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.
About two years ago, when all of my main desktop and laptop machines had long been transitioned to Macs, I was still running a Windows PC to act as my server. I used it mainly for e-mail running Kerio Mailserver, and furthermore it acted as a file server. As my willingness to keep this Windows system in good shape by applying all sorts of patches and updates degraded at almost the same speed as to which my desire to replace the last piece of Windows equipment with an Apple-solution grew, I decided to buy one of Apple’s only affordable “headless” desktop systems: a Mac mini.
Trading up to a Mac to use as my server gave me a lot of other advantages (apart from no longer having to keep a Windows system safe and secure), the most obvious being Apple’s excellent integration. Now, I can far more easily take over the server’s screen from my work-iMac, it is automatically backed up, it contains the same passwords for apps and website as my work machine, and it offers some other advantages all of which will be explained below in this article.
My Windows server was located in an unused room in my house, due to its ugly appearance, but most of all because of the sound generated by its fans. When the Mac mini came, silent as it is, my friend Martijn suggested to put it in the living room next to my entertainment equipment, “because it is too beautiful to hide away”. As always, he was right. We soon realised that by placing the Mac mini next to my TV and amplifier, and due to the “allways on” nature of a server, it could also be used for other purposes more focused on delivering audio and video content.
In this article, I want to give you an overview of all the things that I use my Mac mini for. Partly to inspire others, but mainly because I hope that readers will inspire me by giving me suggestions on how to even better put the machine to work.
I am a big, big consumer of podcasts. I became really fascinated by the ability for anyone -from large established media companies to individuals with an opinion and a microphone- to be able to record audio programs, and distribute them as easy to grab “episodes” over the Internet. I loved the idea of being able to listen to people discussing my favorite topics at moments during the day where you are either doing nothing but when reading is not practical, or when performing low-duty tasks that don’t need your full attention. Commuting to work by train or bus, walking to the grocery store, doing the dishes and other household tasks and my semi-daily walks past the Waal river: they are all accompanied by what I tend to call a “spoken magazine” : a podcast episode for me to enjoy.
Currently, I listen to about a dozen podcasts, mainly covering the Mac. They range from daily shows such as the excellent Mac OS Ken from Ken Ray, who summarizes the Apple news from various sources in about 15 minutes, via the hour-long weekly MacWorld podcast, up until the MacBreak Weekly show, which, depending on its panel of hosts, can be up to one and a half hour long (my absolute favorites are the ones featuring Andy Ihnatko, the funniest and one of the cleverest Apple commenters around). My favorite blogger (and inspirator for starting my own blog) John Gruber from the Daring Fireball also hosts his own show every few weeks, simply called The Talk Show. And then there are some local shows in Dutch that I listen to, such as the One More Thing podcast (which, despite its name, is in Dutch), whose three presenters pioneered podcasting in The Netherlands in 2005.
For quite some time now, I have been wondering about the popularity of SMS text messaging. Since its development by the GSM working group in the mid 80s and the initial launch to the generic public when the first SMS message was sent in 1993, SMS text messaging became the most widely used form of data communication in the world, with about 2 and a half billion users (that’s about half of the world’s population). How is it possible that such a limited technology could have become this widespread?
There are of course some obvious advantages to the basic application of text messaging, but there are also a lot of technical limitations in the SMS protocol as well as some strange implementations by telecom operators and handset manufacturers, that very much limit the usability for the users. Let’s have a look at some of them.
Advantages of SMS text messaging:
- Very easy to explain
Even the most technophobic cell phone user is able to grab the idea of text messaging. The message you enter on one handset will appear on the display of the receiving handset. The only thing you need is the receiving party’s phone number. There is no need to know anything else, such as an alternative address other than the cell phone number, or knowing the capabillities of the receiving handset or the services of the telecom operator.
- 100% installed base of handsets
SMS is supported on all GSM handsets (the only cell phone standard in Europe, and the dominant standard worldwide), and nowadays also on handsets of competing technologies. SMS sending and receiving is supported by all mobile carriers and offered trough all mobile phone plans. Everybody who owns a mobile phone is able to send and receive text messages. No need for additional devices, no need for special subsciptions.
- No action required to receive messages
An SMS text message will always appear automatically on the handset’s display. There is no need to “request” for incoming messages. When the phone was off during the initial transmission of the message, it will be delivered within minutes after the phone is turned back on.
Apple is on a rise. The company enjoyed an incredible growth in the past decade, climbing up from being nearly dead to eventually become the rising star of the tech industry that it is today.
For me as an Apple-enthousiast, this is a good thing. The more people who jump on the Apple bandwagon (either by using an iPod, an iPhone or a Mac), the better. I have explained this before in a previous post: more users means more income for Apple, which might spend even greater amounts on R&D than it does today, resulting in even more an better products for us to enjoy.
I think the growth of Apple’s market share is the direct result of more and more people recognizing the benefits of using its products: its extremely easy to use user inteface, its gorgeous software design, but most of all, the way everything is designed to work seamlessly together, from the hardware to the operating system to its core applications to its web services and now even to its companion devices like the iPhone.
There is only one single company in the entire world that offers its computers as completely in-house designed products: both hardware and software are designed by the same people. This is completely the opposite to how all other computer manufacturer’s work. They buy a generic operating system (which in 99% of the cases is Microsoft Windows), and build a PC using generic parts to run this OS. This leaves them very little room to differentiate themselves from each other, which generally comes done to competition purely on price.