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Archives for : September2008

Waiting for bandwidth

No DSL at the home office until Friday, so this will likely be a slow week for [Tc]; blogs.

BTW, it’s been a while since I had DSL hooked up. At the Atlanta house, a tech had to come out and split out one twisted pair into its own line, which I then connected the DSL modem to. Here in GRR, I guess the DSL and voice are on the same line, and I’ll need to use DSL filters for the purely voice devices? Makes me feel foolish for having thrown away at least 5 never-used line filters as I was moving out of the old house. I truly didn’t know what they were, as I believed DSL always required splitting out a separate twisted pair.

Oh, provider is DSL Extreme, who are well-reviewed on Broadband Reports. Wish us luck…

“Shortly”, in historic terms

Remember when WWDC 2008 sold out?

“Response to this year’s WWDC has been off the charts and we are delighted with the show of enthusiasm and support from the developer community for the new iPhone SDK,” Apple spokesman Bill Evans told Macworld. “The conference is now sold out. For those unable to attend WWDC, session videos will be available to purchase on iTunes shortly after the conference.”

WWDC 2008 ended on June 13. It’s currently September 25, so as of tomorrow, 15 weeks (three months and change) will have elapsed.

Just wondering if the announcement needed a the qualification “for exceptionally long interpretations of ‘shortly’.”

Here’s a wild idea: what if whatever’s holding up the NDA release (on the hypothesis that it’s not meant to be permanent) is also holding up the WWDC videos? What if it’s all related to the push notification service, which was originally promised for September?

Or what if this is all grasping at straws and Apple’s just yanking our chain because of their much-blogged penchant for nefarious skullduggery!!

iPhail

The Prags have officially punted, at least for now, on the iPhone book I’ve been co-authoring:

We’ve had the iPhone book ready to go beta for some months, but were prevented from publishing it because of the iPhone SDK’s Non-Disclosure Agreement (which affects all publishers regarding this material, regardless of whether the reader is a member of the ADC or not).

Normally, pre-release NDA’s such as this one are lifted when the product finally ships. We expected that this NDA would be lifted when the iPhone 2.0 software shipped, but it wasn’t. The September announcement came and went, and still the NDA remains in place.

It now appears that Apple does not intend to lift the NDA any time soon. Regrettably, this means we are pulling our iPhone book out of production. But all is not lost: we are actively looking at alternative ways of getting this content to you. It probably won’t happen anytime soon, but know that we are doing what we can.

Well, at least I don’t have to return the advance… because there wasn’t one. Another plus: this hasn’t gone nearly as badly as closing on the new house is going.

How Cellphone Makers Let Their Market Slip Away

A new article in Ad Age looks at How Cellphone Makers Let Their Market Slip Away.

The iPhone, which hardly needs an introduction, made a big splash with its 2007 launch, but the seeds were sown for the demise of the big phone brands several years before that. Had they been listening to consumer chatter online, they might have seen it coming.

The article looks at online chatter and use of the word “cool” in relation to phones. Some number of years ago, the semantics in this context changed from physical appearance (small, sleek, colorful, etc.) to functionality and ease-of-use.

that is why when Apple tore down the boundaries and redrew them, it focused as much on the software as the hardware, turning communication devices into computers.

True enough, but I think in terms of functionality, the iPhone goes further than that. It’s not just that the software is easy-to-use, but it also gives you a real browser that can hit real web pages. On my old phones, the first thing I downloaded was Opera Mini, and I only stopped using it when T-Mobile changed their $6/mo. internet plan from “enjoy the whole internet” to “enjoy paying more for our walled garden of utter crap”. I could have upgraded to full internet for $25/mo, but it wasn’t worth it to surf with Opera Mini.

So it’s not just the cellphone makers that didn’t see it coming, it’s also the carriers with their stupid walled gardens of crap content. “Get Verizon and enjoy American Idol clips!”… even if I liked American Idol, this wouldn’t be interesting, and certainly not enough to change carriers for. Users were used to real Internet from their computers and wanted it on their phones, and carriers were determined not to give it to them.

Go Buy This: New Cocoa Book from the Pragmatic Programmers

Daniel Steinberg, my editor on the stalled-by-the-frickin-NDA iPhone book, is filling the time by writing a new Cocoa programming book for the Prags. He’s ever the storyteller, and uses analogy like no author I know (his assigned seating metaphor for Bonjour IP address assignment is the most sensible treatment I’ve ever seen for the concept).

PDF subscription is only $22. I’ve got mine. Go get yours.

Writing about things I can’t write about

The iPhone SDK NDA is really cutting into my ability to write about what I’m actually working on outside of the usual java.net editing gig.

To wit: I just completed the first of four iPhone SDK articles, but of course I can’t say whom it’s for or what it’s about. I may not even be able to link to it when it’s done. Which is a shame because it’s way attractive. See if you can find a very quiet reference to it on the reworked Subsequently & Furthermore home page, now with much more iPhone content (since that’s the kind of freelancing work I’m hoping to attract).

For my own projects, I’m digging into the OpenAL support right now. You have to understand both the OpenAL API and make some use of the Audio Toolbox, for reasons that are presumably also off-limits given the NDA. Suffice to say that much of the OpenAL sample code on the net won’t work, thanks to the deprecation (and what’s the next step after that… anyone?) of certain convenience (crutch?) functions that maybe shouldn’t have been part of OpenAL in the first place. So, you use Audio Toolbox, which is a pretty attractive API in its own right.

At some point I’m going to get back into the net radio code for iPhone. Some of my Core Foundation work that I did for the book (and then threw away, since a Cocoa alternative was available) makes me understand some of my inexplicable errors that hung me up a few months ago. To wit, if myBuffers is a CFArrayRef instead of an old-fashioned C array, then referencing myBuffers[i] is a very, very bad idea (the correct call is CFArrayGetValueAtIndex(i)).

But having said that, there are enough web radio apps already to make me not want to do yet another, to say nothing of the legal burden of licensing a stream-finder, or (ick) hosting my own. I might have to move on to the harder audio app idea that I can’t shake, but haven’t committed to paper prototype yet.

Speaking of iPhone audio apps, I have nothing to add to the controversy over the rejection of Podcaster except to say that I would have expected Apple to backtrack and OK the app by close-of-business today, since the decision is so obviously wrong and harmful to the platform as a whole. Giving serious developers second thoughts about developing for the iPhone, if not sending them fleeing to the exits, is probably not in Apple’s self-interest.

I’m inclined to think it’s just a case of working out the kinks in the App Store: when it opened, there were howls of derision for Apple letting in junk like the hundreds of public-domain books wrapped in a trivial reader, the “flashlight” apps, or the $1,000 “I Am Rich” app. Now they’ve gone too far the other way, but rather than reject Podcaster for being junk, which it’s not, the stated reason is that it supposedly competes with Apple’s built-in iPhone functionality (not even true because Podcaster can fetch podcasts while you’re mobile, a nice feature when you take your iPhone on a trip and leave behind the Mac Pro it’s synched with).

Again, I’m not freaking because it’s so obviously, wildly wrong, that I think Apple will quietly make things right.

Of course, I had confidence the inexplicable, unenforceable NDA would have been lifted by now, so what do I know?

The Reality Distortion Field doesn’t make it all the way to Grand Rapids

iTunes 8, huh? Grid view? Let me ask you something:

Why on Earth would I want to see my music sorted alphabetically by the first name of the performer? This would be a silly way to organize my music if it were merely a possible configuration of my preferences… and instead it’s the default sort order.

It also goes without saying that quite a bit of the music in my iTunes library absolutely stumps the “Genius”, which responds with a rather trivial offer of the top tracks in the selected album’s genre, soundtracks in this case:

I can’t wait for the Genius to say “don’t know nothin’ bout no hip indie rock bands… how ’bout a little Jonas Brothers instead?”

Update: Mission accomplished:

I think I’d rather have tighter Pandora or Last.fm integration in iTunes than this wanna-be feature. Pass.

iPod Day ’08

Apple’s Let’s Rock event starts in a few hours, and is presumably the annual iPod refresh to kick off the holiday shopping season. With everyone talking about a rumored new form-factor for the nano and a capacity bump for the Touch, my question is whether they’ll keep making the Classic for the buyer who wants to put all 2,000 of their CDs on their iPod, or if Apple’s ready to kill off the HDD-based iPod.

All I want from Santa (or Steve) this year is for the iPhone NDA to drop. The book is effectively stalled at this point, as we no longer know whether the end of the NDA is a “when, not if” proposition. With 200 pages down and completely uncompensated, the idea of writing another 200 is pretty unappealing if we might never be able to sell it.

I’d add that selling our old house in Marietta would be a nice Christmas gift, but having thrown in another $8,000 of work last week and having cut the price by $30,000, it had really better sell long before Christmas. Sigh.

Play Album “More Friends”. No, the other one.

The move has been hard, worse than expected, and I’m just back from a four-day Michigan-to-Atlanta crash trip to have some work done on the house there to try to get it to sell. My mom kindly drove down with me to share the drive, and to put miles on her lease car rather than my Cougar. Her car is a Ford Focus, with the Sync by Microsoft system that they’ve never tried using, and that my dad was interested in seeing work. So, along the way, I tried it out with my iPod Classic and 1G iPhone.

The general idea of Sync is to enable voice-activated access to your media player and your mobile phone. You connect a media device like an iPod either by an analog 1/8″ audio cable, or by a USB cable, both of which connect in the center console. Phones connect via Bluetooth, with the car as essentially a Bluetooth device that you need to pair to your phone. We didn’t try the phone features, but its promised features look useful enough, enabling hands-free voice-activated dialing to names in your address book, and answering of incoming calls by just clicking one button on the steering wheel.

We gave the media features more of a workout. When you first plug in a media device, Sync needs to index it, which takes a few minutes if you have 11,000 titles on your iPod. The 8GB iPhone indexed a lot faster.

After this, you select your audio sources with one-word commands (“LINE IN”, “USB”, “CD”, “FM”, etc.), and in USB mode, you speak straightforward commands like “PLAY ALBUM MOONDANCE” or “PLAY TRACK PORTIONS FOR FOXES”.

This is the bread-and-butter of Sync’s media mode, and like a lot of software, Microsoft’s in particular, it’s solid for the easy cases, but weak once you really get into it:

  • Album and track modes are more or less exclusive. Let’s say you start Magical Mystery Tour, but then you want to jump from the instrumentals and George songs on side one (which are good, of course, but still…) and go straight to the singles on side two by saying “PLAY TRACK HELLO GOODBYE”. As it turns out, issuing this command quietly takes you out of album mode. At the end of “Hello Goodbye”, you won’t go into “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but instead to the next “Hello” song in alphabetical order in your player’s “all songs” list. The only way to get the intended behavior would be to issue a series of “NEXT TRACK” commands, which is burdensome with the speak-response cycle (you could also just click the “next” button over on the dash a bunch of times too).
  • Sync doesn’t like it if you use non-English character sets for your metadata tags. Indexing gave me a stern lecture about supplying metadata for my music, even though I’m sure the small amount of music in the iPhone is all tagged. The problem seems to be the use of Japanese metadata in some of my albums. Sync doesn’t know the difference between エアリスのテ-マ (“Aeris’ Theme”) and アンコール 再臨:片翼の天使 (“Advent: One Winged Angel”), and they can’t be played by track, my bad Japanese pronunciation notwithstanding. More annoyingly, you can’t even play an album with a mix of Western and non-Western metadata tagging. I could play “Don’t Be Afraid” from More Friends: Music from Final Fantasy with the voice command “PLAY TRACK DON’T BE AFRAID”, but the voice command “PLAY ALBUM MORE FRIENDS MUSIC FROM FINAL FANTASY” was never accepted, and simplifying it to “PLAY ALBUM MORE FRIENDS” got me Jools Holland’s More Friends: Small World Big Band Vol. 2, without an option to disambiguate.
  • Sync has problems with Roman numerals, and sometimes with numbers. It took a few tries to get Planet P Project’s 1931 to play, having to instead use its full title with a mispronounced roman numeral: “PLAY ALBUM NINETEEN THIRTY ONE GO OUT DANCING PART EYE”.
  • You forget some of the junk in your metadata tags until Sync makes you pronounce them, like “(Live)” tacked on to the end of every song title from a live album, or having to speak an entire junked-up title like “PLAY ALBUM THE BLACK PARADE MUSIC VIDEO VERSION”.

It’s easy to say that this feels a lot like a typical 1.0 product, specifically a Microsoft 1.0 product. They’ve missed (or chosen not to deal with) a bunch of things that come up in everyday use. But the speech recognition and synthesis in non-ambiguous cases is pretty solid. Moreover, Microsoft is notorious for sticking with things and delivering really solid 3.0s. Unless Apple’s planning on adapting iPhone OS for in-car use real soon — I hope they do, but they choose their battles carefully, and this might be ancillary to them — then Sync is something to watch, as it could be pretty cool a few versions from now. Hopefully, it’ll spread from Ford’s lame nameplates to the better ones, specifically Mazda.