JBQ's spot on the Wild Wild Web
The musings of a French mathematician living in the heart of the American technology industry

My thoughts about the Apple WWDC 2004 keynote

A bit of background first:

I've been using a Mac for a bit more than 6 months (approximately since the release of MacOS 10.3 late last year). The machine is a PowerMac dual-1.25 GHz G4 of the latest (and seeming last) generation (mirrored doors, Firewire 800), equipped with 2GB of RAM and 320GB of hard drive space. I bought it for the explicit purpose of running Photoshop CS, seeing how my 1999 PC was starting to run out of steam and would be expensive to keep up-to-date without pretty much re-building it from scratch, and seeing how I got a good deal on a used Mac.

My experience with MacOS has been good and bad. Good, because the system is rock-solid, reasonably fast, and gets the job done. In my experience, Linux doesn't "get the job done" for what I need (the Gimp is no substitute for Photoshop), and Windows seemed less predictable (although in my extensive experience with Windows XP it is definitely very solid, fast, and gets the job done). The bad part is that what were supposed to be the strong points of MacOS didn't materialize for me (plug-and-play and intuitive UI).

I went to the Steve Jobs opening keynote of the 2004 WWDC on Monday June 28, getting in with a media pass in order to take pictures for OSnews.com (which turned out to be a hard task and made me understand why people buy expensive large image-stabilized lenses - but that's another story).


The presentation itself was intersting on different levels. Let me write down a few thoughts about different aspects of it:

-Steve Jobs is amazing on stage. The presentation ran smoothly and was entertaining, somewhat informative, definitely pleasant to watch. Seeing some of the guests on stage made quite a high contrast (the presentation of Myst IV by Ubi Soft gave me the feeling of seeing a live infomercial, worsened by the fact that I really wasn't impressed by the game).

-Some of the new features, once they get used by third-party applications, will make a difference and will make Tiger a better OS than 10.3.

-I can't get myself to seriously trust anything that Steve Jobs said. In a number of instances I believe that what he said was false or willfully misleading, and this definitely has a negative influence on all the other aspects

-I was very strongly disappointed that Steve Jobs' presentation about Tiger focused on some of the 150 claimed new features, but didn't seem to take into account the fact that some of the current MacOS users (like myself) are struggling with some nagging bugs, have been hit really hard by the lack of compatibility between 10.2 and 10.3, and were hoping that Apple would learn from Microsoft in that domain, who manage to fix lots of issues and maintain a very high level of compatibility between the different version of Windows.


So, let's call out some of the features that were shown:

-Data syncing. Probably a nice feature, I've yet to see how well it gets supported by third-party applications, especially when handling the complex cases (the case of the 3-way merge). In my little Photoshop cocoon I'm looking forward to seeing Photoshop synchronize its settings between the desktop and the laptop (or toward interoperability with PCs as I'd like to be able to synchronize the training results of my Bayesian anti-spam filter across the different machines that I use to read e-mail).

-64-bit support. A nice feature for sure, which I don't care about for now since I have a G4. I chuckled at Steve Jobs' mention that the LP64 ABI style was "industry-standard" - the model was deprecated 5 years ago when the C standard officially added the "long long" type in C, and added the standard header <stdint.h> which takes care of providing a standard portable way to use integers with exact or minimum widths. I wonder how well hybrid applications will work (e.g. applications where
the UI may be carried on as 32-bit legacy code but the core may be adapted to make use of 64-bit addressing). In a previous version of this article I complained about memory issues that I was having with Photoshop, blaming Apple for them; I was able to fix those issues in an improbable way without being able to know which code was at fault.

-Dashboard: The feature is actually nice, well-executed. My big problem with it is not really with the feature itself, but rather with Apple's propaganda on the one hand poking fun at Microsoft for probably copying in longhorn some of the features from Tiger, yet failing to acknowledge that some of the features of Tiger were at least "heavily inspired" by what some other companies have been doing, on MacOS or on other platforms.

-Safari RSS: Being and having been remotely involved with some RSS at work, I was only moderately impressed by the RSS support in Safari, and didn't find the implementation to be innovative. I was specifically disappointed by the fact that the HTML and RSS worlds seem to be highly segregated (if one of the sites I'm interested in doesn't publish and RSS version, I'd still like to be able to use it for my searches). Also the presentation of RSS leaves a lot to be desired, and there didn't seem to be any way for content authors to control the way their markup would look in Safari (this would have been a good opportunity to innovate).

-Automator: What the feature can really do, how many hooks get exposed by application developers, and how well the system reacts when applications get uninstalled remains to be seen. My impression from the demo is that the feature is "sitting between two chairs". It still seems too hard to
grasp for the crowd that can't program a VCR, and a bit too simplistic for the crowd that managed to go through the first step of programming. To say it another way, I have the feeling that the abilities of different people in terms of programming concepts are mostly spread across a few discrete levels, and that Automator lives between some of those levels, meaning that in my opinion it could be made more powerful than what was shown in the demo without losing any of its target audience. It's also
not a really new feature at all, as an example the Khoros system (which I remember using in school in 1996) is amazingly similar.

-Spotlight: All right, so it's a mechanism that allows to quickly find items stored on a computer based on criteria others that the path of the files or its basic filesystem attributes like its filename, size, type
or modification date. Which as I understand is functionally identical to what Be introduced 8 years ago (don't even tell me that I'm jealous that they copied "my" code, I wasn't working at Be yet when the first bfs-enabled version was released, and I had absolutely nothing to do with it). Some have said and will say that the features are fundamentally different as the Be approached only worked on individual files whereas the Spotlight approach seems to be able to work on entities smaller than a file; I say
that those are difference at the level of the API (i.e. how an application exposes indexable data to the query system), but that there seem to be no fundamental differences in functionality. In some instances the user interface to create some of the queries looked incredibly like the BeOS tracker, to the point where once again Steve Jobs' forward-looking poking fun at Microsoft for probably introducing a similar feature in a few years seems out-of-place as Steve Jobs himself should look in a mirror.

-Core image: The demo was pretty cool, and there has definitely been some interesting work there. Yet the way the video seemed to stop when menus were opened and closed left me somewhat unimpressed, and gives me quite a few clues about how the feature may have been developed (i.e. without enough cooperation between the different groups that want to use the GPU). With a little bit of knowledge about the way most GPUs work today I am skeptical at least about its real-world practicality
for the kind of high-end image processing that Steve Jobs was hinting at. There's a definite gap between the message that Microsoft seemed to be sending toward its software and hardware developers (that the future was going to be GPU-based image processing but that within the longhorn timeframe there shouldn't be too much hope of seeing anything done by the GPUs as they are currently very severy lacking in a number of required domains) and the message sent by Apple (that Tiger's Core
Image system is powerful enough to sustain the requirements of a next-generation Photoshop with full hardware acceleration). A close friend of mine who was able to attend some of the more technical sessions told me about a few limitations of the system already (that the system didn't seem to be able to handle 11 MPix images "natively", and that there seemed to be no way to re-use existing filters written
for current image-processing systems in Image Core, that those filters would have to be entirely re-written).


A few more comments about different parts of the keynote:

-Airport Express: nice well-executed appliance. I found it ironic that Steve Jobs insisted that the audio was compressed losslessly, which I found funny because even "small ratio" lossy compression (let's say
4:1) would probably make no perceptual different in many cases, and in the case of songs purchased through ITMS the lossy compression of ITMS itself was likely to have a much more significant effect on
the sound quality than just about any compression that may happen between iTunes and the Airport.

-iPod and BMW: isn't it highly ironic that they didn't get iPod and iDrive to work together?

-The new 30 inch monitor. Not much to say about the monitor itself ("wow") not about its price ("damn").

-About Apple LCDs in general. Yes, they are good. Very good. Yes, they are better than most of the industry. But claiming that they are references in the imaging industry seems misleading. As an
advanced hobbyist photographer I really have the strong impression that Sony's Artisan monitor or Lacie's ElectronBlue ones (both CRTs) were some of the real references. And honestly the claim that Apple selects the best LCD panels and leaves the bad ones to their competition doesn't hold any water: you haven't seen the quality of the panel on Eugenia's Powerbook compared to the bigger one on my cheaper Thinkpad. My Thinkpad's isn't good (I'd never think about doing image editing on it), but the Powerbook's is much worse.

-Steve Jobs claiming that the only major OS transition to ever happen in the PC world was the one from DOS to Windows 95. I find that very funny at least, because from a technical point of view the transition from the 16-bit-DOS-based family (Windows 3.1/95/98/ME) to the 32-bit-NT-based family (NT4/2000/XP) was without a doubt a lot more significant, comparable in magnitude to the one between MacOS 9 and MacOS 10 (though maybe a lot less visible to users). Still, credit goes to Apple for transitioning from 680x0 to PPC in a mostly transparent manner. That one, in my opinion, was the most technically significant.

-Steve Jobs was quick to mention that there had been no new version of Windows since 2001. I give full credit to Microsoft for giving me free upgrades for the last 3 years and allowing me to run today the latest version of Windows XP without having to spend an extra penny. Apple makes its user pay dearly for the privilege of being a minority, but is absolutely not competitive as far as OS pricing is concerned.


In general, I don't have any interest in moving to Tiger (I don't want to use the word "upgrading" as the transition from Jaguar to Panther was a downgrade as far as I'm concerned). At best I'll move very cautiously, making sure that all my hardware still "works", and if my experience with Panther is any indication this could take a very long time. Among my issues with 10.3, getting my good Keytronic keyboard and Logitech mouse to be somewhat usable (it's not perfect yet) was a major annoyance
(they're not really usable out of the box on 10.3, and the third-party drivers that improve a bit on those issues were not available on 10.3 for quite a while, and even when they were caused some issues related to our multi-user setup). Properly installing all the drivers for my scanners and printers took a long time (Eugenia spent hours on one of the scanner drivers), and even today my overall user experience when scanning and printing under 10.3 is poor. The window manager in general and especially Exposé are grossly confused by the scanning code, causing application crashes and system-wide locks. I still can't get my printer driver to print centered on letter paper or to leave less than 1/2 of bottom margin, even though the same driver under Windows has no such problems, and the printer hardware is totally capable of doing it once I fool MacOS into thinking that I'm printing on legal paper and do all my image centering calculations by hand. Almost each driver has a different installation procedure, and the only one which I remember installed easily is thoroughly confused by Exposé and multi-user. The memory problems I had with Photoshop were solved by deleting all of Photoshop's settings. It worked just fine afterward. The same setting (100% or 1846MB which didn't work before now works find and lets photoshop use a reasonable amount of memory).


This article is a re-write of a very similar article that I had written a day earlier for OSNews.

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