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If you have an iOS device or Apple TV, be sure to update its system software to ensure that you’re protected from a particularly ugly SSL bug — Mac OS X is still vulnerable, but Apple promises a fix soon. The broadband industry has been much in the news and Geoff Duncan rejoins us to explain the issues behind both the proposed Comcast/Time Warner merger and the FCC’s third stab at establishing net neutrality without classifying ISPs as common carriers. Fresh off the podcast circuit after the release of “Take Control of Apple TV,” Josh Centers speculates about the future of the Apple TV, and also examines the addictive puzzler Threes in this week’s FunBITS column. Finally, Julio Ojeda-Zapata, reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and author of “The Mobile Writer,” returns for the second of a series of articles about non-traditional hardware choices from an Apple user’s perspective, this time covering the Google Chromebook. Notable software releases this week include SuperDuper 2.7.2, PDFpen and PDFpen Pro 6.1.5, and Vox 2.0.1.

Josh Centers 10 comments

Apple Updates iOS and Apple TV to Fix Critical SSL Security Bug

Apple has released iOS 7.0.6, iOS 6.1.6 (for the iPhone 3GS and fourth-generation iPod touch only), and Apple TV 6.0.2, which you should update to immediately, as they fix a critical SSL/TLS vulnerability that could make it possible for your online accounts and financial information to be compromised. On iOS, you can download the updates in Settings > General > Software Update or update through iTunes. (Unfortunately, if you have resisted upgrading to iOS 7 on a device that otherwise supports it, there’s no way to close the vulnerability — short of jailbreaking — without going all the way to iOS 7.0.6.) On the Apple TV, download the update in Settings > General > Software Updates > Update Software.

The vulnerability also affects Mac OS X, which remains unpatched as of this writing, but Apple promises a fix “very soon,” likely in OS X 10.9.2. In the meantime, we recommend avoiding the Safari Web browser, and instead using Google Chrome or Firefox, which are unaffected by the bug. You can check whether your browser is vulnerable by visiting this test site. Other Mac apps remain vulnerable until a general fix is
released, and, if possible, it would be best to avoid unsecured public Wi-Fi networks as well, though the likelihood of significant exploits that take advantage of this vulnerability becoming widespread before Apple releases a fix are low.

The problem in SSL/TLS revolves around Apple’s code not checking signatures in TLS Server Key Exchange messages, which could allow an attacker to use a man-in-the-middle attack to spoof an SSL server.

Security analysts have determined that the vulnerability was caused by a misplaced “goto fail” line in the operating system source code. Developer Jeffrey Grossman has confirmed that the vulnerability began in iOS 6.0, but did not exist in iOS 5.1.1, giving it a nearly 18-month history.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball cross-referenced the release date of iOS 6.0, 24 September 2012, with a leaked PowerPoint deck on the NSA’s PRISM program, which states that Apple was added to the program in October 2012. While Gruber says that the proximity between these dates is most likely a coincidence, the NSA has been known to subvert the effectiveness of online security.

Geoff Duncan No comments

FCC Hopes Third Time Is the Charm for Net Neutrality Rules

A new chapter has opened in the great “net neutrality” debate. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has announced it intends to craft new rules to ensure ISPs in the United States maintain an open Internet, in which any Internet user can access any lawful content or service they choose regardless of whether it’s operated by their ISP, its preferred partners, or its competitors. However, for the time being, the agency does not intend to reclassify Internet providers as common carriers like telephone companies or utilities, where it has broad rule-making powers. Instead, the FCC will again make limited rules based on
existing telecommunications law — and hope, this time, they stick.

The announcement comes in the wake of a recent court decision that found the FCC could not make ISPs comply with open Internet requirements under their 2010 “Open Internet Order” (see “Net Neutrality Is Down, but Not Out,” 20 January 2014). The court essentially found that the FCC was trying to regulate ISPs as common carriers without classifying them as such, and it couldn’t have it both ways. The FCC’s decision to forge ahead with new rules means it will not defend the previous rules by appealing the January ruling; the agency is giving up and moving on.

Both consumer advocates and businesses large and small have consistently argued net neutrality has been crucial to creating a level playing field between companies, as well as supporting fundamental rights like free speech. Can the FCC’s new plan protect the strengths of an open Internet?

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss — Recently appointed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed new open Internet rules with three main goals:

  • Strengthen transparency requirements
  • Prevent blocking of lawful sites and services
  • Create legally enforceable non-discrimination requirements to prevent broadband operators from unfairly squelching competitors

The agency hopes to have the new rules ready by mid-2014. They will represent the agency’s third attempt to require broadband operators to comply with net neutrality provisions: the first effort came in 2005 and the second in 2010.

Wheeler’s framework is largely the same “open Internet” platform the FCC has previously championed. However, of the three goals, only the FCC’s authority on the first provision — transparency — has held up in court. In this context, transparency requirements mean ISPs must disclose how they manage their networks so consumers and businesses can make informed decisions about their services. The other two goals — anti-blocking and non-discrimination — have been thrown out in court cases brought by Comcast and (most recently) Verizon. In other words, right now American Internet operators can block or discriminate against any service they like, as long as they’re upfront about it.

The FCC plans to anchor its new rules in Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The statute gives the agency jurisdiction over “advanced telecommunications capability.” That’s a vague phrase, but the same court that largely ruled in Verizon’s favor in January found that the FCC could issue rules governing how broadband operators treat traffic using Section 706. Chairman Wheeler characterized the court’s decision as an “invitation” to recast net neutrality provisions in terms of Section 706. Wheeler has also opened a docket for public input on net neutrality.

In some ways, the FCC’s new strategy is the same-old same-old: attempting to regulate ISPs and broadband operators without classifying them as common carriers. In the meantime, the FCC intends to hold ISPs to their promises to abide by the spirit of net neutrality rules until everything is ironed out — although it has no authority to do so.

Who’s Afraid of Common Carriers? — If the FCC could mandate net neutrality simply by declaring ISPs common carriers, why don’t they do that? One reason is that the broadband industry would fight back hard, and it would probably be a longer and fiercer battle than trying to extend more-limited regulation via Section 706. In some ways, the FCC is simply being practical.

The other side of the coin is that broadband operators and ISPs have always claimed they would be stifled if they were common carriers. That makes them less attractive to investors, which means they’d have less money to build out infrastructure, create greater broadband capacity, and introduce new services. That reduced investment would put broadband in the United States even further behind other developed nations — and one of the FCC’s top priorities is expanding Americans’ access to broadband, particularly in rural and underserved areas. To hear ISPs talk, the only reason the Internet boom happened in the United States at all is because they have not been subject to common carrier requirements.

Elements within the FCC echo these positions. The fact sheet accompanying Chairman Wheeler’s announcement focuses on massive new markets that have developed without regulating ISPs as common carriers. (This includes mobile phones and online video: heck, they even take credit for app stores and tablets.) Some FCC commissioners argue net neutrality is unnecessary anyway, saying there’s no evidence consumers have been prevented from accessing any content they like. “Net neutrality has always been a solution in search of a problem,” wrote commissioner Ajit
, appointed to the FCC by the Obama administration less than a year ago. The White House itself describes the open Internet as “vital” but says it’s going to let the FCC choose its own path.

All this said, Chairman Wheeler was at least willing to point to the FCC’s big stick, if not wave it. Wheeler noted the FCC was keeping the authority to classify ISPs as common carriers “on the table.”

Will It Work? — The FCC’s announcement has drawn sharp rebukes from both consumer and free speech advocates and staunch opponents of government regulation.

Some argue the FCC might be able to regulate broadband traffic using Section 706, but won’t be able to address issues surrounding service discrimination and freedom of expression. Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron claims Section 706 authority will not protect free speech and says Wheeler’s announcement amounts to the FCC “pretending” it has authority to lay down open Internet rules. Conversely, Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) characterized Wheeler’s announcement as a crusade to implement “socialistic regulations,” and pledged
to introduce legislation to prevent the FCC from making net neutrality rules.

Sometimes rankling all sides is a sign of a good compromise, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that even the FCC’s transparency requirements — which have held up in court! — don’t necessarily make things all that transparent. After all, the Internet comprises tens of thousands of interconnected networks. Sites and services being slow or inaccessible could be caused a technical glitch anywhere along the way, rather than by deliberate throttling or discrimination by network providers. Tracing all the connections, all the equipment, and all the agreements between operators to prove or disprove discrimination is an arduous task, and
potentially gives operators a lot of wiggle room even under transparency requirements. And nobody — not even the FCC — is currently doing that footwork in a systematic way.

The bottom line is that American consumers are probably in for a long battle. The FCC has tried to mandate net neutrality twice before without declaring ISPs common carriers, only to be (mostly) struck down in court. There’s no reason to believe the FCC’s third attempt won’t be challenged — and no reason such a challenge wouldn’t take two or three years to play out. Net neutrality could be in the exact same situation in 2017 or 2018 that it is today. At that point, the FCC may have no choice but to declare ISPs common carriers, or go to Congress for express authority to regulate them.

Or, the FCC might give up on net neutrality entirely.

Geoff Duncan No comments

Comcast Makes $45 Billion Bid for Time Warner Cable

We live in an age of Big Media, and it keeps getting bigger. Last week, America’s largest Internet service and cable television provider Comcast announced plans to merge with Time Warner Cable, America’s second-largest Internet service and cable television provider. The deal is valued at $45.2 billion. If the transaction is approved by regulators, the combined company would control about one third of U.S. cable television service and more than half of so-called “triple play” service bundles that combine voice, television, and Internet service. Comcast already owns NBCUniversal and Time Warner owns local TV
stations in many states, so a combined company would also be one of the largest content providers and news distributors in the country.

Comcast and Time Warner (which previously used the Road Runner High Speed Online name for Internet service) say the takeover will benefit consumers: they claim economies of scale and operating efficiencies will enable them to offer better, faster services to customers much sooner than they’d be able to separately.

Almost everyone else is skeptical: Americans hold cable companies in low regard (both firms are well below national customer satisfaction rates as either cable providers or ISPs), and “operating efficiencies” have never led to lower cable bills. After all, the price of cable TV has been doubling about every ten years.

So what’s going on here, and what could the merger mean for you?

The Bigger They Are… — Time Warner Cable is an echo of another Big Media merger: the $160 billion blending of Time Warner and AOL 14 years ago (see “AOL Buying Time Warner,” 10 January 2000). When that didn’t work out, Time Warner looked to slim down to its fundamental film and television businesses, so AOL, Time Inc., Warner Music, and others spun off on their own. Time Warner Cable was part of that process, becoming a separate company in 2009.

Time Warner Cable might be America’s second-largest cable and Internet service provider, but its subscriber base is about half that of Comcast (although it added about 750,000 customers by taking over Insight Communications in 2011). However, both Comcast and Time Warner Cable have been steadily losing television subscribers as customers drop cable TV in favor of so-called “over the top” Internet video services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and iTunes that bring video content to the home over an Internet connection. Part of that trend has been driven by ever-increasing fees for cable service, and by consumers cutting back on monthly bills during the housing crunch and Great
Recession. Some lightweight Internet users are even going mobile-only, relying on 3G/4G mobile service for all their Internet needs.

A combined Comcast and Time Warner Cable would be able to offer voice, television, and (most importantly) Internet service in 43 of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. That’s a significant jump for both companies (Comcast is currently in 31 of those markets). The combined companies could cut costs by eliminating overlaps in accounting, customer support, and other areas of duplication. Yes, that means firing people, but improved margins make investors happy.

What About Antitrust Laws? — At first glance, combining America’s two largest cable companies might seem like a blatant violation of antitrust laws, but it doesn’t work out like that. The combined company plans to sacrifice about three million subscribers (to retain less than 30 percent of the U.S. cable television market), but for the most part both firms are already regional monopolies, with little geographic overlap in their markets. The combination wouldn’t create a new monopoly. There’s very little competition in the U.S. cable market, and the monopolies are already in place.

That doesn’t mean a combined Comcast and Time Warner Cable doesn’t raise concerns. Right now, cable dominates American broadband. DSL is widely available from phone companies, but its throughput is highly variable: while it can be great, many DSL connections can’t support high-definition Internet video streaming. Satellite is too laggy for interactive services (like FaceTime, Skype, and gaming), and fiber is uncommon: right now, Google Fiber is operating only in Kansas City (with Provo, Utah slated to come online shortly and Austin, Texas planned); AT&T U-verse is mainly available in parts of the South, Midwest, and California; and Verizon has no plans to expand FiOS availability. In many places, cable is consumers’ only realistic broadband option, and — thanks to local and regional monopolies — it’s usually available only from a single company.

Got You By The Broadband — Sure, on some levels a Comcast-Time Warner merger is about expanding market share and reducing costs, but it’s also about getting a firmer grip on America’s Internet access and the business opportunities that come along with that.

What sorts of opportunities? Comcast was instrumental in striking down the Federal Communications Commission’s “net neutrality” rules that required ISPs treat all lawful Internet data with equal priority (see “Net Neutrality Is Down, but Not Out,” 20 January 2014), and the company is already making sweetheart deals so preferred partners are exempt from broadband data caps. Although Comcast agreed to abide by net neutrality provisions as part of its 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal, those terms expire in 2018, and there’s already mounting evidence Comcast is degrading Netflix performance on its network so its preferred streaming and video-on-demand offerings work better in comparison.

By acting as a gatekeeper to about a third of the U.S. broadband market, a combined Comcast/Time Warner would be in a nearly unassailable negotiating position with video services like Netflix, Internet giants like Google and Facebook, and other content companies like Sony and Disney. This could also have serious impacts on the types of news and content that gets produced and distributed at all. Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps recently penned an essay lamenting how media consolidation in the last decade has changed the nature of media, including drastically reducing activities clearly in the public interest, like long-form and investigative journalism.

Public Knowledge’s John Bergmayer characterized an expanded Comcast as “the bully in the schoolyard,” able to control Internet performance not just for the vast majority of Americans, but also increasingly able to dictate what content and services they can access easily, if at all. Comcast could also leverage its ownership of Universal Studios, the NBC broadcast network, and innumerable cable channels to dictate terms to other Internet and television service providers who have almost no choice but to pay whatever Comcast wants for that content. That’s one reason services like Netflix and Amazon are working so hard to build up stables of
original content like “House of Cards” and “The After” — like HBO and Showtime, they want to have content Comcast’s customers’ demand so they don’t get squeezed out.

What’s Next? — Comcast hopes the acquisition will close by the end of 2014; however, it took the company over a year to win approval of its merger with NBCUniversal. Both the FCC and the Department of Justice will certainly scrutinize the deal very closely, but Comcast has been working for years to support potentially friendly lawmakers, including over $850,000 in contributions in since 2001 to members of the committee with jurisdiction over the FCC, according to a MapLight analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Current FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is new enough to the
position that it’s difficult to predict how he will respond.

In the meantime, Comcast’s effort to take over Time Warner Cable may renew interest in municipal broadband networks that aren’t owned by private companies, although any new efforts in that direction aren’t likely to get off the ground until long after Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s fate is decided.

Josh Centers 14 comments

The Future of Apple TV

It has been a little over a week since launching my first book, “Take Control of Apple TV,” and the response has been tremendously gratifying, with sales just cracking the 1,000 mark. Federico Viticci of MacStories called it “a must-have for Apple TV owners interested in knowing everything about it, and well worth $10.” Bradley Chambers of Chambers Daily and the Out of School podcast, said, “It’s written in such a way that you don’t have to be an Apple nerd to understand
what he is talking about.”

I was also invited onto a bunch of podcasts to talk about the book. Thanks to Chuck Joiner of MacVoices, Gene Steinberg of The Tech Night Owl, Benjamin Alexander of Pulling the String, Zac Cichy of The Menu Bar (warning: explicit), and Kelly Guimont and Benjamin J. Roethig of the TUAW Talkcast for having me on their shows to
chat about the Apple TV.

One thing that I was asked about on each show was what I think the next Apple TV, rumored to be announced this spring, will look like, so I’d like to address that here. I touched on the topic in “FunBITS: Why Apple May Win the Gaming Market,” (4 October 2013), but I’d like to expand upon what I wrote there.

Much of the rumor mill surrounding the Apple TV revolves around Steve Jobs telling Walter Isaacson that he had “cracked” TV. But remember, a key fact is that Steve Jobs lied. Intentionally. A lot. Among other things, Jobs claimed at various times that no one wanted video on an iPod, that people didn’t read anymore, that Apple wasn’t working on a tablet, and that Apple wouldn’t do well in the cell phone business. Would Steve Jobs tell his biographer something juicy just to send competitors into hysterics? You better believe he would.

The Future of Apple TV — First off, I don’t think a fourth-generation Apple TV would look radically different from what we have today. I see no advantage to Apple offering a full-blown TV set. Remember, Tim Cook is a supply chain guy; he doesn’t want larger products if he can help it. Smaller products mean more can be crammed onto ships, planes, trucks, and in the back of Apple Stores. Apple’s chief problem is supply constraints; the last thing it wants to do is exacerbate that. Worse, TV sets need to come in a variety of sizes to accommodate different viewing distances, and it’s hard to imagine Apple being interested in stocking three to five different set

If anything, the new Apple TV might be smaller, though I doubt it, as Apple now uses the same casing for both the Apple TV and AirPort Express. That’s a production efficiency that’s hard to give up.

Nor do I think Apple will partner with TV manufacturers like Roku has done. It’s not in Apple’s DNA to partner with hardware makers on major initiatives, and it has never worked well for Apple in the past.

So what will we certainly see? I think an A7 processor is a given, likely along with an iOS 7-style design refresh. It’d also be hard to imagine a new Apple TV without 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Since Apple introduced the third-generation model chiefly to add 1080p support, I think 4K support is also likely, especially given reports that Apple is building its own content delivery network (CDN). Apple could get a big jump on the upcoming 4K market by being one of the first to offer 4K streaming content.

Apple might also enter into partnerships with cable providers that would enable you to use your Apple TV to replace your cable box, streaming live content through an Apple TV app that would also provide program listings. Don’t expect to see a clunky coaxial connector in the next Apple TV, but rather an arrangement similar to what Microsoft has with Time Warner to use the Xbox as a streaming cable box. Doing so doesn’t count against bandwidth caps, and I could see Apple making similar arrangements, which might also help explain why it’s building a content
delivery network.

Another possibility, and one I’d like to see, is support for Bluetooth audio devices. You can already AirPlay audio out of an Apple TV, but if you want to use wireless headphones, you’re out of luck (I offer a rather clumsy workaround in the book). Given Apple’s push for its own proprietary AirPlay standard, I can see why the company is hesitant to support Bluetooth audio, but at the same time, it’s also an accessibility issue. What about those who rely on Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids?

Apple could also add support for Bluetooth game controllers, a recent addition to iOS 7 and OS X 10.9 Mavericks. But the only reason to do that would be for gaming support, which would mean an Apple TV-specific App Store. I’m hesitant to predict that, since it’s been rumored since the second-generation Apple TV.

Why has Apple dragged its feet on an App Store for the Apple TV? One reason is personnel. Just as on iOS, Apple will want to approve each app, and that’s not an insignificant investment. Another is storage. The Apple TV has only 8 GB of flash storage, mostly used for buffering streaming content. An App Store-enabled Apple TV would need at least 16 GB — 8 GB for buffering and another 8 GB for user storage — and more might be necessary given the size of some modern games. A third problem is that Apple, unlike Roku, offers its own content store. Would Apple be willing to allow an Amazon Video app on the Apple TV, offering access to a competing content store?

Another rumor is that Apple will combine the Apple TV and AirPort Express into a single product. On the surface, this makes sense, as they use the same casing. But if it were your business, would you want to combine two inexpensive products and charge half the combined price? I wouldn’t. But as a customer, I’d scoop one up.

People like to speculate on Siri being used with the Apple TV, but I can’t see it, for two reasons. First, Siri just isn’t sufficiently reliable to be a primary interface. Second, the Apple TV interface is extremely physical, with most interactions being repetitive button presses. It’s also hierarchical, with content often duplicated in multiple apps, which could lead to clumsy interactions for anything beyond the simplest commands. Perhaps Apple could use Siri to cut through the interface, but I think it’s a long shot.

So there you have it. I doubt we’ll see anything mind-blowing in the next generation of Apple TV, but Apple loves to introduce products that people laugh at, only to dominate the market a short while later. People mocked the Mac, the iPhone, and the iPad, but who’s laughing now? Tim Cook, all the way to the bank.

The Apple TV Business — It’s important to bear in mind, whenever you read rumors or speculation about Apple, that Apple is a hardware business at its core. Apple isn’t about software, online services, or even changing the world, it’s in the hardware business. Much as they may generate non-trivial revenues, the App Store, iTunes, and iCloud all exist to add value to and create platform lock-in for the hardware devices where Apple makes its real money.

At $99, the Apple TV, in Apple’s eyes, isn’t yet a platform, but merely an accessory that adds value to the company’s real breadwinners: the iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Apple doesn’t make enough money on the Apple TV to invest the sort of resources into it that the company puts into mobile devices.

How could that change? The answer is cable deals, which could propel Apple TV sales volumes into a “real” business.

The genius of Apple’s iPhone business is that it has two customers: you, the owner of the phone, and the carriers. Apple markets to individuals, who then largely go to the carriers to purchase. The carriers buy iPhones at full cost, sell them to you for cheap, and make up the difference with expensive service plans. By selling through the carriers, Apple increases the retail footprint and penetration of the iPhone in a big way.

What if Apple did the same with the cable companies? Cable box interfaces are notoriously awful, and if Apple offered a significantly better way to access TV programming, subscribers might demand it. The cable companies could then make a deal with Apple to distribute the Apple TV, giving them to customers for free, or for a low monthly rental fee.

Once there was sufficient penetration, Apple could then add an Apple TV App Store, creating a situation where every Apple TV user is potentially an Apple customer as well. The cable companies would continue to own the pipes and offer the programming, but Apple would control the interface on top of everything, and that’s where the true power lies.

Of course, this is wild speculation (and the cable companies are undoubtedly wary of such a move by Apple), but if I worked for Apple and wanted to turn the Apple TV into a real business, it’s the angle I’d take. Because isn’t this what Apple does best? Identify a market with room for technical and interface improvement, build a better solution, and then take over.

Regardless, don’t put too much stock in these imaginings, and enjoy your Apple TV for what it can do today. Nor should you worry about your Apple TV becoming outdated quickly. My second-generation Apple TV still gets all the latest software updates, and I expect it will for the foreseeable future. And if you need help making the most of its current features, grab a copy of “Take Control of Apple TV!”

Julio Ojeda-Zapata 14 comments

Google’s Chromebook Makes for a Fine Auxiliary Laptop

In the first installment in this informal series, I looked at how the iPad Air makes for top-notch tech for the roving reporter (see “iPad Versus MacBook for the Mobile Writer,” 17 February 2014). I mentioned briefly in that piece that I’ve also tested a variety of Chromebooks for my work as a technology journalist, and while they don’t quite match the iPad Air for this mobile writer, they are nonetheless compelling for me and for others who need simplified gear for mobile productivity.

Why? As Michael Cohen pointed out in “iCloud: The Anti-Social Network” (6 February 2014), part of Steve Jobs’s vision of the future of computing when he returned to Apple in 1997 was a thin-client, network-enabled system that separates your data from your computer. He said:

I have computers at Apple, at NeXT, at Pixar, and at home. I walk up to any of them and log in as myself, it goes over the network, finds my home directory on the server, and I’ve got my stuff wherever I am. And none of that is on a local hard disk.

At the time, Jobs was talking about NeXT hardware running NeXTSTEP, and Michael suggested that iCloud is the modern day incarnation of Jobs’s vision from Apple. But Jobs wasn’t alone in seeing this future for computing, and since 2009 Google has offered its own take in the form of Chrome OS, running on laptops collectively known as Chromebooks.

These low-cost machines are, essentially, hardware built around a Web browser – specifically, Google’s Chrome browser – and little more.

Many have chortled at this. “That’s not a real computer!” they say. I too scoffed at the concept at one time. Years ago, when I interviewed the members of Google’s Chrome OS and Chromebook team about their vision for the future of computing, I remember privately wondering what they were smoking (though I stated my many reservations more politely in columns I wrote at the time).

Chromebook + Mac? — Yet, improbably, as a Mac guy from way back, I have come to appreciate Chrome OS and Chromebooks for what they are, not for how they compare to the Mac. In fact, because Macs and Chromebooks are radically different kinds of computers, they are far from redundant in my life. They are deliciously complementary, and tickle my nerd bone in different ways.

I need not justify my Apple leanings here. Suffice it to say I feel bliss when editing a work-related video in iMovie on my beloved iMac or readying a deck for a speaking engagement with Keynote Apple’s hardware qualifies as art, and many Mac apps are borderline sublime.

When I’m not using a handful of the Mac’s best-of-breed desktop applications, though, you’ll likely find me in the Chrome Web browser – reading my email in Google’s Gmail, checking my appointments in Google Calendar, filing a story to my editor in Google Docs, and following Twitter in TweetDeck.

Tally up my Mac time for a given week, and the majority of that will be Web-based and taking place in Google Chrome.

I’m hardly an anomaly in this regard. Among average Mac and PC users, Web apps are popular and pervasive, if not quite the norm.

Enter the Chromebook. Since the bulk of my personal and professional computing happens on the Web, using one of these notebooks requires no learning curve and lets me get right to work. As soon as I log in, it’s all there – Gmail, TweetDeck, Autodesk’s Pixlr picture-editing Web apps – exactly as in Chrome on any Mac or PC I’m using. If I configured Chrome in a particular way on my Mac, those customizations are reflected on a Chromebook – and vice versa.

So, while I am a Mac user to the core, I could see a role for a Chromebook in my home and work lives. Since I am not rolling in money and consider two Macs overkill, I could see pairing my iMac with a Chromebook, with the former as a workhorse and the latter as a mobile supplement. I could thus get a bunch of my stuff done on the Chromebook while out and about, and save demanding tasks – such as complex video editing – for the iMac.

Chrome OS — Google’s Linux-based Chrome OS is an interesting animal. Though it was initially all but indistinguishable from the Chrome Web browser, Chrome OS has evolved to take on some trappings of a traditional operating system.

Crack a Chromebook’s lid and you see a Mac-style dock that can be positioned on the bottom, right, or left edges of the screen, along with an app launcher very much like the Windows Start menu, a desktop with the finest default wallpaper selection I’ve seen on any computing platform, and other familiar operating system settings for the display, touchpad, keyboard, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networking, printing, accessibility, and more.

There are oddities. That desktop is mostly for show since it is not possible to drag files or folders onto it, although there is some local storage for downloaded files. Fundamentally, Chrome OS is still a Web-centric computing environment despite its Linux underpinnings and desktop-like appearance. This means using only Web apps, not the native or desktop kind. Such Web apps include Rdio, WeVideo, Prezi, Trello, and Basecamp. But forget about installing iTunes, Photoshop, or any other such traditional software.

On the plus side, Chrome OS is a joy to maintain, since there’s nothing to do. There’s no traditional software to keep up to date, and no concerns about malware because nearly everything takes place on the Web (although you can download documents, apps run only in the browser). Chrome OS and Web apps update themselves automatically. Chromebooks thus eliminate numerous IT headaches, whether you are your own IT department or you’re trying to manage hardware for a large organization.

I can even use a Chromebook as a Mac, after a fashion. Apple’s iWork for iCloud, the Web-based counterpart to its suite of Mac-based productivity apps, runs nicely on Chromebooks, even though most such machines have modest hardware specs.

Chrome Hardware — Hardware specs are the rub. Most Chromebooks are pretty puny, with mediocre designs and low prices to match, between $200 and $400. Though they’ve steadily improved in recent release cycles, most Chromebooks remain uninspired and sometimes chintzy machines.

Some Chromebooks are little more than recycled “netbooks,” the now-infamous notebooks that ran Windows but made too many compromises for size and cost to do it well. Certain Acer Chromebooks are virtually indistinguishable from dreaded netbooks of yore, though they boast vastly improved functionality since Chrome OS runs much more efficiently on such modest hardware than Windows does.

Other Chromebooks have made-from-scratch industrial designs, and some of these are nice.

My favorite Chromebook, the 11.6-inch HP Chromebook 11, could be a curvaceous, shiny-white distant relation of Apple’s second-generation iBooks. It features a keyboard similar to those on later-model MacBooks, and includes a shockingly good IPS display roughly on par with that in the current 11-inch MacBook Air. In a nifty twist, the HP Chromebook 11 can be charged using the same kind of basic micro-USB cable used with Android phones instead of a bulky power cord and brick. It has 2 GB of RAM, a 16 GB SSD, and enough battery for 6 hours of use, for $279. It comes in white with a variety of color accents, but I favor the model that comes in all black.

This Chromebook’s downfall, and the reason I decided against springing for one, is its ARM-based processor, whose performance is sluggish, especially when extra demands, such as having lots of Chrome tabs open at the same time, are placed on it. This and other Chromebooks, such as a slightly older Samsung model, are just too slow.

Some Chromebooks hit a sweet spot of elegance, performance, and affordability, though they’re still far from perfect.

For instance, the 11.6-inch Acer C720P Chromebook blends an upgraded aesthetic that is less netbooky with a decent selection of ports — USB 2.0, USB 3.0, HDMI — plus 2 GB of RAM, a relatively generous 32 GB of on-board storage, and a 1.4 GHz Intel Celeron CPU for reasonably good performance and battery life (7.5 hours estimated). It even has a touchscreen, which sets it apart from other Acer C720 variants. This feature combo makes it “the king of budget Chromebooks,” according to CNET, and I am inclined to agree. I just don’t like its murky-looking display and slightly mushy keyboard.

The Chromebook ecosystem is expanding. Want a bigger screen? Certain models from Toshiba and HP now offer 13- and 14-inch displays. Asus and Lenovo are joining the Chromebook party in coming months with consumer models of their own.

And for the corporate executive living in Google Apps, there’s the Chromebook Pixel, a super-fancy model designed and sold by Google, largely to show that just because something is a Chromebook doesn’t mean it has to skimp on hardware niceties. Its specs are comparable to, and sometimes better than, a 13-inch MacBook Pro, with a gorgeous 12.85-inch Retina-equivalent display with 239 pixels per inch behind a touchscreen. I know Steve Jobs said touchscreens on laptops don’t work because of arm fatigue, but for certain tasks while sitting in a comfy chair, it’s pretty good. (And after becoming accustomed to the iPad, how many of us have touched our
Macs’ screens by accident?)

The Chromebook Pixel has MacBook Pro-level prices too: $1,299 for a 32 GB Wi-Fi model and jumping to $1,499 for a 64 GB version that adds LTE cellular data connectivity for Internet access anywhere. That’s a lot to pay for hardware built around a Web browser, as many have said. Ah, but use this aluminum slab with its jaw-dropping screen, fantastic backlit keyboard, ultra-smooth trackpad, and Cylon-like glowing lid strip in Google colors, and I guarantee you’ll be impressed. The main lack? A MagSafe-like magnetic power plug to
replace the standard power prong that would let an errant leg pull the Pixel off a desk.

Though the Chromebook ecosystem now boasts a reasonably decent hardware selection, it is not for everyone. Anyone considering such a machine has to ask hard questions.

Most notably, a Chromebook is a nonstarter for anyone dependent on a specific desktop application for Mac or PC. Chromebooks simply can’t accommodate such apps under normal circumstances. There are a surprising number of Web apps available in the Chrome Web Store, including such stalwarts as Evernote, Dropbox, TweetDeck, Angry
, Feedly, HootSuite, and many more. For geeks, there is also a way to install Linux in a dual-boot arrangement with Chrome OS and, by extension, use Linux apps like LibreOffice, GIMP, Thunderbird, Skype, VLC, Spotify, and Dropbox (Lifehacker has a nice list). The Chromebook Pixel is particularly good for this. Such an arrangement is feasible, but not likely
for average users.

Also, Chromebooks are far more Internet-dependent than other computers. You pretty much have to have Wi-Fi (or cellular data service, which is built into some models). Chromebooks do get a bad rap in this regard; a number of apps, such as Gmail and the Google Docs word processor, keep working absent an Internet connection, and the Chrome Web Store even has a category for offline-capable apps. But think twice about a Chromebook if your circumstances include lengthy time off the Internet grid, although it’s also true that even traditional computers are notably less capable when disconnected from their Internet lifelines these days.

Yet, as I mentioned earlier, in-browser computing is a viable option for many users whose needs are modest. I’ve forced myself to live within Chrome OS for long periods of time, and have run into shockingly few deal-breakers. I can’t perform every task and solve every problem the way I would in a regular desktop environment, but I invariably find workarounds.

Web Productivity — One of the areas I’ve run into roadblocks with is photo editing. When I’m on a Chromebook, I’m cut off from familiar desktop apps like iPhoto, Aperture, Google Picasa, and so on. This used to be a big problem, but then a funny thing happened: Web-based image-editing tools came of age. I have tons of options now. Google’s Google+ social network has a photo section with browser-based editing options that have grown in sophistication, partly due to a tech infusion from Nik Software, a Google-acquired company famed for its Snapseed mobile photo-editing apps and pro-level plug-ins for Aperture, Photoshop, and Lightroom.

Autodesk has rocked my world with an array of free Pixlr-branded photo-editing Web apps, ranging from its Pixlr Editor app with functionality mimicking if not matching that of Photoshop (perhaps the Mac app Pixelmator is the closer equivalent), to the streamlined but capable Pixlr Express and the Instagram-like Pixlr-o-matic. Pixlr Touch Up is a special case, a new breed of Chrome-browser and Chrome OS app that behave very much like a desktop app. On a Mac, it appears a standalone window and not inside a
browser window – it even gets its own Dock icon. On a Chromebook, it makes Chrome OS all the more desktop-like in look and feel, which I love.

I’m massively productive on a Chromebook. Though the iPad Air is my favorite mobile-reporting device, Chromebooks work well for me too because I’m a heavy user of Google services, including the Google Docs word processor I use to write and submit almost everything. What’s more, my St. Paul Pioneer Press employer and its New York City-based Digital First Media owner recently migrated employees to a DFM-branded version of Google Apps. Our tech coordinator in the newsroom now hands out PCs to reporters going on away missions, but I’ll bet he’ll move over to Chromebooks for that in the near future.

This is an increasingly common scenario. Students, especially those in K-12, have begun using Chromebooks in a big way as scads of U.S. schools and entire districts have migrated to the inexpensive and nearly maintenance-free Chrome OS. Chromebooks accounted for 19 percent of mobile computer purchases in the K-12 market, according to recent Futuresource Consulting findings. The figure was 1 percent in 2012, while PC purchases slid from 47.5 percent in 2012 to 28 percent during last year’s third quarter.

Google has goosed this Chromebook-in-education trend by giving school administrators juicy notebook-leasing deals, and working with manufacturers like HP and Lenovo to create education-exclusive models that aren’t available for consumer purchase.

Chromebooks work wonderfully in the classroom for a number of reasons. Many budget-strapped schools were already using Google Apps, so Chromebooks fit right in. My 15-year-old son uses Google Docs for all writing while chatting non-stop with his classmates in Google Talk. He’s not alone; TidBITS publisher Adam Engst’s 15-year-old son is similar, relying on Google Docs because it makes school assignments available from any handy computer at school or home, and maintaining communication with his friends via Google+ and Google Hangouts.

A Chromebook is a requirement for none of this, of course. My son works mostly on a MacBook Air. But if I need that Air, I hand him whatever Chromebook I happen to have on loan for testing – I’m using the Acer C720P now – and he’s fine, though he sometimes gripes a bit about the lack of Apple polish. And since modern education focuses so much on collaboration, Adam’s son often uses a Chromebook in tandem with his aluminum MacBook so he can work on one screen and discuss the project with classmates on the other, Google-style. iPads may be the hottest thing in education, but they don’t work as well as Web-based tools for the kind of collaborative work and multitasking that today’s teens need to do.

Chromebooks are also taking hold in the consumer world, logging good sales rankings on Amazon. When I drafted this article, Chromebooks from Samsung, Acer, and HP held four of the top five spots in Amazon’s best selling laptop list, with a MacBook Air model in 12th place. The specifics have changed a bit since, but Chromebooks still feature strongly.

The Chromebook doesn’t have as much of a foothold in business — at least to the extent the iPad does — but some companies are embracing the Google notebooks. Here in the Twin Cities, a big manufacturing and construction firm called Egan Company moved 140 of its 800 employees to Chromebooks not long ago. Egan is working on the massive Central Corridor Light Rail project connecting the St. Paul and Minneapolis downtowns, and it needed to equip its foreman staff in the field with mobile computers. The low cost and ease of dealing with broken hardware is compelling in certain fields, and having LTE
built-in is a boon when working in temporary offices.

Such business case studies remain relatively rare, but with Google Apps in the workplace taking off, I think it’s only a matter of time before the Chromebook as business computer becomes a threat to the Windows hegemony. Microsoft certainly seems spooked, with a “Scroogled” TV spot mocking the Chromebook as a “brick” because of its supposed Internet dependence. The Redmond giant, rumor has it, is even planning to cut the price of Windows by 70 percent for makers of lower-cost PCs, the ones that would compete most directly with low-cost Chromebooks.

I’m sold on Chromebooks. If my employer issued me a Chromebook tomorrow to go with the iPhone 5c handsets it has handed out to me and my colleagues, I’d have everything I need to do my job without needing to visit my desk. That’s quite a switch from the days when my office was standardized on Microsoft Exchange, and I felt deprived when telecommuting and cut off from key desktop tools like the Pioneer Press-customized versions of Microsoft Word and Microsoft Outlook. (I quietly rebelled at one point, long before Google Apps was a glimmer in Digital First Media’s eye, and started writing and filing all my stories in Google Docs and auto-forwarding my Exchange email to my personal Gmail account. My editors, to their credit,
didn’t say a thing.)

I noted in my previous article that the iPad Air is my ideal reporting computer partly because it combines writing and photo-shooting functions. A Chromebook isn’t very good for the latter, but my iPhone can handle that part. For the rest — writing, photo editing, even light video editing — the Chromebook works splendidly.

And a Chromebook is about a third to half as expensive as an iPad Air. For this reason, it’s likelier that a Chromebook than an iPad figures into my professional future (the iPad Air I’m using now is an Apple loaner that will have to go back). For what the Chromebook does, it’s a steal. I’m just waiting for the budget hardware to get a bit better, or perhaps for the Chromebook Pixel-class hardware to drop in price. In fact, Google and its partners appear to be aiming for a middle ground with low-cost hardware that has the decent — if not extravagant — specs many wannabe Chromebook owners demand. I’ll wager that’s my Chromebook.

Josh Centers No comments

FunBITS: Threes Is Good Company for iPhone and iPad

Despite a streak of good luck so far this winter, it finally happened. I’ve been laid out on the couch by some mid-level pathogen and am doped up on DayQuil. So what better time to tell you about the game Threes by Sirvo LLC, a stylish iOS puzzle game that costs only $1.99, with no in-app purchase shenanigans.

As you might guess from the name, Threes is a math puzzler, the object being to create as many multiples of three as possible before the 4-by-4 grid fills up. You do this by moving numbered tiles around the grid, pushing matching multiples of three together to form larger numbers. So you’d combine two threes to make a six, two sixes to make a twelve, and so on.

The twist is, you don’t move just single tiles. Instead, you’re forced to move all of the tiles that aren’t blocked by an edge or a non-matching tile. That means you have to trap a tile against an edge before adding another matching number to it. At the same time, you have to be aware of everything else you’re moving. To add to the puzzle, every time you slide the tiles, a new one is added to the board on the opposite end of where you move the tiles. You’re given a clue as to what’s coming, so you have to try to drop in new tiles in
strategic places.

To make matters more complicated, not every tile is a multiple of three. You also have ones and twos, which must be added together to make threes. If not carefully managed, these otherwise-useless tiles will clog up your board, so you want to focus on turning them into threes as soon as possible.

Confused? Don’t be. Threes is simpler to play than to describe, and the game walks you through the rules. It’s a game that’s easy to learn, but hard to master. Fortunately, there’s no time limit, and I advise thinking through every move carefully. You can also drag tiles slowly to get an idea of what will move without making a commitment.

Threes’ developers have infused what might be an otherwise bland game with a lot of personality. The soundtrack is phenomenal, the game board uses a well-designed mix of pastels, and the numbers even talk to you as you move them around. Yes, each number tile has its own face and quirky personality, uttering quick words at you as you move them around the board like, “Hey,” “Sup,” and “I’m bored.” Larger numbers even have their own names and bios.

Threes might seem like a simple game, but appearances are deceiving. Behind the game is a trio of gaming geniuses: designer Asher Vollmer, formerly of thatgamecompany, which created the gorgeous Flower and Journey for the PlayStation 3; illustrator Greg Wohlwend of Ridiculous Fishing
and Hundreds; and musician Jimmy Hinson, who worked on Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Mass Effect 2. Even with that level of talent, Threes took a year to produce. Minimalism is much harder than it looks.

So, for $1.99, Threes provides a well-crafted puzzler that’s fun even for math-challenged folks like myself. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have another shot of DayQuil and sink back into the couch.

TidBITS Staff No comments

TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 24 February 2014

SuperDuper 2.7.2 — After a long wait, Shirt Pocket has released SuperDuper 2.7.2 with full support for OS X 10.9 Mavericks, including a workaround for a problem in Mavericks with Spotlight handling, plus the return of auto-mount and auto-eject for scheduled copies. (For some technical background on the delay, see this Shirt Pocket blog post.) The drive-cloning and backup app also makes volume size information available in the source and destination pop-ups, improves Smart Update speed,
transitions scheduling from cron to launchd, and does away with annoying and incorrect security prompts associated with scheduled copies. SuperDuper 2.7.2 now requires 10.6 Snow Leopard or later, but version 2.7.1 is still available for those running 10.4 Tiger and 10.5 Leopard. (Free for basic functionality, $27.95 for additional features, free update, 2.9 MB, release notes)

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PDFpen and PDFpen Pro 6.1.5 — Smile has released version 6.1.5 of its PDFpen and PDFpenPro, a small update that nonetheless includes some important fixes to a few possible issues that were introduced in the last update (see “PDFpen and PDFpen Pro 6.1.4,” 13 February 2014). The release fixes an issue that caused password-protected PDFs to appear blank when opened, resolves several crashing bugs (including one while printing), and improves responsiveness when using a tablet with the scribble tool. Version 6.1.5 is also
available for the Mac App Store versions of PDFpen and PDFpenPro, with the latter receiving an increased page limit to 999 when creating a PDF from HTML. ($59.95/$99.95 new with a 20 percent discount for TidBITS members, 52.5/53.3 MB, release notes)

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Vox 2.0.1 — Coppertino has released Vox 2.0.1, a maintenance release for the minimalist music player, which was recently reviewed by Kirk McElhearn (see “Vox 2.0: A Minimalist Music Player that Needs Work,” 4 February 2014). The update returns a feature where you can add music files via drag-and-drop without replacing the currently playing track, and it adds support for global hotkeys (as well as some unspecified in-app hotkeys). It also fixes errant behavior and crashes associated with Search mode, ensures the app doesn’t freeze while loading an iTunes library, squashes a bug
that prevented a tracks list from displaying after double-clicking to open, fixes issues with Repeat modes, and properly displays FLAC and APE files in Search mode. (Free from the Mac App Store, 11 MB)

Read/post comments about Vox 2.0.1.

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ExtraBITS for 24 February 2014

In this week’s ExtraBITS, the in-progress “Take Control of Pages” receives a new chapter to explain styles, the iPhone has replaced almost everything from a 1991 Radio Shack ad, and Steve Jobs is getting his own postage stamp. On the show circuit, iTunes Festival is coming to SXSW, and the NSNorth 2014 conference is coming up in Ottawa for Canadian developers, designers, and business leaders. Finally, it turns out Apple spends surprisingly little on R&D, but wants its new factory to run on renewable energy.

First Update of “Take Control of Pages” Adds Style — As promised, we have posted the first significant update of our “Take Control of Pages” pre-book at Leanpub. The update, available for free to purchasers of the initial release, offers a few small tweaks and a new chapter on managing three types of styles — paragraph, character, and object — in Pages 5 on the Mac (the iOS and iCloud versions can’t do much with styles apart from applying them to text and objects). Subsequent free updates to the pre-book will include chapters on page layouts, file exporting, templates, and using objects in Pages

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What the iPhone Has Replaced from a 1991 Radio Shack Ad — Steve Cichon of Trending Buffalo uncovered a Radio Shack newspaper ad from 1991, and realized that almost everything in the ad had been replaced by his iPhone, including a desktop computer, CB radio, tape recorder, CD player, answering machine, calculator, alarm clock, and camcorder. It would have cost $3,054.82 to buy all the gadgets that the iPhone has replaced — about $5,100 in 2012 dollars — which puts the cost of the iPhone and apps into perspective. The only two items in the ad that haven’t
been yet replaced by the iPhone? A radar detector and a beefy speaker.

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Steve Jobs to Be Commemorated with Postage Stamp — According to a document leaked to The Washington Post, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs will be commemorated with a special stamp from the United States Postal Service in 2015. The design is still a work in progress, but we’re hoping for a popular vote between a “flat Steve” and a “skeuomorphic Steve,” much like the 1992 stamp runoff between “young Elvis” and “old Elvis.”

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iTunes Festival Comes to the United States via SXSW — The iTunes Festival is coming to the United States for the first time this year, from March 11th through 15th. The five-day extravaganza, broadcast from SXSW in Austin, Texas, will include Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, Keith Urban, and more. As always, iTunes Festival performances will be available both live and on-demand on your Apple TV, iOS device, or computer.

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Apple’s R&D Expenditures over the Years — Yoni Heisler, writing for TUAW, has tracked Apple’s research and development expenditures from its SEC filings, and found some surprises. R&D expenditures dropped considerably after the return of Steve Jobs, who axed a number of projects. Since then, Apple’s R&D spending has grown considerably, with expenditures from 2011–2013 equaling 50 percent of Apple’s total R&D expenditures since 1995. Even so, the company still spends billions less than competitors. As Steve Jobs once said, “It’s not about money.
It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

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Apple’s New Factory to Run on Renewable Energy — Apple is building a new plant in Arizona, reportedly to produce sapphire glass, and the company wants it to be powered by renewable energy from the first day. Apple has been in negotiations with the local power company, Salt River Project, which has been constructing new solar and geothermal plants to power the factory.

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NSNorth 2014 Offers Boutique Conference for Developers in Ottawa — So many tech conferences focus on major U.S. cities that it’s refreshing to see one from the Great White North, specifically Ottawa, Canada. NSNorth 2014 is a small boutique conference, offering three days of single-track sessions covering highly specialized, creative topics for iOS and Mac developers, designers, and business leaders. It will take place May 8th through 10th, ending in time for attendees to get home for Mother’s Day on the 11th. Attendance is intentionally limited to 100 and tickets are going fast, so if you’re interested, check it out soon.

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