Jun 16

An iPad Pro is not a Mac

Last year, Christopher Mims wrote about how Apple should kill off the Mac. Just this week, Apple alumnus Michael Gartenberg wrote that the iPad Pro is the new Mac.

It’s human nature to try and match things up… to simplify, organize, and categorize data points. To say a thing is like another thing, or a thing can replace another thing. But I think doing so today only confuses normal users.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how you shouldn’t cross-shop the iPad Pro and Surface Pro (or Surface, for that matter) because people kept pondering the two as alternatives of each other.

Someday, we will arrive at the point that an iOS device will be able to meet the requirements of many, perhaps even most, macOS (nee OS X) users. This day is not that day, and this year is not that year.

I travel a fair amount. Almost every other month, I have to fly for work. While my old 15″ Retina MacBook Pro had served me well for some time, I was growing frustrated with three issues (in order):

  1. Battery life
  2. Heat
  3. Screen size.

My Mac’s battery was to the point where no matter what I did, unless I dialed every possible thing back that I could, it was less than 3 hours of battery life. I write a lot… and I like to write remote. Having to find AC power all the time gets really frustrating, and AC also isn’t always available.

I use my laptop as a… laptop. The i5 in my old MBP got hot. Not as bad as the i7 in my old ThinkPad, but toasty – limiting when and where I could <ahem/> comfortably use it.

Finally, with the great unbundling, coach class seating is now hostile to machines over 13″. I found that on Alaska’s planes, if the seat in front reclined on me, I wasn’t going to be working.

So I needed something smaller. Lighter. More efficient.

I’m not a developer. So I don’t need Xcode. I don’t work with Mac versions of most legacy multimedia software from Apple, Adobe, or others. I don’t even play games on my computers. But I work in Microsoft Office every single day. And there are things that I need there. There is the mobile version of the Office applications, and I have an E3 subscription that entitles me to using them.

So as I winnowed down my device options, I was seriously looking at the large iPad Pro. While I’m all thumbs when it comes to drawing (or hand-writing), the Smart Keyboard and iPad Pro make an acceptable (although compromising) combination.

In particular, as I pondered life with the iPad Pro, several caveats came up with the hardware, before I’d even considered the software capabilities.

  1. Not “lappable”
  2. Keyboard of great compromise
  3. Fixed position screen
  4. No secondary pointing device.

Lappability. I hate the term. But it is a thing. “Lappability”. The iPad Pro, like the Surface line (outside of the Surface Book, which is arguably somewhat lappable) is not lappable. It isn’t. If you have to care about where the device sits on your lap before it falls (or how long you can leave it on your lap before the kickstand feels like it is cutting into your flesh), it is not “lappable”.

Compromising keyboard. As I said earlier, I write a lot. I’ve really fallen in love with the keyboard on my old MBP. It is really pleasant to use. The iPad Pro’s keyboard, like Microsoft’s original Touch Covers for the Surface devices, is squishy and has strange key travel. For a writer, I just find the contraption too compromising to work well. I would imagine most developers would as well. Frankly, I’d love to see Apple try a Surface Book like approach for keyboard (sans the wacky GPU in the base).

Fixed screen. In terms of the screen, sure – the position is probably positioned pretty well. But the inflexibility drives me nuts. Sometimes you’re in a plane or conference center, and the sun is hitting the screen just right so you can’t work. Or your neck hurts, so you want to subtly reposition it. Good luck fixing that.

Touch only. Finally, the lack of a pointing device, and the requirement to smear your screen to navigate the device, while standard operating procedure with iOS, and acceptable with certain device use cases, makes me stabby on my daily use work device. I’m staring at Word, PowerPoint, the Web, and a handful of other things throughout the day. I don’t want to be cleaning my screen all day.

So if I’d been willing to compromise on those 4 (I wasn’t), the iPad Pro might’ve been capable of becoming my primary device. But then we hit the software caveats.

  1. Word on iOS is far from full-featured
  2. Working with files in iOS is still a bear
  3. Collaboration through SMB shares is unworkable
  4. Tools I use regularly for workflow are absent.

Word limits. Word on the iPad is very limited compared to Word on the desktop (even just comparing Word on the Mac, let alone Windows. I don’t even use VBA, so don’t care that that is missing. As I mentioned, I have Office 365 for work, so don’t need additional licensing. But the editing tools on iOS are very… constrained. Tables and outlining, for example, are things I use all the time in Word on the Mac and Windows. No go on iOS. I also find the document reviewing tools on iOS excruciatingly frustrating to use vs. desktop equivalents.

File handling. Much has been made of the lack of a Finder equivalent in iOS. iOS doesn’t need  a finder per se. But it does need the ability to share certain “universal” files in one location and have any other app be able to open them. Trying to open a PPTX file with rich content in PowerPoint on iOS is ugly. Basically have to copy the file. Need to make edits and save the file back for a colleague to read? Good luck. You’re gonna hurt yourself by the time you finish.

Legacy collaboration. Collaboration through old Windows shares is not workable on iOS. If your org has moved completely to Dropbox or OneDrive (which would be impressive), then you can make this work. Otherwise, you’re using kludgy apps that try to make SMB fit within the parameters of iOS, and create similar problems to the ones I just outlined. (Even Microsoft’s own Work Folders technology seems basically dead on the vine in favor of OneDrive for Business. iOS was designed to be standalone and not need file shares. Which is all well and good if you’re a sole proprietor, Web-only or your whole org is all-in on SaaS-based collaboration software. But most orgs aren’t.

Specialty software. I have several tools that I use regularly – notably BetterTouchTool, and Paw, for work. These don’t have equivalents. I could perhaps get used to not having them, or perhaps find alternatives, but I’d rather not.

Contrary to what you might think, I wouldn’t describe myself as a power user. I run terminal on OS X about as often as I ran regedit on Windows (and for the same duct tapey reasons). But in the end, I found that the iPad Pro and iOS would not, in terms of either hardware or software, meet my needs, without me needing a Mac in addition for certain things.

In the end, I wound up getting the new MacBook, consciously choosing the low end model with the Intel m3 processor. It feels like I see beachballs a little more than with my old MBP, but it isn’t that frequent. More importantly, I have a screen that works great on flights, it runs cool almost all the time (plus it has no fan!), and I can go an insane amount of time without needing my charger.

Apple will surely come out with more iPad Pro hardware/peripherals over time, which will enable new scenarios and flexibility. And iOS and macOS will continue to harmonize, while iOS moves upmarket, to enable more and more software scenarios that were previously exclusive to the Mac. It’s a delicate dance. Building a walled garden around macOS, while expanding the walled garden of iOS.

But the reality is also that there are certain scenarios people should not ever expect iOS to support, like SMB file shares in-box, or replacing built-in apps with third-party equivalents. I just believe that’s not the kind of things that you should expect Apple to do.

In several years, perhaps as few as 2, maybe as many as 5, iOS devices will likely be able to meet the needs of most people who use Macs or Windows PCs today. Some users will compromise their behavior or requirements early and go to iOS. Some will find that iOS just meets their needs, and switch. Some will continue to use Windows and macOS for the foreseeable future. Some scenarios, like developing fully-featured OS X and macOS apps (or developing for Windows clients or Linux server on Macs), will continue to require a Mac, even as Swift development tools likely gain capabilities on iOS.

In the meantime, I think that saying the Mac should go away, or that the iPad is workable for most normals who are knowledge workers, is a real stretch. Probably in time. It’s the direction. But we’re not there yet… not for some time.

Nov 14

Is Office for mobile devices free?

As soon as I saw today’s news, I thought that there would be confusion about what “Office for tablets and smartphones going free” would mean. There certainly has been.

Office for iOS and Android smartphones and tablets is indeed free, within certain bounds. I’m going to attempt to succinctly delinate the cases under which it is, and is not, free.

Office is free for you to use on your smartphone or tablet if, and only if:

  1. You are not using it for commercial purposes
  2. You are not performing “advanced editing“.

If you want to use the advanced editing features of Office for your smartphone or tablet as defined in the link above, you need one of the following:

  • An Office 365 Personal or Home subscription
  • A commercial Office 365 subscription which includes Office 365 ProPlus (the desktop suite.)*

If you’re using Office on your smartphone or tablet for any commercial purpose, you need the following:

  • A commercial Office 365 subscription which includes Office 365 ProPlus (the desktop suite.)*

For consumers, this change is great, and convenient. You’ll be able to use Office for basic edits on almost any mobile device for free. For commercial organizations, I’m concerned about how they can prevent this becoming a large license compliance issue when employees bring their own iPads in to work.

For your reference, here are the license agreements for Excel for iOSPowerPoint for iOS, and Word for iOS.

*I wanted to add a footnote here to clarify one vagary. The new “Business” Office 365 plans don’t technically include Office 365 ProPlus – they are more akin to “Office 365 Standard”, but appears to have no overarching branding. Regardless, if you have Office 365 Business or Office 365 Business Premium, which include the desktop suite, you also have rights to the Office mobile applications.

Learn more about how to properly license Office for smartphones and tablets at a Directions on Microsoft Licensing Boot Camp. Next event is Seattle, on Dec. 8-9, 2014. We’ll cover the latest info on Office 365, Windows Per User licensing, and much more.

Jan 14

Bimodal tablets (Windows and Android). Remember them when they’re gone. Again.

I hope these rumors are wrong, but for some odd reason, the Web is full of rumors that this year’s CES will bring a glut of bimodal tablets; devices that are designed to run Windows 8.1, but also feature an integrated instance of Android. But why?

For years, Microsoft and Intel were seemingly the best of partners. While Microsoft had fleeting dalliances with other processor architectures, they always came back to Intel. There were clear lines in the sand;

  1. Intel made processors
  2. Microsoft made software
  3. Their mutual partners (ODMs and OEMs) made complete systems.

When Microsoft announced the Surface tablets, they crossed a line. Their partners (Intel and the device manufactures) were stuck in an odd place. Continue partnering just with Microsoft (now a competitor to manufacturers, and a direct purveyor of consumer devices with ARM processors), or find alternative counterpoints to ensure that they weren’t stuck in the event that Microsoft harmed their market.

For device manufacturers, this has meant what we might have thought unthinkable 3 years ago, with key manufacturers (now believing that their former partner is now also a competitor) building Android and Chrome OS devices. For Intel, it has meant looking even more broadly at what other operating systems they should ensure compatibility with, and evangelization of (predominantly Android).

While the Windows Store has grown in terms of app count, there are still some holes, and there isn’t really a gravitational pull of apps leading users to the platform. Yet.

So some OEMs, and seemingly Intel, have collaborated on this effort to glue together Windows 8.1 and Android on a single device, with the hopes that the two OSs combined in some way equate to “consumer value”. However, there’s really no clear sign that the consumer benefits from this approach, and in fact they really lose, as they’ve now got a Windows device with precious storage space consumed by an Android install of dubious value. If the consumer really wanted an Android device, they’re in the opposite conundrum.

Really, the OEMs and Intel have to be going into this strategy without any concern for consumers. It’s just about moving devices, and trying to ensure an ecosystem is there when they can’t (or don’t want to) bet on one platform exclusively. The end result is a device that instead of doing task A well, or task B well, does a really middling job with both of them, and results in a device that the user regrets buying (or worse, regrets being given).

BIOS manufacturers and OEMs have gone down this road several times before, usually trying to put Linux either in firmware or on disk as a rapid-boot dual use environment to “get online faster” or watch movies without waiting for Windows to boot/unhibernate. To my knowledge most devices that ever had these modes provided by the OEM were rarely actually used. Users hate rebooting, they get confused by where their Web bookmarks are (or aren’t) when they need them, etc.

These kinds of approaches rarely solve problems for users; in fact, they usually create problems instead, and are a huge nightmare in terms of management. Non-technical users are generally horrible about maintaining one OS. Give them two on a single device? This will turn out quite well, don’t you think? In the end, these devices, unless executed flawlessly, are damaging to both the Windows and Android ecosystems, the OEMs, and Intel. Any bad experiences will likely result in returns, or exchanges for iPads.

Sep 13

Make them fall in love

A friend was telling me the other day about his new Mac. He bought it, took it home, and said it was like Christmas; opening it up, the ease of getting started, and the look and feel of the hardware, as well as the software. Normally a buyer of PCs, he decided to buy a Mac. A few months before, another friend said the same about buying his first iPhone. What’s unusual is that these two, like me, are ex-Microsoft employees.

I’ve heard some people recently mention that Apple is a “prestige” brand. I guess you can call it that, but to me it’s more than that. I just bought a new printer. It’s a Brother. I’ve had an Epson, a Canon, an HP (all a few years ago, to be fair), and now this. Frankly, they all sucked. None had an experience that made you feel good about your purchase when you opened the box, all of them were painful to set up, and all (we’ll see about the Brother, if I keep it) required care and feeding in terms of constant ink upkeep. Starved by the margins of their disposable devices with overpriced cartridges, manufacturers always skimped on the cables (whether parallel or USB), and now can’t seem to spend the money to build a point and shoot Wi-Fi setup that works regardless of your network. Printers could be so much more, but like the fax machine, they’re a technology teetering on the edge of death due to their hostility to consumers – mocked almost 15 years ago in Office Space, yet never improved.

I’m going to tell you a secret here. Most human beings don’t want to buy hardware. They don’t really want to buy software, either. They have things they need to do, and want tools to help them do those things, faster and easier than they could otherwise do.

Many people cynically look at the iPad, iPhone, or similar Android devices, and say that these are only consumption devices. Bull. If a user (consumer or business) can get the tasks done that they need to in their home or work life, it’s not a consumption only device. It’s a productivity device. The iPad was so great and so unique because it created a blank slate for whatever task the user wanted to work on, and enabled users to get work done anywhere. iOS developers have created innumerable apps that help consumers and businesspeople get tasks done – and some of them have walked away from PCs as a result, though certainly lots of users can’t, and probably shouldn’t.

Microsoft historically had a unique problem; it made software, and others made hardware. The hardware purveyors owned the final task of gluing the software in, and frankly many of them never did that great of a job. Conversely, Microsoft never did, and still sometimes struggles with, integrating the hardware into the software – or at least consistently exposing it. Trying to find a device which is exploitative of all of the multimedia, security, or other features of Windows 8.x can be an exercise in frustration. There’s no logo that tells you that a device supports Miracast, no logo that says, “this device has a TPM and supports measured boot” (though I contend in a world of BYOD, consumers don’t care a whit about measured boot, or most security features unless work mandates them through NAP or other means). Again, a user doesn’t care. All they care about is, “Can I do the things on this device that I need to get done?” Sometimes that will mean using Microsoft Office. Sometimes – especially if Office isn’t available there, users will find other tools to get their tasks done instead.

To me, Apple isn’t a prestige brand, it’s a respect brand. I don’t mean what you likely think; I don’t mean cachet in the “I’m better than you” sense at all. I mean when a consumer buys an Apple device, they get the feeling that Apple respects them, their time, their lack of desire to make the sausage, and their desire to simply get things done. When you buy so many devices, even today, you get them home and get a tinge of regret (what I have now about this new printer). “Did I buy the right thing? Should I have bought the 5510 instead of the 5500? Should I take it back?” Apple is famous not for pushing out new technology – frankly they’re often not really that innovative at all. But what they do, and do quite well, is take technology that others shipped when it wasn’t quite ready, fix it, remove the sharp edges, and deliver experiences that just work, from end-to-end.

No, Apple isn’t perfect. But my point is that they fuss the details in a way that so many other companies don’t. When you fuss the details, you get happy consumers. You get repeat consumers. You get consumers who go out of their way to tell other people that they should buy the device(s) as well. That’s not a prestige brand. It’s just the way things should be if you want your business to have continuous, sustainable profits. If PC OEMs (or Android/Chromebook OEMs, for that matter) want to rock and roll the sluggish PC market, they need to dump the crappy cut-rate hardware – there’s this huge battle for the bottom end of the market that is going to end up in mass consolidation of, and likely demise of, some OEMs. We’re moving from a world where IT bought truckloads of the same PC and doled it out to employees, to a world where employees are choosing the devices they want, and the devices that help them complete the tasks they need to.  Instead, OEMs need to remove the sharp edges, sweat the details, and start building experiences that users fall in love with from the moment they open the box.

Jul 13

What’s the deal with OWA for iOS?

Earlier in July, Microsoft announced OWA for iPad and OWA for iPhone. Available only for Office 365 subscribers for now (available for Exchange 2013 at an undisclosed point in the future), OWA for iOS originally left me a bit confused.

You see, at a glance, there’s really nothing that OWA for iOS does that you can’t do with the built in mail app on iOS. The one benefit I arrived at upfront was that with Exchange’s autodiscover, configuration for novice users might be easier – it’s just a matter of entering in their username and password to configure it. It also seemed the app might be more comfortable for users who really enjoy the Windows Phone/Windows 8 design aesthetic (why those users would have an iOS device instead is a good question).

OWA for iOS is effectively the Outlook Web App (OWA) component of Exchange 2013/Exchange Online, wrapped in an iOS-native wrapper. Since OWA can run offline as of Exchange 2013, this is a neat sort of parlor trick that enables a unique Office app experience without requiring a massive amount of new code. The native wrapper then enables push notifications, voice-command (that I couldn’t get working very well), as well as a few other bells and whistles not available with OWA normally.

But then outside of this easier configuration and/or Modern-friendly experience, what’s the benefit to OWA for iOS? I didn’t get it initially. But last week I started wrapping up work on a SharePoint 2013/SharePoint Online evaluation guide for work, and something hit me.

What else can OWA (or Outlook 2013) do that the mail app on iOS can’t? It can run Apps for Office. Formerly called “Agaves”, Apps for Office are Web-based add-ins for many of the Office 2013 applications (including Outlook 2013 and Outlook Web App on Exchange 2013) that extend applications with additional functionality. Though the Apps for Office are not really widely embraced yet,  there are a handful of Apps for Office available today for use with Outlook. I have installed an App for Office in Outlook 2013 in my Office 365 account, and sure enough, it was available in OWA for iOS – though the design was hardly optimized correctly (surely the designer of the app didn’t have running on an iPhone in mind while designing it) it worked.

In the future, Microsoft’s own Dynamics applications – as well as other Web-based apps that need to hook into email content – could  be made available through OWA for iOS and integrate into the Exchange mail content there.

Many people criticized the fact that Microsoft made OWA for iOS first, rather than a Windows client. Frankly a lot of the same features are available if you pin your Exchange 2013/Exchange Online OWA page to the Start screen, although notifications aren’t available that way (perhaps in the future). More importantly, when Windows RT 8.1 ships this fall, Windows users have Outlook available across the board – largely negating the need for OWA for Windows RT.

Though I don’t think the Apps for Office were the main reason for OWA for iOS to be delivered, I do think they’re an interesting value-add that you can’t get with the iOS mail client.

Jul 13

The iWatch – boom or bust?

In my wife’s family, there is a term used to describe how many people can comfortably work in a kitchen at the same time. The measurement is described in “butts”, as in “this is a one-butt kitchen”, or the common, but not very helpful “1.5 butt kitchen”. Most American kitchens aren’t more than 2 butts. But I digress.

I bring this up for the following reason. There is a certain level of utility that you can exploit in a kitchen as it exists, and no more. You cannot take the typical American kitchen and shove 4 grown adults in it and expect them to be productive simultaneously. You also cannot take a single oven, with two racks or not, and roast two turkeys – it just doesn’t work.

It’s my firm belief that this idea – the idea of a “canvas size” applies to almost any work surface we come across. From a kitchen or appliances therein, and beyond. But there is one place that I find it applies incredibly well – to modern digital devices.

The other day, I took out four of my Apple devices, and sat them side-by-side in increasing size order, and pondered a bit.

  • First was my old-school Nano; the older square design without a click-wheel that everyone loved the idea of making a watch out of.
  • Second was my iPhone 5.
  • Third, my iPad 2.
  • Finally, My 13″ Retina Macbook Pro.

It’s really fascinating when you stop to look at tactile surfaces sorted like this. While the MacBook Pro has a massively larger screen than the iPhone 5, the touch-surface of the TrackPad is only marginally larger than that of the iPhone. I’ve discussed touch and digits before, but the recent discussion of the “iWatch” has me pondering this yet again.

While many people are bullish on Google Glass (disregarding the high-end price that is sure to come down someday) or see the appeal of an Apple “iWatch”, I’m not so sure at this point. For some reason, the idea of a smart watch (aside from as a token peripheral), or an augmented reality headset like Glass doesn’t fly for me.

That generation iPod Nano was a neat device, and worked alright – but not great – as a watch. Among the key problems the original iOS Nano had when strapped down as a watch?

  1. It was huge – in the same ungainly manner as Microsoft’s SPOT watches, Suunto watches, or (the king of schlock), Swatch Pop watches.
  2. It had no WiFi or Bluetooth, so couldn’t easily be synched to any other media collection.

Outside of use as a watch, for as huge as it was, the UI was hamstrung in terms of touch. I believe navigation of this model was unintuitive and clumsy – one of the reasons I think Apple went back to a larger display on the current Nano.

I feel like many people who get excited about Google Glass or the “iWatch” are in love with the idea of wearables, without thinking about the state of technology and – more importantly, simple physical limitations. Let’s discard Google Glass for a bit, and focus on the iWatch.

I mentioned how the Nano model used as a watch was big, for its size (stay with me). But simply because of screen real-estate, it was limited to one-finger input. Navigating the UI of this model can get rather frustrating, so it’s handy that it doesn’t matter which finger you use. <rimshot/>

Because of their physical canvas size available for touch, each of the devices I mentioned above has different bounds of what kinds of gestures it can support:

  • iPod Nano – Single finger (generally index, while holding with other index/thumb)
  • iPhone 5 – Two fingers (generally index and thumb, while holding with other hand)
  • iPad 2 – Up to five fingers for gesturing, up to 8/10 for typing if your hands are small enough.
  • MacBook Pro – Up to five fingers for gesturing (though the 5-finger “pinch” gesture works with only 4 as well).

I don’t have an iPad Mini, but for a long time I was cynical about the device for anything but an e-reader due to the fact that it can’t be used with two-hands for typing. Apparently there are enough people just using it as an e-reader or typing with thumbs that they don’t mind the limitations.

So if we look at the size constraints of the Nano and ponder an “iWatch”, just what kind of I/O could it even offer? The tiny Nano wasn’t designed first as a watch – so the bezel was overly large, it featured a clip on the back, it needed a 30-pin connector and headphone jack… You could eliminate all of those with work – though the headphone jack would likely need to stay for now. But even with a slightly larger display, an “iWatch” would still be limited to the following types of input:

  1. A single finger (or a stylus – not likely from Apple).
  2. Voice (both through a direct microphone and through the phone, like Glass).

Though it could support other Bluetooth peripherals, I expect that they’ll pair to the iPhone or iPod Touch, rather than the watch itself – and the input would be monitoring, not keyboard/mouse/touchpad. The idea of watching someone try to type significant text on a smart watch screen with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard is rather amusing, frankly. Even more critically, I imagine that an “iWatch” would use Bluetooth Low Energy in order to not require charging every single day. It’d limit what it could connect to, but that’s pretty much a required tradeoff in my book.

In terms of output, it would again be limited to a screen about the same size as the old Nano, or smaller. AirPlay in or out isn’t likely.

My cynicism about the “iWatch” is based primarily around the limited utility I see for the device. In many ways if Apple makes the device, I see it being largely limited to a status indicator for the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad that it is “paired” with. Likely serving to provide push notifications for mail/messaging/phone calls, or very simple I/O control for certain apps on the phone. For example, taking Siri commands, play/pause/forward for Pandora or Spotify, tracking your calendar, tasks, or mapping directions, etc. But as I’ve discussed before, and above, the “iWatch” would likely be a poor candidate for either long-form text entry whether typed or dictated. (Dictate a blog post or book through Siri? I’ll poke my eyes with a sharp stick instead, thanks.) For some reason, some people are fascinated by the Dick Tracy approach of issuing commands to your watch (or your glasses, or your shoe phone). But the small screen of the “iWatch” means it will be good for very narrow input, and very limited output. I like Siri a lot, and use it for some very specific tasks. But it will be a while before it or any other voice command is suitable for anything but short-form command-response tasks. Looking back at Glass, Google’s voice command in Glass may be nominally better, but again, will likely be most useful as an augmented reality heads-up-display/recorder.

Perhaps the low interest I have in the “iWatch”, Pebble Watch, or Google Glass can be traced back to my post discussing live tiles a few weeks ago. While I think there is some value to be had with an interconnected watch – or smartphone command peripherals like this, I think people are so in love with the idea that they’re not necessarily seeing how constrained the utility actually will be. One finger. Voice command. Perhaps a couple of buttons – but not many. Possibly pulse and pedometer. It’s not a smartphone on your wrist, it’s a remote control (and a constrained remote display) for your phone. I believe it’ll be handy for some scenarios, but it certainly won’t replace smartphones themselves anytime soon, nor will it become a device used by the general populace – not unless it comes free in the box with each iPhone (it won’t).

I think we’re in the early dawn of how we interact with devices and the world around us. I’m not trying to be overly cynical – I think we’ll see massive innovation over time, and see computing become more ubiquitous and spread throughout a network of devices around and on us.

For now, I don’t believe that any “iWatch” will be a stellar success – at least in the short run – but it could as it evolves over time to provide interfaces we can’t fathom today.

May 13

Tools to optimize working on the Mac

A few weeks ago I wrote about gestures on the Mac vs. Windows 8. By and large, I’ve shifted to using my Mac with most apps in full-screen, and really making the most of the gestures included in OS X 10.8. It isn’t always easy, as certain apps (looking at you, Word 2011), don’t optimally use full-screen. Word has Focus mode (its own full-screen model) and now supports OS X’s full-screen mode – but not together. Meaning if you shift to Focus mode, gestures don’t work as well as they could, since Word is on the desktop. More importantly, when working on a project, I often need two or more windows open at once. For this, full-screen doesn’t work, but something like Windows 7 Snap is ideal.

I’ve found quite a few tools over the past few weeks that have made working on the Mac an enjoyable experience. Some of these (Pages, and Office for Mac 2011) I’ve owned for a while. But most are things I’ve purchased since I bought my 13″ Retina MBP. In alphabetical order, here’s the list:

  • BetterSnapTool (US$1.99) – Elegantly snaps windows to a quarter, half, or maximized screen on the desktop (or custom sizes/layouts, using the cursor, keyboard shortcuts, or by overloading OS X’s native window control buttons. This is an incredibly well done app, and I would have paid far more than US$1.99 for it. (BetterSnapTool does not interact with OS X’s full-screen model, unfortunately, but that’s a minor thing.)
  • ForkLift (US$19.99) – Okay, OS X’s Finder kind of stinks. It works fine for the limited needs of most users, and honestly it really seems that Apple is keen to largely kill off the Finder in due time. (Try to get to the root of a Mac’s HDD on Mountain Lion. Just try it.) Regardless, Finder doesn’t flex very far to meet the needs of power users. For this, I’ve turned to ForkLift, which provides a multi-pane file browser. Our workflow has me working with local files, an SMB server, and a hosted SharePoint 2007 server. Though I have found a few small glitches – especially with SharePoint – ForkLift lets me move files through our workflow with little special hoop jumping necessary for any given step.
  • FormatMatch (Free) – One of the most annoying things in Word is its insistence on asking you how you want to paste in text. There was a better way to configure this in earlier versions of Word, but in 2011, the so-called “smart cut and paste” is more annoying than smart. FormatMatch effectively strips out formatting  when you cut so it receives destination formatting when you paste. A configurable shortcut enables you to turn it off when you actually do want formatting to stay applied when you paste. Not perfect, but it was free.
  • Jump Desktop ($US29.99) – In my opinion, the best tool to RDP to a Windows PC or VNC to a Mac (or other system). I’ve used the iOS client for years. Very full-featured client, supports Microsoft’s latest operating systems as well as features like Remote Desktop gateways and folder sharing. Because there is no Visio application for the Mac, and frankly no equivalent (I mean that in both the good and bad sense of it), I use “Physical Desktop Infrastructure”, and RDP to my Samsung Slate in order to edit Visio documents, which I sync using SkyDrive. (Disclaimer: I won a free copy of Jump Desktop – but already owned it for iOS, so I would have surely bought for OS X in time.)
  • Lock Me Now (Free) – Says what it does, does what it says. At Microsoft, you learn to lock your desktop or face the wrath of peers (who send email to management telling them how good you are about locking your desktop!) For this reason, I got in the habit of hitting Windows Key+L as I walked away from my computer, beginning with Windows XP, when it was first added. OS X has no such feature, locking your computer generally requires you to use the mouse, or find some shortcutting tool or script to lock the desktop. With an easily configured shortcut, this app can lock your desktop (I use the logical Cmd+L).
  • Office 2011 (US$219) – I’ll start by saying I’m not a fan of Outlook 2011. I use the mail, contacts, and calendaring features built into the Mac, and appreciate that they play better with Time Machine, which I use to back up all of my Macs. But as to the rest of the applications, there is no alternative for an organization that has a workflow that revolves around Microsoft Office format documents – there really isn’t. While Office 2011 has some thoughtful features that even Office 2013 and Office 2010 are lacking, at 2 years old, it’s starting to feel a bit dated, as it fails to take advantage of native OS X functionality (or do so optimally, as I noted). I expect an update to Office for Mac in 2014, so we’ll see how far that goes to catch up to where OS X (well into 10.9 by then) takes us. I’m a bit concerned, but not surprised, that the new crop of business intelligence features (both those built into Excel 2013 today and those in preview for it) are Windows only, and there only on the enterprise licensed/Office 365 variants of the suite). I don’t expect that to change – but there again is another reason why Jump Desktop is worth so much to me.
  • Pages (US$19.99) – Yeah, go ahead, say it. I bought Pages for one reason (I own both the iOS and OS X versions of all iWork apps, FWIW, but primarily use Pages). That reason? The ability to easily write in Pages and export to ePub in a reliable way. I’ve also recently decided that the value I got out of Evernote (I rarely used the search functionality, but was paying for a note synchronization service with search) was surpassed by the better UI offered by Pages, which syncs between OS X and iOS devices. I can create groups of files that are visible to all devices through iCloud. It just works. If I had a PC I used regularly, or I needed search, it wouldn’t work, and Evernote would be the more logical choice. But that isn’t the case. A follower on Twitter asked why I don’t use OneNote instead – this is pretty easy to answer. OneNote is overpowered on Windows, underpowered on every Apple platform it is available on, and not available on the Mac. So it doesn’t fit my workflow at all.
  • Pomodoro (US$2.99) – Gimmicky user interface that really should be cleaned up and simplified, but does what it infers – it’s a Pomodoro timer that tracks work sessions and breaks. 
  • Scribe (US$12.99) – I love this tool. Way overpriced for what it does, but I couldn’t find a tool that did what I wanted any better than this. I have found a few nits that cause it to crash, but overall, the simplest, most pleasant outliner I’ve found. Great for brainstorming and organizing thoughts. You might be looking at this and my earlier mention of Visio and wondering why I don’t buy the OmniGroup’s tools for outlining and mind mapping. Because I think they’re tragically overpriced and overrated for what they provide.
  • SkyDrive (Free) – Use it to sync a queue of Office documents I’ve got in progress between my Macs, Windows 8 Samsung Slate, and my iOS devices. I can’t tell you how much I love having everything synchronized and being able to open docs in the Office Web Apps when I need to.
  • Streambox (US$4.99) – Exceptional Pandora client for OS X that runs in the main Menu of your Mac, and provides configurable shortcuts for interacting with the service.
  • VirtualBox (Free) – I was a fan of VMware for years. I used Workstation at Microsoft, Winternals, and CoreTrace extensively, and was a beta tester of VMware Fusion from the very beginning. But the product has gotten so expensive, and required almost annual upgrades that seemed to diminish in value to me over time. I no longer use virtualization as a key component of my workflow, but do need to fire up a virtual machine once in a while. So VirtualBox meets my needs perfectly. It’s not the prettiest virtualization solution for the Mac, but it is the cheapest, and it works fine for what I need.
  • Voila (US$29.99) – I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this tool that does an amazing job with screenshots, screen captures, audio, and more. It’s already proven quite useful for a few personal and work projects, though. Need to spend more time with it, but really like what I’ve seen so far.

Apr 13

Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion – separated at birth?

Alright – shake out the giggles from the title, and let me show you why I said that.

Until recently I had been using Windows 8 every day – and recently switched to a Mac (running 10.8 Mountain Lion) as my primary computing device. The more I have used Mountain Lion – especially with apps in full-screen mode – the more certain things felt subtly similar to Windows 8.

I believe that Mountain Lion is yet another step in Apple’s gradual (some might say slow) rhythm to converge the iOS and OS X platforms, as iOS devices become more capable and OS X becomes more touch friendly, but Apple is doing it in a very cautious way – slowly building a visual and functional perimeter around Mac applications to make them behave much more like iOS applications. I have a thesis around that, which I’ll try to discuss in another post soon. But the main point is that Apple and Microsoft are both shooting for relatively common goals – immersive applications available from an application marketplace that they control for their platforms – with an increasing emphasis on touch – or at least on gestures. I’m not going to say who cloned whom, as many of these are simply examples of multiple discovery, where Apple and Microsoft, largely now chasing common goals, implement similar features in order to achieve them. Let’s take a look at a few similarities.

Pervasive Cloud Storage

From the first time you sign on to Windows 8 or Mountain Lion, the similarities begin. On Windows 8, it tries the hard sell to get you to use a Microsoft Account for your identity – not linking it to a local account as you can do with an Active Directory account, but making your Microsoft Account a local account, and enabling you to synchronize settings (but currently not applications and the Start screen) between two or more computers.

Windows SkyDrive Sync

Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t embed iCloud quite as in-your-face, and doesn’t use it to synchronize most settings (or Dock items – unlike its predecessor, MobileMe) but does embed it all over the operating system with several built-in features (such as Safari tab synching across OS X and iOS) Photo Stream, Notes, and Reminders, with applications also able to hook in on their own for storage. Unlike SkyDrive, iCloud (like the file system on iOS) is opaque, and not user navigable – only exposed through applications and operating system features that elect to hook into iCloud. Speaking of hooking into iCloud, some apps like TextEdit ask if you want to save new or existing documents locally or in iCloud (with a dialog that is, honestly, un-Apple-like).

iCloud Sync

Heads-up Application Launcher

Both Windows 8 and Mountain Lion provide a “heads-up” approach to launching applications. With Windows 8, this is the Start screen. With OS X, it is Launchpad, first introduced with OS X Lion in 2011. Windows 8’s Start screen (love it or hate it), is a full-screen (usually multi-screen, continuously scrolling) launcher. This launcher can feature notifications and additional information from the applications themselves. Applications can be grouped, and “tiles” can be resized, but not combined into collapsible folders, and are somewhat fussy about placement. Windows does provide interactivity through the Start screen, in the form of Live tiles. See the Weather app below for an example of a Live tile, and Productivity as an example of a group. To my point about fussiness – note the Remote Desktop tile, and the two to its left. Remote Desktop cannot currently be placed underneath CalcTrek in that column – the Start screen always wants columns of a set width (one wide column or two double-width columns), not a single-width column.

Windows Start screen

Since OS X Lion (10.7, almost two years ago), Apple has included Launchpad, which is a feature that presents a (drum-roll, please) full-screen (usually multi-screen, individually paged, as in iOS) application launcher. Unlike the Start screen, Launchpad does not feature any sort of status for applications. They are a static “sea of icons” as Microsoft likes to say about iOS. Instead, notifications now use the Apple Notification Center, which is integrated into the shell. Launchpad application icons don’t ever have notification “badges”, say for reminders or new mail. Instead, notifications are available for applications that are in the OS X Dock or in Notification Center. One or more application icons in Launchpad can be grouped together into a folder, which can be named – just as in iOS. Here is Launchpad:


Intriguingly, OS X Mountain Lion added a much needed feature to Launchpad (which Windows 8 featured from the first day the public saw it), type to search the list of applications. Here is Windows 8 app search, and here is the same feature in OS X.

Application Store

File under “obvious comparison point”. Beginning with OS X Lion in 2011, the Mac App Store offered a limited selection of applications for free download or purchase. In Lion, these were effectively just Mac Apps that were willing to forego 30% of their sales revenue to be in the store (they didn’t have to live within tight constraints). In Mountain Lion, apps were forced to live within the confines of a sandbox, much like applications on iOS – where the damage one app can do to others, the operating system, or user data, is limited. Windows Store applications (WinRT applications) by definition must live within a very strict sandbox – in many ways more strict than the rules required beginning with Mountain Lion.

The Windows Store follows the same design paradigms as other Windows 8 applications. In general, the design of the Windows Store and the App Store on OS X are remarkably similar. A significant difference is that Windows Store applications can be – at the developer’s discretion – provided as trials. No such feature is explicitly available in the App Store, though some developers do achieve a similar goal by providing a free simplified or limited version of the application that is unlocked through an in-app purchase.

Here is the Windows Store:
Windows Store

Here is the App Store on OS X (running windowed, though it can of course run full-screen too):
App Store on OS X

Immersive Applications

Windows Store applications, by definition, are immersive. The full-screen user interface is designed to remove window chrome and let the application itself shine through. Windows Store applications must be either full-screen, snapped, or backgrounded. The next release of Windows is expected to add more window modes for Windows Store applications, but will still not add (back) overlapping windows – in other words, it will still be more like Windows 2.0 than Windows 3.0.

Here is an example of a Windows Store application, the immersive mode of Internet Explorer – which is only capable of being run full-screen or snapped with another app, not in a standalone window:

Modern IE

Here is an example of a full-screen application on OS X Mountain Lion. Note that not all applications can run full-screen. However all applications that can be can also be run windowed. Here is an example of Pages running full-screen on Mountain Lion:

Here is Pages with that same document in a window. The full-screen models of both Mountain Lion and Windows 8 feature hidden menus. The Windows 8 App bar as implemented for Windows Store applications is hidden off the screen to the top or bottom of the application, and can be implemented in wildly varying implementations by developers. The menus for full-screen applications in Mountain Lion are effectively the same Apple Menu-based menu that would normally appear when it was running not in full-screen. The main difference is that the Apple Menu in non Full-screen mode is detached – like Mac applications have always been. In full-screen mode, the menu behaves much more like a Windows application, stuck to the application running full-screen. The menu is hidden until the cursor is hovered over an area a few pixels tall across the top of the screen. Similarly, the Dock is always hidden when applications are running full-screen, until the cursor hovers over a similar bar of space across the bottom of the screen.

What is kind of fascinating to consider here is that Internet Explorer 10 in Windows 8 is, in many ways, mirroring the functionality provided by a Lion/Mountain Lion full-screen application. It is one binary, with two modes – Windowed Win32, and full-screen immersive – just as Pages is displaying in the images shown and linked earlier.


In “desktop mode”, both Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion focus more on gestures than previous releases of both. With a touch-screen or trackpad, Windows 8 is very usable (I believe more usable than it is with a mouse), once you have mastered the gestures included. Both have aspects of the shell and many applications that recognize now common gestures such as pull to refresh, pinch to zoom, and rotation with two fingers.

Windows 8 provides a single, single-finger in from the left, gesture to switch applications one at a time, which can be expanded to show a selection of previously run applications to be available, but also includes the desktop. Though I feel Windows 8’s app switching gesture to be limited, it works, and could be expanded in the future to be more powerful. Here you can see Windows 8’s application switcher.

I have used gestures in iOS for the iPad since they first arrived in a preview form that required you to enable them through Xcode. The funny thing about these gestures is, while they aren’t necessary to use on the iPad, they are pretty easy to learn, and can make navigating around the OS much easier. When I started using my rMBP with its built-in trackpad and a Magic Trackpad at my desk, I quickly realized that knowing those gestures immediately translated to OS X. While you don’t need to know them there either, they make getting around much easier. Key gestures are common between iOS on the iPad and on OS X:

  1. 5-finger pinch – iOS: “closes” application and goes to shell application launcher – OS X: Goes to Launchpad
  2. 4 finger-swipe left or right – navigates up or down the application stack of iOS applications/OS X full-screen applications, desktop, & Dashboard (which I disable, as I don’t find it useful).
  3. 4 finger swipe up (or double-press of home button) – on iOS, shows you the list of recent applications from most recent  to least (left to right). Swiping left moves you down the stack. Swiping right moves you up the stack (see 2, above). On OS X, this shows you “Mission Control”, which is effectively the same thing as iOS, just with desktop and full-screen applications included
  4. 3 or 2 finger swipe to the left while on the desktop exposes OS X’s Notification Center.
  5. 2-finger swipe in many OS X applications is used to navigate backwards or forwards, including Safari and the App Store. Regrettably, two-fingered navigation back and forth is not available in the Finder (a weird oversight, but perhaps a sign of the importance Apple feels about the Finder).

Here is OS X’s Mission Control feature, exposing two full-screen applications (iTunes and Pages) and three applications on the desktop (Reminders, Safari, and Mail):

Mission Control

The most fascinating thing here is that, while Windows 8 has been maligned for it’s forced duality of immersive-land and the legacy desktop, the Mac is actually doing the same thing – it just isn’t forcing applications to be full-screen (yet). Legacy applications run on the desktop, and new applications written to the latest APIs run full-screen and support gestures. Quick – was that sentence about Windows 8, or Mountain Lion? It applies equally to both!

I think it’s very interesting to take a step back and see where Apple has very gradually moved forward over the last several instances of OS X, towards a more touch and immersive model, where Microsoft took the plunge with both feet, focusing first on touch, while leaving the Win32 desktop in place – but seemingly as a second-class citizen in priority to WinRT and Windows Store applications.

The next several years will be quite interesting to watch, as I think Apple and Microsoft will wind up at a similar place – just taking very different steps, and very different timeframes, to get there.

Apr 13

The PadFone is not the future

I’ve been pondering the existence of devices like the Asus PadFone and PadFone 2 recently.

Not really convertible devices, not really hybrid devices, they’re an electronic centaur. Like an Amphicar or a Taylor Aerocar, the PadFone devices compromise their ability to be one good device by instead being two less than great devices.

I haven’t found a good description of devices like the PadFone – I refer to them as “form integrated”. One device is a dumb terminal and relies on the brain of the other.

While a novel approach, the reality is that form integrated devices are a bit nonsensical. Imagine a phone that integrates with a tablet, or a tablet that integrates into a larger display. To really work well, the devices must be acquired together, and if one breaks, it kills the other (lose your Fone from the PadFone, and you’ve got a PadBrick).

You also wind up with devices where the phone must be overpowered in order to drive the tablet (wasting battery) or a weak phone that results in a gutless tablet when docked.

Rather than this “host/parasite” model of the form integrated approach, I would personally much rather see a smart pairing of devices. Pairing of my iPhone, iPad, and Mac, or pairing of a Windows Phone, Windows 8 tablet, and a Windows 8 desktop.

What do I mean by smart pairing? I sit down at my desktop, and it sees my phone automatically over Bluetooth or the like. No docking, no need to even remove it from my pocket. Pair it once, and see all the content on it. Search for “Rob”, and see email that isn’t even on the desktop. Search for “Windows Blue”, and it opens documents that are on the iPhone.

The Documents directory on my desktop should be browsable from my phone, too (when on the same network or if I elect to link them over the Internet).

Content, even if it is stored in application silos, as Windows Store applications and iOS/OS X applications do, should be available from any device.

I think it would also be ideal if applications could keep context wherever I go. Apple’s iCloud implementation begins to do this. You can take a document in Pages across the Mac, iPad, and iPhone, and access the document wherever you are. Where Asus is creating a hardware-based pairing between devices, Apple is creating a software-based pairing, through iCloud. It is still early, and rough, but I personally like that approach better.

My belief is that people don’t want to dock devices and have one device be the brain of another. They don’t want to overpay for a pair of devices that aren’t particularly good at either role and instead will pay a premium for two great devices, especially if they integrate together seamlessly and automatically.

Much as I believe the future of automotive electronics is in “smartphone software integrated” head units rather than overly-complex integrated computing built into the car, the future of ubiquitous computing lies in a fabric of smart devices that work together, with the smartphone most likely being the key “brain” among them. Not with its CPU driving everything else, but instead with it’s storage being pervasively available wherever you are, without needing to be docked or plugged in.

Mar 13

The Stigma of Mac Shaming

I recall hearing a story of a co-worker at Microsoft, who was a technical assistant to an executive, who had a Mac. It wouldn’t normally be a big deal, except he worked directly for an executive. As a result, this Mac was seen in many meetings across campus – it’s distinct aluminum body and fruity ghost shining through the lid a constant reminder that this was one less PC sold (even if it ran Windows through Boot Camp or virtualization software. Throughout most of Microsoft, there was a strange culture of “eww, a Mac”. Bring a Mac or an iPod to work, feel like an outcast. This was my first exposure to Mac Shaming.

I left Microsoft in 2004, to work at Winternals in Austin (where I had the last PC I ever really loved – a Toshiba Tecra A6). In 2006, on the day Apple announced Boot Camp, I placed an order for a white Intel iMac. This was just over three months before Winternals was acquired by Microsoft (but SHH… I wasn’t supposed to know that yet). This was my first Mac. Ever.

Even though I had worked at Microsoft for over 7 years, and was still writing for Microsoft’s TechNet Magazine as a monthly Contributing Editor, I was frustrated. My main Windows PC at home was an HP Windows XP Media Center PC. Words cannot express my frustration at this PC. It “worked” as I originally received it – but almost every time it was updated, something broke. All I wanted was a computer that worked like an appliance. I was tired of pulling and pushing software and hardware to try and get it to work reliably. I saw Windows Vista on the horizon and… I saw little hope for me coming to terms with using Windows much at home. It was a perfect storm – me being extreme underwhelmed with Windows Vista, and the Mac supporting Windows so I could dual-boot Windows as I needed to in order to write. And so it began.

Writing on the Mac was fine – I used Word, and it worked well enough. Running Windows was fine (I always used VMware Fusion), and eventually I came to terms with most of the quirks of the Mac. I still try to cut and paste with the Ctrl key sometimes, but I’m getting better.

I year later, I flipped from a horrible Windows CE “smartish” phone from HTC on the day that Apple dropped the price of the original iPhone to $399. Through two startups – one a Windows security startup, the other a Web startup, I used two 15″ MacBook Pros as my primary work computer – first the old stamped MBP, then the early unibody.

For the last two years, I’ve brought an iPad with me to most of the conferences I’ve gone to – even Build 2011, Build 2012, and the SharePoint Conference in 2012. There’s a reason for that. Most PCs can’t get you on a wireless network and keep you connected all day, writing, without needing to plug in (time to plug in, or plugs to use, being a rarity at conferences). Every time I whipped out my iPad and it’s keyboard stand with the Apple Bluetooth keyboard, people would look at me curiously. But quite often, as I’d look around, I’d see many journalists or analysts in the crowd also using Macs or iPads. The truth is, tons of journalists use Macs. Tons of analysts and journalists that cover Microsoft even use Macs – many as their primary device. But there still seems to be this weird ethos that you should use Windows as your primary device if you’re going to talk about Windows. If you are a journalist and you come to a Microsoft meeting or conference with a Mac, there’s all but guaranteed to be a bit of an awkward conversation if you bring it out.

I’m intimately familiar with Windows. I know it quite well. Perhaps a little too well. Windows 8 and I? We’re kind of going in different directions right now. I’m not a big fan of touch. I’m a big fan of a kick-ass desktop experience that works with me.

Last week, my ThinkPad died. This was a week after my iMac had suffered the same fate, and I had recovered it through Time Machine. Both died of a dead Seagate HDD. I believe that there is something deeper going on with the ThinkPad, as it was crashing regularly. While it was running Windows 8, I believe it was the hardware failing, not the operating system, that led to this pain. In general, I had come to terms with Windows 8. Because my ThinkPad was touch, it didn’t work great for me, but worked alright – though I really wasn’t using the “WinRT side” of Windows 8 at all, I had every app I used daily pinned to the Taskbar instead. Even with the Logitech t650, I struggled with the WinRT side of Windows 8.

So here, let me break this awkward silence. I bought another Mac, to use as my primary writing machine. A 13″ Retina MacBook Pro. Shun me. Look down upon me. Shake your head in disbelief. Welcome to Mac shaming. The machine is beautiful, and has a build quality that is really unmatched by any other OEM. A colleague has a new Lenovo Yoga, and I have to admit, it is a very interesting machine – likely one of the few that’s out there that I’d really consider – but it’s just not for me. I also need a great keyboard. The selection of Windows 8 slates with compromised keyboards in order to be tablets is long. I had contemplated getting a Mac for myself for some time. I still have a Windows 8 slate (the Samsung), and will likely end up virtualizing workloads I really need in order to evaluate things.

My first impression is that, as an iPad power user (I use iOS gestures a lot) it’s frighteningly eerie how powerful that makes one on a MBP with Mountain Lion and fullscreen apps. But I’ll talk about that later.

I went through a bit of a dilemma about whether to even post this or not, due to the backlash I expect. Post your thoughts below All I request? I invoke Wheaton’s Law at this point.