Happy Apps Blog

Steve Jobs – He Made the Future Real October 6th, 2011

Steve Jobs inspired me to make apps for the Mac, quit my job and start my own business.  He created the mobile apps industry where I now mostly make my living.  Apple under Steve Jobs set the gold standard for smart phones, tablets, customer experience and even presenting on stage.  I feel fortunate to have felt his RDF (Reality Distortion Field, a shorthand for witnessing his charismatic personality and passion in person) at the “Stevenotes” at WWDC, which I have attended since 2005.

It seems incredible now that with Steve Jobs at the helm, that Apple has gone from a struggling company to being the most successful one today.  It seems normal now to stand in line for Apple products on launch day in front of the Apple Retail Stores, but before they opened, having a retail presence was thought of as a liability.  It seems normal now to have touchscreen phones, but before the iPhone was released, people used to think a hardware keyboard was necessary.  It seems normal now to have a tablet, but before the iPad was released, people didn’t think that they would want or need what seemed to be just a big iPod Touch.

But Steve Jobs was a visionary.  He brought us the future and made it real.  Especially in the past 10+ years, he has pushed the entire tech industry and perhaps the world forward in terms of technology.  He will be missed, but his legacy lives on in the products that we use today.

History of Wireless Data – Part 3 – 3G, 4G and Mobile Hotspots May 21st, 2011

I got a 4G MiFi recently and to put things in perspective, I’m writing about the history of wireless data.  Part 1 covered wired modems and Part 2 covered wireless modems and static hotspots.

Around 2007, I again broke free from the shackles of having to be connected via an Ethernet cable or to a static hotspot like they had at Borders.  The wireless networks had started rolling out high speed networks.  So I got a Sprint 3G wireless card.  It was a Novatel Merlin EX720 that fit in the ExpressCard slot of my 15″ MacBook Pro.

3G was great since it had speeds up to 1Mbit down and around 300k up.  The coverage was pretty good too.  What really amazed me was that I could be sitting in my car (with my wife driving) and stay connected on the Internet even at 55 miles per hour!

Then I got Verizon FIOS and got a great deal as an early adopter for the 30 Mbit down / 5 Mbit up package and 3G seemed slow.  Also, the 3G card only really served that one laptop.  You can share out your network via Internet Sharing on Mac OS X, but I found that to be flaky.  So I couldn’t share it with my friends at NSCoderNight DC (a local iPhone, iPad and Mac programming group) or with my family on vacation.  The final nail in the coffin was that Apple got rid of the ExpressCard slot.  I kept my 3G card going with a USB -> ExpressCard dongle, but this was unwieldy.

Fast forward to today.  Wireless providers are rolling out even faster data networks, all of them called “4G”.  Friends tell me T-Mobile is quite good, partially because it is the smallest of the big 4 networks, though after around 5 GB, the speed is throttled.  Sprint has unlimited data on their 4G network, which is good if you watch a lot of video, but I have to imagine that this encourages high usage and thus high traffic and lower speeds overall.  Verizon has 4G LTE which as of this writing seems to have the highest speeds, with plans for 5 GB and 10GB, with charges for each 1GB over, but I think they don’t throttle.  Having a cap might seem like a drag, but if your priority is speed (and are using it for business) then I think this is a good trade-off.

Today we also have lots of devices.  The iPhone really kicked that revolution off.  I routinely carry both an iOS device and an Android device with me.  Kids have iPod Touches.  Each device works better when its connected to the Internet.  Companies realized this and so now we can have our own little wireless network that we can carry around with us in the form of the Mobile Hotspot, which of course is connected to the Internet via 3G or 4G.

Mobile Hotspots are also great at sharing your connection with your friends or co-workers.  NSCoderNight DC meets at a Panera in Bethesda, MD which doesn’t have WiFi, so we have come to depend on these mobile hotspots, which are also known by the term MiFis.

So what will the future bring?  If it were up to me, I’d make the networks even faster, of course.  However I think even more pressing is the battery life on MiFis.  They last on average around 3-4 hours.  They really should last at least 8 hours, if not more.  MiFis also usually only support 5-6 connected devices.  With laptops only, that’d support a small workgroup, but with each person carrying at least a smartphone, they really should support 10-12 connections due to Device Inflation.

Next up: Finally!  The Verizon 4G LTE Novatel MiFi Review.

History of Wireless Data – Part 2 – Wireless Modems and Static Hotspots May 4th, 2011

I got a 4G MiFi recently and to put things in perspective, I’m writing about the history of wireless data.  Part 1 covered wired modems, which enabled people to connect to each other over the existing telephone network.  But people wanted to use their computers in more than just one place, especially with laptop usage growing.

My first experience with wireless modems was around 1998 with the Metricom Ricochet modem.  It ran at 28.8k wireless and later went up to 128k.  The cost was pretty reasonable too.  But wireless was amazing.  You could move around with your laptop and still access the Internet!  At least you could in the Washington DC area, San Francisco, Seattle and several airports.  Even better, you didn’t have to dial in since it was using an innovative packet switched network.  Unfortunately the company crashed and burned in the Dot Com Bust.

Around that time I had my first kid, so my memory gets a little fuzzy.  But I remember that Static Hotspots and Cyber Cafes sprang up.  About this time broadband for the home via cable modems and DSL started rolling out.  I say static hotspot since these were fixed to one location, usually a business that wanted to attract people to stick around and shop.  So that was the next step for computer users: you could get out of the house, have coffee and use the Internet wirelessly.  This was definitely a good step, but the services tended to be uneven in my experience and tied you to that one spot.

Next up: 3G, 4G and Mobile Hotspots

History of Wireless Data – Part 1 – Modems April 29th, 2011

I just got a Verizon MiFi that runs on 4G LTE.  It has been working great, dare I say magical, but instead of just diving into a review of it, I thought it would be interesting to go through the history of wireless data to better appreciate the technology we have today.

Back in the Dark Ages, I had a PCjr.  But it had a 300 baud modem.  OK that was not wireless, but it was the magic we had at the time.  I remember getting some terminal software, looking up some BBS numbers in a bookstore and voila – I was online.  It wasn’t the Internet yet, but it was a way to connect with other people electronically.  That’s really what we most of us do online if we’re honest about it.  You’re reading this now to find out a little more about technology from me.  I’m writing this to share my experiences.  We use Twitter and Facebook to share and see what other people are doing.

Just connecting to other computers wasn’t enough for me.  I somehow convinced my parents (or was it my grandma) to get a second phone line and then I set up a BBS of my own using FIDO.  Running a BBS off of a <5Mhz processor, 128K of RAM, and 360K of floppy space was an early lesson in working with limited resources.  We have a lot more computing power in our phones nowadays, yet we still have to program for efficiency.  Running a BBS back then was like having your own website today, except instead of typing in a web address, you dialed a number which connected your modem to someone else’s modem.  Data was traveling, although it was only through copper wires at this point.

300 baud was great – you could read the text as it came to your computer.  But it was bad for transferring files.  So 1200 baud came along, which seemed fast.  Then 2400 baud.  Then 9600.  Then 19.2k, then 28.8k and finally 56k modems.  One annoying but distinctive thing about modems is that you listened to them do their work to see if you connected properly or not.   There’s actually a site where you can relive those 56k modem sounds.  So now with those faster speeds, you could transfer files along with text, including images or even this new thing called HTML.   The Internet had arrived.  Meanwhile, a billionaire was getting ready to free us and our data from copper wires.

Next up: Wireless Modems.

iPad 2 Was Worth the Wait March 17th, 2011

Last Friday, the iPad 2 launched.  Unlike with the first version, there was no way to reserve online.  The first iPad had a truly VIP buying experience, perhaps to accommodate us early adopters who wade into the murky waters of a first generation device.

The iPad 2, building on the reputation of the magical iPad, did not have that problem.  Tens of thousands of people lined up eagerly for hours to buy these new, even more magical devices.

I was one of those people, along with what I estimate were 700-1000 others at the Tysons Corner Apple Store in Northern Virginia.  It is my favorite store, since it is the closest to Happy Apps headquarters.

I got there at 4:30PM, later than I had hoped and got in line with my son.  The line had already gone out of the store, around the upstairs railing, past LL Bean, past the Verizon Store, past the smoothie shop, past Bloomingdale’s (the anchor store), down the hallway, to the doors and had wrapped back into the mall!  Soon mall security came around and forced us out into the windy and cold weather.  Perhaps Steve Jobs wanted to test us and see if were worthy of the iPad 2.

Fortunately, when you stand in line for an Apple product, you get to hang out with other Apple aficionados.  So the time (we waited around 3 hours including the actual purchase in-store) passed quickly.  The Apple employees kept us well informed, gave out “golden tickets” to re-assure us we weren’t wasting our time in line but were indeed guaranteed an iPad 2, and even cheered us on at one point!  (I could hear some of them gasp at how long the line had gotten.)

So was the iPad 2 worth 3 hours?  Yes, definitely.  Once I got it home, I was amazed at how much more comfortable it was to hold, due to its thinner profile and lighter weight.  It was definitely faster, though I haven’t quite measured exactly.  Later that night, I found a bug related to the iPad 2 camera in an iOS App that I’ve been doing some programming on.

You can see some of the live commentary and pics of the Tysons Corner Apple line at Happy Apps’ new Twitter account: http://twitter.com/#!/happyapps


The iPad is a Book. April 9th, 2010

The iPad is so focused due to its design that it tends to become an appliance that replaces real-world items. One of those items is a Book.

Before the iPad, probably the most popular “middle” device that was between a laptop and a smartphone was The Kindle by Amazon. You could read books with The Kindle along with magazines, newspapers and blogs. They come in different sizes but the biggest is the Kindle DX that is 9.7″ diagonal.

Fast-forward to now and the most striking hardware spec of the iPad is this: The iPad screen is 9.7″ diagonal.

To me, that screams that the iPad is intended first and foremost to displace the Kindle. Which it does. I used to want a Kindle but not after reading books on my iPad. But if you really want a Kindle, you can get the Kindle app for free on your iPad.

Our brains have come to expect a lot of things when we read a book. We expect that there are black words on white or off-white paper. But there are more subliminal things that I think our brains expect. When we read, we expect to see a stack of paper. If it is a hardcover book, we expect a dust jacket. We are used to reading a book two pages at a time. We don’t really think about these things, but I think Apple studied this.

iBooks replicates that reading experience faithfully. It’s a free download in the App Store but really it probably should pre-installed on the iPad. You can read a book in portrait mode so that you just see one page, which still has the page stack and also the dust jacket behind all those pages. Or you can read it in landscape mode so that you see two pages at a time with the center crease. There’s a page curl and really the only thing missing is maybe the cracking of the spine and being able to inspect the inside front/back of the dust cover and also the back cover.

What I really want to convey is that the iPad replaces having a physical book. Laptops kind of did it, but it was awkward to hold it with the keyboard and holding it sideways. iPhones and other smart phones are just too small to read on for long periods of time.

I’ve started reading more again and I think that’s due to the iPad. I actually enjoy reading late at night before I go to sleep. The backlighting is nice then, though I usually turn down the in-app brightness a lot. Still it is enough to read by without turning on a light and disturbing your wife, roommate or cat. The hardware rotation lock on the iPad helps you read it in whatever mode you like. So one of my favorite things about the iPad is that the iPad is a Book.

The iPad is here! April 7th, 2010

I got an iPad on launch day last Saturday. The atmosphere was surreal. There was a huge throng of people at the Tysons Corner Apple Retail Store (which happens to be Apple’s first store to open.) They were crowded around the few iPads they had out on display. Meanwhile, I had one on Reserve and I was met at the door by one guy, led to another lady, then to another fellow, who finally walked me to the back where the iPad Diva handed over one of the prized iPads. I felt like a VIP. It was a buying experience that had few rivals.

Apple looks out for the little things, for the most part. I unpacked the iPad and noticed that the box seemed scratched. No big deal. The box fit perfectly and the instructions were minimal but nicely designed. Even before I turn on the thing, I’m having a good experience.

Then I turn it on and horrors – it looks like the screen is scratched. I realize that it is some sort of camera shot of shooting meteors or something. OK heart attack averted, I venture on.

Simply put, I was playing with the iPad for hours and hours and hours. I spent a lot of time exploring all the built-in apps, the buttons, all the “HD” apps from the App Store… On Monday morning, I felt like I had an iPad hangover. There were so many new computing experiences, it was hard for my mind to process it all.

Bottom line: The first generation iPad is going to be a huge hit. The iPad pushes the boundaries of touch screen technology in ways that stylus/pressure-oriented touch screens like the Tablet PC and even Nintendo DS have not. It simplifies computing in a dramatic way that we haven’t seen in technology since the way the Nintendo Wii shook up video gaming.

The Wii was criticized by the gaming elite, like the iPad by the computing elite, as having so many flaws but ultimately it unlocked the gaming experience for a large population that didn’t enjoy gaming before. I think iPad will do the same for computing, but people won’t think of it as a computer. I don’t think we have a name for it yet.

Laptops and desktops won’t go away. Mac OS X won’t go away. There’s just a lot of things that are better done on your MacBook, like writing this blog entry. The iPhone won’t go away – the iPad is way too big to fit into your pockets and would look ridiculous for making calls. But I think Apple has found a Third Device that will help improve our daily lives.

I will try to catalog the different ways I use the iPad in future blog entries. I think that’ll be more insightful than trying to write one uber-review.

Nintendo DSi XL Hands-on Review March 29th, 2010

I admit it. I’m an early adopter. I bought the Nintendo DSi XL today. I originally had ruled it out since it didn’t have increased resolution or any other new features. However I changed my mind when a kindly GameStop sales guy asked me if I wanted to pre-order one a few weeks ago.

Fast forward to today – the DSi XL seems perfect for me.

What’s good about it?

– The form factor

At first I thought this would be a con. It might not fit my pockets. It might be too heavy. Even after unwrapping it, I was concerned.

Instead, I found that I can actually hold it
better than a DSi or DS Lite. That is because my hands can grip the entire bottom half. With the DSi and DS Lite, I tend to hold on to a bit of the top half too to stabilize it with one or both of my index fingers. That is tends to stress out my hand, so I found myself being more comfortable with the XL even though it may weigh a bit more. My guess is that Nintendo realized that older folks (I’m in my thirties) were playing portable games more and we tend to have larger hands on average than kids.

– The stylus

There’s actually two styluses (stylii?) included. One is the regular DSi stylus that fits in the console itself. The other is a large pen-like stylus that reminds me of a Waterman. This larger pen-like stylus is really comfortable in the hand for an adult.

I actually got another pair of small/pen-like styluses with an XL protection pack by PDP. The big pen-like stylus has a gel grip which is even more comfortable.

– Pixels are easier to hit

Another shortcoming which actually turns out to be good is that the touchscreen and the top display screen don’t have any more pixels than a DSi or a DS Lite. The pixels are just bigger. That is easier for a developer – sidenote: expect to have some complaining in the near future about iPhone apps on the iPad due to the difference in resolutions.

It is also easier for the user on touch-screen intensive games like SimCity DS or Advance Wars: Dual Strike. Users have typically preferred the D-pad due to this. The DSi helped this situation out somewhat, but the XL takes it to a new level with a screen that is roughly twice the size. What that means is the hit area for any given pixel is increased to 4x! This combined with an easier to hold stylus makes the XL much better for (stylus-driven) touch-screen games. iPhone and iPod Touch are still the best for touch-screen games without a stylus.

– Pre-loaded DSiWare

I bought the DSi when it first came out as well – about a year ago. I was pretty pleased with it but I had a hard time deciding on what to spend my points on. I traded it in when I bought this XL and when I did, it still had the original 1000 DSiWare points.

The XL comes with a photo clock (yawn), two Brain Age games (the math makes me feel good, the other one is a little frustrating) and the standout – Flipnote Studio (no relation to Webnote.) Flipnote is a way to create flip-books, animations basically. It is easy, fun and a really great use of the console, I think.

It also has a browser (Opera) which I of course tweeted from. Tip: use the m.twitter.com site instead of the regular site – it works much better on the DSi and DSi XL.

Alright – so what are the cons, or what could be better?

– Price

Definitely the most expensive DS you can get. This is almost a luxury item compared to the $60 cheaper DS Lite. I showed my XL to a friend and he called it “the Lexus of the DS family.” That was pretty insightful – the Lite is the Toyota (pre-floor-mat days) and the DSi is now a mid-market item.

Still, it is less expensive than the base level iPod Touch and the iPhone (with contract included.)

– No place for the big stylus

While the small stylus has integrated storage like the DSi or DS Lite, the big pen-like stylus has no place on the XL to live. It is like I need to get a daily planner-like cover that I can hook a pen onto. For now I’m just stuffing it in one of my other pockets.

– No video capability and camera resolution still relatively poor

I really wish the XL could take some video even in SD. Also the resolution of the camera is still relatively poor although I have only taken a few shots. So the XL won’t replace your digital camera – even the first generation iPhone camera is better. But the integrated camera + calendar is handy for taking shots to include in-game like in the Flipnote Studio.

On the other hand, the included photo editing tools are still better than what I’ve seen in a lot of devices – at least for ease of use.

The bottom line:

I think the DSi XL is perfect for adults who play DS games and want a more comfortable playing experience. It is easier to hold, the screens are much bigger, the touch-screen is easier to use and the pen is more comfortable to use. It can even fit in adult (men’s) pants pockets.

For children, I’d recommend sticking with the DS Lite. It’s cheaper and better sized for their hands. It’ll also fit in their pockets better.

I’m drooling over the 27″ iMac October 21st, 2009

I had dreamed that this day would come 3 years ago in my iMac 24″ = Mac Semi-Pro post. I think we now have a true Mac Semi-Pro.

I’ve been working for the past few years on a 20″ iMac (white) paired with a 20″ monitor. Together, its 1680×1050 x 2, or 3360 x 1050. Apple just came out with a new 27″ iMac that is 2560×1440. That’s about 5% bigger than my current setup, which is amazing. It is not quite as large as a 30″ Cinema Display, but it is almost there.

Previously I was looking at purchasing a Mac Pro (quad or octo) and a 30″ Cinema Display, but it just seemed like a lot of money ($4,000+) considering how fast tech improves nowadays. Now, the 27″ iMac is starting to push into that configuration for around half the price:

Quad-Core. Previously, iMacs were only available as Dual-Core.

4 RAM Slots for up to 16GB of RAM. Previously, iMacs were limited to 8GB (and a pricey 8GB at that due to the price of 4GB chips.) My current iMac is limited to a measly 3GB. Adding 8GB as a Built-To-Order option on the new 27″ iMac seems to run only $200.

Probably the big thing you give up on the iMac is the ability to service it yourself, the ability to add drives internally, and the option of a matte screen on the 30″ Cinema Display. But I think come November, I’ll be getting one of the new 27″ iMacs and adjusting my office lighting to maximize the massive glossy screen.

Long live PowerPC Macs! June 24th, 2009

I just read a good post by Other World Computing about Not throwing out your PPC Macs, even though Snow Leopard is rumored to not support PowerPC anymore. I completely agree. Here is how I have repurposed the PowerPC Macs that I don’t use as my primary computers:

17″ PowerBook G4 1.33 Ghz – my wife uses it now, mainly for checking her email and surfing the web. Works great for that and it is still running Tiger.

Mac Mini 1.25 Ghz – I’m using it as a file server and source code control server. I have good memories of this, considering the frenzy at the Tysons Corner Apple Store and unboxing photos. I’m using this one headless (that is, without a monitor.) This is running Leopard.

BTW, I currently use an Intel iMac and an Intel MacBook Pro.