Solipsism Gradient

Rainer Brockerhoff’s blog

Browsing Posts published in January, 2007

It’s been some time since I did a test, so here’s one: Which science fiction writer are you?. I seem to be Hal Clement, whose work I’ve enjoyed a lot (especially the Mesklin stories):

I am:

Hal Clement (Harry C. Stubbs)

A quiet and underrated master of “hard science” fiction who, among other things, foresaw integrated circuits back in the 1940s.

Recently, Colin “Hairy Eyeball” Brayton (also known as the Gringo Sambista) pointed me at a post by Marcelo Tas called “The First Networked Brazilian”. Unfortunately there are no permalinks on that blog, so here’s a link to the story with translations.

(in 1988…) Look here, Dr. Big-Shot, I say, the Internet is a giant network that’s going to link up all the computers in the world. Computers at home, computers in big companies … Everybody’s going to be able to swap messages instantaneously from any place in the world without leaving home or getting up from their desk! A long silence indicates that the businessman is not much taken by my fancy tale. Lunch ends, the desert arrives, followed by the coffee … As we’re leaving, I slink off without another word. As soon as he’s alone with his subordinate, the boss turns to my friend and says: The next time you waste my time on one of your dope-smoking artist pals, you’re fired!

The idea of a world-wide network really took some time to be understood, especially here in Brazil. Around the same time (1988), my ex-colleagues at UFMG (the Federal University of Minas Gerais) kindly offered me an Internet access account. At that time, the Internet was intended solely for academic and military purposes; Brazil had only two connections to the rest of the world – one at 9600 bps (bits per second!!) in Rio de Janeiro and a double-9600 bps connection in São Paulo. A year after that, the RNP (Rede Nacional de Pesquisa – National Research Network) was formed, with a 64 Kbps link.

I logged in over a single external phoneline that traversed the university’s archaic PBX system and entered a 2400 bps modem. A Unix prompt came up and I could access e-mail, FTP servers, Gopher and WAIS. As the line rarely remained stable for a long time, I would copy everything to a local file and read it later. On my side, I ran a terminal emulator called ZTerm on My Mac SE, together with a Supra modem. In 1990 I actually donated a 14400 modem to the university, but they gave it back a few weeks later, saying it was incompatible with the 1200/75 baud modems used by some other users…

Remember that all this was before the Web was invented. In the early nineties, in the USA, everything was somewhat fragmented. Even academic and research institutions were divided between Bitnet and the Internet. There were lots of BBSes, which were organizing themselves into networks like Fidonet, there were Usenet newsgroups, Apple already had its AppleLink network, and there even were some commercial networks like Byte Magazine‘s BIX, The Well, Compuserve and MCI. For me, the most rewarding were the e-mail lists. The two I found most interesting were the Computer Underground Digest and UNITE (User Interface to Everything). The latter list discussed what would be the preferred user interface for the Internet in the near future; one of the participants was Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web.

I actually tried to sign up to be a Web beta-tester, as a version of the Mosaic browser had just come out for the Mac, but unfortunately my 2400 bps link was deemed insufficient. I started investigating options such as leasing a commercial Internet connection, or even set up my own Internet provider. Here are some tidbits from those years:

Me: “I want to set up a commercial Internet provider.”

University employee: “That’s absurd! The Internet is reserved for research institutions, we’ll never let companies use our infrastructure!”

(Embratel was the government’s telecomm monopoly)

Me: “I want to set up a commercial Internet provider.”

Embratel VP: “What’s an Internet?”

Me: “The world-wide computer network, it interconnects all other networks!”

Embratel VP: “Never heard of it, but I’ll investigate and have one of our people call you.”

(Some months later…)

Me: “I want an Internet connection.”

American ISP: “OK, that’ll be US$15000 for the installation of the parabolic antenna infrastructure and US$6500 per month for a 128 Kbps connection.”

Me: “Gulp!”

American ISP: “But, for Brazil, I hear a company called Embratel has a monopoly on that sort of thing!”

(Some more months later…)

Me: “I want an Internet connection.”

Embratel Salesman: “OK. I suggest a 2400 or 9600 link, the price will be X cents per packet. That’s 20% of what it costs to send a TELEX. Isn’t that revolutionary?”

Me: “A packet means how many Kbytes?”

Embratel Salesman: “What? It’s 64 bytes per packet!”

Me: “And if a user decides to download a larger file, say, 500 Kbytes? It’ll cost hundreds of dollars!”

Embratel Salesman: “Don’t worry, that will never happen!”

Around the end of 1993, RNP officially opened up the way for commercial providers in Brazil. Here I go again:

Me: “I want an Internet connection!”

Embratel Salesman: “OK. I suggest a 2400 or 9600 link, the price will be X cents per packet…”

Me: “Hey, let’s not repeat that again, I want a fixed-price 64 Kbps link!”

Embratel Salesman (after several phone calls): “OK, it seems to be a new service, that’ll be US$4000 per month. Next month we’ll install it for you.”

Me: “Gulp! OK. Where do I sign?”

Me: “I want 12 phone lines!”

Phone Company Salesman: “What model is your PABX?”

Me: “There’s no PABX, it’s for Internet access!”

Phone Company Salesman: “Never heard of it!”

It took some time, but I finally succeeded in establishing MetaLink, first as a BBS in 1993, then as an Internet access provider in 1994. We bought a dozen 14400 baud modems, a Cisco 2511 router and a Mac Quadra 900 as server. After N+1 problems with the phone lines, with the router connections (I had to import a connector and solder an adapter for the “Embratel Standard” modem), with overheating equipment and so forth, we were on the air. We started closing deals with companies in other states to export our provider model as a franchise. End of all problems? Did I become a dot-com-millionaire? Far from it. Hear this:

Me (on the phone): “Hello! Would you like to install the Internet at your company?”

Company Owner: “No. What’s that?”

Me: “You’ll be able to communicate with your clients, publish your catalog…”

Company Owner: “The clients should come to us, and our catalog is confidential! Bye!”

Me (on the phone): “Hello! Would you like to install the Internet at your company?”

Company Owner: “Hmm… well… maybe. How much does it cost?

Me: “X per month for a basic account. This doesn’t include your phone costs, of course.”

Company Owner: “What, that expensive and I still have to pay for a phone??? No way! Bye!”

Me (at a company): “Hello! I’m here to install your Internet connection.”

Company Owner: “OK. Install it in this computer here.” (takes me to a computer in the middle of the room.)

Me (looking around)”: “Hmm, I can’t see any phone around here…”

Company Owner“Phone? Whatever for? My employees have more important things to do!”

Me (looking at the computer): “To connect to the modem, of course… but this computer doesn’t even have one!”

Company Owner“And it won’t have either! I don’t want this Internet thing anymore! Bye!”

Me (on the phone): “Hello! Would you like to install the Internet at your company?”

Company Owner: “Yes!”

Me (wary): “You’ll need a phone line, a computer with a modem, and the phone line charges are not included. Do you still want it?”

Company Owner: “Of course, I’ve got all that. You can come and install it.”

At the company, I see an old-time Parks 1200/75 modem, the size of a VCR.

Me: “Look, this modem is obsolete. You’ll need at least a 14400 bps modem!”

Company Owner: “You’re nuts, I’ve been using this modem to communicate with my bank for 5 years, it works very well and I won’t change it! Bye!”

Client (on the phone): “Your Internet isn’t worth anything! The connection drops all the time and often doesn’t even start!”

Me: “Under what circumstances, for example?”

Client: “You want to see? Just look!!” (noises of a dialing modem)

Me: “Ah, but while someone’s on the phone the modem can’t communicate, that’s normal!”

Client: “That’s absurd! You want me to buy another phone line, is that it? You can cancel my subscription to this @#$%^!! Bye!”

Client (on the phone): “I deleted your software because it was taking up too much space, and now I can’t get onto the Internet anymore! That’s absurd!”

And so it goes… for some years it worked reasonably well, but user support started using up more and more resources and the operating costs weren’t falling as fast as I had thought they would. Finally, when large companies such as banks and newspapers started to build access providers with hundreds of lines, I redid my spreadsheets and deduced that there was no more money to be made with dial-up access providers. I sold my stake. MetaLink still went on for some years until it was absorbed into a larger company. But it was fun while it lasted…

(clique aqui para ler este artigo em português)


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Seems that rumor sites are saying that this year’s WWDC will happen June 10th-15th. June used to be the standard month – the Great Intel Switch was announced June 6th (my birthday!), just 18 months ago. Last year it was August, and the consensus is that the delay was to allow the first Leopard seed to be ready… and a good thing it was, too.

Now, the rumored dates are coincidentally still unbooked at the Moscone Center site. Apple is, so far, mum on the subject but insiders say that an official date might be announced in February. Currently, my feeling is that June 10-15 might be accurate, and if it is, very possibly Steve Jobs will officially announce the availability of Leopard and of the iPhone at the keynote. And that may well be the first time that the rumored new Leopard GUI is shown in public; unless my suspicions that the iPhone interface was a preview of one of Leopard’s UI modes are confirmed, of course.

Other rumors speak of a “special announcement” in the second half of February, and some say specifically that Leopard will be shown then, and that it should be out in late March. I’m under NDA about details of course, but I frankly don’t believe Leopard will be sufficiently stable in March, and so, if any special event happens, it will be used to introduce new Mac hardware. Any upgrades to iApps will of course use the cool new Leopard technologies and so won’t be available before the big L ships.

I really hope to make it again to this year’s WWDC; the last two were great. We have a Scandinavia/Baltic trip starting in late June so we might even join the two trips.

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Nada de Java no iPhone

A notícia de que o iPhone não terá uma máquina virtual Java tem deixado a comunidade adepta do cafezinho de cabelo em pé. E, para piorar, o próprio Steve Jobs declarou que “ninguém mais usa Java”…

Discussões inflamadas à  parte, um ótimo motiv

Re: iPhone updates

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An Italian newspaper article quotes Dario Bucci of Intel Italia as saying that the iPhone uses Marvell‘s Xscale-derived CPUs. (Curiously enough, the current version of this article doesn’t show this part of the interview anymore…)

Well, who cares? Indeed, by now I agree with HiveLogic that the CPU is irrelevant. Marvell bought Xscale from Intel about 6 months ago. Xscale, in turn, uses some of the ubiquitous ARM cores that were rumored to be the iPhone’s CPU (as well as, probably, powering some other chips in there). But as the HiveLogic article says:

And now the iPhone uses yet another CPU, and we should still expect OS X to feel like OS X. Apple seems to be pushing the idea that the CPU shouldn’t matter to the user of an Apple product. And I think that?s why Apple isn’t talking about the iPhone?s CPU.

Right. With Leopard, Apple’s development tools support building apps for any combination of 32-bit, 64-bit, PowerPC (big-endian) or Intel (little-endian) CPUs. Since the gcc compiler supports ARMs and many other architectures, and the major stumbling block (the endian issue) has been solved, by now OS X can be safely assumed to run on nearly any modern CPU.

Now, in the past, I’ve been as prone as any to argue endlessly about the superiority of the PowerPC architecture (or of the 68K architecture for that matter) over x86, but for most practical purposes I have to admit all that has become a non-issue – especially for a device like the iPhone. I for one welcome our new <your architecture here> overlords, and that’s that.

Re: iPhone updates

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Here’s a good write-up about the reason for the absence of Java on the iPhone. Beyond Steve Jobs’ “ball-and-chain” comment, the truth is that Java phone apps are coded to some lowest-common-denominator UI – meaning standard phone keys, perhaps a stylus, and no support whatsoever for multitouch, zooming and everything else that makes the iPhone so cool.

Of course, all the Java enthusiasts are up in arms about this, but Steve Jobs is right. Java’s touted hardware independence is, on the iPhone, a serious disadvantage. A Java app on the iPhone would stand out as a clunky, last-millenium legacy thing that wouldn’t react as the user expects.

iPhone updates

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No significant iPhone news for a few days, so I’m stopping the “Your Subject Here” subject – if I’d known there’d be so many updates on that; I’d really have put in a non-joke phrase, so the Googlebots would have an easier time. Sorry about that.

A few interesting updates have com up in the meantime, however. For instance, a preliminary bill of materials estimate by iSupply details expected manufacturing costs of $245.83 and $280.83 for the 4GB and 8GB iPhones. I have a little experience in embedded design and the hardware numbers look reasonable to me; no idea how they arrived at the software costs. $7 for OS X is a weird figure, probably calculated by analogy with Windows CE OEM pricing, which would be totally inapplicable to an Apple product. Is the iPhone expected to pay for the total OS X development costs? In any event, these figures imply a gross margin of roughly 50%, very good even for an Apple product; average margin for their last quarter was 31.2%.

This report and some other articles have confused me even more about the “Cingular subsidies”. Are we really to believe, as one Cingular VP said, that Steve Jobs humbly agreed to all their usual business practices and “bent a lot” to get their contract? The iPhone judo theory is a little more convincing. Anyway, some people are saying that in June Cingular will subsidize perhaps $150 off the iPhone’s prices, making them retail for $350 or $450 net; others are saying that the subsidy is already built-in and the “unlocked” prices would be $800 to $1000. Or perhaps those prices are the real prices and Cingular will be neither subsidizing nor penalizing iPhone users, being content to charge just for their service and basking in the “halo effect” of being next to the Apple radiance…

Meanwhile UI guru Bruce Tognazzini has posted a long article about his impressions of the iPhone. Worth a read, but here are some nice quotes:

The origins of these bits and pieces, however, is not what’s important about the iPhone. What’s important is that, for the first time, so many great ideas and processes have been assembled in one device, iterated until they squeak, and made accessible to normal human beings. That’s the genius of Steve Jobs; that’s the genius of Apple…

…I have yet to get my hands on an iPhone?frustrating! (You can imagine Bill Gates’s frustration. He probably has a cadre of engineers ready to take it apart, put it back together with a couple of screws missing, and paint it brown.)…

…email echoes the voicemail interface. It is clean and simple. What is startling is the apparent hard separation of email, SMS, and voicemail. What I would want is a single list, defaulting to the newest and unread/unheard first. I don’t care about the medium, and neither should iPhone.

Of all the iPhone features, this is the one that seems to have completely missed the target. It would be like Blackberry having three lists: One for mail with more than 100 characters, one for mail with fewer than 100 characters, and one for mail sent from more than 3000 miles away.

That last suggestion is marvelous, at least as an option for less technical users; Apple should really try to do this.

Meanwhile, we’re back to business-as-usual, it seems. Apple posted absolute record numbers for the last quarter and the stock went down afterwards, it’s 10% off the peak of some days ago as I write this… with no justification except some vague complaints about Apple’s conservative guidance for the next quarters. Analysts just aren’t getting used to conservative guidance followed by better numbers, it seems. Some others complain about lesser growth in Mac sales, but given that Adobe’s software suite isn’t out yet, the posted figures look quite good to me.

John Gruber and several others are coming to agree with me about the general philosophy of OS X as a generic OS family for Apple devices. Good.

Finally, I’ve often commented on the excessive price of Apple products in Brazil, but for the first time this has been reported by international sites:

…the survey prices the 2GB nano in US dollars and found that Brazilians pay the most for an iPod, shelling out $327.71, well above second-place India at $222.27.

Canada was the cheapest place to buy a nano, at $144.20…

pervas wrote:

What about this?

Scott Stevenson has a great post about iPhone development and one of the comments points at Tom LaPorta‘s page. He has collaborated on many papers about cellular networks and has detailed how a SMS-based attack on the network might be achieved. I haven’t had time to check out details, though.

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