Apple

Computer brain surgery or How to performa a RAIDectomy

I have an old 2010 Mac Pro in my home office that is my main photo editing machine (using Adobe Photoshop CC and Lightroom 5). It also serves as a remote desktop terminal to my office PC. It has 2 Intel Xeon CPUs with 6 cores each running at 2.93 GHz and 32GB of RAM, so even by today's standards, 4 years later, it is quite a powerful machine.

At least in theory it should be. Back when I bought the machine I thought it would be a good idea to get the Apple RAID card and 4 drives with 2TB each and set them up in a RAID 5 array for data protection, giving me a total usable 5TB of disk space, which I  set up as a 2TB boot drive and a 3TB drive for data.

Apple RAID Card and Drives
Apple RAID Card and Drives

That RAID card, however has been giving me nothing but trouble in those four years, and it got so bad this summer that it was time for a radical move: RAIDectomy!



The issues that I experienced with the RAID card were the following:

  • Every so often the RAID card would complain that the on-board battery was not fully charged, and would disable the write-cache, resulting in a severe performance hit that slowed down the entire machine to a crawl.
  • Every couple of months the RAID card would enter a mode called "Battery reconditioning", where it also disabled the write-cache for a day just for good fun, and there was no way to stop or postpone that process. If you wanted to get any work done that day, you were out of luck.
  • About every 3-4 months, the RAID card decided that it was time to rebuild the RAID, so it went into a 48 hour mode of scratching all the disks 100% and the computer was unusable during that time.
  • Then the RAID card informed me that the battery was dead and disabled the write-cache permanently last year.
  • Even after replacing the RAID card battery back then, these issues did not go away, but were rather just suppressed for 4-5 months, before they resurfaced.

And now the RAID battery has begun a few weeks ago to give me the impression that it was going to die again soon, so I decided to take a more radical approach this time and get rid of the RAID card once and for all.

I also decided to replace the hard drives and get something with a bit more speed and less wear and tear to reduce the risk of data loss, so I bought a Crucial 1TB SSD drive and a new Seagate 3TB 7200rpm hard drive both with SATA interfaces. I figured I would use the SSD as my boot and application disk, and the larger 3TB hard drive for photo storage. To ensure that the smaller 2.5" SSD drive would properly fit in the 3.5" bay, I also purchased a conversion bracket.

So the process I had in mind was to copy the data over from my two old RAID logical drives to the two new drives and then remove the four old drives and the RAID card.

Easier said than done...

Obviously the first step was to do an extra backup (in addition to the TimeMachine/TimeCapsule network backup that was always running). So I connected my 4TB external USB 3.0 hard drive and started the copying process - only to realize that Apple in their infinite wisdom only equipped the Mac Pro with USB 2.0 ports and the only fast external port on that machine was a FireWire 800 connection. Of course, nobody still uses FireWire on this planet and no external hard drive in my collection supported it, so I had to wait 9½ hours for 3 TB of data to copy over to that external drive using USB 2.0.

This also meant, that my original plan to restore the data onto the new disks from the external drive was going to be more painful than I was willing to entertain.

So I decided to do a 2-step approach. The Mac Pro luckily has two 5.25" bays for optical drives and I had only one of them filled, so I had a SATA connector available on the inside of the chassis that was not controlled by the RAID card. This allowed me to connect the new 1TB SSD inside of that bay and just let it sit there without any screws attached. Upon powering up the machine, I used Apple's Disk Utility to format and partition the new drive, and then planned to use the "Restore" function inside that software to clone all the data and the recovery partition from my old boot volume on the RAID onto the new SSD boot disk. Indeed, there were many online support discussions that I found that praised the ease of using the Apple Disk Utility for that process.

What all these discussions and help forum posts failed to mention is that you cannot use that process to clone the active startup disk on a Mac. There is simply no way to do it with the built-in tools.

After a bit more research I found a nifty utility called Carbon Copy Cloner that promised to do exactly what I needed, and it offered a free 30-day trial, so I downloaded it and gave it a spin. Indeed, it was not only able to properly copy my entire boot volume from the RAID to the SSD, it also correctly copied and built the recovery partition for MacOS X. Huge tip of the hat to this software, and after I saw it working so flawlessly, I did, of course, purchase a license.

After the boot disk was cloned, the next step was to repeat the same process with the data drive: I disconnected the SSD, put the new 3TB drive into the 5.25" bay, used Carbon Copy Cloner to copy all the data over, and then removed it again.

Now it was time to perform the actual RAIDectomy and remove the 4 original drives and extract the RAID card. That process went very smoothly, and I was also able to quickly mount the 2 new drives in the main drive brackets and insert them so they connected directly with the backplane.

I was pleased to see the machine boot properly from my new drive, and even more excited to see the vastly improved speed of everything. This four year old Mac feels like a new machine now.

Since there was no good articles online on how to remove an old Apple RAID card, I figured I'd share my experience here - in case anybody else out there is contemplating getting rid of their RAID card.

Obviously, the entire process would have been much smoother, had Apple actually supported USB 3.0 in that machine rather than FireWire 800 as the only high-speed external port. Even more important, a product like the Apple RAID card should never have been sold in the first place. It was poorly designed, suffered from battery issues, and slowed down the machine at random times outside of the user's control.

The (Broken) Promise Of Wearables

This week the Moto 360 became available and sold out in record time. Next week Apple is rumored to introduce their iWatch along with the next generation iPhone. And Samsung just announced their next generation Gear watch last week that is expected to ship at the same time as the Galaxy Note Edge.

It is clear that Wearables hold a lot of excitement and a lot of promise, and obviously capture people’s imagination. But let’s pause for a moment first, and talk about past experiences with Wearables:

Wearables on a table

Among the many tech gadgets that I’ve acquired in recent years, I also purchased the first Samsung Gear watch when it came out last year, I bought the Google Glass Explorer Edition, and I bought the Fitbit fitness tracker.

Each device held a unique promise that it would make life easier and would add useful functionality. And each device ended up breaking that promise in subtly different ways.

My experiment with the Galaxy Gear smartwatch was very short-lived. The essential promise was to show important information about incoming emails or messages without the need to have to reach into your pocket and get out your phone. However, it wasn’t ubiquitous. Apps on your phone had to be written to be compatible with the watch. And for the most important communications medium – email – all the watch would tell me is that a message had arrived from somebody. No subject line. No relevant content summary. It was essentially useless.

The Fitbit fitness tracker held a simpler promise: wear it all day and all night and track your health. Except that it is so small that I lost it about 3-4 times during travels and only rediscovered it again when I emptied the suitcase after the end of the trip. Here it was the need to go to your computer and sync it there that broke the promise of ease of use. And the tracking information was primitive at best – a simple step counter. I gained no useful benefit from the device that would really help with my weight loss efforts.

Google Glass was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the three. The promise of having an augmented reality experience sounded great. But all it really did was provide notifications about messages, news, and occasional information from other Glass apps about restaurants, sightseeing spots, and other trivia. And after a short while any person wearing Google Glass was labeled a Glasshole and privacy concerns soon resulted in sings being posted everywhere that Glass was not welcome.

In the end, all three devices suffered from a lack of really useful and unique features that actually provided a real-world benefit combined with the need to be constantly charged using various different charging devices and having a fairly short battery life. The day came when I forgot to charge them and then left them at home. Then the day came when I forgot where I put the charger. And now they’re all sitting in a drawer somewhere…

So I look towards the new generation of Wearables coming out this fall with a bit of cynical skepticism: how long until they, too, end up in a drawer somewhere?

In the end, there are only two devices that I carry with me all the time and every day:

  • My watch is a Seiko Astron Kintaro Hattori Limited Edition. It is a solar-powered watch that has a built-in GPS receiver and synchronizes time with the atomic clocks aboard the GPS satellites. And it also automatically adjusts your time-zone when you have landed – based on the GPS position. It never needs to be charged and it does one thing extremely well that I care about: tell accurate time.
  • My phone is a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (soon to be replaced by the Note Edge). I’ve gone through many smartphones over the years, and it is my favorite so far. I hate its battery life. I hate that I have to charge it. But it does so many things so well in just one device, that it’s worth the hassle. And I use it all the time.

That last point is, perhaps, the biggest question about Wearables that we should ask ourselves: if we already have our phones in our hands all day anyway, what is the additional benefit of a wearable device?

iPad 2 with dead/swollen battery - Apple refuses to fix it and wants to charge $240 for replacement

I will admit that I've been a bit of an "Apple Fanboy" for a long time now. Today I am afraid, this relationship has finally come to an end.

Let me explain: I've been an "early-adopter" Apple customer for about 29 years, starting with my first Apple IIe in 1983, first Mac in 1984, etc. (in the last 18 months alone, I've purchased: 3 iPhone 5, 2 iPhone 4S, 1 15" MBP w/ Retina, 2 new iPad2 March 2012, 1 Apple TV, 1 Time Capsule 3TB, 2 Mac Pro, 1 MBP 15" Aug 2011, 1 27" Thunderbolt display, etc.). As such, I have followed Apple's products and also product recalls over time and know that Apple normally stands by its products to the extent that systematic battery failures, like they occurred in the MacBook Air were met with a well-designed recall program that provided customers with a battery replacement plus a replacement of the top case if that was damaged by the swollen battery.

I was, therefore, very surprised about the turn of events today:

I had purchased a new iPad (3rd generation) in March this year and pre-ordered it on the day it was announced. Since then my iPad 2 has been sitting in a drawer of my desk, and I was recently approached at our Rotary Club by our exchange student from Germany on whether I had a tablet computer to donate to him. Obviously I felt that the iPad 2 would be ideal for such a donation, but when I tried to charge it this morning, it showed the following symptoms:

  • It would not start without the power adapter being plugged in
  • When plugged it, it showed a 100% battery charge
  • However, when removing the plug, it immediately shut down, so the battery is clearly no longer functional
  • I left the iPad plugged in, but noticed that after a while the top glass started lifting up at the right edge - very likely due to an expanding battery
  • The iPad 2 is entirely unusable in this state and it is just 19 months since I had bought it and a little over six months since I last used it
Here is a photo of the iPad 2 atop my barograph where the lifting of the glass can be seen on the right edge just a little bit to the left of the volume buttons:

2012 11 05 13 32 22

I figured that since battery issues such as this one are well-known and documented, it would be an easy appointment at the Genius Bar at the Apple Store Northshore Mall in Peabody today.

You can imagine my surprise, when the genius I was assigned to politely listened to my story and then informed me that my only option was to buy a new replacement iPad 2 for $240 (i.e. at some discount compared to the new price).

Even though the iPad 2 is obviously out of warranty, I was expecting this to be a free replacement due to the systemic nature of battery issues in various Apple products (including many cases documented for the iPad 2 in the Apple Support forums) and due to the fact that in case of such systemic issues a recall is mandated by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. In the worst case, I was expecting to be charged about $40-50 for a new battery if this was considered a border-line case because I left the iPad 2 in a drawer for 6 months.

But being asked to pay $240 when all I wanted to do was donate the iPad to a Rotary exchange student felt like an inappropriate reply. Therefore, I asked to speak to the manager and was kept waiting for 10 minutes. After that time a certain Mr. Kevin Alumbaugh came out and introduced himself as the manager on duty and politely listened to my story again, only to offer me the exact same choice. When I suggested to him that (a) this case was similar to the swollen battery issues in the MacBook Air and (b) he should perhaps look at my purchase history with Apple and (c) consider to be more open to the potential that this might also be a systematic issue and warrant a free replacement as well as sending the device to Apple's QC department, he changed his tone, became rather confrontational, and started berating me about several things:

  1. He questioned how I could know that this was a battery issue even though I had clearly explained all the symptoms and the fact that the glass started lifting off when I attempted to charge the battery. The fact that published images of various gadget blogs also clearly show the battery at the right side of the case where the top glass lifted off on my iPad apparently did not factor into his consideration.
  2. He berated me with the words "maybe that's how you run your business, but at Apple we treat each customer the same" when I pointed out that he should maybe consider that it is in general not such a good idea for companies to upset their early-adopter customers.
  3. He explained that Apple could not open or repair the iPad, so even if the battery died after 18 months, the only option is to throw away the entire device. According to Kevin, Apple was being extremely generous to me to offer a $240 replacement path even though my warranty had already run out, rather than forcing me to upgrade to the latest model.

At no time did he offer any alternative path than for me to pay $240 for a refurbished replacement iPad 2.

I ended the conversation at that point, asked him for his business card (which indicated that he was actually from a different Apple store at Pheasant Lane in NH), and advised him that I would reconfirm his position with Apple PR before blogging about it tonight.

Since then I have emailed Apple's PR team and asked them to confirm whether the following points are indeed Apple's official position with respect to an iPad 2 that no longer works due to a dead battery and shows clear signs of an expanding ("swollen") battery including lifting off of the to glass at the right edge:

  • Apple does not consider iPad 2 battery issues to fall under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 and refuses to engage in a product recall of such units
  • Apple is not interested in having the device sent to quality control in order to investigate further whether or not a product recall is warranted
  • Apple does consider it an extremely generous offer when they ask a customer to pay $240 for a refurbished replacement unit only 19 months after the original purchase
  • Apple finds nothing wrong with the idea that after 19 months a tablet device has to be thrown away just because a battery has failed

Sadly, I have not received any response to my inquiry from Apple PR by the time I published this to the blog.

Clearly, just a little over one year after Steve's passing, the company has lost its way and is now demonstrating an arrogant and presumptuous posture towards customers. Combined with the various 3rd generation iPad issues with LTE, iCloud, etc., the restore issues when migrating from iPhone 4S to 5, the recent Maps disaster, increased criticism of the closed eco-system, and extensive and ever-increasing competition in terms of tablets from the Google Nexus, the Amazon Kindle Fire, and the Microsoft Surface, this could be early signs of the decline of Apple.

UPDATE: Several days after posting this to my blog I received a phone call from Kristin Gitlitz, manager at the Apple Store North Shore Mall and she told me that she would like to take another look at that iPad. I was traveling in Europe on a business trip during that time, so I made an appointment with her on Sunday, November 18. After running some battery tests on the device and having a technician open it up, she confirmed that it was a battery issue and promptly told me that there was a $99 fix available rather than the $240 replacement. Furthermore, she agreed to provide that fix for free as a compensation for all the trouble I previously had to go through. Well done, Apple. Thank you for restoring my faith!

Backup/Restore on iOS - not always what you'd expect

Yesterday I had an interesting experience with the backup/restore function in iTunes 10.7 while migrating all my data from my old iPhone 4S to the new iPhone 5. Due to my previous unsatisfactory experience with backup/restore from iCloud when migrating from an iPad 2 to iPad 3 this spring, I decided to use iTunes on my MacPro to make a local backup this time. Furthermore, I wanted to make sure not to run into any iOS 5 -> 6 upgrade issues, so I had already upgraded my iPhone 4S to iOS 6 in the previous week to make this switch more efficient - or so I thought! When it was time to make the move, I connected the 4S, waited for the sync operation to finish, and then right-clicked the phone in iTunes and selected backup.

After the backup process completed, I turned off the old phone, connected the new phone, and selected "Restore" to restore the phone from the backup I just had created. After I waited through a reboot and confirmed a few more dialogs, I thought I would now have everything on the new device exactly the same way as I had on the old phone. But that was not the case…

When you do a backup of your PC or Mac and then lose your hard drive you would expect the machine to be exactly the same after you buy a new disk and run a restore operation, right? Especially you'd expect all settings and configurations to be restored.

Apparently not so with iOS. To my great disappointment I found that for a lot of my applications the restore function only restored the app itself, but not any of its settings, especially not any login information. In particular, I had to manually reenter my account information into all of the following apps on my new phone:

  • Evernote
  • Dropbox
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • WSJ
  • Kindle
  • iCloud, iMessage, FaceTime, Find my friends
  • Netflix
  • Hulu+
  • Yelp
  • OpenTable
  • MLB At Bat
  • Disk Decipher
  • and many more…
In addition, I found that all of the soft-token apps for secure 2-factor authentication to various services were not getting restored with their settings, and so they each generated a new unique device idea and did not allow any easy restoration, transfer, or migration from one device to the next. In fact, with the Google Authenticator that I use for Google Apps and Dropbox as well as with thr Symantec VIP Access app I use for some banking sites my only choice was to log into these web sites, request deactivation of the old soft-token, and then add the new soft-token. In most cases this required having access to the old soft-token to enter a valid code. So I had to turn the old phone back on and migrate every single service authentication to the new token app on the new phone one by one.

Now, in all fairness, I should say that in iOS at least there is a Backup/Restore function, which is completely missing in Android (unless you want to be adventurous and root your device). But I found it very surprising to be lacking in so many ways, especially with regards to app configurations, settings, and logins.

Luckily I don't have to complain about any actual data loss. With my calendar, contacts, and email all in Google Apps, none of those got lost. So this was more of a nuisance that cost me about an hour or two before I had my phone reconfigured to my exact specs and resetting all my soft-token apps.

But it would have been much harder to do, had I actually lost my phone or had it been damage, because removing 2-factor authentication from an account when you don't have the soft-token anymore is rather difficult and often only possible with lengthy tech support calls. It would make much more sense to allow full backup/restore functionality of your phone onto your computer - especially since you can encrypt your backups nicely with iTunes, so the information therein is rather secure.

Bottom-line: plan a couple of hours for your upgrade - especially if you use many apps…

 

The Emperor's New Clothes - a "New iPad" Review in a "Post-PC World"

As I've mentioned on this blog before, I love gadgets and usually am an early adopter of the latest and greatest toys that tech companies produce and I often share my opinions about these devices with the world. I bought the original Kindle, the Kindle 2, the Kindle Fire, all generations of the iPhone, various Droids, the Xoom, the original iPad, the iPad 2, and now… the new iPad.

IMG 4202

When Apple did their big announcement on March 7th, I immediately went online that afternoon, pre-ordered one in the largest configuration (WiFi+4G 64GB), and it arrived yesterday afternoon. I am not going to repeat the benefits and new features of the device, since they've been aptly covered by Walt Mossberg and many others. And the new screen with its super-high resolution is really stunning.

Instead, I wanted to put Tim Cook's claim that this is now a "post-PC world" to the test and decided to set up my new iPad without connecting it to either PC or Mac and use my iCloud backup of the old iPad 2 to set up the new iPad.

Restore from iCloud

To prepare for the migration from my iPad 2 to the new iPad I made sure that I had previously upgraded my iPad 2 to the latest version 5.1 of iOS and also completed a backup to iCloud over my Wi-Fi network at home on the previous day.

I also should probably say at this point that my home Wi-Fi network is 802.11 g+n and my home is connected to the Internet via a Verizon FIOS connection at 50 Mbps. Therefore, running SpeedTest or similar apps on iPhones or iPads typically report latencies of only 64ms, downstream bandwidths of 17-18 Mbps and upstream bandwidths of 16-17 Mbps on the home Wi-Fi network. So by any means, this is not a slow network. One would think that this is the ideal environment for iCloud to shine in a "post-PC world".

After unpacking the new iPad and attaching the cover I started it up, connected it to my home Wi-Fi network, and entered my Apple ID to connect to my iCloud account. As expected, the iPad offered me the choice to restore from iCloud or to restore via iTunes on my computer. I elected to put the iCloud Restore to the test.

To my initial great delight, the iPad showed a download progress bar, and after a short period of 2-3 minutes proceeded to restart the device, show another progress bar underneath the Apple logo, and completed the whole process in about 5 minutes.

Or did it?

When the iPad came back from its reboot, all my apps were in their usual places, but every single one of them had an empty progress bar underneath. And then I was greeted with a rather unspecific message that said "Restore Incomplete":

ICloudRestore

Not only did the message not inform me of which apps or what data I would be missing, it also left me with the uneasy feeling that this was perhaps not restricted to just apps, because it said "Some items could not be downloaded".

I was still optimistic that all the apps would now quickly download and I could start using my new iPad soon. However, as it turns out the entire process of restoring all the apps from my iCloud backup took more than 3½ hours. Given that I have about 22GB of apps on my iPad and the available network bandwidth mentioned above, the process should have taken less than half and hour!

4G LTE Activation

The next step was to activate the new high-speed 4G LTE data network option. Based on my poor experience with AT&T activations in the past, I decided to go with Verizon this time around. Furthermore, I was looking forward to using the iPad as a mobile hotspot, and presently only Verizon is offering that feature at no extra cost.

After entering all my credit card data and choosing the 5GB data plan, the iPad informed me that it would take up to 15 minutes to activate the new data plan. What really happened after about 5 minutes, however, was that I got the following "Data Plan Activation Failure" message:

IMG 0064

A second attempt to "Try Again" just produced the same message after a several minutes of no information and no progress bars. On my third attempt I then got this rather interesting message about the need to "reprovision" my device:

IMG 0065

I followed the steps prescribed in this screenshot and was soon greeted my another cryptic message - this one more surprising than all of the others before, because I had not touched the SIM card slot at all and so the card was most definitely still there:

IMG 0066

Indeed, after another 15-20 minutes or so, the problem disappeared entirely on its own, the iPad finally connected to the 4G network and also properly activated the data plan. As a next step I wanted to see how fast the 4G network really is…

4G LTE Performance

Living on the Boston Northshore, I've always had network coverage issues in certain rooms in my home, so for this test I went to a window in the attic facing in the direction of the closest cell phone towers and was rewarded with 3 out of 5 bars of LTE signal strength. I ran the trusted old SpeedTest app and to my great delight found downstream bandwidths of 17-18 Mbps, which is indeed as fast as the Wi-Fi connections at my house. Network latency was a bit poorer with 117ms vs. the 64ms on Wi-Fi, and upstream bandwidth was much lower as expected. By comparison, on my iPhone on AT&T's HSPA+ network in this area (which now also shows up as "4G" on the iPhone, even though it is technically just 3G) I get downstream speeds of 2.8 Mbps and upstream speeds of 1.1 Mbps with a latency of 181ms. So these LTE speeds are indeed about 6 times faster than typical 3G speeds and that is quite impressive.

IMG 0092

Next I wanted to put it to the real test and download an app over 4G. I picked Infinity Blade II - one of the new apps that were just recently released and optimized for the new high-resolution "retina" display. Imagine my surprise when I got the following message on my screen:

IMG 0087

The astonishing thing about this is that Verizon advertises their LTE network with the words "Verizon 4G LTE means real-time responsiveness. Apps. Games. Movies. Seamless streaming". And even though I just signed up for a 5GB data plan they are not letting me download a 791MB game? I could certainly understand the need for a warning message that would advise people that this game has a certain size and ask them if they were sure they wanted to download it over LTE. But to not allow them to download it at all makes little sense.

Similarly, as has already been mentioned in various other blogs it is not quite understandable why FaceTime would not work over the LTE network:

IMG 0093

More specifically, there is no technical reason for this arbitrary restriction. As I now have an iPad 2 and the new iPad, I was easily able to turn on the Personal Hotspot feature on the new iPad, create a Wi-Fi network from it, then connect my old iPad 2 to that Wi-Fi network an successfully make a FaceTime video call to Europe from the iPad 2. So the LTE network is easily able to carry the data traffic for FaceTime.

So it seems that while the new iPad does indeed shine technologically on the LTE data speeds as well as the beautiful screen resolution, the whole "post-PC world" hype is to a large degree bogus and it will take quite a while until even the new iPad can be used to its full power on the LTE network.

Some will probably argue that the "post-PC world" meme is not just about smartphones and tablet becoming untethered from computers and directly connecting to the cloud. The idea is supposedly that you can now do certain things on the tablet that required a computer just a few years ago. However, if you look at what the best-selling applications on tablets actually do, then you quickly find that 95% of them are games and the remainder are mostly social media apps or consumer-level tools for editing photos, videos, or organizing personal to-do lists.

For example, while the iPad versions of iMovie and iPhoto are certainly impressive and give people the ability to edit their photos a bit, they are at best useful for hobbyists and when you look at the features available they simply cannot even being to compare to the state of the art of professional photo or video editing tools that exist on computers today.

Summary and Clarification

Just to clarify, I really enjoy using iPads, and continue to believe they are great media consumption devices. I love to read books on them. I love to read magazines and newspapers on them. I even watch the occasional movie or play a game. And for all these purposes, the improved screen resolution of the new iPad as well as the 4G LTE network capabilities are fabulous improvements.

But for any expression of creativity, for software development, for photography, for cinematography, for journalism, blogging, marketing, science, engineering, architecture, … in other words for any serious work … tablets are somewhere between mediocre to useless. For all of these fields the PC - be it Windows, MacOS, or Linux based - has been and will be the essential tool of any creative mind. Therefore, I firmly resent the hubris of people proclaiming this to be a "post-PC world".

The reality distortion field

It is amazing to see the efficiency of the Apple PR machinery at work and how all major newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the NY Times are praising the new iPad and giving its launch such huge coverage. And all the bloggers are doing their part to extol the virtues of the new features by endlessly repeating the same mantra: "insane Retina screen resolution, faster GPU, 4G LTE, same long battery life".

Apparently the reality distortion field is alive and well, even after Steve Jobs has passed away.

But doesn't anyone see that the emperor is wearing nothing at all?

Postscriptum

P.S. Kudos to Joe Brockmeier of ReadWriteWeb for publishing a critical article last week on what we lose in a "post-PC" world.

P.P.S. For comparison purposes, I also set up my wife's new iPad yesterday and in her case used iTunes on her MacBook Pro to install it, activate, it, and restore the backup from her old iPad 1 via the computer. The entire process worked seamlessly with none of the errors I encountered and was completed in about half an hour. She was happy to read her email, go on Facebook, and play Boggle on her new iPad in no time, while I was still waiting for hours for my "Restore from iCloud" to complete…

A personal tribute to Steve Jobs

I learned about the passing of Steve Jobs this Wednesday as I was in San Francisco for Oracle OpenWorld. I was munching on a cream puff from Beard Papa's on my way back to the hotel when the message popped up on my iPhone.

Jonathan mak apple logo 480x296
Image credit: Jonathan Mak (麥朗)

I was thunderstruck by the news and observed a moment of silence and remembering. While I only ever had the opportunity to meet Steve in person once at a talk he gave during his time at NeXT, he and the company he built have made a huge impact on my life in numerous ways.

It all started in the early eighties when I went to high school in Linz, Austria, and discovered my love for computers and learned how to program on the TRS-80 we had in school, on a Commodore PET that one of my friends owned, and an Apple II that was built into some laboratory equipment in my dad's organic chemistry lab at the JKU university.

In 1983 I bought my first computer, an Apple IIe, and two years later I bought my first Mac. It was through these two machines that I got deeper and deeper into programming, became a serious computer geek, and learned everything from BASIC to UCSD Pascal and assembly language for the 6502 and 68000 microprocessors. And I started working while still going to high school and wrote software for small businesses in the area to help finance the purchase of various computer upgrades, modems, printers, and other gadgets.

After high school I went on to study semiconductor and solid state physics at JKU university and continued to work part-time. During that time I worked as a teacher at a local computer camp for kids that offered sailing and programming instructions (on Apple II and Macintosh computers) over the summer, and I started working for Apple's Austrian subsidiary in Vienna, doing training for their reseller channel as well as participating in the founding of AMDA, the Austrian Macintosh Developer Association.

It was through that Apple connection in Vienna that I got the opportunity of a lifetime in 1988 when I was admitted into the summer-intern program at Apple's main campus in Cupertino. For three summers and one February break I contributed to various projects at Apple ranging from a modification of the Calculator desk accessory to support international number formats, modifying the internal disk image program that was then used to transfer operating system images from the Cupertino campus to the Fremont factory, to writing the 'KCHR' editor and numerous other modules for ResEdit. I made many great friends during those years and, in fact, just had dinner again with some of them last week in San Francisco.

What I had learned at Apple in those years profoundly influenced my life and kindled a love for elegant and powerful developer tools that continues to live on in what I do at Altova today. Ultimately, these three summers in California also played a significant role in my decision to relocate to the US in 2001 with my entire family and to become US citizens in early 2009.

My life would truly have been very different without the influences of Apple, it's products, and it's visionary founder.

Thank you, Steve.

MacBook Pro Black Ribbon
Photo credit: Nora Falk

Motorola Xoom a huge disappointment

I couldn’t resist the temptation to get my hands on the first Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) device and wanted to explore the tablet world outside of iOS a bit, so I bought a Motorola Xoom the day it came out. I’ve now spent a couple of days with the device, downloaded apps, explored all the features, and come to the conclusion that the Motorola Xoom and Android 3.0 are a huge disappointment.

Let’s start with the Xoom hardware problems first:

  • It is rather heavy
  • The battery life is too short (about 5-6 hours rather than the 10 advertised)
  • The power-button is in the most ridiculous spot on the back of the device (next to the camera & flash)
  • The plastic snap-on cover is bulky and adds weight and thickness to it

Yes, the screen with HD resolution is nice. But that’s about the only thing that is better than the original iPad.

Now let’s talk about the Android 3.0 issues:

  • There are only about 16 apps available that are designed for an Android tablet form-factor. Robert Scoble goes into great detail on that issue in this blog post today.
  • When you run a few apps (and download some that are more designed for a phone) you inevitably arrive at a state, where the UI starts to feel sluggish – despite the dual-core CPU. The way that background applications can eat processor cycles and make your foreground application feel incredibly slow is a design flaw that I’ve already observed in the Motorola Droid a year ago. And it hasn’t been fixed in Android 3.0.
  • In using the device for a couple of hours, I got multiple apps to crash on me.
  • The Android app store is still extremely difficult to navigate and you cannot easily tell the good applications apart from the “me too” junk.
  • When connected to an Exchange server and trying to archive a piece of e-mail, the list of available folders is shown by flattening the entire folder hierarchy instead of displaying it properly. Therefore, I have to scroll down for 4-5 pages until I find the folder I need.
  • The idea to put widgets on the home screen that are more than just an icon is nice. But the implementation is ridiculous. There are plenty of apps that claim to be a widget, but all they are is an icon. Other apps, such as Twitter, have a widget view, but you cannot control the update frequency. With the CNN widget this leads to flickering and nervous screen updates. Then, when you tap on the widget, it takes forever to load the app and display the news.
  • Flash player isn’t available yet.
  • There is no movie availability other than YouTube. Nothing even remotely similar to the iTunes store where I can simply rent or buy a movie anytime.

I could go on for a long time. It is simply ridiculous how far from the truth the TV commercial for the Motorola Xoom is.

And, of course, now that the iPad 2 has been announced today, the Xoom looks even worse…

Tablet computers, video, HTML5, and the great Flash debate

Even if you are not always plugged into tech blogs or the latest social media networks, I have a short reading list for you for this weekend. There’s just a fascinating combination of interesting stories all happening in the same 48h period:

  1. HP drops the Slate project (=tablet PC running Windows 7 that was announced at CES last year by Steve Ballmer)
    http://techcrunch.com/2010/04/29/hewlett-packard-to-kill-windows-7-tablet-project/
  2. Microsoft drops the Courier tablet project (=innovative folding screen tablet computer with both hand and pen input)
    http://gizmodo.com/5527442/microsoft-cancels-innovative-courier-tablet-project
  3. HP buys Palm and is rumored to be working on a tablet computer running Palm’s WebOS
    http://www.hp.com/hpinfo/newsroom/press/2010/100428xa.html
  4. Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs attacks Flash in an open letter on the Apple website and clearly speaks out in support of HTML5 and the H.264 video standard
    http://www.apple.com/hotnews/thoughts-on-flash/
  5. Adobe’s CEO Shantanu Narayen (who?) responds to the Steve Jobs letter in a TV interview with the Wall Street Journal (and offers very weak responses only – mostly cookie cutter style)
    http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2010/04/29/live-blogging-the-journals-interview-with-adobe-ceo/
  6. Microsoft responds to the Apple-Adobe debate on the Internet Explorer Blog and also expresses support for HTML5 and H.264, but – in an attempt to not take sides – also states that “Flash remains an important part of delivering a good consumer experience on today’s web”.
    http://blogs.msdn.com/ie/archive/2010/04/29/html5-video.aspx
  7. Apple starts shipping the 3G version of the iPad in the US today
    http://www.apple.com/ipad/

To see all these things unfold in such a short period of time is quite fascinating, and thus far Apple and the iPad are the clear winner here…

Talking of which: according to FedEx my two WiFi+3G iPads are already on the delivery truck today and should arrive at my house before 3pm.

Also, if you are interested in following more of these tech stories unfold in real-time, check out http://techmeme.com/

iPad Review

With all the hype surrounding the iPad this weekend, I decided to wait a bit and only write about it on Monday. This was also just a picture-perfect weekend with ideal weather in New England and the Red Sox Opening Day on Sunday, so I spent most of my time outdoors rather than playing with or writing about the iPad.

Being a technology geek I had, of course, pre-ordered my iPad a while ago and so it arrived on Saturday via UPS truck as promised. The truck driver jokingly remarked that he had a full truck of just iPads to deliver and he wished he had bought Apple stock a while ago. The first sales data that Apple reported today does indeed sound promising.

But is the iPad really a new “magical” device as Apple likes to describe it? Or is it the beginning of a dystopian future where Apple controls what we are allowed to see, the apps that are approved, and the end of an open Internet (as some pundits claim)?

I won’t bore you with unboxing details that others have reported before, or give you a detailed guide to the best applications you should download to your new iPad.

Instead, I will distill the benefits of the iPad down to the one product image that explains it all:

Marvel Comics on iPad

Yes, the iPad is a primarily a media consumption device. Think of that cozy armchair in your living room, or the sofa, or the couch, or a bench in your backyard. Anywhere you would sit down with a good book to read. Have you tried using a laptop in any of those spots? It doesn’t quite work. Laptops are – despite their name – really only useful when you put them on a hotel room desk or airplane tray table.

By contrast, the iPad is really made for consuming media wherever and whenever you don’t want to sit at a desk! Now, in addition to reading books from the iBooks or Kindle bookstores, you can also read comics by Marvel (see image above), consume newspapers in digital editions, catch up on TV that you missed, watch movies you buy or rent on iTunes or Netflix, and browse the web. And if you are one of those always-connected people (like me) you can even read your e-mail and respond to the occasional important one, or access one of the many social networking sites or apps.

And it does all of that extremely well – to the point where it is indeed a new class of device and since everything just works and is super fast, it really has a certain “magical” feel to it. In fact, when I showed some of these apps to my family this weekend, I immediately got requests for additional iPads that they now want me to buy…

iBooks on iPad The one iPad app that is of great interest to this XML Aficionado is, of course, the iBooks app, which is both a very pretty e-Book reader and also a bookstore where you can buy these e-Books directly from Apple. The interesting thing about iBooks is that apple decided to support the open ePub file format for e-Books rather than a proprietary format like the Kindle. As you may have guessed already, ePub is XML-based and the content can be provided in either XHTML or DTBook format. The result is that with the launch of the iBooks bookstore there are not only a few publishers who have already signed up, but you also get a ton of works in the public domain, whose copyright has expired, and you can download all of them for free from the iBooks bookstore. 

WolframAlpha on iPad Above and beyond that, the iPad is really a great educational tool. Using WolframAlpha on the iPad is just a joy and there are also new apps, like The Elements: A Visual Exploration that are really beautifully made.

Yes, there are also some business applications, like Keynote for presentation, Pages for word processing, and Numbers for spreadsheet-type work. Those are really very pretty and easy to use and will certainly be useful for some people, but I am guessing these are more attractive for people who don’t have a laptop and, therefore, want to use the iPad for that purpose, too.

Regarding the iPad hardware: the device fits comfortably in your hand and even though it is a bit heavier than the Kindle, it just feels right. The screen is really beautiful and the colors are vibrant. I used the device for several hours on Saturday and Sunday and the battery life was much better than expected. And it is really fast and responsive. I didn’t find any feature or app where I had to “wait for the computer”. Very refreshing, indeed!

So should you buy an iPad now? That decision is entirely up to you, but this flowchart might help. All kidding aside, if you are an early adopter, like new technologies, and have the money to spend, I would go for it. Likewise, if you are considering buying a Kindle or a PSP, I would buy an iPad instead. However, if you don’t yet have an iPhone and are trying to decide between iPad and iPhone, I would probably rather go with the iPhone – in my opinion it is the more versatile device.

multi_touch_20100225 There is another group of people, for whom the iPad is probably ideal: those of the older generation, who have not yet bought any computer. The iPad is certainly the most gentle way for a senior to get access to e-mail, web browsing, and sharing photos with the younger generations. If you want your parents or grandparents to finally “get connected”, then a broadband Internet connection with wireless router plus an iPad is probably the best solution out there.

Are there any negative things to say about the iPad? I’m afraid not many. There is, of course, the one issue that developers of applications for the iPad are totally dependent upon Apple with respect to whether the apps can be sold through the app store, since Apple has a mandatory approval process and can reject any app for any reason. Tim Bray, co-author and editor of the XML specification, has been very outspoken about that issue and recently said:

“The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger.

I hate it.

I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom’s not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient.”

The same is true for the iPad as much as for the iPhone. On the one hand I agree with Tim about freedom not being optional, on the other hand there are very few apps that Apple rejected that I would miss (Google Voice being the only one I can think of right now). The one benefit of Apple’s tight control over the app store is the total lack of viruses and malware on the iPhone/iPad platform. And it adds a layer of QA on top of most applications, so the software you buy in the app store typically works and is useful.

The second issue with the iPad that is worth mentioning is that there are apparently some Wi-Fi issues that people have reported. I haven’t seen any of those problems myself - either at home or in the office - and the iPad has been flawless in its ability to connect to the Internet anywhere I tried.

Finally, for those who are not convinced and would rather want to see the iPad being abused, there are already some interesting videos out there…