The Northern Spy
Who's On First?
like those of any corporation, are enhancing value for the shareholders. While this can sometimes mean other things, the only productive way to do this is to concentrate on lowering costs and raising sales. If this means the entity has to be periodically re-invented to suit the current market, so be it.
The second item addresses the same issue in a different way. Leopard appeared a month ago to be in the last throes of testing. The issues list was down to near zero, few changes were being made, and the signs pointed to a March-April release. Suddenly the issues list has become lengthy, Apple has pulled programming resources to work on iPhone, and now talks October for the next OS X. While this doesn't yet seem to be on the MS-scale, where "progress" is measured in units of megaslippage per annum, the delay is concerning for those of us who depend on iSteve for computers more than for entertainment toys.
Evidently the change of name that saw the word "computer" expunged from the Cupertino's masthead was no mere symbolism. iSteve lives at the leading edge of the technological revolution. With computing per se approaching a relative stability that will see only intermittent incremental upgrades for the foreseeable future, and no true breakthroughs on the horizon, that leading edge lies elsewhere.
OTOH, should this lack of attention continue, iSteve could run out of computing mindshare in two or three years, stalling growth of market share around the 10% mark, making hay of the Spy's predictions of 15++%. OTOH, it's also worth noting Vista is such a turkey (never has so much bumph been expended by so many people on so little, or been delivered so late with zero impact). Leopard may thus look far better for the delay if it does arrive relatively bug free. In fact new purchasers are better off buying Tiger on a Mac than any version of W*nd*ws. at this point, never mind what may be coming down the pike. OTTH, if the inattention to the Mac proves transitory, Apple gets back on the computing track with minimal delay, and is able to press its advantage, that 15% will look conservative. After all, absolute growth in unit sales is now approaching the 30% mark. This is no time for iSteve to be taking his hand from the MS jugular.
A possible consequence of the delay: Blu-Ray on all Apple models now seems likely on or before the Leopard launch, perhaps as a peace offering.
There's also the matter of ongoing testing of Leopard's "secret feature(s)." Last month's kidding aside, it's just as hard as it is for hardware to imagine what directions software innovation could now take that would be in any sense revolutionary. Who needs more features in a word processor, spreadsheet, or database? Even the most bloated software can usually be rescued with a hardware upgrade, so bad application code design just isn't a consumer-level issue. If it were, one extraordinarily large vendor would long since have ceased to exist.
Not much different could be said about an OS. Foreseeable change is incremental, not earth shattering. So, to speculate, what could Apple do to make a significant difference, to underscore that there's no one else in the technological revolution business, keeping in mind that iSteve has decided there's no glamour in designing and making chips, and little in the traditional computer business itself? Several things:
On the ease of use level: better integration among appliances people use, or can be persuaded to use, daily. This is the want Apple is creating with iPhone and AppleTV (no, silly, it's not a need) , and could provoke with a series of new tablets, including one sized as a book reader and video viewer with PDA functions. (Think of this PIEA as Newton on steroids, an upsized iPod, or a pocket brain.) Other possibilities include integrated digital home theatre systems and better home automation--all under the Mac's control.
On the presentation level (secret features?): better 3D rendering down to the 2D media of screen and paper, with an eye to ramping up to genuine 3D display technologies once the wrinkles have been sufficiently ironed out.
On the application level (pet peeve): Someone really ought to get the word processor right. This basic tool has been neglected, twisted, bloated to the point where writing is more a struggle with the software than a joy, and now ignored. But if Apple is interested, there's no evidence of this.
Also in the long-delayed department
is the next release of the venerable Nisus Writer word processor. This product reached its epitome with classic version 6.5, whose speed (especially with very large documents) and feature list competitors could only envy. However, as with many products of uncertain code design and execution (the Lotus 1-2-3 syndrome), it had to be rewritten (and partly purchased) from scratch for OS X. While the current "Express" version at 2.7 is much faster than earlier attempts, its features pale in comparison to the Classic product, and the Spy finds himself still using 9.2.2 at times to run that one application. Oh, Express is O.K. for memos, reports, letters, and exams. But when it comes to maintaining large documents in multiple merging files with dual formatting cum invisible HTML markup, full indexing and table of contents, graphics layer, etc., it cannot hold any better a candle to Nisus 6.5 than the other pretenders.
Under another of his many hats, the Spy has two large, long-standing textbooks and seven hefty novels (two more coming) in over two thousand Nisus files, some of which need periodic maintenance, most of which depend on 6.5's features. He's been using this as his main writing tool since version one, once maintained the unofficial public bug list, and has written dozens of macros to enhance Nisus' functionality (none of which work in Express). He is not alone.
Thus the faithful were expecting big things from NisusWriter Pro (version 3.0, but could be renumbered), whose public beta was released this month (public = we can talk about it). Indexing and table of contents are now there, and also better compatibility with the classic files (the graphics layer is now read properly, for instance). But there's still no invisible style, no file merge (often called mail merge), and the table of contents and indexing markup from a classic file are not preserved in file translation. The latter may be a beta bug, but the other two are evidently again not on the feature list this, for Pro simply discards any 6.5 text in invisible style, and lacks one of its own. Files with the .html suffix are read, but only as formatted text. Markup in the original carries no semantic value in the conversion. Mail merge appears to require someone to write a macro (in Perl), but this lack in the main product appears to the Spy as unprofessional.
On the plus side, the beta is remarkably stable, and has run without crashing (except on some file reads, and that problem went away with a reboot, so...) for two weeks now. Moreover, the new version writes decent html when you ask it to, though that's only partially helpful (the header apparatus and ECMAScripts still have to be manually inserted). This is better than the last iteration, whose HTML writer was only marginally less pathetic than the wretched attempt W*rd makes.
However, on balance, the Spy can't give the Pro product more than a C+ or a B- at this stage. OTOH, he can't give any word processing product a higher grade. The whole genre suffers from neglect these days. C'mon, Steve. Why not buy NisusWriter, finish it, and knock the competition dead? 'Course, there wouldn't be much glamour in that.
With a wedding coming up this Summer,
and the create to give a pictorial retrospective on the life of number one son, the Spy decided it was time to scan some of his slides into digital form. (He will eventually spring for a high-end digital camera to replace his c1972 Miranda SLR, too.)
Diligent research pointed him to assorted Canon, Epson, and HP products. He wanted a flatbed for photos and documents, so he eliminated various film scanners as overly specialized. He is leery of multifunction products (what if some other function breaks and you have to buy a new one?) He has approximately 7000 slides, so wanted to mount more than the typical three to five in the machine at once. He wanted high-end resolution and light specs.
These considerations and several online reviews eventually led him to the Epson Perfection V700 Photo scanner. At about $700CDN, this is pretty high steep, exceeded in consumer/pro models only by the V750, which also allows wet mounting of film, something he doesn't need. The speed, resolution, reputation, and versatility seemed unmatched, so he bit, despite advice from some photographers that optical enlargement of the slides and a digital photo was a better route.
The V700 is everything Epson and the reviewers claimed. If has one scanner under the bed for reflective media, and a second in the lid for transparencies. One can use a pressure pad for the former, or any of a variety of film holders for the latter. The film holder takes twenty-four negatives in strips, and another holder mounts twelve slides under plastic clips. (There are more holders for other film sizes, and extra spacers for adjusting where the holders sit relative to the scanning head--not tried yet.) Also included: Epson's own software, DigitalIce, SilverFast (limited) Photoshop Elements, USB port and cable, and a FireWire port.
So far it appears to be doing the job well--rescuing essential images from some slides that are in worse shape than the Spy imagined, and producing excellent scans of good photos and better quality slides. (He hasn't tried it on negative film as yet.) It's worth noting in passing that while diamonds may be forever, storage media are certainly not, and this is true in spades of positive film, some of which has faded badly over the years.
The only quarrel one could pick with this scanner is over the instructions. The TWAIN plugin (works in Photoshop, SilverFast and GraphicsConverter, among others) has a bewildering array of scanning options, and the online help gives the most scanty and nominal descriptions for each, with no recommendations on typical setting combinations for various tasks. The buyer is left to experiment endlessly until finding something that seems to work, without having much confidence that the chosen settings are really the best for the task. Also, one can select "all" thumbnails to apply some settings, but cannot for others, which makes the task more tedious than it need be. Also, the mapping of thumbnail images from the slide holder is non-intuitive, starting at the top right and going down rather than across.
Highly recommended for the quality, but the user interface needs work, and real documentation would be nice.
Speaking of non-intuitive,
the Spy had occasion recently to edit some PDF documents for perhaps the first time ever. He fired up Acrobat Pro, spent half an hour discovering that it doesn't edit, found out how editing was supposed to be done (select advanced editing-touch-up object tool, select object, control click it, select edit object, which transfers control to Illustrator, edit the text there then save it (!!), which doesn't save but sends it back to Acrobat, suffer a few crashes of both programs along the way and some lost changes, and struggle through to a final document after a couple of hours). C'mon, folks, the computing revolution has already happened. No doubt a reader will tell us there is an easier way if we'd only guessed differently, but this level of grief in modern software is ridiculous, enough to reassign the great lemon award. Say, lots of programs can write PDF. How about a word processor that can read it? OTOH, does it matter?
On to the truly broken,
can there be an industrial age industry more out of date, more broken than the music business? Indeed there can. The book industry remains stuck in denial, attempting to ignore new technologies, trying to mass produce profits from a model so out-of-gas it's a wonder any of its participants are still rolling, even on past momentum. A small handful of past superstar authors get the full publicity apparatus by industry execs who perpetually dance one step away from failure and job termination, their companies cut corners to the point where editing seems to have gone out the window, and new authors with better quality works are simply ignored. What little money comes back to the publisher after book returns never sees the inside of an author's wallet, and the talent pool is getting thinner with each passing year.
The eBook industry hasn't yet eaten the pBook industry's shorts, but the Spy thinks the up -and-coming generation will want to read on a screen, and well they should. The first company to get the eBook reader right (light, compact, pocketbook sized screen, no DRM, $3/ book) will own the industry Is anybody listening?
Shameless self-promotion department
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On a related front, the spy note the success of a hacker breaking in to take control of a Mac at the recent CanSecWest security conference in Vancouver (a suburb of Bradner, where he lives) exploited an application flaw in Safari, not an OS vulnerability. Security fix coming? The real lesson: there are lots of very nasty web sites out there, folks.
a dozen or so old Mac sites no longer being updated, snagged by the pornos, or vanished altogether. The Spy was checking the links on his own site (not a bad idea every once in a while), and at the halfway point has removed quite a few. Anyone out there who knows of a Mac-related site that should be added, let us know.
--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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