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The Northern Spy
January 2010

Prognostications 2010

Rick Sutcliffe

Time to put on the soothsayer's hat

for the annual batch of predictions. The Spy's track record on these is fairly good, though he was spectacularly wrong when he pooh-poohed rumours of a switch to Intel processors a few years back, and there might have been another time back in 1983..... Other than that, he never makes mistrakes.

Most of last year's predictions were of the longer range variety. Solid State drives have a little distance to go to become ubiquitous, but he expected that. Win7 did arrive, to somewhat better than yawns, but colour the MS reputation over Vista even blacker. Now, given that one has to nuke an old machine to install Win7 (provided it is even capable), expect many to upgrade to a Mac rather than go to even more trouble to stay with MS.

His whining then over the state of programming languages has led him to be come involved in a small way in a language design project. We'll see. His comment that iSteve's lack of enthusiasm for a tablet would have to be overcome seems right on. Apparently it has. More below.

Finally, he was pessimistic about Psystar, and none too optimistic about Palm's future a year ago. Psystar has been legally squelched, Palm has been unable to generate a hit, and he has added RIM to his "underperform" list. Even Nokia has begun resorting to lawsuits rather than trying for technology breakthroughs--a bad sign for the future.

Some forecasts are easy this time.

iSteve's little iApple Corp. will do a tower refresh this year, quite likely to chips with six or more cores--a worthy little project except for the nagging fact that programmers really don't have simple tools to take advantage of multiprocessing. Multiple cores (on one or more chips) serve the operating system well, but your average programmer wanting to tap into this power must reinvent the wheel on synchronization/resource locking, and most carefully at that. There's a market niche here for the enterprising tool vendor who wants to help us bit-stained wretches exploit the hardware we already have, much less what's coming. Listening, iSteve?

Another small fly in the alluring multiprocessing ointment is the switching overhead. For most types of programming problems (excepting those tasks easily vectorized) there are limits to the number of processors that can usefully be employed, before the overhead of maintaining the software begins to erase the gains. Two or three six-core chips is probably close to that limit for most practical purposes today, and the hardware path forward from there is murky and ill-lit. Given that increased speed cannot be pushed much farther, and there parallel limits as well, where d owe go? Quantum computing?

With respect to tower form factor, the Spy thinks it at least fifty-fifty it will change from the faux-bathroom divider stainless sieve design brought in for the G5 a few years back. How about a brightly coloured, rounded-corner plastic shell, mayhap with racing stripes, and a single recessed handle in the middle of the top? White with black? Green with red? iSteve been hiring any industrial designers lately?

Pa Apple will also retool the MacBooks this year, though once past the obvious of incremental speed (CPU, bus) and peripheral boosts (drives), the Spy thinks it unlikely we'll see major changes. Certainly the current form factor has legs yet. Call this one a medium bump, with Blu-ray a definite maybe.

One or both of these upgrades seems a good bet for the spring sometime, though earlier announcements are possible. Don't assume any significant changes to the iMac line, however.

Round about June-July, say, for WWDC, expect an iPhone/Touch upgrade. The weakness of this platform is the available bandwidth, which the iPhone's very success is eating rapidly. Waiting can get old. Expect a partial solution this year, with facilities to take advantage of better networking capabilities in the future. Biggest item on the to-do list? Revamp the iTunes store interface, and give it a name more reflective of its function.

In the long run the only real solution to the bandwidth problem is either universal Wi-Fi, or a phone network fast enough to be indistinguishable. Since the latter is unlikely any time soon, it seems to the Spy there's an opportunity here for an aggregator to compile the existing Wi-Fi networks into something larger than the sum of its parts, then grow the whole. It would be a very bold move, but Apple as a channel provider has a believable (though sub thirty percent probability this year) ring to it.

Which brings us to Apple's Tablet product,

one the Spy has persisted in calling iSlate all along. The rumour mills have suddenly begun to agree, citing Apple as the secret registrant of iSlate.com and the corresponding trademark. A parallel set of registrations for "iGuide" hints at a possible name for the content interface.

Reiterating last month's conclusions, content is indeed king here, and a product in this niche makes sense only as the hardware medium for delivering newspapers and magazines, with eBooks along for the ride. How well the former two work depends on the quality of the display, but a number of periodical publishers are reportedly working on content conversion to the iSlate. As for eBooks, their time has now apparently come, as Amazon supposedly sold more in e-than in dead-tree format during December. The Spy still thinks textbooks will carry the freight in the book category, with fiction bringing up the rear.

The hardware rumours have vacillated between seven and ten inch screens, between Intel and proprietary chips, the OS between iPhone/Touch and OS X. The Spy's take: There is room for two form factors, or at least sizes, between the iPhone/Touch and the smaller MacBooks, though the initial introduction may only include one. The Spy will guess the ten inch. There is also plenty of room for a unique take on the OS--yet another type of layer on top of Apple's Unix underpinnings. Asked to guess, the Spy would say it will be more akin to the iP/T. Third, apparent tensions between Apple and Intel point to an in-house chip.

Whatever the end result, take iSteve's direct input as a given and assume a closed box with tightly controlled development, applications purchased through a further expansion of the (renamed?) Apple store, and no actual hardware until March-April, even if the announcement does turn out to be the target of Apple's much-touted press conference scheduled for January 26. (This is a strong possibility at perhaps 70-30, but the Spy is wary of jumping to this conclusion on the sole evidence of Apple booking an announcement venue. This project has been cancelled at least twice before, and may not be ready yet.

When it is, the Spy will decline becoming an early adopter. Perhaps at about the second or third generation....

The real back story here is not just that whatever Apple does, the industry will scramble to pooh-pooh, while secretly slavishly copying, but that there seems to be a follow-the-leader mindset that has all but stifled innovation elsewhere. True, nearly every small computer innovation has come from Cupertino, and this is unlikely to change, but c'mon, MS, HP, Intel, IBM. Surely all your bright people have a few ideas of their own, without having to wait on tenterhooks for iSteve's announcements before you try anything.

Oh, and one more thing. The iSlate will not have a camera or a phone in any version larger than seven inches. At first.

Industry Goliaths will continue to put David down

despite having inferior technology for the battle, just as in the original account (projectile beats sword every time).

Latest Goliath loss was by Microsoft, knocked out by small Canadian company i4i, which successfully defended its patents on the creation of custom XML files, a technology MS had included in Word. Besides paying $290M in damages, MS will have to remove the feature from copies for sale after January 2010. The Spy's take: MS should replace its legal team. The board should consider finding a new CEO. His prediction: bullying tactics will continue, and MS faces more such debacles. Cracks are showing in the monolith.

Memo to iSteve: If you too live by the legal sword, you shall die by same.

Perhaps more important is that this whole brouhaha hardly matters, as custom XML is neither the wave of the present nor of the future.

Miscellaneous predictions

Facebook will prove a passing fad and will begin to decline in importance during the second half of 2010. Something else will become the new fad.

In the wake of the most recent deranged suicide bomber it may come to strip searching or the electronic equivalent to board a plane, bus or a ferry (to enter a freeway? a shopping centre?). Further loss of civil liberties seems inevitable in the face of the irrational belief that the Lord of Heaven approves of suicide bombings, when instead they simply defame Him. No one will remember the suicidal maniacs here, and what a judgement awaits later.

Apple stores, both the inline and physical, will experience record traffic in 2010. Apple will at least consider buying out an existing store chain. Radio Shack seems a good candidate.

Two or three new lawsuits will be launched against MS. All will ultimately win. The same number will be launched against Apple. One might eventually win a partial victory. The others will lose. The law firms involved on all sides will rub their hands in collective glee over the fees they will charge.

The economy will continue its stumbling recovery, but in the medium to longer run, the nations that do the best, have the strongest economies and currencies going forward, will be those that spent the smallest fraction of GDP on "stimulus" measures.

Apple will continue to cash in on positive mind share earned two to three years ago, and people will continue to cash out on the negative mindshare earned by MS in the same time frame.

QES (Quite enough said.) Have a good and blessed New Year, and don't take any predictions without a large block of salt.

--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.

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Last Updated: 2010 01 02