Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Computing Travel Notes

1384 words

Being on holiday can be hard work for computers. On the one hand, you want to enjoy your holiday and not use them too much. On the other hand, they should be able to deal quickly, easily and seamlessly with things such as other and possibly changing network connections, other power outlets and quickly downloading and sharing your newly made photos.

As my parents and myself are ridiculously accompanied by three Powerbooks here in South Africa, this is a good opportunity to look at how well, the hard- and software deal with the situation.

Setting the time zone to Cape Town At least starting is easy. The first thing to do for the computing pedant is to adjust the computer’s time zone to the new location. I wonder how many people actually do this, as it’s not the most obvious setting. This change won’t just compensate for any change of time zone but will do so in a way that can’t mess up dates on your machines or in your e-mails. Furthermore it also seems to tell other parts of the system about your location – at least the modem settings seem to use this country-specific information. While I’m not sure what it is actually used for, I’m quite sure this is the right way to go.

The next challenge is getting a network connection. At least in my case the modem worked all right for that and so do my parents’. One thing we want to do, though, is to share a single internet connection. This can be achieved using the ‘Internet’ tab in the ‘Sharing’ preference pane. But that one isn’t quite as easy to use as it should be (i.e. my parents couldn’t do it).

With internet sharing I saw quite a few issues. I’ll just list them here and be happy to receive practical suggestions to improve what I do. My first two points are UI/programming related. To set up internet sharing, you’ll have to select the connection you want to share from a popup menu and check the other network interfaces which the internet connection should be share with. That’s quite a good approach, in my opinion as it gives you quite a bit of control while being reasonably easy.

The only thing I still find hard to understand are the options that I am given. In the network system preference I have the following connections set up:

Network interfaces

Some of them are active, some aren’t and I don’t have any Bluetooth but the interface appeared there when I tried a friend’s USB Bluetooth adaptor and didn’t go away since (in fact it appeared in a rather scary Windows-style A new network interface has been discovered fashion, which I found quite absurd). When looking at the internet sharing panel of the Sharing system preference, I see the following:

Internet Sharing settings

Just based on this picture I start asking myself what the difference between ‘Ethernet’ and ‘Ethernet (DHCP)’ is. Why are the different names used there? How can I share the Bluetooth connection without even having Bluetooth? Why can’t I provide a network connection to Bluetooth devices as well? Let’s just say this doesn’t look entirely intuitive and non-technical. But the good thing is that usually you should be able to get the result you want by making the obvious choices and not starting to read the text too closely.

What’s a real UI nuisance in that control panel, though, is that the popup menu with the connections you can share will always have its very first item selected when internet sharing is turned off and you open the control panel for the first time. Thus you’ll have to click there to select the relevant connection (and remember to do so) every single time you want to turn on internet sharing again. That sucks. Actually it sucks a lot as you’ll conclude for yourself in a second.

The next step is to start the actual internet sharing. After clicking the ‘Start’ button you’ll see this sheet:

Really start internet sharing confirmation sheet

And this sheet appears and has to be answered with the non-default option every single time you start internet sharing. While this may be an important note, I guess that nobody reads it anyway because of all the text in it and thus it only makes activating internet sharing a more frustrating experience. But after confirming this question, internet sharing will be up and running and other computers can join in via AirPort (which I’ll discuss in a second). In addition you’ll see this text:

Note that internet sharing will be disabled when the computer goes to sleep

It tells you that internet sharing will stop working after the computer awakes from sleep. There’s even a button to open the energy saving control panel and deactivate sleep next to it. That’s just ridiculous. Instead of making software that keeps internet sharing running whatever happens, programming and UI work was invested to generate this note and suggest a completely impracticable workaround. And that’s not a workaround to temporarily deal with a bug but one that shipped with the OS.

As that note suggests, you’ll be turning that internet sharing feature on and off (as it doesn’t actually turn itself off, it just stops working and you’ll even have to press the stop button twice for some reason when your internet connection isn’t active anymore) a lot when you’re on a holiday with dialup network connection and a Powerbook that’s sleeping most of the day. The bottom line of this is that the feature isn’t implemented in a good way by Apple. My parents wouldn’t have discovered it themselves. And if they did it would’ve been so unreliable that they’d have stopped using it very soon. Even though I think I’ve worked this out for myself now, I’m not sure I want to show them how to use it on their own later on. There are just too many steps and little conditions involved.

Another problem seems to be Airport. Sharing your internet connection via Airport works well (at least if you don’t use encryption). But if you’re connected via a modem and the modem connection terminates, things start being a bit shaky and applications can freeze (perhaps a lack of nameserver problem?) At the end of the day this means that you’ll need two separate Aiport networks, one for internet sharing and another one. One of them with a ‘server’, the other of the ‘peer to peer’ type. In the end this will be many different (and partly incomprehensible) icons in the Airport menu, many different modes, many non-working networks (as the system doesn’t seem to deal too well with different Airport networks going by the same name and MAC address and sometimes doesn’t update to the new network properly). So it’s another thing that I can’t recommend to my parents as it simply doesn’t work reliably.

While I’m at it I can also add a paragraph on modem internet connections. Why exactly can there be different phone numbers added to a single connection in the Internet Connect application while this can’t be done in System Preferences? And why can the modem menu item only connect to the number entered in the System Preferences but not to the ones entered in the Internet Connect application? Would the ‘average user’ be able to set up his system so he can conveniently dial to two different numbers just from the modem menu? If not, why not? … (And while I’m at it… I still don’t know how to remove toolbar items in the Internet Connect application.)

While the basics work in OS X, my usage of the system suggests that any feature that goes just a bit beyond the basics like internet sharing or using several dial-in accounts is pretty close to not working reliably. Those are features that people just won’t discover or will never use because they won’t see how they work. That’s a shame because those features are both cool and useful. Most of the things that work reliably work today already worked reliably ten years ago. Where’s the progress?

Another, more South African, note on computing is that South Africa seems to be run almost exclusively on Wintel/Dell comptuers. I’ve been told that Apple didn’t sell stuff to South Africa in the apartheid times and thus they are barely known over here. I wonder whether there is any chance of getting into a market like that.

March 14, 2005, 21:37

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