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The Northern Spy
June 2004

The June Drop and A Palm for the Apple, Part II

Rick Sutcliffe

Ah, the month of June. Early blossoms have been replaced by the small fruit, the weakest of which either fall from the tree on their own or have to be picked off by hand and discarded. In a similar vein, Canadians cull their politicians on June 28. The technology industry is similar. In the Spy's view, we labour in an immature field, one where the fruit is far from ripe. Fail to tend the orchard and the end product will be scabby or wormy, unfit for animal consumption, much less the dinner table. Speaking of which,

Has anyone else noticed that Apple seems to be under Microsoft's radar lately? No pot shots, no comparison ads, no comments at all. The more cynical might suggest that a sub five percent market share simply doesn't matter. The more perspicacious might realize that Microsoft has bigger fish to fry, one Apple swims among, but not as the most obvious target.

No, the biggest problem to MS, and the one that might eventually prove the worm of undoing, is the idea of open source. There was a time, not too many years ago, when open source was synonymous with low functionality and even poorer quality than MS itself. However, as any truly professional software engineer knows from experience, final functional quality depends on sound design and the number and depth of code reviews. It is much less dependent on the genius of the code writer.

Specifically, since debugging effort scales roughly with the square of code length, modular, compartmentalized design (careful factoring, breadth, rather than depth on the design chart, and thin interfaces) is necessary to ensure bug detection is even possible. If it is, the more eyeballs that roll over the code, the more it is beaten on and tested with the source in front of the tester, the better the final quality.

Open source lives primarily in the UNIX world, where functionality is created by thousands of relatively small components interacting over a thin interface, thus achieving the necessary modularity. Open source then offers the quality control testing role to the whole world. For any truly useful code, there are many takers. Under such intense scrutiny, the quality of open source code eventually reaches and exceeds that of its commercial counterpart. Thus, both Linux and BSD UNIX (including Mac OS X) are now more reliable than any existing version of Windows, perhaps better than any version of Windows can ever be.

Meanwhile, as rock solid code accretes one component at a time, and the base of programmers and code reviewers expands, so does end-product functionality. Apache is already not only the most reliable, but the most capable web server. It already has most of the market. Numerous other components for hosting, billing, adding web functionality, file exchange, even the core networking protocols on which the whole system runs add weight to the point.

If the Spy's first law is "You can't legislate against stupidity," the second would therefore have to be:

Eventually, all useable software will be open source.

To put it another way

All sufficiently useful systems eventually open.

Let's face it folks. It was a nice run while it lasted, but the summer solstice for monolithic proprietary commercial software has almost arrived. Once it passes, the decline will be steep and monotonic. Moreover, no amount of money accumulated during its ascent will suffice to reverse the decline into permanent winter.

Can money still be made in an open source environment? You betcha. Add value to the open source, expose at least an extensive API to that added value, then support it to the hilt. Many purveyors of Linux live in this space, and Apple intersects it substantially. Thousands of scripters in PHP and Perl add their own stars to this galaxy, some giving away their efforts for free, others making a living. The only way for today's proprietary software vendors to survive will be to re-invent themselves as value-added support suppliers. Otherwise they'll end up on the technology compost heap, just another rotten pear.

The Pitter Patter of Little Feats

Speaking of rot, the Spy notes that SCO has asked for more IBM source. Apparently they are having difficulty determining which lines to claim were improperly donated to Linux. Of course, if a sufficiently large number of lines are examined, it will eventually be possible to find some that are similar. Hey, its just like the numerology folk. If a sufficiently large volume of random Hebrew text is "analysed" by their methods, any message your heart desires can be found hidden in the text. But we digress. The judge ought to respond by throwing the whole case out, end this whole fraudulent soap opera.

With the return of the keychain as a first class citizen, more and more uses have been found for it. Not only does it store passwords for web sites, control panels, eMail, and the like, but it also stores security certificates for secure POP and SMTP. As the Spy recently discovered, the system is not foolproof.

Following a Eudora upgrade to 6.1.1, all SMTP access to remote servers suddenly stopped working. Close examination of error logs revealed that the security negotiation was failing. Having forgotten (it happens in old age) that the certificates were now stored in the keychain, the Spy wasted much precious time chasing tails on this one before discovering an obscure mention somewhere.

Upon examining the keychain, it turned out there were two security certificates for the server in question. Deleting one did not help. Deleting the other, then trying to SMTP traffic with the SSL setting on (alternate port) in Eudora resulted in a request to approve the certificate and store it. Upon acceptance, all was well. Moral of the story: Somebody oughta write this down somewhere. Oh, and keychains do become corrupt, so it's probably a good idea to back them up, especially if they contain a lot of keys.

When the Spy later took his machine to another location and connected again, the whole process had to be repeated. Whoops! Not content with bending the keychain, Eudora is now apparently storing a preference that prevents portability.

Rather than wait until this year's WWDC to announce the failure of Jobs' rash 3 GHz promise last year, Apple revealed in early June a new line of G5 machines topping out at 2.5 GHz. The new machines have the same nouveaux-bathroom stainless steel case as the previous models, but a smaller motherboard, and a larger, liquid cooled heat sink. Apparently the technology challenge of going to 3GHz was too much for Apple, so they fell back on using a cooler to extend the life of last year's crop. The new machines sport an 8X superdrive, fast firewire and USB ports front and back, but little that is truly innovative.

The inability to control temperature and raise speeds simultaneously means that customers cannot expect G5 PowerBooks any time soon, perhaps not for a year of more. Intel seems to have hit a similar wall in its Pentium development. Perhaps Moore's Law is about to take a hiatus.

On to the Treo 600.

If a PDA is going to double as a pocket computer, it needs communication abilities. As indicated last month, PalmOne's Treo 600 does well at synching data on a Mac, though apparently this function will move to third party providence (The Missing Sync) with future versions of the Palm OS, which is gradually losing sight of its Apple origins.

However, the Treo 600 is not just a PDA but a data phone as well. It comes in two versions: a black-cased CDMA (1X) version that connects to Sprint and Telus, and a silver-cased GSM version for AT&T, Rogers, and similar networks, including the European market. The Spy has the GSM phone on Rogers, but the operational differences are not great.

On the plus side, this is an excellent cell phone, performing well with only modest static and few dropouts even in areas of marginal coverage. It has one button access to telephony, long-press one-button favourites, dialling from address lists, a useable speakerphone, one-switch ring off, and all the bells and whistles of any modern cellular device, including user-defined ring tones. The Spy's only criticism on this front is that the vibrator is weak, so when ring is off, its easy to miss a call even in one's pocket.

The Treo's GSM data functions are functional, providing instant text messaging, web browsing, and eMail. There's even an old version of Eudora available. By adding a third party application called WirelessModem ($37.50) it's even possible to use the Treo 600 as a data modem for a computer. In theory, this could be done via USB, serial cable, or IR. (No built in Bluetooth.)

Alas, the Spy's third law, namely

The practice of theory never matches the theory of practice

comes into play here. First, attempting to use the Treo 600 as an ordinary modem via USB to dial up an ISP failed to work, despite many attempts at configuration. Asking on the WirelessModem list yielded no answers, and the Spy abandoned that project.

Second, though connecting directly to the GSM net via the USB cable and WirelessModem (Macronsoft's GPS script generator recommended) did work, (i.e. browse and mail with this the only net connection) the cost of sending and receiving data in this manner is prohibitive. Rogers' basic plan provides only 3M a month for $16, with no means of metering usage. If you go on the road and use roaming, data has a $.03 per kilobyte surcharge. As the Spy might move 10M each time he checks mail, this is $30 a pop.

By contrast, the Spy's own hosting company, WebNameHost.net sells 6-8G of traffic for $16 a month. The ROF is alive and well.

The bottom line? The Treo is a good Palm device, synchronizes well with the Mac, and it's a decent cell phone. But if you want a data device, forget it. Too bad. The potential is there, but the execution and costing are abysmal. The software to do this should be included (other software supplied by Rogers didn't work either), a data account should allow a thousand times as much traffic, and there should be no surcharge when roaming. Someday, someone will build the PIEA. Not yet.

Returning to June drop, the Spy notes this column is somewhat late. Between a lengthy sickness and the need to do final pre-submission editing on The General, fourth volume of The Interregnum, June has not been a month with much free time. Ah, well, WWDC starts on Monday. Tiger will be unveiled. Oh, and one more thing...

--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 format from Bowker's Booksurge.


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

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

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

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

Big Game: http://www.opundo.com/cmptbiggame.htm

Apple's G5 page: http://www.apple.com/powermac/design.html

PalmOne (Manufacturer): http://www.palmone.com/

Products and Discussions: http://www.treocentral.com/

WirelessModem: http://www.notifymail.com/palm/wmodem/

GPS Script Generator: http://www.macronsoft.com/pages/en/gsg.html

The Missing Sync: http://www.markspace.com/

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Last Updated: 2006 11 08