When computers for personal use were introduced in the 1970s, it was common practice that the computer’s hardware and its main operating software (which, back then, usually involved not much more but a simple command line driven interface for standard I/O operations or a BASIC interpreter) were delivered by the same company. As a full package, the combination of hardware and software made up “the computer”. Even during the 80s, when computers became much more powerful and hence useful to end users, computer companies from the early days still hold true to the basic principle of developing their own hardware and software. Think of the Mac, the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST or the countless other computer systems of the time, all of which were made unique not only because of their hardware specs, but mainly because of the things the computer’s operating system would let the machine actually do.
There was of course one other company, which thought up a business model that was rather different. This company solely devoted itself to developing only the operating system, which it would license to any hardware manufacturer that was willing to pay for it. Obviously, this company’s flagship product, MS-DOS, became rather popular and soon evolved into the defacto standard for computer operating software. Although the system was among the least advanced of all operating software efforts of that time, as a result of not capable of doing much advanced stuff it required inexpensive hardware to run on. This quickly lead to a huge growth in sales, and hence in the availability of third party sofware. Microsoft laid the groundworks of its imperium, and formed the foundation for spin-offs of their popular DOS operating system in the form of its many Windows iterations. The companies that sold these DOS- and Windows-compatible computers (increasingly refered to as “PCs”) basically had no possibilities to differentiate themselves from their competitors on other things but price.
When Apple launched the App Store for the iPhone, it put a lot of restrictions in place. They have been widely covered for many months, and by many bloggers and journalists. Most of them are well known by developers and users, and perhaps a bit more surprising, most people accept these limitations as a fact of life.
Some limitations that have been widely publicized are the inability to run more than one program at a time (leading for example to the inability to listen to an Internet radio station while doing something else), and the lack of the long promised push notification services (which among others enable instant messaging applications to receive messages when the device is idle or running another program).
But that’s not what I want to talk about. This time, I want to address another major annoyance.
There are a lot of areas when a desktop apps benefits from having a mobile app to take your data with you. Think for example of the excellent password manager 1Password, which can sync its protected database of passwords to the 1Password iPhone app. Or what about a personal assets database containing your lists of DVDs and books? It can be very handy to have these available on the go in a companion app on the iPhone. And of course you may want to upload some Office or PDF documents to a document viewer app on the iPhone.
And then we come to this other thing that has been bugging me for some time: the complexity that is involved anytime I want to exchange data between a desktop app on my Mac, and some application on my iPhone.
If you want to manage your photos on your Mac, there are generally two ways to do so. The first one involves manual copying of the pictures from your camera’s memory card to a destination on your harddrive. The second one is by using Apple’s sophisticated picture management program iPhoto.
iPhoto offers a lot of very, very neat features. Its ways to quickly browse trough thousands of images it impressive. You can quickly “skim” over a group of pictures by rolling your mouse over the image that represents the group, resuling in a quick glance of all the pictures that are in it. Besides these image viewing and organizing features, iPhoto offers a lot of other neat functions, like the ability to quickly publish photos to an online MobileMe gallery, sharing pictures to and from other users on your local network, perform simple image correction tools, directly order printed materials like photo books, and the creation of very nice and sophisticated slide shows.
But most importantly perhaps, iPhoto is deeply integrated into the Mac OS X experience, and as a result into a lot of other applications. Every program on the Mac that allows you to do something with an image (such as adding an image to a web page in iWeb or pasting a picture in a Word document) generally offers you access to OS X’s media browser, directly showing you thumbnails from iPhoto, ordered in the same way as they are ordered in iPhoto itself. Furthermore, the iPhoto library directly syncs to the iPod and iPhone, and is available for viewing from Apple’s media playback application Front Row.