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The Northern Spy
December 2009

Year End Roundup Miscellany

Rick Sutcliffe

Marketshare ramblings

Troubles continue to plague iSteve's competitors at the checkout. As part of a worldwide effort to shed 20% of its workforce, Sony Ericsson is closing its North American headquarters and consolidating continental operations in a smaller Atlanta office.

Meanwhile, takeover rumours plague in-tough Palm, though the Spy isn't sure what's worth taking over other than possibly the engineers. Pity. When he bought his Treo Palm was riding high.

Biggest loser so far in the phone wars appears to be MS, currently facing nearly 30% loss of market share, and now last among major vendors. Perhaps Redmond could acquire Palm. A deadly embrace might be a good fit. To put it another way, what percentage of developers out there would spend themselves to take a chance on developing a killer app for the Pre, the Android, Nokia phones, Win mobile? Just so.

Biggest potential loser looking a few years down the track seems to be RIM, which appears to be treading water, something no company can afford to do during a technology battle. Burdened by a aging, clunky interface, and a restless installed base, it seems to the Spy that RIM has nowhere to go but way down.

Apple meanwhile, from a standing start three years ago next month, has not only already captured over 15% of the smartphone market, it has redefined the telephone, as it did music players before. Imagine what breaking away from the equally deadly embrace of AT&T could do to market share.

Perhaps more interesting is Apple's move away from Windows terminals to iTouch technology for its own stores' POS. There, as in other places, the iPhone/Touch is morphing into a device controller solution. Besides POS, the Spy notes scientific instrumentation, medical device control, security system control, and remote business applications, among the many potential markets for pocket computers. Expect the hardware add-on market to explode, especially if Apple is a little freer with the hardware APIs. It's too late to buy Apple stock for $7, though. The price is hovering around all-time highs.

Notwithstanding that product sightings

are vigorously denied and substanceless rumours until iSteve climbs the stage to pull the trigger on a launch, hoards of speculators are in a feeding frenzy once again (still?) over what most term the iTablet. Apart from a possible size (apparent orders of 10-inch screens) and tales of a device being shopped to Australian content providers, there is little of substance here--except for the small factor called inevitability. The portable computer market has a yawning hardware gap between the iPod Touch/Phone and the AirBook, one the cheap and unreliable netbooks cannot possibly fill.

But to make the iSlate (the Spy's preferred term) work implies inventing a market--or, more likely rather, capturing and reinventing one. Seems to the Spy the best candidate is books--sadly, for his own bottom line as an AH-SF author, not fiction, especially not science fiction. No the market segment that is most troubled, most ready for an iSteve re-invention, is textbook publishing and distribution. A typical university frosh (note the gender neutral term) can blow a $900 hole in the pocket with one visit to the textbook store at the beginning of the semester. Books for specialized upper level science and mathematics courses are seldom available second-hand, and can run over $300 a pop. Throw in publisher financial troubles, declining revenues, increasing costs, a truly 17th century distribution system, unconscionable retail markups, along with peanuts for the authors who do all the work, and you have a system staggering under the weight of its sheer brokenness, gasping for the kind of lifeline iSteve is capable of throwing.

"Pitch in with us, boys, and students cut their book bills by 75%, you can keep a bigger cut, pay your authors more for their work, even hire editors who know what they're doing. Then you distribute through the book department of Apple's iStore (renamed when books and hardware are added to apps, video, and music) to our cool new iSlate, thus eliminating regional and local wholesalers, store chains, and the local retailer altogether--all the deepest money sinks. 'Course, we keep our usual 30% cut, but you and your ink-stained bondservants keep the rest, and as a bonus, hey, your industry manages to survive--at least until we find a way to cut you out, too." (The last part uttered sotto voce.)

In like dire straits only slightly less troubling, but with more immediate need of rescuing because of the length of the decline, we present exhibit two--the newspaper and magazine business. The vendor who can deliver National Geographic content in equivalent photographic quality will own magazine distribution for a generation. The one that can replace the faltering newspaper experience with something better (as good as is not enough) will do likewise. Do these two and textbooks in a portable communicating and computing device and you have the basic functionality of the Spy's PIEA, featured lo this past decade and more in his novels. Yeah, fiction would be in there too, but as a low-return passenger.

"What about timing? you ask. Given the available technologies, pricing, and the legwork needed to make introductory content a reasonable reality, the Spy can't see iSlate happening before third quarter 2010. Assume an announcement at WWDC, sooner only if it has a phone and prior regulatory disclosure is required. Do assume more than one form factor and price point. Eventually. Don't assume either an Apple branded cell network or an outright takeover of Radio Shack to extend market reach to every mall on the continent. Yet.

Logos systems is in the Spy's glass again,

this time for an iPhone/Touch app version of its reader software. From the company's name, one might easily guess that they are in the wholesale word/Word business. But as the Spy noted previously, Logos has already taqken a different approach to Bible software than other vendors with its Windows/Mac applications (Libronix) for it prefers to market a (potentially general) reading tool more than it does a focused Bible study application. Thus the Logos offerings are much more about the general reading experience, search abilities, and the libraries available with the package than they are about Bible study tools per se. Hey, there are many file readers, particularly on the iPhone/Touch platform. The Libronix bigger brother reader has gone through a version 4.0 major rewrite lately, but more on that when the new product reaches the Mac (real soon now).

Meanwhile, how does this (currently free) Logos reader on the iP/T match up with, say, the venerable Olive Tree product? Fairly well, actually. Oh, there are rough edges. First, not all the Bibles that Logos says on its web site are included for the platform actually show up in the library. This may be a function of the Mac version of the main reader not being up to version 4.0 as yet, and thus not communicating account availability properly. However, the fact remains that the NIV is in the Spy's desktop version, but not on his Touch. Second, the purpose of the "bookshelf" within the library is unclear, as is how items are put there or removed. Third, accepting the offer of the daily reading plan results in two offers for the reading plan being listed, with no ability to remove same. Fourth, the list of thirty-one additional resources appears to be accessible only if you sign up for a Logos account. It is unclear to the Spy, even after accessing his account, whether this benefit accrues even if using an existing one. Ambiguities like this should be explicated. Fourth, the nav bar of (presumably locally cached books) at the bottom of the control screen does not appear to be under user control, say to remove entries.

Finally, by way of comparison, the Olive Tree pedigree of several years worth of refinement of mobile Bible readers is rather obvious. So is its focus on Bible. In OliveTree, one scrolls down continuously through a bible (much better) rather than sideways page by page as in Logos. Moreover, one can press a button for a split screen to compare, say Greek and English (any two bibles) at any time, without having to leave the main reader mode for the separate "compare text" mode as in Logos. Mind you, in the Palm version, Olive Tree allows three simultaneous screens, whereas on the iP/T it offers only two. Last, in Logos one must be connected to the net to allow the product to "know" where it stands in relation to the account. If a book has not been specifically read and therefore cached locally, it won't be available when offline. But the user is not told this, whereas in Olive Tree, one explicitly downloads each item, and whatever shows up in the library is available locally. The Logos approach can be both slow and confusing.

The bottom line is that Olive Tree has a definite edge, which should not be surprising given its long head start and many prior versions. What is very remarkable is how solid a product the Logos offering is for a first cut at a mobile reader. If development continues at this pace, we could be looking at a new leader in this market in short order. Definitely a reader worth having, despite some initial rough edges.

In other iP/T app news,

the Spy rather likes the Bloomberg market reader better the standard Yahoo version. More markets, more info. He's also decided to live with the intrusiveness of giving Google his RSS data in return for continuing to use NetNewsWire on his desktop, his portable, and now his iP/T, with three way sync.

He does feel a little burned at having bought Apple's Keynote remote, only to learn that he has to upgrade the program itself before the remote will work. Does make him think, though. Apple could produce a lot of ninety-nine cent apps to pad the old bottom line.

And, he'll take a parting shot at the Apple iTunes store, whose interface is browser-like, but that suffers by comparison with good web apps, and seems a little clunky. Needs work, particularly in remembering state when returning to the previously visited page.


a little tired from writing this. The Spy finally escaped the prison of the sling on his right arm this week. 'Course the freed appendage isn't much good for anything yet, but it is convenient to type with two hands rather than one. It will be a long time before the partially frozen joint is freed up, the severed tendon functions, and the atrophied muscle regenerates. At this point, he's not sure whether he would have been better off beggaring himself in the dysfunctional American medical system to get quick service, or staying with the no-cost but long wait he endured in the differently but equivalently dysfunctional Canadian system. Oh, well. Pretty soon the American one will be dysfunctional in yet new ways.

If he can get back to a normal quantity of electronic scribbling between physiotherapy appointments ,he's got an I/O library to finish designing for an upgraded programming language project, and the editorial notes of a number of readers to incorporate into the sixth Interregnum novel before the draft can be sent to the publisher. Entitled The Builder, this will be the penultimate book in the series, and available at your favourite corner eBook store as soon as the formal editing is complete (one to two years more?) This volume focuses on Hibernia's civil war, two men called the "builders of Tara" and, in telling the story of the first builder of Meta, begins to unravel the series' major secrets. It also checks in at just under 300K words. Lotsa electrons in them there ePages. When that's done, he gets serious about the accumulating stories already slouching toward birthing the seventh and final volume, The Throne.

Part of the program of babying this arm along includes a ban on snow shoveling. Since that's unrealistic in this climate, the Spy has now purchased a brand new snow thrower to handle the igloo's driveway (where he parks his dog sleds). Time will tell whether he's done his research adequately, so he'll report on this technology only when he's actually used the thing. Meanwhile, he observes that the experience was much like last year's purchase of a new refrigerator, for despite the superficial appearance of numerous marketplace brands, there are really only a handful of manufacturers, who not only sell under their own name(s), but through a variety of chain store house brand names. "Sure, we'll price match," then hastily add, "on an identical unit." And, though the machines may be mechanically the same, they do bear different brands and part numbers, and so are not identically identical. "Sorry." Marketing malfunctions toward the consumer much the same way in all sectors. Perhaps Apple should make Macs branded with the Pystar name. IBM? MS?

Book of the month

If you don't count the Spy's own, and the Bibles available via Logos and Olive Tree (see above), this month's offering is the second edition of David Sawyer McFarland's CSS, part of the missing manual series from--who else--O'Reilly. Normally this series deals with understanding hardware that could have used a manual, but the series is quite a propos a vehicle for explicating the mysterious and convoluted Cascading Style Sheet.

The Spy has built a number of web sites, from the brain-dead simple information container with a few pages, through medium weight old-portal-style sites dependent on tables, and on to heavily Ajaxified and highly optimized sites complete with CSS styling and dynamic menus (all his own code and framework) and weighing in at hundreds of pages. Invariably, in the process he runs up against problems with styling, and the obscurities of understanding what the cryptic documentation (where it exists at all) for CSS really means. He could only wish he had a book like this one from the start so that he wouldn't have had to puzzle out CSS mysteries by trial and error--mostly the latter.

No doubt the designers of CSS in the first place were well-meaning. Separating content from presentation is a good idea. However, the devil (at the end of the road paved with good intentions) is in the implementation details, and the system was not, in the beginning, well-implemented, with the biggest offender both then and now being IE, which never conformed to standards, and even today requires much code to be written to work around it idiosyncrasies. A book like this one goes beyond telling the relative neophyte to proper styling how to do it; the author also details what generally does not work in IE (lots). One rarely has to special code for other browsers any more. The Spy doesn't even want to think about some of the coding kludges that have been commonplace for the MS browser. Thankfully however, the latter's market share is sinking rapidly. Perhaps the whole IE product line will one day be nothing more than a bad memory swapped for other horror stories over summer campfires to scare the kids to sleep.

CSS has chapters on redesigning HTML for style sheets, selectors, inheritance, how cascading works, formatting text, graphics, tables, and forms, improving navigation, general layout and positioning, and an advanced topic section of CSS for the printed page , selectors, and colour (well, they spell it differently.) The material in chapter seven on floating elements and that in chapter thirteen on positioning was of particular interest, for the Spy well remembers doping all this out with little help from the few then available books and their confusing and contradictory instructions, then testing it in various browsers, only to discover that the implementors' understanding was inferior to his own, and even more confused.

CSS is good stuff for relative beginners, though experienced designers wouldn't likely use it as a reference. Then again, that is precisely the point of the missing manual series. As usual for an O'Reilly book, the Spy highly recommends this one. If you need it you really need it.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics as well as Senate Chair at Trinity Western University. He is also on the board of CIRA, operator of .ca. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), 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 Amazon's Booksurge.


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Last Updated: 2009 12 02