MacBooks and Other Happenings - The Sequel


Okay, let's put some perspective on things, shall we?

Despite Steve having produced an Intel Mac ahead of schedule, there are a number of reasons for current users to be less than ecstatic about things.

After all, Apple has of late been focusing more on eye-candy than on significant improvements to the base OS, and it's starting to show. The sole major improvement to Tiger as far as I'm concerned was Spotlight, and even then it's marred by its its UI slowness.

It's faster to type a query in in Quicksilver and submit it whole than using Spotlight's prompt and have it refresh the results as I type, even on my perfectly good iMac G5.

I think I can understand why - the Intel transition is a good reason for wanting to keep the codebase stable, and there has to be a good deal of work involved in some of the fixes that have come out in the meantime.

The Mothership Is Still Parked On Its Home Planet

Their US-centricness, however, is starting to grate a bit - and I'm not just talking about iTunes and their selling video content solely through the US store. And I promise not to mention Apple Stores, either - at least not again in this post.

As I see it, they are falling behind in adding support for more mobile phones in iSync (especially European models). That in itself would be understandable if they had bothered to publish some detailed developer documentation for iSync, but instead we got only a couple of minor tweaks throughout the year.

Third parties have tried to fill in that gap (and I, after months of waiting for an iSync update, finally gave up and published my notes before the Xmas shopping season), but they're clearly no match for Apple's internal know-how on iSync, and no manufacturer will bundle Mac sync software if there isn't some sort of reference spec to implement it against.

There are exceptions, but they are few and far between - just today I picked up this announcement mentioning that RIM has licensed the complete version of PocketMac for Blackberry and will be making it available for free.

And then there are things like their delay in adding support for the Canon/EOS 350D - an almost exact duplicate of the Canon Digital Rebel, which was right up there in the supported cameras list when they announced RAW support. The only real difference? The Rebel is the US version.

Nit-pickers are advised to consider that differences in the RAW formats between Canon cameras could have been dealt with by FTPing a couple of test files across international waters.

Somehow, they seem to have trouble in focusing their efforts to a wider audience than the US - something I can almost understand in hardware (and retail) terms, but not really in software ones. Not in 2006.

Hype Surfing

A few analysts have pointed out that Apple's US bias is mostly due to their walking a fine line between price and perceived value, and that nowhere in the world can .Mac be viewed as a useful service than in the US.

Well, I'm a .Mac user for a while now, and it is the most expensive mailbox I've every owned - I've always had plans to host my photos there, for instance (way back when this site ran off an ADSL line, some of them even found their way there), but most of the extra services are pretty pointless for a European user. iDisk and syncing are extremely useful, however.

Anyway, Apple has been focusing their efforts in ensuring that their "life suite" software and service offerings fit together quite well, and as such it makes perfect sense to see them enhancing iPhoto, for instance, by closely coupling some of its features to .Mac services.

Fortunately they went with RSS this time - which means there will be some creative uses of it around pretty soon, and that it will ride the RSS hype - but overall, things on the integration front have progressed to such a degree that if it were Microsoft, there would be an outcry - and there were plenty of those, every time Microsoft announced something that coupled its OS to MSN, Encarta, etc.

But somehow, once you mention Apple (the traditional cool underdog), then it's OK, it's cool and makes peoples' lives easier - a sure sign that selective memory has prevailed over unbiased judgement.

Stability vs Eye-candy

The real issue here is that from the user perspective, things aren't that hot. I've been hearing about how iPhoto is "incredibly faster" ever since 2.0. It isn't. Maybe 6.0 will be very fast on an Intel machine, but that's not the point - it probably ought to have been demonstrably faster on last month's hardware as well.

And then there are bug fixes. Safari has improved significantly, but it still crashes on me once every couple of days - which would be a marked improvement over my Windows and Linux experience if I didn't have Firefox open for weeks at a time on all three operating systems.

But browsers are complex and fickle beasts that have to be on the bleeding edge, so people put up with their foibles.

However, mail is an entirely different matter. If it weren't for Spotlight, AppleScript and Mail Act-On (which make Mail.app much better than it could ever be otherwise), I'd probably have dumped Mail.app for Thunderbird by now - not due to any specific feature, but for stability alone.

Incidentally, Thunderbird reached version 1.5 today. I will be looking at it for sure.

Piping and White Stucco

Now, isn't it odd that I have one of the best UNIX workstations on the planet on my desk (the latest model of which was touted by Walt Mossberg himself as "the gold standard of PCs"), running a gloriously polished UI (if you leave out the Finder), and that the basic software shipped with it still has a number of bugs after a year?

Heck, I switched from Windows at home because I wasn't willing to put up with this sort of thing. It's as if I moved into a brand new house to find smooth whitewashed walls, glorious lighting, and a couple of extremely irritating leaky faucets - the kind you have to get a professional plumber to fix - one that is especially flown in from Italy or Denmark.

Getting 10.4.4 and seeing that it not only didn't fix my faucets (as it were) but also added a couple of glassy trinkets of dubious taste to was, to put it mildly, a disappointment.

And so was the Bluetooth Firmware Updater (which I won't touch anymore until there's a serious reason to upgrade anything related to Bluetooth).

One of my personal bets is that this post is going to attract the usual kind of commentary from Apple zealots with rose-tinted glasses who will say they haven't had a single problem and the usual voodooo of did you check disk permissions? that fixed all my problems.

Let me try to get this point across, once and for all -

The fact that Mac OS X even has that sort of permission-related issues is not a good sign in the UNIX world.

Mac OS X may be UNIX-based, but userland applications have no business mucking about with the system in such a way that they make repairing permissions a "normal" housekeeping chore.

I'm Seeing Spots

And it is precisely in common userland stuff that Mac OS X has lagged a bit. And by lagging I don't mean comparing it to Linux or BSD or insert-your-favorite-flavor-here that happens to include the latest bleeding edge Ruby or Python or Perl.

I mean that it lacks a bit more spit and polish, maybe even more core innovation. launchd was a very good start, but why stop there?

My hope is that Apple might be focusing their efforts in delivering some new under-the-hood goodies in Leopard - which, coupled with the Intel transition, is probably taking up a lot of their time.

No matter that Steve has said that they've been working on porting the OS for years - it will still take a while to churn out new stuff on both architectures - and fix, most probably rewrite a few bits here and there.

I'm not holding my breath for Leopard, but it would be nice to have Mail.app become a bit better before it hits 3.0 (which it will, when Mac OS X hits 10.5) - and that's just an example.

The Bottom Line

I'm going to wait a bit more before buying a MacBook Pro. It's not that the thing isn't amazing on its own, it's just that it irks me that they don't mention battery life at all and that there are always a few issues with new form factors - and I'm not being pessimistic, it's the way things really work.

There is not enough data at this point to know how it works (there is not enough cash, either, and I'd rather not risk it on a first-generation product, even from Apple).

So, given that my 800MHz G3 iBook is still usable enough for me to type this in while Fink chugs away recompiling a couple of packages, I'm going to wait until there are consumer MacBooks and more Pro models - and yes, I have little doubt at this point that the iBook will drop the "i" and get a "Mac" prefix.

Again, my guess is that we'll be seeing a smaller, more efficient (maybe slimmer) laptop sometime this year - and even if it isn't a Core Duo, it will be another data point to compare against.

Knowing Apple, waiting a bit is usually a good tactic - with luck, my patience will be rewarded with a copy of Leopard as well.