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Posts Tagged ‘iPhone’

1K of RAM

July 25, 2017 Leave a comment

One of my first computers had just 1K of RAM. That’s enough to store… well, almost nothing. It could store 0.01% of a (JPEG compressed) digital photo I now take on my dSLR or 0.02% of a short (MP3 compressed) music track. In other words, I would need 10 thousand of these devices (in this case a Sinclair ZX80) to store one digital photo!

I know the comparison above is somewhat open to criticism in that I am comparing RAM with storage and that early computers could have their memory upgraded (to a huge 16K in the case of the ZX80) but the point remains the same: even the most basic computer today is massively superior to what we had in the “early days” of computers.

It should be noted that, despite these limitations, you could still do stuff with those early computers. For example, I wrote a fully functioning “Breakout” game in machine code on the ZX80 (admittedly with the memory expansion) and it was so fast I had to put a massive loop in the code to slow it down. That was despite the fact that the ZX80 had a single 8 bit processor running at 3.25 MHz which is somewhat inferior to my current laptop (now a few years out of date) which has four 64 bit cores (8 threads) running at 2.5 GHz.

The reason I am discussing this point here is that I read an article recently titled “The technology struggles every 90s child can relate to”. I wasn’t exactly a child in the 90s but I still struggled with this stuff!

So here’s the list of struggles in the article…

1. Modems

Today I “know everything” because in the middle of a discussion on any topic I can search the internet for any information I need and have it within a few seconds. There are four components to this which weren’t available in the 90s. First, I always have at least one device with me. It’s usually my iPhone but I often have an iPad or laptop too. Second, I am always connected to the internet no matter where I am (except for rare exceptions). Third, the internet is full of useful (and not useful) information on any topic you can image. And finally, Google makes finding that information easy (most of the time).

None of that was available in the 90s. To find a piece of information I would need to walk to the room where my desktop computer lived, boot it, launch a program (usually an early web browser), hope no one else was already using the phone line, wait for the connection to start, and laboriously look for what I needed (possibly using an early search engine) allowing for the distinct possibly that it didn’t exist.

In reality, although that information retrieval was possible both then and now, it was so impractical and slow in the 90s that it might as well have not existed at all.

2. Photography

I bought a camera attachment for one of my early cell phones and thought how great it was going to be taking photos anywhere without the need to take an SLR or compact (film) camera with me. So how may photos did I take with that camera? Almost none, because it was so slow, the quality was so bad, and because it was an attachment to an existing phone it tended to get detached and left behind.

Today my iPhone has a really good camera built-in. Sure it’s not as good as my dSLR but it is good enough, especially for wide-angle shots where there is plenty of light. And because my iPhone is so compact and easy to take everywhere (despite its astonishing list of capabilities) I really do have it with me always. Now I take photos every day and they are good enough to keep permanently.

3. Input devices

The original item here was mice, but I have extended it to mean all input devices. Mice haven’t changed much superficially but modern, wireless mice with no moving parts are certainly a lot better than their predecessors. More importantly, alternative input devices are also available now, most notably touch interfaces and voice input.

Before the iPhone no one really knew how to create a good UI on a phone but after that everything changed, and multi-touch interfaces are now ubiquitous and (in general, with a few unfortunate exceptions) are very intuitive and easy to use.

4. Ringtones

This was an item in the article but I don’t think things have changed that much now so I won’t bother discussing this one.

5. Downloads

Back in the day we used to wait hours (or days) for stuff to download from on-line services. Some of the less “official” services were extremely well used back then and that seems to have reduced a bit now, although downloading music and movies is still popular, and a lot faster now.

The big change here is maybe the change from downloads to streaming. And the other difference might be that now material can be acquired legally for a reasonable price rather than risking the dodgy and possibly virus infected downloads of the past.

6. Clunky Devices

In the 90s I would have needed many large, heavy, expensive devices just to do what my iPhone does now. I would need a gaming console, a music player with about 100 CDs to play in it, a hand-held movie player (if they even existed), a radio, a portable TV, an advanced calculator, a GPS unit, a compass, a barometer, an altimeter, a torch, a note pad, a book of maps, a small library of fiction and reference books, several newspapers, and a computer with functions such as email, messaging, etc.

Not only does one iPhone replace all of those functions, saving thousands of dollars and about a cubic meter of space, but it actually does things better than a lot of the dedicated devices. For example, I would rather use my iPhone as a GPS unit than a “real” GPS device.

7. Software

Software was a pain, but it is till often a pain today so maybe this isn’t such a big deal! At least it’s now easy to update software (it often happens with no user intervention at all) and installing over the internet is a lot easier than from 25 floppy disks!

Also, all software is installed in one place and doesn’t involve running from disk or CD. In fact, optical media (CDs and DVDs) are practically obsolete now which isn’t a bad thing because they never were particularly suitable for data storage.

8. Multi-User, Multi-Player

The article here talks about the problem of having multiple players on a PlayStation, but I think the whole issue of multiple player games (and multi-user software in general) is now taken for granted. I play against other people on my iPhone and iPad every day. There’s no real extra effort at all, and playing against other people is just so much more rewarding, especially when smashing a friend in a “friendly” race in a game like Real Racing 3!

So, obviously things have improved greatly. Some people might be tempted to get nostalgic and ask if things are really that much better today. My current laptop has 16 million times as much memory, hundreds of thousands times as much CPU power, and 3000 times as many pixels as my ZX80 but does it really do that much more? Hell, yes!

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Are You Getting It?

January 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Ten years ago Apple introduced one of the most important devices in the history of technology. It has changed many people’s lives more than almost anything else, and nothing has really supplanted it in the years since then. Obviously I’m talking about the iPhone, but you already knew that.

Like every new Apple product, this wasn’t the first attempt at creating this type of device, it didn’t have the best technical specifications, and it didn’t sell at a particularly good price. In fact, looking at the device superficially many people (the CTO of RIM included) thought it should have immediately failed.

I got an iPhone when Apple introduced the first revision, the iPhone 3G, and it replaced my Sony phone, which was the best available when I bought it. The Sony phone had a flip screen, plus a smaller screen on the outside of the case, a conventional phone keypad, a rotating camera, and an incredibly impressive list of functions including email and web browsing.

In fact the feature list of the Sony phone was much more substantial than the early iPhones. But the difference was the iPhone’s features were something you could use where the Sony’s existed in theory but were so awkward, slow, and unintuitive than I never actually used them.

And that is a theme which has been repeated with all of Apple’s devices which revolutionised a particular product category (Apple II, Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad). Looking at the feature list, specs, and price compared with competitors, none of these products should have succeeded.

But they did. Why? Well I’m going to say something here which is very Apple-ish and sounds like a marketing catch-phrase rather than a statement of fact or opinion, so prepare yourself. It is because Apple creates experiences, not products.

OK, sorry about that, but I can explain that phrase. The Sony versus iPhone situation I described above is a perfect example. Looking at the specs and features the Sony would have won most comparisons, but the ultimate purpose for a consumer device is to be used. Do the comparison again, but this time with how those specs and features affect the user and the iPhone wins easily.

And it was the same with the other products I mentioned above. Before the Mac, computers were too hard to use. The Mac couldn’t do much initially, but what it could do was so much more easily accessible than with PCs. The iPod was very expensive considering its capacity and list of functions, but it was much easier to use and manage than other MP3 players. And the iPad had a limited feature list, but its operating system was highly customised to creating an intuitive touch interface for the user.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 10 years ago he teased the audience like this: “[We are introducing] an iPod, a phone and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone – are you getting it? These are not separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone.”

Today I made a list of the functions my iPhone 6S regularly performs for me, where it replaces other devices, technologies and media. This list includes: watch, stopwatch, alarm clock, point and shoot camera, video camera, photo album, PDA, calculator, GPS, map, music player, portable video player, calendar, appointment diary, book library, ebook reader, audiobook player, magazine, newspaper, recipe book, email client, note pad, drawing tablet, night sky star map, web browser, portable gaming console, radio, TV, audio recorder, TV and audio remote control, landline, and mobile phone.

Not only does it do all of those things but it does a lot of them better than the specialised devices it replaces! And, even though the iPhone isn’t cheap, if you look at the value of the things it replaces it is a bargain. My guess at the value of all the stuff I listed above is $3000 – $5000 which is at least twice the cost of the phone itself.

My iPhone has one million times the storage of the first computer I programmed on. Its processors are tens of thousands of times faster. Its screen displays 25 times more pixels. And, again, it costs a lot less, even when not allowing for inflation.

Most of what I have said would apply to any modern smart-phone, but the iPhone deserves a special place amongst the others for two reasons. First, it is a purer example of ease of use and user-centered functionality than other phones; and second, it was the one phone which started the revolution.

Look at pictures of the most advanced phones before and after the iPhone and you will see a sudden transition. Apple lead the way – not on how to make a smartphone – but on how to make a smartphone that people would actually want to use. And after that, everything changed.

Pure Worthless Drivel

September 14, 2016 Leave a comment

While I was deciding what to call this blog post I went back over previous posts looking for duplicate names and for the frequency of use of the constituent words. One word which showed up a lot more than I thought it might was “drivel”. But it’s a word I think is particularly useful in so many contexts today. With the dumbing down of society there is more and more drivel and that’s the main subject of this post.

The particular source of drivel I want to concentrate on this time is mainstream news. And the particular news item which has just pushed me over the edge and lead to this rant was the reporting on the introduction of the iPhone 7.

I am an IT expert and a consultant/programmer, specialising in working with Apple products, so I do know a bit more than most on this subject. That means that the poor reporting and discussion on the new phone was more obvious than most other subjects would be. But I also notice poor reporting on other subjects where my knowledge is above average (that’s probably almost everything I can say with all due modesty, not so much because my knowledge level is high, but because the average is so low) and I suspect it’s about the same for everything else too.

The drivel on this occasion was from a program called “Story” on one of New Zealand’s main TV channels. I have noticed when it first started it did some fairly worthwhile and controversial investigations and reporting, but as time goes by it really has sunk to the level of inane, simplistic, unsophisticated nonsense that many people predicted when it was first announced.

You might ask why I watch that particular program instead of another channel or not watch TV at all. Well you might guess what I am going to say here: the other channels are even worse! And the program is on at dinner time and it is slightly more sociable to watch TV with other people rather than just look at my iPad screen. Plus there is the point that I like to keep up with the latest drivel, oops I mean news.

You might say that programs like these are as much about light entertainment as they are about real news, but I have occasionally noticed the same thing – although certainly not quite as bad – from more respectable news sources like RNZ.

So the discussion on the iPhone 7 consisted of a few people, none of which had any knowledge of the iPhone or even of tech in general, sitting around making their opinions known. The main source of discussion seemed to be the lack of a headphone socket on the new phone and how that would mean people would not be able to use the earphones of their choice.

Not once during the discussion was it mentioned that other (Android) phones had already dropped that connector (over a year ago) and the world seems to have continued without a major meltdown. Not once was it mentioned that, in the box, is an adapter allowing you to use your existing headphones with the new iPhone through the digital port. And not once was it mentioned that the new phone comes with earphones which connect to the digital (Lightning) port directly.

Now in the greater scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if TV news and current affairs programs are totally accurate about one particular product, but it does matter that the same level of inane ignorance extends to everything.

As I said above, the program in question is called “Story”. Here are the two main definitions of that word from the Oxford Dictionary: 1. an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment; and 2. a report of an item of news in a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast.

I’m sure they had definition 2 in mind when the name was approved, but they seem to be straying more into the area of definition 1 all the time. Truly we are doomed. There’s just too much pure worthless drivel.

I Don’t Like It

March 4, 2016 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about some of the conclusions I have reached after being an “IT expert” for many years. I use a lot of different computer, smartphone, tablet, and other products and I have a good sense of what is good, what is not so good, and what is just plain horrible. The odd thing is that it is often the most widely-used products from big companies which are the worst. I should say this applies mainly to software rather than hardware.

For example, after many years I no longer use any Microsoft or Adobe products because they are just so, well… not necessarily bad, but just totally average, uninspiring, and unintuitive. And the worst thing is that this unfortunate situation is even creeping into the one company I have higher expectations of: Apple.

I don’t know how many times I have ranted about the inadequacies of Microsoft Word. I work almost entirely with Macs but on the occasions when I do Windows support I have issues there as well. It’s not that Word lacks capabilities – it can do almost anything – it’s more the way it does it. It’s unreliable, unpredictable, unintuitive, and uninspiring.

When I use other word processors I know that I can create a document hundreds of pages long with lots of graphics and it will still print (or more likely convert to PDF) accurately. I know I will be able to work with the document without it becoming slow even on a high performance computer. And I know it won’t become corrupted in some way. But not with Word. I can almost guarantee something will go wrong with a project of any significant degree of complexity.

But I shouldn’t just pick on Microsoft. What about the second biggest software company, Adobe? Well I have always loved Photoshop, and I still use it occasionally. But Adobe products suffer from poor interface design, slow performance, crazy licensing schemes, and other problems which really shouldn’t exist.

And just to show that I really am an “equal opportunity” critic of different products and companies, what about Apple? Well in general I like Apple programs because even though they do a smaller range of tasks, they do them really well. Apple’s word processor, Pages, for example never fails me. It doesn’t do quite as much as Word (although it does everything even a power user like me needs) but I know it will do everthing I want it to reliably.

But Apple have a few notable failures. Let’s get the “elephant in the room” out of the way first: iTunes. Everyone seems to hate iTunes – especially Windows users – and I can see why. It is probably the program I have most problems with (remember I don’t use Microsoft software). But it’s not just poor reliability; it’s an inconsistent, illogical, confused user interface which is possibly even worse.

Apple have made a few other mistakes over the years too, both on the Mac and on “iDevices” (iPod, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch). For example, the whole Lion operating system was a backward step in many ways, especially in terms of functionality of the built-in apps.

No one thinks that creating modern systems or apps is easy, because there are so many variables which need to be taken into account, especially in the environment the program will be used in and how the user will use it. But the leaders in this area (Microsoft, Adobe, Apple) seem to be the ones doing the worst job in many cases. Why is that, especially considering the huge resources they have? Why can small companies or individuals often make better products?

No doubt it is partly because of the corporate culture where policies and rules have more influence than good design and engineering decisions. Partly it is because of the need to support previous code bases, file formats, and interface designs. And partly it is due to the simple law of diminishing returns. As more people interact in a project their contribution tends to be less about the core project and more about maintaining the complex set of interactions with other participants. So I’m sure that there is a point where having more people makes things worse rather than better.

When I look at the programs I actually use they can be broken into three categories: those which Apple supplies and are either well designed (Pages, Preview, Safari) or just the only real practical option (iTunes); those which I choose to use because they just work really well (TextWrangler, BBEdit, Pixelmator, Skim); and awesome, mostly non-commercial technical and programming tools (Apache, MySQL, PHP).

I think everyone wins when smaller, innovative programmers can challenge the big guys. Unfortunately just for compatibility with other users and to fulfill poorly considered policies I do have to use inferior software like Microsoft Word occasionally. But I don’t like it.

Apple vs the FBI

February 18, 2016 Leave a comment

All reasonably modern Apple devices have very good built-in security. If you were worried that your iPhone, or iPad, or Mac (if it is set up correctly) can be “cracked” and all the information on it be made readable then fear no more. Obviously even the FBI can’t crack an iPhone and neither can Apple.

We know this because the FBI have an iPhone 5c which belonged to one of the perpetrators of the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino. But they can’t get into it and neither can Apple even when the FBI asks them to.

So now the feds want Apple to create a new version of the operating system which disables the automatic deletion feature when the PIN code is incorrect after 10 tries. In fact they have a court order which forces Apple to do this. But Apple has so far refused and will appeal the decision.

But why? Why would Apple want to protect a terrorist’s information when they could instead help with the investigation? Is it because they don’t want to waste the time and money on a project which has no benefit to them? Do they want to protect any guilty parties or hinder the investigation in some way? Or do they want to protect their customers and maintain the security of the platform?

I think it’s obvious that the first two options really don’t make sense so it seems that Apple really do want to make a stand here on behalf of the users and not compromise the security and privacy they currently have.

It’s actually quite a courageous position because I am fairly sure that almost any other company would have simply complied with the legal requirement of cooperation and helped break the security.

So it might be courageous but is it wise? Shouldn’t Apple be prepared to sacrifice privacy in this one case to help with the investigation of a serious criminal event? Probably not, because whatever the feds say, this will not be the only time they use an ability like this and it’s unlikely to remain with an organisation which ostensibly represents the “good guys”.

There are two clear problems if a way is created to bypass security: first, the official law organisations will almost surely use it for illicit purposes such as stealing private data belonging to political opponents of the government; and second, the technique will equally surely find its way into the hands of the real bad guys (that is the bad guys who are even worse than the good guys, who are often quite bad themselves).

This is a rare case where someone is actually doing what I have suggested is everybody’s obligation: do do what is right rather than what is legal. And, although there are many things I criticise Apple for, I think this is an example of where they do have standards far above most other corporations. For doing what’s right I give them full credit.

Bad Design

February 11, 2016 Leave a comment

If there’s one thing that bugs me it’s bad design. Actually, there isn’t just one thing that bugs me, and bad design might not even be at the top of the heap if there was, but just for the purposes of this blog post let’s just assume that it is my number one source of annoyance.

As anyone who follows this blog has probably realised by now, I work with computers. I am a generalist but I work mainly with Macs, I do some web site and web database creation, some miscellaneous programming, some general consulting, hardware repairs and installation, and anything else required.

I’m not an expert on design and have no qualifications in the subject, but it is an interest I have and I have done some reading in the area. When I create programs, databases, and web sites user interface design is one of my primary concerns. Of course, speed, reliability, and functionality are also important but I give all 4 of those factors equal weight, something which many other people don’t seem to do.

At this point I should say what I mean by “design” in this case. I mean not just how the program, web site, or product looks, but how its functionality is structured: whether the interactive elements are consistent and intuitive, whether the response to the user makes sense, and whether the item in question works harmoniously both internally and in the larger environment (for example within the operating system or between itself and related items).

As I said, I work mainly with Macs (and other Apple products) and to a large extent that is because of Apple’s design standards, but even Apple is far from perfect. But at least they are ahead of most other companies so I choose them more as the best of a series of bad options rather than a good one in any absolute sense.

To be fair, these things aren’t easy, and what makes sense as a design element to a programmer might not make sense to users. And often people aren’t even aware that they are the victims of bad design. They just know that they feel lost, or frustrated, or uncomfortable and might not be sure why. There is also the point that in many cases there isn’t just one big problem which is obvious.

Instead of one big problem there might be a series of poor features which leads to the “death by a thousand cuts”. The user might not notice each one but in the end it is just as fatal! This is how I feel about Windows in particular (and to a somewhat lesser extent, other Microsoft products).

Let me give an example of how user interface design can make life easier in the real world. How many people walk up to a door which they should push and pull instead? I do that, even when there is a sign which says “push” (I’m a real genius). But there are other doors I just walk up to and push without thinking. Why? Because the push doors which work have a push plate instead of a handle. Why have a handle if you can’t pull the door?

So let’s look at this in the software world. I don’t want to pick on Microsoft any more because they are such an easy target, so let me choose one of Apple’s more heinous transgressions instead. In iOS Apple have thrown out the traditional graphical buttons and provided coloured (often red) text for active elements instead. That’s not too bad because we are used to something similar with active text on web sites (like links). But when titles and other text which doesn’t do anything are the same colour and sometimes active text isn’t coloured it just turns into a “tap it and see” situation! Why do this when it’s so easy to provide a distinctive design element? Maybe visual attractiveness here overcomes the bigger design picture.

But that is a specific example of a problem and because it is so well defined it is quite easy to fix. In fact there is a “button shapes” option in the accessibility section of iOS settings which restores a sort of button-like appearance to active text.

The bigger problem is the software – often expensive corporate systems – which are just horrible to use. It seems that the people who wrote this software either have never used it (so don’t realise how bad it is), or don’t listen to user feedback, or are forced into designing a specific way due to management restraints, or (most likely) all of the above.

There’s no easy fix for this because the problems go beyond mere user interface design and encompass the whole model the systems are built around.

In fact there does seem to be almost an inverse relationship between the size of the team working on a software project and the usability and general quality of the finished product. That’s probably a bit too simplistic because many creations of a single individual are actually pretty terrible, and big projects are beyond what a single person can do so a real comparison can’t be made. But I do think that having too big a team – and especially too many non-technical people – is the biggest cause of bad products.

Whatever the cause is bad design is rife in modern software. Most software exists to allow people to interact with information. I think that “people” aspect deserves more attention. It’s time for human interface design to be given a higher priority.

Apple Watch Update

February 9, 2016 1 comment

I have now been using an Apple Watch for over 6 months so it must be a good time to post an update on how useful it is. I guess the most telling point is that on the odd occasion that I forget to wear it I constantly find myself looking at my wrist until I realise nothing is there. If I got through a day (or even an hour) without missing it then I would probably have to say it was a failure, but the opposite is true.

I still don’t think this is a device that everyone needs. In fact what does that mean? Do we really need anything – especially any high-tech gadget? Probably not. But I do think it is a device that everyone could find useful – assuming they already have an iPhone for it to talk to, of course.

First some preliminary comments. This is a very usable device. I wear it almost all of the time – except for two 15 to 30 minute intervals per day for charging. With this system the charge is always well above 50%. With the amount of use I give it I could probably manage with a charge every second day but it’s more sensible to have a routine where I keep it as fully charged as possible (with lithium-ion polymer batterries it is the number of full cycles which matters so frequent charging isn’t a major problem).

Because I wear it all the time it needs to take some punishment. A while back I was cleaning windows and slipped and ground the watch into a concrete wall. It looked like the case and face were badly scratched but after cleaning off the extra concrete and polishing the face a bit there was no damage at all, except for a chip out of the concrete wall. I’m not joking, this thing is very robust!

And yesterday I was doing some work with expanding foam, which contains a solvent capable of dissolving many materials. Yes, I spilled some on the watch, but after it had set I just scraped it off and there’s not a sign it was there.

So this is a device you can actually use and it doesn’t require too much special treatment. I mean, I wouldn’t deliberately slam it into concrete walls but if that happens there’s a decent chance it won’t suffer a lot of damage.

Until recently I hadn’t worn a watch for many years and I thought the basic fluoroelastomer strap might be a bit uncomfortable, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem. And the 42 mm watch just feels a tiny bit too big, but it’s not excessively obtrusive like I initially thought it might be.

Now on to what I actually use it for. As I suspected, it’s really just a supplement to the iPhone. There’s not much I use it for that can’t do with the phone – it’s just a lot easier and more convenient.

Here’s my list of uses: show the date and time, temperature, next appointment, and countdown timer (I have these 4 functions on the watch face); display the phone number of incoming calls; view text messages and emails; compose and send new text messages; view my diary; show distance walked and sleep patterns; display news notifications (currently from the New York Times and Guardian) and notifications of new podcasts on the phone.

That’s the list of stuff I use “all the time”. In addition there are many other functions I use less often: view photos, play podcasts and music, check bank accounts, check upcoming astronomical events, view tweets, use maps, and probably a whole lot more I haven’t remembered just now.

The difference between the “all the time” and “occasional” functions is convenience. Some things just aren’t that easy on such a small screen with minimal inputs (no mouse or keyboard and only basic touch control) when an iPhone, iPad, or computer is available instead.

And that’s the whole point. It may seem like an unnecessary luxury but having all 4 devices works well for me. I usually have an Apple Watch, an iPhone 6S, and iPad Air 2, and a MacBook Pro i7 15″ laptop available. And I use all 4 almost equally. This is an example of the Apple ecosystem working really well for me.

The way the devices work together is the key. For example, I can receive and send text messages (and iMessages) on any of the four devices and they all sync together. And if I put the phone into airplane mode the watch follows it automatically. There’s a lot of small things like that which make the separate devices work as a system.

It does mean that I am stuck with Apple as my supplier of all hardware but that’s a compromise I make to get the level of compatibility and convenience I want. The fact that I am an unashamed Apple fan-boy helps, of course!

So yes, the Apple Watch has worked well for me. There are some frustrations and performance issues, and some things could be better than they are (for example, finding the app I want to launch from the disorganised “cloud” of icons), but for a version 1 product it is very impressive.