[Posted July 6th]
This another two-topic column. The first part covers some thoughts on Apple's preview of Tiger, the next update to Mac OS X, and other WWDC announcements. The second part deals with my personal experience with the darker side of Amazon.
Tiger and the (r)evolution of Mac OS X
When Steve Jobs announced (at the WWDC Keynote last week) that the next version of Mac OS X (code-named Tiger) would not be out until "the first half of 2005," I breathed a sigh of relief. I was relieved that I would not need to immediately start work on updating my Mac OS X book (having just finished the current edition). As Apple had previously indicated, it was indeed slowing down its frenetic pace of annual major upgrades to the OS.
Still, it was great to have a chance to see what's coming around the bend. And I welcomed the chance to see which changes may specifically affect the troubleshooting issues that remain the focus of much of my writing. In this regard, it's admittedly hard to make accurate generalizations as yet. Apple has only revealed about a dozen of the more than 150 promised new features. Plus, there are certain to be numerous "under the hood" changes that, while potentially significant for troubleshooting, will not be included in the 150 list that Apple provides.
But on the assumption that the preview provides a look at the most noteworthy of Tiger's new features, and that these features are typical of the general "tone" of the upgrade, Tiger shapes up to be more of an OS evolution than a revolution. Actually, based on a comparison of new features in Tiger vs. Microsoft's forthcoming Longhorn, as well as on the Tiger banners on display at the WWDC (e.g., "Welcome to Longhorn"), out-Longhorning Redmond appears to be one of the primary goals of what's new in Tiger. I don't mean any of this as criticism; in fact, I welcome it. But it does represent a shift from the nature of previous Mac OS X upgrades.
In Panther, changes were more of the "let's tear down this building and start over" variety than the "let's add on an addition or do some remodeling" variety. For starters, there was the redesign of Finder windows (with the new sidebar, Action menu, and "brushed metal" appearance). In addition, Panther featured new Open and Save dialogs, a new Network Browser, Fast User Switching, the ability to install and remove fonts via the new Font Book utility, FileVault, Exposé, journaling, desktop printers, and much more. It seemed that no aspect of the OS was too big or too small for Apple to bypass when it came to making changes in Panther.
Such a major overhaul is understandable, even expected, when an OS is young and Apple is still trying to figure out the best way to handle tasks. As an OS matures, however, it is reasonable to expect a lesser degree of change with each upgrade, especially in the core features of the OS. To paraphrase an old saying, once you get it right, you don't need to keep fixing it.
Tiger appears to be the first version of Mac OS X that has achieved this level of maturity. For example, although features such as H.264/AVC compression and Core Image will improve image quality and flexibility, they will not have an immediate impact on a user's perception of what has changed in the OS. Similarly, RSS support in Safari and audio-video conferencing support in iChat AV, while significantly enhancing these applications, will have little effect on the overall working of the OS itself. In general, it appears that there will be less need to "unlearn" what you already know when you move up to Tiger than was the case when you moved up to Panther.
How changes in Tiger will specifically affect troubleshooting is more difficult to assess.
For example, Apple may move or rename a cache file that is critical for solving certain problems. This will require updating the instructions for how you solve these problems. Such a change is typically considered so minor that Apple often does not even mention it, even after the upgrade is released.
Still, Steve did provide a few hints about what Tiger may hold in store for troubleshooters. For one thing, you can expect that Tiger's "enhanced Unix support" will impact how you troubleshoot Mac OS X. For starters, the addition of Access Control Lists (ACLs) means that you will be able to assign separate permissions to a file for each local user, rather than being limited to the single group assignment that Panther allows. Expect to see changes to the Ownership & Permissions section of the Finder's Get Info windows to accommodate ACLs. While this may mean that a Unix neophyte will find it more difficult to learn how to manipulate permissions, ACL lists should make it easier overall to solve permissions-related hassles.
Automator is another component of Tiger that should have a significant effect on troubleshooting. By providing AppleScript-like functionality via a visual layout that can easily be mastered by users who do not wish to learn a full scripting language, many more users will now be able to create their own scripts (referred to as "Automator Workflows"). Whenever automating a repetitive task would save time, Automator will be the first place to turn.
Spotlight, Tiger's enhanced search architecture, is the feature that I expect will most alter troubleshooting Mac OS X. This promises to be the preferred and most powerful way to locate difficult-to-find files on your drive. Popular third-party search alternatives, such as Locator and LaunchBar, will still have a role (especially for system files and hidden Unix directories), but it will be a lessened one.
Speaking of Tiger's effect on third-party utilities, the most controversial feature of Tiger is Dashboard. It is essentially an Apple-implementation of Konfabulator. This represents the second time in recent years that Apple has co-opted a popular shareware program (the previous occasion was when Sherlock adopted features first seen in Watson) without even a nod of credit to the developer. While there is nothing illegal about what Apple has done, it is not the way to reward the small third-party developers that Apple claims to court (as when Steve brought the developer of the Orbit satellite tracking application to the stage during the WWDC keynote).
That issue aside, Tiger promises to be a worthy successor to Panther. In the WWDC keynote, Steve Jobs reported that approximately half of the Mac installed base was already using Panther! This is a very, very impressive rate of adoption. Users may not find the need to move up to Tiger as compelling as it was for Panther, but I expect that most Panther users will have made the shift to Tiger before 2005 draws to a close.
Apple 30" Cinema HD. The other big announcement at the WWDC was Apple's new line of displays -- especially the huge 30" Cinema HD. While it was hard not to be impressed with the jaw-dropping massiveness of the unit, I am not eager to get one (even if I could afford it). I currently own a 23" Cinema HD and, although there are many times that I have made good use of its generous real estate, its size is already almost too big. It took some time to get used to having something that big staring me right in the face. Just keeping the entire screen in my field of view requires more constant motion of my head and eyes than is the case for smaller displays. I can't imagine having to deal with a 30" unit. Plus, with the additional cost of the NVIDIA graphics card required for the 30" display, you could get two 23" displays for about the same price as one 30" unit. I am sure there are some professionals (maybe those who work on putting movies together) who will still want the 30" monster. But I don't see it becoming a fixture on home or office desktops -- even among those who do have the dough to buy one.
On the other hand, the new aluminum design (with the optional mount to put the display on a wall!), the addition of FireWire ports, the upgrade of the USB ports to 2.0, and the shift to an industry-standard DVI connector (although you now have to use a power brick), are all moves in the right direction -- and are featured in all three of the new displays.
The dark side of Amazon
The next part of this month's column is a bit of a rant. If that's not your cup o' tea, feel free to skip it.
When it comes to making purchases online, there is hardly any site I would rather use than Amazon.com. It has competitive prices, a wide selection of products, useful online reviews, and an easy-to-navigate user interface. Plus, they are reliable: Everything I have ever ordered at Amazon shipped when promised (or sooner) and arrived when promised (or sooner). Overall, an unqualified positive experience.
Unfortunately, dealing with Amazon from the "other side" -- having a product (in this case, a book I authored) sold on Amazon -- is an entirely different, and too often a more negative, experience.
When my latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, was first listed on Amazon, there were numerous errors in the listing, including getting the title wrong. I don't entirely blame Amazon for these errors; without boring you with the details, I will just say that the errors (which were initially also found on other book sites, not just Amazon) were partially the result of a change made to the book's title several months prior to publication. The problem was not that the errors were made. The problem was that, for the longest time, Amazon proved unwilling or incapable of fixing the errors.
As it turns out, Amazon-generated errors are hardly unique to my book. Other authors have complained about similar hassles (see Jim Heid's Web site for one example).
In my case, I first requested that the listing be fixed about two months prior to the book's publication date. My publisher (Peachpit) made similar requests and submitted corrected copy. When our requests did not produce results, we sent them again. Despite repeated attempts to get this fixed, the changes were not made until three months after our initial request (a month after the book was published!). At one point, Amazon claimed that they were in the process of fixing bugs in their software that were at the root of the problem. But even after the bugs were supposedly fixed, the errors remained. Only after I started bugging them on a daily basis did they finally reply and make the requested changes.
Even after this listing hassle was over, there was still one infuriating error related to the book that Amazon did not fix and steadfastly refused to do so. Amazon maintains Top Sellers lists for a variety of categories. For example, to see a list of Macintosh book Top Sellers, you can go to this page. If you go there, you will not find Mac OS X Help Line listed anywhere (at least it was not in the top 250 books when I just checked). However, a few weeks ago, the book was listed as #3. It stayed there for several days. Despite the fact that its sales continued to be just as high or higher (as evidenced by the book's Sales Rank), the book literally vanished from the Top Sellers list in an instant. One morning, I loaded the list and the book was there at #3; I then reloaded the page an hour or so later (yes, it's easy to become obsessed with tracking your book's ranking!), and the book was gone. Not simply lower in the list, but gone entirely! It was gone even though Amazon says the list is based on the previous 30 days' worth of sales (which should thus make a rapid large drop virtually impossible). My older books, such as Sad Macs, with obviously much lower sales ranks, could be found in the top 250. An out-of-print book was in the top 250. Books with an individual sales ranking 100 times lower than Help Line were in the top 250. But not Help Line. The only reasonable conclusion was that an error had been made in Amazon's listing software. Yet Amazon not only refused to fix this error, they refused to even admit that there might be an error. Instead, they replied with boilerplate text indicating that small discrepancies between a book's ranking and its place on Top Sellers lists is normal and does not imply a problem. When I pointed out that what happened to Help Line was not merely a small "discrepancy," they just repeated their previous reply.
I admit that I was probably wasting too much time on a relatively minor issue. But it can potentially affect sales. And it's just plain irritating to get confronted with Amazon's indifference or incompetence.
Bottom line: If you suspect that there is something wrong with a listing of a particular item on Amazon, that's probably because there is. It happens all the time.
Addendum. After completing this column, but before posting it online, Help Line suddenly reappeared on the Top Sellers list (debuting at #6 as I write this). Amazon never acknowledged that the book's prior absence was due to any error, but at least the problem got fixed -- assuming that the book does not vanish from the list again tomorrow. I decided to run my original text despite this latest development, as the description of Amazon's behavior remains valid.
Bonus topic: The iMac situation
I could not close out this month's column without a brief mention of an event without precedent in Apple's history. Apple has announced, on the iMac page of the Apple Store, that it has stopped taking orders for the the current iMac as they transition to a new iMac line in September. Apple's stated reason for this more than two month gap between the end of one iMac line and the introduction of another is: "less than perfect" planning. I'll say. This is certain to have a negative impact on Apple's sales for the current quarter. As far as I can recall, this is also the first time that Apple has announced a hardware product months in advance without giving even the slightest hint as to what the product's specs will be. We can only hope that that the new iMac will be so spectacular as to erase all memory of this marketing bungle.