Category Archives: Opinion

Thoughts on computers and the IT industry.

Mac OS X 10.11 “El Capitan”

I wrote a few words about iOS 9 when it came out, so I thought that I should also say something now that the new version of OS X is on the verge of release.  As before, there are people who have written many words about it as a formal review, so I’ll stick to my highlights. I have no intention of being the most complete or thorough here!

Having said that, I am qualified to say a few words. I’ve been playing with El Cap since the first beta and have had it installed on my main Mac since the GM was first made available.


  • Stable. I’ve barely noticed that it’s a new OS and I mean that as a compliment.
  • Wiggle the cursor to find it. This is a silly little thing, but I find  that I use it all the time.
  • Suggested contacts / events in Mail. Subtle but really useful now that I expect to find it.
  • Notes. Great update, making an already useful (albeit simple) app, even better.
  • Safari tells you which tab is playing music and lets you kill it.

Shows potential:

  • Split screen. I’ve never been a big user of full screen mode, or even virtual desktops. However, the split screen feature at least got me to try it. Mail, at least, is usable in this format — they added the ability to have multiple drafts and to “minimise” unfinished posts.
  • Pinned tabs in Safari. I’ve not found a good use for them yet but I’m reserving judgement.

Not a fan:

  • The natural language processing in Spotlight. I’ve mostly been unable to get it working and, honestly, I’m used to the Old Way. Maybe I’m becoming a luddite.
  • Swipe gestures in Mail. Like in iOS, the idea is that you can delete or mark as read by swiping left or right on a message. I find I trigger this by accident when switching virtual desktops and is not terribly useful otherwise.

Overall it’s a nice release. The performance is as good or better than before, it’s stable and there are a bunch of nice, if not earth shattering, enhancements. I think you’re unlikely to have serious problems with it, even if you upgrade on day one. So I’d say go for it!

(I’d be remiss not to mention that my Mac app, Quick Calendar, still works great on the new OS. If you don’t already have it — why not?! — download your copy now. It’s free!)

iOS 9

Apple are announcing their new iPhones tomorrow. Along with the new phone will be a new version of iOS, version 9. You can read all about what Apple thinks are the best new features. I’ve been using it myself for a couple of months now so I thought it might be worth a few words.

Here are my highlights:

  • Battery improvements. Actually, they say you get an extra hour but I’ve not noticed. What works great is Low Power Mode. When it gets below 20%, the battery icon turns yellow and lots of stuff gets turned off or the frequency of background tasks is decreased. It’s not magic — if you use your phone it will drop to zero pretty quickly — but if it’s just sat in your pocket you’ll get a lot more life out of it.
  • Spotlight search inside apps. This clearly isn’t going to be big until apps support it, but even with my own apps this is really big. I miss it on my iPad 3, which doesn’t support it.
  • Looking in your email to guess the names of callers who are not in your address book. It’s kind of freaky the first time it happens. How does it know that this phone call might be from Bob?! But it works and it’s very useful. Oh, and if it can’t make a match it now tells you where the call came from (just as it has done in the US since the very first iPhone).
  • Feels as fast, if not faster, than iOS 8 on both my iPhone 5 and iPad 3. After all the press claiming that Apple make big, clunky updates to force you to upgrade that’s nice.

Showing potential:

  • Intelligence. That is, your phone will give you stuff before you ask for it. When I was visiting my parents it told me how long it would take to drive back home. When I connect to my Jambox, it knows that I likely want to open the Music app. And after a month it learned that when I plug in my headphones in the morning I probably want to open PocketCasts. Kind of neat.
  • Improved Notes app. I use this all the time, but I wasn’t willing to upgrade my Mac to El Cap so I also wasn’t willing to migrate Notes to the new format. I played with the new stuff locally — saving links, lists, etc. — but syncing the notes is pretty important so I didn’t use it for real.
  • QuickType. I love the idea of being able to use the iPad keyboard as a trackpad, however what I find is that I often end up deleting a paragraph of text, presumably because  when typing I momentarily have two fingers on-screen and accidentally make a selection. Maybe changing settings or practice will make this more reliable?

Wish I could try it:

  • I love the idea of being able to use iPad apps side-by-side. But, sadly, my iPad 3 is too old to support either the full side-by-side mode or even the slide over version.

Overall it’s a really nice release and it’s been very stable for me. It’s been good enough to use on my main phone since the beginning of August. Assuming a few minor glitches are fixed for the final version it should be a really solid release.

Taking Stock

Share price movements are kind-of-sort-of-rational but not always intuitive. For example, when Apple has a big keynote and announces some significant product, everyone expresses surprise that the share price goes down straight afterwards. Even many smart people get this wrong (“It isn’t based on logic and reason” – The Talk Show episode 53). I hope to explain why the price dropping actually does make sense in this post.

In doing so I’ll likely make some errors. Some of those will be deliberate simplifications. In other cases I’ll probably just be wrong. But either way, I think the gist, if not the details, should give you a good idea of what’s going on.

I’m going to keep things simple by only talking about the share price. There are other factors (such as dividends) that might reasonably be considered but I think we can get a decent enough explanation without complicating things.

If we only worry about the share price, the obvious way that you make money is by selling the share at a higher price than you bought it for. So, even when you first buy a share you’re making a punt on the future of the company.

For a keynote, where no actual financial information is shared, it’s a pretty simple case of “buy on the rumour, sell on the fact.” Traders heard some of the same rumours about the shiny new iUnicorn that you did. They speculated that people would like and buy this new product and bought some shares. By the time the product is announced, the theory is that the share price already factors in all the up side (profit) of it, so they sell.

It doesn’t matter whether the product is good or bad, better or worse than was predicted, the share price will likely still go down. The next bit of good news that will likely pump up the stock will be an earnings announcement, good launch weekend sales figures, etc., but no more good can come out of this announcement. So sell.

The process for an earnings call are similar though possibly are a little more technical. In addition to any sales figures, traders are also looking at things like the “earnings per share” (EPS). However, in common with a product announcement, at the point of the call, traders would generally consider all the good news to already be factored into the price. Even if the company beats expectations, there’s no more good news to be had so they may as well sell.

For the sake of completeness, let’s also consider a couple of other circumstances that can trigger significant variation in the price. These are typically financial in nature and if they happen at the same time as an earnings call or keynote can exacerbate any already significance price changes.

The most common are options, a derivative financial product that gives the owner the option to purchase a share at a price set in advance, pushing the real share price towards the option price. (A large number of people are going to have to buy the same stock at a set price, so that becomes the price.)

Something else that happens fairly frequently is a share price dropping by a certain amount causing algo trading systems to kick in a sell too. Combine this with the sell off after an earnings call or product announcement and the effects can be way out of proportion with what was announced.

The last one I’m going to mention is when a company is added to a well traded index, such as the S&P 500. This happens because many investors looking for relatively low risk (such as pensions) buy index funds, so as soon as you’re added to the index your shares suddenly become a lot more popular. (Sadly I worked for a company and had shares in it when the opposite happened.)

The short story here is that, unless you’re a professional investor, you probably shouldn’t buy shares to make a quick buck. Buy Apple stock because you like the company and expect to hold onto it for at least a few months. Don’t let the day-to-day peaks and troughs worry you.

Simpleton Explores Microcomputers

It’s easy to forget how much computers have changed over a relatively short. time. A book I found in my old room at my parent house, “Simpleton Explores Microcomputers,” helped me get some perspective.

I don’t know exactly when it’s from, but it’s certainly early eighties. Possibly 1983 or 1984.

It explores the computers that are available at the time and what it’s like to own one. One of the most telling aspects is that it’s written for people who have never owned, possibly used, a computer.

It starts with a little history (that’s still, by and large, relevant) and moves on to talk about some of the jargon users will come across and the problems they might be subjected to.

Hard drives are rare beasts that come in 5, 10 or 20Mb capacities . There are even these things called “floppy diskettes,” though most users will be saving their data on cassette tapes. (Before MP3s there were CDs. Before CDs there were cassette tapes. Ask your dad.)

Later on, its British bias shows through when it asks which of the major brands of machine you should buy, the BBC Micro, the Apricot, the IBM PC or the Torch.

There are four pages dedicated to each computer. I love the detail here, where they explain what can be plugged in (such as the cassette unit) and what the CAPS LOCK key does. It talks about the ports and the power switch. But absolutely nothing about the software!

The final section discusses the relative merits of dot-matrix and daisy wheel printers. I still remember by own 9-pin dot-matrix printer. It was slow and noisy. I think I’ll stick with my ink jet, thank you.

I scanned the whole thing and put it up on Flickr if you want to read all of the book. And if you like that, you might also like Digital Retro (no connection, I just think it’s a great book).

Here comes the crunch

It all starts out with a detailed plan. Then someone says, “Can we deliver by October?” A few features get cut, some of the estimates get revised downwards and everyone gets back to work. Then you get to the end of September and find that someone removed all the contingency and that in the rush to finish the requirements a heap of important stuff got missed.

You spend days, weeks, quite possibly months pushing to get the software developed and, a few months before the real end, a crunch point is reached. It’s missing what’s now realised to be critical functionality; it takes an hour to process something that should be instant; the data doesn’t look like you thought it would; it’s too late for any real benefit to be obtained.

The whole project gets cancelled. Or at the very least, suffers from a near-death experience.

The technology, they say, wasn’t right. It was immature. Or badly supported by the vendor. It was open source. Or not open source. Word quickly gets around your industry that the whole project failed because some new software didn’t work.

Sound familiar?

I think every project that I’ve been on that has been significantly delayed — that is, most of them — has followed a similar arc. And, in each and every case, the diagnosis of the failure has been the same: the technology. And in pretty much every case it wasn’t really true.

The neat thing is that no individual is to blame and, even better, it’s completely impossible to prove.

Let’s look at the timeline above. How different would this have been had another technology been chosen? Not very I’d wager.

Undoubtedly the technology had problems. It always does. It fell over when you pushed it some unusual way. It leaked memory. It was too slow. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re using an exciting new technology from an unknown vendor or a widely used “industry standard,” if you’re doing anything vaguely interesting you will come across the unexpected. But given time, almost all these problems are tractable.

Unfortunately, it’s time that was lacking. Testing, contingency, everything deemed non-essential was sacrificed in order to make an externally defined ship date.

The thing to remember about a software development project is that the only deliverable that matters to end-users is the software. When users come to look at the near-finished product and it doesn’t meet their needs, they blame the software and the development team.

The development team often end up blaming the new development tools as well because, well, the alternative is saying that they screwed up and who is going to make a career limiting mistake like that?

The truth, however, is often revisionist. It’s altered by people who either have an idealised view of how the project should have been run rather than how it really went or by people who focus on the wrong parts of the whole.

They don’t remember or weren’t involved in the discussions that preceded the development work. They don’t look back at the project plan or the design documents or even the reams of requirements that they probably signed off months ago.

All the problems sure look like technology problems. Missing functionality. Low quality. Poor performance. But are they ultimately caused by poor technology?

Nearing the end of the project it is easy to forget all the work that happened at the start. It’s also easy to forget that the preparatory work was late and incomplete.

Project plans and design documents and test strategies are all important. It would be a mistake to try to run a large project without some form of any of them, but they’re either not visible to most end users or a transitory work that ends up filed away and rarely looked at once the software is functional.

As ever, the real problem is the people. Politics. Pressure. Poor communication. Technology problems are almost always easier to debug than the people involved.