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Russell Finn’s Blog Posts

Will no one rid me of this troublesome plugin?

So, facing the “Would you like to install Flash Player 10?” message in the browser page at Adobe’s, I had a micro-aneurysm or something, and thought, my daughter spends all her free time playing Flash games, so I’ll need this soon anyway, right? So I clicked “Yes.”

[If you’re reading along at home: STOP! DON’T DO THIS!]

Whereupon Flash downloaded and tried to launch some oddly named helper program which bounced in my dock for about a minute, while Safari spun its rainbow pizza. Finally, the system asked me to confirm I really wanted to run this program downloaded from the Internet —

[Reader, I implore you again, turn back!]

— and finally launched the installer. Which proceeded to ask me to close all running browsers. OK.

No. Wait. I can’t close my browser BECAUSE YOUR STUPID PLUG-IN IS STILL SITTING IN A LOOP WAITING FOR THE HELPER PROGRAM, so it won’t respond to the quit request.

Criminey. Doesn’t anyone at Adobe ever test this stuff out?

I know, I must have this odd configuration where I’m running the latest update of the operating system with the standard system web browser. There’s no way they can be expected to test for that.

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Insta-poll: Adobe Flash Player 10

Which slightly annoying and possibly overused net meme best describes this effort by Adobe to publicize the new features in Flash Player 10?

Adobe outlines Flash 10’s new features on a page that, for people running older Flash versions, leads off with the following instruction:

“To view the feature tour, please upgrade to Adobe Flash Player 10”

Is it:

  1. FAIL
  2. EPIC FAIL
  3. UR DOIN IT RONG

To be fair, when I tried it just now, I got a different result: a pseudo-dialog appeared in the middle of a gray box, with the message “This content requires Adobe Flash Player 10. Would you like to upgrade now?”

No. Not really.

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Pirates! returns to the Mac

As noted here, Feral Interactive is bringing Sid Meier’s Pirates! back to the Mac. [Edit: updated game-specific link]

I was inspired by this news to send the following email to Feral:

I was excited to see the announcement of the latest version of Sid Meier’s Pirates! for the Mac. I was the developer of the Mac port of the original version of Pirates! when I worked at MicroProse Software in the 80’s, and it was fun to see the black-and-white screenshot from our version on your website. I look forward to playing Pirates! once again on my PowerMac and MacBook Pro in the near future.

I hope this leads to a successful line of “Legends” — I have always felt that there was money to be made by porting older successful versions of PC games for the growing Mac marketplace, and I’m pleased to see that Feral agrees with me. Good luck with your upcoming launch.

We’ll have to see how this works out. (I know my son would probably vote for Sid Meier’s Railroads! next, being a huge Thomas the Tank Engine fan.)

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I have a bad feeling about this

Sometime when I wasn’t looking Apple posted the WWDC session schedule. I hope I’m wrong, but already I see the potential for some serious problems.

WWDC does not seem to have a big reputation for being well-run. I can’t speak to this personally with any great authority; I’ve only attended one previous conference, in 2006. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I was excited just to be there, but even still there were a few issues I noticed. That year the sessions on the newly-announced Objective-C 2.0 and garbage collection were scheduled in a room that clearly was too small for the amount of interest. I saw there was a problem and decided to bypass the sessions, even though I was interested, figuring I could read up on the material later.

Meanwhile, the session on application code signing had been put in Presidio, the largest room — which I interpreted as a sign of the importance of the topic to Apple — but there were well fewer than a hundred people there. So Apple’s track record on predicting attendance is suspect at best.

Now this year they’ve sold out the conference, so we know it’s going to be crowded, and we know many if not most of those people are there for the iPhone. Apple seems to have booked Presidio exclusively with the key iPhone sessions, which is wise, but I fear it won’t be enough. I imagine four or five hundred people lining up early Tuesday morning, parking themselves in Presidio, and staying there for three and a half days. People who try to come for a later session are going to be annoyed if they can’t get in — but if Apple tries to clear the room after each session, people will get really angry.

[In 2006 they apparently ended up “repeating” a few of the overcrowded sessions by replaying them on a video projector one evening. I didn’t go; if I remember correctly, that was Wednesday, the night of the Apple Design Awards and Stump the Experts, and I didn’t want to miss those. This time around I’d probably pass them up, though. For one thing, the former DTS engineer with whom I saw Stump the Experts, and who made it twice as much fun by filling in the back story for me, is probably not attending this year.]

As a would-be independent developer with interests in both desktop and iPhone software, I’m anxious about the scheduling. On the one hand, if the iPhone session fill up I can usually find other sessions of interest to me. On the other hand, the trip out to San Francisco from the East Coast is a big deal in both time and money, and it’s not clear when I’ll be able to do it again, so I’d like to take advantage of the iPhone sessions as much as possible, since they’re clearly of more immediate value. (After all, I’ve got my Hillegas third edition right here already.)

At least if I keep myself on Eastern Time I can show up early every morning and get in line. I’ll miss the evening socializing, but I’m pretty introverted and don’t know anyone in SF, so that’s not much of a loss for me.

I sure hope this works out…

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Micro-huh?

As reported by Macworld: “Exec touts developing iPhone apps without SDK”:

There are more ways to develop applications for the Apple iPhone device than using the company’s beta iPhone SDK. Through a combination of Microsoft and other technologies, developers can build a Web application for the iPhone, according to a speaker at the VSLive conference in San Francisco on Wednesday.

How would you use Microsoft technologies to make an iPhone application? Oh, right: VSLive = Visual Studio Live. Got it. Know your audience.

“Don’t worry about rubber-tired vehicles,” said a speaker at this week’s blacksmith convention. “They can’t take you anywhere a well-shod horse can go.

“And besides, they won’t let you make your own tires, which I find kind of offensive.”

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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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I'm really trying not to be "smug"

… but news items like this one make it hard:

An insidious computer virus recently discovered on digital photo frames has been identified as a powerful new Trojan Horse from China that collects passwords for online games – and its designers might have larger targets in mind.

The virus … recognizes and blocks antivirus protection from more than 100 security vendors, as well as the security and firewall built into Microsoft Windows. …

Deborah Hale at SANS suggested that PC users find friends with Macintosh or Linux machines and have them check for malware before plugging any device into a PC.

As Gruber points out, it seems inaccurate to call this a “computer virus” and not a “Windows virus”.

Remember, folks, if you must use Windows … be careful out there.

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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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There he goes, folks…

Rick Downes, writing at Rixstep, has gone off the deep end (and not for the first time, either).

If I understand this post correctly, he believes that Apple’s engineers are spending so much time reading his misanthropic ravings that they’re neglecting their more important work, namely fixing all the bugs in Leopard. To this end, he’s actually blocked access to his website from Apple (the entire 17/8 network — yes, Apple has a Class A network block).

Well, that will certainly help. Now they can spend their time instead reviewing all the bug reports that Rick has faithfully filed… oh, wait, Rick gave up filing bug reports because Apple’s engineers ignore them.

But Rick, if they can’t read your site, how will they find out what the bugs are?

Oh, well, no matter — it wouldn’t do any good anyway; clearly none of the engineers at Apple are anywhere near as smart as Rick (as a quick perusal of Rick’s site will make clear). Might as well give up and switch to Linux or Windows, eh, Rick? No? They’re worse? Really? Hard to believe, the way you talk. (By the way, you kiss your mother with that mouth?)

Well, I suppose I’ve wasted enough time reading Rick’s site, too. Time to block it myself so I don’t accidentally learn how to be a better programmer, or something.

(What a Rick.)

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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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