by Jean-Louis Gassée

I was a happy man. After twelve years of Windows use at work — the usual Outlook excuse — I was about to be saved by Vista.

On January 30th 2007, 8:00 am, the doors opened at Fry’s in Palo Alto. I showed up early to claim my prize, a 17” HP laptop with Vista factory-installed. I walked in and found that I was more than first in line — I was alone. Unfortunately, I didn’t take this as a warning. I bought the macho machine and completed the expedition with a $400 Office 2007 DVD.

That same morning, I flew to an industry conference, sat in the last row (as usual) so I could play with my new machine — and began to realize my mistake. I had become comfortable with Windows XP, deriving geek pride from my ability to juggle firewall settings, virus and malware countermeasures, I answered the Genuine Windows Advantage challenges and made coffee while the system checked for updates.

But Vista defeated me. I cracked. I walked down University Avenue to the Palo Alto Apple Store and bought a black MacBook (and Parallels software so I could still run Windows XP during the detox period).

The following Monday, my VC partners did a double take when they walked into the conference room: They saw the big Apple logo on the laptop and Microsoft Outlook projected on the big screen. Four years later, one by one, my partners are moving to the Light Side. (I also have a Dell netbook running Windows 7 — but it’s for “research.”)

During those four years, (some of) my Apple prayers have been answered: I have a new 11” MacBook Air, a neatbook I can really use on an airplane — even when the large gentleman sitting one row ahead suddenly reclines the back of his seat. Some days I wish I had a Mac as small and pocketable as my 2001 Toshiba Libretto but, all in all, my 11” Air is the most pleasant laptop I’ve ever owned, even more so than my dearly departed (stolen in Paris) 1991 PowerBook Duo.

Enough nostalgia, I also have unanswered prayers. We’ll start with two easy ones.

My iPad, which I use less often now that I have the MacBook Air, has 3G connectivity. On my laptop I have to use a modem, the Verizon MiFi 3G. It converts the cellular data connection into a WiFi hotspot in my pocket and can support up to five ‘clients’. I use a similar but even smaller device from Orange when I’m in France. I could, of course, use my Android phone as a hotspot (again, for ‘‘research’’), and there are recurrent rumors that someday AT&T will let my iPhone play the same role, but I’d like to cut out the middle man. Now that we know the Verizon iPhone 4 uses the bi-sexual ecumenical CDMA/GSM radio chip, there is hope that all future mobile devices from Apple, MacBook Air included, will have worldwide cellular connectivity.

Less important, but still helpful for this klutz who breaks toes in the dark against furniture, I’d like Jon Ive, Apple’s design guru, to take a weekend afternoon and whip up a black envelope for my laptop. The one he designed for the iPad spares me embarrassment and money every time I drop my tablet.

More difficult: I’d like a MobileMe that works.

MobileMe is erratic, the Back to My Mac feature works, then stops working, and then works again for no apparent reason. Synchronization between machines is so haphazard I finally switched to DropBox — it’s free for up to 2GB of impeccably Cloud-synced files, and a mere $10/month for 50Gb. DropBox hasn’t always worked well on OS X, but the latest version seems to be stable and manages to sync data for a large number of platforms and applications. As an example, it syncs my 1Password passwords across all my desktop and mobile devices, including Android and Windows.

As described in a previous Note, I bought the family pack for OS X and iLife updates even though the ‘’single” version can be installed on any number of machines. That alone probably gets me into the lower tier of the Friendly Idiot database somewhere in Apple’s Cloud, but the fact that I also pay $100/yr for MobileMe upgrades me to Platinum status.

Two days ago, I left a Word file open on my office iMac. At home, when I realized my mistake, I thought I could reach into the office using Back to My Mac, close the file and then open the copy that had been stored/synced through DropBox. Back to My Mac refused to work that night, but I could still open the file from DropBox and continue writing.

At the office the next day, the “old” document was tagged for deletion when I opened the newer version from DropBox. It sounds complicated and it is: Subtle conflicts of timing and location can make syncing difficult for normal humans.

I thought that’s why we have Apple, the non-IT company that caters to The Rest of Us, but, unfortunately, its Cloud services are messy, unpredictable, and filled with rigid silos. The Apple Cloud is supposed to smooth the seams of synchronization but fails to do so because information isn’t properly shared between its various functions.

I experienced another example of Cloud rigidity when I bought a new $99 Developer subscription. I used the Apple ID and the credit card I use all the time for MobileMe and iTunes purchases. The sale went through, Apple took my money…

…but right after the successful cashectomy a cranky algorithm complained about inconsistencies and refused to activate my subscription. Instead, I got an email message asking me to send a notarized copy of my ID by fax:

I’m sure the robot meant well; perhaps its poorly-fed algorithm causes it to bark at shadows. I emailed twice, requesting help and conceding that I may have contributed to the problem. But, ahem, why did you take my money? And why resort to such antiquated means to resolve the situation? Can’t a human use judgment and an email or phone call to correct the misunderstanding?

24 hours later, no one had gotten back to me.

So, why am I enrolling in the Apple Developer Program? I want to test an early version of the next OS X release, Lion, which is rumored to borrow some of the look and spirit of the iPad. In last November’s Monday Note, I criticized the Finder for being too complicated. I’m curious to see if Lion will simplify the UI, fulfill its promise of moving to a more intuitive way of organizing and navigating the content of our machines.

[Apple Insider just published a neat series of posts covering many of Lion’s new features.]

(Interestingly, the new developer release is distributed through one of Apple’s Cloud services, the Mac App Store, the one that continues to enthusiastically embrace my Apple ID — and credit card.)

Still, if I could have only one wish, what would it be?

Without a doubt, it’d be a working MobileMe. Free? Nice, but I’ll take working over free.

[This isn’t my lucky week. After I wrote the above, I bought the $0.99 FaceTime app for Brigitte’s Mac and for mine. This turned into another obstacle course of inconsistencies in Apple’s Cloud, to say nothing of UI trouble. Who tests these things? Engineers or mere mortals?]

JLG@mondaynote.com

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