The Best Thing

My wife’s XP computer died in a power surge and we bought an iMac. The thing I’m most intrigued by turned out to be completely different than what I expected.

I first expected to write about how nice the process was for her. My experience of moving from PPC Mac to Intel Mac had been fantastic: I connected one to the other with an iSight cable and everything came over — including all my licensed applications and their data even though they were written for the PPC chip long before Apple even considered the completely incompatible Intel architecture. (Actually, I had to have the accidental foresight to first delete the empty account on the new computer with the same name as my old, otherwise it would have been a disaster.) Also, I saved all her data by yanking her internal hard disk out and buying a $40 housing that converts it into an external USB mass storage device. Very nice little box.

But this time wasn’t so easy. As she got into it, things were turning into a tirade against the engineering of artificial scarcity. Getting her legally owned iTunes off her old hard disk was a nightmare until I used unix find to see where where her library had disappeared to on the old/new mass storage and I dragged the folder into her new iTunes. (Music purchased from the iTunes store requires special intervention still being negotiated in fits of screaming with Apple.) dotMac mail didn’t work until I figured out that our ISP had blocked access to Apple’s port 25 because they didn’t want people sending mail to other services they didn’t own. (Solution: specify port 587 instead of 25 for outgoing mail.) And then we started with the Windows crap under Boot Camp and Parallels. The doc for dual use of both VM technologies together was a nightmare, until I realized that they were afraid of legally telling you what you need to know: When Windows tells you that you’re no longer licensed, call the number they give you for Microsoft and tell the nice computer voice that you’ve only installed Windows on one computer (true), and that that computer has had big hardware changes making the license not work. Then you’re good. Except of course for all the other Microsoft products that can’t find their own data because it’s no longer under c:\whatever but now on a remote disk.

Anyway, Robin loves her iMac and can’t believe that she ever wasted her life on anything else. Everything just works, and in a way whose value you just can’t convey to the un-enlightened. But of all the empowering things that her iMac does, the most surprising to me has been iChat with the built in camera.

I’ve had a PowerBook for years with an external iSight and have enjoyed using it, but you have to want to use it. You have to set it up. I’ve since moved to a MacBook Pro with built in camera, but my colleagues are on Windows with AIM and external cameras, which means that using it is so painful that they are never on-line (despite the fact that they’re at their computers at least 16×6).

But now, with two always-ready camera/mic/speaker-equipped computers, we’re finally using video iChat, and we use it all the time. It’s just so easy! We use it as an intercom between my home office downstairs and Robin’s home office upstairs. Why the hell don’t all computers work this way? Why don’t all telephone’s work this way? Using anything else is just insane!

What would it take for Croquet to bring this ease to all activities? Actually, using video and voice in Croquet is easy (e.g. in the KAT or Qwaq Forums; I haven’t tried it in Cobalt). This is currently in-world, but I think we could make voice/video work within the 2D private chat windows as well. That would be nice because it would give you the same relatively quick conversation startup as iChat (e.g., without having to load a world), and at the same time let you keep your own in-world context of whatever it is you were doing. If, in the course of your private chat, you decided to share the context of worlds or other people, one of you can already just click the “GoTo…” in a Forums private chat window to put you in-world with the other person.

I do think we need better locator facilities to find folks on-line. Forums does a great job of this within a group of folks working together in an “organization”, even if not in the same space, but I think we need to do a better job across orgs, and even between systems (external IM, Skype, plain old telephone system, other virtual world systems, etc.).

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. This is interesting.

    I don’t like looking at myself & don’t like to have people looking at me. Also, I’m a paranoid, and I remember stories about early hacks that could be used to remotely access macbook cameras & spy on people. Those security holes were supposedly cleaned up, but who know, yknow?

    So, literal truth here, I have a little bit of thick paper over the camera on my Macbook. I put it there every day when I flip it open. It’s there now. I have the camera disabled in ichat. I’ve always considered it a design flaw that the camera on the macbook doesn’t have a mechanical cover so that paranoids like me wouldn’t have to use bits of card stock.

    I suppose I could get used to the idea of video conferencing, and I’m sure it can be helpful.

    But basically I’m more comfortable being invisible. I wonder how common are attitudes like mine, and if they are changing throughout the at-large population.

  2. Older Webcams have a little slide thingie so you can physically see that the camera is blind. Newer built-ins just have a light that makes it obvious that the camera is on. In the latter case, we’re trusting the hardware to not operate the camera when the light is off. For Apple products, maybe I do trust the hardware. For PC’s running Windows, I have no expectation at all that someone can’t and hasn’t reprogrammed the drivers. (There’s a scene in Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon in which one of the characters captures the face images of people using his laptop during a demo. Stephenson doesn’t mention whether the light is on or not.…)

    I don’t see the difference between this trust (or lack of it) vs trusting the computer not to capture your keystrokes or logins or other data. Nor vs trusting the net or other nearby hardware from capturing anything – regardless of whether the light is on. (c.f. Van Eck phreaking _Eck_phreaking” rel=”nofollow”>…, which is also done in Cryptonomicon.)

    I think it would be geat if Webcams make people aware of such risks such that they consider such things in general. But other than that, I don’t feel that Web cams make a difference in-kind for privacy issues. The fact is (I claim), that Webcam communication is damn useful, as are computers in general. I want to be aware of the risks and to try to control them, but I think anyone who doesn’t use Web cams but does use Windows is really both fooling themselves about privacy and simultaneously missing out on useful stuff. It’s not simply that he who would trade privacy for utility will have neither, but that the two really can be orthogonal if done correctly.

    There was a time in which Windows PC’s provided so much utility for a given cost that people felt it was worth all the privacy and productivity risks. Now that there are viable alternatives, I wonder if that will change. (Apple sales suggest it may.) But in any case, utility is clearly a driver for people’s attitudes, blissfully ignorant or not.

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