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The Northern Spy
September 2006

Fall Harvest

Rick Sutcliffe

The onions and early potatoes are in,

the beans and corn are in their prime, and the tree fruit starting to ripen. Late summer and early fall is also the traditional time for a spate of industry announcements in preparation for the big selling seasons.

The old Apple Computer Corp

kept secrets close to the corporate T-shirt without telling us they had them. The new generously informs us Leopard has secret features. Well, it beats announcing vapourware solely to kill off potential competitors, as some have been known to do. The features they did reveal at WWDC included Time Machine (a machine state rollback utility that could obsolete all other backup software), Spaces, a framework for task-oriented organization of application groups, and a plethora of new functionality for applications such as Mail, iChat, iPhoto, iCal, Front Row, and Keynote.

Improved underpinnings for the whole platform include 64-bit Intel support (without sacrificing 32-bit compatibility), a new graphics technology called Core Animation, new security measures, enhancements to Universal Access, the above-mentioned secret features, and of course new of developers' tools to take advantage of all the goodies.

On the hardware side are (up to double) dual core desktops (MacPro, available soon) and, completing the Intel transition, the new Xserve (October availability), said machines touted for their configurability and for being up to five times as fast. The new MacPro requires less cooling apparatus, so boasts much more room inside the case for an enhanced graphics slot and more drives. While it does sport SATA, at least it still has FireWire 800 connectivity, though Apple's lukewarm handling of its own brainchild recently makes one wonder how long before it will be orphaned. Let's hope it works better than in the G5s.

While some of the software details do seem novel, the scope of the WWDC announcements was more or less as ought to have been expected. This is all incremental innovation along marked paths, not particularly trailblazing, an outcome that left some attendees with little to talk about except for speculating on Steve Jobs' health, complaining about the lack of giveaways and food, and beefing that "five times as fast" might be the new "faster than some things, at least" One could predict with fair certainty the impending advent of multiple quad core machines, as the 4GHz barrier is unlikely to be breached.

Perhaps more to the point is that at the desktop, Apple is now astride better price points for comparable gear than, say, the now beleaguered Dell. Of course, the cost of owning a Mac over its useful lifetime has for years been lower than the competition, but purchase price advantage makes for better marketing leverage to potential switchers.

Still no sight of a phone/PDA/eBook reader done right or of the real iVideoPod. However, perhaps holding over 75% of the U.S. digital music player market suffices for the time being. Of course, once Leopard is finished and the last of the MacIntels actually ship, speculation on the Next Big Thing will surely become rampant.

Some naysayers

suggested that developers might be less willing to release products for the Mac platform once it was on Intel--thinking vendors would tell Mac owners to boot into W*nd*ws to use their products. The spy's sense of recent market announcements suggests the opposite. It appears that the number of people developing for the Mac platform, either exclusively or dually, is growing rather than shrinking.

Lego Mindstorms

offers an interesting case in point. Their new Mindstorms NXT robotics toolkit includes the NXT brick and its programmable 32-bit processor, various motors, controllers, Technic construction bricks, and the software running under OX X 10.3.9 or higher. Downloading to the brick is via Bluetooth or USB interface.

Other announcements noted in passing include

MakeMusic releasing the 2007 version of the excellent and venerable Finale music notation program for Mac OS X (universal) and Windows. Finale 2007 costs $600; upgrades start at $99.95.

And, although the Spy does not recommend for commercial purposes any web site building packages (they tend to be proprietary and non-portable) and especially not the use of word processors to output a semblance of (often incorrect) HTML, there are times when one needs to toss together small, temporary, or otherwise quick-and-dirty web sites, that are at least soundly programmed. RAGE WebDesign has been around for six years now and could fill the bill for this and then some, offering support for HTML, XHTML, CSS, PHP, Javascript (they mean ECMAScript), ASP, XML, VBScript, and more. It sports a set of editing tools, and comes with a year of web hosting to sweeten the pot. Sounds interesting, though the Spy has not actually used the product.

Uber geek note of the week

If, like the Spy, you do a little web hosting business to pay for your own web addictions, education, and the fast servers you couldn't otherwise justify affording, there's a pretty good chance you use cPanel for your customers and the companion WHM (Web Hosting Manager) for much of your own administrative work. You undoubtedly also find it necessary to make small edits to server configuration files, permissions, owner/group, or to make backups, delete files, uploads/downloads, etc. Yes you could SSH to the box, and use the command line and pico to do the necessary, but wouldn't it be simpler to do all this right in the web browser using a WHM window?

Now you can. Moreover, the ConfigServer folk (makers of excellent MailScanner and firewall front ends) have now renamed their WHM File Manager/Console script application as ConfigServer Explorer, and released it as a free download. This thing is so wonderfully and exquisitely dangerous, it prompts the Spy to formulate:

The Spy's Seventh Law:
A utility's hazard rating is directly proportional to its usefulness.

In the case of cse, the hazard is wonderfully, insanely high, and the constant of proportionality moderately low. The Spy loves it. ConfigServer's cse is a web host's indispensable tool, and it bothers me not a whit that I paid for it before it was free.

Toy of the month announcement

Canon Corp. has announced a new digital SLR, the EOS Digital Rebel XTi. The hook? This thing is supposedly cleans its own optics whenever you turn it on (or select the function from a menu. Oh. Oh. The Spy actually has his tongue hanging out for a Canon EOS 30D, but this concept is quite intriguing. When will we have computers that can expunge the dust from their own cases?

Meanwhile at the Billg ranch (now under a new foreman),

The MS Macintosh Business Unit (Mac BU) claims to have made progress toward porting MS Office to XCode and therefore to a universal version. MS Messenger will be the first universal product actually released, but not till late 2006, so Office should not be expected until at well into 2007.

One major change for the next version of Office includes a new XML-based file format (with converters for old versions), which will ensure cross-platform compatibility with W*nd*ws versions. Contradictorily, the new Mac Office will NOT have Visual Basic for Applications. Macros under MacOS will be written in AppleScript instead of VBA.

The Spy has decidedly mixed feelings about this decision. On the one hand (and under his hat as a supposed language expert) he has long held that VBA is the single worst designed programming language ever, violating security, orthogonality and the principle of least astonishment at every turn. On the other hand, and under his hat as a church treasurer, he has a vast collection of complex and painstakingly-worked-out VBA automations of his extensive spreadsheets (some, incidentally include cell formulas originally written for Visicalc). Not only will all this automation have to be rewritten, the rewrites will apparently not be cross-platform, erasing one of Excel's principal attractions (and cancelling his rating of Excel as the best software ever written). Moreover, it's not at all clear how function extensions could be written, unless MS plans to extend Applescript's mathematics. Sorry, no. He'd rather learn someone else's macro language and retain cross-platform compatibility.

Meanwhile, Microsoft also announced it has halted development on a universal version of VirtualPC. Given that Apple is reportedly working on virtual machines that would allow W*nd*ws and Linux, given the Parallels product, and given Boot Camp as a stopgap, VirtualPC has no obvious role to play on MacIntels.

The pitter patter of little feats

The Spy notes that AOL has decided to make access to its system free (except for phone access, for which there will still be a charge.) The last of the old-fashioned value-added online communities, AOL has lost so many customers in recent times it has already become marginalized. It's hard to imagine anyone needing something this any more, so it's just as well it's now free. Hats off to the beginning of the end of an era. Course, in our neck of the disciplines, an era lasts a month or so. See you in an era.

--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 of which was named best in the science fiction genre 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

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

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

ConfigServer's WHM-based Explorer (cse) : http://www.configserver.com/cp/cse.html

RAGE : http://www.ragesw.com/products/webdesign.html

LEGO : http://www.lego.com/

MakeMusic : http://www.makemusic.com/

Canon: http://www.canon.com

This Arjay Enterprises page is Copyright 1983-2006.
The Northern Spy is registered at WebNameSource.com and is hosted by WebnameHost.net.
Last Updated: 2006 11 08