The Microsoft Office Tablet

OfficeTabletI’ve really tried to stay out of the Tablet Wars.  I have a first generation iPad that I barely use any more.  My kids have co-opted it from me for watching on-demand TV shows and playing Angry Birds.  Since I spend most of my time typing blog posts or doing research, I use my laptop more than anything else.  When the Surface RT and Surface Pro escaped from the wilds of Redmond I waited and watched.  I wanted to see what people were going to say about these new Microsoft tablets.  It’s been about 4 months since the release of the Surface Pro and simliar machines from vendors like Dell and Asus.  I’ve been slowly asking questions and collecting information about these devices.  And I think I’ve finally come to a realization.

The primary reason people want to buy a Surface tablet is to run Microsoft Office.

Here’s the setup.  Everyone that expressed an interest in the Pro version of the Surface (or the Latitude 10 from Dell) was asked a question by me: What is the most compelling feature for the Surface Pro for you?  The responses that I got back were overwhelming in their similarity.

1.  I want to use Microsoft Office on my tablet.

2.  I want to run full Windows apps on my tablet.

I never heard anything about portability, power, user interface, or application support (beyond full Windows apps).  I specifically excluded the RT model of the Surface from my questions because of the ARM processor and the reliance of software from the Windows App Store.  The RT functions more like Apple/Android tablets in that regard.

This made me curious.  The primary goal of Surface users is to be able to run Office?  These people have basically told me that the only reason they want to buy a tablet is to use an office suite.  One that isn’t currently available anywhere else for mobile devices.  One that has been rumored to be released on other platforms down the road.  While it may be a logical fallacy, it appears that Microsoft risks invalidating a whole hardware platform because of a single application suite.  If they end up releasing Office for iOS/Android, people would flee from the Surface to the other platforms according to the info above.  Ergo, the only purpose of the Surface appears to be to run one application.  Which I why I’ve started calling it the Microsoft Office Tablet.  Then I started wondering about the second most popular answer in my poll.

Making Your Flow Work

As much as I’ve tried not to use the word “workflow” before, I find that it fits in this particular conversation.  Your workflow is more than just the applications you utilize.  It’s how you use them.  My workflow looks totally different from everyone else even though I use simliar applications.  I use email and word processing for my own purposes.  I write a lot, so a keyboard of some kind is important to my workflow.  I don’t do a lot of graphics design, so a pen input tablet isn’t really a big deal to me.  The list goes on and on, but you see that my needs are my own and not those of someone else.  Workflows may be simliar, but not identical.  That’s where the dichotomy comes into play for me.

When people start looking at using a different device for their workflow, they have to make adjustments of some kind.  Especially if that device is radically different from one they’ve been using before.  Your phone is different from a tablet, and a tablet is different from a laptop.  Even a laptop is different from a desktop, but these two are more simliar than most.  When the time comes to adjust your workflow to a new device, there are generally two categories of people:

1.  People who adjust their workflow to the new device.

2.  People who expect the device to conform to their existing workflow.

For users of the Apple and Android tablets, option 1 is pretty much the only option you’ve got.  That’s because the workflow you’ve created likely can’t be easily replicated between devices.  Desktop apps don’t run on these tablets.  When you pick up an iPad or a Galaxy Tab you have to spend time finding apps to replicate what you’ve been doing previously.  Note taking apps, web browsing apps, and even more specialized apps like banking or ebook readers are very commonly installed.  Your workflow becomes constrained to the device you’re using.  Things like on-screen keyboards or lack of USB ports become bullet points in workflow compatibility.  On occasion, you find that a new workflow is possible with the device.  The prime example I can think of is using the camera on a phone in conjunction with a banking app to deposit checks without needing to take them into the bank.  That workflow would have been impossible just a couple of years ago.  With the increase in camera phone resolution, high speed data transfer, and secure transmission of sensitive data made possible by device advancements we can now picture this new workflow and easily adapt it because a device made it possible.

The other category is where the majority of Surface Pro users come in.  These are the people that think their workflow must work on any device they use.  Rather than modify what they’re doing, they want the perfect device to do their stuff.  These are the people that use a tablet for about a week and then move on to something different because “it just didn’t feel right.”  When they finally do find that magical device that does everything they want, they tend to abandon all other devices and use it exclusively.  That is, until they have a new workflow or a substantial modification to their existing workflow.  Then they go on the hunt for a new device that’s perfect for this workflow.

So long as your workflow is the immutable object in the equation, you are never going to be happy with any device you pick.  My workflows change depending on my device.  I browse Twitter and read email from my phone but rarely read books.  I read books and do light web surfing from a tablet but almost never create content.  I spend a lot of time creating content on my laptop buy hate reading on it.  I’ve adjusted my workflows to suit the devices I’m using.

If the single workflow you need to replicate on your table revolves around content creation, I think it’s time to examine exactly what you’re using a tablet for.  Is it portability beyond what a laptop can offer?  Do you prefer to hunt and peck around a touch screen instead of a keyboard?  Are you looking for better battery life or some other function of the difference in hardware?  Or are you just wanting to look cool with a tablet in the “post PC world?”  That’s the primary reason I don’t use a tablet that much any more.  My workflows conform to my phone and my laptop.  I don’t find use in a tablet.  Some people love them.  Some people swear by them.  Just make sure you aren’t dropping $800-$1000 on a one-application device.

At the end of the day, work needs to get done.  People are going to use whatever device they want to use to get their stuff done.  Some want to do stuff and move on.  Others want to look awesome doing stuff or want to do their stuff everywhere no matter what.  Use what works best for you.  Just don’t be surprised if complaining about how this device doesn’t run my favorite data entry program gets a sideways glance from IT.

Disclaimer:  I own a first generation iPad.  I’ve tested a Dell Latitude 10.  I currently use an iPhone 4S.  I also use a MacBook Air.  I’ve used a Lenovo Thinkpad in the past as my primary workstation.  I’m not a hater of Microsoft or a lover of Apple.  I’ve found a setup that lets me get my job done.

Incremental Awesomeness – Boiling Frogs

Frog on a Saucepan - courtesy of Wikipedia

Frog on a Saucepan – courtesy of Wikipedia

Unless you’ve been living under a big rock for the last couple of weeks, you’ve no doubt heard about the plunge that Apple stock took shortly after releasing their numbers for the previous quarter.  Apple sold $54 billion dollars worth of laptops, desktops, and mobile devices.  They made $13 billion dollars in profit.  They sold 47 million iPhones and almost 23 million iPads.  For all of these record-setting numbers, the investors rewarded Apple by driving the stock down below $500 dollars a share, shaving off a full 10% of Apple’s value in after-hours trading after the release of these numbers.  A lot of people were asking why a fickle group of investors would punish a company making as much quarterly profit as the gross domestic product of a small country.  What has it come to that a company can be successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and still be labeled a failure?

The world has become accustomed to incremental awesomeness.

Apple is as much to blame as anyone else in this matter, but almost every company is guilty of this in some form or another.  We’ve reached the point in our lives where we are subjected to a stream of minor improvements on things rather than huge, revolutionary changes.  This steady diet of non-life changing features has soured us on the whole idea of being amazed by things.  If you had told me even 5 years ago that I would possess a device in my pocket that had a camera, GPS, always-on Internet connection, appointment book, tape recorder, and video camera, I would have either been astounded or thought you crazy.  Today, these devices are passé.  We even call phones without these features “dumb phones” as if to demonize them and those that elect to use them.  We can no longer discern between the truly amazing and the depressingly commonplace.

When I was younger, I heard someone ask about boiling a frog alive.  I was curious as to what lesson may lie in such a practice.  If you place a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will hop right back out as a form of self-preservation.  However, if you place a frog in a pot of tepid water and slowly raise the temperature a few degrees every minute, you will eventually boil the frog alive without any resistance.  Why is that?  Well, by slowly raising the temperature of the water, the frog becomes accustomed to the change.  A few degrees one way or the other doesn’t matter to the frog.  However, those few degrees eventually add up to the boiling point.

We find ourselves in the same predicament.  Look at some of the things that users are quibbling over on the latest round of phones and other devices.  The Nexus 4 phone is a failure because it doesn’t have LTE.  The iPad Mini is useless because it doesn’t have a Retina screen.  The iPhone 5 is far from perfect because it’s missing NFC or it’s not a 5-inch phone.  The Nexus 7 needs more storage and shouldn’t be Wi-Fi only.  Look at any device out there and you will find that they are missing features that would keep them from being “perfect”.  Those features might as well be things like inability to read your mind or project information directly onto the cornea.  I’ve complained before that Google is setting up Google Glass to be a mundane gadget because they aren’t thinking outside their little box.  This kind of incremental improvement is what we’ve become accustomed to.  Think about the driverless car that Google is supposedly working on.  It’s an exciting idea, right? Now, think about that invention in 5 years time when it becomes ubiquitous.  When version 6 or 7 of the driverless car is out, we’re going to be complaining about how it doesn’t anticipate traffic conditions or isn’t able to fly.  We will have become totally unimpressed with how awesome the idea of a driverless car is because we’re concentrating on the things that it doesn’t have.

We want to be impressed and surprised by things.  Even when we are confronted with groundbreaking technology, we reject it at first out of spite.  Remember how the iPad was going to be a disaster because people don’t want to use a big iPhone?  Now look at how many are being used.  People want to walk away from a product announcement with a sense of awe and wonder, not a list of features and the same case as last year.  We’ve stopped looking at each new object with a sense of wonder and amazement and instead we focus on the difference from last year’s model.  Every new software or hardware release raises the temperature a few more degrees.  Before long, we’re going to be boiling in our own contempt and discontent.  And the next generation is going to have it even worse.  Even now, I find my kids are spoiled by the ability to watch TV shows on a tablet in any room in the house on their schedule instead of waiting for an episode to air.  They no longer even need to remember to record their favorite show on the DVR.  They just launch the app on their table and watch the show whenever they want.  Something that seems amazing and life-changing to me is commonplace to them.  All of this has happened before.  All of this will happen again.

Instead of judging on incremental advancements, we should start looking at things on the grand scale.  Yes, I know that some companies are going to constant underwhelm the buying public by delivering products that are slightly more advanced than the previous iteration for an increased cost.  However, when you step back and take a look at everything on a long enough time line, you’ll find that we are truly living in an age when technology is amazing and getting better every day.  Sure, I’m waiting for user interfaces like the ones from Minority Report or the Avengers.  I want a driverless car and a thought interface for my computer/phone/widget.  But after seeing what happens to companies that are successful beyond their wildest imaginations I’ll be doing a much better job of looking at things with the proper perspective.  After all, that’s the best way to keep from getting boiled.

Mountain Lion PL-2303 Driver Crash Fix

Now that I’ve switched to using my Mac full time for everything, I’ve been pretty happy with the results.  I even managed to find time to upgrade to Mountain Lion in the summer.  Everything went smoothly with that except for one little hitch with a piece of hardware that I use almost daily.

If you are a CLI jockey like me, you have a USB-to-Serial adapter in your kit.  Even though the newer Cisco devices are starting to use USB-to-mini USB cables for console connections, I find these to be fiddly and problematic at times.  Add in the amount of old, non-USB Cisco gear that I work on regularly and you can seem my need for a good old fashioned RJ-45-to-serial rollover cable.  My first laptop was the last that IBM made with a built-in serial port.  Since then, I’ve found myself dependent on a USB adapter.  The one that I have is some no-name brand, but like most of those cables it has the Prolific PL-2303 chipset.  This little bugger seems to be the basis for almost all serial-to-USB connectivity except for Keyspan adapters.  While the PL-2303 is effective and cheap, it’s given me no end of problems over the past couple of years.  When I upgraded my Lenovo to Windows 7 64-bit, the drivers available at the time caused random BSOD crashes when consoled into a switch.  I could never nail down the exact cause, but a driver point release fixed it for the time being.  When I got my Macbook Air, it came preinstalled with Lion.  There were lots of warnings that I needed to make sure to upgrade the PL-2303 drivers to the latest available on the Prolific support site in order to avoid problems with the Lion kernel.  I dutifully followed the directions and had no troubles with my USB adapter.  Until I upgraded to Mountain Lion.

After I upgraded to 10.8, I started seeing some random behaviors I couldn’t quite explain.  Normally, after I’m done consoling into a switch or a router, I just close my laptop and throw it back in my bag.  I usually remember after I closed it and put it to sleep that I need to pull out the USB adapter.  After Mountain Lion, I was finding that I would open my laptop back up and see that it had rebooted at some point.  All my apps were still open and had the data preserved, but I found it odd that things would spontaneously reboot for no reason.  I found the culprit one day when I yanked the USB adapter out while my terminal program (ZTerm) was still open.  Almost instantly, I got a kernel panic followed by a reboot.  I had finally narrowed down my problem.  I tried closing ZTerm before unplugging the cable and everything behaved as it should.  It appeared the the issue stemmed from having the terminal program actively accessing the port then unplugging it.  I searched around and found that there were a few people reporting the same issue.  I even complained about it a bit on Twitter.

Santino Rizzo (@santinorizzo) heard my pleas for sanity and told me about a couple of projects that created open source versions of the PL-2303 driver.  Thankfully, someone else had noticed that Prolific was taking their sweet time updating things and took matters into their own hands.  The best set of directions to go along with the KEXT that I can find are here:

http://www.xbsd.nl/2011/07/pl2303-serial-usb-on-osx-lion.html

For those not familiar with OS X, a KEXT is basically a driver or DLL file.  Copying it to System/Library/Extensions places in in the folder where OS X looks for device drivers.  Make sure you get rid of the old Prolific driver if you have it installed before you install the OS PL-2303 driver.  Once you’ve run the commands list on the site above, you should be able to plug in your adapter and then unplug it without any nasty crashes.  One other note – the port used to connect in ZTerm changed when I used the new drivers.  Instead of it being /dev/USBSerial or something of that nature, it’s now PL2303-<random digits>.  It also changed the <random digits> when I moved it from one USB port to another.  Thankfully for me, ZTerm remembers the USB ports and will try them all when I launch it until it find the right adapter.  There is some discussion in the comments of the post above about creating a symlink for a more consistent pointer.


Tom’s Take

Writing drivers is hard.  I’ve seen stats that say up to 90% of all Windows crashes are caused by buggy drivers.  Even when drivers appear to work just fine, things can be a little funny.  Thankfully, in the world of *NIX, people that get fed up with the way things work can just pull out their handy IDE and write their own driver.  Not exactly the easiest thing in the world to do but the results speak for themselves.  When the time comes that vendors either can’t or won’t support their hardware in a timely fashion, I take comfort in knowing that the open source community is ready to pick up the torch and make things work for us.

Why Won’t AirPlay Work On My Macbook?

One of the major reasons why I decided to upgrade to OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion was for AirPlay mirroring.  AirPlay has been a nice function to have for people with an AirPlay receiver (basically an AppleTV) and an AirPlay source, like an iDevice.  I know of many people that like to watch a movie from iTunes on their iPad to start, then switch over to the big TV in the living room via AirPlay to the AppleTV.  That’s all well and good for those that want to stream movies or music.  However, my streaming needs are a little more advanced.  I’d rather be able to mirror my desktop to the AirPlay receiver instead, for things like presentations or demonstrations.  That functionality has only be available with software applications like AirParrot up until the release of Mountain Lion, which now has support for AirPlay mirroring on Macs.  Once the GM release of Mountain Lion came out, people started noticing that AirPlay was only supported on relatively new Apple hardware.  Even in cases where the CPU was almost identical to a later hardware release.  It seems a bit mind-boggling that Apple has a very limited specification list for AirPlay Mirroring.  The official site doesn’t even list it, as a matter of fact.  Essentially, any Mac made in 2011 or newer should be capable of supporting AirPlay.  So why did the 2010 Macs get left out?  They’re almost as good as their one-year-newer cousins.

The real answer comes down to the chipset.  Apple started shipping Macs with Intel’s Sandy Bridge chipset in 2011.  This enabled all kinds of interesting things, like Thunderbolt for instance.  There was one little feature down at the bottom of the list of Sandy Bridge spec sheets that didn’t mean much at the time – Intel QuickSync.  QuickSync is an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) that has been placed in the Sandy Bridge line of processors to allow high-speed video encoding and decoding.  This allows the Sandy Bridge i-series processors to offload video encoding to the ASIC to reduce the amount of CPU power consumed by performing video tasks.  Rather than tying up the CPU or the GPU of a machine, Sandy Bridge can use this ASIC to do very high speed encoding.  Why would this be a boon?  Well, for most people the idea was that QuickSync could reduce the amount of time that it took to do video production work on mid-range machines.  The problem was that QuickSync turned out lower quality video in favor of optimization for speed?  Where would you find an application that prioritized speed over quality?  If you guessed video streaming, you’d be spot on.  QuickSync supports high-speed encoding of H.264 video streams, which is the preferred format for Apple.  Mountain Lion can now access the QuickSync ASIC to mirror your desktop over to an AppleTV with almost no video lag.  The quality may not be the same as a Pixar rendering farm, but for 1080p video on a TV it’s close enough.

Any Mac made before the introduction of Sandy Bridge isn’t capable of running AirPlay mirroring, at least according to Apple.  Since they are missing the QuickSync ASIC, they aren’t capable of video encoding at the rate that Apple wants to in order to preserve the AirPlay experience.  While on the surface it looks like the same i-series processors are present in 2010 and 2011 machines, the older Macs are using the Clarksdale chipset, which does have a high-speed video decoder, but not an encoder.  Since the Mac is doing all the heavy lifting for the AppleTV in an AirPlay mirroring setup, having the onboard encoding ASIC is critical.  This isn’t the first time that Apple has locked out use of AirPlay.  If you want to AirPlay mirror from your favorite iDevice, you have to ensure that you’re running an iPhone 4S or an iPad 2 or iPad 3.  What’s different about them?  They’re all running the A5 dual-core chip.  Supposedly, the A5 helps with video-intensive tasks.  That says to me that Apple is big on using hardware to help accelerate video mirroring.  That’s not to say that you can’t do AirPlay mirroring with a pre-2011 Mac.  You’re just going to have to rely on a third party program to do it, like the aforementioned AirParrot.  Take note, though, that AirParrot is going to use your CPU to do all the encoding work for AirPlay.  While that isn’t going to be a big issue for simple presentations or showing your desktop, you should take care if you’re going to do any kind of processor-intensive activity, like firing up a bunch of virtual machines or compiling code.

Tom’s Take

Yes, it’s very irritating that Apple drew the line for AirPlay mirroring support at Sandy Bridge.  As it is with all technology refreshes, being on the opposite side of that line sucks big time.  You’ve got a machine that’s more than capable, yet some design guy said that you can’t hack it any more.  Sadly, these are the kinds of decisions that aren’t made lightly by vendors.  Rather than risk offering incomplete support of producing the kind of dodgy results that make for bad Youtube comparison videos, Apple took a hard line and leaned heavily on QuickSync for AirPlay mirroring support.  In another year it won’t matter much as people will have either upgraded their machines to support it if it’s a crucial need for them, or they’ll let it lie fallow and unused like FaceTime.  If you find yourself asking whether or not your machine can support AirPlay mirroring, just look for a Thunderbolt port.  If you’ve got one, you’re good to go.  Otherwise, you should look into a software solution.  There are lots of good ones out there that will help you out.  Based on Apple’s track record with the iDevices, I wouldn’t hold out hope that they’re going to enable AirPlay mirroring on pre-2011 Macs any time soon.  So, if AirPlay mirroring is something important to you, you’re either going to need to spring for a new Mac or get to work installing some software.

OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion – Review

Today appears to be the day that the world at large gets their hands on OS X 10.8, otherwise known as Mountain Lion. The latest major update in the OS X cat family, Mountain Lion isn’t so much a revolutionary upgrade (like moving from Snow Leopard to Lion) as opposed to an evolutionary one (like moving from Leopard to Snow Leopard). I’ve had a chance to use Mountain Lion since early July when the golden master (GM) build was released to the developer community. What follows are my impressions about the OS from a relatively new Mac user.

When you start your Mountain Lion machine for the first time, you won’t notice a lot that’s different from Lion. That’s one of the nicer things about OS X. I don’t have to worry that Apple is going to come out with some strange AOL-esque GUI update just around the corner. Instead, the same principles that I learned in Lion continue here as well. In lieu of a total window manager overhaul, a heavy coat of polish has been applied everywhere. Most of the features that are listed on the Mountain Lion website are included and likely not to be used by me that much. Instead, there are a few little quality of life (QoL) things that I’ve noticed. Firstly, Lion originally came with the dock indicator for open programs disabled. Instead of a little light telling you that Safari and Mail were open, you saw nothing. This spoke more to the capability introduced that reopened the windows that were open when you closed the program. Apple would rather you think less about a program being open or closed and instead on what programs you wanted to use to accomplish things. In Mountain Lion, the little light that indicates an open program has shrunk to a small lighted notch on the very bottom of the dock below an open program. It’s now rather difficult to determine which programs are open with a quick glance. Being one of those people that is meticulous about which programs I have open at any one time, this is a bit of step in the wrong direction. I don’t mind that Apple has changed the default indicator. Just give me an option to put the old one back.

My Mountain Lion Dock with the new open program indicators

Safari

Safari also got an overhaul. One of the things I like the most about Chrome is the Omnibox. The ability to type my searches directly into the address bar saves me a step, and since my job sometimes feels like the Chief Google Search Engineer, saving an extra step can be a big help. Another feature is the iCloud button. iCloud can now sync open tabs on your iPhone/iPad/iPod/Mountain Lion system. This could be handy for someone that opens a website on their mobile device but would like to look at it on a full-sized screen when they get to the office. Not a groundbreaking feature, but a very nice one to have. The Reading List feature is still there as well from the last update, but being a huge fan of Instapaper, I haven’t really tested it yet.

Dictation

Another new feature is dictation. Mountain lion has included a Siri like dictation feature in the operating system that allows you to say what you want rather than typing it out. Make no mistake though. This isn’t Siri. This is more like the dictation feature from the new iPad. Right now, it won’t do much more than regurgitate what you say. I’m not sure how much I’ll use this feature going forward, as I prefer to write with the keyboard as opposed to thinking out loud. Using the dictation feature does make it much more accurate, as the system learns your accent and idiosyncrasies to become much more adapt over time. If you’d like to get a feel for how well the dictation feature works, (the paragraph)

You’ve been reading was done completely by the dictation feature. I’ve left any spelling and grammar mistakes intact to give you a realistic picture. Seriously though, the word paragraph seems to make the dictation feature make a new paragraph.

Gatekeeper

I did have my first run-in with Gatekeeper about a week after I upgraded, but not for the reasons that I thought I would.  Apple’s new program security mechanism is designed to prevent drive-by downloads and program installations like the ones that embarrassed Apple as of late.  Gatekeeper can be set to allow only signed applications from the App Store to be installed or run on the system.  This gives Apple the ability to not only protect the non-IT savvy populace at large from malicious programs, but also gives Apple the ability to program a remote kill switch in the event that something nasty slips past the reviewers and starts wreaking havoc.  Yes, there have been more nefarious and sinister prognostications that Apple will begin to limit apps to only being able to be installed through the App Store or that Apple might flip the kill switch on software they deem “unworthy”, but I’m not going to talk about that here.  Instead, I wanted to point out the issue that I had with Gatekeeper.  I use a networking monitoring system called N-Able at work that gives me the ability to remote into systems on my customer’s networks.  N-Able uses a Java client to establish this remote connection, whether it be telnet, SSH, or RDP.  However, after my upgrade to Mountain Lion, my first attempt to log into a remote machine was met with a Java failure.  I couldn’t bypass the security warning and launch the app from a web browser to bring up my RDP client.  I checked all the Java security settings that got mucked with after the Flashback fiasco, but they all looked clean.  After a Google Glance, I found the culprit was Gatekeeper.  The default permission model allows Mac App Store apps to run as well as those from registered developers.  However, the server that I have running N-Able uses a self-signed certificate.  That evidently violates the Gatekeeper rules for program execution.  I changed Gatekeeper’s permission model to allow all apps to run, regardless of where the app was downloaded from.  This was probably something that would have needed to be done anyway at some point, but the lack of specific error messages pointing me toward Gatekeeper worried me.  I can foresee a lot of support calls in the future from unsuspecting users not understanding that their real problem isn’t with the program they are trying to open, but with the underlying security subsystem of their Mac instead.

Twitter Integration

Mountain Lion has also followed the same path as it’s mobile counterpart and allowed Twitter integration into the OS itself. This, to me, is a mixed bag. I’m a huge fan of Twitter clients on the desktop. Since Tapbots released the Tweetbot Alpha the same day that I upgraded to Mountain Lion, I’ve been using it as my primary communication method with Twitter. The OS still pops up an update when I have a new Twitter notification or DM, so I see that window before I check my client. The sharing ability in the OS to tweet links and pictures is a nice time saver, but it merely saves me a step of copying and pasting. I doubt I’m any more likely to share things with the new shortcuts as I was before. The forthcoming Facebook integration may be more to my liking. Not because I use Facebook more than I use Twitter. Instead, by having access to Facebook without having to open their website in a browser, I might be more motivated to update every once in a while.

AirPlay

I had a limited opportunity to play with AirPlay in Mountain Lion.  AirPlay, for those not familiar, is the ability to wirelessly stream video or audio from some device to receiver.  As of right now, the only out-of-the box receiver is the Apple TV.  The iPad 2 and 3 as well as the iPhone 4S have the capability to stream audio and video to this device.  Older Macs and mobile devices can only stream audio files, ala iTunes.  In Mountain Lion, however, any newer Mac running an i-Series processor can mirror their screen to an Apple TV (or other AirPlay receiver, provided you have the right software installed).  I tested it, and everything worked flawlessly.  Mountain Lion uses Bonjour to detect that a suitable AirPlay receiver is on the network, and the AirPlay icon appears in the notification area to let you know you can mirror your desktop over there.  The software takes care of sizing your desktop to an HD-friendly resolution and away you go.  There was a bit of video lag on the receiver, but not on the Mountain Lion system itself, so you could probably play games if you wanted, provided your weren’t relying on the AirPlay receiver as your primary screen.  For regular things, like presentations, everything went smooth.  The only part of this system that I didn’t care much for is the mirroring setup.  While I understand the idea behind AirPlay is to allow things like movies to be streamed over to an Apple TV, I would have liked the ability to attach an Apple TV as a second monitor input.  That would let me do all kinds of interesting things.  First and foremost, I could use the multi-screen features in Powerpoint and Keynote as they were intended to be used.  Or I could use AirPlay with a second HDMI-capable monitor to finally have a dual monitor setup for my MacBook Air.  But, as a first generation desktop product, AirPlay on Mountain Lion does some good things.  While I had to borrow the Apple TV that I used to test this feature, I’m likely to go pick one up just to throw in my bag for things like presentations.


Tom’s Take

Is Mountain Lion worth the $20 upgrade price? I would say “yes” with some reservations. Having a newer kernel and device drivers is never a bad thing. Software will soon require Mountain Lion to function, as in the case of the OS X version of Tweetbot when it’s finally released. The feature set is tempting for those that spend time sharing on Twitter or want to use iCloud to sync things back and forth. Notification Center is a plus for those that don’t want popup windows cluttering everything. If you are a heavy user of presentation software and own an AppleTV, the Airplay mirroring may be the tipping point for you. Overall, compared to those that paid much more for more minor upgrades, or paid for upgrades that broke their system beyond belief (I’m looking at you, Windows ME), upgrading to Mountain Lion is painless and offers some distinct advantages. For the price of a nice steak, you can keep the same performance you’ve had with your system running Lion and get some new features to boot. Maybe this old cougar can keep running a little while longer.

My Thoughts on the Macbook Pro with Retina Display

At their annual World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC), Apple unveiled a new line of laptops based on the latest Intel Ivy Bridge chipset. The Macbook Air and Macbook Pro lines received some upgrade love, but the most excitement came from the announcement of the new Macbook Pro with Retina Display. Don’t let the unweildy moniker fool you, this is the new king of the hill when it comes to beastly laptops. Based on the 15.4″ Macbook Pro, Apple has gone to task to slim down as much as possible. It’s just a wee bit thicker than the widest part of a Macbook Air (MBA) and weighs less than the Macbook Pro (MBP) it’s based on. It is missing the usual Ethernet and Firewire ports in favor of two Thunderbolt ports on the left side and USB3 ports on either side. There’s also an HDMI-out port and an SXHD card reader on the right side. Gone as well is the optical drive, mirroring its removal in the MBA. Instead, you gain a very high resolution display that is “Retina Class”, meaning it is a 2880×1800 display in a 15.4″ screen, gaining enough pixels per inch at the average viewing angle to garner the resolutionary Retina designation. You also gain a laptop devoid of any spinning hard disks, as the only storage options in the Macbook Pro with Retina Display (RMBP) are of the solid state disk (SSD) variety. the base model includes a 256 GB disk, but the top end model can be upgraded to an unheard of 768 GB swath of storage. The RAM options are also impressing, starting at 8 GB and topping out at 16 GB. All in all, from the reviews that have been floating around so far, this thing cooks. So, why are so many people hesitant to run out to the Apple Store and shower the geniuses with cash or other valuable items (such as kidneys)?

The first thing that springs to mind is the iFixit article that has been circulating since day 1 that describes the RMBP as “the most unhackable, untenable, and unfixable laptop ever”. They cite that the RAM and SSD are soldered to the main system board just like in the little MBA brother. They also note the the resolutionary Retina Display is glued to the surrounding case, making removal by anyone but a trained professional impossible. Given the smaller size and construction, it’s entirely possible that there will be very few (if any) aftermarket parts available for repairs or upgrades. That begs the question in my case:

Who Cares?

Yep, I said it. I really don’t give a crap if the RMBP is repairable. I’ve currently got a 13″ MBA that I use mostly for travel and typing blog posts. I know that in the event that anything breaks, I’m going to have to rely on AppleCare to fix it for me. I have a screwdriver that can crack the case on it, but I shudder to think what might happen if I really do get in there. I’m treating the MBA just like an iPad – a disposable device that is covered under AppleCare. In contrast, my old laptop was a Lenovo w701. This behemoth was purchased with upgradability in mind. I installed a ton of RAM at the time, and ripped out the included hard disk to install a whopping 80 GB SSD and run the 500 GB HDD beside it. Beyond that, do you know how many upgrades I have performed in the last two years? Zero. I haven’t added anything. Laptops aren’t like desktops. There’s no graphics card upgrades or PCI cards to slide in. There’s no breakout boxes or 75-in-1 card readers to install. What you get with a laptop is what you get, unless you want to use USB or Thunderbolt attachments. In all honesty, I don’t care that the RMBP is static as far as upgradability. If and when I get one, I’m going to order it with the full amount of RAM, as the 4 GB on my MBA has been plenty so far and I’ve had to work my tail off to push the 12 GB in my Lenovo, even owing to the hungry nature of Windows. The SSD might give some buyers a momentary pause, but this is a way for Apple to push two agendas at the same time. The first is that they want you to use iCloud as much as possible for storage. By giving you online storage in place of acres of local disk, Apple is hoping that some will take them up on the offer of moving documents and pictures to the cloud. A local disk is a one time price or upgrade purchase. iCloud is a recurring sunk cost to Apple. Every month you have your data stored on their servers is a month they can make money to eventually buy more disks to fill up with more iCloud customers. This makes the Apple investors happy. The other reason to jettison the large spinning rust disks in favor of svelt SSD sexiness is the Thunderbolt ports on the left side. Apple upgraded the RMBP to two of them for a reason. So far, the most successful Thunderbolt peripheral has been the 27″ Thunderbolt display. Why? Well, more screen real estate is always good. But is also doubles as a docking station. I can hang extra things off the back of the monitor. I can even daisy chain other Thunderbolt peripherals off the back. With two Thunderbolt ports, I no longer have to worry about chaining the devices. I can use a Thunderbolt display along with a Thunderbolt drive array. I can even utilize the newer, faster USB3 drive arrays. So having less local storage isn’t exactly a demerit in my case.

Tom’s Take

When the new Macbook Pro with Retina Display was announced, I kept saying that I was looking for a buyer for my kidney so I could rush out and buy one. I was only mostly joking. The new RMBP covers all the issues that I’ve had with my excellent MBA so far. I don’t care that it’s a bit bigger. I care about the extra RAM and SSD space. I like the high resolution and the fact that I can adjust it to be Retina-like or really crank it up to something like 1680×1050 or 1920×1200. I couldn’t really care less about the supposed lack of upgradability. When you think about it, most laptops are designed to be disposable devices. If it’s not the battery life going caput, it’s the screen or the logic boards the eventually burn out. We demand a lot from our portable devices, and the stress that manufactures are under to make them faster and smaller forces compromises. Apple has decided that giving users easy access to upgrade RAM or SSD space is one of those compromises. Instead, they offer alternatives in add-on devices. When you think about it, most of the people who are walking into the Apple store are never going to crack the case open on their laptop. Heck, I’m an IBM certified laptop repair technician and even I get squeamish doing that. I’d rather rely on the build quality that I can be sure that I’ll get out of the Cupertino Fruit and Computer Company and let AppleCare take care of the rest.

Start Menus and NAT – An Experiment

Fresh off my recent fame from my NAT66 articles (older and newer), I decided first thing Monday morning that a little experiment was in order.  I wanted to express my displeasure for sullying something like IPv6 with something I consider to be at best a bad idea.  The only thing I could come up with was this:

The response was interesting to say the least.  Questions were raised.  Some asked if I was playing a late April Fools joke.  Others rounded up the pitchforks and torches and threatened to burn down my house if I didn’t recant on the spot.  Mostly though, people made sure to express their displeasure by educating me to the fact that I should use something else to do what I wanted rather than rely on the tried-and-true metaphor of a Start Menu.

Now do you see what I’m talking about with NAT66?  Some people think that NAT is needed not because it’s a technological necessity.  Not because it’s solving fifteen problems that IPv6 has right now.  They want NAT because they really don’t understand how things work in IPv6.  It’s the same as bolting a Start Menu on to OS X.  When I started using my new MacBook a few months ago, I took the time to figure out how to use things like Spotlight and Alfred.  They weren’t my Start Menu, but they worked almost the same way (in many cases better).  I didn’t protest the lack of a metaphor I clearly didn’t need.  I adapted and overcame.  And in the end I found myself happier because I found something that worked better than I had hoped.

In much the same way, people that crave NAT on IPv6 are just looking for familiar metaphors for addressing.  I’m going to cast aside the multihoming argument right now because we’ve done that one to death.  Yes, it exists.  Yes, it needs to be addressed.  Yes, NPT is the best solution we’ve got right now.  However, when I started going through all the comments on my NAT66 blog post after the link from the Register article, I noticed that some of the commenters weren’t entirely sure how IPv6 worked.  They did understand that the addresses being assigned to the adapters were globally routable.  But some seemed to believe that a globally routable address meant that every device was going to need a firewall along with DDoS protection and ruleset monitoring.  Besides the fact that every OS has had a firewall since 2002, let me ask one question.  Are you tearing out your WAN firewall when you move to IPv6?  Because as far as I know, you still one have one (maybe two) WAN connections that are terminated on some device.  That could be a router or a firewall.  In the IPv4 world, that device is doing NAT in addition to controlling which devices on the outside can talk to the inside.  Configuring a service to traverse the firewall is generally a two-stage process today.  You must configure a static NAT entry for the device in question and then allow one or more ports to pass through the firewall.  It’s not too difficult, but it is time consuming.  In IPv6, with the same firewall and no NAT, there isn’t a need to create a static NAT entry.  You just permit the ports to access the devices on the inside.  No NAT required.  If you don’t want anyone to talk to the devices on the inside, you don’t configure any inbound rules.  Simple as that.  When you need to poke holes in the firewall for things like web servers, email servers, and so on, all you need to do is poke the hole and be done.

Perhaps what we really need to end this NAT issue is wildcard masking for IPv6 addresses in firewalls.  I have no doubt that eventually any simple home network device that support DHCPv4 today will eventually support DHCPv6 or SLAAC in the near future.  As fast as new chipsets are created to increase the processing power we install into small office/home office devices, it’s inevitable that support will come.  But to support the “easy” argument, what we likely need to do is create a field in the firewall that says “Network Address”.  That would be the higher ordered 48 bits of the IPv6 address.  Once it’s plugged in, the hosts will use DHCPv6 or SLAAC to address themselves.  Then, we select the devices from a list based on DNS name and click a couple of checkboxes to allow ports to open for inbound and outbound traffic.  If a customer is forced to change their address allocation, all they need to do is change the “Network Address” field.  Then, software on the backend would script changes to DHCPv6/SLAAC and all the firewall rules.  DNS would update automatically and all would work again.  Perhaps this idea is too far fetched right now and the scripting necessary would be difficult to write at the present time.  But if it answers the “easy” outcry about IPv6 addressing without the need to add NAT to the protocol, I’m all for it.  Who knows?  Maybe Apple will come up with something just this easy.


Tom’s Take

For the record, I really don’t think there needs to be a Start Menu in OS X.  I think Spotlight is a perfectly fine way to launch programs not located on the dock and find files on your computer.  Even alternatives like Alfred and Quicksilver are fine for me.  The point of my tweet and subsequent replies wasn’t meant to advocate for screwing up the UI of OS X.  It was meant to show that while some people think that my distaste for NAT is silly, all it takes is the right combination of silliness to get people up in arms.  To all of you that were quick to jump and offer alternatives and education for my apparent lack of vision, I say that we need to focus effort like that into educating people about how IPv6 works or spend our time figuring out how to remove the roadblocks standing in the way of adoption.  If that means time writing scripting for low-end devices or figuring out easy UI options, so be it.  After all, someone else has already figured out how to create a Start Menu on a Mac: