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Warning - iOS5 Update Restore Error - Wait to upgrade

I patiently waited for the actual release of iOS5 - since I can't get myself an iPhone 4S for a little while without paying a premium. When I saw that iOS5 was available, I decided to update my 32GB iPhone 4 to the latest and greatest.

First off, Apple wanted me to upgrade OS X to 10.7.2 and iTunes to 10.5. That took the better part of an hour in itself, between downloading a pretty hefty collection of bits, installing them and then running a subsequent back up, I was a full hour in before I could even begin to upgrade my iPhone.

Once that was out of the way I tried updating the iPhone 4. Here's where the fun began.

First, an error
After sitting there for a very long time—I didn't pay close attention—iTunes reported this little error. Not good. When I clicked OK (it's not really OK but that's the one to push), I pulled my iPhone off the USB connector and the phone itself seemed fine. Still running iOS 4.3, and all of my content was sitting there fine.

I Googled up the issue and there was a huge thread on the Apple discussion forums on this. Since several people reported that they were able to upgrade by just continuing to try, I decided to give that a go. Three attempts in, I got something different. It looked like my iPhone was being updated!

Then suddenly I got the error again. Oh well. The problem was my iPhone was now in a restore state and not being recognized by iTunes - it had the little "plug me in to iTunes" graphic on the screen of the iPhone.


This was not good. I tried to do a restore and it would spin and spin, however I now got a different error message:


Looks like the Apple servers were completely overwhelmed. This was not good. Especially now that my iPhone was essentially in brick mode. I kept retrying and the restore would get to varying degrees of success, then eventually fail out. Sometimes with the above error, other times with one of these:


After this error, I would then get the old "Hey, this iPhone is in recovery mode..." error:
I tried everything. Rebooted my Mac several times, tried unplugging all the USB devices, etc. and still no luck. I was panicking - while I was sure I could get my apps back somehow, I had a lot of video and photos on my iPhone that hadn't been pulled off. I thought about the videos I had taken of my mom over the last year, right before she passed away. If those were gone, I was not going to be happy. I knew iTunes was making backups for me, and that my Mac was in turn backed up, but the way this was going, my confidence was not very high.

Eventually the iPhone appeared to restore and started up again. Then it flipped into "restoring" mode for my apps and then music and videos:


This process took the better part of an hour. All in, the upgrade took me about 3 hours from start to finish, and I still have an iPad 1 to update.

I think I'm going to wait a week or so to upgrade the iPad. If you are considering upgrading your iPhone now to iOS5, be very patient; you may be without your phone for a number of hours and the way the Apple servers are performing right now under load, perhaps a very long time.

UPDATE: My iPhone was successfully updated to iOS5 - total upgrade time was a little over 3 hours and took about a dozen retries at various stages. All of my information (contacts, calendar, photos, etc.) were intact.

I decided late this evening (Oct 12, 2011) to try updating my iPad, just to see if it would actually go through. This time the upgrade went much more smoothly - not a single error. It did require about 1.5 hours to complete however.

Remembering Steve Jobs

We mourn the loss of famous people—our entertainers, our leaders, our athletes—even though we never got a chance to meet them in person. They entered our lives through popular media and became part of it. We would watch them act or sing and it would engage us. They would speak about the important challenges we face and we would be inspired to address them. We would watch in awe as they performed incredible feats of skill, wondering how anyone could pull that off.

When one of those famous people die young, it's notable. That small window in our lives that they occupied goes dark and we miss them for a time.

Steve Jobs was different.

He wasn't an entertainer, yet he could capture the attention of the public and engage us. He didn't give many speeches, but the few he did were inspirational. Though he was not the classic business CEO he created multiple businesses that enjoyed extraordinary financial success. While these are all great accomplishments, it's not the main reason many people will remember Steve Jobs.

Steve had an uncanny ability to create things that became part of our lives. He didn't just build tools that made it easier to do something, he built tools that added joy to the task. He and his team put such a high value on the quality of a product that simply holding it in your hands left you with an appreciation for the attention to detail poured into it. There was a depth to the products Steve created; while something could be very simple on the surface, a little digging would lead to some cool discovery of a feature or capability that would make you smile. Like many of his product presentations, there always seemed to be "one more thing" subtly hidden on the device, waiting for you to discover it.

Personally I'm going to miss Steve's influence on the future of technology.


My thoughts are with Laurene, Steve's children and family, and the folks he worked with every day to make magic happen.

Things I learned from my mom

Hug Frequently
A hug costs nothing yet gives a huge return. Spend them on family and friends as though you have an unlimited supply, because you do.

Enjoy Family Time
My mom was happiest when we were all sitting at the dinner table, swapping stories and making one another laugh. I am happiest when I am sitting at the dinner table with my own kids, making each other laugh.

Laugh Easily
Open yourself to laughter. Try to find the humor in things, even if it sometimes comes at your own expense. When frustration is about to lead to anger, try laughing about it instead.

Protect Ferociously
If you attempt to harm my child I will personally introduce you to the afterlife. No, I am completely serious.

Marry My Child, Become My Child
When I married my wife, my mom didn't treat it as though she lost a son but that she finally gained a daughter. She gave her love unconditionally and always treated my wife as her own child.

Say “I love you”
Don't assume your family and close friends know that you love them. This isn't some awkward teenage crush, these are the people that are most important to you. Tell them. I never had a conversation with my mom that didn't end with her telling me that she loved me, unless I managed to get it in first.

Share Your Pride
My mom frequently shared how proud she was of me. She always focused on my accomplishments, and merely noted my failures to me privately. She instilled in me a drive to succeed, not a fear of failure. Find the positive things your children do and build on them.

Don't Give Up
Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. It may be a spouse going through a tough time, a personal financial crisis or even cancer. Fight it because your family needs you.

Teach By Example
You can't expect your children to behave any differently than you do. If you want your children to pay attention to you, pay attention to them. Be as kind to them as you want them to be to others.

Keep Chocolate Handy
Every problem looks easier to solve with the application of a little chocolate.


Adalene was born on February 14, 1930, the fourth child of Salvatore and Rosaria. My grandparents immigrated from Sicily just a few years earlier and settled in a little burg in Western Pennsylvania. My grandfather hand built the house that my mother was born in and remains in the family to this day.

My mom was a child of the Great Depression and quit school after the 8th grade to take a factory job and help provide for her family. She spent the first 30 years of her life devoted to her parents while staying in Pennsylvania. When Salvatore died, my mom, her sister Angelina and her mother moved to California to start a new life. It was there that she met my father Dave Alison.

On her first date with my dad they were involved in a horrific car accident when a drunk driver ran a red light. My mom's foot was nearly severed but they were able to reattach it, though the injury would plague my mom for the rest of her life. At this point it became pretty clear that my mom was a survivor.

In 1962 she married Dave and became Adalene Alison. A year later she had me, followed by my brother a year and a half later. With a young family under her wings, she and my dad set about building a life for themselves. My dad had a couple of business ventures that failed, putting some pretty heavy stress on the family. To complicate matters, my dad was an alcoholic, alternating through beer, whiskey and vodka over the years.

Through all of these challenges Adalene remained committed to Dave. My grandmother Rosaria lived with us and watched my brother and I while my mom and dad worked during the day. It was only when I was an adult that my mom and dad revealed how hard times were when I was a child. I never knew this; I always had clothes, there was always food on the table and my parents would somehow find a way to give us huge quantities of toys for our birthdays and Christmas. My brother and I wanted for nothing.

In the late 1970s my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She insulated my brother and me from it, always assuring us that she would be fine. She always seemed more concerned with us than herself. She had surgery several times to remove the cancer before it would come back. She kept fighting and eventually had a mastectomy. Though scarred from the surgery, she was cancer free and would remain so for the rest of her life.

Over the years my mom encountered other health problems that led to her quality of life declining. Fortunately my dad quit drinking and became the devoted spouse my mom had always been to him. As dementia started to affect my mom, my dad was there to help her get by. The year 2011 was a series of declines for my mom and it was pretty clear that her time on this earth was coming to a close.

Though my mom fought many battles and overcame adversity every time it knocked at her door, she never lost her ability to laugh and smile. Even while in hospice care and bound to a wheelchair, she would reach out and hold the hands of others around her, trying to comfort them.

On August 11, 2011, while my mom quietly breathed her last breath, my dad held her hand and whispered into her ear "I love you".

First Impressions of Lion

I've been playing with Lion fairly steadily now since its release and have some initial impressions I'd like to share.

Gestures
The changes to the gestures in OS X are dramatically different. I can deal with the change to scrolling direction on a page (up is down, down is up) - that's really not that big of a deal. After less than a week I've completely adjusted to it. You can switch it in settings if you like, however you are better off just adjusting to it if you are exclusively a Mac user since it matches up with how actual touch screens like the iPad work. Apple wouldn't be making a change like this just for consistency, I believe it's to prepare Mac users for the future when a hybrid device that is a merger of iPad and Mac is released.

What is a big deal is that the default behavior for going back in a browser (three-finger swipe left) is changed, now it's two fingers and only works on Safari (not Chrome). I'm hoping I can get this to work in Chrome because for now I'm back to using Safari. I understand why Apple did it but it's made using my Mac feel very awkward for now.

Full Screen Mode
I like it - though having another button for doing this seems excessive. I don't know of anyone that uses the Zoom button (green + in the caption area). We've seen by the gestures that Apple is willing to completely change behaviors, why not this one? I do like that it also hides the menu bar at the top, which is great for letting you focus on content. Move the cursor to the top of the screen and the menu bar "un-hides".

What is a little odd is that moving the cursor to the bottom of the screen while in Full Screen Mode does not bring up the Dock Bar, so you can't easily launch another application while in that mode. This makes sense though since the application you are currently running is taking over the entire screen. Instead you can hit the old Exposé key (or the Mission Control gesture) and launch another application from there.

I haven't upgraded my dual-display Mac Pro to Lion yet (it's actually still on Leopard), but I'm interested to see how Full Screen Mode works in that environment.

Scroll Bars
Like many of the user interface elements in Lion, the scroll bars are now very muted in appearance. The big change is that by default they are set to auto-hide when not actually scrolling. While that behavior is brilliant on an iPhone because of the severely limited screen real-estate, that's not really the case on a full size display on a Mac. Why not? The scroll bar not only provides you with a general scrolling mechanism but it also gives you immediate feedback on how long your document is. Without it there you need to touch the scroll gesture just to see it. Fortunately you can change that in System Preferences to always show them, which is what I have done.

Mission Control
Love it and hate it at the same time. I use Spaces heavily and I don't like that I've lost my nice little grid and that it's now a single line across the top portion of the screen. It's lost keyboard navigation (arrows) between the "desktops" while in zoomed out mode, though I can assign Control-# keys for each of the Desktops. I like that the gestures for Mission Control allow me to simply swipe side to side (3 fingers) to move between them. This should expose it to more people that Spaces, which was really more for the techies out there.

The changes are not too bad on a modern Track Pad equipped MacBook Pro where the Track Pad is very close to the typing position. If you are an external mouse user then it's a much more difficult proposition.

Launchpad
This is just useless to me as a power user. I assume it's there to help new switchers that are coming because they love their iPad or iPhone so much. I can see that it would be much easier to guide a new user through finding and launching an application rather than having them scroll through the Finder's Application folder, however I'll just stick to launching my applications from LaunchBar.

Mail
Really like the new Mail overhaul. I use Mail extensively and this is just great. I like the appearance, the way threads of messages are kept together (ala Gmail), the drag metaphor (click and hold a second, then a message is draggable). Looks fantastic in full screen mode.

Calendar and Address Book
This is a rather large mistake by Apple. They are going for a "real world" object look and compromising functionality by doing so. The Address Book in particular is far less usable. Hoping they don't try this little "making it look like it's a real world object" with Mail (look like a piece of paper pulled out of an envelope), iTunes (look like an old record store with a demo turntable), iMovie (an old film splicing machine), etc. This is not enhancing usability at all.

General Stability
I've been getting exceptions thrown in Safari pretty regularly. Since I upgraded from Snow Leopard I had quite a few utilities installed and I think one or more of them could be causing issues. Make sure you check the applications you normally run all the time to see if there are Lion specific updates available.

Other Little Things
If my MacBook Pro drops into sleep mode the trackpad no longer wakes it up; I have to hit a key on the keyboard. One of the utilities I've come to depend on—Growl—is not currently supported and I find myself lost without it. Performance is very good overall, and Snow Leopard was no slouch. Safari is considerably faster and the new Back / Forward animations look very slick.

Summary
With Snow Leopard Apple brought OS X fully into the 64 bit world, preparing the operating system for the next generation of software to come. With Lion Apple is now doing the same thing with users, preparing us all slowly for a world that is driven by portable devices, not personal computers.

It's a lot easier for Apple to get the average person to buy an iPad and use that for Email, web browsing and some basic applications. People don't consider that "switching" - it's an entirely new paradigm to them. Given that, I think we will continue to see the innovation at the user level happen on the iOS front and that will drive direction for the foreseeable future.

You may read what I have written and think I'm not happy with Lion. That would be incorrect. I really like Lion and the problems I'm pointing out are because of frustrations I have with something I spend so much of my day using.

Upgrading Multiple Macs to Lion

Like many Mac users I am in the process of upgrading my Macs to Lion today. With 8 Macs in our house downloading 3.7GBs of installer seems like a huge waste of bandwidth. You only need to purchase the upgrade once for all of the machines you own or control so here's a technique that may help you only download Lion just once:

1) Purchase Lion on one of your Snow Leopard Macs
The download is about 3.76GB so depending on your connection speed it may take a while. You'll need to be current with Software Update if you aren't already.

2) Once the download is complete you will be presented with this screen:
3) Do not click Continue! Press Command-Q (or quit from the menu) instead

4) Open Finder and navigate to your Applications folder
You should see the installer with the Lion icon titled "Install Mac OS X Lion". Copy that 3.76GB file to portable media device (like a Flash drive or external hard drive).

5) Copy the Installer application to the Applications folder of the Macs you want to upgrade

6) Ensure each of your Macs is running Snow Leopard and current with Software Update
I'm not sure this is completely necessary but better safe than sorry. There have been recent updates to the App Store that enabled people to purchase Lion upgrades; if you don't have those updates I'm not sure if the upgrade will work. If you are still running Leopard on a Mac it will first need to be upgraded to Snow Leopard and updates applied.

7) Backup your Mac before your upgrade
Though the Snow Leopard to Lion upgrade is pretty smooth and few people appear to be reporting problems, having a decent backup (even if it's just Time Machine being completely current) is always prudent.

8) Run the Installer on each of your Macs
The upgrade took about 35 minutes to run on my new MacBook Pro, though your mileage may vary.

I'm putting this out before I've completed the upgrade process on all of my Macs because as soon as you execute the Upgrade the installer is removed from your Mac and will need to be re-downloaded (or copied as I mention above).

If you have any other experience with upgrading multiple Macs to Lion please leave a note in the comments!

Vibram FiveFingers - Getting started running barefoot style

After reading Born to Run, Christopher McDougall's best seller on long distance athletes, I became convinced that I needed to make the switch to a barefoot style of running. Based on everything I've read the human body has evolved over millions of years to be optimized for running, yet it's only in the last 40 or so years that we've had heavily padded running shoes and the number of injuries caused by using them has skyrocketed. I won't delve into the details here, encouraging you to either pick up McDougall's book or Google yourself up some background on it.

The bottom line is that if you want to go with a more natural barefoot running style you have a few choices. Since the bottom of my feet are about as tough as the South bound end of a North bound baby, actually running in bare feet didn't seem reasonable. I've done it on the beach in soft sand but that's pretty much where I draw the line. The first thing I did was lace up my heavily padded Nike running shoes and try running on the balls of my feet.

It turns out running "on your toes" is actually pretty tough to do in standard issue running shoes. The padding insulates you so much that your foot doesn't naturally want to land on the ball of your foot and I found myself really having to focus, lest I revert back to running on my heels and rolling forward. Turns out that undoing 30+ years of heel-strike running wouldn't just happen automatically. I ran a very flat 3.1 miles that way at an 8:37 pace (normally I run at about an 8:10 pace while exercising).

My calf muscles were quite tight afterwards, something I never experienced after running. Usually it was my knees that were a bit sore and they were fine. As a hardcore cyclist—last year was 4,500+ miles at an 18.5mph average—my calf muscles are well conditioned. Or so I thought. The barefoot style was pulling on them in a different way and I found that after my first run they were quite sore in that over-stressed muscle kind of way. I probably should have stretched them more after my run but since I didn't the next couple days involved me walking a bit gingerly. Fortunately it had no impact on my cycling.

Enter the Vibram FiveFingers
I decided that if I was going to switch to the barefoot style I may as well use a "shoe" optimized for that and went with the Vibram FiveFingers Bikila. I use shoe in quotes because the Vibrams hardly look like a shoe, especially when mounted on your feet. Because they are form fitting the appearance at first glance is that your feet are painted the color of the shoe. They provide a nominal level of impact insulation, more to protect your skin from small sharp objects (glass) and provide excellent gripping on smooth surfaces.

I wear a size 10 1/2 US shoe and though the size charts I've seen would recommend anywhere from a 45 to a 46 (EU style sizing) I chose a 44 because that's the size cycling shoe I use. Putting on a Vibram takes a little getting used to - you can't just jam your foot in. Instead you need to inch your toes into their respective sockets.

Initially wearing the Vibrams was an odd feeling. I wasn't used to having material between each of my toes. It's not an unpleasant experience, just a bit odd initially. The material for the shoes are highly breathable so it doesn't feel like you're really wearing anything. Walking around in them is also interesting because it's just a tiny step above being in bare feet; you "feel" the undulations in the ground you are walking on and your foot conforms to different terrain.


Appearance
The reaction you get while wearing Vibrams will vary. People you don't know will ask you about them: "What ARE those?", "How do they feel?" and "Does it hurt to run"? If you have children like I do in their late teens and early twenties, they will be completely horrified. "Dad, PLEASE don't go out in public with those on your feet"! Ah kids. I remember the battles over appropriate clothing with my daughters when they were young teenagers and this is my mid-life revenge.

That First Run
As I set out on my first run in the Vibrams I noticed something immediately: my foot automatically adjusted to running in the barefoot style. I didn't have to focus on my running like I did when I was wearing my Nikes. As I extended my leg forward my foot just dipped down to land gently on the pads of my foot, my foot spread out as my heel came down a microsecond later. It was a solid but gentle impact. If you are used to running in padded running shoes with your heel striking first and rolling forward, try running barefoot on a hard surface; your feet automatically adjust to the terrain and the ball of your foot will absorb the impact. This is exactly what happened when I ran in the Vibrams.

Another thing I noticed immediately was that my feet felt very light. It's hard to appreciate how much running shoes add to your in-motion weight until you discard them and run with something like the Vibrams. I immediately felt much faster and had to back off on my pace because I didn't want to become gassed a mile into what was supposed to be a 3 mile break-in run.

I ran almost exclusively on asphalt in a very flat area and everything was going great. At one point I had to jump over to a grassy shoulder to let traffic by and the transition was very easy; even though there was an angle to the surface I had no problem with keeping stable. The wide bottom of my running shoes normally had a difficult time on those types of surfaces and sometimes my foot would roll awkwardly if it caught an edge. With the Vibrams my foot just conformed to the surface area, wrapping around whatever I stepped on.

At one point I tried running on a gravel pathway next to the road to see how it felt. The marble sized rocks felt a little odd under my Vibrams—and large rocks were uncomfortable for my sensitive feet—but overall it was actually quite easy. I didn't feel any discomfort until the last 1/4 mile of my run.

Let the Pain Begin
With just a couple blocks left in my run I started to feel some discomfort on the inside edges of my feet just forward of my arch. It started out as a mild pinching sensation and rapidly started to hurt more and more, especially in my right foot. My wife will tell you that I'm one of the more stubborn people on the planet so rather than just stop and walk the last 1/4 mile I kept running as planned. As I rounded the last corner and began to taper off, I was favoring my right foot pretty heavily and limping slightly. I sat down on my deck and extracted my feet from the Vibrams, which is nearly as challenging as putting them on. You don't slip your foot out as much as you peel them off.


I had developed two small and painful blisters on each of my feet in nearly identical locations, though they had broken open on my right foot. The problem was where the base of the strap was mounted to the outside of the Vibram. When I put on the Vibrams I synched down that strap very tightly, much like I do to my cycling shoes. I believe that I had it so tight that it was pulling the strap base into my baby-like skin and that's what caused the abrasion.


The second thing I noticed was that my calf muscles were again on fire. I hadn't fully recovered from my earlier attempt at the barefoot style and was now paying the price. I sat down and massaged my calf muscles heavily and that helped but it turned out that pain would be with me for a couple of days.

I managed to complete the 2.9 miles in 24:48 with an 8:32 / mile average. This was still down from my normal speed but the last painful 1/4 mile was run at a pretty slow pace.

Three Days Later - Another Run
After three days and several bike rides to help my legs recover I felt I was ready to give the Vibrams a try again on that same 2.9 mile course. This time I had two pretty heavy blister bandages sealing up my foot in the injured area, the strap was pulled on pretty lightly and I set off at what I felt was a pretty easy pace. The bandages helped my feet tremendously and I felt no discomfort from them. My legs also felt very strong and I tried to maintain a pace that could have gone for 10 miles pretty easily.

I kept waiting for the pain to come to my feet but it never did - the blister bandages were working. I returned home within 23:55 for an 8:14 pace, which is very close to my normal time, yet I was not pushing all that hard. My calf muscles were again sore but this time I spent 10 minutes stretching them out after the run. A few hours later they felt fine.

Summary
Running in Vibrams is a very interesting experience. If I look beyond the blistering my feet experienced (something that should go away over time) and the muscle adjustment (already made to a degree), I feel like my running experience has been completely revitalized. My knees are not sore at all and my heels feel great. Instead of feeling like I'm jamming my legs into the pavement I feel like I'm working my muscles as they were designed to operate. Frankly I can't wait to get out on the road in them tomorrow; the 5K and 10K races I run during the summer start soon and I'm interested to see if this will help me improve on the personal records I set last year.

Special thanks to Greg and Reid—Twitter friends and fellow runners—for giving me feedback on the Vibrams. Also, please note that I'm including links to Born to Run and the Bikila's through my Amazon referral account - if you pick them up from there I get referral credit.

Three iChat Features You Should Know About

As I wrote up my last blog post on Skype alternatives I started seriously looking at iChat again. Since I had been using Skype for my video chats and Adium for my IM communications, iChat never seemed to have that little blue orb beneath it in the dock bar to indicate it was running.

When I first switched to Mac over three years ago I played with iChat and relatively quickly dismissed it as a cute toy. The cartoon bubble discussion was cute but not compact enough for my relatively heavy IM usage. The video chatting was cool but after playing with the effects button and carrying on a video chat while riding a moving roller coaster I quickly concluded that this was a fluffy consumer novelty and moved on to other applications for my business needs.

Researching alternatives to Skype changed all that.

The more I played around with iChat, the more I learned about some interesting features, especially if the people I was communicating with also had iChat available to them. More and more of my friends and business associates now have Macs than ever before and iChat is already installed so it's really not that hard to leverage. For the most part if you see the Video Conference image:


to the right of their name in your buddy list, you can leverage all of the features below:




Screen Sharing
As a person that provides technical assistance to my family and friends, being able to trouble shoot a problem without having to go to their computer is a huge help, especially when they are hundreds or thousands of miles away. Having the ability to share a screen and actually manipulate it as though it's local is also great for demonstrating something I've built locally to one of my colleagues.

With iChat you can initiate either a "Share my screen" or a "Ask to share their screen" connection. While connected a voice chat channel is opened and you can speak over it while you work. To start up a screen sharing session, Control-click (or Right-click) a buddy name in your iChat list and select the sharing direction you want.

While the screen is active you can jump between the two by clicking on the screen in the lower-right corner.

A couple of notes: You can end the session by closing the small box in the lower right. This will also terminate the voice session. Pressing Command-Q or Command-W will not end the session—those commands will be sent to the remote screen and likely close the current application or window that's open.


Multi-Person Video Chat
With iChat you can link up to four people together in a video conference. Though obviously limited to a very small group, having four people able to easily see one another and carry on a discussion is amazing for an application that's simply included with OS X. Though Skype now offers video conferencing with up to eight people, it requires a paid subscription in order to use it.

Once you establish a video connection with a person you can add others to your chat by clicking the Plus symbol at the bottom of the video chat window and adding another buddy. If you are communicating with people using AIM accounts you can even join a chat room and keep a running text log as your meeting progresses.


iChat Theater
Another great little feature of iChat is the iChat Theater. Once you have a video chat running with someone, click the Plus symbol at the bottom of the window and select the option to share a file through iChat Theater (or simply drag the file to the video chat window). The image of the person you are video chatting with drops down into the corner and the image or file you are presenting takes over the main part of the screen. This is great for reviewing images or paging through a Keynote presentation. There are reports that the next version of OS X (Lion) will support sharing web pages.

iChat Theater also works when doing multi-person chat; as a presenter your multi-chat window is taken over by whatever it is you are sharing, as you can see below:



Important Tips
When you have a single or multi-user video chat running you will see a Mute button in the lower portion of the screen. Clicking that will mute your audio, but not the audio on the other end. As a result, if you click Mute your chat partner will continue to be both seen and heard and your video will continue without sound. If the other person mutes the sound, don't say anything stupid like "wow, when is this going to be over?".

Holding down the Option key transforms the Mute button into a Pause button. This both mutes the audio from your end as well as freezes the video from your end. Like Mute only, this only applies to your feed; the other end is still visible and audible.

For years now my friend an Mac super-user Ast Moore has been telling me I should be using iChat instead of Adium. Now I'm starting to see why.

Got a video / screen / file sharing tip with iChat? Please drop a note in the comments!

Skype Alternatives for Mac Users

Microsoft has agreed to acquire Skype for $8.5 billion in cash. As a long term Skype user I've had Skype loaded on my Macs for years now. It serves for video chats with my family and business associates and also as my desk-bound IP telephony device. This model has worked well for me. By combing a couple of cool AppleScripts with Launchbar I can call people without my fingers leaving the keyboard. So if everything works so well, why would I need an alternative?

Skype's Mac Client
I was more than a little concerned when Skype released their last Mac client and it was, well, not very good. Skype's never really been a company that embraces the Mac user interface well, though version 2.8 is serviceable from a user experience standpoint. With the announced acquisition my confidence in Skype putting any money into "embracing and extending" the Mac client in a way that makes dedicated Mac users happy is... well... compromised.

Microsoft
My confidence in Microsoft's ability to service the needs of Mac users is not very high. Though Steve Balmer has stated that Microsoft will continue to "invest in Skype on non-Microsoft client platforms", that could simply mean they will patch bugs and maybe ensure that some new features added to Skype will also be slapped into the Mac user interface. This hardly makes me confident that they will do anything innovative on Mac. It's far more likely they will simply leave the Skype for Mac client wallowing in freakish misery forever.

Given these and other issues, what are the options for people that want to move away from Skype on Mac? I'll take a look at some of the more popular alternatives here.

As a comprehensive communications solution Skype is pretty robust and not easy to replace with a single solution. It supports both Mac and Windows (there is even an open source Linux client), and offers mobile video support as well. You can use Skype to make free calls to other Skype users for video and/or voice as well as fire chat messages back and forth. Skype on the iPhone also supports video calls over 3G. Video chats are very reliable and other than some basic configuration settings (like which mic to use), they generally work very well.

For purposes of this blog post, I'm going to focus on the Video Chat portion of Skype. I will compare the three main options for Mac users: FaceTime, Google GTalk and iChat.

FaceTime
Though FaceTime is the new kid on the block, it's become very popular among Apple aficionados because it's integrated into iPhone 4s, iPod Touches and iPad 2s, as well as any Snow Leopard based Mac. Apple has also released the specification for FaceTime as an open standard, encouraging other platforms to use this. Apple made FaceTime a significant part of their marketing strategy, devoting full national commercials to it.

Advantages: Very high video quality, even over connections that would cause other video chats (including Skype) to degrade and produce artifacts. Integrated directly with the calling feature on iPhones so you can switch to a video chat on demand. No large client loaded on Mac while waiting for calls - incoming calls are handled directly by OS X.

Disadvantages: Requires the latest and greatest Mac OS (currently Snow Leopard). Older Macs not upgraded to Snow Leopard are out of luck. An iPhone 4, 4th generation iPod Touch or iPad 2 is required on the iOS side, though that's mainly because they are the first devices to have a front and rear facing camera. As of today, you cannot run a FaceTime call over 3G; it requires WiFi unless you jailbreak your iPhone or trick it into thinking it’s connected to WiFi. There are no clients currently available for Windows or Linux. No screen sharing.

Summary: While I love using FaceTime, today it's far too limited. 3G support will help tremendously. Apple should invest the time in building a Windows FaceTime client because it's highly unlikely anyone else will. Those two factors are critical to widespread adoption of FaceTime. This is a great consumer point to point solution for personal use assuming the people you want to chat with are sporting the latest and greatest Apple equipment.

Google GTalk
If you have a Gmail or iGoogle account you also have a Google Chat account. Add in the GTalk plug-in and you can have a video chat with another Gmail account user directly from your browser. The video quality is great and connecting up is very simple. The price can't be beat because this is another one of Google's many free offerings.

Though Google doesn't directly support video chats on iOS there is a free application called Vtok that does support video chats from an iPhone/iPod/iPad.

Advantages: Excellent video quality on the desktop. Works on Mac OS X (10.4 +), Windows (XP +) and Linux. Client plugin is very lightweight. Can run Vtok over 3G on the iPhone.

Disadvantages: Video quality when running on iPhone (using Vtok) is poor, even over WiFi. Cannot perform screen sharing.

Summary: If you want ubiquitous access much like Skype, Google Gtalk is probably your closest bet, though it's really not for mobile devices right now. Sure, Vtok works but the quality is very poor on iOS devices, at least when compared to the Skype or FaceTime options. Google needs to develop a super high-quality iOS client for iPhone equipped users to feel like this is a viable option.

iChat
Macs have had video chat capabilities for years through iChat. With iChat and an AIM, Google Talk or MobileMe account (or connected to a Jabber server) you can video chat with another Mac user. iChat is a base part of OS X. Not only does it do basic video chats, it includes some other great features. iChat really is a central hub for a wide range of communications capabilities, mostly technical in nature. Transferring files, remote screen sharing (the full interactive kind), walking through presentations and video conferences with up to 4 people are all possible.

Advantages: Very good video quality over a decent connection. Supports up to 4 simultaneous video chats at once - great for a small conference. Has many of the filters and capabilities of Photo Booth, so you can make your video chat occur on a moving roller coaster if you want. The iChat Theater is great for walking a couple of people through a document or presentation. The screen sharing feature allows you to do complete technical support for another Mac user.

Disadvantages: No mobile support. If you are connecting with someone else and they don't have iChat, it's hit or miss as to what functionality you will have. Video conference with more than two people appears to require everyone on the same service (not some on AIM, some on Google Talk). File transfers rarely seem to work correctly.

Summary: iChat isn’t going anywhere because it is the base method from Apple for IM chats on OS X. Apple now has two different and incompatible video sharing technologies (FaceTime and iChat), so it will be interesting to see where this goes. My take is that while FaceTime is a really easy to use consumer oriented product, iChat is more oriented towards work and collaboration tasks. As I researched this topic I discovered a huge number of great features in iChat that I didn't know about and will be writing up shortly.

Bottom Line:
If you feel compelled to move away from Skype and need to do video calls, any one of these three tools are a decent replacement. If your video calls tend to be business related, iChat provides all of the sharing technologies you could need for Mac to Mac communications. If you deal with a heavily mixed platform environment, Google's GTalk and video plugin will give you the best cross platform support.

FaceTime is the most promising of these technologies because it seamlessly integrates voice calling and video, allowing you to transition on demand (assuming both sides have the same capabilities).

Personally I wish video calling was as standardized as voice calling; when I call a person I don't think about which handset or carrier they use, I just dial the number. Over the next few years virtually every mobile phone sold will have video calling capabilities, yet if I can't perform a video call from my iPhone on AT&T's 3G service to a friend running an Android based phone on Verizon, where's the value? Virtually every laptop and netbook sold in the last 2-3 years has a video camera set up for video chat, yet they are not compatible with one another.

As a consumer, I just want it all to work together. If Skype, iChat, FaceTime and GTalk could all video chat with one another the world would be a better place.

The Mac applications I run all day, every day

When I bought my new MacBook Pro I used the applications I had running on my previous MacBook Pro to help me determine what I would need in terms of horsepower. It was an interesting exercise, mainly because it gave me a good sense for all of the things I need my Mac to handle throughout the day.

I'm a software developer and do some of the development for SharedStatus, so my needs are a little biased towards that. I've broken down what's running on my Mac into two sections, Basics and Development. To give some perspective on how many apps I have loaded up as I write this, here's a snapshot of my current Spaces window zoomed out:


I've always been fascinated by these types of lists because it helps give people exposure to some apps they may not know about. Here are the ones I nearly always have running:

Basics

Safari
I love the speed of Safari and this remains my default browser. Nice and fast, Safari does have a tendency to crash on me if it's been running for a long time and I have a huge number of tabs open, though it always seems to happen when Flash based web sites are loaded up. Fortunately more and more sites are switching to HTML5 solutions instead of Flash. My iPhone and iPad are happy about that too.

Google Chrome
I really enjoying using Chrome. Why do I have two (well, three—see below) active browsers? Because I'm often logging in to different profiles (personal / business entity) on different online services. The fact that the URL bar and the search area are one and the same is also a cool feature. Chrome is—like Safari—very fast in rendering web pages.

Adium
Though I have some die hard Apple fans that tell me I should use iChat, I'm hopelessly addicted to Adium. The customizability of the interface is outstanding and the integrated support of multiple IM accounts means keeping everything consolidated in one place is easy. Having a friend that has Trollicons loaded up makes for some hilarious chats too.

Skype (version 2.8)
I continue to use Skype for my virtual phone and also for video conferencing, though Facetime may soon replace that function. I haven't upgraded beyond version 2.8 due to the horror stories associated with the most recent release. Combine Skype with some Applescripts and Launchbar goodness and it's a great replacement for a land line.

Echofon
I'm very heavy into Twitter; it has effectively become my primary news channel, replacing my RSS feeds for the most part. Echofon is great because it syncs up from Desktop to iPad to iPhone, so as I switch between machines I don't have to scan through tweets I've already read on another device. Note: you can follow me on twitter @dalison.

iCal
I always have iCal loaded up; quickly seeing what's on deck, accepting e-mailed appointment invites, etc. all work nicely, and it syncs up well with my iPhone and iPad. I also have it mated up with my Google Calendar account.

Mail
I occasionally access e-mail through a web interface (especially for Gmail based accounts) but my default e-mail access point is Mail.app. I use IMAP to keep my folders synced up and the integration with the rest of the OS is good. With the Growl add-on installed (see below) I get a nice notification of new e-mail as well.

Pages
I'm doing more and more writing and blogging these days and my preferred tool for capturing initial drafts is Pages. I love the user interface, the application performance and in the unlikely event I need a document that is print (or more likely PDF) ready, Pages can create a really beautiful document quickly. I always seem to have it open.

Growl
Most of the notification oriented apps I run have Growl support. Rather than each app coming up with their own notification model, Growl provides a clean and highly customizable model that any OSX application can leverage. I love seeing a Growl notification that a file in my shared Dropbox account has been updated.

Launchbar
I've become a hard core keyboard user on my Macs as a direct result of LaunchBar. Not only can I quickly launch or open my existing applications from the keyboard (much like Spaces) but I can connect applications and documents together. I've written rather extensively about Launchbar in the past.

iStat Menu
I like to know what's going on with my Mac, whether it's the temperature inside the machine, the actual health of my batteries or to see if there is any odd network traffic flying across the pipes at the moment. iStat Menu is a staple on my Mac's menu bar.

Dropbox
I'm not sure how I got by without Dropbox before. It’s not that I couldn't quickly transfer files between my various machines, it's just that it required me intervening to do it. Dropbox makes it seamless. Just getting my 1Password files to synchronize automatically makes Dropbox invaluable to me.

1Password
The older I get, the less grey matter I seem to have to dedicate to remembering passwords, login names and some of the incantations sites require me to perform to obtain access. 1Password handles all that and fills out credit card and mailing address forms for me. The fact that it's synchronized between my various machines (and my iPhone and iPad) make it a necessity for me.

Skitch
I often find myself passing screen shots of new features for SharedStatus back and forth with my partner Josiah. Skitch makes that easy, not just because it can take a screen shot so easily (OSX does that natively) but because it includes basic drawing tools to quickly call out parts of images captured. I can resize, crop, drop in arrows and call-out text in seconds.

Caffeine
You know when you fire up a long YouTube video or Skype video chat and your energy saver preferences kick in because you haven’t been touching the keyboard or mouse? Clicking the Caffeine coffee cup in the menu bar tells your Mac not to fire up the screen saver or drop into sleep mode for a pre-defined number of minutes. You can come close to this behavior with Exposé hotspot preferences (System Preferences / Exposé & Spaces), but Caffeine makes it much easier. And it's free.

SMARTReporter
I keep SMARTReporter running all the time because I like to keep an eye on the health of my hard drives. I don’t actively use it but I like that it passively sits in my menu bar and will notify me if one of my hard drives starts to act up. Also a great free utility.

Xmarks
As you can see on this list, I keep three different browsers running all the time. I also have two primary Macs that I use; Xmarks keeps my bookmarks and browser tool bars synchronized between each of my browsers and on each machine. Combine that with 1Password and I can get to anything from pretty much anywhere.

Time Machine
I've always been a big fan of Time Machine because it makes backups something that I do every single hour and I don't have to worry about it. Unless there's a Time Machine error of course. Time Machine has saved me hassles on more than one occasion; mate it up with a Time Capsule and you have roaming around the house backups.

Development

2-3 Terminal windows
At any given time I have 2-3 Bash shell windows open. One is usually for local commands related to my Rails development, another is for a running instance of my development version of SharedStatus (or other project) and a third is usually open with an SSH session to a remote server.

Firefox
I put Firefox into the development category because that's primarily how I use it. I've generally found that page rendering is a bit faster with Safari and Chrome than in Firefox, but neither of those browsers has the depth of extensions for playing with web pages.

TextMate
As a Ruby on Rails developer you learn that a healthy combination of terminal windows and a programmers editor are your friend and TextMate is a fantastic editor for Ruby development. Lots of extensions for languages and version control systems too. It's also great for hacking on plain old text files, CSS pages, etc.

MySQL Server
I keep a MySQL Server instance running on my machine at all times (automatically started at login). A couple of the Rails projects I do use MySQL server so I like to have it available immediately in case I need a local development build of a web application.

Sequel Pro
When I need to browse through data sets or build up experimental queries, Sequel Pro is my go-to tool and I often just have it loaded and running in one of my Spaces windows. It’s perfect for jumping in and examining (and modifying) data. Another great free utility.

Flow
When I purchased one of the MacHeist bundles a while back I got Flow, an FTP client. Flow has a very OS X like user interface and feels natural running on Snow Leopard. I'm always pushing files up to web servers and having this open makes it simple. About the only thing I wish it did was integrate with 1Password.

Xcode
I've been doing more and more iOS development lately (more learning than anything else) and as a result I nearly always have Xcode Version 4.0 loaded up with a project. Xcode can create some fairly heavy demand on a Mac, sometimes at really odd times. Why my CPU utilization pops up so high when parked on the New File dialog is but one example.

Most days these apps are all running at the same time, as you can see from the Spaces screen shot at the top of this post. I have lots of other applications that I use on an infrequent basis but they aren't always running, like the rest of the iWork suite, iPhoto, Preview, OmniGraffle, etc.

What's running on your Mac right now? Any cool applications that I should be using that I haven't already mentioned? Please drop a note in the comments and let me (and the other readers) know.