On Apple, Netbooks, and My Line of Work

Things have been mildly busy, partly because I’ve been actively trying to relax (an odd choice of words, but a true one) and because the stuff I’m involved in has been taking up a good bit of my free time as well.

Here’s why: Every time I move to a new field, I like to learn all I can about it, and I do it with a methodical approach that most people probably wouldn’t bother with.

Let’s, for the sake of argument, imagine that I would be taking up fishing as a professional activity1. Here’s what I would have been doing, on and off, for the past couple of weeks, on my free time (say, half an hour a day or so):

• Tracking down fishing blogs and subscribing to their RSS feeds in droves, so that I can weed out the nuts that insist on using hummingbird feathers plucked under the full moon and find some solid references on proper hook and sink techniques.
• Researching suitable reference books that I might buy if necessary.
• Trying to find a suitable business model for, erm, “social fishing”, “thin-rod fishing” or “distributed micro-fishing” (take your pick, they’re all make-believe notions).
• Reading up on the new technology behind fishing, including trawling public forums to try and get a grip on the bleeding edge of fly fishing.
• Understanding the regulations that govern it, both locally and abroad. I have a knack for finding pretty comprehensive stuff like this with little effort, so I make the best of it.
• Looking up the odd patent on related and marginally related concepts.
• And, of course, looking at commercial products themselves (yes, there are even video demos to be watched).

So that’s why I haven’t been paying much (if any) attention to the hype around tomorrow’s Apple event, and the idle speculation being thrown around in click-driven sites regarding it.

Remember, folks, the more controversy, the more clicks – Chuqui puts it best, I think. And I love the “Eeyore” moniker – so very reminiscent of Gruber’s “Jackass”, but more cartoony and endearing in a way.

Anyway, Regarding Netbooks

Since the last time I wrote regarding netbooks, I’ve been slowly fixing Ubuntu on my 901 until it approached decent usability and generally fooling around with the “cloudy” stuff, as I put it, and have come up against the basic issues of using one for real.

Forget about Google Docs, or reading your RSS feeds (in Reader or otherwise), or even about syncing your files using something like Dropbox – that’s the complex stuff that is actually pretty easy to do and get used to, so I wont’ get into that.

No, the problem with netbooks is that the basics are different. The complex stuff will work more or less the same way regardless of the device size (provided it works, of course). The simple stuff is where the true pitfalls lie.

Take e-mail, for instance, which is still my preferred medium for corresponding with friends and people who would think Twitter and Facebook (not to mention video calling) are something out of Area 51.

Although my preferred way of reading e-mail has undoubtedly become the iPhone (or, while at home, my iPod Touch), replying to it is another matter. On my MacBook there is plenty of screen real estate for running anything I want (and I still prefer using Mail.app despite its foibles), but on a netbook things are not that simple.

First off, Thunderbird (which would ordinarily be the natural choice) persists in wasting vertical space with a compose screen that was clearly designed for the days of 4:3 screens or thereabouts, and Evolution, well… let’s not go there.

And pretty much every single e-mail program out there will look half-assed on a 1024×600 screen – except, oddly enough, Outlook, which I’ve used via Citrix with great success (but only because I tweaked the preview panes and removed most toolbars).

So I’ve started keeping Opera 9.6 around for quick e-mail checks. I find the browser slow2, pokey and fiddly to use (Firefox soundly trounces it on my 901 in everything from page load speed to tab switching, and I’ve always disliked the UI), but it is a decent IMAP mailer and makes a passable effort at being clever about how it does threading and searching.

Not to mention that it has a “low bandwidth” mode that only fetches relevant bits of messages and prevents it from wasting disk space with stuff I don’t want to keep on the netbook.

Toss in a fairly usable Twitter widget3 (which, incidentally, was way better than any of the Twitter clients available for Linux, even before I hacked it to support direct messages), and it makes for a pretty good all-in-one netbook internet suite.

Which, in and by itself, is worrying. The “internet suite” concept has gone (together with Netscape) the way of the dodo, and going back to one doesn’t feel right to me at all.

But the underlying point is that there is definitely a lot to improve in current desktop UIs to use them on a netbook, and I have only been able to put up with using Ubuntu on Eee 901 because I sanitized the UI (ditching the hideous, unusable Netbook Remix front-end) and adopted Gnome Do as my primary program launcher.

Incidentally, eeecontrol works great (still requires too much tweaking for the casual user, but it scratched my itches regarding Wi-Fi and Bluetooth toggling). The only bit of hardware that is still not working is the built-in microphone, but Linux was never able to figure out sound hardware properly anyway, not with the umpteen APIs it has.

And the interesting thing for me, as a Mac user, is that Mail.app and Safari are vastly more usable on an 1024×600 screen (provided you hide the Dock) than just about anything else4 – even via VNC.

The Mac OS X UI, with its fixed menu bar and clean defaults, feels like a natural fit for a small device:

• The menu bar is always easy to hit, even with the fiddly touchpads most netbooks have
• The fonts are eminently readable without any tweaking
• Exposé is there, of course, but Dashboard and Spaces make a lot of sense
• Mail.app makes pretty good use of screen real estate without any tweaks (despite its foibles, it is still one of the more intuitive mail programs out there, and wastes very little room with mail header junk).
• Safari starts by default without a status bar, and the only bit of unnecessary chrome I have to disable is the bookmark bar.

Yes, it would probably work fine on a netbook – much better than most people would realize. But no, it’s not likely to happen.

At least not tomorrow.

1 Quite honestly, and considering that I’ve been in the telco industry for nearly fifteen years and that I’m fast approaching an even ten at Vodafone, fishing might well be a welcome change, but I digress…

2 For me, it seems to take up a lot more RAM and CPU than Firefox – I’ve been keeping an eye on the system monitor, and Opera flatlines the CPU every now and then. I would ordinarily blame the SSD, but there are no disk accesses, and it’s not compiz either, so I’m at a loss as to why it’s working out this badly for me. And yes, I have tried both the standard and the static Qt versions.

3 As an aside, this is probably the first time I’ve actually found a use for Opera widgets – widgets in general have turned out to be a pretty useless concept, and Opera’s widget “store” is crammed with junk, so your mileage will surely vary.

4 Before you get any ideas, I have been fooling around with Vine Server to see if I can maintain a persistent Mac desktop I can use remotely and independently of the console. It works OK, although I still have trouble with keyboard mappings using a Linux client.