A one-horsepower "blog and pony" show, commenting on events, discussions and futurism in the Apple world. Being too lazy to write real articles, we stoop as low as to produce brief insights - analysis, discussions, fast inwinations... eh, inspirations, etc
Anything that can be produced in the span of time between powering up a PowerBook and starting a "crown-jewel" barbecue party is within our reach - as long as it doesn't mean having to get up from the armchair...

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Returning quietly from the night

I decided at one point that most of what I had knowledge of had been told or hinted at here, and so I laid low for a while... for quite a while, as it turned out (look at my last entry below). A lot has happened since, and a good deal of the products and introductions I mentioned have by now come to be or - Apple being Apple, as any casual observer may verify - have been consigned to the Infinity Loop version of Area 51, there to remain in shadowland or be called forth Ogier the Dane-like at some later time of need...

But now it is time to activate this bloq again. I no longer have direct insights into upcoming Apple products or strategic decisions, and I do not have the all-consuming interest in such things that I used to have, for several reasons. Primarily, I have less need of the arrival of certain new categories of technology; secondarily, the already existing Apple (and Apple-related) products are by and large powerful and versatile enough to satisfy the demands made of my - and most other users' - life situation.

If this all sounds rather cloudy, I believe future entries will enlighten the reader over time as to what I more precisely have in mind. At any rate, I have decided to open the place up again, but on a more casual basis: rather than mainly discussing Apple, I will mainly be discussing the use of Apple products in daily life, partly for general amusement and inspiration, partly because I believe some of the frustrations and solutions I encounter may be of help to one or another.

Again - this sounds rather like the Mini Ture_MacJournal but hopefully will turn out to be a less confusing read, style-wise (having said that, I very much agree with many of the sentiments expressed in the aforementioned blog). At any rate, here goes... and please do respond to any points you feel worthy of such an action.

- Oh, and to mark the transition to the new focus of this blog, I have changed the typography to something that is less 'it' and more readable...

Thursday, November 21, 2002

To NightOwl: When OS9 is the better choice

It is one thing for the online Mac community - more precisely, the Mac-related web sites - to live their own, self-contained life; after all, that kind of virtual existence is what the Internet is all about. But it is quite another thing when the sites evolve into a meta-existence, ranting against each other and thus focusing on themselves and each other, rather than the use and future of Apple produced and -related devices. The purpose of Mac sites is to enrich the individual user by dispensing information of various sorts, relevant to the user experience (a few writers also manage to relate it to extra-IT related sides of existence too, but doing so in a balanced, relevant and profitable way takes a very special kind of talent).

These BloQs have attempted to use other sites as illustrations, inspirations and references only, drawing on the positive content and avoiding any kind of derogation. However (and you probably felt that coming), over time so many articles, comments and messages have been published on the net, deriding anyone that dares question the superiority of OSX or indeed suggest major flaws in the strategic decisions of Apple development, that it can be held back no longer.

The drop that shattered the camel's hump was a series of articles by Gene Steinberg on MacNightOwl, not least a recent one titled The Jaguar Report: Memo to Mac OS 9 Holdouts. Gene Steinberg has been as eagerly proselytizing for switching to OSX as if he was a fully paid MacVangelist - which is not the case - but this is not what raised my ire; he is in his full right to do so. However, the argumentation is so one-sided as to completely ignore any of the arguments that many well versed Apple users will find relevant, and at times this gives an almost patronizing ring to what he writes.

The former characteristic makes his article a useful starting point for a more balanced view on the choice between continuing to use OS9 for the present, or becoming a switch and adopting OSX: his position and argumentation is typical for the already mentioned adulation of everything new and/or everything blessed by Apple.

I spend half of my time in OSX, partly because the UI is so beautiful, and partly because I need to know in order to hold an informed opinion on how Apple development is progressing. This has made it more than clear to me that for a new, casual Mac owner, with new hardware and mostly basic computing/Internet needs, OSX is definitely the place to be, all its shortcomings untold (actually, they will be listed below, but I love that turn-of-phrase). It avoids the confusion of switching between two UI paradigms, the powerful hardware at least negates the slovenness of the coding choices, and it prepares the user for a future dominated by OSX.

However, for a number of user groups the choice is far less clearcut: professionals working independently or in small companies where they have to use a large number of software tools rather than specializing in a few, musicians, long time users, gamers, etc. They will need to look closely at the arguments for OSX and - equally importantly - against OS9. The number of longtime users switching to OSX is far larger than this number of totally new users; furthermore, the choice of staying or jumping is far less relevant to the new users: they bought a package including hardware and OSX, not primarily something that runs OS9. So, the longtermers are the more important ones, and that is where Gene Steinberg comes in.

He lists a number of valid reasons for them not to switch to OSX: they may possess slow hardware and old peripherals with no chance of suitable OSX drivers being released, they may be using specialized software that is unable to run in Classic, and they will definitely have to adjust to a new way of relating to the computer: "almost like having a new computer", is his precise wording.

These reasons are not addressed by Gene Steinberg, instead he stereotypes the whole group of users hesitant to switch as people "to some extent, intimidated by their systems". While I accept that there are some Mac users that are not interested in spending time working with the innards of MacOS, the reason for choosing a Mac for most of them is precisely the ease use - including the ease of learning how to change things. As for the majority of longtime users, they are definitely not "intimidated by their systems"; precisely the logical buildup of the system and the tolerance and ease of use (which are indeed the two basic ingredients of good user interfaces, viz. Jacob Nielsen) has enabled them to feel relaxed about enhancing, upgrading, tweaking their system until it is as much a personal statement as an optimized workspace.

OSX is far more tweakable than Apple has made it out to be - look through the System Utilities section of Versiontracker, and you will se an amazing number and range of programs, extensions, hacks, all of which makes the face of Finder and Aqua at least as morphable as Windows - in spite of its having been available for a far shorter period of time. Undoubtedly, this has to do with the group of seasoned *nix users that have become part of the Mac community and with the flexibility (in some ways) of the *nix system. On top of that, as I will discuss a little later this week, there is an outstanding and exciting range of utilities capable of enhancing the user efficiency in the OS. The problem, though, is that they make for a far less even user experience than in OS9. Interface enhancements nearly always introduce roughness in user handling, but it is more severe in OSX than in OS9, for several reasons: firstly, there is no basic user paradigm underlying OSX, the way there is in OS9; secondly, many of the enhancements in OSX are there to fill holes in the OS user handling instead of enhancing it, and that creates a lot of unevenness; thirdly, the coding is still not very mature compared to that of similar OS9 programs; fourthly, the lack of documentation from Apple makes a lot of "hacking" in the coding necessary (which gives potential instability every time an upgrade comes along); and fifthly, since many OSX enhancements are shareware (and you need at least a dozen to make the OS reasonably functional - who has the dough to pay for so many?), you have to live with annoying pop-up "encouragements", etc, making the use rather annoying.

Gene Steinberg offers two main reasons for switching to OSX: the ability of even untrained new users to perform basic tasks in it, and its extra stability. I don't know whether to take the first reason as a subtle (?) derogation of longtime users, or a paternal attempt at soothe any perceived angst, so I'll leave that on the screen for a moment, and then go on...

As far as the "stability gap is concerned" it is to some extent mythic. While X indisputably is more stable inherently, 9 offers a far more "stable" user experience. Now, my constellation of hardware and OS9 is exceptionally stable; there is little to choose between that and OSX. I have a number of Mac friends with similar experiences - OS9 instability is experienced by far fewer users than it is often made out. The stability of OSX, on the other hand, is often compromised by applications, the code bases of which are far less mature than those of their OS9 counterparts. On top of that, the Carbon API (and some of the other APIs too, for that matter) is still a work-in-progress and therefore buggy and open to future bugginess. This can be seen in not only the Office v. Mac showpiece, but even in Apple's own iApps: on a sidenote, had Lemke or BareBones presented software of that quality, then they would soon have had to close shop. At present, and probably a couple of years into the future, it's a toss-up stability-wise.

Preemptive multitasking is another buzzword often launched like a spear at potential switchers; however, it is less interesting than it affects to be. The argument for preemptive multitasking is that it hinders badly behaving programs from stealing all available cycles; however, the operative expression here is "badly behaving". Preemptive multitasking forces cycle sharing onto the running applications, and that means a slowdown relatively in a situation where one is primarily using one large program (say, XPress). If it is properly programmed, it nevertheless will release the processor at appropriate intervals while still being able to take as many cycles as is necessary, given that it is the main task for the user. Preemptive multitasking in most cases only works well when a number of equally important tasks run concurrently - asymmetric task loads are handled far less efficiently preemptively.

Am I advocating staying with OS9 forever? No. However, to sum it up: the latest version of Classical MacOS is far more capable than the 7.5.5 version that was available when the plans for OSX was first presented. The present UI (not the graphical elements) is far closer to Rhapsody than it was ever thought possible at that time, and that makes the choice between 9 and X far less obvious. The user experience is far better systematized - and thus far more efficient - in OS9 (the OSX UI is not based on, or supported by any UI research that I know of... The stability is less of an issue than mostly argued, as I have pointed out, and the preemptive multitasking is not a boon in all situations. The ease of use, on the other hand, is far more important for the user experience, and for those of us that are able to leave out the stability factor issue, the consistency of OS9 may outweigh the glamor of OSX.

What do you prefer? - to learn how to perform specific tasks, or to understand principles that enable you to perform mostly any task? I wish it was as simple as that, but it isn't - and it's far less simple than Gene Steinberg and other XOSists make it out to be.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

OSX - the real hardware mover and shaker

Software development is always substantially slower than hardware development these days, again because the level reached by now is "sufficiently good" (that is, tolerable for the customer rather than awe-inspiringly great). This is one area where Apple is substantially better than MS - the upgrades over the last three years (OS8/9 as well as OSX) are impressive, in frequency as well as in actual improvements - speed and stability, rather than just new features.

Of course, this has been imperative as a compensation for the lack of hardware improvement, but it has also been very expensive for Apple (s/w development takes more manpower than h/w, for the same increase in speed). Now that it will actually be possible for Apple to "throw power cycles at the software code" to gain speed and compensate for code bulging, they will do so.

Cutting down on further optimization will also push users into upgrading soonest - and it is my opinion that we will see Apple return to the more speedy h/w upgrade cycles of two years ago: when the OS code keeps developing bulk and new features that has to be hardware-supported (to wit, Quartz Extreme), people won't hold back three or four years before upgrading. But customers need to be able to point at concrete improvements that they "need" in order to justify upgrading; what with the hold on substantial CPU and mobo architectural improvements available to Apple, this has not been the case. Look also at FireWire 2, GigaWire and AirPort 2 which has not happened at the speed hoped for and projected by Apple; the only possible attempts at offering "necessary" improvements have been the SuperDrive and the flat screens, together with the emphasis on aesthetics.

The Motorola PPC7457 and the rest of the Gx family for desktop computers won't be substantially upgraded from now onwards, other than a die shrink and cache changes. These can be done with little research (ie, investment) and will enable Motorola to continue improving processor speed, albeit slowly, over the next year. They will "trickle down" the ladder, reaching the iBooks by the end of next year - by which time they will be sufficiently cool (temperature-wise) and power-lean for that to happen.

IBM's upcoming PPC970, the Great White Hope of computer infighting, won't be a major upset for Intel/AMD when it shows up in October/November - by that time it will be roughly on par with the latest x86es, power wise. The good news is that not only its number-crunching but (more importantly) the whole bus architecture will be so substantially upgraded that the rest of the Apple mobos will also be on par.

The better news is that from then on (barring any substantial changes in h/w configurability on the market (for instance, a major improvement/price slide for Itanium III)), Apple will be able to keep up with (albeit conservatively) PC architectural improvements, and IBM will be able to scale the processor frequency faster than xx86es and roughly reach par with them (thus making the overall processor power available a good deal better than Intels).

Whether they - Apple in particular - will do that, is more doubtful, for reasons of economy. Improvements are almost never introduced on the market unless there is a need for it: pressure from competitors (Apple doesn't have any primary competitors, which is a major reason for the slowness of their h/w plans), or simply that it has become cheaper, or equally cheap, to use the improved version. Production is motivated by market forces, not by idealism (barring the Newton, but see what happened to it!). That also explains the evolutionary, rather than the revolutionary, changes in consumer computing.

The interesting part is that Apple has made OSX into "the next insanely great thing" that can push the new generation of hardware: the role that spreadsheets and desktop publishing has had was not taken over by video editing, as Jobs expected - it has been the operating system itself, ably supported by the iApps. That is why the OS upgrades will continue to come thick and fast, but their emphasis will move from optimization to new features that make new demands for new hardware. And with the PPC970 ability to empower new architectural and connectivity features (from October/November onwards), it will be push rather than shove.

Monday, October 28, 2002

Friday, October 25, 2002
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Chewing up three pieces of Apple news

In the last week, three major events have signalled a radically better future for Apple. The first one is the publication of IBM's plans for a PowerPC based CPU, named PPC970, which will be about twice as powerful as the best G4 available at the moment. Even more importantly, its physical details ensure that it will be easily developed beyond the initial 1.4-1.8 GHz clock frequency. It will include two vector units, the socalled AltiVec processing that is a major advantage of the G4s, and - more importantly - it will connect to the other processors and to the memory through a bus that is 1:2 scalable. In other words, the 1.8 GHz processor will communicate at an astounding 900 MHz! The maximum data throughput will be about SIX times that which is possible from the G4 - and every time the processor frequency improves, so does the bus speed!

What will probably impress the average potential buyer more is that it is one of the first 64bit CPUs on the market; however, in practical it will not mean much to the average user since 64 bit processing isn't faster than 32 bit processing. Normal (32bit) programs will run directly in a 32bit mode, yet when 64bit programs arrive (starting with OSX and - probably - Photoshop and (surprisingly) OSX) they will be able to give professionals the possibility of working with large amounts of RAM: 64 bit can directly address about 2x10^12 MB RAM - which should be sufficient for the next ten years or so....

Secondly , the French/Italian company, STMicroelectronics, is apparently negotiating with Motorola about buying out all of Motorola's Semiconductor business. This rumor has been launched as news by the reputable newspaper Financial Times and falls in line with previous statements by Motorola that the Semiconductor division had to become profitable, "or else...."

The ramifications of this "or else...." which apparently are about to happen are hard to estimate by a Macisto; on the one hand, any momentum left in the PowerPC part of the division might easily vanish and delivery might suffer; on the other hand, Apple is both a sizable and a reputable costumer for a corporation as ambitious as STM (this merger would make them the second-largest semiconductor company in the world) and so they might want to accellerate research and development in the Apple-relevant PowerPC areas. In spite of the IBM news, Apple will be needing both G3s and G4s for some time to come, until the PPC970 is viable price- and temperaturewise for the iMacs and -books.

The third momentuous event was the release of Apple's latest quarterly earnings report which clearly details the problems Apple is in, as well as delimits the options available to Apple. Most of that was discussed in the most recent BloQ (together with the momentuous rumor about the probable release of a journaling extension to HFS+, also detailed recently, but since its release isn't verifiable as yet (it is, however, part of the latest developer betas of OSX), so a few extra remarks will suffice.

Apple have clearly chosen to shrink its marketshare and build a momentum of technological innovation rather than lose money; however, the markets in which they succeed (iBook and iPod) are also the markets in which the profit per unit is the lowest. The real money lies in the professional segment, the area where Apple will be stunted for at least another year (xCepting xServe, but that is only an emerging market for Apple as yet); the company will try to stem the tide with a large number of hardware upgrades i January, will release some kind of iApp and iDevice soon, and will push hard in the server sector after releasing xRaid, a 4U size rackmounted battery of harddisks to complement xServe. Plus, they will do their best to push as many cheaper units out of the door as possible.

In spite of these forecasts, the future seems to lighten for Apple. The old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times", doesn't seem all that hard to suffer right now - these latest pieces of news mark the end to the recent doldrums of G5 uncertainty and features missing in 10.2 !