In the meantime


Summer is lounging about like it owned the place, and work has been unusually hectic for this time of year (hasn’t helped that we’re going through a re-org and moving floors in a week or so), which means I’m only powering up my home laptop a couple of times a week – if at all – and relying more on more on Apple’s little slabs of glass to keep track of news and tap away posts like these across a bunch of notes I e-mail to myself.

But Apple news (if there are any real Apple news these days) are thin on the ground, and most of it is iPhone nonsense anyway, so there is little to say regarding that in general.

On the personal tech level, though, and a couple of weeks after going public with my iPhone habit, there are enough little things stacked up to merit mention here.

After shutting off push and location services, I am now able to use the phone on a daily basis without much compromise – I read news and loads of e-mail during my daily commute, swap a few photos by e-mail (a very, very poor replacement for MMS) and manage my Exchange calendar without any significant hassles1, and return home with 20-30% battery remaining – this with a full complement of SMS and business calls (including the odd conference call in speakerphone mode – which is usable, but not as good as, say, the Nokia’s).

It is adequate, but not stellar, and people who talk a bit more than me on the phone or use a Bluetooth headset (no, nobody I know was crazy enough to buy Apple’s, before you ask) complain bitterly of battery life. Since I switch off my phone in the evenings, I also seem to be immune to application crashes and daily lockups, a very common complaint among my peers.

Yet, they can’t seem to put it down – except for travel, when they dust out their trusty BlackBerry to make sure they can go there and back again on a single charge – which then prompts a flurry of discussion about why it still is, without a shade of a doubt, a vastly better e-mail device than the iPhone.

I still keep a Pearl in my drawer and use it on some occasions throughout the week, and I’m inclined to agree. Although the iPhone and ActiveSync combination gives me a pretty good e-mail client that allows me to manage my gigantic Exchange folder tree with ease, the BlackBerry makes it look fluffy and limited.

But there will be plenty of time for comparisons later – the iPhone has a lot of quirks and limitations that most people aren’t even aware of (given the US-centricity of most of the writers that criticize it). For instance, the Portuguese input in 2.0 is crammed with issues, from poor accented character ordering to a somewhat paranoid dictionary that keeps mangling short words2.

On the mobile apps front, and largely as expected, the App Store has devolved into a quagmire of 99.9% junk (or should I say joke?) applications, very much like the Palm application sites of old.

I’ve been reading a few interesting comparisons about the App Store and other mobile app distribution models, and the people who go on about about how the Palm had ‘tens of thousands’ of applications need to get their heads examined – yes, there were tens of thousands of apps, sure, which reached five nines of uselessness (99.999%) well before the platform developed color screens, and things never really looked up from that.

And, sadly, the iPhone seems to be heading in the same general direction. It’s not just about the number of Twitter clients, To-Do list or flashlight apps – it’s about the overall lack of original concepts that don’t really take advantage of the platform’s features.

So much for careful screening and the US$99 bozo filter (I guess a lot of bozos have a $100 bill burning a hole in their pocket these days and basic Objective-C skills).

Still, it’s early days yet.

On another topic, I finally got my hands on an Airport Extreme base station after several months’ worth of attempts – they vanish as soon as they reach the shops here, making it very hard to get one when you can only go shopping once a week at best.

After many years twiddling Linksys boxes with after-market firmware3 to get them to work sensibly and spending the 18 months or so testing DSL routers of various denominations, I decided to rip everything out and get a decent router.

One of the benefits of doing home renovations is that I was able to run Cat 5 cabling (nearly) everywhere, but nothing beats having decent Wi-Fi coverage and I was getting tired of having an SSID for cable at one end of the house, another for DSL at another, and my old 802.11g Airport Express somewhere in the middle trying to compensate for the inadequacies in either of their footprints.

So I installed it on the high shelf above the old pantry (it has to be horizontal to make the best of its built-in antennae and maximize coverage), twiddled its settings to dumb it down into an access point rather than a full-fledged router, and unplugged or disabled most of the rest of the stuff.

This will cause me no end of trouble with DSL shenanigans (since I have to keep the provider’s router as local DHCP and DNS), but the Wi-Fi performance is now dramatically improved – 5GHz jumps over all the junk that is currently mucking up the 2.4GHz band over here and gives me great coverage (the entirety of our flat, including the corner cases) and pretty decent throughput.

Of course, this shouldn’t have to be necessary. I don’t really need 802.11n and current 2.4GHz gear would probably do, but as it happens IPTV is pretty big over here right now, and the unmitigated idiots who install it are planting 2Wire gear all over the place, all of it set to channel 1 – so I have six or seven of those pieces of junk littering the spectrum above and below our flat4.

And why not a Time Capsule, you might ask?

Well, for one, because it doesn’t play along with FileVault on my MacBook (at least not in a way I would find usable) and because the ratio of tales of woe to gleeful successes among the techie crowd has been something like a hundred to one.

As to using the thing to attach some sensibly priced storage, I am unlikely to mess around with the Airport Extreme in that capacity until my NSLU2 dies, and the house server (a mini) already has all our music and photos shared via the usual protocols plus DLNA – to which I should add that I am not one to mess with a working setup.

Which reminds me, iTunes 7.7.1 finally fixed AirTunes, so I can now use the Remote app on my iPod Touch to pipe music to my old Airport Express in the living room.

Now that’s an improvement.

1 If by ‘manage’ you mean putting up with Apple’s notion that all calendars should be as inflexible as MobileMe’s, and the built-in phone views.

2 Portuguese has a good deal of one-letter words that the iPhone keeps mangling, and the dictionary badly needs an off switch for bilingual writers like me.

3 In case you’re curious, I recommend Tomato for the original WRT54G. Nothing else comes close in terms of overall usability.

4 Yes, Meo, I’m looking at you bunglers. Get your field service act together before your own customers start complaining about other Wi-Fi devices in the neighborhood.