Why Web-mail alone doesn’t work for me

I installed OS X Mavericks on my MacBook Air Wednesday, and now I can no longer use my Google-hosted work e-mail account in my laptop’s copy of Apple’s Mail–an undocumented change in how that client treats Google IMAP accounts has made them borderline unusable, at least if you want to move a message out of your inbox.

Gmail Offline app(Thanks, Apple! Really, you shouldn’t have.)

My complaint about this issue yielded the responses I should have expected: Why not just use only Web-mail? That’s a fair question. Here are a few reasons why I’d rather not:

Offline access. Google does provide a capable offline app for Gmail, and I use it all the time–but its Chrome-only Gmail Offline can only download the last month’s worth of mail. To find anything older, I need to get back online. It’s also easier to take my e-mail to another host if all my old messages are already synced to my hard drive.

A separate tool for a separate task. Because a mail client has its own interactive Dock or taskbar button, it can show in real time how many messages have arrived–and can’t get overlooked among 20 other open browser tabs. And without ads or a browser toolbar that doesn’t help with mail management, I can see more of my mail.

Message management. It takes fewer clicks to select a batch of messages and move them to another folder–especially if they’re not contiguous–in a local mail client than in Gmail’s standard interface, much less the simpler Gmail Offline.

Quick Look. If somebody sends me a Word, PDF or some kind of complex document, I can get an instant preview of it by selecting the document and hitting the space bar, courtesy of OS X’s Quick Look feature. In Gmail, I have to wait for the file to download and preview in a separate window.

Better calendar integration. Both Gmail and Mail can create a new calendar event if they see a date or time in a message, but Gmail insists on adding that to your default Google calendar. Mail allows you to add it to the calendar of your choice.

Individually, these are little differences, but they add up. And while a better Web-mail system could address them all someday, I can have these things on my checklist today with a functioning client running on my Mac. It’s too bad Apple chose to break its own.

So do I now switch to something like Postbox or Airmail–or do I get around Google’s wonky implementation of IMAP entirely by switching to, say, Microsoft’s newly IMAP-comaptible Outlook.com? That’s a topic for another post. But I welcome your input in the comments.

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Sorry, no iPhone review this week

PORTLAND–This may not be the kind of thing I should admit in public, but I am, uh, not reviewing the iPhone 5s or even the 5c for anybody. Things just didn’t work out: One client felt the new models would be covered to death everywhere else, another was holding out hope that Apple would loan a review unit to one of their staff writers, and then I ran out of time to conjure up other options in a week loaded with two conferences in two states.

PDX Apple Store iPhone sign

So that’s how my ambitions of repeating last year’s strategy–where I bought an iPhone 5 and wrote up my findings for two sites before returning it two weeks later–did not pan out. (Fellow tech journalists: Buying and then returning review hardware can be a wonderfully liberating workaround for slow or unresponsive PR departments. Try it sometime!)

I can’t say that I minded not having to run over to some PDX-area AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile store yesterday morning–and possibly find them already out of stock of the 5s–or wait hours at the Apple Store downtown. Even at 9:30 this morning, there was a line waiting outside that shop.

And it’s been pleasant to be able to focus on the XOXO conference here instead of mentally unplugging from it to crank out a review or two.

But beyond the feeling that I’m committing a tech-journalism foul by not holding forth on a new iPhone, I’m personally curious about the 5s. I want to see how the Touch ID fingerprint sensor works, and if the camera represents that big of an improvement over the iPhone 5 camera’s output. Fortunately, a friend on Facebook already made the mistake of bragging about how great Touch ID has been on his new iPhone. He’ll be hearing from me not long after I return to D.C.

Duly keynoted

SAN FRANCISCO–I set a personal record for keynote livetweeting with the 3.5-hour production that opened Google’s I/O developer conference here on Wednesday morning. That was by far the longest tech-event keynote I’ve sat through, but nowhere near the strangest.

I:O logo onstageFor that, I might have to give the nod to Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ freakshow of a CES keynote this year that somehow included Steve Ballmer, Bishop Tutu, Guillermo del Toro and Big Bird. But I could also point to last year’s I/O keynote, capped off by a livestreamed skydive onto the Moscone West roof. Or what about the epic networking meltdowns of one of 2010′s two I/O keynotes?

The Microsoft keynotes that opened CES through 2011 were their own breed of weird, thanks to their history of random celebrity-guest appearances and technical meltdowns.

The keynotes Steve Jobs led for Apple were models of restraint in comparison. (I can’t speak to the live experience of those since his death, as I haven’t been gotten given a press pass to any of them.) Jobs spoke at a measured pace, the slides mostly consisted of white text on black backgrounds, supporting speakers didn’t come onstage to their own at-bat music, and the guests who didn’t work at Apple were almost always confined to executives at other tech firms cooperating with Apple on various projects–not random boldface names.

But the Steve Jobs And Apple Show made its own mistakes. The extended dissertation at Macworld NY in 2001 over how Apple’s PowerPC processors weren’t really slower than Intel chips was both legendarily dull and distinctly dodgy, given that Apple was already working on its subsequent switch to Intel. (Trivia: I think was also the one and only time a review of mine got favorably cited in an Apple keynote, when Jobs gave a shout-out to my iDVD review.) And was it really necessary to end each one by playing an ad for the new product not once but often twice?

I can’t think of too many other forms of creative output more in need of editing than the average tech-industry keynote. But if the people involved can’t do that, I have two lesser suggestions: Keep any slides with numbers on the screen a little longer, so we can jot them down correctly, and follow Google’s good example by providing power strips and Ethernet in at least the first rows of seats for the press.

Weekly output: Mat Honan, Mike Daisey, pausing telecom service, “Free Public WiFi”

Two of this week’s posts involved other people’s stories–either adding context to them or critiquing the storytelling itself. (I also filed one post and a podcast for CEA, but they haven’t gone up yet. I’m blaming the fact that it’s August in D.C.)

8/8/2012: Hacking Nightmare Comes True: Mat Honan’s Story, Discovery News

After reading Wired writer Mat Honan’s Tumblr post about how hackers had hijacked his iCloud and Twitter accounts, deleted his Google account and remote-wiped his iPad, iPhone and MacBook Air, I wanted to know how such a thing could be possible. After reading his explanation of the hack on Wired.com, I wanted to write about it myself–both to yell at Amazon and Apple for their (now fixed) security flaws that enabled the hack, and to remind readers of what they can to prevent the same thing from happening to them. It helped to talk to Honan over the phone on Tuesday morning and hear the stress and anger in his voice. (I enjoy Honan’s work, and he and I were on a radio show once, but I don’t think we’ve met face to face.)

8/8/2012: How Mike Daisey retooled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Ars Technica

Some 17 months after I first saw Daisey’s monologue about Apple, I returned to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in downtown D.C. to catch the 2.0 version, stripped of the material he fabricated earlier about Apple’s outsourced manufacturing in China. This was the first time in years that I’d taken notes on a paper notepad (the prior item in this one was a set of questions I jotted down for a video interview with Steve Wozniak I did for the Post in late 2009).

It was also the first time in a while that the subject of a review wrote back to me. Maybe an hour after this post went up, Daisey e-mailed to contest my interpretation. He said I made him sound too trusting in the New York Times’ reporting and didn’t give him enough credit for addressing some of the related issues I mentioned in this piece in the program handed out to attendees. I replied that those were my reactions, as jotted down in real time in the dark; they may not be a correct interpretation, but the review is supposed to reflect what I thought at the time.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the comments from Ars readers were far less sympathetic to Daisey’s case.

8/12/2012: How to pause cable, phone services, USA Today

I thought a reader’s question about whether he could suspend his Internet, TV and phone services while away from home would make for a nice, easy, “it’s August in D.C. and nobody wants to work too hard” item. Wrong. Some telecom firms have multiple policies that vary by region. The piece also reminds readers that the “Free Public WiFi” hot spot you might see is an artifact of a patched Windows XP bug. (Yes, you’ve read that from me before: I covered it in a 2009 article for the Post.)

Weekly output: podcast, software updates, Nokia 900, Flashback and Java, Google seach tools

Can I count the hours I’ve put into getting my business expenses properly itemized and categorized for my taxes as part of this week’s work? Sure I can.

4/3/2012: Rob’s March Podcast: Sourcing, RIM Shot, Windows 8, “Free” 4G, CEA Digital Dialogue

In this month’s episode, I interview ABC News tech correspondent Andrea Smith about such recent tech tidings as Research In Motion’s travails, Microsoft’s Windows 8 preview release and NetZero’s semi-free 4G wireless service. I also update some of my recent CEA posts–in particular, the item I wrote about outsourced manufacturing. (I’d hoped that talking to a radio and TV pro would make editing the podcast easy, but then I had to work around some Skype dropouts anyway. Sigh.)

4/4/2012: Software-Update Policies Could Use An Upgrade, CEA Digital Dialogue

I didn’t want to write yet another post about the problem of smartphone manufacturers and carriers ending software updates for phones that are still under contract–but how could I not after comparing that example to the two years of free updates my TV received, or Microsoft’s 13-year commitment to Windows XP?

4/6/2012: Nokia’s Lumia 900: A New Deal For Smartphones, Discovery News

I expected good things from this phone after briefly inspecting it at CES and seeing the overall progress of Windows Phone 7. The results I saw don’t match up–especially the bizarre charging problem I encountered just before filing the piece, but also a continued shortage of quality apps even after Microsoft has thrown money at the problem. And yet: After all the issues I’ve enumerated with the iPhone and Android, I want a viable third option.

(I’m still waiting for confirmation from other Nokia 900 users of that charging issue–and for comments about the tax-prep commentary I hid in the photo I took for this review.)

4/5/2012: Secure your Mac from Flashback infection, USA Today

This post advocating disabling or removing Java went up a couple of days earlier than usual, on account of the scope of the Flashback drive-by-download problem on Macs. I take no pleasure in noting that I predicted something like this last May… okay, I take a little pleasure in that. The column also offers a reminder about a helpful but somewhat-hidden search option at Google. I was flattered to see it get a prominent spot on USAT’s home page and show up as the most-read story Saturday morning, as you can see in the screenshot at left.

And one more thing: Happy Easter!

Doubting Mr. Daisey

In retrospect, I’m glad that I thought to take a slightly skeptical tone in a blog post about my reaction to Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which I saw him perform at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre last April.

In the play, he describes such unconventional, perhaps implausible research techniques as standing in front of mega-contract manufacturer Foxconn’s factory gates before armed guards and soliciting workers’ testimony at the end of their shift, then posing as an American executive looking for a new outsourced manufacturer.

My skepticism was well-placed: Daisey lied about how he got these stories, in some cases making up sources.

Rob Schmitz, Shanghai correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace, uncovered these fabrications in a story posted Friday that led This American Life to retract January’s “Mr. Daisey And The Apple Factory” episode. TAL (produced by Chicago public-radio station WBEZ, distributed by Public Radio International, and a favorite on the radio in our car) is devoting this weekend’s episode to unpacking how it bought Daisey’s story.

(3/17, 1:04 p.m. I listened to that episode late last night, and you should too–or at least read the transcript. The dead air between some of host Ira Glass’s questions and Daisey’s measured answers are some of the most uncomfortable moments I’ve ever heard on radio. Oh, and it turns out that Daisey fabricated more than just sources.)

In a blog post this afternoon, Daisey defended his monologue as using “a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story” but expressed “regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue.” Schmitz’s story quotes him as explicitly apologizing for lying to TAL’s fact-checkers.

It’s an appalling turn of events all around. Making things up is the worst sin you can commit in journalism, worse than plagiarism and multiple levels worse than simple sloppiness with facts. It will get you excommunicated from the profession, then it will tar your employer and your colleagues for years to come.

But in this case, Daisey’s fabrications also gets in the way of an unpleasant reality that his flawed work helped publicize: Some of the gadgets that we use are made under conditions we would never endorse. The New York Times’ in-depth reporting from China documents this. (Yes, my client the Consumer Electronics Association has an interest in this; see this Investor’s Business Daily op-ed by CEA president Gary Shapiro, in which endorses stepped-up efforts by vendors to enforce labor standards after saying he was “horrified” by two earlier visits to Chinese factories.)

I’d planned to have written something about this myself before I got sidetracked by some other stories. I suppose it’s good that this delay rescued me from placing too much trust in Daisey’s testimony. But if his errors lead to people concluding this entire issue has been overblown… well, another one of Daisey’s monologues is titled “How Theater Failed America.”

Why I don’t own an iPhone

I’ve written a couple of harsh evaluations of a new Android phone this week: a review of Samsung’s Galaxy Note for Discovery News and a rant for Boing Boing about how the same old vendor-inflicted problems surface on this device.This led to  predictable accusations from readers that I’m in the tank for iOS–that, as it were, I wrote those pieces while affectionately caressing my iPhone.

The problem with that scenario is that I don’t own an iPhone and never have. (My wife has a Verizon iPhone 4 from her office; sometimes she lets me borrow it to try out a new app.) My own phone is an Android device–the battered HTC Hero you see in the photo below, which has exhibited some of the best and worst qualities of Google’s operating system in the two years I’ve owned it.

hero_cyanogen_mod.jpgI didn’t buy an iPhone in 2007, even though I found a great deal to like about it, because I was in the middle of a contract with Sprint. And even if I’d been willing to eat an early-termination fee to defect to AT&T, I would have then had a phone that I couldn’t use anywhere in the subway parts of Metro.

When my contract expired in early 2008, switching to AT&T still would have left me offline for almost all of my commute. I could not wrap my head around the idea of having to use a pay phone to call my wife or the copy desk after work. So–boy, does this look embarrassing now–I took the cheapest adequate option, the Palm Centro Sprint offered for free.

The Centro was no prize, but I figured I could limp along until Android phones arrived for Sprint or Verizon. (AT&T did not wind up offering coverage underground until October of 2009–and still doesn’t work in the two stations closest to my home.)

At my next upgrade window in early 2010, AT&T had shown itself to be a poor steward of Apple’s device by supporting picture messaging months late and failing to upgrade its network in D.C. and elsewhere. On a personal level, I didn’t care to underwrite Apple’s inscrutable App Store curation/censorship–and after enduring two rounds of the “OMG, the iPhone’s here!” get-a-life-you-people media circus, I took perverse satisfaction in thinking differently.

I’d liked the Sprint HTC Hero I’d tried out a few months before, so that’s what I went with instead. In retrospect, that represented dubious judgment on my part; I could have switched to Verizon and gotten the Droid, or I could have suffered with the Centro for another few months and picked up an Evo. Instead, I got a decent phone that got old fast.

Much of that is Sprint and HTC’s fault for abandoning it. They delivered one Android update, an upgrade to Android 2.1 that arrived after I saw Google executives demo Android 2.2, aka “Froyo,” at a developers’ conference in San Francisco. Not long after, I had to root the phone to nuke the bloatware Sprint had welded to it.

After coming back from CES in 2011, thoroughly fed up with how sluggish the phone had become, I wiped the factory software to install an independently-developed build of Android, CyanogenMod. This brought the Hero up to Android 2.2 and, for a time, rejuvenated it. My phone was vastly more responsive, had better battery life, could run new software incompatible with 2.1 and, because I could park apps on its microSD Card, no longer kept flashing “phone is running low on storage” nags. I was all set to rave about the transformation wrought by aftermarket firmware when this thing started crashing a little too often.

“A little too often” degenerated to “all the damn time.” I upgraded to the 7.0 release of Cyanogen, and that briefly fixed things while also bringing free WiFi tethering and an update to Android 2.3 Gingerbread. But this installation, too, became hopelessly afflicted with crashes as its battery life steadily decayed. Upgrading to 7.1 hasn’t improved things much. When this thing crashes for no reason–then crashes again before it can finish rebooting–I feel like throwing it at the floor. (If any of you have tips about what I could to fix this, please share in the comments.) It’s a good thing I happen to have some review phones around to lean on.

I’m now out of contract, and my options are more open than ever. I could get an iPhone 4S on Sprint or Verizon, or I could get another Android phone. As a platform, I like Android. Really. Free turn-by-turn navigation is a huge benefit that makes the iPhone look pathetic. The selection of apps is tremendous–I can’t think of any iOS-only software that I miss. Android’s onscreen widgets and (in 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich) multitasking have no parallel in iOS. I’m just afraid of what the manufacturers and the carriers might do to my next Android phone. It is reassuring that Android offers the escape hatch of third-party firmware–but would that prove as unstable as my current sorry software?

I hope I haven’t gotten myself stuck in yet another abusive phone relationship.

Steve Jobs storytelling and Apple history

I knew I would have to write an obituary for Steve Jobs someday. I didn’t think it would happen this soon–or that the subject would draw so much interest.

But it did, and it has.

I haven’t seen such a rush by people to document What They Felt since… okay, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 last month. But I understand where that comes from: When certain big things happen, if you don’t instinctively clutch for a keyboard or a notepad, you’re not much of a journalist.

So after learning the news–through a voicemail from a local TV producer who wanted to know if I could come on the Thursday morning show to talk about Jobs’ passing–I spent about two hours writing an appreciation of Jobs. Then I spent another two hours rewriting it. Something about an obituary does not tolerate factual errors or even merely inelegant writing.

Every other tech journalist seems to have done the same thing. A few shared stories of getting repeated phone calls from Jobs, sometimes even at their homes–or of visiting Jobs at his home–while others only connected with Jobs in brief interviews.

What’s surprised me since has been the expressions from individual users: the posts on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ (some from users who changed their avatars to Apple icons or pictures of Jobs); the “what Apple products I’ve owned” inventories (mine appears after the jump); the testimonials that have been piling up in front of Apple Stores. The photo at right shows the Clarendon location, where passerby have been leaving messages on Post-It notes (provided by the store, I think). One of my favorites reads “Thanks for ignoring the focus groups”; another simply has the word “Sleep” inside a rounded rectangle, as if it were a button in an OS X dialog box.

It’s all a reminder: These things with screens and buttons aren’t just tools we use and then set aside. They change us. They are part of our culture.

Today’s commemorations of Steve Jobs remind me of another, less pleasant reality: The price of being around at a time when you can meet the inventors of the technologies that changed your world is eventually having to say goodbye to them. There will be other farewells like this, I hope not too soon.

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Debugging a few defective defaults in Lion

My review of Mac OS X Lion for Discovery News represented a departure from long-standing practice: For the first time in maybe a decade, I reviewed a new Apple operating-system upgrade by installing it on my primary computer, not an expendable review machine.

As you can read in that writeup, the installation went fine on my late-2009 iMac, and I consider Lion to be a good deal overall. But I also disliked enough of Apple’s changes to prior Mac behavior that I found myself quickly undoing these new defaults–which is another thing I traditionally haven’t had to do with a Mac upgrade. Here are my major corrections:

Tame scrolling and zooming behavior. By default, Lion imposes two iOS aspects on OS X, “reverse scroll” and “smart zoom.” The former has you flicking two fingers in the direction of scroll on a Mac laptop’s trackpad or a Mac desktop’s Magic Mouse, as if either were the screen of an iPad or iPhone–i.e., the opposite of how you’ve scrolled on a computer until now. The latter zooms into a window if you tap two fingers on either input device–which I found myself doing unintentionally way too often. Fundamentally, I think you need a different user-interface grammar on a computer and a touchscreen mobile device. As long as the computer requires you control it through indirect manipulation–that is, by touching something besides the display–the mobile model breaks down. If you agree, you can undo both of Apple’s changes in the Mouse and Trackpad panes of System Preferences.

Show scroll bars. In general, I appreciate Apple’s willingness to edit out complexity and pare things down to the minimum. But hiding scrolls bars until you start to scroll with the mouse or trackpad seems an enormous mistake. In long documents, I felt lost and kept gesturing with the mouse to force the scroll bar to resurface. The effect was even more annoying in Web forms on a page and in other cramped, scrolling-required boxes. And to what benefit–to save a few pixels of screen real estate on the right edge of the window or form? No thanks, Apple. I’ll live with that clutter if it stops me from reflexively twitching a finger on the mouse every few minutes. To undo that mistake, click the button next to “Always” under “Show scroll bars” in the General pane of System Preferences.

Make the Library folder visible again. Apple somehow elected to copy one of Microsoft’s stupider interface decisions by hiding the Library folder in Lion. This is where your applications store their preferences, supporting files and some of their data–and it’s far more human-readable than the tangled array of hidden “AppData” sub-folders in Windows 7 that Microsoft hides from its users. Many common troubleshooting routines require access to your Library’s contents, but Lion hides the entire folder from view. To make it visible again, open the Terminal app and paste in the following command, then hit Enter:

chflags nohidden ~/Library

(That comes from a TidBITS post, but there are other ways to get at this folder. Macworld offers a full 18 workarounds.)

I may adjust more of Lion’s defaults as I get more familiar with this operating-system upgrade. I can also think of other changes I’d make on a laptop–for instance, setting Lion to show a messages when then screen is locked, then maybe adding Boxee to replace the Front Row media-browsing software Apple excised from OS X. But for now, these are the big three fixes I’d make to any Lion installation. What’s on your own list?

Update, 9/7, 4:17 p.m. Since writing this, I’ve had to change two other system settings:

  • To stop getting flicked from the Finder into the Dashboard by an unintended two-finger gesture, I unchecked the “Show Dashboard as a space” checkbox in System Preferences’ Mission Control pane.
  • After twice losing work when my attempt to scroll horizontally led Safari to assume I wanted to go to the previous page–after which this browser failed to return me to the blog post I’d been composing–I unchecked the “Swipe between pages” checkbox under the “More Gestures” heading in System Prefs’ Mouse pane.