The Northern Spy: a look at being 'insanely proprietary'
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The Northern Spy: a look at being 'insanely proprietary'

By Rick Sutcliffe
Being insanely proprietary can be both a strength and/or a weakness. On the negative side of the ledger, HP, Xerox, and IBM, by not being more particular about their in-house inventions and IP, all lost opportunities to dominate the personal computing market.

Oh, yes, IBM did for a while, but because the software was controlled by Microsoft, and wasn't exclusive, clones eventually turned their boxes into commodities, and they exited the market rather than compete on a consumer level — much to the Spy's surprise and chagrin, for he believes it was and remains a mistake. It wasn't a bad as Canadian Pacific exiting the telecommunications business in favour of Rogers, but of the same nature — abandoning participation in technological future megabucks for a handful of present-day dollars.

Yes, and one can scarcely count the number of technology companies that fell by the wayside due to complacency, failure of vision, lack of innovation, badly timed or marketed products, poor management, or internal disputes. The list is longer than this space, and grows by the year, with Blackberry and Sony in immediate danger, and Microsoft already on the deathwatch list. (PC sales are in steep decline, and Apple sales in equally steep increase — there are boing to be big casualties, and soon.)

Apple may be the ultimate practitioner of secrecy and producer of proprietary technology, and this has served the company well in most instances. The hardware is not easy to clone with any fidelity, the operating system is entirely in house, manufacturing is tightly controlled, vertical integration is the order of the day, and security rivals that laid on for a U.S. Presidential luncheon with the Pope at an Arab-owned restaurant in Jerusalem.m Look for more of the same--ventures into controlling entertainment content, delivery, and even the infrastructure for same, including big announcements this year.

Apple's few deviations have been costly. The experiment with allowing Macintosh clones had the smell of desperation, but was terminated before it got out of hand. Licensing some IP to Microsoft allowed the latter to create Windows — an MS-DOS extension and cheap imitation knockoff of Apple's OS — all too similar down to the programming interfaces, but fortunately for Apple, poorly enough executed to allow them to move on to much better, and now produced by a company that seems to have run out of ideas and lost its way. A Steve Jobs in charge of Microsoft would have eaten Apple alive when it was at the bottom of its cycle. His successors will do the same in reverse.

Keeping secrets has helped the marketing effort too. Months of speculation and rumours precede every product announcement, creating a pent up demand that results in a feeding frenzy on the day of introduction, and gooses publicity and subsequent sales to insane heights until the next round starts.

However (and you knew one of those was coming), the very proprietariness and NIH attitude that serves the bottom line in some ways can detract from critical mindspace in others. A case in point is Cupertino's gradually tightening noose on developers. Yes of course Apple wants to protect users and keep the ecosystem consistent, so requiring all development to be in Objective-C, done in XCode, signed, and approved before going into the Apple store partially makes one kind of sense.

But it does discourage, even choke off, any other kind of development. Apple is gradually making it more difficult to do experimental work, program in other languages, or even do certain kinds of research that require the installation of tools once included by Apple, but now omitted. Up to recent versions of XCode, for instance, an install came complete with various command line tools, not all of which were essential to developing inside the narrow confines of the store system.
These have been left out of XCode 5. At first, they could still be installed in the Terminal by typing:

xcode-select --install

but even this no longer works, as Apple has removed the command line tools from its server, and the command fails. At this point, ports or homebrew can still install most of what is needed. For instance, the following sequence installs homebrew, checks the installation, finds versions of gcc, and installs the (currently) most recent gcc.

ruby -e "$(curl -fsSL"
brew doctor
brew update
brew search gcc
brew tap homebrew/versions
brew install gcc49

Yes, Apple still has a C++ in the form of clang, but unless packages that depend on it are re-coded in many places their projects will not compile against clang without numerous errors. In the Spy's case, he wanted a combination of the Alpha programming editor, the p1 Modula-2 compiler, XCode (and gcc) to work with the RASS library from ETH. All this was to test programs for a new dialect of Modula-2 — possible because there is substantial syntax overlap. Each of these four products is under active development, but only certain version combinations play correctly together, and Apple's constant changes to the XCode language environments and the APIs mean that developers require one environment to program within the Apple ecosystem, and others to do anything else.

Now the Spy fully understands that Apple wants things done a certain way for products it approves on its own OS, but for tools that, though Apple no longer needs them, developers may, and they do no harm installed, not installing them by default may make limited sense, but making it hard to obtain them at all just annoys developers. Programming environments are large and slow-moving. People who depend on them ought to be given more consideration and less grief. Developers are your friends, iTim, not your manipulatives.

Wasn't the Internet supposed to lower barriers, spread love and kindness,reduce prejudice, blur national boundaries, generally homogenize the human race, and put an end to war?

The Spy never thought so. After all, the nineteenth century goddess of progress in earlier technology was tasked with the same expectations, and eventuated only catastrophic failure. So, writing back in the 1980s, he opined that once the Metalibrary was instantiated and we were all brought virtually closer to one another's penchants, opinions, religions, cultures, ethnicity, and warts, it was at least as likely that dislikes, tensions, and hatreds would be exacerbated.

Indeed, he predicted that when the Iron Curtain came down, the ethnic groups in some of the eastern European artificial countries such as Yugoslavia, freed of the restraining Russian fist, would revert to their centuries-old hobby of cutting each others' throats. That enforced conglomerate broke part in bloody civil war, the old Soviet Union fragmented in Russia's economic and military exhaustion, Czeckoslovakia split more peacefully, and now it appears to be Ukraine's turn, for the guns are out once again.

However the divisions that people grow to hate the closer they see them need not be historic, religious, ethnic or linguistic as they are in Europe. They may be political, social, economic, or cultural. Chat room, bulletin board, Twitter, and Facebook debates do not produce consensus — they heighten tensions and sharpen differences more rapidly than ever. Why? Because we no longer live in a civil society, don't have a common code of ethics, behaviour, speech, or honour, and most people don't discuss issues. Even our parliamentary houses host debates that are at best mere show — not intended to conciliate or forge consensus ideas, but to rub the noses of the minority in their loss to the majority.

Elsewhere, things are worse, for so-called debate is often mere mud-slinging vituperation, and ad hominem attacks bent on destroying the credibility of opponents without conceding the finest point. Does someone have the temerity to disagree with you, Oh great and grand high-poobah of Sala-ma-sond who can never be wrong about the smallest detail? Why not steal a database of your opponents' associates, scour web sites for the email addresses of politicians, retail stores, churches, community associations and Internet businesses, then use it and any net forum you can think of to hurl mud, slander, false stories, disrespect, and vile names?

And before you say "Why not? It's a free country," stop and think. For how long? Are we in the west creating social, economic, religious, and political divides founded on the same kind of suspicion, ghettoization, vilification, and ultimately hatred that point us to the same fate as Yugoslavia and her imitators?

Sorry to decline participation, but the Spy would rather be out voted on the result of a debate or an election that he engaged politely, civilly, positively, and honourably, than "win" it with what have become the standard uncivil attack methods. Win what? Worse, such "winning" is pyrrhic — really a loss, and if we don't want Western Europe, the United States, and Canada to follow in the Eastern Europe march of madness, we'll step back from the rhetoric. It's too late there (the west has no appetite to intervene, especially given experience in the Middle East and Africa), and we may even be seeing the re-assertion of bully Soviet Union to keep order by force.

Can us turn from our own course before our political, social, moral, and religious hatreds mean it is too late? Maybe. Communication technology, like all its siblings, is neither a goddess nor an end, but a means. The question is to what end? Free speech will only remain free if it is responsible, and no heights of technology can overcome its users' incivility and penchant for hatred. Let's turn this thing around. The alternative is playing out before us.

--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 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 community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine 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.

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Arjay Enterprises:

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URLs for items mentioned in this column
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