How would you define a “smart phone”? Does the ability to run arbitrary apps make a phone smart? Among the hundreds of apps on the app store, only a handful of them show any sign of rudimentary intelligence. They are all good at doing stuff, but are not that great at learning. I’m not just picking on mobile apps. In fact, traces of intelligence are even harder to find in desktop apps.
Let’s travel back in time to 1995 and look at how things have evolved over time, from an intelligence perspective. Web browsers can now remember passwords, auto-fill web addresses, and maybe even pre-fetch web pages to a certain extent. What about Office products? Nothing much either. We have gained better auto-correct, better grammar checking, and frequent auto-saves. What about the core operating system itself? How has it become more intelligent? We have made a few strides in pre-fetching documents and executables. But the file-manager is just as dumb as it was back in 1995 and built-in media player still doesn’t do much to organize my music.
It’s 2013 and we still don’t have a file manager that understands what files I frequently use together. It still puts the burden on the user to create folders and organize his personal data. Our web-browsers still treat all websites in the same way. It still can’t tell whether the new tab you just opened is in the same context as the other ones you currently have open. Your browsing history is still a list of websites sorted by time, and not by context. We download stuff from the net all the time, but your file manager still can’t tell you which sites were open when you downloaded the file.
Coming back to the mobile world. We still don’t have phones that recognize our daily routines. Our call-logs are still plain lists that display the most recent calls. It’s not smart enough to recognize that you call your wife everyday during lunch hour, or that you hang out with your best friends every weekend. Our map application doesn’t infer my home, and office location. It’s not smart enough to know that I leave for office everyday at around 8:30 and it can’t tell me what is the best route to take, without me explicitly asking for it.
Looking at the great things Google has done to advance the state of art for search engines, I strongly believe that we have all the necessary algorithms to solve these kinds of problems. And with quad-core processors in both desktops and mobiles we have the necessary hardware to carry out personal analytics on our devices without even connecting to the Internet. As consumers, we need to raise our voice to demand such intelligent features in our applications. Only then will developers and device manufacturers shift their attention from simply making larger screens to creating apps that actually improve the quality of our life.
So in the last episode I walked you through my first boot experience with my brand new Mac Mini. And I also talked about how washed out the colors looked on my external LCD display. Fortunately, I didn’t have to take the Mini back to the Apple store. An out of the box color callibration process was enough to somewhat fix the problem. In this episode I am going to talk about my experience in installing new apps on my Mac. I promised I’d talk about the Mac App Store, but I will touch on that topic a bit later in the article. I am first going to cover the more traditional way of downloading and installing apps from the internet.
Windows users will be familiar to downloading installers from the internet. Windows Installers typically have the .msi or .exe extension. You download and run the installer, jump through some hoops, accepting some license agreements on the way, hit finish and you are done. Installing apps on a Mac has fewer steps. You first download an installer. Typically on a Mac, the installer has a .dmg file extension. Launching the installer brings up a small window with two icons. One of them is the icon of the app you want to install. And the other icon is that of a folder. At first glance they will seem like two distinct desktop shortcuts. But you’ll soon find out that clicking the icons does nothing. Then after a bit of messing around, I figured out that if you drag the application icon to the folder icon, the app gets installed. I will admit the installation process has much fewer steps than Windows, but I don’t understand why this could have been a simple, “Would you like to install this application?” dialogue box. I installed a few more apps in this manner. And each app seems to have its own version of the “Drag to Install” window. In fact, the Dropbox app didn’t even show 2 icons. Once you launch the installer, you see a new window with only 1 icon, and a message asking you to double click it. After doing so, the app installs itself without any further questions. I know I am nitpicking here, but given Apple’s attention to detail I was expecting a more standardized and polished install experience.
Before I begin I must say that the Mac App Store is a very new application. It hasn’t gone through enough iterations like the operating system itself. That said, given that there are several well-polished mobile and desktop app stores out there, there is no excuse for Apple to try to force us through this horrendous experience. When you first launch the App Store, you are presented with this:
That’s right, a blank window. No indication of what the application is doing. No visible cues as to which of the five screens is currently selected. Depending on your internet speed, a few seconds later, all the contents on the screen pop up at once. You are presented with familiar sounding sections like Featured Apps, Top Free apps, Top Paid apps etc. I am OK with a featured Apps section, but I don’t see why the primary categorization is based on the price of an app. When I go to an App Store, my first thought isn’t, “Let me check out what’s free”. I usually go in with a use case in mind, “I need an app to edit my photos”. And only then, I think about, “Are there free apps that can satisfy my use case”. Again, I know I am nitpicking, but I started using a Mac with a lot of expectations about great design and usability.
The last point I want to make about the MacApp Store is about search. Since I write regularly on my blog, I was interested in checking out writing apps. I’ve read about a lot of fantastic distraction free writing apps for MacOS and quite naturally my first instinct was to use the app store to check them out. I type “writing apps” in the search box and this is what I get:
Nothing to see here, sorry. Puzzled I googled for “writing apps”, got the name of an app and paste it in the search box. Voila, the app showed up in the results. The point I am trying to make is if I have to type in the name of the app, then how is it a “search box”. Just for comparison sake, I searched for “writing apps” in the Android app store and I was presented with dozens of legitimate writings apps sorted by popularity. How hard is it to replicate this functionality in the Apple App Store?
That’s it for this second session. Next time I will review some good paid apps and give my opinion on whether they are worth the money or not. Until then, stay tuned.
My laptop finally gave up last week and succumbed to chronic BSOD. I could’ve taken the it for repairs. But given the cheap computer market in Doha, I decided to go for a new one instead. After giving it a long hard though, I finally decided to bite the bullet and go for a Mac. Not a Macbook, nor an iMac. I settled for the very affordable 2012 Mac Mini. Being an avid Windows and Linux user for the last 6 years, I decided it was high time to get a Mac and see what’s all the fuss about. This series is an effort to document my experience getting used to a Mac.
As with everything else from Apple, the Mac Mini hardware is gorgeous. But unlike other Apple products this one was affordable too. For just 3500 QRS I got myself a Intel i7 Quad Core with a 1 TB fusion drive (hybrid SSD+HDD). At the time of writing, this is the cheapest device running MacOS. I had my own external LCD, speakers and mouse. The only other peripheral I purchased along with the Mini was the bluetooth keyboard.
The first boot experience with the Mini was smooth. I was worried whether it would detect the bluetooth keyboard in the first go. But the OS provided graphical instructions on how to pair the keyboard to the device. The account creation process was very similar to that of any Ubuntu-derivative. Full name, user name, password, time zone, keyboard layout and you are done.
Since I was not willing to shell out another 5000 riyals for an Apple display, I specifically asked the salesman, will the Mac work with my external LCD display. He ensured me that as long as the display supports HDMI there should not be any problem. I took his word for it. After booting up the Mac for the first time, I noticed that the colors seemed a bit off. I opened up Safari and started browsing, I noticed that all the webpages looked washed out. I visited my website to get a sense of comparison. I noticed that the grey bar at the top of my site was completely gone. It appeared pure white just like the rest of the page. Even the text didn’t render as smooth as I liked it to be. I googled the color problem and it turned out to be a common issue with external displays. The gurus of the interwebs suggested to use the Color Callibrator from System Preferences to adjust the signal sent to the display. I gave it a shot and it ended in vain. The OS didn’t recognize the color profile of my display. I was heart-broken. Eventually I was able to get the callibrator to work after a system update. The colors are much better now, but still not up to the full capabilities of my display. After fixing the color issue, the text rendering improved a bit. But again, I had seen better text rendering even in Ubuntu.
Alright, I guess that is enough for the first post. Next time I will share my thoughts on the new Mac App Store, stay tuned.
Last Friday a colleague of mine had a heart-attack. He is in early forties and had no pre-existing conditions. Luckily for him, he survived the incident after a quick surgery. I’ve had relatives back in my home country who passed away in an untimely manner. But never before have I been in a situation where I was close enough to the victim to notice his absence.
Today as I stared at his empty cubicle, a sense of irony grasped me. My colleague used work on Turbine Monitoring and Diagnostics. What that means in plain English is that he analyzes data gathered from hundreds of sensors on a turbine and uses it to predict failures ahead of time and allow engineers to carry out preventive maintenance. Day in, day out he kept working, pulling out fancy algorithms out of a hat to keep a machine chugging along in some remote Arabian desert. All of this work, just so that some billion dollar oil company won’t have to see a dent in their obscene profits.
We spend our whole lives perfecting machines while our arteries get clogged and bones become brittle. We manage to find 8 hours in a day to serve our metal overlords, but not 30 minutes to take care of our own health. What sense is there to trade human life to give immortality to a machine?
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Feelings are best left in the hazy existence of the mind. That’s the motto I have always lived by. That’s why I rarely write about personal topics. But today is going to be different. Reminiscing is nice, but I feel I need to write in order to do justice to the memories of some wonderful people I have met.
I don’t know how many of you can relate to this. Back in the day, before Facebook and Hi5 existed, people could meet new friends on e-pal sites. I don’t even think such a concept exists anymore. We rarely interact online with people outside our circles. Even among those who do, most of them are only interested in people with provocative profile pictures. There was a time when people didn’t care how their friends looked. It was a time before short-conversations over twitter and chat. People used to take time out of their lives to actually write you an email, or even post a letter.
Although with time we have grown apart, I feel extremely lucky to have had a couple of amazing pen-friends. So here’s to you YanDream and Jhum, hope this post brings back good memories and smiles on your faces.
Yandream, I always knew that wasn’t your real name. But I remember you explaining to me that “dream” is what your name means in Chinese. 29 emails from way back in 2005 is all that I have to remind me of you. You were the first person to actually write me a letter. That was awesome of you. In this era, nothing spells friendship more than a hand-written letter. From what I gathered from Facebook and Google, you have made true all the things you used to talk about. Really makes me proud seeing all your fantastic photography and design. Keep up the great work Meng !
Jhum, Jhum, Jhum, I have many things to say about you. You are my oldest and longest running e-pal. Reading through my emails I realized how much of my life I have shared with you. I claim to lead a robotic existence and not share anything with any one. But with you I shared everything from my love life to career-aspirations. In a way, you were my first personal blog. You were the first (and only) e-pal I have talked over phone. You are always one click away on Facebook. I pray I can get off my lazy butt once in a while and write a good long mail to me.
That’s it. I feel much better already. I don’t know if I will hear from any of you. But just know that you are part of what made my childhood awesome.