WinRT

If you’re a even slightly in to technology, you’re probably waiting to see what WinRT is like. WinRT is Microsoft’s answer to iOS, and it runs on tablets like Surface, which is Microsoft’s answer to iPad. Anyway, we’ve not seen WinRT in action before, so this video on The Verge is very interesting:

I don’t much like Jim Dalrymple’s new style of let’s-poke-fun-at-everyone-who-isn’t-Apple, but I think this time he is justified when he says “Microsoft is screwed“.

That video highlights why Apple were exactly right to not bring OS X to iPad, updating the desktop metaphor and making it touch friendly. Apple chose iOS despite some loud cries from Apple nerds and tech pundits who seriously felt Apple were ‘dumbing down’. Well, Microsoft ported the desktop over to their tablet (again), and it sucks (still). You’d think they’d learn.

Stay safe devs, update your Java…

If you’re an Android developer, you’ll have the JDK installed somewhere. You need to keep this up-to-date. Java, along with the even more vulnerable Flash Player and Acrobat Reader make up the lion’s share all current serious security vulnerabilities on your computer.

Today, Oracle released JDK 7 update 7, and it specifically fixes a vulnerability disclosed last week. You can always download the latest JDK from this page: http://www.oracle.com/technetwork/java/javase/downloads/index.html. Click on the button ‘JDK 7u7′ (though, of course, over time that u7 will become u8 and so on).

Do it. Do it now!

If you’re not a developer and you have Java installed you still need to stay up-to-date. You should be promoted to update your Java — let it run and it’ll help you stay safe. Same goes for Flash, Acrobat Reader and Windows/OS X updates.

Edit: if you’re running OS X, you’ll notice that java -version still shows the version you had before. Annoyingly, you have to open ‘Java Preferences’ in your Applications/Utilities folder, and in the ‘Version’ column for Java 7, change the drop down to the version you just installed:

Shows how the Java Preferences window must be used on OSX to ensure that you are running the latest Java updates

Set the latest Java version in Java Preferences

A Completely Avoidable Disaster

Another day, another panicked text message from somebody whose laptop has suffered a catastrophic trauma (usually a drop), and who doesn’t have backups. Sigh.

Because you’re reading this blog post, I bet you’re either currently wondering what to do about your lost photos, or you’re here by accident. Well, that’s too bad. Because all I have to say is “backups”.

Backups are what you do if you have files that you don’t ever want to lose. Like photos of your kids. Or spreadsheets for your business. Anything at all in fact. If it’s important, back it up. If you don’t, you’ll lose it and it’ll be gone forever. Computers break down, you know. They also get stolen. And dropped.

If you’re a geek and somewhat clued up on these things, make it your mission to educate at least one other person and get them backing up. If they’re on Apple, bonus! All they need to do is plug a USB disk in and say ‘yes’ to the message about backing up.

If you’re not a geek and want to get your stuff safely backed up, ask one of your most trusted computer literate friends to help you create a backup plan for your data. Once you’ve picked them up off the floor, I’m sure they’ll be only too happy to help.

One Thing All Laptops Get Wrong

I don’t understand why my laptop can’t play videos without sounding like a jet plane. My iPad can do it. My phone can do it. It looks to me like it’s actually a problem we’ve already solved. What is so wrong with x86 based laptops that playing video – even low-quality video from YouTube say – causes them to get really hot, really fast, which then causes the (annoyingly noisy) fans to spin at full speed? It seems to be the only thing they can’t really do.

Arm chips can decode full-hd video in real-time and stay at room temperature (which means no need for fans). It’d be great if laptop makers could figure out a way of including Arm chips along with the Intel/AMD chips so that video could be off-loaded. That’d be a really difficult task (from an engineering point of view), but I bet there’d be a way (maybe just regular old DMA or something — the Arm chip could work as a plug-in card though PCI-Express). I wonder why Apple don’t do something like this? It’d be a real selling point, and they have more expertise with Arm-based computers than just about anybody.

Maybe the Arm thing wouldn’t work, but either way, a few seconds ago I started a YouTube video playing and already the fans are making a lot of noise. Time to get the iPad…

Grabbing images of websites is easy with WebSnapper

Here’s a useful little link to an app that I use on Mac OS X to grab screens from the web. It’s useful for your own sites when you’re creating documentation or sales materials, and it’s also great when you want to take snapshots of sites that inspire you. One major bonus is that it works with pages that you need to be logged in for, and it lets you grab the whole page (not just the visible bit).

Anyway, it’s called WebSnapper, and it costs about £10/$15 in the Mac app store. It’s worth having in your toolkit…

Homepage for Tasty Apps (creators of WebSnapper)

Bill Gates predicted the iPad in 2001. Sorta.

This is a quote of Bill Gates in 2001:

“Echoing his remarks from last year, Gates said the future of computing lies in the small genre of portable computer called a ‘tablet PC.’”

Isn’t that remarkable? He adds:

“The tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available whenever you want it, which is why I’m already using a tablet as my everyday computer,” Gates said. “It’s a PC that is virtually without limits — and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.”

Source article [cnn.com]

OK, so he got the timescales wrong, and of course he was talking about a tablet version of Microsoft Windows, not an Apple iPad, but isn’t it strange how times change? Bill Gates was a technical visionary, but beyond Basic, MS-DOS, Windows and Office, Microsoft have really failed to execute time and time again. Even worse, now Ballmer’s running the show, they seemed to have lost even the ability to spot new trends, even while that new trend starts eating their lunch.

Interestingly, that article was published less than 3 weeks after the first iPod was unveiled. I wonder if Bill Gates had even the slightest inkling of where it would take Apple, and just how much Apple would end up reshaping the industry.

10 Reasons why Windows is better than OS X

So my last post was called ‘10 reasons why OS X is better than Windows‘. It wasn’t hard to find 10 reasons. Today I’m going to do the same exercise in reverse. Here are 10 things that I like better about Windows than OS X:

1. Backwards Compatibility

I’m always astounded at how well old software continues to run on recent versions of Windows, right back to old 16-bit DOS executables (though they’re less supported now, especially since the advent of 64-bit Windows). Microsoft do a really great job of making sure that the Win32 API remains incredibly consistent and changes don’t cause stuff to breake. Apple, on the other hand, seem to like to change (it must part of their DNA) and every so often they make major changes to fundamental things, even if it means old versions of programmes stop working. I think that Apple’s approach takes cajones (because you’ll certainly annoy some people, who might stop being customers), where-as Microsoft’s approach takes a lot of real hard work.

2. The Start Menu

The start menu is a great mechanism for launching applications and it’s testament to the original design work done by Alan Cooper at Microsoft in the 90′s that it remains largely unchanged since Windows 95. Of course, it has been rejigged, but none of the changes have improved it much — the core of the original design is still what makes it great.

3. Exchange/Outlook

Not really a part of Windows, per se, but as a part of the Windows eco-system Exchange and Outlook have worked brilliantly for many years, giving small companies what Unix based solutions could not (a cheap and easy workgroup email server). I think Outlook is starting to lose its way a little now, and that certain alternatives are actually more compelling in many ways (Google Apps in particular is just incredible). Still, I like the power that Exchange gives regular users and the simplicity being able to hook a new user up with a mailbox, calendar and contacts in a few minutes is pretty great.

4. Remote Desktop

If you’ve ever tried to use Apple’s built-in screen sharing over a slow link (even a DSL over VPN, say), you’ll know that it is not terribly efficient. I don’t know if the paid-for Apple Remote Desktop tool improves things, maybe it does, but in the world of Windows we have Remote Desktop, and it works brilliantly, even on slow links. I especially like being able to share my drive with the remote computer.

5. Freeware/Opensource

This might seem an odd reason to like Windows. Surely Windows is the least favourite place for open source? Well, Foobar2000, Notepad++, WinSCP, PuTTY, TortiseSVN, Paint.NET, 7-zip, VMWare Player are all free (though not all are open). These are all incredible applications that are available on Windows but not on Mac. There are equal alternatives on Mac, but they all cost money.

6. Games/DirectX

I don’t play games, but if I did I think I’d be 100% windows based. As a programmer, I’ve tried my hand at creating basic 3D software (just because I like to try new things) and DirectX was pretty good. Not only that, but 3D graphics drivers on Windows tend to perform better than on Mac, just because they are tweaked to death by ATI and NVidia. It means users have to be somewhat proficient at upgrading drivers, but if you’re technically inclined, that’s no bad thing.

7. .NET

.NET is a nice programming language that fits right in to the Microsoft eco-system, and is often a better choice for desktop development than Java. One thing it did away with was the outrageous start-up times that Java used to suffer, and that’s probably one reason that it took hold as the de-facto framework for corporate desktop apps. That, and it was the obvious upgrade path from VB6.

8. Blu-ray

If you want blu-ray on your computer, Windows is the only option right now because Microsoft are the only ones who have built the required DRM in to the core of the OS. Be warned, however, that Windows doesn’t play Blu-ray discs out of the box, you have to purchase a third party player.

9. Speed

Lots of things are a bit faster on Windows — from games (using Windows gives games a few extra frames per second usually), to Java start-up times, to Flash (the video player has better hardware acceleration on Windows, but Mac is getting there). That said, many things are slower on Windows (not least because of the bloat-ware that ships on most PCs, and anti-virus plays a part too). I’m actually clutching at straws a bit now.

10. There is no 10.

Sorry, I ran out of ideas :( I do like Windows, I’ve used it for 18 years now, but it’s probably quite telling that I do my ‘personal’ stuff on Mac and keep Windows almost completely for ‘business’ (and even then I try and use Mac where I can). If you think I’ve missed anything, please let me know in the comments and I’ll be sure to update this post.

10 Reasons why Mac OS X is better than Windows

Don’t worry Windows lovers, the next post (update: here) will be 10 reasons why Windows is better than OS X. I use both extensively, so hopefully I’m in a good position to judge impartially. Despite the post’s title, I’m not advocating one system over the other, just pointing out strengths and weaknesses,

1. The menu bar

This is a love-hate thing, but I personally think the top of the screen is the perfect place for a menu bar. On a practical level, this position means that windows can be simpler — no need for a fiddly menu bar at the top of each window. Microsoft have half acknowledged that menu bars don’t belong in the window — look at IE or Office. On Mac, you still get the menu, which is great for power users, but it’s in a consistent place that doesn’t clutter up your windows. Maybe I like it best because I’m nostalgic for the Commodore Amiga ;-)

2. Back to Mac

I have Mobile Me. I also have an Apple Airport Express router. My iMac at home has sharing turned on (which is nothing special — it takes literally two clicks to turn screen sharing on). Incredibly, when I’m at work and I fire up my MacBook Pro laptop, I can see my home computer in the little panel on the left of Finder. With no bother at all, I can connect to it to access files and remote control the desktop, just as if it were there next to me. I know Windows has remote desktop, which is great, but that doesn’t help you if you need to quickly connect to your computer at home — the magic here is the way that it automatically configures everything to give me full and transparent access over the internet, all via my Mobile Me account.

3. Multi-touch

This is as much about the Apple hardware engineers as it is about OS X (and in particular, the engineers they acquired when they bought an innovative little company called Fingerworks), but it has to be said that multi-touch support in OS X is nothing short of amazing. Tap with one finger to click. Tap with two fingers to right click. Tap and move three fingers to move icons or select text. Tap and swipe four fingers to quickly show the desktop or all of the windows laid side-by-side. If you haven’t used it, you probably think this sounds a bit weak. If you have used it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The worst thing about multi-touch on Mac is having to go back to a Windows laptop — you get so used to two and three finger taps that it’s nearly impossible to stop doing it!

4. UNIX and Terminal

This is a geeky inclusion, but as a techie it’s a crucial point: Mac OS X is the only certified UNIX you can get for desktop computers today. Because Linux is very Unix-like, OS X runs pretty much all open source software flawlessly and, of course, it comes with all of the Unix command line tools and a well-built Terminal app for running them (which really puts the Windows command prompt to shame — for one thing, you can resize it horizontally). Microsoft have developed ‘Powershell’ to try and make scripting better on Windows, but it’s no substitute for the simplicity, consistency and sheer versatility of a Unix shell.

5. Built-in PDF reader (and support for creating PDFs from any application)

Not having to install Adobe Acrobat Reader to open PDFs is just fantastic. That PDFs can open instantly and not cause your computer to grind to a halt is actually quite surprising when you first go to Mac from Windows.

6. Spotlight

Spotlight is a little magnifying glass that lives on the far right of the Mac menu bar. It lets you search your Mac, and it works extremely well. For example, I have Mail setup to access my Gmail account, which is brimming over with 7 years worth of emails. I can find literally any email in seconds, using spotlight. It works just as well for files, browser history and even applications. The shortcut key is CMD + space (CMD is Apple’s equivelent of the Window’s key), so it’s always easy to start a new search.

You might think that Windows Search is Spotlight’s equal, but you’d be wrong. Windows Search is improving, but it still isn’t integrated quite as seamlessly as Spotlight, and Windows Search is a resource hog. A real resource hog. Spotlight doesn’t consume 1.3GB of memory on my Mac, whereas Windows Search does on my workstation.

7. iLife (GarageBand, iPhoto, iMovie, iWeb)

These productivity apps are fantastic, and they come for free with every Mac. It means that when you first turn the computer on you actually have a great set of genuinely useful productivity applications to play around with. I love GarageBand, iPhoto is incredibly useful (we use it for my wife’s point-and-shoot, but I prefer Aperture for my dSLR) and iMovie is great too. Being a web developer by trade, I don’t have much use for iWeb, but from what I can tell it works pretty well.

8. Drivers

A few weeks back I needed to connect to a color laser printer for the first time. In OS X, from the standard print window I clicked ‘Add Printer’. There it was, listed. I clicked it. It worked. I was amazed. By comparison, adding the same printer to my Windows 7 64-bit workstation was a real pain. It took a lot of effort, and I almost gave up before I stumbled upon the right download on the HP website.

Anyway, this led to the realization that I simply never have problems with drivers on Mac. And it’s not just printers — because the Mac hardware is so tightly controlled by Apple, OS X includes all of the drivers for everything, from graphics to USB, and things just tend to work.

9. Universal Access

This doesn’t affect me directly, but I am a programmer and I like to think that the software I create is accessible to everyone. However, it’s only thanks to the work of other companies that a blind user, say, can actually interact with my software. Apple have built an incredible system for blind users right in to OS X. It’s called Voice Over, and Austin Seraphin explains how impressive it really is far better than I ever could.

10. Time Machine

Backing up a Mac is as simple as plugging in an external disk and answering ‘Yes’ when OS X asks if you want to use it for Time Machine. From that point on, it’ll take care of everything (assuming you either leave it plugged in or remember to plug it in every now and then). You can use Time Machine to recover files from a point in time (of course), and you can also use it to recover a Mac if you have to install OS X again (like if you have to get a new hard disk fitted). This is exactly how backups should work.

The situation isn’t nearly so simple on Windows — The only people I know who backup their Windows machines are techies and geeks who know about this stuff. A few weeks ago someone posted a question to engadget about the backup software for Windows. You just need to glance at the comments to see that the best solution — Windows Home Server — is no Time Machine.

So that’s it! My 10 reasons that OS X is better than Windows. I purposefully limited myself to 10 things, but a few runners-up that just missed the cut deserve honorable mentions, I think: programming languages nearly made it, because Macs come with Ruby and Python installed, and an incredible C/C++/Objective C development environment on the OS X CD. I also wanted to mention the dock, because the new task bar in Windows 7 simply isn’t as nice. Fonts are very good out-of-the box on Mac, and I particularly like that Helvetica is installed on every Mac.

Anyway, check back in a few weeks (or months, at the rate I’m currently posting) to see my top 10 reasons that Windows is better than Macs. It’ll be interesting to see if I can think up 10 reasons (I wondered if I’d make 10 in this post).

Dr Seuss Living Books educational software for Mac OS X

When the Mac app store arrived a few weeks ago it brought with it a few genuine surprises (the biggest was probably Aperture 3 at £45). For my part, I was really excited to see the return of three educational titles that I don’t think have been sold in well over 10 years. These are the Dr Seuss Living Books.

I have seen these before: My son is much older than our two daughters (he is 12, whereas our girls are both under 3) and this is why the little cartoon faces of Izzy and Icabod, peering out from among the icons in the Mac App Store’s education section, were instantly recognisable. When my son was very young, he used to play these Living Books a lot. As it happens, I thought they were pretty incredible compared to just about every other educational programme we tried, so I kept the discs.

Fast forward 8 years and my two year old daughter is learning her alphabet and starting to read. I knew that she’d like the Dr Seuss titles (we have the actual books and she loves those), but it can be really hard to get old software working on modern computers. The original discs supported Windows 95 and Mac classic (this was way before OS X). Happily, the discs worked pretty well on Windows XP so, using the magic of VMWare on my Apple laptop, we got Dr Seuss’ ABC and The Cat In The Hat up and running and she absolutely loved them. However, that was definitely a poor solution — running virtual Windows on a Mac drains the battery, makes it run really hot and is too difficult for a 2 1/2 year old to figure out on her own. That’s why I was so pleased to see these appear in the App store.

I bought them. When the store first launched they were £15 each, which struck me as overpriced. I still bought The Cat In The Hat, even at £15, but I held off buying the other two because I suspected the price would have to drop. Sure enough, they’re now £11 each, and we’ve completed the collection. I suspect the price will drop further still — £8 feels about right for these — but I guess it all depends how much MacKiev (the people who have created this new Mac version) have to pay in royalties to the copyright holders.

The Mac app store makes buying Mac apps incredibly easy – it’s a great experience that was somewhat ruined by the fact that these games simply don’t work when you first install them. Let me repeat that — these games do not work straight after you purchase and download them. If you read the descriptions (in the app store), you’ll see that they provide a link to a ‘fix’ that you have to download and run before the games will start. That’s bad enough, given that it should ‘just work’, but to download the fix you have to fill out your email and a few other details. That’s pretty poor.

Once you’ve got the fix the apps work pretty well. My 2 year old can make them crash occasionally, but they mostly work just fine. The first thing you notice is that there’s a big border around the actual interactive area. That’s there because when the games were made, most screens supported 800 pixels across by 600 pixels down. A little window that size would look lost on an iMac display, so the border is a good idea, in lieu of totally revamped graphcis. The graphics and sounds are exactly the same as the original versions, but that’s not a bad thing; they’re simple and capture the essence of Dr Seuss’ illustrations very nicely.

So would I recommend these to somebody looking for educational software? Yes, absolutely. I would say get just one first and see how you like it, but I expect after a few days you’ll be back to get the other two. I’d like to review the actual games themselves here on this blog. Maybe if I get time and I can rope my daughter in we’ll do that.

A Great Steve Jobs Quote

I think this might be my favourite Jobs quote, though he has built quite a collection of inspirational soundbites. Anyway, this is from an interview he gave Newsweek, just after he was kicked out of Apple by John Sculley, in 1985:

“Q. Do you feel that they have taken your company away from you?
A. To me, Apple exists in the spirit of the people that work there, and the sort of philosophies and purpose by which they go about their business. So if Apple just becomes a place where computers are a commodity item and where the romance is gone, and where people forget that computers are the most incredible invention that man has ever invented, then I’ll feel I have lost Apple. But if I’m a million miles away and all those people still feel those things and they’re still working to make the next great personal computer, then I will feel that my genes are still in there.”

That perfectly explains why Apple don’t try and be all things to all people. They don’t want to create just another commodity — they want to do something special. Compare and contrast that with Dell…