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Computing At Chaos Manor:
February 5, 2008

The User's Column, February, 2008
Column 331, Part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


I am writing this on Imogene, the new iMac 20. She has 4 Gigabytes of Kingston KTA-MB667K2/4G memory which works just fine. I'm just getting used to her. So far, my impressions are very favorable, although there are a few quirks. Apple pays a lot of attention to details, and most everything is quite elegant. I am not particularly fond of the keyboard that comes with the iMac, and I am nearly certain to replace it, but for now I am using it. Full report later on.

Microsoft and Yahoo

The big news last week was that Microsoft has made an unsolicited offer to buy Yahoo, and it looks like an offer they can't refuse. There were adjustments to Microsoft and Yahoo stock values; there was also an adjustment to the insanely high value of Google stock. The offer reverberated through the business world.

All the financial analysts seem excited, and the worry is that the regulators may refuse to allow the sale on monopolistic grounds. My own view is that they'll probably allow it, but that won't be any great favor to Microsoft. This acquisition will mean the end of Microsoft as we know it. Of course with Gates' departure from active management it would be the end of Microsoft as we knew it, but it was never very certain that Gates would leave for good to begin with; he built Microsoft and watching it change can't be much fun for him. He might come back and take control, as Jobs came back to Apple. Acquiring Yahoo for $42 billion would be irrevocable. Microsoft will have to change quite significantly if that goes through.

The intent, we are told, is to pursue Internet advertising revenue. Google has some 60% of that, and Microsoft wants to get in on it. The question becomes, why should Microsoft get into the advertising sales business? Microsoft has done very well out of providing operating systems. They have done very well out of applications, particularly Office and Word.

What Microsoft hasn't done so well with is Internet operations. Gates famously ignored the web and web browsers. Netscape dominated that field, and became more important, until the Netscape founders began talking about Network Computers that would put Microsoft out of business. Then Microsoft began to run scared, and Internet Explorer was rushed out. To make IE more powerful it was given hooks deep into the Windows operating system.

In those days features were more important than security. It would have been better if Microsoft had started from the beginning with a concern for security and attacks from the Internet, but in fairness I have to say that not many people worried much about that. In any event, the resulting security problems have driven many of the other Microsoft revisions, and of course the security problem is with us yet.

Now Microsoft wants into the Internet Advertising business. In my judgment it's one more distraction. What Microsoft ought to be doing is starting over to rethink the entire operating system religion. When they've perfected that, it may be time to move into Internet Advertising, but until then, Linux and Apple are breathing heavily down Microsoft's neck. Doesn't anyone in Redmond understand that?

Microsoft has an enormous market share, but everyone understands that Moore's Law makes that temporary. Businesses may use five year old machines in some operations, but for the most part a computer five years old is thoroughly obsolete. I have a couple of them here, but they are not main machines, and I could — and probably should — do without them. For the most part, business computers are replaced at least every five years with new computers. The new computers will come with an operating system. It is not inevitable that the operating system will be from Microsoft. And no one understands that better than Bill Gates who has known it all his life.

It's not as if there were no alternatives. I am writing this on one of them now: an iMac 20. True, I am using Microsoft Word to write this. The iMac came with iWork, an applications suite that includes a word processor called Pages. I tried Pages, but I quickly installed Office 2004. If I had to use Pages for all my production work I do not think I would use the Mac. On the other hand, I make a living writing, and I do a lot of it in many different formats. It's possible that some of you would like Pages, and it's probably plenty good enough for Aunt Minnie. Moreover, there's nothing stopping Apple from developing a good word processor and office suite to go with their excellent media processing software. Meanwhile, MAC OS is a perfectly viable alternative to Windows. Indeed, with a Mac, you can run Windows as a Mac application, meaning that all Windows applications are possible with the Mac. The reverse isn't true, of course.

Then there's Linux. It's still not for Aunt Minnie, but most of my advisors have gone to Linux and some run "Microsoft Free" environments. The Mac OS X is an existence proof that UNIX can be made usable by the masses. If Mac OS X can make UNIX usable by all, surely the Linux community can't be all that far behind. Indeed, the only real problem with Linux is drivers, which tend to get written when someone feels like it; and of course if Linux gets a larger market share, hardware makers will make it their business to provide good Linux drivers with their products.

Bob Thompson says that's nearly true now:

Drivers for Linux aren't nearly the problem that they were even a year ago. In fact, in many respects, the Linux driver situation is better than the Vista driver situation. Basically, I can pick up a new piece of hardware or pull an old piece out of the stockroom and have a considerably higher chance that it'll work with Linux than that it will work with Vista. Current Linux distros pretty much just work with nearly anything you connect to a system. About the only remaining problem areas are wireless networking support, which has improved dramatically in the last year, and scanner support. In both cases, it's a simple matter of verifying that the hardware you choose is compatible, which generally isn't much of a problem.

In other words, Microsoft's commanding position in both operating systems and applications is vulnerable, and this is no time to take on a whole new business field like Internet advertising.

That's my opinion.

An Alternate View

I had written most of that when I got a letter from Bob Holmes, an old friend and computer expert. He has a different view that is worth presenting:

Jerry,

After pondering the Microsoft bid for Yahoo for a couple of days, I think that, in the long run, the results are likely to be positive.

Yahoo has been floundering and without rapid and serious intervention is likely to wither and die a slow and prolonged death. Their use of flashing and blinking ads is an insult to their users and rather than resulting in click-throughs drives people away from the site.

The effect that the acquisition has on Microsoft may be of more benefit to the PC and Internet communities than any improvement to Yahoo. I see two possible scenarios:

Microsoft is not successful in resuscitating Yahoo and as a result of the effort becomes even more moribund and unable to deliver on promises. This offers a considerable edge to Apple and Linux vendors in their attempts to unseat Windows.

Microsoft is successful in resuscitating Yahoo and as result the change in culture, in turn, revitalizes Microsoft.

Bob Holmes

Now that is very much worth thinking about.

The Rage for Growth

I can recall a time when craftsmanship was rewarded; when those who sold a good product at a reasonable price were rewarded and thought to be public benefactors. For much of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, for example, if you needed a sword and you wanted the best, you went to Wilkinson. There was no thought that Wilkinson would expand into lawn mowers and beach furniture, nor was there a requirement that the company double in size every four or five years. They made good products , sold them at a decent price, and provided stable employment.

Of course Wilkinson is no more. They took on Gillette Razors, merged with a match company, and eventually changed hands dozens of times. In 2005 Wilkinson made its last sword. Gillette Razors, meanwhile, was acquired by Proctor and Gamble.

Another example: eBay began growth soon after it was founded. It has a pretty good growth record, as much as 30% a year — but not good enough for the analysts, who keep hammering eBay for not growing fast enough.

I could go on, but surely the point is clear? Microsoft can't continue to grow at phenomenal rates because there just isn't a large enough world market for operating systems and applications even in the unlikely event that Microsoft got all of it. If you double every few years, you will get bigger than the Earth can hold. If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. Exponential growth cannot go on forever.

The relentless pressure for growth produces bubbles. Worse, it causes companies to neglect their core competence, which means that after a while the consumers find they can't buy products from competent companies. Those companies are so busy chasing growth that they don't put their best people on their core products, which means that their customers suffer.

There's probably nothing to be done about this, but I sure hate it. I really wish there were a place in this world for companies that do one thing, do it well, and don't expand beyond their competence. We'd all be better off.

Windows Genuine Disadvantage

The following is a report by Alexander Pournelle, computer consultant and general guru. Alex grew up with PC's and Windows.

I'd say this qualifies as breaking news.

We have been attempting to install a Microsoft-provided Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) product key on a Windows XP Pro machine for the last week. We purchased the key directly from the Microsoft WGA department, and attempted to install it, without success so far.

Now, the machine in question started out as Windows XP Home, and was later updated to XP Pro. (That combination is troublesome to WGA, and we recommend NEVER trying it.) When we came on the scene (much later), it had never seen the Internet, so we of course immediately ran updates, which meant the machine ran afoul of the WGA validation.

After a week of attempting to get the WGA validation to pass, and repeated calls to Microsoft, we were told the "Server is down" and "being worked on". As you probably remember, they had similar problems last year, which prevented a lot of people from validating their Vista installations. At the time they swore a mighty oath It Would Never Happen Again. I'm extremely disappointed.

Windows Genuine Advantage validation website: A happy ending

Summary: Last week, I was unable to upgrade a client system to a legitimate copy of Windows XP Pro. The product key changer would constantly error out. The Microsoft Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) staff finally admitted "the servers had been down last week" and promised a call back this Monday morning. About 9:01AM PT today, the key-changer finally worked correctly. So far, after the requisite reboot, the machine is working normally, the nagware has disappeared, and Windows Update is just finishing the next 150 MBytes of updates.

Small lessons: The WGA product-key changer application must (1) have a working Internet connection (2) have a legit code and (3) be able to reach the WGA servers at Microsoft. Otherwise, you'll get a generic message about an unspecified problem (no error code) endlessly. Oh, and (4) if you have an illegitimate copy of Office (XP or later) on your computer, it won't pass validation; in this case, the Microsoft site strongly suggests your Windows will STILL not validate either.

The larger lesson: In Summer 2007, the Vista WGA servers were down, so they couldn't validate a significant number of copies of Vista. When Microsoft fixed the problem, they swore a mighty oath to never let this happen again. Unfortunately, it appears they didn't take themselves seriously. They appear to still have a rather cavalier attitude about maintaining same, and, worse, about informing their own support staff about the true status. The WGA staffer I spoke to this morning "hadn't heard there were any problems" or "had any calls [from customers] this morning" on the subject. And: she further said the tool they used to read previous client trouble tickets was down this morning.

To me, none of those statements show the level of professionalism which Microsoft should exhibit, particularly when they have made illegitimate copies of Windows such a major PR push. If the "buy genuine Windows" sin is this big, the path to salvation must be soft to the foot and paved with roses.

--Alex Pournelle

The conclusion seems obvious to me. Rather than haring off to buy Yahoo, Microsoft ought to concentrate on its core business. When they have that right — and I submit that if you have problems like this you don't have it right — then you might consider taking on a different business line. Until then, something is broke and it ought to be fixed.

Bringing Up Imogene

Imogene the iMac 20.
Imogene the iMac 20, next to Alexis, with Roxanne at right.

I'm writing this on Imogene, the new iMac 20 which will, for at least a month, become a main machine at Chaos Manor.

I'll have a lot more about the iMac in future columns. For the moment, I can say that despite some glitches and a steeper learning curve than I thought, I have no regrets. Imogene is elegant, and while it has taken me a bit longer to get the Chaos Manor Reviews Mailbag and this column out, I have been able to do it.

Memory

Imogene came with 1 GB of memory. Everyone I know told me that wasn't enough, so my first act was to get the Kingston KTA-MB667K2/4G memory kit. The iMac comes with good instructions on adding memory. I followed them, turned on the Mac, went to the Apple symbol menu item / This Mac — and discovered that it saw only 2 GB.

Installing memory requires that you lay the Mac face down on the desk — the iMac comes with a soft cloth to clean the screen and I put that between the desktop and the Mac screen — and take out one screw then pry off a small cover plate. You need two screwdrivers, both small. The Phillips screwdriver gets the screw out (it won't come all the way out, which means you can't lose it); the slot head screwdriver is needed to pry out the cover plate. It's not difficult.

I opened her up, removed each memory card, and for good measure smeared each with a drop of Stabilant 22, then reinserted it, being sure I had pushed it in as far as it would go. When I turned the Mac back on, she saw 4 GB of memory. Clearly I had not fully inserted one of the memory cards. The moral of this story is obvious.

Keyboard and Mouse

You will note that in the photo above, I have the Apple keyboard that came with the Mac, and on the table shelf you can just see the Apple Mighty Mouse. A story goes with each of those.

I was unhappy enough with the keyboard that I replaced it with an Adesso Mac keyboard, and I may yet go back to that. After I installed the Adesso keyboard, I got a letter from Mac enthusiast Tim Loeb who has been trying to convert me to a Mac for years. He said:

I think you should give the Mac keyboard a trial, but it WILL take some real getting used to. When I first got mine I found my fingers often hurt because I was hitting the keys too hard out of habit; I'm only now, many months down the road, zeroing in on the precise touch that insures the keystroke is recorded but doesn't make my finger tips go numb. The long term advantage I think is that thumping on a keyboard can't be good vis a vis carpel tunnel et al and a lighter touch is going to be more efficacious in the long run. Your MS board will work just fine tho.

I remembered that I had sworn a mighty oath to give the entire Mac a decent chance by using it for a full month, so I got the original Mac keyboard out and put it back in place. I'm using it to write this. I still don't like it much, but I don't hate it. I do expect I'll end up with a Microsoft comfort curve keyboard before I'm done, but we'll give this one a chance.

My next experiment was with the mouse. I installed Microsoft Office 2004 (Mac Office) without incident. I then tried networking, and discovered that linking the iMac with OS X to my Microsoft network was a breeze.

The Mac sees all the machines in my network, and I can connect to them. I do have to "connect as", and to do that I have to allow the Mac to try to connect and fail; that takes a bit of time, but once the connection fails the "connect as" button is live. I can then tell my other machines to log in as me and give my internal network password. (My user name and password are different for the Mac.)

Transferring Word files from the Vista machine to the Mac was no problem, and for that matter, opening a Word file resident on Roxanne is no problem either. My problems came when I began working. The autocorrect feature worked fine. Word found misspelled words and marked them with the wavy underline as it is supposed to. When I tried to right click the word to get automatic correction, that didn't work.

I complained to the advisors and was told that my one-button mouse is in fact a Mighty Mouse, and it does know how to do right-clicks. All I had to do was open system preferences, open the mouse folder, and tell it what to do. Now right-click works with the Mighty Mouse as well as it does with a Microsoft Redeye optical mouse. The little button on top is a scroll wheel and works as such. I am becoming fond of the Apple Mighty Mouse.

Processing Words

I mentioned that I tried iWork Pages, but quickly went to Microsoft Office 2004. The main reason for that is Office's spell checking and autotyping. I am a sloppy typist; I very much appreciate a program that corrects teh to the without my having to think about it. Word does that so neatly I hardly ever notice it. There's a table that lets me put in frequent typos — such as je for me — and forget them. I seem to be very sloppy about the m key, and I kept having to correct je. Now I don't.

I'm used to Word, having used one or another version since about 1987, and while I am not unwilling to try a new program, it would have to have more going for it than iWork Pages; but having said that, I note that many do find Pages satisfactory. At some point I suppose I'll give it a try, but for now it's Word 2004, then the new Office 2008 for the Mac.

A Royal Glitch

I did have one inexplicable problem. Working in Word with a document physically present on another machine I did something that locked things up. The machine simply was not responding. Finally I decided to shut down. That didn't work either. I couldn't turn it off, and I couldn't get its attention. Now I don't know how I got into that fix, or whether waiting a while would fix it. I suspect there was a dialogue window open but it was hidden by something else. Whatever was happening, it was frustrating. I tried once more to shut the machine down. It wouldn't: that is, I could pull the shut down menu item from the Apple symbol, but clicking on that did nothing at all.

Finally in rage I tried the OFF button — and discovered that didn't work either! It simply would not shut down. So in black anger I pulled the plug.

That shut it down all right. Then I plugged it back in and pushed the ON button. Nothing happened. I tried pushing in the button and holding it a while. Nothing. I had apparently killed Imogene.

I took that opportunity for my daily walk with Roberta and Sable the red Siberian Husky. When I came back, pushing the button still did nothing, so I disconnected everything: keyboard, mouse, Ethernet, power cord, then laid the system on its face as if I were installing new memory. I didn't actually open the memory compartment. Then I stood her back up, and connected all the cables, being very sure that the power cable was properly seated. When I pushed the button the Mac came up instantly.

Of course it's likely that I didn't get the power cable seated properly the first time, and my ritual of laying the Mac down her face and lifting her back up was an act of superstition. It worked, though.

The problem is that this is a repeatable problem: I attempt to SAVE AS a document across the network. The machine hangs. It stays hung until I pull the power plug. This time I pulled the plug out of the wall, not out of the Mac, and held the ON button for about ten seconds after I plugged it back in. That worked but I continue to be frustrated by the inability to save documents across the net. Fortunately I don't have any trouble clicking and dragging them after they're closed, and I suppose I'll eventually learn what's going on. It's an annoyance, not a show stopper.

To Be Continued

I will have a great deal more to say about Imogene in weeks to come. The notion here is to use her pretty exclusively for all my writing other than communications, and possibly to let her take over maintaining my web page. I have a number of suggestions from readers for must have software, some free, some nominally priced, and some commercial. I'll be trying many of those.

I'll also connect the JVC Everio camcorder up to the Mac and work with the Mac's media processing software. Just at the moment my voice isn't working properly, so I'm not doing podcasts, but God willing that will change. In any event, I am learning to use the new Mac.

So far I can report that an iMac 20 with Microsoft Office 2004 works just fine. I could do all my writing with this machine. I think I'll change keyboards, but I have written this column with the keyboard that came out of the box. Clearly it's Good Enough.