24 August 2008

How do I Like Them Apples? I'm Glad you Asked...

Regular readers (yes, both of you) know that I switched back to the Mac platform after nearly a decade in the Windows®™ world. You may also know that I have had some mixed feelings about the result.

The biggest problem continues to be synching with other devices. Previously, I was carrying a Palm PDA, two Nokia phones and a Windows©☢☠ laptop, and synching between all those devices – and both Plaxo and Yahoo! on line – without any trouble.

Apple, on the other hand, doesn't even support synching of notes and to-dos at all, only calendars and contacts. What it does synch is buggy, prone to failure, and frequently generates duplicates (both duplicate records are created and information within a record are duplicated). I've spent many hours over the past year trying to get around this problem. I thought using Microsoft's Entourage (basically, Outlook for the Mac platform) might be the answer, but when I upgraded to Office 2008 this past February, they dropped support for Palm synching. Then I learned about the "Missing Synch," a third party synching application that seem to be written with people like me in mind. It claimed to be able to allow you to set your synching parameters, so you could sync your calendar and address book with the Mac OS, your to-dos with Entourage, and your notes with a special Mac Notes application provided in the package. As an added bonus, it also included a conduit for synching AvantGo, something that AvantGo itself did not offer. It also offered a way around one of the biggest problems with Mac calendar sync -- unlike the Windows world, in which calendar entries are assigned into "categories" (e.g., work, personal, etc.), Mac creates separate "calendars" for each. Palm also uses the Outlook "category" approach, so these two applications sync without problem, but synching a Palm with a Mac means you lose this feature. Missing Sync resolves this problem by translating between the two.

It all sounded great in theory, but in practice, Missing Synch always crashed when trying to sync either the Notes application or AvantGo, so I had to turn those two sync conduits off. My Palm was getting outdated anyway, and its paltry 64 mb of storage (which had seemed so generous when I upgraded from my earlier 8 mb Palm device 5 years ago) was causing problems. So I decided I could solve it all by moving to a new iPod touch as my handheld.

The iPod Touch is definitely a very cool device. High resolution graphics, an awesome touch screen interface, and of course, music. But the main thing that made my Palm my constant companion was all the applications available for it. I relied on the currency and units convertor, weather, time zone, and flight information in the WorldMate Companion, on the underground maps in Metro, my Lufthansa flight schedule and my DB rail timetable to get me around the world. I communicated with the help of my Ectacto French, Polish, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Swedish dictionaries, I passed the time waiting in ticket queues and at departure gates reading e-books, and I managed my expenses with the help of PocketMoney. None of these were available for the iPod touch, and although the release of this device was more or less simultaneous with the release of Leopard – which introduced a to-do list and notes application to the Mac platform – they still didn't sync with similar applications on the iPod or with on-line platforms such as Plaxo.

Additionally, synching with either of my Nokias has been a disaster. Both (a 6680 and an E65) worked flawlessly with Windows®✞☹ and both worked for a while with my Mac. But the E65 now refuses to sync altogether, and the 6680 I can only do a "reset sync info" on and override the data on it with data from my Mac, but cannot enter data on the phone and have it uploaded to the Mac. So away from my desk, I am doing something I haven't done since 1996 -- scribbling things down on paper and waiting until I have a chance to put them in the laptop later.

But enough whining. Here is the good news. First, iPhone has now come out with a new model that addresses most -- but not all -- of the flaws in the first model. First and foremost, it now supports 3G, and indeed, most of the various flavours of 3G found around the world, so it will work in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia like most phones, but it will also work withthe non-standard variants used in Australia, the United States, Japan and parts of Latin America. Second, Apple has seen the light and abandoned their retarded bundled marketing model, so I can buy a phone and then go out and decide which data plan I want to go with it. Or, I can swap out my home operator's SIM for one from the country I visiting. This is of course how everybody uses their phone, but that didn't stop Apple from deciding it was a smart idea to try to stop people from doing it.

At the same time, Apple upgraded their iPhone/iPod Touch software to fix a number of stupid problems. Amongst these was the fact that not only did the Mac OS Calendar application use separate calendars instead of categories, the iPhone supported only a single category. Anything synched to your iPhone from your Mac showed up all in one category, and if you entered a new event on your iPhone, it was placed in whichever category you pre-designated as default when synching with your Mac OS computer. The new software now includes the same categories as on the desktop (although stupidly the iPhone supports only 5 colours, instead of the 6 that are on the desktop version). And they still haven't addressed the problem of no syncing of to-dos or notes.

Another welcome introduction was the replacement of .mac with "mobileme". This is a web-based application that allows you to sync with a web-based back up (similar to Plaxo), and also to sych with Outlook. Finally! A solution to my problem – NOT! Plaxo synchs fine with my address book in both Mac and Outlook, and Plaxo calendar synchs fine with Outlook, but I cannot get Plaxo calendar to synch with Mac calendar. A calendar entry made in Mac OS will appear as it should in MobileMe on line, and then show up in Outlook. An entry made in MobileMe will show up in both Mac OS and Outlook. But an entry made in Outlook never shows up in MobileMe. What could the problem be? I decide to have a look around the Apple support web-site, and what do I find?

MobileMe syncing allows you to sync your contacts and calendars with Outlook, unless Outlook is connected to an Exchange server. In this situation, syncing your Outlook data with MobileMe is not supported.

So very typical of Apple – their marketing folks inundate us with sales pitches saying things like, "you use a Mac at home, and a Windows©™™℃ PC at work, get MobileMe and keep both of them in Sync!". Right, fine, as long as your office PC isn't connected to an Exchange server! All four or five people this applies to are probably delighted!

Additional disappointment came in the form of the drawbacks Apple did NOT address with the new iPhone and the new software. You still cannot:
  1. Use your iPhone to connect your laptop to the internet, like you can with just about any other phone made in the last decade
  2. Connect your iPhone to any Bluetooth device except the Apple proprietary Bluetooth headset (no, no listening to your tunes using wireless Bluetooth stereo headphones, or sending your photos to your laptop)
  3. Send an MMS(!)
  4. Make a video call(!)

So you are probably wondering by now -- where is the good news? There is a fair amount of it actually. Most exciting is the new "App Store" from Apple, in which they have unleashed the creative power of thousands of independent developers to bring specialised software to market. Unfortunately, to date, most of it is a bunch of gimmicky nonsense -- there are at least a half-dozen developers who have come up with clever pieces of software that manage the complex task of turning your iPhone into a flashlight in the event of an emergency. I am disappointed because for the most part, I have yet to see my favourite Palm applications appear there. MobiMate has informed me that they are not planning to develop an iPhone version of their WorldMate software. AvantGo seems to have halted development work of any kind. Metro has said on their web-site that they cannot develop for iPhone because they would need a Mac -- resulting in several devoted Metro users offering to send or buy them one if they would reconsider. I am pleased that Hardy Macia at Catamount Software has already released an iPhone version of his kick-ass PocketMoney software, probably the most useful, versatile and stable piece of software I've ever had the pleasure to use. (If only other developers were as good).

But Mac has unleashed the best energies the capitalist system has to offer (which, despite its many flaws, is really good at things like this), and I am confident that it will not be long before all the software we need will be available. Already it is possible to find single-city applications for major public transport systems such as New York, London and Tokyo -- and it shouldn't be long before we have something like Metro's application, featuring hundreds of cities -- from Aachen to Zagreb, including places like Quito, Poprad Tatry, Kazan and Cremona – available for the iPhone. No one has yet replicated WorldMate's all-in-one functionality (which included animated satellite weather maps), but I did today find a gem amongst the numerous "conversion" programmes on offer in the AppStore. "The Convertor" by Vladimir Kofman blows MobiMate out of the water with respect to the conversions function. It offers conversions in 26 different categories, including the old standards such as distance and area, but also more exotic measures such as luminance, charge, density and torque. It will calculate how many chi are in a light-year, or the number of kabiet in a sea league. Currency exchange uses an on-line source to give you the Gambian dalasi equivalent of the street snack you just bought in Tegulcigapa for 65 Honduran lempira. If you want to update the exchange rates from the on-line source, you just give your iPod a shake – is that cool or what?

I am still waiting for some decent foreign language dictionaries to appear -- so far, the limited offerings available so far are, well, limited. But given that it's only been possible to develop for this platform for a few months, I am sure we won't have long to wait for something better to appear. And no sign DB will make its railway timetables available in iPhone format.

More reason for optimism comes from Steve Jobs' public comments about the OS. The next version of the OS -- code-named "Snow Leopard" will, in Apple's words, "take a breather" from the addtion of new features and functions, and will instead focus on making it more compatible with Exchange. Does this mean we will finally be able to enjoy seamless, reliable synching with our other devices? Connect to our mail servers at work with our Macs?

I expect to see all these problems ironed out over the next 18 - 24 months. They had better be, since I have bet on them by now buying not only a PowerBook and an iPod, but also a Time Machine, and I expect to invest in an AppleTV box, an iMac and an iPhone in the near future. Obviously, I am reasonably confident this will happen, but it is still somewhat incredible that my devices are substantially less compatible and less integrated than the ones I was using 24 - 36 months ago.

24 August 2008

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