The Day Apple Discontinued Its Users

I’d long suspected it to be true, but I didn’t want to believe it.

There had been rumours of course, whispers in the canteen, strange pitiful looks from friends as I passed them in corridors. The feeling that those around me knew something I didn’t. Something important.

Then I saw it…and my heart was finally broken. It all made sense in that moment. How could I have been so blind?

The Thin Edge of the Wedge

Perhaps the thing that hurt the most was the way in which this revelation took place.

There I was sitting on my sofa enjoying the new app I’d recently installed on my Apple TV which allowed me to watch their latest product release. Phil Schiller was talking about Macs, something dear to my heart since switching to the platform nearly a decade ago, and hinted that finally the iMac would be updated. Now, I turned forty this year and as a way of staving off the onslaught of a mid-life crisis my family had surprised me with the offer of a new iMac – because they are wonderful people. We knew that the latest model was a year old and didn’t support USB 3, so we elected to wait for the refresh we expected in June. Well, the laptops got the bump then but the iMac news remained silent. My birthday came and went with nary a word on the machine’s arrival. The summer faded, autumnal leaves began to fall, but still the Cupertino fellowship kept quiet their counsel. As the year threatened to pass away un-iMaced suddenly there was hope, an October event with the promise of rebirth.

So that’s were I was, agitated on my sofa in anticipation for the delayed deliverance. Phil said he’d built a new iMac, it was finally happening, they ran a video, could it really be that thin? Wow! That’s amazing! Fusion drive? Part SSD Part HD, cool! It seemed a dream come true. After all these years of laptops I would now, at last, return to the opulence of a huge screen and envious power. Like a giddy child I awaited the Apple online store’s reappearance and within the hour there it was. Beautiful, elegant, expensive, but worth the wait.

Until I delved a little deeper.

You couldn’t actually order the new model yet, not until November, but under the technical specifications section I found the things that would cause the pain. Those dark grey words might as well have been lipstick on a collar.

The base model (the only one I could possibly, at a large stretch, afford) retailed for £1099, but featured not a Fusion drive, instead the more standard and quickly becoming outmoded 1TB hard drive. So I’d have to upgrade if I wanted the machine to remain quick and potent for the five to seven years that I hoped it would serve. Replacing a drive in iMacs is a difficult task, even for someone like myself who holds little fear of tinkering around the innards of computers. You need to remove the large glass screen, then disassemble half the machine to access the drive bays – not exactly a straightforward job – and, of course, there’s the issue of having a dust free room to stop any buildup on the inside of the screen itself.

It takes a brave user to venture here…

Ok, it was a pain but I’d have to order the drive with the machine. But wait…what’s this? The base machine doesn’t come with the option to upgrade the HD? That can’t be right…It was right. In fact the only upgrade the base model was capable of was to 16GB of RAM. Unlike the previous model though the RAM couldn’t be changed by the user. Instead it had to ordered at the time of purchase. In fact to upgrade to a better, faster HD I’d have to step up to the £1249 model, then pay an additional £200 for a Fusion drive. I know the calculations and processing that Fusion involves might make it too much for the processor in the base model, but why not an option for an SSD? I recently replaced the HD in my 2007 MacBook with an SSD and it now works great. Why couldn’t Apple let the user decide to buy a smaller internal drive and supplement storage with a cheaper, external drive?  The answer seemed blindingly simple. They don’t want the machines to last. You’re no longer paying for top quality and durability…just looks and decent specs that will last long enough for the Applecare period to expire.

This non-serviceable trend, of which I am not an advocate, at least makes more sense to me with the MacBook Air. To achieve those tiny bodies and faster operating speeds I can just about see why you’d need to make it closed and prebuilt. But on a desktop? I don’t need wafer thin bodies and light weight machines at home, my desk is made of wood not bubbles.

Then I thought back to the announcement. How Schiller had strategically positioned the iMac at a two thirds profile to the camera so they just caught the edge of the screen rather than the bulb at the back where the hardware lives. How Jony Ive and the other senior Apple team sat on the front row grinning to themselves. That’s when it hit me. Such was their position now, their cultural currency, that hubris had finally overcome them. The user was no longer even in the equation any more. Design awards, positions in the museum of modern art, and self congratulating back slapping was the goal and reward that Apple valued and pursued.

See here? This is what we really care about…

 

I guess I’m not the customer that decadence wants. Someone who can buy the high price item only rarely, and who expects it to last and be maintained while I save for the next one. I can’t keep up with this crazy pace of changing phones, tablets, and now desktops every two to three years, so I’m being fazed out.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m not the first older model with an expanding waistline to be dumped for a slimmer, younger alternative.

 

Living with the…Google Nexus 7

I adopted the tablet revolution quite early on. In the build up to the release of Apple’s iPad I was critical of how useful something like Steve Jobs’ latest magical creation could be. In fact the first time I encountered an iPad it left me unimpressed. I played with a few apps, discovered that well lit rooms were no friend of the tablet then decided that laptops were for me, not these expensive toys. I can’t remember when I changed my mind, but somehow – via a generous birthday present – I had the chance to really explore this new computer format…and from then on I was hooked.

Now the iPad is easily my most used piece of hardware. Internet browsing is strangely serene on it, podcasts play loud enough that I can use the device as a mobile speaker unit in the house, reading is great at night, I’ve rediscovered an old love of comic books thanks to excellent apps like Comix, and when teamed up with my Apple TV the iPad brings the endless time-wasting joy of Youtube directly to my TV. I’ve even been known to do the odd bit of writing on my beloved machine, including this blog post.

So now it’s pretty fair to say that I’ll always want a tablet in my life. Funny how times change. The problem is that due to the closed nature of the production of tablets there’s no way I can fix one or upgrade it to maintain optimum performance. Slowly, over time, my original iPad has developed…issues. Due to the low 256mb of internal memory apps now crash in a frustratingly regular fashion, and some tasks that were once instant now drag their heels in spectacular fashion. I’m guessing this is the way that Apple and their competitors ensure that we move up to a new device every three years or so, just like we do with phones. But a £500 purchase is something I want to last a bit longer than that, especially when it’s being used for non-intensive tasks. Thus it was with great interest when I saw that Google had released the Nexus 7 – a smaller, lighter, much, much cheaper tablet that had the press in unanimous praise. Could this be the Droid I’m looking for?

Good things come in small packages….sometimes.

There’s no doubt that the Nexus 7 is an attractive device. Everyone that has seen the review unit I’ve been using was impressed by it’s bright, clear screen and diminutive form. Holding it in the hand was a light relief from its chunky inspiration, and the latest Jelly Bean Android software felt quick and stable. Initially it was an instant success and I thought that my bank account could be saved the mauling that Apple had bestowed upon it in previous days. Then the cracks began to appear.

The Nexus is small…but it’s also too big.

Confused? Yes, I’m not surprised. You see swiping and pinch-to-zooming is all well and good, but to navigate the internet, send emails, or interact with social media you’re going to need to enter some text. Typing on the iPad is, well, excellent. In landscape mode I can pretty much type at 80% of my top speeds, with a surprising level of accuracy. Using the Nexus 7 is somewhat confusing. Landscape mode is a bit of a stretch and the onscreen keyboard feels less accurate and sensitive than the Apple one. Turning to portrait mode makes the Nexus seem like an over-large phone, and once again the lower accuracy makes it easier to make mistakes. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s not the effortless experience that I’ve enjoyed on my iPad.

Of course the Nexus’ size becomes an advantage when using apps like Google Currents and Flipboard, which are both excellent and make catching up on news a very easy and pleasant experience. Amazon’s Kindle app is also a standout. Reading novels on pages that are pretty much the same as an actual book feels right, and the screen definition renders the text in a crisp manner. Social media is a little less splendid. The Facebook and Twitter apps appear to be the mobile versions, offering smaller text size and a compact view that just seems to lessen the experience, especially Facebook with it’s constant flow of pictures. Google+ is decent, but again feels a cheaper alternative to the magnificent iPad offering.

After exploring these sites I noticed another oddity of the device. With the iPad I tend to balance the unit against my legs, lean it on furniture, or prop it up against any random protuberances that offer purchase. It means that my arms don’t tire of holding what is still a quite substantial weight. The Nexus is light and slim, but I found that I had to hold it all the time, which actually ended up causing my hands to ache faster than the iPad did. It’s a small thing, but as I suffer from an old RSI injury, this became a bigger issue rather quickly.

You’ll be needing this…

Ok, so comparing a £200 device to a £400 one seems a little unfair. Of course the iPad should be a more luxurious environment, it damn well better be for double the price. But the reason I’m doing this is that I was serious about converting from an expensive Apple device that I use mainly for media consumption to a cheaper alternative that offered most of the benefits with only a few losses. After a few weeks with the Nexus 7 though I was disappointed to realise that the iPad has pretty much ruined me for anything else. The drop down felt so vast in terms of quality, not of build – the Nexus is very solid – but rather experience. I’ve rarely felt frustrated by the iPad (except now that it crashes more often) but the Nexus became annoying in a fairly short space of time. As an e-reader it’s a very tempting option, offering more functionality than the Kindle Paperwhite for only £50 more, but for more general purpose tablet adventures it seems limited and more akin to a phone.

I dearly wanted to love this device, as did my wallet, and to be fair my children did. I think the issues I had with size were the exact opposite for them. But the compromises seem too big to make this a viable option to those who have grown used to the glorious expanse of Apple’s tablet. Even my mother, who has to be surgically removed from my iPad every time she comes over, but for whom the price tag is prohibitive, couldn’t get on with the Nexus. The text size proving difficult for her older eyes.

The Nexus is a cool little device which some people will undoubtedly love. For me though it looks like another trip to the Apple store looms in March when the new model comes out. Better start saving now then…

It Just Borks…

It’s a strange time to be an Apple user.

After years of being the underdog company, and very nearly going out of business, it now sits proudly on the top of the hill with more money than most countries. Its latest iPhone sold over 5 million units in the opening weekend alone (which is extremely impressive when you think that it’s pretty much the most expensive phone you can buy and we’re in the middle of a recession) while the rumoured 8-inch iPad could appear at any moment and sew up the tablet market completely. The Macs that Apple are currently producing are impressive, especially the Airs, and have spawned countless imitations from the rest of the industry. Even Apple TV, which Steve Jobs referred to as a ‘hobby’, is now a very viable and useful product. You’d think that we’d had never had it so good. But that’s not the full story.

A troubling trend is developing and it questions whether the big A really has any more ideas up its wealthy, hand tailored sleeves?

A rarely seen full Apple eclipse.

Beta. There I said it. Beta.

In computing terms a Beta release is a product or service that you let people use under the proviso that it isn’t actually finished. It’s a ‘work-in-progress’, something full of bugs and problems that you hope to iron out with help from Beta testers – brave volunteers who use the software and report back on any problems they encounter. This is standard practice, and a good one, as it allows real-world testing of a product before you release it into the wild. The idea is that you discover any glaring errors and fix them, thus saving your customers the aggravation and confusion when the software finally goes on sale. Microsoft do it, Google do it, even educated fleas do it, so it’s no surprise that Apple do it too. What is a surprise though is that Apple has started doing it with the flagship features included on its devices.

When Siri came out for the iPhone 4S it looked, or rather sounded, incredible.  A voice interface that seemed to have an answer for everything. Apple made it the absolute sole reason to buy the iPhone 4S. The adverts were only about Siri, showing how it could arrange your diary, remind you of anything, and offer light entertainment like some kind of electronic court jester. To make the product even more attractive the company carefully selected celebrities such as Zooey Deschanel, Martin Scorsese and Samuel L Jackson to interact with the faceless wonder and turn the service into a celebrity in its own right. Websites and Youtube videos popped up displaying the answers Siri generated to weird and wonderful questions, while it seemed only a matter of time before the whole world would be talking to our phones rather than those troublesome people that we currently have to deal with.

Then people got the chance to use this technical marvel…and found that it wasn’t really that good. Sure it could do some stuff, and was pretty cool as a party trick, but the effortless lifestyle manager that the ads portrayed never materialised, and for those of us that live outside of the US, which is nearly everybody, the services were missing vital local information so that no matter how much we tried to sound like Zooey we just couldn’t get soup delivered to our houses.

Siri, how much am I being paid for this ad?

In surveys conducted a few months later it turned out that most iPhone users were hardly using Siri at all, which really isn’t that much of a surprise. Apple’s explanation for the limited use of their flagship feature…it was in Beta. That’s right, the one single aspect of the iPhone 4S that you single out for an expensive ad campaign, and which heralds a new era in communications software is in fact not finished, not ready for prime time, not even ready to be called a full product.

While still scratching my head on this one Apple then brought forth the iPhone 5, now with Apple’s own maps – which show 3D Flyover features of major cities. Wow. Except if you live outside the US. Oh. And as the standout feature on the phone (let’s just look at those 3D views of American major cities once more…oooo, that’s useful) it was trumpeted by Apple as the ‘most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever’, that was right up until people used it and found that towns and cities didn’t exist, bridges looked more like Dali paintings, and the directions would quite happily lead you somewhere totally different to your intended destination. People complained, the media collated some of the hilarious gaffs, and Apple had to issue a formal apology and direct users to third party map replacements.

Apple hires Salvador Dali to head up its maps division.

The strange thing is that Apple told consumers that the product was still being developed and that if users would send in the errors they found then the service would improve. So what that really means is…it’s a Beta. Again. Two years running the most profitable technology company on the planet releases unfinished products and expects customers, who paid a small fortune to have the ‘best’ phone experience lots of money can buy, to road test their experimental products. That’s not innovation…it’s just plain lazy.

It used to be the case that you paid the top money for an Apple product but were sure you were getting one of the best machine and software combinations around. Now it seems like the money is nothing more than a high entrance fee for a  focus group product test. At least have the decency to buy us lunch next time…

Free, free at last!

I have a confession to make.

Give me a minute to compose myself.

*deep intake of breath*

Ok, I’m ready now.

Due to work requirements I recently found myself in the position of having to load Windows onto one of my home machines. It’s been 7 years since I escaped the driver incessant, pop-up window collage that was XP, and hopes weren’t high when the first two attempts to install it ended in failure. Like a dark cloud floating in front of the sun the ominous feeling of doom that had followed me for so much of my early computer life returned.

Weary of spirit, but stout of resolve I soldiered on and eventually, via the kindness of a friend and the privileged position of being a tech journalist once more, I installed Windows 7 Home Premium and braced myself for impact.

Then it happened….

This Windows…it’s different. It’s…….nice.

 

Where were the demands for answers that Microsoft previously made on me every time I wanted to accomplish even the simplest tasks? What’s this Dock-like area at the bottom of the screen where I can helpfully pin my favourite apps? Could it be true that the paperclip of interminable cheeriness had  finally been put down?

This indeed was a different country.

The visuals were smart, but tasteful. The system was snappy and efficient. Even the built in security features seemed unobtrusive. What sorcery was this?

Briefly the amazement held, then I tried to play a DVD. Ah, there they are. Error messages aplenty. DRM, drivers, codex, all those old birds coming home to roost. Several downloads, updates, and restarts later left me no better off. My short lived euphoria was shattered. Windows, you cruel temptress.

But before I could safely consign Microsoft to the backwaters of my mind a thought occurred. In the past year I have dabbled heavily in Linux. If nothing else it’s taught me that open source software can often fix the ills of the technological world. And so it proved. After ditching Windows Media Player in favour of VLC the DVD played first time. Then I downloaded Chrome, giving me access to all the apps I tend to use now (Google Docs, Tweetdeck, Google+, etc.) and installed Thunderbird for my emails.

 

It all worked brilliantly, and behaved in many ways like my Mac and Linux machines had. In addition I now had access to Steam, with it’s plethora of cheap games, and was able to complete the work tasks that began the process in the first place. All within an environment that I actually found pleasurable to use.

So, Windows…we’re friends again. Which is nice, as I don’t like to harbor grudges or miss out on cheaper hardware.

As I considered this strange turn of events it had made me realise that since I moved from PC to Mac I’d pretty much thought that was the end of it. But thanks to open source software the world is available to me again.  Now I can do anything I need on almost any platform. Could it be that I’ve become OS neutral?

I can choose whichever machine serves my purposes and budget without the need to conform to the tribe to whom I’ve swore my allegiance. Surely these are the dreams of fools and madmen? But no…

I never thought that I’d make a profound discovery while musing on the Windows OS, but it seems that fate is tricksy and not devoid of a sense of irony.

The digital landscape is wider for me today, and I like what lays ahead. It’s…liberating.

Just as technology should be.

 

How do you use computers today? Are you dedicated to one platform or do you wander like a harlot? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

When the Faith Falters

I’m in trouble.

It’s been seven years since I committed myself to the cause. In that time I have been transformed, seen incredible new things, and brought others to an understanding of the true way while rejoicing at their accepting this wonderful rebirth.

But now, it seems, my walk is faltering…inside are doubts I can’t suppress or ignore…my faith is beginning to fade.

How did it come to this? Oh Apple, why have thou forsaken me?

I think it began with the iPad.

The future, today!

Thanks to a generous birthday gift I was able to experience the new technology sensation shortly after it launched here in the UK back in 2010. I was immediately in love. The elegant dance of information beneath my fingers beguiled my skeptical mind and left me with the profound sensation that I was engaging with the future. It seemed a million miles from the Sinclair Research ZX Spectrum that had initially filled me with wonder all those years ago.

All was well until the release of it’s younger sibling twelve months later. I saw no need to upgrade as the addition of a camera was of no interest and the speed of my original iPad was more than satisfactory.  Then I tried to download the newly released iMovie and discovered that it was not available for my tablet. Surely there was some mistake? I was on the cutting edge – probably for the first time in my life – how could my hardware already be redundant? Then other non-iPad 1 apps started to appear…it had begun.

I comforted myself with the thoughts that I probably wouldn’t have used them anyway, and my iPad was still the brilliant machine that it always had been. The pain subsided, I learned to live within my reduced but still rich digital environment and the hurt passed into memory.

Then Apple did it again.

The future, once more...

iOS 5 sounded wonderful. The ability to have my documents synced between the iPad and my MacBook without any kind of fiddling around with importing or exporting was the kind of seamless thing I expected from the Cupertino boffins. And now here it was, all for the princely sum of nothing at all!

Only things weren’t quite how they seemed.

Within a short time of upgrading I noticed that my once very stable tablet was now crashing…a lot. Once it even locked up and required a reboot – something I’d hardly ever experienced in my time among the fruit people. The cause? iOS 5. Forums were alive with similar stories and the only fix it seemed was to wipe the disk and start again, then disable the iCloud settings. I duly did this and, in a fashion, it worked although my machine does still crash more than it used to – plus I can’t use the syncing feature for fear of the whole thing breaking again. I wasn’t even given the option of returning to the previous version of the iOS that worked perfectly with the iPad 1 because Apple don’t look back, only forward.

Then I discovered that upgrading my Macbook to the newly released OSX Lion would be problematic because its limited 2gb of internal memory means it will struggle to cope, plus the trackpad only supports two finger gestures which means it will miss most of the benefits that Lion offers.

So instead of a brave new world I was given a slightly more broken one. Not quite what I had hoped for.

Now I find myself in that awkward time when my main machine (the aforementioned old white Macbook) is beginning to show signs of age and will possibly need upgrading within the next year. But for the first time in a long, long time I’m actually finding myself question whether I want to pay premium prices for something that might be reduced to second-class citizenship a damn sight faster than I’d like. I’ve never regretted buying anything from Apple. Since my conversion I’ve bought and used heavily an iBook, Macbook, iPod touch Gen1, iPod  Gen5, iPod Shuffle, iPad, and Apple TV. All of which have been brilliant. But as times get tougher my eyes are starting to wander.

The problem I’m faced with (and I realise that in the grand scheme of things it’s a trifling one) is that buying something new from Apple these days has the strange effect of making you feel obsolete so very quickly. I fully accept that the thing that makes them great is that they push forward all the time, but if you’re like me and only earn a modest income that precludes you from buying a new model every two years then it can get strangely depressing. Has it always been like this? I don’t remember it as such.

The thing is I can’t go back to Windows. I just can’t. So where does that leave me?

The fabled 'Third' way...

In recent months I’ve started exploring the idea of Linux….and it’s quite interesting. Sure it doesn’t have the simplicity of OSX, nor the beauty. But it does actually work, is free, and because of it’s home-brew nature doesn’t leave you in the dust only months after you’ve paid a fortune for something. I don’t know if I’ll be able to withstand the constant fixing that it will no doubt require, but I’m finding the fresh environment, the surprising fun of reconnecting with the workings of a system, and the frontier attitude genuinely refreshing. How long this will last I don’t know. Those MacBook Airs are mighty tempting. But at least here I can enjoy the idea of salvaging old machines rather than saving for new ones…

What do you think?

And so it begins…

I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time.

Technology is a bit of a thing of mine. As I look around my home there’s barely a few feet between gadgets, appliances, or some other techno-marvel designed to improve my life and serve its various needs. My television is a gateway to the internet, my mobile phone acts now as a personal assistant, email recipient, and podcast player, while my iPad is a pile of books, magazines, and games packed into something small enough to lose under a newspaper. Technology has become a prevailing part of modern life, as you know by reading this blog that was written in a coffee shop using free wifi and a free software platform from WordPress that then reached you through, I’m guessing, a similar route.

But is this technotopia all that it’s cracked up to be? You see for all the marvellous advantages I now experience thanks to the likes of Apple, HTC, Samsung, Google, Amazon, and a host of others, living with the future can have its frustrations and disappointments.

So, here’s the reason for the blog then. I’m no computer expert. I can’t code, I get lost around acronyms like TCP/IP, AMOLED, and SCSI, plus I’m not exactly rolling in money by western standards and have to pick my devices with great care – Just like most people who actually use technology on a daily basis. In light of this I figured that we needed a voice. A place to talk about our victories and injuries, somewhere it’s safe to ask stupid questions and find that most other people are wondering the same thing.

Hence ‘Living in the Future’. It shall be a canary in the digital cage, trying new things and pondering the use of stuff that’s been around for a while so that we can carry on our adventures together in safety and, hopefully, a little less confusion.

If you fancy the journey then please come along, lend your voice, and increase the wisdom of us all. Send reviews of things you actually own and have to rely on. Tell us your worries or hopes for the digital age, and share links to helpful articles or tips that you find along the way.

I shall be writing about the things I see and tech that I encounter. Let’s have some fun in the digital playground, and maybe together we can make the future a little less frightening…