The old screensaver prank

[This is the tenth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]

In tenth grade, I took an art course called Visual Arts 2. The class had only six or at most eight students in it. For the most part, the students were all pretty talented, and our teacher – Ms. Poole – offered us a great deal of latitude about how we chose to tackle the various challenges she posed for us. While I was no sculptor or painter, I could draw a bit, and I also served as the class DJ. The studio was down in the basement of the school, and Ms. Poole had a turntable hooked up to speakers, and I would bring in records we would listen to while we worked. Usually Ms. Poole would circulate around the room, checking in on us and offering suggestions and encouragement. At other times, she would retreat to her office and putter on her cutting edge Apple Macintosh Plus. It was a brand new machine, and the school did not have too many of them, but she was dating the math teacher who also served as the computer guy, and thus on her desk sat this Mac.

As it was new, and computers were new, I mean no criticism of Ms. Poole to say she knew very little about how to use the Mac at the time, and since the computer guy was also her boyfriend at the time (they later married), she had extra reason to run for help quickly when she was stumped by something the machine did or didn’t to. While Macs were new to all of us, the kids in her class had been using various Apple II and TRS-80 machines for long enough that we snickered at how quickly Ms. Poole would run for help.

macplusMacs back then, with their 9″ black & white CRT screens, usually ran some sort of screensaver to prevent “burn in.” Screensavers these days are elaborate, Technicolor programs built into the OS and run more for aesthetic purposes, but back when a Mac shipped with one megabyte of RAM, screensavers were purely functional add-ons. My school used a control panel that waited until a certain idle time had passed, and then turned the screen to black. No flying toasters, no animated clocks, just black. If one opened the settings panel for the program, one saw nothing but a text field where the desired idle time could be typed in, and an okay button. The delay was measured in seconds, and the default was three minutes, so the field started out with a 180 in it. At some point, I realized that there was no minimum, and that the program would accept a delay of zero. Thus when one typed, for example, ok, the machine would be dark, then as you typed o, the screen would light up, an o would appear, and then the screen would go dark. Then the k would prompt the screen again, the k would appear, and dark again. If you moved the mouse continuously, you could get the screen to stay on, too.

Armed with this knowledge, an idea dawned on me and I headed to art and waited for the right moment. One day while Ms. Poole was getting more coffee, I changed her screensaver delay to zero and returned to my seat. Ms. Poole returned, checked on us, and sat down at her desk. All of us chewed on our lips and stared at the floor as murmurs of confusion gave way to annoyed grumbling from around the corner as Ms. Poole confronted her screen’s desire to be solidly black. After a minute at most, she announced she was off to get the computer guy, and hustled down the hall. This was my cue to change the delay back to 180, which I did quickly before resuming my work. Sure enough, a few minutes later we heard Ms. Poole and the computer fellow coming down the hall, and she marched him into her office, pointed at the wayward Mac, gestured grandly, and said “Watch!” She tapped the space bar, the screen flicked on, and then of course it stayed on. The computer guy looked at the Mac, looked at the art teacher, looked at the Mac, and finally offered a cautious, “It’s working now.” Ms. Poole looked flustered and made some comment about machines always working when the repairmen are around, and apologized for dragging him down on a fool’s errand. The whole time, all of the students in the other room were struggling to stifle any fugitive guffaws.

In the coming months, I think I managed to pull this little stunt a half-dozen times, always being careful to have the timing seem random enough so the connection between the Mac and the VA2 class was not clear. Each time, our undeserving art teacher would scowl at her computer, vow not to seek help, give up, and summon the computer guy. And every time, once he arrived, the Mac was fine. I know this is a dumb waste of time to inflict on someone, but at fifteen it seemed mighty funny, and I guess I have some fifteen year old in me still, as I still laugh thinking about the look on her face when the machine would behave for her boyfriend having refused to behave for her. No lessons or morals to today’s story, just the petty pleasure of a proper prank from the dark ages of personal computing.

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Apple iPod touch upgrade fee

From today’s WWDC keynote, Apple referred again to the fee that will be charged to iPod touch users for features iPhone users receive for free, which reminds me of the post I wrote up in January a year ago about the same issue with the Apple TV. If you’re curious about why this practice is followed, please go here for the relevant background.

Type display on Windows

Yesterday, the Safari 4 beta died on my work PC, taking with it a slew of tabs with no mechanism to restore them. I am so accustomed to Firefox and Chrome saving my sessions that I really take that for granted, but it is so awful that I resumed using Chrome as my default browser on my PC. (At home, I move back and forth between Firefox and Camino.)

No sooner did I fire up Chrome than I was reminded how awful the type display on Windows is. Look at the three samples below:

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Type rendered in Chrome using XP and no ClearType
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The same thing, with ClearType enabled
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And finally, the same text from Safari 4 in Windows.

Seriously, it is 2009 – how is it possible that Apple can manage to display type on a Windows machine more attractively than the native rendering routines? Wikipedia says ClearType is now 10 years old – yet type looks better on my iPod touch than it does on my PC, for crying out loud!

Even more amazing, when Apple first released Safari for Windows, was the outcry by so many users that Apple made the type look blurry, which is (I assume) the reason Safari 4 brags about native rendering as the default.

In my book, this is further proof that the Windoze world does not deserve a satisfying, aesthetically coherent computing experience. Thank heavens I can go home and return to my Mac at the end of the day.

Notes on today’s iPod announcements

Apple‘s CEO Steve Jobs just announced that the new, 4G iPod nano as well as the new iPod touch will both have the ability to display (while playing a track) other tracks on the currently playing album, other tracks by the current artist, or to make a “Genius playlist.” This functionality sounds useful, and while I realize many, many people have thought about similar things, it does remind me of my post from June of last year, where I suggested building functionality akin to TiVo‘s swivel search feature into the iPod.

What I wonder about, given the above, is how the data necessary to generate a “Genius” playlist are stored on your iPod. I guess Apple plans to generate IDs for every track, and then using their whizbang mathematicians, build a matrix relating all of the IDs to one another, and that makes perfect sense to me on the desktop, but it seems like a lot of data to carry over to the iPod itself. Once this is in the wild, I really hope some clever person rummages around on their iPod and opens up the file that stores all of that information.

WWDC raises iPod touch accounting issue

From today’s WWDC keynote, Steve Jobs just referred again to the fee that will be charged to iPod touch users for features iPhone users receive for free, which reminds me of the post I wrote up in January about the same issue with the Apple TV. If you’re curious about why this practice is followed, please go here for the relevant background.

iPod touch/Apple TV upgrade fees and accounting

In today’s Macworld keynote address, Steve Jobs indicated that the new features that were being offered to iPod touch users would cost $20 as an upgrade, whereas the new Apple TV features were being offered free. Now I own neither of these gizmos, but if I did, I’d be very excited about the free upgrade to one and I’d be annoyed about the fee for the other. So why is this?

A year ago, when Apple enabled 802.11n functionality in its Macintosh computers that had been sold as 802.11g machines, Apple charged $1.99 for the ‘enabler.’ The explanation at the time was that this was to satisfy some accounting rules under GAAP. One article covering the issue is Cnet’s Apple’s 802.11n accounting conundrum. From that article, we learn:

…because the company has already recognized all the revenue from the sales of those computers, it has to now charge customers at least a nominal fee in order to establish the value of its software upgrade and satisfy an obscure accounting regulation known as SOP 97-2, said Fox.

More recently, Cnet has discussed Apple’s accounting as it relates to the Apple TV and the iPhone in the article Accounting for iPhone, Apple TV’s future. The idea there is that Apple will sell those using a subscription model to account for the associated revenue, enabling them to roll out upgrades for free with no need for fees like the 802.11n enablers.

I can only conclude from this that the iPod touch is not handled via subscription modeling, making a fee necessary. That much makes sense to me, but why Apple feels compelled to charge $20 for something that they could have just as easily charged $1.99 puzzles me. From the short-term, obviously they want the revenue of the higher fee. From a longer term point of view, high fees remind Apple’s potential customers that early adopters are not appreciated at Apple. If you create in your customers the doubt that you will treat them fairly, at the very least you postpone sales and possibly you lose some of them altogether.

[For some older thoughts of the whole ridiculous kerfluffle and whining associated with Apple’s early iPhone price reduction, see here.]

Update: via this post on TUAW, I see that DF’s Gruber speculated about this in October.

A little cold, Macfixit water for the MacBook Air love-fest…

From MacBook Air raises troubleshooting questions

Apple’s new MacBook Air is svelte-as-can-be, but the device’s limitations and lack of traditional components raise some interesting troubleshooting/general questions:

  • What happens when the battery loses capacity or runs out? The battery is apparently not user-replaceable. This means you can’t swap out batteries to extend operating life, and you’ll likely need to seek authorized service to get the battery replaced when it inevitably loses capacity or fails altogether.
  • How do you perform an emergency boot? What if you can’t startup from the built-in drive and need to boot from a separate volume? The MacBook Air lacks an optical drive, meaning you can’t boot from an inserted DVD like the Mac OS X Leopard install disc unless you purchase the $100 optional, external SuperDrive. It’s not yet clear whether the MacBook Air can boot from an optical drive in another Mac via the “Remote Disc” function, but we doubt it.
  • How will you apply major Mac OS X updates? If you can’t boot from an installer disc, how will you be able to install the next major iteration of Mac OS X? Traditionally, Mac OS X installers have required the system to boot from the disc.
  • How will you use target disk mode? The MacBook Air lacks a FireWire port. This means you can’t use FireWire target disk mode — an invaluable troubleshooting tool.
  • How will you NetBoot? The MacBook Air lacks a built-in Ethernet port, so NetBoots won’t be possible by default, precluding yet another option for emergency boots. You’ll need to purchase the $20 [sic] USB Ethernet adapter.

For the first item, take a look at Michael Gartenberg’s battery comments here. It is points two, three, and four that speak more loudly to me.