Weekly output: Neil deGrasse Tyson, iCloud files, Mountain Lion notifications

This was not a good week for productivity. The inauguration took out Monday, and a couple of late nights for inaugural festivities made the cold I was already feeling a lot worse. Then caught a glancing blow from some kind of stomach bug that left me uninterested in eating for 20 hours or so.

I could take notes and socialize at the events I went to Tuesday and Wednesday–washing my hands all the time to try to avoid sharing my illness–but I didn’t have the strength to write anything once I got home. And while I did file two things I’d been working on for the Disruptive Competition Project blog Friday afternoon, neither was posted. Hence the total of two headlines on this week’s list.

Ars Technica NdGT post1/24/2013: Neil deGrasse Tyson: science funding can “guarantee your economic future”, Ars Technica

My NASA Tweetup connections led to an invitation to a talk by one of America’s favorite astrophysicists to mark the launch of a new House Science and National Labs Caucus; then I wrote up his lecture and Q&A for one of my favorite tech-news sites. I tried to put his talking points into the political context of how hard it can be justify government funding of any new projects.

In the process, I had to leave out some notes about the sense of humor Tyson displayed, such as a comment about the compatibility of astrophysics’ shorter words with hip-hop lyrics (“I can’t rhyme with orthoclase feldspar or deoxyribonucleic acid”). So if the post makes him sound like a scold, that’s on me.

1/27/2013: How do I move files from iCloud to Mac?, USA Today

I knew iCloud didn’t act like other Web-based file-storage services, but I didn’t realize how much it departed from OS X’s traditions until I stumbled across the one easy way to move multiple files from iCloud back to a Mac–using iCloud file dialogs. The column also includes a tip on making Mountain Lion’s Notification Center less intrusive.

On Sulia, this week’s highlights included my first impressions of Facebook’s Graph Search, continued excoriation of CBS Interactive’s interference with CNET’s reviews, context about smartphone unlocking becoming illegal (again) this weekend, and some snarky comments about Twitter’s new Vine six-second-video-clip service.

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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: Outlook.com, the cloud, 8K TV, Activity Monitor, Mac App Store

It took me a while, but I finally managed to have a week in which smartphones did not figure into the lede of any review.

7/31/2012: Microsoft Outlook: Not Hotmail, Not Quite Gmail, Discovery News

I had high expectations for this service when I got an embargoed briefing of it from Microsoft about two weeks ago–finally, I thought, I might have something that would allow me to move my home e-mail from Google. But I didn’t know at the time how limited Exchange ActiveSync support could be: Contrary to my first expectations, this Hotmail successor leaves Mac users no way to sync their e-mail to a desktop client. My review devoted more words to this topic than most; I was glad to see the same issue come up multiple times in the Reddit discussion Microsoft invited, and I hope Outlook.com’s developers take the numerous hints.

8/3/2012: Questions to Clarify Cloud Computing, CEA Digital Dialogue

After reviewing Google Drive and seeing how tightly Apple and Microsoft’s new and upcoming software integrate each company’s cloud services, I realized I wasn’t sure which ones to include or rule out. So I wrote up the questions I’d want to ask of any cloud service for CEA’s blog.

If you’re curious about the photo, it consists of a Nexus 7 tablet resting on the screen of a MacBook Air. It took a few tries to get enough of the cloud cover reflected on each screen.

8/3/2012: ‘8K’ TV: More Pixels Than Can Meet Your Eye, Discovery News

After Comcast invited me to a screening of some “Ultra High Definition” Olympics video (as in, 7,680 by 4,320 pixels, adding up to 33 megapixels and change), I wrote up my impressions of the experience. Not a surprise, considering my earlier writing: I didn’t come away hoping to get something like that in my living room. Actual surprise: a reader wrote in to protest that studies by the Japanese broadcaster NHK showed that people could distinguish the higher resolution of 8K in still images seen at common viewing distances. Since this reader couldn’t get a comment to post, I quoted those e-mails in a comment I added to the post.

8/5/2012: Monitor your Mac’s behind the scenes activity, USA Today

Maybe a day after I’d posted my review of OS X Mountain Lion, I noticed that my iMac (but not the new MacBook Air next to it) was suddenly running low on memory. I checked the Activity Monitor app, saw a CalendarAgent process eating up every last bit of RAM, confirmed that others also had this problem, and force-quit that process. After several tries had apparently beaten this program into submission, wrote a reminder for USAT about the usefulness of Activity Monitor. (It also covered reasons to use or ignore the Mac App Store.) Unfortunately, CalendarAgent resumed its assault on the iMac’s memory and processor after I’d filed this piece; any ideas about what to do next, besides yell at Apple to fix its software?

Discovering iCloud

I’m no longer a full-time gentleman of leisure: I’ll be writing two blog posts a week for Discovery News. My assignment is to give an out-of-the-weeds take on tech topics, explaining what they might mean to you and if they deserve a purchase, a download or a sign-up.

(I’m doing this on a freelance basis, so Discovery won’t the only place to find my work. More on that as I know it.)

My first post for the Silver Spring firm is a look at Apple’s iCloud news. I wrote “news” instead of “service” because so much of iCloud remains open only to developers testing a beta version. Most of its features won’t ship until its iOS 5 mobile operating-system upgrade ships this fall; some will require extra work by third-party developers.

But Apple did give an exceptionally detailed presentation on this upcoming set of Web-based services at last week’s WWDC event (the iCloud show starts at about the 79th minute of Apple’s keynote video). And from that and subsequent writeups, two things jumped out at me: This service will be far more device- and app-specific than other cloud services, and it also seems to have left out Web access to your content.

That is, while Google Docs and Amazon’s Cloud Player, to name two competing cloud services, each require nothing more complicated than a Web browser through which you can edit a spreadsheet or play a song, Apple will make you run an app on your Mac, PC, iPhone or iPad to do those things. Its core strategy appears to involve replacing in-browser access with connected apps.

(No, Apple didn’t specifically say “we won’t let you get at your iCloud info in a browser.” But its unwillingness to mention iCloud Web apps in a nearly 40-minute introduction to the service should be as telling as its failure to note the addition of turn-by-turn navigation to the iPhone’s aging Maps program. The only hint of Web access came when Steve Jobs said iCloud’s e-mail would not include ads–but to omit a Web-mail interface would be a special sort of insanity. Update, 6/13, 2:38 p.m. Joshua Topolsky got Apple PR to confirm that it will retire all of the current MobileMe Web apps when that service closes on June 30, 2012, without any plans to replace them: “You will no longer be able to log in and check your mail through a browser, change calendar events, or edit contacts.” Update, 6/26, 2:31 p.m. Eleven days after Topolsky’s article, Apple posted a Q&A on the MobileMe-to-iCloud transition that promised Web access to iCloud’s e-mail, contacts and calendar services this fall. Left unanswered: How a company that prides itself on elegance as much as Apple does could make such a mess of its message.)

Apple’s service should work much better at the machine-to-cloud intersection, because it, unlike Google or Amazon, knows what software will be waiting there. The one part of iCloud that I could test, iTunes in the Cloud, worked just as advertised: It took only one tap on our iPad2 to download a song I’d bought in my Mac’s copy of iTunes to that tablet. Then I bought another song on the iPad’s version of iTunes; within 10 seconds, it was downloading on the Mac.

But if I’d wanted to listen to my iTunes collection on a friend’s computer or a work machine without downloading it at all, I’d be out of luck.

And what if your hardware inventory includes more than Macs, Windows PCs and iOS devices? What if there’s an Android phone or a Linux computer in the mix? What if you can’t install Apple’s software on your work PC? Computing life isn’t always as tidy as it might look in a Steve Jobs keynote or in an Apple Store.

How to follow a Stevenote

In an hour or so, a few hundred technology journalists–along with analysts, Apple employees and various invited guests–will stream into an auditorium in San Francisco’s Moscone West convention center. The occasion is the keynote opening Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference.

For once, the subjects of Steve Jobs’ keynote aren’t a mystery–Apple announced last week that it would cover iOS 5, the next version of the iPhone and the iPad’s operating system; Lion, the next release of Mac OS X; and its upcoming, still-undefined iCloud Web-based suite of services. But the style and content of the keynote (or “Stevenote” in the vernacular) shouldn’t be a mystery either.

Having covered more than few Stevenotes myself–for example, Macworld 2008, the introductions of the iPad and iPad 2, and last September’s relaunch of the Apple TV–I’ve gotten reasonably familiar with the genre. Here are a few things to watch for in coverage of today’s keynote, and in the video Apple will post on its site later today if it sticks to standard practice.

(To my fellow tech reporters covering it live: Good luck with the wireless! You’ll need it.)

  • The how-we’re-doing summary: Jobs keynotes often lead off with an upbeat recap of all the different ways that Apple has excelled, including data about iPhone sales, an update on the App Store’s inventory and sales, and a slide show of Apple’s recent store openings.
  • Trash-talking the competition: Next, you may see Jobs discussing how the competition has wasted its chance, building out a theme of “we may not be first to this market, but we’re going to be the best.” Watch this part and read any live coverage of it with great skepticism–it’s easy to filter out inconvenient statistics, and outright misquotes have been known to surface here.
  • Demo time: Jobs and a succession of product managers from Apple and other companies will show off how the new software or hardware looks and works. It’s easy to rig a demo–but because Apple refrains from showing off things it isn’t ready to ship, these are reasonably credible exhibits. But watch out if the WiFi melts down as it did in last year’s WWDC.
  • Promises of third-party support: The reality distortion field can get especially thick in this section, when Jobs and executives from Apple and other companies outline how the entire industry is coalescing around Apple’s new software, service or standard. But other firms can be stubborn, especially if they already fear Apple’s influence in a market sector: Nine months after the Apple TV debuted, in distinct contrast to early estimates from analysts, you don’t have a better selection of major networks renting shows on iTunes.
  • Optional nods to open standards or open source: Apple likes “openness” in principle, so it often touts that as a virtue in its products. Sometimes it’s for real: Apple not only built its Safari browser on the open-source foundation of KHTML, the company has since greatly improved its resulting WebKit open-source code base and brought it to smartphones–so if you use an Android, webOS or BlackBerry 6 phone, you can thank Apple for its browser. But at other times, the promises of openness in a Stevenote vanish in practice: A year after Jobs pledged to make FaceTime video calling an open standard, it remains closed.
  • Ship date and price: Unlike too many other tech companies, Apple doesn’t leave the audience guessing. Jobs will name a price and a date for the hardware, software or service being introduced. And the company almost always sticks to them (unless it’s the white iPhone we’re talking about).
  • Video break: Having outlined what a great product Apple has, Jobs will sometimes screen an ad or marketing video making the same points. If it’s an ad, he may even play it twice after saying something like “Wasn’t that great? Let’s watch it one more time.”
  • “One more thing”: Jobs loves to save one last surprise for the tail end of the keynote. My guess is that the odds of an OMT are a little higher this time around, since Apple has already outlined the main points of the keynote–why take all the fun out of the guessing game?

On that note, here’s this post’s “one more thing”: Remember that Apple isn’t always as big on incremental upgrades as other companies. You could consider that a downside of its intent on showing off new releases in a finished state. But either way, don’t buy its latest iThing thinking that subsequent maintenance releasees will quickly  fix what’s missing from it. Apple might grant your wishes in the next major yearly update–but that’s a long time to wait. And by then, you’ll have a new Stevenote to tantalize you.

Update, 5:39 p.m. You can watch the nearly two-hour keynote on Apple’s site if you have its QuickTime software installed. I’ve also fixed some spellcheck-proof typos in the first version.

How to react to Apple’s iCloud news: Remember that Apple isn’t Google

Apple did something ridiculous this morning: It outlined what it would announce at next week’s Worldwide Developers Conference. In a press release, it both quieted months of speculation by listing the products it plans to introduce at WWDC:

Lion, the eighth major release of Mac OS® X; iOS 5, the next version of Apple’s advanced mobile operating system which powers the iPad®, iPhone® and iPod touch®; and iCloud®, Apple’s upcoming cloud services offering.

Telling people what you’re going to talk about may be how most other tech companies operate, but not Apple. The Cupertino, Calif., company would rather play it coy–it asked journalists to witness the iPad’s unveiling on eight days’ notice in an e-mail vaguely headlined “Come see our latest creation.”

Knowing what Steve Jobs will show off during Monday’s keynote takes some of the drama out of the enterprise, but at the same time it also frees people to speculate even more about these particular products.

There’s the least mystery overall about Lion: Apple described its features last fall. The iOS 5 software for the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod touch shouldn’t involve too much guessing, since it ought to be obvious what Apple needs to fix: its notification system and its now-obsolete maps app, for starters. (Rumors also suggest that Apple will do the smart thing and offer some iOS equivalent of the widgets that let Android users tap into features of their applications from the home screens of their devices.)

But then there’s iCloud. Over the last few years–and especially since news emerged of the massive data center Apple has been building in North Carolina–this Web-based service has been seen as a 2.0 version of Apple’s $99-a-year MobileMe contacts/calendar/e-mail service, an overdue fix for data transfer between a Mac and an iPad, Apple’s response to the cloud-based music-streaming services of Amazon and others or, at its most ambitious, an ambitious suite of free and paid services that could finally give Apple an answer to Google’s array of Internet-hosted services and apps.

Any or all of those things could be true. But before you start daydreaming about the prospect of Apple taking on Google, remember that Apple isn’t Google.

I don’t mean that as an insult. Where Google often launches things in an unfinished state–as advertised with its usual “beta” label–Apple ships completed products. You usually don’t have to hope for the 1.1, 1.2 or 1.5 release that will bring the thing to fruition.

But at the same time, Apple products are less likely to improve over time than Google’s. There’s no better case for that than iCloud’s predecessor MobileMe: Although Apple tackled the reliability problems that made it unusable at its debut, it’s ignored numerous other opportunities to upgrade that service. Three years later, it has: no increase in its stingy 20 gigabytes of online storage; no mobile site to let you view your MobileMe data on a non-Apple phone; no Dropbox-elegant file synchronization; no sync tools to let you connect contacts or calendar apps besides Apple’s own Address Book and iCal and Microsoft’s Outlook; no options for third-party developers to write their own.

Apple’s other recent venture into Web services, the underwhelming iTunes Ping, has also quickly gone stale.

This represents a distinct contrast to the steady stream of iterative improvements you see in such Google Web apps as its mapping service and software–and in how Apple has built on each new advance in Mac OS X, its computers and its mobile devices. Apple’s inattention to MobileMe reminds me a lot more of how Yahoo has squandered the potential of its Flickr photo-sharing service.

I fully expect that, when spotlighted in a Steve Jobs keynote, iCloud will look great. It may even wow a lot of users when they can sign up from home. But unless there’s been a major change to Apple’s developmental DNA, that may be as good as iCloud will get for a long time.