Sunday, May 19, 2019

Fax Machine: RIP, good and faithful servant

Goodbye fax, it was nice knowing you. I cannot remember when I last had to send or receive a fax, so I'm opting out of this bit of 20th-century technology.

Two years ago I had my dedicated fax line disconnected and pensioned off the old HP all-in-one. But withdrawal set in and I signed up for the admirable MyFax service "just in case". For £5 a month I got a dedicated fax number and the ability to receive and send faxes  without the inconvenience of telephone lines and paper-handling contraptions. After paying MyFax over £100 and neither receiving nor sending a fax, it is time to quit.

Fax was an important means of communication in my business and reigned supreme until the mid-90s when email began to take over for all non-secure communication. But back in the mid seventies I was unaware of the potential impact of a machine that could transmit text and pictures.

One evening I was vexed to find one of my major competitors as large as life on a BBC current affairs television programme with a new-fangled device he was promoting. This early evening daily spot was to die for at the time and there was my hated colleague stealing the limelight with something new and interesting.

This wonder was in twin form -- one enormous electronic box sitting in the London studio and the other in Cardiff. My bête noir was confidently feeding a sheet of paper into the Cardiff-based box while the nation waited for a "facsimile" to appear out of the similar box in London. Nothing came, zilch, massive failure and I witnessed a red-faced competitor. To my eternal shame I  felt extreme Schadenfreude, but at least I was in at the birth.

Now I am in at the end, just as I was in Berlin on November 9, 1989 when the Wall fell. End of an era. And RIP, fax machine. You helped bring down Communism by your ability to transmit illicit truth; you deserve peace.

Book Apps: Kindle v iBooks shootout

For the past month I have been able to compare the two major reader applications for the iPad - Amazon’s Kindle app and Apples iBooks. Both have their pros and cons but it’s only after experience that you can really appreciate the differences. At the moment there is no clear winner as this review shows.


User Interface

There’s little doubt that iBooks wins hands down in appearance and usability. The Kindle iPad application, though serviceable, gives the impression of having being thrown together in a hurry. It is slightly more appealing than the Kindle iPhone version, particularly with its graphic page turns, but it is nonetheless nothing more than a simple text-based system with limited customisation. It has only one font, for instance - a fairly adequate serif style which is readable but unexciting - but does offer six type sizes with the largest ideal for the visually impaired. Kindle is an iPad version of a typical e-ink reader screen which fails to take advantages of the iPad’s graphics capabilities.

iBooks, on the other hand, offers five fonts but only two sizes, small and large. Large is probably not large enough for some people. Of the fonts, Cochin (the one demonstrated by Apple in all the advance publicity for iBooks) is my favorite. It’s a rather fussy serif face, with beautiful italics, but is very readable. Of the remainder, Baskerville, Palatino and Times New Roman complete the quartet of serif faces while Verdana - also a quiet favourite of mine - is the only sans-serif offering. In general, Serif faces are easier to read than sans-serif despite the latter’s seemingly more modern appearance. 

Both iBooks and Kindle offer a page header consisting of the book title (plus author in the iBooks landscape mode) while iBooks, in addition, offers a page number at the foot. This is a virtual page number, as in many readers, which changes according to font size and orientation, but is a useful guide to progress. With the Kindle app you have to tap the centre of the screen so see progress, which is shown not in page numbers but as a bar with a “location” number. This is an absolute figure, consistent irrespective of font size or page size and is useful to find a specific location if your sync hasn’t worked.

Further information in both applications is accessed by tapping the screen, ideally in the centre to avoid inadvertent page turns. With the Kindle you get a home button, to take you back to your library, the location bar which shows progress, choice of six type sizes; and settings for brightness and choice of background - white, black or sepia. At the moment, though, you cannot change font style. There is also a Go To button which gives access to the cover, table of contents, beginning and specific location. Finally, there is a syncronisation button (more on that later) and a bookmark button, although bookmarks can also be added by tapping the top right on the page.

The menu functions in iBooks cover the same ground but in a more attractive and usable fashion. At the top of the page are buttons for return to your library and access to the cover and table of contents. There is also a brightness control, a font control (two sizes, five styles) and a search loupe. At the bottom is a dotted Kindle-style progress bar (but without specific location information), virtual page number and, usefully, a note to tell you how many pages you have left in the current chapter. I particularly like this feature. 

Both applications offer animated page turns which allow you to gradually turn the page as you are reading so you can see part of the following page underneath - just like in a real book. In both, however, the quick option is to tap the right or left of the page display to go back and forth. In both you can use a swiping motion if you prefer. 

In general presentation, iBooks is the more attractive. Surrounding the current page is the edge of a virtual book and to the right  is a representation of page edges to give the impression you are flicking through a real book. 

Some will think this too fussy and a little condescending and will prefer the more spartan, businesslike appearance of the Kindle screen. But it does make for a conversation piece and adds to iBooks’ wow factor. 

Both applications allow portrait or landscape, but only iBooks does landscape well. Even in portrait mode the size of the iPad means that lines are longer than you would expect in most books. A little too wide, in my view. The iPad is big, possibly too big to be a really satisfactory book reader, and portrait mode is as much as you can stomach in one column. In landscape mode, the Kindle application is virtually unusable because the line length is painful to the eye. Try it for a short time and you’ll soon be back to portrait.

Landscape mode in iBooks, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of presentation if you can overlook the graphical fussiness already mentioned. Unlike Kindle, iBooks offers two pages to view and what you see is a fair representation of a small paperback, This means that the individual page width is much more normal and easy on the eye. Of all the options, I find reading in iBooks’ landscape mode by far the easiest and most pleasing. As you look at that landscape screen you think to yourself that this is what e-books really should be.

Reference Tools

A dictionary is essential in my view. With iBooks you get a built-in reference dictionary which also gives brief biographical details of notable people. With the Kindle apps you get no dictionary, although one is promised for the next version. 

Even if you think you know your language well, there’s always a word you need to look up. I remember being mildly baffled by the work “uxorious” in Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. I think Ms. Mantel must have been quite proud of it, because she contrived to use it excessively in the novel. Fortunately, my Sony Reader Touch edition sported a dictionary which assured me that it means “excessive wife loving.” The OED prefers the less ambiguous and less carnal “greatly or excessively fond of one’s wife.” Since then I’ve been vainly attempting to slip the word into casual conversation but have been thwarted at every turn. Maybe uxoricide would be more my cup of tea. 

So never think you don’t need a dictionary unless, that is, you have a classical education, are Stephen Fry or Boris Johnson, and know that uxor is Latin for the Old Trouble and Strife. 

Library Organisation

Both Kindle and iBooks currently fall down on simple organisation of your library. There is no way to allocate your books to folders for easier reference. On the Sony Reader, for instance, you can create libraries or catalogues and drag books to them. Everything stays in the master library but you are able to create smart collections for, say, Books to Read, Reading in Progress and anything else that takes your fancy. I find this extremely useful and hate to have to plough through the entire library looking for my current books or the next couple I have in line. 

With iBooks you get limited sorting such as by title, author or category, but it isn’t a great help. We need custom categories. 

Of the two applications, Kindle offers more control. Because Kindle books are retained on the Amazon cloud, you can delete books from your device once you’ve read them (you can always download them again if you wish). This way you can keep your reading library trimmed to just those books you have in your immediate sights. The rest can stay on the cloud. This makes for economy of disk space but can occasionally catch you out if you want access to a book while offline, such as while flying. 

With iBooks all your purchases are downloaded to your device, just like applications. In time, this will fill take up disk space and, on balance, Amazon’s solution is the more elegant. 

Synchronisation

Amazon’s excellent Whispersync has shown the way in synchronisation of books. Once you’ve experienced this you will not want to go back to a standalone book system. At the moment Amazon offer applications for Mac and Windows desktops, iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry mobiles. You can buy one library of books but read at will on as many of these devices as you fancy. Whispersync takes care of remembering your page number, bookmarks, notes and, of course, available books. Connection to the internet is essential, of course, and if you are planning to read alternately on your iPhone and iPad it’s probably a good idea go for the 3G iPad. Otherwise you will be frequently caught out. 

At the moment there is no synchronisation option for iBooks but it is coming with iOS4 and iBooks for iPhone. I am not sure of the mechanics, but I assume it will be some form of cloud sync and not sync via iTunes or wifi. If Apple do not include 3G cloud syncing I am afraid they will lose out massively to Kindle. Even if it is cloud sync as expected, it will be restricted initially to the iOS devices and will be limited in comparison with Kindle. If you are not 100 percent Apple and use a Windows computer or an Android or BlackBerry mobile, you’re better sticking with Amazon.

Bookstore

As an iPhone and iPad user you have the choice of which bookstore to use as well as your preference for a book reader application. Your decision is based on the availability of the titles you choose, the easy of purchasing and, of course, cost.

At the moment, without a doubt, Amazon has the most extensive library and choice over a wide range of titles. If a book is available in digital format it is likely to be there in the Kindle store. Sometimes, though, books on display are denied to you if you are not based in the USA, so frustrations can occur. This is something to do with licensing, I understand. 

The iBookstore does have a wealth of free classic material which is attractive and well packaged. I suspect the no-charge offer is a loss leader until the store becomes established, so I’m stocking up while the good times last. Amazon tend to charge for everything, even rehashes of free Gutenberg stuff, although the costs are usually modest at between one and two dollars a volume.

Both iBooks and Kindle make the buying process easy. Apple have the edge with in-app, one-click purchasing. Kindle takes you to Safari and the old familiar Amazon web site. However, choosing is easy and you have the option to decide to which device you want to download - iPhone, iPad, Mac or whatever. As mentioned earlier, Kindle keeps all your books on the cloud, so you can easily download to other devices when you need them. 

An unscientific review of prices seems to prove that the Kindle Store undercuts the iBookStore by a significant margin. It’s difficult to be sure whether this advantage will be maintained because Kindle readers are still having to use the US store, priced in dollars, while the UK iBookstore priced in pounds.

Taking Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, mentioned above, iBooks will ask you for £6.99 while Amazon offers the same book for $5.21 (£3.52) - half price. It’s the same story with Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which is £6.99 at iBooks and $5.78 (£3.91) in iBooks. Sam Bourne’s The Chosen One is £5.49 at iBooks and £5.77 (£3.90) at the Kindle Store. 

So, if you are based in the UK, my current advice would be to stock up on free iBooks classics but buy your content from Amazon. No doubt things will change when we get a UK-priced Kindle store and we get direct pound-for-pound comparisons.

Reading Experience

In terms of ease of reading and eye comfort I now much prefer the iBooks application to Kindle’s. Apple has set a high standard and I have little doubt that most people will prefer the Apple user interface. I imagine Kindle will catch up and I suspect it will be one of those cases where prime competitors continually leapfrog one another with features and choices. It’s early days yet, both for electronic books in general and synchronisation in particular, so we have a lot to look forward to.

But we shouldn’t forget there is a strong contender to the iPad: It’s called iPhone or iPod Touch. Contrary to the views of the naysayers, who probably haven’t really tried to read a book on the iPhone, the smaller screen is eminently readable. In many circumstances I prefer the small phone format.

Keen photographers often remark that the best camera in the world is the one you have in your pocket. The heavy SLR on its tripod might well produce better pictures, but it isn’t in your pocket. Similarly, the iPad - or even a Sony Reader - is not always in your pocket. You have to make a conscious decision to take it out with you, and that generally means carrying a bag.

Your phone, on the other hand, probably goes with you everywhere and is always available. Reading on an iPhone is absolutely no hardship and I actually like the experience. In certain situations such as on a crowded train or at a restaurant table, the iPhone is more practical and less conspicuous than an iPad or, even, a Sony Reader. It’s particularly useful if you are somewhere where you wouldn’t want to be seen reading from a very expensive toy.

That’s why synchronisation is so important. You need your books with you wherever you are and you need to be able to read a few pages on your iPhone and then find your place marked on the iPad when you return home. 

Conclusion

Since I started reading ebooks on my first Sony, unswe two years ago, the market has expanded dramatically and the facilities and options are infinitely greater. The Sony, which I originally thought was wonderful, is let down by a cludgy purchasing and book management system which is totally overshadowed by Kindle and iBooks. 

Synchronisation is king and I would not now buy any books that I could not read on several different platforms. At the very least I expect iPad and iPhone synchronisation to fit in with my daily life. 

While Amazon currently has the most choice at the lowest price - and the greatest flexibility in synchronisation - iBooks has the better reader application. Kindle, of course, adds something iBooks cannot yet offer and that is the ability to read your books on an e-ink screen, the Kindle device itself. 

A downside for Kindle is that they use proprietary copy protection so you are unlikely ever to be able to move your library outside the Kindle eco-system. Apple, on the other hand, has opted for the increasingly popular and would-be universal ePub format. At the moment you are not going to be able to transfer your Apple purchases to another system, but there is probably more chance of that  in the future with Apple than with Amazon. 

As iPad and iPhone users we are lucky to be able to take the best from both worlds (and, even, add the new Barnes & Noble reader and system if we feel adventurous). It’s a good position to be in and will ensure that both Amazon and Apple are kept on their toes and offer real competition, despite the best efforts of the book publishers to control prices. 

Moneydance: iPhone app makes the best even better

Without a doubt the best accounts package for the Mac is Mondeydance. It's not the prettiest, but it is rock solid and does everything you could reasonably expect of an accounts package. The joy of it is that you can make it as simple or as complicated as you like and it is suitable for beginners right through to professional book-keepers. Unlike many personal accounts packages, the "categories" - to show income and expenditure under various headings - are not simply tags but fully-functioning accounts which allow proper journalling to keep even your accountant happy. Yet the beginner never sees this and doesn't need to know about it.

Moneydance will track all your bank accounts, credit cards, loans, mortgages, investments, assets and liabilities.

Now, for the first time, we have an iPhone app (it also works on the iPad, of course) which syncs with the desktop program. Up to now I've been entering raw data into Pocket Money on the iPhone - that is also a wonderful stand-alone app if that's what you need - but now have just one home for all my entries. For a V1 release, the Moneydance iPhone app (it's free, by the way) is outstanding. It's not intended as a full accounts package as, for instance, Pocket Money, but as an adjunct to the desktop package it is just right.

One of the big advantages of the desktop version of Moneydance is that there are versions for most platforms, including Mac, Windows and Linux. The data file is universal so you can save your data on a Mac and then open it on a Windows machine. I store my data file on Dropbox so the latest version is available wherever I'm working. A couple of years ago I had cause to thank Moneydance for this universality. My MacBook gave up the ghost while I was away from home. I desperately needed to access my accounts data (which I had on a backup disk) so I borrowed a PC, downloaded the app from the Moneydance site and was able to open and work on my file with no problems.

I can thoroughly recommend Moneydance for the Mac. It costs about £30, plus local taxes. 

Windows Mobile: It started with an iPAQ in the back row of the movies

Ipaq3700Author: Michael Evans

I'm grateful to Engadget and Michael Gartenberg for reminding me that we've just passed the tenth anniversary of Windows Mobile. Microsoft introduced the new OS on 19 April 2000 in New York and set the scene for the PDA (personal digital assistant) for at least the next seven years, until the iPhone changed the world. Since then it's been a downward slippery path for WM, although Microsoft is now putting its efforts into Windows Phone 7 and early reports look promising.

I remember all this distinctly because I was front of the queue for one of the original Compaq iPAQs. It was a great device, I thought at the time, and the answer to my dreams of portable computing. It had a very nifty dock for the desk and it could be equipped with a variety of plastic sleeves--a bit like today's iPhone battery cases--that offered expansion facilities such as PCMCIA and Compact Flash cards.

Later models of the iPAQ including phone capabilities and was wedded to one of these for a whole year. It wasn't the most wieldy of phones, of course, but it made a good stab at doing the sort of PIM and communications tasks we now take for granted in the iPhone. But I remember it mostly for a very expensive incident when I had stowed the phone in the pannier of my motorcycle for a 200-mile trip. For some unfathomable reason vibration caused the phone repeatedly to dial the last number called. This number, unfortunately, was on the other side of Europe and I subsequently received an eye-watering phone bill. They say we live and learn....

I was loyal to Windows Mobile until two years ago when I finally gave in to pressure from the iPhone. Later PDA/phones such as the Treo 750 were a great improvement on the earlier devices, had a good keyboard and were pretty svelte. But synchronisation, particularly with Mac, was never super smooth. 

The original Windows Mobile and the iPAQ, HP Jornado and Casio, represented a huge step forward in 2000. For the first time it was possible to have your office in your pocket. Now we have the whole world in our pocket.

Read Michael Gartenberg's full article here

CPT, the Cassette-Powered Tinosaur

by Paul W. Evans


CPT 8500 The piece on the TRS-80 (April 19) prompted me to recall the now-extinct dinosaur, the CPT word processor. In the early eighties the CPT Corporation (it originally stood for "Cassette Powered Typewriting") held an impressive share of the dedicated word-processor market with its trademark portrait screen and amazingly complicated operation. I ran a public relations company at the time and was asked by CPT to promote their very expensive machines. Even then, personal computers were taking over and the idea of a dedicated word processor was becoming history.

The all-female staff of the CPT London headquarters were fanatics. They believed implicitly in the future of their system and any mention of PCs or "personal" word processors was accompanied by brays of utter scorn. I swear they had a regular happy-clappy collective experience every morning, including singing the CPT company anthem. I entered the fray as an experienced user of WordStar, then the leading PC-based word-processor, so I had a clear benchmark. The massive and massively expensive new CPT on my desk left a lot to be desired as I soon found out.

It did have some attractive features, mainly the paper-white on-end portrait screen that faithfully mimicked a sheet of paper. At the time, most PC displays had blurry white-on-black or green-on-back displays and were usually square and no bigger than 12 inches. The CPT screen was magnificent in comparison, and the on-screen copy was as near WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) as could be in pre-Windows or Apple Lisa days. But there the good experience ended.

The massive 8-in floppy disks stored very little, as I remember, and the method of constructing documents relied on a strange, already archaic one-page-per-file system. It was just about acceptable for a single-page letter, but any multi-page documents required endless fiddling, especially if large amounts of text were inserted or deleted. I did hear that experienced users found it all very easy and Government departments and many large companies relied exclusively on CPT. I suspect, though, that the enthusiasts had come straight from typewriter to CPT and had not experienced the relative freedom of a good PC-based word processor. 

I never once managed to produce a reasonable report on the CPT and soon lost whatever enthusiasm I had gained on first acquaintance. I realised that WordStar, primitive as it was, was years ahead of the CPT in all but on-screen display.

Nevertheless, the ladies of CPT saw no writing on the wall and continued promoting their square-earth philosophy for more than another decade.

My relationship with CPT ended fairly abruptly and I cannot now remember whether I was given the boot or the other way round. I suppose my lack of enthusiasm must have been obvious.  It was a great relief to have the CPT equipment collected and to continue with my tried-and-trusted WordStar. 

Saving the world with the TRS-80

280px-Trs80_2 Thirty years ago today MacOldie Corporation acquired its very first computer. The Tandy (Radio Shack) TRS80 had 8KB of RAM and a cassette input device. Hopes were cherished that this rather neat little box would handle all the MacOldie Corp. accounts, compose and print letters and reports and even make the tea. 

Such hopes were very soon dashed, not surprisingly with 20:20 hindsight, and the little computer proved utterly useless for business purposes, although it was well regarded by the hobbyist and still has a strong following. It languished in the cupboard and an electronic single-line display typewriter was purchased from Olivetti. This had a fiendlishly difficult method of viewing and correcting documents and proved to be short lived.

Then along came the Superbrain, a one-piece terminal-style unit in a cowl that would not have been out of place on the Starship Enterprise. This, with it's twin 5.25in floppy disks and a tad more memory, proved an altogether more useful asset. The introduction to Superbrain came from a small north-London company peddling accounting software and MacOldie, who always had a penchant for mechanisation of the bean counting, soon had a reliable and serviceable business system. Letters and reports were rattled off on WordStar and clients began receiving personally-addressed mail-merged letters, the wonder of the age.

Pretty soon MacOldie got to worrying about data security (as he was to do on and off for the next thirty years) and a decision was made to acquire a hard disk. This came in a substantial metal enclosure and stored a massive five megabytes of data. It cost a fortune and, today, it would just about hold one medium-size photo from Aunt Flora MacOldie's digital camera.

Intl206t No looking back from then for an increasingly digitised MacOldie. Soon the Superbrains were replaced with Apricots, still running the CPM operating system, then came the first Dells with MSDOS. WordStar, the early-80's word processor of choice was ditched in favour of Microsoft Word, pre Windows of course. Windows provided a real breakthrough in useability and served MacOldie Enterprises well for many a year.

So it was a very experienced Windows user who finally converted to Macdom in 2005, 25 years after the first byte was bitten. The speed of development has continued to accelerate throughout the past 30 years of the personal computer and these days we take a massive leap forward every year, particularly in terms of memory and storage. In those early days 5MB was an inconceivably large amount of spare disk; now we are on the verge of ditching the gigabyte in favour of the terabyte and the fabled petabyte is on the horizon. Of course, everything we use--operating systems, programs, data--get bigger in line with the increased memory and storage so we are still sometimes scrambling for RAM or disk storage. 

Getting Things Done (Chapter 1)

I'm an inveterate list maker and I am never happy until I have all my tasks filed away and categorised. As I get older I realise I begin to rely more and more on my reminders and task lists. For new Mac users there's an easy and simple way of keeping track of your tasks built right into iCal. These tasks can be synchronised between computers (for instance by MobileMe) and you can view the lists in Mail. Also, working in Mail, you can create Smart Folders to provide views such as all tasks in a particular calendar or all tasks due today.

If you are a bit more ambitious I would recomment Filemaker Pro's Bento as a way of adding to the rather basic task management capabilities of iCal. The beauty of Bento (apart from the fact that it is a powerful and easy-to-use database in its own right; it's the database for the rest of us) is that it works directly on your iCal tasks data without any need for synchronisation. You can even add fields to your iCal tasks for greater analysis and reporting capabilities. Yet these fields remain in Bento and are not added to the simple items in iCal. Whenever you open Bento they are there.

Bento allows for Smart Groups but with greater customisation of parameters. All in all, it provides a great enhancement and adds great power to the standard iCal offering. I also use Bento for customised databases which are easy to set up--such as an exercise log, a list of books, a packing list. It's really easy to use.

The major drawback of Bento is that there is no iPhone version available. And that's where OmniFocus comes in. It's a very powerful task management system based on the GTD principles of David Allen. GTD is a fascinating concept and needs an item of its own, so watch out for Chapter 2.