Monthly archives of “March 2015

The strength of the dollar

I realised today that the dominance of the US media in tech – or, arguably, the fact that my circle of influence is likely skewed to the US – has a slight, unavoidable but definite effect on my purchasing decisions.

Fantastical 2 is out for the Mac today, and by all accounts it’s superb. I don’t doubt this; Fantastical in all its incarnations has always been meticulously put-together, and I bought it without hesitation on my iPhone. It’s so much better than the stock app it’s quite embarrassing.

Much as been said, unsurprisingly, about the price. This, though, isn’t a rehash of the well-worn arguments about sustainable software pricing. Instead, I noticed today that even I winced at the price – $50 – but that’s because I apparently just see the ‘50’ rather than the ‘$’.

Fifty quid is a lot of money. £33.56 (at current global exchange rates as I write this) less so. The actual price of the application on the App Store in the UK (with the launch discount of 20% applied), £29.99, is less so again.

And yet because the predominant price I see around the web is $50, there’s something that sticks about that figure. Fifty. Fifty things. Fifty currency units.

It’s not fifty pounds, but somehow I internalised it as such, and that dissuaded me from buying.

The dollar’s financial strength waxes and wanes, but it’s still a strong cultural force.

UPDATE I pinged this post to Fantastical’s creator, Michael Simmons, who read it as ‘Fantastical costs too much’ and as a result ‘I won’t buy it’. It upset me that I upset him! Neither take is true, so let me be completely clear: this is a post about the psychological effect that comes from the dominance of the dollar in tech reporting and how I realised that I (daftly!) apparently sometimes subconsciously just switch the $ for a £, subtly affecting my behaviour. It is, if you like, a post about how dumb I am.

It’s definitely not a post about Fantastical costing too much. Again, I’m going to assume that you know the arguments for sustainable app pricing and agree that pricing apps realistically is basically good for everyone. I don’t think $50 is ‘too much’ (I wonder what figure I would say is?), and I intend to buy the app shortly – at, remember, £29.99. (Rereading the post I wish I’d written ‘…and that didn’t incentivise me to launch the App Store to find out more and then buy, upon realising that we were talking thirty quid rather than fifty’ instead of ‘…and that dissuaded me from buying’; same basic meaning, but a more accurate if less pithy angle.)

I don’t blame Michael for taking the post in a way I hadn’t intended. For one thing, the point I was making was quite a subtle, thought-experimenty one, and for another since he will be getting hit with a lot of ‘this app is to expensive lol’ today, it’s understandable that he’d parse this as such; when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The PowerBook Duo

The PowerBook Duo might just be my favourite Apple computer of all time – although ask me on another day and I might say it was the Macintosh Classic, the iMac G4, the G4 Cube or something else again – and I wrote a bit about why at Macworld this week.

I picked the Duo for this week’s Think Retro because like the just-announced new MacBook, this was Apple trying to make a slim, lightweight, focussed laptop. Back when this new machine was just a rumour, though, I wrote about how Apple could reinvent the Duo concept for today, and on re-reading it while writing the Macworld piece, I was still happy with some of the ideas I proposed. Often this kind of thing leads to patently absurd, technology-for-its-own-sake-style visions of the future, but I still think my proposals sound broadly sensible, useful and feasible.

One of the obvious areas where laptops still lag is in graphics performance, and it’s at least theoretically possible to use an external graphics card hooked up over Thunderbolt – in some ways a spiritual successor to PDS – so that’s the first thing we spec into in our imaginary dock.
What’s more, with an increasing reliance on GPGPU – using a graphics card for general computing tasks – a big, meaty dedicated graphics card in the dock to augment a battery-boosting weedy graphics card inside the laptop will boost overall performance too.

And while we’re about it, let’s hook up a load of internal storage as well. I’d love to see Apple put a Fusion Drive in place – a hard disk paired with a PCIe SSD, in this case inside the laptop – but leave additional bays for more hard disks. When you filled it up, you’d slot a new drive into an empty bay (a bit like the old Power Mac G5 or Mac Pro) but the clever bit is that the OS would take care of expanding the storage dynamically so you’d only ever see one drive. The speed of the SSD would keep everything fast and responsive.

When you undocked, the files on those hard disks would still be ‘there’, just greyed out, and you’d use Apple’s Back to My Mac tech seamlessly to pull it over the internet. The same tech that tells a Fusion Drive what files you regularly use in order to ‘cache’ them on the SSD means that you should have most stuff you actually need on the laptop’s internal SSD anyway. The only difference from a Fusion Drive inside an iMac is that here the hard disk is external to the laptop (inside the dock, over a Thunderbolt bus) rather than internal alongside the SSD – something you can actually do yourself today if you want to.

Indeed, one of the internal bays could be used for a dedicated Time Machine backup drive that would also work over your local network or even the internet, CrashPlan-style, when you’re undocked. And since we’re wishing, let’s finally make this the first Mac that has built-in 4G, so that the remote file grab thing works wherever you are.


One of the demos that lodged itself in my brain from the most recent Apple event was when Kevin Lynch used the Watch to remotely open a garage door to let in his daughter – who’d forgotten her key – while seeing a live feed from a security camera to confirm it was indeed opening. I finally twigged why I found this so compelling.

From the earliest days, technology has always been about giving ourselves extra abilities, about allowing us to transcend the limitations of our basic biology. Computers have played a dramatic role in this, but it’s always clear that we’re using them as a crutch; when we sit down in front of a desktop PC we’re acknowledging that we need this external technology’s help.

In making computers smaller – from the room to the desktop to the laptop to the pocket and now the wrist – I wonder if subconsciously we’ve been trying to make it less obvious that we need the help of other agents. There’s something about the nature of a smartwatch – not just that it’s discreet and unfamiliar as a computer-with-a-capital-c, but also that it’s permanently attached to you – that suggests the wearer has natively assimilated its powers.

With this demo, Lynch showed that not only could I see things happening on the other side of the world and physically reach across continents, but that I can do all that without apparently using a computer. Or at least, without as apparently using a computer as I would if I used a desktop PC, laptop, tablet or even smartphone.

We’ve always been obsessed with the idea of beings who can do fantastical things that we can’t. Gods. Superheroes.  And I think the reason this demo struck me is that as technology becomes less and less apparent, as it more seamlessly empowers us to reach across space and time and do ever more spectacular things, we become superheroes ourselves.

The thing is, Heath Robinson’s machines worked…

Having not heard of it till a tweet tipped me off, I reviewed one of the Brodit iPhone car mounts for the current issue of MacFormat. And when I say ‘one of’, I mean ‘one of a frankly bewildering range of’.

The system comprises made-to-measure holders for a vast range of devices – smartphones, tablets, sat-navs, walkie talkies and more – in a dazzling galaxy of different options – designed to be wired into a car, dumb, with cigarette-socket charging and so on – which are then mounted on a dizzying variety of different clips – some that attach to air vents, some that grip the A-pillar, etc – many of which are bespoke to a preposterous range of specific car models. Multiply it all together and I assume you’re in the ‘more options than there are atoms in the observable universe’ levels, which must make doing a stock-check a bit of a chore.

The actual products are good but they possess a distinct ‘man in a shed’ charm. The holder for my iPhone is ‘padded’, by which they mean ‘it’s hard plastic covered in a kind of flocking’. You can’t argue it’s not snug, though, and I don’t get the impression it would damage the iPhone even if it was to wear away.

The mounting plate I chose grips my car’s A-pillar; there are adhesive strips you can peel the backings off so that it’s stuck to the A-pillar as well as gripping it, but it grips completely without using them. To attach your holder to it, you screw it to the plate that protrudes. And when I say ‘screw it to the plate’, note that the plate has no pre-drilled screw holes. You’re literally screwing into solid – albeit soft – plastic.

The crazy thing is that while this might sound like the worst kind of stack-em-high-sell-em-cheap, bargain-bin rubbish, stuff with no engineering finesse or polish, the end result is one of the best car mounts I’ve ever used. I still mourn the passing of TomTom’s superb Car Kit mount, but while it was much slicker, neater and specific than the Brodit system, it still jiggled about a bit as you drove. With the Brodit, my iPhone behaves like it’s bolted directly to the superstructure – but the ball and socket joint means I can angle it just right.

Besides, there is something appealing about the man-in-a-shed honestly to the engineering here. It really does feel like a chap in overalls fashioned something on his workbench out of seasoned pine and recycled junk, got it to the stage where it did what he wanted and no more, and handed it to someone else saying ‘here, do that in plastic’.

It’s not frou-frou, it’s not flimsy, swoopy plastic bodywork, it’s not ‘available in a range of fun colours’. It holds your fucking iPhone.

Brodit detail

“Power users”

Even though I find the phrase a bit unpleasant – mostly because it’s used by willy-waving wankers, which is quite a trick if you can, as it were, pull it off – I’d probably call myself a power user. As it applies to me, that phrase means that I use my Mac a lot, that I use it quickly, confidently and productively, that I know lots of tricks and shortcuts to make my use of it even more productive, and that a sluggish computer would frustrate both me and my earning potential.

What I don’t need, as a power user, is power. My main Mac is a 2008 MacBook Pro, quite an ancient machine by tech standards, and much as I’d like to replace it with a 13″ Retina MacBook Pro, I can’t justify doing so when it works so very well. ‘Power’ to too many people means not just a fast CPU but a CPU based on the latest chip architecture for little reason other than the fact that it is. It means having Thunderbolt 2 even if what you attach to it is a printer. It means replaying the same worn-grooved ‘Apple has lost the plot’ record – the one we heard when Apple ditched the floppy disk, when the iPod didn’t have an FM radio, when the iPad didn’t have a USB port – when Apple announced a new laptop without an SD card slot.

CPU, GPU, super-fast interconnects and the like, though, are broadly irrelevant to me. Sure, on those occasions when I’m exporting video, I wish my MacBook Pro had more grunt, and I might be forced to upgrade it to keep me relevant as a tech writer. In general, though, I’d use it until one of us died.

And that’s because the ‘power’ my Mac has is responsiveness, and that comes both from a decent amount of RAM (though only 8GB, nothing extravagant) and because I long ago replaced the hard disk with an SSD.

You don’t need power to be a power user. And you don’t need to be a dick to be one either.

Awesome like a hot dog

I wrote a tweet earlier – before discarding it because I couldn’t fit the requisite nuance and cadence into 140 characters – which described Alienware’s new PC as ‘awesome’. And as ever when I write ‘awesome’, I fancied I could already hear the tuts of people who dislike the modern appropriation of the word. Its root, of course, is ‘awe’, and ‘awesome’, they say, should be reserved for things that genuinely inspire that sense of wonder, humility and amazement.

The problem, they say, is that if we rob ‘awesome’ of its power, we’ll be left with no further superlatives when faced with something that genuinely fills us with awe.


For starters, language works by consensus, and that’s it. If I point to a rock, declare that henceforth I shall instead call it a snooglebustle, and you start doing the same, we’ve just made language happen. And if I tell you that the hot dog I had for dinner was awesome, you don’t literally think I was filled with awe, struck dumb at the sheer, unknowable majesty of a tube of finely-minced lips and assholes. Language changes – in English at least, dictionaries describe language, they don’t prescribe and proscribe it – and as well as coining new words, old words can either have their meanings reappropriated or can rub along quite happily, thank you very much, with a new. It should be entirely clear from context whether someone’s use of ‘awesome’ reflects the meaning ‘really, very, and delightfully good’ or ‘cower before your god, brief mortals’.

Here’s the other thing, though. Even if we completely lose ‘awesome’ in its traditional sense, we won’t lose our capacity to feel awe, and if ‘awesome’ comes only to keep its modern meaning, we’ll make a new word – and completely organically and by consensus, without really trying. It might be completely new, or it might be another word that has a similar or completely antithetical meaning. And then people will bitch about how that word is being robbed of its true meaning.