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The Northern Spy
January 2004

Prognostications 2004

Rick Sutcliffe

Knee boots sinking through a crust of freezing rain into the deep snow beneath, I trudged out in the semi darkness to the bird feeders with my last bucket of seed, thinking there must be some grist for the wordsmyth in all this.

Apple broke the ice of the server market a year ago with the Xserve. It was well received by Mac enthusiasts and some in the education community, but when the desktop G5s appeared in June, the original G4 server seemed so yesterday. For the second half of the year, sales were quite flat as a result.

But as predicted here Apple this week took the wraps from a new G5 model of the Xserve. Only mild surprise to the Spy was that engineering got it to fit in 1U, but perhaps that's what took so much time. The big news is the way it was done. The new machines employ the 90-nanometre process technology, allowing for lower heat production at the same speeds as the previous desktop machines. This allows a heat sink that fits in the small box.

Why is this new server important? Because it makes a statement. After testing and abandoning the server market on previous occasions, Apple has sent a message that they're in to stay this time. More than that, the specs tell us they're in to win.

The new xServes are available in four configurations, all with the 1GHz per processor front side bus with which Apple revolutionized the desktop market in June of 2003. All use DDR SDRAM with SCC.

You can get a single or dual processor 2G Hz G5 packaged with 512M of memory per processor (or up to 8G), an 80GB serial ATA drive (250G option in each of three drive bays), slot-loading CD-ROM (optional combo DVD-ROM/CD-RW), two onboard gigabit Ethernet interfaces, two open 64-bit PCI-X slots supporting one card at up to 133MHz or two cards at up to 100MHz (various NICs available on order), two FireWire 800, two USB 2.0, one DB-9 (back panel); one FireWire 400 (front panel), and an unlimited client Panther server. Prices on the two base configurations are $2999 and $3999 (US), but a "loaded" configuration sells for $6599.

Alternately, Apple sells a cluster node version with only one drive bay, no optical option, 512M (can install more), twin 2G processors and a 10-client server license. This one is priced at $2999. For its part, the new Xserve RAID rounding out the line is available in 1TB, 1.75TB, and 3.5TB configurations at $5999, $7499, and $10999 respectively.

These machines are well suited to enterprise solutions where middle to high end servers are employed. For instance on the LINPACK benchmark, they outperform typical dual 3.2GHz Xeon servers slightly, and blow away dual 2GHz Opterons. However, general hosting companies looking to expand their offerings into the Mac OS market will have to wait a little longer, as popular hosting control panels are not yet available for this machine. DarkOrb lists the cPanel package for OS X as 93% complete, but this figure has not changed in recent months, and they have their hands full handling the migration away from the now abandoned Red Hat 7, 8, and 9 systems. Too bad some of that migration cannot be to the XServe.

On the desktop side of things, Apple stayed the course for now. We can expect much faster machines in this category, and perhaps also among notebooks later this year as the 90nm and 60nm chip fabrication programs at IBM start delivering in quantity, but otherwise no revolutionary change, just speed increases. To meet the 3 GHz desktop goal by summertime, Apple should be introducing a speed bumped machine by the February-March timeframe. Somewhat slower laptops are also a possibility sometime during the year.

Alas, we still don't have a complete full-featured (it needn't be bloatware) word processing program on the Mac. The best candidate is probably still Nisus Writer, but the OS X version still lacks too many of the classic features for me the Spy put it into production. So, he must still use Classic mode for most writing tasks. A pity that.

Also as expected, Apple introduced a new iPod mini. Measuring 3.6 by 2.0 by 0.5 inches (hmmm, what's that in centimetres?) and available in six different colours, the mini can store up to a thousand songs in 4G of drive space. This baby brother to the current iPod line still has USB and FireWire interfaces, and works with existing software, but sports a slightly simplified control section with the buttons under the wheel instead of in a row above it. The biggest difference is the price--only $249.

Perhaps the biggest story here is the one inch Hitachi hard drive in these new iPods. Illustrative of a trend for the future, they are one more step along the way to developing miniaturised large-scale mass memory devices with few to no moving parts. Still no expanded screen or functionality to handle eBooks, and still no PDA or telephone functionality though. Ah well, the PIEA (Personal Intelligence Enhancement Appliance) of the Spy's SF series The Interregnum comes to us one function at a time.

Macworld also brought a multitude of other product announcements from Apple (a modified iLife package, for instance that features the revolutionary new GarageBand music creation program) and a flock of third party associated hardware and software (including Office 2004, but not yet. It will be released in the spring). All this activity, especially that by the third parties, is a Real Good Thing for, on the other hand,

Industry monopolies come readily to mind as I watch from my office window while two or three blue jays chase off some fifty smaller birds and manage to consume or waste sufficient food for all of them. Don't they have enough of the Filberts they stole from my trees late last summer before they were even ripe?

The typical marketplace works the same way.. Enthusiasts constantly remind us that free enterprise not only works, it outperforms every other economic system yet tried. The Spy agrees, but only to a point. Eventually, a more universal aphorism kicks in: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." This is true in both political and economic realms, and is one reason why we always need a system of checks and balances to maintain choice and prevent little people from being crushed.

After all one must keep in mind that "survival of the fittest", because it proceeds by the loss of genetic variability and adaptability, is devolution rather than evolution, worse not better. The natural end of a market run the same way is uniform, bland, stagnated, boring decadence for a rich elite, and virtual slavery for everyone else--a thermodynamics third law heat death for the marketplace.

The Interregnum's alternate history for Hibernia (Ortho Earth) postulates a world where the monopoly won. A few years later it collapsed of its own weight and its OS was taken over by a small government office that has maintained it for the two hundred years since with only minor alterations. Effectively they're still using a command line interface. This is an alternative well worth remembering whenever it comes time to shell out money for software or hardware.

So are quality, longevity, maintenance, productivity, and total cost of ownership. Oh, the Spy knows. There's nothing wrong with a monopoly per se. Agreed. But there's plenty wrong with the abuse of one, and that's the way things always ends up, by sheer inertia. Leave something for the sparrows, will you. There are a lot more of them than there are of you.

Is this rant addressed to Apple? Not yet, for it still effectively plays industry David. But, successful as the iPod and music store are, I can't help but wondering whether Apple and one or two associates will ultimately gather in house every conceivable application and peripheral for its hardware, leaving nothing for anyone else. It's been done.

There is a better way. Apple could invest in DarkOrb, Nisus, and a host of other key players that need capital or engineers, assisting them to succeed without threatening to take them over. Then it could sell out and recoup the profit from a successful enterprise. What a refreshing change that would be from the standard behaviour on the other side: pre-emptively preannouncing strategic products to prevent them from reaching market, then driving out or taking over everybody else.

Customers could do more for their own long term self interest, too. Why buy the monopoly? It isn't better.

The message is beginning to sink in. Many, including some governments (Israel, several in Asia), are finding that better way, opting for open source or multiple-sourced software instead of buying from the monopoly. Others are considering Apple for the first time in more than a decade. Likewise, large companies (including giant IBM, which has been changing its ways of late) are encouraging their employees to use Linux rather than Windows on their desktops, in order to escape the proprietary high profit margin trap. Note to Bill from the physics department: down accelerates faster than up.

One interesting related development of 2003 that is likely to continue is the gradual erosion of Microsoft's once strong hold on the server market. Apache is now ubiquitous among multi client hosts, usually running on BSD or Linux. This is one segment of the market that Redmond appears to have lost for good, and grave security concerns are likely to erase their last vestiges from most data centres (except dedicated in-house corporate ones) over the next six months. We will see far fewer attack-related network slowdowns as a result.

The technology of the year for 2004 may be POD (Print on Demand). Still the province of a handful of companies serving the wholesale and on-line retail book industry, the equipment becomes more affordable all the time. It is only a matter of time before bookstores become display areas with single copies of a larger number of books or just have display screens on which to read previews. Buy a book at one end of the check out counter and pick up the finished copy at the other, manufactured to order on the spot.

The ultimate in disintermediation, such a form of POD could be the harbinger for a general retail revolution that sees many products sold in the same or similar ways. Big ticket items may have to be ordered from an assembly line plant, but would still be produced on demand and could be shipped to the consumer's home directly with no middle man.

On that visionary note, 'nuff for now. The Spy will return again next month, give or take a week or two, but notes this one makes two columns in a week. Still, he never promised anything but a true periodical--periodically, when he feels like it, he writes something.

It's time for lunch anyway, and a break from slaving over a hot computer. Joyce is upstairs baking apple crisp made from the last box of this year's crop, big, fat, beautiful fruit stored till now out in the shed but brought in to rescue it from the cold temperatures. What variety of apple stays crisp, fresh, and juicy until January? Funny you should ask.

--The Northern Spy

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URLs referenced

The Apple xServe Page: http://www.apple.com/xserve/

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Information on Northern Spy apples: http://www.michiganapples.com/northernspy.html

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