The Practical Mac

4 Things We Probably Won't See from Apple at the Macworld Expo

- 2007.01.08 - Tip Jar

I've pretty much given up making predictions when it comes to Macworld (in public, anyway). My last attempt resulted in a decidedly split decision (see Pass the Crow, Please). However, I won't be shy about offering up a few suggestion to Steve and the crowd in Cupertino. I'm not saying we will see these things anytime soon, but we sure could use them.

1. Tablet Mac

The Windows world has had Tablet PCs available for some time. While available from a variety of manufacturers, only Fujitsu and Hewlett-Packard have true tablet PCs; that is, a PC that looks like a tablet you write on.

Most of the other manufacturers of Tablet PCs produce convertible notebooks. These are essentially regular notebook computers with the screen attached at a pivot point so it can be positioned in the conventional manner and used as a notebook or have the screen swing around and become more of a tablet.

Regardless of the model, most allow input directly onto the screen with a stylus.

As I was writing this article, I received a press release announcing that, at Macworld, a new product (would you believe a tablet Mac!) would be released! Much to my surprise, this announcement was not from Apple, but rather from Other World Computing in partnership with Axiotron.

This raised far more questions than answers. First, how exactly can they do this? Unless I've missed something, Apple hasn't been licensing OS X to third-party manufacturers for almost ten years. Unless that's about to change (which I doubt), the most likely scenario is that OWC and Axiotron have modified an actual MacBook or MacBook Pro, converting it into a tablet Mac and calling it the Modbook.

From a technical standpoint, this wouldn't be too difficult. Just remove the screen at the hinges, substitute a touch-sensitive screen, reaffix it to the base of the MacBook in such a way to be conducive to input directly on the screen, and install the appropriate driver.

I could see this being done either as a convertible or by actually removing the entire top of the notebook, including the keyboard, and replacing it with a touchscreen. I personally prefer the one-piece design that looks like a tablet over the convertibles, but it looks like the convertible models are a more popular with users in the Windows world, so my bet is that this is the way OWC and Axiotron have gone.

This may turn out to compete with Steve for buzz at Macworld.

2. Improved Spam Control in Mail

First, let me say that this feature has come a long way. I have an email address that I have used uninterrupted since 1996. With over ten years of probing, more than one spammer has found this address. On any given day, I receive a couple hundred unwanted email messages to this account - and maybe 10 or so legitimate emails.

With a couple of years of diligent training, I have gotten Mail to the point where, on a typical day, I only see 3-4 spam messages in my inbox. The rest are automatically moved to the junk folder and deleted when I exit Mail. That's more than acceptable to me, and if that were the end of it, I would have no complaints.

However, the problem is that, on any given day, a couple of legitimate messages wind up in my junk folder. This means I have to scan through the junk folder to retrieve the good messages before I allow the spam to be deleted. To a large extent, this defeats the purpose of the spam filter. A spam filter should be so reliable and accurate that you don't need to open the junk folder. You can allow all messages there to be deleted, sight unseen.

Mail isn't there yet.

One small improvement would go a long way toward this goal, however. As an example, I point to Microsoft Outlook, which I am forced to use at work. One of the few redeeming features of the latest version of Outlook is the way it handles junk mail. It uses its own built-in filter to decide what is junk and what is legitimate. It then places junk mail in a junk folder. However, when it makes a mistake, rather than just reclassifying the message as with mail, Outlook allows you several options to tell it exactly why the particular message is or is not junk.

By far the most typical mistake I find with Outlook is wrongfully marking wanted email as junk. In the eight months I've been using this version of Outlook, it has only allowed one piece of spam into my inbox. On the other hand, it has classified a lot of good email as junk. When I tell Outlook it has made a mistake, it allows me to elaborate on why this was a mistake. For example, by right-clicking on the message and selecting "not junk", another menu appears where I can select: always allow email by this sender, always allow email from this domain, create a rule, etc. (among other choices).

This tends to improve the accuracy much more quickly than with Mail. As far as I can tell, when you tell Mail it has made a mistake in classifying a message, it's left up to mail to decide why it was a mistake. And it's slow to learn. I may have to manually change several messages from the same sender until Mail figures out what's going on.

One feature that strikes me as absolutely essential when it comes to filtering junk mail is the ability to scan the Internet headers as part of the evaluation process rather than relying on fields that are filled in by the sender. I honestly have no idea whether Mail or Outlook - or any other program - actually does this.

For example, a spammer may send an email with a forged return address of "accounts@ebay.com". This is simple to do - the spammer just places that return address in the email program and clicks "send". When the message arrives, it appears at first glance to actually be from eBay. However, when I view the headers of the message, I can see that it was actually sent from some domain and ISP in Russia.

Every time I receive a message similar to this, I cringe when I reclassify it within Mail. Does Mail really know that this message didn't come from eBay? When I mark it as junk, am I just asking that legitimate email from eBay be marked as junk as well? Am I confusing Mail?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and if anyone with a better grasp of the way things work under the hood in these programs knows, drop me an email and I'll publish the information in a future column. And please don't mark the subject line of your message, "10 ways to make money"! I would like to actually see your email.

3. Beef up Print-to-PDF Functionality in OS X

The ability to save any file that can be printed as a PDF without using any third-party software was a welcome addition to OS X. However, the control the user can exercise over the creation of the PDF is very limited. Pretty much all you can do is, well, create a PDF. All the details seem to be left up the OS.

As a result, the PDFs created by OS X are not optimal for all uses. For example, they're often problematic if you want to send the resulting PDF file to a professional printer requiring a press-ready PDF. You can't control the size or color palette of the PDF.

Of course, anyone regularly creating press-ready work would probably already own Acrobat Professional or a similar program. However, the occasional user should also have some degree of control over the creation of PDFs. Apple could add a few options to significantly improve this experience:

  • Give the user control over the process of embedding the fonts in the PDF.
  • Allow the user to control color creation. For example, convert the output to grayscale, black-and-white, RGB, CMYK, etc.
  • Allow the PDF to be a different size than the original document - say, scale your 8.5" x 11" word document into a 6" x 9" PDF.
  • Control the PDF optimization. It would be nice to tell OS X whether I want the output PDF to be of higher-quality (and larger file size) or whether I want a small file and am willing to sacrifice some quality to get it.

4. Better Integration of the Core Applications

The other redeeming quality of Outlook is how seamlessly it integrates email, address book, calendar, and to-do list. Apple needs to do the same with iCal, Mail, and Address Book.

I can flag a message to follow up in Mail, but all it does is place a flag beside the message. It's up to me to do the rest. I should also be able to, in the same step, set a follow-up reminder in iCal.

5. iTV and an iPod Phone

Never mind. I promised this article would focus on things we needed but were not likely to see.... LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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