The Northern Spy
Apple's 64-bit Rig Takes to the Information Highway
Gigabits of digital ink have by now been spilled over Apple's late June WWDC announcements. (See http://thenorthernspy.com/spyWWDC2003.htm for the special report the Spy filed on the first day, which, due to various leaks, was written before Steve Jobs began to speak and only revised by a few words when he was done.) A month has gone by, and after reflecting, considering, and trying out the new software, some assessment is in order, so let's start over, rather than making that special report the basis for August's column. First, let's review the
G5 Hardware Specs:
- Power Mac G5 microprocessor (Apple's designation of the IBM 970 chip) in 1.6 GHz, single 1.8 GHz, and dual 2.0 GHz speeds. Single processor machines cannot be upgraded to dual, but there is some speculation Apple will add dual 1.8G Hz models.
- internal 512 KB level 2 cache.
- processor bus has 32-bits in and out, clock speeds of 800 MHz, 900 MHz or 1 GHz (per processor).
- main memory bus is 128 bit 333 MHz or 400 MHz,
- eight DIMM slots for 184 pin DIMMs using unbuffered DDR SDRAM. A
minimum of 256 MB of RAM to a maximum of 4 GB or 8 GB is installed in pairs of slots. Memory throughput is 6.4 GBps.
- three 33 MHz PCI or 100-133 MHz PCI-X HyperTransport slots, a new high-speed bus architecture between the memory controller and device I/O. PCI throughput to 2 GBps.
- AGP 8X Pro graphics bus with NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 Ultra, ATI Radeon 9600 Pro (either with 64 MB) or (build-to-order) ATI Radeon 9800 Pro with 128 MB RAM. All cards have ADC and DVI-I connectors.
- 450 W or 600 W power supply.
- internal 7200 rpm Serial ATA 80G, 160G, or 250G (build to order) hard disk. The serial ATA bus operates at 150 MBps on each of two channels
- DVD-R/CD-RW 4X superdrive or optional DVD-ROM/CD-RW on the Ultra DMA ATA/100 bus
- three external USB 2.0 ports: two on the rear, one on the front, plus two USB 1.1 ports on the keyboard.
- one firewire 800 ports and two firewire 400 ports (one on the front, one on the rear)
- airport extreme and bluetooth ready.
- gigabit Ethernet
- other ports include Headphone minijack (front), optical digital audio in/out, analog audio in/out
- anodized aluminum enclosure with handles, four discrete thermal zones, up to nine fans and an internal air baffle that if removed forces the computer into sleep mode.
- fan speed and processor speed vary according to demand.
The technical design of the new G5 computers represents a tour de force. The new system controller and high speed bus, combined with the 64-bit processor produce a desktop machine of unprecedented power. Though there was some scepticism from the WWDC crowd about the many fans, the machines are very quiet, especially when the CPU is not being taxed and the various computer-controlled fan systems slow things down. First impressions would suggest that air movement noise is indeed a problem of the past.
There's been much heat (and little light) concerning the benchmarks Jobs referred to in his speech. However, given the chip and bus architecture, his claims appear to be conservatively consistent with theory, particularly on the floating point side, where they may be understated. At the very least, a 2.0 GHz G5 processor ought to match a 2.6 GHz Pentium IV chip. Fully optimized code should perform better still. Given the new bus and other enhancements, throughput should match an Intel machine at 3 GHz or better. That's for one chip systems. The high end machine has two, making the claim to have the fastest desktop computer on the market reasonably credible.
Unlike the situation with troubled Motorola's products the roadmap to the future is fairly clear. There is room for improvement in the AltiVec portion of the 970, and with trace sizes about to go down, nominal clock speeds should improve as well. Jobs confidently promised 3 GHz clocked machines within a year. Given what is likely to happen with the 980 and 990 successors to the 970, the Spy believes that 10 GHz Macintoshes could hit the market by 2006.
The Spy's only quibbles with the design are the lack of upgradability of the single processor machines (might be remedied on the third party market) and the industrial-chic design of the case, which resembled nothing more than the stainless steel privacy barriers in the washrooms of the new wing of the Moscone Centre where WWDC was held. One expects a new appearance for a new generation of hardware, but this is a step backwards IMHO. (As an aside, the conference was much better when in San Jose, and the Spy hopes it will return there.)
Elsewhere on the hardware front
The iSight camera Apple gave to each attendee at WWDC is an interesting toy, if a tad less practical than the black leather jackets of 2001. Apple will sell quite a few of these, but not nearly so many as they do of iPods. See the further comments below in the section on iChat AV.
On the negative side of the toy sector, there was not only no word of a book reader, side comments made to the Spy by Apple executives indicate the internal position is that bookreaders are still too difficult to do right. The Spy has no doubt that if there were sufficient economic incentive (read "proven market") these reservations would no doubt vanish quickly. But the obvious answer to this missing spoke in the digital hub is to piggyback the functionality on some other toy--say an iPod with a screen four times as large that can incidentally display PDF book files. It would be passing strange were there no prototypes in Apple's ultra secure labs.
Meanwhile, Apple is quietly selling off remaining stock of both G4 PowerBooks and Xserve machines. Thus, although nothing has yet been announced, we should expect the introduction of the desktop G5s to be followed closely by new high end portables and servers. At the current trace size and power consumption, the G5 comes in a package requiring a hefty heat sink. Thus only low speed units (under 1.4 GHz) of the current chip model appear suitable for a PowerBook. Expect Apple to bring out the new portables at about this speed, but possibly in a G4 for one more iteration. Recent rumours of a fuel cell powered model are interesting, but may also be premature.
On the server side, it may be possible to design a processor package that could fit in a 1U server form factor. However, Apple is targeting the upper middle range of the server market, and need not confine itself to 1U. A 2U twin processor Xserve with its fast serial ATA bus could make a lot of sense, depending on the price point. After all, the 970 was designed for multiprocessing, so higher end 4-way and 8-way servers make technical sense, though marketing would have their work cut out for them.
Selling to the corporate world
has been an uphill battle for Apple, but there is reason to hope things could get better. If Apple could persuade one Fortune 500 company to switch to their servers, or better yet, to standardize on their desktops, the corporate marketing logjam could break wide open. There is a lot of unhappiness with the monopoly folk, but no one wants to stick their neck out. In the meanwhile, selling to this sector is difficult, not for technical or financial reasons, but for emotional ones. Too much face is invested in the other side's ubiquitous but inferior technology. Who wants to admit it was all a big mistake?
The new software
will ship with the G5 boxes is as important as the hardware it runs on. Mac OS X 10.3 bears the Panther name, and, with assorted ancillary software, is a worthy successor to Jaguar. Again, first consider the
- 64-bit capable operating system.
- runs in 32-bit mode on a G4, and runs legacy applications backwards-compatibly at significantly higher speeds.
- optimized for symmetric multiprocessing and multithreading.
- takes full advantage of the 8GB memory capacity of the Power Mac G5, can allocate up 4GB of memory per process.
- rewritten and tuned math and vector libraries to take advantage of the PowerPC G5 processorÕs 64-bit integer and floating-point math capabilities and optimized Velocity Engine.
- fast new PDF viewer application.
- new version of Safari, no longer beta.
- numerous small changes and enhancements to the system and the GUI, including additional icon sizes and new open and save windows. The latter have the ability to save in .doc format (except for tables) from any save box.
- finder windows have an index pane on the left for disks and commonly used items.
- fast searching, ubiquitous auto text completion .
- enhanced iDisk synchronizes in both directions, behaves more like a local folder.
- the Expos preference pane allows up to four cursor hot spot corners for revealing the bare desktop, all windows in the current application, or all windows in all applications (tiled).
- a built in file vault to encrypt all folders in the user's home directory, as desired.
- an improved Mail application, including Safari rendering engine
- Safari's API exposed to allow other applications to add browser capabilities
- built in Fax button on every print panel
- Pixlet QuickTime codec allows 48-bit per pixel film grade compression of images without artifacts.
- fast user switching on multiple user machines.
- Font Book application for font management.
- iChat AV (also available in a Jaguar version that will cost money after December 2003) that permits two-way audio and visual chats over the Internet (latter requires broadband connection). (Free chat name available from AIM or .mac.)
The Spy has used Panther (OS X 10.3) for a few weeks now. Readers who have not yet installed should note that installation requires the "archive-and-install" method when done over an older system. Prudence also demands a prior permissions scan, disk repair run, and backup to another physical drive before installing on the boot partition. (Yes, there are still good reasons for having partitions, despite what Apple and others may suggest. The Spy recommends one no larger than 20G for booting.) In the course of cleaning up the boot partition, we dumped about 450 000 files from caches and older versions of the OS, dropping to under 200 000 files in total. This is well worth doing. The Spy's care was rewarded when the first two attempts to install proved unstable and resulted in a damaged directory header that could only be fixed with a reformat (perils of alpha software). However the third try got a good install.
Panther takes some getting used to, especially the action of the new finder windows and their index pane. This index pane (part of what Apple touts as a user-centric experience) is very useful. Taken with Expos, it improves the speed of navigation in a complex environment considerably. There are also many subtle appearance changes that would be scarcely noticeable taken individually, but that collectively add up to a somewhat different user experience (not necessarily better, just different. For instance, live widow scrolling can be disconcerting at times.)
Expos is an extraordinarily useful utility. Most Mac OS users have lost track of the times that they've needed the bare desktop or needed to find an open window, and wasted a lot of time getting there. Now, two mouse moves and one click get you there. Very nice. Expos does not work correctly for Classic windows, treating them all as though they were bare desktop, but that is a minor restriction.
Jobs described fast user switching as the only idea stolen from Windows. Perhaps it's about time. Nearly everything else about Windows is a copy of Macintosh functionality with a cheaper-looking interface and klunkier feel to it, so its nice to see Apple pinch and idea and improve it to rub salt in the wound.
iChat AV with the iSight camera (any FireWire camera will do) is an interesting concept, and in a LAN could be quite useful for efficient inter office communication and conferencing (Rendezvous automatically discovers other potential chatters on the LAN and notes their capabilities). On the Internet, the utility is impaired by the difficulty in finding people to chat with. To meet this need, several chat index sites have already sprung up. Some are listed at the bottom of this article and can also be found in the left sidebar of The Northern Spy's front page at http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com. You join one of these sites, list your chat name, capabilities, and wait to hear from someone who happens to find you there. Or, you look for another person with similar interests and send her an invitation to chat. They wouldn't have listed themselves if they didn't mind electronic knocks from strangers, would they? But despite the number of WWDC people who worked with their camera clipped to their PowerBooks, it will take some time for this technology to become widespread enough to be useful. When it does, it could drive yet another nail into the coffin of the traditional telephone company.
Meanwhile, Safari 1.0 is not as stable as a first production release ought to be, and after being used a long enough time will either slow the system down to spinning beachball performance levels, lose track of how to draw and refresh its windows, or crash (unexpectedly quit). Depending on the severity of the problem, rebooting may be necessary to restore performance, or even to get it running again. Still, having browser functionality available via the API in other applications is very nice, and Safari itself is on the way to becoming a solid application. It correctly browses some (but not all) problem sites, and is more reliable than IE in rendering tables correctly. (IE Windows is particularly hopeless in this respect.)
The Bottom Line
Panther as developers now have it is very much a work in progress. There are APIs missing, and some minor functionality still needs to be added before the first GM, expected by years's end. (The first G5s will likely ship with a version of Jaguar.) Moreover, there are bugs (lots of spontaneous quitting, and problems with the Classic startup, and with Classic quitting on sleep) but those are to be expected in an alpha version.
In itself, Panther does not represent a huge step forward. However, the combination of a desktop 64-bit computer and operating system represents a major new milestone in personal computing, regaining Apple the technical leadership crown it was in danger of losing. This is a compelling combination, faster, more secure, better looking (excepting the newest box), more cost effective, and more productive than any other system.
If the facts alone mattered, Apple would have many times its current market share. However, the business world made its decision to go the Wintel route for emotional reasons (the IBM mystique), not for technical ones. It stays there for similar ones, and because the IT people who recommend Wintel machines have a vested interest in generating as much demand for technical support as possible. Given these considerations and the installed base, no number of security and other problems on the Wintel side and no width of technological gap is likely to result in rapid market share gains for Apple. But the potential for significant growth is there, and a G5 running Panther is certainly the choice for the rest of us. Perhaps Apple can find ways to get out the message that it's the best choice for everyone (there's a slogan for an in-your-face ad campaign).
With the advent of the G5 no one needs an Intel machine any more. Now if Apple would only produce its own productivity suite there'd be no more need for MS either. If they'd only make a book reader...
On another front
Arjay Enterprises (parent to The Northern Spy, Arjay Books, WebNameHost, and other companies) has just installed a new discussion board at http://arjaybb.com [Just type ArjayBB in a browser].
This is for authors, publishers, those interested in eBooks, or wanting to discuss Arjay's books, columns, web hosting, domain names or related topics. There are sections for discussing Christian fiction, and other issues of interest to Christians, and of course, a forum for the Macintosh generally or Northern spy columns in particular.
Why a new discussion board?
We've grown tired of our guestbooks being spammed, and the amount of email that comes in because of lists (spammers exploit those too) has become excessive. So this bulletin board. It replaces all our guestbooks immediately, and will become our primary means of communicating with customers and friends in time. BTW, after looking at software for forums and communities, we went with phpBB, which appears to be an excellent open source product with lots of great features. The Spy expects that the once common guestbook will soon vanish, weighted down with the freight imposed by unconscionable spammers.
Meanwhile, one company group does not a community make, so we're looking for people to make this a viable one. Certainly, we need forums for Arjay's companies, columns, books, and so on. However, we would also like a reasonably controlled place to hold discussions, and so are offering forums for authors and publishers to announce new books, post reviews, talk about eBooks, Macintosh hardware and software, other publishing issues, and so on. We are also open to hosting special interest groups with private forums under the ArjayBB umbrella.
Questions on domain names and hosting are also welcome, whether visitors are Arjay customers or not.
Once there are enough people posting, we can form communities, whether public or private, from which moderators can run mailing lists from within the bulletin board. But for now, the topics, forums, organization, whether we need moderators (and who they will be), etc. are all up for grabs and many of the comments are likely to be in this section. In fact, there won't be any "there" there until people join and post.
Go to ArjayBB.com and tell us by posting in the "Discussion on this board" forum what you think of the concept, the page layout and colours, the forum titles, etc. We are open to changing just about anything to make this a viable board. In particular, for instance, should there be another URL for general consumption, say writersbb.com, scrybb.com, ebookbb.com, or some such, in addition to the company URL of arjaybb? What about an URL for the Mac aspects of the board? Anyone can read the public posts now, but to post yourself, you must first register, wait for a confirming eMail, and follow instructions. There is no charge, not now, not ever. No eMail information will ever be sold or given away.
What's in it for you?
Because the Arjay sites are well-linked and at the top of the search engines in some categories, a book announcement on this forum will be an excellent link for an author site. We'll mine those announcements from time to time for links to put on other parts of the Arjay sites. In addition, there's already some expertise here (on the web since the 70's; writing since the 60's), and visitor questions are likely to get informed answers.
And, the carrot (not the caret). To give things a kick start in the initial time this board is available, we'll offer free web hosting accounts to two people who are prepared to help make it a success. (Hey, Arjay owns our own server and hosting company.) Here's how we'll do it (though this is open to your comment and revision, too):
- if you want to be considered for free hosting, send eMail with the subject "free hosting" to firstname.lastname@example.org If you don't need hosting yourself, nominate someone else or your favourite organization
- join the bulletin board and post questions, announcements, comments, reviews, etc.
- get others to join by pointing them here, too
- when we get to 50 members, 500 posts, or on September 1 2003, whichever is later, we'll pick at random from among those who have requested free hosting and have posted at least 20 messages of some substance (not that hard when you hang out at a BB) and/or have otherwise promoted the success of the board. The winners get a free hosting account on our system for a year (only catch: unless using subdomain hosting will need to transfer or register a domain name with us, but domains cost under $10 annually.) Note that these are premium Linux/cPanel accounts with full access and no ads, and would ordinarily cost at least $60/year from WebNameHost, and more elsewhere.
- if things continue to go well, this offer may be repeated, and/or we may make other offers.
What's in it for us?
ArjayBB certainly promotes the Arjay sites, so indirectly brings fame and fortune (chuckle). But a community effort can be more than just self-help; it can promote the whole eBook, ePub and Macintosh industry and bring its authors greater respect and recognition; again Arjay benefits, albeit slowly and very indirectly. We hope to increase talk and reduce spam. Our guestbooks are gone and eMail addresses on our sites are being replaced by pointers to the new bulletin board and help desk. However, there is no direct profit in this; it's a gift to the eBook, Christian, Macintosh, and other communities we're interested in. Use it well.
--The Northern Spy
The Arjay forum: http://www.ArjayBB.com
My iSight: http://www.myisight.com/
Dot Mac's iSight page: http://www.dotmac.info/index.html/chat/people/
-- The Northern Spy