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The Northern Spy
Oct 2004

The Good, The Bad, And The Not Even Wrong

Rick Sutcliffe

The Light Side

As pumpkin season approaches, Apple continues to bask in the glow of positive press, sales figures, and bottom line, an astounding turnaround from just a few years ago when the company's obituary appeared daily in the industry press. Since, with few exceptions during those dark years, Apple has been the first to market with nearly every innovation in personal computing, it behooves us to speculate periodically on what's brewing.

The Next Little Things

Expect the first flash-based "iPod micro" in time for Christmas buying. It will be a long time before capacities catch up with those of the disk-based players, but this is a natural next step. Eventually music readers will have no moving parts and be only large enough to allow for a screen and connector plugs.

A faster G5 is a slight possibility before the end of the year, depending on chip yields and the resulting supply. But don't hold your breath for a G5 portable any time soon. One might be doable now at 1.2 GHz, but that's a speed point that is hardly worthwhile. We may even have to wait for the G6 to see the fulfilment of Job's promise of 3GHz machines.

The Next Big Thing

However while continued refinement/miniaturization of the iPod and faster G5 machines are likely to continue having positive effects on both market share and the bottom line, they are scarcely the NBT to escape Cupertino's intriguing self-imposed silence. Rather, the Spy believes the time has finally come for Apple to begin filling in the inviting market gulf between iPod and laptop.

How to proceed, when the PDA market seems flat, uninspiring, with only sufficient imagination to produce half-baked smartphones running the increasingly dated Palm OS or yet another insecure and buggy version of Windoze?

How about the iSlate, a pocket Mac, complete with wireless connectivity and, in some models, high speed data phone? Give it 15cm by 10cm high resolution screen above a larger keyboard than any existing pocket device. Too big, you say? Have the entire device fold in half down the middle, with cellphone functionality still available on the outside. Alternately, put the screen on the left of the fold and have a rotatable keyboard to the right, giving a T-appearance in one configuration.

Some versions could be larger than pocket size, but collectively might finally be not only the useable micro-portable we've been waiting for, but also the killer eBook reader that industry needs to take off. Apple could sell a reader-only version without the other functionality for $50, whilst milking the high end market with the full version at a $1000 price point.

For connectivity, how about a fast, proprietary Apple network, perhaps in conjunction with a big name provider such as AT&T, a company that would dearly love to get back into the cell phone after seeing its spin-off (not the name) gobbled up by Cingular. For book content, Apple could either expanding iTunes to eBooks, or partner with an established e-tailer like Fictionwise.

Has the Spy seen the iSlate? Ah, no. Call all this sheer speculation. Yet, this is so obviously the missing spoke in Apple's digital hub that they must go in this direction sooner or later. The last time he squeezed a company official on the matter of an eBook reader, he was told Apple did not yet know how to do it right. He thinks they may now have had time to figure it out. [Hmmm. After writing this, the Spy Googled the term iSlate just for laughs and discovered similar speculation at Mac Daily News, even using the same name for the NBT. How interesting.]

In the interim, continuing sales of iPods and the latest iMac, released to universal praise, seem likely to have a positive effect on both market share and the bottom line. Expect this to be a better quarter than most for Cupertino. Expect it to be followed by better ones still. Expect a few acquisitions with that honey pot of cash Steve and the boys have piled up at the bank.

On the Other Palm

It appears that earlier stories about Sony abandoning the Palm OS are not accurate, for the company has released a new Palm enabled machine called the VZ90 with organic LEDs that apparently produce quite a stunning screen at very low power. In related news, PalmOne is rumoured to be ready to announce their new T5 shortly after this column is shipped to bit heaven.

On the Griping Hand

Meanwhile, in what has become a complete about face, it seems that though once industry darling Microsoft can easily buy friendly press, it cannot manufacture good news for it to publish. September was yet another bad hair month for the giant, which finds itself beset by failures, fallout from bugs, the consequences of bad decisions, and shifting market share.

Will the real Longhorn please stand up?

In the years since first announcing Longhorn, Microsoft has alternated announcements on the next version of its operating system between release delays of yet another year on the one hand, and the removal of features on the other. This past month was the latter's turn, as Microsoft has now removed its much touted WinFS storage and query system from Longhorn.

Moreover, when these technologies are eventually released in 2007 (a year after the current Longhorn target), they will also be backported to XP and Windows 2003. This leads the Spy to wonder what is the point of Longhorn. To think about it another way, since what was to be the showcase feature of the new version is coming later (maybe), perhaps the latest news is just a delay by some other name. MS can spin what anyone else would call a technology preview in 2006 and ship the real thing a year later. Maybe. The Spy expects the ship date to slip at least another six months to a year.

Perhaps by the Longhorn does appear, Linux and Mac OS will be so much farther ahead in features and security than they already are at present that no one will care any more.

On the bug fix front, MS recently released XP Service Pack 2 to fix a variety of problems in its current operating system. This patch has had mixed success, with some installing it without incident, and others having difficulties, even discovering further security holes and bugs. As this is fairly typical, prudent users are well advised not to be among the first to install such service packs, but to wait a month or so and let others work through the grief, so MS can patch the patch. It's not a good idea to wait too long, however, as the black hats are sure to exploit unpatched machines wherever possible.

Browser Wars II

A few years ago it appeared Internet Explorer had vanquished all the contenders and was on the verge of achieving monopoly status. But, as a number of site administrators have reported in the last while, market share as measured by browser self-identification has been changing rapidly. After noting one article claiming IE share had dropped from 95% to 57%, the Spy ran a check on his own sites, which average several thousand visitors a day.

Here at Arjay Enterprises, the change has been less dramatic, going from 90% IE to about 75%. The beneficiaries? Safari has grown from nothing to between 3 and 5%, and the unidentified category has gone from negligible to 10%+. Mozilla browsers, particularly Firefox, if one credits anecdotal reports, appear to have benefited the most, with some claiming Firefox alone has over 10%.

The Spy, who had till now alternated between Safari and the speedier Camino (another Mozilla product, but specifically for OS X) decided to give Firefox a try, and was pleasantly surprised to discover it renders pages even faster than Camino, though like all Mozilla browsers, it seems sluggish to load. Version 1.0 preview appears stable, has run continuously here for two weeks without a crash or a stall (Safari developers please take note) and appears to correctly render all the pages the Spy frequents. A bouquet for Firefox.

Meanwhile, in what can only further assist the competition, Microsoft recently announced it would henceforth do security upgrades for IE only on XP, not earlier versions of the OS. Obviously they want to force the laggards to pay for an upgrade. But in view of recently discovered vulnerabilities in the IE JPEG file handling code that allow malicious sites to run arbitrary code on the browsing machine, MS may have to reconsider this policy. Since pages exploiting this weakness have already appeared, so that no graphic a machine loads can now be assumed safe, the Spy recommends an immediate switch to Firefox, Safari, OmniWeb, Opera, iCab or other comparable product, at least until this latest hole is plugged. Those who consider themselves locked in to IE should disable the downloading of graphics for the time being.

The Spy also reminds site developers that features designed to work correctly only with IE are really bugs ones that will now annoy a much larger percentage of the browsing community. For his part, the Spy's other name is iconoclast. He's always developed his sites to standards, not to products. Oddly enough, they always work on Mozilla products, Safari, and Opera, but only usually perform correctly on IE. Sorry about that, but he'll not do workarounds to account for bugs or the failure to adhere to standards.

Oh, and one more thing. IE is not the only downloader to have such vulnerabilities. Real Player suffers from similar flaws, and these could affect Macs as well as Wintel machines. Caveat emptor.

Who is he in yonder stall

is a hymn the Spy has always thought should be the air traffic controllers' anthem. But according to a widely quoted article from the Los Angeles Times a combination of human error and design problems in their Windows servers stalled much of the Southern California air traffic control system for nearly three hours last month. Apparently some 800 planes were in uncontrolled airspace , lacking radio contact to ground control. In at least five cases, planes encroached too close to one another, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Excuse me? A system that cannot be trusted to surf the web securely is being relied upon for air traffic radio control at one of the world's busier airports? The Spy is suddenly disinclined to visit LAX again.

But let's not overdo it

like some of the folk with one of the IE browser competitors who put too enthusiastic a spin on the bad news. While a spokesman for Germany's Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) did suggest in view of some of the above that users consider alternatives to (IE) Web browser, the agency did not, as first reported elsewhere, recommend users cease using Microsoft products generally. Whether he should have or not is another matter.

Noted in Passing

Hitachi Global Storage Technologies Inc. (HGST) recently announced that it expects to make available 5400 rpm 2.5-inch hard drives with capacities from 40G to 100GB for notebook computers by the end of 2004. This is a good stop along the way, and some manufacturers may employ these, but an increase of 20G from what's available is scarcely earth shattering news. The Spy expects to see notebook hard drive capacities in the 160g range by the end of 2005 and double that by the end of the following year. Oh, and those products may be smaller than the 2.5 inch form factor.

BBEdit 8.0, praised in this space last month, has had two bug fix upgrades since that time, and users should download version 8.02. Bugs fixed include one that affected the word wrap functionality, and another that corrects errors in the FTP facility.ΚΚ

Coming Soon to this Space

Starting next month (which may come as soon as two weeks from now to meet print deadlines for new partners) the Spy plans to run a regular tutorial on computing basics along with the news and commentary. This may include buying suggestions, networking ideas, how-tos on web site creation, an introduction to the fourth civilization, and other basic topics. Time to revisit the roots, so to speak. That is, if Nellie and I can get our act together. Meanwhile, there's VCON to attend, some minor editing on The General to meet the EPPIE deadline, classes to teach, fall tractor work on the old farm, and a faculty meeting to chair on Tuesday. It's going to be an interesting week (in the Chinese curse sense).ΚΚ

--The Northern Spy

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.

NOTE: The terms Metalibrary, Fourth Civilization, New Renaissance, and others, were first exposited in a series of articles appearing in this and others of Rick Sutcliffe's columns in the early 1980s. A full explanation can be found in "The Fourth Civilization-- Technology Society and Ethics" which is available at the URL noted below.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

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

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

The Fourth Civilization (text): http://www.4civ.com/

Article on Browser stats: http://weblogs.mozillazine.org/asa/archives/006444.html

BSI warning: http://www.infoworld.com/article/04/09/16/HNgermanie_1.html?source=rss&url=http://www.infoworld.com/article/04/09/16/HNgermanie_1.html

Mac Daily News on their version of the iSlate:http://www.macdailynews.com/comments.php?id=P2167_0_1_0

Mac Daily News on Air Traffic problems: http://www.macdailynews.com/comments.php?id=P3507_0_1_0

Apple's new iMac: http://www.apple.com/imac/

Bare Bones Software (BBEdit):http://www.barebones.com/products/bbedit/


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Last Updated: 2006 11 08