Tag Archives: Mac

My thirty years of the Mac

The first Mac I used was a 512K machine, in the computer science lab at Hatfield Polytechnic in 1986. The halls where I lived were organised into floors of 12 rooms which shared a kitchen, and although the Poly tried its best to mix students of different disciplines, for some reason my floor had six computer science students on it. I was the sole, weird, humanities guy[1].

One day, one of my floor-mates took me to the computer science lab, and showed me around. There were terminals hooked into the polytechnic’s main computer (yes, the one computer, running UNIX[2]), PCs… “and this is the Mac. It’s pretty advanced – you should try using one. You might like it.”

I did. In fact, I was in love. Compared to the primitive home computers I’d used up till then, this was amazing. Like something from another planet, or at least California.

Three years and one first-class honours degree later, I ended up spending a year commuting from my home in St Albans, round the M25 to Apple UK’s headquarters in Stockley Park, near Heathrow. I spent a year interning with the Information Systems and Technology (IS&T) team, mostly fixing problems by the two most reliable methods available to a Mac tech at the time: reinstalling the system, or, if that failed, replacing the motherboard. I could probably still disassemble a Mac II if I had to, in record time (hint: don’t touch the power supply).

More importantly to me, working for Apple meant I could take advantage of the “Loan to Own” scheme, which let you borrow a Mac and, after a set period of time, buy it at a steep discount. In my case, a year later the Mac Plus (and 20Mb hard drive) I’d been using was mine, just in time for me to go back to Hatfield to work on a PhD. The Mac Plus, with 4Mb of RAM, spent its time with me for the next few years churning through words in MacWrite (and then Word), keeping notes in HyperCard (in a note-taking stack I’d written) and storing endless academic references in EndNote (which I’m happy to find is still going strong.

The experience of working at Apple and owning a Mac changed my life. A few years later, casting around for a job when it became clear I really didn’t want to be an academic (and academia didn’t really want me) I answered an ad in The Guardian media section (in print!) for a labs assistant on MacUser magazine. I’d never wanted to be a journalist, but – thanks to the Mac – I ended up one.

The Mac, in the form of one machine or an another, has been with me now for 25 years. I’ve written millions of words on it, played countless hours of games, got into arguments and met people hundreds of people. It’s taken me – literally – around the world and given me a livelihood. I wouldn’t be the person I am without Steve’s Amazing Machine.

  1. Which is another way of saying I had a girlfriend.  ↩

  2. The same group of computer science friends later thought it was hilarious to give me, the token humanities guy, root access to the mainframe. Thankfully I never used it for evil…  ↩

Why the spec sheet method of buying a computer is dead

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 09:  An Apple Store ge...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Poor Charles Arthur. Charles wrote a relatively simple post asking the question of why the Mac has proved to be so successful lately, out-performing the overall computer market and growing its market share. And in response, he got a 500+ long comment thread in which multiple geeks are arguing over how the specs of the Mac do/don’t compare to Windows machines.

I’m greatly enjoying the batting around of specs like people buy computers based on specs anymore. If there’s one thing that the huge demand for netbooks a few years ago proved, it’s that people buy because they can see how a computer can do something for them, not on megahertz.

In the case of netbooks, the “something” was being a machine they could carry everywhere, and do simple stuff on. In the case of Macs, it’s having access to easy to use, powerful software like iPhoto, iMovie, and so on – in a package that’s good looking, well designed, robust, and so on.

It’s about the whole experience: Compare buying a Mac in an Apple Store to buying a Windows machine in PC World and you’ll see what I mean. Compare the ability to take your machine back if there’s a problem with it to a Genius Bar and have someone help you sort it out in a way that’s friendly and not patronising.

This is the thing that advocates of the spec-sheet method of buying computers, or any product for that matter, don’t understand. What lifts a brand from being a making of generic boxes into a real identity isn’t simply the spec you get for the money, but the overall experience of buying and owning the product.

To give a non-Apple example, consider Dell. What set Dell apart from other PC manufacturers was the build-to-order approach which let you tailor the product to exactly meet your needs. You went to the Dell site, and you got exactly the machine you wanted. It was competitively priced, but it was rarely (if ever) the cheapest option. The experience was simple, straightforward, and gave you what you wanted. In short, a good brand experience.

Unfortunately for Dell, this was a part of the brand experience that was relatively simple for other companies to copy, and it’s lacklustre performance in the market coincides with other companies copying this approach. Now, I can get a totally customised machine from most PC makers – so what’s left for Dell to say is unique about its experience?

People buy Macs because the experience of buying, owning and maintaining a Mac is better than the experience with any other computer maker. It’s the experience that matters, not the specs.

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Magic Mac-ball says: No way!

I try not to get into the predictions game (partly because I’m too-often wrong) but I’m willing to bet that this little snippet from LOOPrumors is completely wrong:

“LOOPRumors received a tidbit of information today suggesting Apple is planning to develop a hybrid OS into their next iMac. The iMac should be equipped with both Mac OS X and a touch interface for iOS.”

One word: inelegant. That alone should be enough to damn this one to the bins of obscurity.

Sync your Mac with an LG phone with FoneSync

Shocking as this might sound, not everyone wants an iPhone. And if you have a phone from LG, you might want to check out FoneSync, a new application from Novamedia which lets you sync contacts and calendar information from your Mac to a variety of LG phones.

At present, only three phones are compatible: The HB620T, KF750, and KU990. However, other LG phones might work, and Novamedia is offering a PhoneInspector application which you can download to check if your phone is supported.

FoneSync costs €19, and is available now.

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The One Million Application Store

The iPhone App Store is now over the 90,000 mark, and marching inexorably towards 100,000. Responding to my and Scoble’s posts on the App Store numbers, John highlights the fact that I think I alluded to in my post: That the position is very similar to the old world of Mac vs PC from the 1990′s (and still true today).

To John, and I suspect a lot of Mac users, quality of applications is more important than quantity. After all, Windows has many, many more applications than the Mac. If you’re talking about the world of the personal computer, there’s only one company that could use the phrase “there’s an app for that” – and it isn’t Apple.

However, I think that is missing the long-term picture of the App Store, and how it changes the game compared to the world of the PC. 100,000 applications, even of low quality, is already a big number. A very big number. Having searched around, I can’t find a number for the total number of Windows applications, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s not an order of magnitude larger than 100,000.

In other words, I think that the total number of iPhone apps is already within distance of the total number of Windows apps – and given that the iPhone is much, much younger platform that’s significant. Now relate this to this point of John’s:

“It’s a sign that the iPhone and the App Store are popular, and it’s a self-perpetuating form of popularity, in that developers go where the action is, and users go where the software is.”

More applications = more developers = more applications = more users = more developers… you get the idea.

Given the astonishing growth of the number of iPhone applications, the question should be this: What happens when (and it is when, not if) there aren’t 100,000 apps, but one million? How will that change the game? When “there’s an app for that” isn’t just true in a sorta, kinda, advertising-ish way but literally true, how does that change what people can do?

I don’t actually know the answer. I suspect, in fact, no one does – that the ability to know that whatever you want to do, there’s an application to do it, and importantly that you can find it all in one place – changes the relationship between software, platform and usage so dramatically that we’d be entering a different world.

This is related to a point that Dan Lyons made in one of his best recent Fake Steve posts. The worlds of applications and content are meeting and blurring, and what the outcome of that will be is really unknown at the moment. The next generation of content creators will think of everything as an application. It’s not a video, it’s not a book, it’s not even a web site. It will be a genuinely interactive expression of an idea. The iPhone is starting to give us a glimpse of that. The Apple tablet (if there is one) will give us another glimpse.

Think of it that way, and suddenly even a one million app store isn’t big enough. Ten million? Twenty? Who knows?

But it will be fun finding out.

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NetNewsWire is a long way from a legacy app

Louis Gray thinks standalone feed readers are dead, including NetNewsWire

“Yes, NetNewsWire is still around, and now points to Google Reader, but it’s pretty much a legacy app at this point. (In my opinion, of course)

I humbly disagree. In fact, I’ve just gone down the opposite route – from using Google Reader as a web app to using NetNewsWire synced with Google Reader. The web app is now my “lowest common denominator” application, for when I don’t have access to my Mac.

Why? Because NNW integrates with other great services which aren’t from Google. Google Reader shared items is a mess – NNW lets me post direct to Delicious (or even better, via Pukka). I’m one click away from adding any item to Instapaper, which I can then sync to my iPhone.

In other words, I don’t have to live and breathe the Google ecosystem – I can pick the best applications to suit me, not the ones which Google wants me to use.

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Is Apple recession proof? The answer is “no”, but…

Jason O'Grady has a good post summing up the theory (first espoused by American Technology Research analyst Shaw Wu) that Apple is "recession proof". In fact, I think there's good reason to think that the opposite it true, but also that the bright points for Apple outweigh the bad ones.

Where the iPhone sits

The first thing to think about is to break down Apple's product lines, because the economy will affect each in different ways. Perhaps surprisingly, I think iPhone is probably the least vulnerable of the product lines. The upfront cost of the iPhone is heavily subsidised by phone companies, and that will make it a tempting upgrade when someone's phone contract runs out. In tough times, a luxury product with a low upfront cost is likely to be quite attractive.

How will the iPod perform?

For iPod, there are good and bad points. People who already own one will probably put off buying a new version, and as the market for music players reaches saturation point the upgrade market will be the most important one. However, the speed of development of technology means that someone replacing what was a top of the range iPod from two years ago can get a much lower cost replacement – and low-cost luxuries do well in downturns. So, while iPod sales will head down, they won't get hammered too hard.

Mac: from market share hero to market share loser?

The big question mark is over the Mac. Over the past couple of years, Mac sales have been nothing less than stellar, with an overall market share increase compared to the rest of the computer industry. The reasons for this have been partly due to an exceptionally well though-out product line, the failure of Windows Vista to impress virtually anyone, and improved mind-share for Apple in general thanks to the iPod and, more recently, iPhone.

But Apple's pricing remains on the high side. That's not to say that they aren't close to the prices of equivalent Windows-running hardware (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't). If you want to spend £1000 on a laptop, Apple offers good options – and even better ones if you want to spend £1700.

In tough times, though, the number of people prepared to pay that much shrinks, and the number of people prepared only to stretch to, say, £500 increases. Even people who have money are more inclined to be careful with it. And for those people, Apple presently is not an option. Some customers might defer buying anything until they can afford a Mac, but if you have a four year old PC which barely runs Windows, or a child heading off to university, you're going to be buying something very soon.

So the question isn't "will Apple sales be hit by the recession?" – they clearly will – but whether Apple will be hit harder than the rest of the PC industry. The bare-bones analysis of pricing suggests it will, but you also have to take into account the momentum that its increasing market and mind-shares have given it. I'd expect Apple's Mac share growth to continue over the next couple of quarters, but decline after that if the recession continues. At some point, if the recession continues long enough, they will start to decline if Apple doesn't change its product line mix – but that decline could be a year away, and depends on a whole host of macroeconomic factors.

The management factor

The other factor which needs to be taken into account is the incredibly well-managed nature of today's Apple. The company, probably more than any other in Silicon Valley, has exceptional aggressive control over costs – it doesn't waste money. This, plus its supply-line management, will help it ride out the worst of the recession. When the recession is all over, the shareholders should give Tim Cook a big bonus, because as COO he's turned Apple from a management joke into one of the best-run businesses in the world.

The product mix: time for a "value" segment?

Given that the biggest potential weakness seems to be the lack of lower-cost products, should Apple introduce a new "value" section into its product matrix? Some would argue that this would be counterproductive: that part of the allure of the Mac is that it's firmly in the high price/high value segment. There's something to be said for this, and whether sticking with the strategy makes sense depends almost entirely on how long you think the recession will last. Apple could easily ride out six months to a year of slowing sales in the high-price segment, thanks to its vast cash reserves and excellent cost management.

The danger would be that if Apple starts to under-perform the rest of the market, it could lose a lot of the impetus it has gained over the past year or two. There's also the possibility that, if the recession last long enough, consumer confidence will erode to the point where its Mac sales will fall off the metaphorical cliff.

These risks are, undoubtedly, the ones which Jobs and his team have been weighing up for a while. Given the company's cash and income situation, I don't expect any rush to introduce "recession-buster" low cost products. But I'd be very surprised if Apple wasn't working on them, as a hedge against the downturn lasting.

Could Apple create low-cost products? Of course: in fact, it already has done. Both the Mac mini and the iPod demonstrate that, if it wants to, it can produce exceptional, high-value low-cost products. The mini is a bit of an unsung hero in Apple's current product line, and its easy to imagine that it could produce a laptop which fulfill the same purpose in the portable range.

So overall, it's fair to say that Apple isn't recession proof. No company is. But it's not in a disastrous position, and it's incredibly well-managed. This buys it the time to either ride out a shorter recession or readjust its product strategy if the downturn is likely to be a long-term thing. It's revenues and market share aren't going to fall off a cliff any time soon.

How to get the full version of Office 2008 for Mac cheap

Microsoft produces a very nice, handy student/teacher edition of Microsoft Office 2008 for the Mac at a bargain price. There’s only one thing: it doesn’t include the full version of Entourage. Instead, the version which it ships in the Home/Student edition doesn’t include support for Exchange servers – it’s POP and IMAP only.

If you want the full version, you’ll need to buy the full version of Office – and in the UK, that’s the difference between £100 and £300, which for something as simple as Exchange support doesn’t seem worth the money.

However, there may be another way you can get Office more cheaply, with support for Exchange. If you own any of the programmes in the Office suite, going back to Office v.X, you’re eligible for an upgrade, which Amazon is currently selling for about £180. Not quite as little as the Home/Student edition, but still better than full price.

You don’t need the whole of Office – just a single application will do. And what’s more, you’re even eligible if you own a copy that you got as part of a bundle with other products or services. In my case, my Exchange provider includes a copy of Entourage 2004 as part of the service, which means I was eligible for a cut-price update to 2008.

Better yet, even if you only own one of the products in Office, the update gives you all of them – so from my single licensed copy of Entourage 2004, I ended up with full copies of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage.