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The Northern Spy
October 2006

Much Ado...

Rick Sutcliffe

Whether it's vapourware announcements, overblown PR bumpf, misleading introductions, or the deliberate fanning of speculation, the computing industry seems mired in its own dog days just now. The vultures and sharks may be circling the world's political, software, and auction empires, but you'd never know it from the recent parade of press releases masquerading as important news. However, reluctantly setting aside his futurist's hat for another time ( and thus any discussion of the next generation's superpowers or other bright lights) the Spy contents himself for now with rubbing gloss from the lesser lamps, though with no expectation that a djin will emerge.

We seem to be swimming in ways to run Windows on a Mac

all of a sudden, with Parallels and Crossover joining Boot Camp as ways to put a foot in the other camp. Seems to the Spy that these are solutions waiting for a problem. Hey, buy one, use it for something important for more than a minute or two, and prove him wrong.

Sixty-Four bit compatibility is important

or, so we're told (again) by Apple in the run-up to the release of Leopard. But is it? Doubling the data path width does allow for double precision reals to be handled natively, and gives a wider range of values for whole number types as well, but it also wastes space for character and boolean data types, and in general throughput is more likely to be slower than faster at comparable clock speeds. The Spy's conclusion: It sounds nice for marketing purposes, but any realization of productivity gains from 64-bit software is, for most [people, years away. Ah, well, software always lags the capability of hardware by that much. I guess we "need" 64-bits in the OS before we can learn how amazing it is (or not) in applications.

"Podcast" is Apple's property

point out their lawyers, in missives sent to a variety of people using the term in recent days. Apparently Apple has decided that being first in nearly every computing innovation in the last three de cases isn't enough, if others simply steal their ideas, trademarks, and jargon. The Spy guesses that "We don't get no respect," must be the new slogan at One Infinite Loop.

Speaking of respect,

the Spy can't help wondering how Michael Dell likes the taste of his own words these days. It's less than a decade since he proclaimed that if he were CEO of Apple he'd close it down and distribute the money to the shareholders. Being on the receiving end of the press feeding frenzy over his own company's troubles while seeing Apple's stock soar (some are forecasting $100) on an unbroken stream of good news and results, must take like sour crow indeed, especially since he received the recent NASDAQ delisting notice. Be nice if his little outfit recovered, though. The industry needs people like him, even if sometimes they talk too much.

Time machines that can't run forward

seem to the Spy to lack in romantic charm, as Leacock might have put it. If Apple really wanted to impress us with its new backup software by that name, they'd re-feature it to be capable of "restoring" the machine to the state it will have achieved, say, seven days' hence, so we poor keyboard pounders can all take an occasional week of vacation time.

Is Blu-Ray missing in action at Apple,

or are we witnessing a political pressure ploy against Sony? Though Apple is supposedly a Blu-Ray supporter, they have yet to install a unit in their products. Is Steve J. pressuring Sony to come alongside Apple on video distribution before giving Sony's hardware the credibility it needs to achieve meaningful market penetration? Nah. Couldn't be. (Slaps own wrist. Go away conspiracy theorist.)

Is it just us by the way,

or does the newest video iPod and its small library of Disney movies seem rather lame (the first week's 125 000 downloads notwithstanding)? Either Apple is still in negotiation with more studios to add to the selection, or they're being ganged up on by the same Hollywood moghoules who'd like nothing better than to see the whole project collapse. The Spy suspects that Apple had this much ready some time ago, but delayed hoping for more partners, then finally had to release something, even if it was crippled by lack of support from content providers. Wal-Mart isn't helping the cause any by its apparent reluctance to carry physical product for any movies sold by Apple as downloads--a potent argument against any studio thinking of cooperating with Apple. The moghoules oughta re-take Business 101, the part where they teach about supply and demand curves. They'd make lots more on higher volumes with electronic dist.

Oh, and with respect to Leopard's much ballyhooed secret features,

does anyone really believe the sly political line that they were to prevent the Redmond photocopiers from working overtime in the last desperation run from Vista's RC1 (should have been a beta or lower) to its ever-slipping production date (think fall of 2007)? Unless his was a tip of the slung, the whole thing seems pointless. MS couldn't get another feature into Vista unless they had a time machine of their own to run the clock back six years.

Nah, there being no obvious motivation this unprecedented behaviour (and everything said at WWDC is carefully scripted), it's gotta be a red herring, perhaps designed to distract from something Apple themselves are planning, say a new piece of hardware or software that's intimately tied into the "secret" features.

What product might this be? Not the aforementioned video iPod, for sure. It's already limped into sight. With respect to software, the major lack in the Apple line is a productivity suite, but surely spreadsheet and database don't need OS hooks, unless they are going to be core services others can build upon. Hmmm. Even a new hardware device such as the upcoming 8-core MacPro shouldn't need new OS features.

This includes the new iPhone Apple and Cingular are apparently set to release, an offering whose first iteration is more likely to be sold on eye appeal than new functionality, and therefore unlikely to need main momma's OS support, except perhaps for tweaks to iTunes and iSync. No, an Apple-branded phone isn't as revolutionary as an Apple phone company would be.

How about The Son of Newton, Apple's much re-tooled and delayed eBook reader/smartphone/PDA? It could require from Ma Apple yet another OS-based proprietary encrypted format for eBook content protection. 'Course, if it did, it could also go to the same technological grave all its predecessors did. Sorry folks. If you don't make this one wide open, it ain't going to fly. Other candidates that come to mind include a tablet device on the hardware side, or a real virtual machine on the software. But in any case, let's not have another cell phoney like the one Apple and Motorola came out with last year (or does it seem longer?).

And no, oh phalanx of lawyers, the Spy has not downloaded his preview copy of Leopard yet, nor has he peeked at anyone else's, nor does he have inside information. His Macs are working machines, after all. But enquiring minds do wonder when someone like the normally predictable SJ says something so out of character.

While we're trading in useless speculation,

there's sure been plenty centred around the installation of Google CEO Eric Schmidt on Apple's BoG. Not to give credence to anything in particular, but this ranges from musings over Job's state of health to casting Schmidt as potential pitchman for a big merger that would bring in a new CEO and allow Jobs to retire to tending his chickens, or riding a hospital bed. The Spy's better explanation: this is just the old boys' trading in board seats and other small favours. Call Schmidt eye candy for now, though Steve will undoubtedly want a return favour some day.

In a case where the ado is indeed a propos

the most commonly used web hosting software, cPanel was recently exploited by the black hats. Seems if you have a cPanel account on a box, you could escalate your privileges to root and do as you pleased. Some major hosting vendors were fatally compromised before the hole was plugged. So much for the concept of a trusted customer. However, by this time all cPanel hosts who have upgraded their system or used wget -q -O - http://layer1.cpanel.net/installer/sec092406.pl | perl from an SSH session are secure. They can verify a system is patched with wget -q -O - http://layer1.cpanel.net/installer/cpanel_exploit_checker_092406.pl | perl.

A few people over on WebHostingTalk.com overreacted, claiming they'd be dumping cPanel for some other product because of this exploit. The Spy cannot help wondering which competitive product they plan to use and how long their customers will allow it. Indeed, he only employs Linux on his hosting box because cPanel is not available under MacOS.

On the other hand he advises fellow MacOS folk not to get complacent about exploits even if there is five orders of magnitude more malware on W*nd*ws. It's only a matter of time, folks. Be careful. Anyone who thinks an OS can be made foolproof has seriously underestimated the ingenuity of the fools.

Something that is cross-platform

is Ruby on Rails, the hot new programming language and environment for writing AJAX and other database-oriented web applications. O'Reilly's new book on the subject arrived too late for this month's column, but has a good shot at a review for November. The Spy does muse though that when he first heard about AJAX and looked in to see what it was all about, he discovered he'd been doing some of that for a few years without calling it anything. Maybe he oughta take an ePage from Apple's book, think up some names, trademark them, and hire lawyers. Nah, that'd be too much like SCO. Who? Quite so.

And the Spy does hope

for his Christian SF novel The General, fourth in The Interregnum series, that the welcome ado Tom Easton made in his Analog column The Reference Library will get a few of his millions of readers excited about buying the series. The Spy could do with a few more readers himself. The review is online at Arjay Books, and will be at Analog Magazine's site once they post the November issue. Easton has his criticisms, but the Spy pleads guilty.

--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: 2006 11 08