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:

Why Not OS X Cougar?

Apple announced today that the new version of OS X (10.8) will be called Mountain Lion.  This makes sense considering the last version was called Lion and this is more of an evolutionary upgrade than a total redesign.  But I wondered why the didn’t pick something more catchy.  Like Cougar.  I realize the connotations that the word “cougar” carries in the world today.  You can read some of them on Urban Dictionary, but be warned it’s a very Not-Safe-For-Work page.  The more I thought about it, the more it made sense that it should be called Cougar.  After all, OS X 10.8…:

– is very mature at this point

– is trying to stay attractive and good looking despite its advancing age

– is trying hard to attract a younger crowd

– unsure of what it wants to be (OS X or iOS)

– has expensive tastes (10.8 will only work well on newer Intel i-series processors)

For the record, OS X 10.1 Puma and 10.3 Panther are the same animal as 10.8 Mountain Lion.  Maybe they’ll save Cougar until 10.9.

Software I Use Every Day – OS X Edition

For those that have been keeping up, I am now the proud owner of a MacBook Air.  I originally purchased it to use as a learning aid to get better at working on OS X Snow Leopard and Lion.  I also decided to see if I could use it to replace carrying my behemoth Lenovo w701 around to do simple things like console connections.  I’ve done my best to spend time in the last month working with it every day and trying out new software to duplicate my current job functions.  Now that I’ve got a handle on things, I figured I’d share what I’ve learned with you in a manner similar to my last software blog post.


Terminal Access – iTerm2

This was the first program I downloaded after I logged into my MacBook.  If you are a network rock star, it should be your first download as well.  This program is the terminal on steroids.  Tabs, split window panes, search-in-window, and profile support top the list of the most needed features for someone that spends most of their day staring at a CLI window.  I don’t even open the Terminal.App program any more.  I just use iTerm2.  This program replaced PuTTY for me and did a great job of replacing TeraTerm as well.  The only thing that it lacks is the ability to use a serial console connection.  I think that’s more of a single-purpose use case for the iTerm2 folks, so I doubt it will ever be rolled into the program.  All things being equal, this will probably be the most useful program you’ll download for your Mac.


Serial Console Access – ZTerm

The console is where I live.  I spend more time staring at CLI screens that I do my own kids.  The inability for me to access the familiar confines of a serial connection is a deal breaker.  I was a little apprehensive about serial console access on the Mac after hearing about some troubles that people were having after upgrading to OS X Lion.  I pulled out my trust Prolific PL-2303 serial adapter and plugged it in to test the driver support.  I had no issues on Lion 10.7.2, but I’ve been told that some may need to go to the Prolific site and download the newest drivers.  As a side note here, I had the exact same issues when I upgraded to Windows 7 64-bit on my laptop, so I think the problems with the adapter are based on the 64-bit drivers and not necessarily on your particular OS.  Once I had the adapter working in the OS, it was time to find a program to access that console connection.  ZTerm kept coming up as the best program to do that very thing.  Some of the other serial connection programs (like CoolTerm) are focused on batch serial connections, like sending commands to a serial device in programming.  ZTerm allows you to have interactive access to the console.  You can also do captures of the serial output, which is a feature I love from TeraTerm.  That way, I can just type show run and not have to worry about copying and pasting the input into a new Notepad window.  A quick note – when launching ZTerm for the first time, the baud rate of the connection is set to 38400.  Since networking equipment only plays nice at 9600, be sure to change that and save your settings so it comes up correctly after that.

Note that ZTerm is shareware and costs $20 to register.  It’s worth every penny for those that need to access equipment through old fashioned serial links.


TFTP Server – TFTPServer for Mac

OS X has its own built-in TFTP server.  However, I’ve watched competent network rock stars struggle with permissions issues and the archaic CLI needed to get it running.  In the comments of my original software blog post, Simon Naughton (@norgsy) pointed me toward Fabrizio La Rosa’s TFTPServer GUI configuration tool.  This little jewel helps you get the right permissions setup on your TFTP service as well as letting you point the TFTP service to a specific directory for serving files.  I love this because I can keep the remote machine from needed to sift through large numbers of files and keep only the necessary files located in my TFTP directory.  I can also enable and disable the program in a flash without needing to remember the five argument CLI command or forgetting to sudo and get a failed error message.  Do yourself a favor and download this program.  Even if you only ever use TFTP once, you’ll be glad you have this little tool to help and won’t have to spend hours sifting through documentation and forum posts.


SFTP – Built In

This was one of my first “Ah ha!” moments with OS X.  Working with voice requires access to FTP services for COP file uploads and DiRT backups.  I have used FTP forever on my Windows machines because SFTP was such a pain to setup.  I wanted to duplicate that functionality on the MacBook Air, but a few searches found that Apple has removed the ability to configure the FTP service from the GUI.  I knew I was going to need to use FTP at some point, so I kept looking and found an article on OSXDaily about enabling FTP with a command line string.  However, buried in the article is a gem that took me by surprise.  By enabling remote login in the sharing page under System Preferences, you automatically enable SSH and SFTP!  Just like that.  After all the fits and starts I had with SFTP on Windows, OS X enables it with a simple radio button.  Who knew?  Now that I have a simple SFTP server running on my MacBook, I don’t think I’ll ever use FTP again unless I have to.  Should you find yourself in a predicament where you can’t use SFTP though, there’s the CLI command to enable the Lion FTP server:

sudo -s launchctl load -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ftp.plist

And here’s the command to turn it off once you’re done with it:

sudo -s launchctl unload -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ftp.plist

RSS Feeds – Reeder

My favorite RSS reader for the iDevices, Reeder allows me to digest my RSS feeds from Google Reader in a quick and clean manner.  No ads, no fluff, just the info that I need to take in.  Thankfully, Silvio Rizzi also put out a version for OS X as well.  I keep this one up and running at all times in a separate screen so I can flip over and see what my friends are posting.  It’s a great tool that allows me to be in the know about what’s going on.  It’s $5 on the Mac App Store, but once again worth every penny you pay for it.


Tom’s Take

There are a ton of other apps that I use frequently on my MacBook Air, but the ones I’ve listed shine above all others.  Those get a workout and some of the reasons why my little adventure with OS X is staring to grow on me.  Yes, there are apps that don’t really have an equivalent right now.  I’ve managed to avoid the need for modeling/graphics software so far, so I can’t compare the alternatives to Microsoft Visio.  I spend a lot of my time using Netformx DesignXpert, which I can’t use natively in OS X.  Beyond that, it’s just a matter of deciding what I want to do and finding a program that will do it for me.  There are a lot of options available, both in the Mac App Store and out on the web.  The trick with a Mac isn’t so much about worrying how you’re going to do something, but rather what you want to do.  The rest just seems to take care of itself.

MacBook Air – My First Week

As many of you know, I am now a convert to the Cult of Mac.  I finally broke down and bought a MacBook Air this past week.  I’ve spent some time using it and I think I’m about ready to give my first impressions based on what I’ve learned so far.

My primary reason for getting a MacBook was to spend some time learning the OS.  I’ve taken the OS X Snow Leopard Administration exam already thanks to my Hackintosh and the time I’ve spent troubleshooting some of my friends’ MacBooks.  If I’m going to seriously start to work on deploying them and working on them, I figured it was time to eat a bit of my own dogfood.  Thanks to Best Buy running a nice sale on the entry-level MacBook Air, I leaped at the chance while I could.  I knew I wanted something portable rather than having a 21″ iMac on my desk.  I did spend a lot of time going back and forth about whether I wanted a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air.  The Pro does have a lot more expandability and horsepower under the hood.  I would feel a lot more comfortable running virtual machines with the Pro.  However, the Air is an ultraportable that would come in very handy for me on my many recent travels with things like Tech Field Day.  The SSD option in the basic Air was also a lure, as my SSD in my Thinkpad was the best investment I have made.  Add in the $1000 (US) price difference, and the Air won this round.

I’ve used OS X quite a bit in the last 6 months, but most of my experience has been on Snow Leopard.  Lion wasn’t much different on the surface, but it did take some time for me to relearn things at first.  I spent the majority of my time the first couple of days finding things to replicate the tasks that I spend most of my time doing each day.  I installed VMware Fusion as my OS virtualization program thanks to my status as a VMware partner, and I installed MS Office thanks to my Microsoft Gold Partner status.  Afterwards, I looked back over the lists I had compiled for Mac software, such as those found in the comments of my Software I Use Every Day post.  I settled on OmniGraffle for my drawing program and TextWrangler for my basic text editor.  After installing the drivers for my USB-to-serial adapter, I figured I was ready to strike out on my adventure of using a Mac day-to-day.

I’ve already encountered some interesting issues.  I knew Outlook at my office would be broken for me thanks to some strange interactions between Outlook 2011, Exchange 2007, and Exchange Web Services (EWS).  Outlook 2011 might as well be called Outlook 1.0 right now due to the large amount of issues that have cropped up since the switch from Entourage.  Most people I know have either switched back to using Entourage or have started using the native Mail.app.  I have decided Mail.app is the way to go for me until Outlook 201x comes out and actually works.  I also have to remember to use the Command (⌘) key for my CTRL-based shortcuts when I’m in OS X proper.  The CTRL-key commands still work in my terminal sessions and Windows RDP sessions, so the shift in thinking goes back and forth a lot.  I’m also still trying to get used to missing my familiar old Trackpoint.  I like the feel of the MacBook trackpad, and the gesture support is quickly becoming second nature.  However, the ability to navigate without taking my hands off the keyboard is missed some times.  I also miss my Page Up and Page Down keys when navigating long PDFs.  I know that the scrolling is very smooth with the trackpad, but putting a PDF into page mode and tapping a key is a quick way to go back and forth quickly.  The other fun thing that cropped up was a ground hum from the power supply when recording Packet Pushers show 78.  Thankfully, Ivan Pepelnjak was able to help me out quickly since he recently got his own MacBook.  If you’d like to read his thoughts on his new MacBook, you can go here.  I can definitely identify with his pains.


Tom’s Take

When I announced that I had finally fallen to the Dark Side and bought a Mac, the majority of the responses boiled down to “about time, dude”.  I can’t help but chuckle at that.  Yes, years ago I actively resisted the idea of using a Mac.  I’ve started to come around in the past few months due to the fact that most of the software that I use has an equivalent on the Mac.  Given the fact that I’ve already had to start running some of my software on a Windows XP VM instead of natively on Windows 7 64-bit, the idea of switching wasn’t that abhorrent after all.  I don’t know if the Air is ever going to replace my every day Windows computing needs.  I know that carrying it around on trips is going to be a lot easier than lugging the 8-pound Lenovo behemoth through the TSA gauntlet.  Maybe after I spend a little more time with OS X Lion I’ll finally get my processes and procedures to the point where I can say goodbye to the Redmond Home Improvement Corporation and settle down with the Cupertino Fruit Company.

BYO(a)D

I’ve talked about the whole Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement before and how it reminded me a lot of social circles in high school.  Now, a few months later, it appears that this movement has gained a lot of steam and is now in the phase of “If you aren’t dealing with it, you need to be” phase for enterprise and corporate IT departments.  I also know that it must be gaining more acceptance when my mom started asking me about that whole “Bring Your Own Computer to Work Day” stuff.  To give you an idea of where my mom falls on the tech adoption curve:

Yeah, it’s going to be popular if my mom has heard of it.  It also hit home last week when the new guy came into the office for his first day of work toting a MacBook and wondering what information he needed to setup in Mail to connect to Exchange.  Being a rather small company, the presence of a MacBook sent hushed whispers through the office along with anguished cries of fear at such a shiny thing.  We shackled him with a ThinkPad and took care of the immediate issue, but it did get my brain pondering something about BYOD and what represents it.

When I talk to people about BYOD and how I must now start supporting new devices and rewriting applications to support various platforms, the response I get is overwhelming in its unity: Will this work on my Mac/iPad/iPhone?  I hardly ever get asked about Ubuntu or Fedora or Froyo or Blackberry.  No one ever worries about using Ice Cream Sandwich to access the corporate Citrix farm, and not just because it isn’t out yet.  I find that far and away the largest number of people driving the idea of platform-agnostic service and application access tend to be fans of the Cupertino Fruit Company.  In fact, I am almost to the point where I’m going to start referring to it as BYOAD (Bring Your Own Apple Device).  Why is the representation so skewed?

At first I thought it might be a technical thing.  Linux users, after all, tend to be a little more technical than Mac users.  Linux folks aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty with file permissions or kernel recompiles.  They also seem to understand that while it would be nice to have certain things, other ideas are so difficult or impossible that it’s not worth trying.  Such as Exchange access in Evolution Mail.  Access to an Exchange server would make a Linux mail client an instant killer app.  The need to incorporate non-free code, however, is very much at odds with the “free as in freedom” mantra of many Linux stalwarts.  So we accept that we can’t access Exchange from anything other than a virtualized or emulated Outlook client and we move on.  Fix what you can, accept and work around what you can’t.  In a way, I tend to believe that kind of tinkering mentality filters down to many of the Android users out there.  Cyanogenmod is a perfect example of this, as is the ability with which users can root their devices to install things like VPN clients.  Android and Linux users like to see all the gory details of their systems.

I was lucky enough to attend a panel at the Oklahoma City Innotech conference that dealt with the new realities behind BYOD.  The panel fielded a lot of questions about software to ease transitions and security matters.  I did ask a question about Apple vs. Android/BlackBerry/Linux BYOD adoption and the panel said more or less that OS X/iOS access comprised up to 85% of their requests in many cases.  However, Eric Hileman was on the panel and said something that gave me pause in my thinking.  He told me that in his view, it wasn’t so much the device that was driving the BYOD movement as it was the culture behind each device.  As soon as he said it, I realized that I had been going down that road already and just hadn’t made it to the turn yet.

I had unconsciously put the Linux/Android users into a culture of tinkerers.  Curious engineers and kernel hackers that want to know how something works.  Nothing is magical for them.  They know every module loaded in their system and can modprobe for drivers like second nature.  Apple fans, on the other hand, are more artistic from what I’ve seen.  They don’t necessarily like to get under the hood of their aluminium marvels any more than they have to (if they even can).  To them, magic is important.  Applications should install with effort and just work.  Systems should never crash and kernels are pieces of popcorn, not parts of the operating system.  Their mantra is “It just works”.

Note that I didn’t say anything about intelligence levels.  Many of the smartest people I know use Macs daily.  I’ve also known some pretty inept Linux users that ran the OS simply because it couldn’t get as screwed up as Windows.  Intelligence is a non issue.  It comes down to cultures.  Mac people want the same access they’d have if they were running a PC.  After all, the hardware is all the same now with Intel chips instead of PowerPC.  Why should I get access to all my apps?  Apple is free to create interfaces into non-free software like Microsoft Office since they don’t have the “free as in freedom” battle cry to stand next to as much as the Debian fans out there.  For the Mac users, it doesn’t matter how something gets done.  It just needs to happen.  Software that doesn’t work isn’t looked at as a curiosity to be dissected and fixed.  Instead, it is discarded and other options are explored.


Tom’s Take

Thanks to Steve’s Cupertino Fruit Company, we have a revolution on our hands that is enabling people to concentrate more on creating content and less on having all the right tools on the right OS to get started.  Many of my peers have settled on using MacBooks so they can have a machine that never breaks and “just works”.  It’s kind of funny to think even just 3 or 4 years ago how impossible the idea of having OS-agnostic applications was.  Now I can go out and buy pretty much whatever I want and be assured that 85% of my applications will run on it.  As long as I’ve dabbled with Linux I’ve never felt that was a possibility.  To me, it seems that the artists and designers with an eye to form needed to cry out over the engineers and tinkerers that hold function in higher esteem.  We may yet one day get to the point where OS is an afterthought, but it’s going to take a lot more people bringing their own fruit to work.

One More Thing…Now What?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 13 hours or so, you’ve probably heard that Steve Jobs has stepped down as CEO of Apple.  He has asked to move to the position of Chairman of the Board, and he’s requested that current Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook step into the CEO seat.  This isn’t much of a change, as Cook has been acting in the role since January of this year, when Jobs stepped aside due to medical reasons related to his battle with pancreatic cancer.  One can only assume that if he is resigning today and completely stepping back that this medical battle isn’t going as well as he might have hoped and that he will need to devote time and energy to his healing process that would otherwise be distracted running the largest company of all time.

This announcement happened when it did for a good reason.  Apple is rumored to be on the verge of announcing the iPhone 5.  In fact, I expect to see the confirmation of an event happening in mid-September sometime late next week, after news of Steve’s resignation calms down.  Had Jobs waited to announce his resignation between the pre-event release and the actual event, it would have overshadowed the launch of what will likely become the most successful phone in the history of the company.  People are salivating over the prospect of a new iPhone, and the fact that it wasn’t announced at WWDC this year is whipping the fanboys into a frenzy.  Stepping down now allows all the retrospectives and analysis to happen ahead of the new product launch, while not casting an iCloud on it (see what I did there?).

Tim Cook will be scrutinized at this event like no time in his past.  Sure, he’s launched products before in place of Captain Turtleneck, but this time he isn’t just a temp filling in for the man.  Now, he *IS* the man and the leader of the Cult of Steve.  If he comes across as confident and reassured, people will be happy and content.  If he feels nervous or ill-suited for his role at the head of Apple, both he and the stock price won’t last long.  Much has been written about what will happen to Apple after Steve’s departure, due to the effect his strong personality has on the direction of Apple’s business.  Much like Oracle and Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs drives his company through force of will.  His aesthetic ideas become design mantras.  If he thinks something needs to be jettisoned for the greater good, out it goes.  Cook may not be the man to do all that.  He may just be a steward that shepherds the last of Steve’s designs out the door before taking a bow himself.  I’ve always said that in football, you never want to be the coach that follows a legend.  Here, I’m thinking that Tim Cook may not want to be the CEO that follows an even bigger legend.

I think the Jobs Design Philosophy is still ingrained enough at Apple that the next generation or two of products will still be wild sellers.  The iPhone 5, iPad3, and rumored redesigns of 15″ MacBook Airs and the like will still bear enough of the imprint of the former CEO to keep the company riding high for some time to come.  Much like a football coach that takes over for a legend that has recruited the best players and goes on to win a championship with that talent, the hangover effect of Jobs will last for a while.  The worrisome thing is what happens after Generation+2.  Will the design wizards be able to continue the success?  Will the company have enough fortitude to make crazy decisions now to pay off later, like that whole silly notion of a tablet device.  Taking risks got Apple where it is today, but only because Steve Jobs was a risk-taker.  If that mentality hasn’t been cultivated among those left in the company, we could find ourselves quickly repeating history when it comes to Apple and their slice of the market.

Tom’s Take

I’m sorry to see Steve Jobs go.  Yes, I’ve poked fun at Macs before, but truthfully I’m starting to come around a little.  I think now the important thing is for Jobs to take all the time he needs to stay healthy and impart some wisdom from time to time at Apple.  I think that Tim Cook will do a wonderful job keeping things afloat for the time being, but he needs to be very careful in continuing the innovation and risk taking that has made Apple a serious contender in the personal computer market.  If Apple become complacent, there’s a long spiral to fall down before hitting bottom again.  Only this time, the man with the turtleneck isn’t going to be waiting to swoop in out of the cold and pick them back up again.  Who knows?  Maybe Woz is just biding his time to make a triumphant return…

Why I Went Back To iOS 4.3.3…For Now

I’ve been an unofficial beta tester of iOS 5 for about two weeks now. There are a lot of interesting features that I think have the capability to make my life easier. First and foremost is the revamped notification system. Not being pulled out of my current thoughts by a modal dialog box is a great thing. Being able to deal with alerts on my schedule is very liberating. Also of great import to me is the integration with Twitter.
Allowing me to tag contacts with Twitter handles helps me keep my nerd friends straight, and the ability to snap pictures and upload them directly to Twitter is very helpful for those that takes tons of snapshots, like Stephen Foskett. There are even more features that have promise, like iMessage.

So why, on the eve of my trip to Cisco Live 2011, did I put my phone into DFU mode and go back to 4.3.3? Well, for all the greatness that I found in the beta, there were a couple of things that gave me pause. Enough pause that when I knew I was going to be at a conference where I would be relying heavily on my phone to be my lifeline to the rest of the world for a week, I had to go back to something a little more polished. My biggest complaint about the beta release of iOS 5 was the abysmal battery life. I wasn’t on beta release 1, which by all accounts had a battery life best measured in minutes. I jumped in during beta 2, where things were much improved, or so the story went. However, I found my battery life to be noticeably worse. I hesitated to use my phone to check my email or Twitter feed for fear it wouldn’t last through the day. If I actually made a call on it, I had to recharge it on the way home from work to be sure it would hold out. My trip to the OSDE tweetup was marred by less than 10% battery power, which made status updates unrealistically optimistic. I know that battery life is always a fine balance to maintain. New features require even more power, and the antiquated battery in my 3GS is quickly approaching the end of its useful life. However, if the next beta doesn’t address the battery life issue with a little more tweaking, it will be a hard choice to make.

Another irritation was the overall lagginess of my phone. Apps would take an extra second or two to launch than normal. Pulling up information inside Facebook or Safari seemed to freeze every time. My new fancy camera app crashed so much it was unusable. The phone just seemed to stall, like a computer with an old, slow processor or inadequate amount of RAM. Again, I know that most of this is due to the code train not being
optimized yet for release and the apps not being optimized for iOS 5. Usually, these are the last things to get fixed before release, so I’m optimistic that things will clear up. However, these are the same complaints that iPhone 3G users had about iOS 4 when it was released. It seems that maybe Apple’s support of 2-year old hardware is spotty in some cases.

Tom’s Take

Beta testing is always a crapshoot. You are agreeing to test something that may not be ready for prime time. I’ve been beta testing things since I got into computers and networking, so I’m never shocked by what I get into. However, in recent years, companies have been using the beta tag a lot differently. They either keep something that’s ready for release in beta forever, like GMail, or they push unfinished code out the door and make
their customers unwilling beta testers, which can best be summed up by the old maxim, “Don’t install a new version of Windows until the first service pack is released.” While I like many of the new features of iOS 5, the lack of polish in the battery life and lag departments were enough to make me reconsider my decision this time. I especially find that part funny, since I’ve never been so attached to a device to care about what revision
of code is running on it. I might give beta 3 a shot (if there is one), but for now I’m going back to something that isn’t going to make me tote around a 500-foot extension cord and curse my phone twice as much as I do already.