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.