Failed Oracle

I (sometimes) write stuff here because I find some stuff fascinating, or ground-breaking or weird. More often than not, I tend to express some kind of prophecy, because who doesn’t look at the future and make some bets, right?

Well, I apparently suck at it.

Apple TV

A decade ago, I wrote that I was excited about the possibilities inherent to the AppleTV. I did it again a couple of years ago.

Despite the many rumors and excitement, Apple TV is simply going nowhere. There’s a variety of reasons for that, but predominantly, it’s in the name : it’s about TV. Sure, it helps put on TV stuff that comes through AirPlay, and consume content that isn’t going through <insert the normal way you get your TV here>, but it could have been so much more. Open up a way to plug stuff in there? blueray players and really smart DVR are on the horizon. Lift the ban on emulation (within legal constraints, of course), and all that retro-gaming stuff is a done deal. At the very least open it up as a network access point, or a network extender.

But the years pass, and we hear a lot of exciting rumors (none of which anyone but the US denizens care about), and it’s still mostly a netflix/itunes/airplay box.

Multipeer Connectivity

I did several talks on Multipeer tech, spread the gospel, etc.

I wasn’t alone in that, judging from NSHipster (2013):

Multipeer Connectivity is a ground-breaking API, whose value is only just starting to be fully understood. Although full support for features like AirDrop are currently limited to latest-gen devices, you should expect to see this kind of functionality become expected behavior. As you look forward to the possibilities of the new year ahead, get your head out of the cloud, and start to consider the incredible possibilities around you.

But apart from AirDrop, and Continuity (when it works) is there any serious uses of the technology? If you answered yes, are there any outside of Apple?

Why?

Why am I talking that nostalgic trip? There is a battle of sorts waged in the Apple punditry about the iPad. Is it a failure? Is it underrated? Underused? What’s its future?

I have an opinion, but given my track record, I’ll keep it to myself.

One things for certain though: cool tech that appeal to geeks such as myself, or to old-timer Apple people (such as myself, again) don’t necessarily go the whole way. Revolutionary the iPhone may seem, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a very cool device, it’s actually not revolutionary, and wasn’t at the time. What made is special is that Apple used all of its creative genius and tech know-how to make the best damn phone they could and it was a success. But just remember that originally, we weren’t supposed to develop apps for it. Apps are arguably what makes a smartphone popular (I’m looking at you Metro). Cool tech is all well and good but it has to become widespread use to be relevant. And the mechanics of that process baffle me, and I suspect they baffle most commentators, whether they realize it or not.

  

One For The Money, Two For The Show,…

WWDC is just around the corner, featuring some 10.8 (dubbed “Mountain Lion”) excitement, maybe some iOS 6 news, and possibly some hardware upgrades, although I have my doubts about cluttering the developer conference with hardware announcements.

But since it’s coming I decided to have a glance at Mountain Lion, to be at least able to follow the discussions. Now, it’s true I haven’t changed my setup in a while: my traveling companion is a late 2008 black MacBook (boosted in RAM and hard drive as time passed) that’s way more than a match for its current counterparts in terms of development. And to my mind, once it’s equipped with a SSD drive (which I can swap in very easily, by the way), it’s going to be somewhere between 20 and 40% slower than its 4-years-younger rivals. Yep.

The only thing that dramatically improved these past few years are the graphics and the core redundancy. Since I don’t play on my macbook, and can wait the extra 20s it will take to finish compiling my biggest project (I tested), I feel confident this puppy will follow me a little bit more.

But! Not so fast! 10.8 won’t run on it. Wait, what? For a frickin 20% penalty, I get to buy a new laptop in which I can’t change the hard disk, upgrade its RAM, or get an extra battery? Apparently so.

The official reason is that it won’t run in 64 bits. Wait, what? It does too! It runs 64bits programs like a charm.

“No no no, you don’t get it, it won’t boot in 64 bits. That’s why we won’t support it”. Wait, what? Windows 7 boots it in 64 bits. So does Linux. What’s the game here?

So, for my laptop, not only do I have to shell out 2k euros, but for features that I don’t care about (I have a console for gaming purposes, thank you very much), and at the expense of features I actually need (given that I work a lot with video, my hard drive has a life expectancy of a couple of years, tops). OK, well… For my laptop, I might actually get convinced, given the fact that it is pretty banged up. But that’s vanity, not technical.

And it gets worse with my trusty Mac Pro. 4 cores, 8GB of RAM and some pretty good video card (for gaming… sold that way, anyway), but still no go. The same “it won’t boot in 64 bits” shenanigans.

Except, we are absolutely not in the same game, price-wise. I can’t replace my Mac Pro with an iMac. I have 4x2TB of storage in there, plus a boatload of things connected to the myriad of available ports. So I would have to replace it with a new Mac Pro. If it ever gets announced, the thing I will need will cost something like 4k to 6k. That’s a hell of a lot for a tiny teenie booting issue that got fixed on both b1 and b2 beta releases of the OS, but that got closed on the b3 for no obvious reason.

I get that Apple is a hardware company, and needs to sell hardware. And in the past, every time my computer slowed to unbearable speeds, I upgraded my hardware gladly. But this is not it. If someone forces you to do something for no other reason than “because we say so”, there’s a good chance of a backlash.

Oh and by the way? VMWare Fusion allows me to run 10.8 in a virtual machine… on these two computers. And the speed is decent too. So I hope Apple continues behaving like the good guy, and does not start using wrong tactics for commercial reasons. They have the money (that I gave freely and abundantly over the years), they can afford it.

  

The love of old stuff

By now, if you don’t know I like having old computer gear lying around and keeping it up and running, you don’t know me very well.

It so happens that my main file server at home is my old’n trusty G5 (dual 2.0Ghz and 4GB of RAM, top o’the range back in the day), running 10.4.11. It has a lot of room to spare and has never ever let me down.

For a project, I needed a PowerPC computer running 10.5.8. I decided that the G5 could suffer a little downtime for the Betterment of Mankind. I therefore setup a new partition, start the installation, set the whole thing up, secure in my conviction that it’s only temporary.

When everything is good to go with the project (cool project, too, maybe I’ll post something about that later), I revert back to my previous setting. Las, ho and behold! The filesystem is completely torn apart. It takes 5 minutes just to mount the drive. A lot of files are missing. What happened? What can possibly be done?

First thing’s first, disk utility cannot even VERIFY the drive. Don’t even think of repairing it. DiskWarrior identifies more than 5000 corrupted files, some of them as important as /bin/ls…

After a long period of trials and errors and copies from another computer I have somewhere running 10.4.11, I finally have a “workable” system. But the base containing the users has been corrupted.

Not to worry, says Apple’s knowledge base! All you have to do is restore the database backup, easy as pie. Just boot in single user (cmd + s at boot time), mount the drives (mount -a), continue the startup (sh /etc/rc), and restore the backup (niload -d -r -t < /var/backups/local.nidump). Reboot for safety.

There’s just one problem with that: continuing the startup starts the windowserver, and you can’t type any command anymore. Oh and the screen stays blue forever.

So here’s the trick: knowing that sh /etc/rc is asynchronous and accounting for the various amounts of time this or that subsystem needs to boot, just type all the commands anyway, and let it deal with it invisibly (hooray for error checking but… better than nothing)

so boot in single user, mount the drive and type
sh /etc/rc ; sleep 120 ;  niload -d -r -t < /var/backups/local.nidump ; sleep 30 ; reboot

The blue screen and the lack of any feedback is sure to stretch time in a way that’s not completely explainable by physical means, but in the end, the system is back online.

Next time the system fails, it’s going to take me 2h instead of 50.

  

Regarding the AppStore for iPhone/iPod Touch

I was reading John Gruber’s piece on Opera Mini, and although, as usual, John is pretty thorough with his analysis, the last sentence made me jump.

Again, though, just because an app doesn’t violate the rules doesn’t mean Apple will accept it.

It kind of invalidates everything everybody says or writes about the AppStore. And the sad thing is that it is true. I wrote an app for Rebel Software (Spin the Bottle, in case anybody’s wondering). We were pretty happy with it, it respected what we thought were the guidelines, was pretty good looking, if not “useful” (it’s just a game, people). It was also the first app doing that on the Store.

It took 6 weeks to validate the app. And a couple more after I fixed a bug they had uncovered. So on the one hand, the validation process is actually pretty thorough, or so it seems. On the other hand, while the app was being reviewed, 4 other spins were released. They are simpler, true. But come on!

The whole mechanism looks good on paper. Apple “filters” bad applications, or buggy ones. The software developer doesn’t have to worry about the installation/update system on the device. And the user has access to everything pretty easily.

But the whole process is very opaque. How comes it took so long? No one knows. How comes some apps are rejected although they follow the guidelines? No one knows.

I’m not saying that every app should be accepted immediately, or that Apple shouldn’t reserve the right to forbid an app to be run on their device. It’s their business model, their choice. I may not agree for philosophical reasons, but from a different point of view, I guess it makes some sort of sense.

What I’m saying is that making the validation process opaque is a mistake. With a clear set of rules, some apps would not even be submitted. Less work for Apple, less work for the developers who won’t even try. When my app was stuck, a contact of mine told me I should have said something, and that he would’ve accelerated the process a bit. Why should I need that? And what happens to a developer who knows nobody within the Forbidden City?

The whole thing looks fishy. People with ideas don’t spin them up because it might get rejected (and working on something for no result costs money). People with bad ideas but having some pull might get some apps accepted although they probably shouldn’t be if you have Standards. The whole thing takes too much time and brain power from everybody.

I talked with a friend about the possibility to submit a prototype to Apple before going any further to see if the app had any chance of being rejected. He replied he wouldn’t do that because he’s afraid that someone else might take idea and implement it before he has time to do so. And while some applications get rejected because they do something too close to the built-in apps, you still can find several applications that do the exact same thing, competing against each other. Why doesn’t he trust Apple to respect the secrecy on that?

So the fog, instead of creating a healthy competition environment, looks like it’s promoting arbitrary, or network-b(i)ased decisions. Transparency is not optional here. Some rejection rules might be unfair, true. But why be ashamed? If the rule is written down in a way that non-lawyers can understand, they will be obeyed. Everybody wins.

OK, I’m naive. OK, I’m optimistic. But either you trust the users not to buy the apps that suck (don’t laugh), or you find a straightfoward way to define what an acceptable app is. Spread the responsibility around a bit. We all want the platform to the be the best there is. Why not work together?

  

Another year…

Apple Expo 2007 is finally over. All in all it was a pretty good show, at least from an exhibitor’s point of view.

I don’t really know why, but the whole organization seemed… quiet, this year. Booths were up and ready on time, electricity as well, network too… The organization staff was quite relaxed and the exhibitors quite friendly to each other.

Mind you, it’s been a stressful week, but maybe not as stressful as it was the previous years. Go figure.

As for the show itself, very little new things (apart from the new iMacs everywhere), since most new products should be available some time after Leopard (a.k.a. Mac OS X 10.5) is released. The Apple booth seemed smaller (although geometrically it wasn’t), the Apple Store bigger.

The good news was it was less of an iPod expo this year, or so it seemed to me. True, Bose, Sennheiser, Shure, and JBL were here, along with Mini (the car, not the iPod) and Audi, but since the iPod touch and the iPhone were not here, we had a lot more software and mac accessories than last year. Again, I might have experienced a distorting perception spell since we had quite a few niceties on Business & Innovation

And since the tension was less there this year that could have been, contact between “competitors” also was quite relaxed. And a lot of friendly contacts were made, along with business ones.

I guess it’s a good advice : less stress leads to better productivity.