Stories by Tom Yager

Apple's new MacBooks aren't so different

Apple’s MacBook notebook product line is aimed at students, consumers and professionals looking for compact and affordable portable computers. MacBook seems poised to play second fiddle to Apple’s MacBook Pro, but in fact, the black, US$1,499 (NZ$2,055) MacBook is enormously popular among professionals despite lousy 3-D graphics performance, a much smaller display and a non-traditional keyboard.

Nothing beats textual user interfaces

After more than two decades of searching, I've finally come up with my million-dollar idea. It's the ultimate in user interface technology. It is genuinely resolution and device-independent, fitting everything from cellphones to plasma panels. It adapts effortlessly to internationalisation and Unicode, and a rookie who's never used my UI can learn to write code for it in less than a day. The internet is already thoroughly seeded with client software for my UI, and brand new client hardware is available from several sources for free. In my tests, rendering speed is phenomenal, filling a high-resolution screen in a fraction of a second even with embedded CPUs. It is platform and protocol-agnostic and fully compliant with all accessibility standards. When used over a network link, my UI optimises itself based on connection speed, and I've already plugged it into several types of network acceleration technology. And lastly, it's the only UI I've found that actually saves energy.
You can look online for my patent, but to save you the trouble, I'll share my invention with you. I call it TUI, the Textual User Interface, and trust me, it's going to be hotter than SOA.
Think I'm just putting you on? Hear me out. Everything I've said to this point is accurate except for the "my idea" part. Allow me to present a compelling case for rediscovering — or for younger developers and administrators, discovering — the old way. I might have a few angles on text UIs that you haven't considered.
First, let's compare text against rich media. Text, unlike video and audio, is a randomly-accessible stream. You can vary its playback speed and jump forward or back to any point using multiple levels of universally understood visual cues: punctuation, spacing, emphasis (bold/underline/capital letters), chapter and section numbers, tables of contents and indexes, and so on. Nobody's come up with search technologies for visual or aural navigation that rival the speed and consistency of text indexing and pattern matching, and it isn't for lack of trying.
There are situations in which the use of a TUI springs from technical necessity. PC BIOS (basic input output system) firmware is a good example. Vendors did take a swing at GUI BIOS configuration front-ends, and all users got for vendors' trouble was a really slow graphical rendering of a text UI. The TUI is compact, simple and non-demanding of system resources, qualities that firmware needs — and fortunately, BIOS vendors realised that.
In general, system software is getting back to text. The aforementioned BIOS, having abandoned its quest for GUI-ness, became remotely accessible during lights-out management sessions. It's possible to manage a system that you can't even boot from the attached console. As an administrative last resort, jacking into a server's serial port or using text-centric client/server tools like SSH (secure shell) and Telnet get the job done much faster than setting up a graphical management console client or debugging higher-level protocols like HTTP and RDP (Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol).
The GUI twins of different mothers, Microsoft and Apple, have both gotten TUI religion. Apple went first with a command line utility that exposes all of the functionality of the GUI Server Manager. Microsoft is following suit in Longhorn Server with PowerShell and a command-line interface to Windows' integrated management GUI.

Silicon-substitute more significant than chip size

Every year brings a new spring IDF (Intel Developer Forum), but the 2007 IDF, held last month in Beijing, was special. The IDF is traditionally a low-key affair at which Intel’s developers teach other developers how to get the most out of the vendor’s hardware and tools. Intel always holds back some announcements in order to make a splash with new product news on the first day of the forum.

A towering example of successful broadband resale

Internet tiering, the practice of assigning smaller subscribers reduced qualities of service, bugs the hell out of me. It’s a move to reapportion bandwidth in oversold markets without lowering the price of service for those whose quality is reduced. Why, some wonder, can’t we work around this? Entrepreneurs could buy enough telco bandwidth to qualify for top tier status, then chop up that bandwidth and resell it with the governors removed. The catch is that bandwidth resellers are stuck using the copper and fibre networks owned by the telcos against which they compete. They have to place their equipment in telcos’ central offices in order to distribute their services. When tiering kicks in, telcos can stick bandwidth resellers, and therefore their subscribers, into whatever tier they like, based on criteria fabricated by telcos.

There’s method behind Apple’s madness

Apple’s decision to push the release of Leopard (OS X 10.5) from June to October is provoking responses ranging from “so what? There are no indispensable new features in Leopard” to “see, I told you that Apple signaled a second-classing of the Mac when it dropped ‘computer’ from its name!” However, it’s not as simple an issue as that.

Don’t fill a mobile phone with too much data

No piece of technology instills a greater expectation of privacy and safety in users than their primary mobile device. For many of us, the phones, PDAs and smartphones in our pockets, on our belts and in our purses represent our most private digital selves. I’m not referring to the sort of fictitious digital presence that one projects in the likes of Second Life or even MySpace; these are costume parties where the apparently naked wear the skins of the people they wish they were, be they more glamorous or tortured than the real thing. Our phones are our most trusted associates, perhaps the only entities in which we invest absolute trust. We don’t train our phones to lie about who we are, whom we know and where we go, because we rely on them to keep us mindful of these things.

The frustrations and fascination of DRM

I’m increasingly aghast at the erosion of the traditional freedom we’ve enjoyed to do whatever we please with our personal computers — but intrigued by the science behind it.

Parallelism: where the x86 hits the wall

Your desktop computer is fast. It’s faster than you can type, faster than you can browse, and unlike you, it can do many things at once. Sure, you multitask. You can be on a conference call with your boss while you’re buffing your nails, but when you’re asked a hard question, what happens? You stop buffing your nails until you come up with the answer. Humans are not wired for parallel execution.

Windows user daunted and dazzled by Mac

A couple of columns ago, I introduced you to a friend and lifelong professional Windows user who agreed to let me observe and document her trial run at switching to the Mac. I set her up with a can’t-lose bargain: She would swap her desktop Windows PC for a Core 2 Duo MacBook running OS X Tiger but retain her PC as a Parallels Desktop virtual machine. To switch or not to switch is entirely her decision to make; I’m just watching.

Otellini’s lame apology speaks volumes about Intel

The leading quote from last week’s news comes from Intel CEO Paul Otellini: “We’re doing product refreshes every two years, which is the model we invented and then stopped doing after Pentium 4, shame on us,” Otellini said. “We fell off it — mea culpa, we screwed up — and now we’re back on that pace.”

New IBM chip has many powerful features

AMD’s Barcelona CPU is loaded with “invented here” innovation. It is also inspired by IBM’s Power architecture. IBM’s newest Power CPU, Power6, is due mid-year, along with quad-core processors from Intel and AMD. And while x86 will get more headlines in IT publications, Power6 is arguably more deserving.

Cosy dealings with Intel set to cost Dell dearly

I wrote a column in 2005 called How will Dell Offset the Loss of Intel’s Generosity? In it, I asserted that Dell needed to overhaul its strategy and focus to make up for the coming loss of Intel’s ... oh, call it what you like, price supports, subsidies, loyalty bonuses, or what business calls MDF (market development funds).

Sun’s move to Intel isn’t really a crisis for AMD

With all the vigour and exactness of stock market analysts explaining a one-point shift in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, pundits are penning obituaries for AMD in the aftermath of Sun Microsystems’ recent decision to buy chips from Intel. Poor AMD. First, Intel’s Core microarchitecture — the looming doom of quad-core Core — and now the defection of its sole first-tier monogamous mate. Talk about your slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

IT slips its bridle for the second time

The start of 2007 finds IT vendors at the top of the food chain squirming at being treated like the help. Vendor royalty such as Microsoft, Dell and Intel — along with consultants who have insinuated themselves into becoming IT’s empowered insiders — don’t like it when you hold strategy meetings without inviting them. Besides, it seemed clear to them that continuing to play up to IT’s appetite for convenience, expediency and risk avoidance was a solid basis for their long-term roadmaps.