The Northern Spy: Prognostications for 2014
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The Northern Spy: Prognostications for 2014

By Rick Sutcliffe

A year of consolidation looms in parts of the high-tech landscape. For instance, television manufacturers will continue to exit this unprofitable sector and find other ways to (try to) make money.

Sony in particular remains problematic. The Spy recently purchased a Sony 1040 receiver as both reviews and specs seemed promising. After all, very few receivers at any price have all of AirPlay, Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and BlueTooth, and many no longer offer phono inputs. Sony's model has them all at a reasonable price point.

However, finding stock has been a problem, and this seems more than just an end-of-model-year issue. Yes, after years of being behind the feature curve, Sony surpassed the others in receiver featuritis last year, but was the company too late with too little? And, can they turn their TV business around? Is it worth trying? Time will tell, but there's not much good news coming out of Sony these days, and it has to be considered an acquisition or failure target.

Mind, he hasn't got the unit yet, so no review for a while. It takes time for a truck to trek across the frozen north, y'know. Interestingly, a "trek" is a mud-covered truck boasting a gun rack, a large dog of uncertain pedigree, and a driver with an attitude. One is wise not to argue at intersections or shake one's fist when being passed at a double line.

The RIM/Blackberry soap opera continues to stagger out, but an end seems near. Having seen the company apparently close the door on potential acquisitions, the Spy forecasts that it will in 2014 either transition to a software and services provider, or cease operations altogether.

And speaking of consolidation, wouldn't it be nice to be able to edit a Scrivener window with Nisus Writer Pro, combining the stellar conceptual organization of the one with the search and replace facilities of the other? Talk about a killer App. Take it further--revision the idea of a window on data being anything but a "view" on data, and the editor of that view be mutable, not its owner.

Try this. You are writing a textbook on programming in Modula-2 release 10 using Scrivener for organizing the views. You mouse to a section of text in body style, and the menu bar changes to that of NisusWriter. You mouse to a section in code style and it changes to BBEdit, allowing you to compile directly from there. You mouse to a chart and the menu bar becomes that of Excel. Each tool does its own thing on the portion of data assigned to it by the style/tool menu, just as each socket goes on the wrench for a different job, each screwdriver bit drives a different screw. We need a paradigm shift here, folks. Things could be so much easier.

Not at all a high-tech operation (and that's the main part of the trouble), western postal services have thus far failed to re-invent themselves to match the challenges on the information age. Royal Mail has been sold into the private sector, the U.S Postal Service loses phenomenal amounts of money, and Canada Post has recently announced the cessation of home delivery and more substantial rate increases.

The Spy cannot see any of them surviving many more years unless they can re-invent themselves as something else. How about selling or contracting out mail delivery by Canada Post and USPS to Amazon? The postage stamp is going the way of the hand plough.

Company killers include, therefore, failure to keep up (RIM/Blackberry), failing to diversify when your products are commoditized (Sony), failure to re-invent the business to match new conditions (Post Office). But perhaps all can be merged under complacency--we're a mature company and have been making lots of money doing things this way in the past, so let's just continue in the same groove and we'll make even more. NOT. Ask Olivetti, Underwood, Burroughs, and CN-CP Telecommunications whether this strategy works.

Today's salient question for the technological futurist is: has Apple become a mature and complacent company? If not, where are the new and innovative products? If so, how long will it last before a couple of kids in a garage eat their lunch in the rapidly changing marketplace?

The stock market is answering the first question in the emphatic positive. Shares are stable, and about two thirds of their peak value. This fits the profile of a mature company in a stable market with limited growth potential, not that of an up-and-still-coming innovator in a rapidly expanding market. Any self-styled prophet who purports to know the answer to the second is suffering from terminal hubris.

So, the long awaited Mac Pro finally came out, though Apple fudged its 2013 introduction promise by making the announcement but setting shipping dates starting in February. You'll read more about it here eventually--but the Spy will not be an early participant this time--too risky. But what of 2014? Is there anything in the wind besides incremental upgrades to Pad/Pod/Phone hardware, to IOS, and to Mac OS?

Not obviously. If Cupertino isn't having second thoughts about getting into the corpse-littered TV business, it ought to. Else, go whole hog and build the full suite of premium audio-visual products, or buy and merge Sony and Panasonic into the money making operation neither will be without consolidation and a management makeover.

Meanwhile, the iWatch concept is being tried by others, but the Spy remains skeptical that such a device offers the potential to be more than a geekish curiosity interface to more capable devices. There is such a thing in this market as being too small to be practical. Mind, if anyone can invent this particular light bulb as its own thing, convince us we need it, and make money from the concept, it is Apple. Show me.

On the third hand, the company shows no indication of getting back into other peripherals such as printers (though they could do a far better job than HP and its imitators of late) and neither is there any solid indication of a new market-defining product rising from behind the smoke of Cupertino obfuscation, notwithstanding the spaceship building and the multitude of prototypes behind sealed doors and lips that will never see the light of day.

What's left? Services. Apple already sells an integrated cloud. The Spy has noted here before that an Apple data network would be a good fit. So would consulting services. The latter is not without its risks, as it would effectively be a startup, but what of an acquisition? Think the governmental anti-trust folk would object to a merger with IBM? Nah, bad idea, despite the delicious irony it evokes. The cultures are too different. But as the pinstripes have shown, there is good money to be made outside of hardware and software.

One thing for sure--Apple must not give in to the predatory shareholders who buy a position, force the company to make short-sighted moves (such as splitting into several units) whose only purpose is to kite share values, then sell out, leaving an empty shell behind for long-term doldrums. The CPR is only now recovering from such stupidity after being torn apart in just such a fashion decades ago. Let's at least see one corporate board that knows fiduciary duty goes far beyond the immediate greed of a few shareholders who cannot see past the end of their own wallets.

Very low down tech indeed populates this section, for the Spy hears unconfirmed reports that the newer toilets that are supposed to save water and money don't put enough dihydrogen oxide into the mains to keep them from sludging up, so the sewer system must be periodically flushed by the utility itself. True or urban legend, the yarn does illustrate that not everything that's new is without its little setbacks. Same goes for compact fluorescents, which may save electricity to the homeowner, but whose manufacture and chemical contents are far from green.

Speaking of which, the recent ice storm in the far east (Ontario, Quebec and realms to their south) that has knocked power out for over a week to some, illustrates that the people seeking to ban wood stoves and gas fireplaces for not being sufficiently green ought to give it a second think. Freezing to death isn't worth the environmental brownie points. The Spy will keep both to supplement his high-tech ultra-efficient furnace and heat pump.

People sometimes wonder (well, some or two have made a point of asking) why Modula-2 R10 has only zero-based cardinal indexed arrays as built-ins. Answer: because we Wirthians believe that the core language should consist only of the minimal building blocks needed to write programs, with no duplication or unnecessary weight thrown on the compiler (this is anti-Ada.) Everything else is offloaded to libraries.

Thus, though you can define ordinal and cardinal non-zero based arrays, you do so by refining a library template, not by using a facility that was only built in because of tradition and a lack of vision. It's the same reasoning as Wirth used when he removed Pascal's built-in I/O to libraries for Modula-2 and Oberon.
Look for a compiler real soon now.

And finally two real predictions.

As in 2013, there will be at least one more North American mass killing involving guns, and at least major political scandal in both Canada and the United States, only just perhaps not involving any of Stephen Harper, Rob Ford, or that Obama fellow down in the Excited States--what's his title there? Until the public becomes jaded and loses interest, exclaiming over others' failings will be a normal side-effect of living in the Information Age--you can find out anything about anyone anytime.

If people are fools enough to think they can keep secrets, or would be embarrassed when (not if) they are revealed, they shouldn't aspire to be public figures--except entertainers, who thrive on scandal-driven publicity. Indeed, in the latter case, the Spy sometimes thinks the celebs' own flacks make the stories up and leak them to the tabs.

--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.

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