The train is starting to leave the station

One of the most important things to come out of Microsoft for the last couple of years tends to be played down in the press, and sniped at by technology pundits. From my viewpoint the industry’s tendency to ignore this technology is simply bizarre. The thing I’m talking about is the Tablet PC. Before you pooh-pooh my assertion, stay a while.
As developers, we’re constantly on the look-out for changes in the environments with which we work. So we’re interested in news about the next versions of our IDEs, about the various flavors of server technology coming out of Redmond and elsewhere, about Borland’s SDO, about .NET, about web services, about anything that will make our jobs easier.
But what about things which make our users’ lives easier? This is where the Tablet PC fits in. At the moment, the second generation of these machines is starting to appear. They’re faster, they have higher resolution screens and larger hard disks, and don’t cost that much more than normal laptops. Windows XP SP2 has a whole slew of improvements for tablet users, including a kick-ass handwriting recognition subsystem. Users are starting to take notice and new applications are starting to appear that have a richer user experience if they happen to be run on a tablet.
And why are users taking note of tablets? Well, the form factor and usage is the main reason: it’s just plain easier to write on a screen (and have your writing converted into ordinary text) and tap with a pen than using a mouse and keyboard. They’re lighter than the average laptop. It’s more fun to write emails than to type them, and to include quick line drawings as well. It has a more natural input interface.
Do you go to meetings? Do all those people who bring in their laptops and then proceed to type away loudly annoy you? And what happens if someone draws a diagram on the white board? Unless you have a pad of paper as well as your laptop you’re toast. But what about taking in a digital notepad that you write on? Well, it’s much quieter and less obtrusive. People don’t notice (apart from the initial Wow! factor, I suppose) as much as a normal laptop. And at the end of the meeting you already have the notes for the meeting in a form you can use (archive them, email them to Australia, print and distribute them, blog about them).
Using a tablet instead of a laptop in face-to-face interviews (say surveys, gathering information for insurance quotes or for banking-type products, one-on-one teaching, and so on) is less intimidating and more open. Heck, you can even read on-line documentation in the smallest room.
My point here is that I believe the Tablet PC software industry is about to take off, not only in the corporate world, but also for individual users. In the first two years, over a million tablets have been sold; a small number when compared to the overall laptop market, sure, but it’s still impressive. I can foresee a day when the tablet technology is included in laptops as a matter of course, or at least as a low-cost option.
But at present the number of applications that can take advantage of tablets is small. Microsoft obviously have several (OneNote suddenly makes more sense when using a tablet), and the third-party market is growing and it’s wide-open.
I don’t know about you, but this market excites me. My latest work machine is one of the new Toshiba Portege M205s (1.8GHz Pentium M CPU, wireless B & G, 1400*1050 screen resolution, 7200rpm 60Gb disk, 4 hours battery life, 4.5 Lbs). I’m now using a tablet every day, as my one and only development machine. I’m finding out what the issues are with them, how to use digital ink, what applications or components are needed.

I Love My iPod

I freely admit that I’m a gadget guy.  I’m a sucker for the latest mobile phone, PDA, portable music player, home entertainment component, whatever.  However, more often than I’d like to admit I find that the devices that I once so coveted soon become the adult equivalent of the GI Joe with the missing arm — buried on my desk somewhere beneath the much cooler toys.  Call me fickle, but I can’t help it.  Sometimes the bloom just falls off the rose and it turns out the attraction was purely physical; the gadget and I never made a true connection.

One such gadget affair that ultimately went south was with my Rio 900 MP3 player.  The biggest problem was that it had only 256 megs of RAM, and changing the music contained within was a bit of a chore, so I had to choose carefully which few songs I wanted occupying its precious RAM.  Frustrated by these issues, I found myself eying Apple’s iPod in all its silvery-and-white-gigastorage goodness.  Soon I found myself having that “it’s not you, it’s me” conversation with my Rio and forking over the bucks for a 15 gig iPod.

Six months later I’m pleased to report that I my iPod and I are still quite the item.  Not only has it not been relegated to the Old Toys Home, but it has totally changed the way I listen to music.  No longer am I concerned with what 20 songs I want to listen to over and over again on that trans-oceanic trip — I literally have my entire music library available to me at all times! Of course, trying to manage 2,470 songs from a little hand held is a bit overwhelming, which is where iTunes comes in.  By automatically synchronizing not just music files but also play lists and other artifacts, I can use the big screen on my PC for all of the complicated setup, and the fruits of that labor are pushed to my iPod automatically just by connecting it to the computer.  Now instead of decided what 20 songs to play repeatedly until I’m ready to go postal, I’ve become obsessed with play list organization — creating play lists to suit all my moods so that good music is just a couple of wheel clicks away.

I now look at my non-iPod-owning friends with a mix of amusement and pity. Just last week my brother-in-law mentioned he wanted to go to a record store to buy some newly released CD or other.  “A music store?” I exclaimed.  “Who still does that? Don’t you know you can get the music cheaper and faster online at the iTunes music store? If you must, you can then even burn it onto a CD.”

“Really?“

“Really.  Of course, you can always drive to a strip mall, subject yourself to the latest in thrash-rap played too loudly over the store’s sound system, and deal with some brain-pierced clerk, only to find out they don’t carry the CD you’re looking for.“

“Tell me more about your iPod.“

“You can’t have mine, but I’m sure there is an iPod out there that’s right for you.“

ShuttleX: Small, Quiet, Odd Looking Computers

There are two kinds of computers in this world: the kind you buy from a big corporation, and the kind you build yourself. Of course, there are also computers that sound like popcorn makers, and those that sound like Catherine Zeta-Jones when she is slipping on her nylons. This article is about the kind of computer that you make yourself, and the kind that sound like Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Defending the Irrational

Those of us who build our own computers have a hobby that is difficult to defend. From a logical perspective, it doesn’t really make much sense.

If you already have a few older machines you can scavenge for parts, then you might be able to save a few bucks by building your own white box, or then again you might not. There is always the risk that you will damage a piece of hardware and can’t return it, and certainly there is a significant investment in time involved in buying and building the machine. So logically, I have to ask myself whether it is really worth the effort.

Emotionally, however, I definitely enjoy assembling my own a computers. Or rather, I enjoy using computers that I have built myself. Sometimes, I’ll confess, it is fun to tinker with the machines, but frequently the process of assembling a computer is a bit painful. Particularly when things don’t work out they way I want.

Yet there is that certain intangible thrill one gets after screwing in the motherboard, plugging in the power supply, hooking up the processor, attaching the CD and floppy, and then booting up that old DOS 6.2 floppy and finding that it all works! And after I have installed Linux, or even lowly Windows, and actually start using a machine for real work, I get a warm glow of contentment from using a computer I put together myself. I have to live with a computer 8, 12 or more hours a day, so I don’t want one that has some overly advertised corporate label on it. I want one that bears at least a little bit of my own personal touch, something that I put together, rather than something that comes off an assembly line optimized for greed and conformance.

Speed and Noise

The computer I built last year is a real screamer, in fact, it howls louder than a new born baby. If I ever had any energy to work on it, I could replace the fans with something quieter, and it is true that the machine was incredibly hot – back in the day. In fact, the day I built it, before I let Bill have his DLL proliferating, artery clogging way with the poor beast, my computer was the second hottest thing ever to show its face on the PCMark website. That is due primarily to the fact everyone else has the sense to buy a little further behind the curve than I did, but nevertheless it felt great to boot up such a smoking machine. Here is what that overly pumped up box looked like from a statistical perspective:

  • Case: ANTEC|Sever Tower PLUS1080AMG (Roughly the size and shape of an aircraft carrier).

  • Motherboard: NFORCE2 A7N8X DELUXE ASUS RTL
  • CPU: AMD|3000/400 ATHLON XP BARTON
  • RAM: DDRAM 256MB 32MX8 PC-3500C2 COR
  • HardDrive: 160GB|MAXTOR 6Y160M0 SATA

At the time, this ran me around $900 at newegg. Of course, now that $128 motherboard costs $84.50, and my ostentatious $262 processor is down to a more justifiable $142.

So now, after its first birthday, my purchase doesn’t look quite so formidable. But when it was young and still had all its hair, it was too hot too touch. Friends were walking out the door with skin burns just from standing too close to the monitor when it was compiling a big project.

But my buddies, who were, I’m sure, drooling with jealousy, liked to complain about the noise it was making. And if it made them feel better, then I couldn’t begrudge them what little satisfaction they might be able to get by nitpicking about little problems like it being louder than a Formula 1 racing car. But thankfully, there was too much background noise in my computer room to hear exactly what they were saying in any detail. Though I did get the general drift.

Building the Quiet, Weird Machine

When I walked into Frys a month ago, I was not interested in getting a quiet machine, or in getting a small machine, and certainly I wasn’t looking for a weird machine. I just wanted to get a cheap server. I was going to buy a new VA-10 ABIT motherboard, which, at $50, was more in line with my political views. And I wanted a humble, $90 processor like the AMD Athlon XP 2600+ "Barton", 333MHz FSB, 512K Cache Processor, which is as gentle on the pocket book as Pat Nixon’s cloth coat.

But despite all my good intentions, when I got to Fry’s, and started looking around, what caught my eye was the ShuttleX. In particular, it was the SN41G2 that I kept coming back to, over and over. This little box is about as tall and wide as a small mailbox, and about half as long. It supports an AMD processor with a 333 front side bus, which means that it supports a typical AMD processor in the $60 to $150 range. It comes with a built in NVIDIA motherboard, with all the fancy bits like the sound jacks, lights, USB, firewire and TV out ports all set up and ready to go.

But the fact that it was small, and the fact that it looked cool, that it had dual monitor support, a hot video card on the motherboard, and was partially assembled, meant very little to me compared to the fact that it had the ultimate marketing ploy taking up one whole side of the box it came in. This little marketing hook is called an Integrated Cooling Engine. Which stands for what? That’s it: ICE! Marketing bliss! Somebody should be allowed (or is it forced?) to retire on full salary after coming up with that one!

ICE is a super quiet cooling system that has little pencil size pipes running between the fan and the processor. These shiny little pipes look almost exactly like the exhaust pipes you used to see on hot rods in 1950’s movies, or that you sometimes see on motorcycles. In short, they are totally compelling! It broke my heart to put the cover on the box and cover them up!

Of course, this kind of technical Elysium does not come cheap. At $250 for the whole bundle, it is doubtful that Checkers (the cocker spaniel, not the game) would have approved. But when you figure that you have the box, the mother board, the video card, the sound card, all bundled together, then $250 isn’t really that bad. All you have to do is add the processor, the memory, the CD ROM drive, and an optional floppy drive. The total price of some $500 is painful, but not embarrassingly so.

Of course, when it comes time to assemble the thing, it helps if you happen to be a little elf with fingers about the size of the pipes in the ICE cooling system. But even a big six foot two lummox such as myself could cobble the thing together in just under two hours. (This is about twice the time that other people on the web claim to spend assembling their ShuttleX machines, but I guess I have to be truthful or else I should give up my Monday morning slot here on CodeFez.)

After I assembled it, the box booted up first time, and purred like a kitten. I installed Linux Mandrake 10.0 on it, and the installation went off without a hitch, in well under half an hour. Less time than it takes to install Delphi 2005!

Summary

I am loath to remind you that I am now using this box as a server. Taking this beautiful piece of engineering and wasting it as a server is the rough equivalent of using a Jaguar to deliver pizza. But I love the fact that it runs so quietly that I can leave it on all night without bothering the neighbors.

Worst of all, perhaps, is that this beautiful, gleaming machine is now stacked up on my workbench in a rats nest of wires, next to my unsightly, aircraft-carrier-colored tower boxes. This elegant tool would look fine in a living room. Unfortunately, mine is buried under my phone and answering machine, and is barely visible even from three feet away.

I won’t indulge in the kind of unrestrained hyperbole that the users of the product on NewEgg like to lavish on poor unsuspecting readers. Nevertheless, I have to confess that I like this box, despite its very un-Nixonian price tag, and despite the ICE marketing ploy. This whole line of computers represents a very cool, very intriguing alternative to a standard white box.

Retail appliances

I had occasion after the turkey dinner yesterday to muse a little on computers and software in the retail channel. My brother-in-law-to-be was waxing lyrical about the TiVo he’d just bought, and rather than restrict my thoughts to just that device, I started thinking about the retail channel as a whole for these computer and software driven one-use devices.

First, we have the TiVo, essentially a Linux box with some TV hardware, a big hard disk, and some fancy software. It’s certainly a one-use device: it "merely" enables you to record TV programs and play them back. (I’m deliberately minimizing discussion of the features of TiVo here; my intent is not to market it to you.) Despite the fact that it’s a pretty standard PC, there’s been no attempt to make it available for other uses. And, there are other set-top boxes out there that perform the same kind of function, some better than others, some with extra features, all based on PC hardware as far as I know.

Second, we have the Apple iPod. A tiny computer with a hard disk that is designed for one thing and one thing only: playing digital music. The latest version is a color device and doubles as a digital photo album. But why is an iPod so popular when modern PDAs can also play music?

Third, we have the Xbox and the other game-playing consoles. A device that can only be used to play games (although, it must be noted, many people have hacked the Xbox, thereby enabling it to do other things). Compare that to a standard PC, which can also play games, but has so many other uses as well.

Fourth: cell phones. These are a great appliance, although they are starting to become more and more flexible in the sense that their OSes are opening up to other software. But as they become more flexible, we are in a great danger than their optimized-for-phones keypad will disappear (for a touch screen, perhaps), or grow (with extra buttons).

Last, there’s calculators. To be honest, a calculator’s functionality, including graphics, could be done equally well with a PDA. (On my Clie, I use a programmable RPN calculator app called MathU Pro that mimics HP calculators.) But calculators are still being designed and sold.

My thought here is why do these appliances or one-use devices fare so well? After all there is nothing more flexible, more able to have multiple uses than a standard PC or PDA. I think it has to do with that very flexibility. We want our appliances to be designed for their stated purpose. We don’t want the appliance to be flexible, because with flexibility comes the inevitable blurring of functionality and increased complexity. Imagine if the iPod used a Palm-like handwriting recognition engine with a touch-sensitive screen. It could then possibly be used for far more than just playing music. But it would lose that impressive geared-for-one-purpose-and-do-it-well user interface.

Another benefit of appliances is that they seldom crash. There’s no other, possibly rogue, software running on these machines. Their operating system is optimized for one purpose. It used to make me laugh when I worked in Las Vegas, walking down the strip and seeing the giant displays outside the Paris casino showing a Windows 98 blue screen. Using a PC to drive these displays seems innocuous enough, no? Imagine how much better they would run if there were an appliance that did the same job.

So I can see appliances continuing to have a great market share compared to "special" software on a standard PC that mimics the appliance’s function. And I can foresee that Linux will have a big role here: it’s easier to produce a specialized OS for a device with Linux than anything else.

I realize that Microsoft is trying with Windows Media Center and Windows Mobile to target these appliance markets, but their big problem is that it’s the hardware manufacturers who dictate the agenda here. Suppose, for example, that someone, HP say, were to provide a photo printer with a photo editing function. You slip your camera’s memory card into the printer, and through a tuned-to-photo-editing user interface you can tweak the contrast, brightness, and color balance of the photos and remove red-eye and crop the image and all that fun stuff before printing. Do you think that would be a big seller? Do you think it would be running Windows under the hood? To me the answers are yes and no.

Long live the appliance! Now, how do I get a piece of the action?

Open Source and Election Fraud

In Carteret county in North Carolina, an electronic voting machine failed. As a result, 4,500 votes were never tabulated. Since some of the races in North Carolina were tight, it is possible that the lost 4500 votes could have a significant outcome on election results. For instance, the race for agricultural commissioner is still being decided. At this time, the candidates are separated by only a few hundred votes. Could the 4,500 votes lost in Carteret county have decided the race for agricultural commissioner? We will almost certainly never know.

This is a specific example of a general problem. In fact, accusations of e-voting failures were wide spread throughout the November 2004 elections. As a result, there will always be a doubt about the legitimacy of the election in many races throughout the country. As computer programmers, we know it need not be this way.

The failure in the North Carolina election occurred in Carteret County. One explanation of the error runs as follows: Officials were told by the manufacturer of the voting machine that it had the capacity to record 10,000 votes. Unfortunately, the model of voting machine delivered to Carteret County could only tally 3,005 votes. As a result, the last 4,500 votes cast in the county were never counted.

Everyone in the country is concerned about this kind of problem. But as computer programmers, a story of this kind leaves us stunned. What do they mean the machine could only handle 3,005 votes? In this day of 32 bit operating systems, where the standard limit for an Integer value is over 2 billion, exactly how did they manage to create a limit of 3,005 votes? A failure on this magnitude takes real work to achieve! It is something only a proprietary software company, intentionally trying to cripple their software, would be likely to achieve.

This story takes on yet another twist for those of us who are advocates for open source. This is the ultimate tale of proprietary software gone bad. Few people can review the software that is created by the companies that make proprietary voting machines. The whole endeavor is rife with opportunities for fraud, for carelessness, and for ill-planned cost cuts. In short, proprietary companies should not be allowed in the same room as a voting machine, let alone entrusted with the responsibility of building one.

The solution, of course, is open source software. All voting machines ought to run open source software that is freely distributed over the Internet. Computer scientists of all kinds could then download the source, compile it, and test it for errors. It is unlikely to the point of absurdity to claim that publicly reviewed open source software of this importance could ever have been so fatally flawed as the software in Carteret County.

Programmers who designed proprietary software are likely to be hired at the lowest possible price. In short, it is unlikely that top quality engineers would be used to create a product as simple as a vote counter. With open source software of this importance, however, it is almost certain that many of the greatest computer scientist in the world would review the code. The difference in quality between the open source and the proprietary version of e-vote software would, in most cases, be monumental.

The Specifics of How to Solve the Problem

I would now like to go out on a limb and offer a few more suggestions for how to clean up the crisis in our democratic system. I envision open source software that uses something like MD5 checksums, and a paper trail, to ensure a high level of voter security. Certainly the MD5 checksum for the compiled version of the open source code ought to be a well know, and publicly available piece of data. If possible, machines should be designed so that they will run only if the checksums for the software add up.

Secondly, the machines that are used should be off-the-shelf commodities, rather than custom made hardware. This would both guarantee the quality of the hardware, and greatly reduce the possibility of incompetence or fraud in the manufacturing process. For instance, there are various commodity handhelds that could be certified to run the software accurately, and they should be used exclusively during elections. If handhelds are not convenient, then a certain model of off-the-shelf PC should be used.

As each vote is cast, off-the-shelf hardware used for creating credit card receipts could be employed to create duplicate copies of a paper trail. One copy would stay with the voter, the other be kept by the voting commission. On each receipt would be an MD5 checksum, or some similar technology, which would be a unique number that could only be generated by a particular person, at a particular address, at particular date and time, voting in a particular way. It should be impossible to calculate (reverse-engineer) the vote based on the checksum alone, but the uniqueness of this number would be guaranteed by the high quality of the open source software. The software, of course, could be reviewed at any time by any member of the world population who had access to a computer.

Perhaps it could even be possible to post the checksum numbers on a national web site. Then the voter, and the voting commission, could compare the value on the paper trail with the value on the web site. Any discrepancies would be immediately apparent, and the vote could be either thrown out, or recast. This system would only work, however, if one could be sure that the numbers could not be reverse engineered so as to reveal the vote.

In most states, less than 10 million people cast votes. If this checksum could be guaranteed to be unique all but one out of a billion times, then the accuracy would probably be close enough for "government work." In fact, I would hope the best computer scientists could come up with a number that would be absolutely unique, or be unique all but one out of a trillion times. With that degree of accuracy, election results across the country could be considered reliable enough to dismiss e-voting failure as a serious problem.

Summary

I have described a specific crisis in our electoral system, and proposed a specific solution. Most portions of the solution proposed here are not unique to me, but emerged from discussions I have had with others, or from reading articles similar to this one. I am sure many of you can think of problems with my proposal, and others may have new ideas that they would like to put forward. If so, please reply to this article and share your views.

The more people who contribute to this kind of discussion, and who can come up with specific ideas about how to improve e-voting, the better. We live in an open society, and the preservation of our right to vote is entrusted not solely to our government, and certainly not to any corporation. Instead, it rests with us, the citizens of this country, and the citizens of democratic countries every where in the world. As computer programmers, we are the ones who can come up with solutions to this crisis, and the open source community should lead the way.

Some links:

  • Single Transferable Vote: http://stv.sourceforge.net/
  • The Voting Software Project: http://vote.sourceforge.net/
  • Electoral Voting Reform: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/
  • Cambridge Election Commission: http://www.ci.cambridge.ma.us/~Election/

The Learned Elders of DotCom

I have discovered irrefutable proof of the existence of a the much-rumored secret cabal of shadowy industry leaders who secretly pull the strings of power, thereby directing the fate of our business – and indeed, our own fate. This group, who I’ve identified as the Learned Elders of DotCom, meet in secret, forging their unholy alliances and hatching their nefarious plots. There has been no shortage of circumstantial evidence of this new Illuminati for many years. Surely there is no other logical explanation for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act? AOL? The popularity of the C programming language? Microsoft Bob?

It was with IBM’s release of OS/2 2.0 many years ago that I first suspected our collective destiny was being steered by The Elders. Sure, a real 32-bit operating system was nice and all, but did the distribution really require 23 floppies? It was at that point I began to suspect the leaders of IBM and Verbatim had forged a blood alliance. The “truckload o’ floppies” distribution clearly invited far too much suspicion, causing the Elders to invent data CDs, allowing hundreds of megabytes of bloated bits to fit on a single, innocuous looking disk. With Microsoft’s release of Windows 95, the collusion between the software giant and Seagate was plain to see, and the real purpose behind the CD become clear: buy more hard drives.

The latest example of The Elders’ handiwork – the undeniable proof of their existence – is almost beautiful in its diabolical simplicity. This scheme afflicts virtually anyone with a wireless mouse. If you, like me, were duped into purchasing a wireless mouse for its “freedom” and “convenience,” I invite you to do the following: look at the top of your mouse. What do you see? A few buttons? Maybe a scroll wheel? Exactly. Now turn the mouse over, and you’ll find maybe a little red light and perhaps a small button to engage the wireless connection. What’s missing? That’s right: THERE IS NO STINKING ON/OFF SWITCH! Your only choices are to make a substantial investment in Energizer or face the ridiculous inconvenience of removing your batteries when the mouse is to be unused for any length of time. Of course, you can buy a charger and some rechargeable batteries, but guess what? Energizer makes those too!

Now that I have blown the lid on the whole Elders of DotCom operation, I fully expect retaliation. I guess I might as well alert my attorney ahead of time of the impending RIAA lawsuit.

Where are the Smart Locksmiths?

Bill Gates spoke at the MS IT Forum in Denmark today, commenting that one of the primary problems with IT security is the fundamental weakness of passwords. He added that smart-card and biometric technology were, in his view, the authentication schemes of choice for the future. I totally agree that passwords are a weak link in security. Protecting critical systems or data with a phrase that can be stolen, peeked at, guessed, hacked, etc. is inherently scary. However, the reason passwords, despite their flaws, stay with us today is because, wherever you go, there they are; they’re convenient. You don’t have to remember to put your password in your pocket before walking out the door in the morning. You don’t have to keep a spare password under a hollow rock in your front yard. As long as your brain works (and if yours is like mine, it might take a few false starts before it does), you can get into your password protected system or data. Moving to smart card technology means that, like most automobiles, you must always remember to keep your physical authentication credentials on your person. And if you forget your cards, it’s not like you can just call up your computer club to jimmy the lock for you.

I do like the idea of biometric technology. After all, my fingerprints, irises, and DNA tend to be with me wherever I go. However, it will be many years before biometric technology hits the mainstream because there are a number of hurdles the must be overcome before mass adoption can become a reality. Chief among these hurdles is the lack of software and hardware support. Most authentication schemes support username/password or smart card, but few support biometric mechanisms. And while hardware such as fingerprint scanners are available at a relatively low cost, the are still not widespread, and integration with PCs is sparse. I also see a battle coming with privacy advocates on several fronts over biometrics, and it remains to be seen how these will play out.

Got you right where we want you

The New York Times reported recently that the popularity of Firefox has caused Microsoft Internet Explorer’s market share to slip 2.5% to a paltry 92.9%. It’s a both sad and humorous to me that Microsoft has so completely sewn up the browser market that it becomes newsworthy when their market share teeters on the brink of the mid-nineties. We all know that the real innovation in web browser technology came during the era when Microsoft and Netscape were duking it out for dominance. Of course, Netscape paid dearly for their choice of competitors, but the playing field is different today thanks to the legal smackdowns resulting from the Netscape-IE feuds. We can only hope that in the near future a 2.5% slip in market share for IE won’t be so news worthy.

Nice knowin’ ya, Palm

Speaking of market share, PC World quotes a Gartner report saying that Windows CE has overtaken PalmOS for the overall PDA market lead (excluding smart phones). Microsoft’s share now stands at 48.1% compared to PalmOS’ 29.8%. To put PalmOS’ free fall into perspective, they led the market last year with 46.9% compared to Windows CE’s 41.2%. I used to be a die hard Palm user, but I admit that over the past couple of years I have been slowly sucked into using Windows CE devices, mostly due to the ease of development with the .NET Compact Framework. However, I truly hope PalmOS can get back on track – we need the competition. Otherwise we may find it noteworthy if two years from now some upstart mobile OS makes a 2.5% dent in the market share of the Windows CE juggernaut.

Apple Celebrates the Holidays by Suing the Little Guy

The dubious news story of the day is that Apple is going to court to determine which people leaked information that appeared on Apple centered web sites such as powerpage, think secret , and apple insider. After yesterday’s Microsoft and EU news, it is interesting to note that this case hinges in part around multimedia features. I wonder if people are thinking that multimedia and computers might be a potent combination? Gosh darn, I should have thought of that myself!

Whatever one might say about Microsoft, its hard to imagine Bill and Steve ever suing anyone over an issue like this. In fact, one often suspects that Microsoft insiders are likely to hear the latest rumors at a legitimate news conference, even before they are told to begin testing or working on a new product. Bill may get my dander up from time to time, but he isn’t that kind of crazy. In fact, he’s probably smart enough to know that in today’s world, there is no such thing as a secret.

Not content with piling on little web sites like powerpage, Apple has gone on to sue two members of their "Apple Developer Connection" program for foolishly (insanely?) posting beta versions of Apple OS X on the web. I have to ask, which is crazier: Posting the code in the first place, or daring to mar a happy and very profitable holiday season by suing people?

Exactly what possible difference can it make to Apple if folks know the details of their OS before it is released? Do they think Microsoft:

  • Has time to care what Apple is doing?
  • Feels threatened enough to act on something like this while engaged in the insane process of trying to release a much delayed new version of their own OS?
  • Doesn’t already have a copy of the darn thing?

Or has Apple so completely lost it that they think the kind of multimedia and image crazed maniac who uses a Mac is ever likely to switch to Linux, for Pete’s sake? I find it hard to believe that hard core Linux developers can’t get a look at a beta of OS X if they really want to. But if they did look, they know that Linux is not exactly a hot competitor in the multimedia market. Servers maybe, but not multimedia! Why waste time emulating OS X? They have more important things to do.

Even more peculiar is the desire of these depraved developers to illegally post a beta copy of Apple OS X on the web. I worked at Borland long enough to understand that there is a temptation to try to buck up one’s flagging self image by pretending that access to a secret somehow makes one special. But when I was tempted to stoop so low, I always wanted to impress people who I actually knew, rather than total strangers who downloaded a file anonymously. Unfortunately for me, everyone I knew who cared about such things was already on the darn beta, and had already signed a blanket NDA. I mean, I wasn’t going to get too far trying to impress girls at a party with my inside information about Delphi’s ability to make ActiveX controls!

The talk on the street is that Apple is going to sell four million copies of the iPod this Christmas. If I were sitting on top of such an expensive and red hot product , I would tell my lawyers to get a grip! I have no idea what the margin is on an iPod, but I wouldn’t think anyone would be too far off if they started doing things like multiplying 100 times 4 million, just to see what that figure might look like! And then you can start thinking of the profit Apple makes when people download songs from the Internet. Let’s see, one dollar a song, with a distribution cost too small to measure. Hmm. Somehow, if it were up to me, instead of getting mad, I think I would just count my blessings. If I were really feeling mean, I would just tell those developers that they were no longer members of the "Apple Developer Connection," and then let it go at that.

What do you think? Has Apple gone crazy? Are all lawyers crazy by definition? Has the whole world gone crazy? Is it time for a holiday vacation, or what?