February 2010
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Month February 2010

An iTunes irritation…

I’m watching TV almost exclusively from the Internet nowadays, and mostly by subscribing on iTunes and watching in HD from my AppleTV. This works incredibly well, once you have the season downloaded and ready to play.

The downloading process exposes some seriously irritating bugs and/or design flaws in iTunes, however. I live at the northern edge of civilization on an island (well, my Canadian friends would say the southern edge, and after reading coverage of the Tea Party Convention I’m inclined to agree…) and I have “difficult” internet connectivity. This is no fault of my local ISP, who do an amazing job considering where I live.

But I often encounter TCP resets in long downloads given the Motorola Canopy point-to-point wireless I use, and iTunes really behaves badly. Despite having typed my Store password to begin the download, upon resumption, iTunes will ask me again. And again. And again. Possibly once for every stream that needs to be resumed, but it doesn’t seem to be as well patterned as that. The application hasn’t restarted, I haven’t logged out, it’s the same hardware underneath, why can’t the application cache the Store password used to initiate a given set of downloads for the duration? Perhaps only asking me to retype if the application closes and restarts?

This seems trivial, but if it happens frequently, and you’re not sitting in front of the computer to type your password whenever needed, downloading a season of episodes can literally take days. Three thus far, in fact, for a show I’m subscribing to at the moment. With 29 more items to go. Basically, it’s going to take a week of retyping my iTunes Store password to get the entire season down, given my internet connection (which is normally pretty decent for browsing and other purposes).

Doesn’t anybody in Cupertino test this type of use case?

Do I still use that piece of software?

Spending a few days bedridden with some nasty viral thing is giving me the unusual chance to spend time with my main laptop, but without the pressure to actually accomplish something (that would require lucidity and the ability to focus for more than a couple of minutes). A few minutes ago, I noticed an icon in my menu bar, and wondered “do I still need that piece of software?.” Heck, what does it do?

Of course I recognized the name, and that I’d been a user since their beta release, and I remembered renewing my license again this year, but what I couldn’t immediately remember was whether that software was still an integral part of keeping my information current, sync’d, backed up, etc. Basically, is it necessary, or is it cruft?

That’s a general problem these days, and arguably it’s a worse problem on the Mac platform than on Windows, though of course it exists there as well. It’s more of a problem because Microsoft tries to build more of this stuff into Windows itself and its major desktop/server suites. Apple leaves more of it to the ISV community.

And as I noted in a previous post, good Mac software can be had for twenty, forty or sixty bucks. So people, especially professionals and developers, have a tendency to buy new apps just to see if it’s a bit better than the previous generation. I’ve done that with notetaking software, outliners, todo list management, and a bewildering variety of synchronization, backup, and storage apps and utilities.

All of which means that my laptop consistently has more than one “appendix” running — part of the system but functionally useless because it’s not being used.

And all which contributes to complexity and difficulty in troubleshooting. When my contacts database suddenly is empty, or has three or four copies of every contact (both of which seem to happen to me), which link in the synchronization chain is responsible? Is it syncing Address Book to Google Contacts? Plaxo syncing with Address Book?

Ultimately, to manage all this complexity, we’re going to need to be able to map the information flow between applications, so I can ask the question and get an answer. Today, I have to sit down and check each app’s preferences and configuration, and sort of make a list of where things are flowing, and rebuild the picture every time something goes wrong.

In complex systems, just as much vital information is contained in the links between things, as in the things themselves…

Additional thoughts on the iPad

It’s been a week since the iPad announcement, and like many in this business, I’ve followed the opinions and punditry. My personal view is that the iPad is going to be a great product for Apple. It will also — and this isn’t quite the same as being a great product — be a commercial success.

There’s a lot of criticism about what the device doesn’t have built-in, or doesn’t support. And there’s been a lot of “why, it’s nothing but a big iPod Touch.” And the usual lists of “must have but missing” features from engineers and developers who are already gnashing their teeth about how useless the iPad will be.

Here’s why we should ignore premature predictions of doom for the iPad.

Sure, there’s nothing shockingly new here. In a sense, it’s a big iPod Touch. Or it’s a slimmed down Tablet PC with integral Kindle. Actually, it’s all of those things.

What we’re forgetting is that Apple’s main strength isn’t necessarily inventing a new category (marketing spin aside), it is in bringing hard-core user research and industrial design to bear on creating devices which end up “crossing the chasm” to the mainstream for a given technology. THAT is what Apple, and Steve Jobs, are good at.