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WWDC Stevenote

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Uh-oh, it was Stevenote time again. And of course I looked around on the web and peeked at bits of the keynote stream.

Am I the only one who thinks that QuickTime’s streaming sucks major ass? In the ten years or so that I’ve looked at streams, things just haven’t improved (where ‘things’ mean QuickTime’s handling of the stream, I assume that the image quality imrpoved by a factor of five or ten and I know that my internet connection speed increased by a factor of hundred in the meantime). And I think it’s only been once or twice in the late nineties that I have seen a stream without any problems. It takes a while for the stream to start, there are rebuffering waits for every single little skip you make and there are numerous connection failures. It’s just not fun at all and makes the whole affair look not much better than the crappy offerings at YouTube and less convenient and reliable than what you get at Google video. Why can’t Apple just place those files for download or on iTMS – or ignore their vanity for a second and let Google handle the distribution?

So anyway, there were a lot of news. First there were new PowerMacs. I guess we’ll see how good they are very soon, but just from the numbers, they look pretty good. Most notably, Apple seem to have finally listened to all the people wanting more hard and optical drives as well as to those wanting more space for extension cards. I’d say that shipping ‘Pro’ machines with just 1GB (or 8% of their maximum capacity) and without wireless stuff is a bit cheapish, though – although not exactly surprising given Apple’s history. All that said, I stopped caring about desktop ‘Pro’ computers a while ago as I just don’t do anything requiring their power and inconvenience. The same goes for XServe’s as well, of course.

But moving on to the software, which was going to be the more interesting part anyway. And this started a bit disappointingly, in my opinion as there was no fully fledged presentation just Mr. Jobs presenting ten points and ridiculously hinting that there’ll be some additional ones that are kept secret right now. In a way I’m not that keen on major new features, I’d rather see all the shaky bits of OS X being solidified and all the cool technologies that have been introduced in past updates being improved to the level that users and developers can benefit from. Unfortunately it’s really hard to tell from this PR-stunt what exactly Apple’s plan on these matters is.

The eye-candy we got to see there first was the time tunnel, aka Time Machine, a backup or archiving solution which Apple want to introduce. Yes, the UI for it in the demo looked tacky, but I’m willing to ignore that if it is really up to the job of giving me an effortless backup of my files, complete with all the versions I made of them. Backups are frequently neglected and anybody who ever tried setting up a reasonable and feasible backup plan will know that it’s a lot of effort. Automating all of this and thinking big while doing it is a great idea.

Apart from obvious questions of how this will be implemented, particularly to interact with third party applications, there are just two big buts that come to my mind. The first is reliability. Backup software that isn’t extremely reliable, isn’t good. It’ll give you a wrong sense of security. Unfortunately in the past years there have been many incidences of Apple software not being reliable or even destroying people’s data. iTunes libraries losing information, iPhoto losing track of photos, the Migration Assistant doing mostly undefined and underdocumented things and most likely not migrating your system completely, update installers destroying systems, things like preferences going missing when the hard drive is full and so on.

I have made a number of not so great experiences with Apple software and data securty in the past years. And I’ve heard plenty of other stories. In total my impression is that Apple doesn’t take that aspect too seriously and that it’s good to have a backup. From that point of view I am both happy to see the relevance of data security being seen by Apple now, but also sceptical about their ability to implement things properly, particularly in the first revisions. Did Apple hire people with expertise in that area recently? Will the feature see more testing than Apple’s other software?

You see, they came up with Spotlight two years ago. And I keep thinking that it’s a great technology and concept. But as Spotlight is relatively slow, particularly for common uses, and even at those low speeds only covers a fraction of the files on the hard drive, I – and from what I’ve heard other people say, many other as well – only use it rarely or at least much less frequently than we thought we’d use it. While that’s disappointing, it’s not a killer problem and you can work around it by wasting some time. With a backup feature, similar shortcomings will not be acceptable. We’ll need clear statements about what the backup feature can do, how it works and we need to know it’s reliable. From version 1 on.

The second issue I see with keeping all different versions of all different files is the capacity question. Just dumbly backing up a file every time it has changed will generate a lot of data. Just consider the size of your iTunes Library file and how many times it is rewritten per day. Or look at applications like Sandvox which use CoreData and have the neat feature of automatically saving while you work. You can easily generate gigabytes of changes every day with such tools. And finding a good solution for that problem looks like a non-trivial task to me.

In comparison to the backup feature, everything else looked quite boring to me. There’s the virtual screen like feature Spaces which the geeks will love but which is neither innovative nor particularly useful for most people. Whenever I tried to use such virtual screen features, I found that I invariably end up having things on the wrong desktop with such schemes. For example (and even Mr. Jobs will agree with that) I would need to have a Mail window on most but not all of the desktops. And I’d want each one of them to be in a different state that fits the work environment. The demo I saw of this didn’t even hint that this would be possible. And I seriously doubt it would be as it would require more conceptual changes than just hooking up some new window-server eye-candy to a new keyboard shortcut.

Then there was new Dashboard stuff – yawn. Just the same old things polished a bit, the announcement of Spotlight improvements which suggest that Apple at least got around to reading the bug reports everybody expected to be fixed in X.4.1 and more senseless eyecandy in iChat. Sure, that eyecandy is sweet. But it’s also cheap and easy to do. I am much more excited about iChat gaining the capability to do screen and document sharing. That’s great. I’ve heard that its Windows counterpart had it for many years now and it’s something I’ve always wanted to see in iChat. I really hope that Apple get this right – particularly to tie in with third party applications and for those who don’t want to waste money on .mac.

Finally there is Mail. Did someone count in how many keynotes Mr. Jobs sat around and drooled over some stock photos which are used by the default designs in applications like iDVD or Pages – or the next Mail – so far? I really wonder why he does that. And of course I know that HTML mail is crap, so I really fail to see the point of this. And then there are the notes you can make for yourself in Mail. It sounds absurd. But I have to admit that I’ve wanted that very feature many times by now. So, again, if Apple get this right and I get the synching of all these to my non-Apple web server or mail server (or GMail or so), I think I might end up liking that feature in practice.

What else? Yup there’s better Accessibility and some 64 bit stuff. I don’t really have use for either of these, but I’m pretty sure they are good things to have and things worth investing in. So probably is Core Animation. Looking around current Mac software, Core Graphics isn’t really used much yet. I suppose not that many applications benefit from it and with the hardware restrictions such software requires, developer will rightly hesitate to start using it. On the other hand, it’s good develop the stuff now, so programmers can take it for granted some years down the road and have less technicalities to worry about. Let’s just hope we get some nice screensavers and iTunes visualisers out of this in the meantime.

Finally there’s are updated Development Tools. Having garbage collection will be great (While I don’t think Objective-Cs retain / release concept is a big problem, I’ve always considered RealBasic to be much smoother in that respect. And it’s a good thing if there’s no more reason to think that. Also, I hope this will eliminate the situations where you’re seeing huge memory consumption by your application and then need to start fiddling with your own autorelease pool in some lengthy loop to free the memory more regularly). There has also been talk of an improved Interface Builder with better localisation support. Which definitely is a good thing as well.

Well, let’s see how all this goes. If Apple do improve the whole infrastructure in the back, I’ll be happy to not have a number of extra shiny new features. And as many of the things that were presented in the keynote just look like rather small add-ons than new developments or thinking, there’s still hope for some surprises along the way.

Oh, and Mr. Jobs needs to fire the guy typing his presentations for him. Using the Deppenapostroph (charming way to say idiot’s apostrophe in German – aka Greengrocer’s apostrophe) in a keynote presentation isn’t exactly good style:

Shot from the keynote presentation with 'To Do’s'

To finish, let me mention Microsoft. They did it all through the keynote. Mr. Jobs and some of his top team devoted a lot of time of their big developer keynote to bashing or making fun of Microsoft. And I think that’s not OK. Not that I want (or need) to protect Microsoft, but to be honest I don’t give a shit. Apple’s X.4 operating system looks glorious when compared to Windows ‘07? Wonderful! But I still want smooth Spotlight searches and many other things. Being better than the worst doesn’t mean you’re any good in absolute terms. In the past Apple used to be blasé enough to just ignore Microsoft. And that was the right strategy, because it opened the way to do new things.


P.S. Just read Pierre’s text on the same topic and realise that I may have been a bit too mild here… as I agree with most of his points.

August 9, 2006, 0:51

Tagged as Mac OS X.

Comments

Comment by Charles Cook: User icon

I think “To Do’s” may be ok. See here: http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutspelling/pizza

“As an alternative spelling, for clarity, of the plurals of a very few short words: We went to several society do’s last year. While out with his third wife he met both of his ex’s. I’ve had yes’s for coffee from four people. But in each case, dos, exes, yesses would be acceptable. The usual plural of no is noes.”

August 9, 2006, 10:38

Comment by ssp: User icon

Fair enough Charles,

it still looks tacky, in my opinion and it differs from what they write on their web pages.

August 9, 2006, 11:16

Comment by d.w.: User icon

I think perceived streaming performance is totally (perhaps overly) dependent on where your network connection resides with respect to Apple’s caching infrastructure (or at least the caching infrastucture of their network providers). My experience viewing the Stevenote was completely smooth, which is almost certainly due to my obnoxiously large ISP (Comcast) being well-served by Akamai’s caching/peering infrastructure.

August 9, 2006, 19:42

Comment by ssp: User icon

Lucky for you d.w.

Unsurprisingly my blunt answer to that is that my connection was still embarrassingly bad and that I don’t really care how Apple distribute their keynotes. All I know is that other services like Google Video or YouTube or even iTMS and Apple’s very own Software Update don’t seem to have any problems saturating our DSL pipe. I guess none of these is proper ‘streaming’ which is why I blame streaming for the problems I see. And if Apple aren’t good enough to provide working streaming, well they could just use proper downloads which would have the added benefit of being able to skip without annoying waits.

August 10, 2006, 0:44

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