.0. I’m excited to see what apps people develop over the next year. If, say, there was a Coda for iPad, some sort of remote-desktops app & and something like Lightroom (along with some sortof dongle connector so I could upload photos from my camera to my iPad), I would suddenly become very interested in owning one of these.

Your thoughts?

French (and other) accents in Mac OS X

So I only just learned this, and so thought I’d pass it along for others, and also, as a handily searchable record for myself, so here’s the list:

  • Accent Grave (à): option + ` – followed by the letter
  • Accent Aigu (é): option + e – followed by the letter
  • Accent Circonflex (ô): option + o – followed by the letter
  • Cédille: (ç): option + c
  • Tréma (ü): option + u – followed by the letter

Some other useful codes:

  • ellipses (…): option + :
  • n-dash (–): option + –
  • m-dash (—): option + shift + –

generally, if you’re looking for a special code, hold the option key and start pressing around. I’ve tried to find a comprehensive list on the apple support site without luck. So happy typing!