If I had been thinking ahead, I would have dug out my “I was a Mac user before Apple was doomed” t-shirt to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Macintosh.

#MyFirstMac was a Performa 6115CD I got at the Tulane University bookstore when my wife was in law school.

The more I have to use Windows for my job, the more I enjoy coming home to macOS, even with its nuisances and issues.

Better looking, better keyboard control, just…better. It’s like a breath of computing fresh air.

I am old enough to remember when Apple still assembled Macs in California and in Ireland. I bought Macs made in those places.

It’s good for Apple to be looking at getting out of China, but it could at least look into bringing manufacturing back to the same hemisphere as their headquarters.

Still hoping they will go back to the PowerBook moniker…



PEBKAC: Staying Connected in Africa

This column originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

Greetings from Rwanda! As this issue goes to press, my wife and I are in the African republic finalizing the adoption of our third child. We’ve been here for two weeks, and have up to another week in Kenya to look forward to. (Procedural muckety-muck with US Immigration; not everything can be processed in Rwanda.)

Staying connected with back home and the larger world has been a challenge. We each brought our iPhones, but they’ve been locked in airplane mode since we boarded our initial flight out of Dallas. We checked with AT&T about using them internationally, but the costs of doing so were just too great. Thanks to a Facebook group devoted to adoption in Rwanda, we learned it was relatively cheap to buy a simple phone for texting and local calls. So we set our sights on doing that.

Our first full day in-country we performed our first currency exchange and immediately sought out one of the myriad cell phone sellers. And when I say myriad, that’s not an exaggeration. Take those half dozen or so cell phone kiosks you see at an average American mall and multiply it by a few hundred. Thousand. A few hundred thousand. (Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but it seems that every where you look there are booths or larger stores devoted to selling mobile phones.

Mobile is huge here, as it is in much of the developing world. A mobile infrastructure is much easier to build out than a wired one. Everyone here has a mobile phone. Not many people have a land line. Heck, even the Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Children (under the Office of the Prime Minister) has her mobile number on her business card. And that’s all. (And yes, this means that we do, in fact, have a business card from the Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Children.)

So, mobile phone acquired, along with two SIM cards, each with about nine US dollars worth of time and texting, total cost: US$35. Why two SIM cards? Turns out this no-name phone from China or Korea or wherever has two SIM slots. There are two mobile providers in Rwanda, the original MTN, and the relative newcomer, Tigo. It’s cheaper to call internationally, especially to the United States, on Tigo. Most everyone we’d be in contact with in Rwanda is on MTN. So the dual-SIM card capability would benefit us greatly. (An eight-minute phone call at 4 in the afternoon, Kigali, back to Dallas cost about 300 Rwandan francs, or 50 cents US.)

On every street corner, in every other empty space of a strip mall or building, there are men and women selling cards for time and data on MTN and Tigo, usually under yellow umbrellas of the former and purple umbrellas of the latter. They are fairly aggressive, but not obnoxiously so. They won’t hesitate to come up to ask if you need to buy, but back off quickly if you decline. It’s very cutthroat, however, as the percentage they receive from each card sold is their livelihood. They won’t hesitate, once a buyer has been identified, to try to sell over one another to earn that percentage. While we haven’t had to engage in an on-the-street purchase, our local attorney has, and it was interesting to watch.

So far as Internet access is concerned, we brought my 11-inch MacBook Air, plus an iPad 2, which has proven handy for watching US TV episodes previously downloaded when your only choices in the hotel room are Al Jazeera English and a sports channel that shows nothing but football (soccer, fellow Americans). Our hotel has Internet access in the room, usually served via wifi from a router mounted out in the hallway. Unfortunately, that wifi hasn’t worked since the day we moved in. Enter a wired connection and Mac OS X’s Internet Sharing feature.

Though I always carry a 25-foot Ethernet cable in my pack, I heartily accepted the hotel staff’s offer of a cable to plug in with. I consider the Apple Ethernet-to-USB adapter for the Air to be one of those “better to have and not need, than need and not have” pieces of kit, and it indeed saved our bacon. With the MacBook Air plugged in, it was off to the Sharing pane in System Preferences, and after turning on Internet Sharing, our iPad and iPhones could access the outside world over wifi. Problem solved!

Well, kind of.

Two days prior to the writing of this piece, our hotel’s connection went down about 8:00 PM local time. And has yet to resurface in our room, despite the tech sitting at the front desk, plugged in, forty-eight hours later. So while we were happily checking in on Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail in the mornings and evenings, that was no longer possible, wired connection or not.

So lunches and dinners have been spent at places with known free wifi, and the staff of two institutions now recognize us on sight. Just this evening, while eating steak kebabs and sambusas (local version of the meat-filled, deep-friend pastry), the Air was on the dining table, purchasing tickets through KLM’s web site for our flight to Kenya. (And zapping some spam from my e-mail inbox.)

So while staying in contact with our family back home, and with our friends around the world, hasn’t been as easy as back in Dallas, it has not been an insurmountable challenge, either. The people of Rwanda have been very friendly and accommodating, and we have, to a degree, fallen a little in love with our newest child’s homeland. We will certainly return in the years to come.

PEBKAC: On the passing of Steve Jobs

This column originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

In 1996, I was working for The Computer Shoppe, in Metairie, Louisiana. The Computer Shoppe is distinctive in that it was one of the original Apple retailers signed up nearly twenty years before. That year Apple Computer, Inc. celebrated its twentieth anniversary, and there was much hullabaloo. One such bit of hullabaloo was the visit by Apple bigwigs and Steve Wozniak to our humble shop. Then-Apple CEO Gil Amelio had enlisted Woz, as one of the company’s original founders, to act as the face of the company for the anniversary goings-on.

Woz spent an entire day at the store, and the entire staff got to go to a dinner that night, where The Computer Shoppe’s owners were presented with a crystal apple as thanks from the company. Some time during that day, I got Woz’s signature on the mostly-blank side of one of The Computer Shoppe’s tri-fold flyers.

I’ve attended two Macworld Expo keynotes where Steve Jobs was presenting. The first time I was in the same (albeit very large) room as Jobs, I thought about that flyer with Woz’s signature, and how neat it would be to get both founders’ autographs together.

These were the heady days of two Macworld Expos a year, and I knew I’d be attending the very next Expo, so for that time, I dug through the box of momentos and found the flyer. It was with me in the keynote hall, and it was in my hand as I got within about fifteen feet of Jobs after the keynote had concluded and the hall had mostly emptied.

That flyer still bears only Woz’s signature.

I don’t remember who Jobs was talking to. It didn’t appear to me it was a media-related conversation, and my memory isn’t deep enough to recall whose badges said what, so it very well could have been a less-publicly known Apple executive. Or just a friend.

What I do recall is that Jobs appeared at ease. Comfortable. He wasn’t having to be “on” for the keynote presentation. He was more relaxed now. There were a few other people were milling about, waiting for a chance to talk to Steve, shake his hand, whatever. I looked around at them, and the thought occurred to me, This just doesn’t feel right. I cannot recall there being anything specific triggering that thought, but I do remember the thought. This just doesn’t feel right. So I stuck the flyer back in my laptop bag and headed out, no looking back, no regrets.

There may have been a time to ask Jobs to sign the flyer, to get his John Hancock next to his former partner’s. But that wasn’t it. Not when he was coming down from arguably some of the toughest in-the-public-eye work he did each year. It was time to let him bask in the finish, to relax, to enjoy.

Many words have been and will continue to be spilled about the life of Steve Jobs. He will be called many things: visionary, leader, driven, egotistical, asshole. He will be remembered fondly by many. He will be remembered foully by some. Love or hate, he will be remembered.

The first computer my family owned was a used Apple ][e, purchased from a teacher at my high school. I distinctly remember going with my dad to the teacher’s house to pick up the system, and I distinctly remember seeing my first Macintosh in person, for that was what had replaced the ][e for this particular teacher. I remember buying my first Mac in the Tulane University book store while my wife was in law school. And I remember going into the Dallas metroplex’s first Apple retail store to buy the first iPod.

Like many of my friends, I would not have had many of the experiences, the jobs, I have had were it not for two Steves getting together to build a personal computer. Which led to another. Which led to another. And another. And so on.

What we should remember most about Steve Jobs, for all that he accomplished, is that, in the end, he’s just a man. A man with family and friends who loved him deeply, and who will mourn his passing more deeply than any one of us outside that circle. For me, tomorrow is just another day in my life. For them, tomorrow is another day without the dear one they loved.

So I do not mourn Steve Jobs for myself, despite what his life’s work meant to mine. Instead I mourn for his family, who now face life without a husband and father.

And for the rest of us, tomorrow will be just another day. Tomorrow, there is no chance of Steve returning. Tomorrow, there is no amount of mourning and what-iffing that will bring him back.

Tomorrow is the time to turn to the ideals Steve believed in: striving for perfection, though it is never attained; demand the best in yourself, and strive to bring it out in others; and to live your life to the fullest in pursuit of your dreams.

The other option is to forget about creating rules and lists and instead get an effective anti-spam utility. And when I say effective I do mean C-Command Software’s $30 SpamSieve. We don’t dish out five-mouse ratings lightly, but in this case it’s completely deserved. I’ve relied on SpamSieve for years as have many of my colleagues. It really is the best way to deal with this crud.

Christopher Breen, Macworld

Admittedly, I’m biased, as Michael Tsai, the man behind C-Command, is a personal friend. I was on the original beta test team for SpamSieve, and have used every iteration since 1.0 hit the ether. If you’re a Mac user, this is the first app you should buy.

PEBKAC: Readers, Readers Everywhere, and Not A Library To Spare

This column originally appeared in the October issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

I have a problem.

I love to read. (No, that’s not the problem, but we’ll get there.) Last year, I read forty-three books and novellas, a personal best since I began tracking annually three years ago. Over the past couple of years, a steadily increasing amount of my reading has been done electronically. With iBooks, Kindle, and Nook apps on my iPhone, I could read pretty much anywhere, any time. My wife and I each have our own hardware Kindle now, too. And, of course, there are still the dead tree editions stacked about.

So what’s the problem? Sounds like maybe Erasmus’ quote writ large, perhaps, but no, not having money for food and clothes isn’t the problem.

The problem is that there’s no way to track my library across dead-tree, iBooks, Kindle, Nook, et al. And when I say track, I mean in a manner that doesn’t have me endlessly typing into some sort of database each and every title. Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble already have a database of what titles I’ve gotten from them, both free and purchased. If only that information could be harnessed.

And therein lies the rub: even if an enterprising developer rose to the challenge, he would have to have access to certain information which I’m pretty sure Amazon’s APIs do not allow access to, I don’t think B&N even has APIs for, and know for a fact that he wouldn’t be able to get it out of Apple.

Now, as a good capitalist, I do not begrudge Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble from keeping this information proprietary. After all, they’ve spent considerable monies and man-hours on building these systems for their benefit. Yet as a consumer, it would be nice to be able to use my personal information from these companies for my benefit as well.

I know I’m not alone in this problem. Some may not have even realized yet they have the same problem, which only makes it more frustrating for those of us who are aware of it, as it means there’s little demand for the above companies to relinquish access to the information we’d so desperately like to house under one roof for our own benefit.

“But Chris,” you may say, “why not just buy from a single source, like say, Amazon. Then your problem’s solved.” Very true, but how often is that the case, that we’ll be able to have 100% of our electronic and dead-tree book purchases come from a single source? Sure, it’s easier than ever to make that happen, but personally, I like to spread the wealth around. For one, I actually prefer the iBooks interface to the Kindle app’s on my iPhone. Granted, owning a hardware Kindle means I’m more apt to purchase from Amazon moving forward, but that still doesn’t fix the problem of the myriad titles across different apps/sellers now.

Sadly, looking at the landscape, the only conclusion we can reach for those of us who really care about the one-roof concept is that we’ll be spending a lot of time in our database of choice entering it all manually.

PEBKAC: Never Forget

This column originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

September 11th this year marks a decade since the United States suffered the worst-ever attack on its own soil. Like my parents’ generation with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I can vividly recall where I was and what I was doing when the news broke. I remember watching NBC’s live video as the second plane flew into the South Tower. That moment told us this was no accident. That moment, in hindsight, was when everything changed for America.

A familiar mantra rose up: “Never forget.” Such a simple phrase has obvious connotations, yet can carry different meanings for different people. For some, it denotes revenge, not only never forgetting, but never forgiving those who attacked our nation and killed our fellow citizens. For others, myself included, it means learning from the history that lead up to the attack so as to prevent another in the future.

Millions of bits and reams of paper have been published over whether the US should be in Afghanistan and Iraq. My personal position has shifted to one degree or another in the decade since 9/11, and we have yet to experience another successful attack. This appears to be a result of fighting terrorist groups who wish us ill over there not having sufficient resources for those same groups to attack us here. That’s a lesson best summarized by the military maxim, “Take the fight to the enemy,” and falls into the learning-from-history category.

Over the past decade, Apple has been doing quite a bit of learning from its own history. When Steve Jobs returned to the company he’d co-founded then summarily been driven out of, he certainly put his stamp on the organization moving forward, doing so with an eye on the corporation’s past. Model lines were streamlined, costs were slashed, and then new products began to emerge, with a new executive team to back it all up.

The debut of the iMac was the shot across the industry’s bow that this was no longer the old Apple. Building upon that success, ten years ago this past March, Apple debuted Mac OS X. While that initial release had its issues, the past decade has seen polish that indeed has made every successive version of the operating system, including today’s Lion, “the best yet.”

That same year, Apple began an industry disruption with the release of the iPod. Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player category, but the little white electronic box the size of a deck of cards would go on to dominate that same category. Apple under Jobs certainly did not forget lessons from the company’s past here, and did something so audacious, it’s still being talked about in MBA classes*. The iPod mini, the company’s most popular iPod model, was killed. Nuked. Replaced. And the iPod nano then shot to the stratosphere.

(* Totally made that up, but it sounds good, don’t it?)

When Apple killed the iPod mini, it was a signal that not only was this no longer the Apple of years past, but that Apple was, as many of us have long observed, very different from other tech companies. Would Michael Dell have killed his best-selling model of anything? Would HP? Toshiba? The old Apple would have continued to milk the iPod mini for all it was worth; while allowing innovation to stagnate. Not so with Jobs at the helm. How do you innovate your way away from a best-selling product? Make another best-selling product.

So you continue to polish the best operating system on the market, and you pretty much take over an entire market segment. What’s the encore? Another industry disruption: the iPhone.

Apple wasn’t going to just walk into the mobile phone industry and do well, remember? Now, for the non-tech crowd, “smartphone” has become synonymous with “iPhone”. Four years ago, in my little corner of Texas suburbia, I would never have envisioned the penetration amongst the soccer/band mom crowd that the iPhone has now seen. Every time I turn around, if a middle-aged, minivan-driving mom has a smartphone, it’s an iPhone. Sure, there are a few Android phones floating around, as well as the rare Windows 7 Mobile, but the iPhone remains dominant. And the industry has only begun scratching the surface with smartphone purchases among users.

Then there’s the iPad. Remember the tablet market before the iPad? On the Apple side of things, a third-party was taking PowerBooks, nee MacBooks and converted them to touchscreens, with swivel tops to cover up the keyboard. PC vendors, working closely with Microsoft or not, had developed similar models for one Windows flavor or another. A few were sold in niche areas, but never in significant volume to justify there being a “tablet market”. Then Apple released the iPad, and it was all over before the rest of the tech industry could even blink.

The iPad was derided as an oversized iPhone, without the phone. Consequently, this actually sounded like a feature to quite a few people, rather than a bug. Here was a tablet which shared the same ecosystem that allowed for vetted apps to be purchased, was isolated from the threat of viruses, and didn’t require a For Dummies book to get up to speed with.

When we first started going to our current pediatrician a few years ago, all of the doctors and nurse practicioners were using netbooks to track patient information during a visit. Now, they all have iPads, running in a ZAGG keyboard case. Here’s a niche where the Windows-based tablets of old would have been targeted, and have now been supplanted. As the industry has too-slowly come to grips with, there isn’t a tablet market, there’s pretty much only an iPad market.

How did it come to this? Learning from the past. Over the past decade, Apple has looked to its own past to see what worked and didn’t work. It has also looked to the past of the entire tech industry. With such knowledge in hand, Apple has charted its own course, marched to the beat of its own drum. Apple’s profits and highly valued stock are the result of Apple setting the trends, not following what others might have done. The rest of the industry has yet to grasp this important distinction, and thus continues to flail about, chasing the tail of Apple’s comet.

Now the man who energized and turned the company around with his vision is stepping down. Steve Jobs has turned the reins of Apple CEO over to the able Tim Cook, and I have no doubt in the Cook era that Apple will continue to remain the dominant player in the tech industry. (Yes, I said the dominant player. Who else has accomplished what Apple has in the past decade? Google? Microsoft? Please.) We imagine the current management team will remain relatively unchanged by Cook moving forward. When something’s not broke, why fix it?

Yet Tim Cook and the other Apple executives will be in a unique position to learn from their history. For while Jobs is no longer Apple’s CEO, he will remain on as the Chairman of the Board, and everyone knows he will continue to have some say in product development. Cook and Company have been living Apple’s history, and will continue to do so, and they must check future development against what has worked for the company in the past, so that it might continue to work in the future, making changes as needed. Be disruptive. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Go against the grain. Think different.

The actions taken in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past ten years have reverberated across the Middle East, even the entire globe. We are still learning valuable lessons which our leaders, current and future, need to take heed of and understand. Be disruptive. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Go against the grain. Think different.

For that’s how the world truly gets changed.