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Small Biz Mac, Small Biz Mac focuses on using Mac as the foundation of a small business--the operating platform, the market, and more. This blog will discuss both the challenges of operating a business on Mac hardware and software, and the impact of the broader Mac market on business.

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Kevin Walzer and Lori Jareo, publishers, software developers, Mac/iPhone users, and small business owners.



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Thu, 19 Jul 2018

Updated mobile apps

We've released updated versions of our mobile travel apps, The Lake Effect (Great Lakes travel) and Snowbird Shores (Atlantic coast travel). Both feature modest UI updates. Both are free downloads for iPhone and iPad.

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Mon, 04 Jun 2018

GDPR compliance

If you visit any of the dozen or so websites that we operate, you'll see a popup dialog asking you to consent to our use of cookies for advertising. This is to comply with the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect in late May. These regulations apply even to non-EU-based businesses such as ours, as we do have some customers in Europe and our sites are available there. (For more about DGPR, see this article.)

We have striven to comply with GDPR guidelines by obtaining consent for use of cookies in Google Adsense ads, updating our privacy policy, and by stripping out a lot of cookie use that our sites previously had (our analysics tool no longer writes cookies, and we've stripped out a lot of social media links). The dialogs requesting consent involved some JS hacking, which took about a weekend to complete.

We will continue to follow the evolution of GDPR, and keep our sites compliant as these rules emerge.

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Sat, 17 Mar 2018

Bye, bye Apple Server

Apple's decision to essential gut its Server app means big changes for us.

We will no longer be hosting the dozen websites supporting our business in-house, nor email. It's a shame. Apple has delivered incredible value with the Server app product, and it has allowed us to gain maximum flexibility and minimum cost for our Internet presence.

We understand that Server.app is just a slick interface over numerous command line tools that can still be installed on macOS (or another Unix variant, such as Linux), but the ease-of-use will be gone. Spending hours hand-hacking command-line tools and their configuration files is just not something we have time to do.

Ironically, there are many free distributions of these tools available for Windows with included GUI's to make configuration easier--it's a shame that such projects do not exist on the Mac independent of Apple's now-deprecated product. Re-investing in Windows hardware is not something we are inclined to do.

So, instead, we have decided to move our hosting to the same provider we use for our domain names--GoDaddy, bought through a reseller. The reseller discounts the price a bit, but the hosting and SSL certificates will total nearly $600 this year--when before we paid nothing.

There's no issue with GoDaddy--while they are looked down on by some in the tech world, their hosting platform is solid, at least for our needs, and their support is quite good. It took about three days of labor to complete the migration of all of our sites to their platform, and going forward managing the sites should be a simple, pain-free process.

But it's still a shame Apple has opted to discontinue a product that has been part of their lineup for nearly twenty years, and a foundation of our business nearly as long.

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Thu, 23 Nov 2017

New app versions

We've released version 3.1 of The Lake Effect and version 1.1 of Snowbird Shores, two apps for iOS that deal with travel to different parts of the country--the upper Midwest/Great Lakes region, and the Southeast/Atlantic Coast/Gulf Coast regions.

It's been about 18 months since we released previous versions of the apps; these updates were prompted mainly by the iPhone X, which has a different form factor than other iPhones, and a note from Google--whose Admob advertising system we were using in the apps to generate revenue for them--that we only had a short time to update our apps to support the iPhone X and comply with Google's terms of service.

We ultimately decided to remove Admob from the apps because support for the iPhone X does not seem to be coming, at least in the near future, from the plugin we use to support Admob. As a result, we decided to place links to new pages on the websites that these apps support, which will periodically be updated in the future.

The apps still make use of JQuery Mobile, a nice Javascript framework that makes optimizing web pages for mobile platforms simple. We had moved to JQuery Mobile a couple of years ago because the previous Javascript library we used had been abandoned by its author. At the time JQuery Mobile was widely used and well-supported by a large community, but we seem to have started working with it just as its development slowed and its community started drifting away. The library has seen no significant updates in the past couple of years and is now seen as nearly obsolete in the Javascript world. ßWe don't plan to rework my apps in yet another framework, however. JQuery Mobile is good enough for what these apps need and trying to keep up with the latest fashion is exhausting. Frameworks come and go in the Javascript community with unbelievable speed; it's nearly impossible to stay on top with what is currently popular, and even popular frameworks often get substantially rewritten, forcing apps that rely on them to also undergo significant re-working. I've never understood the library churn in the Javascript world, why things come and go so much, and why developers put up with it.

In any case, if you have any interest in travel to either region these apps cover, feel free to install them on your iOS device. They are free.

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Sun, 15 Jan 2017

Let's Encrypt

We've recently updated all twelve or so of the websites we maintain to be fully secure, supporting the encrypted HTTPS protocol. What this means is that data sent from our websites to a browser or other client will be encrypted, and thus impossible to hack into. While encryption is typical of sites that handle financial transactions such as PayPal, it's also becoming increasingly common with non-financial sites as well just because of the increasing risks from hackers and surveillance in this age of Edward Snowden.

What's made our move in this direction is Let's Encrypt, which aims to serve as a "free, automated, and open Certificate Authority." Sponsored by the not-for-profit Internet Security Research Group (ISRG), Let's Encrypt provides a free and (relatively) simple mechanism to provide website security. ISRG is funded by both industry and individual donations.

It took us a weekend to figure out how to generate the certificates, install them, and configure our Mac OS X server to direct all web traffic to the secure HTTP port. It's a fairly small investment of time to significantly increase the security of our websites, and, by extension, the web itself.

The emergence of Let's Encrypt both reflects the trend toward increasing security on the web, and also is helping to make it happen. It's doubtful that a community, non-profit effort would have succeeded had there not already been a critical mass of concern about web security. But Let's Encrypt's relative ease-of-use, at least for those with basic skills in managing websites and server configuration, are helping to accelerate the trend toward security.

Its price--free--also helps. Encryption/SSL certificates for all the websites we operate could have been procured from a commercial source, but only at the cost of hundreds of dollars a year. For a small business, that's something that has to be weighed carefully. We pay hundreds of dollars for an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription because those tools literally make our business possible. The benefits of encryption are harder to quantify economically, at least in terms of increased profitability. But if the only investment is time, then it's an easier to call.

Thanks so much to the people who make Let's Encrypt possible.

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Sun, 06 Mar 2016

Moving from Jo to JQuery Mobile


I have decided to move away from Jo as my mobile app toolkit of choice to JQuery Mobile. Jo is a lovely, powerful, lightweight JavaScript framework, and its design fit my head better than most other libraries I've worked with. Unfortunately, development on it has essentially halted and it no longer has a visible community surrounding it. When I started doing mobile developent a few years ago, I looked at JQuery Mobile, but it was in its infancy, its performance was dreadfully slow, and its design--mixing HTML and JavaScript in a single HTML file--was not to my taste. Its design remains (to me) an acquired taste, but I've grown more comfortable with it, and its performance has improved greatly. Moreover, it is actively developed, and has an enormous community surrounding it. So I'll be using it going forward.

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Updates

It's not for lack of activity that we've failed to update this space for a long time. In fact, it's a reflection of how busy we've been. Here are a few updates:

Windows: Ironically, we had decided to keep our software products focused on the Mac, but then reversed course and are now slowly porting several software products to Windows. The only reason we can offer is that the potential upside outweighed the hassles. So, a lot of work is being invested in these Windows ports, and they are being rolled out slowly.

Backup: Time Machine has worked beautifully. No more rsync. Great work, Apple.

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Tue, 27 Oct 2015

Keynote speaker at Tcl/Tk conference

Last week I was the keynote speaker at the Tcl/Tk conference, the major annual gathering of Tcl/Tk developers. I discussed my work as maintainer of Tk on OS X, talking about the business case for supporting Macs, the history of Tcl/Tk on the Mac, the current landscape, best practices for deploying Tcl/Tk apps on OS X, and what faces us going forward.

Slides of my talk are here: http://www.slideshare.net/KevinWalzer/the-universal-developer-deploying-modern-tcltk-solutions-on-the-mac .

I'd like to thank the Tcl/Tk conference committee for the invitation. It's a real honor and I'm glad to share what I've learned.

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Installing Macs is cost-effective

In news that will surprise no one who uses Macs on a regular basis, but which may be surprising for large companies that mainly deploy Windows PC's: Mac users are far less expensive to support than Windows users.

IBM announced a partnership with Apple a year or two ago to deploy the iPad on a widespread basis at IBM, and to provide support for iPad apps customized for IBM's use. IBM has also been rolling out Macs for use in the enterprise, and the numbers are truly eye-popping:

Bottom line from an IBM official: "Every Mac that we buy is making and saving IBM money."

More information: http://appleinsider.com/articles/15/10/15/only-5-of-mac-users-at-ibm-need-help-desk-support-compared-to-40-of-pc-users

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Thu, 16 Jul 2015

Why I prefer the Mac, developer edition

A few years ago I spent several months porting one of my Mac apps to run on Windows. I went through the entire development and release process, including rewriting portions of the app to conform to Windows UI conventions; converting app resources to Windows format, such as icons; deploying the app in a Windows-standard fashion with an installer; and releasing and promoting the app via a website, submissions to download sites, and so on. The app went through one update in addition to its initial release.

The app really didn't sell at all on Windows or even generate much in the way of downloads, so I decided to discontinue the Windows verison after about six months. I did enough work on the app, however, to gain experience with Windows development, and form an opinon of Windows development: It is a very uncomfortable experience.

I'd like to provide a bit of context on my experience. I'm a longtime Mac user and developer, working on OS X for more than a decade. My particular interest in the Mac is its combination of Unix power and Mac UI polish. That lack of UI polish is why I don't target platforms such as Linux, and the lack of a Unix foundation is why I had not previously considered targeting my apps to Windows. My main development work uses a cross-platform language and GUI toolkit, so I'm not the conventional Mac/Cocoa developer, but my apps and their supporting libraries are highly optimized for the Mac platform and do not focus on cross-platform features.

Given all this, I'm something of a hybrid between a Unix developer and a Mac developer--the same hybrid as OS X itself. Apple's development stack is hybrid in the same way. I am highly comfortable in the Unix environment using Apple's command-line tools (compiler and debugger, also ported as open source to other Unix platforms), but can move higher up in the stack to use Apple's IDE, Xcode, when necessary; under the hood Xcode calls the same tools. The integration between the UI layer and the command-line layer, and the ability to move between them, is what makes the Mac my favorite development environment. Moreoever, all of my development projects and languages (Perl, Python, and Ruby in addition to Tcl/Tk) fit seamlessly into this environment.

Windows does not provide the same harmonious integration of developer elements. Most Unix tools, compilers and debuggers have been ported to Windows and run just fine there, but they are not well-integrated into the environment, so using them feels a bit awkward. Microsoft's own tools are powerful and impressive, and do feature a great deal of integration of the development stack across the command-line and GUI layers, but not all projects make use of them. Using my customary Mac approach on Windows would require setting up a different toolchain environment for each toolkit I wanted to use: Tcl/Tk, Perl, Python, and Ruby. An alternative approach would be to use pre-built binary distributions of each of these languages, which reduces a lot of complexity, but also takes much control of my development environment out of my hands. It's a tough call.

When I contemplated moving back to Windows this year, a lot of these discomforts came back. Building Perl, Python, Ruby, and Tcl on the Mac is a straightforward process. I might have to customize a few settings, but mostly it boils down to running "configure, make, make install" in a terminal. Setting things up on Windows was proving far more time-consuming. Each language requires a different combination of compilers, build commands, and installation settings, and keeping track of them grew very frustrating. I realize I could have avoided some of those issues by using pre-built binaries, but I prefer to run my own builds from scratch.

In the end, I opted to stay off Windows. I am so much more productive on the Mac that it just makes more sense for me to focus there. And that's what I will do.

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Shifting backup method

We are late to the Time Machine party. We've long run an rsync backup of business data on our OS X server to an external hard drive, which is periodically switched out and moved offsite. This is good for data backup but does nothing to help with restoring a corrupted system, which we had to do last weekend after an aborted update to OS X 10.1.4. (The server hard drive died last fall and was replaced under warranty; fortunately, this issue was just a bad installation that was fixed by a reformat of the drive!) While the re-installation process is smoother than it used to be, it is still a major investment of time to reconfigure all server accounts and settings. We read, with envy, how Time Machine users can simply restore their entire system from the Time Machine backup.

This provides a good occasion to update our external hard drives, which are now several years old; prices on 1-terabyte hard drives, twice as large as the installed drive on our server, have dropped tremendously, and will give us plenty of room for Time Machine backups.

We'll report soon on how all that goes.

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Wed, 13 May 2015

Micro Center: DIY Geek-out in Every Aisle

By: Lori Jareo

Some years ago, my husband and I moved to a street that had both a Staples and a Radio Shack. We considered ourselves pretty lucky that we had access to both good office tech and people who had the odds & ends to make that tech more manageable. Over the past several years, the stores changed to emphasize products like furniture and cellphones that we weren't much interested in. We went in less and less. We started ordering online from Staples and then our Radio Shack simply closed.

One Saturday, a free evening presented itself in the form of a trip to Micro Center some 25 miles away, 50 miles round-trip. Why not? Back in the day--a cold spring day in 1995--we made the trip to get a state-of-the-art 28.8 kilobit modem for our Mac Classic. Twenty years later, we still had that lovin' feeling when we walked back through those sliding glass doors.

For a noisy, bare-bones, crowded store, Micro Center is what Radio Shack should have grown into, and what Staples should be seeking to emulate. Need four types of button batteries? Check. Need USB phone chargers? Got 'em. Need to solder something? OK. Paper for your new Staples printer? All set. Sound system? TV? Gaming? Yes, yes, yes. The varieties in the Apple department are wonderful. Oh yeah . . . our long-closed camera store has resurfaced here too.

If there's something that isn't there, could it be made on one of the 3-D printing machines offered for sale? Oh, the possibilities.

Twenty years ago, this store was the portal to the world because it had the fastest modem available for our little Mac Classic. After bringing it home, we were up all night posting at bulletin boards all over the world just for Mac users. We bragged at our offices that we could play BBS games alongside people from Europe and Australia because our modem was so fast. Yep, we were scorchin' the phone lines.

That 28.8 modem wasn't much bigger than a candy bar. Micro Center was the candy store we remembered it to be, just like Radio Shack was for anyone who wanted to hear what Japan or Brazil sounded like on a short-wave. A trans-continental connection was just a flip of a switch away.

Now that we're in the year 2015, we have a half-dozen MacBookPros in our home, and more computing power than a hundred Mac Classics and 28.8's in our iPhones. We have a waterproof digital camera that is less expensive than the gas we'll need to get to the beach where we'll use it.

Micro Center will soon be closing for the night but it's just as crowded as it was two hours ago when we got here. Staples was never this jammed. It's dark outside and snowing again but no one seems to care. People start moving to the check-out lanes at the front. Some people have specialty hdmi cables, laptops, routers, Adobe design software subscription cards; in short, new connectivity. It's almost 9 o'clock now and we bet that most folks will put their new stuff away when they get home. But for others, there are hard-to-find parts to install and t-shirts and posters to design. These folks just won't wait until morning.

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Sat, 09 May 2015

The truth about Mac in the enterprise

Here's a good article from an IT specialist about the value that Macs can bring even to a Windows-centric business environment. Mac users generally require less support, the platform is easier to administer than Windows, and it can provide a healthy diversity in terms of security and resistance to malware. This article is quite useful in understanding the business value that Macs can offer.

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Sat, 25 Apr 2015

Backup of Server with Time Machine

Here's a useful article on using Time Machine to back up a Mac Server. It's a more complex, but arguably more robust, method than using tried-and-tested Unix tools like rsync to back up data to external hard drives.

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Thu, 19 Mar 2015

Revolution 60: A Girl Gamer's Fantasy

by Lori Jareo

Revolution 60 is the most fun "movie" that I've ever played through on my iPhone. I had been getting tired of playing Halo and Injustice: Gods Among Us on my Xbox, and Angry Birds on my phone. This game is different from the first-person shooters and 2-D scrollers with little plot; Revolution 60 allows each individual user to decide how to move the story forward. This game was created a small company called Giant Spacekat, which was co-founded by game developer Brianna Wu of Boston, Massachusetts.

Revolution 60 centers on the efforts of four women hand-picked to right an orbital weapons platform drifting in space over China. These women are part of a spy team directed by the AI entity Chessboard. The main character, Holiday, is the muscle in the group. Minuete is the commander, Amelia is the engineer, and a red-head named Valentina is also part of the crew. Lurking in the background is the mysterious Crimson 09.

At several points in the story the player is directed to make a choice in how the action will move forward. The player can be "professional" or the player can be "sarcastic." According the game, the gamer has choices and the choices have consequences. Strategic finger taps on the screen can mean the difference between success and failure in the moment.

The cutscenes in Revolution 60 are lengthy but fun. The four characters' dialogue can be funny at times, and the music--scored by Elizabeth Lim--adds to the suspense. The combat scenes are based on a grid format, and the power-ups that a player chooses will have a direct impact on her success. The combat increases in difficulty throughout the game and the combat primer is helpful.

Revolution 60 is designed to be played on the iPhone 5. I am playing this game on my iPhone 4s with the iOS 7 and it works pretty well. The game takes up 1.2 gigs on my device; I had to off-load all of my photos and most of my other apps. This game is more expensive than most, but at $5.99, it thankfully does away with in-app purchases. The companion iBook, entitled "Revolution 60: The Chessboard Lethologica," does little to enhance the gaming experience. The writing has a repetitive subject-verb-object style with little nuance (though the graphics are excellent).

It's unfortunate that Gamergate has overshadowed the success of this game. Because this game is woman-centered, misogynist Gamergate trolls have issued death threats against the developer and her team. Brianna Wu and her supporters have had to back out of many conferences and speaking engagements. Many of the developer's supporters do not believe that law enforcement is taking these threats seriously.

In part because of the Gamergate trolls, I'm looking forward to the sequel for this game, Revolution 62. The developer has stated that she will use more realistic body types for the characters, perhaps with the voice talent of actress Felicia Day. Perhaps this sequel will even be ported to Android, and perhaps it will earn its developers another "iOS Action Game of the Year" award from iMore, as its precursor did in 2014.

What will become of Holiday and her crew? I await the sequel in Revolution 62.

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