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The Northern Spy
August 2007

iPhone, iRings, iPotter

Rick Sutcliffe

Not since the debut of The Lord of the Rings

back in 1954-1955 have we seen such a storefront frenzy for a new release as this season, first with iSteve's phone, then with the final Harry Potter book.

What creates such phenomena? In the case of Tolkien's classic, and a Dickens of a frenzy in an earlier century, there was surely an early recognition of classics in the making. Indeed, LOTR defined the whole modern Celtic fantasy genre. Such an event happens only once in English Literature, and its place in the hall of fame is secure as long as the language is spoken and read. (The latter may be an issue someday, but that's a topic for another time.)

Will either of this year's phenoms have the same level of impact? Yes, and no. Yes, in the sense that both will transfer shocking gobs of money to their creators. J K Rowling is already history's first author to become a billionaire on the proceeds of her craft--an encouragement of sorts for we legions of ink-stained wretches who toil away in classical garrets and ivory basements for an average writer's income of a few thousand a year and daren't quit our day jobs. Without doubt, she'll yet add a few more billions to her collection--a level of this world's possession tokens whose only purpose is scorekeeping. Likewise, the iPhone will sell multi-millions, transferring dollars beyond most people's wildest dreams to iSteve's little Cupertino operation, in the process raising its shares to more new daily highs for the foreseeable future.

But how much does this really matter? Nothing at all in eternity, of course, where all will be either equally wealthy or equally impoverished. Meanwhile, and in the here and now, iPotter will surely inspire both peripheral industry and imitators of a sort, though it would be difficult to write close enough to share in the buzz, yet sufficiently far away to avoid being sued for copyright infringement.

Moving beyond mere economics, the impact on literature and language going forward is more problematic. Like C.S. Lewis' Narnia, the HP books will surely be child favourites for decades to come. And in this, they do both writers and literacy a service, for until Rowling waved her wand, reading appeared to be dying out among the younger generation. However, only time will tell if the HP books become literary icons for reasons other than entertainment and money, though the Spy sees no obvious reason why they should. They repackage well-used themes very well, but don't appear to contribute anything groundbreaking in a literary sense.

iHarry does flag the near complete ascendancy of fantasy over science fiction, at least in North America, a development that may bode some ill for the future of science, as the two genres are as incompatible in their effects on thinking as they are in content. Science and technology that can be dreamed of can usually (eventually) be invented and deployed, but while fantasizing of magic, wizards, damsels, and castles may be harmless enough entertainment it's difficult to see generating much practical falldown from such a mindset. Its readers may be inspired to generate more fantasy, but they won't invent spacecraft, waldos, or nanotechnology because of what they read as children. Colour this pastel however, for the Spy is not among those who believe fantasy is ipso facto harmful, provided its users remain capable of distinguishing it from reality.

Likewise, even one who makes somewhat of a career of reviewing the technological scene must react in kind to the much-ballyhooed iPhone. Of course the view from the igloo boasts none of them, as they haven't been released in the frozen north, and may not be for a while. Still, as campy and revolutionary as the iPhone may seem, it won't install or remove roadside bombs, affect the environment more than any other electronic toy, feed the hungry, comfort the sorrowing, relieve the poor, change diapers, do what you mean, or substitute for faith and its consequents (hope and love). In short, it will not change either individuals or society much for the better or the worse; it merely represents a step along the way to some as-yet-ill-defined stable technological plateau.

Yes, the Spy does look forward to being able to use a PIEA (Personal Intelligence Enhancement Appliance) as his all-purpose phone, pocket computer, PDA, bookreader, and general MetaLibrary connectivity and local storage device, complete with ear, eye, and throat implants, as do the Hibernians in his own science fiction. Yes, FWIW the iPhone clearly brings us a step closer to this. Yes, the total weight of all such empowering abstraction technology does make life simpler, easier, somewhat more equitable. However, would he ever wait in a queue of more than five people to buy a gadget, a book, or anything else for that matter? Not likely. Will this one device change anyone's life for the better in terms that really matter? Is it really that important? Not any more than the Lord of the Rings in its day, or Harry Potter in ours, as much as all three are interesting diversions, and the iPhone (unlike the other two) a potentially useful tool.

Of course, from iSteve's point of view, all the iPhone buzz is a good thing. Like the iPod before it, this toy is not only an attractive piece of this world's goods in itself, but lends its cachet to the computer business in a big way. Macintosh sales are now 5.6% of the total market (more in some sectors) and growing at three times the industry's percentage rate. It also says something about the future that Apple has apparently now tied up some 25% of the entire world's supply of flash memory production for Steve's iToys. The transfer of this world's wealth continues apace, but these are only mildly interesting toys, it is only money, and someday both will be irrelevant.


the Spy gets by without an iPhone for two reasons: First, they are missing features he'd need to persuade him to shell out that many clams--a developer's API, and the ability to act as a laptop modem top the list, though there are others. Second, they aren't available in Canada, and only will be if big changes come to the pricing regimen in the true north strong and expensive. The RO factor prices bandwidth up to ten times as much here, and unless this changes dramatically there is no way a provider like Rogers can sell iPhones with a reasonable (read near unlimited) data plan. At current Canadian market rates, the cost would be several hundred a month. OTOH, if they do price bandwidth reasonably here for the first time, it would prove the crack in RO solidarity that ultimately collapses prices across the board. It will be interesting to see how Rogers decides to balance short term corporate greed against the long term variety. If they go long, it might even become possible to run a competitive data centre in this country. Isn't that a thought?

Speculation noted in passing includes

- a nano-version of the iPhone (limited net functionality; more of a pod+phone), said to be in view for Christmas giving.

- that the ability to privately unlock the iPhone both for development and to allow alternate service providers is only a matter of time, and not much of that. No protection scheme lasts long. See the Spy's sixth law.

- an imminent revamping of the iMac line, now not only Apple's main desktop offering, but one that could simply replace the "professional" towers. After all, there's not much difference any more.

- possible security holes in the iPhone version of Safari. Users need to be careful that they know the entire URL being entered into the browser bar; it may not be entirely displayed. They also need to be cautious about clicking on (and therefore dialling) phone numbers displayed on web sites. Both features enable new phishing techniques, so it's important to know exactly what you are doing. As with any system, type urls into the browser bar, and enter phone numbers manually.

- that the slight MS server gains against Apache market share (which are certainly not be on the relative merits of the two platforms), can only result from serious pressure on major corporations. Given the recent gains by other browsers against IE, some wonder if a comparable browser campaign can be far behind. The Spy believes web designers should never include features that only work on a singe browser, regardless of the inducements. Such behaviour forces people to use inferior products, breaks the net, and produces only a monetary benefit and only for a single company.

Useful software of the month award goes to

MAMP from living-e AG. Ever tried to develop and test a Web Site on your own computer? As long as the files are straight html, you can load them directly into your browser from your files partition or directory. But, if they use php, or employ Ajax to load components into page cells, you have to run the site from an actual server. Who wants to tie up bandwidth and the remote machine to do this? You could enable the Apache server that comes with your Mac, but you'd still have to install and enable php and mysql, then put all the files there--a royal pain if, like the Spy, you ordinarily keep them on a separate partition from the boot one. Then you're into duplicating files, and/or fancy code to allow loads from your file partition, yet pull some things from the local server.

Enter MAMP (Macintosh-Apache-MySql-PHP). MAMP runs as an application, setting up a fully configured independent Apache server on a port of your choosing (default is 8888) so your sites can run from MAMP's directory, yet have full php and mysql services. Use MAMP as a full-blown server to the outside world if you want, though its main utility for the Spy is testing, and the ability to kill off many lines of tricky workaround code. This thing works flawlessly, and is also well worth the $50 or so for the pro version that allows you to create as many virtual servers as you want, and to run them from any directory on any partition. Add MAMP to the must-have list for the Mac web developer.

If you own a .ca domain,

make sure you follow the instructions mailed to you in recent months, get your membership updated, then vote in the upcoming board elections (Sept 6-13). In a repeat of his shameless plug, Rick Sutcliffe (a.k.a. The Spy) is running, and would appreciate your vote, but do vote in any case. There are few enough opportunities for hoi poloi to affect technology. Names and qualifications of candidates are on the CIRA site.

If the Spy seems preoccupied this week,

it's because number one son and professional software developer Nathan is getting married on July 29 to fellow Trinity Western University grad (in music) Charlene Dyck. See their Web Site, referenced below. Time to get busy on the program.

--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.


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

The Spy's Laws collected: http://www.thenorthernspy.com/spyslaws.htm

The Spy's Shareware download site: http://downloads.thenorthernspy.com/

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

nameman : http://nameman.net

opundo : http://opundo.com

Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org

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

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

CIRA: http://cira.ca

MAMP: http://www.mamp.info

Charlene and Nathan: http://www.charleneandnathan.com

This Arjay Enterprises page is Copyright 1983-2007.
The Northern Spy is registered at WebNameSource.com and is hosted by WebnameHost.net.
Last Updated: 2007 07 31