April 11, 2012

Article at Hydrapinion

Mobile devices must get smarter about wireless

So, there I was, minding my own business with the laptop online using a mobile broadband service – but not doing anything online at that time. For whatever reason, I decided to have a glance at the download meter – and was stunned to see that my trusty Mac had downloaded over 225MB of data in the short time it had been connected.Spot the anomaly: Give it a good signal and a data-hungry OS, and Telstra's Next-G service can chew through your quota in the blink of an eye (measurements in KB).

On a landline connection, this would be little more than a hiccup. But on a mobile-broadband service with just 1GB of total capacity per month, it was a major chunk of my allowable usage – and it was, to the best of my knowledge, consumed because Mac OS X has a habit of downloading system update files as soon as they become available, so it can install them immediately when you tell it to.

This, of course, is less than ideal; I'd prefer that any system updates be done when I'm at home and there is plenty of Wi-Fi bandwidth and download quota to play with. But the laptop doesn't seem to care. And it's not the first time: on a few other occasions I have looked at the download meter to see it flying past 100MB, 200MB or even more.

You'd think this sort of thing would have been designed out of the OS long ago. While I think it's great that Mac OS X will download files in the background, when it's clogging up limited mobile bandwidth – and chewing through my monthly quota – something really needs to change.

It's the same sort of problem that drove me away from Windows in the first place: I can't remember how many times I would be working on a document, go to the kitchen to make a coffee, and come back to find that the auto-update feature had closed my documents (unsaved, of course) and the system rebooted itself. The desktop would be sitting there, smiling at me, totally uncaring that it had just negated hours of work.

I suspect this sort of issue will become more, not less, common as Windows 8 and the upcoming Mountain Lion (10.8) version of Mac OS X work to make desktop and mobile computing work more like the ubiquitous iPad, which has taken usability to levels previously unthinkable on a conventional computer.

Whether or not this is a good idea in general, remains to be seen: while I like the idea of having a desktop version of Messages that can communicate with other iDevices, for example, I don't need to have keyboard shortcuts disabled, as they have been in iPhoto, so that I may be forced to navigate once-familiar apps using a page-based system that is at its most comfortable in a touch motif.

The iPad, at least, has the whole updates thing down pat: plug in your system and it will auto-update via WiFi while you're asleep. That's one trick the Mac hasn't yet learned: from what I can tell, the Mac assumes it has a full online connection any time a check shows that it's connected to the Internet.

This is less than ideal: as devices become more mobile and the lines between tablet and laptop are increasingly blurred, software makers are going to have to become more aware of the usage models in which they are being utilised. And this is getting trickier: for example, forcing Mac OS X to only update itself via WiFi might be one solution – but it is now possible for a smartphone or tablet to set itself up as a WiFi hotspot that can be accessed by other devices.

Deciding whether and how to download updates based on connection type could make the laptop think it has a proper Internet connection when it is in fact connected to a quota-constrained mobile service.

I'd like to think the growing reliance on the Mac App Store – which, like its handheld-device counterpart, is update-aware – could change all this in the future. As software updating becomes an intrinsic function of the operating system, the morass of different updating systems could hopefully become a thing of the past. Updates will be easier, smoother, and smarter than ever before.

Yet all this magick is worth nothing if I lack the broadband quota to utilise it. Here's hoping Apple and Microsoft can get a bit smarter with the next versions of their operating systems so that mobile users don't need to be constantly checking to make sure the OS hasn't spoiled things for them by being too eager to help.

[HY15] [Original here]