Friday, May 27, 2005

Syncing

In an earlier post, I wrote about my dream of having address book and calendar information synchronised across multiple devices. This is a progress report: I'm getting there, but it's still not quite right.

I started my iSync adventure with my Palm Zire 71. Already, here's the first curiosity of the syncing extravaganza: iSync doesn't talk directly to the Palm. I still needed to download the (rapidly ageing) Palm Desktop Software from Palm. Sure, it's not an enormous deal, but considering I plan to use the newer iCal and Address Book applications, it's software I'm just not going to use. I then needed to sync the Palm with that software once only. From then on, apparently, I could sync with iSync.

Of course, even that's not entirely true. After firing up iSync, a dialog asks me to press the sync button on the Palm cradle—that is, there's still some manual intervention required. Again, not an enormous deal, and this time it's a hardware limitation and hardly the fault of Apple. Evidently Palms are designed to be disconnected from the USB bus by default, and only connect when the sync button is pressed.

Still, at this point I had populated iCal and Address Book with my existing information. It was time to sync the Motorola V3. I decided to be cautious, and used the PC desktop software for the V3 to erase all of its contact information first. All that information had come originally from the Palm anyway, so there would be no loss. Surprisingly, it took several runs with iSync to get the phone to accept the information—even though its memory was empty and the Address Book was full, the V3's contact list would remain blank after a sync. To be honest, I can't even remember what I had to do to resolve this. It may have had something to do with resetting the ‘syncing history’ of the device, which, of course, is strange because it shouldn't have had a syncing history. I'd never synchronised it.

So after some initial bootstrapping, I had two devices (one over USB and one over Bluetooth) syncing with the desktop applications. Later, I added my iPod over FireWire, but that's only a one-way sync, so I certainly wasn't expecting any problems there. The story isn't quite over, though. There are some peculiarities in the system.

The Palm DateBook application is notoriously limited, so, as many people do, I use the (uh, economically named) DateBk5 application from Pimlico Software, Inc. In an effort to be minimally disruptive to the Palm way of doing things, DateBk5 stores some of the metadata about, for example, appointments in the Notes field. Ordinarily, this is fine, since DateBk5 simply avoids displaying it. But all other applications, now including iCal, do. Not an enormous deal, but now I've got to ensure that this metadata isn't altered in the syncing process, or inadvertently by me on the desktop. Further, and this was a problem with the standard Palm Desktop Software as well, iCal obviously doesn't generate the right metadata for DateBk5 itself. An example is appointments that start on one day, extend over midnight, and end on the next. Now, believe it or not, the standard Palm DateBook can't handle this level of appointment sophistication. (Evidently everyone at Palm goes to bed really early.) DateBk5 handles it in its own idiosyncratic way. iCal handles it too, but it's dropped on the floor by a sync in either direction. Disappointing. But nothing to do with Apple, Mac OS X, or iSync.

There are some other bugs which I haven't been able to fully characterise yet. For example, a few appointments inexplicably had their start and end times moved by half an hour on a sync from iCal to the Palm. I haven't been able to replicate it, though.

Overall, I am happy. Synchronisation is an order of magnitude better than it was under Windows XP. In the tradition of throwing money at the problem, though, I think my next step will be to buy a Palm that talks Bluetooth. And, of course, a Palm that knows about the concept of midnight would be handy, too.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

I guessed wrong

I was browsing around my home directory this evening, using the Terminal. (Are Apple and Microsoft having a competition to see who can co-opt the most generic words?) Looking in ~/Desktop, I was pretty sure I knew how desktop folder aliases were going to work. For example, on my desktop I have an alias called Documents which points at ~/Documents.

documents folder

I was confident that 'ls -l Desktop/Documents' would yield something like:
lrwxr-xr-x 1 paulh paulh 9 May 21 18:22 Documents -> 
../Documents
(That line is wrapped for readability.) That is, that Documents in ~/Desktop would be a genuine, bona fide Unix symbolic link. It's not. It's an empty file:
-rw-r--r-- 1 paulh paulh 0 May 17 22:58 Documents
What's going on here? An 'ls -al' shows a couple of possible candidates for an explanation:
-rw------- 1 paulh  paulh  6148 May 21 18:23 .DS_Store
-rw-r--r-- 1 paulh paulh 0 May 13 14:24 .localized
Since .localized is empty, I'm looking at .DS_Store. This didn't help:
$ file .DS_Store
.DS_Store: data
Yeah, thanks file. Nor did this:
$ strings .DS_Store 
Bud1
sdilcblob
rdilcblob
sdilcblob
bdilcblob
cdilcblob
fdilcblob
DSDB
Fascinating, but not useful. Interestingly, making a symlink in ~/Desktop does do just what I thought it would:
$ ln -s ../Documents Symlink

symlink folder

So, what's going on? Am I close with .DS_Store? Or is the magic elsewhere?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Hello, world!

I found the Xcode development tools installer a couple of days ago. What a neat idea—include a complete IDE and full documentation about developing for an operating system with the operating system. (Are you listening, Microsoft?) Being an emacs fan, this might take a bit of getting used to, but I'm prepared to give it a try. Especially given the tome of documentation supplied.

Anyway, I did what any good Unix Wiener would do: I timed how long it took to bring up "Hello, World!" Selecting New Java Swing Application, I was presented with a few files of skeleton code. Of course, there's no minimum standard for writing "Hello, World!"—any old code will do. So I compiled and ran the skeleton code, and noticed it brought up a small window with a message in it. Easy—find that message in the source and substitute my own. Except, it wasn't easy to find. But I learned my first Apple programming paradigm in doing so: we store text in "Strings Files" for localisation.
Any text strings in your project that may be displayed to users should be localized. To do this, you place them in strings files, providing one localized variant for each language you support. A strings file, which has the extension strings, stores a series of keys and values, where the values are the strings and the keys uniquely identify the strings. Xcode supports localization with strings files by providing options to make a file localizable and to add files for local variants.
Neat. Hardly earth shattering, but you'd have to admit that sounds like the Right Way to do things. So I did my trivial string substitution (yes, feeling like a fraud), and had "Hello, World!" up on the PowerBook in seven minutes. Even better, Xcode just told me there's updated documentation available, so it's downloading all 200M of it right now.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Laugh? I nearly cried.

I saw something this afternoon that stopped me dead in my tracks:

restart

OK, it was because I'd just upgraded the entire operating system to 10.4.1, but I had hoped the days of this kind of dialog box were well behind me. (Can I consider myself an ex-Windows user yet, since I haven't touched XP in four days?)

(Oh, and I'm only kidding here—even FreeBSD requires a reboot when you make the world.)

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Search, don't sort

If I recall correctly, it was Google that first started hammering us with the catchy mantra, "Search, don't sort". I also recall that I wasn't buying the idea. To me, it seemed less like a revolutionary new paradigm, and more like just shifting some of the leg work around. A friend of mine was more enthusiastic. "Wouldn't it be great," he suggested, "if I could store all my images in one place, and instead of having to sort into directories, I could just search for images of 'Paul Hoadley'?" Well, sure, that would be great, except it hides a few implementation details. And the most critical of these is: How does the machine know that a certain image depicts 'Paul Hoadley'? Well, the obvious answer is that my friend would associate some metadata with the image somehow, containing some fragment of information like "depicts: Paul Hoadley". (The details aren't important.) At this point, "search" is starting to look suspiciously close to "sort". In fact, I would argue that they are essentially equivalent, with the only significant difference being how you associate the metadata with the files. In the "sort" scenario, the metadata is implied by, say, the directory structure (or the bookmark structure, or whatever you like—again, the details are not that important). In the "search" scenario, you make the metadata explicit by, say, embedding it in the file, or putting it nearby somewhere.

Of course, images are probably the pathological case (as my friend pointed out), in that there's very little (if any) intrinsic metadata available. That is, you really do have to provide it all yourself. Plain text (such as an email message), on the other hand, is a lot easier to extract useful information from. Hence the appeal of Gmail—you would have to admit that Google seems to have pretty much nailed the plain text searching issue.

All of this is a rather lengthy introduction to something I observed this afternoon. When I heard that Apple (and Microsoft, of course—they never want to be left out) were looking at approaching filesystems in the same way ("search, don't sort"), I was skeptical. It seemed like the kind of thing that could easily be done quite badly. Enter Spotlight. You can read the press release copy and comprehensive reviews elsewhere, but let me just recount what happened to me today.

I have been updating my address book. (I will cover my various iSync experiences in a separate post.) A neat feature of the OS X Address Book is that you can add fields like "partner" and "child" to an entry. I plan to never forget a friend's child's name again. Anyway, I was updating a particular entry, and I had forgotten my friend's partner's last name. But I knew his first name was "Andres", and I was pretty sure I had an email somewhere with his last name in it.

I brought up my Mail window, and, thinking "not a chance", I typed the name into the Spotlight text field.

There were two reasons why I was thinking "not a chance". The first was that I am reading my mail over IMAP from my FreeBSD gateway. That is, the messages are all sitting on that machine, I don't download them to the PowerBook. Despite this, I got two hits straight away:

name-search

The second hit was the email I was thinking of. The second reason for my skepticism was that the name I was searching for was not in the body of the mail, but in a (plain text) attachment to the mail.

found-textfile

Despite this, Spotlight came up with the goods:

found-andres

I'm impressed. I think I am going to head back to that Ars Technica review to see how this all works.

Friday, May 13, 2005

First look

After the Star Crap Express fiasco, I drove out into 18-wheel truck territory to pick up the PowerBook. Star Track Express made it difficult to the last minute (of course I don't park in the spaces marked "Visitors", I drive around the back where all the 18-wheel trucks are loading—silly me!), but that's enough press for them, bad or otherwise. The package was there, ready for the picking up:

IMG_2299

Of course, a Mac comes in its own cool packaging, with handle:

IMG_2300

It looks like Apple's still a little self-conscious about this:

IMG_2303

I nearly cried. I don't think I've seen a user manual for a computer since I had a Commodore Amiga.

IMG_2304

Finally, behold the shininess:

IMG_2305

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Star Slack Express

In Adelaide, at least, Apple chooses Star Track Express as their courier. Star Track Express is one of those companies that thinks that normal people with, say, full-time jobs are nonetheless able to be at home on any given day between 8.00am and 5.00pm to receive deliveries. The courier called today and left a card—that's fine, we didn't know he was coming. But, despite the fact that I can take all of tomorrow afternoon off, and I'm prepared to waste it sitting around waiting for a courier, Star Track Express are simply unable to estimate a re-delivery time even to the half day. That is, even if they could tell me "morning" or "afternoon", I could respond with "don't bother" or "bother". But they can't. So tomorrow afternoon I will make a half hour round trip to their depot in order to pick up the PowerBook, whose retail price, I have no doubt, includes a portion for Star Track Express to drive it to my house. Which, I guess, they technically did. It's just that they drove it away again, and can't tell me when they're willing to bring it back.

Needless to say, a couple of website feedback forms were filled out—one to Star Track Express, the summary version of which was, "The 1960s called—it wants its computer technology that leaves you unable to estimate delivery times to finer than one day back", and one to Apple, the summary of which was, "Star Track Express really bites."

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

PowerBook has left the building

It looks like all that manufacturing paid off—the PowerBook has shipped:
Shipped as of 06:26 PM JST, 05/10/2005
Japan Standard Time, eh? No wonder it took so long.

Sunday, May 8, 2005

Doing things right

A story about a guy waiting for a PowerBook is probably even less interesting than one about a guy buying a PowerBook. So I'll try and keep the momentum going here. Trust me, it's bound to get hilarious when it finally arrives and I have to use it.

So while I wait, let me write about the iPod. Only briefly—it's not like the iPod needs the hype—and only because I suspect that owning an iPod was my first, tentative step towards understanding the Apple Phenomenon. It's also very small (physically and conceptually) and maybe it says something useful about Apple.

I never planned to buy an iPod. I received it as a gift. The first thing that struck me about it was the packaging, which, as I recall, was a cubical cardboard box which opened by splitting in half with a hinge at the back. Very nice. Very Apple. The second thing, and I recall this clearly, was that the packaging (and, I discovered later, the iPod itself) was imprinted with the message: "Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China." This struck me as a somewhat overly self-conscious confession of the fact that Apple outsources manufacturing. Big deal. Who doesn't? And why make a scene about it? It was the first thing I read on the box, as if they wanted to get the confession over and done with early, and move on. Maybe that's precisely it.

There are no doubt more than enough places on the web where you can read reviews of iTunes, about getting it running on Windows, about ripping CDs to MP3 or AAC, about how slow USB 1.1 was and how much better FireWire is, and so on. (For the record: I like it, it's easy, it's harder than it should be, very slow, and much better in that order.) What I want to consider briefly is the iPod's user interface, and the couple of things which made me stop and think, "Yes—that's exactly how that should work."

In an earlier post I wrote that I thought the iPod's UI was neat, but not "genius" as I see it described in many places. If you haven't seen an iPod up close, it's difficult to describe the controls (and not worth trying). In particular it's hard to explain what the touch-sensitive scroll wheel is on the latest models, and how it works. Difficult in words, that is—as soon as you touch it you know how it works. Maybe people are describing that aspect of the hardware as "genius". If so, I still think they're exaggerating, but I will concede it's impressive. It's a neat combination of four microswitches and a touch sensitive area. Well done Apple.

If, as I suspect, people are describing the software layer as "genius", then I'm afraid they've just got very low standards. The software part of the UI is a hierarchical menu system which allows the user to approach the collection of on-disk music via various views. One view of the collection is by artist, for example, so there's a menu under the top-level Music called Artists, and under that are the artists' names, and then album names, and then songs. This isn't genius, it's just the right way to do things. Hierarchical, menu-based presentations of data in different views were around long before the iPod, and long before Apple. Apple just seems to have realised that you really don't need to make the UI to a music player resemble a piece of hi-fi equipment to be confident that people will understand how it works. People are pretty comfortable with hierarchical menu systems. Well done for choosing that as the iPod's UI. Now, let's move along.

I don't want to sound too negative—I like the iPod a lot. So, what did impress me? Two simple things: iTunes counts the number of times you listen to each song, and you can rate each song on a scale from zero to five as you're listening. Why are either of these things interesting? Because iTunes has dynamically updating playlists. For example, you can create a playlist called "Ten Most Recently Added" which is then updated every time you add a new song. Better, the playlists can be (almost, but not quite) arbitrarily complex. You can create a playlist which displays the twelve most recently played songs which you've rated greater than three out of five. It's not really mind-blowing stuff, but once you see it, you recognise, again, that it's just the right way to do things, and you wonder why no one ever did it this way before. (Actually, they did.)

Friday, May 6, 2005

Raising the bar

I am not a Mac user yet, so I am only theorising here. But I suspect Mac users look disdainfully over at their Windows-using friends and wonder, "How can they bear it? What makes a person endure so much hardship?" Well, I'm here to tell you: we just set our standards lower. It's true. A happy Windows user is one that just doesn't know any better. The rest of us are in denial.

So, in the world of personal information management (there's an acronym that peaked too early—PIM), I've set my sights pretty low. I don't have any customer relationships to manage, and I don't need to share my appointment calendar with friends. I just want to store some names, phone numbers and addresses. But—here's the catch—I only want to do it once. That is, I want to store the name, phone number and address of everyone I know in some central location that I can update. I want that location to send the information to, say, my mobile phone. Let's say the central location was my Palm Zire 71, but I don't really care if it's not. It would be neat if I could "synchronise" my Palm with, say, my mobile phone, so that if I add a new number to my mobile, it can tell the Palm there's a new number. However, in the spirit of lowering expectations, I don't care if it's only one-way traffic.

This doesn't sound like a big ask to me. But in the Windows world, it is. Let me give you two examples.

I used to own a Sony Ericsson T68i mobile phone. (This phone takes the honour of being the worst phone I ever owned. The user interface alone would have ensured this honour, let alone its other deficiencies.) The price of the (non-standard) cable to connect this phone to a PC was, if I recall correctly, somewhere between $50 and $100. So, instead, I bought a Bluetooth to USB adapter. I actually succeeded (after a procession of "wizards") to connect the phone and the PC over Bluetooth. Great. The missing link, however, was any software to then get names and numbers from the PC (for example, from my Palm desktop application) to the phone. The Sony Ericsson website was completely unnavigable, and seemed to constantly refer to using software that it no longer distributed or supported. There were a few poorly-written third-party applications floating around the web, all of which purported to do something useful, and none of which delivered anything, yet still managed to ask for a $US 10 payment. I struck out, and gave up.

I now own a Motorola V3. (And it has a much nicer user interface.) To my utter astonishment, Motorola provided not only a USB cable, but actual software to allow my PC to talk to my phone. Now, recall my PC hardware purchasing success story as you read on. This is a PC to phone interfacing success story. I have my desired one-way Palm to mobile phone information flow working at last. This is what I need to do:
  1. Export the Palm address book in vCard format.
  2. Import the the vCard file into the phone's desktop contact organiser. Here's an interesting fact: on performing this import, everyone's "Home" phone number as exported by the Palm application is imported as their "Home 2" phone number into the phone desktop application. Remember this, we'll need it shortly.
  3. Export the address book from the phone software as a comma-separated values (CSV) text file. I kid you not. People still use those.
  4. Load the CSV file into my favourite editor.
  5. The top row contains the field names. Change "Home 2" to "Home". Save.
  6. Import the address book from the edited CSV file.
  7. Transfer the address book to the phone.
(If you're thinking steps 3—6 were easy to deduce by trial and error, you would be wrong.) I may not have stressed this enough: this is a success story. I was happy when I worked all of this out. Can you see how low I've set the bar?

I understand that OS X has an address book that already knows how to talk to mobile phones. I hope it likes my Zire 71.

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

They have software on Macs now?

There is a long-held myth that there is "no software" for the Mac. The other day, I told someone I was going to buy a PowerBook, and his immediate response was, "A Mac? But they're not compatible with anything!" Of course, by "they're not compatible with anything", he meant "they don't run software built for Microsoft Windows." Which is true, within limits. (I explained the idea of native versions of the same applications, and stopped short of the concept of PC emulators.)

Of course, it's a favoured criticism of the non-dominant operating system in any niche. (Microsoft Windows just enjoys a rather large niche.) "There is no software for [the non-dominant operating system] X", with the implication that everything would be alright, "if only X ran applications compiled for [the dominant operating system] Y". For another example, substitute "FreeBSD" for X and "Linux" for Y. There are currently over 12,000 ported applications for FreeBSD, so clearly the first claim is false. And FreeBSD has been able to run Linux binaries since soon after Linus cobbled his juggernaut together, so the second statement isn't actually a criticism at all. But, as usual, I digress.

I want to try and avoid purchasing Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac Professional Edition. Mostly because it's $A 849, but also because it's now 2005, and naming software after a calendar year is bad idea that has to stop, and finally just to see if I can. It may be obvious by now that my primary interest in the PowerBook is curiosity. My wife, however, intends to do actual work with it. Her computing requirements are reasonably modest:
  1. Reading and writing email
  2. Browsing the web
  3. Mostly reading, but occasionally writing, MS Office documents (because it seems, despite pleas to stop, people still consider Word documents to be a universal format for information exchange)
  4. Writing and giving slide-based presentations.
Even with my limited knowledge of MacOS X, I think I can safely assume we will have 1 and 2 covered. Let's skip 3 for now. There's no good reason why 4 should involve PowerPoint, and more than a few good reasons why it shouldn't. I'm open to suggestions here, since as long as the PowerBook can be plugged in to a projector, it shouldn't matter what software is making the slides.

Someone suggested to me that the solution to 3 is to "throw money at the problem
," and by this he meant buy MS Office for Mac. I might do that. Hopefully I won't have to.

Monday, May 2, 2005

I'll have a PowerBook to go, thanks!

Buying a Mac is significantly different to buying a PC. (I don't like the appropriation of generic terms either, but from now on, when I write "PC", I mean a Wintel box. When I write "Windows", I probably mean Microsoft Windows. When I write "Word", I probably mean Microsoft Word. It hurts my brain too.)

I bought a Pentium 4-based PC a couple of month ago, and it was hard. Let me be clear: just buying it was hard work. Trying to find a decent PC hardware dealer is very difficult. It's really easy to become a PC hardware dealer, so lots of people do. You can be a PC hardware dealer from a spare room in your house. Worse, because the profit margins are so tight, there's not a lot of spare money for things like, say, shop fittings, and shelves, and display cases, and assistants who know how to communicate in multi-word sentences. That is, you don't even know if you've found a decent PC hardware dealer, because good ones look and feel the same as bad ones.

What I should have done, and what I almost did, was to bite the bullet and call Compaq or Dell. (As an aside, the only reason I didn't was because their completely unnavigable but very shiny corporate websites lead me to believe that they couldn't supply me with quite what I was looking for. For example, I didn't want a monitor. Now, people who know better than me have subsequently assured me that Dell and Compaq would have sold me a PC without a monitor. But I couldn't get the monitor out of my "shopping basket". No sale. But I digress.) Instead, I used the jaded PC hardware buyer's approach: I went with the recommendation of a friend of a friend—a local store with a website which let me order online.

From order to pickup was reasonably smooth, though they couldn't get in the CPU I ordered in a timely fashion, so I settled for a slightly slower one. There was another stock availabilty issue on another part, but we got there eventually. For reasons which are no longer clear to me, I elected to assemble the machine myself from parts. This was an idiotic idea, but by no means the dealer's fault. I bought a case from him, which he didn't seem particularly interested in selling me. I needed a graphics card, but seemed unable to force this guy to take my money, so I went elsewhere.

This is a PC hardware purchasing success story. It was a protracted process, involving excruciating interaction with a guy who seemed as though he'd rather be in a different universe. And I'm fairly sure he was the owner of the store.

Evidently, even purchasing an Apple, on the other hand, is meant to be part of the Apple Experience. I toyed for a while with buying the PowerBook from the online store. Now, it might be just because with a PowerBook, there are very few things you can upgrade, but I found the online store to be exceptionally straightforward: select PowerBook, select screen size, upgrade RAM, upgrade disk, done. That's it. There are not multiple millions of different hardware permutations. You don't have to decide whether you're more "Home" or "SOHO". Sure, choice is good, but overwhelming choice is, uh, overwhelming.

In the end, I had a question: If I order a PowerBook now (this was post-April 29), will it ship with Tiger or not? (The answer, by the way, was, "It will either ship with Tiger installed, or with a DVD to do the upgrade." Seemed reasonable.) Given I needed to ask a question, and the guy seemed like a nice guy, I ordered it on the phone. (In actual fact, my wife ordered it on the phone later from the same guy.) So, would anyone like to bet on whether it ships with Tiger?

Full disclosure

A story about a guy buying a PowerBook is only going to be interesting if you know a bit about the guy. So here's the prequel to the current story. (The aim is to make my prejudices and preconceptions obvious, not to hide them.)

I have owned a computer since I was in primary school. The pedigree went like this: Commodore VIC 20, Commodore 64, various Commodore Amigas, and finally various Intel-based PCs since a 486DX-40 was high-end. I currently run a couple of Pentium 4s.

If you can call the interactive BASIC interpreters of the early Commodores an operating system, then that's the first operating system I ever used. From there, I moved to AmigaOS, which I think was underrated, but probably because only me and a handful of other people in the world ever owned or used it. My first Intel-based PC ran MS-DOS 6 and Windows 3.1. From the get-go, I sensed that Windows was a crock. I had already seen the MacOS GUI, and in comparison, this was at best a not-very-funny joke. I stuck with Wintel over many years, as, I'm sure, have many others, because it was just the path of least resistance. Mac-lovers hear this: we know Windows sucks. It does hurt our brains to use it. But when you live in a software monoculture that wasn't your fault, sometimes you've just got to suck it up.

In the early 1990s, I discovered Unix. I installed FreeBSD when doing so still involved downloading several dozen floppies over a 14.4K link. I've run FreeBSD (often in parallel with Windows) ever since. I choose FreeBSD when I need things to work. I choose Windows when I have no other choice. I've never run Linux, and I've used it about twice. I used Solaris during my undergraduate years. (I have a degree in pure mathematics and computer science.) It didn't do much for me, but at least it was Unix.

I've used Macs many times. I am reasonably sure I used one of the original Macintosh 128 or 512K models somewhere in the distant past. I still remember being blown away the first time I wrote an essay in Word on a Mac, and printed it out on a LaserWriter. (Alright—I was young, and easily impressed.) I've used many incarnations of MacOS. In my first undergraduate year, we programmed in Java on iMacs. Some of my best friends own Macs.

To summarise, probably the single biggest reason I've never bought a Mac is this: I just didn't get it. The Macintosh seemed from the outside to be a bizarre cult, and I really don't care much for religion. A few months ago, I received an iPod as a gift. I like it. (I think the user interface is neat, but it's not "genius" as I keep hearing it described.) Maybe I'm just starting to get it.

What's going on here?

I'm about to do something I thought I would never do.

For a couple of decades now, I've watched the Apple Macintosh phenomenon from the sidelines. I vaguely remember the first time I saw one, and I looked on in wonder with everyone else. It sure was neat. But I certainly couldn't afford one.

The financial barrier to entry kept me away from the Mac platform for many years. The importance of a few other barriers waxed and waned over time:
  • The technical barrier. When I reached the point where I was interested to know how computers worked, I couldn't understand why anyone would want to buy one that wouldn't let you find out.
  • The zealot barrier. Mac users love Macs, and they always have. What Mac users never seemed to understand, as far as I could see, was that the wider computing community isn't really convinced by pseudo-religious fervour alone. "Sure," I found myself thinking, "you like your computer, but do you have any hard facts to go along with the mantra 'It just works'?"
  • The user interface barrier. This is going to sound counterintuitive, but the Mac user interface (UI) was a barrier to entry for me for two reasons. Bear with me. Firstly, people that didn't use Macs got tired of hearing "It's so easy to use!" As an occasional Mac user over the years, I just didn't buy it. Sure, the UI was alright, but it was hardly mind-blowing. The desktop metaphor seemed broken to me in several significant ways. (Think of ejecting removeable media by dragging the icon into the Trash can. Inexplicable.) Secondly, the first time I saw MacOS X, I thought it was a joke. It looked like some kind of bizarre lolly shop motif, designed by a pre-schooler. To people who prefer function over form, that much eye candy just screams out "We're hiding something you're not gonna like."
  • The academic snob barrier. Once I started using Unix in a big way, the distinction between doing things the Right Way and the Wrong Way started to become painfully obvious. Without getting too Eric Raymond about it, hiding your operating system behind a GUI is the Wrong Way to do things.
Anyway, here's the punchline: I am about to buy a PowerBook G4. I'm about to lose my Mac virginity. Obviously a sufficient number of those barriers to entry have been overcome, and I am now sufficiently curious about some of the others to make the move. I won't spoil the ride by nominating which ones are which.

This blog is an attempt to chronicle the adventures of a Unix user into the world of Macintosh. It will probably be of most interest to the Mac-curious, and hopefully of some interest to Mac-lovers and Mac-haters. Comments will be left open to all unless spam becomes a problem I cannot solve.