Archive for the ‘computing’ Category

Apple, Patents and Developers

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

I am not a lawyer, neither am I currently a developer, but the whole issue of patents is beginning to get me concerned and fed-up.   I have no issue with the fact that patents should exist to provide an opportunity for people and companies to be able to exploit their novel ideas and make money from them.   On the one hand we have a patent system which frequently means that inventors have to spend years and enormous amounts of money to defend their ideas as happened to James Dyson.  On the other hand we have patent trolls that vacuum up vast numbers of patents and then sue everyone who might possible be using them.  We also have the problem of the granting of patents for what appear to be almost trivial ideas, particular with regard to software, where the US Patent Office appears to grant patents fairly freely by comparison with the European patent offices.  An example might be the Amazon 1-click patent.

I was disturbed when hearing that Apple Developers were being sent notice for infringement of patent when using the facilities of the App Store for in-app purchase.   It seemed unbelievable that a developer could be sued for using a library API in the way that was documented by the provider of the library.  However, Apple has now stepped in to this battle and hopefully developers will be able to sleep more easily.  While Lodsys seem only to have gone for App Store developers at the moment, there would seem to be little distinction with going after anyone providing an upgrade or update facility within their code for the App Store or for the Android Market Place or even for updating from their own website.   I’m sure this will be watched with interest by many.

Another Mac App Bundle

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Hard on the heels of the MacLegion bundle that I mentioned, is a new bundle from ProductiveMacs.  This one includes eight applications for $29.99 (plus VAT for those of us in countries that levy Value Added Tax).  Like the MacLegion bundle, this one looks quite attractive as at least half of the applications are ones that I’ve heard of and at least thought of trying out or buying.

The applications are:

TextExpander — This one is often called out on podcasts that I listen to.  If one is regularly doing any significant amount of typing (even programming and web development) it can be a big time saver.

Path Finder — Probably the best known Finder replacement application.

Socialite — Not one that I know, and probably not very relevant to me as it really is aggregation for social networks.

HoudahSpot — This is a front-end to SpotLight.  I recall Don McAllister doing a ScreenCast on it some time ago.   I use and recommend HoudahGeo that is built by the same developer for geo tagging photographs.

Today — This is not one that I know, and seems to be a front-end / viewer for iCal.

Blast — Not one that I know and it appears to keep track of recently used files and provide easy fast access to them.

Keyboard Maestro — I’ve not heard of this one but according to the developer’s webpage it is John Gruber’s (Daring Fireball) secret weapon.  It appears to be a system for setting up quite complex keyboard shortcuts and so could well be a big productivity saving.

Mail Act-on — This I have heard of and is a Mail plug-in that provides the ability to improve the ease with which one processes mail (in  I’ve usually heard it talked about with other plug-ins such as MailTags which is another plug-in from the same developers.

TextExpander, Path Finder, HoudahSpot and Keyboard Maestro individually are priced at $30 or more and so if you want any of those, then this bundle is potentially a saving.

Will I buy it?  Well it is available until the end of this month, so there is time to think about it yet.  I suspect that I probably won’t go for it because although is very attractive, I find that I end up not using many of the applications that I purchase.   If I was sitting working at my Mac all day generating text I’m sure that I would heavily use TextExpander, but that is not my life at the moment.  I’m a little wary about Finder replacements and don’t really feel a need for the other apps, but this bundle is undoubtedly good value.

Downloading Podcasts at “off-peak” times

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Like many people outside of the US I have a bandwidth limit on my broadband.  I can go above it but it adds extra cost.  However my ISP has a period overnight (“off-peak“) when bandwidth doesn’t count.   Given the use of the BBC iPlayer and other things, I’ve started trying to avoid doing large downloads during the day time.   Given that I cannot do much about iPlayer as generally one want to watch the programme there and then, the other major items that consume bandwidth are: software updates (particularly some of the hefty Mac OS X updates and iOS updates), and video podcasts (the ones that I subscribe to are not particularly large — 100MB to 300MB each but over a month they do mount up).  While I can usually contrive to do software updates once a week in the morning during the last half-hour or so of “off-peak” time, I really want podcasts to be updated at least each day and don’t really want to have to do it manually.

The solution that I have used for Mac OS X and which I have seen in various forms on a number of websites and have implemented is a very short AppleScript:

tell application “iTunes”


end tell

This can then be saved as an application “UpdatePodcasts”.   Running the resulting application will launch iTunes if it isn’t already running and will update all of the podcasts.

A little bit of playing with iCal allows this to be automatically called during the early hours of the morning.  One creates an Alarm in iCal to run at an appropriate time in the early hours.  The alarm is set to Open a File — UpdatePodcasts.  Provided my MacBook is left logged in, this then causes it to go away and download new podcasts at a convenient time.

To make this work sensibly, I’ve also turned off the automatic refreshing on podcasts.   There is a preference in iTunes which allows you to set it to refresh podcasts every so often — I’ve set it to manual so that podcasts are only refreshed as a result of a specific action — normally my AppleScript.

This has been working well for the last week or so and has shifted quite a bit of downloading out to the off-peak time.

What I haven’t found a solution for is the problem of one or two really large iOS applications.   I don’t worry about updating most iOS applications whenever I notice that there are updates, but I have one (Classical Music Collection) that is 1.8GB.  When I see this needs updating I avoid it and wait until I happen to be up at an “off-peak” time to do the update.  I haven’t found a neat way to automate this updating to happen over night.  Updating applications requires input of one’s AppleID and there is no AppleScript call to do the update, unlike refreshing podcasts so a similar solution isn’t obvious.


Friday, May 13th, 2011

Following on from my small rant on privacy and cookies, I came across a browser plug-in called Ghostery.  There is a fairly extensive description about it on MacWorld, so I don’t think I need to write much more here.  It shows whether web-sites have “tracking bugs” and potentially allows one to block them.  It is available for Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome and Internet Explorer currently.  For Safari it can be downloaded from the Apple Safari Extensions Gallery or from within Safari in the Extensions manager.

At the very least it is interesting to see how many tracking systems are employed on some pages.  For example, the Macworld page linked above shows up with 5 trackers (Facebook Connect, Doubleclick, Google Adsense, Omniture and Google Analytics).

Needless to say, this blog site is clean (but then I don’t attempt to make money out of it through advertising).


How much of our stuff will be preserved?

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

A number of thoughts have been swimming around my brain as a result of two articles I’ve read.  The first was an article from the BBC website yesterday which questioned whether humans have created a new geological age and which was a topic at a major conference held at the Geological Society in London on Wednesday.  The thesis is that man has changed the planet in a fundamental way that merits a new geological age “the Anthropocene”.  There is some debate over the right date for the start of this:

  • thousands of years ago with the rise of agriculture
  • around 1800 when the human population hit one billion and carbon dioxide started to significantly rise because of the Industrial Revolution
  • 1945 — the dawn of the nuclear age — which has merits as a date as sediments worldwide show tell-tale radioactive signatures from the first atom bomb tests

Today there was an article again from the  BBC News — Domesday Project reborn online after 25 years.  This was a project some 25 years ago to create a 20th century version of the 900-year-old Domesday Book, but instead of recording land rights and livestock, it would record life in 1980s Britain based on photographs and written accounts submitted by ordinary people.

Unfortunately, while the project was successful, with more than a million contributions, the distribution was something of a dead-end.  The modern Domesday was released on two Laserdiscs and a BBC Master computer with special software was required to access the interface.  Thus after only a few years most of this was inaccessible to all but a few enthusiasts.  The data has now been reorganised and is presented as a website

This got me thinking — on the one hand, humans have made a lasting impact on the planet earth.   At the same time our “modern technologies” are becoming ever more ephermeral.  Archaeologists discover remarkable information from past civilisations because those civilisations recorded on stone, slate, vellum, or even paper that has survived remarkable lengths of time.  By contrast it can be a challenge to access information from 25 years ago except when it is on paper.

Many of us have shoeboxes full of old photographs that survive remarkably well in poor conditions, but our JPEGs can disappear in a puff when a hard drive expires or a web-server is pulled.  Even at work today, I was looking at computer files I’ve kept over 10 years only to discover that some are unreadable as I no longer have the application that created them.   For that matter, I have samples of both 5 and 8 hole paper tape, punched cards and 8 inch floppy discs that you’d be hard pushed to read now.

I know that librarians and archivists have written about this problem many times, but I think it is one that all of us have to face — the lifetime of much of our electronic media is often less than our lifetimes and maintaining it for longer requires significant work in transferring it regularly to new (backed-up media), choosing wisely about formats, and converting if necessary, and making sure that other people know where it is.

Since going from chemical film to digital photography I’ve realised how vulnerable much of modern media is and I feel that I’m not really keeping up with preserving things that I might want to keep for the rest of my life and pass to my successors.

It is wonderful that the modern Domesday has been “reloaded”, but it hasn’t the permanence of the original Domesday or the Rosetta Stone, or many of the Roman and Greek artefacts.

UK / European law on website cookies and tracking

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Updated at 17:35 BST to mention third-party cookies.  Updates are in italics.

The UK is planning to implement various European privacy rules and one of the difficult topics has been the use of data gathered by websites.  Superficially this would seem to be targeted primarily at advertisers and other large companies but in practice could catch almost every website that is not completely static.  One aspect is that the UK rules will require explicit approval for most cookies to be stored on users computers.

The BBC has reported this here and The Register has a story here.  Both organisations have been running various stories over the past few months on this topic.  Part of the problem has been lack of clarity as to what is required, and the problems of technically implementing solutions that satisfy the rules.

Much of what has been written on this topic concentrates on third-party cookies, and I am sure that the original EU Directive may have been intended to target tracking by third-party cookies, that are typically used for advertising.  However, the Information Commissioner’s Office guidance is framed to cover just about every use of cookies other than those deemed “strictly necessary”.  Clearly anyone using advertising on a site that is provided by a third party is going to need to do something.  Some of the advertising organisations are claiming that by putting a clickable badge on the advertising that this satisfies the regulations, although that is not at all obvious to me.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) guidance says

… you will need a user’s consent if you want to store a cookie on their device. The ICO recognises that cookies perform a number of legitimate functions. We also recognise that gaining consent will, in many cases, be a challenge.

There is an exception, but it is very narrow:

The only exception to this rule is if what you are doing is ‘strictly necessary’ for a service requested by the user. This exception is a narrow one but might apply, for example, to a cookie you use to ensure that when a user of your site has chosen the goods they wish to buy and clicks the ‘add to basket’ or ‘proceed to checkout’ button, your site ‘remembers’ what they chose on a previous page. You would not need to get consent for this type of activity.


After a little more detail it makes explicit that merely remembering preferences is not an exception:

The exception would not apply, for example, just because you have decided that your website is more attractive if you remember users’ preferences or if you decide to use a cookie to collect statistical information about the use of your website.

The full text from the ICO is here.

A lot of smaller organisations will, I think, find complying with the rules rather onerous.  Cookies are often used within packages that webmasters install, but those packages often don’t explain how cookies are used and probably don’t include pages to get the visitor’s consent to the cookies.  Indeed one could argue that getting this consent is itself almost a privacy issue.  Anyone using advertising is clearly likely to be caught with these rules although it is unclear to me whether the responsibility is for the website owner or the third party advertiser.

I did a quick check of the WordPress documentation and there is a page about cookies here, although the page does indicate that it is “in progress”.  As far as I can see, cookies are used by WordPress for Users and for Commenters.  I think therefore it would be necessary to get approval from users when they register.  For Commenters, the WordPress documentation notes that it is “purely a convenience” and therefore in my understanding is definitely not an exception under the ICO’s guidance, and again the code would need modification to explicitly seek approval.

If this is all implemented there will have to be changes to a lot of the standard packages used by hosting sites.  Most photo gallery software will use cookies to store viewing preferences (e.g. number of thumbnails in a row, background colour, etc) and these cookies will need approval.  I can see pop-ups appearing all over the places; and we probably all block those!

Interestingly, the ICO site itself uses Google Analytics and places cookies on visitor’s devices, so I think they need to update their site.  I wonder what they will do?  I’m sure many government sites use cookies.

Syncing with the new MobileMe Calendar with an older iOS device

Monday, May 9th, 2011

I still have a first generation iPod Touch on which I use the calendar a lot and rely on the fact that it gets synchronised to my calendar on MobileMe and on my Mac computers.  However the old MobileMe calendar has now been replaced with the upgraded one (I think 7th May was the last date for old calendar) and this apparently requires iOS 4.x for syncing with iOS devices.  I was concerned about how I would continue to work with my calendars on my iPod Touch but this article from Mac OS X Hints provided the answer.

Essentially you need to turn off syncing with the MobileMe Calendar (from Settings — Mail, Contacts, Calendars — and turn off the sync for MobileMe (or .Mac) calendar).  One then adds a new Calendar account (Add Account, Other, Add CalDAV Account).  The Server is, the username and password are one’s MobileMe credentials and the description can be whatever you want to recognise it.

This works fine for me, although one doesn’t get push updates to the iOS device, but when one opens the calendar it pulls down any changes and updates on the device seem to sync back to MobileMe fine.  Anyway, it gives a bit more extra life to my old iPodTouch.

Obviously, before doing this, make sure that the calendar is properly backed up.


MacLegion Spring Bundle

Saturday, May 7th, 2011

I’m of two minds about many of the Mac Application Bundles that get offered for sale on the internet.   I have purchased some in the past including a previous MacHeist.  In the past I’ve often been seduced by the very attractive pricing and the low bundle price, but if I look back some months later I’ve found that I’m not actually using any of the applications that I bought in the bundle.   I then feel that I really would have been better off trying trial versions and seeing whether the applications really are going to be useful for me and then just buy what I want.

I’m hoping that the MacLegion Spring Bundle will prove otherwise.   This is $49.99 for 10 applications, together with HDRtist Pro for the first 9000 customers.  As I type this there are about 5 and a half days left in this promotion and about 6,500 bundles have been sold.  The attraction for me is that the bundle includes Data Rescue (which itself is worth more than the bundle price) and which I’ve thought of buying in the past in order to have it ready at hand.  Other attractive applications to me are ScreenFlow (again worth more than the bundle price, although I’m sure I will never get round to making any screencasts and so probably it will go into my “applications never seriously used” collection), Intego’s Virus Barrier (which I hope that I don’t want to use!), ForkLift (which I’ve thought of buying previously), Launchbar (another launcher that is well though of it the Mac community and which I have thought of buying) and Printopia (which provides AirPrint and more for those of us that don’t have the right AirPrint capable printers and is something I’ve thought of purchasing).  Applications that I probably won’t use (and may well not even install) are: Contactizer Pro, Amadeus Pro (I’ve already got plenty of other audio editing applications), Radio Gaga, and MacPilot.

In addition I’ve already used HDRtist (which is free) and so may well use HDRtist Pro.

All in all this bundle looks attractive with many first-class applications.   Well worth a look.

UK 3G coverage

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

I’ve written about UK 3G coverage problems in the past, but have been reminded of this again today due to an article in The Sunday Times which reports of smartphone users being disappointed to discover that they cannot use their phones very well because although they may have been told that coverage was good, when they get home they discover the coverage is actually quite poor.   The newspaper article illustrates this by comparing coverage maps from the operators with the coverage maps that the same operators supply to local authorities when wanting to get planning permission for a new mast.  The latter maps typically indicate no or poor 3G coverage.

Having just looked at some of the operator maps again for my own area, I suspect that in many cases people are being sold the phones on the basis of the 2G coverage (which is usually good).  For my area the maps from O2, Vodafone and Orange show drastically different 3G coverage with most being marginal (which reflects my experience).

I certainly cannot imagine trying to rely on 3G wireless for broadband (although it seems a lot of people, particularly young people with no fixed phone line, do precisely that)

iPad 2

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

I thought I would write some opinions on yesterday’s iPad 2 announcement.  These are my personal opinions and may not have any great value.

I think in terms of the hardware, much of what was announced was expected.  It seems that cameras were pretty much guaranteed given the desire to get FaceTime on as many devices as possible.  From what I’ve seen, it is not exactly clear what the resolution of the rear facing camera is, but given that I don’t think one would want to take photographs with an iPad, the main driver would be the ability to do FaceTime where you show your surroundings as video.  We have become very used to Apple producing thinner and lighter devices, but I suspect that rather like when the iPod Touch came out, it will feel “impossibly thin”.  Again the improvements to the processor and the graphics are somewhat expected, although it would appear that the graphics is significantly enhanced (which may be a precursor to a future enhancement to a screen with increased resolution).

In terms of my experience with the iPad, the addition of the cameras and Face Time would have changed my use in the past.   Until recently I had been working away from home and every evening would bring up iChat on my MacBook for when my partner might contact me.   Consequently I would eat my evening meal with the MacBook on the table in front of me while usually watching a video podcast or streaming a television programme recorded via my Elgato EyeTV USB stick on my MacMini.  The only reason for not using the iPad was iChat.  If I were in the similar situation with an iPad 2, the MacBook would stay in the study and it would be the iPad that would be carried around with me in the evening, except when wanting to do more serious computing work.

In many ways, I think the software enhancements are as important as the hardware upgrades.   The extension of “Home Sharing” to the iPad so that it can stream media from iTunes libraries (just like the Apple TV 2) will certainly be useful to me, particularly with video podcasts.  I’m now typically watching these through my Apple TV streamed from my MacBook, but I also have them synced to my iPad.  However, as I only sync my iPad about once a week, one loses track of what has been watched rather easily.   Simply not syncing but streaming from a single iTunes library will be far more consistent.   Indeed, I can see that in the future if one only uses an iPad at home, then syncing will only really be necessary for software upgrades.  In my case I often travel with the iPad, but the only time to sync will be before and after travelling.

The improvements to AirPlay are also significant though not unexpected.  This gives much more flexibility to push stuff on to the television via Apple TV or video through an Airport Express (which I use a lot).

The inclusion of the new iMovie application for the iPad was inevitable given its existence on the iPhone 4 and the presence of the cameras on the iPad.  Garageband signals that Apple definitely doesn’t think of the iPad as just a device for consumption, but then many other application developers clearly see the ability of the iPad to be a useful creative device, as is evidenced by the many musical instrument applications and other creative tools.

I shall not be in the market for an iPad 2 — it is less than a year since I bought my iPad when it came out in the UK, and I shall probably be looking forward to the iPad 3, but the software enhancements will benefit me and all the other iPad owners.

The one sad aspect is that according to the Apple website, the new version of iOS is not available for the iPod Touch second generation.  This means that in my household with an iPad, and a first and second generation iPod Touch, I shall be running three different versions of iOS.  Perhaps fragmentation isn’t only an Android problem!