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?

Things I would like Apple to fix in OS X (please?)

There’s been a minor surplus of blog posts over the last month or so expressing concern about the state of Apple’s software quality. See, for example, this inventory of issues from my friend Glenn Fleishman, Craig Hockenberry’s open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, or the Marco Arment post that got spun completely out of proportion.

Apple logo on iMacI can’t speak to all of the faults people have mentioned; without an iPhone, for example, I don’t see many of the OS X-to-iOS problems folks have been griping about. And I can’t say that this period marks a low in Apple’s software quality: OS X Lion got on my nerves much more than Yosemite has. But look: Yosemite exhibits some baffling and annoying defects that I’d like to see fixed as much as anybody else. Here’s a short list:

AirDrop: This has accomplished the singular feat of making Bluetooth file transfer look elegant and reliable. Because one of my two Macs is a pre-2012 model, I have to tell the MacBook Air to “Search for an Older Mac” for that iMac to get a chance to show up at all. And the advertised ability of AirDrop to send files between OS X and iOS has so far been a bust–and, courtesy of Apple kneecapping Bluetooth in iOS, Bluetooth file transfer isn’t available as a fall-back option.

Mail’s time travel: A round of bug fixes have made Mail much less of a disaster, but the bizarre bug that causes Mail to jump back randomly by months, years or all the way to the oldest messages in a folder when I select it remains intact. Why, Mail, why must you feel compelled to remind me of what people wrote in 2011?

non-transparent volume overlaySemi-transparent toolbars and sidebars: Having Safari’s toolbar turn red when I scroll down a CNet story is one of the dumbest features I’ve seen out of Cupertino. I advised turning that off in my USA Today column but have since reluctantly turned it back on: I couldn’t stand how that change not only rendered the volume overlay opaque but added crude black borders at its rounded corners.

Arrogant autocorrect: The automatic spelling correction in Yosemite seems much more out of control than in prior OS X releases, especially when it interferes with my attempts to write proper names and other capitalized words that a sane autocorrect would know to leave alone.

Non-noteworthy Calendar events: I love how I can mouse over a date or time in an e-mail and have OS X offer to create a new event in the Calendar app based on that information. But at some point (maybe pre-Yosemite?), the events created that way lost an editable Notes field: That part of the event-info window is now locked to a “Show in Mail…” link that opens the message from which you created the event. I can work around this problem by editing the event in Google Calendar, but something tells me that’s Apple’s desired outcome.

Safari tabs with escape velocity: Every now and then, I find that I have somehow launched one of the tabs open in Safari into a new window. I don’t know what the exact sequence of clicks is (it’s not mentioned in Apple’s list of shortcuts) but I would like the browser to not do that.

I’m sure there are other Yosemite issues that have been bugging me, but I can’t think of them at the moment. Remind me in the comments?

Weekly output: 2014 tech policy in review, Mac scroll bars

LAS VEGAS–Here I am for yet another CES. Sad fact: I’ve made the trip to Vegas for the show so many times that I lost count in an earlier post whining about being badgered by CES PR pitches.

Yahoo Tech 2014 in review12/30/2014: Tech Policy 2014: Mistakes Were Made, Yahoo Tech

I came up with the photo illustrating this column last of all: As I was about to file the thing and stick my editor with the job of finding some stock art, I thought that a photo of OS X’s Calendar app showing “2014” with the setting sun in the background might work just as well.

1/4/2015: How to bring back scroll bars on your Mac, USA Today

Not for the first time, I used my USAT Q&A to revise and extend remarks I’d first made here. Your reward for reading to the end of a column that might otherwise seem too familiar: a tip about an OS X feature that Apple doesn’t seem to have documented.

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…

Weekly output: net neutrality, teens on Facebook, Chrome and passwords

I had two stories this week show up online without the links I’d added. Since two different sites and CMSes were involved, I’m left with the conclusion that I’m personally snakebit. Or that I maxed out a monthly link quota that I didn’t know existed.

Yahoo Tech net-neutrality post1/14/2014: Why Is Tuesday’s Court Decision on Net Neutrality Such a Big Deal? And What Happens Next?, Yahoo Tech

This was not the column I’d originally written for this week, but when a federal court handed down a ruling Tuesday morning that gutted the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to enforce net-neutrality regulations, I had to drop everything and write an analysis of a result that I saw coming back in 2010. This post initially appeared without any of the links I’d added, for reasons nobody has been able to figure out; we fixed that earlier today.

1/16/2014: Rob Pegoraro, columnist for USA Today and Yahoo Tech, talks about teens dumping Facebook, WTOP

WTOP had me via Skype to talk about an iStrategyLabs report, based on usage data Facebook provides to advertisers, of declining teen Facebook use. About 10 minutes afterwards, I remembered that only two months ago, I’d heard about some enlightening research into teen social-media use that would have been useful to cite on the air.

1/19/2014: Why does Chrome ask for your Mac Keychain password?, USA Today

For the second time in three weeks, my USAT column dealt with a problem I’d experienced on my own computer–in this case, annoying Keychain prompts by the Mac version of Chrome. The column somehow got posted without any links; I’ll ask management about that.

On Sulia, I observed that Netflix’s data on average streaming rates across different ISPs showed how much viewing there involves lower resolutions, heaped scorn on the Weather Channel’s attempt to guilt DirecTV into paying a higher carriage fee, confessed to having a Digital Compact Cassette in my office, shared a fix for Evernote’s iPad app not digitizing scanned business cards, and complained about Netflix becoming unwatchably slow over my 15-Mbps Verizon Fios connection.

 

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.