By Rick Sutcliffe

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…” — Ecclesiastes 3 : 1-2a.

Last month the Spy reflected on this theme and its implications for individuals. This month he returns his attention to products and companies, but with the same air of impermanence.

How many readers recall when every wag with a column for a pulpit (excepting this one) was predicting the demise of Apple? Seems unlikely today, does it not? Well, at least for a while. If Apple’s sales stopped tomorrow (and they won’t because of substantial banked mindshare) it would take a long time to use up all that cash in the bank accounts. On the contrary, iSteve’s little company looks to grow substantially in both relative and absolute terms.

Indeed, when the stock began testing the $250-$350 range, the Spy worried that it was overvalued, but even that concern seems to have little foundation today. Already past the combined Wintel market cap (MS plus Intel), Apple’s has taken aim at the worldwide number one, and at the current price-earnings ratio, could be there already if it were not for technical market factors. Certainly, the company is not yet close to market saturation.

Instead, the Spy long ago announced a death watch for MS itself, feeling the company had, like Palm, not only passed its prime, but was out of ideas, well into post middle-aged senility, and in need of hospice care. The next stage in a lingering decline would be for the current executives, in a last-ditch attempt to save their jobs, to buy some other industry icon for what appears to be a cheap price. RIM (Research in Motion, the Blackberry maker) seems an ideal candidate, as it is losing market share, mindshare, and profitability at a like prodigious rate. As we all know, the deadly embrace does neither partner any good, but seeing both go down together might be a shot across the bows for others.

A “deathwatch” by the way does not imply a belief that the entity under watch will vanish altogether, merely that it will fall off the radar screen, become irrelevant, perhaps be acquired as a minor and unimportant subsidiary (as was Palm), or its pieces broken up and sold off. The demise of MS, for instance could result in its OS simply dying, but its applications being acquired at an assets auction, say, by Apple (are are those of Nortel).

Life support for towers may not quite be necessary yet, as Apple is apparently preparing a refresh of the Mac Pro that could see options to sixteen cores. The Spy can himself see diminishing return (matching theory) as the number of cores multiply. Given that current single core technology is limited by size and speed, there is no other route to increased performance, but the implicit overhead in a multiple core situation imposes limits of its own for most types of processing (excepting those lending themselves to vectorization), thus making this strategy a temporary one—until the next great thing in CPU technology, which is…(fill in the blank).

Obituaries have already been written in this space for the paper book publishing industry, which seems now in its death throes. Magazines and newspapers have a limited life time too. The Spy thinks that the eBook reader, or general purpose iDevice in said mode, is pretty nearly the killer app, and with very few refinements (excepting to reduce the number of formats) is capable of putting paid to the entire paper fiction/ general non-fiction industry.

We’re not quite there for academic publishing; more bells and whistles are needed to handle bookmarks, cross-references, and links to other publications (applies to journals, too — some are still viable in paper). But we can see the end of that road, too. The entire book publishing industry is broken. iBooking it can fix the cost model, but there will be much blood on the pocket screen before it is all done.

Both have declined in number and circulation in recent years, but the Spy feels, however, that we have some distance to go before magazines and newspapers can be dispensed with in favour of iPeriodicals. Lots of experiments are underway, mostly by large periodical publishers who want to dodge the approaching scythe of time. But the format is larger and richer than consumer books (so the technical difficulties are greater than those for academic texts) and the Spy is forced to envision some sort of plastic sheet as a screening device. Press the corner of the newspaper to turn the page, the date at the toip to change editions. Rewriting the page is by an iInk and the feel is slightly heavier than several pages of newsprint.

For highly visual publications like National Geographic, a wall screen may be more appropriate, as such publications will surely marry video with the periodical as soon as practicable. Device resolutions and software are probably in the ballpark now, but bandwidth is not. Even today’s cable solutions have to be compressed, and are not true HD. (Thus, broadcast television obituaries are premature.) Still, these observations only suggest the deathwatch on the periodical publishing industry is yet on the horizon, rather than at immediate hand, as for most books consisting mainly of text.

The Spy’s Science Fiction Metalibrary and terminals, collectively capable of synthesizing any actors one wishes to read the evening news, or dramatize Pride and Prejudice on the fly, is perhaps a little farther away. A pull-down wall screen terminal as he had in his first novel is quite close to reality.

Also evidently on the way to the trash bin are mechanical drives, both magnetic and optical, the former to be replaced by solid state, the latter by that and the cloud. Moving parts just don’t fit the electronic age. They were always a stopgap, and now that gap has nearly been bridged. Keyboards we will probably have to put up with for a while yet, as voice fully activated technology is still immature. Besides, it seems inefficient, somehow, to use a computer entirely hands free.

There is probably an optimal mix of typing, gestures, voice, and DWIM, but iSteve and his engineer elves haven’t yet discovered what that best mix is yet. Oh and the Spy is far more efficient with a trackball than with either a mouse (already obsolete) or a trackpad (somehow not quite there for him as yet, though a combination of this with handwriting recognition could be useful as a keyboard replacement.)

Cable television seems another problematic proposition, and the Spy views with approbation the move to diversify the business as Internet and phone provider. But surely the future of all three is wireless, a WA-Wi-Fi of some as yet not quite well defined technology.

And what of television itself? The Spy, as mentioned here before eschews the medium as having no message worth his while. That aside, surely the future of such entertainment lies with the Internet. Given the pitiful access to same that current TVs grudgingly permit, it seems only a matter of time before Apple enters the field, redefines it, and eats the shorts of the current set manufacturers. Think iOS running on a 100cm screen. For a while, he thought buying Samsung was a good idea, but Apple seems to be ready to strike out on its own. If so, set manufacturers should be afraid. Very afraid. It’s too soon for a deathwatch on the whole industry, but….

On the broader scene the tension between globalization and localization obviously wasn’t gotten quite right in Europe, where the attempt to have a political and monetary union seems to be coming unglued. So, the Spy will announce a deathwatch for the idealistic Europe, at least for the time being. In retrospect, the Euro was very badly conceived — one cannot have monetary union on the one hand with disparate fiscal policies on the other.

Someone is sure to assume there is a free lunch, try to spend themselves to false prosperity, and do a Greece-Ireland-Italy-Portugal-Spain pratfall. After all this is essentially what the dot-com bust was all about.

Again, the Spy is not suggesting by a deathwatch that Europe, or even Greece, will vanish altogether from the map. That would be an even harder trick than guaranteeing social prosperity by printing money. But the latter will be Europe’s sick man for a long time, and the ideal of a strong and united Europe is probably already too badly wounded to survive.

The Spy has always been a big time advocate of standards, and it seems to him that such should have been erected for the big banks and governments in the areas of derivatives, disclosures, risk assessment, sovereign debt, money supply, financial reporting, trade policy, subsidies, and the like, before any attempt at monetary union. (Bonus: there would have been no recession.) Conspiracy theorists of the world may relax. In view of the Euro experiment’s failure, it will be a long, long time before the planet has a single currency, much less a single government — another notion gone to the graveyard of all bad ideas.

For the same reason, it’s unlikely that we will ever again come close to one company dominating the computing industry — even if we all end up using iOSMac, the application scene will be at least as diverse as it is now. After all, if we all thought the same way rather than different (sic), most of us would be redundant.

Speaking of idea shelf life, the Spy has to wonder about the staying power of single-idea corporations. RIM and Palm looked good for a while, but failed to keep up. But what about, say, Google? Now there’s a company that parlayed one good idea, simply implemented for the user, and well-executed in infrastructure, into a googlithic pile of money. These days, the company is burning through those accumulated assets (and some good will) trying to find new niches for customers to open their wallets.

This has met mixed success. Gmail is a decent free product, but the Spy doubts it would make the grade as a commercial service, and there is evidence, in the company’s entire lack of concern for spammers and abusers on its system, that the Google guys and girls aren’t putting many resources into mail. Android phones show promise, but aren’t clearly better than the iPhone, and not tightly integrated into the company’s main product. Indeed, when he looks at the multitude of product directions there, the Spy gets the distinct impression that it might as well be half a dozen entirely separate companies each going its own way. Quo vadis? What’s the overall vision, folks? Or, is yours a one-generation (in Internet time) wonder? Similar questions could be asked of uni-idea Facebook and Twitter. Where is there for either to go next? Is there a “there” there?

Why is Apple different? Because the company (iSteve) knows how to move on from old technology, even when it is very inconvenient for some customers. Thus the changes in chips, from 6502 to 68K to Intel to Ax, from Dos 3.3 to ProDOS to MacOs to OS X. Thus also the demise of old standard apps like Little Brick Out (distributed on cassette tape), MacPaint, AppleWorks, classic-onlys, and older versions of programs like Final Cut Pro (even when functionality was lost).

Likewise peripheral hardware such as laser printers (for which Apple made the market, then abandoned.) As the market changed, so did the vision, and thus, so did the platform, and the portion of same that Apple was interested in making and selling in-house. This is what other technology companies don’t get — they think the marketplace is static, and continue in that thinking even after the train has pulled out of yet another station, leaving them behind.

Thus, the Spy won’t at all like it when Rosetta goes away in Lion, and so does access to some programs he uses daily, and for which he has yet to find current functional equivalents. He will be inconvenienced, in some cases substantially, but the changes are supposed to make better possible in a few years’ time, and they usually do. A case in point is Nisus Writer Pro, which, with its most recent upgrade release, has almost made it back to the functionality it had under the last system nine version lo these many years ago (added some too, but graphics still not what they were).

He had to find other ways of doing some important things, and in the process migrated all his big project writing to Scrivener, which offered, not a superset of the same functionality, but a different writing experience. He still uses the Nisus product for small stuff (Word is bad software for any purpose), but forced to move, he found something better. He will still grumble about migrating from Excel 2004, Corel, and Eudora, however. Only the first of these three is easily replaceable, and that only recently by the 2011 version.

While on the subject of the changing platform, the Spy does wonder about which pieces of the total platform Apple is interested in making and selling going forward (one of last year’s buzzwords). Will they specialize, dropping some pieces, or integrate, taking more in house? If the former, they migh again become interested in licensing one or other of their OS. If the latter, the most likely to be brought in is chip manufacturing, and in that case, Intel stock will take a dive.

Engineering for inevitable demise is something our industry knows all about, whether it be the PCJr, the Apple III, the multibillion dollar airport, business, or government IT system that never worked, or that homework project you worked on for thirty hours and never handed in because you couldn’t get your code to run. Most of the time, the problem could be summed up in a sign that hung in the newspaper and magazine office where the Spy toiled in his teenaged years. It said “Plan Ahead” but the “P” and “L” began in the centre of the space in a very large font. The small-font “d” became squeezed into a tiny space in the corner.

Beyond such intentionality, the rest of software engineering theory is editorial elaboration (though even here the theory of best practice will never match the practice of best theory.) And yet, though we know how to dod things as right as possible, we still persist in labouring with primitive tools and languages that are a dog’s breakfast of disparate ideas and multiple incompatible ways of doing the same thing in slightly different ways.

C++, for instance, is a programming notation that would be the textbook example of how not to design a language if it weren’t for the orders of magnitude more execrable champion VBA. Java is not bad, but became too insular, its vision never fully realized. Whatever happened to the vision of Modula-2 (small and powerful)? Is it only in the computing industry that we keep going (because of code base) in a direction we know cannot continue to work indefinitely (viz W*nd*ws)?

After all, just as you know deadlines are important because they contain the word “dead”, you instantly recognize the term “backward compatibility” as problematic as it contains the word “backward”. It’s a good thing hardware innovation is currently stalled out to minor performance upgrades, because the software to take advantage of what is there now is many years behind, and the gap is getting worse. If the industry has a fatal flaw that will yet bury it in frozen immobility, here it festers.

Disclaimer: The Spy has worked on the Modula-2 R10 project, a dialectical upgrade of Wirth’s simple but elegant programming tool. Neither this nor anything else is a silver bullet, but there are better tools somewhere, waiting to be invented. One finds new innovations all the time in building supply stores (he bought an extensible wreaking bar yesterday); why not among the range of tools for software construction? We’re in a rut, folks, and ruts only lead one place—the end of the rut. Or, to put it another way, those who live by the rusty sword die of rust.

A cautionary note from someone who has a paranoia about backups. Somehow, upgrading to version 2.0 of Nisus Writer Pro (adds some drawing and other graphics tools, better macros, has track changes and watermarks) managed to not install properly on one machine and to clobber the auto save preference. When the program crashed the first time, it was after two hours’ work on a sermon, all of which had to be re-done, because he relied on that setting to be lazy about saves. Working now. Always check.

Product of the month is the Linksys E4200 Dual Band N Router, which, with the Synology NAS he purchased earlier, completes the replacement of the heat-death prone Apple Time Vault and fulfills his promise not to buy one box (and all its problems) when he should buy two (with fewer then half the problems each). He hears Apple has or will address this issue, but it’s too late for him.

First impressions: the “wizard” setup was not simpler; he prefers the web server, which is available. Some of the directions were wrong or incomplete, causing several steps to be repeated, and the product almost to be returned. Once functional, however, it is noticeably faster, and connectivity noticeably better, with the range about twenty-five percent farther. Perhaps the E3000 or a lesser model would have been sufficient, but the price differential was to small to quibble about getting the top end. In the end, worth it, but stay tuned.

–The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics as well as Senate Chair at Trinity Western University. He is also on the board of CIRA, operator of .ca. 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 (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.

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