Archive for June, 2011

Responsive Developers

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I was playing with HDRtist Pro and it crashed on me.  The application put up a box to allow me to send the crash report to the developer and include any details about how I was using it at the time.  As it crashed more or less on launch, I’d not really done anything at that point and I noted this and sent off the bug report.  I’ve often wondered when doing this with applications as to whether it really would be helpful.   In this case, a day or two later I had an e-mail from the Developer apologising for the problem and providing a link to a beta version to try.  The beta version worked perfectly.  I replied that that version seemed to be fine, and that previously, except for that one occasion, the application had worked correctly.  I also noted that one never really knew whether reporting problems would have any effect.  The developer replied:

Thank you for helping us to test this release.

We do take all errors seriously, no matter how hard or how long we test, there are always problems that don’t appear on our testing machines.

For instance this bug, we’ve never seen it. We only know it exists from the error reports and thankfully the error report gives enough information to be able to alter the code to stop it from happening again.

I thought this was an excellent response and encourages me to use this application over other alternatives as it shows real developer commitment — and I would prefer to spend my money on developers that merit that.  Kudos to HDRtist Pro.

I should post an example, and I will do in the near future.  I previously posted this over a year ago (using the basic free HDRtist application)

Web Standards, Browsers and Users

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

One issue that is guaranteed to get me frustrated and annoyed is problems with web sites that don’t work either because they have been designed to work with specific browsers, or assume a certain screen size, or fail to take account of users that may have visual disabilities.  This is becoming a more pressing issue as in the UK (and presumably many other countries), more and more of one’s every day tasks have to be conducted on line.

I recently had an appeal for help from a friend who has been applying for jobs, but many employers only allow online applications and she was having problems because the form would not submit from her computer or would produce errors that were unhelpful and puzzling to her.  I’ve had similar problems in the past with sites that refuse to work with anything other than Internet Explorer (which is useless for anyone using a Mac, a Linux system or any tablet), or sites that have been designed in a way where I’ve been unable to get to certain items on drop down lists because there is no way of scrolling the list on my screen.  While in some ways things have got better over the past few years because of the existence of devices like the iPad, a move to standards, and the greater prevalence of Mac computers, problems still arise.   Given the push for many government services to be delivered online, the very people who often need to access those services are often the least likely to have a computer, or have to use a computer at a library where there may be a fairly restrictive firewall, or have only a very old computer running an old operating system and browser.

Another problem that can often arise is that many people now only use web based e-mail and have never set up a mail client (or use a machine in a library where there will not be a mail client set up), but links on web sites for e-mail will try to load a mail client and then the user gets confused.

All of this is even more complicated for those people with vision problems who may be using a screen reader (that is absolutely not going to cope with a complex layout) and even those of us who are partially colour blind can often be at a complete loss on some sites where the colour either makes the screen unreadable or where the instructions are to press a particular coloured button but which we can’t identify.

I remember a news item from a few years ago where even accessing a bank system via a screen reader was enough to set off security alarms.

There is a lot that needs to be done for accessibility and much more care needs to be taken by governments and corporations in their web site development, particularly thinking about how their site is going to work when used by those who are not comfortable with computers, or with disabilities or who are using old software or assistive technologies.

Apple World Wide Developers Conference

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

I think yesterday’s announcements from the Apple WWDC covered much of the material that had been trailed or been wanted.

The announcements on OS X Lion had already been widely previewed by Apple.  I think the main revelation is that it will be coming in July (rather than later in the year) and will be under $30 rather than much more expensive.  The other surprise is that there is apparently going to be no DVD — it will be a download from the Mac App Store.   I feel from time to time that Apple doesn’t always appreciate that in many countries (including the US and Western Europe), broadband is not always as pervasive as  it is on the Apple campus.  A 4GB download (which I think is what is being described as its size) is a significant part of bandwidth allowance for many people in the UK (even on ADSL connections, 5GB, 10GB and 20GB caps are pretty common) and even “unlimited” may not mean much more, or may only apply to bandwidth used overnight.  There is also the problem of download speed — many people only get 2Mb/s or less (in fact when I’m in South Wales I get a lot less than 1Mb/s and would probably have to expect a download time of 9 or 10 hours).  Worse still, there are people who still are only able to get dial-up access.   I think this may also be a factor with iCloud as well.  I use DropBox and MobileMe syncing in many of the applications that I use, largely because I use multiple Mac computers (and used to use them from multiple locations), but I wouldn’t choose to keep all my music and media in the cloud because of the problems with accessing it.  OS X Lion will require a minimum Intel Core 2 Duo processor which cuts off those of us with older machines from the early days of the change from PowerPC to Intel that are only Intel Core Duo.   My MacBook should be able to run Lion but not my iMac, nor my MacMIni that can only run Leopard rather than Snow Leopard (although I should be able to run the latter if / when I crack open the case and upgrade the RAM).  Perhaps it is time for a new machine or two.

The updates in iOS 5 that are due out in the autumn look fairly compelling and include many of the things that folks have been asking for.  The new notifications system is overdue (and I suspect will lead to notifications being used a lot more).  The removal of the need for  a USB wired connection to a computer will mean that iDevices can become standalone devices and make it possible for some folks to just have an iPad rather than a computer.  Obviously this does rely on iCloud and decent bandwidth — although I note that they are going to move to delta updates which should improve things.  I’m not sure how successful the iMessaging service will be, particularly in countries where it would appear everyone just uses SMS.  iOS5 will apparently support the same iDevices as iOS4, so at least there isn’t another step of obsolescence there.

After the various attempts at cloud computing I hope that Apple have learnt enough to get things right this time.  I’ve had no particular problems with MobileMe (although explaining how the syncing works between iDevices and computers and MobileMe in calendars and the like has not been easy — although it is clearer with the new MobileMe calendar which was obviously a start of the transition).   It certainly is not a quick service (particularly here in Europe) — mail sometimes takes ages to load and the iDisk can also take several minutes to access.   I would feel happier if Apple had multiple data centres around the world as reliability has fallen short from time to time.  Subject to my concerns about bandwidth, I really hope that this effort succeeds.   The Music Matching (which allows material not bought from iTunes but imported in to one’s iTunes library to be matched with the corresponding iTunes media in the iCloud without uploading) could be a significant boon and advantage over other competing services, although I notice that although the Music Matching is available straightaway in the US, there is no date for the roll out elsewhere.  It will be interesting to see how the transition to the iCloud operates.   Those of us already with MobileMe get an automatic MobileMe extension to June 30th, 2012.  I noted that iCLoud will be free for Lion and iOS5 users which raises the question of what happens to folks who cannot upgrade to Lion or iOS5 or who have a mixture of devices some of which cannot be upgraded.   Do they effectively have to buy new hardware before June next year?

Overall, I think there are going to be some fun times ahead with Lion next month and then iOS5 after the summer (and possibly new hardware as well).

Heron in Flight

Saturday, June 4th, 2011

I took this photograph of what I assume is a heron in flight in March while on holiday in Suffolk.  It was taken with my 70–300mm zoom at the 300mm setting.  It was a somewhat lucky shot as the bird was flying above me and I just quickly swung the camera and focussed and this was the one shot that worked.

Heron in Flight

E-book typesetting

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

I’ve had an amateur interest in typesetting for most of my working life and certainly from when I stumbled upon TeX and LaTeX.  Unfortunately, when you’ve become exposed to good typography, whether as a result of these systems, or from reading well printed books, one starts to find things that annoy one when standards are not kept.  (I am conscious that this blog suffers from some layout and typographical problems; hopefully I will fix them in the future.)

On John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, a couple of items have attracted my attention.  This piece from Paul Luna starts from an advertisement for the Amazon Kindle printed in one of the UK newspapers where the example shown on the screen in the advertisement is itself badly typeset, and then these pieces from Joe Clark on typography standards in e-books and these poor examples.  What makes some of these examples so bad is that they are not only bad presentation, but make the text either difficult to read or even give the text a different meaning.

I find more generally that if one has been exposed to the high quality typesetting of TeX (particularly with regard to its line-breaking which is optimised over a whole paragraph), every other word processor/ type setting system seems really bad.   As someone who has to use Word a great deal at work for generating documents which, frankly, Word is not up to, it is very frustrating that many of the problems that Word (and other systems) leave unsolved or badly solved were well addressed by Donald Knuth many years ago.