Happy 25th Birthday, Mac!

02.27.09 | Permalink | Comment?

The Original Macintosh 128K Yes, I know. I know. The original Macintosh was introduced on January 24, 1984. Which, by the way, happens to be one day after this immigrant landed at JFK. I have always wondered how Steve knew about it and very much appreciate that he waited for my arrival. Very sweet! But I digress.

When It All Started

Today marks the 25th birthday of my very own Macintosh 128K. Yes sirree, after seeing a Mac for the first time, it was love at first sight. The Mac was a quantum leap and made the IBM PC look like a tiny incremental upgrade over the Superbrain computer that I had access to back home. Heck, the IBM PC even had just one processor whereas the Superbrain had two (two, I tell ya!) zippy Zilog Z80 microprocessors!

St. Mac MagazineThere is nothing magical about this date, February 27, 1984, except that after my encounter with a Mac two weeks earlier, this is how long it took me to borrow the money from my uncle and have it transferred from the UAE. Paid full retail price, $2,495. There was a waiting list but the sales guy, Brett Latzko, was happy to let me have the one that was on his desk. He also threw in free issues of these new magazines called Macworld and St. Mac. The latter went to magazine heaven after only a few issues.

(BTW, it’s funny how memory works. I remember the name of the sales rep but not the name of the Washington, DC store where I bought my Mac.)


Nine months later, my Mac and I travelled to the UAE to spend Christmas with my parents. Mom worked at Total ABK, the local operation of the French oil company. Macs in Abu Dhabi were considerably more expensive than in the U.S., so the head of Total ABK (bonjour Monsieur Naylies!) was happy to pay me full price, $2,495.

Twenty five years later, I am typing this post on a Mac.

Filed under General

Featuritis: Worse Than You Think

01.21.09 | Permalink | Comment?

Dreaming In CodeI just finished reading Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg. The book describes Mitch Kapor’s valiant effort at creating Chandler, a software product that was supposed to be the mother of all PIMs. Scott was there from the start and describes the various mistakes made, such as not having a finalized user interface more than two years into development, switching from peer-to-peer to a CalDAV-based approach late in the game, and so forth.

Mitch is the guy who invented Lotus 1-2-3; he’s been around the block once or twice. The book is a worthwhile read for anyone involved in a team software development effort, or about to embark on one.

Dreaming in Code was a Christmas gift from a colleague, and I suspect that her choice of books is not coincidental. See, we’re starting work on this major new software project. I am not at liberty to disclose much about it, so I’ll call it Project Luceen for now, after my daughter’s middle name. We haven’t starting coding yet — the developers are wrapping up work on another project and I am finalizing the user interface and writing the specs. But while reading the book, the following passage on page 260 caught my attention:

“Success is a by-product of iron-willed restraint — a choice firmly made and vociferously reasserted at every challenge to limit a project’s scope. Where you find software success stories, you invariably find people who are good at saying no. [,,,] the successful programmer thrives because of, not in spite of, constraints.”

Most people think of featuritis as the constant adding of new features, from the meaningful to the superfluous. Kind of like the artist who does not know when to stop working on a painting. But it’s more than that: featuritis is not having a solidly defined set of features before development starts. This is partly what dogged SuperLab 4.0’s development. In the case of Chandler, the feature set was a moving target.

After reading the book, I went back to the specs document and swapped items 1 and 2! The screen snapshot below is of the top of the very first page — yes, even before the table of contents.

Project Luceen Specs-1

Aero Shake

01.14.09 | Permalink | 1 Comment

Last week, Windows 7 became available for public download and beta testing. Paul Thurrott reports on a new feature called Aero Shake:

“Simply click and hold on the grabbable area of any floating (non-maximized) window and shake your hand left and right vigorously. When you do so the first time, all other open windows are minimized. Repeat the action, and those minimized windows will be restored to their prior state.”

Nice. What’s more, Paul provides a link to a utility that makes the feature available on Windows XP and Vista.


01.12.09 | Permalink | Comment?

In my earlier post about iWork 09 icons, I didn’t mean to imply that all Macworld folks are now middle aged! Here is a picture of what must be Macworld’s youngest exhibitors, Forest Fang and Steve Abbagnaro:

tooble kids

Fresh out of high school, they have developed tooble, a nifty utility for capturing YouTube movies and saving them on your Mac. You can then download the movies to your iPhone via iTunes.

Filed under General

New Icons in iWork 09

01.09.09 | Permalink | Comment?

Curious ChapSebastiaan de With provides a nice roundup of the UI design changes in iWork 09, newly released by Apple.

Size Does Matter

The icon changes in particular caught my attention. But where young Sebastiaan sees “all sorts of nice UI changes and icons”, this middle aged man sees (no pun intended) a welcome relief to my eyes: the icon dimensions are bigger, and the icons themselves are larger within the frame. Here are four examples:

iWork 09 Icons

The new ones are on the bottom row. Notice how the Skip icon fills more of the available area. In the new Comment icon, I can now actually see the X close icon. And in the new Bigger and Smaller icons, the up and down triangles are much easier on the eye.

I am happy that Apple is paying attention to its older customers. They are everywhere. While at Macworld Expo this week, I noticed how many participants were middle age and older folks, and not just attendees — even programmers.

Another reason to applaud this revamping of icons is the higher density of displays. While the previous icons looked good on the 1200 x 1920 pixels of a 24″ monitor, they looked tiny on the same 1200 x 1920 pixels of a 17″ MacBook Pro with a high density display.

Not Just iWork

These changes are not limited to iWork. The following two screen snapshots are from Apple’s Texas Hold’em game for iPhone, versions 1.0 and 1.1 respectively. In 1.1, the cards are vastly more readable.

Texas Hold'em v1.0 Texas Hold'em v1.1 Prepare For The Future

Apple has made it clear that it is seeking resolution independence on its displays. I will not be surprised the least bit to find out that, once resolution independence is fully implemented in software, the company will start manufacturing displays of higher and higher density. Inappropriately designed icons will start looing smaller and smaller.

Filed under Design, User Experience

Happy New Year

01.02.09 | Permalink | Comment?

I wish a Happy New Year to all my family near or far, friends everywhere, and the fantastic team that we currently have in place at Cedrus.


Filed under General

The Making of StimTracker

12.06.08 | Permalink | 2 Comments

Curious ChapMy company recently released StimTracker, a device designed specifically for sending event markers, something that researchers often need to do when using a stimulus presentation package such as our own SuperLab in combination with an EEG/ERP data recording device.

Sounds simple, but the design of StimTracker’s front panel went through more than 30 iterations before we settled on the final design. Here are six of these intermediate designs, in chronological order.

First Cut: Analog

StimTracker handles seven analog inputs that need to have their sensitivity or threshold adjusted. The original design called for the use of linear potentiometers. “Mediator” was the project name used until a final name was chosen.

StimTracker 1 Then Came Digital

It didn’t take long before we realized that digital was not only nicer, but absolutely needed for one simple reason: repeatability. With linear pots, if someone accidentally changed the settings (not difficult when you have seven of them), it would take a stroke of luck to reposition the pot exactly where it was. Digital control relieves researchers of one less variable to deal with.

StimTracker 2 StimTracker 3 All Blue

In the next two designs, the red was dropped and the march towards minimalism started. Also, the StimTracker name was adopted.

StimTracker 4 StimTracker 5 Maximum Minimalism

In this design, we explored the use of icons but decided against it. We also “minimalized” the design even further.

StimTracker 6

Filed under Cedrus, Design

The Beauty of Programming

07.24.08 | Permalink | Comment?

Gustavo Duarte writes in his excellent piece, “Lucky to be a Programmer”:

For the past few weeks I’ve been working with a fellow developer on a project that required an all-out programming effort. It’s done now, so we’re back to a regular schedule, but when people hear about the crazy hours they often say they’re sorry. They really shouldn’t be. I would never do this often, or for long periods, or without proper compensation if done for an employer, but the truth is that these programming blitzkriegs are some of my favorite periods in life. Under the right conditions, writing software is so intensely pleasurable it should be illegal.

Few things are better than spending time in a creative haze, consumed by ideas, watching your work come to life, going to bed eager to wake up quickly and go try things out. I am not suggesting that excessive hours are needed or even advisable; a sane schedule is a must except for occasional binges. The point is that programming is an intense creative pleasure, a perfect mixture of puzzles, writing, and craftsmanship.Couldn’t have said it better.

(Via Gus Mueller)

Free iPhones For All

07.12.08 | Permalink | Comment?

OK, so it’s not quite free for everybody, ya know. I’ve done dumb things before, but c’mon! It’s free to all Cedrus employees who have been with the company a year or more.


It’s simple, really. With all due to respect to Samsung’s Instinct and other iPhone wannabe recent offerings, the iPhone currently has no competition. Despite some bugs, the gap between it and the next closest competitor is so vast, it’s not even funny. Garmin’s Nuviphone and phones based on Google’s Android platform look promising. But until they ship, iPhone rules.

With Cedrus’ sharpened focus on design, does it make sense for our employees to use crapware? Hardly. No university teaches programming using pen and paper — you’ve got to cut your teeth on a real computer. Even something as basic as tying your shoes can’t be learned by listening to someone telling you how it’s done. You need to practice.

The same goes for design. You cannot develop a sharp sense of design unless you are using the absolute best examples of good design. Crapware, or even second best, will not cut it.

No Tolerance

And the last reason to offer free iPhones is this: the best developers and the best employees are those who have little tolerance for poorly designed stuff, software included. They didn’t know it at the time (they will now!), but that was one of the primary reasons why I switched the company from Windows back to Mac OS two years ago.

It is well known that Mac users expect better designed programs from developers. Mac developers will get lambasted for minor sins that their Windows counterparts regularly get away with. The same logic applies to iPhone users: the level of expectations is high and tolerance for poorly designed mobile apps is very, very low. If you don’t believe me, just see what happened to Stevens Creek Software when they ported their TripLog/1040 app from Palm OS to iPhone.

It’s a Computing Platform

If you have Windows developers who have never used a Mac, would you ask them to start developing a Mac application overnight? Even if, hypothetically, they come up to speed on Xcode, Interface Builder, and other Mc OS tools in an instant, they will still not be able to develop a great app because they have not previously been immersed in Macs and Mac OS culture.

With the release of the iPhone SDK and App Store, iPhone is set to become much more than a mere talking tool. It’s an emerging computing platform that will compete with handheld game devices and open new opportunities. When the day comes when Cedrus needs to develop an iPhone app, our developers must be already immersed in the iPhone culture. It takes time to “get it”.

Not Just for Developers

And last but not least, everyone at Cedrus gets a free iPhone instead of just developers, for two reasons. First, to avoid creating two classes of employees. Everyone’s contribution is important. The developers write code. But without the non-developers, we might as well pack and go home.

And second, being a small company everyone’s opinion is solicited on planned UI designs. The non-developers provide a different and very valuable point of view and will often pinpoint design problems that a developer would miss. Ignore the non-developers at your company at your own risk!

iPhone: Why It’s Not Perfect

05.20.08 | Permalink | Comment?

Emotional Design by Don Norman Between the time the iPhone was announced and when I finally got one last December, I happened to read Don Norman’s Emotional Design. Don Norman explains how the perfect product must excel at three levels: visceral, behavioral, and reflective.

OMG, It’s Gorgeous!

A visceral reaction is one that you cannot help. It happens at the most basic human level, e.g. the fear that you feel in some situations or the attraction towards that beautiful two legged human walking down the street. In my case, you can add the weakness in my knees when the waitress brings the dessert tray, but I digress.

The iPhone simply excels at the visceral level. There is no doubt about it. Its user interface and nearly all its apps are simply beautiful to look at. UI “beauty” is a soft concept that many engineers just don’t get. Lucky Apple.

What Else?

Whereas other manufacturers generally tried to adapt and squeeze the computer’s user interface into a phone, Apple was able to think outside the box and bring some true innovation. The pinch-zoom UI is such a natural even for my six year old daughter. We went into an Apple store once. While her twin brother wasted no time playing Stars Wars Legos, my daughter went to the iPhones on display trying the pinch and zoom gestures. She found it fun!

There are several other innovations in the iPhone’s UI. Edward Tufte provides a good overview. In the rest of this article, I’ll cover the shortcomings that I haven’t seen addressed much elsewhere.

Ma, What’s That Restore Button?

At first, I wondered why I’d ever want to restore anything on my iPhone. It felt perfect and acted perfect. Alas, that day came shortly after I updated it with version 1.1.2 of the software. Push email stopped working. When it did, the phone would not alert me — no sound. Hence my first experience with the Restore button.

iTunes Restore Button

My iPhone would start alerting me again when new mail arrived, but only for a day or two. I finally gave up on restoring and decided to wait for the next software revision which arrived shortly after Macworld 2008. It did indeed fix the problem.

Did I Tap In The Wrong Place?

No you didn’t. Yes, iPhone apps do crash. Most of the major ones, including most of the major ones. But Apple chose not to display an error message when this happens. I can’t blame them. Can you imagine the buzz on the Internet that this would cause? Or the print media anxious to find a chink in the iPhone’s armor with photos of “Your application has unexpectedly quit” messages?

An iPhone crash is a silent affair. The application just quits and takes you back to the home screen. You think at first that you tapped in the wrong place. But let me assure you: it’s a crash. I’ve had the following apps crash on me:

  • Mail
  • Maps
  • iCal, just after launching it and tapping on “+” to enter a new event.
  • Safari (while accessing the Apple store!)
  • Camera, although this happened while trying to email a photo. So it could be the Mail app that failed to launch.
  • iPod

Crashes are not the only problem. After the last time we updated our watches due to Daylight Savings, all my events in iCal have been showing up an hour early. No amount of restoring or restarting the iPhone has fixed this problem.

When Even The Restore Button Isn’t a Sure Thing

But the biggest issue that I ran into was iTunes’ refusal to sync with the iPhone: iTunes Refusing to Sync Two things happened prior to this problem. I happened to visit Toronto where there is no AT&T service. But more likely, the cause of the problem is buying a new MacBook Pro and having all my apps and data transferred from my previous Mac.

Even the alert is misleading. It says that it cannot sync contacts whereas in fact it is not syncing iCal events, songs, or anything else. This problem took multiple attempts at restoring from iTunes and restarting the iPhone itself. I was close to giving up and heading to an Apple store for help before I was able to finally sync again

When Reception Is Not Loud And Clear

I ran into another strange bug when I took the kids to a park where the reception was weak and inconsistent. My wife called me, and unable to get through, left a voice mail. The iPhone beeped at one point to indicate that I had a voice mail, but this is how the home screen looked:

iPhone Voicemail Bug Notice how the red circle on the Phone icon does not show the number of voicemails. It’s empty! After tapping on the icon to access my voicemail, the same empty red circle appears with a message indicating that Visual Voicemail is not available — even after I moved to an area where the reception is excellent. It took a restart of the iPhone to clear this problem.

This bug should be hard to reproduce but I ran into it twice.

Will The Bugs Be Fixed?

It seems silly to ask this question and just exclaim “yes, of course!”. But I am not so sure, at least not for the owners of the current iPhone model.

My best guess is that a number of these bugs are due to limited RAM. After Apple unveiled the iPhone SDK, we now know that only one app can run at a time in the available 128MB of RAM. 128MB seems like a lot but it really isn’t when you consider that this space is shared by the memory hungry Mac OS and several processes that are always kept in memory to maintain phone, SMS, and email communication.

It is not in Apple’s DNA to worry about available RAM. This goes as far back as 1984 when John Warnock was worrying about how Adobe was going to make its new PostScript printer language work with 512KB of RAM. Steve Jobs’ advice at the time was to design PostScript for 1MB of RAM because, by the time Adobe is done working on PostScript, 1MB of RAM would become cheaper. He was right. And he continued to be right for the next 20 years until the iPhone came along. Suddenly, a major operating system designed without a RAM worry in the world had to fit in 128MB.

As of this writing, rumors are flying about a new iPhone about to be introduced with support for 3G data networks, perhaps even GPS, recording video, and what have you. To me, what I’ll be looking for is how much RAM the new model will have.

So back to the question: will the bugs be fixed? If my hunch is correct about RAM being the cause of many of them, the answer is yes: Apple will fix them either by streamlining the code or by throwing more RAM at the problem. In the latter case, owners of the current first generation iPhone will just have to live with the bugs.

Still Loving It

Don’t get me wrong. This article documents the bugs that I’ve ran into with my iPhone but the overall user experience is still excellent. The iPhone simply has no equivalent on the market at present. My prior phone was a Motorola RAZR. Its software drove me so mad that I walked into a Verizon Wireless store ready to shell out money for a different phone. To my horror, it turned out that the RAZR’s software was written by Verizon, not Motorola. Any other phone would run the same crappy Verizon software.

If you can afford an iPhone, run and get one. Despite its bugs, you will at least enjoy using it. I do.

Filed under Design, User Experience
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