## Sunday, December 11, 2011

### Thirteen Months

This 12 months to a year thing is crazy.  Some months have 30 days, others have 31, and February has 28, unless it has 29.  It’s just weird.  And it takes kids a while to figure it all out.  You can’t blame them either… it’s confusing.

Things would be much easier if we went to a 13-month year.

There are 365 (and change) days in a year.  That works out to 52 weeks plus one day.  52 is not divisible by 12, but is divisible by 13.  So 13 months of 4 weeks (each month being 28 days) would get us really close to 365.  The extra day (or two, in the case of leap year) could be tacked onto the end of the last month just to make things easy.  Not in the middle like it is normally done in February.  Again, weird.

There are other advantages too.  Since each month would be exactly four weeks, the days of the month would fall on the same day of the week for the entire year.  So if the 1st is a Thursday in the first month of the year, it will be a Thursday every month of that entire year.

Of course if we switched we wouldn’t be able to call them months any longer, because they wouldn’t be based on lunar cycles.

I propose that we call the new “month” Smarch.  Except for the fact that Smarch has lousy weather.

The concept of going by the phase of the moon to determine time is pretty outdated at this point.  We all use calendars, computers, and cell phones to know what the date is.  But moving to a 13-period year would make the whole process much easier… it’s easier to remember the date if, for an entire year, the days of the month fall on the same days of the week.

Of course I’m not serious about changing, but it would make things much simpler.  Now we just need days made up of 25 100-minute hours.

## Saturday, November 19, 2011

### Toys for Tots

Yay!  Christmas is coming!

For most of us, Christmas is a very happy time.  Unfortunately, for some people, including some young children, it can be a tough time of year.  Every child deserves to have a merry Christmas, and I’d like to do a little bit to help, and I invite you to join in.

What I’ve done is setup an Amazon Affiliate account specifically for providing a better Christmas for children in need through Toys for Tots.  Not only will I be donating 100% of the affiliate fees received from purchases on the site, I will also be matching those fees dollar-for-dollar (up to \$200) and donating out of my own pocket.

How do you participate?  Follow the link below and just do your Christmas shopping as normal.  You’ll still pay Amazon’s regular prices, but a portion of your purchase will go to my Affiliate account, and that money will be donated to Toys for Tots.  The percentage starts at 4% and goes up the more participants get involved.

Shop Doug’s Toys-for-Tots Site Now!

Because payments for Amazon’s program come long after sales are completed, I will be monitoring the site regularly and making all donations (both from Amazon sales as well as my own matching contribution) out of my own pocket.  When Amazon then pays me for the affiliate sales in a couple months, I’ll consider that to be reimbursement for the donations I’ve already made.  Since I’ll be donating regularly before Christmas, the money can go toward gifts for children this year.

I selected Toys for Tots because, well, it’s a great cause helping less fortunate children have a great Christmas, but it’s an all done on a volunteer basis and they spend 98% of donations on their cause. No money is wasted on paying those who have elected to help out.  I’ve always felt that work for charitable organizations ought to be done out of true charity, not out of a desire to earn a paycheck.

So this is an easy way to help, and it won’t cost you anything.  Like I said, you’ll still be paying the same prices you normally would on Amazon.  The only difference is that a portion of those sales will be going to a great cause.  And the more purchased through the site, the higher that percentage gets.

Please pass along the link to others.  Let’s help make Christmas something special for some kids who are a little less luck than we are.

I’ll post updates here on my blog as things progress.

P.S. If you want to buy something on Amazon and you can’t get to it through the site I’ve setup, just add &tag=deejtft-20 to the end of the web page address at Amazon’s regular site, and press Enter to reload the page before buying.  That’s it!

### Amazon Kindle Fire

The Amazon Kindle Fire shipped this week as their answer to a need for a color e-reader.  And, if you look at it from a certain perspective, as their answer to the iPad.  But it's really something somewhere in between.

Amazon has set a very aggressive price for this device at \$199.  They’ve created a device that is essentially a tablet, but at a price that undercuts their competition by a pretty wide margin.  Why not? The whole point of the Fire is to sell you more Amazon content, so they can more-or-less count on making their profits on the content you buy rather than the hardware itself.  Everything about the Fire is designed to entice you to purchase content from Amazon… not just books, either.  It also plays music, movies, TV shows, lets you purchase apps to run on the device, and it even comes pre-installed with an Amazon shopping app, already linked to your account.  In a way, it’s genius.  You’ve just got to resist the urge to go crazy with content purchases.

Reviews on the Internet have been all over the map.  Some are praising the Fire as an iPad killer (it’s not).  Others are essentially saying it’s the worst piece of electronics to come out in a long time (again, it’s not).  Like so many opinions out on the Internet, the truth lies somewhere in between.

There are a lot of things I like about the Fire.  It’s pretty easy to use.  It’s a nice size and it isn’t too heavy to hold for long reading or video watching sessions.  Amazon’s \$79 per year (via Amazon Prime) access to a substantial streaming video library is quite intriguing.  The screen is very good.  It provides a low-cost point-of-entry into the world of Android apps.  But, on the other hand, it also provides a low-cost point-of-entry into the world of Android apps.  Yes, that is a backhanded compliment.  It lets you install Android apps, but I’m not so sure this is a great thing.

Until fairly recently I was open to the possibility of the Android platform being a decent alternative to the iPhone and iPad of the world.  That is, until I used an Android device.  While some who complain about Android do so because they’re purchasing \$49 phones, I used two different high-end models to take the hardware out of the equation.  And I was not impressed.  Not in the least.  Every Android device I’ve tried now is clunky, generally sluggish, and incredibly inconsistent in the way it works.  Having apps pause and stutter is just the normal way of doing things on Android devices… you have to expect it.  And because there are no standards for how apps should look, feel, or work, everything is all over the map.  One application might use on-screen touch buttons to get around.  Others rely on the Back button.  Some use an iPhone-like hierarchy of commands, others do everything through flat linking.  Some apps look like the launcher that HTC has created, others like Samsung’s, others like nothing else.  I can’t believe how incredibly fragmented and inconsistent things are under the Android OS.  I am not impressed at all.  Frankly, I am actually stunned that anyone could love their Android phone… I have to chalk it up to lack of knowledge of alternative choices.  I may have gotten spoiled by my Windows Phone, but I really don’t believe how bad Android is, and have a hard time understanding how anyone could get excited by it, let alone put up with it.

With that, back to the Fire.  Even though the Fire uses the Android OS at its core, Amazon has tried to isolate its users from it.  To some degree it has done it fairly well.  If you stick to the Books, Videos, Music, and Docs libraries, everything runs great.  The device is responsive and (mostly) easy to use.  The reader is everything you’d hope for in an e-book reader (aside from the e-Ink paper-like display), and videos play smoothly.  If you’ve been populating Amazon’s music cloud with your own content, the music player is alright (although I will contend that anything larger than a phone is just too big for playing music).  Pretty much everything in those areas of the device is great.

That is, until you get to the Apps library.  The way Amazon has this setup is that don’t use Google’s App Market, but rather they have their own Android app store.  And the Fire can run nearly everything in that store, within the inherent limitations of the device (you won’t be making phone calls, for example).  Shopping for apps is pretty easy (although I would like to see more filtering capabilities to narrow down searches) and purchasing is even easier.  There are, of course, a broad range of apps available for free, but since Amazon is in this to make money they don’t do much to make these super easy to isolate.

Where things really break down is actually running and installing these apps.  It’s really a mixed bag.  Most of the problems aren’t Amazon’s fault, so we have to give credit where credit is due, but it still doesn’t make for a great experience.  Among my complaints…

• As mentioned, the sluggishness of Android is fully present here.  The majority of apps are affected.  Scrolling and navigation is clunky most of the time.  It isn’t at all uncommon to tap something on the screen and not see any sort of response for as much as a second or longer.  On a modern consumer electronics device, this is unacceptable.
• Most of the apps are written for phones, not something the size of the Fire.  Very few apps have been designed to take advantage of a larger screen.  This means that one of two things tends to happen: either everything on-screen is small (sized as if it was being displayed on a screen 1/3 the size) and it shows more content to you, or everything is blown up much larger than normal as if you were using a phone with a 7” screen.  Neither experience is ideal.
• There are many first-rate apps in the store, but there is a lot more junk.  There are a lot of no-good apps to sort through to find the gems.
• While Amazon’s Android App Store does have a lot in it, there are still a lot of popular Android apps that aren’t in it.  You can, if you choose to, install other apps if you have access to their .APK files, but there isn’t really a good online repository of them.  Most people who run Android get their apps from Google’s App Market (and as such, there hasn’t been much need for another repository), but that isn’t available here.  I was able to find .APK files for several apps missing from the Amazon store (Skype, Zinio, for example), but only once I was willing to wade into some rather seedy areas of the Internet.  I do not recommend doing this to the faint of heart.  If an app isn’t in Amazon’s store, skip it.

So overall my thoughts on having the ability to install apps are mixed. Yes, you can install third party apps on the device, as if it were a full-fledged Android tablet.  The real question is, are you really sure you want to?

Things are a little more muddy when it comes to the built-in web browser.  The browser seems to do a decent job rendering most web sites.  Better than the iPad in most cases.  And since it supports Adobe Flash you can view many sites that the iPad can’t handle.  But the trouble is, the browser is based on, you guessed it, is the Android WebKit browser.  So it’s slow.  Amazon has tried to speed it up by using their high-power cloud servers to accelerate the experience, but several online tests, and my own experience, show that this actually slows things down, and the feature should be turned off.  Even something as simple as scrolling a page is slow and clunky.  As if you’re the device to do something it doesn’t want to do, like asking a child to leave a toy store.  You can absolutely browse the web.  But not if you’re in a hurry.

I find it a little odd that Amazon is only offering a WiFi version of the Fire.  If any of the Kindles screams “I need 3G” it’s the Fire.  It’s the only model that has a supported (non-“experimental”) web browser, and the only model that can play music and videos from Amazon’s stores.  We can speculate as to why there is no 3G model, but the fact remains that if you want to access Amazon’s stores or the web while away from home or the office, you need to either find or bring your own WiFi hotspot.

I hope Amazon works out some of the little kinks, because I really think the Fire has a lot of potential.  I’m not saying that I dislike it, because it does do what it is supposed to do, it doesn’t crash or lock up, and at \$199 it’s a steal for what it is.  I’m just disappointed that Amazon has selected Android and all of its required baggage to run the thing.  They could have done so much better.

My overall rating for the Kindle Fire is “good enough.”  It isn’t a stellar device, but it really isn’t bad either, especially if you aren’t interested in the ability to run Android apps, or browse the web quickly.  As long as you stick to the other libraries (Books, Video, Music, Docs) it’s excellent.  Just don’t have high expectations once you wander outside of the Amazon-created areas of the device.  You don’t have to use Android Apps on the device, and you don’t have to browse the web… as long as you consider those two features to be a bonus you’ll be very happy with the Fire.  But if you buy it specifically for those features, you’re likely to be at least a little bit disappointed.

It is not an iPad, but it isn’t intended to be, and it costs, depending on the model you’re comparing it to, between 24% and 40% of what the iPad does.  For that, you can make some compromises.  A \$20,000 Honda isn’t a BMW, either.  If you’re happy with a Honda or Ford, you’ll probably be happy with the Fire.  If you prefer to shop at Target rather than Nordstrom, you’ll be happy with the Fire.  The Fire is a Honda sold at Target.

## Thursday, July 28, 2011

### The Invisible Killer

Dihydrogen monoxide is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and kills uncounted thousands of people every year. Most of these deaths are caused by accidental inhalation of DHMO, but the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide do not end there. Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage.

Symptoms of DHMO ingestion can include excessive sweating and urination, and possibly a bloated feeling, nausea, vomiting and body electrolyte imbalance. For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death.

Dihydrogen monoxide:

• …is also known as hydroxyl acid, and is the major component of acid rain.
• …contributes to the "greenhouse effect."
• …may cause severe burns.
• …contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
• …accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
• …may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
• …has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients.

### Contamination Is Reaching Epidemic Proportions!

Quantities of dihydrogen monoxide have been found in almost every stream, lake, and reservoir in America today. But the pollution is global, and the contaminant has even been found in Antarctic ice. DHMO has caused millions of dollars of property damage throughout the world.

Despite the danger, dihydrogen monoxide is often used:

• …as an industrial solvent and coolant.
• …in nuclear power plants.
• …in the production of styrofoam.
• …as a fire retardant.
• …in many forms of cruel animal research.
• …in the distribution of pesticides. Even after washing, produce remains contaminated by this chemical.
• …as an additive in certain "junk-foods" and other food products.

Companies dump waste DHMO into rivers and the ocean, and nothing can be done to stop them because this practice is still legal. The impact on wildlife is extreme, and we cannot afford to ignore it any longer!

### The Horror Must Be Stopped!

The American government has refused to ban the production, distribution, or use of this damaging chemical due to its "importance to the economic health of this nation." In fact, the navy and other military organizations are conducting experiments with DHMO, and designing multi-billion dollar devices to control and utilize it during warfare situations. Hundreds of military research facilities receive tons of it through a highly sophisticated underground distribution network. Many store large quantities for later use.

### It's Not Too Late!

Act NOW to prevent further contamination. Find out more about this dangerous chemical. What you don't know can hurt you and others throughout the world.  Write to your Senator and Congressman to express your outrage that this dangerous chemical is still legal!

## Thursday, June 16, 2011

### Fun with Names

Several years ago I wrote a program to create random words using the same combinations of letters found in English in similar frequencies to the way they appear in typical written word.  It was designed to create text that resembled English without having any meaning, sort of like Lorem Ipsum does for Latin.  Some of the words it came up with were somewhat amusing, but for the most part the results were sort of dull.  Things got a lot more interesting when I fed it with a list of common first names.

Using the 1000 most common baby girl names from 2010, here’s some of the output, just so you get a feel for what they look like:
Same thing with boy names:
Obviously a lot of just totally random gibberish in there, as well as actual real names, but maybe there are some others that might work?  What do you think?  See anything you like?

## Monday, May 23, 2011

### They Know More Than You Think

I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but companies like Google and Facebook know a lot more about you than they let on.  I certainly don’t want to cause a panic, but I do think that people ought to know what they’re really signing up for when they use services provided by these companies.

The prevailing thought about these web sites is that they only know what you tell them.  It would really be nice if that were true.  Unfortunately, it is not.  Let’s start with Facebook.

It used to be that Facebook could pretty much only record what you are doing on their site.  They only had information on you that you gave to them (or they could collect about you from your friends).  Those days are long gone.  They have access to SO much more.

We all know that Facebook has the ability to build an absolutely enormous social graph of us.  It has more information than even our closest friends and family do about our past, who we know, where we’ve been and what we were doing when we were there, etc.  It’s pretty amazing that a site with so much personal information has become so popular, and that we continue to give it information.  But it goes way beyond what most of us are aware of.

Is there a way to prevent this?  Yes.  If you sign out of Facebook before visiting other web pages, and use the Private browsing mode of your web browser (InPrivate in IE, Incognito in Chrome, etc.) there isn’t a way for Facebook to be able to follow you around.  Just be careful not to sign in again without doing it in the private browsing mode.

And just so you know… “deleting” information from the Facebook site doesn’t actually delete it from their databases.  It just turns it off so that they don’t show it to others.  But they don’t actually ever remove anything on anyone.  They’ve still got it filed away.

Combine this with Google wanting to get into other aspects of your life… providing the operating system for your cell phone or tablet, Internet service to your home, keeping your Health information, maps for driving directions, etc. on top of virtually every web site you visit and every Internet search you perform (this would include anything you shop for online), they have access to a lot more data than anyone could ever imagine.  It has the potential to be very scary, and a huge mess if that data were to get out.

### Why Care?

For the most part I don’t care if the web sites I visit are known to the world.  But there are a few exceptions… If I were to get sick, and use the Internet to search for treatment or cures, I wouldn’t want the whole world to know what I’ve got.  Or if I had children, I wouldn’t want total strangers to know where they live or go to school.  It isn’t that we necessarily have to worry about what we’re doing, but who knows what we’re doing.

I’m not trying to say that the sky is falling here or anything like that.  I just want everyone to at least be aware of what information these companies have access to.  It goes way beyond what they appear to know at first glance.  They’ve got connections with literally millions of web sites, and together they all collect a lot more information on you that you could possibly dream of.

If nothing else, I’d advise caution.  Use the Private mode of your browser more, or maybe even all of the time.  Use different browsers for different web sites.  Sign out of web sites when you aren’t actually using them.  And above all, be careful in what information you’re willing to share with them.

## Saturday, May 14, 2011

### Windows Phone 7

About 3 months ago I bought an HTC HD7 from T-Mobile to test to see if would meet my needs for a cell phone.  They were offering a deal where I only had to pay \$99 and didn’t have to extend my contract, and since I had been curious about Windows Phone 7 I decided to give it a try.  I’ve wanted to share my thoughts, but I didn’t want to write a long drawn-out review, so instead I’ll just summarize some key points.

• It’s fast.  With the exception of a handful of apps (mostly games) that take a while to load, everything else about the phone is very fast.  Navigation from one place to another is just fast and fluid.  Compared to the iPhones and Android-based phones I’ve used, my WP7 is markedly faster.

• I like the interface.  Windows Phone 7 uses tiles on its main screen for launching its core feature set, like making calls, viewing texts and emails, calendar, etc.  Each tile is ‘active’ so it can display information tied to the feature provided by the tile.  So the email tile shows how many emails have come in since the last time I looked at them on my phone, the People tile shows pictures of those updating their Facebook status. The weather tile shows current temperature, etc.  You can create your own tiles, so the people I talk to most have tiles right on the front screen of my phone, which not only makes it easy to call or text them, but since those tiles are active, they are updated with current pictures, status messages from Facebook, and email information automatically.

• Along with that, the interface between apps is a lot more consistent than you find on other platforms.  Windows Phone 7’s Metro user interface is actually pretty slick, and an awful lot of developers are using it.  I won’t take time to describe how it works, but it is well thought out, and it makes navigation easier than on other phones.

• The Facebook integration is cool.  Right in my contact list I see status updates and pictures.  Twitter integration is coming in the fall, so we’ll be able to see Twitter updates right on a contact’s information screen (or their tile, if one has been created).  Since Facebook integration is built-in, it’s really easy to do things like upload photos and videos, because you do it right from the Camera app.

• There aren’t yet a ton of apps.  Fortunately, many of the most popular apps from other platforms are available.  There are some notables that I’d like to have that are missing, like LogMeIn, but there are very good apps for NetFlix, Amazon, Facebook, IMDB, all of the major news organizations, and YouTube to name a few.  The number of apps isn’t huge, but a lot of the more important ones are there.

• Having Microsoft Office onboard is cool, but I don’t use it much.  It’s still lacking a great way to connect with documents on the desktop if you aren’t using SharePoint.  Connecting to SkyDrive would be awesome.

• The email feature on Windows Phone 7 is easily the best that anyone is currently offering, especially if you’re someone who likes to use folders to organize your mail, or need the ability to search messages.  Email triage on WP7 is much better than it is on other phones.  It also handles file attachments much better than any other phone I’ve seen.  There isn’t another phone out there that even comes close when it comes to having great email support.

• Try-before-you-buy with apps is awesome.  There aren’t separate ‘free’ and ‘paid’ versions of apps.  You download one version to try it out (for as long as you’d like) and if you want to buy it, it’s usually a single button click to upgrade.  And upgrading from the trial to full version doesn’t require re-downloading; it just unlocks the paid features, and does so instantly.

• Xbox Live integration also has potential, but I’m not a gamer, so I don’t really use that very much.  If I were, it would be nice to play against others, or keep tabs on the status of an Xbox game I’m playing at home.  But having Xbox Live doesn’t really sway me at all.

• Stability.  This phone has never once crashed or locked up on me.  I’ve seen a couple apps crash here and there, but the phone always recovers gracefully.

• There are a lot of little things that are cool.

• The lock screen shows me how many emails and texts have come in that I haven’t read, as well as my next appointment, so I don’t even have to unlock my phone to see any of that information.

• I love having a ‘back’ button.  No matter where I am, I can hit the Back button and go to whatever screen I just came from.  So if I’m reading an email message and it contains a web page link, I can view the page, then hit Back to go right back to the email and continue reading from there.  It works anywhere.

• Having a dedicated search button on the phone is cooler than I thought it would be.  Many apps have their own search features, and the search button makes it easy to find it.

• The on-screen keyboard is the smartest one I’ve seen.  Unlike other phones, which only offer correction of one word at a time, Windows Phone 7 looks an entire sentence at a time and will correct not only the word you’re currently typing, but other words in the sentence if a correction makes more sense in context.  Some might think this to be not very useful, but it allows you to absolutely fly through whatever you’re typing without stopping every time you make a mistake, letting the phone handle most correction for you.  It still isn’t perfect, but it is a better system than what is used on other phones.

• Having a dedicated camera button is nice.  Even when the phone is off, I can press the camera button and the camera app loads instantly.  A second press of the button then takes a picture.  With most other phones, it’s easier to miss photo opportunities because by the time the camera app has loaded, the moment is gone.  On this phone, since Facebook is integrated too, from camera power off to taking a photo to uploading to Facebook is two button presses and two taps of the screen.

• Wireless syncing with the Zune software is also nice.  If I’m in the living room watching a movie, for example, I can initiate a sync manually, or just plug the phone into a power source and syncing starts automatically.

• Background syncing is nice too.  Unlike most other phones, when it is syncing with the desktop it is still usable.  There are no visual indications on the phone that it is syncing with the computer.  There are a few restrictions… I can’t play music or install apps while it’s syncing, but everything else is fully operational.  I can still browse the web, make phone calls, play games, or read my email during a sync operation.

• There are a few things specific to the HD7 that aren’t available on other Windows Phone handsets that I like too.

• It has a kickstand in the back to make it easier to watch video.  (I wish it would work in portrait mode as well as landscape, but having one is much better than not.)

• I can set the phone to ring louder when it’s in my pocket vs. sitting on a desk.

• I can put it in speakerphone mode just by turning it over face down.

• When the phone rings, and I pick it up to see who it is, the ringer volume is automatically turned down (the act of picking up the phone turns the ringer volume down).

• I love having the Zune software on my phone.  Not just because it offers a much better interface than any iPod, but since I have a Zune Pass subscription, I have access to almost all of the Zune music catalog all of the time.  I don’t actually store any music on my phone at all.  If I want to listen to something, whether that be a particular song, album, or even an entire collection by a single artist, I just search for it in the Zune Marketplace and stream it.

• What is really cool is using Shazam to tag a song playing somewhere near me, then using Zune Pass to download my own copy without buying it.  Since Shazam is linked to Zune, this is really easy.

• The built-in Bing search is nice (not quite as feature complete as I’d like to see, but that is supposed to be coming in the fall).  From the home screen, pressing the Search button gives quick access to device, web, local (nearby businesses, etc), and news in one fell swoop.  Searching for “hamburger,” for example, gives me search results for the web (Wikipedia, etc.), local (local restaurants that serve hamburgers, complete with driving directions), and news about hamburger.

• The built-in voice recognition feature is cool.  It’s powered by TellMe, so voice commands not only allow phone calls (“call Mom”), but web and local searches as well.  It’s essentially the Bing search using voice input.

• Battery life is actually very good, especially considering the physically small battery, compared to many other smartphones.  After a day of typical use, my battery still has about 50% charge remaining.

• It uses the Zune software on the desktop, which I love.  The Zune software is an example of how to do media management right.  Beats iTunes in every way (except OS X availability, which doesn’t bug me much).

If you haven’t tried the Zune software, just do it.  It’s totally free, and you don’t have to have a Zune device to use it.  It’s an order of magnitude faster than iTunes, is much easier to use, is just as feature complete, and much prettier.  If your iTunes library is still in its default location, the Zune software will even find and catalog it for you automatically.  Anyone with an open mind that sees it is very impressed.

• I haven’t dropped a single call with the phone yet.

• The web browser is okay.  Not great, but not bad either.  Nearly on par with the iPhone, but each device has its advantages.  Speed of scrolling and zooming is better on WP7.  Overall page download and rendering speed is somewhat better on iPhone.  Font rendering is better on WP7.  Page layout is noticeably better on iPhone.  The browser is certainly serviceable, but not a standout feature.  The upcoming Fall 2011 update for WP7 which will provide Internet Explorer 9 should go a long way in not only bring it truly up to par, but actually surpassing other smartphones in terms of browser features, page layout, and performance.
There are a number of things that drive me nuts.  I REALLY miss some of the features of my previous phone.
• I love the dial-by-name feature that my last 5 phones had.  Nobody understands what I mean until I demonstrate.  But if I wanted to dial myself, for example, instead of scrolling through a contact list to find my entry, or even using a search feature to find my contact information, at the dialer I could just type in my name on the number buttons (3684 for DOUG) and the contact would come up pretty fast, usually within 3-4 digits.  Of all of the ways I’ve ever seen to find entries in a phonebook, this is the fastest by far.  This same feature worked for partial phone numbers too, so if I remember that a phone number starts with 555, dialing 555 would show all phone numbers containing 555.  Windows Phone doesn’t have this feature (nor does Android or iPhone, for that matter).

• Custom ringtones.  I can set ringtones for individual contacts, but I can’t upload ringtones I’ve created.  I’ve used this feature extensively over the years, creating dedicated ringtones for individual callers using songs that have some sort of connection to that person.  I’ve heard this is coming in the Fall 2011 update for WP7, but haven’t seen confirmation on it.  Fingers are crossed.

• 5 of my last 6 phones had a feature that would automatically set the phone to Vibrate mode whenever an appointment on my calendar was active.  So if I had an appointment in my calendar from 12:00 to 2:00, the phone would go to vibrate mode at 12:00, and go back to the normal ringer at 2:00.  This one little thing made such a difference; I never had to worry about my phone going off during church, a meeting at the office, while doing sound for a concert, or while I’m on set shooting a video or recording audio in my studio.  Windows Phone (and likewise iPhone) doesn’t have this feature.

• My previous 5 phones all had great multitasking.  If I wanted an app (any app) to continue running in the background, I just didn’t close it; going back to the Home screen would leave the app running in the background.  If I wanted to close an app, I’d click the X in the upper right.  It was a very simple system, and it worked well.  Windows Phone doesn’t currently allow any third party apps to run in the background.  The coming fall update, thankfully, will allow any app developer to write certain portions of their apps to run in the background.  It’s a much better system than we get with the iPhone, which only allows certain features (navigation, audio, data upload, and VOIP) to run in the background.  The limited ‘multitasking’ of iOS bites me all of the time and it just makes me mad.  I’m really looking forward to having real multitasking again.

• Having the ringer and sound volume tied together bugs me.  On previous phones I could set the two independently… so my ringer could be set to a single volume level all of the time, and still be able to adjust music volume independently, for example.  I’ve missed more than a few phone calls because I had the phone volume turned down from watching a video or playing a game.

• While providing a lot of cool new functionality, the voice search is still missing features I had on my previous 5 phones and used constantly.  With my prior phones I could ask it “What is my next appointment” or “What time is it” and it knew what I was asking for and would respond vocally.  This was most useful in my truck, where I have a Bluetooth speakerphone kit.

• I also had my previous 5 phones set to read me incoming text messages and high priority email messages aloud.  This phone doesn’t do that.

• I really miss the WiFi tethering feature I had on my last two phones (or Bluetooth tethering from my last 5 phones) to provide Internet access to a nearby computer or other device.  Unlike most phones that offer tethering, the models I’ve had until now did it without a fee from the carrier.  The fall update for WP7 is rumored to have tethering, but I still have seen any official confirmation on that.  And I’ll have to pay a monthly fee to access it.

• As excellent as the on-screen keyboard is, I loved having Swype on my previous phone.  Being able to select different keyboards for different purposes would be nice.

• I miss having a dedicated Talk button.  Now I have to navigate back to the home screen and press the Phone tile, which takes longer.  On my last 5 phones, not only could I start a phone call at any time, but in certain contexts, pressing the Talk button would call the phone number of the on-screen contact, or the sender of the text or email message I’m currently reading.  Sometimes dedicated hardware buttons are just the right way to do things.
Other wishes
• I don’t find myself using the front facing camera on my iPod Touch or iPad very often, but it would be nice to have one in a phone for those few occasions where I do.  With Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Skype, I’d be surprised if we don’t see front-facing cameras in future models.

• I wish it had a dock-style connector so I could easily charge it, get audio and video out of it, and control it with a remote in my truck over a single connector. A Zune dock connector in addition to the now industry-standard micro USB would have been nice.

• Obviously, we still need more apps.  While there are quite a few to choose from, there are still a few key ones that I’d love to have that aren’t available yet.

• Not specific to Windows Phone, but T-Mobile’s 3G has slowed down in the last year.  It’s still faster than Verizon’s, but not as fast as AT&T’s.  I would have liked to have access to T-Mobile’s 4G network, but there are only a couple phones with 4G capability, and none are Windows Phone-based.
• The camera, while good, is not great.  Definitely not as good as the camera in the iPhone 4, for example.  But pretty typical for a smartphone camera.
Overall I'm mostly more excited about what Windows Phone 7 can be more than what it currently is.  It is certainly a usable, competitive, and useful smartphone in its present state, but it is going to be a much better product after the Mango update that is supposed to be coming this Fall.

So would I recommend a Windows Phone to someone?  For some, yes.  For others, no.  It depends on what you want out of a phone.  If you want the best music player you can get, absolutely.  If the idea of having streaming access to a multi-million song catalog of music all the time, yes.  If you primarily want quick and easy access to email, absolutely yes.  If you need Microsoft Office, again, yes.  If you need multitasking, not yet; wait until the end of the year, or go Android if you can’t wait.  If you need an app only available in Apple’s App Store, obviously, no.  If you’re a Facebook junkie, yes.  If you need a good camera, buy a camera and stop trying to use a phone; great optics don’t fit in something the size of a phone.  If you need WiFi tethering, go with an Android.  If you primarily want to browse the web, WP7 is okay, but some Android devices support Flash.

As it stands now, the reason to buy the different smartphone platforms are:

Windows Phone 7: High performance, very easy to use, very quick access to email, Microsoft Office, Xbox Live, Facebook integration, and access to Zune Pass.  If you want a smartphone primarily for email, WP7 is easily your best option.  Provides the best media playback experience.

Android: Real multitasking, tons of free apps, huge variety of phones.

iPhone: Tons of very good apps in the App Store, only device capable of playing paid video content from iTunes.  iTunes syncing for those who actually like iTunes.

Windows Phone 7: Number of apps is still low compared to the other platforms.  No multitasking of third party apps whatsoever.  Sync software on Mac has limited capabilities.

Android: Despite all of Google’s efforts, the user interface is still clunky and inconsistent, especially between apps.  Phone upgrades are sparse after newer models come out.

iPhone: Limited “multitasking.”  Still drops calls more than other phones.  iTunes is still an absolute abomination on Windows, not much better on Mac.  And Steve Jobs is still an evil man.

## Sunday, May 8, 2011

### When English Fails

Sometimes, even as clearly as many rules of language are defined, the intent of the writer is still ambiguous.  I don’t know if I think about it too much, but sometimes it bugs me that I don’t really know what is supposed to be being communicated.  As I was shopping yesterday, I bought a snack package that describes itself as:

Chocolate and yogurt-covered peanuts and raisins

Unfortunately, this could mean any of the following:

Chocolate, plus yogurt-covered peanuts and plain raisins

Chocolate, plus yogurt-covered peanuts and yogurt-covered raisins

Chocolate-covered peanuts, plus yogurt-covered peanuts, and plain raisins

Chocolate-covered peanuts, plus yogurt-covered peanuts, and yogurt-covered raisins

Chocolate-covered peanuts, yogurt-covered peanuts, chocolate-covered raisins, and yogurt-covered raisins

Chocolate, plus yogurt-covered peanuts, and yogurt-covered raisins

Chocolate and yogurt-covered peanuts, and plain raisins

Chocolate and yogurt-covered peanuts, and chocolate and yogurt-covered raisins

…and there are other potential interpretations as well.

Before I reveal what was actually in the package, I have a potential solution to this problem.  As a software developer, I’ve had to learn to be absolutely clear about my intent when writing logic statements so the computer can follow my instructions explicitly.  This is done by grouping related portions of an expression using parentheses.  So, the above statement should be written:

(Chocolate or Yogurt) covered (Peanuts and Raisins)

This is much more clear, but even that doesn’t describe what was actually in the package.  To be fully accurate in the description of the contents of the package, the statement would have to be:

(Plain or chocolate-covered or yogurt-covered) (peanuts and raisins).

This is a lot easier than:

Peanuts, raisins, chocolate-covered peanuts, chocolate-covered raisins,
yogurt-covered peanuts, and yogurt-covered raisins.

See how much easier it is when you include the parenthetical markings? Now we just need to figure out how to communicate this statement verbally.

## Saturday, May 7, 2011

### Tech Tip: Extra Life From Your Old Computer

One of the things I did this week was try to upgrade my netbook computer with an SSD (Solid State Disk) drive to make it faster and more bearable to use (more on what that is in a minute… bear with me). It’s always been kind of slow, and I figured if I could put \$100 into it instead of buying a whole new one, that would be a good thing, right?  Well, that didn’t work out so well… performance with the SSD was actually far worse than it was with the hard drive that was in it, and the “fix” to make it work right just ended up not being worth it… so I had an SSD without a home.  After playing around with a couple other ideas, I decided to put it into an old Toshiba laptop I’ve had for a little over 3 years because it has always felt a little slow.  And boy, what a difference it made.

An SSD is a storage device that acts like a hard disk drive, but uses memory chips instead of a spinning platter to store data.  Since there are no moving parts, they are very fast.  They’ve been prohibitively expensive until fairly recently (and it’s still expensive to get something with a lot of storage capacity) but they’re finally in the realm of being affordable for the masses as long as your storage needs aren’t extreme.  The SSD I bought was an OCZ Vertex 2 60GB model which I picked up on sale for just over \$100.  Since I don’t store music or movies on that laptop, this was plenty large enough.  Windows 7, Microsoft Office, and Photoshop take up around 20 GB total, which gives me plenty of room to spare for anything else I might need to put on it.  The difference in performance was enormous!

If you can work a screwdriver you can install an SSD drive in your computer.  The physical installation is very easy.  The only part that might get a bit tricky is getting Windows installed onto it.  If your computer came with a Restore DVD, or you have an original Windows installation DVD, setting it up is a piece of cake.  If it didn’t, you may want to invest in a data transfer kit (this one is my favorite).

Swapping out a hard drive for an SSD isn’t the only easy and relatively inexpensive thing you can do to speed up an aging computer.  Upgrading the memory is also very easy and doesn’t cost that much (the Crucial web site has a scanner that can tell you what type of memory your computer needs).  I upgraded my Toshiba laptop to 4GB of RAM for \$35 a couple months ago, and recently upgraded a different laptop to 8GB of RAM for \$85.  The desktop computer I built last month got 8GB of RAM for about \$80 as well.  If you’re running a computer with just 1 or 2GB of RAM, it’s time to upgrade.  The performance difference can be pretty dramatic.  Not quite as drastic as replacing a hard drive with an SSD, but still quite noticeable.

So how do you know if your computer can be upgraded with an SSD? If it’s less than about 4 years old, the chances are very high.  The computer requires an SATA interface for the hard disk drive, which most computers made in the last 4 years are likely to have.  If you’re working with a desktop computer, you can probably buy a relatively small SSD for your operating system and programs, and use your existing hard drive as a secondary drive for storing your personal data.  That’s the route I’ve gone with the last two computers I’ve built, and I’ve been thrilled with the results.  As far as which model to get, the drives based on the SandForce controller chips currently yield the best performance (the OCZ Vertex 2 series give the best bang-for-the-buck and is available in 60GB, 120GB, and 240GB sizes.  For better performance at a higher cost, step up to the OCZ Vertex 3 series.)

So, long story short, if you’ve got an old computer that is just slower than you’d like and you don’t want to shell out a pile of money to buy a newer model, chances are you can swap out your hard drive with an SSD, and upgrade the RAM, not have it cost you that much, and you’ll end up with a computer that feels better than it did when you first pulled it out of the box.  It will actually feel much faster than a new computer unless the newer one happens to come with an SSD.

Installation of either the SSD or memory is pretty easy, but if you’ve got a hungry computer-savvy buddy, bake him or her a pie or plate of cookies to install yours for you.  You’ll be SO glad you upgraded.

Tip: SSDs perform best under Windows 7 (or the most recent versions of Linux).  Windows Vista, XP, and Mac OS X will run on SSDs, but they do not fully take advantage of the extra performance that SSDs offer.  These operating systems also suffer from a problem which causes writes to the disk to become incredibly slow after a period of time because they do not support a feature called TRIM.  This happens once the total amount of data written to the drive exceeds the total capacity of the drive.  This doesn’t mean you’ll see performance decrease when the drive is full, but after that much data has been written to the drive in total, whether you’re overwriting or deleting files or not.  Since the operating system itself writes to the disk a lot just as part of its normal operation (especially if you don’t have enough memory), you’ll probably hit this limitation a lot faster than you’d think you might.  Windows 7 knows how to properly communicate with the drive to let it know what parts of the drive are no longer being used, so it does not suffer from this problem.  If you’re running Vista or XP, you should also upgrade to Windows 7 if you’re going to run an SSD for the best results.  Mac users, you’re kind of out of luck... you’ll see amazing performance on your SSD for a while, then it will slow down drastically.  And there isn’t anything that can be done about it; it looks like not even the forthcoming OS X Lion upgrade is going to support TRIM unless you buy the computer with an SSD pre-installed by Apple.

## Thursday, May 5, 2011

### Apple Location Issue: Somewhat Better, but Still Bad!!!

Apple put out a press release last week, and issued a software update yesterday that addresses the location tracking issue that was made public two weeks ago.  It’s a step in the right direction, but there are still unanswered questions and things to be concerned about.

The software update does a few things right.  iOS version 4.3.3 makes some good changes…

• Only 24 hours’ worth of data is stored on the phone.
• The local cache of location data can be turned off entirely.
• The data file is not backed up to your computer.

These are all great steps.  Apple should be commended for making these changes.  However, they haven’t really gone quite far enough.  The data on the phone is still not encrypted (that change is coming sometime in the future), potentially making it available to apps and people if a phone has been jailbroken or a software exploit is discovered that allows access to such files.  I’m not going to make too much more of a stink about that because on easy way to avoid that is to not jailbreak the device in the first place.

Their press release was still a little bit troubling, though.  First, they engaged in a game of semantics.  They claim that “Apple” does not track “your” location.  Instead, the phone keeps a list of cell phone towers and WiFi access points near its location.  Uhhh… how much different is the location of things near you from your current location?  WiFi access points typically have a very short range (how far away from your house can you use your WiFi?) so the accuracy of WiFi location data is actually fairly good.  Nice try, Apple, but your word game doesn’t work on me.

The more troubling thing about their release is something that I haven’t heard anybody bring up, anywhere.  One of the things they stated was that the data on the phone isn’t really the phone’s location, but a local cache of list of cell towers and WiFi access points that have been near your phone, right?  Well, that data is coming from an Apple database.  And that database is huge.  Certainly bigger than what can be stored on a phone.  So Apple sends small subsets of that data to the phone, and this is stored locally (indefinitely for iOS <4.3.3, 24 hours for 4.3.3) to make calculating your location easier.  Sounds okay conceptually, right?  Well, there’s a big problem with that.  In order to decide what data to send to you, Apple has to know what cell towers and WiFi access points are near your phone in the first place.  They haven’t made any sort of statement about what they are doing with that data.

Imagine this scenario… you’re lost, and you need to know where you are. You might call a friend and tell them a little about what you see around you.  You can describe buildings and other landmarks, hoping that based on that information your friend will be able to help you figure out where you are.  But in the process, haven’t you revealed your position to your friend?  It just isn’t possible to get your location using this method without letting someone know where you are.  This is exactly what happens with cell phones (not just the iPhone) when they use this method to locate themselves.

Apple claims that it uses a unique ID number which isn’t tied to your account, and it changes (now) every 24 hours when making these requests.  Microsoft has said it changes the ID number as well periodically, but not how often.  Google never changes this ID number.  So in theory, Apple can only track a phone for 24 hours, Microsoft for an indefinite amount of time, and Google can track it forever.  They all claim they can’t tie this to an individual phone, but that just is not accurate.  Here’s why…

Every data conversation that takes place on the internet does so using an IP address.  It’s sort of like a phone number, and it is used to route data from point A to point B.  It’s fundamental to the way that the Internet works.  For two computers to have a two way conversation, both have to know the other’s IP address.  So these conversations where phones download the list of nearby cell towers and WiFi access points have to include this IP address.  It’s absolutely required.

All three companies have claimed that they do not upload YOUR location to their services tied to your account.  The problem is that they DO have enough information in various places to be able to piece together your location.  A request for a list of nearby cell towers and (Your login to a company’s services + IP Address) + (WiFi access points + IP Address) = You + Your Location.

I’m not saying that the companies are actually doing this, I’m just saying that the potential is there for these companies to tie a lot of information together than they’re admitting.  In all cases, you, your location, your purchasing habits, the contents of your email, and more can all potentially be tied together.  The possible implications can be scary.

The good news is that Apple now allows Location Services to be turned off entirely, so the phone won’t even ask for location information tied to nearby radio signals.  The down side is that turning this off completely disables all GPS functions.  It is technically possible to enable GPS functionality without the local cache functionality, but none of the phone manufacturers are allowing that.  GPS devices do it all of the time, but for some reason cell phones aren’t allowed to.

## Thursday, April 21, 2011

### Q&A On the iPhone Location Tracking Issue

While it has been known for a while, news finally broke to the public yesterday that any model iPhone or iPad running iOS 4.0 or higher keeps a log file of its location, and that this file is copied to your computer every time you backup your device.  The problem is actually deeper than that, though.  This is a very serious privacy and security issue, IMHO.  The articles on the Internet don’t really seem to be painting a great picture of what this means.  So here’s my attempt… I hope it helps to clarify a few things!

### Q: What’s going on?

A: All models of iPhone and iPad have been recording your location regularly into a file on the device.  The news stories here specifically relate to iOS 4.x, but prior versions of iOS are doing the same thing, they’ve just been recording it into a different file.  These files cannot be deleted, and this “feature” cannot be turned off.  The information even persists from one device to another if you replace one phone or iPad with another and restore a backup.

The data being recorded includes at least the device’s location, the time of day, and a list of WiFi networks available at each of these locations.  The file in and of itself does not contain your personal contact information, but it would be very easy to determine where you live or work.

### Q: Does the phone send my location to Apple, or anyone else?

A: Not in and of itself.  Apps on your phone can be given permission to access your location, and there is no way to stop them from uploading your location information, but this flaw in and of itself does not cause your location to be sent to anyone else; it is saved on your phone and computer, but not uploaded anywhere else, at least as a direct result of this issue.  Jailbroken devices do not require that apps be granted permission to access location data; they can get to it anytime they want.

### Q: Doesn’t that mean I’m safe?

A: Not necessarily.  There are several ways that anyone who wants to can get to this data if they are persistent enough.

### Q: What does that mean?

Apple has also had a poor track record of security on iOS devices.  Hackers have been able to gain entry quite regularly ever since the device was first released (this is how some jailbreaks work, just as one example).  If someone were to want to target you, it’s entirely possible that someone with moderate hacking skills could obtain this file, whether it be through your phone (because it is always on the Internet) or computer (through software installed there).  Even if you haven’t been specifically targeted, once an exploit to a phone (or computer) is known, it is a consistent and regular practice of hackers to scan for vulnerable devices.  Computers are a little safer if they are behind a router, but phones are connected directly to the Internet without a hardware firewall to isolate them from attack.

### Q: What if I’m not running iOS 4.x on my phone or iPad?

A: While it hasn’t been widely mentioned in the news, iOS versions prior to 4.0 also log location data.  The data is just stored in a different file in a different format.  But it’s there.

### Q: Doesn’t someone have to have physical access to my phone or computer?

For most people, this is the case.  But not for everyone.  If your device is jailbroken and you haven’t changed the root password, remote access to your phone (and this file) is available for anyone who wants to get in.  It’s very simple to get to it.

As far as access to the data on the computer, ideally nobody else has access to your files remotely.  But that requires that you keep your computer fully up-to-date and make sure you’re running current and high quality antivirus and antispyware software, even on Macs.  Viruses and spyware could very easily gain access to this data, and make it available to third parties.

A: You probably wouldn’t have any way of knowing.

### Q: Some people seem to say this isn’t worth worrying about.  Is that true?

That depends.  The chance that someone wants to get your location information specifically isn’t very high.  My take on this is that you’re better safe than sorry.  If you don’t care if anyone knows where you’ve been, you may not need to worry about this much.  The chance that advertisers or hackers want location information in general is very high.

### Q: What can I do to prevent my location from being recorded?

A: As of right now, the only thing you can do is turn off the phone completely (not just put it in standby) or put it in Airplane mode.  But this obviously prevents you from using the phone.  As long as the device is turned on and the cellular feature is turned on, it’s recording your location.

What makes this worse is that there is NO WAY to delete this file or turn the logging feature off.  It’s built into the phone at a very low level and it can’t be controlled by any setting on the phone.  iPhones have been recording this data for a very long time now, long before iOS 4 came out.  Forensic scientists have known about this for a while, but it is only now being made public.

Apple has not yet released a fix for this issue, and they haven’t even stated yet if they intend to do so.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

### Q: I don’t believe it.  Can you prove it?

A: Right now the only way to see for yourself is if you are synchronizing your phone with a Mac.  In which case, you can download a piece of software and see the tracking data yourself.  It probably won’t be long before someone writes a similar utility for Windows, and if I see any news on that front I’ll update this blog post.  I’ve considered writing such a utility myself, but I have too many other things going on at the moment to bother.

### Q: Does this affect other phones too?

A: This flaw does not affect other non-Apple devices.  The same researchers that found the flaw in the iPhone have also investigated other popular phones and haven’t found any evidence that any other phones exhibit the same behavior.

### Q: If I wipe everything on my phone, does that mean the data is gone?

A: Your prior location information will be deleted from your phone, but it will be restored if you restore a backup from your computer.  In either case, the phone/iPad will start recording location data again, even after being wiped.

### Q: Why should I care?

A: I can’t speak for you, but I’d rather my devices not record information about where I live, work, shop, and socialize. It’s bad enough that cell phone carriers record phone location continually; I’d rather that the location of my home not be recorded inside of a device that could be lost or stolen.  Not that I have anything to hide, but I personally just don’t want that information out there available to anyone, especially companies that might be trying to sell me something.

### Q: Can any steps be taken to protect myself?

A: Turn on the encryption feature for device backups in iTunes.  That will at least prevent access to this data from your computer.  There isn’t much that you can do to prevent access to the data on the phone other than stop using it.  If you’ve jailbroken your device, at a very minimum change the root password, but I’d recommend removing the jailbreak entirely.

### Q: Are you doing anything differently?

A: I don’t have an iPhone, but I am definitely going to be more selective about where I take my iPad.  I protect myself very well against attacks against my computer, so I’m not too concerned about that.  If I had jailbroken my iPad I would be taking that off right now.

## Monday, April 18, 2011

### Photography Class Moved

Up until now, I’ve been hosting my Introduction to Photography classes on Google Video (YouTube doesn’t allow videos over 15 minutes).  Google is shutting the service down, so I have decided to upload the classes to Vimeo instead.  Each class is between 40 and 80 minutes.

The big upside to the move is that the quality of the video is much higher now.  The down side is that I have to pay to host the videos now.  Since I can’t advertise in the videos or on their site, I’d appreciate you clicking the Amazon links here on this blog when making purchases, especially electronics, to help offset some of that cost.  There’s now way Amazon referrals will cover the hosting entirely, but it will certainly help.

This class is freely available to all.  I’m on a mission to save the world from bad information.  With the videos hosted on Google, 30,000 people were helped in their photography education. Hopefully we’ll see the same with Vimeo. :)

## Sunday, March 6, 2011

### Why I Don’t Like Apple

I get accused of hating Apple quite often because I tend to be critical of their actions and their products.  That probably oversimplifies things a bit. I don’t necessarily dislike everything they do, but there is a lot that they do that I don’t care for.  I know that there are some people that aren’t going to like this post, but opinions aside, all of the facts I will present are well researched over a long period of time.  I won’t cite references, because it isn’t hard for someone to do their own searches and I don’t want to spend days creating this post.

Generally speaking I do like the hardware that Apple creates.  Their engineers are quite talented.  They manage to stuff a lot of functionality into some pretty small packages.  If the price on the MacBook Air was to come down a few hundred bucks I’d buy one, throw Windows 7 on it, and be mostly happy (I still hate Apple keyboards).  It would also be hard to criticize their industrial design.  The two biggest complaints I have with Apple hardware are (1) the price – their markup is about three times that of just about every other electronics manufacturer, and (2) their propensity to sacrifice functionality in the name of product design.  I’m not a big fan of form over function.  Having to navigate through menus to get to something that ought to be a hardware button is something that continually frustrates me.  Less really is less sometimes, not more.

My respect for Apple stops about there, though.  For the most part I don’t like their operating systems, especially from the point of view of a programmer, at all.  Their software development tools are positively primitive – missing many capabilities and functions that have been available for twenty years or more on Windows.  Since I have been programming for more than 30 years, I remember when development tools were this bad on the PC side and I’d hate to go back in time.

I bought a Mac a few years ago with the hope that I’d begin to be able to write some software for the up-and-coming market, but after spending a few days with Apple’s Xcode development tool I rather would have slit my wrist and done pushups in saltwater than done any serious development on the Mac platform.  To someone who has a background in web development (which is even more primitive) or no programming background at all, Xcode might seem okay, but to someone who has spent any time in a “real” development environment like Visual Studio or Embarcadero’s RAD Studio, Xcode is extremely frustrating and slow to use.  Things we take for granted, and have for many years, in our world just don’t even exist at all in that world.  And at the rate that Apple is developing Xcode, they’re actually getting farther behind rather than catching up.  It’s almost amusing to hear Steve Jobs and other Apple employees brag about things they’re adding to their development tools because almost without exception they’re things we’ve not only had for many, many years on other platforms, but have been through continual improvements in that time.

Since the Mac is a hybrid of BSD (based on Unix, going back to the 1970s) and NeXT (going back to the late 1980s), the overall programming API is a little bit of a mess because it has been rigged to do things it was never meant to do.  Not that Windows is perfect, because it certainly is not, but it has considerably more modern tools, especially if something like .NET is taken into account.   Bottom line is, on a scale of 1 to 10, in terms of how fast and easy it is to develop software, Windows would probably be an 8, the Mac would be a 4 (while web development would be a 3).  I just can’t bring myself to do it.  Once you’ve worked with a professional development environment, it’s very frustrating to try to use anything else, Macs included.  I gave up my attempt to create Mac software pretty quickly.

The other big criticism I have with Apple’s software is that it just isn’t designed for “power users” like me.  They create user interfaces that might work well for large consumer groups whose technical needs aren’t that significant.  For example, as a power user, I love to be able to navigate around using the keyboard instead of the mouse.  It is SO much faster pressing a couple keys than removing my hand from the keyboard, picking up the mouse, moving it to click on something, and then probably moving it back to where it was before moving my hand back to the keyboard.  I use keyboard shortcuts constantly, and the Mac just isn’t keyboard friendly.  It is true that many commands do have keyboard shortcuts, but they’re often three and four combinations that are difficult to remember, don’t make sense, and are inconsistent across different programs.  Not only that, but the menu bar is separate from the application window you’re working in, so using the mouse to select commands often means a lot of unnecessary movement.  The situation is much, much worse when running multiple monitors like I do, because no matter what monitor an application is using, the menu bar always stays on the primary monitor.  So in my case (with 6 monitors) I might have to move the mouse across three or 4 monitors to move between an application's window and its menu, and vice versa.  It’s very, very frustrating, and it slows me down in a huge way.

That brings me back to the pricing aspect.  The computer I’m running cost about \$1700 to build (monitors excluded).  It is very fast.  While there isn’t a way to configure a Mac exactly the same, the closest I could get was to start with the base Mac Pro at \$2499, and after adding an SSD, the memory, extra hard drives, and as many video cards as I could it pushed the price well over \$5000.  And that’s for a slower machine.  To get closer to the performance of my PC, the Mac price is closer to \$7000.  The difference between \$1700 and \$5000 is hard enough to swallow… jumping to \$7000 is even harder.  Apple just doesn’t build hardware for power users like me if we don’t have a virtually unlimited budget.

The situation doesn’t change much with laptops, either.  The Dell laptop I bought about a year ago for \$1400 just barely got an Apple equivalent with the introduction of the new MacBook Pro last week.  But it’s \$2400, has half of the memory, and doesn’t play Blu-ray movies (and its warranty is much, much shorter).  And it wasn’t available a year ago.  Again, no affordable hardware for power users like me.  At the time I bought my Dell it was literally twice as fast as the fastest MacBook Pro, and it was a little over half the price.  The price/performance ratio just isn’t good on Apple hardware.

But I’m spending too much time on their products… many of the reasons I don’t like Apple have to do with the company and their behavior.  In the interest of brevity, I’ll make these in the form of a list.
• Steve Jobs.  I don’t like Steve Jobs.  He might be a good salesman, but he is not a good person.  He is mean, vindictive, spiteful, extremely egotistical, and I could probably justify saying he’s greedy too.  He has been known to be verbally abusive to his employees.  He was kicked out of Apple in the 1980s for these very reasons, among others.  He’s just not a good person.  And on those occasions I buy Apple products I feel a little guilty putting any more money into his pocket, and rewarding him for his behaviors.

• Steve Jobs is just a salesman.  He will tell you anything he has to to sell products, even if it is an outright lie.  He isn’t on a mission to bring good products just for the sake of making good technology available.  He’s trying to make money, just like every other salesman.  He isn’t magical.

• He truly believes he is special and not subject to following the rules.  For example, he routinely drives his Mercedes without license plates, and very often parks in handicap spaces.

• Apple is too litigious.  It’s less commonly known now than it was years ago, but Apple singlehandedly virtually halted the development of the graphical user interface years ago because they went around suing every company that was producing a graphical user interface out of existence, at least until someone able to defend itself like Microsoft came along.  There were plenty of companies that were doing very useful and interesting things to move the GUI forward, but as soon as they started to get any traction Apple sued them until they had to completely neuter their products, or they fell apart financially trying to defend themselves.  The saddest part of it all was that Apple hadn’t even been the company to create the Graphical User Interface… Steve Jobs had been invited to a demonstration at Xerox PARC and seen it in action there then copied the idea on the Mac (and was devious enough to patent parts of it, unlike Xerox).

We’re seeing some of those same types of behavior from Apple with their lawsuit against HTC, for example, over iPhone patents.  Apple has been able to secure patents for things that are both obvious and have been demonstrated previously by others, and is now attempting to sue others for using similar ideas.  It’s a dirty business practice that I find appalling. And you can bet that any portion of the suit that Apple wins, they’re going to go after every other phone manufacturer.

Generally speaking, a company that likes to sue is a company that can’t compete technologically.  There are exceptions, but in Apple’s case, they certainly aren’t suing because they’ve had a lack of exposure to the public.

• Apple is also very uncooperative with other tech companies.  They’ve said (and proved) time and time again that they are unwilling to license their patents to others.  Every company comes up with cool ideas, the difference is that Apple won’t share.  Virtually every other tech company out there cross licenses their patents with others.  It’s very much a “I’ll take my ball and go home” sort of mentality, and it creates a lot of resentment.

A few other examples of this:

• Apple doesn’t (and probably never will) support Blu-ray.
• Apple doesn’t support USB 3.0.
• Apple was very late to the game to support Express Card and SD cards.
• They don’t allow anybody to produce products that use Apple designed connectors, like MagSafe.  They’ll sue you if you try, even if your product doesn’t compete against one of theirs.
• They intentionally break devices that aren’t officially approved for use with Apple products, like the dock connector, even if they are fully otherwise compatible.  (Again, demonstrating spite.)

• Continually making fun of other companies. Listen to any keynote from Steve Jobs and you’ll hear jabs at others.  It really seems like they’d rather make enemies than friends.  And it’s the sort of behavior you’d expect from bullies, or the insecure cool kids at school, making fun of others to make themselves look better, rather than just showing their good qualities and allowing others to like them based on those.  Quite a few of those jabs aren’t even based in reality, but rather a perceived reality that Apple themselves have created.  The “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ad campaign is a classic example of that.

• Outright lies to make sales.  Apple is all about telling you things that just aren’t true in order to sell their products.  For example, when the iPhone was released, Steve Jobs told everyone that nobody would need to create Apps because you could do anything that you might want to do on the phone in the browser.  And then when they announced apps a year later, they told everyone that it didn’t multitask because it would kill the battery too fast (despite the fact that virtually every other smartphone platform at the time had real multitasking and better battery life).  Two years later they announced that they were adding “multitasking.”  Or that the original iPhone didn’t have 3G because EDGE was “fast enough,” and 3G would drain the battery too much, then a year later they introduced the iPhone 3G and talked about how fast it is and its incredible battery life.  All of these things were completely untrue (their competitors were offering all of these things at the time), but for some reason they keep telling us things and many, many people believe them.  Then with the problems with the iPhone 4 antenna, as soon as Steve Jobs came out and said that there wasn’t really a problem everybody (except Consumer Reports) stopped criticizing them even though the problem is real and still hasn’t gone away (and even exists in the Verizon version).  Or, going back a few years when Apple still used the PowerPC chips in the Mac... they swore up and down they were faster than the Intel processors in Windows PCs, then when they finally made the switch they bragged about how going to Intel made the machines 2-3 times faster.  We’re really just being given Apple’s excuses for not producing products with competitive features.  And I’m not sure why anyone believes them, but they do.  Chances are, when Apple makes an excuse for why it doesn’t have a feature, it’s just that, an excuse, and any justification they give just shouldn’t be believed because it’s just hogwash.

Another recent example: in the iPad 2 announcement, Jobs badly misquoted a Samsung executive to make it seem like the Galaxy Tab was selling more slowly than it really is, but few called him out on it.  He changed the single most important word in the sentence, which altered the entire meaning of the statement.  Again, a lie to make someone else look bad.

• Apple doesn't pay their shareholders dividends at all, ever.  They've got over \$50 billion in the bank, and they won't share any of it with the people that actually own the company.

• General behavior of trying to do everything consumer and developer unfriendly they can get away with.  Trying to shut other companies out of creating development tools for the iPhone, or now charging 30% for in-app subscriptions, for example.  They keep pushing things well beyond where they ought to until legal action is threatened against them.  Sometimes you should do things just because they’re the right thing to do, not under thread of punishment.  It’s better in the long term for everyone.

• Apple is generally anti-competitive.  If they offer a solution to a problem, they seem to go out of their way to make things difficult for their competitors.

• Nobody can write programs which directly compete against the software included with the iPhone.  No phone apps, no browsers, nothing that can run any code.  They do this in the name of preventing consumer confusion, or security, but it’s really just a ruse to prevent their competition from getting a leg up on them.

• Too much control over the way their products are used.

• You can’t develop applications for the iPhone unless you pay \$99 per year to do so (this is the only platform where you have to pay to play… everything else out there has free [and generally halfway decent] tools available).  And only apps they’ve approved area allowed to run on the iPhone.  So someone like me can’t develop a cool program that I share with my friends without giving Apple money, going through the approval process, and putting it out there for everyone in the world to get to.

• Apple contributes financially to political causes I don’t agree with.  I believe that companies ought to remain politically neutral.

• Again, greed.  Apple charges too much for their products, just because they can get away with it.

• They get about \$600-700 for every iPhone they sell, when there is only about \$200 in parts inside.  Companies ought to have the opportunity to make a profit, but that kind of markup is ripping off their customers (even if it is indirectly through the carrier).

• Thirty percent of every sale in the App Store is way too high too.  Just for running apps through a quick one-time approval process and add an entry into a database.  Insanity.  They claim they just break even on App sales, but there is no way this is the case.  If they’ve paid out \$2 billion to developers, that would mean they’ve collected \$857 million for themselves.  Either they’re paying the employees that approve apps tens of millions of dollars per year or they’re lying to us.  Their costs to host the downloads isn’t anywhere near that high.  Tens of millions, maybe.  Hundreds, not a chance.

• Apple can’t write decent software for Windows.  I do appreciate that they try to make things like iTunes, QuickTime, and Safari available on Windows, but their attempts seem to be half hearted.  All of their Windows products are memory hogs, slow, and buggy.  (Conspiracy theory: do they write bad Windows code intentionally to try to get people to switch to a Mac? Not necessarily suggesting it… just thinking out loud.)

• Vindictive.  Their public railing against Adobe is just one example.  Apple has had it in for Adobe ever since Photoshop was released in a 64-bit version for Windows without an equivalent Mac version a few years ago.  Apple uses way too many opportunities to publicly condemn Adobe.  Some of that criticism could possibly be warranted, but this multi-year tirade has just gone way beyond reasonable.  (Adobe produces many products which complete against Apple’s, incidentally.)  It’s almost ironic considering that without Photoshop, the Mac probably never would have gained any traction.

• Unfair media coverage.  We’ve historically liked to think that our media remains unbiased, but in the case of Apple all objectivity has gone out the window.

• Apple manipulates the media to their liking.  If media organizations are overly negative or critical of Apple products or the company itself, it will quickly find itself excluded from companies invited to Apple events.  Big tech names like TWiT, CNET and Gizmodo have found themselves permanently uninvited to Apple events, and being given early access to Apple products because their review for some Apple product hasn’t been as favorable as Apple would have liked.  Since Apple news is big news and generates a lot of money for the media (through web page views and other exposure), they’re under pressure to be favorable in their “critiques” or they’ll find themselves on the blacklist.  This gives Apple an unfair advantage.  (Tip: if a company is granted early access to Apple products, you can be pretty sure it’s going to be biased, or it wouldn’t be given that product in the first place.)

• Everything associated with an Apple product gets coverage from the media, no matter how big or small it is.  How crazy is it that we see entire articles on tech blog sites about the screws that are used in the iPhone?  A company as huge as Intel, Microsoft, HP, or Dell can release a huge new amazing product and not get even a fraction of the coverage as a case for an unreleased iPad.  Pure insanity.

• The media in general doesn’t even pretend to be unbiased in their coverage of Apple any longer.  At Apple keynotes, for example, you’ll see members of the media applauding along with the Apple employees at the event at every “exciting” new feature.  Shouldn’t the media be there to report, not support?

• Security.  Apple likes to claim that the Mac is the most secure operating system out there, but it, in fact, is the worst of the big 3.

• Apple products have been the first to be hacked for the last 4 years running at the Pwn2Own and other security conferences.  Windows may be the most targeted, but if I was asked to hack into someone else’s computer, I would hope they’re running something made by Apple, because they are far easier to get into than both Windows and Linux.  Macs and iPhones might not be the target of malware software authors, but in a targeted attack they’re consistently the first to fail.  Given the opportunity, I would certainly ban Macs and iPhones from a corporate environment if any confidential information is being accessed.

• Apple is terrible about patching known security holes.  Both the Mac and the iPhone are based on BSD, which is usually patched pretty quickly when security issues are discovered.  Apple tends to wait months, if not years, to include these patches in their products.

• Despite claiming to, they don’t really support “open” standards.  Two examples:

• They publicly claim support for HTML 5 but Safari actually has the worst HTML 5 implementation of any modern browser.  They’re being very selective about which parts of HTML 5 they actually support.  Every other browser, even Internet Explorer 9, does a considerably better and complete job.

• When they announced FaceTime last summer, they said they were making it an open standard.  But they haven’t made it available to anyone, even 8 months later.

• Lastly, Apple users.  Of course I’m not saying all Apple users are this way, but we very often see the following behaviors.

• Immediate belief of anything Steve Jobs says without looking at it objectively.  (Steve Jobs is a salesman, not an unbiased tech expert.  His comments should be taken with a huge grain of salt.)
• Quoting Steve Jobs, even when he is wrong.
• Automatically assuming that just because Apple produces something that it is the best out there, without doing any research to find out for themselves.
• Many, many Apple users are very smug about their purchases.  We’d rather not hear from your superiority complex.  Nobody else brags about their electronic tools (they are just tools after all), why must Apple owners?
So to summarize… generally nice hardware, but frustrating operating systems, very dated development tools, mean-spirited and deceitful CEO, greedy practices, too controlling, two faced public statements, smug attitude, and uneducated but boastful customers.  There you go.