The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

June 1, 2015

I Went to the Dark Side, Now Where’s My Cookies?

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , — Brian Lutz @ 2:38 am

As I noted in the last post, I started a new job a few weeks ago.  Given the number of different jobs I’ve been in over the years, this isn’t anything unusual, but in this particular instance the transition from one job to the next has been a little more difficult than usual, mostly because for the first time in my professional career I have found myself needing to use a Mac for my day-to-day work.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty much a diehard PC junkie, and anyone who has read my various writings over the years (especially the older stuff I’d really prefer to just keep buried in the depths of the Internet Wayback Machine never to see the light of day again) knows that I’ve never cared much for Apple in general or Macs in particular, mostly as a result of early exposure to Mac zealots in my formative years.  One thing I’ve learned about my personality over the years is that I automatically tend to become skeptical about pretty much anything that inspires irrational fanaticism.  There used to be a time when I wouldn’t go anywhere near a Mac, but over time my career path and various circumstances have mellowed my attitudes toward Apple products somewhat.

I am no longer at a point where I would just flat-out refuse to use anything with an Apple logo on it, but I still don’t care for them all that much.  In fact, after using a number of different tablets over the years I’ve pretty much settled on an iPad Mini as my everyday tablet (although I think I might eventually go back to the 10″ size since the Mini is a little smaller than I’d like it to be.)  I’ve tried a number of other ones (most notably a Nexus 7,) but haven’t been able to quite get used to them on a day-to-day basis.  I know quite a few people who have gotten to the point where they have basically replaced their computers with an iPad for personal use, and for some people I can see that making sense.

The problem with it in the long-term is that tablets in general (and iPads in particular) are functionally limited in what you can actually do with them.  Even though I’ve done it before, I would not recommend doing any significant amount of writing using a touchscreen keyboard.  And unless you’re running on a tablet with a full Desktop OS like a Surface Pro your tablet doesn’t have the capability to develop software for itself (and even there I wouldn’t recommend it.  Even with the Type Cover my Surface Pro still has a pretty horrible keyboard for anything but the most basic of typing.)  When it all boils down, tablets are great devices for consuming media (video, audio, etc.), so-so devices for web browsing, and flat-out terrible devices for basically any productive work.  In spite of that, they still have their niche.  Even though I’ve got all the computing power I could possibly need in my big powerful Windows desktop, there are times when you just don’t need all of that.

Which brings me to my experience with using a Mac.  Somehow I suspect that I would have had an easier time getting used to a Mac if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve spent over 20 years using PCs, and have gotten very comfortable with them over the years.  One of the things I’ve noticed about computer users is that over time they begin to develop their own workflow and particular ways of accomplishing certain tasks.  You like to have this window here, certain taskbar icons in certain places, certain keyboard shortcuts you like to use, and so forth.  The last time I bought a new smartphone (nearly three years ago at this point) I found that one of the first things I did with it was to arrange the homescreen icons and widgets in as close to the same layout I had with my old phone as possible.  Given the fact that I was going from one HTC phone to another at the time it was pretty easy to get it pretty close.  The biggest issue I’ve found when switching between PC and Mac is that there’s really no way to replicate that familiar workflow when switching to a different operating system.  Eventually you come up with a workflow that (sort of) works on there, but there always seems to be a couple of things missing, and a couple of things that you can never seem to get quite right.

In my case, perhaps the biggest nuisance of switching between Windows and Mac on a daily basis is the fact that a lot of the keyboard shortcuts are almost, but not quite, the same between the two.  For example, the copy and paste commands (which I use a lot) are CTRL-C/V and Command-C/V on PC and Mac respectively.  The annoying part is that the Mac keyboard has a CTRL key in approximately the same place that a standard PC keyboard does, but it does basically nothing except for inside the command shell, where Command-C (a commonly used *nix command to abort a running process) doesn’t do anything.   What this means is that switching between the two platforms involves a fair bit of having to do things twice because you used the wrong keyboard shortcut (which happens to be the right keyboard shortcut on the other platform).

One of the reasons I’ve never been much of an Apple fan is that for all of their obsessive focus on design, they frequently seem to place form over function, opting to make things look pretty at the expense of making them useful.  Perhaps the biggest example of this in OSX that I’ve found is in notifications.  On a Mac, notifications for things like mail and updates are placed in a little pop-up that appears in the upper right corner of the screen.  I’ve found that this has a tendency to get in the way of things, as it happens to be right in the area where I might have things like browser tabs or menu options.  There is also no obvious way to dismiss these notifications.  I figured out eventually that you have to click on them and push them back off the screen, but most users wouldn’t be able to figure that behavior out without being prompted, and there’s no obvious prompt for this.  As far as I can tell, there’s no way to move it (and a Google search reveals mostly message board posts complaining about the behavior) and no real solution to this besides to turn notifications off.  On a Windows machine, the vast majority of these notifications happen in the lower right corner, which makes a lot more sense because it rarely interferes with anything there.  Windows apps also tend to standardize on right-click to dismiss notifications, or at least provide an obvious X icon.

Another major nuisance I’ve found compared to Windows on the Mac is that there’s no good way to deal with child windows in an app.   The way I have Windows 7 set up, these child windows just show up in the taskbar, which makes them nice and easy to find (Windows also has a “group icons” option, which I find much less useful.)  On the Mac, you can’t see where any of your windows are unless you open “Mission Control”,  a view that basically shows every open window at once.  If you’re using a trackpad you can use a gesture to open this, but if you’re on a Magic Mouse there’s no good way to do it without using a keyboard shortcut. So basically if you’re looking for a window you had open but moved away from (such as an e-mail message) you have to find the icon in the dock, right-click on it )or command-click if you’re one of those Mac traditionalists who never bothered enabling right-click) and find the window you were using.It’s just a pain to deal with really.  I suppose someone used to using a Mac would know how to do all this, but especially for someone who has been using Windows for years, this stuff just seems like a bad user experience to me.

That said, in spite of various nuisances in the operating system, I do have to say that the hardware is top-notch, which is pretty much what you’d expect for the premium price you (or in my case, someone else) would pay for Apple hardware.  After years of dealing with laptop keyboards ranging from mediocre to outright terrible (I have to say that the Type Cover on my Surface Pro tends much more toward the latter category unfortunately) I’ve found that the keyboard on the MacBook Pro is actually quite nice to type on.  The USB Apple Keyboard I use at my desk at work is slightly less so, but still pretty decent.  The construction of the system is nice and solid, and after you use something like this you start to wonder why you spent so long dealing with cheap plastic laptops.  For the development work I’m involved in, it’s also nice not having to go search the Internet for an ADB driver for every Android phone I connect to the system, and having a proper Unix command shell to work with, since the work I do actually involves a fair bit of work in the command line.  That said, there does still seem to be something of a disconnect between the Mac side of things (Finder and it’s version of the file system) and the Unix side of things, which functions very differently.  For the most part it works, but getting one to talk to the other when you need to can be annoying.

When it all boils down, even though I’m no longer the Mac hater I used to be (I’d say I’ve mellowed out to something more in the “Mac Skeptic” category) I still don’t see myself ditching my big powerful desktop PC anytime soon in favor of a Mac.  When you use both platforms regularly you can see a lot of the areas where Apple and Microsoft copied things off of each other over the years.  Even so, both platforms are still very different from each other, and switching from one to the other (especially if you’re doing it on a daily basis) isn’t exactly trivial.  I think I’ve mostly gotten used to it, but there are still some regular tasks that are accomplished easily in Windows that I haven’t found a good way to do on a Mac.  Part of that may be just a matter of figuring out the proper way to do them, but in general, I find I just have a (very slightly) harder time getting work done on a Mac than I do on a Windows machine.  And given the choice, I’d still rather work on a PC.  That’s not to say that the Mac is necessarily any better or any worse at what it does.  Just that it’s different.  And isn’t different what Apple was going for in their ad campaigns many years ago?

November 16, 2013

Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , — Brian Lutz @ 10:36 pm

Is it just me, or does it seem like practically everyone is trying to sell you a tablet these days?

Seriously, it’s practically impossible to keep up with all the new tablets that keep popping up.  Although there were plenty of tablets that existed there before the iPad was released back in 2010 (support for pen-based input on a computer designed for the purpose dates all the way back to Windows 3.1,) most of them toiled in obscurity, generally relegated to specialized tasks and a few diehards that were willing to put up with their quirks and limitations.  I’ve long observed that for a certain large segment of the target audience of computer buyers, any novel new technology introduced to the public (especially if Microsoft is the company doing the introduction) is largely rejected by most as being a pointless waste of time, right up until Apple makes something similar, at which point it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.  This seems to happen regardless of the actual merits of the technology in question (although I will say lately the naysayers have had a point in many cases, and skepticism toward Apple’s offerings seems to be on the rise even if the sales don’t really reflect it) and has been happening for long enough that a lot of people just accept it as part of the realities of the market.

Nonetheless, regardless of what you happen to think of it as a product, there’s no denying the impact that the iPad had on the market when it was introduced.  Even though speculation about Apple’s entry into the tablet market had been rampant for months beforehand, when the iPad actually showed up it was disruptive in a way that few products have ever been disruptive before.  And at the time the iPad was introduced, I was in a bit of an odd position that gave me an inadvertent front-row seat to the whole thing.  It was about a month or so after I had been laid off from my most recent (and as of right now last) Microsoft contract working on a forgettable project for a dysfunctional team, and somehow I had landed a short-term gig with a small company in need of some testing for an iPhone app they were working on (which is a rather interesting story by itself, but that’s beside the point right now) in spite of my total experience with iPhones being about ten minutes on demo kiosks at the time (which was still about ten minutes more time than I had spent using Android phones.)  Nonetheless, I managed to go in and make enough of an impact that what was supposed to be a two-week contract turned into seven months, and seriously changed the direction of my career for the better.

And even though I’ve never been a big Apple fan, I do firmly believe that the introduction of the iPad in February of 2010 contributed significantly to this.  At the time, we were working on a number of (mostly) iPhone projects for MTV, but as soon as the iPad was introduced, they immediately wanted iPad apps, to the point that we were instructed to all but drop what we were doing and switch our development efforts to an iPad version of the app we had been working on.  The artists (one of whom had to be brought back after having finished his work and moving on)  had to redo basically all of the animations in the app to match the higher screen resolution (this was back when 1024×768 could still be considered “HD” for marketing purposes) and a fair bit of the code had to be redone as well.  Since basically nobody smaller than a Fortune 500 company had any chance of getting hold of the actual iPad hardware prior to launch (and even the ones fortunate enough to have it had to deal with some pretty ridiculous NDAs and security procedures set forth by Apple) we had to work with the iOS simulator included in the SDK to try to test things as well as we could, but even then there was no guarantee that any of the stuff would actually work.  In spite of all this, we were able to get the Beavis and Butt-Head app for iPad into the App Store on the iPad’s launch day.  It was for that reason, and that reason alone, that I actually bought an iPad on launch day (skipping the horrendous multi-hour Apple store lines at Bellevue Square in favor of the local Mac Store, where I was able to grab one with practically no waiting) mostly so I could download the app and see if it actually worked (it did, but not without a few glitches.)  The iPhone version of the app that I was brought on to work on originally ended up not being released until nearly a month later, mostly because other iPad projects had relegated it to the back burner.

Of course, these days the iPad isn’t the only game in town the way it was back when it came out, although they do still command a significant share of the market.  Microsoft, even though they were involved with the whole tablet thing long before most other competitors, was caught flat-footed by the iPad, took way too long to release a not-so-competitive competing product, and nearly four years later is still trying to play catch-up, mostly filling warehouses with unsold Surfaces in the process.  Blackberry and HP’s attempts at taking on the tablet market with their own operating systems did little but leave both companies swimming in red ink (although HP does still maintain one Android-based tablet in their line-up.)  Most of the action in the tablet market these days seems to be on the Android side, where it seems that just about everyone and their dog is making Android devices these days.  On one side, you have the larger OEMs (Samsung, Asus, Acer, Lenovo, Dell, etc.) putting out their own variations of Android tablets (plus a few Windows 8 based tablets on the side) and not making much effort to differentiate their products from everyone else’s similar products.  Google, for their part, is selling their Nexus phones and tablets, mostly by merit of providing a “pure” Android experience free of the clutter and fluff prevalent on a lot of the other Android tablets.  And then there’s Amazon  with their Kindle Fires, which are technically Android tablets, but in reality they kind of exist in their own little world where the operating system is mostly just there to sell you their content.  Throw in a couple of fringe competitors here and there, and you can start to see where this whole thing might start to get a bit confusing.

So, out of all that, what do you actually need if you’re looking for a tablet?  I’m pretty sure I’m not the one to answer that question, since I can barely keep up with the announcements for all these things, much less actually use enough of them to form informed opinions on them.  If you truly wanted to use just about everything you might use a tablet for, you’d want to have an iOS tablet, an Android tablet of some sort, a Windows 8 tablet (probably a real one, not an RT-based one) and possibly an Amazon tablet just for good measure, although there are other ways to consume most of the Amazon content on the other ones.  Ultimately, the answer to the question of which tablet to get depends on your specific needs.  I do have to admit that the iPad Air and the newer model iPad Mini do actually look rather compelling, to the point that for the first time since I bought my original iPad (which was orphaned by Apple rather quickly to the point that it never even got updated to iOS 6, even though the iPad 2 remains on store shelves three years after its release) I actually considered getting a new one.  The $200 trade-in deal Target had a couple of weeks ago for any working iPad probably helped there too, although I ultimately ended up blowing the trade-in credit for my old iPad from that on buy-2-get-one-free video games a week later (but that’s another story for another post.)  Of course, you’re going to be paying a premium to get the Apple logo on the back of your tablet, and in the case of the iPad Mini that premium is steep indeed, especially compared to some of the deals you can get out there for some of the more prominent Android tablets.  On the Android side, the most recent Nexus 7 seems to be the most obvious choice, but if you’re looking for a bigger screen than that (and a lot of people are) the question gets a lot harder to answer.  And as always, there seems to be no shortage of new releases looking to dethrone the reigning champion (with the latest challenger apparently being nVidia’s Tegra Note 7 platform.  Then again, if you’re looking for a somewhat cheaper tablet and can deal with some trade-offs, I’ve actually been reasonably impressed with the Kindle Fire HD that I’ve been using as my primary tablet for the last year or so, but you do lose the Google apps and have to deal with the more limited software selection of the Amazon app store if you do go that route.)

The underlying problem with all this, of course, is that there’s no guarantee that any of this info is going to be valid for more than about five minutes or so.  By the time you read this, I’m sure someone is going to have released some compelling new tablet that’s going to throw the whole thing off, and by the time we sort it all out from there we’ll get another tablet from someone else and the whole thing will start all over again.  In just a matter of a couple of years tablets have gone from being a novelty to being a commodity, and a rather unstable one at that.  When it’s getting to the point where you can just about have your pick of the lot for not much more than $200 or so (at least on the Android side of things,) it’s not surprising that people might not be getting too attached to their tablets.  After all, why stick to just one when you can collect the whole set?

April 7, 2010

Random Thoughts: The Trouble with New Toys

Filed under: Random Stuff, Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:02 am

Now that I have had a few days to mess around with this new iThingy I somehow ended up with and get used to it a little more, I thought I might share a few of my initial impressions. Not so much of the device itself, mind you (I actually intend to do a comprehensive write-up of that in another upcoming post), but of the whole “new toy” experience that comes with the thing. If this post happens to be more typo-laden than usual, I will be using the standard excuse. Yes, you can type on the built-in soft keyboard on this thing to some extent, but it’s really the type of thing suited more to dashing off a quick e-mail or a Facebook status update than a thousand-word Blog post. I’ve certainly dealt with worse (back in some of my young and foolish days I used to actually think handwriting recognition as an input method was something besides an ill-advised curiosity) but I could also be doing this a whole lot quicker on a real keyboard. I am also still trying to figure out the iPad optimized WordPress app, which seems to allow something vaguely resembling Blogging, but mostly it just confuses me and crashes a lot.

If there’s one thing that this device does well (for the time being anyway,) it’s attracting more than its fair share of attention. Somehow I have managed to become the first person in the office to actually have an iPad, and of course everyone wants to see the thing and try it out. What makes this especially odd is the fact that we’ve already been actively developing iPad apps here for the better part of two months before it was released.  Apparently there is another one on the way for use in the office, but for now I have the only one.  I suppose I can justify the purchase though, since my job currently involves breaking said apps in as many ways as I can possibly think of. And believe me, there is no shortage of ways to break iPad apps once you get them on the physical device, Without the actual hardware to work with, we have had to rely on a Mac based iPad simulator to test on. This does allow most of the stuff to be tested, but it does also come with significant limitations, many of which show up within about five seconds of running on a real iPad. I don’t actually mind this much since it makes my job easier. The developers’ jobs, not so much.

For the time being, there’s also some degree of reluctance to use the iPad in public for some unknown reason. I’m sure that within a month or two the things will be everywhere, but I find myself just a little bit hesitant to be the first person on the bus to be seen using one. Maybe I just don’t really want the attention that it might bring (other people might actually relish such attention though) or I’m seeing bogeymen under the seats again (note to self: go find new shrink, current one not working out so great), but somehow I seem to find myself waiting for someone else to be using one on the bus before I use mine there.. Then again, I also have a relatively short bus ride these days since I started getting on the bus at Eastgate and skipping the 520 mess, so I would hardly have time anyway. Oh well. If only the rest of my dilemmas were this trivial…

April 4, 2010

Software Development Makes Strange Bedfellows

Filed under: Culture, Technology — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 11:39 pm

There are times in our lives where we find ourselves looking at where we are, where we have been, and how we got from there to here, and just have to wonder where it all went wrong. Fortunately for me, this isn’t one of those times , but as I look back and ponder some of the events that have transpired in my life since the beginning of the year, I do find myself scratching my head. Honestly, I think that if someone had told me on January first where I was going to be at the beginning of April, there is a good chance that I would not have believed them. Yet here I am, having had two or three good curveballs thrown at me by life, just pondering exactly how it is that I have gotten here. Fortunately, all of this has worked out to my advantage (a fact that I am grateful for) but certainly not in any way that I would have expected it to.

At the end of last year, I was working at Microsoft on one of about a dozen different contracts I have been on there over the past decade. Even as a contractor, Microsoft is a relatively nice environment to work in, and for the most part I have enjoyed it, but there are some teams that I have found to be better to work on than others. Unfortunately, the last team I was on was on that I turned out not to be a good fit for, and just before the end of the year, a rather abrupt decision was made to end my contract. Although I thought I got along reasonably well with the team and the job was paying the bills, the work I was doing was a rather significant step backward from what I had been doing on my previous contract, I really wasn’t learning any skills from this that were applicable to anything but the specific job I was working on, and I got the sense that the test development on this particular team really wasn’t heading in the right direction. Facing limited prospects for being able to return to another Microsoft contract due to short eligibility and a still relatively weak job market outside of Microsoft, I had no idea what was going to come next after this.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long to find out, as a friend of mine who happens to recruit for the local Harvey Nash office contacted me with a potential short-term contract for a small iPhone development studio in Downtown Seattle. Not having a whole lot else going on at the time, I decided to give it a shot in spite of my having spent all of about ten minutes actually using an iPhone before applying (although much of my prior experience in software testing has been on mobile apps, mostly on the Windows Mobile platform.) Upon learning a bit more about the company, I found out they had done a number of iPhone apps for MTV and other media clients, but couldn’t find out much else. I sent a resume over on a Thursday, and was awakened on Monday morning by a call asking if I could report the next day. Some paperwork an a day later I found myself in an old loft apartment in a 120-year old Pioneer square building, where I learned that I would be performing testing on the Beavis and Butt-Head iPhone application they were developing for MTV.

This came as just a bit of a shock, to be honest. Sure, I was familiar with Beavis and Butt-Head (having gone to high school in the mid Nineties, I’m pretty sure I knew of at least one Beavis among my classmates, if not more) but I had always assumed that they had just faded off into obscurity along with most of the rest of the Nineties. Sure they’d get back to the stuff eventually, but they’ve still got plenty of Eighties pop culture to recycle before they got back to that.) In fact, aside from some DVD releases a few years ago, Beavis and Butt-Head hadn’t been seen much of anywhere since they left the MTV airwaves. Oh, and did I mention that back when I was 12 or so I got grounded for watching the Simpsons? I’m pretty sure my mother would have killed me if I had ever been caught watching MTV, much less Beavis and Butt-Head. Nonetheless, the not-so-dynamic duo stared at me from a three-inch screen waiting with a few hundred bugs that needed to be found and fixed. When you’re working in software development, there’s a bit of a natural tendency to try to maintain professionalism by mentally disconnecting the work itself from the subject matter being dealt with, but to be honest, it’s impossible not to take notice of the sheer ridiculousness of the situation when you find yourself having to write a bug report that includes the word “Bunghole” in it, watching 40 minutes worth of video clips full of potty humor to make sure they’re encoded correctly, or spending an hour scouring the Internet in an effort to determine how to translate the word “Fartknocker” into Portuguese. I’m sure my mother must be really proud.

Even if that was all that was all I had going on these days, it would be unusual enough, but another curveball came in the form of the announcement of the Apple iPad, the greatest invention since whatever was the greatest thing before sliced bread  (at least that’s how Steve Jobs and half the Internet seemed to regard it.) As tends to usually be the case with Apple product announcements I met this one with a dose of healthy skepticism, but it seems that people were impressed by what they had seen.  Almost immediately it seems like just about everyone wanted their iPhone stuff to go to the iPad as well, including MTV with the Beavis and Butt-Head app we had been working on.  This meant redoing a lot of the animation inside of the app (and bringing back an artist that had helped out with this earlier in the process) and having to basically go retest everything on the iPad simulator that comes with the SDK (which comes with a fair number of limitations compared to the physical device, which almost nobody outside of Apple except for a few scattered late night talk show hosts had any access to prior to the official launch date)  In one final bit of irony, the iPad version of the app managed to make it into the app store before the iPhone version (which hasn’t actually made it yet as of this writing) in time to be available at the iPad launch. 

None of that quite explains how I managed to end up with an iPad sitting on the desk next to me, purchased with my own money (there will be more on that later, including a semi-thorough review) but with the way things have been going, I can’t say I’m too surprised.  Meanwhile, the short-term contract I started in January has turned out to be a lot less short-term than I expected, and nearly three months later I’m still in, and working on a number of other projects they currently have going.  In the meantime, if for some reason you’re looking for a quick hit of lowbrow 90s pop culture or some flimsy justification for the purchase of an iPad, you can find the app I’ve been working on here:

Beavis and Butt-Head for iPad (iTunes link)

Beavis and Butt-Head for iPhone (Coming Soon)

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