June 4th, 2008

Went to an Apple store yesterday and got my first chance to really play with an iPhone. Obviously not a perfect device, but one heck of a lot better than any other phone I’ve ever seen. The screen is terrific and seems very scratch-resistant (given how none of the ones out for public handling had any evidence of scratches, even after I saw someone try to operate one with their keys). Battery life is supposed to be great, there really is a dock connector, etc. etc.

Why the title of this post? On the way back out to my car, I called T-Mobile to ask when my contract is up; it runs through June 3rd, and it’s $200 per line to break the contract. Since this would involve my wife’s line as well, that’s $400. With the iPhone itself being pretty expensive, we’d be talking a grand to switch. It’s cool, but it’s not that cool. And maybe the second generation iPhone will be out by next June, or at least there will be a drop in price. (3G would be great, Apple, really.)

The really funny part is that the T-Mobile customer service guy asked me why I was asking about my contract date, and I told him I has been looking at the iPhone. He was ready with all the “usual suspects” of what was wrong with it. I guess that’s to be expected. No, the really sad part is what he tried to sell me, the T-Mobile “Wing.” This has to be some kind of joke. Windows Media Player? Synchronizes with Outlook? Ugh. If that’s the competition, I’m even more sure that I’m waiting for an iPhone. Yikes.

Minority Report User Interface

I have a little exercise I give in class to anyone who suggests the Minority Report UI is a good idea:

• Stand up.
• Extend your arms in front of you.
• Hold them there for as long as you typically spend with keyboard and mouse, occasionally moving them around a little and with a lot of wrist twisting. For me, that’s often two four- to six-hour stretches in a day.

Now choose:
[1] I would like to replace my current desktop UI with this, or
[2] I would like to schedule an appointment with someone who does rotator cuff surgery.

People are just not designed to stand there with arms fully or mostly extended for hours at a time.

The fact that people find this so appealing is really a symptom of a larger issue: the fundamental thing many people don’t understand is that “looks cool” does not translate into “actually a good idea for a UI.”

New Apple iWork

Apple had a non-MacWorld event yesterday. First, new iMacs. They look pretty cool, but I’m not really in the market for an iMac, so I’m going to ignore those. Bummer about the small bump to the Minis, because I did just buy one of those for my wife. Oops.

New iLife. The iLife app I used most is iPhoto, and I’m happy to see any kind of streamlining of the publishing photos to the Web. iPhoto 5 had a nice interface for publishing photos to the Web, but the iPhoto 6 process, going through iWeb, is less direct and kind of annoying. Hopefully the new Web Galleries in iPhoto 7 will be better. I don’t use iMovie much (partly because I’ve never liked it much), but the new “view anywhere” features do have some appeal. I just don’t take many movies. Overall, though, seems like reasonable incremental improvement.

No, the real bombshell for me is the new iWork. I’ve been waiting for a reasonable alternative to Excel for ages and ages. (Mariner Calc just doesn’t cut it, see my recent blog post on that.) So now there’s Numbers, an Apple spreadsheet which reads and writes Excel files. I just hope that it has some reasonable statistical functions and it’d really really nice if it did a good job of line and bar graphs with error bars. I can’t wait to try Numbers out and see what it can really do. Of course, the bar’s not really high.

The other thing I’m excited about is the new version of Pages. Pages has some good features, but has had the worst formatting UI for things like fonts. And, of course, I work with people who use Word and really need the “track changes” capability. The new Pages appears to now have addressed both of those issues. Excellent! (Of course, in the last couple weeks I was pretty happy to see the new Nisus Writer Pro, too, so we’ll see which way I ultimately go.)

None of the new stuff in Keynote looks especially compelling to me, but I liked Keynote already (it already blew away PowerPoint even without the new stuff).

So, the winner today, for me, is the new iWork—I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on it.

Notes on Intel migration

So, I’ve finally taken the plunge and gotten an Intel Mac. I know I’m late to the game (I also only just now got a video-capable iPod and no, I don’t have an iPhone). I’ve been late to the Intel party for two reasons: one, I just got new Macs a few months before the Intel boxes came out, so my machines weren’t really out of date, and two, not all the software I use on a regular basis has been ported to Intel. Not that all software has to be Intel-native, the Rosetta environment seems to work really well. No, two of my mission-critical applications don’t run at all on Intel machines; those would be SPSS and Macintosh Common Lisp (MCL).

SPSS not running is just annoying. I’m also less than thrilled with SPSS’s response on this. Intel stuff was announced and available to developers years ago. SPSS is really expensive software developed by a good-sized company so any excuse in the “we don’t have the resources” is utter crap. SPSS originally said they’d have a Mac version available (version 15, skipping version 14) during “summer 2007.” What they’re saying here is that SPSS 16 for Mac will come out in the second half of 2007, which probably means April 2008 (if we’re lucky). Feh. I’d sort of like to take this as motivation to switch to R, but I just have too much legacy SPSS to make this easy.

The other major problem is MCL, which also doesn’t even launch under Rosetta. I know, Lisp isn’t the mainstream computer language even in AI anymore, but I’m dependent on it. Porting all my legacy MCL code to any other Lisp will be a royal pain, because lots and lots of it is GUI code for running experiments. Allegro is radically to expensive and free Lisps like OpenMCL and SBCL don’t have straightforward GUI support. That leaves LispWorks. LispWorks isn’t bad, and generates really fast code, but is clunky to work with compared to MCL. Actually it’s not even that clunky, but it’s different enough that porting lots of GUI code is a substantial amount of work.

The other thing I’m going to really, really miss when I move my main desktop machines to Intel Macs is Rogue Amoeba’s Detour. I love Detour, because I like channeling iTunes to a good stereo system and all other sounds to cheaper computer speakers. Detour makes that possible. I’m not sure how I’ll work around that. Anybody have any ideas?

Other things are way cool. Routine things are blazing fast (especially Quicksilver), booting Windows on a Mac via Boot Camp is a creepy experience, though not quite as creepy as running Parallels Desktop in “coherence” mode.

More notes as other things come up in the migration. Man, do I already miss MCL…