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    Newsletter Issue #1012: About the Stuff Most of Us Don’t Care About

    December 1st, 2020

    I’ve worked for years as a tech journalist. I’ve written for a number of major publications, including a large national newspaper, USA Today, and thus I want to think that I have at least a passing idea of how the other half lives. In this case, other half means someone who can enjoy lots of tech gear without taking out the credit card or making monthly payments on it all.

    Now it’s not as if you actually get to keep the latest and most expensive gadgetry from Apple and other companies. Most expect you to return that stuff within a specified period of time. Apple, for example, has a loan program for reviewers. You — or the publication you work for — has to sign an agreement, and the gear must be returned on time. While extensions are sometimes granted, if you don’t return the items, you won’t be able to borrow any more. Despite having more money than many countries, Apple watches every dollar, and that certainly makes sense.

    Some companies let you hold onto the gear on an extended basis, meaning you probably don’t have to bother to return it. After all, it’s not as if the company will recondition and send the item to another reviewer, although some do that. So despite what some people think, I am not awash in tech gear. I have to actually pay for this stuff I own, so I have one iPhone, my wife has one iPhone and one dying iPad. My desktop gear consists of a 2010 MacBook Pro (regarded by Apple as “vintage” for several years), and a Late 2014 iMac (which has just been declared “vintage”).

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    The Apple Store — 17 Years Old!

    May 16th, 2018

    To understand what the Apple Store meant to me, let me tell you a personal story. In the 1960s, I had a hobby, building radio and general audio gear. Some of it I bought for myself, others I assembled for friends — at no charge. Well, I was a teenager, living at home. I wasn’t rich, but I had a tape recorder and a radio and a mic, so I was mostly happy.

    In those days, I made periodic trips to one of the early consumer electronics stores, Lafayette Radio. After going bankrupt in 1980, its assets ended up in the hands of the company that eventually became Circuit City.

    After moving to the Phoenix area in 1993, I shopped occasionally at a local Circuit City, but mostly for CDs. If I wanted a new Mac, I went online and saved money. It’s not that Circuit City didn’t carry Macs. They had some, and I remember visiting the retailer a few years later and seeing a few dusty models placed haphazardly on a single display table off to the rear somewhere. Most had been left off. The few that were running mostly displayed a Hypercard slide show that didn’t really entice anyone to buy anything.

    Besides, the salespeople were busy encouraging you to check out the real center of the action, the PC tables.

    I recall a report some time later, about Steve Jobs admonishing Apple dealers to give Macs a fair shake. Make that demanding in very raw language. It was, after all, vintage Steve Jobs.

    Apple finally decided to go its own way, by establishing its own retail chain. Jobs recruited former Target retail executive Rom Johnson to help him design the new stores.

    When the first two Apple stores had their grand openings in 2001, in Glendale, CA and Tyson’s Corner, VA, the tech pundits were skeptical. Other electronics manufacturers, including Sony and Gateway, launched chains of branded stores, but they really didn’t go anywhere.

    In large part, it’s because they were just ordinary retailers, only focused on a single brand. So why go to one when you could get the very same merchandise at the same price — or less — at a store with a far greater selection?

    Apple’s approach was to customize your shopping experience with a specialty boutique with what appeared to be a remarkably noncommercial approach to retail sales. For one thing, you weren’t confronted with greedy salespeople trolling for a sale. Indeed, nobody pushed you to buy anything, or even to leave if you just wanted to just hang out.

    If you had a problem with your Apple gadget, there was the Genius Bar where you could get advice, or authorized repairs by a factory trained specialist.

    As a contributor to the Arizona Republic, and later Gannett and its national newspaper, USA Today, I attended two of the openings in the Phoenix area. At the Chandler, AZ Fashion Center, I met  Johnson, then Apple’s retail chief. I also got an Apple Store T-shirt.

    I remember the opening ceremony, where the newly-minded employees welcomed customers with loud rounds of applause.

    In 2002, I received a VIP invite to attend the grand opening of an Apple Store in New York’s SoHo district. I was part of an exclusive group that included Apple executives, even Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller, fellow tech reporters and a smattering of show business types.

    While there, I had a chance to speak with Jobs for a few moments before he pulled his usual stunt to end a conversation, which was to walk away in mid-sentence. But I also spent several minutes speaking with the comic actor Tim Allen, who stared in one of my favorite movies, “Galaxy Quest.”

    Recalling that the film ended in a way that a sequel might have been filmed, Allen said that one key factor that hurt the effort was a motorcycle accident that actor Daryl Mitchell, who portrayed the starship’s navigator, suffered the previous year. The mishap left him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite the handicap, by the way, Mitchell has remained active in show business. These days, he’s a featured player in a hit CBS series, “NCIS: New Orleans.”

    But there’s still hope for a “Galaxy Quest” revival on Amazon, despite the 2016 death of Alan Rickman, another star of the cult classic.

    Now my feelings about the arrival of the Apple Store in the Phoenix area were mixed. Before they arrived, I made a decent income as a Mac consultant. But Apple could provide much of what I offered, at least to people who didn’t mind carrying their gear to the store, at no charge. It didn’t take long for most of my clients to choose the obvious alternative, even when I lowered my hourly rates.

    At first I focused on older gear, mostly Macs that were too old for Apple to provide direct support. As my customers grew older, however, that business mostly faded.

    Despite my bittersweet feelings about the matter, I do get to an Apple Store from time to time to check out the new gear. Overall, the shopping experience remains mostly good, but the Genius Bar is often overwhelmed, so you have to reserve a session before you pay a visit.

    As to Ron Johnson, he finally left Apple and went on to JCPenney to overhaul the shopping experience over there. But it proved to be a poor fit, and Johnson departed after the struggling retailer’s situation only worsened from his attempts to move them upscale. These days he’s connected with Enjoy, a startup that hopes to overhaul the shopping experience.

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    macOS High Sierra: You’ll Hardly Notice

    October 5th, 2017

    At one time, a new version of macOS might have been a huge deal. Apple would announce over 200 new features, and you could always depend on having lots of changes. Some visual, some under the hood. With OS X, Apple would deliver major changes in each release before adopting a tick-tock pattern.

    So a recent example is OS X Snow Leopard, which refined OS X Leopard, and OS X Mountain Lion, which refined OS X Lion. You expect, then, that macOS High Sierra is the refinement of macOS Sierra.

    What this means is that, on the surface, they really resemble each other so closely that you will be hard pressed to detect any difference at all, except in a few ways. It’s not that there are no changes, but it will convey a quick level of familiarity that will allow you to upgrade without much to be concerned about.

    Well, with a few concerns since, as usual, some apps require updates to be compatible with High Sierra, and perhaps some, such as Microsoft Office 2011, will never be compatible. I can still use Adobe Photoshop 12.1, from Creative Suite 5.5, and it does most of what I want. But it freezes sometimes when I quit the application.

    Overall, then, I’d probably recommend the move to High Sierra, although there may be issues with the new Apple File System (APFS). Now a file system is a big thing. It reflects how files are managed and stored on your machine’s drive and thus, if something untoward occurs, you may find yourself having problems. So the Unity gaming engine, which powers such “Civilization V” and other apps, is apparently not compatible with APFS.

    Other apps, including Adobe CC, may also have issues with APFS, according to an AppleInsider article. Unless or until there’s an update, you’d be well advised to avoid APFS.

    Except that the installation of High Sierra on a Mac with an SSD converts to APFS automatically. You can’t stop the process, although there was a checkbox that allowed you to skip the conversion during the beta process. So if there are any concerns at all, don’t do it. Or prepare to backup and reformat your drive as HFS+ after installation.

    At the same time, regular hard drives and Fusion drives aren’t being converted during the installation. Apple promises that a “future update” will offer compatibility, particularly for the latter. The former can be converted successfully with a lone exception. Backup drives using Time Machine may be formatted as APFS, but end up as HFS+ when you actually begin to use them.

    At least that’s what happened to me. After Time Machine did it’s thing, it reverted. So obviously Apple has some work to do. There’s no reason to be surprised, because the file system is a huge deal, and there are so many system variations on the Mac that APFS will have to be refined.

    That isn’t true on iPhones and iPads. With the iOS 10.3 upgrade, they were seamlessly converted, and I haven’t heard of any widespread issues, or any issues for that matter. It just happened.

    Safari for High Sierra gains a few things in the upgrade. Autoplay videos no longer autoplay, which makes certain sites, including Macworld, CNN and USA Today, much more tolerable. I would hope web developers will get the message and stop this dreadful practice. As with other browsers, you can also customize some other settings, including whether to activate Adobe Flash (just say no!).

    Apple also claims that Safari is much faster now, faster than any other Mac browser. Those who might have preferred Chrome or Firefox ought to give Apple’s browser a try. I speak as someone who has used Safari for years, and hasn’t gone the other way. So the new features are quite helpful.

    Another app with major changes is Photos. After arriving with fewer features than iPhoto, Photos has been fleshed out with neat sidebar and far more powerful tools with which to edit your photos. Some suggest that many people can thus avoid Photoshop and other apps as a result. But you can also pass photos onto such apps and bring them in with the mods intact.

    Metal 2 provides better graphics performance with more recent Macs. There’s support for VR, which will expand opportunities for developers to build 3D and VR games and other apps. You won’t see anything until those apps appear, and then you’ll see the benefits.

    As with all maOS upgrades since the late 1980s, I’ve almost always updated my Macs early on, often with access to betas (with ready backups). So High Sierra was no exception, although I was more careful than usual. So I upgraded my aging 17-inch MacBook Pro, from 2010, first. It has an SSD, so I got to see APFS in action. Once I was convinced High Serra was stable enough to deploy on my work iMac, near the end of the beta process, I went all the way with it.

    With three full backups in fact.

    Overall, I’ll give macOS High Sierra a qualified recommendation with the condition that you check your apps for compatibility first. The issue with Unity is a wakeup call, because APFS is forced upon you if your Mac has an SSD.

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    So is macOS High Sierra Dangerous to Online Advertising?

    July 14th, 2017

    Let’s put this all in perspective, shall we? macOS High Sierra, sometimes known as macOS 10.13, is currently in the hands of developers and public beta testers. Assuming a high participation rate for the latter, the number of users may have reached hundreds of thousands of brave souls.

    I say “brave” because it’s fairly buggy, particularly on my aging MacBook Pro. For me, and I gather others, Sleep mode merely freezes up the computer, requiring a forced restart. So when I’m done with it, I just shut it down. After three releases (including two public betas), I had hoped Apple would have eradicated that one. Downloading messages in Mail also stalls for some reason.

    But after a few more weeks, it’ll no doubt smooth out. Since I don’t travel as much as I used to, installing a beta OS on that notebook is not going to crimp my work style. I’ll hold off on the iMac until I’m confident that it’s reliable for a production machine, meaning real close to release.

    One of the most significant changes is the addition of something really essential for your online comfort. It doesn’t hurt that Apple’s claims of superior Safari performance appear to be borne out in early benchmarks. Take that Google!

    The feature? Well, if you have a wide diet of online watering holes, no doubt you’ve run into some where a video starts playing when you open an article. Such sites as CNN, Macworld and USA Today are guilty. There are many others, and you have to wonder about the desperation of some marketing departments to impose this intrusive behavior on their readers. I do wonder how much traffic they lose as a result of this offensive maneuver. All right, I just turn off the video, but it’s embarrassing to have it start when I’m busy recording an interview for one of my radio shows. I use some of these sites for online research.

    In any case, there’s a published report suggesting the move, which was applauded by those attending Apple’s WWDC, has already “struck fear into the hearts of some advertisers and publishers.” The reason is that Safari has a feature that stops auto-play dead in its tracks. It’s up to you whether you want to play the videos manually, or just bask in the glow of silence.

    Now this doesn’t mean those videos don’t contain useful information. For a cable TV network, you may see the original story as featured on your TV, or a short segment from it. It will usually be preceded by an ad, the better to play the bills. But you shouldn’t be forced to jump through a hoop to keep it from playing, or install a browser add-on.

    This is quite different from YouTube, where it’s all video and you expect things to start playing when you open a channel or playlist. Since I have been posting episodes of some of my radio shows there, I want you to listen, but you’re dealing with a site where auto-play is expected.

    So should advertisers and publishers be afraid that Apple has decided that its customers come first? What about Google and the Chrome browser? Well you can expect the very same capability there too.

    The other feature that has been added to Safari is the ability to stop online tracking. You won’t confront situations where online ads follow you, ghost-like, for days and weeks after you visit a site to check a product, or click through an online ad.

    So the logic behind such behavior is that if you, say, decide you want to buy a TV set and click an ad or visit an online store or manufacturer’s site, you may, for weeks thereafter, continue to see relevant advertising about similar products. It’s done in the hope you’ll click on some of those ads, which will enrich Google or some other ad network.

    I would rather think that, if I want to check out a product, I don’t need constant reminders. The other day, for example, I recorded a segment on ransomware for the tech show. I did some research about the latest infections, only to be followed around by various offers to help me fight such dangers for several days thereafter. I was even presented with a banner for a Dummies book on ransomware. Give me a break!

    Now I’ve tried hard to make sure that the ads I run on my sites are mostly passive. If you ever feel they are intruding on your privacy, you don’t need an ad blocker. Just tell me which ad, and I’ll look into it. So far as I can tell, the ads are just there, with limited animation and not much else.

    By breaking the rules, and failing to consider the rights of their visitors to be able to visit a site and not be assaulted by offensive advertising schemes, they deserve to lose business. Unfortunately, they also encourage the use of ad blockers. which means that even the acceptable online ads, the nonintrusive kind, are blocked. We all have the right to make a living, but not at the expense of virtually yelling at people to get their attention.

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