Back in 2009, when I upgraded my Mac to OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard”, I wrote a post wondering why the company persisted in shipping physical disks. Well, it seems someone was listening. According to Appleinsider the next upgrade to Mac OS X, 10.7 “Lion” (coming in the summer), will be downloaded from the Mac app store, bringing it in line with the excellent Linux way of doing things. That makes a lot of sense. I’m going to miss those beautifully packaged upgrade disks, but there doesn’t seem much point in having them any more. Just to balance out the self-congratulatory tone of this post, I admit that my prediction that 10.7 would be called “Hepcat” was way off the mark.
In my ongoing and probably fruitless quest to find software that will do its job across platforms and devices I have been looking at notetaking applications. In the course of my week I work on three different ‘full-size’ computers using three radically different operating systems and I use an iPod Touch for keeping on top of things while I’m on the move. Synchronised data is a serious problem.
About a month ago I discovered Simplenote, a notetaking app for the iPhone/iPod Touch which has one simple aim: to replace the built-in notes app on those devices. Like a lot of iPhone apps Simplenote syncs with a web-based service. But the clever thing about it is that it allows other applications to sync too. There are currently four desktop apps (Mac only I’m afraid) that sync with the Simplenote web app. Windows and Linux users should take heart from the Simplenote plugin for Google Chrome, a great replacement for the now more or less defunct Google Notebook (Update: Windows users might now also like to try Resoph Notes, or Notes, and there are continuing developments elsewhere too–thanks to David in the comments for the update). A full list of apps, plugins and extensions is here.
For me the best of the desktop apps on the Mac is Notational Velocity, a simple, lightning-fast open source notetaking tool that syncs with Simplenote almost instantly. Notational Velocity is focused on keyboard work rather than the mouse, it works in plain text or Rich Text Format, and it can encrypt notes. Unlike other similar applications it can be configured to save the notes as separate text files rather than locking them inside a database. This means your work stays yours and is easy to manage. It also opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities. If you change one of those files in another application–a wordprocessor for instance, or Writeroom–it appears in Notational Velocity and from there on your iPhone. You can even create new files outside of Notational Velocity and they will appear there when you next open it up; or put the Notational Velocity file folder in Dropbox to sync with other machines. That’s pretty slick, though it is unwise to have two instances of Notational running and pointing at the same folder at the same time.
Notational Velocity meets a lot of the needs I have in this kind of application: it is simple, fast, stores my data in an open, portable format and allows me to move it around to different devices seamlessly and straightforwardly. Add to that the ecosystem of apps growing up around Simplenote, and the interaction possible between them, and suddenly ‘cloud computing’ looks like much more than just keeping your documents on Google’s servers. In this version of the cloud, data is everywhere. We need more software like this.
In December 2008 I wrote a short blog post here suggesting that more by accident than anything else Apple had built a device that was a competitor for the Kindle. Back then Steve Jobs was in denial about the popularity of books so it took applications like Stanza to make reading possible on Apple’s handhelds. It worked, and continues to work, very well.
But now the fabled iPad has arrived and it has book reading built in, complete with support for the open ePub format. Of course that pleases those of us who like to read books from Project Gutenberg and Google Books on our iPods, but Apple has done something very strange with the look and feel. Having read books on my iPod Touch for a year and a half now I’ve broken free of the need for pages that look like pages. When I’m reading a book that’s all text, all I need is text. It’s certainly an improvement for books with pictures, but I can’t help thinking Apple’s iBooks look a little cheesy with their flippy-over paper-like pages.
Books though are not the most exciting thing about this device; it offers real possibilities for creating new categories of publication. As this post at Snarkmarket argues:
For all its power and flexibility, the web is really bad at presenting bounded, holistic work in a focused, immersive way. This is why web shows never worked. The web is bad at containers. The web is bad at frames.
What the iPad offers is a frame, and one with well-defined limitations. I’ve been arguing something similar, though less concisely, over at shiftinglandscapeofmagazines. Here is a spur to create new forms of content and perhaps also to persuade people to pay for it. That will please Rupert Murdoch of course, but the real revolution could be for smaller players; it could be a lifeline for struggling literary magazines and a new outlet for authors who want to self-publish and get paid. Writers essentially become app developers.
If the iPad doesn’t do it for you, there are lots of alternatives.
Edited 29/1/10 because WordPress originally exposed a draft. Probably my fault in some way.
I love magazines and I buy more of them now than I ever have. I love the feel of them, the shiny pages and the big glossy images. I like the way good design and good writing work together to create something that feels made or intended. I don’t get those experiences from the Web, though the vast majority of my reading is now done online. Magazines are like an icecream sculpture in a fancy restaurant; the Web, by comparison, is an unstable snowfield on the brink of avalanche.
But I have hope. Firstly iPhone apps such as McSweeney’s show what can be done in terms of delivering nicely produced, good-looking content on a small device. McSweeney’s has proper typesetting and feels good to read even given the constraints of a tiny screen. Secondly Apple’s attempt to revive the album through iTunes LP shows what can be done when the constraints of the devices involved can be tightly controlled. Interestingly, given the current hype surrounding ‘content in the cloud’, neither of these examples is truly an ‘online’ experience, since the content is downloaded to a device. The result is that it is tightly controlled and not subject to bandwidth issues. Apple does something similar with its Apple TV, storing content on the device, rather than streaming it on demand across the network like other media players. In terms of magazines the following remarkable video shows what might be possible.
The ‘I upgraded to Snow Leopard’ stories are coming thick and fast and for the record this is mine. Here are the facts: It took about 55 minutes and there were two reboots, one half way through and one at the end. That’s it. This was a very easy upgrade with no human intervention beyond a couple of clicks to get it started. Since I have a Time Machine backup and keep my work in progress in on a synced Dropbox volume I didn’t worry about a clean install. It just wasn’t necessary.
Snow Leopard seems fine, but what I don’t understand is why I had to wait for the postman to deliver a CD. Why doesn’t Apple deliver OS upgrades like this using iTunes or even the regular Software Update tool? Most Linux systems deliver major upgrades that way using package management tools such as Synaptic and it works very well. The Ubuntu desktop I’m using to type this has had two Snow Leopard-equivalent upgrades now, both delivered in the same way as regular bugfixes and security updates, through Synaptic. If Apple has now caught up with Linux and Mac users no longer need to do clean installs it seems crazy for Apple to keep shipping actual physical media. We don’t buy iPhone OS upgrades on a disk after all.
Incidentally since I was installing Snow Leopard on my Mac I took the opportunity to upgrade my wife’s iBook G4 to Leopard. I kept the old Tiger install disk handy in case performance was poor, but actually this six year-old machine runs very well. Of course it will never be able to run Snow Leopard, but it will at least continue to receive updates until Mac OS X 10.7 “Hepcat” renders 10.5 obsolete. By then it will be around nine years old. She’ll have to manage with only 12GB of free disk space though.
The Apple rumour mill is working away at the moment on the subject of Apple’s upcoming announcements. Is the company planning a netbook or an eBook reader, or both? Meanwhile last week Karen Templer at Readerville (where I had a piece in the Evidence series entitled ‘Second Empire Soda’) did a magnificent job rounding up the software possibilities for using an iPhone/iPod Touch as an eReader. This is a must-read if you are looking into using one of these wonderful devices this way:
Happy Read an Ebook Week! If you’re new to ebooks, there’s a very good chance it’s because you’ve got an iPhone or iPod Touch and have come to the realization that it’s an electronic reading device. (If you’re still wondering why anyone would read a book on an iPhone, click here.)
While the iPhone is far from the only mobile device available for the consumption of ebooks, it is where the vast majority of the action is taking place—not surprising, given that it is by far the device with the broadest ownership. Lately, there’s been a new purveyor of ebooks for the iPhone every week, and we’re talking about some major players. With Amazon having opened the Kindle store to iPhone users just last week, the number of ebooks now available to iPhone (and iPod Touch) owners is rapidly approaching 2 million. It’s a messy marketplace, though, so here’s a rundown of your app options as of today, March 8, 2009—though this is not an exhaustive list. [Here’s the link]
When Apple introduced iWork a few years back it offered a slick, but limited wordprocessor/text layout tool called Pages and a rather more impressive presentation tool known as Keynote. It was a good start, but it was hardly a challenge to Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac. In its iWork ’08 iteration both of these apps were improved significantly and a spreadsheet application was added, making the suite a more viable contender. I was impressed enough to buy a copy, mainly for Keynote, as I had some important presentations coming up. At the 2009 MacWorld in January, Apple introduced iWork ’09, the most impressive iWork yet and, for my limited needs at least, easily a replacement for MS Office (which I haven’t used in anger for years anyway) and OpenOffice.org, which in version 3.0 runs natively and rather nicely on the Mac.
I like iWork ’08 very much. Most of my actual writing needs are met by a combination of Scrivener and Nisus Writer, but if there is layout required, Pages comes into play. For dealing with figures I love the simplicity of Numbers, especially the way it allows you to lay out tables in a human-friendly way. For presentations Keynote is the best in the business. iWork is also good value for money, but there is one thing standing in the way of me adopting it as my primary office suite: proprietary file formats.
I don’t object as such to Apple deciding on its own format. iWork apps operate differently from every other office suite and if Apple thinks it can do better with its own format, well, who are we to judge? The problem is Apple’s format is the default and you can’t change it. It’s possible to save your documents in a few other formats (.rtf, .pdf, .doc etc.), but only by exporting them separately. Worse still, documents saved in iWork ’09 format can’t be read by iWork ’08. Not even in a ‘You know you should really upgrade, but since you haven’t you’ll have to put up with this mess’ kind of way. I don’t believe there is a technical reason for this, but I suppose it doesn’t matter too much because I would never consider saving anything in the iWork formats if I thought for a moment someone else (including future me) might ever need to look at it. It also means a lot of things might have to be saved twice in two different formats, wasting disk space and creating a version control problem. It keeps me from using iWork more often.
This is completely out of step with the way things are going. Even Microsoft, hardly a paragon of virtue in this regard, is adding ODF support in Office 14. OpenOffice.org, which is available for free, can open and save a multitude of different and competing formats. It just isn’t good enough any more. The online iWork.com service looks like a slick way of presenting online documents, but iWork itself has a fraction of a fraction of the office suite market and making life more inconvenient for users than it needs to be is not the way to improve on that position.
It also looks weak. Part of the reason for iWork09’s online features is that they will make it easier to collaborate with people who don’t use iWork09 or, heaven forfend, don’t use Macs. But the point about using a Mac is that Mac users choose to be Mac users. They do so because they find Macs better, easier, more powerful; that’s why they have a reputation for evangelising. So they are not going to buy a Dell running Windows Vista just because iWork doesn’t have online collaborative tools, but they might choose OpenOffice.org to run on their Macs if they can’t easily save their work in ODF or MS Office formats or have to pay for the privilege of working with others. If some kind of half-hearted lock in is all Apple has to persuade its customers to stay it might as well give up on iWork right now and that would be a shame.
So come on Apple, what’s the problem with offering other formats in the Save As menu and at least giving us the option of using an open format? You have nothing to lose and a whole new market to gain.