Follow the money – MacUser

There’s a lot of unsubstantiated waffle discussing the reason MacUser closed so please allow me to do some more. Dennis Publishing is lots of things, but sentimental isn’t one of them. Dennis has for a long time looked to make the most money from what it does. In recent years rather than let a magazine wither on the vine and close with a full team of staff they’ve franchised out the title to wring as much profit as they can from it.

I have no insider knowledge and everything here is a mere guess, but I’d wager that MacUser didn’t close because people don’t appreciate high quality content anymore or that readers don’t like nice paper and cutting edge design. I doubt it closed because people can get the same or similar information on the Internet. I don’t think that publishers aren’t willing to invest in new ideas either. My guess is that MacUser simply wasn’t making the profits that Dennis wanted. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that MacUser was probably still profitable, just not enough for Dennis. Simple as that really. If you’re looking to make money in publishing it may as well be real money, I suppose.

Going solar – our long journey from quote to install

Some background.

We moved house. That is where all this started, the house we bought was much bigger than our previous property and included another whole house on the side in the form of a granny flat, which is where granny lives so it is well named in that regard. The increase in the size of our house and having a whole additional adult human on site inevitably meant that electricity consumption was higher than we’d previously been used to. More than double, just about.

With that in mind, a few months ago we decided to look at how a solar PV installation might help us bring down those much higher electricity bills and, as the adverts kept telling us, the system would pay for itself and more.

The process has taken longer than we’d have liked, but in the end we’ve signed up to a system that we are happy with and it will indeed pay for itself and more over its lifetime. I was going to try and do the whole ‘we went solar’ blog post in one entry, but thinking about it I realised it would take more than just one session, I mean, you don’t know it yet, but there’s nearly 1500 words here already.

In this first bit I’m going to discuss the process of getting a quote, which can be much more ridiculously ridiculous than you might think.

Four quotes in to three.

We found there were two camps of solar installation companies. The first type is modeled on what appears to be a similar style as selling double glazing and is the reason we only ended up with three quotes and not four, which was our initial aim. The second is more like a traditional ‘we sell stuff you by stuff’ model, which I prefer.

Quote 1 – Would you like to go large?
I was cold called by a solar installation company, which as it happened was handy, they asked if I’d like a ‘no obligation’ quote from a ‘professional surveyor’ I agreed and a few days later a man turned up asking where my wife was. Bit odd.

Unperturbed by the lack of a wife at home he went on and on and on and on and on and on about the benefits of a solar installation. He showed me his electricity bills, pictures of his house and told me about an amazing store loyalty card and pack of free LED light bulbs that were included in the quote. So far, so very double glazing salesman. He put together a quote without so much as a glance at our roof, funny, but not too unsettling as the house and therefore roof is pretty big. 16 panels an inverter and all the work included came to about £9000.

Best of all during this quote was the call to his area manager (on speaker, naturally) to get an install code. ‘Can’t get government approval without them’ he said. Well, what would you know! They’d run out that day and only had the higher-tier codes left – this higher tier code meant we’d be getting black panels for a lower fee! But obviously I had to sign up there and then to benefit from this glorious stroke of luck. 

The Green Deal loan was talked about a lot and even though I knew that particular government promotion was dead – he seemed not to. I didn’t mention that I knew the Green Deal incentive had finished, he insisted all the finance would be really easy because of it.

There wasn’t much talk about the efficiency of the system only to say that it was ‘the most efficient’ and ‘reliable’ available and as it was manufactured in Germany was of a much higher quality than panels from the far east. There was no evidence to support this other than a vaguely racist implication that Germany is better at making stuff than the Chinese.

After he’d gone I received a call from his ‘assistant’ telling me that there was a ‘massive backlog’ of applications for green deal financing and that it could take ‘several months to process’ he seemed nonplussed when I insisted there was no urgency and that I could wait, ‘Tesco’ he mumbled were ‘doing good deals’ and hung up.

Quote 2 – The ghost quote

‘Is your wife here?’ Again? I thought. Still, this one was more insistent ‘Legally I can’t give you a quote unless both house owners are present’ Legally? ‘Which law?’ I asked. Well, turns out there is specific legislation ‘from the government’ regulating the sale of solar panels. He seemed upset when I insisted that this appeared to me to be complete bollocks and that he could give me a quote or go. A little surprisingly he went, but not before he told me about the ‘specifically designed system with unique panels’ these would cost £12,000. 

Quote 3 – Go local

A local company man arrived and didn’t even mention that my wife wasn’t there. The very first thing he did was ask to see the roof. So far so good. There was no hard sell and no mention of other systems’ performance, but what felt like an honest and open discussion of the best options for our house. There were two options that differed in price and complexity. The more expensive was for 16 panels and 16 micro-inverters, that is, each panel has a DC to AC module that then all feed together into the grid. The second and cheaper option was a 16 panel system with a ‘traditional’ single inverter setup where all the panels feed into one large DC to AC module before hitting the grid. The micro-inverter system was about £8000 with the single inverter price £1000 cheaper. This man knew the green deal was dead and was aware that the lack of any finance options was an issue for his company, but all the same the system was tempting.

Quote 4 – Cloudy with a chance of meatballs.

We were cogitating over the local installer and thinking about getting the more expensive system when my wife was told by a colleague that she’d just had IKEA round and they were good. Why the hell not we thought. I put my details into the website and a few hours later got a quote with the full price and expected returns.This  seemed at odds with the experience so far, they never even asked where my wife was. The next day a man from IKEA (actually a sub-contractor called Hanergy) was on the phone asking if the quote was ok. Well, the IKEA system was the cheapest so far at £6000 and it had the same returns, but it was 30 panels not 16. Turns out that IKEA use a different type of solar panel that is rated at 120v and not 250v, which the majority of others use. Some sales obfuscation later and the sales pitch was: though you needed more panels they work more efficiently with lower light levels because of the lower voltage. The IKEA system used a single inverter module. The only difference with the IKEA quote, from the others, was that in order to have it finalised we would have to pay a £100 deposit for a site survey. *Shrug* we paid the £100 and a man turned up with ladder and measuring tape and a notebook. A few days later we had the survey returned and quote confirmed. And here was the true clincher for us – arranging finance took about twenty minutes – naturally, this will depend on your credit rating, but a 10-year loan for the total was sorted and, well, after a few days we signed on the dotted for a system from IKEA.

The outcome 
Our experience of getting quotes for a solar installation varied from laughably 1980s sales pitch to flatpack modernism, but I’m glad we got a few just to see. If we could have arranged the loan with the local company we might have chosen them, but the hassle of doing that and the fact they were a couple of grand more expensive put paid to that. There isn’t much chat online about solar panels that I’d put a great deal of trust in as, to a point, there’s not much to be gained or lost in the technology when you’re looking at a larger system. Micro-inverters, single inverters, thin-film panels, black-panels they’re all pretty much the same. Though a few forum dwellers seemed to have very strong opinions on the ‘right’ choices these were often based on the ‘this is what I bought so I really need it to be the best choice’ flavour.

If you’re looking to make a fortune from solar on your roof, then, well, you’re out of luck. 


Can you smell astroturf?

It struck me when reading reviews online that many of them use similar or near identical language, which raised concerns in my mind. A number of times the phrase ‘multiple point of failure’ was used in relation to a micro-inverter system, but it didn’t seem to occur to these people that it would be unlikely for 16 inverters to break at once. Or, that if one breaks you still have 15 panels working, not something that would be the case if a single inverter system broke, then none of your panels would be working. Therefore a multiple point of failure system had its advantages. Still, one of the biggest factors on investing in our system was the ease of arranging finance and not necessarily the system.The generation targets and warranties were all much the same anyway, regardless of the system on offer.

The needle and the damage done

The Tour De France ended today in Paris and a nice man called Nibali won it. He climbed mountains faster than anyone and didn’t fall off over the cobbles, he even survived two days in Yorkshire. 

He rode the 2.276 miles in 89 hours 59 minutes and 6 seconds – for some context, today I rode 12 miles at an average speed of 10.1mph, with that in mind it would take me (assuming I keep that same average speed, which is very unlikely) the same distance would take me 225 hours 20 minutes and 47 seconds. With a following wind, no doubt. 

It’s quite the achievement, but the problem is that since Armstrong I no longer feel the same. I used to love cycling, the way the bunch swept up the inclines as if they weren’t there the way a bloke who has been leading by miles alone all day is sped past by a peloton in full force or the lone attacker on a huge col, a col so huge it is HC or outside the usual categorisation, winning by peddling faster up up up with superhuman effort. 

It’s the superhuman that bites. Armstrong was the superhuman superhuman and I believed in him, in his achievements. The look at Ulrich, the detour across the grass with Beloki prone on the road, the spectator and the strap of his bag. Pantani and the Alpe d’Huez. 

I loved it and no failed drugs tests seemed to confirm he was doing it on his own, the naysayers could moan all they liked, but science is science and not once in all the years was there a failed test, the arse cream aside, naturally. But then the big reveal on Oprah. So little so late. 

All of this and more has destroyed my trust in cyclists, probably unfairly but for all seven of Armstrong’s years in yellow it will probably take another 70 before I get too worked up about a winner of the tour especially as so many of them now have an * against their name. 

Such a shame as I’d love to not think that Nibali is on drugs, but I can’t shake the feeling that in ten years time there’ll be another * to add to the list of past winners of the greatest cycling race. 

Lance Armstrong Tour De France 2005

Leaving Dennis

One of my favourite in-house ‘jokes’ at Dennis was that in every leaving card Felix would sign:

Fuck off, Felix.

I always checked any card for it and childishly it always raised a smile. Wasn’t him, obviously and I doubt he knew of this tradition, but it was just a little bit of fun that permeated the building entire. Ads, HR, editorial, marketing, board of directors, post room, didn’t matter which department you worked in, if you left and you got a leaving card somewhere on that card would be the final sign off from ‘Felix’. It’s there in mine and it still makes me grin. I don’t know if it still happens, but something tells me it does, or did until today at least. 

Like all good company traditions that mocks the attitude and personality of the boss or company there’s a little bit of truth in it too. 

Dennis was an awesome (and challenging) place to work and as the management mantra goes “you set the tone” Felix most certainly set the tone from the top down and though it wasn’t always roses and sweet dreams (what workplace is?) I have incredibly happy memories from my time working at Dennis and today’s news is very sad and not just because a stupid old joke must now be retired. 

Dearest Kindle

I just don’t know how it happened. One minute you were there and then gone. Gone to the great LCD screen graveyard in the sky. There’s much and more to lament about your passing – so much pleasure in your bits and bytes and I mourn your untimely death in that very modern way by immediately trawling the Internet for a new model. You’ll be replaced, of course, but still, but still. 

We shared so much you and I. We’ve walked the trenches of The Great War and stormed the beaches at Normandy 20 odd years later. We spent horrifying months together on Peleliu in fox holes full of blood and guts and rain, oh the rain. We visited animal farm took the road to Wigan pier spent some time in 1984. We thought about the five people we might meet in Heaven. We’ve flown on the back of an eagle from Mordor to the Shire and played the Game of Thrones, we still don’t know who will win. We’ve ridden up big mountains with Lance Armstrong and discovered his big dirty secret on the way down. Gone back and to the left with Kennedy and Oswald. Touched the face of God and travelled into space aboard Apollo 13, made it home safe too, then just for fun gone on the other missions. Together we marvelled at the arrogance of power through Nixon and Bush and Clintons both. We fought Liston and prejudice with Ali and learned how to be a woman. Lived America’s great depression with mice and men, flown on a mockingbird’s wings and started Ulysses over and over and over. One day my friend one day I will reach that beautiful last line without missing out the main body, but not you. 


Kindle Broken Screen

Apple does/did cover travel expenses for the media

Apple does not cover travel expenses for the media; and even if they offered to, I wouldn’t accept it. 

Perhaps not now, but as recently as 2006 Apple paid for me (as a member of the media) to go to WWDC. Not only that, first they flew me (and a host of other UK and European journalists) to New York first to see the Apple Store with the cube on top before giving us plush 10th row seats at the keynote. Apple stumped up the cash for flight and hotels and meals. They offered and I accepted.

I’m not sure why but there’s a very definite split between US and UK/European journalists on accepting this sort of ‘gift’ from a company you cover. In the US it appears that you have been seen to leave your integrity at the door if someone else is paying. My experience of the UK is that no one thinks it out of the ordinary or that it would affect your independence.

Jon Ronson’s Frank Story WORLD PREMIERE (nearly) The Hebden Bridge Trades Club

The Trades Club at Hebden Bridge is a small spit and sawdust sort of place that a Guardian review would probably describe as ‘intimate’ a Telegraph one ‘unmistakably northern’. A Yorkshireman’s view would most likely be ‘shithole’ but in a cuddly and sympathetically warm and loving way. Bottom line is, The Trades probably hasn’t seen many world premieres, but there are always boundaries to be pushed and Rubicon’s to be crossed and so it is home to the very second airing of Jon Ronson’s Frank Story. Second because Jon admits to performing a warm up rehearsal of the show in Brooklyn, but that didn’t count because he was the only person in the room who had the slightest clue what was going on.

The story of Frank Sidebottom is thoroughly intriguing. Today he would be a massively popular, but un-winning novelty contestant on Britain’s got talent, delivered to millions for weeks, talked about endlessly in school classrooms and playgrounds, filling column inches in tabloids and weekly chat mags and then unceremoniously dumped out of the collective consciousness damned to open supermarkets or tour what’s left of the working men’s club circuit until bankruptcy and or a stint heading up Iceland’s advertising campaign thrust him ever so briefly back into the limelight.

Frank’s rise to almost fame from the margins is told with love and, importantly, first-hand experience by Ronson. It is a eulogy of sorts for the man who played Frank and Frank the character, Ronson flits perfectly between the two – just when Frank’s larger than life on-stage persona is set to steal the show Chris Sievey staggers back in to with a dose of real life to balance out the story.

It’s also a homage to Ronson’s youth, a tale of those ridiculous early days as an adult where preposterous freedom and, often, financial necessity breed situations that in retrospect seem utterly bizarre, but at the time perfectly reasonable. The story goes that a single phone call is all it took for Jon Ronson to drop everything and join Frank Sidebottom’s band for a life touring the North of England to packed halls of “nearly 500 people”

Whatever your connection or disconnection to Frank Sidebottom the story as Jon Ronson tells it is compelling, warm, sweet and a little bit bitter. The ten-year gap where Frank and Jon didn’t speak seemed glossed over, as is Sievey’s death from cancer and funeral. The installation of a bronze statue in Timperley belies, just a touch, the idea of Sidebottom as a marginal character too – Eric Morecambe was dead a long time before his hometown saw fit to immortalise him in a metal of any sort. A section about Jon’s Twitter argument with academics from Durham University felt incongruous and out of place as well.

Funny, fringe and a little bit odd this show is a wonderful tribute to Sidebottom and Sievey, the list of people he inspired or worked with is like a who’s who of TV, music and radio establishment, only he worked with them before they were famous.

At the end Jon asked if there were any requests or questions and without hesitation the man next to me demanded a singsong. Obligingly, Ronson played a verse of Frank Sidebottom’s I Should Be So Lucky and for a brief few moments the audacity and ridiculousness and shear fun of Frank Sidebottom was alive in the room.


Dates for the rest of the tour  

More on Frank and Jon

Apple to double Macintosh production to meet demand

I’ve been doing some research on the original Mac launch and found this little story by Eric Bender for Computerworld in July 1984. It’s nothing spectacular, but I do love the hubris of Jobs. An early example of his ear for a soundbite, especially the dig at IBM.

“It took IBM a year-and-a-half to get where we are in six months,” Jobs said.

Seeing high demand for its Macintosh personal computer, Apple Computer, Inc. plans to double Macintosh production capability by 1985, Chairman Steven Jobs said here at a press conference July 9.
Apple is approaching the 40,000 per month capacity the company predicted in January, Jobs said. “We are installing almost double that [capacity], which will be on-line by the end of the year,” he said.

Apple posted sales exceeding $400 million during its recently concluded third quarter, President John Sculley said. “When the rest of the computer industry was in a slump, we were up 33% over our second quarter.”

Strong sales
Sculley claimed that sales were strong across the company’s entire product line, including the Lisa personal computer, “a product we had a tough time selling to anyone as recently as seven or eight months ago.”

Apple’s recent exhibit at the National Computer Conference here was designed primarily to showcase software applications now becoming available for the Macintosh, Jobs said.
The company expects more than 70 packages to be offered within 90 days, Jobs said. “By year-end, we expect over 150,” he added. The number “will avalanche” in 1985, with more than 2,000 programs offered by year-end.

“It took IBM a year-and-a-half to get where we are in six months,” Jobs said.

Many packages “are not just simple ports from the [IBM Personal Computer], but innovative software written specifically for the [Macintosh],” Jobs maintained. As one example, he mentioned Filevision, a “visual data base” from Telos Software Products in Santa Monica, Calif. “You can create your own images, you can create a data base and link them together,” Jobs said.

As software becomes available, “we are starting to get important interest from large corporations, even though [that] was not one of our key strategies for 1984,” Sculley said.

Although company officials declined to mention any specific deals, Jobs said Apple is signing contracts with two or three large corporations each month. “We will have sold to 10% of the Fortune 500 by year-end and one-third of the Fortune 500 by the end of 1985,” he predicted.

“The first wave of Fortune 500-type accounts will be those who are very much like Apple,” said Michael Murray, marketing manager for the Macintosh division. “They’re risk-takers. They’re not dinosaurs in whatever industry they’re in.”

Copyright 1984 Computerworld, Inc.

Shipping Nest at Volume

I must be smoking the wrong sort of crack. Perhaps I missed all the Nest sells millions upon millions of units stories. Maybe the news that Nest has become incredibly relevant all of a sudden passed me by. 

Did Nest ship millions of units at high quality? Is there any evidence at all that Nest is any better at making high quality consumer tech at large scale than a. n. other tech company? Is 40,000 (unconfirmed) units a month large scale?

If not, did Google pay $3.2 billion just for Tony Fadell?


“oh man, only Nest and Apple can ship quality at volume” said no one before the 14th of January 2014

I Fanboy.

None of this is new or particularly interesting, but I need to write it every now and again just to remind myself.

I have a tiny, tiny, tiny reputation in the Apple world, it is something I’ve worked really very hard at. I have contacts within the company who I can turn to and be ignored by. Nothing on the scale of a Gruber or Dalrymple, but they are there. I have worked for all of the Apple magazines in the UK and a few in the US. For many years I worked exclusively on Apple related publications, I have studied its history for those lovely self-indulgent ‘ooh this was good’ pieces, I’ve interviewed Gil Amelio, John Sculley, Steve Wozniak and Andy Herzfeld and Jef Raskin. I know who all those people and more are and the role they played at Apple and I can tell you without looking it up. I’ve reviewed iPods, iPads, Macs and a variety of Apple made kit. Naturally, I’ve also written about a host of other Apple industry related issues too.

This leaves me open to the accusation that I am somehow blinded to reality by my Apple blinkers – I cannot bear to see the company I have devoted a good part of my career to denigrated in any way shape or form. No matter what the story or argument I can’t be trusted to be logical or balanced because I am beholden to Apple. Dare to argue that a viewpoint expressed is at odds with my own opinion and wherever that stream crosses the Apple related rubicon I am immediately at risk from the ‘Apple fanboy’ epithet.

I’ll freely admit that sometimes my view on what Apple might do next or how a certain situation will play out is based entirely on my gut feeling or personal experience, dare I say sometimes even an anecdote. I suppose there’s no way for me to be 100% certain that I’m not letting any residual emotional attachment to a company I’ve covered for a lot of years colour my judgement. Yet I know it isn’t.

The world of the ‘Apple journalist’ is a relatively small one – very few people cover just them anymore now the company is a major player in the industry. I know or have worked with many of those Apple-only journalists and there’s one thing I can say with confidence about them and there’s lots I could say about them: they aren’t fanboys.

Now, I would say that wouldn’t I? They do, on the face of it appear to come up to bat when people say stuff about Apple and I could understand why a lay person might assume this was lazy Apple ‘fandom’ but maybe, just maybe its not that at all.

It could be our range of contacts within the industry that help us to define a more rounded, though not always correct, judgement on what Apple is up to, what its aims and intentions are. I suppose one could also argue that having an understanding of the multi-layered customer base which Apple has is helpful when colouring our opinions, knowing that the core ‘Mac fanboys’ of the early to mid 1990s are much older and a little wiser than they once were. How they differ from the Johnny come lately iMac fanboys of 1998 vintage and how they are different to the iPod and iPhone and iOS fanboys, not to mention, of course, the vast swathes of people who use Apple products who are simply users and not fanboys at all. Maybe its the years of experience of ‘Apple’ that makes us more clear on the ins and outs of the environment surrounding the company. Perhaps it is the knowledge of the long history, the little things that people often forget like the Apple Hi-Fi and the Motorola Rokr phone that the 1984 advert was just that, an advert, that the Apple ][ was a commercial success and the original Mac was not, initially at least. We can have a conversation about 030, 040, 604e and know what the fuck that is.

It’s this that give us a grounding in what might be truly catastrophic for the company and what they care about. What is not much but a passing controversy unlikely to do any lasting damage to the brand. For instance, the terrible reception the 12 Days Of Christmas app received in 2011/12 when the first download was Cheryl Cole single, there were technical issues with some of the gifts and the app didn’t work with previous iOS versions.

Or, it could be that we are mindless Apple fanboys ourselves unable to separate opinion from fact always tweeting, emailing, writing with the direct consent of Apple’s PR team, making it up as we go along not bringing any of our knowledge or expertise to bear on any opinions and insights. The sort of awareness and experience that might make one unlikely to push forth with baseless predictions about where the company might go next, what the company is up to behind closed doors and so on. Makes us less likely to entertain the sort of hubris that puts much value on App Store reviews as a wider indicator of anything, or uninformed and frankly ridiculous predictions, like, for example, an Apple laptop running iOS.

The next time the Apple Brigade offer a dissenting opinion along the lines of, “hmm, not so sure I agree” it might be worth considering their experience and knowledge as something to be contemplated rather than blithely dismissed with a wave of the hand and the F word.