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Computing At Chaos Manor:
March 25, 2008

The User's Column, March, 2008
Column 332, Part 4
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


I continue to write these columns on the iMac 20", no longer because I promised I would, but because I rather like it. I am using Word 2008 from Office 2008, and it works; but if I continue to use Word 2008 I am going to have to learn Apple Script so that I can write a couple of good macros I used to use a lot in Word 2004 and Word 2007.

I now have: iPhone, iMac 20", MacBook Air (see last week's column) (link), and MacBook Pro. I have a new Western Digital drive for the MacBook Pro as well as 4 GB of Kingston memory to install in it, but I have been so busy with other matters that I won't get to either this week. The MacBook Pro is a desktop replacement, and I'll have extensive reports on tweaking and using it.

Meanwhile I am seriously contemplating getting a "sweet spot" (as opposed to all up latest and greatest) Mac Pro with dual quad-core processors, and installing Windows XP under VMware. I would then set up dual 30" monitors (requiring an extensive revision of my work space and tables). This machine would replace two others, and become my main machine. It's an expensive option, and I haven't decided to do it, but I am sorely tempted. Macs work. The more I use the Mac OS the more I like it. XP runs smoothly under VMware.

My next step is to set up Outlook 2007 under XP on VMware and see how that goes. It may be too slow on the iMac; it may not be. We will have to see, and I can't get that done before I file this. Peter Glaskowsky tells me I ought to try Entourage under Office 2008 before I bother with Outlook 2007. "It actually has features that weren't in Outlook last time I looked." I expect that's what I'll do. The more I can stay with the Mac the quicker I will learn OS X.

UNIX for the Rest of Us

In the 1980's I said, often, that UNIX was a great operating system, but it would always be the full employment act for gurus, and would never be usable by mere mortals; and the pursuit of a popular UNIX was a chase for a chimera. That turned out to be true for a long time; but it is no longer true. MAC OS X employs a UNIX shell that makes UNIX usable by carbon-based life forms, no guru needed.

At least we would have spoken about UNIX shells back in the 1980's. Now apparently that term has vanished, and people talk about graphical shells and GUI's and the like. I'll remain unapologetic about shells.

Many assert that Linux has achieved the same status: usable by the people. I don't think we're there yet. No matter. The important point is that it has been done, and Apple did it; and UNIX is a very powerful and remarkably bug-free operating system, usable without a resident guru, and this gives the Mac a big advantage.

Usable, stable, easy to learn user interface; and based on a powerful and proven operating system that has been tried and tested for decades. Unlike the myriad of operating systems that broke their teeth trying to compete with Microsoft, there is now a formidable candidate for your desktop system — and as a bonus it will even run any Microsoft OS as a client.

Microsoft Watch

Given Microsoft's size and cash reserves it seems a bit silly to talk about a deathwatch, or that Microsoft is circling the drain, because of course the software giant is not in that kind of trouble. It is however, very much in trouble; for it has lost its religion and soul.

Microsoft used to set standards and sell code. There were other activities, some profitable — as an example, the hardware division started small but mice became a solid profit center, a small gold mine, but a gold mine — but the real profit and growth came from setting standards and selling code.

Now Microsoft does neither. Vista is not selling as well as expected, and many who have bought it thoroughly hate it. It came out without most of the features that were designed to make it attractive, and rather than persuasive marketing Microsoft has employed sheer bullying to get the Vista sales achieved.

Worse: how in the world can you be said to be setting standards when you sell a myriad versions of your product at a bewildering variety of prices. If Microsoft wants Vista to become a standard, they will have to sell one and only one version — Ultimate — for a reasonable price. They can then get on with selling code and perfecting the code they sell, reinserting the features stripped out so that Vista could be brought out at all. This would work, but there are no signs that Microsoft is aware of it.

Instead they are haring off after Google, trying to enter an advertising market they know little about. You may recall that about the time Microsoft introduced Windows with a registry (ghastly idea, as it happens) they also began Internet operations and tried to create ways to sell Internet content. It didn't work. They couldn't recruit good content creators (or when they did recruit them they had no idea of what to do with them) and the result was hardly exciting. No one thinks of Microsoft as a center for creating educational or entertainment content.

They aren't even much good at creating technical content documents and demonstrations, despite having some of the world's best software engineers on the payroll. This Week In Technology (TWIT) and other such podcasts have far more listeners with a great deal more loyalty than anything Microsoft has ever put on line.

They have no expertise in creating content. They have less in creating and operating search engines. This is also true of Yahoo, the latest apple of Microsoft's eye: they don't really understand the search engine and advertising business either although they certainly know more than Microsoft does or is likely to.

The result of all this is very bad for users. Vista doesn't work very well. Windows XP is the best Windows yet, but it still has bugs and lacks some features we want.

None of this is irrevocable. Microsoft has the software engineering talent to put some good people to work on fixing obvious problems while looking hard at what products a code house ought to be developing. It's not a matter of resources, it's management of those resources. Microsoft has always had muddle-through management in which they let bright people do more or less what they want to do while gently steering them to do something useful to the company.

That worked a lot better than any "scientific management" people expected. One doesn't build a company with both the market share and sheer size of Microsoft by accident or poor management, pretty well demonstrating that management science has some lacunae in its understanding. Unfortunately the old style management resulted in some ghastly gaps in security — no one wanted to work on security — and some of the worst Help files ever written (who wants to work on writing Help files). Fortunately, while scientific management isn't always as effective as sheer genius, it does pretty well, and is far more effective than muddling through in the absence of genius leadership.

And that's where Microsoft is. There is a tradition of leadership by genius, but the company seems to be fresh out of genius. It's time to refocus. If you can't do genius management, you have little choice but to turn to science.

Management style is important, but it's still a detail. What Microsoft must do now is focus: what is the goal of the company? What does it know how to do with the resources at hand? For me the answer is obvious: go to what they know — or at least once knew — how to do: setting standards and selling code.

If they don't do that, the company is probably doomed. Like a mortally wounded dinosaur, it will probably take a long time to die — although in this Internet age, such things happen with far greater speed than many suppose.

iPhone Report

When I described the pocket computer in The Mote in God's Eye in 1972, I did not dream that I would ever actually see one.

Niven and I were writing a first contact novel, not a technology survey, and I was deliberately vague on some of the details of what the pocket computer could do, but in essence it connected the user to the world. You could get any data available in the extensive libraries of the time. It also recorded and stored whatever you wanted it to including audio and video of conversations and conferences.

Apple's iPhone is not yet that pocket computer, but it is a giant step in that direction — and I have one in my pocket. It does not yet record voice or video, but that is merely a matter of time. It already has a good still camera. As to voice recording, although I'd rather my iPhone did that task, I carry the Olympus WS-100, and I can feed its output into Dragon Speech on either a PC or a Mac and get 90% + accurate transcripts.

The iPhone connects to the Internet. The connection is not quite as automatic as I would like, but it's not that onerous; and once connected, the entire Internet is available with a decent user interface. It takes getting used to, but it's worth learning, and once the learning is done, it becomes easy — yea, automatic! -- to use the iPhone for all kinds of things including getting directions. Alas, no GPS so the iPhone doesn't know where it is, but that, too, is probably only a matter of time. If there are no truly satisfactory docking stations and Bluetooth systems that will connect the iPhone to a GPS in your car, there will be. There are already automatic speaker phones for iPhone in your car.

In a word, the Phone is already more than Good Enough as a pocket computer, and this is still an early model. Now that the SDK is out we expect to see great software improvements, and Moore's Law will insure rapid hardware improvements. The iPhone can only get better as a pocket computer.

Alas, at the moment it is barely Good Enough as a cell phone. Apparently the formidable engineering talents that designed and implemented the iPhone did not include expertise in RF engineering. My ancient Nokia always had one more bar of signal strength than my iPhone except in maximum strength areas. In the years I carried my old Nokia I cannot recall having a call dropped. The iPhone has dropped at least one call every week — mostly in my office, where the Nokia worked fine but the iPhone is marginal.

Having said all that, I continue to carry the iPhone and I won't go back to the old Nokia — but I will probably buy my wife a Razr for her birthday. I don't think she'll want an iPhone. My daughter though---

Wi-Ex zBoost

I no longer routinely get dropped calls in my office or in the Great Hall. The Wi-EX zBoost zPersonal Cell Phone Signal Booster is easily installed, and adds at least one bar to the signal available in a twenty foot radius. Actually, in my case it's more like a thirty foot radius.

The unit is small and suction cups to a window. A 20 foot cable with an antenna at the end is extended to some convenient place. The antenna is anchored (it comes with suction cups, which work). Then turn on the unit. If the light flashes red, the antenna is too close to the unit; move it somewhere else until the light is green.

That's it. You will now have at least one more bar on your phone.

I did have one incident: I came home to discover the red light flashing on the unit. I pulled its plug for a power recycle. When I plugged it back in, all was well. That was the only incident, and it only happened once in a week of use.

The Wi-Ex zBoost zPersonal Cell Phone Booster Just Works. Highly recommended.

Winding Down

We enjoyed an afternoon and dinner visit by Paul Schindler, the editor who founded the Internet Edition of BYTE after CMP folded the paper edition. Paul was a pleasure to work with as editor in chief. Together we did the BEST OF COMDEX as well as other events, and we worked well together.

In those days Paul and I did a Technology Week broadcast for CMP. Today we would call that a Podcast, but this was before podcasting had been invented. We had expensive equipment, and I built a sound-baffled area in one corner of my office for the professional pre-amp and microphone. The microphone was mounted on a freestanding boom to decouple it from conducted sound. Alas, in those days, it was all very expensive to do a broadcast quality radio show. PC's and Macs weren't quite powerful enough, and the editing software wasn't all that good. It took a lot of talent and work to produce Technology Week.

While Paul was here last week I did a This Week In Technology segment with Leo Laporte (http://twit.tv/135). Paul watched: instead of my head being in a sound baffled area and my mouth half an inch from a very expensive microphone, I wore a Plantronics USB DSP headset and sat in my usual chair with all my screens around me. I usually kept the headset mike muted, but I didn't have to, and when I wanted to talk I'd just talk. My headset led to Roxanne, a Vista PC, and thence through Skype to Leo in Petaluma, California, where he hosted me and others from Austin, Texas, and over in England.

Leo edits the show on a big Mac Pro. When it comes out the voice quality is better than we had on Technology Week ten years ago. Alas. If we'd had this technology then, we probably would still be doing Technology Week, BYTE would still be a successful on line magazine, and -- Oh, Well. But it was a nostalgic moment.

Paul now teaches history in high school, and one of his problems is bright kids who he can't give enough attention to. He wondered how to interest them in history, so I recommended Fletcher Pratt, The Battles That Changed History. Pratt begins with Alexander the Great and continues to the Battle of Midway Island. At each step he has an excellent summary of the world: Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Arab explosion, and on to modern times. The result is a remarkably well integrated history of Western Civilization written in a way that I guarantee will interest bright kids — boys anyway — of high school age. It's also an excellent introduction to Western Civilization for adults. I've recommended it before.

There is no movie of the month. Between getting zapped daily with hard X-rays and doing serious work on learning to use the iMac and iPhone, we just didn't get out.

I didn't have a lot of time for games either, but the Game of the Month is Europa Universalis III. This is a history simulation game, and depends a lot on the game designer's theories on what is important in historical development. There is a military component to it, but it's fairly primitive: unlike the Medieval: Total War games, it's not possible to use combined arms tactics to win on the battlefield what you can't win by prestige and purchase. Thus the tactical revolutions of Sweden's Gustavus Adolphus led to a real change in European history — Pratt makes this one of the ten decisive events of Western history — but just can't be simulated in this game.

Indeed, the game is only fun if you are interested in the history of the periods it covers. On the other hand, if you are interested, it will give some insights into how things worked back then. I found it well worth the cost and time it took to play with it, and I will recommend it on that basis.

The book of the month is The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age, by Simon Head. This is a scholarly book and is not easy reading; but if you want to understand what's happening in the high tech economy, and how scientific management is becoming the standard technique even in high tech creative work, you will need to wade through it. Head begins with a history of scientific work management, and shows how it has crept up from blue to white collar employment.

It has done so because it is efficient. Management by genius is probably better; but genius doesn't always last. I bought the Kindle edition of The New Ruthless Economy and I have been reading it on that handy device; and I continue to recommend the Kindle.

You may also pre-order Exile — and Glory by Jerry Pournelle and I hope you will do so. It was written long ago, but it's still a quite readable story about the early days of an asteroid civilization, and it has a couple of my favorite characters. The world of Exile and Glory is the setting for LisaBetta, one of the books I am working on now.

There are two computer books of the month, both related to the iPhone. I bought the first at the Apple store: The iPhone Book, by Scott Kelby & Terry White. This is a very simple book. It doesn't go into much detail, and it is not the only book you will need; but it is worth the money. It covers all the basic functions of the iPhone and shows you how to use them. That serves two purposes: it shows you many of the things you can do with the iPhone, and then tells you precisely how to do them. Calls, calendars, calculators, songs and tunes, using your iPhone as an iPod (audio and visual); you name it and there's what amounts to an illustrated manual page for it. I am very glad I bought this book, and if you're getting a new iPhone you will be too.

The second iPhone book of the month is iPhone, The Missing Manual. This is a much more detailed book that explains what's going on in more depth. Over the long haul this will be more useful than The iPod Book, but it's also not as easy for a beginning iPhone user to get into. My recommendation is to get both these books. Start with The iPod Book, and when you know how to do all the stuff you want from there, begin browsing The Missing Manual. I think you'll be glad you did.

And finally, I have Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual. It's very large, and I just got it. Full review another time, but I'd be astonished if it were not useful for those going to the Mac from the PC.