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The Northern Spy
November 2008

PIEA in the Sky

Rick Sutcliffe

Our long time reader

will be well aware of the Spy's wish device, the one well-equipped Hibernian characters in his novels never leave home without--the PIEA or Portable Intelligence Enhancement Appliance. By parts a Metalibrary Terminal (Internet access), computer, local storage, communicator, database, and book reader, it's the ultimate portable machine he's been waiting to buy since the 1980s.

We've been getting closer lately, so much so that someone asked the other day whether we're done and the iPhone is the PIEA. His answer: No, not so much because of a lack of functionality (mostly there), but because it uses the wrong communications paradigm. Cell phone technology is merely a temporary stopgap. Universal Wi-Fi with telephony via voice-over net is where we go after the phone company becomes obsolete (or transitions to the real thing). He is therefore inclined to think the iPod Touch is closer to being his PIEA than is the iPhone.

Son Nathan seemed to confirm this the other day. His home computer is now set up to answer a land line, takes voice messages, and forwards them as email attachments to the mail account he reads on his Touch. He's giving up his cell line. He lives and works surrounded by Wi-Fi, so why not? Someday he won't need any phone per se. The Spy may go the same route, as he particularly dislikes locked phones. Besides, it should be apparent by now that the Spy's sixth law applies to hardware as well as software. Indeed, anything that can be used can be unlocked.

Been thinking, too,

dangerous as Big Julie thought it was, about those August comments on where computers ought to be sold (tool stores, not speciality outlets). This observation goes deeper, to the heart of what these handy boxes are--problem-solving tools, not appliances. Time to formulate this as the Spy's tenth law:

Computers are not toasters. They are compound sliding mitre saws.

By the Numbers

iSteve's little Cupertino company is doing pretty well. Late in October 2008, it reported a $1.14 billion profit for its fiscal fourth quarter, $25 billion in the bank, increased market share, and the goal of ten million iPhones sold reached a few months early. Revenue and profit were up twenty-seven and twenty-six percent, respectively, and all the numbers beat both guidance and analyst forecasts. At $1.26 per share, earnings are quite comfortable, thank you very much. Moreover, sales continue to grow at three-plus times the industry average.

How will the much-touted recession affect these numbers? Apple has given new guidance of $1 earnings per share for the next quarter, but remember that iSteve's counters of potential beans routinely underestimate for public consumption. As in government, nothing beats suggesting good news, then producing even better.

The real story, as mentioned in this space some months ago, is that Apple seems poised to continue growth of computer sales by 25% year over year, while PC makers may now see flat or shrinking sales. Apple therefore appears on target to reach the Spy's intermediate goal of 15% market share in two years give or take a month (less time if the recession is very deep).

The company is also on track to completely dominate the cell phone market, having passed struggling RIM (Blackberry) on the turn and now lengthening the lead coming down the stretch. Put a takeover watch on medium fish RIM, with the most likely shark to swallow it being MS.

Meanwhile, asked about low-end computers, Jobs replied "We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk. It's just not in our DNA. That's not what we do." The Spy notes, however, that a small but powerful iTablet, an $800 Apple-designed notebook, or a larger format iPod Touch wouldn't be $500 junk computers, and iSteve is not a man to leave one or more obvious niches unfilled for too many cash register cycles. Assume he has variants of all three in prototype at least, and only has to select the first to go to market (or pass again for a while).

Not everything Cupertino does makes sense, though. The latest unibody aluminum MacBooks have no FireWire port (does not apply to the Pro, which does have one), a strange decision given FW is a homegrown Apple technology that has just seen an upgrade to its standard that promises much higher speeds. Even version FireWire one is faster than USB 2.0. Schools and others who depend on the FireWire port to connect to video equipment are suddenly very unhappy campers. An adapter just doesn't cut it.

The Spy realizes that for the computing world, eSATA may be the eventual way to go, but for cameras, FireWire remains the gold standard, and unless Apple wants all those video files processed on competitor's boxes, this decision will get changed. Mind you, when did iSteve ever change a decision? Perhaps there's a market here for Express Card slot FW adapters.

Neither is the Spy keen on the glossy screens iSteve seems in love with these days. They introduce too much glare, and the sweet angle for viewing proper colours and clear text is too narrow. He'll take matte, if he can get it, and still view the screen though tinted computer glasses.

Another thing that may or may not make sense, depending on one's perspective, is iSteve's continuing reluctance to include Blu-Ray drives in his products. Sure, the license fee is a bummer, but one cannot help but wonder if there is more than mere pique at play here. Has he something else up his sleeve, or is it a case of "yes, but not yet"?

And, getting back to that bank balance. Stock prices may have continued plummeting, but the Cupertino piggy bank just keeps growing. Since iSteve clearly believes in riding high on the waves of the economic storm, the Spy expects he will put at least some of that nicely stacked-up money to use in targeted technology purchases to strategically grow the company.

Speaking of things Redmond

billg's former emporium is starting to look pretty sad these days. Apple's latest "I'm a Mac" advert, featuring the PC bean counter who puts all the money into advertising and none into fixing problems is the best one of the series to date. Sure, it's a negative attack ad, of the kind he deplores in politics, but at the same time it's subtle, hilarious, memorable, and sadly, factual.

The Spy cannot understand why anyone buys PCs any more. The cheap ones are indeed junk (but who wants to throw away even $500?) and even the better boxes don't last much longer than three years. As for the OS, a functional Vista remains pie in the sky, and worse, MS doesn't appear to understand what to do about it or how. For home or work, a decision to buy Vista over Mac OS X is simply irrational.

There is one good note concerning MSOffice, though. (Keep in mind that the Spy only uses the 2004 version, as the 2008 one is non-functional for someone dependent on macros.) LA couple of routine updates back, the Excel save function was broken by MS. The first save of a sheet worked, but a subsequent save on the same sheet during that session produced a dialog box saying that the backup could not be saved and asking whether the user wanted to proceed without a backup. If you said "yes" the backup was in fact saved, but one still had the annoyance and the uncertainty. As of the 2008 09 16 update, this bug in 11.5.2 appears to have gone away. That it could be introduced in the first place, and even survive one update cycle speaks volumes about the QA process (or lack of it) at MS. This thing simply wasn't pounded on for any length of time.

Speaking of updates,

long ago and far away in computer time, the Spy employed a cross-application (system wide) OS-9 based spelling checker called Spell Checker. Loaded as an extension, it would check spelling in any application--important to him because application-specific checkers like the one in Nisus Writer Classic were weak at best, and he uses many applications in a day, so it was nice to maintain only one word list. At first, there was no such checker with OS X, and what Apple and others provide even today is uninspired and awkward.

Why not a cross-application checker that pops up a window of suggestions every time you type something not in its dictionary, and allows you to select a correction with a keystroke? Why not allow this to be configured on an application--by-application basis while still maintaining a single comprehensive word list for them all (in any given language), permit typing completions, fixes broken word pairs such as "and the", can be run interactively (correcting live typing) or in batch mode (whole file), and is configurable to death from either its own application preference pane or a menu-bar pull down?

Why not take advantage of OS X's input methods to make the interactive mode fast and efficient? Well, the old Spell Catcher's author Evan Gross of Rainmaker Research Inc. has done all this, in the process producing an absolutely must-have product, a more comprehensive and more accurate spell checker than any he has seen to date. Moreover, nearly ninety percent of the time, the first item in the suggestion list is indeed the correct replacement, and the Spy has yet to need anything beyond the third of sixteen.

Installation, license activation, and the attachment of the Canadian English language module (extra money needed) was somewhat clumsy. There was also some temporary nonsense about highlighting not matching font size, but a restart cured all that, and now that Spell Catcher 10.3 is up and running, it works like a wicked fast charm. The Spy has it set to produce suggestions in a window rather than a pop up by the word being questioned, and is in the process of teaching it specialized words and completions. More on this great writing utility at a later date, but initial impressions after a couple of weeks are good enough for it to earn an enthusiastic buy recommendation already.

Other must-have programs

include the incomparable Cocktail utilities suite, now bumped with new features to version 4.2 (and still available for Leopard), and of course the Spy's new favourite book writing tool Scrivener, whose version 1.12 is still in beta. Good as Scrivener is for this, there are other text tools that excel in other situations. No one has only one kind of hammer or saw in the tool box. Likewise, there are speciality programs for handling text in various contexts. For less than book-length writing (and even for that it is good; Scrivener is just that much better) NisusWriter Pro is the software of choice (and even use it on the final book assembly), and for programming (applications or the web) BBEdit has all the bells and whistles one needs. Where does this leave W*rd? The Spy never uses it--too bloated and clumsy, too non-intuitive, too slow on large files. But lest a new reader think this is mere bashing, the Spy still holds that Excel 2004 is the single best and most important piece of software ever written.

Finally, the last and most important upgrade

is to the Spy's own titles, which now include "Grampa" for the first time, as son Nathan and daughter-in-law Charlene have produced a new generation of wetware in the person of Elianna Sutcliffe, born 2008 10 22 at 1004 and massing 3654g (8lb 1oz for those still in the dark ages.) Can't wait to teach her how to play "hop on Pop". At the time of this writing she was barely a day old and already had her own web site. Check it out at elianna.sutcliffe.ca.

--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

Rainmaker (Spell Catcher) : http://www.spellcatcher.com/

Cocktail : http://www.maintain.se/cocktail/index.php

Elianna Sutcliffe: http://elianna.sutcliffe.ca/

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Last Updated: 2008 10 25