Sunday, November 19, 2006

Phrases that tell you you're wrong

If you ever hear yourself saying one of these, it's a good bet you need to reconsider the way you live your life.
  • Do you know who I am?
  • I'm not normally like this.
  • It's all in good humour.

List of GNOME CD burning programs

I may have given this list before, but it has once again grown, so here goes...
Bonfire is the new Sauron's ring on the block. The screenshots look good. I wish them well.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Apple, Sony and ultra-portables

Following initial problems with their Intel laptop line-up, it seems Apple's firmware is settling down and the laptops are ready for productive use. And yet the lower end of the range, the MacBook, fails to impress me - too heavy, short battery life. And no genuinely small model, like the 12" iBook used to be. Or a Sony VAIO TX3. One of which I happen to have just purchased, and boy, does it make me wonder why Apple hasn't approached Sony with either a bid for their laptop division, or an offer to license OS X for their machines. The design would fit within the Apple portfolio perfectly. If Sony have any business sense, they'll take the OS X option for even part of their range - say the TX3 and X505. Admittedly, the X505 strays a little further from Apple's style than the TX3, but it has the slimness and could undoubtedly be given the aluminium/brushed metal finish.

I'm concerned that Steve Jobs' xenophobia might be hindering his achieving great things in the technology sector, as seems to otherwise be his mission. But then, Apple's strategy has always been to re-invent the wheel, especially in software.

On the other hand, it might be Sony still dreaming they'll achieve the firm grip on the technology and entertainment industries that they've always wanted and Apple has now finally achieved. There is so much to learn from Apple: small number of different models, simple price structure, and an appealing, easy to navigate website. Just for starters.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Firefox needs text recovery

This is the one feature that is sorely missing in an app that several years into its development, remains unstable. How many times have you lost a forum post or email you were composing because Firefox crashed? Sure, you can first compose it in a text editor and then copy it over, but that's not how things are meant to be, is it?

So what we need is what every unstable word processing app now has: document recovery (Vim 6 also has this, in spite of being stable) for text fields. My suggestion would be to present it as a scrapbook, the way clipboard managers usually work.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Apple not embracing Web 2.0?

While I was originally fascinated with how Apple was using iTunes with its unrivalled Music Store to push sales of its iPod, and simultaneously giving a push to its "Mac" computer hardware brand (which consumer surveys show is preceived as separate from the iPod brand, so the marketing idea was not entirely efficient), it is also interesting to see that Apple is not making any inroads into consumer content creation, other than allowing upload of podcast details onto its Music Store (but again, market research shows low penetration for podcasts). So far, Apple is enticing us with rich media for sale and free download (as in the case of many video podcasts) through Music Store, but Azureus will have content creation abilities that could well take away revenue from Apple, and even and Google Video, Apple's other competitors in the rich media avenue. Part of the problem here is that while the quality of Apple's offerings exceeds that of Web 2.0 competitors, entertainment is being commoditised by cheap video hardware, software and free hosting, and there is no doubt that the resolution of freely available video content will catch up with Apple.

However, there are programmes that are inherently onerous to produce, and these will continue to generate revenue. Central to this market are nature documentaries filmed at remote locations. Second best, I would say are documentaries that require intense research, especially into material that is not readily available to the general public (Vatican library?).

At the same time, voices are growing for Apple to develop its other web-based service, .Mac.

I have further, unpublished comments on this topic.

A week of shutdowns

This week started with me hearing that eBay were changing their pricing structure so that they could charge more on average from their professional sellers. Some sellers then staged a boycott, but, hey, what can you do if you've built your existence on top of somebody else's business who could pull the rug from underneath you, and you'd be flat on your bum? If eBay had no competition, that would be a silly thing to do. However, there's still Amazon and other trading and swapping sites to choose from. It just so happens that eBay is being used by a lot of customers, but the next "disruptive technology" (i.e. a better website) is just around the corner.

This reminded me that some senators in the US are advocating privatisation of their domestic internet (as I understand it). Reeks of corruption and is unlikely to go ahead in my opinion, but it could leave a lot of web businesses stranded if they had to pay considerable amounts to get their data packets through, as some critics fear. May the decision makers listen to Sir Tim.

The conclusion to the story might be that the world works better if at least some basic services are being provided by the (nation) state, such as garbage collection and the internet. It's even possible that the economy would benefit from a tax-funded eBay equivalent.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Understanding the success of Ubuntu

There seems to be a lot of debate on how Ubuntu was able to solve Debian's usability problems, and whether Ubuntu's success is ultimately a good thing. Take this essay from an apparent Debian fan. What most people fail to fully take in is that Ubuntu is a (self-confessed) dictatorship, whereas Debian's government structure stops just short of anarchy. Strong, visionary leadership simply beats doing things by committee. That's all there is to it.

Trivial patent from Apple

If someone can explain to me how this patent that Apple is reported to have filed is not invalidated by prior art in the shape of buttons that light up when pressed or released (used in military applications for many decades) and touchscreens, I promise to be most attentive. :)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Office suite disk sizes

All figures for win32:

  • Abiword + Gnumeric - 87MB
  • OpenOffice 2.0 - 203MB
  • WordPerfect Office X3 Trial - 395MB
  • MS Office 2003 (including InfoPath and Publisher) - 664MB
  • MS Office 2007 beta (recommended install) - 1505MB
  • MS Office 2007 beta (exluding Outlook) - 1448MB
  • MS Office 2007 beta (excluding InfoPath, Publisher and Visio Viewer) - 1317MB
  • MS Office 2007 beta (excluding Outlook, InfoPath, Publisher and Visio Viewer) - 1259MB
  • MS Office 2007 beta (full install) - 1641MB
Unselecting all the templates, clipart, etc. shaves off another 20MB - fairly insignificant! Unselecting everything leaves 751MB, which presumably is composed of shared application libraries - maybe this is the engine that draws the new widgets - ribbon etc.? I just can't help thinking Office 2007 will give an entirely new meaning to bloatware. Someone said in the PC Pro issue that I got the beta from that Microsoft had specified not to include on the same CD. The columnist felt that this was a mistake because MS Office would win in a direct comparison of features. In a direct comparison of bloat, wins hands down. Note that dates back to October 2005, yet still has a smaller footprint than the version of MS Office released in November 2003. I hope I'll have time to check out memory consumption.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Conflict from the OLPC mesh

The One Laptop Per Child project is receiving much criticism in recent days (also see a waffly article in PC Pro, August 2006 issue). I'm personally concerned about two things.

I just had the first look at the mockups of the Sugar interface on the wiki, and many of the screenshots show browser windows displaying Red Hat promotional material - hardly suitable for educating children! I strongly believe these links must be omitted from the final version. Obviously, information is required, but not inundated with PR speak and graphics.

The second concern is about the mesh - this is an idea that I independently had a little while ago, of making direct links between mobile devices to make masts redundant. I imagined this would be useful if using a mobile in the countryside, so long as a chain of capable mobile devices was available trailing back to civilisation, where masts as well as a denser, more reliable mesh would be available. The OLPC project is intending to use this principle to give internet access to their hand-crank recharged laptops. As far as I understand at this point, the mesh goes down when the computer is switched off; trivially, it definitely goes down when the battery runs out. So what if the kids in the next village don't keep their laptops cranked, and you end up losing the link? This can either lead to the mesh collapsing over time (because if I've little hope of getting a link, I won't crank my machine) or to conflict between villages. Not that learning conflict resolution is a bad thing, but this should be addressed by the organisers when the laptops are introduced. If you sell these as a wonder pill, and then the link keeps going down, people will be hugely disappointed and toss these laptops aside. Back to carpet-weaving you go, Chaitanya!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Comment and ratings control

Many websites, from user forums to commercial sites with ratings systems, have this problem: how to vet the content users are putting on their sites to avoid being involved in libel suits. However, my experience of several forums would suggest that policing structures quickly evolve, whose main means of punishment is intellectual disgracing (often expressed as "RTFM" or "Google is your friend").

I have also wondered whether online shops such as Amazon manipulate their reviews. Again, it seems they don't, in order not to cause such rumours among their customers, although IP-range and cookie based action could circumvent the problem of people checking their own reviews still exist. Note that I am merely pointing out the technical possibility of this - Amazon has enough negative reviews on some items to suggest it's not greasing its wheels.

It does strike me that in some sinister "brave new world" (just read William Gibson), content transmission will be policed by the control freaks hired by forums and other websites to suppress the undesirable. To the best of my layperson knowledge, there is no legal requirement for private companies to give accounts of such content censorship. I do wonder, though, whether Amazon's terms and conditions have anything to say on the matter. Perhaps we should request this.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Online rating systems: better based on cash

One may wonder why Amazon has various rating systems built in (one is customer reviews, another is "did you find this review helpful?", and finally, there's one for rating sellers), whereas and Wikipedia do not. Even eBay has a rudimentary one.

You might also wonder book authors and electronics manufacturers don't spam the amazon rating system somehow. Even Wikipedia gets spammed. In the case of eBay, this is fairly clear: to rate, you have to pay. You could sell your friends stuff and they would up your rating, but you would still have to pay the eBay fee. Similarly for Amazon sellers: without a sale, you don't get to judge the seller.

Basically, the only way to be safe from spam is to force the rater to surrender cash. A possible alternative is to get his credit card details (although any one person may have more than one credit card), and a third alternative is to keep track of IP addresses (with internet cafes and dynamic IPs, this is a weak one, though). Email addresses, obviously, forget it.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Open source, stability and release cycles

Windows releases every, erm..., six years. Mac OS X releases nearly once a year. Ubuntu Linux releases every half year. Fedora Core is now releasing every seven to nine months.

My experience with both Fedora Core in the first three releases, and Ubuntu up until now, is that system updates break things. The final release has always undergone such thorough testing as to work really well, but it seems that the updates following are sent through relatively unfiltered from the upstream projects, and this is typically where things break. OS X has much less frequent updates, and these are generally better tested, and rarely break things (never for me).

The problem arises as much from the fact that servers need first and foremost to be secure (whereas desktop systems need first and foremost to be useable) as it does from the fact that desktop systems have more complex package dependencies. I hope that the software industry can get to the point where desktop systems need only be upgraded sporadically, and where the upgrades are thoroughly tested. This should be just as possible for Linux to achieve as it evidently is for OS X.

Closed source and reinventing the wheel

It's not great news to anyone that closed source code leads to permanent reinventing of the wheel. Nonetheless, I am impressed by the number of programs out there, especially on the Mac platform, that all do the same thing in only slightly different ways. There are at least a half dozen each of RSS readers, notebooks (think OneNote), launchers and web browsers for Aqua/Cocoa. I've no doubt there is a lot of innovation going on and that there are advantages to the approach in that it enforces having completely separate projects, each with complete freedom to develop (after all, some basic components, such as html rendering, are usually provided by the OS, meaning developers need merely wrap a GUI around it). However, it does strike me that the creators are often unaware of other people's existing creations. This does not usually happen with open source, as first versions are released early, and newcomers tend to join the fastest-developing projects, so that even competing lead developers sometimes abandon their projects and join their prior rivals. Nonetheless, as we see with jukebox applications, projects periodically replace each other as something better gets developed from scratch (for an example, see how Amarok is taking over from XMMS - with several others waiting in the wing for their chance - or how gnome is replacing KDE as the main Linux distributors' favourite). I have yet to see this approach stifle innovation, although it has to be said that OS X remains the most technologically advanced environment.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Google Earth will not go South

Anyone ever tried to surf Antarctica using Google Earth? I was disappointed to find that the satellite pictures are apparently organised to converge on the poles, leading to Antarctica being displayed in slices, besides the low resolution. I hope this will be improved.

Listened, not bought

I've just been reading about the new technology that's supposed to let you download any song that the radio happens to be playing. This is meant to be put into mobile phones and stationary digital radios, and a song would cost 1.25 GBP. The way it's described, it sounds like a client side technology, where the client knows the identity of the song playing on any given station. This would mean your client could continually pick the stations playing your favourite songs at that very moment, without any purchase ever made!

I really hope for their sakes that the inventors implemented this as a server-side technology, otherwise... oh dear!

Laptop makers supporting Linux

Just as I predicted, PC makers are being driven to increasingly support Linux as the only other notable operating system available to them, Windows, falls behind competitor Mac OS X.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

How the distribution of money affects consumer decisions

I'll just give two examples here:

Speed-dating agencies in the UK charge about £20 per person per evening, where an evening might be attended by around 30 people. To put on an evening of this kind, they need probably less than a handful of their own staff, plus an arrangement with the venue (which is probably easily arranged, since the customers will be buying drinks - the venue is typically a reasonably fashionable bar).

Takings of £600 for an evening clearly outstrip the costs by a wide margin, I imagine in the region of 50-200% margin depending on the exact circumstances. Why are we willing to pay that much? Would you want to attend a meeting whose stated purpose is finding a social and sexual partner knowing they had paid less than 20 quid?

Example number 2. People often pay a premium of up to 100% on the top food brand as opposed to the store brand or an unmarketed "brand". Why? Because the industry leader is rich enough to take measures that ensure the quality of the product and avoid a lawsuit brought by customer. An attempt to build an alternate brand if the first one is tarnished would be unlikely to succeed. A brand that has not spent money on advertising can more easily recover.

I'm sure there are more business opportunities that could be built around these general principles.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Scratchy no sell

To my mind, the craze to personalise items is a scam by hardware vendors to prevent resale of products. One might wonder whether Apple's scratchy iPod screens fall into the same category.

Speeding up Firefox

Things to try:

Fasterfox extension - for all platforms
Firefox builds optimised for various Mac platforms - e.g. Firefox builds
Swiftfox - Linux builds for specific AMD and Intel processors

Friday, June 02, 2006

PC upgrades: why little makes a difference

People may reasonably marvel why they should pay much extra for having an 60GB rather than a 40GB hard drive, or a 2GHz processor rather than 1.8GHz. On the face of it, the price may seem designed for people who want the best, and the abstaining consumer may be proud to be a member of the less easily fooled. However, do consider that your operating system may consume some 10GB of hard disk space, so now you get 50GB rather than 30GB. Sounds better already? The same goes for RAM (memory); it is anticipated that the next Windows version may consume as much as 512MB of memory just to run. So if you bought 2GB total memory rather than 1GB (as a hypothetical future example, these configurations would currently be thought unusually performant *cough*), you'd have 1.5GB free vs. 512MB. Quite a difference, non? You've suddenly gone from factor 2 to factor 3.

Thinking about CPU speed is slightly more complex, because the benefit depends whether your system usage scales with the clockspeed or not. If you have lots of CPU intensive services running at regular intervals (such as a web server, not unheard of!), you will benefit from having those extra 200MHz extra, although whether you realise this, and are actually more efficient because of it, is up to you to assess. However, personally, choosing between a 1.83GHz and a 2.16GHz CPU, I would always go for the lower end. For many years, chip manufacturers like Intel have worked hard to make us believe that your computer's performance depends crucially on the clockspeed. Experts know that RAM is more important, and stuff their machines full of it. (This is partly the fault of PC sellers, who will invariably package the smallest amount of RAM that will keep the machine going. Currently, this would be 512MB. Even 768MB will give you markedly better performance, and may cost you less than a 100 GBP to upgrade!)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Kaleem Aftab

Just want to share one of my secret tips with you. I was reading Kaleem Aftab's reviews when he was still writing for The List. Best movie reviews I ever read. He really knows what to appreciate about a film. He writes stuff for the Independent these days, aside of his book, Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking To It, and his film projects. Kaleem, let's see more of you! Miss you at The List, it's not been the same and I stopped buying it.

The BBC gave him some "my space" thing with an interface that makes my eyes hurt. Still, some might find it useful...

How many packages does your distro have?

Data from Wikipedia.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Apple pricing: Mac Mini vs. MacBook

So an extra £150 (check out the Core Duo Mac Mini) gets you a display, battery, keyboard and touchpad?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Elephant Dreams

Being a fan of Blender and its community, I've just watched Elephant Dreams. It's like a film with bad acting. Rather reminded me of that other free animation film featuring a cute robot alone in a space station, with some kind of guard robot chasing it. It was really boring.

Elephant Dreams' character animations remind me of the Plumber short film, which was actually rather good, very funny. I just wish that they'd improvised ED with real actors first.

Okay. It sucks. Sorry. Show me some open source that works. Thanks.

OS X needs a meta-window-switching key

In order to ease the transition of Linux and Windows users to OS X, it really needs an application-agnostic window switching key, different from either Cmd-Tab or Cmd-`, which change either within or between applications, and can be quite limiting to the keyboard-centric user.

Update 30/07/2006: Prayer answered.

Growl, Azureus and other GUI evils

Some of you may be familiar with the OS X add-on Growl, which displays little messages that programs send in a pop-up window that does not take focus. Other programs, such as Azureus, have this ability built in without using Growl. Windows has had this feature for a long time, so why has Apple never implemented it?

There is a very sensible reason. Remember the icons in the dock that jump up and down when an application needs attention? Rather than throwing a window your way like most Windows applications would, often resulting in text or even passwords being lost or disclosed by typing them into the wrong window that has just popped up, OS X is courteous and kindly asks the user for some of his attention, "when you're ready".

Moreover, it does so in an area of the screen that is usually guaranteed not to be used for any other purpose. Growl, on the other hand, could quite conceivably pop up in an area of the screen that the user is actually performing work in, and prevent the user from executing a mouse action, and break his concentration. Some may intuit that the problem could be alleviated by having Growl messages displayed in a separate window, which would then cause its icon to bob, being more courteous. But this is actually worse than having the original application take such action, because the user couldn't tell at a glance which application was calling him. On the other hand, applications use Growl to display many more messages than they would usually display of their own. So perhaps they should not be displaying these messages at all, since doing so would simply lead to an inflation of messages, and an all-dancing desktop. If that's what we wanted, we'd be using Windows, right?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Google and Amazon?

If someone can explain to me why Amazon and Google haven't figured out a way to integrate GoogleAds and MarketPlace, please do! It could be so simple:

The customer pays Google not for clicks, but for actual successful sales resulting from clicks. Reciprocally, Google could automatically adjust its advertising so that customers' ads appear on the page for the search results that generate the most revenue for the customer. Finally, Google could reward customers whose clicks result in revenue more often by ranking them at the top of the ads page. I haven't recently followed up the GoogleAd bombs story (you make a bot to click on competitors' ads to relieve them of their money) and whether Google has found a solution for this, but this is a solution that works because you pay per sale, not per click. Hire me? :)

Update 13/06/2006: Well, look what they did. I should stop posting.

Update 30/07/2006: As a sidenote, Froogle already provides seller ratings for some sellers.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Spotlight: Apple's grip on UI goodness is slipping

Doubtless many of you will have noticed that Spotlight returns results in a window while it's still searching its index. This is a useless and annoying feature, as you could actually try to click one of the items - it is possible - but then end up opening the wrong one because the list has expanded between your first and second clicks. Steve Jobs, I'm losing faith. Thermal paste?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Apple needs to back web-based office apps

Here I go disagreeing with Robert Cringely again.

He writes in a recent "pulpit" edition that Apple needs to develop their own competitor to Office so Microsoft can no longer boss them around. I had previously commented on Cyberdog's suggestion that Apple had introduced BootCamp to break MS Office's power over OS X.

What Cringely is apparently oblivious to is the existence of web-based office replacements such as Group Office (GPL) and ThinkFree Office (proprietary). ThinkFree in particular constitutes a fairly faithful and fully compatible clone of MS Office. However, when I last checked, it was capable neither of executing VBA macros nor of performing statistical calculations, not to mention having citation functionality that usually comes on the form of EndNote.

Great as Pages and Keynote may be from a user interface and eye candy perspective, if Apple were to invest in one of these web-based office solutions to supplement the missing features, they'd catch Microsoft up in no time, at smaller effort.

Update 28/05/2006: I'm not the only one to find Cringely occasionally flakey. Daniel Eran also has a few chickens to pluck with the controversial man. Let's see if I can take on Eran next ;)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Who's your daddy?

I'm trying to decide whether this computer is trying to look like this computer or this computer.

MacBook: user-swappable hard disk

Below the two RAM slots (at the base of the battery cavity) is where you'll find the MacBook's hard disk drive. Without disassembling the notebook, users will be able to quickly removing some protective aluminum shielding and lift the drive out of the computer.


MacBook: glossy screen

Here is the most extensive documentation yet of the drawbacks of the new glossy screen on the MacBook, now also available as an option for the MacBook Pro. Here are some more photos.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

MacBook: not for the paranoid?

For instance, when you’re in a dark room, MacBook turns down the brightness. Just one of the many ways MacBook conserves energy out of the box, optimizing both AC and battery power.

Says the Apple website. Although it is possible that the MacBook has a separate light/dark sensor, I'm guessing they measure brightness using the camera. I hope either this feature or the actual camera itself can actually be switched off. Not everyone wants a Paris Hilton incident in the home. Yes, cover that camera when not in use! Did you know that Flash may be able to access your audio-in? Hah, scary...


So the news is out.

The MacBook, now for sale, has a 13 inch widescreen display (1280 x 800 where I had anticipated closer to Sony's 1366 x 768), a mini-DVI output which requires an inexpensive (15 GBP) adapter for either a DVI or VGA socket on your display. It also features the dual-core CoreDuo processor, from 1.83GHz, where many expected to see a "CoreSolo" for the cheaper end of the range.

The anticipated black finish is only available for the 2GHz 80GB+ model, at an 89 GBP premium! Its budget nature is revealed, however, when considering the weight: The MacBook weighs in at a sizeable 2.36kg, comparing unfavourably, for example, to the superiorly configured Sony VAIO VGN-SZ110B, which weighs only 1.86kg.

We shall have to wait for news on battery life (not expected to diverge from the MacBook Pro), thermal paste, whine and MagSafe. Some people are curious about GPU performance.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Unix-Windows security debate

The Windows guys say when OS X becomes common, it will be affected by viruses just as much (the epidemiology standpoint). The Unix guys say, no, because Unix is designed as a multi-user system with restricted user and file permissions from the ground up, so viruses have far fewer avenues for propagation (the system design standpoint).

And then there are userland macro/script viruses, where the unix file permissions don't apply, a problem common to all pluggable applications, especially where the user is a) not asked to consent to execution of a b) digitally signed macro.

That's as much as there is to this debate. Simple, hmm?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Major embarrassment for Apple: thermal paste in MBP

As nicely illustrated in this forum post, Apple manufacturers have been applying excess amounts of thermal paste to all relevant bits of hardware, hence . Not only has this led to questions whether the MacBook will be similarly affected, besides being the reason why MacBook Pros are not designated "laptops", it has even led to suggestions (pending investigation) that this problem may have afflicted PowerBooks and G5 computers, and that Apple's move to Intel hardware may have been mostly motivated by what has now turned out to be the result of incorrect application of heat paste. Yes, embarrassing!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Computers with Mactel hardware?

If anyone can explain to me why Mac OS X-compatible hardware budget offerings from third party manufacturers aren't popping up all over the place, I'll be glad to hear it - sure, they couldn't deliver them with OS X pre-installed, or they'd be liable. But there sure must be quite a few customers out there wanting a slice of OS X goodness without the price tag! (Who cares if the customers break the license terms?)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Darwine on Mac OS X

To join in with speculation by John Martellaro and others (John suggests that Mac OS X could be partly replacing its rumoured virtual machine to run XP, Vista and Linux, with a Darwine implementation for Vista), I would like to point out that Wine is almost feature-complete for XP, so Apple could give Microsoft a quicker death by quenching Vista in its pram - support XP apps via Darwine NOW, and eradicate any developer desire to support Vista (as it will have smaller market share than XP probably forever). If there are no apps that depend on Vista, consumers likely won't want it either!

Steve Ballmer foresaw it when he chanted "developers, developers, developers, developers" - unless developers use the new Vista features, the platform will die because it does not offer considerable user interface improvements in the way that OS X increments do (Exposé, Spotlight, etc.)

Friday, April 21, 2006

Windows XP API in Mac OS X 10.5?

Here goes Cringely again, suggesting that Mac OS X will fully support Windows XP apps natively; what he neglects to mention is that this would totally kill Windows Vista, as it would mean that no software vendor other than MS will develop their apps beyond the API offered by XP (since using Vista-specific features will lose them the Mac OS X installed base, while using only XP features will allow them to stop developing a Mac OS X specific version...).

So here we would have a company that used to sell its hardware because the hardware supported a unique, user-friendly OS that everybody wanted, changing into a company that sells good hardware (I doubt XP apps would be supported in Macish way (menu bar at top etc.) But then Cringely claimed in his previous column that Sony would beat Apple on delivery time, so what's happening here? Is Apple's demise in the wings? Can they survive on the quality of Mail and Preview alone (which I think will not be included in the OS X compatibility kit for Windows)?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The advent of the mount virus

I had previously wondered whether the large number of Linux-Windows dual boot systems would attract viruses that can propagate between the two operating systems (OS), making a relatively secure OS (e.g. Linux, if up to date with security patches) insecure by association with an insecure OS (e.g. Windows, even if up to date with security patches).

Gartner last week published an advisory stating that Mac OS X is at no additional risk from viruses through dual booting. While it is correct that current Windows viruses cannot infect Mac OS X on a dual boot system, it is also true that there are a lot of open code bases that include a plethora of file system drivers that could be ported to Windows by ambitious virus authors. It is also true that an OS can usually be identified by the file system it's on, for historical reasons not worth going into.

The best advice, as always, is to use your insecure OS (yes, Windows) only on virtual machines.

Update 25/04/2006:
Looks like we may be skipping the dual boot virus stage and heading straight for VM rootkits. This seems to be in line with rumours that Apple's next operating system release will have a virtual machine to run Windows and Linux operating systems as guests, included.

Update 02/05/2006:
Finally someone hears me.

Update 11/10/2006:
Link - link - somewhat related topic

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Microsoft and Beagle

Many within the Linux community have expressed well-justified concerns at building such a crucial desktop tool as a desktop search engine on a technology patented to Microsoft - .NET. It is good to see that the warnings have been heeded, and Beagle is an optional addition to GNOME, which also includes a more traditional, but slower, replacement of most of the functionality.

However, luckily for us, it seems that Microsoft is temporarily preoccupied with figuring out what Apple are up to, and it can be hoped, although should not be assumed, that the Microsoft vs. Mono debate will never resurface.

How Apple can catch up with Linux

There are two elements missing from Apple's Mac OS X desktop environment that set productivity under Linux apart:
  1. Paste action of middle mouse button (yes, Mighty Mouse is the right direction).
  2. One-click responsiveness of windows not belonging to the currently active application.

Finally, Finder really needs a big update now that encompasses Spotlight functionality (more file info in Spotlight, instant conversion of Spotlight searches to Smart Folders), but I believe this is in the works for Leopard already.

Finally, by making Windows apps run on OS X, or OS X apps on Windows, Apple could grab some of the Windows-entrenched niche markets such as those tied to Windows-bound GIS and CAD applications and traditionally relying heavily on superior workstation processing power.

Landslide towards Apple

With slim, widescreen machines promised as the "MacBook" replacement of the iBook for May or June according to rumours, possibly in several colours and with DVI-Out connectivity, there will be a landslide of customers towards Apple, unless further hardware problems emerge (a possible source of which could be Apple's inclusion of flash memory, between hard disk and RAM in the sequence of memory elements; there is no precedent for this in any hardware sold by the company). The next release of the operating system, Leopard, will be well placed to steal away further market share, especially if Apple manages to keep the footprint small (an area where Vista is especially vulnerable).

At the other end of Apple's business, there is a risk of losing mp3 player market share unless they can revitalise their range with colourful models to mimic the appeal of the iPod Mini. Note the negative knock-on effect this could have on their iTunes Music Store. France has taken a lead in asking Apple to unlock iTunes for other mp3 player manufacturers, and further countries are likely to follow. In fact, Apple's losing mp3 player market share may force such a move of the company's own accord to keep the store alive. I very much doubt it will come to this, but it is clear that Apple has to continue remaining competitive on price and innovation, especially since in spite of their promotion of podcasting, this has remained a niche market.

How Microsoft can save their ass

Seeing that Microsoft has been feeling the Linux threat for a while, and that Apple will start eating into its OEM dealers' sales even more heavily once the iBook replacements (aka MacBook) go on sale, how can Microsoft draw back from this two-front battle and vow new customers with superior technical features?

Here are a few suggestions:
  • expand the shell capabilities (find, grep, easy batch processing etc.)
  • include an installer/updater interface that allows installing commercial software (similar to iTunes Store; the precedent has been set; customer acceptance could be high if it wasn't Microsoft...) at a button press, including upgrade deals for installed software; that also allows updating all applications to newest version, not just Microsoft ones; that allows downloading/compiling newest FOSS software (Gnumeric, Abiword, Gimp, Gaim, XChat, etc.) at the press of a button (yes, include a compiler free of charge!)
  • one single version priced at 99 USD to compete with Apple's OS pricing and eliminate customer confusion

Note that all of these points are about the user experience rather than the raw processing ability, whereas many Microsoft innovations due to arrive with Vista address the latter (e.g. WinFS). Also note my upcoming post about Apple.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Photography: perfect picture vs. artistic freedom

There is a rift running through the photographing community, a rift between amateurs and press photographers on the one hand, who want a picture perfectly sharp, with colours as natural as possible and maximum depth of focus. Others, let's call them the artists, want to control every aspect of their exposure, and may be more open to post-production manipulation. Both, of course, have certain priorities in common. Fast start-up times and high exposure frequencies are on that wishlist.

This rift is not reflected in the current marketing strategies for cameras. Models are not sold separately to the two groups, and cameras come with a plethora of modes, an easy-to-use all-manual one often being absent. And there are other niceties that I can't seem to find - how about, for instance, an SLR camera whose lens automatically opens when you pick it up (or not if you switched off that feature)?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Apple's motivation for BootCamp?

Different views are being expressed about this. Two that I found interesting:
He did it to finally castrate Redmond's last stranglehold on Apple; to wit, "Office:mac." (sic) No longer would Apple be subject to the MBU's whims, threats, foot-draggings and feigned indifference to gain leverage and force Apple to do its bidding. The impetuous, jealous and child-like Bill Gates made truck-loads of cash peddling the horrendous (but vital to millions because, as Chef Joanna says "it's what everyone else uses") Office to Mac users, but it's not like he needed the money. No, it did something much more entertaining for Bill- it gave him power over Steve. Now, if Microsoft folds up the MBU tents (takes its ball and goes home), who cares? Windows can be run on a Mac, along with Office or any other crappy-but-necessary Windows "proggie."

Robert Cringely has a different take on things. He sees Microsoft as the only immediate beneficiary, but danger is in the wings:
I predict that Apple will settle on 64-bit Intel processors ASAP (with FireWire 800 please), and at that time will announce a product similar to Boot Camp to allow OS X to run on bog-standard 32-bit PC hardware, turning the Boot Camp relationship on its head and trying to sell $99 copies of OS X to 100 million or so Windows owners.

The only other time that I read Cringely, he postulated a merger of Apple and Intel, one that we have yet to see. Also compare with my earlier post on the future development of the operating systems market.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Biggest drawback of web applications: slow load times

I recently tested some RSS reader websites, and my conclusion is that the response times are not satisfactory for these to replace desktop newsreaders. Bloated code may sometimes be to blame, and anyone who's looked at the output from Apple's iWeb will know what I mean. In one case, I got suspicious and looked more closely; the design did not strike me as overly sophisticated and clearly would be manageable with a small amount of CSS. But here, one humungous chunk of JavaScript gets loaded every time you view a page - 12KB of code that remains the same, and the rest of the page unnecessarily written in DHTML.

The JavaScript could be cached as a separate file by the browser, and the rest should probably be static or cached on the server. In fact, this is a good example of where user event-based caching can be used. Each user has a namespace of urls, which I will call userspace, that he or she can access only after logging in. Hence, these pages can be generated and loaded into cache when the user enters, and purged when he or she logs out, or if the user becomes inactive and there is competition for memory on the server.

But to back away from the technical for a moment, what we are seeing is competition between bandwidth and small footprint of web applications on the one hand [1], and processor speed and application efficiency for desktop applications on the other. It's still a question of time before the web wins out completely, and the browser becomes the operating system.

[1] Don't worry about the servers - they'll be up to scratch if the demand and competition are there (user demand for web services; competition for speed of delivery).

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sidebar design done right

I'm not usually fond of Microsoft's UI designs, but in the case of MS Office 2003 products, they've outdone themselves. Look at this example of easy navigation between different sidebar options:

Now compare this to how it looks in Firefox:

Bookmarks sidebar in Firefox

The search bar is a nice touch and somewhat redeeming feature, but having fast navigation between different sidebar options would be even better!

Update 24/04/2006:
The All-In-One Sidebar Firefox extension looks like a good alternative solution, although I've yet to test whether it will accommodate Document Map, which, to add annoyance, is broken in the current Firefox release (

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Apple Intel transition: third-party app killer?

Digg This!

It is clear that several of the top third party applications on Apple Macs will only run under the Rosetta Stone emulation, which renders them slower on the Mactels than they would be on the G4/G5 being phased out. This would include Microsoft Office (which competes with iWork) and products by Adobe and other graphics specialists (which compete with the "Pro" applications, such as the new Aperture). Interestingly, Apple made sure that other crucial applications, such as Wolfram's Mathematica, were swiftly ported, and helped them do so. I've no doubt that Apple's own applications are already available as Universal Binaries, and will run at native (Intel compiler?) speeds on the Mactels.

Needless to say, Apple would also be doing the open source movement a favour if it contributed to breaking the MS Office lock-in (and note the fact that Mac OS X has allowed creating PDFs from MS Office documents for a long time, whereas in Windows, you needed PDFCreator to do so).

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Apple shipping Windows? I don't think so.

I've had to smile myself repeated times when people on IRC and elsewhere came up with hypotheses about why Apple would switch to Windows. This is not going to happen for both strategic and technical reasons.

Mac OS X has been the major selling point of Apple hardware for years. "PC" hardware used to be what Apple made most of its money on. Mac OS X came with iTunes pre-loaded. This encouraged people to buy an iPod. Windows users saw it on their friends and strangers in the street, wanted it, got iTunes to run it. Normal users do not go installing software themselves without good reason, i.e. very few would have installed iTunes were it not for the iPod. And guess what? Apple business has since shifted to the iTunes Music Store. So basically, Mac OS X drives the vast bulk of Apple's business directly or indirectly.

So much for the strategic, more of the technical. Mac OS X appeals to completely non-technical users through its intuitive interface. It also appeals to very technical users due to its Unix (or specifically, BSD) base. Due to various graphics accelerations, including CoreImage, Mac OS X is a far better OS to be running on graphics workbenches than is Microsoft Windows XP. Even though Adobe will be running a little more slowly on the new Intel Macs until 2007, the date it is thought they will release native Intel-OS X versions (binaries), I don't think there's a chance in hell that Apple will be abandoning their powerful graphics engines, and ship a less versatile OS like Windows Vista (yes, the shell has improved, but a lot of legacy tools won't have been ported yet, e.g. expect, screen, tee).

What many people don't realise is that most of the hardware Apple build into their machines is also available to other hardware makers; Apple need to still beware of being overtaken by one of the smaller companies operating in that space.

A much better way to run Windows apps on Mac is VirtualPC. It costs about the same as a native Windows install. And Darwine is waiting in the wings.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dream merger: Logitech, Apple and Dyson

Three great technology companies that make extensive use of plastics in their products. Three leaders on ergonomics and usability. Wouldn't it be great?

Joking aside, Steve Jobs once commented in an interview about how he got absorbed in choosing a washing machine and how all sorts of household devices still fascinate and bother him for being so badly made. Well, guess what? Dyson make washing machines*. No, I'm not going to try and sell this one to you. You're too clever to buy it. Apple are not planning to take over Dyson. And James Dyson wouldn't be bought. He's a housemade man.

But Logitech? Nah, I couldn't point at Apple and say, "look what crappy mice they make!" 'Cause they'd be making Logitech ones.

* (and many other things, including vacuum cleaners)

Update 12/04/2006: The washing machine passage of the Jobs interview can be found here.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Eye tracking for window focus

What would help me so much right now is an eye-tracking device that gave focus to the window I was currently looking at. Random, but significant thoughts... One for the wishlist!

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


It just struck me that wikis are ideally suited to editing code, as each function name can be a link to the definition of that function, making code browsing a snap. Would be a trivial mediawiki extension. If you know of any code wiki, please let me know, too! I also suspect that some IDEs have this functionality?

Friday, January 27, 2006

GUI to queue and edit jobs to be done over ssh

Had the idea for an app that allows you to:
  • list jobs you want done over ssh (no point running more than one job at a time on single-cpu machines)
  • enable editing the cmdline arguments of each job before it is submitted
  • allow pasting or even drag-and-drop of jobs (e.g. between different machines) into the queue
  • allow reordering jobs
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P2P RSS network

Have you ever been annoyed that when you subscribe to a new RSS feed, there may be only 10 articles available? Granted, this problem is addressed by some of the online RSS readers out there (I've posted before), but it might just be interesting to have the html content distributed by a P2P network. I believe this would significantly speed up loading of html pages for those feeds that use html. If you know of any such effort, please let me know!

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Reinstalling Linux: a checklist

I thought it would be nice for people to have a checklist of what they need to back up before installing a different Linux flavour.
  • /etc - system configuration
  • /home - your files and configurations
  • /boot/grub/menu.lst or grub.conf
  • /var/httpd - only if you're running web services and using the global directory; on some distributions, this is not placed in /var (e.g. in Arch it's in /home/httpd)
  • do a mysqldump if you're using mysql; similarly for any other relational database
  • dump your package list - sometimes this is done by reading file names from /var/cache/pkg or similar after cleaning out old package files; some package managers will output a list (something like dpkg --get-selections on Debian and derivatives)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Remote desktop client with zoom

Wouldn't it be great to have a remote desktop (e.g. VNC) client that compensated for different desktop sizes by means of zoom? Libraries for such zooming exist in Mac OS X, GNOME and KDE, even Windows! Even better if the server supported it. If there is a way to do this, let me know!

Update 07/05/2006:
krdc has this feature.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Linux repository classification schemes

Originally, I was going to write this as an extended paper with a detailed review of how the ten main Linux distributions organise their software into repositories. However, I don't seem to have the time to do so, and will provide a brief overview here instead.

This is relevant to developing tools that allow comparisons of repositories, e.g. comparison of software availability (how many software packages are available; how quickly are new versions released, how current are the current versions, how many versions are released in a given time - three sides of a triangle; other comparisons might take into account stability and other criteria), such as whohas.

In any case, there are three main ways to classify repositories:
  • Maturity
  • Providence
  • Function
The classic example of repositories organised by maturity would be Debian, which at any given time has three branches which may be more or less distinct (there is a graph of the relationship over time somewhere on the web...) A peculiarity - indeed, a feature - of Debian is that one can almost freely mix packages from different repositories; so while one may be running a stable kernel, one could have an "unstable" version (the quality of unstable aka. still in development software is actually fairly high in Debian) of Mozilla-based (and -dependent) products. Many distributions (except source-based and advanced binary-based ones (Arch Linux)) occur as distinct releases in the wild, but Debian is the only one in which mixing repositories is common enough practice to actually work (in terms of documentation and being taken into account in development, if marginally).

A classic example of a providence-based repository classification is given by Fedora, which is now distributed as Core and Extras. Another common classification, especially used by RPM-based distros (for no technical reason as far as I know), is "Contrib", sometimes called Community.

Arch Linux has a hybrid of these two, in that Current correspond to Core, Extra and Community are self-explanatory providence-based contrasts, but there are aso Testing and Unstable repositories, which are code-maturity classifications and mostly contain packages that would otherwise be found in Core. To make things entirely confusing, there is a repository Unsupported, to which users can contribute buildscripts, so it is actually a fourth kind of classification, which I might phrase as binary-source-buildscript. Note that distributions will provide either source or buildscripts, but not both separately.

But to return to the original big three, the most prominent example of a functional classification would be Slackware, which classifies packages into base, latex, gnome etc.; however, these are not strictly repositories in that they would be separately specified in a package manager config file. Again, many hybrids exist - in Arch Linux, we also find an underlying functional classification into "categories", which resemble those in Slackware: x11, system, network, gnome etc.

Being aware of the different classification schemes used, one can get the full benefit of tools such as whohas.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Does Wikipedia change the rules of language evolution?

I happened upon this example today:

It is argued that the term "Williams evolution" was coined either on wikipedia or in newsgroups. I find the wikipedia hypothesis quite plausible.

Picture this:
  1. Some editor of, say, writes something like, "George C. Williams' book led to a small revolution [...]"
  2. Over time, this becomes "George C. Williams' revolution", then "Williams' revolution"; someone thinks the apostrophe superfluous and the next person feels there should be something written about this "Williams revolution", so puts the infamous [[]] around it.
  3. Finally, someone budges and writes a stub about it.
  4. Meanwhile, the term "Williams revolution" has started being used in other articles because it's a more handy moniker than "advent of the gene-centric view of evolution". By now, putting it in [[]] is completely uncontroversial, because an article has already been written about it. So it appears on every imaginable page, ranging from "Scientific skepticism" over "Evolutionary theory and the political left" through to "The Vicar of Bray" (I am NOT kidding you!)
  5. Eventually, someone feels that Williams may be being given undue credit and does some research. All Google hits point to wikipedia, including those from Web of Science doesn't return a single hit. One contributor claims having heard the term on a newsgroup, but this is hardly evidence of common usage. Various people including myself check their textbooks and the books of Dawkins who are now suddenly being credited with having invented the term. Nothing. Nada. Puzzlingly, the German wikipedia mentions the term in spite of not having an entry about it.
  6. Due to lack of opposition, it is decided that it is not Wikipedia's business to have the power to coin useful phrases crediting someone who should not solely be credited.
  7. Someone works their arse off for an afternoon to eliminate all trace of the Williams revolution.
If you know of similar events, please let me know - this topic has only just begun to get interesting!