TidBITS#1083/04-Jul-2011

Lion is coming! But it’s not too early to prepare, with Joe Kissell’s just-released “Take Control of Upgrading to Lion,” along with a pre-order discount on Matt Neuburg’s “Take Control of Using Lion.” Lion’s approach doesn’t mean everyone will stop using Snow Leopard, and those using 10.6.8 would do well to check out Adam’s article with solutions to problems with printing and audio, along with incompatibilities with Parallels Desktop and PGP Desktop. In other news, Michael Cohen covers the release of the CrashPlan PRO service for businesses, and Glenn Fleishman clarifies that iTunes Match will create DRM-free copies of matched tracks. On the feature side, Jeff Porten reports from the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2011 conference about the Arab Spring; Michael Cohen reviews the Sleeptracker watch; and Rich Mogull paints a picture of the future where our electronic devices are entirely replaceable. Notable software releases this week include Thunderbolt Firmware Update and Java for Mac OS X 10.6 Update 5 / Java for Mac OS X 10.5 Update 10.
 
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Prepare for Lion with New Take Control Books

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>

In 2003, we launched the Take Control series with Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Upgrading to Panther” and Matt Neuburg’s “Take Control of Customizing Panther.” Now, nearly 8 years and 4 editions later, we’re hard at work on the fifth editions of these ebooks, called “Take Control of Upgrading to Lion” and “Take Control of Using Lion.”

Of course, Lion isn’t out yet — Apple is poised to release it at some point in July — but Joe and Matt (and Tonya, who is editing both ebooks) have been burning the midnight oil to help you get started with Apple’s latest big cat. Still, there’s no reason to wait for Lion to ship to start preparing for your upgrade, and to provide you with Joe’s latest expert advice, we now have the first release of “Take Control of Upgrading to Lion” ready for you to read, with a free 1.1 update ready to release as soon as Lion ships and Apple lifts our non-disclosure agreement. For similar reasons, we can’t release Matt’s “Take Control of Using Lion” until then, but you can pre-order it now and download it as soon as we can make it available.

Both books are available independently, but they’re intended to work together to help you upgrade successfully and then get started using Lion’s new features, so you can buy them together at a 30-percent discount (you pay $17.50 instead of the $25 list price; this offer will expire when Apple releases Lion!). Read on for details.

Take Control of Upgrading to Lion -- You can begin upgrading to Lion now by joining Joe Kissell for the necessary pre-upgrade check on software and hardware compatibility. You’ll also benefit from Joe’s expert advice on making the best type of backup in case of an upgrade disaster and on clearing the decks of useless cruft so you can start using Lion with plenty of room. In particular, you’ll learn how to:

The 1.0 version of “Take Control of Upgrading to Lion” costs $10 and is currently 66 pages long. As soon as our non-disclosure agreement with Apple lifts after Lion ships, we plan to release a free 1.1 update that will cover full installation details, required post-upgrade tweaks, and troubleshooting tips in case your upgrade doesn’t go smoothly. It will also tell you how to migrate to a new Mac running Lion, install Lion Server, and use the new Recovery mode.

Take Control of Using Lion -- In “Take Control of Using Lion,” Matt Neuburg has revised his essential “Take Control of Exploring & Customizing Snow Leopard” to look deeply at important new features in Lion while also discussing older features and third-party options that may work better for you, all with the goal of helping you understand Lion’s benefits, learn new habits, and get back to work quickly after your upgrade. Major topics help you to:

Take Control of Using Lion” also answers many key questions about Lion, such as:

This $15 pre-order “ebook” is only one page long; it’s a placeholder that you can use to get the full “Take Control of Using Lion” once it’s available. We plan to publish it as soon as possible after Apple releases Lion and lifts our non-disclosure agreement. Ideally, this will be the same day Lion becomes available.

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CrashPlan PRO Now Available for Businesses

  by Michael E. Cohen <lymond@mac.com>

Code 42 Software has introduced CrashPlan PRO, a new backup software and service targeted at the SMB market (that’s “small and medium-sized businesses” for the less acronymically experienced). Joining CrashPlan+, designed for individual users backing up personal data from 10 or fewer computers, and CrashPlan PROe, designed for large enterprises with many hundreds or even thousands of computers, CrashPlan PRO is designed for businesses and other organizations running up to 200 computers. (For details about CrashPlan+, see “CrashPlan+ 3.0 Adds Features, Changes Pricing,” 7 December 2010.)

Like its sibling backup offerings, CrashPlan PRO provides a cross-platform (Mac/Windows/Linux/Solaris) subscription backup solution that can make both local and online backups. And, like CrashPlan+, CrashPlan PRO provides secure, encrypted backups to cloud-based servers and offers individual users restore capabilities from almost any location that has Internet access. However, unlike CrashPlan+, CrashPlan PRO enables administrators with relatively little IT experience to assign users and computers to a backup plan, monitor backup progress and statistics, and use a Web-based dashboard to manage an organization’s backups.

The cost of CrashPlan PRO varies depending on the number of computers being backed up and the amount of backup storage allocated. Businesses can choose between a plan that offers unlimited backups for a specific number of computers, or plans that share a specific backup storage allocation among an unlimited number of computers. To help customers figure out the best deal for their needs, CrashPlan offers a simple online tool that helps potential customers figure out the best available plans for a given business installation.

CrashPlan PRO is available in the United States and Canada now, with worldwide availability expected by the end of this year. A 30-day free trial is also available.

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iTunes Match Makes Unlocked Copies

  by Glenn Fleishman <glenn@tidbits.com>
  11 comments

Apple suffered from ambiguity and false starts lately, such as announcing the end of MobileMe nearly two weeks before having a document ready to explain the nuance (see “Apple Details Transition from MobileMe to iCloud,” 24 June 2011), and shipping Final Cut Pro X days before it had the answers published to obvious questions from professional customers.

The same is true with iTunes Match, a new subscription service that will be part of iTunes in the Cloud (see “iCloud Rolls In, Extended Forecast Calls for Disruption,” 6 June 2011). With iTunes Match, Apple said, you’ll be able to pay $25 a year to sync all the music you didn’t purchase from the iTunes Store through iCloud to your various computers and iOS devices. Instead of uploading 100 percent of your own music, however, Apple would use a variety of metadata and audio-matching algorithms to check whether a song you owned was the same as one in its 18-million item catalog.

What will happen after the match occurs has been rather confusing, and Apple has provided mixed guidance. On its Web site promoting iCloud, Apple continues to state:

All you have to upload is what iTunes can’t match. Which is much faster than starting from scratch. And all the music iTunes matches plays back at 256-Kbps iTunes Plus quality — even if your original copy was of lower quality

We wondered if Apple was applying digital rights management (DRM) encryption to matched files. Otherwise, what would stop someone from paying $25 for one year, matching all their songs, and walking away with higher quality files forever? This information has been available, though, in a place I should have looked: a press release that came out on 6 June 2011 but which I just found out about after Apple changed links to existing releases on the press relations portion of its Web site.

In the press release, Apple makes crystal clear what’s going to happen, something that was missed by many, thanks to the vast amount of news that came out that day. The relevant sentence:

In addition, music not purchased from iTunes can gain the same benefits by using iTunes Match, a service that replaces your music with a 256 kbps AAC DRM-free version if we can match it to the over 18 million songs in the iTunes Store, it makes the matched music available in minutes (instead of weeks to upload your entire music library), and uploads only the small percentage of unmatched music.

There you have it. You’ll be able to upgrade all your ripped files that aren’t up to snuff — avoiding replacing, say, your lossless FLAC versions — with the best Apple and the labels have to offer, for what is essentially a one-time $25 fee. This is the right way to do it, and it’s an awfully nice gift for those of us, like yours truly, who ripped their CDs at lower quality many years ago.

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Mac OS X 10.6.8 Suffers Printing and Audio Problems

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>
  11 comments

It almost seems that Apple is focusing so much attention on the upcoming release of Mac OS X Lion that testing of the last few Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard releases hasn’t been up to the company’s usual quality. 10.6.7 suffered from font problems that had design professionals up in arms (see “Apple Releases Snow Leopard Font Update,” 26 April 2011), and now the just-released 10.6.8 is taking its share of lumps, with a variety of user-reported problems surrounding printing, audio, hyperactive Dock CPU usage, boot problems for PGP Desktop users, and more (see “Mac OS X 10.6.8 Update Preps for Lion,” 24 June 2011).

Printing Problems -- Most notable among the 10.6.8-related problems are those surrounding printing, with the print queue continually pausing and “backend” errors like the line below appearing in the system.log viewable in Console.

printer-state-message="/usr/libexec/cups/backend/lpd failed"

Although many potential solutions were suggested in the Apple Discussions forum thread, ranging from repairing permissions to resetting the printing system (Control-click a printer in the Print & Fax preference pane and choose Reset Printing System), the most effective solution has been an AppleScript-based application called Repair10.6.8. It basically copies old versions of four Unix apps — dnssd, ipp, lpd, and socket — over the new versions installed by 10.6.8. I haven’t experienced the problem, so I can’t comment personally on how well it works, but a number of people in the forum thread have had good luck with it.


Audio Problems -- There are a number of complaints in the Apple Discussions forum about audio problems of various sorts. While the details of the problems vary, the solution seems to be the same in all cases: replace the AppleHDA.kext kernel extension (version 2.0.5, if my Mac is any indication) installed by 10.6.8 with the version from 10.6.7 (version 1.9.9, even though it has the same creation date as the later version). Time Machine is the easiest way to get the AppleHDA.kext file back; it’s located in /System/Library/Extensions.

Parallels / Dock Incompatibility -- Many users of Parallels Desktop are reporting that after updating to Mac OS X 10.6.8, the Dock process starts taking 100 percent of the CPU, causing significant performance problems. The issue is related to the option in Parallels Desktop that makes Windows applications appear in the Dock (specifically, it’s related to icons larger than 128 by 128 pixels). There’s an update to Parallels Desktop 6.0.12092 that solves the problem, or you can set each virtual machine in Parallels Desktop not to show Windows applications in the Dock.

Boot Problems with PGP Desktop -- Users of versions of PGP Desktop before 10.1.2 found that their Macs wouldn’t boot after installing 10.6.8, since Apple’s Software Update utility overwrites a critical boot file related to whole disk encryption during installation. PGP recommends upgrading to at least version 10.1.2 before installing Mac OS X 10.6.8, but if that train has already left the station, you can follow a few quick steps to replace the boot.efi file with the necessary pgpboot.efi file. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to make a PGP Whole Disk Encryption Recovery CD and use it to upgrade or even decrypt your disk.

Other Problems -- Although I’ve seen other complaints, including slow boot times and strange color issues, most are merely anecdotal (which doesn’t mean they’re not real, just that they don’t seem to affect many people). Nevertheless, the standard fix for inexplicable problems that crop up after a Mac OS X upgrade is to download and install the combo updater.

The Mac OS X 10.6.8 Update Combo contains all the changes since 10.6.0, and is a 1.09 GB download. You can install it directly over an unhappy installation of 10.6.8, or if all else fails, you can reinstall Snow Leopard from an appropriate Install DVD (the one that came with your Mac, if that’s newer than 10.6.0) and then use the combo updater to move up to 10.6.8.

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CFP 2011: Arab Spring or Twitter Revolution?

  by Jeff Porten <jporten@gmail.com>

A panel discussion at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2011 conference on the role of online media in the Arab Spring revolutions ironically opened one person short: a slated speaker working for democratic freedoms in Bahrain was unable to attend, thanks to delays in her receiving a U.S. visa for the conference. The four speakers in attendance, however, provided an excellent discussion on how the Internet is used and misused in the Middle East.

Deborah Hurley provided the background on Tunisia prior to the recent fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, President of Tunisia from 1987 through last January (although his title should perhaps be in ironic quotes). Hurley was a member of a delegation from the United Nations World Summit on Information Society, reviewing the role of IT in human rights in Tunisia, and found that country, in her words, to be one of the most repressive places on Earth. Despite this, Tunisia was largely unknown in the United States, and was seen in Europe primarily as a venue for a cheap beach vacation.

Tunisia enjoys one of the highest levels of literacy in the Arab world, and, because of policies of the first post-colonial government, has much higher rates of women’s education and entry into the workforce than is common elsewhere in the Middle East. This provided a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it paved the way for high penetration of information technology through the populace, but it also gave the government unfettered ability to control and monitor communications. The state was entirely in control of who received college placement and job openings, based largely on their public and private agreements with the government. But as Tunisia was a U.S. ally, the United States and other Western governments overlooked such issues.

Hurley was followed by Moez Chakchouk, the new CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency, or ITI. This was a bit of a surprise in itself, as the ITI was a primary force behind state repression under Ben Ali. Chakchouk opened his talk by saying that under the prior regime, he would have been unable to attend the conference as either a Tunisian citizen or as a government representative; the very topic of the conference, and the idea that there might be human rights issues at stake, were forbidden topics of discussion.

Under the old ITI, a 404 error — known to the rest of the world as the Web’s “file not found” alert — was more likely to be a message from the Tunisian government about the content of the site. The ITI was the sole source of information technology inside Tunisia, and had complete control over installation and monitoring; if you were on the Internet in the old Tunisia, you were doing so on the government’s terms. Chakchouk’s role is now to implement new technology without the constant threat of surveillance.

Jillian York from the Electronic Frontier Foundation expanded the discussion to Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. The other countries experiencing Arab Spring unrest have seen two failed models: Tunisia tried to clamp down control, then turned off its monitoring as a last attempt at mollification only one day before Ben Ali was forced to abdicate. Egypt simply shut down the Internet, but was then forced to turn it back on after this action literally sent people into the streets.

So the other nations experiencing uprisings seem to have decided that instead of these tactics, they’ll simply arrest anyone saying disagreeable things online. Video sharing sites have largely been shut down; this is what caused many people to turn to Facebook. It’s not that Facebook itself is the de facto platform of choice; it’s more that when it remains accessible, it becomes a destination.

York believes that there are core issues that can generate domestic upheavals from a previously apolitical population: one of these is government censorship, another is the use of torture against those who have been detained for anti-government activities. But the examples of Egypt and Tunisia, two countries with high technology usage, do not apply directly to other nations. In Libya, only 5 percent of the population was online before the Qaddafi government shut the Internet off entirely. In Syria, this number is 20 percent, but as the government is arresting people and demanding their passwords, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether what you’re hearing are words of the dissident, or planted words from the government.

Panelist Nasser Weddady, from the American Islamic Congress, strongly blamed both the complicity of Western governments and the mass media for allowing such abuses to continue. His work is to help bridge these online movements into real-world results by connecting grassroots democratic movements with known methods of working with international media and civil society groups. There is a presumption among the local activists that the mass media will not be a source of help; instead, traditional media are likely to ignore activists until they reach a large number on their own. The bigger story is that, as of this year, the world’s media is beginning to see social networks as a valuable source of information. But even when this does not occur, individuals with large Twitter or Facebook networks can sometimes leverage their networks as a protection against arrest or being otherwise silenced by the government.

Organizing efforts at the grassroots level used to be directed at other citizens in the nation; now the new targets can include producers in the worldwide traditional media, and their audiences, in order to bring international pressure to bear on repressive governments. Weddady called this “weaponizing hashtags.” York followed up by saying that American companies, including Websense, Cisco, and Narus, are building the technologies that governments use to repress their populations, so perhaps we should ask why companies openly subverting American ideals are getting a pass in the public debate.

Weddady specifically mentioned that at one point, he joked with his colleagues that if one more reporter called him to ask about the “Twitter revolution,” he would commit suicide, as this proved how much the mass media was missing the real story of the Arab Spring and inserting their own narrative. The details of the revolution differ widely from nation to nation, and both the traditional media reports and social networking information coming from these regions needs to be understood in their national and regional contexts.

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Sleeptracker: Sleeping with the Night Watch

  by Michael E. Cohen <lymond@mac.com>

It has been a long time since I slept like a baby (neither waking at 3 AM, crying and needing to be changed, nor slumbering peacefully and soundly), so when I had a chance to try out the Sleeptracker Elite sleep phase monitor alarm watch, I was intrigued. The device promised to help me monitor and improve both my sleeping habits and the quality of my sleep. That various versions of the watch have been in production since at least 2005 I found reassuring: in trying it out, I wasn’t about to subject my precious sleeping hours to some untested new technology. In fact, Andrew Laurence first wrote about Sleeptracker in TidBITS nearly six years ago in “Sleeptracker: How Dick Tracy Goes to Sleep” (11 July 2005).

Core Idea -- The Sleeptracker is a wristwatch that watches you sleep. It contains accelerometers that monitor your movements during your slumbers and records the periods when you are the most restless (the manual that comes with the watch calls these periods the “lighter stages of sleep”).

Every morning when you wake (or any time during the day, really) you can use the watch’s buttons and display to review the previous night’s record of light sleep periods and see how you slept. More useful, though, is its capability for building a long-term profile of your sleeping patterns: You can transfer the Sleeptracker’s sleep pattern data to your Mac with the product’s downloadable Mac software and the included USB connector clamp and cable (more about the cable and the software below) and maintain a long-term annotated record of your experiences in the embrace of Morpheus.

The Sleeptracker’s alarm clock feature leverages the watch’s accelerometers to decide when to wake you: Rather than wake you exactly at your specified time, the Sleeptracker employs an alarm window (20 minutes by default, though this is adjustable) and triggers its alarm (audible, vibration, or both) at the lightest detected sleep phase within that window. Supposedly, being wakened when you are already almost awake makes you less groggy and more ready to meet the challenges of the day.

Sleeping with the Technology -- The watch that I received was the men’s model Sleeptracker Elite, a large, rather clunky watch with an integrated rubberized buckle-type strap. It looks like something you’d wear when exercising, not sleeping.


The manual is reasonably clear in its explanations of how to set the watch via the four buttons on its sides. However, although the manual does tell you how to shut off the watch’s alarm, it doesn’t conspicuously call out this important bit of information, so the first morning I spent a few minutes sleepily stabbing at buttons to shut the thing off while paging blearily through the manual to find the correct button to press.

The watch’s display itself uses large, clear characters and would be readable by someone with mild farsightedness; given that you probably don’t wear reading glasses when you sleep (I certainly don’t), the big display is a plus when you wake up at night and want to check the watch.

And wake up I did — quite a lot — the first night I wore the Sleeptracker. I experienced a sort of somnolent stage fright: I found it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep while wearing the lumpy metal and plastic device and, when I wasn’t wakeful, I was dreaming about wearing it. The next few nights, however, I slept better.

As far as recording my wakeful periods goes, the watch seemed to do it properly each of the four nights I wore it. I found that viewing my sleep record right on the watch each morning was easy enough to do with the watch button interface, and the averaged deep-sleep summary at the end of the night’s record was instructive.

However, on two of the four mornings the alarm failed to trigger at all. In one case, I almost missed a morning appointment because of it. The two days when the alarm did go off (within the window, as advertised), I wasn’t noticeably aware of being more or less groggy than usual.

I had planned to try using the Sleeptracker for at least a week, but I cut my experiments short when I began to develop a slight rash where the watch’s back touched my skin. Since I don’t normally sleep while wearing plastic and metal objects, I don’t know whether I am abnormally sensitive to the materials that compose this particular watch and strap, or if any watch might produce the same effect on me.

Using the Software and Cable -- Sleeptracker has had a Windows version of its sleep database software for a while, but has only just introduced the Mac version. No software for either platform is included in the package, but either is a quick download from the company’s support page.

The Mac version of the software is minimalist. It does let you record, either manually or via import, your daily sleep records, and you can make notes about each night’s sleep. You can also include “sleep factor” information: sleep factors come in the form of questions, such as “Did you play video games within 1 hour of going to bed last night?” However, though daily answers to the sleep factor questions can be associated with each sleep record, the program provides no analytical tools for using them. You can easily export your sleep records, too, as CSV (comma-separated-value) text files, which you can readily import into Numbers or Excel.


The most frustrating part of the software experience is when you attempt to transfer your latest sleep record information from the watch to the Mac. The watch has no mini-USB port on it; instead, it has a row of three contacts on its back. You use them with the provided USB cable.


The USB cable has a normal USB plug on one end, and an alligator clip with three teeth on the other. These teeth are designed to line up with the metal contacts on the back of the watch when you clamp the clip to the watch. However, lining them up is tricky and takes a little practice.


That wouldn’t be a huge problem, except that the software looks for a watch-USB connection only when it launches. Therefore, to offload the data you have to clamp the watch, then launch the software. If you haven’t lined up the pins properly, you must quit the software, retry the clamping, and then relaunch. This is not something you want to go through before your first cup of coffee.

I experienced one other minor glitch with the software: It consistently labeled each day’s record with a date that was off by one, so that, for example, my sleep record for the night of May 31-June 1 was labeled as June 2.

Conclusions -- The Sleeptracker strikes me as a good idea indifferently executed. A slimmer, lighter, more comfortable watch would be a good start on improving the experience. So would better, more forgiving software. Most importantly, a much better method of offloading the watch’s data is needed: the alligator clamp cable is really a clunky kludge, and not what one expects from a watch that costs $179.

Much as I wanted to like the Sleeptracker, it seems that I’ll have to find a different set of needles to knit my ravel’d sleeve of care.

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The Future Is Disposable

  by Rich Mogull <rich@tidbits.com>
  11 comments

When personal computers first started their mass migration into our homes we didn’t worry about corrupted hard drives or losing system configurations. Our digital lives were carried in boxes of floppies, and weren’t locked down in a single vault deep in the bowels of our computer, doomed to inevitable failure. Backups were as simple as copying a floppy, and any computer you booted looked and worked exactly like every other computer at home or the office, assuming it was made by the same company.

It was only with the advent of the hard drive that the box on your desk became a black hole for your content. Slowly, like the proverbial frog in the frying pan, we filled those drives with more data and settings than we could store on portable media.

First we became tied to our settings and applications. Rather than loading our word processor or new game off a disk on whatever system was handy, we installed it and permanently burned it the into the soul of the system. For a short time we could technically (and legally) install the application wherever we needed it, but eventually software licenses and digital rights management forced us to choose, at birth, where each application would live for its lifetime.

At the same time we started tweaking and personalizing our systems. “To improve workflow” we told ourselves, but since every computer now looked and acted slightly differently, it became that much harder to use anyone else’s Mac.

For a time we were at least able to keep our documents with us wherever we went. We moved from floppy disks to SyQuest cartridges and Zip disks, and then on to CD-Rs before ending up with USB drives in our quest to always have access to our information. Each successive technology became physically smaller and virtually more capacious. All were clunky but functional, although they were also a reliability and security nightmare, since it was all too easy for a disk to be damaged, lost, or stolen.

And then we generated and accumulated more data than could be copied to any reasonable portable storage device. That’s when it effectively became impossible to keep all our information — wherever it was stored, since we still needed access to it in multiple locations — current, synchronized, and complete.

To give ourselves credit, we did recognize these issues fairly early on. Businesses tried to get users to work from shared network drives. Microsoft came up with roaming profiles and other tools to let workers bounce between computers, but you were as likely to corrupt all your email as to get Outlook to launch on another workstation.

And thus we have created a world where we’re all on an endless quest to manage our systems and data. A world where we buy special cables to migrate to a new computer. A world where the loss of a laptop will cripple our ability to work. Where we spend countless hours backing up our backups, migrating our files via email, and pretending our laptops are desktops just so we have a little portability.

But that world is coming to an end. In the future our digital lives won’t be defined by and centered on our devices, but on our bits and bytes. Everything from our data to our applications will be portable, accessible, and persistent. Our devices, including our computers, will become instantly replaceable, even disposable. Their value becomes nothing more than the cost of the hardware, and we will never fear physical loss or failure.

The Future Is Here, but Unevenly Distributed –– I started writing this article on my iPad at a local coffee shop. When I ran out of coffee I closed my smart cover and walked out the door, drove home, and picked up where I left off on my computer. I never once chose a Save command, dialed into a network, or pressed a Sync button. After every few words my app used just a smidgen of my 3G bandwidth and updated the article on a cloud server. Once home, I launched the Mac version of the application and picked up right where I dropped off. In about 15 minutes I need to head off for another appointment, and while I’m in the waiting room I’ll continue writing, albeit at a slower pace, on my iPhone.

It’s hard to overstate the disruptive impact of the simultaneous adoption of cloud and mobile computing, combined with ever-improving network access. All at once, we are gaining the ability to access nearly all of our information and services, nearly anywhere we want. As much as we like to complain about network access, I’ve used my iPhone to navigate the streets of Moscow, my iPad to phone home from China, and my MacBook Air to video chat with my children from hotel rooms around the world. I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t access a file I needed, even if I had only my iPhone with me.

Late last year I was sitting in a hotel room in Kiev when a text message popped up on my phone, warning me of a canceled flight. The message was from TripIt, a travel service that tracks all my itineraries and alerts me of any changes. Within a few minutes, I had investigated alternate options to get home despite massive weather smashing a good chunk of the United States, called my airline using Skype, and secured a workable alternative itinerary. On the long trip home I met other travelers stuck in airports, waiting for flights, who realized their journey was in trouble only when they arrived for check-in.

But we are only skating on the earliest edges of this transition. Not all devices offer the same capabilities, and the cloud services backing them are a mishmash of varying feature sets and reliability. While the technology elite can configure and leverage nearly whatever they need, and regular users can access bits and pieces, it is often a laborious and confusing process to make things work the way you want. Even editing a standard office document on your iPad and sharing it with a coworker can involve a labyrinthine workflow spanning multiple applications and services.

It also isn’t necessarily cheap. I’m fortunate that my work pays for all the devices and network connectivity I need (an advantage of owning the company). I maintain wireless access on both AT&T and Verizon, and I have the resources to pay for expensive overseas access, a variety of services and applications, and the latest devices. Fortunately, history tells us that what’s difficult and expensive today will be common and cheap tomorrow, if the demand is there.

As Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others bake the cloud into our devices, operating systems, and applications, these sorts of scenarios will become the dominant way of using our technology, not an exception we need to self-configure and manage.

Tools Are Disposable –– One of the most fascinating aspects of this transition is a return to the days where our devices don’t matter. As not only our data, but our applications and settings migrate and synchronize across the cloud, we are no longer tied to the anchors sitting on our desks or carried in our bags. While we aren’t fully there yet, we’re close to being able to move from device to device and maintain the functionality and familiarity we need.

I used to be one of those people who relied on a big MacBook Pro instead of a desktop. Keeping files synchronized across more than one system was painful, and it was easier to limit my functionality than struggle to keep everything coordinated. Then, about two years ago, thanks to Dropbox, I was able to keep at least my important work files in sync across systems. I took the plunge and bought a big Mac Pro for my heavy day-to-day work, along with a smaller MacBook for traveling.

IMAP kept my email available on all my devices, MobileMe my calendar and contacts, 1Password my logins, and Dropbox my files. I didn’t always have all the apps I needed, or things like music and photos, but from a work standpoint I could get my job done on the road.

A few months ago I decided to downsize once again and bought a MacBook Air to complement my iPad. That was the moment I realized how close we are to truly disposable computing.

Setting up the new system took a fraction of the time my migrations used to. Apple’s Migration Assistant effectively mirrored my older MacBook, pulling across all my applications, files, and settings. I also used it to synchronize my older MacBook Pro, which I still need on some trips that require beefier processing. In a short afternoon I ended up with three laptops with nearly identical configurations.

All of these laptops are encrypted, and data constantly synchronized. Before taking a trip, all I need to do is boot the one I need and let everything sync across the network. For trips where I don’t want a laptop, I have my iPhone and iPad, both of which also share access to all my files and services.

Instead of carrying my old box of floppies, I just pick the tool I need for the job, and have access to all I require wherever I am. Since each device is encrypted, if one is lost or stolen, I’m out only the cost of the hardware. (And while that’s non-trivial, I’ve already acknowledged that this lifestyle isn’t yet cheap.) Everything on all my systems is also backed up to the cloud — I could literally lose every single device at the same time without losing any important data.

In short, all my devices are disposable. I can replace any one — from my iPhone to my Mac Pro — at any time with minimal inconvenience. Yes, restoring many gigabytes of pictures or video isn’t an instant process, especially if I lose local backups, but just a few years ago losing all of my data was a very real possibility. What makes them disposable isn’t merely the persistence of information, but the consistency of data in conjunction with applications and settings. That’s what gives me the ability to pick up whichever one I want as I walk out the door and still have access to whatever I need.

[Editor’s Note: This vision is almost exactly what Google has touted as the guiding force behind their Chromebook and Chrome OS. In that case, there is no local data at all; everything is stored in the cloud, since the face of the Chrome OS literally is a Web browser. But as a result, you can sign into any Chromebook — or use a Web browser on any computer — and have access to exactly the same data, applications, and settings. Obviously, there are some tradeoffs to living entirely in a Web browser, but you gain complete freedom from any particular device. -Adam]

Tomorrow Is Almost Here –– While my devices are disposable, maintaining this setup still requires a lot of manual effort. Not all of my software is licensed for multiple systems, I have to update everything manually, and configurations drift over time as I make changes on one system or another.

I don’t lose data, but I still need to be careful about what I save where and about keeping my applications up to date. It’s easy for a geek like me, but it’s a far cry from popping the right floppy into whatever hardware is handy and getting to work. The good news is we get closer to my idealistic scenario every year.

This is why iCloud and the Mac App Store are so interesting. Apple is creating the early pieces we need to move past the current limitations. With the Mac App Store we need only a username and password to pull down the latest versions of our apps on whatever system we need. Instead of having to manage updates manually like I do now, I only have to launch App Store, look for updates, and install them all at once. At long last, Apple has essentially opened Software Update up to other developers.

Apple is making this even easier in iOS by backing up your settings to iCloud. Instead of relying on the Migration Assistant, we’ll only have to enter our account credentials and wait while the device downloads all our settings from the master copy in the cloud.

To write this article I used Simplenote, a cloud service for writing with iOS apps along with a Web interface I run as a dedicated app on my Mac (thanks to the site-specific browser Fluid). I never have to save, since my words are synced instantly to the cloud and then to my devices. iCloud, Lion, and iOS 5 could bring this functionality to all our applications. Rather than saving files in directories as I do now with Dropbox, applications could save and load data automatically, silently, in the background. Start on one device, edit, and continue on another without ever thinking about it. Make a mistake? Just go back and pull up an older version that was kept for you.

Many vendors offer tools to host files and backups in the cloud, but Apple is taking iCloud in a totally different direction. Within Apple’s ecosystem the cloud becomes the center of everything — your apps, your data, and your settings. It won’t be done by file synchronization that extends our current model of computing, but by baking the concept of cloud access into everything we do at a fundamental level. Our devices finally become tools, not roach motels where the bits check in, but never check out.

If Apple pulls this off it will be one of the most ambitious leaps in the history of consumer technology. Just as the Mac changed desktop computing, the iPod changed the way we listen to music, and the iPhone transformed the mobile phone into something from science fiction, the overlap of iCloud, Lion, and iOS could change everything we know about personal computing.

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TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 4 July 2011

  by TidBITS Staff <editors@tidbits.com>

Thunderbolt Firmware Update -- Even though there still aren’t any mainstream Thunderbolt peripherals, owners of Thunderbolt-equipped Macs should probably install the Thunderbolt Firmware Update to be ready. All Apple is saying is that it “provides Thunderbolt performance and stability fixes,” but given how new Thunderbolt is, it seems likely that Apple would still be squashing bugs. Since this is a firmware update, be sure not to interrupt the update process that starts after your Mac restarts. (Free, 486 KB)

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Java for Mac OS X 10.6 Update 5 / Java for Mac OS X 10.5 Update 10 -- Apple has released Java for Mac OS X 10.6 Update 5 and Java for Mac OS X 10.5 Update 10, which the company says “provide improved reliability, security, and compatibility” by updating Java SE 6 to 1.6.0-26. (On Macs running Mac OS X 10.5 that aren’t 64-bit capable, Java is updated to 1.5.0-30.) As far as we can tell, the changes are mostly fixes for security vulnerabilities. Apple suggests that you quit any Web browsers and Java applications before installing the update, though it’s probably easier to restart immediately after installation if you’re running the largely invisible Java-based CrashPlan backup software (which is the main Java app we use). The updates require either Mac OS X 10.6.6 or later, or 10.5.8. (Free, 75.45 MB / 120.33 MB)

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ExtraBITS for 4 July 2011

  by TidBITS Staff <editors@tidbits.com>

Enjoying live summer music doesn’t mean you have to worry about parking or crowds, with the iTunes Music Festival streaming live during July. Also this week, we have links to details about Thunderbolt cables and answers from Apple about Final Cut Pro X, along with notice that those in Chicago can come listen to Adam talk about Lion and iCloud on 6 July 2011.

iTunes Music Festival Streaming Live This Month -- Sixty-one artists are performing at the iTunes Music Festival in London through the rest of July, and Apple is streaming those performances live all month. You can watch the performances either in the iTunes Store via iTunes on your computer, or via the free iTunes Festival London 2011 app, which is designed for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. If you watch it on an iOS device, you can use AirPlay to stream it to an Apple TV 2 to see it on the big screen.

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Initial Thunderbolt Cables to Cost $49 from Apple -- Thunderbolt has been largely theoretical so far, but with the first peripherals lining up for release in the near future, this Ars Technica article is a particularly interesting read. It claims that, at least at first, Thunderbolt peripherals won’t ship with the necessary cables, and users will have to buy Thunderbolt cables from Apple for $49 for a 2 meter cable. At some point, other manufacturers will undoubtedly start manufacturing Thunderbolt cables, which will likely drive the price down, but it’s unclear how long that will take.

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Join Adam Engst on July 6th at the Chicago Apple User Group -- If you’re near Chicago on 6 July 2011, come to the Chicago Apple User Group, where TidBITS publisher Adam Engst will be speaking about Lion and iCloud, and taking any and all questions from the audience.

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Apple Answers Final Cut Pro X Questions -- Apple has responded to concerns about Final Cut Pro X, the rewritten version of Final Cut Pro that lacks several professional features found in Final Cut Pro 7. Most of the answers can be summed up as, “Not yet, but it will” concerning multi-camera editing, assigning audio tracks, support for some video formats (like RED), and export to XML, OMF, AAF, and EDLs. Apple also notes that plug-in developers need to update their wares to be 64-bit compatible before they will work within Final Cut, and that volume license purchasing will be available soon.

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