The Computer Blog

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Virtual Windows or Virutal Mac?

The MacNN news website posted an article last week detailing virtualization technology that will be incorporated into Intel’s Pentium 4 line, and it will be showing up about the same time the Mac-to-Intel switch will be occurring. This technology will allow for one operating system or its applications to be run on another, using CPU rather than software to perform the translation. Today, a company named Codeweaver that specializes in technology that allows Windows applications to run on Linux announced it would be porting its tools for OS X. This is another step in enabling Windows applications to run on OS X without having to run Windows itself. Together, these technologies are sure to be getting the attention of folks at Redmond; if they enable the running of Windows applications at almost full speed, folks will be able to switch over to OS X with little or no fear of losing any functionality.

It’s not only the folks at Redmond that need to be worrying about this; however, the folks at Culpertino need to be as well. More and more, it appears there is solid movement toward making the need for developing for OS X disappear. Apple may win the battle by expanding its hardware market share but lose the war because no software developer will spend any time developing for them. If that happens, OS X sales could collapse under their own weight, hardware or no.

One hope for Apple is that even with all this virtualization technology the performance lags of native Windows applications will be enough to entice users to ask for native OS X versions of their favorite applications. Another hope for Apple’s future expansion may also lie with Linux. If these virtualization technologies allow OS X applications to be run on Linux, then the market for OS X applications might expand faster than the rate of OS X adoption alone. And that would be good for Apple.

Of course, what’s good for the goose may be good for the gander. If the virtualization technology also allows folks with PC’s and Windows to run Final Cut Pro, then Apple could find itself feeding its pro apps and its Leopard to the Microsoft Lion. In that case, instead of taking computing back from Gates, Jobs will only have robbed himself.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Buying a Mac Now

Since Steve Jobs announced that Apple would be switching to Intel CPU’s over the next two years, this subject has been swirling around in the back of my mind. While I still believe that the switch to Intel will not be as painless as Jobs was leading people to believe, I’m not as worried about it as I once was. I also am not as leery as I was about recommending to friends and family looking at Macs to go ahead and buy one. Here’s why.

Software for the current generations of Macs will be released for at least the next two years. After that, there will be a slow trickle off, yielding at least one to two years of additional software life to a current machine. (This will be during the era of dual-coded, i.e., Intel and PowerPC, applications.) So, at worst, if you buy a Mac now, I suspect that buying new software will not become a problem for three to four years. That’s a short life-span for most Mac users but about average for most PC users.

Really, if you’re happy with the software you’ve got and your current machine’s performance, you'll continue to use them until something forces you to upgrade. By that time, Intel compiled Apple software would more than likely be available. If software developers do the “switch” smartly, you’ll be able to "upgrade" PowerPC applications to Intel applications at the same or an only slightly increased cost from what it would normally cost you to upgrade a PPC application.

If you move now to “lock down” your PowerPC based system and software by the time the Intel move surfaces, you’ll set yourself to run for three or four years, anyway. During that time, you'll enjoy all the things that current Macs are famous for. Your Intel based friends will have to start worrying about viruses and worms, but you won’t. (Hackers aren’t going to waste their time going after a shrinking market segment. But they will go after the Intel base. I’m not seeing Jobs shout “Bring them on!”; but then he’s smarter than that, even though he didn’t finish college.)

The sad and bad part about buying a desktop Mac now is that you’ll be getting a 64 bit CPU for which a true 64 bit Apple operating system will never exist. Tiger is the closest you’ll come, and it's only got a little 46 bit functionality. Details about Apple’s next operating system, Leopard, are not available; but it’s likely to be aimed at the new Intel crowd rather than the aging PowerPC bunch. It’s conceivable that Apple might release versions of the OS that will run on both chips, and that would breath new life into older PowerPC systems (assuming they’re powerful enough to run it). But I would not count on any G4 systems being able to run Leopard. In effect, the move to Intel will take the G4 CPU down the road of the dodo. The G5 will last a little while longer; but it, too,will find itself becoming extinct and an object of passionate discussion at computer geekfests on the web and elsewhere.

Doing the Dirty Work

As soon as the weather turned hot, our cable modem service, which is hosted by Earthlink on Time Warner Cable lines, became intermittent. I troubleshot it the best I could and narrowed it down to either the cable modem or the outside line. We had a Time Warner tech come out last week, and the guy did a good job of improving the inside connections as well as discovering that the cable box was bad. (A common malady, he said, and the reason why the “movies for sale” channel has never worked). When he left, the service was up; but he told us that if the service dropped out again, the problem was in the line to the house. However, he left us no paperwork showing what he had done and said that telling Time Warner what he had said would be enough.

It wasn’t.

The service is out today. Again! I talked to a customer service rep who scheduled another tech to come out (our third in two weeks—the first missed his time slot by half an hour and us because we had other things to do) but stated flat out he couldn’t schedule up work to have the cable replaced. In other words, he’s sending another tech out to repeat the work the first one did and write the work order the first one needed to have. How long before our cable modem service is back to normal? Watching this process convinces me it will be a few weeks, creating a big enough vacuum where a switch to DSL would become a real possibility. My wife and I both work from home, her more than me anymore, so high-speed Internet access is more than just a convenience.

I went out in the backyard and traced the outside cable. It ran under grass along one edge of the house until it dove underground near our air conditioning unit. Its curvature suggested it was headed alone one side of our fence toward power poles behind, which meant that if that wire needed to be replaced, Time Warner would have to come in and dig up my backyard. I really wasn’t in favor of that. Could I find another solution?

Going back into the house, I used dial-up to connect to the Internet and did a Google search for “cable modem booster”. I found an article that listed four signal amplifiers that worked with cable modems. One of them was a Motorola Broadband Drop Amplifier (Model No 484095-001-00) that Circuit City stocked and had a rebate on, and a store is only about 5 miles or so from me. So, I drove to the store, bought one, and brought it back.

The cable line in our house goes through a splitter at the junction into the house and just after its routed through a ground. One leg of the splitter (incorrectly labeled “Road Runner”) connects to our main entertainment center in the living room, and the other connects to the main line that goes up into the attic. The attic line then hits another two-leg splitter that hosts the modem on one leg and a line leading to a three-way splitter that supports TV’s in the kitchen and two bedrooms. I installed the signal booster just before the first splitter on the attic line, thereby boosting the signal to everything in the house except the TV in the main entertainment center. The TV’s in the three rooms showed a very noticeable improvement. However, I haven’t been able to yet judge the affect on the cable modem since service had come back on its own just before I started the signal booster’s installation. My wife thought the speed had improved, but speed tests at Road Runner show we’re getting average speeds and not as fast as I had seen in the past. That might be due to the connection at the main line to the signal booster. As I had been tightening the connection, the connector broke; and I installed a Radio Shack connector to restore service. I’m going to ask the technician who comes out Saturday to replace it; but if adding the signal booster has solved the problem, I’m not going to allow them to do anything else. I’m not going to let them dig up by backyard until things get worse.

I’ll know later today whether the signal booster compensated enough to stop the dropouts. They seem to be temperature related, and we’re supposed to have almost record high’s during the day. Here’s hoping that Motorola’s accessory does the job.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Reactions and Predictions on Apple’s move to Intel

I sat down last night with my receipts and computed I have spent on Apple hardware since 2002. The total includes the costs of personal computers for both me and my wife and PowerMac systems I bought for my “homemade-not-doing-much-with-it” video business. It came to an amazing $21,000. If I include software costs (which includes buying Mac versions of Adobe products, several versions of Office, and pro video applications like Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro), the total is probably closer to $28,000. (I’m curious now to know what my exact total investment in today’s Mac platform is, so I may take the time over the next week to compile the software costs.) My point here is that our investment in the current Mac platform is substantial, less than a lot of businesses’ but a lot more than the average bear’s.

We started out with 800 Mhz and 700 Mhz G4 flat panel iMacs and bought a dual 1 Ghz PowerMac for the video business (and paying $4K for that Mac and monitor, the only Mac purchase I regret—my upper limit is $2K or so for any one system today). Maybe a year later, I got a great deal on a dual 1.25 GHz G4 and replaced my dual 1 Ghz PowerMac with that, giving my 700 iMac away to a family member and using the dual 1 GHz PowerMac as my personal machine and a backup video editor. We bought two 20 inch Apple Cinema Displays to go with the PowerMacs, retiring the 17 inch Apple Studio LCD (ADC) that came with the dual 1 GHz machine. Later, I bought myself an 800 Ghz G3 iBook to use at home and at work and bought my wife a 700 GHz G3 iBook on sale at MicroCenter for use at her university. When the G5’s came out, I bought my wife a 17 inch 1.8 Ghz G5 iMac and then myself a 20 inch (when MicroCenter sold them at 10% off—couldn’t resist!). A few months later, I replaced my iBook with a 1 GHz PowerBook and a year later replaced it with 1.5 GHz machine, while my wife took my hand-me-down PowerBook. This year, I replaced the dual 1.25 Ghz G4 PowerMac with a dual 2 Ghz G5 PowerMac. What happened to the machines we replaced? Rather than sell them, we made a choice to trickle them down throughout the family. Lots of family members are now on the Mac. It’s been a great platform. So far.

The risk with Apple’s move to Intel is huge. A lot of the reaction from the Mac community I’ve seen on the web is negative, though there is a good mix of positive commentary, too. I think it’s too early to tell what it really means. Frankly, I’m feeling sad, even though I know this could turn out to be a good thing. I’m feeling this way because, no matter how one tries to explain it away, the Mac lost some of its differentiation yesterday. Jobs’ attempt to rally the troops to the cause by declaring “the heart and soul of the Mac is its operating system” is as much marketing as it is truth (or untruth); it is the Mac’s hardware design as well as its operating system that make the package the most attractive.

This move is about market share and ego. Jobs has stated he wanted to take back computing from Gates; and with this move, he is positioning the platform to do so. He’s using video, movies, and music as his springboard to do it; and there is as good a chance he will succeed as not. And Jobs is obviously miffed that IBM made him look bad. The danger here is that he has overestimated the loyalty and patience of his current user base to withstand the rigors of this, for it is unlikely the transition will occur as painlessly as he tried to make it seem yesterday. As good as it is, it’s already being reported that Rhapsody does not run any applications with Altivec, and it drops into a G3 emulation mode when confronted with it. That’s a huge performance hit if you’re running Photoshop. And even Apple’s developer documentation is admitting that applications using Altivec may be harder to port. Good-bye to the idea of changing “a few lines of code”. It is also fairly apparent that initially Apple will be using 32 bit processors in its systems, not 64. This is obviously a step backwards. Will current Windows users flock to the Mac in enough numbers to replace the current Mac users Apple’s going to lose? Stay tuned!

Even if Apple is successful with this, it will ultimately face the same types of woes Microsoft is already dealing with. At some point, Apple’s “lock out” of OS X (ensuring it runs only on Apple hardware) will be challenged as monopolistic. That technological barrier will be bypassed in short order by hackers; and Apple will find itself facing, fairly or unfairly, a public outcry concerning its lack of hardware support, even if it never had any intention of supporting the hardware in question in the first place. Too, as market share increases, OS X will have to work harder to fend off the inevitable onslaught of hackers who are pissed that Apple hasn’t made OS X to run on everything; and they’ll release their share of viruses to make a point. In the end, the Mac community may find that the Mac is not that different from Windows after all. Once either developers and/or end users realize that, it’s all over for the Apple platform.

Me, I’m keeping my G5 systems for while. I may even be one of the few who do a little upgrading to ensure I can run on what I’ve got until Apple is beyond this transition. I had been thinking about upgrading my Adobe applications to CS2, but I see no reason to do that now. Neither will I consider any upgrades to Final Cut Pro or DVD Studio Pro. In short, I’m not going to upgrade any major application until the “universal” PPC/Intel ports are complete and applications cover both territories. I’ll use what I have, and sit back and watch how all this goes.

Monday, June 06, 2005

An Open Note to Family and Friends about the Mac Switch to Intel

If you’re receiving this note, it’s because Apple announced they’re switching to Intel processors over the next few years. This is a big deal. The processors in our current Macs are of a completely different architecture, and software built for our processors on OS X will not run on the Intel machines or vice-versa. There is new technology Apple will incorporate into OS X to allow it (named Rhapsody), and Apple is claiming our current Mac software would run at close to full speed on the Intel-powered machines. (They demonstrated it at the conference. From what I saw, I would guess it’s about 60% of the speed of the CPU.) However, whether it really works that well in the real world is an open question. Generally, emulation technology (where software is used to translate software built for one type of CPU and enable it to run on another) is slow and usable only for basic tasks. Still, it’s hard to conceive that Apple would make such a radical move without a lot of testing to convince them they could pull it off.

This doesn’t impact any of us in terms of software we’re running today or in the next year. However, until Apple makes this shift, software appears that will run on both CPU’s (and that is supposed to be in a year), and users have verified performance, I will not recommend anyone in the family buy a Mac nor will I recommend against it. I don’t want to recommend something to family, have them cough up a lot of money for software, and then have them find the software may not run well (or at all) on new Macs two years from now, even if it appears ok now, which it does. (Ok, not many of you will spend a lot of money on software anyway. Still…) If you feel you can live with your current Mac or the one you’re going to buy for some time, or don’t mind shelling out for new software or living with what you’ve got, then there’s little risk. (I’ve got two near-term software purchases I intend to make--Apple’s Motion 2 and FileMaker-- and I may also trade in my current 1.8 GHz iMac on a 2.0 GHz machine, will upgrade the video card on my current PowerMac, and may talk with Connie about upgrading her PowerBook before long to avoid buying new software but she might want a new MacIntel). However, the impact of this announcement on the current Mac software market is unknown; despite Apple’s assurances, software might get even harder to come by.

I won’t pay for any more upgrades of current Mac desktops (other than what I’ve already stated I might do) until after I am convinced I understand the true impacts of this change. I will probably buy an Intel-powered Mac mini as a testbed to verify performance claims; but until I do that and am happy, x86 powered iMacs, PowerMacs, iBooks, or PowerBooks are out of the question.

It’s an open question about which platform I will choose to upgrade from here.

Ultimately, this could turn out to be a good move for Apple. It’s all going to depend on how thorough a job Apple does and whether or not its current user (and software developer) base adapts or revolts. If the change is largely invisible, it won’t be a big deal. But if the Apple user community finds it expensive and unworkable, then Apple could find itself in serious trouble and its users with it. On the other hand, if it all works the way they say it will, you might be able to run OS X and Windows XP/XP 64 or Longhorn on the same machine! (Apple can be counted on to restrict OS X to its own machines until they have enough market share to face the exact same monopoly actions Microsoft did.)

One last note: Overall, these kind of changes are somewhat unavoidable in the computer world. I lost applications when I transitioned to Windows XP and will probably loose more if I go to Windows XP64. So, staying with Windows won’t necessarily save you from this, either. The bottom line is always to evaluate your needs, take a look at what’s coming and what you can afford, and go from there.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Darth Jobs, Part 2- Is Transitive Technologies “the Force”?

As reported on website Macrumors.com, in 2001 a company named Transitive Technologies demonstrated a technology that allows programs compiled for one CPU to be run on another at 80% efficiency. Additionally, in 2003, the company reported they had a “major customer” they would not name; and in 2004, they released a technology named “Quick Transit” that allows programs compiled for one operating system to be run on another.

Could this technology be the “missing link” that provides the bridge to allow Apple to switch to x86?

As I said yesterday, the problem such a switch would be for me would the huge investment I already have in the Mac platform, money spent after already investing hugely in Windows. Solutions that would enable me to accept such a move from Apple without malice are an Intel manufactured PowerPC or incorporation into a future Mac operating system technology that allowed me to run my current software on the new OS with only small performance hits. If I upgraded to a new Mac and my applications ran as faster or faster than they had on my old machine, then I’d have no beef with Apple about stepping up.

If Apple is really heading out in an x86 direction, they need to provide its current customers with just such an option.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Darth Jobs -- Is Apple Switching to the Dark Side?

The rumor mill is revolving around the reports that started on News.com (and Cnet) that Apple will announce at its WWDC conference on Monday that it will switch to Intel CPU’s. Most current Windows users like the move because they think Apple will port OS X to run on every PC. That’s not likely to happen. It would be uncharacteristic of Apple not to incorporate a check for an Apple BIOS during the system boot. Apple’s not likely to give up its computer hardware business, not at first. A few years down the line, if Apple decides it can compete with Microsoft head-to-head in the software world and third party vendors are releasing enough drivers for OS X to make it feasible, it might happen. However, if this is true, Apple is running perhaps the biggest risk it has since its creation.

This is a major change, and its impacts are not fully appreciated by the PC press, at least from what I’ve seen so far. Apple could literally destroy its current user base. To illustrate the point, let me discuss what such a move would mean to me personally.

Those of you who have read my blogs previously know I am a “switcher”, meaning I am a convert from the Windows platform. I had never seriously considered a Mac and still didn’t think much of them as late as five years ago, even after I got married to a woman who had known nothing but Macs. That all changed with Apple’s release of OS X and the flat-panel iMac. Video production I had been struggling with on the Windows platform was easy on the Mac. So, I invested a lot of money and time in switching all my major computing to the Mac platform. I run a lot of the “pro” apps from Adobe and Apple.

If Apple moves to the x86 platform, every penny I’ve invested in this move would be lost by moving to new x86 Apple hardware, even if it is running on OS X. Every single application I own would have to be recompiled for the x86 architecture and repurchased. We’re not talking chump change here; new machines and software, including the stuff I have handed off to other family members, have cost me a total of approximately $12,000, and that figure is a guess and probably low. That’s money I’m still paying off. I won’t pay out that kind of money again to move in a new direction. I would stick with my current Apple hardware and software. Apple upgrades might well become a thing of the past. Certainly, if I’m running x86 CPU’s in every machine I own, the decision moves more toward one of cost than it does now.

The only way I can see this working is if Apple has engaged Intel to manufacture PowerPC CPU’s rather than the x86 architecture they are so famous for. To be honest, I don’t know enough about it to gage the difficulty of that. I suspect it is too difficult a barrier for Intel, even if Apple wants to head off in that direction.

If that is not the case, then Apple will run a huge risk with losing its current user base, the user base they will need to sustain the company while they make the move. But, tell me, what motivation would any of us have to invest in a platform we know is going to be dead in two years? Certainly, if that is what Apple is announcing, I will not recommend to friends or family they move to the Mac anymore. I don’t want them all pissed at me when, in a couple of years, push comes to shove, and they have to buy all new software to run on a new Mac. Even if the move to Intel CPU’s might be good for the company, there will be a very great risk that Apple might not survive long enough to get there.