Sync Hole

Syncing the iPhone is a mess. Apple really dropped the ball by not providing a generalized sync framework to support third party apps.

Every time I want to take my iPhone out on the road with me, I need to go through and sync up every application individually: Here’s the song and dance for a full sync:

  1. Open up 1Password on my Mac and on my iPhone, choose Sync from the iPhone, and wait for it to complete. (Sometimes I need to click through some password errors, too.

  2. Open TextGuru on my iPhone and the TextGuru server application on my Mac and copy over any text files I’d like to share between the devices.

  3. Open up Stanza on both my Mac and my phone and then open each book I want to carry with me and send it to the phone; one-by-one.

  4. Load any files I want to take with me into FileMagnet uploader, open the app on my iPhone, and send them over. (Or, if I’m using Briefcase, turn on remote login on my Mac and browse it – I’ll cover file viewers/transfer apps in a later post.)

  5. Open up SpeakEasy Connect to grab any recordings I want on my Mac from my phone.

  6. Sync OmniFocus to .me (and then when I open it on the iPhone, it syncs up, so that’s something at least!)

  7. Open up ByLine to pick up my Google Reader RSS feeds.

  8. Likewise with Instapaper.

  9. Did I mention I don’t use Safari as my main browser? So that’s a trip to BookDog to sync up my bookmarks from OmniWeb to Safari so that I’ll have ‘em on the phone.

  10. Finally I’m ready to sync with iTunes, but to be sure I get the most out of this sync, I’ll check for new podcasts and application updates.

  11. Dangit! I’m out of space for all my new files on my iPhone. Time to trim playlists, swap out movies, etc. I sure wish I could autofill the thing like I could on a shuffle!

And that’s if I happen to be on an available wifi network. Otherwise I also have to deal with Internet Sharing on my Mac!

Yeah, this is a worst-case scenario, of course. I don’t necessarily need to pick up new files or books, and I don’t always need to grab recordings. But if I intend to spend some time on an airplane or otherwise need to keep everything updated, this whole rigamarole can take as much as half an hour of fidding.

But because this is so time consuming, it’s not uncommon for my iPhone to be out of date, so I don’t have my latest passwords from 1Password, or I don’t have the movie I just rented from iTunes or eBook I’ve downloaded. (since I have to transfer it to the one device it lives on – grr!) Likewise, my Mac’s out of date from files I have on my phone. What a drag!

Some of these applications use Mobile Me or some other online service as an intermediary, so that I can sync asynchronously from my Mac or iPhone to a central server. Or ByLine syncs directly with Google Reader, so it acts like a normal RSS reader that way. But if I intend to be outside of wifi range, I have to remember to sync.

Compare this to my Palm handheld (recently retired in favor of my iPhone). I put it in the cradle and pressed the “sync” button. Any e-books or files waiting for transfer would transfer, passwords would be updated, content on the device would push back to my Mac. One click, and I was done. Palm provided a standard framework that developers could use to sync their applications’ data with my Mac and its programs.

Apple has done the same thing in the past, through iSync and Mobile Me/.Mac. However, they failed to extend this to the iPhone. Instead, every developer needs to build their own synchronization solution, with no standards whatsoever. Additionally, since there’s no background processing, there’s no method to keep the desktop and the phone in sync without forcing a manual process of opening every syncing program and doing your business, one program at a time.

Obviously there’s an underlying sync framework in iTunes, which can handle multiple content types (music, photos, email, contacts and calendars) from multiple data sources (Outlook on the PC; iPhoto, Mail, Address Book and iCal on the Mac; Google and Yahoo hosted services; and, of course, video and music through iTunes). And that’s all in addition to the built-in Mobile Me and IMAP services!

Apple dropped the ball on syncing with the iPhone. They need to build a synchronization API for developers, and they need to build it quickly before more programming time goes down the drain building half-assed custom sync solutions.

Written on November 25, 2008

Fix for Software Update "Update could not be saved" error

I’ve occasionally had an error when installing software that goes something like “The update could not be saved… You do not have appropriate access privileges.” I’ve tried deleting the software update caches, fixing permissions, etc., all to no avail.

Well, this Apple discussion thread had the answer. You just have to delete a folder with the same name as your update from /Library/Updates. Or just delete everything, I suppose.

I had to delete the offending folder from the terminal using “sudo” for some reason. I guess it was set as root-owned or something. Weird.

Written on November 21, 2008

Search the Amazon MP3 store from the iTMS

Now you can browse the iTunes Music Store and search for songs you like in the higher-quality, cheaper, and DRM-free Amazon MP3 store!

Just select some songs you like while browsing the iTMS and run this script, and your browser will open up searches for each selected song. If you don’t have any songs selected, it’ll just search for the first song in the list.

Why would you want this? Well, the iTMS has a very nice browser and some convenient integration with your playlist (especially with the new Genius sidebar). This way you can take advantage of that nice browser, but still buy a high quality, DRM free, MP3 version of the songs you want.

It’s kinda like going to Best Buy to try out a computer and then buying the computer on Amazon. Except with music.

Written on September 27, 2008

Who says print is dead?

Well, I may be leaving Penton just in time. On-demand printing has hit the publishing business. Hello, MagCloud.

Or then again, maybe not. A single issue of Windows IT Pro, published via MagCloud, would cost a subscriber $18.20! (84 pages, including front/back cover, at 20¢ per page and $1.40 shipping) And that’s with no markup/profit for the publisher.

Still, it’s a full color magazine, printed on an HP Indigo, so it is probably quite high quality. Full color, and I’m guessing that it’s printed on better paper than the toilet paper most magazines are printed on these days. (We can’t all be National Geographic)

Could be just the ticket for a quarterly journal or other high value publication. But for the low-budget ‘zine-type publisher, you’re still better off investing in a copy machine and a saddle stapler.

Written on June 19, 2008

Cha Cha Cha!

Wouldn’t you like to have Google at your fingertips wherever you go? Wouldn’t it be even cooler if you had a friend standing by to search Google for you, so that you don’t have to spend the time typing on the go? What if it was a complete stranger working for pennies on behalf of a very cool service named ChaCha?

Here’s what you do: Dial 1-800-2CHACHA (or 1-800-224-2242, if you prefer). A friendly automaton will prompt you to ask a question. Ask away, and then resume your daily business. In a minute or two, you’ll get an SMS message with an answer to your question. Pretty darn slick.

There are a few GotChas with ChaCha: Real humans are finding your answers, and they’re paid for their answers in dimes. (But they make it up in volume, I imagine) So don’t expect the sort of service you’d get from a skilled reference librarian with lots of answers at their disposal. Instead you’ll get a reasonably skilled Google/Wikipedia searcher who will be about as accurate as the same sources.

So it’s great for “I’m at this intersection and I want to find a gas station, where’s the closest one?” or “Who played Iron Man in the movie of the same name?” Not so good for “Where did I put my keys?”

Good stuff. I could easily become addicted to this service.

Written on June 17, 2008

Easily back up gigantic files, even with Time Machine

One place where backup programs really fail is in backing up large files. If, say, your run your VMWare machine, thus updating its disk; you add metadata to a high quality ripped DVD video; or you use Microsoft Entourage, so every time you get a new email, your giant Entourage database gets changed.

Some backup programs can handle block-level updates, so that only the chunks of the file that have changed get backed up, but most don’t.

Well, this little trick on MacOS X Hints is genius! Apple’s Disk Utility in 10.5 lets you create “sparse bundle” disk images. These are just like normal disk images, except that they break up the image itself into numerous smallish files, each one is about 8 MB.

So you can take your big ol’ file, put it into a sparse bundle, and poof! You can now handle backups and it’ll only change a handful of 8 MB files.

While the hint I’ve linked to is pretty complicated, you can just have the image and put large files on it and not worry about the rest of it. You can even just make an alias or symbolic link (type “man ls” in the terminal for a how-to) from one folder to another (yes, this does work on the “Microsoft User Data folder), rather than have a complicated script.

Note that, a few programs that generate big files offer similar features. VMWare, for example, lets you split up your VM’s hard disk image into 2 GB chunks. Not quite as minute as these sparse bundle backups, but still quite good (and probably faster, which is a must-have for a VM). Also, if you’re using FileVault, you already have a sparse bundle containing all your files on your hard drive. Nifty!

Written on June 6, 2008

A case for a prettier recipe box

I’m a software aesthete. I like to spend my life using programs that work elegantly and beautifully. While this is partly why I prefer using my Mac to my PC, it really comes down to the individual software and tasks. There are some phenomenal PC programs that I find are a pleasure to use (Microsoft Excel 2007 is just wonderful to chart and graph in), and there are Mac programs I’m more-or-less forced to use for one reason or another that could really use some more thought into how they work. (I’m looking at you, Script Editor!)

One place that I never thought to see such a divergence in elegance was in recipe software. Look, it’s a database, right? Recipes, cookbooks, ingredients, and even shopping lists. Sounds like a job for unformatted text and a decent search function.

But when my wife bought Cook’n, the best selling recipe software on any platform (or so they claim), I found an amazing study of software design and usability.

Cook’n may not actually be the best selling recipe software (how could DVO enterprises know?), but it’s almost certainly the most aggressively marketed. The website looks like a weeknight infomercial, but is strangely compelling. DVO also sells recipe packs for a pretty penny to fill out your library. These folks are making money.

This marketing has made the program popular, much like, say, Wordpad is popular. But for all its lack of style, it is not without distinguishing benefits. I couldn’t find a single forum/feature request site among the other contenders that didn’t say “So and so uses Cook’n, and it can do this, why can’t your program do it?”

And it’s true, Cook’n does a whole lot. It has a gigantic database of ingredients, nutritional analysis, shopping list creation, meal planners, and more. It probably has the longest feature list of any recipe book program out there, and believe me, there are no shortage of them.

But here’s the thing, Cook’n is old. It looks and acts like a Windows 3.1 program (one giant window with, of all things, a full color picture behind it; giant toolbar buttons; no keyboard shortcuts; and garish, gigantic, fonts with ugly gray-on-black layouts), and can’t even figure out how to save out files some place useful. (Its database is stored in the Program Files directory along with the application, so forget multi-user support; and even worse, when you export a recipe, it sticks it in that folder and tells you only the sub-folder – you have to search your whole hard drive to find it!)

Data entry is tedious, with numerous modal windows and a very unforgiving workflow. Browsing your recipes is similarly tedious, as everything is buried in a cookbook, course hierarchy. There’s no way to just browse every recipe at once. (It does, however, have a serviceable search which is a good alternative if you have some idea of what you want) Generally speaking, the program feels kludgy and requires you to work its way, wholly unwilling to give the user any freedom in how they want to access and work with their recipes.

So, hey, A+ on features, but the program’s an exercise in frustration to use!

When you look at the competition on the PC, there’s a variety of different approaches.

Some make a strong effort to be prettier and more browseable. Others have workmanlike interfaces that hide great features and lots of power and customizability for the user. And there are some that, frankly, make Cook’n look cutting edge.

Where things really get interesting, is when you look at the recipe organizers in the style-conscious Mac space.

Here there’s a variety of approaches. I won’t go into details on each of them, but if you care, TidBITS covered them in detail not too long ago. But let’s just say that there were a few things that stood out:

While some were ugly, the vast majority were pleasant to look at. Thought had gone into how to best present recipes.

They were powerful. While only one (MacGourmet) came close to Cook’n in overall features, there were many that had lots of nifty tools to make a cook’s life easier.

They pushed boundaries. Two programs offered instant importing of recipes from numerous popular websites. They even went so far as to have a generic HTML import so you could pull in a recipe from anywhere you saw it listed. (e.g. Your favorite cooking blog.)

One of them, Yummy Soup, really took the prize for elegance. It’s easy to use, capable (albeit weak in the menu planning department), and has a web import ability that borders on magic. But then you start using it and realize that you can really use it as your only recipe book in the kitchen – it has a beautiful full-screen view, and even lets you use the remote that came with your Mac to flip through recipes if you have a lot of pots on the stove. It also meets the requirements of a real foodie, letting you browse your recipes purely by picture, as though it were a photo library.

Managing recipes is boring and tedious. It’s data entry. These programs make it fun to enter new recipes and seek them out. Many programs are very open and let you easily share recipes with other users of the same software.

It astonishes me that anyone would saddle themselves with Cook’n. It’s an engineers choice. A corporation’s choice. A list of features and checkboxes thrown together in a way that forces a cook to meet the requirements of your database.

I challenge you to try Yummy Soup and Cook’n both for a week. If you’re OCD and need to know the exact nutritional value of everything you eat, I’m sure you’ll stick with Cook’n. If, however, you love cooking and eating, I guarantee you’ll be adding recipes with gay abandon and burning holes in your oven mitts if you get into the ‘Soup. Or, hey, try out all the other contenders out there. It’s a buyer’s market!

Written on June 2, 2008