Thursday, October 15, 2009

Joys and frustrations of OS X

So this week, after coming back rested from a week in Bali I've attacked a few problems that need to be handled before I build next years image.

My first was to get one of my test boxes up as a 10.6 OS X Server. I not only got it up in quick order I managed to get one of the network guys to give me a static IP, a bunch of aliases for it and punch a hole or to in the firewall ready for some of the services.

It's important to get DNS aliases for your test server. It makes it trivial when you decide to shift out of test into production - no changes required on your clients, just a change in your corporate DNS.

My next task was to get Puppet up and running. I'm planning on using Puppet to look after some configuration details. At first in the student labs but then on the staff machines.

The only complication was that when the Puppet server (or puppetmasterd for those that know the details) comes up it wants to use the definitive name for your host and I wwanted to use one of those aliases. This means that puppetmasterd wants to hand out a security certificate for one name while the client expects a certificate with another. Luckily one line in the puppetconfig file (certname = "") and puppetmasterd gives out the right certificate.

My next task was to get managed preferences (or MCX) working with the dslocal domain. I managed that on my other test box, I even got puppet running on it and getting the MCX preferences from the puppet server.

That was a fair amount of success for the week. Then I started running into trouble.

I managed to use dscl to add a computer to /Local/Default under 10.5, I failed under 10.6 and couldn't get a computer into a group in either. I may have to do some deep exploration to get these things working. If you have any working shell for any of these I'd really appreciate a hint or two.

Once I have those done I'm going to set out to explore nodes and such under puppet. Lots of learning in the next month or two.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Services and Snow Leopard

Ok, so across the world Snow Leopard is becoming available as I write.

Apple is billing this as an operating system release without major features. For once a computer company is underselling. Make no mistake this is a major improvement for all owners of an Intel Mac, and further argument to upgrade for all those still on PPC. This is a faster, slicker, more organised OS than Leopard. Snow Leopard is dramatically faster. Apple have also snuck a few really cool features in below the radar.

One they should be singing from the rooftops is the improvement to 'Services' - those little add-ons that applications could add to the contextual menu. First, they are now contextual - if you have a piece of text selected then you won't be offered the possibility of calculating a disk image checksum. Second, you can easily write them yourself using Automator.

Just to make sure you get the best from AppleScript, Automator and Services Apple have built a new website to explain it all to you, provide some neat tools and some even better training - the Services training features some nice video's with Sal Soghoian, AppleScript guru now a Product Manager at Apple for all things automatic. Visit and enjoy.

By the way, is it only me or do Apple's support and documentation websites just make everyone else's seem amateur and garish by comparison. Mac OS X Automation is a perfect example - apart from a legal disclaimer that mentions Apple and the Apple logo discreetly visible in the top right corner you would be hard pressed to realise this is an Apple built website. It's just a site chock full of good information well presented.

But I digress. Many others will write reviews of the new OS, I just wanted to share a little of my joy with you.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Bento gets even prettier

I've already posted on Bento 2. I think it's a marvelous product and proof positive that no one can beat FileMaker when it comes to making databases easier.

So now they have released Bento for the iPhone. For $5.99 here in Oz, $4.99 in the U.S., you get a neat little database application with a number of templates you can customise. You can even create a database from scratch. All incredibly easy to use.

To top it all off you can synchronise your iPhone databases with the ones on your Mac (at the record level, thank you very much.)

This makes Bento an essential buy on both platforms.

Monday, May 4, 2009

There goes the productivity - Myst comes to the iPhone

Back in the dim, dark ages of Macintosh computing I was Associate Editor of Australian Macworld and the big news in games was a small company called Cyan that had released another great game built on HyperCard called "Myst."

Myst was the biggest selling computer game ever until it was passed by the Sims in 2002 - almost ten years on top.

I certainly wasted far too many hours playing Myst and the first sequel, Riven.

The Miller brothers had re-imagined computer gaming with earlier games such as Manhole that had no scoring or plot, just attempted to immerse you in an environment that you had to explore. With Myst they got the right combination of game play, images and sound to capture the imagination of people.

So at the moment I am resisting strongly the urge to download Myst, I know I'll lose a fortnight of spare time before I'll be able to break away.

On a more general note it is good to see games such as Myst and Castle Wolfenstein gaining a revival on the new platform. The classics deserve not to be forgotten and iPhone gamers benefit from decent games at a decent price. Of course Apple won't be complaining, Myst wants 1.5 Gb of space in your phone so it doesn't take many games like this before we'll be eagerly awaiting a 32Gb iPhone to fit them all in.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Brian again

So since the last time I mentioned Mr Eno I've been hit by the Brian stick twice again.

The first time was seeing David Byrne, who is touring the world promoting the album he and Eno released earlier this year. It had been a long, long time since seeing Talking Heads at a rock festival but Byrne and his music still impressed.

Now Brian Eno is curating an intriguing festival in Sydney. There is an installation of "77 Million Paintings", a light show on the sails of the Opera House, some intriguing sounding lectures and marvelous sounding music.

If you will be in Sydney between late May and mid-June make sure you catch some of it. Details at the Luminous Festival website.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What file format problems?

I’m prompted to write this post by a couple of comments I received from someone wanting my recommendation for a laptop. I, of course, told them to buy a Mac. They replied that their Mac friend in the US had lots of problems opening files and lots of video wouldn’t work on the Mac.

This is, of course, total nonsense. It’s just that a Mac out of the box isn’t quite finished. So I thought I’d tell you how to finish it properly so that all these problems just disappear. That’s what they pay me for at the University so you can get it for free.

First, common file formats. You can pretty much sum this up by saying “Microsoft Office files.” Now the Mac has no problem opening MS Word files previous to the latest version, 2007 for Windows and 2008 for Mac.

There are three possible solutions to opening the latest files; buy Office, install Open Office, download and use the Open XML File Format Converter for Mac from Microsoft. If you are a student or involved in education you can probably get a cheap copy of MS Office. The benefit of this solution is that you also get a bunch of fonts from MS that are cross platform. If you can’t get a cheap copy of office then you might prefer to buy a copy of Apple’s iWork 09 which has no problem with Office files.

If you want a free alternative then OpenOffice can also open MS Office files. Running OpenOffice used to be a little problematic but it now runs natively on the Mac. There is also a port of OpenOffice called NeoOffice that has some improved features such as support for services and grammar checking.

The final, and not terribly convenient solution, MS will give you a file converter “Open XML File format Converter for Mac” which will convert from the new format to the old one that can be read by a large number of software packages.

The other problem people run into is video. This, too, can be easily solved.

First, some explanation. Under Windows most video files are in WMV format while on the Mac they are in QuickTime format. Video and audio files use software called a “codec” to compress and decompress the data (COmpress and DECompress becomes codec) and each of these so called formats are actually wrappers around the data that tells the player software which codec to use. There are a number available.

So the first order of business is to get the Mac to understand WMV files. For this you need a free piece of software from Flip4Mac (now called Telestream). Microsoft have licensed part of their software and offer it for free as Windows Media Components for QuickTime. Installing this will allow you to play a large number of WMV files. Unfortunately some use codecs not included as part of this software. Fortunately Perian is an open source tool that will increase this to cover almost everything.

For anything not covered once you have installed those tools, as well as providing an interface I prefer over QuickTime Player and the ability to play streaming video, there is the VLC Media Player. On some Macs it even allows you to play DVDs out of region.

You may also find that people give you a thumb drive or external drive formatted in NTFS. This is a drive format common on the PC. For this you need to install NTFS-3G for Mac, a public domain NTFS driver for the Mac.

Once you have installed these tools you have a Mac that is capable of reading and writing almost all file formats and those incompatibility problems go away.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Do They Get It?

Over the last few weeks a number of interesting things have happened in the mobile phone market and I’ve been watching with interest.

Nokia have launched a handset that comes with “unlimited free music.”
Telstra (Australia’s largest mobile provider) have launched a mobile game portal.
Apple announced iPhone OS 3.0.

Let’s have a look at Nokia’s offer. Nokia are a smart company, if I didn’t have an iPhone I’d be carrying a Nokia, no question. They know that phones are quickly morphing into a device we carry everywhere and not just for phone calls. So they need to do something to counter the iPhone, a music device - therefore free music.

The big hole here is that Nokia can’t offer the entire iPod/iPhone/iTunes experience. I do use my iPhone to listen to music sometimes - mainly at work where I need the mobile nearby and the music cuts off when a phone call comes in. At the same time my music lives on three iPods -- a nano I use when I want a lightweight device, an old iPod that lives in the glovebox of my car connected to the stereo and another that contains the entire music library that gets connected to my home theatre or a little Logitech box I use when travelling. My music also lives on my home computer so that I can listen at my desk or have it streamed to the kitchen stereo.

So Nokia can offer me free music, but I don’t want it unless I can move it around. What’s the point if it’s a single source? What happens when my phone breaks? What happens when I change handsets? Can I change phone companies and keep the music? Can I download it over my much cheaper home network or do I have to pay data charges on my phone?

All these questions and shortcomings make the Nokia offer a little more than a gimmick.

Now let’s have a look at Telstra’s game portal.

First, let me say that I love playing games. I even bought a few games for my iPod, I’ve bought a few games for phones.

The biggest problem anyone has selling games into the phone space is making sure the game will play on the handset. With multiple operating systems in many versions it is way too easy to sell someone a game that just doesn’t work. The most used solution to this problem is to program for the lowest common denominator. The same goes for screen real estate - sure some mobile phones have a fair sized screen but most don’t so games are incredibly low-res.

The other problem is the payment method. Paying for a mobile game on your phone is fraught with peril - it usually means “subscribing” to some scheme that gets you a game, a bunch of ringtones and some wallpapers for a weekly charge that you then have to cancel. It’s a hassle.

The only part of this problem space solved by Telstra is the payment. The rest remains. So why are they bothering? It may well be that they have to do it. Due to the ridiculous way they structure data charges I suspect Telstra are losing to their competitors in iPhone and other smartphone sales and smartphones and data for them seem to be the fastest growing profit centres in the mobile world at the moment - Telstra need to give it a hit.

So why is Apple winning with the iPhone, why is it overturning the basics in this space?

Well, I think the major win is that, despite the name, Apple is not selling a phone. Well, not a mobile phone. It’s too big, doesn’t have a keypad, the camera sucks and I can’t (yet) send and receive pictures of even use Bluetooth to share them with my friends. My daughter thinks these are all required on a mobile phone. It just turns out to be an excellent little compute platform with a phone shoved in it so phone companies give it price support and consumers to carry it everywhere. Once you’ve got a compute platform the most obvious thing to put on it (at least for Apple) is iPod emulation since they win big in that space and they know the back end of iTunes is all organized so people can easily handle the music. They are selling the first successful handheld compute device. They first tried it with the Newtown, Palm got it mostly right but blew the lead and tried to be cheap.

Apple have a history of doing this. The first great product they ever sold was the Apple ][, and when you hear Woz talk about the win it was twofold - you got everything you needed in a package that was as cheap and simple (in both manufacture and use) as possible. The iMac and the iPod won for the same reasons. The iPhone does the same - you get a nice large colour screen in a decent package with a good interface at a reasonable price.

The other reason Apple wins is synergy. Now, I dislike using the term ‘synergy’ - to me it often reeks of marketing speak, but in this case it applies perfectly.

With the iPod, iTunes and iTunes Store Apple put together a system that made it easy to handle the purchase, storage and handling of digital music. They also slowly iterated the various models of iPod so that they had the right model for every purpose at a reasonable price. They also kept the feature set simple and the interface clean. They ended up owning both the digital music player market but are now the biggest retailer of music in the US.

So then it comes time to release a phone. Apple’s first step in entering the phone market was to sell something that wasn’t a phone. If you don’t think that the iPod touch wasn’t built by Apple as a stepping stone to the final phone you are crazy. It gave them a hardware platform to get the operating system out into the wild well before they could build a phone and get it released by a carrier. It also started them building the entire platform, including the application store.

Then you get to the App Store. Apple had already solved the micropayments problem of charging people sums as small as 99 cents and still getting some margin with music so the App store is an almost trivial task. It is incredibly easy to underestimate the power of the App Store in the market. In the ten years I’ve owned mobile phones I’ve bought six games - two never ran on the phone I bought them for. In the six months I’ve owned an iPhone I’ve bought over two dozen games and applications - one I paid over $20 for. The App Store is already on its way to creating the first iPhone application millionaires. O’Reilly, the computer book publishers are reporting a surge in sales of books about Objective C on the back of iPhone development.

Sure, the iPhone and its operating system have shortcomings. Some of those Apple has admitted are due to the lack of processing power and battery issues - start playing intensive games on your iPhone and watch the battery charge disappear. You can be sure that there are a fairly large bunch of software engineers at Apple spending their days optimising large chunks of OS X to make both those problems go away. You can also be sure that hardware engineers are looking at new versions of the processor and new battery tech to optimise on their end. Witness how for several versions of OS X after 10.0 the OS actually got faster and leaner, even 10.5 has improvements in speed over 10.4 in some areas. Apple are past masters at playing the iterative development game. Look closely at the pre-release notes from Apple on iPhone OS 3.0 and you can see them doing exactly the same thing here. I suspect that we will see new iPhone hardware just when contracts are running out on the current version, towards the end of this year or early next year -- A.T. & T. would love to lock those customers back in to new phone contracts.

Apple have also entered the market right at the tipping point (or they are perhaps creating the tipping point.) More and more of the online world is optimising itself for the smaller screens and lower bandwidth of the mobile web browser (but not small enough for the tiny screen of a traditional mobile.) More and more companies are creating applications for the iPhone - if, for example, your bank doesn’t at least offer an ATM finder then it’s time to switch banks. The first pizza delivery company to create an iPhone ordering app will probably be in for a large win - at the moment none even offers a mobile optimised web site here in Australia (are you listening Eagle Boys?)

Just continue to watch. iPhone OS 3.0 delivers a little more that the customer is asking for and with it Apple will have another win. Count on it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hey Steve, here's ten bucks, buy a clue!

Just last Friday Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was asked about the big mo’ that Apple has been getting lately. Ballmer’s first crack was to point to recent data showing Apple having a sales slump. "Apple gained about one point, but now I think the tide has really turned back the other direction," Ballmer said, via webcast. "The economy is helpful. Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment -- same piece of hardware -- paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that's a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be."

Great commentary, Steve. First, everyone is having a sales slump. Second, Apple is slumping back in market share towards where they were two years ago. They still have more market share than then. Third, if you take out the netbook sales (incredibly low margin) then Apple’s share is about even or a little better.

Now let’s get down to the core of your argument. Apple buyer’s are paying $500 extra for the logo. The first point is the number, $500 is a huge exaggeration. If you look at similar specs for similar machines the price difference is usually less than $100 in the US market. Apple just don’t compete at the bottom end - my partner has an Acer laptop that was “cheaper” by far than a Mac, but it comes with only 512Mb of RAM and a slow, small hard drive (hey, it was before we met, she didn’t know any better.) To get it up to decent spec machine now it would end up costing more than if she had bought a MacBook in the first place.

Second thing you might like to think about Mr Ballmer is that right now people in the netbook market can buy a Dell Mini 9 for $249 running Ubuntu Linux or pay 20% more for Windows XP. That’s right, they can save 20% by not buying your product. Notice that I said XP, no one wants your latest operating system at this end of the market as it requires too much hard disk space and wants a high end graphics card and a high end processor with more RAM before it runs at a reasonable speed. Oh, and in case you are wondering some hackers have made it possible to run Apple’s latest, OS X 10.5, on the netbook and it runs extremely well.

Third, you might like to think about what you get for that extra money when you buy Macintosh. Apple computer design is better than the average PC, they look better, the keyboard is a little better. Then you get to the advantages of buying a computer from a company that controls both the hardware and software. On a Mac plug and play works better. The integration also means that you have considerably less problems with drivers. It also means that driver updates are delivered automatically and well tested as part of operating system updates.

So yes, Mr Ballmer, it costs a little more for a Mac. Mac users just know that it is worth the money. Over the three or four year life of a computer it doesn’t take too many crashes, too many lost documents before Windows costs me more in time than that $100.