Oh iPod, how you’ve changed my life.

October 20, 2006

I’ve been musing on an iPod piece for a while but never got around to it before. But with the iPod turning 5 on Monday, it seems like the appropriate time for it. I hesitated to write this piece. So much has been written about the iPod; what could I possible add? But any way I look at it, my iPod has had such an important effect on my life that I feel compelled to write about it. If you think such an article will bore you, stop reading now. But if you’re an iPod lover, or if you need some encouragement to take the plunge, read on.

When I bought my iPod–a 4th generation monochrome 40 GB model–about 18 months ago, it was mostly an indulgence, a toy to ease me over the 40th birthday blues (40 years, 40 GB, get it?). Oh, I was able to justify it in part by using it as a backup drive, but to say that it was a completely utilitarian purchase would be disingenuous. Even so, I had little inkling of just how thoroughly this diminutive piece of consumer electronics would rock my world, both literally and figuratively.

At first, merely the idea that I could carry my entire not-inconsiderable CD collection around in my pocket was amazing to me. Somehow, this simple fact makes me feel both powerful and free. In any given situation, I can set the soundtrack of my life to whatever music I fancy. And then there is the whole idea of shuffle. When you set your entire music collection–in my case almost 3800 songs from just about every genre you can think of–on shuffle, that “soundtrack” becomes an incredibly varied and unpredictable string of music. Just imagine walking down the street on a crisp October evening, while your iPod jumps from Gesualdo to the Allan Parson’s Project to Alessandro Scarlatti to the Yellowjackets to David Bowie to Mahler to Bach to Franz Ferdinand… and on it goes. At first it’s somewhat disconcerting, but once in a while, iPod and shuffle create a serendipitous union of moment and music that could never have happened any other way. Plus, shuffle means random (or so they say; I sometimes wonder), so it burrows into your music collection with ruthless objectivity, helping you to discover albums and artists that you had almost forgotten you had.

Another beautiful thing about having your entire music collection in your pocket is that it’s always there. I know that sounds obvious, but if your soundtrack is crying out for a certain piece of music, genre or artist, and you know it’s just a few clicks of the scroll wheel away, it’s an incredibly liberating feeling. If you’re on a train in Norway, as I recently was, and you want to listen to what Grieg had to say about the fjords, you can do that, and it’s only a matter of time before it brings tears to your eyes.

Of course, the other great thing about the modern digital media player and the new Internet is podcasting. Podcasts have changed the way I listen to radio. To be more accurate, I don’t listen to radio anymore. It’s all podcasts now. An FM transmitter for my iPod means I’m not a slave to the radio DJ even in the car. Even before I got the iPod, I listened mostly to talk radio anyway, but with the iPod, talk radio has become a much more diverse ecosystem. I’m a huge fan of public radio, and most public radio networks around the world are making at least some of their programming available as podcasts now. Which means I have access to great programming from the BBC, Australia’s ABC, U.S. NPR, and of course Canada’s own CBC. And then there are the thousands of private podcasters springing up. Sure, there is a lot of chaff, but there are also some really fantastic programs out there that would never have made it onto the traditional airwaves.

Having all my music and talk radio with me in my pocket also makes doing chores and yard work much less tedious. Heck, I even look forward to mowing the lawn now. Walking to the bus or subway station used to be a boring prospect; now I just have to make sure my iPod is updated with my latest podcasts and I’m all set. There’s never any reason to be bored with my iPod in my pocket.

And believe me, my iPod is ALWAYS in my pocket. And not just for all the aforementioned reasons. My iPod also serves as my computer backup. Yes, even with my entire music collection and a serious line up of podcasts, along with my calendars and contacts, there is still enough room to do a substantial backup. I generally keep all my work-critical files, along with any personal documents I wouldn’t want to lose, and my Mail.app archive. I also keep a backup of my pictures, and of course, my music is backed up just by being on my iPod. So I can leave home knowing that even if my computers are stolen or, god forbid, the house burns down, my most precious data os safely tucked away in my pocket.

So happy birthday iPod. I’m so glad we met. I can’t imagine life without you now.

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Thoughts on Apple’s movie strategy

September 23, 2006

Yesterday’s story in the New York Post that Wal-Mart was threatening some movie studios with retaliation if they sold movies on the iTunes Store, and Wal-Mart’s subsequent dispute of the allegations, got me to thinking again about Apple’s move into the movie distribution business.

Some people were predicting Apple would start a movie download service, along with some sort of streaming device, as early as 18 months ago. And let’s face it, it’s probably going to be another six months before Apple starts selling its “iTV” device, by which time, the company will probably have a few more studios lined up to sell their wares through the newly named iTunes Store.

So, come next March or April, we Mac users will likely have a new operating system in the name of Leopard, a fairly good range of movies in the iTunes Store from which to choose and a way to get those newly purchased flicks onto our HDTVs (we’ll overlook for the moment that these movies won’t be in HD).

Now I admit I’m not the typical consumer of movies. I rarely go to the movie theatre and rent maybe two or three DVDs a year, mostly because the offerings are decidedly mediocre, and it’s a PITA to drive down to Blockbuster (or wherever) to rent a DVD. That said, if I could watch a movie on Saturday night with a click of a mouse, I’d probably be much more inclined to partake of Hollywood’s fine products. But a few things will have to change before I jump on this bandwagon (and assuming of course that movies will be available in the Canadian iTS before the turn of the next century).

First and foremost is that I’m not interested in buying movies. I have no desire to own a collection of movies like I own a music collection, and I suspect I’m not the only one. There are those who go out and buy movies at Wal-Mart, but most people rent movies; after all who wants to watch a so-so movie more than once, especially when Hollywood pumps out a seemly endless flow of them? So the lack thus far of a way to rent downloaded movies is a huge drawback for me. I just want to pay a few dollars to watch a movie once, and I might even pay a little extra to NOT have to drive down to Blockbuster to get it. Four or five bucks a pop would be about my threshold. More than that and I’m just not going to bother.

Which brings me to my other main hesitation: price. Even if I were interested in buying a movie, why would I pay $15 for an “almost DVD quality” movie when I can get the real thing at Wal-Mart for the same price and get more features to boot, AND, have the physical DVD (which I cannot have with movies from iTunes)? Ten bucks seems about right to me, so Apple’s not that far off the mark, and there are some titles available for that price. I suspect that Steve Jobs agrees with me on this one but had to concede the argument to Disney or risk not launching before Christmas.

I also find the iTV unit a little pricey, but I can see it coming down in price at some point. The fact remains, however, that there are still a number of obstacles to this service becoming really ubiquitous, and I suspect that in my case it will be at least another two years before I’ll be downloading any movies from the iTS. But then again, I bought my first iPod 18 months ago, so I’m hardly an early adopter. In 18 months, everyone will be clamouring for an iTV and downloading movies like crazy, and Apple and the movie studios will be making money hand-over-fist, so we’ll all be happy as clams. Just you wait, Mr. Cringely. As usual, you’re way ahead of yourself.

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New podcast reveiw is up at the Podcritical Review

September 21, 2006

Over at the Podcritical Review, I take a look at a nifty new tech podcast from down under: Bran. Check it out.

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September 20, 2006

Now that summer is over, I guess I should start taking this blog a little more seriously. After all, blogging is serious business (if Gates says it, it must be true, even if that story is from over two years ago). My how things have changed.

To start things off, I thought I’d write about something dear to my heart: RSS readers. One of my readers suggested I give the open source reader Vienna a try. I usually pride myself on keeping tabs on the Mac open source community, but somehow, this nifty little app slipped under my radar.

I started my RSS journey with Safari and was soon hooked. And while Safari’s RSS capabilities are limited, I was quite happy with them–until I gave NetNewsWire a real workout, that is. NNW changed the way I used the Internet; many feel it’s the gold standard by which all other RSS apps–Mac or PC–are judged. And with good reason. It’s a really excellent, full-featured RSS reader. What makes it so powerful is that along with regular feeds and podcasts, you can also subscribe to tags, scripts, search engines queries and the like.

Now Vienna doesn’t have NNW’s full feature set, but if, like me, you don’t really use most of that fancy stuff, then you might want to consider Vienna. It does pretty much everything that NNW’s free cousin, NNW Lite, does, and it does it with style. You can arrange your feeds into groups, you can modify how articles appear and you can create smart groups. However, like NNW Lite, Vienna doesn’t do podcasts or syncing, nor does it allow you to subscribe to tags or search engines.

The latest stable release of Vienna is 2.0.4, but this version doesn’t allow for manual sorting of feeds; instead, it sorts feeds alphabetically by default. For me, this was a potential a deal breaker; happily, though, the latest preview version, which as of this posting is 2.1, does offer manual sorting, and thus far, it has been quite stable.

The nice thing about Vienna is that because it’s open source, it will only get better. Personally, the only main feature it lacks is syncing, and frankly, I can live without it. Give it a try. I think you’ll like it too, and you’ll be supporting the open source community.

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Chantons le magazine Pomme

September 9, 2006

I went to my first Apple Store opening today, the one opening in Carrefour Laval, just north of Montreal, and, somewhat to my surprise, it was kind of fun. I certainly didn’t camp out or anything, and in fact I only arrived at about 8:30–a half hour before the official opening. By that time there were already many hundreds of people in line. I’m glad I went with a couple of buddies or the two-hour wait to get in might have been tedious. As it was, we had a good time chewing over all the rumours about the upcoming September 12 announcement(s).

We got in at about 10:45, picked up our t-shirts (which are very high quality and made in the US “sweatshop free” t-shirts) and bummed around the store for a half-hour. I checked out the new MacBooks, which I had never seen before and I must admit being drawn to them. No wonder Apple can’t keep them in the stores.

The staff was very upbeat and friendly, as one would expect, and it was all in all a very satisfying experience. If Apple ever does open up a downtown Montreal store, I’ll definitely be there for the opening.

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Hello again Safari

June 15, 2006

It must be middle age, but my tryst with FireFox was only a brief affair. And while I can’t say I have any regrets, I’m very happy to be back in the metaphorical arms of my first love, Safari.

The number one reason? Speed. Safari is simply the fastest browser for Mac that I’ve tried. FireFox doesn’t even come close. Sure, FF has all those extensions, but I don’t use that stuff. And Safari is just prettier than FireFox. Again, the latter has extensions, but for deep-down, natural UI loveliness, Safari is my gal.

OK, I’ll stop with the hokey metaphor… One thing that the brief switch did do, however, was to make NetNewsWire a permanent fixture in my computing experience. I was using Safari’s RSS reader, but after trying out NNW for a few weeks, I can’t go back. With NNW, it’s so easy to sift through hundreds of feeds for the few readable nuggets. In fact, NNW is almost a browser itself, and surely browsers of the future will have to include a NNW-like interface.

The new Flock browser, just released in beta, also implements RSS, and while it does a better job than Safari, it has a ways to go before it achieves NNW’s usefulness. But Flock has the right idea, I think, which is to start incorporating Web 2.0 features such as Flickr and blogging into the browser. I have yet to try out the blogging feature, but again, it appears to be a step in the right direction. (BTW, if anyone can tell me how to put folders into Flock’s bookmarks toolbar, I’d be grateful. There must be a way to do this, but I can’t for the life of me figure it out.)

Oddly enough, the reason that motivated my short-lasted defection to FireFox– Quicksilver’s Google Calendar module–turned out to be a bit of a bust as far as my workflow is concerned. I didn’t use it once, and now that I’m back to Safari, I think it will be more useful to use QS’s iCal module instead, which doesn’t work quite as well as the Gcal module, but gets the job done.

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Will Apple release a phone?

May 29, 2006

One of the early posts on this blog had to do with speculation last year that Apple would release a mobile phone in the near future (check out that older post here). Today, an article in Wired talked about the supposedly necessary convergence of the mobile phone and the mp3 player. One of the points the author made (one that I agreed with, though I don’t own a mobile phone) was that if such a marriage is to be successful, it would have to be as easy to use as the iPod is.

Though I don’t own a mobile phone, my impression is that most of them have a lot of bells and whistles that most people don’t use because they are too complicated. Which is where Apple comes in. But I don’t think Steve Jobs and Company will, or should, come out with a simple “iPhone,” mostly because the competition has too much of a head start in the field.

But while Apple would normally have trouble getting a toe-hold in the mobile phone business, they have a huge lead in the mp3 player side of things, and I think they could become a major player if the next iPod they release has some sort of mobile functionality too. In other words, this wouldn’t be a phone that plays music, it would be an iPod that does mobile. With flash memory getting cheaper and cheaper, I think a 4- or 8-Gb flash-based iPod with telephone (and Bluetooth) functionality would be a big hit. And one of the main draws would be simplicity of design. Much of the work is already done, with contact and calendar info already integrated into the iPod OS. Just add a slip-out numeric keypad, or evolve the click wheel along these lines and you’re off to the races. Heck, I would even consider getting one.

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