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The Northern Spy
December 2005

Prognostications 2006

Rick Sutcliffe

That 'Ho Ho Ho'

coming from Cupertino these days is Steve Jobs and all his elves laughing all the way to the bank. As 2006 dawns, Apple owns the portable music player market, is poised to take control of the corresponding video sector, and the halo effect of all the new customers and good news is also driving the company's computer sales to new heights. Some analysts are now talking $90 share prices, though the Spy suggests such numbers reflect more speculative hype than good business sense. Recall the days when Amazon stock reached levels that couldn't be justified even if the online retailer made every book transaction on the planet?

Still, there is no denying that Apple has become one of the most successful online marketers this Christmas, surpassing their own capacity to meet product demand, and quite possibly becoming one reason brick-and-mortar seasonal sales have been somewhat flat this year. Among them, the giant online sellers such as Apple, eBay, Amazon, and others, are rapidly redefining the way people buy, creating a generation that is perceptibly less likely to purchase in a physical store. Watch the next year or two for a trend.

Apple's 2006 roadmap doesn't take prophetic revelations to make good forecasts. New iPods will boast more storage, better video capabilities (think of the current version as an experiment), colours (also colors) and they just may become the long awaited killer eBook readers as well. When the latter comes to pass, Apple could end up owning the textbook distribution industry and a huge chunk of the fiction market. Keep in mind that Apple's online store infrastructure could sell any electronic content, not just music and a few videos. The current menu is just for appetizers.

Apple's computer lineup for the coming year is trickier to predict. True, the company has announced the move to Intel chips, and will no doubt begin this transition in the next few months, perhaps as early as January. Most probable first move (because there is the greatest relative performance gain and the most money at stake) involves laptops, beginning at the low end. And, since there is little marketing sizzle to be had with a pedestrian Intel box dressed in Apple's old clothes, expect a new design statement and an assault on markets perceived to be untapped. How about a laptop two-thirds the current mass, in designer colours and styling, and targeted to broaden the brand's appeal to women? You heard it here first.

The new professional laptops may come out at the same time, but to maximize the good press, the Spy expects a wait of a couple of months between announcements. Expect these also to trim some mass, though perhaps not so large a percentage, to boast speeds in the low 3G range, boast larger hard drives, higher resolution screens, and perhaps offer a deal on included software. Is Apple's Office-killer suite ready for market?

There's less to gain, and therefore no great rush to put the new chips on the desktop. For one thing, the portable market sees the major action these days. For another, the G5 is still a more technologically advanced chip[ than any of its competitors, suffering only from IBM's inability to boost speed and reduce power consumption (mainly of issue with portables). Unless Steve Jobs is in an unseemly hurry to break off relations with Big Blue, he has no pressing reason to migrate the towers until later in the year, even till the following one. The Spy suggests one or two more speed bumps and other performance enhancements before changing the chips on these machines.

Whenever that change comes, expect a completely redesigned tower, the neo-bathroom stainless steel look perhaps replaced by a softer more rounded look in moulded high-impact plastic, colours, more and faster memory, larger hard drives, and at least a continuation of dual processors, though not necessarily multiple core.

Copy protection rears its ugly head again

as Apple seems determined to prevent its crown jewel OS from being pirated to run on any old Intel box. Intel's own technologies, plus recent Apple patent filings to protect techniques for running more than one OS on a machine seem to indicate that Steve believes this is possible. It may well be, but if Apple achieves a secure method of preventing it's OS running on non-Apple boxes it will represent an industry first.

No such method could rely on software alone, for any such anti-piracy method can be cracked. The Spy recalls the heady days of the early eighties, when he sometimes amused himself by mailing unprotected copies of supposedly secure programs back to manufacturers to demonstrate the futility of their latest protection scheme. The more interesting ones (that took at least an hour to break) involved encryption tied to special inter-sector disk encoding. However, any software capable of being decrypted for loading into a computer can have the encryption decoded and the protection routines bypassed for general distribution, and doing so is a relatively trivial exercise.

So, hardware based method have the only chance of success. Several companies already sell USB-based devices encoding a serial number and/or decryption routines to permit their software to load. Lose the hardware key that came in the box, and the program is worthless. Not a bad approach, and much harder to break. Apple's system has to be built right into the motherboard, and be the key not to run individual programs, but to load the OS in the first place. On the day the first such machines are released the pirates start work on a device to copy Apple's hardware functionality. If Apple has been very good, very clever, very successful, their protection may withstand the assault for as long as six months. Anything more would be extraordinary. At that point, the engineers get to turn the matter over to the lawyers.

Is 2006 the year of HD Video?

More programming has been available, and more sets come equipped with the new capabilities, but the long-awaited HDTV has been hampered by high prices and the lack of sufficient capacity in conventional DVDs. The former will be solved by mass production as a larger segment of the market buys in to the new systems and drives prices down by sheer consumerism. The latter will be addressed by two new DVD technologies (incompatible, of course), due to debut this year, and bringing roughly 25G-45G capacities to the little glass disks.

'Course, if you think this has gone unnoticed by Apple, you've forgotten this is the company that has been first to market with nearly every new computing-related innovation since the late 1970s. When will Apple bring out its first machine with a Blu Ray DVD? Well, in terms of conventional products, there is no great obstacle to putting such drives into consumer products by, say, summer, much sooner if Steve is successful at twisting a few arms to become a first adopter. Legions of lawyers have already prepared contracts.

But, yawn, a 45G DVD as a mere storage device is pedestrian, dontcha think? How about a new consumer product--a DVD player equipped with the new drive that delivers HD on a small screen, say about twenty-five centimetres? Throw in iPod music capability and attach a pair of Bose speakers and you'd have an entertainment centre that would fit in the corner of a briefcase. Is the Spy trying to start a rumour? Does he know of such an initiative hidden in the dark recesses at 1 Infinite Loop? Well, no. But it's a step that fits the new technology and Apple's apparent game plan to dominate the electronic leisure segment.

An even more interesting question is whether (when) Apple will get into the cellphone market. Perhaps it makes sense to wait until they can partner with a 3G or 4G provider and stream video wirelessly to the pocket. Another year?

The browser wars

have entered a new phase, with Microsoft's announcement that IE on the Mac will have no further security or other enhancements after 2005 12 31. Given that they stopped development on the product in June of 2003, this isn't exactly a shocker. At the time, the move appeared to the Spy to be sour grapes and/or an intended punishment of Apple for bringing out Safari. Today, Apple users happily employ Firefox, Camino, Mozilla, Netscape, Omni, Opera, and Safari, and don't care about IE.

Web site developers might, a little. They'll have to have a W*nd*ws machine around to check their sites on. But even this is less of a factor nowadays, because current IE versions are much more standards-based than the older ones. The Spy recently developed a dynamic menuing system for web sites in order to learn ECMAScript (the proper name of JavaScript) and discovered what many developers before him have learned. IE5 had numerous non-standard quirks with the way it positioned elements, measured padding, margins, and applied borders, so supporting it requires many special cases, and consequently extremely messy code. Safari is not without its own quirks in this matter BTW, despite claiming to be standards-based.

Oh, and lest someone be tempted to write in and ask for equal virtual ink for iCab, the Spy discovered that his script could only partly support that product, because the latest version has a major bug in the way it calculates the width of an element. Hop on over to ArjayBooks.com, though, and let us know what you think of the new look.

None of this matters much to Apple, which will no doubt include a simple way of running W*nd*ws on its new Intel boxes that will allow all those programs to coexist, should a user have such a desperate need to run something that only works in the cruder environment. Oh, the Spy almost forgot. 2006 is the year of Vista, what MS used to call Longhorn, before it lost most of its horns...er, functionality. Apple has magnanimously announced it won't prevent users from running this on its Intel boxes. Why should they? Anyone with the chance to use both side by side isn't going to employ the primitive, broken down, and error filled imitation OS except on rare occasions, and certainly not for production work. The ability to run Linux as a secondary system is probably of greater interest to tinkerers, as most will be best advised to run W*nd*ws on a cheap separate box to avoid contaminating their main system with viruses.

A gaggle of Google intentions

is emerging as the search engine company prowls the landscape for complementary technologies to either embrace and extend, or snap up using the buckets of billions generated by stock offerings. Deals with libraries to scan public domain books are one indication of the giant's future. Apparently they envision themselves becoming an electronic Library of Congress replacement. If you're going to make a living offering searches for content, why not become the major content provider? Perhaps if Apple won't take up the challenge of making portable book readers under a handheld OS like Palm or Newton, Google will step up to the plate. The Spy does caution Google, though. Deal with authors before offering their books. Some still have copyrights.

There'd be little point in Google inventing an OS for the job, when all that's needed is the combination of a reader in the pocket for the front end, and their own content and search technology for the back end. And, what makes a simpler reader than a browser? That's why the sudden spate of denials of a deal between Google and Opera ring rather hollow. Of course Google needs browser technology, and why re-invent the wheel when others have already done so? The denials merely add credence, as they do to all business deals, NHL trades, and political rumours. If not Opera, then someone else. Mozilla? Safari? Perhaps if Apple can't close its deal to take over Adobe, Google should acquire those products as well.

Oh, yes, 2006 will be an interesting year. Enjoy the iPod you find under the tree, as will many North Americans this year, but, hey, in all this, why not reflect that Christmas has a much more important meaning, one given it by He who made all things, including the laws of physics and chemistry that make all this interesting technology possible. Both MS and Apple are mere companies, their guarantees ephemeral, their products mere toys that one day will be forgotten. Christ's works, words and cross can never pass away.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one of which was named best in the science fiction genre for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Bowker's Booksurge.


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Last Updated: 2006 11 08