Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
July 23, 2011

The User's Column, July 2011
Column 368
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2011 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

The Lion is in the Streets

Apple’s new Lion update of Snow Leopard – i.e. the latest version of Apple OS X – is out, and while some like Walter Mossberg have leaped up to praise and recommend it, and some of my BYTE colleagues love it, others have their doubts. I’m getting it and I will install it on at least one of my Mac systems, but I haven’t done that yet.

At one time I was about to convert all my operations to Mac, but then Microsoft dumped Vista for Windows 7, and I decided to stay with Windows after all. I do have several Macs, and I always carry the Air if I am going anywhere that I might want to do some writing. I use a Mac Book Pro for recording and doing SKYPE conferencing, (as for instance my latest interview on the end of the US manned space program) and generally for anything else that needs audio visual work, but for most of what I do I rely on Windows; so my opinion on the Mac isn’t all that important. I do have this advice for Mac users: there’s no urgency here. Developers may want to rush in, but for most Mac users you’ll probably be better off to wait a bit.

Of course Lion isn’t all that expensive, but some have had problems after installing it. I recommend that you read The Cases Against Apple's Lion OS before you install Lion.

In the early days of the personal computer, there was a real contest for market share between Apple systems and those running something else. The something else included S-100 systems with CP.M, and the new Microsoft DOS systems. COMDEX and the West Coast Computer Faire used to devote nearly equal space to DOS and Apple. Everyone was excitedly looking forward to the new Apple: would it be the Mac or an Apple III? I remember that at BYTE most of the editorial staff were eagerly looking forward to the Mac. In my case I had played with a Lisa, and I was worried about how slow it was. Then the Mac came out. I got one, and the Apple Laser printer. The Mac was certainly easy to use: but it was $2500, limited to 128 K – that’s K as in kilobytes – of memory, had no hard disk, and used the CPU as the visual processor. It was slow enough to induce misery in anyone trying to get some real work done. It ran hot because Steve Jobs insisted that there be no fan. The only mass storage was a single 3.5” floppy disk drive. You booted the Mac from a floppy, then removed the root system disk if you needed an application or a data disk. And, as I said, it ran hot. It ran hot enough that any work you did on it was in constant danger of vanishing. An external disk drive cost $500. There was no hard disk. And Apple was adamant: 128K memory was enough. The Mac was wonderful. It didn’t need improvement.

Eric Pobirs notes

The 128 KB RAM was more severe than many people realized then and now.

Our interpretation of what could be done in that amount memory was based on environments like DOS. A GUI has a lot of resource needs over a simple command line driven character mapped display. It's baffling to attempt to understand how Apple thought this could go well. They could have gone for a $3,000 price point and had a world beater from day one. Perhaps if Moore's Law was better understood then they might have done so. Sure, it would have been expensive but not all that much compared to a well appointed PC of the day. For that few hundred bucks difference it would have worked the way it should and the price would drop steadily.

A few years later a similar problem cropped up in some of Tandy's PCs. They had a character-based windowing environment built into the system ROMs called DeskMate. This was quite similar to the Mac QuickDraw ROM but since it was being melded to the existing PC memory map it caused problems. You couldn't totally disable DeskMate. You could switch it off so that it didn't appear when the machine booted but the ROM still squatted on the memory map consuming 48 KB. This meant a system shipped as having 640 K was really a 592 K system. If your program really needed 640 K, it was going to fail on these Tandy models. And this was often the case if you wanted to use the Tandy graphic modes. (These were really copied from the PCjr but Radio shack sold vastly more machines with these modes than IBM.)

There were empty sockets to add another 128 K (whooo!) for a total of 768 k with 720 K truly usable after DeskMate ate its piece. This was very popular among Tandy owners, if only to get everything to run and have something to claim over run of the mill PC clones.

Finding this out was a big hassle. Tandy didn't explicitly announce it anywhere in their documentation, although you'd think "Remember that 640 K we said you could have? Well, not really," would be considered slightly important. I finally got a developer relations guy in Ft. Worth to admit to what was going on. The idea of going immediately to LAX to catch the next flight there for a frank exchange of opinions crossed my mind.

My conclusion was that the Mac was a wonderful operating system attached to a toy computer, and I said so. That enraged a number of Apple executives including Steve Jobs, and my relationship with the company deteriorated to about zero until Pepsi’s John Scully replaced Steve Jobs as CEO. Jobs was out, and Apple began to have trouble with developers. That was partly fixed by bringing Heidi Roizen in as VP for developer relations; she had a great reputation for reliability and she always kept her word. But the path for Apple was hard. People who loved the Mac loved it a lot, but over time the market share dwindled even as the computer revolution developed.

Prior to the Mac, Apple had a lot of business users despite not having a very good word processor. The first successful spreadsheet program, Franklin and Bricklin’s VisiCalc, was written on an Apple II, and people who had never used any kind of small computer flocked to computer stores to “buy a VisiCalc.” They didn’t care what the machine was; they wanted that spreadsheet. Eventually VisiCalc was replaced by Microsoft Excel for the Mac, and Microsoft programs became important: Bill Gates once bragged that he made more profit on each Mac sold than Apple did.

The Mac lost many of those business users, as Richard Frank and Paul McQuesten wrote SuperCalc , a spread sheet for CP/M and DOS PC’s. The Mac operating system software was superior to DOS and so was the text editor, but because it was a GUI it was inherently very slow. The Mac was way overpriced and way underpowered and Jobs had proclaimed that it was already good enough. By the time Apple set that right – and they did, eventually – DOS systems had a big lead in market share for business users. Mac continued to excel in a number of areas. It had the best speech synthesis of just about anything including big mini and mainframe computers. When Microsoft held a big conference on the future as part of its opening of the new Redmond campus, all of the press materials and presentation charts had obviously been created and printed on a Mac; Microsoft didn’t have any software that could produce those documents. There was a lot to like about the Mac once the limits of the early hardware had been overcome, but during the 1990’s Apple lost more and more market share until there was genuine concern that the company would go under. Then Jobs returned. For a while what happened next was mostly invisible, but then came iPhone and iPod. They took off and the increased revenues were invested in overhauling everything. A whole of Macs. A UNIX based operating system that actually made UNIX usable by the rest of us. The Mac moved over to Intel. Apple cash flow jumped enormously. There’s no danger that Apple will vanish now, even as the world rushes to copy iStuff. Apple still leads. You can’t ignore what they do.

Lion looks to be a real advance; but from all reports I have seen it’s not quite finished. It doesn’t do anything that the average user has to have right now.

Alexander Pope said

Be not the first by whom the new is tried Nor yet the last to cast the old aside.

It’s good advice. Wait for the revision. There will be one coming soon.