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Category: Mac

Little details mean a lot

I’ve just filed my 2007 taxes using the much-maligned TurboTax. (I filed my 2005 taxes this past January, so I’m doing much better this year.)

TurboTax for the Mac appears to have been completely rewritten with an eye towards satisfying the Mac customer, which is a refreshing change for Intuit. (It will be interesting to see how their Financial Life product looks this fall.)

As a good example of leveraging the foundations of Mac OS X to provide specific functionality for the customer: I was pleasantly surprised to be given these choices for saving my return after filing:

  1. “Print returns” (I routinely “print” to PDF, but Mac OS X already makes this easy);
  2. “Backup to .Mac”: this puts a copy of my TurboTax data file, as well as a PDF with my return and all supporting worksheets, into a folder (Documents/TurboTax/2007) on my .Mac disk;
  3. “Burn to CD”: this uses the standard disc burning interface to put a copy of my data file as well as the TurboTax application (fully updated, as far as I can tell) onto a CD. Brilliant. (I can’t tell you how much time I wasted looking for the 2005 software. The fact that it wouldn’t run under Leopard once I found it is another issue entirely…)

These are the little details that Mac users expect in their software (otherwise they wouldn’t have bought a Mac), and companies that pay attention to things like this should be able thrive in the Mac marketplace. Granted, Intuit’s reputation on the Mac is in tatters (and deservedly so), but I’m much more inclined to check out Financial Life now than I was before.

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Signs of the Apocalypse, part 12

Sending an S.O.S. for a PC Exorcist (New York Times):

I called John C. Dvorak, a prominent columnist for PC Magazine and a podcaster on the Podshow network. “I advise everybody to buy a Macintosh because Apple products are the easiest to use,” he said.

Wait a sec, let me double-check… yes, 2 + 2 is still 4, and the sun appears to have set in the west.

(Oh, yeah, the article? The author took delivery of an $1800 laptop running Vista, and less than three days later it wasn’t working — something about the anti-virus software — so he paid this guy another $800 to wipe the hard drive and reinstall Vista, and now he’s happy. Couldn’t make this stuff up…)

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Dancing with the elephant (revised)

While gathering information about application compatibility with Leopard, I notice one developer, Snerdware, is struggling to keep up with the situation. They report two major problems that affect their current applications, and, with some evident frustration, blame both of them on Apple. [Note: I’ve substantially rewritten my commentary on the first issue, since I’ve learned additional information and since my main point applies to the second issue.]

The first issue affects both their products; the report here is for AddressX:

AddressX won’t startup on 10.5.0/Leopard running on an Intel-powered Mac (a log indicates “… Reason: no suitable image found. Did find: /usr/lib/libcrypto.0.9.dylib: mach-o, but wrong architecture. …”).

When we looked at the 10.5 pre-release, we encountered an OS X library issue — it installs a non-universal/PPC-only version of a library that’s critical to our applications (and, of course, all our developer systems are Intel-powered). ‘Though we filed a bug report early in October (original Problem ID: 5520955 and have now re-filed it), believe it or not, it’s still a problem with the released/commercial version of 10.5.0 (even without the bug report, you’d think that a check to ensure all binaries are universal would actually be a basic QA step — it’s one that’s easily automated!).

After corresponding with someone named Bryan D. at Snerdware and doing a little more research, I’ve learned the following things which make me more sympathetic to their problem than I originally was:

  • Apple includes two versions of libcrypto: one called libcrypto.0.9.dylib, and one called libcrypto.0.9.7.dylib, and a symbolic link libcrypto.dylib that points to the newer library.
  • In Leopard, the newer library is indeed a four-way universal binary, but the older library is PowerPC only. I originally assumed this was because only pre-Intel applications would require it, since libcrypto.0.9.7.dylib has been available in Mac OS X at least as far back as 10.3.9; and so Snerdware was making a mistake by linking to the older library and then complaining that it wasn’t universal.
  • But it turns out that Snerdware relies on features that are present in the older library (which corresponds to libcrypto version 0.9.6l), but have been removed for some reason from the newer library.
  • More strangely, Apple did include a universal binary of libcrypto.0.9.dylib in the Intel versions of Tiger, but strangely left it PowerPC-only in Leopard. Huh?
  • Snerdware originally considered compiling the older library into their program, but since it’s crypto there are all kind of export regulations that come into play (and believe me, I know about this; I had to research exactly this topic at a previous job).

Hopefully this was indeed an oversight that can be fixed in a future update; otherwise, Snerdware has a problem with no easy solution, and some portion of the blame lies with Apple.

The second issue is a more fundamental problem, and one that affects nearly all Mac developers — Apple has a history of making significant changes to core system services between OS versions. I presume that Apple doesn’t do this maliciously, but there are plenty of developers who will tell you they’ve been burned by Apple changing or dropping technologies. Apparently Snerdware is once burned and twice shy:

Since we’ve previously been seriously “bitten” by Apple’s last-minute major changes to developer pre-releases, we can’t afford to take pre-releases seriously until they are near release. […]

With the imminent release of 10.5.0, we […] discovered that, even ‘though OS X’s Sync Services has the same interfaces and we’ve seen no documentation/release notes that document subtle but significant changes in behavior, we see that the behavior has changed in a way that will cause us to make very major changes to Groupcal … Given that Groupcal was working very well with 10.4, this is more than annoying for us, as well. Be angry with Apple, not with us.

[…] It’s things like this that make it much more difficult for an OS X product to be a viable business proposition.

Here I have a harder time finding sympathy. By their own admission they waited until the last minute to check whether the behavior of Sync Services had changed, and now they report to their users that their flagship product won’t be compatible until the first quarter of 2008, and point the finger at Apple?

(Luckily their target market appears to be corporate workgroups running Exchange servers, and those folks are less likely to be rushing out and upgrading to Leopard, so Snerdware may have some time there.)

If my livelihood depended on my product operating correctly with Sync Services, I wouldn’t rely on Apple keeping its behavior unchanged from release to release; I’d be booting up each Leopard seed on a non-critical system and checking things out. Perhaps I’d muster up the resources to send a developer to WWDC, where Apple encourages you to bring your code, try it out on the current seed, and discuss problems with the Apple engineers who have come up from Cupertino for the week for just this reason.

(To be fair, I don’t know that Snerdware didn’t do this; but with the “can’t afford to take pre-releases seriously” comment above, I somehow doubt it.)

And then — well, maybe Sync Services does change in the September seed and I still have a lot of work to do — but wouldn’t I’d be five weeks further along?

If you choose to dance with an elephant, you can approach it one of two ways — you can wait for the dust to settle, and then see what the lay of the land is; or you can try to be more nimble and maneuver around the elephant. We independent developers are supposed to be more nimble… aren’t we?

[But sometimes, even if you’re nimble, you can get still stepped on…]

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Bandwagon and DreamHost

So now Bandwagon and DreamHost are co-operating on a promotion: DreamHost members get a year of Bandwagon, and vice versa.

Well, I haven’t had a chance to set up my Bandwagon account yet — and, as has been pointed out, it may not be an optimal solution for large iTunes collections — but I’m a DreamHost subscriber, and my renewal date is coming up in a couple of months, so here goes. Now all three of you who read my blog will have something to chew on for another five months. (Hey, I couldn’t keep up with the blog when I wasn’t working full-time — what makes you think I’ll do any better now?)

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Brenthaven MacBook "Slim"?

Apparently I’m not the only one:

I went to www.brenthaven.com and what do I see but their featured laptop bag, the MacBook Slim. The name evoked compactness, and the picture appeared to be a clone of my Pro File 12, so I mustered up the will to spend $100 on a bag, and ordered one.

It came Friday, and it is beautiful, and well constructed. And I sent it back Saturday morning. The thing is huge. Great for frequent travelers who keep their office in their bag, not so great for me, who slips his laptop into its case every morning and every evening and needs only enough extra storage for an iPod.

Virtually the same thing here. I had a Pro File 12 for my PowerBook G4 12″ that I loved; I went back to Brenthaven, saw the MacBook Slim, assumed it was the same thing, and bought it just before a week-long cross-country trip.

And … it is huge. It has a “removable” padded sleeve, but in practice you wouldn’t want to use it as a lightweight sleeve, because (a) it’s Velcroed in there pretty good; (b) it doesn’t have much of a carrying handle; and (c) it’s really too big for the MacBook — I would guess it was a standard Brenthaven part that was the smallest one big enough to hold the MacBook, and then they built the rest of the case around it.

For that cross-country trip, it was decent — at least in the airplane; lugging it from the hotel to the convention center and back again was feasible but not much fun. But for going back and forth to work, it’s overkill. I guess I could have tried to return it, even after using it for a week, but that didn’t seem right to me, and by the time I got really unhappy with it my return period was long since past.

So what I ended up doing was buying a Pro File 15 from the same place I’d bought the Pro File 12 — and for virtually the same clearance price. The Pro File 15 is a little too tall for the MacBook but otherwise works fine, and is much lighter weight to boot.

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The O'Grady Factor

Item on The Unofficial Apple Weblog: Apple Genius says: Moo’ing normal.

Same item as quoted on Powerpage: Apple: It’s Normal for MacBooks to Moo.

Now I’m not a professional journalist, but even I can tell the difference between one offhand comment by one employee at one Apple store, and an official position by Apple the corporation.

Also omitted from the quote on Powerpage: the part where the TUAW writer then called AppleCare and is having his MacBook repaired under warranty. (Of course, the Apple Genius should have handled this…)

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to take Jason O’Grady seriously. How he ends up writing for ZDNet is beyond me.

(By the way, my new black MacBook does not moo.)

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PyWikit

In response to a challenge in the Mac forum at Ars Technica, I’ve banged out a quick service that adds “Search With Wikipedia” to your Services menu (right below “Search With Google”). It’s called PyWikit because (a) somebody suggested “Wikit” for the name and (b) I wrote it in Python, using PyObjC. To use it, download it and move it to your ~/Library/Services folder. At the moment you will probably have to log out and log in again to update your Services menu. If I get motivated I’ll build an installer, someday. (Unlikely since I’ve only spent about an hour on this, most of which was taken up building a universal binary for PyObjC. While it is true that PyObjC rocks, its universalness is still a little, uh, rocky.)

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Get a Mac

Random thoughts on Apple’s new [“Get a Mac”](http://www.apple.com/getamac) campaign:

* The name itself is significant: not “Switch” but “Get a Mac” — i.e. you can have both.
* The [TV ads](http://www.apple.com/getamac/ads) are funny and make their points without being smug. (I particularly like “Network”, the one with the “new digital camera from Japan”.) But then I’m closer to the fanboi end of the spectrum to start with.
* I’m not so sure about the Mac being a scruffy twenty-something — I guess they’re going for street cred, or whatever the kids say today. Perhaps they’re going for the all-important [“Ed”](http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0247091/) demographic (of which my wife would be a key member) as the [actor](http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0519043/) is the one who played the geek wanna-not-be Warren Cheswick.
* I’m sure people are worried about challenging the bad guys by claiming superiority on the [virus](http://www.apple.com/getamac/viruses.html) front. So far they seem to be walking a careful line and not claiming Macs are virus-free or “bulletproof”. (Oh, and this line: “In order for software to significantly modify Mac OS X, you have to type in your password. You’re the decider.” Priceless.)
* #1 on the list of reasons to get a Mac: “It just works.” Amen. (I wish “design” weren’t quite so high, though.)
* I also like the list refuting reasons not to buy a Mac. One notable omission: “Macs aren’t more expensive” (for what you get); it would be tough to make this case in a few sentences (and tougher still with Dell desperately slashing prices…).

On the whole, it’s good to see Apple making some noise. Now if they can just get the new Intel-based iBook replacements out (before the education buying season)…

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SubEthaEdit for $0 is a great deal

SubEthaEdit from CodingMonkeys is an excellent collaborative editor that I’ve used to help create session notes at past PyCons. Many people also use it as a programming editor, although to date I’m still in the BBEdit camp.

Now, as part of BLOGZOT 2.0 on MacZOT.com, MacZOT and TheCodingMonkeys will award $105,000 in Mac software — specifically, free SubEthaEdit licenses (if enough bloggers link back to the web site to reduce the license price to $0).

Obviously, the intention is to drive a lot of visits to the MacZOT site, but SubEthaEdit for $0 is a great deal no matter how you slice it. (And MacZOT is an interesting idea itself; I’ve used it once or twice to spring for software I might not have otherwise bought, when the discount pushed the price down to impulse buying levels.)

(Thanks to Matt Deatherage for the heads-up.)

Update: Yes, enough bloggers fell for the offer to drive the cost down to $0, and I got my free license code over the weekend — thanks, MacZOT and Coding Monkeys!

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