Saturday, February 23, 2008

synchronicity strikes again

By strange coincidence, my previous post here fell on the very same day that Microsoft chose to issue another in a series of assurances that they will publish the APIs their own application software (Office) makes use of.

While it's true that if they follow through on this promise it will enable third-party software vendors to develop programs which work better and are more competitive with Microsoft's own products, it will also enable developers of Windows emulation environments (Wine and CrossOver) to remove the remaining barriers to running Windows applications without Windows.

Frankly, this is probably the greater concern for Microsoft, especially given that Vista has so far failed to supplant XP as "the standard". The existence of emulators that work every bit as well as Windows itself could further rigidify that standard, wrenching it from Microsoft's hands much as Microsoft wrested it away from IBM many years ago.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

reason #51: open source software

Far more is known, more widely, outside Apple, about how Mac OS X works than is know outside Microsoft about how Windows works, and this is even more true of Vista than it was of XP.

Apple not only participates in and contributes to a broad range of open source projects, but it also sponsors a few of its own.

The prime example of the latter is Darwin - the kernel (xnu) and BSD Unix component of Mac OS X, freely available as source code. (Microsoft could do far worse than to base Windows 7 on Darwin, and doing so would be perfectly legal so long as they complied with the license, which requires publishing changes to the code.)

That's just where it starts. Safari's rendering core, roughly analogous to Gecko, is available as WebKit, and other Apple sponsored open source projects include a streaming server, and an implementation of Zeroconf, which allows computers to find resources across a network, as well as several others of more interest to programmers than to end users.

Even Apple's proprietary code is exceptionally well documented, making it easy to incorporate their public APIs into third-party software, and their private APIs have a way of transforming into public APIs, once they've evolved to the point of being stable.

This all makes for a thriving ecosystem, one which is about to grow dramatically with the release of the iPhone SDK, if not this month then next.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Windows geek throws the switch

Chris Pirillo has made it official, for the purpose of general computer use he's made the switch to Mac OS X.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

not perfect, just unmistakably better

If you have more than a little experience with both Windows and Mac OS X, chances are very high (just short of 100%) that you prefer Macs. That's not to say that Macs are perfect; if they were there'd be no need for the frequent updates to their system software and basic applications. What they are is better, clearly better, unmistakably, unequivocally better than Windows, for practically every purpose, in very nearly every context...and getting even better faster than Windows. (Many have taken the position that Vista is actually a step backward.)

Compare Mac OS X 10.5.2 and Windows Vista on equivalent hardware, and you'll be blown away by how much more responsive the Mac is, no contest, no kidding, no room for debate. Comparing the interfaces is more subjective, and people tend to prefer what they're accustomed to, but people who've made the transition from Windows to Macs commonly say they'll never go back. Counter examples are about as common as hen's teeth.

The game isn't over, of course. Windows still enjoys huge market share, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to find any reason for this aside form momentum and habit. There continues to be some remote chance that Microsoft might pull a miracle out of its hat before that market share drops below 50%, but don't count on it; Microsoft itself certainly isn't. They're moving quickly to get into other businesses besides traditional personal computing.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Microsoft: two views

Microsoft's Surface may be a little late, but it's still happening. While it might seem unlikely that any significant aspect of the device/environment was actually invented at Microsoft, given how well it performs in demonstration videos, it still marks a positive turn in the company's approach to personal computing, and as such something to be applauded.

For those less inclined to be charitable, there's this four year old opinion piece from MacDailyNews, which compares the propensity to defend Windows and make light of Macs to Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims come to identify with and defend their victimizers. If that viewpoint had a gram of validity in 2003, it's practically indisputable now, what with Vista being widely rejected in the market and Leopard about to gain its sea legs with the release of 10.5.2.

I just goes to show that life isn't so simple as any partisan would have it.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Technology in Wartime: autonomous weapons systems

Technology in Wartime is the title of a recent conference organized by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. (Videos of the conference panels are available here.)

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, one subject to come up repeatedly was autonomous weapons system and whether computer professionals could ethically participate in their development.

Ronald Arkin, director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Georgia Tech, who said that his work is partly funded by the military, also had this to say (quoting the Chronicle article): "Pentagon planners are determined to create war-fighting machines that eventually will be able to decide - autonomously - whether or not to kill. Since war-bots are coming, Arkin said, computer scientists should help design their self-control programs."

There are arguments on both sides of this issue, but the notion that certain people in the Pentagon are "determined" to pursue the development and deployment of robotic weapons systems that will eventually operate autonomously rings true. There are, in fact, already a few such systems in testing.

The word "autonomous" needs closer examination here. For at least the immediate future, we're not talking about conscious machines with the potential for rising up in a revolution against those who built them (as in the Terminator movies). A better comparison would be the weapon-bearing robots depicted in Star Wars II and III. Of course there's always the possibility for defective circuitry or programming leading to berserker behavior.

The greater danger, it seems to me, is that robotic weapons make aggression an easier option. When you can send machines to kill, instead of soldiers, it removes the constraint on the use of force currently imposed by the risk of losing American lives. Even worse, it removes the constraint imposed by soldiers' own sense of morality. Those who favor autonomous robotic weapons suggest robots can be programmed to behave more ethically than human soldiers under fire, but the reality is more likely to be that they will follow orders, no matter how heinous those orders might be.

It's high time society begin a discussion about robotic weaponry, and not leave all the decisions to those operating behind the curtain of a black budget - to whom it wouldn't be unreasonable to attribute an enthusiasm for killing with impunity.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

laying down one card at a time

One thing Apple fans find maddening about the company we follow so obsessively is its propensity to keep its plans as secret as possible for as long as possible, rather like a poker player who holds his cards close to his chest and carefully reveals nothing when glancing at them.

If there were a card game based on Apple's habitual behavior, it would be one in which the cards lying face-up on the table decide the winner (or at least the provisional winner, since the game goes on indefinitely), but each player can lay down (or pick back up) at most one card per turn, and strategies can change from one round to the next based on what cards others play, as well as what one picks from the deck.

Apple just played its MacBook Air card, and now we wait while the other players respond or pass for Apple's next turn, when we expect to see updated MacBook Pros (which might possibly still include a new 12-inch model). But it's really Apple's subequent turns that have got everybody fidgeting with anticipation.

You may recall that Apple picked back up its PDA (Newton) card, many turns back, but has never discarded it. Everyone knows Apple has a PDA card in its hand, and now, since playing the iPhone card last summer, and iPod touch card shortly after, many are expecting Apple to follow up with that PDA card, dramatically transformed since the last time it was played.

And then there's the unknown cards in Apple's hand, other devices and applications which haven't yet appeared as specific rumors. We know they're there, but we can only guess at what they might be.

It's maddening, and it keeps us on the edges of our seats, waiting for their next turn to come around.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Microsoft's pursuit of Yahoo!

Microsoft wants Yahoo!, that much is now painfully public.

If you work for Yahoo! your mind is probably buzzing with questions, one of which is sure to be whether you want to work for a company controlled by Microsoft.

If you own Microsoft stock, you might be wondering what happens to the value of Yahoo! in the wake of an acquisition by Microsoft. Does it maybe go up in smoke, like flash paper?

Me, I'm just aghast that Microsoft is so blatantly admitting that it needs to get into a new business badly enough to pay $44.6 Billion for it.