When your PowerBook G4 screen goes dark

I had a panicked call last night from Estaminet, whose PowerBook G4 laptop screen was going dark just seconds after booting up and staying dark. She had a paper due tomorrow morning. Could I help her out?

I have a karmic obligation to answer these kinds of support calls, considering that the lemon laptop in question used to be mine. So I Googled the problem while I talked her down. The most likely answer (though we’ll know for sure once she has it seen by a specialist) was that the inverter board went south. This is a hardware failure and can’t be remedied by poking about in the system, but since it’s confined to the video subsystem the rest of the PowerBook was still working.

Racking my brain to figure out how to get her paper-in-progress off the machine, I had her try a tip from the MacOSXHints forum: shine a bright light, like a flashlight, directly at the screen to see what the computer is doing, then turn on iChat. I then sent a screen sharing request, which she was just able to see and accept, and then I saw her whole desktop clear as day on my machine. I fired up Firefox and Gmailed her paper to her so that she could work on it on another machine.

So, in summary: iChat screen sharing is your friend if your screen fails.

Reunion on the iPhone: Genealogy on the go

reunionI got an email from someone the other day asking about one of my ancestors (Andrew Hershey, 1702-1792). I get this sort of email all the time, since my family tree is online, and normally I’d have looked up the answer to the questions and emailed back. The problem was, I was on my iPhone and didn’t have access to my detailed genealogy research. I found myself thinking, I wonder if there’s a good genealogy app for the iPhone. Maybe something that will read my GEDCOM export and display it nicely. It would be really great if Reunion were on my phone, though.

So I hit the app store, and the first app in the search results for genealogy was … Reunion! Leister Pro has done an iPhone client that allows you to bring your genealogy data with you, and sync it back to your Mac when you’re done… sort of.

I have about 4000 records in my family data, and opening and browsing it is quick and painless. The UI is splendid, taking all the best parts of the Reunion “family card” display and porting them painlessly to the iPhone. Images are supported, and the experience is almost like sitting in front of my Mac.

There was one glitch I encountered–somehow my sources data didn’t seem to move from my Mac, something I’ll need to investigate further–and two missing features. On the iPhone it would seem natural to provide the ability to add a photo from the phone’s photo list or from the built-in camera to an entry; neither is currently supported. And the app relies on a Bonjour based syncing strategy — turn on your phone, click a button on your Mac, and the syncing happens over your WiFi network — that happens separately from the phone’s main sync loop. Based on your opinion of iPhone syncing, this may be a good or bad thing, but surely there are other sync methods available that wouldn’t require a separate action.

Right now these are quibbles–I’m generally very pleased with the app, and thrilled Ididn’t have to find a new genealogy app just for the iPhone.

Is it new MacBook time yet?

I have a  feeling, like a disturbance in the Force. It’s the feeling I get when it’s time for a new Mac.

I’ve been a Mac user for a long time… since my first year of undergrad, when my dad splurged on the best Mac ever made, the SE/30, for me. I’ve had, including the SE/30, two desktops and three laptops since then, as follows:

Machine Purchased Duration Fate
SE/30 September 1990 5 years Given to younger sister; recycled
Power Mac 7200/90 ca. October 1995 ca. 5 years Given to father; recycled
PowerBook G3 (Pismo) August 2000 2 y 11 mo Given to younger sister; then to cousin
PowerBook G4 1GHz July 2003 2 y 9 mo Given to younger sister
MacBook Pro 1.83 GHz March 2006 2 y 10 mo to date Current

So there have been a lot of machines and my laptops have been lasting a little under three years; why? Two words: case problems and capabilities.

The G3 was great; had no problems with it other than having to replace the power adapter four times. But when we moved out west to Seattle we decided that we’d keep in touch via videoconferencing, so upgraded to a machine that could handle video on iChat. The G4 had terrible case problems–a hinge stuck, then broke the bezel when it got forced open–and also had power adapter problems. We fixed the case and upgraded to a MacBook Pro when they first became available.

The MacBook Pro has been great; except… well, it got dropped. It landed on the side where the power connector was, which dented the case near the power connector, making it difficult for the MagSafe to function properly. It charges but you have to fiddle with the connection, and lately it’s been turning itself off. Plus, I haven’t been able to prune the data on the hard disk enough to keep more than 3 GB free at any given time, meaning the machine is prone to slowing to a crawl.

The cost to me to repair the case and the power board was quoted by the Apple Store as a minimum of $500, and I’m thinking very hard about doing that. But I’d also want to replace the hard drive, and that starts to bump up the cost close to the lowest-end MacBook.

Yes, MacBook. For the first time, I think that my needs are converging on Apple’s consumer line rather than the Pro line. The MacBooks are much more capable than they were three years ago, and I’m no longer doing the sort of programming that made me want a faster machine then. And I’m not sure that spending an additional $600-$1000 would give me a comparable increase in value. There are numerous side-by-sides that attest to this (Gizmodo, MacRumors, Engadget). The main issue appears to be the screen in the MacBook, and I’m going to have to go in and look at it to decide if that’ll be OK. (I don’t watch DVDs on my laptop much anymore, but I might be watching more TV there.) There’s also no FireWire support, and no card slot to plug in an expander–a problem if we want to keep using our ca. 2000 digital video cam. And there doesn’t seem to be a way around that, so we might have to keep the old Pro around just to do video.

We’ll have to think a little more about it, I suppose.

Macworld Keynote 2009

It’s not going to be a Stevenote (and on that note, best wishes to Steve as he gets his hormones back in balance and gets some protein in his system). But I’ll be watching all the more closely, to see how Phil Schiller takes on the challenge of igniting excitement in the Mac faithful. Like many product managers, I have picked up a few tips about presenting product over the years from Steve, and Phil will have his own style and his own techniques which I can hopefully also snarf.

Product predictions? I like John Gruber’s, and can lend credence to the iLife prediction because I finally got the most recent version as a Christmas present. Pretty sure there won’t be any new iPhone products announced today though (outside of the iPhone version of Delicious Library).

I’m pretty sure that Apple won’t be announcing the Mac Wheel today, though (hat tip to Chris Eng for the pointer):

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

Stupid breakage of the day: Ubiquity and MobileMe

This morning I tried to log into MobileMe, which has mostly been working well recently, and got an unsupported browser screen telling me I needed to be running Firefox 2 or later, or Safari. Only problem was I was running Firefox 3.0.5.

I figured it was a bug in MobileMe’s browser check logic, so I used some JavaScript to check what my browser was reporting as its user agent:

javascript:document.writeln(navigator.userAgent)

It told me I was running

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv:1.9.0.5) Gecko/2008120122 Firefox/3.0.5 Ubiquity 0.1.4

Looking at the user string, I wondered if all the addons at the end, in particular the Ubiquity one, were breaking the browser check. So I disabled Ubiquity and restarted the browser. But the user agent string still showed Ubiquity.

I had just updated to the newest Ubiquity release this morning and was starting to think that something in the add-in was causing the problem. So I uninstalled it … and the user agent string was still the same.

Now I was curious. Did it leave a setting behind that the uninstall didn’t clean up? I looked under the hood in the browser preferences at about:config and searched for Ubiquity, where I found a very interesting preference under general.useragent.extra.ubiquity. There didn’t seem to be an option to delete the key, so I simply set its value to an empty string.

Doing the browser check now reported

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv:1.9.0.5) Gecko/2008120122 Firefox/3.0.5

And I could log into MobileMe again.

Lessons:

  1. Uninstalling an add-in doesn’t always totally uninstall it.
  2. You might be better off without Ubiquity.
  3. Apple needs to fix the MobileMe browser check (aka Trampoline).

Notebook lust: the new MacBooks

My first generation MacBook Pro, purchased back in 2006, is starting to look a little long in the teeth. The basic machine has been just fine, but I knew when I bought it that 80 GB wouldn’t be enough disk space, and the battery is coming perilously close to the end of its lifecycle; I now get maybe 30 minutes on a full battery.

More damningly, there’s a power cord issue (and if you’ve followed my Mac experience through three Apple laptops over the past eight years, this shouldn’t be a surprise). MagSafe eliminated the problem I had on old machines, where the cable would break or fray. Unfortunately, I found a whole new problem with the design: small beings can knock the laptop off the table or chair where it’s sitting, and if it falls on the side with the MagSafe connector, the case dents around the power cable and makes it much harder for the power connection to complete successfully.

All of which means that the new MacBook Pro looks pretty good right now. Killer graphics, more capacity, AND a case carved of solid aluminum that I would bet is much more dent resistant.

But you know? The new MacBooks are also solid aluminum cases, have more capacity than what I have today, and are about $700 cheaper than the MacBook Pro. And increasingly what I’m thinking is a lower end laptop and a dedicated home media computer (or appliance) is the way to go rather than trying to drive everything off one machine. Unfortunately, this is the wrong part of the stock market cycle to make that happen, but it’s a dream I can have.

Genius take II: indeed.

After last night’s disaster, I decided to give iTunes 8 another try. This time I made sure my library settings were correct in advance, and let it collect and submit the information while I ate dinner. No spinning beachball, no issues, this time around. 

So, Genius. I’m not evaluating the sidebar right now (though I will note that the message that appears when Genius can’t find any recommendations in the store is a pretty good predictor of whether the Genius playlist feature will work. And you know what? It does work, quite well.

The feature in a nutshell is a little like an old bar game: pick a song, then identify a bunch of other songs that go with it. All the songs are pulled from your library and you can vary the length of the playlist, and save it into your library if you choose. Pretty simple. So I decided to throw it some curves. First, “Nuki Suki” by Little Richard. It took this slightly profane funk gem from the master and mixed it with “Sexy MF,” “There Was a Time,” “Baby I Love You,” “The Hook and Sling” by Eddie Bo, “Up for the Down Stroke,” and Marvin Gaye’s “You Sure Love to Ball.” There were a few clinkers as well, like Ready for the World’s “Oh Sheila,” but at least everything was in the ballpark. 

So I tried something a little different: a movement from “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” by Gavin Bryars, from the recording with Tom Waits on vocals. What came back seemed to be mostly related to Tom Waits rather than Gavin Bryars: tracks from Waits, Smog, the Black Keys, the Cocteau Twins, Cat Power, and so on. So I tried another Bryars track but Genius couldn’t find matches. Also matchless: tracks from the Virginia Glee Club and the Virginia Gentlemen, probably because they aren’t available in the iTunes Store. But mixes around Hilliard Ensemble, Pink Floyd, Jane Siberry, Steinski, Jeff Buckley, and Neko Case were all pretty solid.

So I think those of us that like genre-busting mixes and unusual juxtapositions are probably safe: Genius doesn’t automate what we do just yet. But for a good 25 song groove it’s not bad, and for most people it will handily replace Shuffle as a way to plumb the depths of their library.

iTunes 8: first impressions

I installed iTunes 8 last night on my home machine, a MacBook Pro with 2 GB of RAM. The update wasn’t in Software Update, so I pulled it off Apple’s website. Then I had to update to get the latest QuickTime, begging the question of why they aren’t packaged together. But that was straightforward enough. Then I rebooted and fired up iTunes.

First it wanted to update all my album art–I suppose to build new thumbnails for the new grid view. When it finished looking at my 26,000 song library in five minutes I was suspicious. Sure enough: it had forgotten that my music lived on a network drive and silently reset the location to my laptop hard drive, causing all the songs in the library to be unplayable. Fortunately I’ve been through this before: Preferences, Advanced, and set the correct location for the folder, then wait fifteen minutes while all the song paths are reset. But man: I was really hoping Apple had fixed this one. I don’t restart iTunes often, but when I do I have to go through this dance more than half the time.

But OK: so far no worse than the old version.

The new grid view seemed nice enough, until I clicked something. Then it locked up tighter than a drum with a spinning beachball. About five minutes later the beachball cleared and I was able to play some music. I found of interesting that the grid view was only present some of the time. If I clicked through on the Jazz genre, it brought up the classic view of tracks next to album art. Maybe this was because of the number of albums (330) in the genre, but I found it a little disorienting.

Then: Genius. I don’t know if I would have called the feature that, since it has to upload the entire library to the cloud before it can work. I let it run for awhile but it wasn’t long before the spinning beach ball returned. I finally killed iTunes but it managed to keep any other application, including QuickTime, from playing any sound until I rebooted.

And when I rebooted, iTunes forgot where the music library was again.

I think Genius has promise–it came up with some interesting recommendations on my work computer. But that only has thirty songs on it. I have a suspicion that it doesn’t scale. At all.

New iPods, new iTunes. It must be September

Apple’s really changed as a company; I remember when September was Back to School month and you’d find out about new iMacs, a new version of iLife, whatever. Now it’s all iTunes and iPod.

I like the look of the new iPod nano, and the price point ($150 for 8 GB) and form factor are sweet. But I’m particularly impressed with the software and the use of an accelerometer in what is basically a low end device. CoverFlow is a killer interface, especially in a small device, and seeing it on the nano is pretty sweet.

I’m keen to see whether the new “genius” features in iTunes scale up to my 26,000 song music collection. Hopefully by the time I’m home tonight, iTunes 8 will be downloadable (it’s still 7.7 from where I sit right now).

But I think my favorite visual from today’s event was this one:

Apple: MobileMe isn’t really using “push” with your PC

MobileMe (aka former .Mac) subscribers received an overdue email from the MobileMe team today, apologizing for the rocky roll-out of the new service and extending a free month of service to all subscribers.

The email contained the following interesting paragraph:

Another snag we have run into is our use of the word “push” in describing everything under the MobileMe umbrella. While all email, contact or calendar changes on the iPhone and the web apps are immediately synced to and from the MobileMe “cloud,” changes made on a PC or Mac take up to 15 minutes to sync with the cloud and your other devices. So even though things are indeed instantly pushed to and from your iPhone and the web apps today, we are going to stop using the word “push” until it is near-instant on PCs and Macs, too.

What a welcome breath of fresh air: unambiguous retraction of unjustified marketing hype!

As a product manager, it strikes me that the team managing the rollout did an excellent job of damage control: fix the operational problems, apologize to the customers, change the marketing message where it’s out of line with the new reality, extend credit and move on. And they’ve done a good job. I even have to retract my characterization of MobileMe as the Lindsey Lohan of webmail services (last paragraph).

iPhone SalesForce app: free, but access = $

A quickie I left out of my original iPhone app roundup: I wasn’t able to get the mobile SalesForce client working. The reason is, in retrospect, unsurprising: our company doesn’t have an “unlimited” SalesForce license, and customers on cheaper plans will be nickeled and dimed to use the app.

It’s good to see that some nasty business models are going to survive on the iPhone platform. So is my response: the SalesForce app is deleted.

iPhone App Store, Day 1


After I played around a bit with the new firmware, I got on the App Store and started downloading. I got my hands on Exposure, MLB.com At Bat, Band, the Google app, Bloomberg, the BofA app, CheckPlease, Evernote, Facebook, AIM, Jott, midomi, the AP’s Mobile News, NetNewsWire, Remote, Salesforce, iPint, and PhoneSaber. I won’t be able to review each of them, but a few quick thoughts on the ones I’ve tried:

  • iPint: deleted. Not enough fun to make up for the big Carling logo that comes up on the beer pint at the end.
  • MLB.com At Bat: A much nicer way than the Red Sox web site to find out if Storrow Drive will be jammed up because of a home game at Fenway.
  • Exposure: I agree with The Unofficial Apple Weblog: Photos Near Me is creepy but kind of a cool way to explore the area around you. It was with Exposure that I first saw the request to use my location, and I was relieved to see it again this morning. Apparently authorizing the release of your location data is not just a one time thing. The app is a little slow over Edge, though.
  • BofA: doesn’t seem that much improved over their mobile web experience. A few of the graphics appear to be included in the app, but most of the rest is just like the website. Of course, the automatic location based ATM finder is good, but is that enough of a reason to install an app, even if it is free?
  • PhoneSaber: a giggle and a fun demo of the phone’s capabilities. What would be really cool is if you had two iPhones running PhoneSaber, and you could tell that they were near each other, that you could do a real duel.
  • Band: Bought it for the keyboard. Love it for the 12 bar blues mode.
  • Bloomberg: is slow over Edge, but not as slow as I would have guessed. Missing: a way to share stories from Bloomberg News.
  • Jared: Oh, Jared. So glad to see my old friend here. The voice of the Butcher of Song has not improved with age, and that’s how we like it. (Incidentally, does Jared win the award for the app ported to the most Apple programming environments? Classic, Newton (!), Mac OS X app, Mac OS X Dashboard widget, iPhone…)

Regarding the economics and revenue model from the App Store: First, I have to give kudos to the folks at MacRumors and TechCrunch for their ingenuity. Alas, it looks like they spilled the beans too soon, as all download counts have been re-zeroed out. But the preliminary indications ($55K in revenue from the US store before it even opens) should hopefully prove the viability of the revenue model.

And I definitely echo Daring Fireball’s point about the store’s reliability, a point thrown into even sharper relief by the fact that MobileMe is, as I speak, continuing to stagger about like a starlet in rehab: very pretty, a promising future, and completely incapable of standing upright for more than a few minutes at a time.

iPhone Firmware 2.0, Day 1

When I got home last night, I tried Software Update and found iTunes 7.7, but it didn’t find the new iPhone firmware. So I tried the path laid out in the TechCrunch post of direct downloading the firmware package. Tip: use Firefox. Safari automatically expands the package, and while there’s probably a way to re-zip it so that iTunes will recognize it, it’s easier to download it with a browser that doesn’t automatically unzip.

I plugged my phone in and started the firmware upgrade process. Then I went off to do something time consuming (the upgrade using this method performs a full backup, wipe, and restore, and full restore takes a while if some of your content, in my case music, is coming from a network attached disk). So after spending time on our basement project (and getting hands liberally covered with microscopic dots of primer), I finally got on my iPhone to start checking out some of the new features.

First: there’s gotta be a better way to manage application icons than just spreading them over three or four screens as they get installed. Yes, obviously I can manually spread them out over screens, but I found myself yearning for … folders. Or something. I think some of the jailbreaker guys may have come up with some concepts that would be worth copying buying here.

Second: man, it’s great, but also weird, to have mail coming in in the background without my manually fetching it. And it’s great, and not weird at all, to be able to delete multiple mail messages at once. That’s the killer feature for me right there. No more slide–click Delete–slide–click Delete–repeated ad infinitum.

I’m really, really glad that Apple made the Contacts feature an application instead of burying it in the phone menu. That was one thing that always made me wonder: why did the designers think that the only time I would need access to my contacts was when I was making a phone call?

I was hoping to give the VPN and Exchange integration features a crack, but I need to get some settings from our IT guy and he’s not in; that will have to be a later post.

The on-phone App Store is very nice. I frankly found browsing the store through iTunes to be something of a pain, and the experience on the phone is much nicer. I don’t know why–perhaps it’s the fact that the browse views in the store don’t show the app icons?

The scientific calculator is a nice blast from the past. One minor quibble–I hadn’t realized until playing with it that the calculator uses a font with proportional width numbers. It’s not noticeable unless you’re rapidly changing the numbers in the display–say, by repeatedly hitting the Rand or sin buttons–but seeing the leading zero jiggling around in response to the keypresses is a little disconcerting.

Mobile Safari hasn’t crashed on me yet. It used to reliably crash on loading certain long or complex pages. So that’s something.

Oh, and those nice screenshots? Built in feature. Hold the main button and tap the power button, and a screenshot is saved to your Pictures, where you can email it or upload it (if MobileMe is working).

So that’s the base OS: nice, and featureful. But of course the excitement of the new firmware is the App Store, so we’ll talk about that next.

The iPhone App Store is live

TechCrunch reports, and I can confirm, that the App Store is live. It’s not linked from the store navigation, but if you install iTunes 7.7, you can click through to the list of iPhone apps. The categories are pretty unsurprising: Business, Education, Entertainment, Finance, Games, Healthcare & Fitness, Lifestyle, Music, Navigation, News, Photography, Productivity, Reference, Social Networking, Sports, Travel, Utilities, Weather. And a few interesting finds, including a Bloomberg app, a location-aware Bank of America app, OmniFocus, SalesForce Mobile, Oracle Business Indicators, the AP’s news app (with no mention of being able to send photos back to the AP; whassup?), NetNewsWire, MooCow’s Band, and about 175 games.

Including Jared. (Happy dance.)

Update: According to TechCrunch and CNET, you can download the firmware now, though it’s a direct download rather than through Software Update. Alas, my iPhone is synced through my Mac, which is at home, so I’ll have to wait before I can try it out.

Day of updates: iPhone App Store, maybe MobileMe

Various sources report that the iPhone App Store will launch today. It’s clear that iTunes 7.7 is out, featuring the ability to control iTunes from a new free iPhone/iPod Touch app, and the New York Times says that Apple will be launching the app store.

What I haven’t seen reported anywhere is anything about a MobileMe launch today. But signs are good; right now I’m getting a maintenance screen on .Mac:

Fortunately, I’m still getting mail on my iPhone. But maybe this means a MobileMe launch is imminent too.

Update: Okay, I missed the .Mac status report on Apple support that indicated that MobileMe was actually supposed to launch last night; the maintenance window was from 8 pm to 2 am Pacific time. Right now the status isn’t pretty:

Update 2: As of noon-ish on the east coast, the update now says that all services are back online except for webmail and web pages: “With the exception of the new web apps, all of the following services are available: Mail, iChat, iDisk, Sync, Back to My Mac, and all published pages, including Galleries and iWeb sites.” Smart money has it that there’s a contingency plan being executed while they figure out why the new MobileMe apps aren’t RTWing successfully.