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The Northern Spy
March 2006

A Spring Roundup

Rick Sutcliffe

Golden arches on the website

and a graphic proclaiming ___ billion sold seem to be in order for the iTunes store, which last month raced past the nine figure mark. It seems clear now that the other (ahem) players in the MP3 music game will have to content themselves with niche marketing, as Apple clearly owns this segment. It must be interesting to be on the other end of the monopoly for a change.

And, if we were in any doubt about Apple's determination to metamorphose into an entertainment company, the new iPod Hi-Fi should erase an uncertainty. High quality sound and portability combine with the "cool" factor to make this newest foray into the music business a guaranteed success, though the Spy has to wonder how this will play out in the Apple vs Apple suit. After all, the issue there was whether reusing a music company's logo would be confusing to customers. As long as this Apple was a computer company, that was a non-issue. Now that it is a music company also....

Macs themselves are selling by the millions a quarter

as Apple gradually replaces the Power line with MacTels, the menu item of choice being two all-beefy cores in a sesame seed enclosure. Specifically, the new Mac mini units are about $100 more expensive than the ones they replace, and seem to cut the mustard with customers, as sales have increased throughout the transition period thus far, and Apple's market share continues to trend upward. (However, it will take a while for Apple to catch-up, if one may extend the analogy beyond redemption.) Simultaneously, the soon-to-be-relic "power" units are vanishing from the price list, and software manufacturers are bringing out universal versions to run natively on both old and new Macs.

For the record, the new machine's specs are:

Intel GMA950 graphics processor with 64MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory (change from Radeon 9200, double the memory, slight change in memory architecture)

DVI video output for digital resolutions to 1920 by 1200 pixels; supports 20-inch and 23-inch Apple Cinema Displays, coherent digital displays to 154MHz; noncoherent digital displays to 135MHz, and VGA video output (using included adapter) to 1920 by 1080 pixels (no changes from G5 model)

S-video and composite video output to connect directly to a TV or projector (using Apple DVI to Video Adapter, sold separately) (no changes from G5 model)

Of course, any claims by Apple that the new machines are "up to four times as fast" must be taken with a large block of salt. Yes, they've contrived certain specific tests for which this is true, but the ordinary user of standard production software shouldn't expect more than 20% gains even from dual core MacTels in most cases, and some applications will run considerably slower until they are universalized and optimized.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of specs, it turns out that the previously announced 15-inch MacBook Pro will ship at speeds starting at 1.83G rather than 1.67G, taking a speed bump even before being shipped.

Rumour mills are working overtime

speculating on a new iPod/tablet/PDA/phone/pocket Mac in the near future. It's a rumour whose realization the Spy has encouraged for some time, a step along the way to the PIEA (Personal Intelligence Enhancement Appliance) that he features in his science fiction.

The time is ripe, and Apple could well announce a product line in this niche sometime this year, one that incidentally would finally crack open the eBook reader market for good and all. However, for the more mundane and immediate rollouts, expect MacIntels in the low-end portable, 12 inch and 17 inch screen MacBooks, possibly one last desktop speed bump in the G5 line to tide things over till Fall, new products for education, and improvements to word processing and other productivity software.

However, the Spy has just purchased a new G5,

in the 2.5G quad configuration. Why? Because he still depends heavily on features of the venerable NisusWriter 6.5 running under Classic, still IHHO unmatched for speed and utility by any other word processor yet produced on any platform. Given that he maintains two textbooks, one over 400 pages and the other approaching 1300, both making extensive use of mail merge, invisible text (for parallel HTML markup), indexing, table of contents markup, graphics layer, and a host of other features not yet available in a comparable OS X package, he remains dependent on the legacy version. Given the glacial speed of text rendering by all OS X applications, and the tectonic pace of feature inclusion in OS X word processors, he needs to ensure the availability of Classic on his desktop for a few more years. Besides, you should see how fast NisusWriter Classic is on a quad G5. Oh my.

So, should you make the MacTel transition? The Spy offers the typical academic waffle: "It depends". If you are certain you have forever cut loose from Classic, and if your mission critical applications are either universal or will run at an acceptable pace under Rosetta, there's nothing stopping you. Otherwise, wait a year.

WWDC 2006

will be held later than ever this year, August 7-11 in San Francisco, CA. In recent years, Apple has saved major announcements for its faithful developers, rather than offer them to he great unwashed at mere trade shows. For instance, last year's WWDC saw Apple announce the Intel transition. What's in the works to reward loyal developers that requires a delay to August from the normal May-June timeframe? How about Leopard running on a MacInTower twin processor dual core Intel desktop? It would make sense, though both the Big Mac and the big cat would be ahead of schedule if this happened. Ah, but so would a Girl Guides convention at Moscone forcing Apple to bump a couple of months, so don't pay attention to rumours, even if you did hear them here first.

As the Spy anticipated,

it didn't take long for someone to figure out how to boot W*nd*ws XP on the MacTels. After all, it was just a matter of getting a BIOS to load first. The detailed procedure is widely available on the net, though the Spy won't be using it for two reasons. First, the solution is still somewhat fragile and when it fails, one can be faced with reinitializing the boot drive. Best to wait for an industrial strength version if you really think you need this capability. Second, the Spy has to wonder why it makes sense to buy a system incorporating a superior OS, then hack it to run a cheap imitation. "Do it because you can" is something the Spy understands, but he has too much important work to trust its completion to an OS whose bug count can only be approximated within an order of magnitude by statistical estimates.

The next challenge of course is to get MacOS running on stock Intel machines. This one is a little more difficult, but the Spy does not see the technical difficulties as overwhelming. Any code, no matter how protected, that can be decoded for loading and running in any one machine, can have the protection broken for operation in others. Apple would be far better off going for the knockout punch by selling OS X in open competition against W*nd*ws on any and all Intels.

The shooting yourself in the foot department

If you have Apple Mail or Safari (or any other application) set to auto execute scripts or to auto unpack downloaded files, you ought to turn this functionality off as it can be exploited. Malicious files can be disguised to look innocuous, but when opened can execute code that installs malware. For instance, Terminal can be called to execute scripts.

It suffices to disguise a script with the ending "jpg" and assign the Terminal application for opening it. If this script is then sent in the AppleDouble format as an attachment, the information is passed along so that the recipient's system also opens it with the Terminal. Apple Mail displays the attachment with a JPG file symbol, but when users click on it, the script executes within Terminal without further prompting.

What to do? Disable the "open safe files after downloading" option in the Safari preferences general pane, and in any similar application. (The Spy did this a loooong time ago, in anticipation of this obvious exploit, and wonders why it took the script kiddies so long to find it.) Afterwards, ensure your OS X is up to date by running the latest security update. Supposedly this exploit has been fixed, but you should never allow any downloaded file to open automatically without your explicit on-the-spot permission.

El Camino Real

Camino is a fast, sleek, native OS X browser in the Netscape-Mozilla-Firefox line that has been around for a few years in the 0.6 through 0.8 version numbering range. Now released by the Mozilla Foundation in version 1.0, it has become the Spy's browser of choice ahead of Firefox, shoving Safari down to third place. (Don't even think that other word starting with the third last letter of the alphabet or I'll wash your mouth out with SOAP.)

And, since we're talking software upgrades,

the Spy notes that Stairways Software has released Interarchy 8.0. More than just an FTP program, Interarchy is the Spy's favourite tool for a variety of net-related file tasks, including transferring websites. It's worth the upgrade.

The pitter patter of little feats

Seiko Epson has filed more lawsuits against companies making or selling third-party ink cartridges that it claims infringe upon its patents. The Spy's advice. Stop buying Epson until it has a business model that doesn't need to depend on litigation.

In the old days,

when our machine language programs lost their way to wandering about, aimlessly browsing cycles and memory, we said they'd done a BTG. Well, the Redmond cowboys have sent the MS cattle on their own Branch to Tall Grass as the long ballyhooed W*nd*ws 2002/Longhorn/Vista, has again been postponed, this time to 2007. Word on the street is that disgruntled MS employees are demanding CEO Steve Balmer be relocated to presidential boot hill. It may not be time yet to plant petunias on the MS ranch graveyard, but the atmosphere is grim, what with the Cupertino boys setting up fancy new homesteads on all the new waterholes, and the sheep tearing out the old grass by the roots, and the cattle getting ready to stampede to better pastures. Stay tuend to this spot though, as the Spy believes there may be breaking news on the subject in a couple of days.

Oh, and one more thing

while we're on the subject of sheep. The Spy's home town of Abbotsford recently saw much public debate over whether a casino ought to be constructed in the town. Typically, proponents cited the taxation windfall, the jobs, the tourist spinoffs, and all the usual ephemeral benefits, and tried to minimize the problems of addiction, crime, and poverty. But doesn't anybody out there do the math? Gambling, whether online or casino-style isn't a zero-sum game, with a corresponding winner to every loser. It's a negative sum game, where the house and the government take their cut, game in and game out. Lotteries, by the way, return the least amount to the player of any form of gambling. Folks, gambling is a suckers' game, a tax on stupidity--almost enough to persuade the Spy that his fourth law ("It is usually stupid to pass laws against stupidity. Don't do it.") ought to be repealed--and this is quite apart from the social damage. Hello, hello, gambling proponents (knocks on their heads). Is anyone home? Don't you understand? Eventually, you will always lose your shirt.

--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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Stairways: http://www.interarchy.com/main/

Camino: http://www.mozilla.org/

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Last Updated: 2006 11 08