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The Northern Spy
May 2009

Spring Issues Roundup

Rick Sutcliffe

We've had wild speculation before, but

that surrounding Apple's probable/possible/maybe/not-a-chance releases to be announced/denied at or around WWDC in June has become almost comical.

The facts seem to be that iPhone OS3 appears to offer support for up to three new models, and that meanwhile some 3G networks appear to be on the verge of a speed bump to 7.2Mb/s, with 21Mb/s in the offing. There is also mild evidence for a (possibly stripped down) special model for the Chinese market. In addition, much has been made of a reported/rumoured/fabricated story of Apple ordering large numbers of touch screens (iTablet?).

Undoubtedly all these and many more potential products exist in prototype form somewhere at 1 Infinite Loop. So do many other mothballed items that have never seen the light of day. That iSteve will make some kind of iPhone announcement at WWDC seems probable. That it will include some/all/none of the above (or all three) is extremely speculative. A prototype becomes a product when he says so, not a minute sooner or later--and don't imagine for a moment he isn't controlling things from his comfy back yard.

Faster iPhones are indeed coming, perhaps real soon now. Someday, there may also be a larger format iPhone (the Spy's PIEA) that will obsolete all other book reading methodologies (including the dead tree kind), but perhaps not yet.

Meanwhile, Apple vehemently denies working on a NetBook computer, leading the Spy to wonder what this denial means. When a political leader announces unconditional support for a colleague in trouble or support/opposition for a controversial policy, or an NHL GM enthusiastically praises his coach, you can almost be sure a reversal is coming. "Yes" is the real "no" and vice versa in such circles.

As a long-time Apple watcher and only part time cynic of policy announcements, the Spy believes that an Apple pronouncement of "We won't produce a NetBook, because NetBooks are junk, and we don't make junk, though we do have some ideas in that space" can be roughly translated as "We've got a wicked killer product in the labs thatŐs so good we can't even compare it to a NetBook. In fact it's good enough to collaterally bury the whole NetBook concept.

The bottom line: An iTabletAir may have a nice ring to it, but unless it can be a net book killer, it probably fits a niche market, like the MacBook Air itself. Expect something in this size range, but not necessarily at WWDC. It won't be called, or even compared by Apple to a NetBook, but will use a market position of its own, one that Apple crafts for it, even if that slot erases the one currently occupied by NetBooks.

On the software side, copies of Snow Leopard are sure to be floating around WWDC, but nothing else is due for a refresh. Mark this down as an interesting conference with some goodies, but perhaps not a wicked cool event. Of more interest than products to the ink-stained wretches will be the third coming (or not) of the iSteve.

Snow Leopard does have the Spy trying to peer through the whiteout that surrounds all Apple product launches. If this is indeed a maintenance release to clean up, speed up, and slim down the core code, but isn't replete with new features, why would anyone shell out the canonical hundred and thirty nine smackers to purchase it? Seems to the Spy that adoption will be minimal if it costs much more than... well, than free. Otherwise, Apple would have to toss in some value incentive, such as a compelling new application.

Meanwhile, speculation on Apple's take

for the most recently ended quarter were for revenues of just under $8 billion and earnings of $1.09 per share.

What actually happened, per the April 22 financials? Apple announced revenue of $8.16 billion and net quarterly profit of $1.21 billion, or $1.33 per share. This compares to $7.51 billion revenue and $1.05 billion, or $1.16 per diluted share net quarterly profit for the corresponding quarter the previous year. By the numbers, this was Apple's best ever March (or non-holiday) quarterly report. iSteve's little outfit now has about $29 billion under the mattress against a rainy day, should there ever be one.

By once again blowing away estimates and guidance en route to new record high profits Apple pretty much guarantees a continuing grown in stock value (up $4 the morning of this writing), and puts to rest the naysayers who worried about declining sales and so earnings. The Spy sticks to his prediction that Apple will continue to gain computer market share in the medium to long run, and for two reasons: (1) The company hasn't come close to cashing in on all the mindshare it has already garnered via iPod and iPhone sales (see the Spy's fourth law), and (2) When the recession ends both individuals and businesses will be flush with cash, needing a technology refresh, fed up with W*nd*ws, in a mood to make capital expenditures, and value conscious. Their decisions will be no-brainers.

Following a long established lowballing pattern, Apple's own speculation or to use the financiers' technical term "guidance" for the next quarter of fiscal 2009 is for revenue of $7.7 billion to $7.9 billion and earnings per diluted share of $0.95 to $1.00. Expect this to be beaten handily.

Some other speculation

has now been set to rest, with the demise of the not-quite merger between Sun and IBM. Sun will instead be taken over by Oracle, a company living up to the inverse of its name lately by swallowing others at a prodigious rate ($7.4B in this case). Let's hope the financials are in order. Companies that grow too big on debt have a way of flying apart when the big bank boys ask for their borrowed marbles to be returned. Should be interesting to see what Oracle does with to Java and MySQL. Had MS been the swallower, you can be sure one or both would have been killed. In this case? This one is otherwise a yawner to the Spy, who's not sure why anyone wanted Sun in the first place.

Rabbit trail: As with all pendulum swings, the easy credit of the greed era has given way to obsessive caution and very difficult credit. In neither mode have most banks operated responsibly. Forcing companies and institutions to the wall today to get back borrowed money to stack it in the vaults is no sounder a strategy than was loaning it to poor risks two years ago. The banks are begging for harsh regulation (i.e. against stupidity) or government takeover. More on this below.

There was some talk that Apple might have been a suitor, but the Spy doubts this was so. Surely if iSteve is ever to spend Apple's bazillions on an acquisition, it will be of someone in a similar but complementary business. If the server side is of interest, IBM is a better fit. If extending Apple's reach into your and my digital lifestyle is what best motivates a grab, why not take Sony?

However, the few purchases Apple has made have been more focused and strategic. So if we must run with the herd of speculators, a touch screen maker or another chip fabricator might be appealing, but the Spy sees nothing obvious. Ah, leave it in the bank. There'll be bankruptcy sales galore before long. Might be able to score Mikey's little outfit cheap, if indeed it's worth anything, that is unless he first refunds the shareholders' money and winds down the business.

Office, smhoffice,

the Spy sometimes hears people say. And yet, no one has yet come up with an alternative to Office 2004 that can execute the full range of Excel macros, an utter necessity for the Spy and many others who have multi-megabyte models that reek of macro power. Open Office is getting there, for it now has, according the the Wiki documentation page, the ability to execute "many" such macros. When that becomes "all but an insignificant handful consisting of the ones he's vanishingly unlikely to use," he'll bite. Mind you, this effort appears already far better than MS has expended for Office 2008, which cannot execute Excel macros at all. And now comes word (sic) from MS itself that Office 2004 will be end-of-lifed for support purposes on 2009 10 13. There is no sight on a replacement product that will execute macros before that date, so the presumption is that MS is abandoning its power users. Why does this seem predictable in its breathtaking arrogance?

Cuts, smhuts,

though perhaps that doesn't come out too well. MS, meanwhile, is cutting at least five thousand jobs, though there is much speculation the actual number will be much higher. Perhaps some could be redeployed to rescue Excel macros. The Spy recalls talking to a former MS employee not too many moons ago, whose comment was: "You know all those horror stories about it being the evil empire? They're all true." Maybe not all, but don't tell that to the thousands being downsized in this first round of cuts along the path to has-been status.

The conflicker worm (aka Kido and Downadup),

which the Spy only half-tongue-in-cheek decomposed here last month in his April spoof column, did eventually get its payload, downloading a data theft worm and a fake antivirus application. The white hats also released signatures for real anti-virus programs to cleanse systems of conflicker, and at this point, the whole affair begins to seem a tempest in a teapot.

And yet...and yet, the Spy cannot help but think that Conflicker as it now exists is more a prototype or proof of concept, and that there is more to come. Lots more, and to much more significant ill intent.

But this bot net worm, along with others seen in the wild recently (e.g. a recently discovered Ukranian-based rental job hidden on an estimated 2M computers, including many in government) raises some other issues. Except for malware loaded by opening questionable email or browsing less than innocuous web sites (both reflections of the users' SQ or Stupidity Quotient), the Mac remains essentially immune to viral attacks. No one disputes this.

However, when it come to the reasons, the Spy hears nothing but tiresome and mindless repetitions of the mantra that no viruses are written for the Mac because the platform represents a niche product, and is therefore not worth attacking. Not only does this fail as an explanation, it is sheer nonsense. In the cracker world, the Mac OS is a juicy prize, bragging rights awaiting the first black hat to break its security by other means than playing with the user's mind, browser, or password post-it notes stuck on the bezel (or forehead). Think of the acclaim such a low-self-esteem vandal would gain. No longer a worm himself, he might live in infamy for as long as twenty minutes, five more than the average.

Face it, W*nd*ws sufferers. The Mac is inherently more secure. It does have fewer bugs/holes/problems, and these are fixed more efficiently/thoroughly/promptly than with the other guys. Moreover, it is a more productive platform because of this (and for many other reasons). On top of that it gets updated every few months, not once every five years or so, and when that happens, the update is an improvement, not a regression. Try it. There's a reason switching goes one way.


is Sitepoint'sBuild Your Own Web Site The Right way Using HTML and CSS, second ed. by Ian Lloyd. Even an old croc can get some useful reminders here of how web sites should be done, but this one shines for the relative beginner, who is taken step-by-step through the web creation process, And indeed, it is done the right way, using CSS. Everybody should have this one on their bookshelf, in the case of pros, for no other reason than to hand someone who comes looking for free advice. Very highly recommended.

Dusty nostalgic old book-of-the-month

is Apple II Reference Manual, January 1978 A.K.A. The Red book, or Apple Part No. 030-0004-00. Printed in mimeograph quality on low-grade paper, this seminal work described how to set up the computer and load a program tape from a cassette tape recorder (remember those?) through the sound port (DVD? CD? HD? floppy? Ha!). Page ten commences a description of the Breakout game, Color Demo, and Startrek Programs, complete with BASIC listings).

This is followed by a description of Apple II INTEGER BASIC (pre Applesoft; no floating point) operators, commands, and functions, with examples that employ lots of PEEK and POKE commands (remember those?). Page 67 begins the firmware description, complete with commented assembler printout (wow! how geeky can you get), a description of the 6502 chip and its instruction codes. Finally pages 106 through 151 offer a technical description of the hardware, including wiring diagrams, and the Spy's own favourite, descriptions of how to make interfaces to connect to a TV and to a a Teletype. The Spy's take? Not only don't they make books like this any more, they donŐt make users like they did in the old days. Recommended for those who are tempted to think nostalgia ain't what it used to be

Strange Bug-of-the-month

The Spy was chugging along writing this column when suddenly NisusWriterPro started changing any text he moused over to green, just by selecting it. Saving the file, restarting the program, and re-loading the file fixed the problem. Had a green cosmic ray switched a bit somewhere? Only in computing science you say? Pity.


is Joel Dufour's EarthTools of Frankfurt, KY, where they sell and service BCS and Grillo walk-behind tractors. See, the Spy has a BCS 725 with a tiller and sickle bar That is run by a no longer made 10H.P. Acme gas engine, all bought back in 1985. Two of the head bolts (special steel of course) have top studs in #6 metric for mounting the gas tank, muffler, and protective hood. This is a pretty specialized part, made for a motor no longer manufactured by a company no longer in existence for a European tiller model long discontinued. One stud broke. (In perfect hindsight, it probably should have been #8 on the top as well as on the bottom.) Called Joel. "New or used?" he asked. "I'll put them in the mail for you on Monday," says Adam Davis, his assistant. Such guys.

It's the economy, stupid.

Alas, that's not all that's likely to change as the world we've known restructures itself around us. It seems to the Spy that one probable side-effect outcome of the current economic imbroglio will be a huge swing of the pendulum from the allegedly pro-business but actually nearly criminal lack of economic and monetary rules to a potentially more damaging strangulation by well-meaning but incompetent regulation of almost everything. Not only banks and insurance companies will in future have the long nose of government sniffing out every potential move for its social and economic consequences, so will everyone and everything else.

All of us will have to put up with these indirect consequences of the bankers' and financiers' untrammelled greed, as well as with the direct economic chaos. For instance, in the new regulatory mood, Copyright rules, already burdensome, will probably become even more arcane. Website and eMail content will have to pass closer inspection or be banned by someone with an over-large eraser. Everyday behaviour will be subject to more security checks and cameras, more invasion by Big Brother, more of the very kinds of prohibitions against stupidity that the Spy's First Law laments. What price progress?

Don't get the Spy wrong. He is anything but a conspiracy theorist-nut. Indeed he observes that those of both the left and the right are indistinguishable not only in their choice of government style (of the special interest group, for the special interest group, and by the special interest group), their actions in office (reward your friends by shovelling them money off the back of the government truck, then punish your enemies for voting against you), and their inability to mount a real conspiracy (too busy fighting with each other on fine philosophical points to agree on a conspiracy of substance). No, he's afraid this is a sad case of us getting the kind of governance most people seem to want--the nanny state that delivers a way of life that is simultaneously without either risk or liberty.

Come to think of it, perhaps this is one of the explanations (not the only one) for viruses, worms and Trojan horses--they provide a graffiti-like outlet to raise a stifled hand and say "look at me, I'm different from the rest of the herd." Startle everyone, kiddies. Do a random act of kindness instead. Shock our socks off, would-be regulators of just about everything. Do what governments were intended to do. Promote virtue and restrain evil, rather than spending all your time legislating against stupidity. It's dumb. Commercial break: This rant was brought to you by the Spy's first law.

--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 named best ePublished SF novel 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: 2009 04 23