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  • Newsletter Issue #350

    August 14th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    Apple’s WWDC is, on the surface at least, an event for developers, not consumers, yet that didn’t make much of a difference. The eyes of the world were on the goings-on at Moscone West in San Francisco that Monday morning, August 7th. And it made perfect sense to devote a large portion of our August 10th episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE to the event, with a bit of a perspective about the unveiling of Mac OS 10.5 Leopard and the introduction of the Intel-based Mac Pro and Xserve.

    It also involved return visits from two of our guests, WiredNews.com Managing Editor Leander Kahney, and industry analyst Ross Rubin from the NPD Group. We also brought onboard Macworld Senior Editor Rob Griffiths. In separate interviews, the three gave their views, which were not always in sync, about the events.

    The show also featured Julian Miller, from Script Software, who reminded our listeners about the close resemblance between one of his company’s applications, ChatFX, and the special features promised in iChat for Leopard. Now that Microsoft has given up on Virtual PC for the Mac, Benjamin Rudolph, from Parallels, joined the show to talk newest version of the Parallels Desktop virtual machine application and some surprising plans for the future.

    We’ll have more discussions about the WWDC’s aftermath on our next episode, on August 17th. You’ll hear, for example, from John Rizzo, of MacWindows.com, who will tell us what annoyed him about the event.

    I’d also like to invite all of you to visit our new Tech Night Owl LIVE forums and check out a special section we’ve added covering Apple War Stories. You’re invited to participate with your own tales of woe or even your positive experiences.

    Some folks have said we spend far too much time talking about UFOs on our other show, The Paracast, but since so many millions of people around the world are intrigued by such subjects, we’ll continue to explore these matters. Coming on August 15th, for example, you’ll hear from Chris Rutkowski, co-author of the new book, “The Canadian UFO Reports: The Best Cases Revealed,” who will be on hand to talk about the most compelling sightings in his country, and his ongoing research on the subject.

    As a change of pace, we’ll also talk to paranormal investigator Dr. Siouxz Sebek about ghosts in Arizona and other intriguing topics. Dr. Sebek is founder of the Ghost Buffalo Para Research Society, a member in good standing of Arizona Paranormal Investigations and a lifetime member of the International Ghost Hunters Society. She is also hosts the New Saloon Row Ghost Tour in Williams, Arizona.

    WHY THE DEATH OF VIRTUAL PC IS ANOTHER MICROSOFT FAILURE

    When the news was first broadcast that Microsoft had acquired the rights to Connectix Virtual PC in February 2003, I had mixed feelings. You see, Microsoft was notorious for acquiring technologies from other companies, and then killing them.

    But this didn’t make much sense to me, because Virtual PC was a great addition to Microsoft’s product portfolio. It would, after all, sell more copies of Windows, and I had the hope that their Mac Business Unit would somehow eke more performance out of the program, particularly when it came to graphics. As it was, Windows emulation software on the Mac was pathetic, barely usable.

    Of course, the marketing people put the usual positive spin on the transaction. According to a Macworld report at the time, quoting Microsoft’s Tim McDonough, “This is just another sign that we’re committed to the Mac by broadening the products we bring to the platform. This is a product we will continue to offer and improve.”

    Improve?

    I suppose, for a while. I mean the interface got better, and there were minor performance boosts and interface enhancements. But when it took so many months to make Virtual PC compatible with the Power Mac G5, you could see the handwriting was on the wall.

    For one thing, performance on a G5, Apple’s hot-running but blazingly fast computer, was little if any better than on a G4. Supposedly the chip-related features that Microsoft relied upon weren’t supported on the G5, but surely their expert programmers could figure out another way to reduce emulation overhead.

    Last year, when Apple first announced its switch to Intel processors, it seemed a natural fit for Virtual PC. After all, there was already a Windows version, and Microsoft’s developers surely knew how to code for x86 processors. This should be a cake-walk, I thought.

    In the ensuing months, Microsoft began to hedge, making excuses about all the hard work they had to do, and that it was working with Apple to offer the best possible solution for running Windows on a Mac.

    The spring of 2006 brought some major developments that increased the pressure on Microsoft. It began in rather a benign fashion as some computer hackers devised a way to install Windows on a separate partition on Intel-based Macs. Soon the world changed right from under us.

    Within weeks, Apple released the Boot Camp beta, and Microsoft’s situation became more untenable. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the announcement that a Virginia-based startup company Parallels, Inc., had been quietly developing a flat-on competitor to Virtual PC. Even better, it ran extraordinarily well on a MacIntel.

    By June, after a beta period involving over 100,000 Mac users, Parallels Desktop for Mac was officially released. It offered a smooth, easily-manageable interface that, in some respects, was reminiscent of Virtual PC, although Microsoft still had the edge in usability. But with a programming staff a fraction of the size of Microsoft, and just a year in business, Parallels clearly knows the techniques to maximize performance.

    You see, they take advantage of the virtualization technology available in Intel’s chips, which means you can get near-native performance, and that’s no illusion. Depending on the demands of the application you’re running, you can generally expect upwards of 75% of the performance of running Windows in Boot Camp and any standard PC with similar equipment.

    While Parallels is just at the beginning of its development cycle, with promises of better support for USB devices and even 3D graphicsand full Windows Vista support in a few months, Microsoft was at the end of its rope.

    Other alternatives to run Windows on a Mac came thick and fast. CodeWeavers is working on CrossOver Mac, based on the open source Wine technology. It’ll let you run some Windows applications in Mac OS X’s X11 environment, without the need to install Windows. Another virtual machine developer, VMWare, will have its own Mac-based solution in a few months.

    So what was the world’s largest software company to do in light of the competition beating it to market? In recent months, I began to feel they would try a powerful marketing push, by competing on price. Offer a bundle with Windows preloaded, just as you get with the PowerPC version of Virtual PC, and price it below any ala carte solution.

    But, no, Microsoft, which can’t seem to figure out how to get its next operating system out on time, threw in the towel. First, the Windows version of Virtual PC was made free, and then came the lame excuse that developing a version for Intel-based Macs would be equivalent to delivering a version 1.0 product, and would require an awful lot of work.

    That’s the sort of work that Parallels managed to complete in just a few months with far less resources.

    I suppose Microsoft’s bean counters decided to cut their losses and move on. But it’s yet another failure that, compounded with the others in recent years, makes you wonder whether Bill Gates was right when he decided to get out of the rat race and spend the rest of his life doing good things with his vast fortune.

    In the meantime, there’s Office for the Mac, which Microsoft has committed to developing for at least several more years. While some may complain that the impending loss of Visual Basic support from the forthcoming Universal version is just another example of Microsoft reducing its Mac support, it may well be that they had problems migrating it to a new platform. But that’s not something the corporate spin-meisters would admit.

    I’m not sorry to see Virtual PC pass, since there’s now a better alternative. But Microsoft ought to think carefully about other decisions to remove products from the Mac platform, such as Windows Media Player. After all, why not allow Mac users to have all the features of the Windows version? They might even buy a music player other than the iPod. But no, Microsoft doesn’t have the vision to see that, and I’m sure its new Zune player will also lack Mac compatibility.

    As Microsoft’s failures mount, I wonder when the company will get the message. It may take years for anything to change when it comes to their huge market share, but they may have already passed the point of no return.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: FIRST LOOK! APPLE VERSUS DELL WIDESCREEN DISPLAYS

    While Mac users nowadays have a great time comparing prices with the number one PC maker, Dell, there’s actually one category where Apple is clearly not cheaper. That’s displays.

    Even though the price of Apple’s Cinema Display line had a price cut that was initiated somewhat below the radar, it doesn’t make the products the cheapest, or even comparable to the competition when you try to match the features up real close.

    Now, my 23-inch Apple HD Cinema Display is a fine product. The colors are bright, well saturated, text is readable and it has a pretty wide viewing angle. Now that it’s just $999, it seems a real bargain; that is, until you see that Dell is now offering its 24-inch UltraSharp 2407WFP display for a mere $703.20 (although I don’t know how long that price will last).

    So what’s the difference, and do you get something for $296 less that’s reasonably comparable? As you may have heard, some Mac users have embraced the Dell display as an equal or perhaps superior alternative to Apple’s offerings. I contacted Dell and they were delighted to send me a unit for testing.

    I’ll have a complete review in the near future. But I’ll give you a few surface observations, and we’ll proceed from there.

    First off, the 2407WFP’s widescreen design is business-like and unspectacular, typical of a Dell product. Apple’s in contrast, is typically elegant with minimal connection options and settings.

    The Dell display has more of options to raise and lower and tilt display. In contrast to the HD Cinema Display, you have four USB ports, plus a card reader. There’s even an analog connection for older PC graphic cards, S-video and component video, so you can hook it up directly to a cable or satellite set top box or DVD player. It really makes a nice TV set.

    Resolution is rated at 1920 x 1200, same as Apple, but the slightly larger screen size means that text will be a tad more readable. In order to get the best results from the Dell display, you’ll want to visit the onscreen menu, where you can set gamma for either a PC or a Mac. Yes, Dell anticipated that Mac users would be buying this product.

    After calibrating the unit with Tiger’s Displays preference panel, the text seemed a bit light compared to Apple’s, but I resolved the situation on a hunch. You see, the Appearance preference panel has an Automatic setting that’s supposed to choose the ideal font smoothing algorithm. Evidently it didn’t recognize the Dell as a flat panel display, and chose the lighter setting, for a CRT. A quick change brought text to the proper degree of darkness and sharpness.

    I’ll have more to say in the coming weeks, but my first impression is that Dell is giving Apple a real run for the money with its display line and then some.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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    8 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #350”

    1. Snafu says:

      I guess Dell’s TFTs became prominent when the first batchs of Apple’s ACDs arrived with serious colour uniformity problems. I suffered them and, after reading a lot of feedback posts at Macintouch.com and others, I gave Dell’s a try and became really satisfied with their 24″ model: even if the frame and pedestal are rather blah, it is far more useful and ergonomic. I’d accuse Apple of having great aesthetics but doing actually inexplicably bad ergonomics here (no lateral USB ports, no height-adjustable pedestal, etc.)

    2. Yacko says:

      Yes there is a Virtual PC x86 codebase, and that’s what makes it puzzling. Prior to the Intel switch Microsoft had to groom two different teams, but Apple handed MS employee streamlining on a platter. Not that I expect a direct port of the x86 code, I’m sure there is some API work to do, but the code is a much smaller footprint compared to the PPC code, no doubt fewer instructions to translate.

      This is also odd because I believe the reason MS acquired VPC in the first place was the OS86 version, which it wanted in order to allow Vista (Longhorn) the broadest possible ability for compatibility across older Windows version executables and MS-DOS programs. I could see them dropping the PPC code for Mac users, but all support? Unless, unless, this is all part of a larger strategy…..

      I’ll predict it here. MS and Apple are going to go at it tooth and nail at some point. Right now they are just dancing around the ring feeling each other out. With loss of their executives (Jobs and Gates will retire/die sometime), the general consolidation of the industry and the dollar and mental and consumer stress of the fight on the companies and customers, I feel the final endgame will be Dell+AMD+Microsoft and Intel+Apple. Your guess who wins the final move. You laugh now, but sometime in the next 10 years, you will think back to this prediction.

    3. John Major says:

      I think you may be missing the point of Microsoft’s purchase of Connectix’s technology. IIRC, Microsoft was more interested in a Connectix virtualization program that allowed you to treat several hard drives as one over a network. VirtualPC was something of an afterthought and not the main acquisition target.

      In a way, I think you’re right: MS’s giving up on VirtualPC is a sign that the company can no longer compete. I am amazed that so many of their applications are getting bogged down in development. On the other hand, MS may just have decided to let Apple, Parallels and VmWare do the hard work of virtualization while MS enjoyed the payoff: copies of Windows sold and used on more computers. The profits from Windows and its user base increase while the development cost of reaching out to Mac users goes to zero.

      My guess is that the discontinued development of WiMP was the first step in the attempt to kill iTunes and its Music Store. Frankly, I think MS will fail in this. Their ability to execute on a general goal has disappeared and they have NEVER excited the general consumer. Zune will have to be a grand slam to win people over, and I think MS will come out with an overly complex GUI and too many power-hogging features. Rob Pegoraro of the Washington Post recently reviewed WMP 11 and seems convinced that MS still can’t create compelling, reliable software. I imagine MS’s music store will be just as clunky, buggy and annoying.

      I agree with your last assertion, that MS may be on the wane. I wouldn’t ever count the company out, though: like Intel, it can move very quickly when it has to. My guess is that it’s biggest threat is going to come in the form of a “good enough” alternative to Windows–either a refined, more user-friendly Linux desktop with sufficient apps, or price-competitive Apple products that wean people away from Windows. My guess is that long-term Linux and open-source office suites will win out or force MS to cut prices on Windows and MS Office drastically.

      As for Apple, Jobs isn’t interested in another OS war. He’s looking to expand beyond computers into new markets.

    4. Snafu says:

      The VirtualPC on G5 issue was explained as derived from G5 not having some optative PPC instructions that helped solve “endian” bit order interpretations inmensely, so I don’t blame Microsoft: without these the only way to regain performance is brute force, and the G5 wasn’t that incredibly better at that (even if other things got quite better, such as memory bandwidth and so).

      What I wonder is if Microsoft not having done any virtualization solution development is due to them believing, as most of us did, that Apple’s “Mactels” would be easy to turn into dual boot systems. When it was revealed that Mactels came with EFI instead of BIOS, plus this EFI lacking BIOS emulation, and bodily output semisolids hit the fan for so many, I guess they started evaluating how much of an effort an VPC for Mactel would imply. But then Apple decides to incorporate what was needed via Boot Camp (oh, just when the problem was about to be cracked by some adventurous hackers 😀 ), and Parallels had suddenly made some serious progress…

      The mistery partis : was the porting so difficult a task? Is the migration to Xcode IDE the issue (I could accept that, as it surely affects all their MacBU development efforts. In that sense VPC would truly be a version 1-like app, adding to that the different nature of the product, virtualization vs. emulation)? Is it simply an economic decision similar to ceasing development of their Media Player?

      Microsoft having some obligations to these customers that adquired this Mac:Office that includes VPC, I wonder if it would consider bundling Parallels with the next iteration of the suite, similar to the way they provide Flip4Mac codecs.

      It would be ideal to get some confidences from some MacBU blogger. Lately they are quite candid about this sort of things.

    5. Snafu says:

      But Microsoft doesn’t need to compete at all! It only needs to sell more Windows copies. There being Parallels and Boot Camp available, it actually earns more money not having to expend it developing such niche product as a Virtualization app for the Macintosh platform.

      Aren’t you turning this into a mirror image of the old “Apple is beleaguered and about to die” thingy a bit too much? It is not like Apple doesn’t cancel some of its own software and hardware products every now an then, too.

    6. John Carr says:

      I wonder what the defective pixel policy is with the Dell. Apple’s has always been self-serving, making me wary of buying one of their displays. I got a pixel-perfect HP 2335 for hundreds less than the Apple, with more inputs and more adjustability. I think it looks as good as the Apple as well.

    7. Opera Singing Gorilla says:

      While MS does have a part of the virtualization code puzzle with the Windows version of VPC, the area where they would’ve need to put much effort in was the OS X kernel extension for the VMM. That code would be the low level OS specific thing alluded to several months ago and while not as difficult as the PPC -> x86 ISA translation, still requires lot of work. Beyond that issue though, this whole Intel thing was probably also a political conundrum for MS. Yes, they could sell more Windows seats and also achieve higher margins via retail sales. At the same time though, the notion of an Apple Mac being able to now run Windows at native speeds (via dual boot) or near native via virtualization meant that Mac’s could look fairly attractive and thus potentially increase Apple’s mindshare over the long haul. The Mac BU may have been all for doing VPC for Intel but it wouldn’t be out of the question that executives higher up saw this potential and thus may have put up roadblocks.

      If you go back to before the Windows XP on Mac contest was completed (and before Parallels or Bootcamp was unveiled), MS also ended up pulling EFI support for 32-bit Vista (and many hackers at the time were hoping Vista’s EFI support would allow it to be bootable on the Mac). It almost seemed like MS was trying to make it difficult to allow this to happen easily (even though publicly, they did issue a statement about being happy to see Windows running on the Mac). As it turned out though, a hack was developed and shortly thereafter, Parallels Workstation and then Bootcamp with an actual legacy module were unleashed sort of like letting the genie out of the bottle. Ballmer in an interview mentioned that he didn’t mind Windows running on Mac’s but also made an underhanded comment right after that saying he’d prefer to see it run on “real PC’s”. That should be rather telling since for all intents, the Intel Mac’s share the same components as those real PC’s more than ever.

      VMWare’s entry was probably the final straw as far putting the nail in VPC for Intel as now for sure, they know they’d have an uphill battle. I’m sure they also see stuff like Codeweavers as well. All of these alternatives are breaking down the barriers for Intel Mac users on the software compatibility front in not having to pay a speed penalty like before. End result is the Intel Mac’s have a whole lot of flexibility which in time, could make them more attractive to a portion of the large installed base of Windows users. And why would MS want to encourage in any way for that market to even garner a look at a Mac and Mac OS X especially when a portion of the Windows customer base will need to upgrade their hardware for Vista? True, Apple isn’t selling Windows but the premise that it can run it means some of those may end up taking a look and learn there is an alternative. Apple may not be taking direct aim at Microsoft as opposed to say Dell or Gateway but each sale to a previously non-Mac user just means the loss of Microsoft’s control over a part of their customer base.

    8. […] preliminary report comparing the Apple to the Dell appeared last summer, in Issue #350 of this newsletter. Since then, prices have been lowered for both displays. But while Apple fetches […]

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