Archive | November, 2010

MacBook Air: It’s All About the Hardware

23 Nov

The computer industry is obsessed with software and services. That’s not surprising given that most of us spend countless hours moving between and staring at applications on our computer displays. When we think about our computer we think about what we use it for, which is software, not so much for the thing itself.The MacBook Air is the first machine in a long while that has me thinking more about its hardware than any of its software. Despite having a relatively pokey CPU, my MacBook Air’s hardware still boosts application performance because of the device’s flash storage system. Opening, closing, and executing applications and tasks that require any I/O function are flat out quick. Hands down, it’s the most responsive computer I’ve ever used.

Then there’s the wonderful trackpad. It feels so much nicer on my fingertips than when I use Ubuntu on my aging, but eminently serviceable IBM ThinkPad T43. More importantly, now there are new ways I can leverage OS X through the trackpad’s advanced user interface.

Great operating system UIs let me move within and between applications and tasks, windows and files using hardware in the way that suits me best. The more choices I have, the more efficient I’ll be at using the machine and its software. The MacBook Air trackpad has added new, logical choices for me to use.

Inside documents on my other computers I can jump around via function keys on my keyboard or through scroll bars with my mouse. With the MacBook Air’s trackpad I can now also move inside files by gliding two fingers up or down the trackpad and the document with roll up or down the screen accordingly. It is now my preferred way to move within a document. To me, that’s a radical step. It took me years to get comfortable using a mouse to scroll up and down a file when keyboard shortcuts were so much faster. Now, however, within a couple of weeks I’ve embraced the two-finger scroll on the new trackpad as the best way to work inside a document.

Plus, the clever trackpad has broadened my choice for how to navigate between open applications. Let me explain with a typical scenario:

I’m typing in Pages. I want to change the song I’m listening to. With my MacBook Air I can:

1. Hit the F4 button and open my Dashboard widgets, one of which lets me flick through iTunes’ selections;

2. Hit the F3 button and launch Expose’ so I can find the iTunes window and click into it and make my change;

3. Move the cursor to the Dock and pick iTunes and a new tune;

4. Close window after window until I find iTunes on my display and can choose a new song.

And now I can also:

5. Swipe four fingers across the MacBook Air trackpad, which brings up the Application Switcher and lets me pick iTunes and make a new selection.

Adding this fifth option gives me another easy and useful method to find my away around an 11-inch display cluttered with too many open windows.

I could also extol the virtues of the responsive keyboard, the tight packaging, and other hardware traits. But those items, I think, are about taste and fashion and not about true hardware improvements that benefit all MacBook Air users. That is, because of the MacBook Air’s sophisticated hardware I waste less time fooling around with ways to get to the software and more time actually using it. And ultimately that’s what great hardware does: makes using software a better experience.

Advertisements

Twitter, Knowledge, and the New Ethical Corporation

22 Nov

There are many reasons to bring social networking tools into your business. Proponents will list dozens of reasons from productivity gains to cost savings to justify spending money for tools like Socialcast Inc.’s Reach software. One thing they don’t brag about is that social networking products open up an organization’s ethics for all to see.

Reach is embedded into as many network applications as possible within an enterprise. According to CEO Tim Young like-minded workers in different departments can use Twitter-like services inside their existing apps to recommend, comment upon, share,  and track information with interested parties. Anything that is known to an individual can be shared, securely inside controlled groups or widely to all stakeholders.

This got me thinking about business ethics. Corporate crime costs the United States more than what we call street crime by far. Cutting down corporate crime would be a boon to the US economy.

Services like Reach create a level of transparency inside companies that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Remember Enron, Tyco, Worldcom, and the other poster corps. for criminal and unethical behavior in the past decade? Well, if they had used social networking tools like Reach, I’m guessing their illegal scams would have been more difficult to pull off. With more people knowing more details inside of a business, there is an overpowering instinct among people to do what’s right not what’s necessarily expedient and certainly not what’s downright wrong. By letting more people know what’s happening inside an enterprise, the social pressure is enormous for the business to act ethically.

Reach and other social network products don’t lead to a lack of security, just a wider awareness of issues inside the organization. It’s not the fear that your company’s lack of ethics will be on page one of the local newspaper, but that it will be discussed in the company lunch room.

For example, let’s say a company is using Reach during a product development cycle within the R&D group responsible for the new product. If everyone involved is using Reach and product flaws are discussed, the odds of releasing the product with the most serious flaws will be reduced because of the number of those who know about the problems. If there were only a smaller, more tightly-integrated team aware of the flaws, there’s a greater likelihood that they would hide or play down the problems and the product would more likely ship with ultimately more image-damaging flaws. While using Reach might have forced the product development team to either ship their product late or scale down their ambitions to get it done right, in the long run the product would be less of a costly headache for the company.

I’m not saying social networking products will force a company to act ethically. But they will make it much more difficult to hide their ethics, good or bad.

Not Every Essential Police Call Is 9-1-1 Worthy

15 Nov

Last Friday night David, Cathie, and I were on Interstate 5 returning from an Apple Store near Portland. Just as we drove around a hill we could see the overpass on our exit lit up like a Christmas tree with emergency vehicle lights. While I drove David and Cathie counted the number of police, fire, and other official trucks and cars perched above the freeway.

“Nine!”

“Eleven!”

A lot, to be sure. Because the event was on the opposite side of the exit that we took, we did not drive by the scene and so could not see what caused such an emergency response. Our curiosity prompted me to buy the local paper the next morning and surf its website as well as visit the city and state police websites in search of a clue.

Nothing.

However, it turns out there’s an iPhone app that got me the information I needed.

Police Anywhere by Eaglevision Productions Inc. has non-emergency contact information for police departments in every city in the United States. It is a valuable tool that, if broadly available, will cut down on unnecessary, inappropriate, and wasteful 9-1-1 calls. It can also provide users with a quick way to get important police-related information. For example, if you’re visiting a town and your car gets towed, it’s hardly an emergency situation, but most police departments will be able to tell you how to get your vehicle back, if you only knew where to call. Police Anywhere gets you that phone number.

Police Anywhere is probably the simplest iPhone app I’ve ever used. Open it up and you get two options: Auto Find and Browse. The first choice uses your iPhone’s GPS function to locate which jurisdiction you’re in, then, lickity split, the number appears. A single tap on the screen gives you a splash screen asking if you want to cancel the task or dial the police. When you tap Call, it dials the number.

You can use the browse feature, which guides you to local police contact information by state, then county, then city or town. I would prefer to browse by city or to have a search  tool. But given Police Anywhere is in release 1.1, I expect enhancements along these lines in future versions.

For business travelers and vacationers, Police Anywhere is an exceptionally simple yet exceptionally valuable app to have on hand. And at $1.99, it’s cheap insurance.

Oh, by the way, I used Police Anywhere to call and learn what happened last Friday. It was a non-injury accident.

Obsolete Words About Obsolete Technology

14 Nov

I am now the proud owner of a MacBook Air. It’s the 11-inch model with the standard 1.4 GHz Intel Core 2 processor and two gigabytes of RAM. But I souped up the flash storage to the maximum 128 GB. I’ve never had a computer that opened applications and documents faster. I’ve never had a lighter computer. I’ve never had one that is as cool looking as my MacBook Air. It’s simply the most sophisticated computer I’ve owned.

I wonder how soon it will become obsolete.

This is my first Apple laptop since my PowerBook Duo 230, a state of the art machine from 1993. I’ve been using Windows or Linux laptops since 1996 when I left MacWeek and became the director of ZD Labs. Needless to say, while at the Labs I had access to the most advanced personal and business computing tools the market had to offer at the time. It was while there that I fully recognized the futility of my work as a technology journalist.

Nothing I write about for my work will stand the test of time. Which, of course, means the bulk of my writing is as immortal as a mayfly. But like most writers there’s a part of me that wants to produce something of lasting value, something that might be of interest to someone who’s around long after my ashes have been scattered to the winds. As a writer with an ego, it’s disappointing, to say the least.

The nature of technology is to change, to replace itself as rapidly as possible. Cars drop carburetors for fuel-injection. Circuit-switched telephone networks give way to packet-switch systems. Surgeons (thankfully) replace ether and chloroform with advanced anesthetics like bupivacaine and sodium thiopental. Technology change is not just inevitable, it’s generally for the better.

But those of us who earn our livings writing about technology crank out prose destined for dustbins and delete keys. We know that what excites our readers today will bore them tomorrow. Beyond archivists and historians, few care to read about obsolete things. I know I don’t.

So, getting excited about new technology, such as my new MacBook Air, is a double-edged sword. I love this machine. It’s so much cooler in so many ways than every other laptop I’ve ever owned or used that words can’t do it justice. Not that words would matter anyway since they will become as obsolete as my latest computer in short order.