Erase and Sync

eraseandsync

I don’t even want to try to explain what’s going on here. I mean, I understand it, but I don’t understand it. I don’t see how it’s in anyones interest for it to be flaming-hoops difficult to sync a device to a new Mac. Seriously, Apple, how did this pass your “it just works” razor?

Sync

For years my lunatic Apple friends have asked me: “when are you going to get a Mac?”. When I finally did, they started asking me: “when are you going to get an iPhone?”. As iOS is growing increasingly more useful with good notifications and over-the-air updates, my answer has been trimmed down to when it has a Gmail app that’s as good as the Android one. “Gmail with IMAP works great” is the usual knee-jerk reaction and “what’s so special about the Gmail app?” the followup question. I’m thinking perhaps it’s time I change my stock answer. I think my new response will be: sync.

This morning on my way to work I was listening to Macbreak Weekly. A bunch of my heroes, including John Gruber, were talking about iCloud sync and the problems some of them were experiencing. Tonya had factory reset her iPhone several times trying to get contacts to sync properly. Andy jokingly suggested the merging of contacts was painful and would sometimes merge 17 different versions of the same contact into a lean 12. Chris suggested it was a good idea to make sure you had a backup of the contacts, calendar and email setup you considered “canonical”, before embarking on your iCloud adventure. When the team started talking about the supposed iOS 5 battery drain, iCloud was almost universally assumed responsible for this.

Grubers level-headed approach was that, while he apparently had no problems himself, he did believe Apples iCloud transition was going to be monumentally difficult and compared it to stepping from solid ground on to a boat while carrying valuable trinkets. Transitioning MobileMe customers to a new free setup, making sure not only calendars, email and contacts sync, but also documents, was bound to generate some headaches, but they’ll pass in time, he suggested. I agree, I’m sure things’ll improve once Apple is on the boat.

Perhaps there is something to be said about Apples approach to sync. As much as they tout that “the truth is in the cloud” — as Yogi Berra would say: that’s only true when it’s true. It’s no secret Apple loves native apps. Native apps run faster, smoother, nicer than web-apps. You’ll hear many chant this, they might even use allegories such as “being closer to the metal” when describing why a web-app can never be as good as a native app. Let me tell you this: Yogi Berra doesn’t care. If it works, it works. If the app is good, it’s good. If things sync, things sync. And if they don’t sync properly, they don’t sync properly.

Googles overarching approach to sync is to not sync. Push the changes immediately. When you add a bookmark to your Chrome browser, a teensy signal is immediately sent to Googles bookmark sync server pushing the change. When you finish typing a word in Google Docs, changes are saved. There is no sync, because there are not copies of files anywhere. There is only one file. There is only one email. There is only one contact. You’ll never have to worry about whether your Android phone, tablet, or Macbook has the most recently edited version of your document, or which one has the most complete contact, or which calendar you added an event to. Because everything is always in sync. It just works.

You’d think it would get muddy if you scratched the surface and peeked underneath. If you do, you’ll find that Android sync is actually asynchronous, and that if you use Google Docs’ offline editing capabilities, you’ll actually end up with some of the same sync challenges that Apple is facing: which version is the right version? Somehow I’ve never once had a problem with this, though. I don’t know if it’s because Google started with the web-apps and built native apps and offline sync at a later time, but I have no trust issues with Google getting my sync right. I know that if I visit google.com/contacts and edit a contact, my changes will propogate to all my devices seamlessly. I never have to worry about losing contacts, losing appointments, losing emails, getting corrupt data, or even backing up. While these words may smell like famous last words, I wouldn’t even think of backing things up. I expect it to work, I trust that it will work, and has done so far.

Compared to the flaming hoops I had to jump through to get just calendars, contacts and Gmail to sync on my wifes iPhone, using an Android device is just a relief.

Prior Art

Do the tablets in Kubricks 2001 movie constitute “prior art” to the iPad?

This question recently incited much heated discussion on Twitter1. What made this spike my interest in such a fashion is my love for science fiction, and in particular the works of Arthur C. Clarke. Many of his ideas specifically, came to fruition decades later. For example, in 1945 Arthur C. Clarke inadvertently invented satellites. He didn’t patent them; as he put it:

I’m often asked why I didn’t try to patent the idea of communications satellites. My answer is always, “A patent is really a license to be sued”.

Now Clarke merely described what would later become satellites. He didn’t build one, nor did he design how such a thing looks. And indeed satellites today come in all manner of configurations and designs, yet they are still, clearly, satellites.

These days Apple is busy suing Samsung for infringing on Apples look and feel patents with their Galaxy line of phones and tablets. Put simply, Galaxy S phones are too like the iPhone, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is too like the iPad. While the comparison photos in the suit filing appear to have been doctored2, I’m not going to argue that Samsung TouchWiz is inspired by Apples iOS (which it clearly is)3.

Focusing on what sparked this discussion — could the tablet devices seen in the 2001 movie constitute prior art for the iPad — I do think that’s fair to say and I’ll get to why I think that is. Whether or not they’re merely portable televisions, they are electronic devices and their form factor is certainly strikingly similar to that of the iPad. But is it prior art?

Prior art:

Prior art [...], in most systems of patent law, constitutes all information that has been made available to the public in any form before a given date that might be relevant to a patent’s claims of originality. If an invention has been described in prior art, a patent on that invention is not valid.

To be specific, Apple is suing Samsung over 4 patents. Two of those are related to the iPhone form factor. One is related to how iOS works. The fourth patent is over the tablet form factor; here’s the illustration from the patent application:

ipad_patent

If you explore the patent application itself (beware, TIFF file), you’ll note that no specific size is noted in the patent application. The tablet illustrated doesn’t necessarily have a 10 inch screen.

Samsung is in a tight spot. While I find it surprising (and disappointing) that these four patents were granted in the first place, they clearly appear to have been infringed upon. Were I in Samsungs shoes, (and if I were I’d never have released TouchWiz in the first place) I’d be doing everything I could to defend against this suit. Certainly if I was able to find prior art that invalidated any of the four patents in question, I’d look wherever I could, even in my old sci-fi DVD collection. In the case of that one patent Apple has on the tablet form factor, I do see why Samsung would try and invoke prior art on that (though I’m surprised they didn’t pick Picards tablet instead). You see, if Samsung can convince the judge that patent #4 is invalid — that the slabs shown in 2001 are reminiscent of the pencil sketch shown above — it would cut their woes by a fourth.

Samsung is not my favorite Android vendor. They’re not even my favorite hardware vendor. Perhaps it would be good for them to suffer a defeat at the hands of Apple.

But I do consider Arthur C. Clarkes description of a satellite to be prior art. I consider Larry Nivens description of a ring-world to be prior art to the ring shown in the Halo video game. And so, hearing Samsung cite Kubricks tablets as prior art to the iPad is not the dumbest thing I ever heard. Apples tablet is a wonderful combination of a well-designed user-experience and durable, delicious hardware. Even so, the form factor described in their tablet patent is not a unique snowflake, as countless sci-fi authors would have you know.

  1. I feel I should apologize to those of you who happen to follow both me and Heilemann on Twitter for having polluted your streams.  
  2. For example, scaling down the Tab and opening the App drawer for the photo op instead of comparing the homescreen to the homescreen.  
  3. In fact I loathe Android skins in general and would like nothing more than Apple forcing Samsung to improve, or better yet rid the world of TouchWiz  

Apples App store demo policy: does “Lite” count?

Timed to perfectly disrupt CES, Apple opened their App Store yesterday.

appstore

The App store is software for Macs which makes it easy to find, download and buy new apps. It’s generally acknowledged that it’s going to be a huge success, though there’s been some controversy, mostly from developers:

  • Apple takes their usual 30%
  • Buy once, download as many times as you like (the Steam model)
  • There are no demos

The demo aspect is what’s interesting to me. Supposedly this mimics the Apple iOS App Store, where demos apparently arent’ available either. Which confuses me, because I’m sure I’ve tried free demo versions of full games on a number of occasions. Oh right, they were called “Lite” versions. So what’s the deal here? Are demos actually fully welcome in the App Store, as long as they’re simply named “Lite” or “Express”? Is it simply an issue of silly semantics?

Here’s the Apple law of the land:

2.6 Apps that are “beta”, “demo”, “trial”, or “test” versions will be rejected.

7.4 Apps containing “rental” content or services that expire after a limited time will be rejected.

I don’t particularly object to these rules, though I do like to try a demo version before I shell out the dough. If Apple had gone the Android route, however, this problem could probably have been solved with a refund window. As it stands, however, we have Lite and Express versions, but no demos. So what’s the difference between a Lite version and a demo version? Particularly in the context of games, this is what I was able to come up with:

  1. Some game demos expire after a set amount of time. I’m pretty sure this is a rejection reason.
  2. Some game demos have, say, 10 levels of a game and require you to purchase the full version to get the remaining levels.
  3. A few game demos, say space shooters, provide all the levels but don’t allow you to upgrade your weapons or try better ships.

Barring #1, would #2 and #3 reject you from the App Store if you called your demo “lite”? And how about circumventing these rules by simply linking to a downloadable demo from the App Store product page? I don’t have any answers, only a confused look on my face. Are we looking at an App Store that for all intents and purposes still have demo versions, just a different kind of demo version?

The peculiarly bad situation with web-fonts on Apples iPad

I’ve thrown a lot of love in the general direction of Apples open source WebKit lately. It looks like WebKit, moreso than Firefox, has ousted every other browser as the rendering engine of choice for a richer web. Unfortunately, I’m about to throw something other than love at WebKits little-sister, Mobile Safari. Why? Because it’s useless at web-fonts.

Typekit’s talked about it:

Rendering multiple weights from a font family can cause Mobile Safari to crash, even when the individual font file sizes are small (<5k). In our testing, using two weights from a family caused Mobile Safari to crash on up to 50% of attempted page loads, and the crash rate seemed to increase as we increased the number of weights we added.

So that means you can use ONE weight of a web font. “Regular”, for instance. But you can’t use that fonts “Bold”, “Italic” or “Bold Italic” versions.

Just recently I wanted to use the glorious DejaWeb font for a project, and now that all the major browsers support web-fonts, I quickly fed the fonts to FontSquirrels excellent multi-platform font-converter and was output something that was supposed to work in all the browsers. EOT for Internet Explorer, WOFF for Firefox, TrueType for WebKit and SVG for Mobile Safari. Everything seemed to work just perfectly. Except of course for the intermittent crashes on the iPad.

A Temporary Solution

Now since the bug has been filed and Apple will probably fix this in some unannounced not-soon-enough future (maybe the iPad will get multitasking and font-face support at the same time?), I’m not going to waste any more tears. Instead I’m going to let you know what I did to deal with this issue.

At first, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to use DejaWeb at all, since this project had to be at least compatible with the iPad. I didn’t want to look into CSS hacks or JavaScript to detect user agents to then serve web-fonts to only capable browsers, carefully omitting the fonts for the iPad. Then it dawned upon me, a realization that in retrospect is embarrassingly simple (pointing and laughing for a little while is okay). Since MobileSafari can only render fonts converted to SVG, the solution to the crashes was to simply not serve an SVG font. Or in my solution, serve it only one SVG file: DejaWeb Regular.

@font-face {
	font-family: 'DejaWeb';
	src: url('fonts/DejaWeb.eot');
	src: local('DejaWeb'), local('DejaWeb'), url('fonts/DejaWeb.woff') format('woff'), url('fonts/DejaWeb.ttf') format('truetype'), url('fonts/DejaWeb.svg#DejaWeb') format('svg');
}

@font-face {
	font-family: 'DejaWeb';
	font-weight: bold;
	src: url('fonts/DejaWeb-Bold.eot');
	src: local('DejaWeb Bold'), local('DejaWeb-Bold'), url('fonts/DejaWeb-Bold.woff') format('woff'), url('fonts/DejaWeb-Bold.ttf') format('truetype'), url('fonts/DejaWeb-Bold.svg#DejaWeb-Bold') format('svgFIXME');
}

@font-face {
	font-family: 'DejaWeb';
	font-style: italic;
	src: url('fonts/DejaWeb-Italic.eot');
	src: local('DejaWeb Italic'), local('DejaWeb-Italic'), url('fonts/DejaWeb-Italic.woff') format('woff'), url('fonts/DejaWeb-Italic.ttf') format('truetype'), url('fonts/DejaWeb-Italic.svg#DejaWeb-Italic') format('svgFIXME');
}

@font-face {
	font-family: 'DejaWeb';
	font-weight: bold;
	font-style: italic;
	src: url('fonts/DejaWeb-BoldItalic.eot');
	src: local('DejaWeb Bold Italic'), local('DejaWeb-BoldItalic'), url('fonts/DejaWeb-BoldItalic.woff') format('woff'), url('fonts/DejaWeb-BoldItalic.ttf') format('truetype'), url('fonts/DejaWeb-BoldItalic.svg#DejaWeb-BoldItalic') format('svgFIXME');
}

Notice how I’ve invented a new font format called “svgFIXME”? Yep, that stays until the iPad can render SVG fonts in more than one weight. Until then, plain old regular it is. Even for bold-face text. It’s better than a crash, right?

The Windows iTunes Install Process, Archived For Posterity

This is a series of screenshots chronicling the install of iTunes on Windows. Behold:

iTunes_Setup_01 iTunes_Setup_02 iTunes_Setup_03 iTunes_Setup_04 iTunes_Setup_05 iTunes_Setup_06 iTunes_Setup_07

At this point, I’d like to remind viewers that in step 4, I unchecked the “Use iTunes as the default player for audio files” and “Automatically update iTunes and other Apple software” options, so you’d think you wouldn’t get all sorts of services and update apps installed. Not so:

iTunes_Apps iTunes_Services

Apple iPad Observations From A Skeptic Who Got One For Free

So I got an iPad the other day. From a client, for testing purposes. Thank you client! Incidentally, readers of this here blog may recall my issues with the Apple eco-system, which is why it’s somewhat ironic that I should end up with an iPad. It’s certainly not something I was planning on purchasing for myself.

Incidentally, I think it’s an absolutely delightful device, and I can certainly understand why it sells so well. It brings the boons of computing to the masses in a way computers haven’t been able to for decades.

There’s more to it, of course. And I’m not “won over” by any stretch of the imagination.

What’s good

The UI. Apple knows its UI, and everything slides and flows in a very smooth fashion. The overshoot of homescreens, lists and zooms is silky smooth. Things very rarely feel slow, and the computer reacts to your input. I believe this is the highest praise I can give of this device, and for the vast majority, this will not only be the iPads selling point, it’ll be its killer app.

On top of that, battery life is nice. I’m not as impressed by it as everyone else seems to be, but then I remembered this is a sufficiently backlit screen that runs Plants Vs. Zombies.

The build finish is also worth mentioning in the “What’s good” list. Certainly the thing feels sturdy.

I like that iBooks syncs your bookmarks, and that you can download podcasts and video podcasts directly from iTunes on the device. But that’s about all the praise I’m going to give the iPads sync features.

What’s bad

Prior to engaging in this list of issues I have with the iPad, I ran in to colleagues who fiercely defend the iPad and what seems like every aspect of its ecosystem. As I told them, I’m going to tell you: these are my issues with it. If my praise above doesn’t make it clear that this is a nice device, then let its sales numbers speak for themselves. People like the iPad. I have issues with it. These are issues that can be fixed. Thats’ why I’m writing them here.

One of my issues with the iPad, is likely to be liked by someone else. The iPad weighs too much. There’s no doubt it’s the carved aluminum/unicorn-horn alloy that bogs this thing down, but for what’s essentially a 10 inch slate, this thing is surprisingly heavy. Which I’m reminded of every time I pick up the device in one hand to browse the web. There’s been a lot of talk about the iPad being an Amazon Kindle killer, and I’ve always defended the Kindle for its insane battery life and its non-backlit easy-on-the-eyes E-ink screen. Today, I’m adding weight to the reason why the iPad is not going to be a Kindle killer. One reason to buy an e-book reader, is for invalid or elderly people to be able to read in bed, without having to turn pages or have to lift the weight of Postwar.

Which brings me to the grip. This thing is slippery, and I find, hard to hold in one hand. Sure, the gorgeous black bezel is large upon first glance, but if you want to hold this thing and not drop it, your finger will impose on the screen. Which is rarely a problem due to multi-touch, but which is sometimes a problem. Remember how iPhones used to be plastic? I’m thinking I’d like a tablet in plastic — the rubbery kind you’ll find on Nexus One or HTC Desire phones.

In smaller issues, the onscreen keyboard (which is otherwise excellent), shows no visible difference between lower-case and upper-case letters, when you press shift. Another issue is the speaker and the rather low volume it lets you play at.

Another thing, coming from a not so well-working Android Market, where in Europe we don’t even have access to paid apps yet, I had high expectations for the iPad App Store. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I found the App Store underwhelming. The search feature is near useless, as I can’t search in categories or types. For instance, let’s say I’d search for a free iPad solitaire game. Had this been the Steam app store, I’d be able to check a box called “iPad”, a box called “free” or “below $3″, and I could search in “Card games”.

Additionally, the toplist columns are slow to load, and they aren’t persistent. Let’s say I click “more” beneath the top paid apps column, and at item #43 I find an app I want to read more about. I click that link, but when I click “back”, the top paid apps column has collapsed back in on itself. Finally there’s the “Install” button. Which is to say, there isn’t one. There’s a price button, or a free button, neither of which looks like a button, and when pressed once, turns into a “buy” or “install” button. Paging Jakob Nielsen?

As I have alluded to earlier, I really have a problem with iTunes. I find it extremely annoying that you have to go through this app to manage files on your device, when the thing should simply sync automatically and transparently. But the lack of wifi sync in music and files, it’s something I could live with, if it wasn’t for the fact that you have to have another computer for this device to work. The first thing you see when you turn on an iPad is an animated symbol that tells you to plug it in to a computer running iTunes. What? So you’re saying I can’t buy an iPad for a kid that doesn’t have another computer already? Seriously, what? I know Apple calls this a “companion device”, but in my book it’s a serious black stain on the otherwise pretty chrome finish.

Finally, this brings me to the lack of Over The Air (OTA) updates. You may have heard of a number of Android devices getting Android 2.2 over the last few weeks — these were OTA updates. Which means one day when you turn on the phone, there’s a message that says “There’s s system update. Please plug your device to a power outlet, and install”. What proceeds is a download, a reboot, an install icon on your screen, and your device is updated. This is the way the iPad should be updated, and not just for convenience, but for security reasons as well. Have you heard about the recent PDF exploit on iOS devices? I assure you a number of iPad customers haven’t. If a fragment of those don’t use iTunes on a regular basis, they’ll be open to these security exploits.