The Northern Spy: some things old, some things new
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The Northern Spy: some things old, some things new

By Rick Sutcliffe

For the last two months the Spy has digressed from the reader's usual fare to cover two endemic ethical issues -- to wit, the misconduct of the spammer, and that of the rogue board member. For March, there are many interesting technology news items to consider. To complete the title, the Spy may borrow a rumour or two, and will certainly consider things Blue (-Ray, that is.)

New products are now in the stores, as Apple has released the expected iteration of the Mac Book Pro. The main item of interest, besides the number of cores in a portable, is the new high speed data channel -- Thunderbolt, which incorporates and subsumes the display port. What does this mean for the longer term?

° That as usual Apple is a good year ahead of the pack in introducing new technology,

° Far higher data transfer speeds, as manufacturers of disk drives adopt the new interface,

° Apple now seems unlikely to adopt USB 3.0, include eSATA ports, or continue developing or even using FireWire.

In other words, the announcement is as important for what technology Apples is moving away from as for the new thing it introduces.

But has anyone else noticed that clock rates receive much less attention than they used to? Apple abandoned the PowerPC chip a while back because it was perceived to be too slow, especially for portables. Yet the quad had a clock running at 2.5GHz. The Intel chips are about that speed in portables, and very little above it in desktops. As the Spy has pointed out several times, current chip fabrication technology is probably at or near its speed limit for a single core, so the only way to get higher throughput is to use the multiple cores that we are now seeing.

As also mentioned here before, this strategy has its limitations, for at some point the processing overhead for switching cores becomes greater than the marginal gain from adding another core, and the designer is then up against a hard limit that will bear little more tweaking except on the communication bus and the heat production (the real bane of the PowerPC). Thus, the Spy's current 8-core Mac Pro desktop is faster than his Quad PowerPC -- a lot where the power can be taken advantage of, a little in most cases, and not at all in some situations. It was a solid upgrade (and needed because the Quad's heat problems and fan idiosyncrasies had become a threat to his workflow), but it was not a spectacular one.

Yet another "not" is Blu-Ray. The Spy is beginning to think that Apple may skip this technology altogether and move instead to "no-moving-parts" storage (some indications already in SSDs). Some time back in a semi-tongue-in-cheek column, he speculated on true 3-D removable storage in the form of a one-cc data cube holding some 10T of decimal data (not binary). He now thinks that total could be pushed an order of magnitude higher.

What you care about in new products coming from Cupertino in the next few months depends on your primary platform. On the software side, Lion is preparing to make the leap into the market in the Summer. WWDC participants will probably be served a large dose of hype along with a developer copy. Apart from the obvious expectation of some moves in the direction of iOS, the strong likelihood of an interface makeover, abandonment of all vestige of PowerPC support, and the probability of some minor new functionality, the Spy does not expect big surprises.

The most pressing Apple software issues are elsewhere--first, in an overhaul of the whole clunky iTunes interface. A change to a comprehensive iStore shell with iTunes as a section is long overdue. The current separate MacOS store is surely also a stopgap measure. Second, and in the Spy's HO, iWork applications Pages and Numbers need some beef to make them enterprise-ready, though Apple may not care about the enterprise that much (see the rant below).

On the other side of the narrowing OS divide, the white iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches seem at the doorstep. Apple appears to be dithering on the display quality for the next generation of iPads, and may run through two generations rather than one this year. Most likely hardware change over the next year or two: a significant memory increase.

As for desktop hardware, the Spy is increasingly of the opinion that towers are about to topple. The iMac package is more than most people need, and a few high end configurations of it would likely satisfy the pros, obviating the need for tower platforms, cutting costs, and increasing profits. If the current towers are not the last generation of same, they may well be the penultimate.

On the gripping hand, as a fellow SF author is fond of saying, the Spy must give considerable credence to the rumours that Apple is planning to get into the TV set market. Even though Cupertino has no previous presence in this sector, this would fit the corporate direction like a glove. Such a move would see the AppleTV hardware bundled directly into a TV screen (let's hope they leave the tuner as part of the box) besides being sold separately as now for those with non-Apple branded sets. Yet, starting up a screen manufacturing division seems fraught with as much peril as starting up a chip fabrication plant.

Best move? Use some of that mountain of cash to purchase Samsung, a company that would fit perfectly into Apple's major moves toward the consumer entertainment market. Why not Sony? Because Samsung has noticeably better products. Catch for iSteve (still the brains behind, and don't let anyone say otherwise)? Apple would thus perforce become a Blue-Ray vendor, as the players and home theatre products that include them could not be dispensed with. The corporate fit would need work, as the Samsung support reputation is spotty, their track record on software leaves something to be desired, and they have several products that would have to be dropped, but otherwise, this might be the ideal catch, for it also offers the potential for greater vertical integration by owning the screen manufacturer rather than being its biggest customer. Apple might have to move fast on this one, as Samsung is reportedly cozying up to Google.

The reader may recall the Spy's adventures a while back with his Time Vault, whose router section failed while barely still under warrantee and was replaced by Apple. He regrets to report now that the hard drive in the replacement unit has also died, and of course the warrantee is long since over. Moreover, the archive function was unable to complete its task, and all data that was on the machine is now lost. Oh, of course the Spy has six other backups of everything, and more of some, but the incremental ones now rest in peace in the great bit bucket.

This failure is clearly a design issue. The so-called "server grade" disk in the unit runs too hot to be sharing an inadequately-ventilated box with an already warm Gigabit wired and N wireless router. The combination generates far too much heat, so much so that the unit feels like a pot on a stove to the touch--almost able to burn the fingers. A slower and less power-hungry drive replacement might help (after all, the data cannot arrive fast enough even on a 1G Ethernet to overwhelm it), and he may yet repair this one with a Western Digital green drive.

OTOH, he may instead do fully what he probably should have in the first place--buy boxes for one functionality each, not two, so that if one fails, only that has to be replaced, and reliance on one vendor is reduced (no multi-function printer/scanner/fax/coffee maker for him). To this end, he had already purchased and put into service a "house server" based on a Synology NAS Model DS211+ and two 2T Hitachi drives configured as a RAID-2. (This product has multiple uses, and can handle multiple connections, so may benefit from faster drives.)

Initially, this was intended as a photo and video server only, but with the Time Vault's capitulation he has now created a folder to be the Time Machine volume, so the Apple product, which lost that function, will probably not get it back. The next step (as soon as they are available in Canada) will be to order a Cisco-Linksys 4200 router (potentially much higher wireless speeds, more configurability), and Apple will at that point lose the other function as well, and the old Vault either be re-positioned with a new drive and the router off, or thrown out.

The Synology machine has a bewildering array of configuration settings and functionality, including serving photos, streaming video, security station, handling backups for multiple platforms, and acting as a web server (not exhaustive). Even for a long-time geek like the Spy, the documentation and software were hard to fully and accurately understand. (A dialogue he's had too often over the years, either with self or a technician: "Do the instructions mean this or that outcome from an action? Then, after much research and possible several calls: Ah, no, they mean something else entirely unrelated to either. How could one ever deduce that meaning from the words in the manual? You mean it isn't obvious? Only if you were already familiar with the product and didn't need any instructions in the first place.)

This common quibble aside, the Synology runs fast and cool. Once set up, it just works. Time Machine backups take far less time than with Apple's Time Vault (they should with a dedicated NAS), and the swappable redundant drives should mean that data is safer. For someone willing to spend a little money and time to get and configure a top-flight product, the Spy recommends the Synology line.

With the DS211+, he bought in at the high end of the home range (or low end of the business one) but the company seems to have a product for almost anyone's budget, its boxes are carried by numerous wholesalers and retailers, and the pricing, while it varies over the typical 25% retail range, seems competitive for the functionality. His only caveat is longevity. The design is patently superior to Apple's, but one never knows how long a product lasts until it dies. Ask him again in five years.

But the Spy must now firmly recommend against buying the Time Vault, unless Apple re-upps it with much better ventilation and a cooler drive. For those who already have one, he can only weakly suggest not doing backups to it via wireless, thus avoiding stressing heat production to the max. He also doubts that may of these units will survive three years. Apple could do (and should have done) far better, and this sad outcome illustrates that sometimes jumping into a product line already well done by others does not always result in success (just most of the time in Apple's case).

Is it just the Spy or does the idea of Nokia abandoning its own cell phone platform to partner with Microsoft and Windows look altogether too much like a burning platform tying itself to a sinking ship? Choosing drowning rather than flameout as a mode of extinguishment scarcely seems like a survival strategy. The medium term result may be that Microsoft absorbs Nokia; the long can be of no value to either, for it is a non-innovator taking an innovator (albeit a failing one) out of contention. Bad for everyone, especially the parties involved.

To keep the negatives even handed this month, the Spy also notes that for a company whose future in the enterprise heavily depends on higher education (people like to buy for business what they use in school), Apple's track record in this sector is abysmal, and not getting any better. How about a university licensing system that makes sense, is not dependent on a minimum number of seats, comes at a reasonable cost, and with serious support? How about university partnerships to mutual benefit?

After all, Cupertino, you are trying to gain market share in a sector where you once had dominance, then threw it all away, and are now making stealth gains that you should be trying to transform into deliberate ones. Doesn't that suggest that your methods and terms of doing business should be better than the other guys' rather than worse? Hey there iCEO Tim Cook. Time to "get" education, especially at universities. They are as much the key to the future as the consumer market, and moreso to the enterprise. Oh, and abandoning the server market didn't exactly help your reputation. No one is going to use towers in a space-tight rack environment.

To really keep things even-handed, he ought to note that a typo last month caused the February column to go into virtual print with one of the very spelling errors he most rails against in pronunciation, and no one noticed until he did just now and corrected it, at least on this site. Tish tish. And we all thought the Spy never made mistrakes.

-- The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level.

He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), 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 Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

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