Another more thing

Everyone and their mother is sounding off on Apple’s announcements yesterday. Who am I to buck a trend? I won’t bore you with the details of the announcements, as these have been covered elsewhere. I’m only going to mention the two things that struck me about the announcement that I haven’t seen mentioned much.

First, big media is apparently even more afraid of Apple than I thought. Apple is looking to change video distribution, but the best content providers will allow is music videos and some TV shows, and even that only using one-quarter the pixels of standard TV resolution. You can bet Apple was looking to score deals for more impressive content, this being the year of high definition and all, but couldn’t convince anyone to play. Interestingly, this makes Apple weaker on the music front in some respects, giving media companies more leverage for better iTunes music deals. I suspect this is going to get a bit ugly, and this might be why Wall Street was in a selling mood after the announcement, in spite of a monster quarter for Apple. The fact Pixar and Disney are parting ways won’t help, either.

Secondly, there were signals before, but the introduction of Front Row is the first crystal clear sign that Apple is looking to enter the media center market. Their incremental entry strategy is a bit puzzling. I think the reason for it, and the reason they didn’t use yesterday’s announcement to introduce media center hardware, is that their media center box will be based on an Intel CPU. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was the first Apple box to do so. It may turn out that this box is just a rev of the Mini, if Apple is only interested in playback and not DVR (which seems likely, given my first point). I’ve been eagerly waiting to put a Mac under my TV, so I’ll probably be first in line to get such a box. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see the inevitable clamor of people trying to get the new Apple remote to work with older boxes.

Unmined gold

I have very little acumen for business or music but, if I did, I’d be seriously thinking about starting a company that provides all the services for musicians that major labels do except manufacture and distribution of the final product. That is, this company would be employed by musicians to provide studio time, image management, promotion and tour coordination. The musician would be on her own to find a distribution outlet for their music (though, naturally, would owe the new company a cut of sales). If you were the first company set up this way, you stand to gain a significant portion of the world’s musicians as clients within two to five years, though probably not some of the very biggest musicians.

The reason this would work is Apple and iTunes. Large record companies have serious problems with Apple’s success. Some of them complain and threaten to stop providing their artists music to Apple. Some, like Sony, refused to do so in the first place. It seems likely, though, that the large media companies are playing a waiting game until current iTunes contracts expire in 2006. Meanwhile, artists prevented by their corporate overlords from making their existing music available on iTunes are getting antsy and are creating new material specifically for iTunes and iTunes only. Others are releasing entire albums via bittorrent.

Big media companies have shown a determined, nearly pathalogical, desire to maintain their bloated empires by any means necessary. There is no reason to expect they will suddenly become enlightened to the new possibilities of technology, but will, instead, try to sandbag Apple at the expense of both their artists and the music-appreciating public. This will provide a great deal of incentive for artists to ditch their labels. Some will strike out on their own. Most, however, will probably hold onto the “big label” idea, in spite of its drawbacks, because Apple and iTunes alone doesn’t provide them with everything they need to become superstars.

This is where this new company fits in. It enables musicians to embrace iTunes without losing the promotion and other machinery they need. It will completely eliminate any incentive that musicians might have to stay with a big label. The key to this is that, once it becomes clear what is happening, at least one and probably most of the big labels may eventually be forced into retooling to work like this as well. If that happens, it won’t happen quickly. Still, to be successful, this new company needs to strike very quickly, as widely as possible. Preferably, it would start now, before big media kills their iTunes deals. The company also needs to use the agility provided by its small size in ways the media giants can’t.

If you attempt to build such a company, best of luck to you. And invite me into the IPO.

An iMac in every kitchen

Corners of kitchen counters have always bugged me. Not many things fit into them in a useful way. About the same time I was getting obsessed with the uselessness of my own kitchen corner, I realized that I had a spare iMac lounging around. Since I have a wife who a) is even more of a gadget freak than I am and b) said the magic word (“whatever”), I put the machine to work in the kitchen. After having done a bit of work on this machine, it’s always-twitchy power supply finally gave up for good and the experiment ended.

Then something strange happened: we really began to miss the little dude. We kept reflexively going over to where it used to be to use it. The kitchen was suddenly sadder. We hadn’t realized it, but we’d actually been using the machine quite a bit. Clearly, we had no choice but to buy a brand new 17″ iMac G5 (now the fastest machine in the house). We considered a 20″, but nixed the idea as being…excessive (and, it turns out the 20″ wouldn’t have fit under the cabinets anyway). The machine came quickly and was easily set up (note that the machine hides the big black UPS that is behind it pretty well):

Kitchen iMac

But what can you possibly use such a thing for anyway? Ours pulls the following duties:

Pictures

We have five other Macs in the house and three digital cameras. We were going a bit nuts trying to keep our photo albums in sync. With the kitchen machine, we now just put everything on it, using it as a master photo archive. Since iPhoto can publish to the local network, we can view our shots from any machine in the house. In doing this, it became necessary to merge several iPhoto libraries together, a daunting task due to iPhoto’s criminally inane handling of dates when importing and exporting. Spending the $20 on the iPhoto Library Manager is money well spent, trust me.

With all our photos on it, the machine also acts as a picture frame, using the screen saver that comes with Tiger to display pictures from iPhoto. We are pretty good about rating our pictures, so have a smart folder in iPhoto that automatically includes any 4- or 5-star shots, and set the screen saver to show those. Believe it or not, when the original iMac died, this was one of the things we missed the most.

Kiosk

Though I would never run a personal machine like this, having the iMac in the kitchen lends itself to showing things like stock tickers, weather updates, news and so on as its primary display mode. Originally, this was done with Konfabulator, but the new machine uses Dashboard. I have to admit that, for personal machine, I don’t get what the big deal with Dashboard is. Most of the widgets seem to just reproduce things you can more easily do with an application. For a kitchen kiosk, though, Dashboard works great. Most of the time, the machine’s screen looks like this:

Screenshot

Key to this is a piece of software that provides functionality that should have been included with Dashboard itself, but wasn’t: the ability to make dashboard appear after a certain amount of idle time. As always, third parties come plug glaring holes in Apple’s products, in this case Dasher. With it installed, the kiosk comes up without having to think about it.

The widgets currently running are:

  • Stocks: Included with Tiger. Tracks stock prices.
  • Calendar: Included with Tiger. Shows the current date and month.
  • iCal Events: Displays upcoming events from iCal
  • TV Tracker: Shows what’s on TV in your area. Not resizable, unfortunately.
  • Marquee: Ugly and a screen real estate hog, but useful, displaying movies playing in your area.
  • Unit Converter: Converts currencies, volumes, you name it.
  • IMDb: A quick movie lookup.
  • News Grab-R: Displays news from various sources.
  • Dictionary: Included with Tiger. A quick word lookup.
  • Phone Book: Included with Tiger. Search the yellow pages.
  • Stickies: Included with Tiger. Jot down things, like shopping lists. This turns out to be a major use of the machine.
  • RPN Calculator: I can never go back to non-RPN calculators now.
  • Weather: Included with Tiger. A five-day forecast for your area, with current condition and temp.
  • iTunes: Included with Tiger. Controls iTunes.
  • VelaClock: A multi-time zone clock. The only widget I’ve paid for.
  • TemorSkimmer: Shows earthquake spots in real time.
  • Radar In Motion: A nearly real-time animation of weather.
  • Sunlit Earth: A realtime map of the sun’s position on the planet.
  • Album Art: Shows the cover art of the album currently playing in iTunes.

Sound

Since not many applications live on this machine, it has a bunch of free space. We’ve been filling this by ripping our CD collection onto it. Like iPhoto, iTunes can publish songs to any machine in the house. It can also play to either of our two AirPort Express stations. We sometimes bring one outside and hook speakers to it.

In setting this collection up, I became momentarily obsessed with attaching cover art to my song files. For some reason, this is much more difficult than it needs to be. Ultimately, I found MPFreaker, a tool that should probably be free, but can charge $20 since this is cheaper than my having to code the equivalent myself. It does a decent job filling in fields missing from your songs, including cover art.

Calendars

While iCal is not the best calendaring system in the world, it is good enough, particularly since it syncs with Palm devices (usually). We run four calendars on the kitchen machine. One contains our work schedules, another contains personal events (parties, appointments, etc.). The other two are frivolous, hosted externally, showing the Denver Broncos schedule and movie release dates.

The best feature of iCal is that you can publish calendars to a WebDAV server, allowing you to subscribe to the calendars from other machines. The trick is finding a WebDAV server. Fortunately, Tiger comes with Apache already installed, and it can be configured to be a WebDAV server. This is a little tricky, and how to do it is best explained elsewhere. It takes a little brain power, but once done, any changes you make on the kitchen machine get published and picked up by the other machines subscribing to the calendar.

Cooking

Given that the main point of a kitchen is to cook, it makes sense to use the iMac there as well. There are a few options here, but we’ve taken to using a recipe and wine manager called MacGourmet. A lot of people swear by Connoisseur as well, but I don’t like its interface as much and it doesn’t handle wine as well.

Sync

The last task for this machine takes advantage of the fact that it runs all the time (and has a large hard drive). It runs various backup and synchronization tasks to various machines in the house. There are a bunch of ways to do this, but Duover seems to be the least painful.

Finally

Naturally, we use the machine’s web browser nearly every day for one thing or another. I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but generally, anything you’ve ever stuck to your refrigerator with a magnet can be done better with a kitchen iMac. Now we just need to manage the clutter of gadgets alongside it.

When names go bad

Names matter. How we name things shapes both us and what is being named. A lot of people think that names have mystical power. (I wrote an inarticulate paper in college on attitudes towards mystical naming in Shakespeare’s time, for example.) A role-playing game suggests the idea that what separates us from animals is not tool use or even vocal communication, but that we can name things and animals cannot.

Apple, a company successful in large part because it cares about industrial design, looks and coolness, has developed a disturbing tendency to bestowe stupid names on their technology. This started a few years ago, when Apple came up with an incredibly neat idea. Realizing that all of their machines shipped with video cards with special hardware for drawing 3D technologies like OpenGL very quickly, and that much of this technology contains processors that are, in some ways, more powerful than the main processor of the machine, they hit upon the concept of treating each window on the screen as a thin, textured 3D object, and letting the video hardware deal with layering, drop shadows and so on. Sorry to readers who found the previous description filled with gobbledegook, but take my word for it, this idea borders on brilliant. Though somewhat obvious when you think about it, this is easily the most significant advance in windowing systems in a decade.

So, what did Apple call it? Given they had a graphics technology called Quartz, they decided that this great idea absolutely had to be called Quartz Extreme. Not something that stayed with the mineral theme, but evoked the idea of layers, like, say “Mica”. Not something that kept with a geological terminology like “Quartz Ashlar“, “Tessera” or “Tectonic”. Not even something that, you know, passes the laugh test.

With the release of Tiger they’ve made the naming even stupider with a refinement of the idea called “Quartz 2D Extreme”. Great. Now stupid and hard to say. Again, though, the idea it self is great. In two pages of his epic review of Tiger, John Siracusa explains it all better than I ever could. It’s just a shame such great ideas get such hideous nomenclature. I guess I should count our blessings; they could have called it “iQuartz 2D iExtreme Pro Gold” or something.

Another recent head-scratching name involves yet another really neat technology, this one an open standard. The standard deals with automatic discovery, negotiation and configuration of devices on a network. So, for example, you can just plug a printer into your network and this technology integrates it automatically. The standard itself has a pretty good name: ZeroConf. Apple’s implementation of this standard used to have a great name: Rendezvous. Unfortunately, this word is a registered trademark of someone else, so a lawsuit forced Apple to change the name. If the name they chose for a replacement is any indication, what Apple liked about Rendezvous wasn’t that it neatly encapsulated what the technology did and how it worked, but that it was in French. The new name, Bonjour, seems like it was chosen at random. Granted, something like “Liason” is also already trademarked, but if they wanted to go with French, they could at least have chosen a word that doesn’t sound so dorky, like “Maginot” or “Reddition” or even “Frère Jacques”. “ZeroConf” would be preferable to any of those.

I admit, naming is difficult. Very few things have perfect names. So far, I’ve only seen three things with names I consider absolutely flawless:

  1. A sex shop geared towards women called the Grand Opening
  2. A reggae band called the Joint Chiefs
  3. A book about female pirates called Booty

Anyone know of other great names or naming disasters?

Concept for Mac mini A/V dock

The interest given to articles about modifications to the Mac mini, such as moving it into a micro ATX case with some large IDE drives or overclocking it, suggests that there may be a market for a “docking station” of sorts that has the same dimensions as a typical audio/video component. The mini could be plugged into this station, then added into the rack of a typical home theater with ease, to act as a media center. It would have the added benefit of allowing the mini to be easily removed from the rack for more portable uses from time to time.

Let me stress that this product does not actually exist. I have the idea, but neither the time nor talent to see it to fruition. I present it here so that others might. It might look something like this:

Dock concept

I would only buy such a thing if it contained the following:

  • Few or no external controls. All features should be controllable by software in the mini. Perhaps a power button (which would also power the mini), but that’s all.
  • Port replication, as usually found in a docking station. This would include power (allowing you to ditch the power brick that came with the mini).
  • In addition to replication of the DVI connector, the station would wire the mini to built-in adaptors for VGA, S-Video, composite video and (most importantly) component video (Y/Pb/Pr), with ports for each arrayed on the back of the dock. If it didn’t have the component video, I wouldn’t buy it. Ideally, it would send signal to all of these at once, but being able to pick one at a time with a software control panel would be acceptible.
  • Video input of some kind wired into the firewire bus, smilar to a built-in EyeTV 500.
  • Two (or more) large, fast harddrives would be built into the dock, wired to the firewire port. It should not be rocket science for the user to replace these drives. Possibly the dock would supply just the drive bays, and the user would supply their own drives. These drives should be on the quiet side. The addition of a quiet fan to cool the drives would be acceptible.
  • One or both of the USB ports would not be direct pass-through ports, but connected to an internal hub. This hub would offer four connections on the back of the dock, two in the front, and several internal. It would also be hooked up internally to a number of other components built into the dock. I will describe these in reference to other, existing products, but in actuality, they’d be built into the dock hardware, not just third party products shoved into the case. The features of these additions would be:
    • Something like an iMic, with the RCA and other i/o connections coming out of the back of the machine.
    • Something like the Transit, which supplies DTS, with several optical audio ports in the back to allow recording and playback of digital audio to/from multiple sources.
    • Some sort of general purpose IR receiver, perhaps like the Keyspan Express Remote.
    • Some kind of combination flash memory reader.
  • A front panel display, showing:
    • Temperature of drive bay
    • State of firewire ports
    • State of USB ports
    • State of card reader
    • If the audio modes (RCA vs. optical) need to be switchable/one-at-a-time, their current state
    • If the video modes (DVI vs. component) need to be switchable/one-at-a-time, their current state
  • Possibly some additional cooling for the mini. Maybe this would be additional airflow around the bottom and sides. Not sure how/if this would work.
  • Size similar to a home theater DVD component: 17″ wide, somewhere between 9-13″ deep and just slightly taller than the mini’s 2″.

This post has been referenced by some other sites. From the comments here and on those sights, some extra commentary seems appropriate:

  • Size: I guess I didn’t spell out the idea that this is meant to integrate (i.e. be the same size as) with standard audio/video components in a home theater rack, as many posters wondered why it was so large. Like many a/v components, it is likely that this one would contain a lot of empty space. People who don’t care about integration with a rack system may be interested in a sweet looking, more stack-like system mentioned in one of the comments on engadget.
  • Non-stackability: Some mentioned that you cannot stack another component on top of this one, limiting its use in a rack. This is true, but intentional for reasons I didn’t mention. It turns out that items on top of a Mac mini interrupt the airport and bluetooth signals. I suspect they may also cause heat problems, but don’t know that for sure. Speaking of which…
  • Heat: I mentioned heat breifly, but some commenters correctly point out that some serious thought would need to be put into heat management. This would need to include some path from the vent in the the back of the mini into the body of the dock.
  • Cost: I didn’t think at all about cost, but if you add up the cost of buying similar components, it adds up pretty quickly. I guess the measure of affordability is if the dock costs less than it would to buy the similar components individually (which, right now, anyone who wants a Mac mini home theatre needs to do).

Drool worthy

I’ve been waiting for a machine like the Mac Mini for quite a while. Not because of the cost, but because of the size. Apple has not come out and said it, but it’s pretty clear to me that the primary intent of this machine is to be hooked to your high definition television, which is exactly why I want it. It would not surprise me at all to see Apple release some kind of PVR software built with the Mac Mini in mind sometime this year. While recording standard TV on your Mac is fairly easy and recording HDTV is possible, it can be pretty painful and not as full-featured as you might like. In the meantime, these guys are trying to fill in the gap.

That said, I’m not buying a Mini just yet. By summer, Apple will have released Tiger. I would pay the requested $129 for it. It has also released iLife ’05, for which I also would pay ($99). When Tiger comes out, however, it is likely the Mini will ship with both of these titles included. This would, at least, pay for the bluetooth trackball keyboard I would need for it. Plus the hardware by then will have had the kinks worked out of it. And, perhaps, Apple will have provided a real PVR solution by then as well.

A quiet iMac DV

A couple of years ago, as fallout from a layoff, I found myself with a pair of 400 MHz iMac DV machines (“grape” and “blueberry”, for those keeping score). One of these sits under my desk, running software that will likely be illegal soon. The other has been deployed in the kitchen (more on that in a later entry).

As this model was discontinued in mid 2000, these machines were starting to show their age. They had a number of problems that I vowed to handle when I got around to it. I happened to get around to it late in 2004, but only after spending a great deal of time tracking some information down. This post intends to distill this information into one place for those looking to do similar things. (I found many such people asking for help, and not getting answers). The problems to solve were these:

  1. Intermittent video problems
  2. Intermittent boot problems
  3. Inability to turn off the internal monitor and use only the external VGA connection.
  4. Limited disk space
  5. Noise

It turns out that the first two problems are related. Earlier iMacs had a number of problems with their firmware and analog video boards conspiring in ways that manifest in random naughtiness. I’d seen several variations of the behavior on these two machines. Sometimes the internal monitor would not work at all. Sometimes it would display only very faintly or all in green. Sometimes a reboot would get past the boot chime and then die. The blueberry machine provided the drive to fix these machines when it started exhibiting the latter behavior all of the time. The grape machine could boot, but seemed locked in “dim display” mode.

After far too long searching for fixes to this problem, I happened across a link to an incredible troubleshooting page for this exact problem. Why this didn’t show up first (or even in the first few pages) in a Google search, I don’t know. Hopefully it does by now. In any case, this explained the problem and provided some great things to try.

According to this page, these problems result from old firmware, and the trick is to get the machine to boot long enough to upgrade it. This presented me with a problem. Supposedly, you cannot run OS X on this model unless the firmware has been upgraded to the latest version, the same version that fixes the problems. Having run OS X on these machines since the 10.0 beta, I assumed I had the correct version, but still had the problem. The machine I could still boot showed the latest 4.1.9 firmware version, but still had the dim display.

Thinking I was probably in for disappointment, I tried the troubleshooting tips with the blueberry machine anyway. I had what the page called “symptom S4”. I found that the older version of the page was a little easier to follow, but neither it nor the current version actually solved my problem. I ran through the firmware page up to and including the “intermediate” section, without improvement (though it turned out I had to replace the battery, so that probably helped some). Not thrilled about exposing myself to high voltage, I tried a few other things before moving into the “advanced” section.

I was under the impression that the extra power draw from the hard-drive spinning up was overwhelming the power supply. To test this, I pulled the power of the hard drive (the white plug with red, black and yellow wires coming out of it) and tried booting from an OS 9.1 CD. This worked fine (though, of course, no hard drive mounted).

I shut the machine down and, just for fun, reconnected the hard-drive power. And what do you know, the thing rebooted just fine. It may be that having booting it in 9.1 or, perhaps, just the change in hardware configuration managed to reset the PMU or something. Not sure. In any case, if you have nimble fingers, you can actually do this through the RAM access slot without taking the machine apart.

Once I got the machine to boot, lo and behold, it’s firmware version shows as 4.1.7. How I got OS X on this box in the first place, I do not know. Such a thing is supposedly “impossible”. Upgrading it to 4.1.9, however, turned out to be easier said than done. This is because the 4.1.9 updater only runs when booted into OS 9 from a writable volume. Since I didn’t run classic on this box (didn’t want to spend the disk space) and booting from a CD wouldn’t work (not a writable volume), I didn’t have a writable OS 9 boot disk. Further, something in the OS 9 install CD just refused to recognize the machine’s disk as one that could handle OS 9. After trying a whole bunch of weird Firewire setups, my problem suddenly resolved itself when the OS 9 installer started working for no evident reason. I have no idea why this happened but, once done, the firmware upgrade worked fine, and did solve the boot problem.

This left the dim display on the grape machine. It had the correct firmware, but still had the problem. Changing the contrast and brightness didn’t help. On a forum, I spotted a solution so obvious I can’t believe it took me so long to try it. All I had to do was go into the Display preference panel, go to the Color section and hit the Calibrate button. This process ended up resetting the display just fine.

So, two problems (including the biggest one) down, three to go. I still have found no solution for turning off the internal monitor while leaving the external port active. I suspect that I might be able just to cut the power to it, but haven’t found the schematics for it. If you know how, let me know. I’m fairly certain that there is no purely software way to do this.

The last two problems also turned out to be related. The iMac DV has no internal fan, so nearly all of the noise it generates comes from its hard drive. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the sound isn’t a typical computer hum, but more of a whine. It’s the type of sound that still thrums in your ears once it stops. So, finding a high(er) capacity, quiet hard drive seemed the obvious solution.

It turns out, this was less than obvious. In the first place, finding what kind of drives the iMac DV could support was a bit of an exercise in futility. Unlike most Macs before it, the iMac used IDE drives, not SCSI. All the information I could find was found in crumbs in forums, mostly unconfirmed rumors:

  • Rumor 1: Drives faster than 5,400RPM overheat the iMac DV. I’m not sure if this is true, but I believe it. The 4,200RPM drive that shipped with it ran the machine hot enough, with no internal fan. So, this set a spindle limit, which turned out to limit the drive selection significantly, as most higher capacity drives are faster than this.
  • Rumor 2: Drives larger than 128GB cannot be read iMac DV. I suspect this is just plain wrong, but saw it mentioned more than once. This seems like it would be more of an OS limitation, so might have been true once. I seriously doubt it is true now. I turned out to be moot in my case, because drives larger than 128GB went over my price target.
  • Rumor 3: The OS must reside on the first 4GB of a disk for the iMac DV. This is almost certainly false, considering that a) even the old, loud drive was a 10GB in a single partition and b) it doesn’t make any sense. I ignored this rumor, so far with no ill effects.

So, I was looking for a 5,400RPM IDE drive of 128MB or less. And it had to be quiet, which led to the next problem: what’s quiet for a drive and how do you find out? After some looking, I found Hardware Central, which not only lists the sound output of hard-drives in decibels, but has excellent search filtering as well. Sifting through the various choices was more annoying than it needed to be, but I settled on the 120 GB Maxtor DiamondMax 16. At the time, Tiger Direct sold these for the lowest price, around $70.

I bought one for each machine. They installed easily (well, as easily as a drive can be installed into an iMac), work great and are nearly inaudible. They do run a bit hotter than the old drives, but so far, so good.