Tales from the software-CD crypt

Wednesday’s “worst version of Windows” column for Yahoo Tech was a fun stumble down memory lane, and not just because it allowed me to re-read reviews of Windows Me and Windows XP: I also got to dig out some of my semi-treasured collection of software CDs.

Old and obscure software CDsI started collecting them once I had a desk of my own at the Post, and these things soon became a core part of my cubicle decor there. Beyond the Windows CDs you saw in the photo atop that column, I have:

  • a BeOS CD that I then tried out on my Mac clone and thought was a revelation compared to the Mac OS of 1997;
  • a CD for the Snap online service CNet launched with EarthLink in 1997, and which I’m sure nobody else remembers today;
  • a system CD from the Power Mac Cube I reviewed for the Post;
  • a rectangular CD for Windows Media Player 7 that was supposed to portray that awful music app’s interface, and which would be unusable on any computer with a slot-loading optical drive;
  • a CD of Insignia Software’s SoftWindows, an emulation app that shipped for the first Power Macs.

These obscurities don’t function as any sort of decor now that they’re stashed in an interoffice envelope. But they do help remind me of where the industry’s come (remember when the only way the Mac was going to survive is if you could run Windows programs miserably slowly on it?) and of reviews that I perhaps could have done better.

And they’re also a type of keepsake that’s been rendered obsolete by the online delivery of almost all software. What am I going to do, take a screengrab of the .zip file that contained my beta download of Windows 10?

Mac settings changes you might miss going from Snow Leopard to Yosemite

One of the major Christmas presents at my in-laws was a shiny new 13-inch MacBook Air that replaced a 2010-vintage MacBook–which meant that one of my major presents was getting apps, data and settings transferred from the old Mac to the new one, then completing the rest of the setup.

Old MacBook and new MacBookThe first hiccups came in OS X’s Migration Assistant: It estimated the data transfusion would take five-plus hours over the home WiFi. But neither machine saw the other over a faster Ethernet link (using a USB-to-Ethernet adapter on the Air), and an ad hoc, computer-to-computer WiFi network didn’t work until I resorted to the un-Mac-like workaround of turning on Internet sharing on the source laptop.

Then I realized the work Migration Assistant had left for me: configuring parts of OS X Mavericks (preloaded on the new MacBook) and Yosemite (promptly installed as a free update) that had no equivalent in the old MacBook’s Snow Leopard, then changing OS X settings that would confuse anybody used to that five-year-old operating system.

Atop the first category: the social-media integration Apple began adding to OS X in 2012’s Mountain Lion release. My in-laws aren’t on Twitter and don’t spend much time in Facebook–but that integration’s ability to share a photo to Facebook from the Finder does address a pain point I’d heard from them.

An Apple ID is far more important in Yosemite than in Snow Leopard, courtesy of so many updates running through the Mac App Store. So I had to verify that hitherto-dusty account worked and had current billing info, without which we couldn’t download the free Yosemite update.

Migration Assistant had siphoned over a few long-ignored PowerPC applications that OS X hasn’t been able to run since 2011’s disappointing Lion, so I had to delete those myself.

OS X Yosemite General system prefsI thought I was done at that point, and then I heard my father-in-law complaining about not being able to scroll. He had bumped into Apple’s foolish decision to make scroll bars invisible until you mouse over them or use a two-finger gesture to move up or down the page. I hadn’t thought to fix that setting (open System Preferences and click “General”) because I’d fixed it on my own Mac after maybe two hours with Lion. Oops.

The last round of settings to change were in the minds of Yosemite users who had been used to Snow Leopard. From that perspective, the Notifications icon at the top-right corner of the screen means nothing (and requires tweaking to avoid info pollution), while Launchpad’s rocketship Dock icon doesn’t exactly shout that you no longer need click around the Finder to run apps that aren’t already in the Dock.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time walking my wife’s folks through those angles, but I suspect I’ll be getting questions about the new computer for months to come. See also: “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Apple Mail malaise (update)

There’s no program on my Mac that’s annoyed me more over the last year than Mail. Which is funny, because for years I held up that program as an example of Apple working to fix customers’ problems while Microsoft let Outlook Express decay.

Apple Mail about boxBut sometime during the development of OS X Mavericks, Mail went off the rails. It shipped with a bug that made syncing with a Gmail account awkward to implausible. Apple fixed that within weeks, but other problems lingered through many or all of its updates to Mavericks:

  • Searching for old messages was intolerably slow, to the point where it would be faster to grab my iPad, log into the relevant account and start the search… after first running up and down the stairs to find that tablet.
  • Switching back to Mail from other apps would leave the insertion point randomly shifted to a point months or years in the past–which, to be fair, is great for cheap nostalgia.
  • Some mailboxes would be shown sorted by subject instead of date, never mind that sorting by subject is a total waste of time unless a mail client can’t handle search (ahem).
  • More recently, Mail began forgetting the custom app passwords Google generates for mail clients and other apps that can’t process its two-step verification codes.

Apple’s updates fixed some of these issues before OS X Yosemite. I don’t think I’ve seen a mailbox randomly sorted by subject in months, and I haven’t had to open Keychain Access to copy a saved Google app password back into Mail since last month.

Yosemite, to judge from its performance on my MacBook Air, has also returned search in Mail to a state of good repair. I can only hope Apple keeps working on these other issues. Because between Web-mail’s issues with offline access and working with other apps and the lack of a compelling alternative client (understandable, given how many people rely on Web-mail or don’t spend as much time in a mail client as me), firing this app just doesn’t seem too practical.

And at least the prominent mentions of Mail in Apple’s product page for Yosemite suggests the company realizes it can’t leave this app in maintenance mode. If only I could say the same for iPhoto…

Your con-call invitation isn’t as enticing as you think

I enjoy talking shop, but not so much when I first need to call a toll-free number, punch in a four-to-six-digit code, press the pound key, speak my name after the beep and be dumped into a cybernetic void in which I must wait to hear the sound of another human voice.

Con-call invite from OutlookNo, I’m not a fan of conference calls. Part of that is a common rationale–they allow a PR minder to be on the line and make sure nobody says anything too compromising–but, really, most of it is the exasperating user experience.

That starts with the con-call invitation, which inexorably arrives on my Mac as a blank e-mail consisting only of a “Mail Attachment.ics” file. OS X’s Quick Look won’t reveal its contents, so I must open it in Calendar to see that it contains the number, con-call code and time that should have been in the e-mail itself.

Make me open another program to see what you’re talking about in your e-mail? No.

To judge from the headers of these messages, this is a Microsoft Outlook-transmitted social disease–sending a calendar invitation from inside that sprawling program must not offer the sender any hint of how it will be displayed to a recipient. In my case, it’s badly: Not only does Mail for OS X throw up its hands, the Gmail app for Android doesn’t even show this file.

(And yet Mail for iOS displays a nifty calendar widget for those invitation messages. Apple’s inability to keep its desktop mail client at feature parity with its mobile mail client is a subject for a future rant.)

After the aforementioned routine of punching in numbers and waiting for a response, I often face an extra challenge in con-calls with more than one executive, or in which the publicist and the executive are of the same gender: figuring out which of two or three white guys is speaking at any one time.

And have I mentioned that this is the tech business? There are good, Web-based conference systems that let you connect by clicking a link and then make it easy to tell who’s there and who’s talking. I’ve used UberConference and it was terrific; I hear great things about Speek but haven’t used it yet (note that a friend works at that D.C.-based startup); video chat through apps like Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Vidyo or Rabbit works too, as long as I tidy up the parts of my home office within camera view.

And yet when a company wants to talk up its technological prowess, we must jack into the AOL chat room of group voice communication. PR friends, if your client insists on that routine, can you at least do me a favor and dial my phone directly before patching me into the call?

Heartbleed and bleeding-heart open-source advocacy

For at least the last decade, I’ve been telling readers that open-source development matters and helps make better software. If everybody can read the code of an application or an operating system, there can’t be any hidden backdoors; if anybody can rewrite that code to fix vulnerabilities and add features, the software’s progress can’t be thwarted by any one company’s distraction, fraud or bankruptcy.

OpenSSL pitchMy glowing endorsement of Mozilla Firefox 1.0 in November 2004 set the tone:

…the beauty of an open-source product like this is that you can participate in its evolution. Firefox’s code is open for anybody to inspect and improve...

Since then, I’ve recommended open-source operating systems, office suites, anti-virus utilitiessecure-deletion tools, file-encryption software, two-factor authentication apps, PDF exporters, DVD rippers and video-playback toolkits. And I’ve had one phrase in mind each time: Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.

My experience using open-source software tells me this is true–even if that doesn’t guarantee a constant rate of improvement or an elegant interface.

And if any genre of software should benefit from this method of development, it ought to be code that Web sites use to secure their interactions with users from eavesdropping: Everybody sending or storing private information needs this feature, billions of dollars of transactions are at stake, and you don’t even have to worry about wrapping a home-user-friendly UI around it.

True, right? Except Heartbleed happened. Two years ago, an update to the widely-used OpenSSL encryption library added a “heartbeat” function that made it easier for sites to keep an encrypted session going. But it also harbored an disastrous vulnerability to buffer-overflow attacks that would cause a site to return 64 kilobytes of whatever happened to be adjacent in the server’s memory to an attacker: usernames, passwords, e-mail content, financial transactions, even the private key the site uses to encrypt the session. And the attacked site can’t check afterwards to see if it got hit. I defy the NSA to script a better hack.

And despite buffer overflows being a well-known risk with documented defenses, nobody caught this for two years. Two years! It took a Google researcher and engineers at the Finnish security firm Codenomicon to find the bug separately and report it to the OpenSSL team.

How bad is this? Ask security researcher Bruce Schneier:

“Catastrophic” is the right word. On the scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11.

It seems that everything that could go right in open source development went wrong in this case. As an excellent story from Craig Timberg in the Post outlines, the free nature of OpenSSL made it an obvious choice for hundreds of thousands of sites and something of a natural monopoly, that same enormous deployment of OpenSSL encouraged people to assume that they themselves didn’t need to inspect the code that carefully, and OpenSSL developers got so little financial support from the corporations relying on their work that they couldn’t even subject their code to a proper security audit.

The stupid thing is, we knew this could happen. See John Viega’s 2000 essay, “The myth of open source security,” in which he outlines how thousands of users failed to catch “a handful of glaring security problems” in code he’d contributed to the Mailman mailing-list manager:

Everyone using Mailman, apparently, assumed that someone else had done the proper security auditing, when, in fact, no one had.

That doesn’t mean that closed-source development suddenly looks better. (When all this is done, Microsoft’s proprietary and hideous Internet Explorer 6 may still have greased the skids for more successful attacks than OpenSSL.) But it does mean that selfishness/laziness/distraction and open source can become a toxic mix, one we should have seen coming.

Updated, 10:25 a.m., to add a link to Viega’s prescient article.

Reader suggestions for fixing an iMessage mess

Sunday’s USA Today Q&A about getting one’s mobile number untangled from Apple’s iMessage service looks to be one of the most-read columns I’ve done there. It’s also drawn more than the usual amount of reader feedback–including two reports of remedies that I had not discovered during the week or so I spent digging into this issue.

iPhone Messages settingsOne came from an AT&T subscriber in Minnesota:

A few days before the article I had the same problem and called AT&T.  They had me text the word ‘stop’ to 48369, to which I got the response: “FREE MSG: Apple iCloud ID Verification: You have been unsubscribed and will no longer receive messages. 1-800-275-2273″

I’ve since found one confirmation of that fix in a Reddit comment and a posting on Apple’s tech-support forum. There’s also an Apple tech support notice… which only describes this procedure as a way to stop Apple from sending AppleCare identity-verification messages to a wrong number.

A reader in Washington who said he works “at a major phone retailer” sent in a different suggestion that he said “always” works: Reset your Apple ID password.

Go to https://iforgot.apple.com/password/verify/appleid Enter your Apple ID in the space and just reset your Apple ID password. Even if you don’t have access to that email or security questions, it will remove all Apple registered devices from iMessage instantly.

In case you were wondering: Neither suggestion came up in the background conversations I had with Apple PR, even though one is allegedly endorsed by Apple support.
But that’s not nearly as important as whether either cure can earn an endorsement from you. If you’ve found either one successfully exfiltrated a number from iMessage–or if you have a different fix to share–please leave a comment with the details.

When do you decide it’s time to fire an app?

I guess I don’t have to drag the icon for Apple’s Mail program out of the Dock after all.

Mail iconAn update shipped Thursday fixed the ugly Gmail-synchronization bug that I had been displeased to confirm in OS X Mavericks. Until then, I was about 90 percent sure that I’d have to dump the e-mail app that had been my daily driver since abandoning Eudora on the Mac at least a decade ago.

The likeliest replacement was Airmail, except its lack of support for the nifty data-detectors feature that lets me create calendar events from mentions of dates or times in messages had held me back.

Also, I’m really slow to move from one app to another, to the point that seemingly minor feature requirements like that become an enormous obstacle.

I still have Safari as my default browser in OS X, even though Chrome does a lot of things better–aside from automatically filling in contact information from my Contacts entry. And I continue to use iPhoto for my pictures, despite its glitches and Apple’s apathy about fixing them (although with 55 GB of photos, moving to a new photo-management app would be a non-trivial endeavor).

About the only major app that has exited my workflow in recent years is Microsoft Word. But since I’d have to pay for a no-longer-so-current version of that–while either Google Docs or TextEdit augmented by WordService provide all the tools I need for my formatting-free writing, leaving Apple’s Pages sufficient for the occasional venture into graphic design–that was a much easier call to make.

What was the last program you fired for cause? Tell me about it in the comments.