Road to Mac I: Hard Decisions

2006/08/22

January – July 2006

This is the story of a journey travelled quite often these days. It describes discoveries, joys and frustrations of one long time Windows user learning how to use Mac OS-X. Many have done this before, many have blogged about it.

The reason why I am writing this down is mostly to remember, and as well because I can. One of the assumes uses of the new MacBook was creative writing so I guess I am trying fulfill the promise to myself. I have no idea whether this will be an interesting read for anybody else but me. But I’ll write it anyway.

This sort of “back-blogging”. I am using my notes from PC and from the Web to reconstruct these events.

Writing of this chapter was started exactly as I have imagined it before I decided to get a Mac. I am sitting in Starbucks (Kanata Chapters, for a change – my home Chapters at Pinecrest will have to have to wait few more hours for the premiere), in comfy-chair a typing into wonderfully simplistic editor Writeroom, in full screen mode, free of any disruptions.

In order to understand it all better, let me present my professional background and bias. I have started to work in the IT field almost 20 years ago in 1987, right after I’ve my Master’s degree in Computer Science. I spent most of my professional life in Windows or other Microsoft-made environments. First contact with Microsoft made operating systems started in 1988 with MS-DOS and continued through MS-DOS enhancements-slash-replacements (such as Windows 3.x, Windows 95). I was using mostly C and later C++, in various incarnations. From Borland’s fantastic Turbo C trough Zortech C++ to Turbo C++, Microsoft C from 5.1 up to 7.0 and then Visual C/C++ from 1.0 upwards. I have had the opportunity to code in Visual Basic, from 3.0 up to 5.0 as well as way too many VBA dialects (anybody remembers genealogy of Access Basic or first Excel with VBA style macros?). All this lasted up to 1998, when I seriously got involved with Java (at that time, the underlying OS was mostly Windows NT). It lasted until 2003 and it sort of loosened the Microsoft link, but most of the time, even in Java, I was using Windows as main development platform and Unix was usually only the deployment platform.

During last 5 years, I made few attempts to feel really at home in Unix and Linux. To certain degree I have succeeded. What I never accomplished was getting to the state where Linux would become my primary or preferred platform. There were always things that were so much easier in Linux, but there was always lots of things that were awkward, hard to remember or just inconvenient outside of Windows. Even as Java programmer, I was still more productive in Windows: the new versions of JVM were available for Windows first and for quite some time, Linux was second class citizen in Java world – just recall the issue around native threading vs green threads. It got all resolved, but it took time.

Corporate environment, office file formats and compatibility issues were always a big deal. Remember, that was early 2000’s and OpenOffice with its capabilities of reading and saving Word documents were still quite far away … Linux (and Unix) was always mostly production or server environment. I was able to do what I needed to do but never made the step to leave the Windows quite behind.

So here I am, locked with Windows for most of my professional career, getting ready to jump to the Mac platform. Couple of years older and (hopefully) a bit wiser than in 1999-2000 when I tried to switch to Linux, I did not plan to switch to Mac and go away from Windows. With majority of my projects coming from .NET space, it would make little sense and would be probably pretty bad for the cashflow. What I wanted to do was to embrace, include Mac into my digital world.

One of my friends did try to really switch to Mac in early days of OS-X (2000) and to use it as his main and only platform inside medium size organization. He bought the coolest looking notebook at that time (17” Powerbook) and tried to merge into corporate world of Windows domains and Microsoft Office documents. After few months, he gave up and went back to Windows. If he had done it today, very likely it could work – with advances in OS-X, Openoffice 2.0 available, he would be able to do most of his work on Mac. Thanks to Intel based Macs and software like Parallels and VMWare, he would likely got over to largest obstacles of Windows defectors: how to replace/work with others who use MS-Project and Visio.

What was my motivation to get a Mac in a first place: curiosity. There was lots of buzz on the Net about Mac software and Mac culture. The people I knew who used Mac, were usually very happy and quite passionate about it. I am happy owner of both Nikon DSLR and Sony HDD camcorder and whenever I tried to google how to do this or that with pictures or video, I ended most of time in software for Mac platform. Even such non-artistic, non-visual area as personal productivity and implementation of Getting Things Done was dominated with Mac tools and Mac people: the best recommended system was kGTD (Kinkless GTD), implemented as collection of AppleScript on top of OmniOutliner Pro.

I started to think about getting the first hand experience with Mac shortly after January Intel announcement and Apple’s introduction of Macbook Pro. I was already toying with an idea of getting another, small, very portable just-for-fun notebook that would be dedicated not to work, but to reading books, surfing web, writing and managing my digital life: pictures, music, video and so on. True – it would be the fourth notebook in the household (in addition to about 5 desktops) – after my 16” Fujitsu N5010C, Toshiba M200 tablet and old P3 based Toshiba – but I managed to convince myself, it would be useful: the Fujitsu is very heavy (7-8 kg) and not exactly portable, with battery life about 70 minutes, tablet is being used and does not have really nice screen (few of tablets have) and the P3 Toshiba barely runs Win98 or Linux. So new small and light notebook with good battery life would really help.

At first, I was looking either on very good looking Vaio subnotebooks (something like Sony’s VGNSZ260PC or similar small notebook from Fujitsu something like P7120 or newer Q2010. The problem was very high price – around $3000, much more than I was willing to pay for the fun. And then, 13″ Macbook was announced with starting price of $1500, with of the size I still could consider very portable and it created interesting dilemma: for about 50-70% of the price Sony/Fujitsu, I could get one beautifully made, cool looking small notebook, but not Windows one. I would not be able to do everything what I was doing on desktop and the other windows based notebooks. Or would I ?

I started to compile list of “all I wanted to do with Mac” and search for appropriate software. I was spending lot of time on Mac related sites during April-May, going in circles between two extremes:

  1. Absolutely yes. I have to try it out why are all these people so crazy about OS-X. It must be soooo much better than Windows.
  2. Are you crazy ? Spending almost 2K on a toy that you do not really need ? Besides, all you want to do can be done in Windows and you already know how to do it. If you now get something completely different you will be wasting time getting up to speed and resolving the issues you do not even know you exist …

What was influencing me most were forums and issues people were experiencing with Macbooks. Three main scarepoints – things people were complaining about were

  • Macbooks are loud and make very irritating “mooing” noise
  • the discoloration problem – yellow stains appearing on white surface after 2-3 weeks of use
  • Overheating problem

The discussion seemed to be going forever… and I was still watching them and waiting for fixes … and doing nothing. What won at the end, was curiosity and comparison of pros/cons. If I would buy Macbook and if the Macbook and OS-X would not live up to my expectations, the 2K is probably acceptable tuition fee – and I would get as reward more enthusiasm for Vista and Microsoft in general. By not buying, I may miss great opportunity to learn and enjoy something that is new, elegant and fun – and how often does life give you such chances? What also helped was acknowledgment of discoloration issue as a production problem by Apple and few reasonable voices in forums (which I forgot to save but in a nutshell they were saying that):

  • the loud voices of unhappy owners may represent very little fraction of the users. It may be much smaller percentage than with other products. The happy users have usually less incentives to write about how great are things working
  • Mac community has often much higher expectations and standards and what is being complained about may be not a big deal at all
  • Apple’s supposedly has better quality record than most of PC based notebook manufacturers

Decision day came late July. I logged on to Apple Webstore and ordered white MacBook, 2.0 GHz dual core CPU, 1 GB RAM and 100GB hard disk. I could have saved some money on going with smallest configuration in 2.0 GHz processor class and upgrading RAM/HDD myself – but I did not feel like touching the machine before I learn about it and certainly did not want to exchange the hard drive…

The order was submitted on 25th of July and the wait started ….


On blogs, bloggers, blogging

2006/08/22

If you would ask me to pick one technology phenomenon that had the largest impact on and was the most characteristic for the technology during the years 1995-2000, my answer would be “Web, of course”. For the years 2000-2003 I’d vote for eCommerce, online applications and collaboration (like Google, eBay, Amazon and many others). And for the last 3 years, I would definitely pick online communities and blogs.

Blogs are like tsunami that is changing the landscape of online content. There is nothing really new about what they are. Blog is user editable Web page, with very few features: implicit tracking of entries by creating calendar-based index of older entries, ability to add comments to the entries, limited form of categorization and tagging as well as some simple, blog-2-blog notification mechanisms (backtracks and pings). The only aspect in which blogs are different is simplicity of creating and running a blog. The same way as Google made searching for on-line content very easy and accessible, blogs are the very easy way how to create that content. Good content is one of the main reasons why people go online.

To have better idea about the magnitude of the effect, here are some numbers. According to David Sifry

“… there is 50 million blogs out there (as of August 2006) and this number doubles every 6 months.”

Now this is *some* growth – the blogosphere is 100 times bigger now than it was 3 years ago.

“As of July 2006, about 175,000 new weblogs were created each day, which means that on average, there are more than 2 blogs created each second of each day. The total posting volume of the blogosphere continues to rise, showing about 1.6 Million postings per day, or about 18.6 posts per second. This is about double the volume of about a year ago.”

If you would expect that huge majority of the blogs is in English, you would be surprised. According to David, only approximately 40% blogs are in English, trailed by about 30% in Japanese and about 15% in Chinese. I wrote “about” as the number go up and down by few percent from month to month.

I was quite surprised by really high ratio of Japanese blogs – high relatively to population size of Japan versus English speaking countries. Maybe the penetration of the market with very advanced video-internet capable computer-phones is responsible for the high number. I also believe for variety of reasons that large Chinese presence in cyberspace is a good thing, both for China as well the cyberspace. The “Internet services superpower” – India is probably under-represented and relatively invisible, hiding between English speaking blogs. Maybe because only few percent of huge Indian population has Internet access.

These numbers are simply overwhelming. Growth rate of the blogsphere is much higher than growth rate of the rest of WWW. Relative impact and weight of community driven web content will soon be larger than more traditional media with companies and organizations behind them (I consider both New York Times, CNN.com and Yahoo! being “traditional”, because the content is created by dedicated professionals).

But (there is always a “but”) – to really understand this new trend, it is important to have deeper look on the content, authors and audience of the blogs. A blog can be very different thing than a blog.

These basic questions help me to better understand and to organize my view of the blogospere:


1) Who is the author ?

Is it single person providing his/her unique viewpoint or is it a community (such as Gizmodo, Lifehacker) ? Is it an organization ?
Most of the growth (in absolute number of blogs) is coming from new individual bloggers, grouped around free hosting sites such as Blogspot, Livejournal, Yahoo etc.

Corporate blogs (see whitepaper) are also growing in popularity, both for internal and external use. Sometimes there is dedicated group of employees commenting on and discussing internal affairs on closed forum, sometimes the blog is public (such as this one ). Corporate blogs are representing much smaller percentage of the new blogs, but their contribution to the content is higher than from individuals. They also more often use premium hosting sites.


2) What is the purpose / motivation for publishing ? What is the benefit for the author ?
Surprisingly large amount of blogs I’ve seen, did not have obvious motivation, rather than “because I can”. The main difference between publishing a Web and publishing a blog is very low barrier of entry. Almost everybody can blog. And as it looks like, almost everybody does.

Some people start writing blogs because they are following the masses, joining the crowds – or because their friend Mike is blogging too. Some want to satisfy the innate human need to be heard / read, receive feedback and be more visible, be more important or just in order to become part of some community.

Technology related blogs often follow “meritocracy” principle from opensource movement. The more you contribute to a project, the higher is your influence and “rating” among your peers. Publishing and sharing your tips, tricks and insights on the blog is great way how to start contributing to the shared pool of knowledge.

Many blogs are just plain public journals or on-line diaries. One can debate what is the value of putting your private journal to public consumption. IMHO, it takes some degree of exhibitionism to do that, assumed that you are honest with yourself and writing diary, not work of fiction about a non-existing person.

You have certainly seen (and likely ignored) many blogs that looked like they were created just to let the “steam off”, to express the the author’s frustrations. Aside from possible therapeutic effect for the owner, I find these of little interest to spend on them any time – unless you know the author personally. In this case, the journal blog provides unexpected insight (often quite unwelcome). In rare cases, the effect *can* positive.

I have read nice dedication on one of the blogs (do not waste your time going there unless you speak Slovak) where 40+ new blog writer summarized his motives for blogging as:

” I am a father of a blogger. From his blog, I have discovered a lot about his world and learned to understand him better. With this blog, I’d like to return him the favor”.

Lot’s of blogs are being created daily with one very specific purpose in mind: blogging for money. To do that, you need just two ingredients – large enough audience visiting your site and ads they can click on. The business model is simple: for every click on the displayed ads by your visitors, Google gets some tiny amount of money from advertisers and sends some percentage of this tiny amount of money to you. Which means you need many many many clicks to earn few bucks. And only very few sites actually get enough out of it, to use it as sustainable business model. Ads work best for focused community sites such as Gizmodo, with huge targeted audience. One nice example of site making money this way and still providing interesting content, created by single individual is Steve Pavlina.

Unfortunately, there are few more “business models” for monetizing your blog – for example when a company pays seemingly unaffiliated bloggers to promote a product or service through “objective reviews”, but I do not consider this dubious business practices to be blogs (and certainly not worthy spending more time on).

Legitimate blogs created by business tend to have better defined purpose. It costs money to pay people to blog and as business owner, you do not do it, unless it gives you back some value: new marketing channels, community building, evangelization of company/products/individuals or even direct sales. See Tim O’Reilly’s blog or http://www.joelonsoftware.com/ for a great example of valuable “personal business blog”

Quite specific category of blogs are aspiring amateur writers and journalists, trying to do what they cannot do as their main job: writing and publishing fiction, novels, short stories, providing news and comments on events of interest. For these people, the blog is just easy, zero-barrier-of-entry delivery channel. Which leads directly to the next question: the content.


3) What is the content/topics covered ?

Again, there is huge variety of all content imaginable out there – from blogs about Joe through blogs about world’s politics up to blogs about galaxies. The difference is degree of egocentrism, or in other words – how much is the personality and life of the blogger object of the blog. Usually (unless Joe Blogger is a celebrity) the more it is about Joe, the less interesting it is. Why would you (as a reader) care about Joe’s private life, what he did yesterday and what are his plans for vacation ?

Well, you actually *may* care if:

• Joe is somebody like George Clooney, Wayne Gretzky, Richard Feynman or Add-Your-Favorite-Celebrity-Here (guess who of the three mentioned is mine ;-) )

• Joe happens to share something with you – it may be something good (like your secret passion for building model airplanes in scale 1:59 which very few people do), or something not so good (like lung cancer). By discovering a virtual acquaintance that shares your pain or passion, you feel less alone and may find something useful in how Joe copes with his situation.

• you are compulsive watcher of reality shows and spend your own life by watching other people lives, regardless how boring they are (there must be some amount of people like that, otherwise the reality shows could not be so wildly popular )

• Joe is your neighbor across the street and you have been wondering what business is this guy in to afford the new Lexus every year
• Joe is your perspective employee or business partner, and you need to find out more about him before you employ him / sign a deal

Many bloggers do not realize the hidden danger in last two cases – see these few examples to be warned.


4) What audience is the blog for? What is the benefit for the readers ?

Surprisingly many bloggers seems not to think about their audience at all, which makes their blogs uninteresting and boring. At the other side of the spectrum are blogs addressing by choice controversial topics, written specifically to attract lots of readers and spark lots of heated online discussions. You can easily tell by the titles people use for their entries. This type of competing for the readership is very obvious when there is a ranking system on the server which sparks the competition or when there is a monetary incentive to have many readers – like using Google Ads. This has sometimes the very same effect as in journalism – previously good and respectable site degrades to some form of tabloid in chase for ad-clickers – I mean readers.

What value do the blog readers gets out of blog ? I do not dare to make any guess for the others. There must be something in it for many different people, otherwise there would be no large audiences. Basic motivation can be curiosity and leisure – passive content consumption – pleasant way how to spend time. A kind of new TV, with much more control over what you read/watch/listen to (considering the increasingly popular audioblogs aka podcasts and videoblogs).

For me personally main value areas I get out of reading blogs and community driven content repositories are:


1) learning and problem solving

You may not always find answer you are looking for in the “traditional” professional Website. Whether I need need an explanation why am I getting mysterious SQL Server 2005 error message or how to get iMovie to recognize MPEG file from Sony HDD digital camera, my best bet usually are forums, Wiki’s and blogs. None of them is clearly superior, and blogs have their perfect place in the infospace.

Compared to Wikis and Forums, Blogs are more personal,with more narrow focus. Which means once you find a blogger that works on similar problem or in the same area, you have best possible match. In Forums, many people contribute and create topics. This leads to wider area coverage and to more ideas, but also to less coherence and (in order to find something) more clutter for the reader to work through. Blogs are less formal and less structured than Wiki’s. It leads people to providing and sharing content more easily. I have less worries and things to consider when I add new entry on my blog than when I am editing a Wiki page, possibly modifying somebody else’s contribution. There is more personal touch in blog and little need for consensus as with Wiki. Blogs are also more convenient for the authors – content for the blog can be created offline and uploaded, edited directly in browser or even sent through email, whereas Wiki and Forum must be accessed only through browser.


2) navigation guide and discovery

It happened many times with books: I have found blog about books, where the blog author highly rated several books that I liked a lot as well. On the same site, I have also found recommended other books, I never heard about before. After reading them, I loved them. This is how I found Red Dwarf series, the Frederik Pohl’s Heechee saga as well as Andrzej Sapkowski fantasy masterwork . Similar idea are Amazon “recommends” and Amazon user book lists, but there is bigger chance of commercial motivation behind book great 5-star review and also less visibility to the personality behind the recommendation(s).


3) filter …

something like SQL View, limiting the data to what is relevant. It is one of the ways how to deal with information overload. Many people browse the Web and blog on nuggets they discover. If you find and pick right person, his/her trail may be very interesting to follow.

The bookmark community sites such as del.icio.us, digg.com, reddit.com are doing something very similar, but filtering “by statistics” rather by interest. They are usually best bet to discover trends, fashion waves and new fads, but if your information taste differs a lot from Average User, you may be better off with finding few virtual buddies that are more like you and follow their trails – through their blogs or bookmark collections. Chances are, they are reading digg or reddit and will report their findings anyway.


Blogs++

With all the millions blogs in existence, what is the point of adding another drop to the sea of blogs ? What is the motivation and intention of the author of this one ? Where in the classification should this blog fit in ?

This is an individual blog. It does not represent standpoint of the company I am affiliated with. There certainly is strong alignment between many of my company values, views and visions and my values, goals and visions – which is why I work there – but this is not meant to be our official PR.

The topics reflect my interests and are therefore (mostly) technology and cyberspace related. From “real life” I am commenting on very few topics, e.g. books and personal productivity / personal development (aka “lifehacks”), all of which are quite close to technology and cyberspace. I have all intentions to avoid easily inflammable topics (such as politics or religion) unless it is “flamewar” about technology (for example Linux vs. Windows vs. Mac or .NET contra Java – be my guests!).

It is not a personal journal. It is subjective – as every blog is – but I’ll try my best to stay focused on the topics other than my personal life. No pictures of the kids or family vacations here. They are some out here on the Web, but audience is limited to mostly family only. Unless you know me quite well, it would not really interest you anyway.

Writing a blog takes a lot of time. This blog is my spare time activity. While ago, I found out that for me personally writing is the best way how to organize my thoughts, pretty much on anything. During last two-three years, more and more of this writing was happening on computer. So in addition of many paper notebooks, I have created many small files, in variety of formats, spread across variety of computers. As many users of multiple computers, only way how to have my stuff available was to store it somewhere on-line. I tried several offline+synchronization strategies too, with mixed results, but that is a different topic, I’ll get back to it.
So my files as well as electronic trace of interesting topics and places have been stored online for over two years now.

What benefit do I expect to get out of making my e-Stuff publicly accessible ?

Several benefits, in fact:

- quality of content. I saw huge jump in quality when I started to write things down compared to just thinking about them. Writing forced me to formulate my thoughts much more precisely and writing/typing slowed me down enough to spot obvious problems. I hope for similar effect when going from writing privately to writing publicly. Chance of a feedback and possibility of an audience will (hopefully) force me to improve my communication skills, upgrade my English grammar and vocabulary and communicate more clearly. Time will show if it will indeed happen …

- accessibility. If something is easily accessible for everybody, it is easily accessible for myself as well -)

- diligence in active processing of the content. Responsibility of public blog will hopefully help to overcome laziness. It happens all the time: I have interesting idea or observation, but because I am lazy, I just fire off an email to myself with 3 cryptic words or write them down on piece of paper. Week later, nothing makes sense any more, and idea is gone. If I’d spend 5 more minutes on making it a short blog entry, it could have been still there. With my Mac virtually always with me, I can do that from any place

- learning on own mistakes
You can never learn from a mistake unless you find out you’ve made one first. And nobody will give any feedback, unless they know what you are doing …

- synchronicity and serendipity.
One cannot rely on it, but I have seen evidence of it too many times to ignore it. Just trying to increasing the chances of any of that happening again, is worth the effort.

Scrolling back to top in ecto , I think that the very first skill I have to master will be how to write shorter entries :-).

If you managed to read until here, thanks for your time. See you soon.


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