Sunday, December 27, 2009

the name game: calibrating the nominative

Various monikers have been suggested for the yet-to-be-announced Apple tablet(s), with varying degrees of evidence in the form of domain names and trademarks already acquired by Apple or others acting on behalf of Apple. These include iPad, iTab, iTablet, iPod tablet, iBook, Macbook touch, and now iSlate and Magic Slate.

It's good that there's an assortment of names to choose from, as there are at least three potential products in need of one, including, besides the two I've already described, a touchscreen peripheral to be connected to (or integrated into) your laptop or desktop keyboard, as described here.

While you might see iBook touch and Macbook touch applied to versions of those laptop lines with integrated display touchpads, that would suggest an intention to continue to produce versions without display touchpads, which, if it happens at all, is practically certain to be a temporary state of affairs, and Apple would find itself in the position of having to either keep around or unceremoniously drop a designation meant to differentiate one model from another within the same line.

iTab just seems awkward, so I'll eliminate it from further consideration.

Approaching the question from the direction of specific devices to be named, and starting with what is presumably the smallest, we first have the i/o display touchpad, which may appear first as a peripheral then later be integrated. The integrated version doesn't necessarily need a name, as distinguished from a description, but the peripheral version certainly will. It might be called iPad, or iSlate, or Magic Slate, or Magic Pad. (Note that there is an iPhone app called Magic Pad.)

Then there's the smaller, more portable standalone tablet device. It also might be called iPad or iSlate, or iTablet, or maybe even iPod tablet.

Finally there's the larger, less portable semi-standalone tablet device. (I say semi-standalone because most of its use cases are sure to include continuous communication with some other device, and it's likely to need more frequent recharging than the smaller tablet device.) It too might be called iPad, iSlate, or iTablet, but probably not iPod tablet.

The peripheral and the smaller standalone tablet device might actually use the same screen, but the peripheral wouldn't have more of a radio than Bluetooth/Wifi, if that, and might not even have a battery. As with Apple keyboards, it could come in both wired and wireless versions.

My personal preference (not a prediction!) would be to call the peripheral device Magic Pad, the 7-inch tablet iPad, the 10-inch tablet iTablet, and reserve iSlate for an even larger, less portable device, on the order of those depicted in the newly released movie Avatar.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

rumors of announcements of forthcoming products

The Apple-rumor mill is nearly as energetic as if it were anticipating yet another Steve Jobs keynote at Macworld. Well, Steve has been on the heal for half a year now, so an appearance by him at some sort of event isn't all that unlikely, and there are media distribution deals to be discussed as well as new devices and new models of existing products - plenty of material for a stage appearance by Mr. Jobs.

High on the list of anticipated announcements, is an Apple tablet device with a touchscreen, running some variant of OS X, and most likely capable of running iPhone/iPod Touch apps unaltered. Most such speculation has revolved around a tablet with a 10-inch screen, suitable for use as a reader or as a personal movie player. But there has also been a persistent secondary rumor regarding a smaller tablet, with a 7-inch screen.

If you're reading this then you may recall that I'm already dangling from a twig, having gone on record predicting that Apple will market two, rather different tablets, the larger of which will be better suited to the office or living room, and the smaller of which you'll want to keep with you all the time, wherever you go.

The larger (10-inch) device is likely to have a camera facing towards the user, whereas the smaller (7-inch) device is more likely to have one that faces away, the same direction that the user is looking. The larger device is likely to have enough of a battery to get through just about any movie without a recharge, but most use cases will presume that the charger is handy and there will be a premium on keeping the device light. The smaller device might actually weigh more that the larger one, but its battery should be good for at least 12 hours of constant use, without an active datalink, or at least half that with a datalink.

I'd expect the system software to fall somewhere between iPhone OS and Mac OS X, mainly differing from iPhone OS in allowing multiple simultaneous applications and user background processes, and to be nearly identical on the two tablet devices. I don't expect either to run unaltered Mac apps using AppKit, although I'm prepared to be pleasantly surprised on that count.

I'm also expecting both to sport a system-on-chip CPU (or something leaning heavily in that direction) containing one or more ARM cores, rather than anything Intel.

I don't expect the larger device to have any long-range wireless capabilities. I half-expect the smaller one to have a single radio unit that can be used to connect to any cellular or consumer data network, as well as Wifi and Bluetooth, but no dedicated cellular hardware.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Chariot Skates, a.k.a. Wheelskates

Something very much like what you see in these videos...

Testing 1st samples from new moulds in Sydney & China from Chariot Skates on Vimeo.

...has been batting around in my head for years. The difference between me and Michael Jenkins is that he turned his idea into a design, and then into a succession of prototypes, and is now close to being ready to put that idea on the market as a real product, one that's sure to be a huge success, for which he has both my congratulations and my thanks, for following through.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

a patent, its implications, and their implications

This Ars Technica article describes an Apple patent application relating to adjustment of the display of 3D objects in response to changes in the position of the observer, presumably to create or reinforce a sense of depth in the display. (For example, a slightly different perspective could be presented to each eye.)

While that article doesn't go into any detail in this regard, one implication of such a system is that the 3D objects which are being adjusted must exist as software objects having a particular shape, orientation, and position, and not just as 2D projections of 3D objects.

This isn't new, not even for Apple. OpenGL, which is built into both the Mac and iPhone versions of OS X, is all about defining and displaying 3D objects, and a system like that in the referenced patent application could probably be implemented in OpenGL, or as an extension of it, without implying extensive new libraries.

On the other hand, it might involve an object representation layer to be inserted underneath OpenGL, which is mainly concerned with surfaces and doesn't know or care about the physical properties of objects beyond their optical properties.

Assuming that's the case (no small assumption), this new object representation layer would greatly ease the development of many types of software, including but not limited to CG animation, games, industrial design and architecture, navigation, etc., by providing standard, supported, primitive data types and basic behaviors (scaling, rotation, and translation) for the representation of 3-dimensional objects - data types which could easily be elaborated as needed through subtyping.

An open question is whether Apple would keep such a system to itself or turn it into an open source project, in the hope of generating some momentum behind it, as they have with both OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch.

Here's another take on the patent application.

And yet another take from a website that features news and advice about construction-related software.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

the right man for the job

You may not agree with President Obama on every issue, but surely it has become abundantly clear, for the situation facing us today, that he's the right man for the job.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

expectations of traction, appropriate and otherwise

We've all got a bill of goods for sale, an accumulation of notions we believe to be true (or at least serviceable), some of which we may only part with in exchange for compensation, some of which we give away freely, and some of which we may push upon others aggressively, recoiling in astonishment if they react to our largess as though it were an invasion, or worse if they challenge our motives or the substantiality of the ideas we have striven to share.

"What do you mean you don't agree? How can you not agree? It's obvious!"

Well, no, quite often our cherished notions are not obvious, anything but in fact, if viewed in the cold light of reality. Sometimes they lack both validity and relevance, or more often they are relevant only for the fact that we believe in them, that fact constituting an element of our shared cognitive environment, complete with consequences, despite the notions themselves utterly lacking validity.

We should have a care how much traction we expect to result from decisions to share our cherished notions, or from actions taken in lieu of sharing. Others have their own notions, which may or may not align well with our own, and they may not appreciate our efforts to substitute ours for theirs, or to impose consequences. They may take umbrage, and in their eyes we may appear to be scoundrels or devils. This is often the story when cultures clash.

Generally speaking someone with valid, relevant notions to share has no need to push them on others, rather others seek him/her out and invest effort in understanding his/her thinking. In the best of all situations, this effort to understand is mutual.

We all live both in our own heads and within a milieu composed of the tangible behavior of others, also living in their own heads. None of us is competent to dictate to another how they should live their life.

barking up the wrong tree, good money after bad, and the Intel's Larrabee

A few years back, just before Apple's official preannouncement of the iPhone, Intel sold off their XScale assets, ostensibly to concentrate on their x86-64 architecture (although they continue to move the Itanium forward at a modest pace, and hold the rights to other ISAs they've never brought to market).

But concentrate they have, convincing most naysayers they could indeed squeeze a good deal more performance out of their flagship processor line, with even greater improvements in performance/watt.

Larrabee, intended to be a GPGPU, and originally to have begun shipping about now, in 24-core and 32-core versions, was to have been the next stage in this x86-everywhere strategy, by combining many, relatively simple x86-64 cores with a single, very wide vector processing unit.

The problem with this strategy is that the x86-64 architecture isn't optimized for such use, and the advantage it would have enjoyed a few years ago, due to instruction compatibility with the chips powering nearly every laptop and desktop computer, has been rendered largely moot by developments in software (OpenGL, CUDA, OpenCL, and Apple's Grand Central Dispatch, recently turned open source).

On the other hand, Intel's investment hasn't necessarily been wasted. They can take what they've learned in developing Larrabee and turn it into improved x86-64 processors and improved compilers to generate code for them. The 512-bit wide SIMD unit may find its way into dual, quad, and eight-core chips, making them radically faster for some purposes, in many cases obviating the need for dedicated GPU hardware.

x86-64 has a lot of life left in it, and folding the Larrabee project back into the mainstream processor line would help extend that life span far into the future.

Monday, November 30, 2009

of estimates and bias in the error

It is widely accepted as a given among financial analysts that Apple makes a practice of lowballing its revenue and earnings estimates for the near future, and those estimates are routinely treated as a worst case baseline.

Apple has apparently also begun using best case estimates of sales in calculating what to tell component suppliers about how many units of their products it may be purchasing, and then waiting for the prices to come down before actually making those purchases. Taken together, these behaviors have been characterized as bullying.

You may recall that just a couple of years ago, Apple was implicated in an effort to monopolize the market for flash memory, via extended contracts for nearly all of the production capacity of the main suppliers, and that at about that same time the U.S. DOJ began an investigation into price fixing on the part of those suppliers. That investigation ended without any indictments, but it seems clear that the struggle over the price and availability of high density, non-volatile memory chips continues.

Gadget manufacturers (not just Apple) want the latest, highest density chips at commodity prices, but will substitute a larger number of lower density components in their designs if the total cost of production ends up being lower. Chip foundries need higher prices for the latest, highest density chips, to cover the costs involved in development and upgrading their production lines, and they need something above production costs generally to cover the costs of building new factories to meet the seemingly insatiable demand, which can go soft at any time with a downturn in the economy or the advent of some new technology that renders their own products obsolete, so amortization schedules must be relatively short.

The question is what is a reasonable profit and during what phase of a product's life-cycle should the foundries be able to expect to turn a profit. If they attempt to take the bulk of it early, they end up pressuring their customers to keep using older, lower density components. If they postpone profits until later in the life-cycle, they run the risk that their customers will move on to the next new thing before they've completely covered their development and production upgrade costs. Undoubtedly, it ends up being a balancing act.

Apple's recent approach, if understood for what it is, merely complicates the calculation. Gadget manufacturers are always competing to provide a better perceived value to their customers, while leaving some room for a profit of their own. One of the ways they go about this is to attempt to get a better deal than their competition on components used by all. That they are out to get the best deal they can while securing the availability of the components they need shouldn't surprise anyone, least of all the foundries.

Supplying estimates of future component purchases based on best case sales is just a way of improving the chances that the components will be available, if needed, should that best case turn out to be reality. That subsequent orders typically don't total to those estimates shouldn't surprise anyone.

It's something of a given in any business that a change in the per-unit price as a function of an increment in volume is always either negative or zero, never positive; maybe that needs to change. Maybe, in this situation, per-unit pricing needs to follow a model where it decreases from small lots to moderate volume, and then begins to increase again above moderate volume, combining the volume from all customers, with rebates based on the same formula if some customers end up canceling their orders because the price went too high, vaguely like the market for electrical power works, but operating over periods on the order of a week rather than fractions of an hour. This would provide gadget manufacturers with an incentive to spread their orders out evenly over the entire life-cycle of any component they made use of, and provide some systematic moderation on the substitution of newer, higher density components.

Such a system may require a disinterested, third-party broker.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

the lengths to which a point must occasionally be carried

Sometimes it's just not enough to state your case in a reasonable manner. Lunacy must sometimes be addressed with intense sarcasm.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

journalism in the age of the internet

When was the last time you believed something because you heard it on FOX News? How about MSNBC?

Do you settle for any single source these days, however reliable, or, whenever something happens that really moves you, such that it becomes important to know the truth, do you turn from your television to your computer to track down the real story?

Even if you don't understand the relevant terminology well enough to look up references, Google does.

Even if you're not personally acquainted with someone living near the scene of the event, someone else on Twitter, or AOL, or FaceBook, or MySpace is.

You may have to settle for second or third-hand accounts, but you don't have to settle for what passes for journalism in this age of media consolidation, which while sometimes excellent is also sometimes abysmal.

That ability, to fact-check what you're fed by corporate journalism, is an important new factor in the few-to-many dissemination of information that is print and broadcast journalism. Journalists are constantly at risk of having their bullshit called, not just by other journalists, but by members of their audience or readership. This constitutes pressure to get it right, and may well be the single most important reason many working in the news media still aspire to call themselves journalists rather than entertainers, and mean something by it.

It also constitutes pressure on the corporate "news" divisions themselves, on the editors and publishers, on the people who make the decisions about which stories to go with and which to bury, to keep their corporate agendas in check and not allow them free rein to dictate what the news is. Before the Internet people had little idea of what they weren't being told; now there are other ways to get the story out, and other bases for determining whether a story that is run is being spun.

The Internet doesn't replace journalism, but it can empower individuals to take on the role when the professionals fall short, their curiosity enhanced by advanced search engines leveraging the huge resource of available information, and their soft voices amplified by ad hoc networks driven by others's need to know.

Bloggers are the semi-pros in this environment. The best of them gather followers who value something about what they publish, whether subject matter, sources, process, or perspective, and they frequently put the professionals to shame. Because they typically read other blogs, a story which finds its way into the blogger network can take off like wildfire. The most important reason for corporate news organizations to keep bloggers on staff is for the early warning they can provide of a breaking story the blogger network got ahold of first.

Even casual bloggers, like myself, play a part in making this network happen, passing along tidbits that interest us and contributing our own ideas and insights. One needn't make a career of it to participate.

Don't settle for less than real journalism - by which I don't mean professional journalism, although the two certainly aren't mutually exclusive - and don't be afraid to take on the role of journalist when the ball lands in your hands. You may be the person in the best position to tell a story others don't yet know they need to hear.

Friday, November 13, 2009

respectfully adjusting Martellaro's spin

In a Hidden Dimensions piece on MacObserver John Martellaro appears to be suggesting that the iPhone OS platform, or some more capable version of it developed for a tablet device, is destined to supersede the full-blown Mac environment. "Appears to be" may be the key phrase here, as that may not be what he's really saying at all, but he's at least invoking the possibility and running it up the flagpole.

Martellaro points to the relative security of legitimate iPhone apps, sold through the app store, as compared with the potentially riskier situation on the desktop, and suggests that such an arrangement may represent the future.

That's a point I'll grant, but rather than the Mac being left to flutter on the wind of widely varying approaches to application marketing and widely varying quality, I'm expecting Apple to expand the App Store to include Mac apps, not as an exclusive means of distribution, as with the iPhone, but as an option available to the developer, with the same convenient, consolidated business arrangement as on the iPhone.

The added value of such an arrangement for the end user derives both from it offering a one-stop shop and from it providing some assurance that the software they're buying won't turn out to contain a trojan. Developers will be relieved of the need to make their own distribution and payment arrangements, and guaranteed a percentage of whatever price they set for each download.

As it isn't likely to ever be the exclusive means of Mac app distribution, the rules for acceptance might actually be more strict than for iPhone apps, with emphasis on completeness and providing functionality with real value. On the other hand, without the overriding concern for maintaining the integrity of the cellular network and usability as a phone, Apple could go the other way and only insist that the applications it distributes not increase the end user's risk. Most likely it will start out with much the same collection of policies as for iPhone apps, diverging only gradually.

The App Store is and probably will continue to be driven by mobile and portable devices, but having already gone to the trouble of creating it the additional effort to expand it to include Mac apps should be minimal, and, given that many Mac apps currently retail for tens or hundreds of dollars, it could turn out to be a significant contributor to Apple's bottom line.

Assuming it happens, expect Software Update to be integrated such that it automatically offers updates to applications purchased through the Mac App Store.

Monday, November 09, 2009

in complex times people grasp for simple answers, followed by drift, leading to a business idea

I include myself in this, having long since turned my back on television, as the increasing number of channels diluted its value as a commons, and more recently having all but given up on trying to keep up with "the news" at all. I have projects instead, this blog being one, another involving programming, and another as an advocate for a vision - at once the most important thing I could be doing and the least achievable. In the latter two cases, the blog is not the project, but only a way of keeping myself involved and moving forward, even if only at a snail's pace. I also have an obsession, with Apple, Inc., with its products, and in particular with the process by which it develops them and decides which to take to market.

These, and a few others in the same vein, are my simple answers, what I cling to when events threaten to shake my sanity. To a significant extent they define who I am, and to a much larger extent they define what I need to be paying attention to, and therefore the context within which procrastination happens.

For me, the main force driving procrastination (other than my obsession with Apple) is my need to be around other people. While I like working individually, I really don't care for spending a lot of time alone, so my ideal situation is having others nearby without really being involved in what they're doing or them being involved in what I'm doing. A coffee shop with decent wireless internet connectivity is just about ideal, except that it's harder to concentrate on getting something done in such an environment and easier to just browse haphazardly. Even that's not a total loss, as it can substitute for channel switching a television to find out what's going on out there in the world. Digg is a particularly good starting point for this sort of browsing.

A coffee shop with curtained nooks might work. One with leasable nooks with lockable doors, in which you could safely leave all your stuff when not in use, might work even better. The main difference between this and a rental office in a building with many such is the vibe. Coffee shops have activity cycles, but the content of conversations varies widely, whereas what happens in and around offices tends to be more tightly constrained to the business at hand; it's filtered.

A few details follow: even with doors, curtains are a good idea, for a little privacy and a little sound dampening; the doors, when open, should lie flat against the wall or slide out of sight; the cool factor of double doors is more than worth the extra trouble; rentals should probably be either hourly (with something like a 4 hour minimum) or weekly; set your rental fees such that you don't feel compelled to push food and drinks to renters; rental work-nooks by the hour or week would work well with longterm colocation services, where people pay to have their computer installed on a rack with secure power and continuous internet connectivity.

This idea isn't terribly scalable. You could stretch it to two floors, but probably not three. Make the coffee shop space in the middle too large and it will lose the intimacy that loosens tongues and creates the vibe. On the other hand, make it too small and it'll end up inducing claustrophobia. Also, pack nooks together such that there's no room along the wall for anything else (art, booths, ...) and it'll look like a storage facility. A high ceiling is okay if you circulate air vertically so that you don't end up heating the ceiling while the floor freezes, and dampen echoes somewhat.

Let me know if you decide to go out and start your own coffee shop with rental nooks; I'd love to check it out!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

some guy named Merlin, with something on his mind

Makebelieve Help, Old Butchers, and Figuring Out Who You Are (For Now) from Merlin Mann on Vimeo.

One of the reasons I love The WELL is because it's well supplied with old butchers.

a new twist in tech competition

Possibly taking a cue from Steve Ballmer's lampoonish (and much-lampooned) manner, NVIDIA has resorted to castigating their nemesis, Intel, in a series of web-published cartoons.

For their part, Intel has been tempting fate, publicly, by attempting to lock NVIDIA out of producing chipsets compatible with their QuickPath Interconnect technology, Intel's answer to HyperTransport. Intel claims that NVIDIA's license does not extend to QuickPath Interconnect, an issue that will be decided in court at this point. NVIDIA, for their part, has knuckled under to Intel's demand to cease development of chipsets using QuickPath Interconnect, claiming they've discovered a better approach (that will allow them to continue to compete with Intel). In the meantime, NVIDIA continues to sell single-chip chipsets with integrated graphics for both Intel's Core 2 and Atom processor families, as well as dedicated GPUs which lie outside of the scope of Intel's complaint. They've also recently introduced the Tesla, the first in a family of General Purpose GPUs, which offers extreme acceleration of many computing operations.

NVIDIA could combine the Tesla with a multicore ARM processor and offer Intel some formidable competition, leveraged by CUDA and/or OpenCL. NVIDIA might even go further and offer their GPGPU designs for licensing as part of the ARM ecosystem, which could dramatically reduce Intel's longterm prospects. Intel may rue the day they chose to attempt to lock NVIDIA out of the chipset market.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

as good a theory as any

Seth Weintraub, writing in a Computerworld blog, had this to say about Apple TV: "My theory is that Apple has had all of their best talent in the past two years working round the clock on the Tablet - so the AppleTV gets neglected."

It's as good a theory as any, although I do have another to offer, which is that Apple has been waiting on the availability of the right components at the right price to allow them to do what they want to do with Apple TV, while still offering it at a price appropriate to a discretionary home entertainment component, without losing money on each unit sold. The right components might include something significant designed in-house, and it is rather likely that Apple's chip design people are already otherwise occupied with higher priority projects.

Apple TV is currently mainly an appliance for renting/buying and displaying video from the iTunes Store. As such it has still proven modestly popular, with a few million units having been sold. That's without 1080p, without being usable as a DVR or the inclusion of a tuner, and without the sort of graphics hardware that would make it a game machine in the same league with Sony's PS3 or Microsoft's Xbox. Apple could add any or all of these capabilities. If they were to add all, and keep the price in the same range as the original machine, they would have a far more compelling product that would likely fly off the shelves.

But Apple doesn't develop products without consideration for how they fit into their overall product line, and there are most likely components of that puzzle you and I haven't yet seen, such as the aforementioned tablet.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Goodbye ZFS, Hello something else...

Apple has shut down the source repository for the Mac OS X port of ZFS, leading to a flurry of reports that the project has been canned, apparently for legal rather than technical reasons.

While this may leave Apple without an advanced project to develop a next-generation operating system, it certainly doesn't leave them without a wide array of examples nor without a choice of starting points.

Apple could, of course, start from scratch, designing a file system to suit their particular circumstances, perhaps even one that would scale from the smallest portable devices to the largest Xsan installations, with plenty of elbow room for future increases in bit density.

They could also start with existing projects, such as UFS2, associated with the FreeBSD project, or maybe HAMMER, associated with DragonFly BSD, an offshoot of FreeBSD.

Many of us were looking forward to ZFS, not because it was ZFS in particular, but because it would presumably have been both faster and more stable than HFS+ (starting about halfway down). Frankly, the speed advantage of one file system design over another mostly goes away as you move from hard disks to solid state memory, since there's no time-consuming repositioning of read/write heads in solid state memory. (There can still be minor differences in speed due to code efficiency, but these pale by comparison.) While most desktop and laptop computers continue to come with hard disks, the cost/capacity of solid state memory is coming down rapidly, and it has already displaced hard disks in the most portable devices. Speed is on the way to becoming a non-issue.

What's mainly left is security (control over who has access to what), stability (partly a matter of redundancy), a logical structure that contributes to rather than interferes with keeping content organized and making it accessible, and the completeness of metadata (file name, file type, file owner, creator, creating program, date of creation, source URI, ...).

Apple might also wish to integrate (aspects of) its Spotlight and/or Core Data technologies into the file system. I'm not enough of an adept to know whether there's anything to be gained in this, but it seems possible.

All in all, it seems like a win that Apple is looking to its own resources for a next-generation replacement for HFS+.

Friday, October 23, 2009

What's next from Apple?

Please understand that the following is entirely speculation, based upon extrapolation from what's already public. Any similarity between what you find here and future products may be ascribed to luck (or, if you're feeling charitable, to prescience on my part).

What's brewing at Apple that wasn't introduced on Tuesday? New MacBook Pros, of course, probably not departing more than slightly from the current industrial design, just the usual spec bump. New Mac Pros? Same as for the portable line; why change a wining design? Sure there will be new standard configurations and new options, faster processors, bigger hard drives, likely the new optical link technology recently introduced by Intel, but they're not likely to look much different than they have for several years now.

Practically everyone is expecting some sort of tablet from Apple, and I think they're right about that much. Moreover, I think the iFrame video format that recently made a blip in the news offers a clue about one particular detail, the screen resolution. iFrame is a 16:9, 960 by 540 format, but it's a sure bet that an Apple tablet won't be 16:9, even though they just moved to that aspect ratio for their iMacs. What iFrame supplies is a minimum long dimension (width in landscape mode), but the shorter dimension is more likely to be at least 640 (for a 3:2 aspect ratio, just like the iPhone), with 100 vertical pixels left over after letterboxing HD video, just enough to provide a menu bar and controls at the bottom that don't cover part of the content, or a clips bar. iFrame is about video editing, so you're going to want more than just the raw video on the screen.

What else? Well, Apple TV hardware is getting so long in the tooth that it's beginning to resemble a saber-toothed tiger, so, unless they plan to let it wither, there really has to be a new version in the pipeline. 1080p30 is a given, as is a Mini DisplayPort in addition to most of the output options on the current model. Most likely it will also include a Core 2 Duo processor combined with NVIDIA's integrated graphics chipset, and I think you'll see the software opened up in much the same way as the iPhone has been via the App Store, with an operating system that's clearly a variant of OS X, sharing most of the same libraries.

I also think you'll see a high end AirPort designed to work with one or more of the 4G wireless networks now either in planning or being built out. Ideally, this would have a software-defined radio unit for connection to the provider's network, allowing a single hardware configuration to take advantage of whatever might be or become available through software updates, the antithesis of lock-in.

Time frame? Hard to say. The new AppleTV and AirPort might not arrive until next summer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Apple's uber-affordable workgroup server

Starting today, $999 gets you a Mac mini with quite respectable specs, preloaded with Mac OS X 10.6 Server (unlimited license). While this combination is potent enough for far more strenuous use, it practically screams workgroup, since it's easily affordable enough to allow sprinkling them around a company, and compact enough to fit into a drawer, if need be.

Mac OS X 10.6 Server combines the power and security of UNIX with the ease of use of a Macintosh, and comes with a set of collaboration tools to help people communicate and help organizations learn.

This is an amazing deal! (And you thought Macs were expensive...)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mossberg in perspective

At the bottom of this Apple 2.0 article you'll find the following tidbit from an earlier Mossberg review...

"After months of testing Vista on multiple computers, new and old, I believe it is the best version of Windows that Microsoft has produced." — Wall Street Journal, Jan. 18, 2007

...juxtaposed with this...

"After using pre-release versions of Windows 7 for nine months, and intensively testing the final version for the past month on many different machines, I believe it is the best version of Windows Microsoft has produced." — Wall Street Journal, Oct. 8, 2009

If Microsoft manages its glidepath very well, it just might succeed in replacing XP with Windows 7 as the de facto standard version.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

PC: "I'm a PC." . . . Mac: "You might want to get that fixed."

Windows Mobile 6.5 is fast following in the footsteps of Vista, the deal-killer.

Windows 7 for the desktop may fare better, but it's unlikely to pull Microsoft's nose above the horizon for more than a single quarter, if that. (Merry Christmas, MS, but beware the chill that follows.)

These days, the reasons for sticking with Windows look more like excuses, thin and flimsy, and the reasons for not doing so are already powerful, on their way to becoming irrefutable.

This situation isn't going to turn around, ever; it's only going to become more so. That's because Microsoft is too much like GM, and Chrysler before it, too set in its ways and lacking in imagination, too accustomed to easy money and market clout and too unaccustomed to real competition based on value. By the time Microsoft gets a grip, its market share will have dwindled to less than 20%, perhaps even single digits.

Think that can't happen? Consider what an agreement between HP and Dell to push Linux would do to shift the market. What if you had to pay $50 extra to have Windows installed on a new machine in place of Linux, would you do it? How about another $150 to get Microsoft Office in place of Star Office or, or any of a dozen other alternatives, would you ante up?

Sure, some people aren't put off by the need to put out extra money for first-rate software, but most of them are already using Macs.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

okay, Ballmer isn't exactly a doofus, he's just drawn that way

Take the time to watch TechCrunch's recent interview with Steve Ballmer and you'll discover that he's actually possessed of a fair amount of intelligence, in sharp contrast with the derisive caricature he's created for himself through a string of reckless, ill-informed comments. Still, one reasonably candid, semi-articulate interview does not a rehabilitation make. Ballmer has shown himself all too ready to resort to ostrich argument to make Microsoft's dominance of the PC industry appear more unassailable and make its prospects in other businesses appear brighter than they really are.

As well he should, I suppose, as CEO of an important company, the value of which is largely a function of its ability maintain near-monopoly market share in the PC operating system and office suite markets. Anything less than self-assurance beyond reason on his part could translate to billions of dollars worth of market capitalization shrinkage, leading to a roomful of angry investors demanding his head on a pike at the next shareholder's meeting. You might think of it as his own reality distortion field, a notably stronger one than that generated by his predecessor, who more than makes up in the odd combination of happy-go-lucky attitude and killer instinct for what he may lack in charisma.

In the end, of course, the antics of its leadership matters far less than Microsoft's ability to execute, which remains in serious doubt following years of half-baked initiatives. If the new projects Ballmer mentions in the interview don't prove more substantial, the company is in real trouble.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Microsoft poaching Apple Store employees

9 to 5 Mac (and, I've little doubt, just about every other Mac-centric website), is reporting an effort by Microsoft to hire Apple Store employees.

My take? So what's the problem? If they succeed it will just serve to improve the quality of service at both company's stores.

Please tell me I don't need to parse that for you.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

a history of heartaches

On page two of a three-page AppleInsider article, that spends the first two on a history of HTML and the web, leading up to a discussion of HTML 5 on the third, there is a chart which traces the development of both web standards and browsers over the period from 1990 to the present. For anyone with more than casual involvement with any part of that process, that's a chart that should be drawn in blood, sweat, and tears.

My own involvement was mainly investing the effort to learn HTML, XHTML, CSS, a good chunk of JavaScript, and the basics of the DOM, before deciding that the powers that be for the web had better get their act together before asking poor chumps like myself to jump through any more hoops. (I also needed to be able to generate real-time, synthesized sound in response to user input for the project I was working on.)

As it turned out, most of what I went to the trouble to learn has continued to be relevant, so if I ever regain interest in writing more than the most basic sort of web page, I'll have a jumpstart. I was lucky in that respect.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

beautifully succinct comment

MacDailyNews is a frequent source of quotable comments, but the one they posted here is a gem...

"Life's short. Get a Mac."

Monday, September 07, 2009

Japanese government mandates Japanese CPU, world benefits

Hardmac (Macbidouille) reports that the government of Japan has decided to pool the (relevant) resources of "the majority of its electronic industrialists" to produce a Japanese cpu by 2012.

This peculiarly Japanese development, something that certainly couldn't happen in this country and probably couldn't even happen in China, is most apt to succeed in the same market segment where the TRON RTOS project has succeeded, i.e. in small portable devices and embedded systems.

No doubt the project will be informed by the ecosystem which has grown up around the ARM architecture, widely regarded as the current performance per watt champ. Several Japanese corporations already participate in that ecosystem, and they should be bringing that experience to the project. The project might even choose to concentrate on advancing ARM, which would be game changing, but even if not it's likely that any significant new developments will find their way back to ARM, as those corporations apply what they learn to what they're already doing.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

someone please call a dog catcher

Dave Caolo of TUAW nails it with a piece comparing Psystar to a noisy dog.

To the extent that they have one, Psystar's one point, on which everything about the company turns like an elephant balancing on a pivot platform, is that Mac OS X constitutes the centerpiece of a separate market, one distinguished from the mainstream PC market not only by the incompatibility of software written for one with the other but by a difference in quality that allows Apple to ask (and get) a premium for their computers, and (here's the clincher) that Apple has a monopoly on that market.

Let that sink in for a moment. What they're saying is that Mac OS X is so much better than Windows that you can't really even compare the two, that Windows is like a child's toy in comparison to the craftsman's tool of Mac OS X.

As much as indulging that thought is very gratifying to a Mac-head like myself, the reality is that Windows isn't that bad. Aside from efficiency issues and interface refinements, the biggest difference between Mac OS X and Windows is their differing approaches to application support. Windows basically gets out of the way, leaving the developer with both a lack of constraints and the responsibility for supplying their own plumbing. By contrast, Mac OS X features a carefully constructed framework that developers can tie into in various ways, both imposing some limits and vastly reducing the amount of code they need to write. Some Windows software is quite good, in a very few cases better than anything available for Macs, although the list of examples is dwindling as nearly every major application now has a Mac version. In the long run, Apple's approach is certain to prove the better of the two, but for right now you can still make a case that Windows is ahead. Apple basically admitted this to be the case when they chose to include Boot Camp with Leopard, and now with Snow Leopard, allowing you to run Windows on a Mac, and that point is driven home by the number of copies of both Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion in circulation, as well as the interest in developing a cross-platform environment alloying software written for Windows to run on other operating systems without a copy of Windows being installed.

Moreover, for better or worse, Microsoft has managed to establish certain standards that Apple must conform to if they hope to compete in certain markets, Microsoft Exchange for example.

So, yes, Mac OS X is better, in most respects, but the idea that this is enough to so distinguish it from Windows as to constitute a separate market over which Apple enjoys a monopoly, such that laws prohibiting monopolies should be invoked, is pure fantasy. Maybe in five or ten years that argument will begin to hold water, but for now it leaks like a sieve, and Psystar deserves to be slapped down hard.

Friday, August 28, 2009

the cruft predator

With Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6) on the prowl, no cruft is safe.

At this moment, the time is 11:38 AM Mountain Time. Just over two hours ago I picked up a copy of Apple's new Snow Leopard version of Mac OS X. Since then I've relocated to a usual haunt, sipped down a great latte, and installed Snow Leopard and the new Xcode, as well as updating all of my 3rd party applications for which a new version was available. All without a single glitch.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Apple's quiet toleration option

In a Stop the Noiz column, Low End Mac's Frank Fox discusses the potential for widespread installation of Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard on generic ("white box") PCs. In his conclusion, he has this to say...
If people do speak with their wallet and send Apple a strong message, then Apple would be forced to move forward or close down access more. If people steal their copy of Mac OS X to install it for free, then Microsoft is right, and Apple will have to lock down its OS for protection.
I have to disagree. Apple has the option to vigorously pursue those, like Psystar, who flagrantly violate Apple's right to exclusively market its own intellectual property in its own way, and yet quietly tolerate the many end users who go to the trouble of installing OS X on their own, non-Mac hardware for their own use. The latter are hobbyists who aren't likely to ever represent more than a tiny fraction of the overall market, whereas the former threaten to erode Apple's market share and profitability. Note that I would include with Psystar those who make the process of installing Mac OS X on generic hardware as simple as plugging in a USB dongle. Apple could certainly pursue legal action against them without also going after those who've already purchased such dongles.

Those who argue that Apple's interests are covered if the copy of Mac OS X they install on generic PC hardware was legitimately purchased are missing a very important point, which is that the copies of Mac OS X Apple distributes independently of its computers are all upgrades, and priced as such. Mac OS X is included with and represents a significant part of the value of every new Mac. If Apple were to sell Mac OS X for installation on hardware other than what they themselves have designed, built, and sold, they might have to charge $300-$500 per copy. If they could actually get, say, $375 from every new Mac OS X installation on generic hardware, they might be tempted to release it this way, but if they were to release Mac OS X in a form that's straightforward to install on generic hardware it's more likely they would get paid for only about one installation in ten, maybe not even that.

Apple might, at some point, decide to license an OEM version of Mac OS X, carefully, to a limited number of competing manufacturers, but even in that event they'll need more for each installation than they charge for upgrades, say $200-$300 per copy, in part to keep the playing field level for their own hardware, sales of which subsidize the development of the operating system and associated software.

If people really want to vote with their wallets, they should acknowledge the added value represented by Mac OS X and buy a real Mac.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is a Windows netbook a stepping stone to a Mac?

Much has been made of the market share recently scooped up by netbooks, most of which run Windows Vista, but market share can be a deceiving metric. Treating all sales as being equal is how we come by the claim that Apple has a 25% share of the U.S. music market, despite that the transactions it conducts are mainly one song at a time, whereas Apple's competitors mainly sell albums, at 10X to 20X the revenue per transaction.

However, there is one sense in which "a sale is a sale" applies, which is that each netbook sale represents one person paired with one machine, accumulating experience (and perhaps frustration) with the capabilities and limitations of the hardware and the software platform running upon it, neither of which works to the advantage of the other. Aside from being eminently transportable, netbooks are underpowered for a system like Vista, which really wants several times the power of a netbook. For their part, they don't get the opportunity to shine like they might running a more efficient system. The user experiences their netbook constrained by the performance it can manage while supporting Windows, and they experience Windows constrained by the limited hardware.

Also, because netbooks are so inexpensive, the user doesn't have a lot of money tied up in the decision to buy one, so cutting their loses may seem like more of an option than it would had they spent a couple of thousand dollars on a notebook.

The bottom line is that this is a situation likely to produce a new wave of Mac converts, when the users of all those netbooks decide that they've gotten their money's worth out of them, or that they can't afford to keep using a machine that so impedes their own productivity. Having experienced first hand what you get for rock bottom prices, they'll be ready to pay a little more for something better, and many of those who walk through the door of an Apple store to see what Macs are all about will be hooked.

One thing seems certain, the purchase of a Windows netbook isn't likely to produce the same sort of customer loyalty that the purchase of a MacBook does, and netbook vendors shouldn't count on repeat sales.

Ballmer blusters erroneously

John Gruber of Daring Fireball provides us with a link to this flash from the past, wherein Steve Ballmer proclaimed that there was "no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance."

"Should I have your shuttle ready?" (Aide to Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9

This movie is worth the time, effort, and expense of seeing it, once anyway. I've seen it twice and just might go for a third viewing, while it's still in the theaters. If you need to know what you're getting into first, have a look at the Wikipedia entry.

I will say that the strength of this film has nothing to do with it being a realistic portrayal of what an alien encounter would be like. The aliens, with two exceptions, seem incapable of creating the sort of technology necessary for space flight, or even of operating the space craft on which they arrive; they're quarrelsome and their appetite seems insatiable. You might even decide it's likely they ate most of the officers on the ship in a sort of hunger-driven mutiny.

But if the aliens are implausible, the story which plays out in the context created by their arrival is a gem, beginning with the choice of South Africa as a location, and the choice of an Afrikaner as the lead character who is exposed to a fluid of alien manufacture, with the result that he begins to transform into an alien. It's a vehicle rife with possibilities.

With any luck, there'll be a sequel, in about three years. (By the way, if the producers need ideas for that sequel, I have some...)

Monday, August 10, 2009

on the topic of extraterrestrial visitors

The movie District 9 is due to be released this coming weekend. Maybe I'll have something more to say about that after I've seen it, but for now I just want to talk about why we wouldn't necessarily know if Earth were hosting visitors from elsewhere. I'm not going to bother arguing that such visitations are actually happening, only that our lack of certainty that they are doesn't constitute evidence that they aren't.

Sure, if some incautious aliens were to park a large ship a couple thousand feet above one of our cities, we'd know about that. But a saucer-shaped craft, with curved upper and lower surfaces that met along a fine edge, would be naturally stealthy, even if it weren't coated with radar absorbing material. Park one of those at 80,000 feet or higher, and about all you'd have to worry about would be rockets headed for space, stratospheric balloons, whatever has replaced the SR-71, and the possibility of coming directly between a spy satellite and something on the ground it was imaging. So long as the craft wasn't particularly large or glowing brightly enough to stand out against the sky, the chances of being noticed from the ground would be pretty slim.

There's plenty of places to hide: deserts (under sand), glaciers and polar ice caps (under snow), rain forests (under the canopy), lakes and oceans (under water), rugged terrain (in valleys and canyons), and even cities (amid abandoned industrial facilities and warehouses). Given the abilities to hover without disturbing the surrounding air, detect approaching aircraft, and maneuver to avoid being hit by them, a craft might simply slip into a large cloud and hang out inside it. Unless it were to show up on radar, we'd have no way of knowing it was there.

Really, the only way to be certain that no such extraterrestrial visitations are happening is to assume inflexibly that they couldn't be, either because Earth is alone in having produced (intelligent) life or because the distances between stars are so great that travel between them is effectively impossible. If you admit that we might not be alone in the universe, and that even if faster-than-light travel is unachievable it might still be possible to make one-way journeys of a few light years at a time, spanning several generations, then you'll find it more difficult to simply discount the possibility that beings from elsewhere are flitting about.

Personally, I'm fond of the idea that there might be a benign, wildly diverse, pan-species galactic civilization, to which we have yet to be admitted because we still fight among ourselves, although my recalcitrant, pessimistic streak continues to insist that its more likely any galactic civilization would be an empire, sustained by threat of force, to which we are simply insignificant. Either way, with the exception of the occasional warship, any visitors would probably be here because they find us fascinating, or else because they're attempting to avoid the notice of the empire.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

prediction reconsidered

One thing about the Apple tablet device(s) prediction I've already laid out doesn't ring true, that they (I'm predicting two) will run significantly different OSes, one a largely unmodified iPhone OS and the other a largely unmodified Mac OS X. If that turned out to be true, it would be a case of Apple missing an opportunity to do something unexpectedly better, which would be to incorporate everything that's unique about the iPhone OS into Snow Leopard, so devices running it were equally usable with a touch interface or with mouse and keyboard, and use that on the tablets capable of running apps written for either in a single OS environment.

One of the primary complications in doing this would be to make the responder chain not only pass both types of events, but work equally well with Mac OS X windows and iPhone OS windows, which are significantly different, with appropriate mapping of touch events to methods expecting key/mouse events and vice versa. (It occurs to me that the difference between Mac OS X windows and iPhone OS windows could be quite useful as if provides an easy way of checking whether interface translation is needed; simply test for the class of the window.)

This wouldn't mean the end of a distinct iPhone OS, since the resource limitations of smaller devices are still such that it makes sense to maintain a separate system for them, but it might mean that, even if it didn't come with the circuitry, you could connect a cellular radio dongle to your tablet (or MacBook) and use it as an iPhone.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

carefully stated caveat

In one of yesteday's postings, I said the following...
This device would be quite at home displaying a movie streamed from a Mac or Apple TV, or equally so accompanying a doctor through hospital rounds, but it would be the smaller one that went into your pack when you were setting off for a camping trip.

A few hours later it occurred to me that it's unlikely Apple would accept the liability of even implying, in their own product descriptions, that any tablet they might produce belonged in the hands of a doctor making hospital rounds, for much the same reason that doctors typically carry hefty malpractice insurance. They might even go so far as to prohibit professional medical apps from the App Store and void the warranties of units put to such use.

Apple is no stranger to the litigious nature of our society, but the medical profession is an extreme case, with through-the-roof stakes. Hopefully we'll soon see some improvement in this state of affairs. Until then, hospitals and corporations that operate them should be prepared to develop their own apps and take full responsibility for them and for the hardware, if they want to make any Apple tablet device available to staff for any patient-related purpose.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

iPad, a "replacement for - or a compelling complement to -" AppleTV

I vote for compelling complement.

Engadget joins the fray describing a 10" 'iPad' in a home theater context.

What they seem not to have fully assimilated is that cables don't mix well with tablet computers, suggesting that "HDMI or DisplayPort would be a natural for such a device" and that Apple might want to incorporate a television tuner and inputs into it.

A Mini DisplayPort would be a fine addition to the AppleTV, whenever they get around to releasing significantly upgraded hardware, but that's exactly the sort of thing you wouldn't want to saddle a tablet with. Likewise with a coaxial RF-in port and tuner; put them on the AppleTV, not the tablet!

revisiting an intriguing notion, and going even further out on a limb

Last week Dan Knight, of Low End Mac, speculated that an Apple tablet device with a 10" touchscreen would have an Intel CPU running Mac OS X, with iPhone OS also supported via what he terms virtualization. (Note that there has been an iPhone emulator built into Xcode ever since the iPhone SDK was released, so what he suggests is entirely plausible.)

If there are to be two different Apple tablet devices, it might be that one (most likely the smaller) will contain an ARM CPU running iPhone OS and the other an Intel CPU running Mac OS X, or something closer to it (including both AppKit and UIKit), perhaps with an emulation environment for running iPhone OS apps.

Incorporating this into what I've already predicted, we have two distinct devices (not two versions of the same device):

1) one with a 7-inch touchscreen, running iPhone OS on an ARM CPU, including a software-defined radio unit for long-range data connectivity, and enough battery capacity to support at least three hours operation with that power-hungry datalink continuously active, and

2) one with a 10-inch touchscreen, running Mac OS X on an Intel CPU, with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but no long-range radio circuitry.

These would be aimed at very different use patterns. The former would be a mobile platform and wireless network node, perhaps also providing connectivity to a laptop computer, whereas the latter would be for use in the home and other environments where it was never far away from a power outlet or a Wi-Fi signal.

It would be the larger unit, with the Intel CPU, that might run both Mac and iPhone applications. This device would be quite at home displaying a movie streamed from a Mac or Apple TV, or equally so accompanying a doctor through hospital rounds, but it would be the smaller one that went into your pack when you were setting off for a camping trip.

I'd expect the smaller device to default to portrait orientation, and the larger one to landscape.

I'd also expect the larger device to be released first, since the 4G networks that would make the smaller one so interesting are only now being built out, or are still in planning, and since the larger one is a better fit to a tie-in with music industry efforts to reinvigorate the multitrack album format, as well as a better tie-in with the release of Snow Leopard.

So, what we might see is a larger, Mac OS X device released as soon as September, and a smaller, iPhone OS device sometime next year.

Apple has an abundance of experience with processor emulation and code translation (MC68000 on PPC and then PPC and ARM/Thumb on Intel), with virtual environments (Classic, Rosetta, and an in-house JVM on Mac OS X and the iPhone simulator in Xcode), and with hardware abstraction (the Acceleration Framework, OpenCL, and Grand Central Dispatch), as well as with touch interfaces (iPhone and iPod touch), so there's no reason to think either device described here would present an insurmountable challenge to them.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

the continuing saga of the Apple tablet device

Today AppleInsider picked up a report from Kaufman Bros. that, over the last two years, Apple has purchased digital displays in 4 inch, 7 inch, 9 inch, 10 inch, and 12 inch sizes, and that some of these purchases were for a number of units appropriate to a small production run. While AppleInsider's report doesn't state outright that these were touchscreens, that is implied from the context.

In a separate development, Ars Technica reports finding yet another reference to an as yet unreleased iPhone OS device in the USBConfiguration.plist file distributed with an iPhone OS 3.1 beta release. That news shouldn't be public, but it is.

Meanwhile, Stefan Constantinescu contends that the Apple tablet device is a pipedream, one that will never come true. While his conclusion is looking like a long shot, he includes an interesting timeline of how the rumor of such a device has developed.

Given the various screen sizes that Apple has experimented with, I'm going to go a little further out on a limb and predict that the 2 versions of the Apple tablet device I've already predicted will be two different sizes, 7 inch and 10 inch, with the SMALLER of the two including the software-defined radio unit and being the more expensive (except as its purchase may be subsidized by one or more data service providers), as well as thicker than and approximately the same weight as the device with the larger screen.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Apple's much-rumored tablet device

While the rumor mill is abuzz with the prospect of an Apple tablet device, the anticipated details vary considerably.

Dan Knight of Low End Mac argues that the processor is likely to be the same type found in the MacBook Air, and that the device could be able to run either iPhone OS or the full-blown Mac OS X, possibly simultaneously. Others assume that the processor will be some variation on the ARM architecture, and that the operating system will be essentially the same as that found on the iPod Touch, the iPhone OS without the telephony components.

AppleInsider initially reported that we shouldn't expect to see this device released until early 2010, but then followed a few days later with the news that it might arrive as soon as September. (Apple's fiscal 1Q-2010 begins in October, '09.)

Financial Times broke the story that there is a tie-in between Apple's tablet and an effort to bring back the multitrack album, which has been losing ground to single song sales. PC Magazine chimed in in support of the FT story, adding some details of their own.

Jason Schwarz of Seeking Alpha emphasized how the new tablet will get a big boost from apps already written for the iPhone and iPod touch, and that it will be an even better platform for such apps. He also suggests that there's a tie-in between the tablet and a high-speed data offering from Verizon, but claims that there will be no carrier exclusivity.

Others hoping to climb on board the bandwagon include book publishers, who see such a device as potentially presenting a better opportunity for them than does Amazon's Kindle.

Meanwhile, Mac Night Owl asks whether an Apple tablet device would be "a product in search of a purpose", and PC World has already pronounced it "a train wreck".

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that it will come in two versions, a less expensive version with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but no long-range datalink, and a more expensive version with a software-defined radio unit capable of working with a variety of data services.

Boom! ;-)

Saturday, August 01, 2009

what's wrong with Microsoft's business plan

Microsoft's consumer PC OS market has been reduced to those for whom price is a primary factor in choosing between one product and another. A little reading between the lines would suggest that the same is also happening to their business market. People (business buyers included) who are more interested in productivity than per unit price are increasingly turning to Apple instead of any of the brands running Windows. Hardware quality certainly contributes to this, but the main difference between a Mac and a Windows machine is the operating system, and that's where the difference in quality is most stark. Since releasing XP, Microsoft has given every indication of being clueless as to how to proceed from there, whereas Mac OS X has seen significant improvement with each major update. Windows 7, due in October, will fix many of Vista's faults, but it is fundamentally the same architecture as XP (plus Vista's compositing engine), better implemented than Vista but otherwise much the same, rather like Mac OS 10.1 which was widely perceived as an apology for 10.0. (10.0, by the way, already had a compositing engine.)

Microsoft plans to make use of the window of opportunity surrounding the release of Windows 7 to pry the prices of the least expensive Windows machines upward. Certainly they'd like to have more for Windows 7 than they've been able to charge for Vista since its bubble burst, but they must also recognize that their hardware partners are in danger of going out of business, or at least of getting out of the PC business, if they aren't able to show some profit on their investments. So far so good, a little more margin will make all involved (except the consumer and price-conscious business buyer) more comfortable, but it will also further narrow the price advantage of Windows machines over Macs, and widen the price advantage of Linux-based computers.

So how much is a better Vista worth? How much can prices go up, on the merits of Windows 7, before the effect is to accelerate the rate of defections, to Apple at the high end and to Linux at the low end? 10%? 20%? Hard to say, but it's certain that they can't take a very large bite out of that $500 per unit premium Steve Ballmer claims Apple is charging before running into a wall. People will say to themselves "if I'm going to pay the price of a Mac, I might as well get a Mac!"

And, given that Windows 7 will be facing off with Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard), which is a bigger improvement over 10.5 than Windows 7 is over Vista, the vast majority of those who really give it a try will become loyal Mac users, with no thought of ever going back. Microsoft had best be careful not to do anything to interfere with the installation of Windows on Macs or (even more so) with the usability of the Mac version of Office as compared with the PC version, or they may end up losing the majority of their future revenue.

Unless they find a way to get more improvement for their development dollar, the unprofitability of further Windows development I've previously predicted will sooner or later come to pass, at which point Windows will become a static standard, updated only for compatibility with new hardware, if that. Microsoft may eventually be forced to release the source code to keep the platform viable as a foundation for their PC version of Office.

Friday, July 31, 2009

the other Steve: incompletely delusional

It's hard to know whether to compare Steve Ballmer with P. T. Barnum or with the alcoholic persona brought to life by W. C. Fields. John Gruber of Daring Fireball compares him with Grand Moff Tarkin of the original Star Wars film (now episode IV).

In a much longer piece, yesterday, Gruber lays out a compelling argument that Microsoft has entered a phase of long-term decline, whereas Ballmer would have you believe that recent trends in the market are a drop in the bucket when compared with Microsoft's still undeniable dominance of the PC operating system market, as measured by unit sales (counting a netbook the same as a workstation). (Here's Rafe Colburn responding to Gruber.)

But put a roomful of Mac-using journalists and investors in front of him, and even he notices.

Friday, July 24, 2009

ordering feed for uncounted chickens

They say don't count your chickens before they hatch. They also say don't count on any rumors about new Apple products until you hear it from Steve Jobs (or Phil Schiller).

On the other hand, you sometimes have to take uncertainties into account in making plans for the future, rather than waiting for them to be resolved into news.

The rumored Apple tablet device is one such case. If the rumors are true, it's introduction will lead to tremendous change in the personal computer market.

It will enable applications for which the iPhone or iPod touch would be perfectly suited, if they just had a little more screen area, or if they had a few times the memory or faster processors. This by itself is huge.

It will get a jump start by running existing iPhone/iPod touch apps unmodified. This may be speculation, but it makes too much sense not to be part of the plan. Expect the resolution to be a simple multiple of that of the iPhone, like 640 X 960, or maybe 800 X 1200, maintaining the 2 X 3 aspect ratio.

As far as I'm concerned, the prospect of extremely fast cellular wireless internet connectivity is icing on the cake, but there are doubtless potential applications for which this is essential. Moreover, if tethering to your desktop is allowed, it will prove a huge selling point.

In fact, that issue of interoperability with other equipment remains a big question mark. Would an Apple tablet device work as a touch interface input device for your Mac? Would it work as a remote controller and/or handheld viewer for your Apple TV? Chances are the answer to both is "yes, with the appropriate application running."

If you're a (potential) iPhone software developer, you'll be wanting to keep the possibility of a larger device that works very much the same way as does an iPhone in the back of your mind, maybe even starting to accumulate the alternative resources you'd want to include if there were a possibility of your app running on a device with 4..9 (2^2 to 3^2) times the screen resolution, or making sure your app is resolution independent by using vector-based graphics.

To get back to the main point. The significance of the release of this device, if it happens, is too great to ignore just because it might not happen. If it happens (and it's looking like a good bet that it will) it will be HUGE!

(Here's Jason O'Grady's take on what an Apple tablet would need to be successful.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Google VP: the web has won

In an informal panel discussion before the MobileBeat 2009 conference, Google engineering vice president and developer evangelist, Vic Gundotra, said "that the web had won and users of mobile phones would get their information and entertainment from browsers in future." (Financial Times Tech Blog)

Saying "the browser [...] will become the platform that matters," Mr. Gundotra pointed out that browsers built around Webkit would have access to information provided by GPS and accelerometer hardware. Interestingly, both Google's own Android and Palm both make use of Webkit in their respective browsers.

His main point is about the expense of supporting several different operating system platforms, versus the expense of providing a single, cross-platform web application. And, wherever that argument applies, he's certainly right.

My point is that this argument isn't as universally applicable as it might seem.

For example, processor intensive games, commonly done in OpenGL, aren't going to be delivered as web applications anytime soon, because their performance would suffer too much as compared with the same games delivered as native applications. Even if the more important mobile device operating systems all provided both OpenGL and some means of making direct use of it from within their web environments, the chances that the exact same code would run properly on any two is vanishingly small. In any case, game developers have been shifting away from direct coding and towards the use of cross-platform development environments, that provide the tools and performance they need while taking the pain out of supporting multiple platforms. While it wouldn't be what Gundotra is talking about, a hybrid system you might see would couple a native game engine app from the provider of such a development system with web apps that run within the environment it creates. Combined with a web-based framework, like SproutCore, that approach could be very powerful. (Bingo!) Game developers will support as many platforms as makes sense in the market, variations on the web included.

Performance is only one reason for preferring native applications to web applications. There's also the matter of general functionality. I personally lost most of my interest in developing for the web when I discovered there was no standard means of generating synthesized sound in real time, and while workarounds might exist they were both platform and browser specific. I decided I was better off to pick a platform and develop for it instead of for the web. So far as I'm aware, that situation has not yet been remedied in HTML5.

There are good reasons why native applications will continue to have more functionality available than do cross-platform web apps, for some time to come. First, at least in Apple's approach, vending all native applications through its iTunes Store, problem apps are quickly identified and those that remain on the system for more than a few days can be considered trustworthy, far more trustworthy than a web app from some random source. Hence the walls of the sandbox around web apps must necessarily be higher than those that surround native apps.

Almost as significantly, cross-platform web applications depend upon web standards, which require agreement among vendors, which takes time. Any new development will nearly always appear in one or more native app toolsets (long) before it appears as a web capability enjoying widespread support. Consider that the animation capabilities included in HTML5 were first introduced to the market with the advent of the Amiga computer, in 1985, ten years before the web went mainstream.

Then there's the advantage of working with tools you already know. Apple has attracted 100,000 people, with widely varying degrees of programming experience, to their iPhone platform. That's very likely many millions of person-hours spent studying documentation, learning how OS X works, an investment many won't be eager to walk away from to take up HTML5 instead. For more than a few it won't matter at all that their apps only run on iPhone OS devices, and not on everything out there.

And let's not forget that the cost of getting into the web app business includes either running your own continuously connected server or renting space and bandwidth on someone else's, whereas an independent developer working from a coffee shop can get an app published on the iTunes Store, and Apple handles all of the nitty gritty details, for a mere 30% commission.

Nevertheless, there will be situations where web apps make more sense, and it's good to see the standard finally moving forward.

Monday, June 29, 2009

an open letter to M. Ahmadinejad

How will it go for you, Mahmoud, when the tables are finally turned, when the mud falls from the eyes of those who currently wonder what all the ruckus is about and they find common cause with the protestors?

Will you be hung, like Saddam? Will you spend the rest of your life behind bars? Will men spit as they say your name?

Where will you hide?

If you believe there is justice in Islam, then understand it will come back upon you, for you have disgraced it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

digging in for a long-term struggle

While there might still be a slim chance for a resolution that would allow Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to save face, and a somewhat greater chance of him being turned out by the Assembly (Council) of Experts, at this point the most likely outcome of the current crisis in Iran appears to be a protracted, mainly clandestine struggle against a government that has squandered its last shred of legitimacy.

It's time for contingency plans for setting up refugee camps to be dusted off, and time to alert the ex-pat Iranian community to be ready to take in those who choose to flee, to keep the number who remain vulnerable along the borders small.

It's time for those within the country to start thinking about damage containment and organizing themselves for a long-term struggle, including such details as what they might use as detention centers for the Basij, when the time comes for that. More immediately, capturing small groups, subjecting them to criticism, and leaving them handcuffed, using the same sort of plastic straps that are commonly used in construction, strikes me as a useful tactic, to get across to the Basij that some people think they are the bad guys, deserving of punishment.

It's time for outsiders, such as ourselves, to shelve plans for destabilization and redirect our efforts to exercising a bit of control over the manner in which the Iranian government crumbles, as much as possible mitigating collateral damage.

an American President with gravitas, how inconvenient

Inconvenient, that is, for the likes of Iran's Ahmadinejad, whose abrasive manner now comes off as mere impertinence by comparison, despite the thousands of thugs ready to do his bidding. That this pathetic shell of a man, whose thugs have heaped abuse upon truehearted Iranians for protesting obviously, indefensibly fraudulent election results, should criticize Obama for expressing outrage beggars belief. Snakes have more integrity!

Friday, June 19, 2009

contextual succession shock

After the discussion with P.W. Singer, I set to work on a much delayed programming project, with some progress to show for it at this point, but not without a week or so of fairly serious disorientation, as I basically forced myself to switch modes.

Frankly, while programming is something that comes pretty easy for me, the tuning out of most else doesn't, and I have to take frequent breaks from that, so progress comes in fits and starts, as I'm able to concentrate on the task at hand.

I gather there's something quite interesting and both hopeful and disturbing happening in Iran, but I really don't understand it, how it sorts out into sides with differing agendas. Nevertheless, I hope for a peaceful resolution that at least a majority of Iranians would term just, and that the rest can live with until the next election.

Peace be with you, all of my misguided brethren; the sun will rise again tomorrow, whether we can see it or not.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

decompressing following discussion with P.W. Singer

Meeting someone, even virtually, who is not only very bright and expert in their field, but passionate about it, can be exhausting. P.W. Singer is all of that and remarkably wise as well. While his most recent book is about the application of robotics to warfare, it is the third book in which he has examined who (or what) is doing the fighting, with previous works focusing on corporate warriors (mercenaries) and child soldiers.

If you haven't already, I'd recommend having a look at the video of his presentation at a recent TED conference.

As he makes clear, every image of a machine in that video depicts something either already in use or in serious development, in the hope of selling production units to the military. At least with respect to military use, the robotic genie is already out of the bottle, and the arguments in favor of deploying machines that are both lethal and autonomous will probably prove insurmountable.

Knowing what I do about robotics, and about the pressures to reduce the risks faced by American military personnel, this was probably inevitable. Robots are a shoo-in for any task which is dull, dirty, or dangerous, and it shouldn't be any great surprise if they first come into their own in applications which are frequently all three. But given the ability to build machines which can be trusted with life-and-death decisions, many things become possible.

To paraphrase Stewart Brand, we have begun to intrude on territory formerly reserved to the gods, and had damn well better get good at it sooner rather than later.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

another perspective on military robotics

The Inkwell discussion mentioned below is now underway.

See Inkwell.vue topic #352 on The WELL.


I just finished reading P.W. Singer's "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century", in preparation for his appearance in The WELL's Inkwell conference.

As far as military robotics goes, I guess I come down on the side of wanting to ban the combination of autonomy and lethal weaponry. If you want to mount nonlethal weapons on an autonomous drone, I'd say that's a step up from lethal weapons on one that's remotely piloted, and I have no more problem with it than I have with war in general.

Really though, I'm standing off to the side suppressing a scream, because I see the gathering storm of military robotics as a huge distraction from more mundane, constructive applications, even though there may be some eventual technological benefit to those other applications, and even though I can't state with confidence that any other application is actually being delayed because of it.

The application I've discussed elsewhere, at length, is the use of robotics to replace energy intensive traction-based agricultural practices with practices modeled on those of (attention intensive) horticulture, using robotic sensors, processors, and effectors to deal with seeds, plants, and small patches of ground on an individual basis, much as a gardener would, but on a sufficiently large scale to at least begin to displace the heavy, dumb equipment in current use.

Taking a moment to compose myself, I have to admit that the prospects for my pet project are somewhat improved by any real-world application of robotics, even a military one, but that only helps me suppress the scream.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

easy come, almost easy go

The web-viewable WELL conference to which I referred two posts back, is already history, for lack of participation, although its existence, combined with my initial choice of topics, stirred up something of a hornets nest.

The existence of the conference was problematic because it was the first of its type, a web-viewable conference not linked from the WELL's homepage and, within very broad limits, entirely the responsibility of the host (me), and more importantly because it was opened without prior notice to the WELL's membership, and appeared to be a special privilege that management had extended to me and me alone.

The topic list was problematic because I chose to address a subject that isn't normally discussed in polite company, and generally only discussed derisively in impolite company - autoeroticism (masturbation) - intending to treat it as a respectable, altogether normal aspect of private human behavior. Not only was that topic (#4) quickly derailed by a very creative lampoon, but I discovered to my chagrin that many of my fellow WELL members weren't comfortable with any such discussion happening in full view of the world at large, on track or not, never mind that there might be far racier material tucked away in other conferences and on members' web pages.

The conference's URL now redirects to the "Lost on The WELL?" page, which seems appropriate, and I find myself hardly caring that it didn't work out.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Intel invests in America

Understand that I'm not particularly a fan of Intel, so it's quite an occasion when I'm moved to congratulate them for anything. True, I pay attention to what's coming from them, and anticipate using faster machines in the future, made possible by their advances, but I'm a Mac guy, and I don't run Windows on my own machine, so I'd be just as happy if the processor within it came from someone else, so long as the performance/price was comparable.

What's moving me to take off my hat to them is their decision to invest $7 billion to upgrade facilities located in the United States. Sure, there are probably sound business reasons for doing so, but they might just as easily have chosen to move remaining domestic production outside the country, for a different set of sound business reasons. They didn't, and for this they deserve our thanks and a hearty slap on the back.

Actually, I have to say that Intel's been doing a lot of things right lately, although it rankles just a bit to admit it.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

tempest in a fishbowl

How it came to be would be difficult to accurately describe to anyone not familiar with the inner workings of The WELL, but I find myself the host of a new conference that's viewable by anyone, WELL member or not.

Aside form being world-readable, Plain.vue is rather generic, as WELL conferences go, taking its character from those who choose to participate and what and how they choose to post. As there's no shortage of wit on The WELL, Plain.vue could turn out to be very entertaining, but it remains to be seen how it will develop.

Do stop by!

(6/27/09) Note that this development turned out to be a flash in the pan, and that all of the above links which appear to point to it now lead to another post in this blog, dated 2/18/09 and titled easy come, almost easy go.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

blame me for digital broadcast TV

True, me being responsible for digital TV is really a huge stretch, monumental, tectonic. But, heh, I'm used to it; I can take it, so go ahead and blame me.

You see, back in the mid-to-late eighties, I spent some time hanging out on CompuServe, originally for the Atari forum, but gradually giving more attention to the Whole Earth forum, hosted by Tom Mandel of SRI. It was about the same time CompuServe decided to close down that forum that I joined The WELL for the first time.

Anyway, Tom popped off the question why computer monitors weren't up to the quality of television, and several of us shot back that it wasn't the hardware, which typically had higher specs than TVs, but the signals generated by computers, because they actually had to synthesize those signals instead of it all just being a recording or a live image. This was followed by a brief discussion of character based displays versus bit-mapping, as well as then emerging analog HD television technologies.

It was then, dismayed at the prospect of having to go through two or more such transitions, that I asked the fateful question, "When are we going to get digital broadcast?" I don't know for a fact that Tom ever passed along that question, but he was certainly well positioned to do so.

Here we are twenty-something years later and analog TV is about to be shut down, and the radio spectrum it used reallocated. I can't help but wonder whether I was the flapping butterfly that set this storm in motion. Nah, what's the chance of that?

Update: Congress has approved the delay of the switchover until June 12th.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

an open letter to President Obama

Dear Mr. President,

Congratulations on your victory and kudos for the manner in which you've conducted the transition.

Rather than ticking through a long list of issues on which we agree, allow me to focus in on an item of your agenda that in my humble opinion deserves even more emphasis than it has already received, retooling.

Not only do our factories need to be retooled to produce the wind machines and solar panels that will help us towards sustainability, but all elements of our infrastructure need close examination.

For instance, in urban core areas, it is not enough to resurface existing streets and highways and maintain mass transit in the face of state and local budget cuts, although these things are needed in the short term. For the longer term, however, a very different approach is needed, one which combines the complete exclusion of conventional private vehicles from the densest areas, with the provision of convenient, fast, comfortable, and affordable transit systems, of the sort described here, with sufficient capacity to handle even peak demand without congestion.

In suburban and rural areas there is an opportunity for vast improvement in the manner in which we manage land, at once dramatically reducing dependence on petroleum products and improving the sustainability of our agricultural production, through the applicaton of a combination of robotic hardware and expert system software, described in general terms here

Of these, the former is essentially ready for deployment, having already been the object of much engineering work, whereas for the latter that work remains to be done, and the only proactive decision available at the moment is to set about it, making funds available to underwrite joint projects involving ecologists, agronomists, horticulturalists, and agricultural, mechanical, electrical, and software engineers. This project is very likely one of those that only government can accomplish.

You've inspired us to believe that the previously undoable may now be doable. I hope I've managed to return the favor.