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In what may be an industry first, an operating system is shipping earlier than announced. Apple had previously promised Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard for September, but today Apple announced that Snow Leopard will become available on 28-Aug-09. Normally, it's pretty good money to bet on the latter end of a promised ship date range.
For those who have been on walkabout in the outback for the last 18 months, Snow Leopard is the next major release of Mac OS X, but one that is focused largely on enhancing performance and stability, and on improving the foundation upon which future applications will be built. Apple claims to have refined 90 percent of the more than 1,000 projects that make up Mac OS X, improving such key portions of the operating system as the Finder, Mail, Time Machine, the Dock, QuickTime, and Safari. For more details on what has changed, see "Apple Previews Snow Leopard for September Release" (2009-06-08).
Also being made available on 28-Aug-09 is Mac OS X Server Snow Leopard, which includes all the improvements in the desktop version of Snow Leopard and adds iCal Server 2, Podcast Producer 2, Wiki Server 2, Address Book Server, and Mobile Access Server.
Upgrade Pricing -- A single user version of Snow Leopard will be available as an upgrade from Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard for $29, a family-pack version that's licensed for up to five Macs within a household will cost $49, and an updated Mac Box Set, which will include Snow Leopard, iLife '09, and iWork '09 will cost $169. (These links go to Amazon, though we just heard that Amazon apparently will ship Snow Leopard only within the United States.)
Apple considers Snow Leopard an upgrade from Leopard, so if you want to upgrade from Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger running on an Intel-based Mac, Apple is directing you toward the Mac Box Set or to a Mac Box Set Family Pack for $229. Until we've had a chance to test, we won't know for sure if the Snow Leopard upgrade discs will install over Tiger. We presume they will, since otherwise they wouldn't be able to install on a completely bare hard disk either.
For those who have purchased a Mac with Leopard since 08-Jun-09, the Mac OS X Snow Leopard Up-to-Date package provides an update to Snow Leopard for only $9.95. You must request the Up-to-Date upgrade by the earlier of 90 days after purchase or 26-Dec-09.
Snow Leopard Server will cost $499 for unlimited users, down from $999.
Technical Requirements -- Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard requires an Intel-based Mac with at least 1 GB of RAM and 5 GB of available disk space. It also requires a DVD drive for installation. Certain features require additional technical specifications; see Apple's site for details.
Snow Leopard Server requires an Intel-based Mac with at least 2 GB of RAM and 10 GB of available disk space, and some of its features also have higher technical requirements.
Take Control Books Coming Soon -- As much as Apple's early release increased the pressure on us a bit, we're on track to release both Joe Kissell's "Take Control of Upgrading to Snow Leopard" and Matt Neuburg's "Take Control of Exploring & Customizing Snow Leopard" by the time Apple makes Snow Leopard available to the public. You can read more about them now, and we'll post on the TidBITS and Take Control Web sites when the books are available for purchase.
"Take Control of Upgrading to Snow Leopard" provides the guidance you need to upgrade calmly and successfully, as have many thousands of Mac users who have previously relied on Joe's earlier "Take Control of Upgrading..." titles. Joe's friendly, expert steps - developed over innumerable test installations - help you avoid trouble, understand what's going on when you install Snow Leopard, and, by using the bootable duplicate that Joe helps you make before you start the upgrade, easily recover from problems that might arise.
"Take Control of Exploring & Customizing Snow Leopard" picks up at the next step, with Matt providing a tour of the new features in Snow Leopard, including both those that are totally new (such as the revamped Services feature and system-wide automatic text replacement), and those that have been enhanced from Leopard (like the new Dock-related Expose capabilities and additional Time Machine controls). Existing Leopard features are also fully explained, complete with customization options to make them work the way you want.
Everyone who purchased a previous version of either book will receive a discounted upgrade, so watch your email or click Check for Updates in your existing ebook to learn more once the books are available.
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Apple has responded to the FCC's questions about how Apple didn't-exactly-reject the Google Voice iPhone app and removed other Google Voice-related apps from the App Store (see "FCC Queries Apple, AT&T, and Google about Google Voice App," 2009-08-03). For the most part, the answers are what a reasonable person would expect Apple to say, but in a few cases, they offer a glimpse inside the inner workings of the App Store.
Although AT&T and Google were also queried, they didn't publicize their responses. However, Engadget has now posted both responses for everyone to read.
Google Voice -- First off, Apple claims it has not rejected the Google Voice app, and continues to study it. According to Apple, the problem is that the Google Voice app essentially replaces several core features of the iPhone, including Visual Voicemail and the SMS Messages app.
That's because Google Voice, after a call hasn't been picked up, records and transcribes voicemail on Google's servers, rather than allowing the iPhone to receive the voicemail message. Similarly, Google Voice manages SMS messages internally, keeping them away from the iPhone's Messages app.
I think it's overreaching to say that the iPhone's unique user experience is predicated on Visual Voicemail and the Messages app. The iPhone offers a unique user experience because of the complete package - Apple's innovative industrial design and iPhone OS 3.0 coupled with both Apple's bundled apps and whatever independent apps users may have downloaded. All independent apps individualize the user experience, and Google Voice doesn't seem sufficiently different in that respect.
Apple's final concern with Google Voice is that it transfers the user's Contacts database up to Google's servers, and Apple claims that Google hasn't provided assurances that the data will be used only in appropriate ways. This claim seems like a red herring, given that Apple's own Address Book application in Mac OS X can synchronize contacts with Google (and Yahoo). If the user wants contacts synchronized with Google, that should be up to the user.
Apple and AT&T -- In the response, Apple says, in the context of whether Apple acted in consultation with AT&T in rejecting the Google Voice app:
Apple is acting alone and has not consulted with AT&T about whether or not to approve the Google Voice application. No contractual conditions or non-contractual understandings with AT&T have been a factor in Apple's decision-making process in this matter.
While some have already commented that this could be interpreted to mean that understandings with AT&T could be a factor in other App Store decisions, the next statement from Apple at least puts to rest any worry that AT&T has a significant say beyond VoIP apps and anything that would enable a customer to violate AT&T's Terms of Service:
Apple alone makes the final decisions to approve or not approve iPhone applications.
There is a provision in Apple's agreement with AT&T that obligates Apple not to include functionality in any Apple phone that enables a customer to use AT&T's cellular network service to originate or terminate a VoIP session without obtaining AT&T's permission. Apple honors this obligation, in addition to respecting AT&T's customer Terms of Service, which, for example, prohibit an AT&T customer from using AT&T's cellular service to redirect a TV signal to an iPhone. From time to time, AT&T has expressed concerns regarding network efficiency and potential network congestion associated with certain applications, and Apple takes such concerns into consideration.
I can't believe that AT&T wouldn't complain to Apple about a troubling app, but at least we know Apple retains final control.
Behind the iPhone Curtain -- The rest of Apple's response mostly explains Apple's criteria for rejecting apps, and there's nothing particularly new there. Needless to say, Apple couches the approval process as necessary "in order to protect consumer privacy, safeguard children from inappropriate content, and avoid applications that degrade the core experience of the iPhone." Also, the review process "tests for vulnerabilities such as software bugs, instability on the iPhone platform, and the use of unauthorized protocols."
No mention is made of the many controversial rejections (other than noting other apps that tied into Google Voice, which had previously been approved and sold), or of the unnecessarily extreme requirement that all Internet-capable apps carry a 17+ rating (see "Apple: Web-enabled iPhone Apps Aren't for Kids," 2009-07-28).
Where Apple does provide new information, however, is in the statistics surrounding the approval process. According to Apple, 95 percent of apps are approved within 14 days of being submitted, and Apple has reviewed more than 200,000 new and updated apps in a little more than a year.
Those reviews are performed by a staff of more than 40 full-time reviewers, and at least two reviewers evaluate each app to ensure uniformity. An executive review board sets policy, determines procedures, and reviews apps that raise new or complex issues.
The question is if the reviewers can possibly be devoting sufficient time to each app. Apple says that about 8,500 new apps and updates are received each week, and roughly 20 percent are "not approved as originally submitted" (which would seem to mean that the apps can be resubmitted after modifications).
With a few assumptions thrown in, such as 40-hour work weeks, and only two reviewers looking at each app, the average amount of attention an app receives is just over 5 minutes. With a minor update to an existing app, that might be enough time, but it's hard to imagine that an entirely new app could be evaluated reasonably in even double or triple the time.
And, certainly, the responses that iPhone developers receive with rejected apps are often terse to the point of providing no useful guidance, which is why so many developers feel as though the approval process is an inexplicable black box containing a capricious and sometimes implacable reviewer. Not surprisingly, Apple tells the FCC another story:
If we find that an application has a problem, for example, a software bug that crashes the application, we send the developer a note describing the reason why the application will not be approved as submitted. In many cases we are able to provide specific guidance about how the developer can fix the application. We also let them know they can contact the app review team or technical support, or they can write to us for further guidance.
I'm sure we'll see comments on Apple's claims from outspoken iPhone developers in the next few days, and it would be interesting to know if the FCC will take sources other than Apple into account in evaluating this situation further.
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The long-awaited release of Mailsmith 2.2 came with a few surprises. This version, coming four years after the last maintenance release of 2.1, is free - and owned by another company. The new Web site has already launched.
Bare Bones founder and CEO Rich Siegel started the new company - Stickshift Software - solely to provide continuing development and support for the email client, which, he confirmed via iChat, will remain "closed source" but a "labor of love." Bare Bones has transferred ownership of Mailsmith to Stickshift. (Say that five times fast!)
Version 2.2 changes its data storage model, requiring an update that can be quite time consuming for any 2.1.x users who have large email collections. Stickshift recommends using an option included in Mailsmith 2.2 to create a full backup as a disk image. The new release is a univeral binary, requiring Mac OS X 10.4 or later, but the firm recommends 10.5.8.
This release has a substantial number of other changes and additions documented in the release notes. Notable improvements include the option to create a Zip archive in the Attachments tab, an overhauled and more powerful set of simple and advanced search features, and - most important to me - system-wide searching via Spotlight for specific messages. (To limit a search to Mailsmith add kind:mailsmith to a Spotlight query.)
Mailsmith continues to support only POP3 for email retrieval, omitting support for IMAP. IMAP allows synchronization of folders between a mail server and a local mail client, allowing multiple devices or computers to access the same mail structure remotely, while having optional local copies.
Mailsmith has an apparently small but dedicated user base that appreciates its text-only nature - Mailsmith doesn't show HTML in line, but can open an HTML-formatted message in a browser. Siegel declined to reveal user numbers, as he said that data remains proprietary to Bare Bones.
With Eudora switching to an open-source code base back in 2006 (see "Eudora Goes Open Source with Thunderbird," 2006-10-16), Apple's continued improvements of the Mail program included in Mac OS X, Microsoft bundling Entourage with Office for Mac, and Web-hosted mail like Gmail having an increasingly vast user base, there's little room for an alternative mail client to gain hold in Mac OS X. (Entourage itself is being discontinued, to be replaced by Outlook for Mac in 2010; see "Outlook for Mac Due with 2010 Office Release," 2009-08-13.)
Mailsmith was spun off seemingly to take the workload and support burden off Bare Bones' books. The company also discontinued Super Get Info, a file-information program that's had less utility as Apple has improved Mac OS X.
This move leaves Bare Bones focused on its flagship program BBEdit, although given Mailsmith's ostensibly small user base, this is likely more a formal change than a structural one. Its information organization tool, Yojimbo, hasn't been updated since 06-Feb-08; TextWrangler, a stripped-down version of BBEdit for text editing, is free; and WeatherCal is a tiny utility.
Yojimbo is overdue for an update, and would benefit from an iPhone application. Yojimbo synchronizes its collection of passwords, Web page links and archives, PDFs, images, text notes, and other data via MobileMe at present. A competing program, 1Password, has desktop and iPhone versions, and uses different approaches for sync, neither of which rely on MobileMe. (1Password captures, stores, and syncs passwords, Web form entries, and notes, but not other arbitrary data.)
I've used Mailsmith since 2002, when Rich demonstrated the program to me during the first MacMania cruise. I was hooked, as Eudora seemed a dead end, Entourage was crashing and corrupting a huge mail database regularly, and I couldn't stand Apple's Mail. I also was suspicious of HTML-formatted email, because it can embed tracking images (1-by-1 pixel GIFs, for instance), and often displays poorly.
Mailsmith's multi-year beta program for 2.2 stalled for quite a while, picking up steam over the last year. I was concerned I'd have to find a new client, migrate gigabytes of email, and give up a lot of what I loved about Mailsmith. This move to a separate firm and a free client reduces my anxiety; I can stick with Mailsmith for now.
Free also lowers the bar for those looking for an alternative mail client to try out Mailsmith without being concerned about a bill coming due after a trial period. That might increase adoption, although the lack of IMAP may still prove a deal-killer.
This change does mean that Mailsmith won't evolve beyond what's necessary to keep it current and functional. And with the lack of innovation and improvement in other Mac OS X clients, it's unlikely we'll see substantial change in how email is handled. Unlike browsers, where competition is fierce for eyeballs - partly to get those eyes to look at ads - email software for most users has hit a brick wall.
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Not long ago, Google produced a video that's making the rounds on the Internet. In it, a Google employee asks people in Times Square in New York City a series of questions, such as "What is a browser?", "What browser do you use?", and "Have you heard of Google Chrome?" (Chrome is Google's new Web browser; it's available for Windows and in pre-release test versions for the Mac.)
Among the geek set, the video has gotten a lot of play because most of the people in the video - who appear to be functional adults and who use the Internet regularly - come off as highly clueless. According to the video, only 8 percent of people queried that day knew what a browser is.
The video is clearly not a scientific study, and suffers from horrible methodology. It's likely, for instance, that simply asking "What is a Web browser?" would have produced better results, and the middle of Times Square is undoubtedly not where most people are thinking about the names of programs on their computers. But let's leave aside such criticisms for the moment.
What's Your Browser? Instead, let's take the results on face value and consider their implications. What does it say about the technological world in which we live that 92 percent of the people asked could not identify the name of the program they use to access the Web? If other statistics are to be believed, browsing the Web is the primary use of computers today, so that's saying these people couldn't name the program they use more than any other.
Worse, some of the answers on the video reveal that they don't even know what a program is. A number of them identified their browser as "a search engine" and "Google." When asked which browser he used, one guy said "the big E," undoubtedly meaning Microsoft Internet Explorer, which has a stylized lowercase letter E as its icon.
When the best someone can come up with is a vague recollection of a program's icon, it says to me that we've entered a "post-literate" technological society, one in which people have lost not just the ability to read and write about a topic, but also the ability to speak about it, all while retaining the ability to use it.
As someone who earns a living crafting text to help people learn how to use technology, I found myself profoundly troubled by Google's video. After all, if someone doesn't know what browser they use, or even that a browser is a program on their computer, how could I possibly expect them to be interested in buying my company's "Take Control of Safari 4" book (written, with infinite care, by the estimable Sharon Zardetto)? How could they even learn of its existence, if they had no idea that Safari is a Web browser or that they were using Safari?
(One concern that I don't explore further in this article are the implications of a post-literate technological society for marketing technology itself - will even technology marketing be forced to rely solely on pretty pictures and emotional appeals? In fact, are we already there? Apple's "I'm a Mac" ads help customers identify with the actor playing the Mac but give little solid information, and Apple conceals many technical specifications about the iPhone.)
But perhaps I'm barking up the wrong tree, and Google's video in fact shows that we've taken great technological strides. TidBITS editor Glenn Fleishman, when we were discussing the video, suggested that it's a good thing that the Web browser has become so ubiquitous that people need not know what it's called to use it effectively.
(Linguistically, this same devolution has happened with the Web itself. Although it's TidBITS house style to capitalize "Web" - a proper noun that's a shortening of "World Wide Web" - it's commonplace to see even professionally edited publications lowercase the word, thus de-emphasizing the fact that it's a unique thing. I think they're wrong: "Web" should always be capitalized, as should "Internet.")
From a usability stance, I think I agree with Glenn - it's a good thing that using the Web has become so easy that a myriad of people can do so without even knowing the name of the tool they use to access it. Most people just use the browser that comes bundled with their computer, and despite the issues with Microsoft Internet Explorer over the years, Firefox has garnered only a bit over 20 percent of the browser market since 2004 - largely from the small subset of people who know what a browser is.
On a platform like the iPhone, it's even easier to see this trend toward obscuring the identity of the browser. Although Safari is the iPhone's Web browser, and its icon is clearly named, applications like Twitterrific can display Web content internally, and others, like Mail, can open a Web link in Safari without ever informing you that Safari is displaying your page. It would be difficult to quibble with someone who didn't realize that their iPhone browser was Safari, when in fact, much of the time they would be viewing the Web via some other app that piggybacks on top of OS X's WebKit core.
Tied up in all of this is the fact that if what's bundled with your computer or phone just works, you don't need to learn much more. Dissatisfaction is the mother of exploration - only if Safari or Internet Explorer isn't meeting your needs do you have much impetus to learn about and switch to Firefox. So the better technology works, the less we'll learn about how it works. I can't say that's entirely a bad thing.
When the Thing Breaks -- But I remain troubled by this post-literate inability to talk about everyday activities and the tools used to perform them, using the proper nouns that are not only generally agreed-upon by those in the know, but with which the graphical representations of those tools are clearly labeled. What happens when something goes wrong, and such a person can't connect to the Internet at all? Can you imagine the tech support call?
"Hi, this is tech support. How may I help you?"
"I can't get on the Google."
"OK, what browser are you using?"
"I told you - Google."
"Let's step back for a second. What program are you running on your computer to access the Web?"
"I don't know - I just Google when I want to find something."
"Perhaps we should go a bit further back. What icon do you click on when you want to use Google?"
"The picture? It's blue and kind of round, I think."
"OK, that's probably Internet Explorer. Can you load any Web sites other than Google?"
"If I can't get on Google, how can I load any other Web sites?!"
I could draw this out further, but it's not far-fetched (TidBITS staffer Doug McLean confirmed that my contrived dialog was painfully reminiscent of tech support calls he took in a previous job). In essence, the caller and the support rep don't share a common language. They may both be speaking English, but that's as far as it goes, and as soon as domain-specific words like "browser" come into play, communication breaks down. A good support rep would undoubtedly adjust his questions upon realizing that there's a terminology barrier, and like Captain Kirk meeting an alien, would attempt to build up some shared terminology based on visual appearance before attempting to solve the problem.
Generational Problem Solving -- If I asked you to tell me something about the caller in my fabricated script above, you might fall back on stereotypes and describe the caller as being elderly, or at least as someone who didn't grow up with technology and therefore has come to it, perhaps grudgingly, later in life. But what if I told you it could be a college student?
My neighbor Peter Rothbart teaches music at Ithaca College, and he's been noticing a disturbing trend among his students. Although they're capable of using the digital music software necessary for his courses, he says that many of them have trouble with the most basic of computer tasks, like saving files in a particular location on the hard disk. Worse, if something does go wrong, he finds, they have absolutely no idea how to solve the problem.
These aren't the sort of kids who are befuddled by high school - they're students at a well-respected institution of higher education. (It's the alma mater of Disney CEO Robert Iger, for instance.) No, they're not computer science majors, but they're not being asked to program, just to use off-the-shelf music software and perform commonplace tasks. And now those commonplace tasks are not only something that they apparently have never had to do, but lack the skills to figure out on their own.
Could this inability to solve a problem with a device with which they are otherwise familiar be a result of losing some ability to talk about it? I wouldn't go so far as to say it's impossible to troubleshoot without terminology, but it's less radical to suggest that troubleshooting will become more difficult without being able to communicate effectively with people who are experts in the field.
Not all that long ago, when adults had trouble getting something working on a computer, they would sarcastically say that they needed a teenager to explain it to them. That was largely true of those of us who were teenagers in the 1980s and 1990s, but if Peter Rothbart's experience is at all representative, today you'd be better off finding a 30- or 40-year-old geek to help.
Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that all young people are incapable of solving technical problems or going beyond the basics. My friend Dave Burbank, whose full-time job is as a fireman in the City of Ithaca, is also a serious geek known for taking hundreds of photos on his kids' class trips, posting constant updates via Twitter, and updating a photo Web site for the trip before turning in each night. His 15-year-old son Istvan is currently a 3D animator at Moving Box Studios in Ithaca and is perfectly capable of maintaining a technical discussion on the evolution of backup media and other such geeky topics.
In other words, there will always be geeks, and in my mind, that's a darn good thing. The technological sophistication of those people of my generation (I'm 41 now) who were interested in technology created the meme that young people were fluid with technology. But what we all missed was that being fluid with technology doesn't mean you understand how it works or can fix it when it breaks. Being able to dash off text messages on a mobile phone demonstrates fluidity; being able to troubleshoot a dead Internet connection down to a corrupted preference file or flaky cable demonstrates understanding.
So what will most members of society do when something on their computers or smartphones fails to work? Let's not pretend that problems won't happen - technology may have become more reliable over time, but the rate at which things go wrong even for undemanding users is still shamefully high.
Just recently, my father called because his iPod wouldn't show up in iTunes. After some back and forth, I suggested that he reset the iPod, and when he went to use it, he realized it was indeed entirely frozen. A hard reset brought it back to life and resolved his problem, but had he been on his own, it's possible that he - or at least someone less experienced than he is - would have concluded it was broken and bought another one.
This isn't a new concern. In 1909, E.M. Forster wrote a piece of early science fiction, "The Machine Stops," in which he imagined a future in which face-to-face contact was considered bizarre, humanity lived underground, and the "Machine" fed all our needs. Of course, one day...the machine stopped. More recently and amusingly, consider the Pixar movie "Wall-E."
Cars and Computers -- The obvious analogy in today's world, and one that several people have suggested in response to our discussions, is the car. At one time, knowledge of keeping a car running was a kind of patriarchal rite of passage. Failure to monitor oil levels, radiator fluids, and other factors could lead to a dead horseless carriage.
Few people know how cars work these days, and even those of us who do have a basic understanding of them can't really work on a modern car. If the car stutters when accelerating, or sometimes won't start, most of us simply take it in to the repair shop and get it fixed. Problem solved with the application of money, and of course, since cars work relatively well these days, much less monitoring is needed. When was the last time you checked your car's fluids?
Like so many automotive analogies, this one sounds good, but suffers under scrutiny. In part, repairing cars has become a specialty not so much because intelligent people couldn't understand what's wrong or figure out how to troubleshoot it, but because the training and equipment necessary to diagnose problems and effect repairs have themselves become highly specialized. Gone are the days when you could fix a car with a few screwdrivers and a set of wrenches. The shops all download data from the car computer for diagnosis.
But the more serious problem with the analogy is that cars are single-purpose machines - they do one thing, and they do it moderately well. Thus, the type of problems they can suffer, while troubling, frustrating, and sometimes seemingly inexplicable, are still relatively limited in scope, more like a household appliance. How often do you have to check the inner workings of your washing machine or refrigerator?
In contrast, computers are general purpose machines that can perform a vast number of wildly different tasks, such as browsing the Web, reading email, writing a book, developing a company budget, tracking a database of customers, composing music, editing video, and so on.
We have up-and-coming geeks like Istvan Burbank, but even bright young men like Istvan have their limits. While I'd happily ask him to fix a Mac that's not booting, I'm not sure he'd have any idea how to help if I showed him a PDF where the text on some pages appeared darker and bitmapped when viewed in certain PDF readers (even Adobe hasn't been able to fix that problem reliably for me). There's a limit to how much any one of us can learn, but there's no limit to what a computer can do.
In a way, this is an odd situation for those of us who grew up with the personal computer. Before Apple, before the IBM PC, we had mainframes and minicomputers that we interacted with via dumb terminals. You couldn't do all that much, and you were sharing resources with many other people, but you also didn't have to worry about things going wrong as much, because when they did, the computer operators would fix them.
They were the gatekeepers, the wizards who controlled access and could say who was allowed to do what. Personal computers were supposed to democratize computing so anyone and everyone could do their own work. While that's come to pass in some ways, it seems to me that we've returned to the days when you need a wizard to solve problems or do anything beyond the norm. It's a somewhat uncomfortable situation, since those of us who grew up with personal computers are finding that we're the new wizards.
Technological Illiteracy -- So how did we get here? I'd argue that Apple - and we Macintosh users - are perhaps more to blame for this state of affairs than any other group. After all, no one has championed usability like Apple, with the Mac's vaunted ease-of-use. For years, many Mac users scoffed at manuals. "Why would anyone need a manual when the program is so easy to use?" they'd ask. It was a fair point, for the users of the time, who were highly interested in the technology, well versed in how it actually worked under the hood, and amenable to poking and prodding when things didn't go right.
But then we got our wish, and ever more companies started writing software that was easy enough for most people to use without reading a manual, at least at some level. That was the death of documentation, a phrase I first coined more than 10 years ago (see "The Death of Documentation," 1998-05-04). Of course, it was really the death of the manual, and technical books have remained popular, in part because of the lack of the manual (how else could David Pogue have made a mint on his Missing Manual series?).
Even still, back when I started writing technical books in the early-to-mid 1990s, the average computer book would sell about 12,000 copies. Today, despite a vastly larger audience (though with much more competition), 5,000 copies is considered acceptable.
I'd argue there was a more insidious effect from the loss of manuals - it caused an entire class of users to become technologically functional while remaining technologically illiterate. When I asked my mother-in-law, Linda Byard, what browser she used, she became somewhat flustered and guessed at Outlook. This is a woman who uses the Web fluidly and for all sorts of tasks far more sophisticated than simply browsing static Web pages. And yet, the fact that she used Internet Explorer to do so escaped her.
As the conversation proceeded (and keep in mind that my father-in-law, Cory Byard, helped design personal computers for NCR back in the 1980s and now consults on massive database projects for Teradata - Tonya didn't grow up in a technologically backward household), it came out that Linda had stopped reading about how to use technology when manuals gave way to inferior online help.
She didn't stop learning how to use various programs, but without any sort of formalized instruction or written reference, she lost the terminology necessary to talk about the technology she was using. Of course, she had Cory around to fix anything that went wrong, and she said that the same was true of all her peers too - there was always someone technologically adept in the family to deal with troubles.
Although it's harder to pin this loss of technological literacy on the lack of manuals when looking at schoolkids, the problem isn't necessarily being addressed there either. When my son Tristan was in second and third grade in the public schools in Ithaca, NY, the closest he was taught to computer skills were typing (not a terrible idea, but tricky for kids whose hands aren't large enough to touch-type properly) and PowerPoint.
Although some level of presentation skills are certainly worthwhile, why would you have second graders focus on something that's guaranteed to be different (if not entirely obsolete) by the time they're in college?
I'd argue that some of the basics of technology - the concept of a program as a set of instructions and the essentials of networking - would be both more compelling for kids and more useful for understanding the way the world works later in life.
When TidBITS contributing editor Matt Neuburg tried to teach a group of his friends' kids REALbasic one summer, he found himself frustrated at almost every turn - they lacked the conceptual underpinning that they could make the computer do something. And more important, they didn't care, since they were accustomed to technology just working. It wasn't until he got them to draw a stick figure and, by changing the location of its parts repeatedly, make it walk across the screen, that one of them said, "Hey, this must be how my video games are made."
And networking? No, you don't need to know it works to use the Internet, but isn't it wondrous that an email message sent to a friend on the other side of the globe in Australia is broken up into many small pieces, shuttled from computer to computer at nearly the speed of light, and reassembled at its destination, no more than seconds later? Wouldn't it be fun to act out a packet-switched network with an entire class of second graders and the pieces of a floor puzzle? Or at least more fun than PowerPoint?
Luckily, this lack in the public education system isn't uniform. Glenn Fleishman's son Ben is about to enter a public elementary school in Seattle, where the beginning curriculum teaches kids about opening, saving, and printing files; later, it moves to task-based - not program-oriented - computer projects. That's much better.
But I digress.
Illiteracy Stifling Innovation? My more serious concern with our society's odd fluency with a technology that we cannot easily communicate about is that it might slowly stifle innovation. Already we're in a situation where browser innovation is almost the sole province of Apple and Microsoft, with contributions from Mozilla, Google, and maybe Opera.
Iterative changes from the incumbents can be worked in, since everyone will be forced to accept them, but does it become harder to convince most people to try a ground-breaking new technology because it's different, because it's talked about using strange new terminology, and perhaps because no paradigm-shifting new technology can by definition be so easy to use that it doesn't require some level of training? I fear that might be the case.
In the dawn of the computer age, the stakes weren't as high and the market wasn't as large, so I'd suggest that companies were more likely to take risks on innovative technologies that might appeal to only a small subset of the population. Today, with everyone using technology, I suspect that business plans and funding proposals all assume a large potential audience, which in turn causes the ideas to be vetted more on their business chances than their technological innovation.
Put another way, there have always been technological haves and have nots, but since there was no chance of selling technology to the have nots, technology of the past was less limited by the literacy of the audience. Since the technologically illiterate are not just buying technology now, but are the primary market for it, that has to be affecting the kind of ideas that get funding and are being developed in a real way.
Plus, think back to the point about dissatisfaction being the mother of exploration. We geeks may be willing to belly up to the new technology feeding trough since we're never satisfied. But once technology reaches a certain plateau of working well enough, if this lack of technological literacy is indeed a more general concern, spreading technological successes into the population as a whole may become all the more difficult.
I'm fully aware that my musings here are largely hypothetical and based on anecdotal evidence. But I think there's a new technology on the horizon that could serve as a test of my theory that anything sufficiently innovative will face an uphill battle due to the technological illiteracy of the user base: Google Wave.
For those who didn't see Google's announcement of Google Wave (we didn't cover it in TidBITS at the time because it was a technology announcement, not a service that people could use), it's a personal communication and collaboration tool that's designed to merge the strengths of email, instant messaging, wikis, and social networking services. (You can read more about it at Wikipedia.)
On the plus side, Google Wave has the power of Google behind it, and Google could potentially merge it into Gmail, thus introducing it to 146 million users nearly instantaneously. But Google Wave will undoubtedly be quite different from Gmail, and will require a learning curve. Will that hamper its adoption, since email and instant messaging and other service work well enough that people aren't sufficiently dissatisfied to learn about and try Google Wave? Only time will tell.
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Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection for Mac 2.0.1 from Microsoft addresses two significant security vulnerabilities that could lead to an attacker executing remote code if a user were to connect to a malicious RDP server or visit a specially crafted Web site. The update patches these vulnerabilities by changing the way Remote Desktop Connection handles unexpected parameters sent by the RDP server, and by validating parameters sent to the Remote Desktop Connection ActiveX control methods. (Free update, 7.8 MB)
BusySync 2.2.1 from BusyMac is a maintenance update to the iCal synchronization software. Changes include added support for BusyCal to BusySync database conversions, a new eSellerate library, repaired duplicate and malformed alarms, and fixes for a number of unspecified syncing bugs. ($25, free update, 4.3 MB)
TextExpander 2.7 from SmileOnMyMac fixes a compatibility issue with the upcoming Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and supports TextExpander touch, an application that brings the text-expansion features to the iPhone and iPod touch; that app is expected to be available from Apple's App Store on 26-Aug-09. ($14.98 until 09-Sep-09, free update, 3.8 MB)
Hazel 2.3.2 from Noodlesoft is a maintenance update to the file cleanup utility. The major additions to the new version are support for Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and 64-bit support. The update also fixes several issues, including one wherein the menu bar menu would not update when a new drive was mounted, another that caused attributes and tokens to become linked across rules when a rule was copied, and general problems with the keyboard navigation in the main pane interface. Also a handful of minor bugs, several pertaining to App Sweep, have been fixed. The full release notes are available via Noodlesoft's Web site. ($21.95, free update, 3.4 MB)
Apple Remote Desktop Admin 3.3 and Client 3.3.1 from Apple are feature and reliability updates to the remote management software. Changes include enhanced support for accessing clients behind NAT routers, new Task and Directory Server scanners, new Reporting and Administrator tabs in the client information window, the capability to manage client settings from the Managed Preferences window in Workgroup Manager, and the added capability to search for clients via wide-area Bonjour. A full list of changes is available on Apple's Web site. The updates require Apple Remote Desktop 3.0 or later and can be downloaded via Software Update or from the Apple Support Downloads page. (Free updates, 51/4.1 MB Admin/Client)
OmniOutliner 3.9 from The Omni Group is a significant update to the popular outlining software. In the latest version new unsaved documents are automatically backed up in the case of a crash, support for automatic updates has been added, Quick Look capabilities have been enhanced, and a new two-week trial period is now available. New to the Pro version only is the addition of the .docx export format supported by Microsoft Word 2008 for Mac and Word 2007 for Windows; .docx files can also be imported into Pages '09. Finally, several bugs have been fixed, including a crashing one that occurred most often when closing the application. ($39.95/$69.95 Standard/Pro, free update, 15.9/16.6 MB)
Hard Drive Firmware Update 2.0 from Apple addresses an issue with the 7200 RPM hard drives that shipped with the June 2009 MacBook Pros. The symptomatic drives, described in this CNET article, emitted infrequent noises, followed by periods of stalled performance. To install the update, follow the instructions in the updater application that automatically launches after the installer has closed (/Application/Utilities/Hard Drive Update.app). (Free update, 3.71 MB)
Bluetooth Firmware Update 2.0.1 from Apple comes with brief release notes saying only that the update "provides bug fixes and better compatibility with the Apple Wireless Mighty Mouse and Apple Wireless Keyboard." Apple also notes that the update should be installed on any Macintosh system whose Bluetooth support is based on the Broadcom chipset. To find the manufacturer of your Mac's Bluetooth chipset, run System Profiler, click Bluetooth under Hardware in the sidebar, and check the Manufacturer line. The update is available via Software Update and from the Apple Support Downloads page. (Free update, 1.78 MB)
iPhoto '09 8.1 from Apple beefs up the photo management program's capability to print books and cards. Most notably, there's now an extra-large (13 by 10 inch, or 33 x 25 cm) hardcover book size. The new book format comes with a satin finish on the dust jacket and arrives in a glossy cardboard sleeve to keep it protected. It costs $49.99 for 20 double-sided pages (10 sheets of paper), and additional pages cost $1.49 with 100 double-sided pages (50 sheets of paper) maximum. Apple also added three new travel-oriented book themes: Tropical, Asian, and Old World. And finally, iPhoto '09 8.1 gains a number of new holiday-related greeting card themes. Though Apple recommends this update for all users, without news of any bug fixes, you can easily delay downloading this update until you next want to design a book or card. (Free update, 161 MB)
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Exploding iPhone Coverage Overheated -- BusinessWeek tackles the media feast surrounding reports of exploding iPhones in Europe. Apple is currently investigating several instances of reportedly overheating or exploding iPhones in France and Britain; though given the amount of attention the matter has received, one would think the number of cases was much higher than that. With only 15 heat-related complaints about iPods to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (out of over 200 million iPods sold since 2001) there's no need to start shopping for a Kevlar-lined case. (Posted 2009-08-21)
iPhone Poised to Become Top Camera on Flickr -- Mobile phones with integrated digital cameras have been around for a while, but it's the combination of a camera and always-on Internet access that is boosting the iPhone's ranking as the top digital camera used on the photo sharing site Flickr. (Posted 2009-08-20)
Adam Talks Outlook for Mac on Your Mac Life -- Sure, it won't see the light of day for over a year, but Microsoft's forthcoming Outlook for Mac will be a big deal for everyone using Entourage now, and for everyone using Microsoft Office in multi-platform organizations. Adam and Your Mac Life host Shawn King discuss what's known and what's likely, and debunk the FUD theory others have suggested to explain the early announcement. (Posted 2009-08-20)
Dig into HandBrake's Video Encoding Settings -- Christopher Breen at Macworld ventures into the often-confusing morass of video encoding options available in HandBrake. If you know what you're doing, you can improve the output of video you throw at it (such as DVDs), but it's not easy to grasp the myriad of options. (Posted 2009-08-18)
Cut Your Phone Bill with Internet Calling -- Need advice on trimming your home and small-office telecom fees? TidBITS editor Glenn Fleishman contributed a set of advice to Macworld's feature on cutting all kinds of tech costs. VoIP has matured enough to replace landlines for many people, reducing the cost of reaching out. (Posted 2009-08-18)
The Ins and Outs of iPhone OS 3.0's Hotspot Login -- At MacObserver, our friend and colleague Ted Landau explains the intricacies of iPhone OS 3.0's automatic hotspot login feature and how to control the way it rejoins such networks. (Posted 2009-08-18)
Tr.im Service Turns to Community, Openness -- In the latest twist with the tr.im URL shortening service, the company that owns it - The Nambu Network - will move it to a community-run system, with the firm's CEO personally making up any shortfall from donations to cover expenses. The underlying software will be released under an open-source license. (Posted 2009-08-17)
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Have We Entered a Post-Literate Technological Age? Readers respond to Adam's article about the technological literacy of future generations. (61 messages)
Is there a PrePaid Data Plan for the iPhone? A reader wants to take full advantage of AT&T's data services for the iPhone when traveling to the United States. The topic of using an unlocked phone also comes up as an option. (6 messages)
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