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MacStories Interviews: Ben Brooks

[MacStories Interviews is a new series of email interviews and conversations with with well-known developers, bloggers, journalists, geeks.]

Please welcome Ben Brooks, author of The Brooks Review. Ben was one of the first people to accept my invitation for MacStories Interviews. You can follow him on Twitter as @benjaminbrooks. The interview was conducted from October 9th to November  3rd.

- Tell me a little about yourself: who are you, what do you do, etc…?

My name is Ben Brooks and I live in Seattle, WA with my beautiful wife. I run a commercial property management company in Lakewood, WA that I co-founded. During my free time I write over at The Brooks Review (brooksreview.net) talking mainly about technology.

When I am not glued in front of my computer I love to get out and hike, or shoot some pictures around town. My wife and I are also seriously addicted to chilling at home in front of our TV watching shows and movies, because the weather in Seattle can often demand that you stay in.

- What’s your current setup?

There are computers scattered throughout my house and office, but my main computer is a first generation unibody MacBook Pro (2.8ghz 6GB RAM 240GB SSD). I compliment that computer at work with a 24” LED Cinema Display. On the road I have a 16gb WiFi only iPad and a 32gb iPhone 4. I pack that all in either my Booq Taipan Shadow Messenger bag or my Booq Boa Push iPad bag - both of which I love.

At my office, other than the monitor, the only other thing that I attached is a Fujitsu Scansnap to stay paperless. I use a Bluetooth Apple Keyboard at both places and a Magic mouse at work.

At home I keep my MacBook Pro on a Rain Design mStand and have a Magic Trackpad paired up in addition to the keyboard. I also have 3+ terabytes of external hard drives for backups and media storage. I keep a well used Mac mini (original G4 1.42ghz model) hooked up to our TV in the living room for a media center.

Two things that come with me when I carry either the iPad or MacBook Pro are my Bose in-ear headphones and my Verizon MiFi for constant Internet access.

I used to be all about big crazy setups but over the past two years I have slimmed it down (still have way too much) to just what I need. I also try to keep the wires to a minimum because no matter what, wires tangle up on me.

Absolutely agree with you, I found myself in the same problem a few months ago: overly complicated setups were somehow killing my productivity and inspiration. I think that a minimal setup helps in staying focused and concentrated on what ultimately matters - getting stuff done, and well done.

I see you have a SSD installed. I never tried one myself, but I’ve always been interested in buying one - I just can’t decide. How was the installation process? Is OS X really that better on SSD as many users report?

Amen on the minimal setups, I can’t even work if there is paper on my desk - distracts me to no end.

As far as switching to an SSD goes - OS X makes swapping hard drives a cinch, I just cloned my current machine onto the SSD drive using SuperDuper! and swapped the drives. The whole thing only took a few hours (while the cloning was happening). Luckily I have the unibody MacBook Pro model with the removable battery so the hard drive is super easy to get to, took about 5 minutes to swap them in the machine. The entire process was a piece of cake and rather fool proof.

Once you have your SSD up and running the difference is immediately noticeable. Your entire machine is just so snappy it is unreal. To answer your question yes OS X is that much better and once you get an SSD it is unlikely you will want to go back to a platter hard drive.

The biggest difference is in the intangible things that the SSD does. You don’t really notice them until you go back to a ‘regular’ drive. I describe using an SSD like having everything on your computer work in an instant fashion. After using one for a while you forget that other computers just to don’t open a file in less time than it took you to read this sentence.

Ok if you want a concrete example and you are old enough to remember what it was like to use a 56k modem to get ‘online’ (does anybody even differentiate being online or not anymore?) then think back to when you went from 56k to broadband speeds of 1mbps or greater.

That is how different a good SSD is over a platter based hard drive. Now are you convinced?

I am. I am getting one by the end of next month.

Suggestions on the model? Which one are you using?

I would recommend the OWC Mercury Pro drives, they have a new Pro RE model out that is supposed to be a little better but I have not seen it tested on Barefeats.com just yet. There is a lot to know about SSD and you really get what you pay for. I have heard good things about the OWC Extreme, Intel X25-M, Crucial C300 drives.

Having said that the only one that I can attest to is the one that I have used, which is the OWC Extreme Pro 240GB model. I decided on that after a lot of research and thinking about just how much I want to spend. I would love to have the 480GB model, but there is no way I was going to pay for it. The 240GB is only 60GB less that what my Macbook Pro came with (300GB 7200rpm drive) so really it is not a huge space difference. I have also never been someone that keeps their iTunes library on their machine (nor do I keep all of my photos on here).

The last thing I would recommend is spending another $50 when you buy your drive to get some kind of enclosure for your current HD - makes for a great backup drive (especially if you are using SuperDuper! you can smart update very quickly).

Thanks for the info, Ben. Actually I couldn’t wait and I just bought a Patriot Inferno SSD, we’ll see how that goes.

I’d like to talk about the iPad now. How has it become a part of your workflow? What are the apps you use the most, and the ones you’re still waiting for?

Oh man do I love me some iPad, it is a huge part of my workflow these days. When I am in my office I off load a bunch of the more distracting apps to the iPad. For instance I keep OmniFocus open on my Mac just for quick entry using the iPad version of OmniFocus to see what needs to be done and to check off the tasks that I completed. This has really helped me to stop tweaking the fonts/colors and organizing tasks (what little organizing I do). I also often off load Twitter to the iPad (official Twitter app) so that I can stay a bit more focused while working, but that is only on days when I am feeling particularly unfocused.

In the evenings I usually don’t even bother touching my MacBook Pro, instead I use just my iPad and iPhone for everything. Ditto for trips now, I don’t take my MacBook Pro with me, just the iPad. The iPad may just be the best travel computer ever made. I have stopped “working” on things like my blog during the evenings and there are extra steps to posting from my iPad I typically just read in the evenings marking things I may want to post the next day.

On Fridays I can often be found in various Seattle coffee shops working from my iPad for a few hours at a time. The weekends hold a lot more iPad for me, I try not to stay chained to my computer anymore but I like to keep updated on Twitter and my RSS feeds. I also gave away my Kindle as the iPad is now the device that I read the most content on. I have tried both iBooks and the Kindle / Nook apps. I am sticking with Kindle content for now as I feel more confident that it will be around long term.

As far as apps go it seems more like what I don’t use is a more appropriate title. The apps I keep in the iPad’s dock are easily the most used, these are:

- Mail

- Twitter

- OmniFocus

- Instapaper

- Reeder

The other apps that I use a bit less, but still often are:

- Kindle app

- Writer.

- Simplenote

- MLB At Bat

- Angry Birds

The biggest app that is missing for me is a good WordPress blogging client. The official WordPress app stinks - the recent updates have improved it a bit. I need something closer to MarsEdit for my iPad - with custom field controls and slug control. It is really frustrating how poor the official WordPress app really is. Right now if I want to post a linked list post (which is about 95% of what I post from my iPad) I have to use a hacked Press This bookmarklet in Safari. Then I will usually just go to the WordPress admin area in Safari to put on the final touches before publishing. All of this is cumbersome and really limits the amount of posts I do from the iPad.

WordPress if you are listening: let’s talk.

Oh, I completely agree with the WordPress on iPad problem. I’ve been asking for a full-featured blogging app since the iPad came out, like you said the official WordPress app stinks and the alternatives…well, let’s just not mention them.

Hopefully some 3rd party developers is currently investing his time and efforts into developing something great. I sure hope so.

I see you mentioned both Simplenote and Writer. I haven’t had the chance to really try IA Writer, as I’m running iOS 4.2 beta and the app has a few issues with it. Why both apps, though? Are you using Writer as a “focused” tool, and Simplenote for quick note sharing across devices?

I used to use Simplenote for everything writing related on the iPad and it worked out pretty great. I like Notational Velocity a lot on the Mac but I don’t like writing in it that much. Because of that I do most of the writing on my Mac in TextMate or Ulysses (speaking of iPad apps they need one badly). When Writer came out I jumped all over it, I remember when iA was teasing about the app they were building and I was really excited to finally try it.

Now I use Simplenote as just a note pad and to take notes in meetings. Writer is used for long form writing that I may want to pick back up once I move back to the Mac. I too use iOS 4.2 and the scrolling is a major bug in the app with the beta iOS, but I still find it to be a better environment to write in that any other iPad app. The focus mode it offers doesn’t really do much for me, that font is what I love about the app. Nitti Light truly is the best looking font you can get for the iPad.

So yeah you could say Writer is my focused tool and Simplenote is my quick note tool, but you could also say that just have way too many apps.

That is a problem I had as well, and I’m working on it: having to many apps. As months went by and my pages filled up with apps, I realized there was something wrong in my approach to iOS.

Maybe we don’t need all these apps, and we just keep them as a reminder that we’re geeks in the end. Why keeping 3 different Twitter clients? Why all those alternative browsers? Not to mention the not taking tools with Dropbox integration.

Maybe we just need to rethink our workflow, and I’m doing it. I think I’m actually enjoying my iPhone more with just the apps I really need. Have you ever had this problem?

It’s good to know that I am not the only one. I used to have 6 pages of Apps on my iPhone, I never looked at 3 of the pages - it was crazy. Now though I just hide them all in folders. For instance on my iPhone I have three different calculator apps, who needs three calculators. Oh but they are so beautiful or functional. I probably even paid for the two calculators that didn’t come with the phone.

I tried to put an end to this madness a while back when Patrick Rhone posted on Minimal Mac about clearing the home screen and only adding back in apps that you find yourself using a lot. That lasted about a day before it annoyed me and I went back to my old habits. Right now I have 87 iPhone apps and 68 iPad apps on my devices. Which is all too many.

A lot of these apps are what I call “what if apps” - meaning I keep them because ‘what if’ I need them at some point (like OffMaps for when I travel - which I could just download when I am traveling). It is both a logical and stupid rational depending on your personal philosophies. Actually make that 60 on my iPad I just went through and deleted 8 of them - I had the Netflix app on my iPad, yet I don’t have a Netflix account (sometimes, sometimes I make use of another family members account). Just deleted 3 more from the iPad – this is starting to feel pretty good.

Let’s see how many I can delete from the iPhone: 17, and one more from the iPad.

That’s crazy.

My situation exactly. The “what if” apps can become a serious problem, especially when you keep games (that eat a lot of MBs out of your device) because “your friends might like them” or all those note-taking apps because “the next update might be interesting”. It’s really crazy.

Is there an app you wish you had, but no one has ever developed?

The one app that I really want is MarsEdit that is the one app I use daily on my Mac. The sad fact us that there is no great blogging apps for WordPress - even the officially one is severely crippled.

Other than that perhaps a Adobe LightRoom like app - Photogene is good but it is not a RAW editor. When I am on the go it would be really great to be able to edit my dSLR RAW images and shoot them to Flickr or Twitter. The last thing I need is another Magazine app though - why can’t there just be an iBooks or Kindle for magazines. That would make everyones life a little better.

What about Flipboard, “the social magazine”? Seems like people either love it or hate it. Personally, I’m looking forward to what the guys are up to - the next update will really tell us if Flipboard is a project worth keeping an eye on or not.

I think Flipboard is a great design and scores points for being different. That said it’s not for me, not even on my iPad. I think my mom or sister might like it - someone who wants to ‘subscribe’ to something, but to have it be more engaging than a standard RSS reader.

Perhaps if I was a Facebook user it might be cool, or even if I just wanted to browse my Twitter feed (as opposed to reading the tweets). For now thought I really don’t get Flipboard, it’s like having one of those fancy corkscrews that are battery powered - why do I need that when I have a perfectly good Manual corkscrew that works better and doesn’t die.

Then again I am a very cynical person when it comes to Facebook oriented things.

Because you think Facebook isn’t a good platform for content sharing?

No, actually Facebook is a great platform - I just have two issues with it. The first is Mark Zuckerberg and the second is the concept of “friending”.

I don’t want to bore everyone with my hatred for Zuckerberg, but I just don’t trust the guy with all of my personal data. He seems to have this idealistic view that everything should be shared and nothing should be private - I don’t agree with that at all, I like my privacy (to an extent). What is even scarier is what could happen if he really needs money, what would stop him from selling off all of your personal info? A privacy policy? Fat chance.

The second thing is what Facebook has really done to the concept of what a ‘friend’ is. It used to be that to garner someones friendship the two of your had to get to know each other. Facebook though has turned this concept into a much broader sense - you now offend people if you don’t ‘friend’ them, how stupid is that? I mean most people really don’t have more than 30-50 people that they want to share their entire lives with (if even that many) so why should we be offended if they don’t accept my request to be a ‘friend’ or what if they mark me as a ‘limited friend’ - gasp!

That is why I like Twitter so much, you can follow me, and I can follow you, but it is not mutually exclusive. Saying you follow someone on Twitter doesn’t carry the same connotation as ‘friending’ someone on Facebook does. That is if I walked up to you and said that I am Facebook friends with Mark Cuban you would think something totally different than if I came up and said I follow Mark Cuban on Twitter. Not to mention that fact if I don’t become ‘friends’ with someone on Facebook I am a jackass even though I did it just because I didn’t want their Farmville updates polluting my news feeds.

I don’t use Facebook that much, probably because all my friends post Farmville status updates and stupid group invitations or viral links. I don’t know. What do you think of #NewTwitter, do you like where the service / platform is going?

Honestly #NewTwitter doesn’t phase me one bit, I have never been a web user of the service. Until they show me what tweets are new and which I have “read” the web view is pretty useless to me. I stick with the official Twitter apps on iOS and the aging Tweetie on my Mac. What I really like about it though is the idea that you have panes inside of the page to get more information about a conversation and such.

Personally I think the webpage is not nearly as important as the mobile apps are - Twitter is just superb when you are out and about. I can’t remember the last time I missed a major story because I ‘failed’ to check my RSS feed - I always know about it first from Twitter on my iPhone. That said the “Tweet” button is becoming a great tool as well (even though it is ugly as sin). Facebook may drive a lot more traffic to sites than the Twitter button, but I think that will slowly start changing as more people discover just how informative and useful Twitter is.

I see I’m not the only one here who hasn’t managed to kick the old Tweetie for Mac habit. I’ve tried other apps (Hibari, Echofon, Nambu), but I keep on going back to Tweetie. I guess that at this point I’m just waiting for Tweetie 2 to (eventually) ship and Twitterrific 4. Don’t you think it’s particularly amazing that after all this time the original Tweetie still manages to have a huge userbase?

It is a testament to what Loren Brichter did with Tweetie that it can stand the test of time, even though it doesn’t have the latest and greatest features, many users still swear by it. In my opinion it is still the best looking Twitter app on any platform. Tweetie has the right mix of subtle and annoying that it just seems to polarize users into loving or hating it. There are somethings that really bug me about the app, but most everything else is just so damned good you forget about the little annoyances.

I think the only way to get people to stop using Tweetie is to have Twitter change the API so that it no longer works - but then you would have a huge backlash, maybe there is no way to kill it.

Or maybe come up with a new app that’s just better. Like I said I’ve tried many, but never sticked to one. I’m pretty confident in the guys over at the Iconfactory though, so we’ll see.

What about Twitter for iPad? Now that had a huge backlash, despite being developed by the same visionary Brichter.

That was pretty controversial - I never understood why. It isn’t that it is an ugly looking app, just that it did not function like the other apps up and until that point did. There were a couple of annoying bugs at first (not easily being able to de-select a tweet), but for the most part people seemed mad at Brichter because he didn’t just make a ‘normal’ Twitter app - instead he wanted to make something better.

There are quite a few things that still bug me about Twitter for iPad (the compose window and how the menu scrolls independent of the background) but it is by far the best Twitter app on the iPad IMO. I have also come to really like the way the interface moves up and down in addition to left and right. I think a great deal of attention was poured into it and it is amazing considering it is free.

I agree. I’m looking forward to the update which is supposed to bring “many new features and fixes” (Brichter’s words), but no doubt the current version of Twitter for iPad is an outstanding piece of software.

There’s this question I have to ask: the Back to the Mac event. The Lion preview. The Mac App Store. Thoughts? How do you see Apple moving towards an iOS-like approach for some features on the desktop?

Well if you must ask then I will answer. First things first let’s start with Lion, I still don’t think we got to see enough of Lion to really know what it is all about. There was some nice eye candy they showed with mission control and better support for fullscreen app environments, though I suspect the latter will be the only one that will matter to me. I launch all my apps with Launchbar, so I really don’t care about having my app icons arranged like my iPad’s. I am more interested in what they did to the core of the OS, did they make it faster overall? Did they decrease the OS footprint? Ever since Tiger Mac OS X has been a great OS for me, some of the eye candy is nice, but mostly I don’t care to use it. I do hope they get rid of the blue scroll bars and unify the UI a bit throughout the apps, but such things are tall orders for the Mac team it seems.

On another note: can we please get a good version of Mail? I mean a really good one, with built in widescreen support? Thanks.

The Mac App Store is going to be a great thing for Mac users. The developers seem split - but at this point they don’t have a choice, once their competitor is in the store they must be in the store to continue to compete. The only programs my wife has on her computer that did not come with it are ones that I told her to install - how crazy is that? I strongly feel that she would be well served by a simple straightforward trusted place that she could go to for finding and installing new programs. I am hopeful that the Mac App Store is just that.

The App store will also solve the major problem that new Mac users have: “how the hell do I install this program now that I downloaded it?” Yeah that is a big one, and one that the Mac App store seems to solve right away - kudos to Apple on that.

As far as the iOS integration with Mac OS goes - meh. It just doesn’t excite me at this point, I guess I don’t understand why they are doing it. Is it to unify their product line? Is it to make iOS users feel more at home on the Mac, or vice versa? Will the unification go deeper than just eye candy (UI elements)? Or will this all just stay topical treatments?

If the point is just to make iPhone users more comfortable on the Mac, then sure go for it - just let power users turn off all that crap, we don’t need, and don’t want it. If it is for Mac users to like iOS better, then they are going about it backwards. My guess is it is a little of everything, but that it will mostly be topical treatments. I don’t thing Apple has a real desire to see iOS apps running on the Mac, or the other way around.

Perhaps the best thing iOS seems to be doing for the Mac is getting a fullscreen app view back into the OS. I love programs like Ulysses or Aperture when you kick them into fullscreen. You gain a lot of focus when you have a system like that, and I am really glad to see that this concept is being brought over from the iOS system. Other than that it is way too early to tell what exactly Lion holds for Mac users.

So you don’t buy Jobs’ argument that they’re simply going “back to the Mac” with the same OS X they optimized for mobile devices for over 3 years?

If that was the case would they need to make Lion? I think Jobs was doing some marketing speak, Apple is very much focusing on the Mac again after a hiatus for the past year or two - but I don’t think this is going to be the same old OS X that we have known for the past 10 years. Lion is going to tie in what they are learning from iOS and what they already know from OS X. In theory then this should make OS X and even stronger OS, but I have my worries that Apple may go for too much eye candy and not enough nutrition, if you will.

And what do you think will come next for iOS? There’s so much stuff I’d like to see refined and improved in iOS 5, I don’t even know where to start. Notifications? Better app-to-app integration? A services menu?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the next iteration was rather minor and had a lot of backend improvements for multi-tasking with some UI tweaks. If Apple is truly committed to shipping Lion in summer 2011 then I don’t see how they also can release something as big as iOS 5 in 2011. I would guess we see something more along the lines of new hardware coupled with iOS 4.5. Where iOS 4.5 would be what Snow Leopard was to Leopard - an excellent update that is well worth the trouble but not loaded with enormous features.

iOS 4 was a huge leap forward for the platform and with the amount of tweaks and speed improvements that Apple is likely doing to it right now, in addition to unifying iOS between the iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch platforms I just don’t know if the resources are there to pull off another major update. That said I would expect better integration between apps, faster everything, a perhaps a revised push notifications system - that may be a long shot though. Things like service menus and other really robust features will most likely wait a year.

Then again this is all me guessing based on what seems logical right now.

Tell me a little bit more about your weblog, Brooks Review, now. How did the idea start in the first place, how has it developed over time? Personally, I’m a huge fan.

I hope to keep you a fan! Brooks Review is about my eighth blog that I have started, and probably the third technology related one. Each had a different feel and focus, my writing was poor back then. I started it as a place to cull my ideas and to give me a creative outlet in the form of writing. All of the links that I post are really things that I enjoyed reading and serve as a permanent bookmark of sorts for myself.

The idea for the site really came from reading MIT’s Technology Review, and I thought that instead of boring my wife with what I think about technology I would bore other people. Turns out other people like, or at least read  what I am saying. I started the site trying to stay with a general technology focus and I really tried in the beginning not to be too Apple centric - the problem is that Apple is at the center of everything exciting that is happening in technology right now. So the focus may shift around a bit, but I try to always give my honest, unbiased opinion about everything that I talk about.

That’s exactly what I like about BrooksReview. Apple material, but a real interest in what’s cool about technology. May I ask you which are the blogs and publications you look up to on a daily basis?

Wow that is a tough one. I don’t know if there are blogs that I really look up to on a daily basis, but there are a few bloggers that I do look up to you say for various reasons.

John Gruber (Daring Fireball) is certainly one of those people for two reasons: he never hides his opinion or apologizes for it and the level of meticulous detail he brings to his writing is superb.

Merlin Mann (43 Folders) is another, I actually really love his writing and wish he blogged more these days. I love his sense of humor and the roundabout way that he goes off on tangents all the while making his point. I strive to be half the writer he is.

Malcolm Gladwell - he may not be a blogger, but what a great story teller.

There are many others out there as well, but these are the core of the writers that I look up to.

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