Packaging: When traditional is better and safer than plastic

Yesterday iLounge ran a well-deserved condemnation of wasteful plastic packaging. So many items we buy these days are encased in a tough plastic casing intended for dangling on point-of-sale displays. Not only is the packaging often far too large, it is downright dangerous. Last year I wrote to Belkin to complain that one of their impenetrable plastic devices had cut my hand. It's quite feasible, I imagine, for the inattentive to slit their wrists with one of these sharp-edged monstrosities.

P1030112In my mind, any product that comes wrapped in such a plastic case is devalued. It looks nasty, if not cheap, and gets my goat. Plaudits, then, to those companies that stick to good old-fashioned cardboard boxes that are no larger than they need to be. Take this exemplary packaging for the new iPhone 4 dock from Apple: Barely bigger than the dock itself, the little box is neat and exudes quality. It almost (but not quite) justifies the £25 price tag. 

Such packaging is typical of the entire Apple product line. A great deal of care goes into the design and production of the boxes and the result actually enhances Apple's premium imagine. Presumably, too, these cardboard boxes are far more environmentally beneficial than the plastic stuff, but that's not the main point. Buy any expensive item, whether it be a Jeager Le Coultre wrist watch or a premium digital camera, and it comes in a proper, tailored box. 

Suppliers (and, more to the point, retailers) of plastic-encased tat should take note before they get a class-action for slit wrists on their legal agenda.

Jobs & Cameron: Optimism versus gloom, doom and more gloom

Here in Britain today we listened to our new Prime Minister, David Cameron, heaping doom upon gloom and forecasting pain for all. A few hours later, over in San Francisco, Apple's PM, Steve J, was exuding confidence and optimism. Apple seems to be a well-run company and, currently, can do no wrong; and the new iPhone 4 will undoubtedly heap success upon success. So maybe an entrepreneur such as Steve Jobs would do a much better job of running countries on a firm commercial basis. Instead we are run by professional politicians who, with few honourable exceptions, have never worked in commerce and have never had to balance a budget. The contrast between world economic crisis and booming iSales is quite remarkable.

Printers: Do we really need them?

350px-TheFaulknerPortableAuthor: Michael Evans

Ruminating on the absence of a print connection on the iPad, I got to wondering why we really need printers at all. They take up a lot of space - which is my main objection - and need constant attention and fettling. We're so accustomed to electronic devices that need absolutely no fiddling that it comes as a shock to have to mollycoddle a piece of equipment that demands replenishing with paper and has an appetite for ever-greater numbers of minute ink cartridges: "Your puce cartridge is nearly empty, do you wish to proceed?"

Furthermore, any device that handles paper is prone to misfeeds and frequent constipation. That is, with the honourable exception of the brilliant Fujitsu ScanSnap range of scanners; they do seem to have got it right. But the majority of domestic ink-jet printers are a pain. They churn and clunk and click through a prolonged start-up routine every time you wish to print a page. And invariably one of the multitude of cartridges is near expiry and dire warnings are posted before you press OK to continue. 

So why do we need printers? The answer, as far as I am concerned, is not for much. I print the occasional boarding pass or letter to a financial institution that insists on snail-mail confirmation. I certainly don't feel the need to print out drafts for correction and, as the proud inhabitant of an paper-almost-less office, I most certainly never print stuff to file.

My all-singing-dancing printer never sings, seldom dances. It sits there, occupying a useful chunk of my office, and I would dearly love to be able to wave it goodbye. Unfortunately, for those occasional essential documents, I don't know of a better solution. At the moment, however, I am seriously thinking of consigning it to a cupboard or, even, the loft, where it can churn out the odd print without inconveniencing me for the rest of the month.

Back to the iPad and its lack of printing. I acknowledge it is a problem for anyone who is planning to make Apple's new pad their only computing device. In fact, there are two problems to face: the iPad cannot be connected directly to a printer and, of course, it needs a mother ship for registration and synchronisation. But anyone who has access to that mother-ship computer, whether belonging family, friend or neighbour, could also beg the occasional sheet of printed paper from the same source. The iPad, with its intuitive ease of use and no-computer-knowledge-necessary interface, is ideally placed to serve people who aren't interested in computers and who want to explore the net and deal with emails without hassle. 

PS: Colleague Ralf Meier points out that he prints from his iPad using PrintCentral and WePrint. He says that for the very limited printing he needs this solution works well. 

Pay to View: A wall of death for Times Online

TechCrunch has waded into the controversy over News International’s decision to stop free viewing of The Times and The Sunday Times news sites. My article (King Cnut: £1 a day to see his news site) offered the right advice on March 26 when the announcement was made: Goodbye, Rupert. Now TechCrunch says that “moving its content behind a pay-wall be the death of The Times; one of the world’s most respected newspapers and a British national treasure. Even with a relatively modest subscription cost of £1 a day or £2 for the whole week, it has been shown time and time again that the hassle factor of making even a small payment to access a website will result in a haemorrhaging of readers.”

Read Paul Carr’s story in full here.

The great British plug meets its Waterloo

WE HAVE LONG been admirers of Apple's diminutive iPod/iPhone power US power adaptor with its minimal volume and folding prongs. Michael even bought a couple on his recent visit to Washington and has equipped them with euro-plug adaptors. Even with this add-on, they are smaller than the normal adaptor.

So we were pleased to see  the UK version of this minimalist approach appearing in the Apple Store this week. This is slim and makes the best of the bad job of the massive triangle of pins we have to put up with. The whole is slimmer than the normal 13-amp plug.

Britain has the world's largest industrial-strength plugs, complete with internal fuses and every safety precaution known to man. You could power all the lights of the Titanic from just one of these gems of over-engineering. Time was, we had neat two-pin plugs and even mini three-pin plugs especially for low-power devices, but they have all been banished by our 'Elf 'n Safety gauleiters. It is encouraging, therefore, to find Apple doing its bit for us mortals owning devices that consume less than 5 Kilowatts.

MK 9827174A64UC182782M

Our over-size and over-kill domestic electrical arrangements have so far withstood the conformist pressure from the European Union. While a changeover would be a costly nightmare, I am a great admirer of the standard European two-pin plug system. Sockets take either a round, heavy duty plug with side earth contacts or a simple slim two-pin unit which satisfies the majority of computers and peripherals. 

Meanwhile we British struggle on with our muli-sockets the size of a London bus with a cable of a diameter normally reserved for 20 KW electric cookers. 

The back of your 40-in TV or the underneath of your computer desk normally houses several of these hippopotomi basking in complete safety and capable of dealing with anything that lightning, kids or the downright foolhardy can throw at them. At least we're safe, even if we were to plug in the Titanic by mistake.

Dangerous plastic packaging

THE DIMINUTIVE Belkin Media Reader-Writer, reviewed earlier today, came in the usual enormous tough-plastic display packaging. This colossus measures 29 x 16 x 7cm. The bulky bit containing the card, manual and lots of cardboard, has an internal volume of 1,000 cubic centimeters (same as the cylinders of a small car or a superbike). The card itself has a volume of approximately 10 cc. So the packaging is 100 times larger than it ought to be. This monstrous confection was difficult to carry home and took up far too much space in my bag. And, of course, it is ridiculously wasteful and difficult to recycle. We are being charged for supermarket bags, so why do we get such packaging foisted on us for free?

My biggest gripe isn't with the size, volume or waste. It concerns the near impossibility of freeing the product from the clutches of this unfriendly, sharp, unyielding lump of plastic. I keep an enormous pair of scissors especially for this type of recalcitrant packaging. Even so, it takes great effort and trying to rip open the resulting clean cut is fraught with dangers. It can only be a matter of time before someone chops off a finger on such a sheet of razor-sharp plastic and sues Belkin or whoever for several million. Roll on that day because it will mean an overnight change to more sensible, cheaper and more customer-friendly packaging. 

Although this latest monstrosity from the House of Belkin was in the Apple Store, it is significant that most Apple packaging is a model of what ought to be: small, neat cardboard boxes which are no bigger than they need be. Even the latest 13-in MacBook Pro comes in a box that looks as though it contains nothing bigger than an iPhone. So it is possible, Belkin. Next time I shall consult Messrs. Sue Grabbit & Run, so be warned.

Bloomberg: Why there is no backup

By Michael Evans

RESTORING my 3G to factory settings the other day, I was again struck by the lack of backup for the popular Bloomberg app. This is an excellent news and information application for the investor and it effectively tracks an investment portfolio with lots of available data. However, when disaster strikes and you have to restore (or buy a new phone) there is no way of recovering all the painstakingly entered portfolio details. Re-entering means searching for company names, entering quantity of holding and purchase price. Having learned by previous mistakes, I now keep all this information in a Numbers spreadsheet so I can enter it again with relative ease. 

I wrote to Bloomberg with my comments on this performance (and also asked why portfolio totals are not provided) and I got the following very reasonable response by return:

"We also agree with both of your points and the solution to both problems are planned and are somewhat related. The first issue regarding the portfolio total returns is somewhat complicated because our applicaiton supports equity securities from all of the world's major exchanges, denominated in a wide range of securities. As a result, a straight sum of the values is not sufficient to provide an accurate result. To perform return calculations, it is necessary to know the user's base currency and the dates on which the securities were purchased and the exchange rates in effect on those dates. It is vastly simpler if all of the securities are denominated in the same currency. This may be the most common case and we may show the total if it is true, we just have not done that yet.

One solution that we have planned that would solve the problem above as well as the storage issue, is to link the list of securities on the MyStocks, to the securities in the Portfolio Tracker on our Bloomberg website. The portfolio tracker is a free widget which performs many of the calculations described above and it could serve as a central repository for the securities which would then be stored so that they would be backed up in the event that your device fails and is initialized.
Hope this helps."


Bloomberg is an excellent application and is highly recommended; it will be perfect if they can implement these changes in the near future.

Bento file location gripe

LISTENING to Leo Laporte's Tech Guy netcast today, I was reminded of a long-standing gripe when applications save data to places other than the Documents folder. Leo was talking about Windows at the time and he mentioned that there were still some badly behaved programs which save data to the Program folder. In Macspeak this would be the Applications folder and I have not come across any apps which insist on doing this. 

But I have come across a number of applications which save their datafile to an Application Support folder inside the user Library folder. I don't like this and I prefer to have all my data stored somewhere easily accessible, usually in the Documents folder. Apart from other considerations, this also helps with backup since it is quick and easy to copy the Documents folder. The Library folder tends to be quite large and contains a lot of stuff that doesn't change daily.

Fortunately, in most cases you can simply move the datafile to a location of choice and it will be found there next time you load the program. Recently, I've taken to storing regularly accessed data in my Drobox folder on the desktop so it is accessible on any of my computers.Box_bento2_grande

I do have one application, Bento from Filemaker, that does not allow a change of database location. Data is automatically saved to the Application Support folder and cannot be moved (at least, not without Bento refusing to find it afterwards). 

In the early days of Bento, which is otherwise an excellent simplified database program, I took this up in the Filemaker forum. The problem was recognised but no solution was promised. So I was disappointed to find that the updated Bento 2 still insists on choosing a data location with no option for change. 

As a result of this I am using Bento less and less and am gradually changing over my records to spreadsheet format in Numbers so that I can store the data in Dropbox. I've improved my efficiency as a result because I can view and adjust the data from any computer. I am still mystified why Bento, probably alone, stick to this unusual restriction. 

Application overload

It is just so easy to download iPhone applications that most owners have page after page of apps, many of them seeking to do the same job. I see there are now over 10,000 applications to choose from. Many are free (which surprises me, given the amount of work that has been done) but the majority are cheap (under £5). 


It's fortunate I am not (yet) into gaming. Everyone else seems to be. But so far I have restricted my downloads to what I consider productive or useful applications. I like to be organised. I have tried several check-list or shopping list programs, a clutch of book readers (more on that in another post) and two or three outliners and mind-mappers. At first I was a kid in a candy store but I've now realised I have a large number of applications that I acquired in enthusiasm but have seldom used. 

Here is my current list of most-frequently used apps for the iPhone (and iPhone Touch). These are the ones I use every day without fail:

  • Omni Focus, a superb task manager and GTD (Getting Thing Done) application that synchronises seamlessly with OF Desktop on any number of Macs. This is by far the best GTD system for iPhone and Mac users.
  • Evernote: This is without a doubt the best note-taking system which can be synchronised (via the web) with Macs and PCs or can be accessed on Evernote's web site.
  • iBlueSky: Simply the best mind-mapping app for the iPhone. Maps can be exported into PC or Mac systems such as MindJet Mind Manager.  
  • Bloomberg: An essential free app if you want to keep up with financial information or check your portfolio during the day.  
  • NetNewsWire brings together all your RSS feeds and is a quick way of browsing all news sources. 
  • Splash Money: I have been a long-time user of the Splash Wallet suite on Palm and Windows Mobile devices, so it's good to find Splash Money, Splash ID and Splash Shopper available for the iPhone. All synchronise with desktop applications. I use Splash Money daily to enter cash transactions. At the end of every month I transfer the totals for each category of expense to my main accounts system on the Mac (MoneyDance).  
  • Mental Case: A quirky one here. Mental Case is a fantiastic flashcard application for studying anything. I'm currently using it for improving my Greek and have downloaded a large number of flashcards from the Flashcard Exchange. 
  • Typing Genius: No doubt, this is the best typing tutor for the iPhone keyboard. I've increased my two-thumb typing speeds and accuracy dramatically in the last two weeks.  
In addition to these stalwarts I have a dozen or so excellent applications which I use less frequently; but I know they are always there on standby in case I need them. We've come a long way from the days of Windows Mobile and Palm.