Archive for the ‘Operating Systems’ Category

The reality of Macs and Malware

September 11, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009

I read an article recently which inspired me to dive into this topic with a blog post of my own. The article in question was “Why are there no Mac viruses?“ by Philip Elmer-DeWitt.  The article makes a few interesting points in and of itself. However, I found the comments which accompanied the article to be of equal interest. I’m reminded of the fact that most people who comment on such topics don’t understand what a virus is much less how it differs from something like a Trojan horse. I’m also reminded of the fact that misery loves company.

Definitions
For those who feel they have a firm grasp on the definitions and distinctions between the various terms associated with malware, feel free to skip to the next section.

So, what is the difference between terms like Viruses, Worms, Trojan Horses, Spyware and Malware? People seem to feel free to use these terms interchangeably as if they are the same thing. They are not.

Malware
Malware, short for “malicious software”, is a very generic term that collectively refers to any sort of bad program running on your computer. Malware may come in the form of a Virus, a Worm, a Root Kit, a Trojan Horse or even as Spyware.
Dictionary.com has the following definition: “Malicious computer software that interferes with normal computer functions or sends personal data about the user to unauthorized parties over the Internet.

Virus
A Virus is a piece of malware that has the ability to self-replicate. This is the most dangerous piece of malware.
Dictionary.com has the following definition:“a segment of self-replicating code planted illegally in a computer program, often to damage or shut down a system or network.

Worm
A worm is similar to a Virus in terms of danger or threat, but there are several distinctions. A worm spreads across a network without any user intervention (this distinction is important as compared to a Trojan). Also, unlike a virus, a worm does not attach itself to existing code.

Dictionary.com has the following definition: “computer code planted illegally in a software program so as to destroy data in any system that downloads the program, as by reformatting the hard disk.

The dictionary.com is incomplete in this example, so further detail is described here with the Wikipedia entry.

The Wikipedia definition is as follows.
A computer worm is a self-replicating computer program. It uses a network to send copies of itself to other nodes (computers on the network) and it may do so without any user intervention. Unlike a virus, it does not need to attach itself to an existing program. Worms almost always cause at least some harm to the network, if only by consuming bandwidth, whereas viruses almost always corrupt or devour files on a targeted computer.

Root Kit
A Root Kit is more difficult to describe. It’s probably best described as a combination of a Virus and a Trojan. It allows unauthorized users to take control (“root” access in UNIX or “administrative” access in Windows) of your system without the knowledge or permission of the legitimate systems administrator. They are typically installed through legitimate software installations unknowingly. Likewise, they are only effective after they have been installed, presumably unknowingly, by someone with administrative access to a system.

Root kits go back to 1990, but they are most commonly associated with the 2005 Sony BMG scandal. Music CDs from Sony installed a Root Kit onto Windows based PCs in an attempt to enforce DRM. In the process, they created a huge security hole for anyone who was aware of their existence.

Reference.com has the following definition: “A root kit is a computer virus which consists of a program (or combination of several programs) designed to take fundamental control (in Unix terms “root” access, in Windows “Administrator” access) of a computer system, without authorization by the system’s owners and legitimate managers.

Spyware
Spyware is basically a piece of malware installed on your system that monitors your activity, collects information about users (without their knowledge) and reports this information back to another source. This data is typically used for marketing purposes.

A subset of spyware called “keyloggers” can be used to steal a user’s password, credit card or any other sensitive data entered by keyboard.

Another type of spyware is called “adware”. Adware is computer software that automatically downloads, plays or displays advertisements on your computer when you run certain programs.

Dictionary.com has the following definition: “any software that covertly gathers information about a user while he/she navigates the Internet and transmits the information to an individual or company that uses it for marketing or other purposes

Trojan (horse)
A Trojan is best described as any piece of malware that is installed or run by the user through deception. Trojans typically do not exploit known security holes. Rather, they trick the user into executing them by pretending to be something else. The only real defense against a Trojan is a healthy dose of common sense. Don’t install software from un-trusted sources for example. Trojans often accompany pirated software downloaded from peer to peer clients. Trojans are not like Viruses as they don’t self-replicate. They are not like worms as they don’t automatically spread via networks. They require an end user to manually execute them. This is an important distinction.

Dictionary.com has the following definition: “a non-replicating computer program planted illegally in another program to do damage locally when the software is activated.

in the wild
This is another term that’s an important distinction. In the referenced article, Elmer-DeWitt uses the following definition for “in the wild”.

“In the wild” means it has infected, or is currently infecting, new machines through normal day-to-day usage.”

On the Mac platform for example, there have been several attempts at “proof of concepts” to make a Virus. However, due to technical and/or security barriers, these “proof of concept” viruses have never been able to propagate “in the wild”. This of course renders them completely ineffective and thereby nullifies their existence as a security threat.

So, why are there no Mac Viruses?
In the referenced article, Philip Elmer-DeWitt claims there are no known Mac OS X viruses in the wild. By contrast, there are thousands of known Windows based viruses in the wild. When you stop to think about that, it’s a pretty amazing claim to be able to make. Similarly, it isn’t very surprising that Apple would play to that strength with its “Get a Mac” advertising campaign.

Elmer-DeWitt attributes the lack of Mac viruses to three reasons: small market share, stronger UNIX based file system and kernel and “viruses going out of style”.

Security through obscurity
The first reason listed, “small market share”, is by far the most common answer by people (qualified or otherwise) who comment on the topic. This answer is sometimes called “security through obscurity” and this response is especially popular with Windows users. Many Windows users would like to think that Macs are just as vulnerable as PCs. This reasoning continues by suggesting that the smaller user base makes Macs less viable targets.

While there is some truth to this line of thinking, it’s a bit short sighted. On one hand, it’s a fair argument to suggest that viruses are created with the intention of gaining monetary value or wreaking the most amount of havoc as possible. With this mind set, targeting the Mac user base (less than 10% of the overall PC population) would be of little value. However, it’s more likely that Macs would have fewer viruses if this were the case rather than no viruses at all. Other motivations for creating viruses have historically been just for bragging rights amongst the “hacker” population. Imagine the notoriety that would go with being first to create a legitimate Mac virus! Further evidence to debunk this claim would be the “classic” Mac OS (Mac OS 9.x and below) had up to 60 viruses (depending on the source) over the years. Clearly, the classic Mac OS was less of a target, but it was a target and there were viruses for that platform. Similarly, there have been virus attempts for Mac OS X, but they have been unsuccessful due to technical & security limitations built into core of the operating system. As such, it’s fair to suggest that Apple’s relatively low market share makes the Mac less of a target as compared to Windows PCs. However, those who suggest this is the only reason are simply mistaken as logic would dictate otherwise.

Stronger UNIX based file system and kernel
Clearly, Apple’s stronger UNIX based file system and kernel have helped Mac OS X’s security reputation. If nothing else, the documented “virus attempts” would have been successful viruses were it not for this level of security. Arguably, this might be the only reason we haven’t seen a successful Mac OS X virus. However, that’s difficult to prove one way or the other.

Viruses are going out of style
Elmer-DeWitt claims that “The action these days, I’m told, is in Trojans and spyware.” That very well may be, but then the question has to be where are all of the Mac Spyware infections, not to mention Root Kits, Worms, etc?

The truth about Trojans
Trojans exist on both platforms, but these aren’t really breaches in security, these are breaches in common sense – at least with regard to security in modern operating systems. Trojans are often referred to as “Social Engineering” issues because they require tricking the end user to execute them with escalated privileges.

For example, I could write a very dangerous program and call that program “WINWORD.EXE”. I could then supply that executable with a copy of Microsoft Word’s icon. If someone were to download this executable, thinking they were getting a copy of Microsoft Word, they would be very surprised when my dangerous program wreaked havoc with their system instead. Unfortunately, this type of threat is not so much a security issue because the program doesn’t exploit any known security hole; rather the exploitation is the end user’s lack of judgment or precaution. As such, it’s labeled as it is a social issue. Though, to be clear, that “social issue” may very well compromise the security on your system. As such, categorically, it has to be considered a security issue at least indirectly.

With Windows XP, if you ran a Trojan and like most every other XP user, you’re running with administrative privileges, your system was compromised and you had no clue anything unusual was happening. At least with Mac OS X, when the Trojan tries to do something that requires more than basic user privileges (like infecting your operating system or wiping your hard drive, etc.), the user is prompted to authenticate with their administrative password (even if they the user account has administrative privileges). Most people with an ounce of common sense would think this is strange and deny the authentication. Why would Microsoft Word need administrative privileges to create a Word document?

Fortunately, Microsoft Vista and Windows 7 have similar authentication requirements. The problem with Vista is that the use of UAC is overdone to the point that users just become conditioned to accepting everything in order to clear the annoying Window. Apple’s latest operating system release, Snow Leopard or Mac OS X 10.6, contains rudimentary detection for known Trojans. Windows 7 goes a step further and provides basic anti-virus (malware) protection.

Misery loves company
The knee jerk reaction to an article like this is to do a Google search for viruses on Macs. After some digging, someone in the comments thread was able to find some write-up of a Mac OS X virus. Without further investigation, this commenter declared victory by way of “seemingly” providing evidence to dispute Elmer-DeWitt’s claim of no Mac OS X viruses in the wild. The two viruses cited were:

  1. OSX.MachArena.A
  2. OSX/Leap-A or OSX/Oompa-A

The problem is, just doing a quick Google search for a Mac virus may yield a few results, but if you dig into the details, none meet the actual requirements to be both a real virus that is capable of self replicating and also existing in the wild. It’s also important to note that companies who classify a piece of malware as a Virus stand to gain financially as people become scared and purchase their anti-virus “solution”.

Such is the case with the first example, OSX.MachArena.A. It became popular from a press release from Intego (who happens to sell Mac anti-virus software) on November 6, 2006. They did at least admit that it was just a proof of concept that did not exist in the wild. In truth, it had to be run from a Windows partition on a Mac (assuming the Mac user actually even had Windows installed) and even with that, it was executed manually and likewise could not self-replicate. It was just a silly proof of concept experiment that never could have existed in the wild. In a MacFixIt article, Symantic acknowledged that there is “there is no reliable vector for the spread of OSX.Macarena”.

Similarly, Sophos Labs released a press release on February 16, 2006 that the “First ever Virus for Mac OS X” was discovered.  This of course was referring to the malware known as OSX/Leap-A.  Not surprisingly, Sophos Labs just happens to sell Mac anti-virus solutions as well. Notice a pattern here? The entities that produce the scare with press releases just happen to have paid solutions available to you. How nice.

At the time, there were several technical sites which decomposed this supposed “virus” in detail and made it clear that it was not a virus. Just doing a quick search brings up lesser quality explanations, but they still serve to illustrate the point.

“Even if someone does send you the “latestpics.tgz” file, your computer will not be infected unless you explicitly unzip the file, open it and then provide the computer with your password so it can run.
“The Leap-A malware was a poorly-programmed Trojan horse that relied on “social engineering,” or trickery to perform its nasty function. There’s a simple way to protect against this kind of threat — common sense — and in testament to this, a lot of people didn’t fall for it. “

Macworld covered the issue and added the following:

“Apple’s Official Policy concerning this is: “Leap-A is not a virus, it is malicious software that requires a user to download the application and execute the resulting file. Apple always advises Macintosh users to only accept files from vendors and Web sites that they know and trust.” Apple provides a guide to safely handling files received from the Internet here.”

In short, to get this malware, you had to specifically choose to download it via iChat (Apple’s instant messaging software). Then you’d have to uncompress the file manually. OS X itself provides warnings at this point as a matter of course. Then you had to open / execute the file. Finally, you would have to authenticate your administrative password in order for it to work. I believe the real kicker here was that even with all that, it only worked over a local network. Clearly this was not self-replicating given all of the manual steps needed by the user. In reality, this was, as described, a poorly conceived Trojan and nothing else.

No doubt these “details” would seem to rain on the parade of the “Windows fanboys” looking for a little schadenfreude. More likely, it’s likely just a case of “misery loves company”. Either way, as of this writing, there are still zero legitimate Viruses (or worms, etc.) for Mac OS X.

Vectors of attack
Historically, it’s important to look at the vectors of attack for common malware. Years ago, while I worked at IBM, a colleague of mine was security researcher. It was his job to look for holes in software and try to exploit them. Anecdotally, I recall him telling me with a smile: “As long as Microsoft is in business, I’ll have an easy job”. The discussions often turned to examples with things like Microsoft’s ActiveX controls. This technology was Microsoft’s attempt to create a Microsoft Internet, whereby Internet applications would require ActiveX controls and thereby locking out other operating systems. Instead, ActiveX became the breeding ground for countless Virus and other such malware attacks. Prior to Internet Explorer 7, Spyware could be loaded onto your Windows based machine undetected seemingly at will. Worse, since Internet Explorer was (and is still) used by the masses, attacks were very easy.

Similarly, just viewing an e-mail in Windows opened up the door to countless virus attacks on PCs. The attacks were never ending because they were so easy to write. Perhaps the original attack was done by an expert, but subsequent attacks by “script kiddies – kids without much technical experience” were accomplished by modifying an existing virus just enough so that it wasn’t detected by existing virus definitions. With each mutation from the next script kiddie looking for fame, came significant downtime from corporations and users alike.

The point to illustrate here is that the most successful vectors of attack for viruses simply didn’t exist anywhere but the Microsoft Windows platform.

Other comments in the thread
There were a number of other comments after the article that caught my attention and are worth addressing.

“Trojans are just as dangerous as viruses, and the distinctions are basically academic.”
While it’s true that Trojans can be just as dangerous as viruses, the distinction is far from academic. Viruses, Worms, etc. infect your system via exploiting security holes. Trojans, particularly on OS X require the end user to both manually execute the Trojan and to provide administrative authentication manually through trickery. For this reason, it hasn’t been an issue for Mac users. Though, for Windows XP (2/3 of the existing Windows user base as of this writing), simply executing the code was all that was needed. For this reason, it’s understandable why some Windows users would consider this distinction to be “academic”.

“Viruses can be taken care of with a $20/year investment in antivirus software and a bit of personal responsibility.”
That of course ignores the initial investment in the software. Anyway, it’s said that Mac users have a false sense of security because they typically don’t even have anti-virus software installed. While that is true to some degree, the only valid reason for Mac users to run anti-virus software is really just to be a good citizen and not pass on other Windows viruses that come through e-mail, etc. With regard to a false sense of security, it should be noted that Windows users who use anti-virus software are only as safe as their latest virus definitions. That is, on Windows, Viruses happen. Until they’ve been detected and a solution is wide spread, that same virus may attack thousands of Windows users. Likewise, nobody is every 100% safe. Also, it should be noted that anti-virus software runs at an escalated privilege setting. In the past, anti-virus software has been a known vector of attack for security exploits.

“Time will tell.”
This is typically where debates go when there is absolutely no evidence to suggest Macs are equally vulnerable as Windows. When Mac OS X was new, this was a fair argument to make. Any operating system needs to be exposed to a large user base for a few years to see if it stands up to the rigor of the real world. However, after nearly 10 years now, this argument wears thin. How many more years will people still resort to this argument? Certainly, anything is possible. Quite frankly, I’m surprised there hasn’t been a legitimate virus for Mac OS X after all these years. However, with each passing year, the likelihood of such security breaches would seem to diminish.

“It’s because the people who write the viruses all use Macs!”
I’m sure that was written as a joke. Of course, just to respond, how would these PC viruses which were developed on Macs be tested?

“If MAC OS X doens’t have viruses, why do AV ISVS like Symantec, McAfee, and Sophos make AV software for them?”
As of this writing, there is no need to run such software on Macs. In fact, the vast majority of Mac users do not run any such software. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but that is reality. Right now, the primary reason for Mac users to run AV software is just to be a good internet citizen and not pass on viruses through e-mail, etc. onto other Windows users. For some, it’s always nice to know that such software does exist in case of an emergency. However, to be honest, I don’t know how these companies stay in business. For many companies this is one product of many that they offer.

“Let’s level the playing field here – if you “rule out” all those categories, the number of PC malware goes down quite a bit too. Not counting any browser (IE) vulnerabilities must cut it in half.”
While it’s true that if you rule out things like Trojans, etc. from the overall Windows based malware count the numbers would be significantly reduced. However, by no stretch would it “level the playing field”. The numbers of Viruses, Worms, etc. on the Windows side would still be in the tens of thousands as compared to zero for the Mac side. Narrowing the definitions isn’t the magic bullet here in terms of “leveling the playing field”.

“Who cares that it doesn’t have viruses when it has other forms of malware?“
As a multiplatform user, I care. As for other forms of malware, there are a handful of Mac Trojans and none of them are particularly harmful. There are no known Virues, Worms, etc.

“I’m the guy who promoted the $25,000 OS X virus challenge in 2005. I was thoroughly trounced by one and all as an evil, irresponsible criminal for having the guts to publicly say the technological truth about how the Unix frameworks of OS X and the as-shipped system configuration of Macs effectively eliminated any risk of non-user enabled entry trajectories for viruses.”
This wasn’t a question, but rather a comment from Jack Campbell who promoted the $25,000 Mac OS X virus challenge contest. He was criticized by the Mac community at the time as being irresponsible. That probably was true. However, the point remains, nobody was able to claim that prize. Four years later, nobody would still be able to claim that prize. Surely $25,000 is enough to generate interest from hackers, so we can’t say there wasn’t financial incentive to create a Mac virus.

“Windows is more vulnerable because it is more open to software development – which is why there’s a HUGE number of programs written for it, vs a tiny percentage for Mac.”
Considering that every Mac ships with professional development tools (Xcode) I fail to see the logic in that statement. Further, considering the massive amount of development shifting to the iPhone, which is done on a Mac, the excuse of not having enough Mac based developers just doesn’t hold water. For that matter, viruses could well come in the form of UNIX scripting which certainly exists on many other platforms.

“Why do you suppose Mac added AV software to Snow Leopard?”
Technically, there isn’t. Apple did add some basic anti-malware into some services such as iChat, e-mail and the web browser. Currently, it can only detect a few Trojans (because that’s all the malware which exists) and this service isn’t system wide. This is a good first step, but it’s not a full anti-virus solution. Anyway, to answer the question, if some malware does exist, why not build in some form of basic protection to further tighten security?

“no serious computer user or programmer gives a crap about apple, that’s why there are no viruses.”
I’m not even sure how to reply to such a ridiculous statement. However, comments like this do serve to demonstrate the notion that misery loves company and that there is no limit to the type of irrational arguments that come from Windows “fanboys” wishing to discredit the Mac platform in some way. It also serves to illustrate the level of intelligence of the typical ranting forum poster.

Conclusion
The article for the basis of the blog post was just one of many such articles on this topic. It never ceases to amaze me just how much misinformation and incorrect perception exists regarding this issue. The simple truth is, seemingly few people seem to have even a basic understanding of the various terminology associated with security and malware in general. I’m not sure that will change anytime soon.

As I suggested earlier, misery loves company. Windows zealots would be very happy to have the Mac community under the same level of malware attack as they are, but that’s just not the case. Worse, the fact that Mac users can brag that “zero” Viruses, Worms, etc. exist on the Mac platform seems to be a particularly sore spot for many. As seen in the comments section of the referenced article, there were many outrageous (albeit unsuccessful) attempts to discredit the Mac platform’s track record with regard to malware vulnerability. Worse, software companies who develop Mac based anti-virus software have been quick to send out false alarms in hopes of creating a panic and thereby sell more of their product. In many respects, that’s shameful.

Finally, logic would dictate that no system is perfectly secure. Mac OS X certainly isn’t. As such, it would seem likely that eventually there will be a significant Virus/Worm attack for the Mac OS X platform. Yet to date, that just hasn’t happened. Perhaps Mac users are living with a false sense of security by not purchasing anti-virus software. I certainly wish I didn’t have to use anti-virus software on my PC. However, it’s also hard to argue the fact that malware just hasn’t been an issue for Mac OS X users through the history of that operating system. For the Windows fanboys out there, this may be a tough pill to swallow. We can argue why Macs have been a safer platform (smaller market share, better inherent security model, etc.) but we can’t deny the fact that the Mac platform has enjoyed a tremendously better track record in this regard as compared to the Windows platform.

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Ballmer’s “Apple Tax” campaign

April 16, 2009

April 15, 2009

Like any good rivalry between competing companies, characters from both sides take shots at each other, hoping someone will take their word at face value and not challenge the validity of such claims.  When it’s done in humor, you tend to get a little leeway with the claims you make.  However, when you present such claims as fact, you’re likely to be taken to task.


 History of rivalry

Microsoft and Apple became competitors when the original IBM PC shipped with MS DOS back in 1981.  At that time though, Microsoft wasn’t really seen as a competitor.  Apple was competing with IBM.  Back then, competing with IBM essentially was a proposition doomed to failure, particularly within the enterprise market.  Microsoft wisely licensed their product to IBM rather than selling it to them outright.  In the process, Microsoft inherited the success of the IBM and future IBM compatible market.

In the meantime, Microsoft was also a developer for the Apple platforms, including the new Macintosh platform.  After developing products for the Mac, it was clear that the GUI was the future of operating system interfaces.  Microsoft promptly began to copy Apple’s designs.  Worse, as a developer for the Mac, they more or less had a blue print for the foundation of APIs and event models to copy from.  When Microsoft copied the Mac, the two companies truly became rivals.

Over the years, Microsoft was able to ride the wave of success on top of their operating system monopoly.  They were even able to extend that monopoly through unfair business practices onto their suite of business productivity applications, Microsoft Office.  During that timeframe, Apple’s market share continued to shrink to the point of near extinction in the mid to late 90’s.  

 

Times have changed

Back in 1997, Apple’s annual revenue had sunk to $7.1 billion.  By comparison, Apple posted $9.74 billion in revenue in the last quarter alone.   Instead of posting losses, Apple has been posting profits measured in billions on a quarterly basis.  Times are good for Apple.  In addition to increased market share on the desktop PC sales, Apple has enjoyed huge success with consumer electronic devices like the iPod and the iPhone.  

Microsoft is still the leader in the desktop operating system business by a large margin.  However, the trend has been in Apple’s favor for several years now.  Years ago, Apple’s 2 – 3% market share was considered insignificant.  However, according to NetApplications, Apple’s usage market share is pushing 10% and has demonstrated a steady increase over the past several years.

On top of that, Apple’s Safari and various other Webkit based browsers (along with Firefox) have demonstrated similar growth patterns at the expense of Microsoft’s leading Internet Explorer product.  Further, sales of the iPhone have now exceeded sales of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile sales.  Considering how long Windows Mobile has been in the market, this is not a good sign for Microsoft.


Apple’s advertising offensive

For years, Apple has gone on the offensive with various advertising campaigns.  While Apple happens to make great software, they are primarily a hardware company, at least with respect to their business model.  As such, Apple has targeted PC hardware in the past.   For example, during the height of the PowerPC era, Apple attacked Intel based hardware, etc. More recently, Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign has gone after the PC in general.  However, since Apple is now using similar hardware, the attacks have really been indirectly against Microsoft.   Like any good campaign, Apple attacks known issues in the PC world such as virus / malware issues, Vista’s annoying UAC security “features”, etc.  Apple does this in a humorous way without making any specific claims.  Apple just generically plays off of known stereotypes and tries to make a point with their PC and Mac people as metaphors for their respective platforms.

 

Microsoft had enough

While Microsoft is still hugely successful, one thing is clear, they are losing ground on multiple fronts.  Google has Microsoft beat on the internet search front and is challenging Microsoft on the on-line application side.  RIM and now Apple have surpassed Microsoft on the mobile OS front.  Vista has taken a beating in the press and Apple’s “I’m a Mac” advertising campaign has proven successful.   Apple has started to gain significant market share at Microsoft’s expense.  Clearly, Microsoft had enough and decided to retaliate with an anti-Apple campaign of their own.  After a failed Vista advertising campaign, Microsoft decided to hire Crispin, Porter & Bogusky for a $300 million consumer advertising campaign.   The intention was to give Microsoft an image make-over and to halt any traction gained by Apple.

 

So, how effective have they been?

Microsoft started out with their “Mojave Experiment”.  The premise of this part of the campaign was to get people to think that despite the problems they’ve heard about with Vista, if they just tried it for themselves, they’d want to use it.  While that sounds reasonable enough on the surface, in reality, they’re missing the point.  Most of the issues around Vista have to do with compatibility, installation, etc.  Likewise, it shouldn’t be so surprising that a few people working in a very controlled environment might actually like Vista.  It’s not hard to make any product look good in a demonstration – just ask Steve Jobs for example.  In the end, the overall take away message sent from this advertisement is that Microsoft refuses to acknowledge the faults of their own products and they call their user base a bunch of dummies for not switching to Vista.  Nice message Microsoft.  

Next came the Seinfeld commercials.  Microsoft apparently paid Seinfeld $10 million for this campaign.  I always thought it was common knowledge that Seinfeld preferred Macs.  In any case, both PC and Mac users alike ended up scratching their heads trying to understand what those commercials were all about.  They essentially had no message, nor did they make Microsoft look “cool”.   Result: Fail.

Next on the agenda was the “I’m a PC” campaign.   This was the beginning of the anti-Apple effort.  The first commercials just showed a bunch of different people doing different things and calling themselves a “PC”.  On one hand, it does provide the sense of everyday people using PCs.  That’s not a bad message in and of itself.  It’s certainly better than previous efforts from Crispin, Porter and Bogusky, but that’s not really saying much.  On the other hand, when you compare these ads to Apple’s ads, they just don’t match up.  Apple used the PC person and Mac person as metaphors in what was essentially a bit of humor.  Microsoft was neither using metaphors nor humor to make their point.  In that context, having people say “I’m a PC” simply didn’t make sense.  Nobody would call themselves either PCs or Macs in reality.  

Microsoft then went on to showing kids using various tools to create cool projects.  This was somewhat effective because it tries to demonstrate ease of use which Macs are known for.  Unfortunately, they’d end the piece with the kid saying “I’m x years old and I’m a PC.”.   Instantly, whatever I just saw and was beginning to fall for just became very fake and staged.  The “I’m a PC” comment from the kids made the entire commercial unbelievable.  The common sentiment is that these ads fail as well. 

http://daringfireball.net/2008/09/digging_deeper

And so what makes Microsoft’s new “I’m a PC” commercials so jaw-droppingly bad is that they’re not countering Apple’s message, but instead they’re reinforcing it. That the spots themselves jump between dozens of different people who “are” PCs, that the spots make a point of emphasizing that there are a billion Windows-running PCs worldwide, this only emphasizes that “PC” is not a brand name but a generic.

 

Finally, we get to the “Apple Tax”

Seeing as though Microsoft’s various commercials with Crispin, Porter & Bogusky have largely been considered failures, I had no real expectations of success for their “Apple Tax” campaign.  Steve Ballmer has made comments in public forums suggesting that when you buy an Apple computer, you are paying $500 extra just for an Apple logo.  Hence, you’re paying an “Apple tax”.   The assumption here is that Apple computers cost more for essentially identical hardware.

This line of reasoning and direction for an advertising campaign is wrong on so many levels, it’s astonishing.  In no particular order, I’ll provide a few reasons why this is a bad idea.

1.  Establishing a premium brand.

The whole point of an advertising campaign is to establish brand quality.  The retailers will advertise prices, etc. as necessary to make the sales.  Microsoft doesn’t even attempt to challenge Apple on quality, and for good reason.   Instead, they challenge Apple on price.  The reasoning behind this stems from the existing poor economic conditions, etc.  However, even in poor economic conditions, consumers often seek out better value as opposed to lower price.  This campaign basically concedes that the Mac is a better machine, but the PC is cheap.  Result:  Fail.

 

2.  This does nothing to promote Microsoft products specifically.  

Of course, given the monopoly position Microsoft has on generic PC hardware, Microsoft knows it doesn’t have to promote its own products.  If you buy a PC, you are indirectly buying Microsoft.  Result:  Fail.

 

3.   What about the “Microsoft Tax”?

There is a big problem with making price your primary consideration for buying a computer.  Logically, since the same PC could be purchased with Linux installed for an even lower price, you’re paying a “Microsoft Tax” when you buy a PC with Microsoft Windows installed.  Microsoft’s own line of reasoning can easily be used against them.  Result:  Fail.


4.  Consumers might actually do price comparisons.

When Steve Ballmer makes the claims that he does, he probably doesn’t expect people to actually check for themselves.  The problem is, exactly, identical hardware comparisons are difficult to find.  By just taking a look at Apple’s web site and Dell’s web site, I found Dell to be more expensive at the high end.  For example if you compare the Mac Pro to the Dell XPS 730x they are at least very similar in price (Mac Pro $3,499 – Dell $3,519), even after the Dell discount.  Now, to be fair this is not an exact comparison as they don’t offer the exact same hardware configurations.  They both used the new Intel i7 chips.  The Dell was factory over clocked but only had 4 cores, the Mac was clocked a little lower but had 8 cores.  They both had 6GB ram, Mac had a bigger drive (640gb vs 500gb), Dell had a crossfire ATI 4850, the Mac had the ATI 4870.  The Mac also had a keyboard, mouse, firewire ports, etc.

On the other hand, the point of this article isn’t to provide a detailed cost analysis across multiple price points and product types.  I would surely have to believe that a custom built machine could be had for less money as well if you’re willing to go through all the hassle associated with it.  I also don’t doubt there are some configurations where Macs do cost more for similar hardware.  The point here is that this notion of an Apple tax applying across the board simply isn’t true.

 

5.  The ads demonstrate the Mac as the first or preferred choice.

Microsoft’s first Apple Tax ad shows the customer, Lauren, going to the “Mac store” first to try to buy her desired machine with the $1000 budget.  Ultimately, Lauren comes out depressed because she can’t afford the machine she wants.  Then, Lauren goes on to another generic store and is happy again because she can buy a machine she wants within her budget.  That’s all well and good, but it demonstrates that the Mac was her first choice and that getting the PC was more of a consolation prize because it was “cheap enough”.  Is that really the message they want to send?


6.  The ads admit to not being “cool” enough.

In the same commercial, Lauren claims that she must not be “cool enough” for the Mac.  She says this while genuinely looking depressed about that realization.  Again, is that the message Microsoft should want to send?  If she’s not cool enough for the Mac, does that in turn make her a loser for settling for the PC?

 

7.  The market leader should never acknowledge the competition.

Generally speaking, it’s never considered to be a good idea for the market leader to acknowledge the competition.  On one hand, Microsoft has to do something to try to halt the market share erosion.  Microsoft has temporarily kept the numbers in check recently, but that’s almost entirely due to the low margin NetPC category.  Nobody is getting rich off of the sale of $300 PC systems.  By mentioning Apple or “Mac” by name, Microsoft is giving to much credibility to the competition.  That’s a no win situation for the reasons mentioned above.

This list could very well go one if I were to take the time to analyze every commercial that was part of this campaign.

 

Conclusion

Generally speaking, Microsoft’s most recent advertising campaign with Crispin, Porter and Bogusky is considered to be a failure by the industry.  Microsoft has not effectively enhanced their brand image, nor have they effectively countered Apple’s advertising campaign.  Worse, this campaign unintentionally ends up sending the wrong message for Microsoft.  The Mojave experiment called their existing user base a bunch of dummies indirectly.  The Seinfeld ads left everyone scratching their heads wondering what the point was.  The “I’m a PC” ads were neither funny nor effective and only served to reinforce the message communicated by Apple’s campaign.  The latest “Apple Tax” commercials have extremely questionable validity and only serve to make both Microsoft and the PC industry as a whole very generic.  Further, if you follow Microsoft’s point to its logical conclusion, everyone that buys a PC would be better served running Linux.  Afterall, Microsoft isn’t even trying to argue the quality issue.  Instead, they’ve made price their focal point of attack.  This advertising campaign is a disaster for Microsoft.   I can only imagine where they will take this campaign next.

Enderle: Exposing a Fraud

November 4, 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008

Every now and then, I read an article from a few industry analysts / pundits for the shear sake of entertainment.  The work from Rob Enderle surely fits into that category.   Rob’s latest article, “It’s Dangerous to Assume People Are Stupid”, is just begging for a counter point.  This article will dissect Rob’s arguments and provide another point of view from someone who isn’t on Microsoft’s payroll.

 

Background

Rob describes himself as “the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.“   Of course, it should be noted that the Enderle Group consists of himself and his wife.  It should also be noted that Rob prominently sites Microsoft as a client.  It should also be noted that Microsoft has a history of astroturfing.  (paying bloggers to send a particular message).  Likewise, with all of this in perspective, it’s not hard to understand why Rob writes the rubbish that he does.  I don’t doubt there is financial incentive for him.  However, in the process, the name Rob Enderle, is synonymous with ignorant boob in every technical forum I’ve encountered.

 

Examples:

http://it.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/06/28/0428236

http://www.informationweek.com/news/internet/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=196903015

http://digg.com/hardware/Microsoft_bribing_bloggers_with_free_high_spec_laptops

http://boycottnovell.com/2008/11/02/microsoft-dell-laptop-incenstives/

 

Back to the article…

 

The well-executed Mac vs. Windows  ads, while at least funny and entertaining, drifted from solid hits to outright hypocrisy as Vista was improved and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) seemed unable to remember its own advantages. (Hint: As a percentage, Apple’s ratio of marketing  dollars to development dollars leads the industry.)”

Yes, Apple has been poking a little fun at Microsoft with it’s “get a Mac” ad campaign.  Throughout the article, Enderle seems to almost take a personal offense to this ad campaign, but that’s another topic.   It’s also worth noting that Apple spreads it’s advertising across multiple product lines including the iPhone, iPod, etc.  It’s also worth noting that Microsoft just launched a highly public $300 million advertising campaign in an attempt to boost the company’s public perception.  

Let’s be honest here… yes, Apple has certainly capitalized off of the negative perception Vista has earned in the market place.  Did Apple create that perception?  No.  Is Apple responsible for poor Vista product reviews?  No.  Is Apple responsible for the relatively poor Vista user experience many have written about?  No.  Is Apple feeding the fire a little bit?  Yes.  

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT)  just announced Windows 7, and as a pre-beta product, it is very impressive, largely because Apple’s negative campaign against Windows Vista focused Microsoft more than I’ve ever seen a complex company focused. There is a rule here in the Silicon Valley, and that is that focusing Microsoft on you generally ends badly — and Microsoft actually hasn’t been focused on Apple since the early 90s.”

Windows 7 may or may not be impressive.  I certainly don’t know one way or the other beyond what’s available on the internet.  I doubt Enderle does either.  I do know that any company can put on a technology demonstration that will impress a captive audience.  Apple does that at Macworld and WWDC events.  Why would anyone expect Microsoft’s demonstration of Windows 7 at PDC to not be impressive?  Of course, Enderle comments on an unfinished product don’t exactly carry much weight because:

  1. He’s not technical enough to even comment on products of this nature in anything but the most vague suggestions (more on that latter).  
  2. Enderle’s allegiance with Microsoft precludes him from offering any sort of unbiased opinion.

I’m not going to comment on the merits of Windows 7 just yet as I don’t feel qualified to at this point.  However, right now, the best thing Windows 7 has going for it is that it’s not Vista

I also find it funny that he attributes Microsoft’s “focus” to Apple’s “negative ad campaign”.  Honestly, I think that’s giving Apple’s influence too much credit.  Yes, Apple has gained some market share recently, but that’s as much to do with Apple’s success as it is with Microsoft’s failures.  I’d attribute any recent focus Microsoft is seeing to the basic realities that the enterprise market has largely refused to accept Vista “as is”.  To be fair, there may be several valid reasons for that and not all of them have to do with the quality of Vista.  However, I think Apple is the least of Microsoft’s concerns these days.  Regardless of whether Vista is lousy, great or somewhere in between, the Vista project would seem to have been mismanaged at Microsoft.  When you consider the years and billions of dollars that went into the development of the product, most would question what happened.  When you combine that with the multiple product delays along with the major feature cuts, it’s clear the Vista/Longhorn project was mismanaged. 

What I find even funnier is the implied threat Endrle speaks of.  What could Microsoft possibly do to Apple?  Make a better Windows product?  If that’s the case, then the majority of computer users should profusely thank Apple.  Microsoft could also pull MS Office for Apple, but again… so what.  This threat would have been a bigger deal 10 years ago when that actually meant something.  These days, with OpenOffice and even iWork and to some degree, even Google docs as competitors, this threat doesn’t mean so much.  Combine that with the fact that Microsoft dropped VBScript support for Office 2008 on the Mac and the competing products start to look good.  Very good indeed.  I think Apple knows this.  Further, Office 2008 seems to be very profitable for Microsoft, so I doubt this is even a consideration.

“However, Windows 7 attacks Apple’s historic inability to interoperate, successfully partner and work in the cloud — all of which suggest, if Microsoft executes, it will be the superior product. You can fix a product, but it is really hard to change the DNA of a company, and Apple has historically been its own worst enemy. This last is also true of Microsoft, and we’ll get to that in a moment.”

Enderle’s theory is that if Windows 7 works with “the cloud” better than Snow Leopard, Microsoft will therefore have a better product.  Huh?  Is that now the defining criteria for an entire operating system?  Since when?

Then next sentence is just ridiculous.  “You can fix a product, but it is really hard to change the DNA of a company”.  He claims that Apple is its own worst enemy then goes on to say the same about Microsoft.  Which begs the question…  What exactly is your point Rob?

This also integrates with Microsoft Silverlight advancements showcased at the Professional Developers Conference by the BBC, which will allow people to start watching a TV show or movie on their TV or PC, and finish watching it on a laptop or compliant smartphone, “

The last time I checked, anyone with iTunes (read: mostly everybody) installed can do the same… rent a movie, watch on their computer, TV (through Apple TV) or off on a portable device like the iPod or iPhone.  This is nothing new and you don’t need Silverlight to do it.  Isn’t it great to play catch up, then act is if this concept was something new?

Finally, Apple believes that only Apple should have the freedom to choose; customers have to accept Apple’s choice, it’s partially the result of Apple’s “lock in” policy, an historic problem for Microsoft as well.”

No Rob, Apple like any other company wants to control and profit from as much of the pie as they can.  If a company is sharing a bigger piece of the pie, it’s because they don’t have a choice.  As for vendor lock in, guess what Rob, if you’re discussing DRM based material, you’re going to have vendor lock in to some degree no matter what.  Is the vendor lock-in somehow better because you’re locked into a Microsoft solution as opposed to an Apple solution?  I think not.  Sorry, but Windows 7 will be no different on that respect.

One sustaining advantage that the Mac platform has is the ease in which Mac users can move from an old Mac to a new one. While migrating from Windows to a Mac is about as ugly as you can get, once on the Mac the process is comparatively painless. This is generally why Apple enjoys a higher customer churn rate than any other PC vendor, and it contributes to their higher margins and customer loyalty .”

Yes, moving from an old Mac to a new one is painless.  In fact, with Apple’s migration assistant, it’s completely painless.  However, migrating from Windows to a Mac generally isn’t difficult at all.  For starters, Apple makes it clear that they will do that for you at the genius bar at an Apple store if you’d like.  How difficult is that?  For most people, it’s as simple as migrating bookmarks, address books and some documents in the “My Documents” folder. That’s about it.  In the worst case, a user might do Boot Camp and dual boot or install a virtual Windows machine like Parallels or VMware’s Fusion product.  Again, in most cases that can easily bet setup for you in advance.  It’s not much more difficult than from moving from XP to Vista.

The Democratic Party and Microsoft have always been larger but less focused than their counterparts. For the Republicans or Apple to actually fix their competitors’ focus problems will likely be seen, in hindsight, as a really stupid thing to do.”

Seriously, it’s pretty lame to assign commercial companies to specific political parties.  Why bring politics into this discussion?   One could easily say Enderle is just making an analogy, but it seems to me that he’s trying to ride on the momentum of a particular political party and associates the faults of another party with Apple as a company.  

Apple would have been better off to fix its crappy laptop keyboards (seriously — compare a ThinkPad and MacBook keyboard) and figure out how to do touchscreens on PCs (multi-touch track pads are just lame compared to things like the iPhone and TouchSmart).”

I tend to prefer the more traditional keyboards as well, but not enough to make a big deal about it.  Really, if you don’t like something like a keyboard or a mouse, these are things that are very easily replaced.  The same isn’t true for an operating system (I can almost hear the Linux fanatics now taking issue with this one).  I’m guessing Enderle has never actually used a multi-touch trackpad on a recent Mac.  They are very cool and actually make laptops more efficient and ergonomic then most desktop PCs.  The scrolling text with two fingers is cool.  The zooming of text or pictures with a pinch is very nice.  Of course, Apple has done much more with 3 and 4 finger gestures, but this is clearly the future.  

By comparison, my prediction is that “TouchSmart” will go nowhere in any real practical sense.  Sure, it makes for a nice technology demonstration and possibly for a nice kiosk somewhere.  However, the ergonomics of constantly touching and reaching across a large screen is simply flawed.  If you doubt what I’m saying, imagine your computer has touch screen capabilities and try manipulating everything with your hands and see how long it takes before it becomes annoying.  Really, touch screens makes sense for something like an iPhone or a very small tablet like device.  For large screen computers, this will be nothing but cumbersome.  Clearly, Apple has been a couple years ahead with this type of technology.  If they thought it would be a must have feature, it would have already been shipped with Leopard much less the upcoming Snow Leopard.  For special applications, it might be nice.  For generally computing as we know it today, touch screen interfaces will be ergonomically inferior to mouse and trackpad gestures.  Remember, you heard it hear first!

Conclusion

Honestly, I can say that nothing Rob Enderle says is ever surprising.  I’ve never considered his articles as anything more than a shill for Microsoft’s marketing campaign.  Considering Microsoft’s established history of astroturfing and paying for comments in the media along with Enderle’s acknowledged professional relationship with Microsoft, I find it odd when people actually quote is comments or articles in order to somehow make a point.  If anything, quoting Rob Enderle to support your position works against you within the technical community.  Sadly, Enderle is often quoted in articles intended for the larger, non-technical community.  

Finally, I’m not aware of any “industry analyst” (and I use that term lightly) that has been wrong more often or even as a percentage than Rob Enderle.

 

A simple Google search turns up a few good examples of what others think of Rob.  For further reading (in no particular order), feel free to visit a few of the links below.  Enjoy!

http://essaysfromexodus.scripting.com/robEnderle

http://daringfireball.net/2003/12/enderle

http://hargreae.blogspot.com/2005/06/memorable-quote-by-rob-enderle.html

http://mywheel.net/blog/index.php/2007/11/03/rob-enderle-vs-paul-thurrott/

http://www.bynkii.com/archives/2006/06/rob_enderle_is_an_idiot_pt_xxl.html

http://diderotsdiary.iannelli.us/2007/12/rob-enderle-humiliates-himself-again.html

http://news.cnet.com/8301-13509_3-9947329-20.html

http://daringfireball.net/2007/06/iphone_high_water_mark

Linux: The desktop explosion that never happened.

February 6, 2008

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What ever happened to the promise of Linux on the desktop? Sure, there are GUIs and desktop applications for Linux, but outside of a very small percentage of the geek population, Linux on the desktop is a non-starter. The promise of a desktop based Linux growth explosion has always been “in another year or two”. The problem is that it’s been that way for years with no sign of improvement. 

Background

The purpose of this article isn’t to attack Linux as an operating system. Rather, the purpose is to look at the challenges Linux is facing relating to growth in the desktop operating system market. This article will look at why Linux has failed miserably in this area, predict the near term future for the OS and offer my thoughts on how Linux could achieve great success on the desktop.

With an article like this, it’s probably best to state my position on Linux right up front. I’ve been programming computers long before Linux existed. I’ve studied operating systems in college and have written my own job scheduler as a project back in the day. With that said, from a technology perspective, I’m a fan of Unix and have respect for pretty much any Unix-like operating system, including Linux. However, having written programs that make use of low level interprocess communication, I’m also painfully aware of the differences between an SVR4 based Unix and something like BSD or even Linux.

Over the years, I’ve tinkered with various distributions of Linux (and even SCO before that). At the same time, I’ve also been a user and have done minor development work for Windows and Mac operating systems. Once Mac OS X hit its stride, probably around the Panther release, I found that I had less and less use or even desire to have Linux installed on one of my machines. There are reasons for that which I will discuss later in this article. 

The Cold Truth

Unfortunately, there is no avoiding the hard facts.  I read an article about a month ago that referenced statistics from Net Applications. Linux market share on the desktop remains at less than 1% (0.67%). Given the margin for error either way, it seems fairly safe to conclude that Linux on the desktop is still basically nonexistent. While I don’t take any single source of information as the end all source, however the numbers reported below are representative of numbers I’ve seen reported from other sources. I have no doubt someone can come up with another source of information with somewhat different statistics, but that wouldn’t change the fact that Linux hasn’t had the success on the desktop that has been promised for years.

Linux advocates would probably argue that the installed base of Linux desktop users is higher than this. While I might agree there is some probability of truth in that, I’d also have to question why they aren’t using it. What good is a Linux install if you’re using Windows instead?

The article referenced above notes that over the past 2 years, Apple’s market share has grown from 4.21% (January 2006) to 7.31% (December 2007). Certainly, Apple’s own sales figures confirm the type of growth noted here. The point here is that at least on the desktop, people leaving Windows are switching to the Mac rather than Linux. In short, Mac OS X is becoming “the people’s Unix”.

Regardless of the numbers, this isn’t meant to be a Mac versus Linux comparison. Rather, a look at the state of Linux and what’s holding it back on the desktop. Linux has had much success in the server market. There are lots of reasons for this. Linux, like any Unix-like OS is fast; well designed; familiar to higher end server customers and developers alike. On the server side, the GUI is a non-issue. It’s cheap; it’s well supported by third party middleware vendors and databases alike. Etc., etc. The list goes on. Apple was smart to tout references to UNIX when advertising OS X. Linux would be smart to band with Apple as another technically superior alternative to Windows. Sadly, that’s not what Linus Torvalds has in mind. 

Torvalds isn’t helping matters

I read an article today that sort of jogged my memory on the topic. The article, “Torvalds pans Apple with ‘utter crap’ putdown” . In this article, Linus claims:

“I don’t think they’re equally flawed – I think Leopard is a much better system,” he said. “(But) OS X in some ways is actually worse than Windows to program for. Their file system is complete and utter crap, which is scary.”  

First, what’s the point of attacking OS X? It seems that Torvalds is upset with the success OS X has been enjoying. It also becomes clear that Torvalds sees OS X as a threat to his operating system.

Second, the shot he takes is actually pretty weak. While I’d agree Apple’s HFS+ file system isn’t exactly cutting edge, neither are common Linux file systems really (EXT2, EXT3, ReiserFS, JFS, XFS, etc.) Really, is anyone supposed to get excited about B+ Trees and Journaled file systems? News flash Linus, these features exist in HFS+ as well. ACLs? Yup, it’s in there. I’d agree that ReiserFS does some pretty interesting things and has great performance when you’re dealing with a very large number of files that all happen to be very small in size. But, let’s also admit that ReiserFS has had corruption issues and doesn’t lend itself to be defragmented properly. In short, which Linux file system would he be comparing HFS+ to? Also, most “modern” file systems are considered weak compared to Sun’s new ZFS. Like any file system, it takes years to mature and be deemed worthy of a production environment. There is zero tolerance for bugs in a file system.

“An operating system should be completely invisible,” he said. “To Microsoft and Apple (it is) a way to control the whole environment … to force people to upgrade their applications and hardware.”  

The problem here is that Torvalds is living in a dream world whereby he gets to use a very technical definition of an operating system. To Torvalds, an operating system is nothing more than a kernel. That is, it’s a process scheduler, memory manager (for virtual memory) and possibly an I/O manager for very low level interfaces to input devices. To the rest of the world, the term “operating system” refers to the entire distribution. This includes all of the middle level APIs between the applications and the kernel such as Quicktime, OpenGL, Quartz, etc. on the Mac. It also refers to all of the basic applications that come with your machine that help it do basic things. This would be anything from an e-mail program to a DVD player, etc. Linux installs come as “distributions” not as pure operating systems. Torvalds doesn’t care about trivial things, you know… like a GUI, when he makes such utopian statements. Instead, he paints Microsoft and Apple as evil entities because they actually deliver an entire operating system distribution that is well integrated. Oh, the horror!

“As for his own operating system, Linus said the most exciting developments were Linux’s improving green credentials, and a push into mobile devices such as the One Laptop per Child project and Asus’s new ultra-cheap Eee PC.”  

It’s odd how Torvalds doesn’t mention that both Windows and Macs have long since had very good “green credentials” with their respective power management features. Also, Eee PC? Is that the future of Linux on the desktop? Great. You can either be known for being good or being cheap. Apparently, Torvalds is going for cheap.

“The (Linux) kernel is already being used in things like cell phones, but the problems have been in the UI (user interface).”  

Microsoft and Apple have also put their kernels in mobile devices. Apple seems to be making significant innovations in terms of mobile user interfaces too.I suppose I’ve been a bit put off by the personal comments that have come from Linus over the years. This article was no different. “Trash talking” is a way of life for him it would seem. I’m interested in a technical discussion where he might actually make a few valid points. I’ve yet to see that from him, despite his capability to do so.

The bottom line is that Torvalds isn’t helping people adopt Linux with trash talk that is short on examples and easily contradicted. 

Linux is for geeks?

Linux has had a reputation for being popular with geeks. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, Linux needs to branch beyond this population in order to ever become successful. Again, with a Unix like operating system, what’s not to like? Linux is a geek’s paradise as there are so many options for just about anything. Better yet, most of the software available is free from the open source community, just like the OS itself.

The problem is, to be successful, Linux not only needs to be powerful, but it needs to be easy. Very few Linux distributions can claim to even approach the ease of installation, setup and use of Windows, much less the Mac. 

What about the high profile geeks?

Over the past couple years, there were at least two “relatively” high profile geeks that switched from the Mac to Linux. Mark Pilgrim and Cory Doctorow are the examples that the Linux community seem to mention time and again. I remember reading their stories / justifications at the time, but admittedly forget the details. As I recall, both cases seemed to make a switch based on some sort of principle (open source software?) rather than based on specific needs. I remember a program by program comparison (from at least one of them) of what they were using before and what they are using now. Without out a doubt, they both ended up settling for lesser quality software in order to stand by their “principles” or whatever. That may be noble, but it’s certainly not practical. I believe one of them bought a Thinkpad because it was cheaper than a Macbook. Well, that’s certainly true in some cases, but like anything else, you generally get what you pay for.

Anyway, what was the end result? Both of these “high profile” converts were very vocal about their decisions in their blogs. Clearly, they seemed to be trying to justify their decisions to others (and possibly themselves). The problem is, everyone else just seemed laugh and “wish them luck” as their choice wasn’t very practical. I’m guessing they thought they were somehow leading the way for others as if they had such influence, etc. 

Why I can’t justify a switch to Linux (yet).

As someone who likes Linux and feels at home in any Unix like environment, I haven’t been able to justify switching to Linux full time for myself nor would I yet recommend it for others with lesser experience. Below are a few reasons that I would imagine are common to others.

  • Software. I’m all for open source software. There have been plenty of benefits from open source software, even for commercial software vendors. However, the quality of open source software seems to be in bits and pieces rather than in collections of large applications.

For example, LAME is probably the best MP3 encoder available. As a tool, that’s great, but I haven’t seen a good equivalent to something like iTunes. Audacity is a nice free audio editor, but it’s not in the same league as something like Logic. GIMP is no substitute for Photoshop. OpenOffice is okay, but Microsoft Office is better. Etc, etc. The list goes on. When it comes to desktop software, it’s about making do rather than having the best. I could go into a discussion on emulators like WINE, etc. but I don’t really consider those to be real solutions. They are less than optimal ways of “making do” to be kind.

  • Ease of use and installation. Again, this is not a problem for the geeks, but end users don’t want to have to troubleshoot installation configuration issues, nor do they want to have to hunt down the proper device drivers, etc. Linux based distributions such as Ubuntu have made great strides in this area compared to what I was used to years ago, but I wouldn’t consider it ready for the masses yet. Just think of the least computer savvy users you know. Now imagine them trying to install and configure Linux. Enough said.
  • Standards. Unfortunately, strengths can be turned into weaknesses. Linux gives you the ultimate in terms of choices. This is a geek’s paradise. Unfortunately, most consumers don’t want so many choices. They want standards. Developers also want standards. If you’re a developer, how do you develop for a system with no standards? At the server level it’s easy as you’re not dependent upon the GUI. This is why Linux has been able to gain traction in the server market. On the desktop, not having a standard is a very bad thing. This is true for GUIs and possibly to a lesser degree, files systems.
  • Graphical User Interface. The GUI issue really warrants its own line here. There are two main choices (GNOME and KDE) and roughly a dozen lesser known choices. In the end, this only serves to fragment an already small niche market. No wonder commercial software developers avoid Linux on the desktop. They’d need a different product for each GUI they chose to support. Also, what about consistency across the user base?
  • Common direction for the platform. The Linux kernel receives the proper attention, but that’s about it. Everything else on Linux is really a hodge podge of miscellaneous parts. They may be good parts in and of themselves, and the choices are great. The end user experience is always going to be inferior to a well designed and well integrated solution that was designed to fit together. In this respect, both Macs and Windows have an advantage over Linux.

Low end desktop potential

If the trend continues for foreign countries to revolt against the Microsoft monopoly, Linux stands to gain the most here. When it comes to common file formats for productivity suites such as word processors, speadsheets, etc. it wouldn’t be a terrible thing to have a standard that’s not controlled by Microsoft in place. Yes, attempts to do that are already under way, but a wholesale switch to Linux for some government agencies would certainly speed up the process and perhaps make this movement relevant.

Many developing countries are looking for low cost alternatives for their computer needs. Initiatives such as the Asus Eee PC are attempts to address this need and may very well become successful. Having a “free” operating system is almost a requirement for this class of computer. This may very well be the springboard for Linux on the desktop that Linux fans have been hoping for. The problem is, someone that’s going to spend $200 on a PC probably isn’t going to spend $1200 on something like the Adobe Creative Suite or Final Cut Studio, etc. That is, it may become popular for the basics, but I don’t see much of a market for the higher end commercial software products on an Eee PC / Linux platform. If that’s the case, Linux would have the marketshare but still be a second rate choice on the desktop. 

Conclusion

From a technology perspective, Linux is a first rate operating system. It’s a powerful UNIX-like operating system with an unbelievably low price (free). Linux is a geek’s dream come true as there are many choices, configurations and distributions to choose from.

At the same time, Linux on the desktop is perennially “just a year away from exploding on the desktop”. Unfortunately, we’ve all heard this repeated many times over many years. It hasn’t happened and for good reasons. There are very significant barriers preventing Linux from being successful on the desktop. Linux needs a unifying force to come up with “the” Linux standard, not just “another” Linux standard in terms of technology. This includes the file system, the GUI and everything in between. Of course, the notion of having a unifying force for Linux goes against the very grain and nature of the Linux community. In short, Linux wouldn’t really be Linux anymore if that ever happened.

Linus Torvalds claims the operating system should be transparent. Of course, he’s able to make such claims because he doesn’t take responsibility for the entire operating system; rather, he only speaks for the kernel. Rarely do kernel changes in the Mac OS or Windows require third party updates, it’s the higher level APIs that do. Likewise, I find Torvalds’ comments to be disingenuous at best.

Some form of Linux has a chance at gaining marketshare success in the form of very low end computers such as the Eee PC example. If foreign governments continue the push towards Linux on the desktop, this would help as well. However, neither of these scenarios really describes a best in class environment. Rather, they describe a lowest common denominator situation. But hey, that worked for Microsoft!

The biggest barrier for Linux on the desktop is the fragmentation of technology and standards. In my opinion, the best chance Linux has for a future on the desktop is for a commercial entity with sufficient resources to take control and push for a unified standard. Companies like IBM come to mind because of their vast resources and commitment to Linux. Unfortunately, I question IBM’s ability to pull it off due to their historically poor understanding of consumer needs and desires. IBM has always done well catering to their enterprise customers.

History of the Graphical User Interface (GUI)

November 12, 2007

Monday, November 12, 2007

When viewing various forum debates, for some reason, it seems important for some to give credit for various innovations to one company or another. In a similar vein, others try to disprove such claims, etc. There is probably no greater example of this than the origins of the graphical user interface. On one hand, I hesitate to write about this issue because so many people have such strong opinions on the matter. On the other hand, there is an awful lot of misinformation posted in forum discussions.

Finally, the one common theme I’ve noticed when people debate this issue is that they all try to make a case whereby one company gets full credit for the innovation and everybody else copied them. Unfortunately, the origins of such technologies are rarely “black and white” issues and there are many “shades of grey”. Most innovations are built off of the works of others. The graphical user interface is no exception.

Legend has it…

For many years, it was commonly accepted that Apple created the GUI and for good reason. Outside of a few people working in labs, most consumers and IT professionals alike were not familiar with the concept of the GUI prior to the debut of the Apple Lisa. At the time, I recall reading the coverage of this product in technical magazines such as BYTE, etc. Clearly, this technology was treated as something entirely new and there was no reference or comparison to Xerox’s work. Of course, back then, the internet wasn’t what it is today. There were online services and bulletin boards, etc. but for the most part people relied on magazine articles to keep current.

As difficult as it may seem today, the notion of using a mouse with icons and drop down menus, etc. was completely foreign. At the time, all interaction with computers was done with the command line interface (CLI). As I recall, the GUI concept was ridiculed by much of the technology community at the time and the Lisa / Mac platform was painted as a toy by some. It wasn’t for “serious” users.

As we all know, the GUI eventually did become popular to the masses. Radical changes like this often take time to digest. More importantly, it often takes the market leader (someone like Microsoft) to push this as the future direction and basically not give the masses a choice before they see the light.

Once the concept of the GUI became a good thing, some began to challenge Apple’s role in this innovation. Microsoft was smart enough to see which way the wind was blowing and likewise followed Apple with the pursuit of a GUI of their own. Since Microsoft blatantly copied Apple’s work (more on that later), the common sentiment from Microsoft Windows advocates was to cite prior work from Xerox PARC and claim Apple did the same.

Some Microsoft advocates seem to wonder why “what Microsoft did to Apple” was different from “what Apple did to Xerox”. There were several differences. For starters, both Xerox and Apple were pioneering GUI concepts simultaneously. Clearly some concepts were developed at Xerox first and some were developed at Apple first. The problem for Apple was that they actually visited with the Xerox team to see what they were doing. This and this alone is what led some to the perception that Apple just stole their GUI from Xerox. Apple paid in stock (worth millions) for this brief visit. The agreement was up front. Apple didn’t see how things were done in any detail and the programming environment Xerox was working in was so different from Apple’s development environment that it wouldn’t have mattered if they did see the details behind Xerox’s work. Microsoft was not just a competitor to Apple, but they were also a developer for the Mac platform. They had intimate access to Apple’s APIs and frameworks to see how to create a GUI. Not only did Microsoft copy Apple’s work in concept, but as a developer for Apple, they had the blueprint from which to copy. Further, there have been no real significant GUI conventions that Apple is using which originated at Microsoft. With each release of Windows, it became clear that Microsoft was not interested in innovation since it was easier just to copy. With the Windows 95 release, it was clear that Microsoft wasn’t even trying to hide their intentions of copying Apple.

What’s GUI? Who’s a WIMP?

In order to determine who gets credit for something, it’s important to have a reasonable definition. The basic requirements of a GUI are defined in an acronym called WIMP. WIMP stands for Windows (bit mapped graphics required), Icons, Menus and Pointing devices (usually mice).

Xerox’s contribution

Without a doubt, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was responsible for many things we take for granted today such as the development of Ethernet, the Laser printer, etc. and certainly, they helped unify some of the elements found in GUIs today. However, just as it is important to give credit where credit is due, it’s equally important to make clear where credit is not due. For example, if you recall the elements (WIMP) necessary for a GUI, we have to ask which were developed at Xerox. Windows? Yes and No. Yes, Xerox developed a windowing system, but no, it did not invent the bit mapped graphics model necessary to display the windows. Icons? No. Menus? Yes, but not in the form we know them today. Pointing devices? Mice? No and no. The point here isn’t to belittle the accomplishments of Xerox. Rather, the point is to illustrate that the concept of the GUI didn’t just pop up at Xerox. Most of the items mentioned such as the bit mapped graphics, the mouse, icons, etc. were prior works that are attributed to Douglas Englebart and his work at the Augmentation Research Center which was funded by various US Government agencies including DARPA, NASA, Air Force, etc.

Xerox did successfully create an advanced object oriented development environment written in Smalltalk. This is where the majority of Xerox’s work went into for this product. Xerox had technology demonstrations of rudimentary windowing systems and the assumption has generally been that Xerox was further along than Apple was when Apple visited with Xerox. In terms of pure GUI concepts, Xerox’s work was certainly an evolution over Englebart’s previous work. However, today’s modern GUI bares little resemblance with what Xerox finally came up with in the Star/Alto product.

Apple’s contribution

In 1979, Jef Raskin started the Macintosh project at Apple. He identified a need for a computer that was easier to use than anything developed to date. Both the Macintosh project and the Lisa project were works in progress prior to Apple’s infamous visit to Xerox. Apple and Xerox were in simultaneous development of a GUI. Apple was aware of Xerox’s work because the founder of the Macintosh project, Jef Raskin had lectured at Xerox on the topic prior to joining Apple. Jef Raskin was something of an authority on the subject at the time. He had written his Master’s thesis on a WYSIWYG graphical interface back in 1967. Likewise, many of the same ideas that fueled Xerox’s effort originated from the creator of the Macintosh project.

At the same time, it would be unfair to suggest Apple visited Xerox and didn’t come away with any ideas. Clearly they did. The fact that Apple’s Lisa GUI was different from Apple’s Macintosh GUI should make that clear enough. But, the devil is in the details. Apple wasn’t developing in a Smalltalk environment, Apple had resource limitations that Xerox didn’t. That is, Apple had to make a GUI work on an affordable piece of hardware. Xerox was working purely in a research environment without the same hardware limitations.

Testimonials from those involved…

There was an interesting essay written by Bruce Horn back in 1996 about this topic. Bruce was of the people recruited from Xerox to work for Apple on the Macintosh project. Clearly, he’s one of the few people that can say with authority what work was developed at which company. Below are a few excerpts from his essay.

“For more than a decade now, I’ve listened to the debate about where the Macintosh user interface came from. Most people assume it came directly from Xerox, after Steve Jobs went to visit Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). This “fact” is reported over and over, by people who don’t know better (and also by people who should!). Unfortunately, it just isn’t true – there are some similarities between the Apple interface and the various interfaces on Xerox systems, but the differences are substantial.”

Again, Bruce goes on to talk about the Smalltalk environment created at Xerox as this was more significant than the actual GUI pioneering they did.

“Smalltalk has no Finder, and no need for one, really. Drag-and- drop file manipulation came from the Mac group, along with many other unique concepts: resources and dual-fork files for storing layout and international information apart from code; definition procedures; drag-and-drop system extension and configuration; types and creators for files; direct manipulation editing of document, disk, and application names; redundant typed data for the clipboard; multiple views of the file system; desk accessories; and control panels, among others. The Lisa group invented some fundamental concepts as well: pull down menus, the imaging and windowing models based on QuickDraw, the clipboard, and cleanly internationalizable software.”

The list goes on. In fact, he talks about Bill Atkinson’s windowing model and how it was designed. Bill wasn’t even aware of the fact that Xerox’s model didn’t even have self-repairing windows as the Mac did. The point here is that there is a big difference between broad concepts and the actual implementation. Clearly, the Macintosh architecture solved problems that the Xerox team wasn’t even aware of.

The concept of pull down windows is one of the most basic functions of the modern GUI. Again, this is yet another thing that didn’t exist at Xerox. Drag and Drop? Yes, another concept developed at Apple. Control panels? Yup, Apple. Clipboard metaphor / concept? Yup, Apple. Desk Accessories? We know them now as Widgets or Gadgets, but the concept originated at Apple. Most people don’t realize even how icons were used on the Xerox Star. Icons were used as verbs. Like an icon to “save” a file. On the Macintosh, you could use icons as objects, like a trash can or you could drag a document onto an application icon to open it, etc.

What’s interesting is that even things that have been attributed to Xerox such as the selection based text editor, apparently did not originate there at all. Below is a response from the late Jef Raskin in response to Bruce Horn’s essay:

“Horn makes it seem that the selection-based editor came with Tesler from PARC. It may have been a case of convergent evolution, since we already had that paradigm at the Mac project. In this case it dates at least back to an editor I designed much earlier, while at Bannister & Crun. In ’73 I discussed my editor concepts with many people at PARC, so I do not know whether Tesler’s design was influenced by my work, I know it was not the other way around.”

In the following paragraph, it becomes clear that in terms of general concepts, Jef Raskin’s work predated any of the fundamental concepts that were further developed by Xerox.

“My thesis in Computer Science, published in 1967, argued that computers should be all-graphic, that we should eliminate character generators and create characters graphically and in various fonts, that what you see on the screen should be what you get, and that the human interface was more important than mere considerations of algorithmic efficiency and compactness. This was heretical in 1967, half a decade before PARC started. Many of the basic principles of the Mac were firmly entrenched in my psyche. By the way, the name of my thesis was the “Quick-Draw Graphics System”, which became the name of (and part of the inspiration for) Atkinson’s graphics package for the Mac.”

Conclusion

In the end, who created the GUI? There is no single entity that can take credit for that. Apple advocates want to say Apple did. Microsoft advocates would love to say Microsoft did, but there has never been any evidence to support that. Instead, if they can’t attribute this innovation to Microsoft, they refuse to acknowledge Apple’s work so they claim Xerox invented it all.

The problem with the Xerox takes all claim is that most of the basic elements required for a GUI predate Xerox’s work as well. As I mentioned earlier, they didn’t create bit mapped graphics, they didn’t create icons, they didn’t create the mouse pointer, etc. At the same time, they did evolve the concept into a rudimentary working model.

Moreover, if we look at the modern GUI today, it more closely resembles the work done with the original Macintosh than anything else, including Apple’s earlier Lisa system. That’s probably true for several reasons. For starters, Xerox was never able to successfully commercialize their work. Apple’s GUI was certainly the first commercially successful GUI and certainly the first GUI that anyone outside of the Xerox PARC lab that anyone would have ever seen. Also, the market leader, Microsoft basically did just steal from Apple. As such, it is understandable why Apple’s GUI and whatever we call “today’s modern GUI” to be very similar in convention. Really, although there have been many refinements to the GUI, when you think about it, not much as changed in the past 25 years in terms of how we interact with our computer.

In terms of the Xerox Star, its one thing to look at a screen shot of an operating system and it’s another thing to see how it’s used. Not only was the Xerox Star rudimentary in function compared to the Macintosh, but all accounts I’ve read claim it was clumsy and slow to use. That is, there was elegance in the Smalltalk environment they created, but it should be considered an unfinished product at best. It was more of a technology demonstration than a product that’s ready for prime time. The point here isn’t to belittle the work Xerox did. Rather, when considering the time line of events, it’s important to realize how long it takes to create a product like this that actually is ready to ship to the masses.

Finally, Apple was the company that brought the GUI concept to the public and made them aware of it. The majority of today’s GUI conventions date back to Apple’s work more so than any other single entity. For that reason, in my opinion, Apple deserves the lion’s share of the credit for this innovation. But, in the end, neither Apple nor Xerox can claim they alone created the GUI. Clearly, the work from those such as Douglas Englebart, Jef Raskin, etc. predates either works from either Xerox or Apple and this foundation was a necessary building block for both companies. Though both can claim partial credit, when you look at the conventions we associate with a GUI today, the majority of credit would have to go to Apple.

Leopard vs. Vista: An uphill marketing battle for Apple.

June 14, 2007

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Recent articles in the press illustrate the uphill battle Apple faces trying to convince Windows users to switch to the Mac platform. This article isn’t meant to make any definitive comparisons between the two operating systems. Rather, this article addresses some of the perceptions illustrated in the media that are based on incorrect information.

With roughly 5% market share (slightly less worldwide), Apple continues to face the difficult task of differentiating it’s product from the Microsoft Windows based PC platform. This task is compounded by ignorant journalism which only serves to propagate incorrect myths, etc. I don’t mean to single out specific journalists on this issue. However, it’s difficult to illustrate this point without proper examples. The article below is an example of what I’m referring to. I’ll take a look at the article on a point by point basis.

Leopard looks like … Vista
By Mary Jo Foley
June 11, 2007

Foley apparently attended Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) on June 11, 2007 and came away thinking that Apple’s most recent operating system release in development, OS X 10.5 Leopard (due in October, 2007) looked a lot like Microsoft’s Vista.

Now, by her own admission, she’s not a Mac users and likewise not familiar with the Mac OS. If you’re comparing these products at a VERY high level (presumably from outer space) and only looking at a small subset of features, then it’s understandable how one could come to that conclusion. However, she also describes herself as a technology journalist that has covered the industry for more than 20 years. Already I have an issue with this. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t write about something, expect to be excused for your mistakes due to the lack of familiarity with the subject matter, and yet expect to be taken seriously due to your credentials. Which is it?

During the Apple keynote presentation, Steve Jobs demonstrated 10 out of 300 features of Leopard. This was not a comprehensive tour of the operating system, nor was it a complete demonstration of new features and enhancements.

“Here’s what Jobs’ hit list looked like to this Windows user:
1. New Leopard Desktop: Not a whole lot different from Vista’s Aero and Sidebar.”

What does that even mean, “not a whole lot different”? Does that mean it looks similar? Does that mean it functions in a similar way? Well, yes, they both use a desktop metaphor with icons, use a mouse for a pointer, etc. Yet, they are also different. With the desktop, Apple only talked about changes to the “Dock” and the introduction of “Stacks”. Vista has a dock, but it functions in a very different way. Vista “kind of, sort of, maybe” has something like stacks. It’s more like something Apple invented and patented years ago called “piles” than it is like Apple’s recent “Stacks” implementation. Again, I’m not discussing which is better as that is beyond the intended scope of this article. But, it’s safe to say they are significantly different in implementation.

“2. New Finder: Many of the same capabilities as the integrated “Instant Search” in Vista (the subsystem that Google is trying to get the Department of Justice to rule as being anti-competitive). The new Leopard Coverflow viewing capability looked almost identical to Vista’s Flip 3D to me.”

Huh? Desktop search (or “instant search” as she calls it) existed in Tiger which shipped several years ago. Wouldn’t that mean Vista looks like Tiger?

Then she goes on to compare Leopard’s Coverflow feature to Vista’s Flip 3D. This comparison is done out of pure ignorance. These are not even competing features. Coverflow is a graphical way to preview documents in a folder for which there is no equivalent feature in Vista. Flip 3D is a graphical means of switching between open windows in Vista. At best, you might functionally try to compare Vista’s Flip 3D with the Expose` feature which debuted in the Panther release of OS X. It’s clear that Foley doesn’t even understand what she’s comparing at a functional level.

“3. QuickLook: Live file previews — just like the thumbnail preview capability available in Vista.”

Again, she doesn’t understand what she’s talking about. She’s referring to Vista’s “Live Icon” feature. For starters, this isn’t available in all versions of Vista. Second, at best, it’s comparable the preview mode found in the Mac Finder when browsing in column view. Quick Look is significantly different and clearly a step forward. It allows you to see a full size preview of the document very quickly without opening the application. It also allows you to view the entire document, page by page, etc. Simlarly, you could play a movie in this mode or even go full screen with a simple double-click. Which Vista feature would she be referring to here?

“4. 64-bitness: Leopard is the first 64-bit only version of a desktop client. Vista comes in 32-bit and 64-bit varieties. And most expect Windows Seven will still be available in 32-bit flavors. Until 32-bit machines go away, it seems like a good idea to offer 32-bit operating systems.”

Once again, Foley doesn’t understand what she’s talking about. Leopard offers both 32bit and 64bit compatibility in the same release. That is, in Leopard you can have a 32bit program running along side a 64bit program in the same OS. You can’t do that in Vista. Most programs would not benefit from 64bit address spaces yet. This is why virtually nobody uses 64bit on the Windows side. Apple has made it possible for a smooth transition. Microsoft has not. Somehow Foley is trying to make a case for Microsoft’s approach, but since it’s clear she doesn’t understand the implementation of each, her point is not very convincing. Still, I give her credit for consistency.

“5. Core animation: Not sure what the Vista comparison is here. The demo reminded me of Microsoft Max photo-sharing application. The WWDC developers attending the Jobs keynote didn’t seem wowed with this functionality.”

It’s fair for a non-technical person to not understand what Core animation is. It’s also fair for a non-technical person to not know if Vista has an equivalent (especially when it doesn’t). However, to somehow dismiss this feature because the people she sat next to her weren’t blown away is ridiculous. This is especially true since the very same people were first introduced to this feature nearly a year ago. As for the feature itself, it doesn’t allow you to do something that was impossible before. It just makes animations easier and likewise much more practical within applications.

“6. Boot Camp. You can run Vista on your Mac. Apple showed Vista running Solitaire in its WWDC demo. But I bet those downloading the 2.5 million copies of Boot Camp available since last year are running a lot of other Windows business apps and games.”

What’s her point here? Many features of Leopard were previewed before. Boot Camp has been available in beta for in Tiger for a long time. Does Vista offer similar functionality (being able to boot into Mac OS from a generic PC)? No? Then, what’s her point?

“7. Spaces: A feature allowing users to group applications into separate spaces. I haven’t seen anything like in in Vista, but the audience didn’t seem overly impressed by it.”

Once again, Leopard has another feature (Spaces) that has no equivalent in Vista. Once again, rather than acknowledge that features like this make the premise of her article moot, she attempts to deflect attention to the crowd’s reaction. Once again, this feature was demoed nearly a year ago to the same audience. What type of reaction was she expecting?

“8. Dashboard with widgets. Isn’t this like the Vista Sidebar with gadgets?”

Sigh… Yes, Dashboard and Widgets are very much like Vista’s Sidebar and Gadgets. The problem is… Foley doesn’t acknowledge that this feature has been in the Mac OS for years now (since the Tiger release). If anything, it just demonstrates how Microsoft has been copying Apple’s lead. The concept dates back to Apple’s desk accessories in the original Mac OS.

The new feature in Leopard was the ability to highlight any part of a web page and create your own widget. Vista, like Tiger, does not have this feature. This is what was demonstrated, not the concept of Widgets/Gadgets. Unfortunately, Foley doesn’t have a frame of reference here to even know which features are new enhancements and which features are entirely new concepts.

“9. iChat gets a bunch of fun add-ons (photo-booth effects, backrops, etc.) to make it a more fully-featured videoconferencing product. The “iChat Theater” capability Jobs showed off reminded me of Vista’s Meeting Space and/or the new Microsoft “Shared View” (code-named “Tahiti”) document-sharing/conferencing subsystems.”

Inevitably, there are features that do have rough equivalents on the Windows side. As both are mature operating systems with a mature set of helper applications, it’s not unusual for there to be some level of parity. iChat isn’t new, it’s just enhanced, like the majority of the 300 features in Leopard.

“10. Time Machine automatic backup. Vista has built-in automatic backup (Volume Shadow Copy). It doesn’t look anywhere near as cool as Time Machine. But it seems to provide a lot of the same functionality.”

Yes, and Apple also had its own backup solution, appropriately called “Backup”, prior to this. This was demoed in more detail last year. Still, if Foley had done a little research she’d be aware of some of the differences. Foley acknowledges that Time Machine looks cooler. By that statement alone, it contradicts her claim that Leopard looks like Vista. But, there is a lot of innovation in the interface to common concepts such as data backups. Apple’s interface to this feature is innovative. Further, at a functional level, individual applications can access the APIs. Likewise, you can retrieve data at the application level. Jobs demonstrated the example of restoring personal address within the address book and restoring photos from within iPhoto last year. Does Volume Shadow Copy offer this?

Foley goes on to make the following statement in her article:

“I’m not trying to pull a Dvorak here and use this blog post for click bait.”

Well, that’s unfortunate if true. Given that she has more than 20 years of experience covering the technology industry, I would have been more than happy to give her the benefit of the doubt in hopes that this was just an attempt to get more attention for her articles. As she points out, a common tactic is to write something controversial in hopes to get lots of visitors to your web site. This in turn makes advertisers happy. Since she claims this is not the case, then I find it rather sad how poor her journalism skills are.

Leopard vs. Vista: Take two
By Mary Jo Foley
June 13, 2007

Not surprisingly, an overwhelming number of people “misunderstood” the point of her first article. She goes on and attempts to discredit the majority of her responses by labeling the authors as fanatics, mentioning the personal attacks on her and the use of fake e-mail addresses for replies. On some level, it’s a shame that people resort to such tactics. Extreme responses tend to negate any legitimate points that may have been brought up in a response. She even takes her shot at Linux users.

At the same time, it’s fair to question Foley’s journalism skills for demonstrating such a gross lack of knowledge on the subject matter she’s covering.

“My original post was not an attempt at a Vista vs. Leopard product review (in response to the reader who said s/he’d contact my managers to make sure this ZDNet reviewer was fired!). Nor was it a news story. It was my plain, old, biased opinion, as most blog posts tend to be.”

Foley attempts to go into damage control mode here, but it doesn’t work. How can she claim she’s not attempting a product review, yet ask her audience “Why is Leopard so superior to Vista” and specifically go down a point by point listing of some of the demonstrated features? While doing this, she makes the point of saying that Leopard looks like Vista. In my opinion, there is an inherent contradiction with this

I also don’t like it when journalists try to hide behind blogs and claim it’s just her opinion and not a news story. That much is clear. Still, what does Foley do for a living? Isn’t she supposed to be a journalist professionally? She uses the word “opinion” to cover for inaccuracy and poor journalism. In my “opinion”, the moment you decide to share your opinion, you’re open to criticism.

“Admittedly, my headline choice (“Leopard looks like … Vista”) for my original blog posting was poor. A lot of folks immediately assumed I was asserting that Leopard — the version of Mac OS X coming this October, which Jobs demonstrated at the Worldwide Developers Conference on July 11 — was copied from Vista.”

Yes, and having reread her article, I still get that impression, at least to some extent. Apparently, the measure of how “up to date” an operating system is directly proportional to the amount of eye candy in the user interface. At least that’s the message I get from her articles on the matter.

Anyway, it’s back to damage control mode for Foley. Clearly, in order to claim she was misunderstood, she has to acknowledge something she did was wrong. In this case, she’s acknowledging a poor choice of headlines.

What features coming in Leopard do you think will leapfrog Vista?

Sadly, she’s trying to make a point by looking for that one killer feature that sets one operating system above another. That’s a naïve look at the subject matter. Each operating system has hundreds of features to compare. It’s nearly impossible for one feature that will apply for everyone as the killer feature that makes one operating system better than another. In reality, a product as large as an operating system is a product that is the sum of its parts. The answer to her question lies in the in depth comprehensive comparison of those features. To my knowledge, there is no such comparison. A fully comprehensive comparison would compare the operating system distributions at the technical level for performance and developers as well as the end user functional level. The closet I’ve seen to such a comparison is http://www.xvsx

Conclusion

The reality is, the Mac OS is a niche market. The business world has standardized on the Microsoft Windows platform, at least for desktop purposes, years ago. People like to use what they are most familiar with. In terms of operating systems, that’s usually Windows. With the 6 years of development for Vista, Microsoft had fallen significantly behind the Mac OS on a feature and technology basis. To Microsoft’s credit, Vista has largely caught up with Apple’s Mac OS 10.4 Tiger. In some cases, it’s slightly ahead and in some cases, it’s slightly behind still. Leopard, due out in October, is Apple’s most recent release. In most cases, its features are improvements on existing technology rather than bold, new, revolutionary features. That’s not a bad thing. That means Tiger is already a mature operating system just as Vista is. I wouldn’t consider Leopard to be a bold leap over Vista, but it does successfully negate any advantage Vista had over Tiger and adds a bit of refinement above Vista’s offerings. By leveraging open source technology with their own technology and innovative interfaces, Apple has managed to stay ahead of Microsoft since the introduction of OS X. Microsoft did a great job of closing this gap with Vista, but Leopard reestablishes the separation between the two, if only by a small margin. Going forward, Microsoft will have to do a much better job of delivery than they did with Vista if they wish to remain competitive on average. Apple has established a much more consistent delivery of new technology as compared to Microsoft.

But, I digress. This article was not meant to compare Vista with Leopard. Rather, it was to demonstrate how irresponsible journalism can serve to propagate misinformation. Mary Jo Foley’s summary and comparison of the 10 Leopard features demonstrated was rather pathetic. While this is obvious to those familiar with both operating systems, I have to wonder how many people read her column and come away with the wrong conclusion based on her misinformation. I don’t mean to single her out. Surely, she is not alone in reporting misinformation. In fact, her second article links to an eWeek article by Joe Wilcox that is equally misinformed. It seems that she’d rather quote another journalist that doesn’t understand the technologies involved rather than doing a little research on her own. I wonder how many other bumbling idiots will pick up the same misinformation and cite one of these two “journalists” as the source for their “mis”information.

In any case, Foley seems to have been called out in her own forum for this article. She was bothered enough by it that she felt compelled to do a follow up for damage control. The damage control wasn’t convincing in my opinion, but hopefully, being burned on this one will teach her to do a little due diligence before expressing her next “opinion”.

Is Vista really that bad?

March 16, 2007

Thursday, March 14, 2007

Since Microsoft Vista’s public debut in January, I’ve read many articles about Vista – most of which were not complimentary. This article will take a look at the public’s reaction to Vista and try to examine why the reception has been so cold.

I’m far from a Microsoft apologist, but there are some factors which are beyond Microsoft’s control. That is, in some ways, I believe people are over reacting to the problems with Vista. Of course, many issues are indeed directly attributed to Microsoft.

A historical perspective…

When Windows 95 was launched nearly 12 years ago, it was met with much fan fair amongst the PC world. Finally, Microsoft had delivered an operating system with a usable GUI that was actually comparable to the Macintosh. Windows 3.11 and below were a sad joke. It was purely a graphic shell layered over a weak foundation – MS DOS. While it wasn’t perfect, Windows 95 was at least on par with the standard of excellence at that time (Mac OS). In some ways, it was still worse, but in some ways it was even better. Given Microsoft’s momentum and market share, there was little reason to even look at alternatives anymore. Given this breakthrough, it’s not hard to understand why so many people stood in long lines to upgrade their PCs.

Since then, Microsoft has tried very hard to generate that kind of enthusiasm for their products. Microsoft followed with Windows 98 which was a reasonable upgrade. It was nothing to get excited about, but it was a welcome upgrade over Windows 95. Unfortunately, in 2000, Microsoft followed with Windows ME. Windows ME was a bug ridden embarrassment for Microsoft. However, Microsoft was given a little slack because they were spending most of their efforts on their Windows NT product in parallel. Most Windows users either stuck with Windows 98 or they upgraded to Windows 2000 (an NT based product). Windows 2000 was a stable OS, certainly in contrast to Windows ME. However, it was geared more for the office environment than it was for the home environment.

In 2001, Microsoft finally introduced Windows XP. It was their NT based operating system that had the necessary bells and whistles for home consumer use. Microsoft has always been up front with their product plans (perhaps too much so). Likewise, when the “stinker of an OS” that was Windows ME was released, consumers didn’t get very upset because they knew they could migrate to Windows 2000 or just wait a year for Windows XP. Windows XP finally gave consumers features like protected memory and preemptive task scheduling, etc. Which means it could walk and chew gum at the same time and is considerably less prone to crashing. This was a very significant upgrade to the Win9x series on a technical level. However, it didn’t look all that much different from its predecessors. XP had a successful product launch, but nothing on the scale of Windows 95.

With that historical perspective in mind, let’s examine issues that factor into Vista’s acceptance.

1. It’s been almost 6 years since Microsoft’s last major software release (XP).

Sure, there was a server release in 2003 along with Windows Mobile releases, 64bit versions of XP that nobody used, etc. However, they were just more variations of the same thing and more importantly, they were not competing in the same market space. People don’t like change. There was enough uproar over Windows service pack 2 as it was. Of course, for many, this was with good reason as it wreaked significant havoc in terms of compatibility issues, etc. With that in mind, it’s understandable that many don’t like the notion of being forced to use Vista. If you question whether people are forced to use / buy Vista, try ordering a Dell (for example) without Vista and see what happens.

2. Most major OS releases are accompanied by incompatibilities from third party vendors.

Vista is no different in this regard. Of course, is this Microsoft’s fault? Vendors have had access to Vista betas for a very long time. Many third party vendors have simply decided it’s not worth their effort to release updates to their software and device drivers until there is a sufficient mass of users to warrant the effort. To me, that’s backwards thinking. It’s not like there is any doubt that Vista will be widely adopted. One way or the other, Microsoft will force Vista upon the masses because it has a monopoly and likewise has the power to do so. Yes, alternatives do exist, but the cost is prohibitive for most businesses and let’s be honest – the masses of consumers are largely like sheep. They just follow the herd when buying a computer. Comparing platforms requires significant knowledge of more than one operating system. That automatically eliminates the masses from even considering an alternative operating system.

3. The press has been hard on Microsoft because they over promised with Longhorn and under delivered with Vista.

To clarify, it’s that that Vista doesn’t represent a significant upgrade over Vista. It does. Rather, Vista delivers less than what was originally promised. Further, customers expect more after 6 years of development and 6 billion dollars of investment. Vista’s development from a project management perspective was nothing short of a disaster. It was supposed to be delivered in 2004 with much better features. Of course, this is what happens when you are to upfront with your customers in terms of your plans. Anything less than your original promise will be considered a disappointment. If you miss your originally targeted ship date, you’ve again disappointed your customers. So, then, why does Microsoft do this? Well, this is an old marketing trick from Microsoft. When your competitor has a better product than you, talk about vaporware. That’s right; create FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).

Just as Windows XP was announced in 2001, so was Apple’s Mac OS X. Mac OS X had the same “buzzword compliant” features such as memory protection and preemptive multitasking, etc. It had more though such as a BSD subsystem which allowed for many of the services common to UNIX (like) distributions. It had an advanced “Quartz” compositing system that made previous compositors such as Apple’s own Quickdraw and Microsoft’s GDI+ look incredibly out dated. It had its own built in PDF engine, etc. The list goes on… So, Microsoft’s XP product was outclassed by Apple’s OS X. OS X was brand new, so it had its own share of compatibility issues, few native software titles were available and it generally needed a release or two in order to better mature before it would be a great OS. Still, it had a foundation that was years ahead of Microsoft. Microsoft knew that, so they did what they always do. Basically, they made up a list of features that they planned to include in their next OS and promised those features in an unrealistic time frame. The idea is to keep your customer base where they are by providing the impression that they will eventually have some sort of feature parity – eventually.

Well, as we know, the years went buy, Microsoft missed several of its own self imposed deadlines while losing credibility in the process. Worse, along the way, Microsoft shed a significant portion of the product’s features such as WinFS, Palladium (next generation security), etc. Meanwhile, the press has watched OS X evolve (Cheetah 10.0, Puma 10.1, Jaguar 10.2, Panther 10.3, Tiger 10.4). While these operating system updates were not quite as grandiose in scope, they were very significant and steady updates. In the process, Apple has delivered even more advanced features on a more regular basis. In doing so, it established credibility in terms of being able to deliver quality software on time.

4. Once again, Microsoft has delivered a “me too” product.

It’s difficult for the press to get excited about something that’s already been done before. Microsoft spent nearly 6 years and 6 billion dollars in order to get rough feature parity with Apple’s Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger). An in depth comparison of the two operating systems is beyond the scope of this article. However, when you look at the major selling points of Vista, you have to look at Tiger and say “been there, done that”. Examples:

Vista Mac equivalent

Aero/Windows presentation foundation Aqua/Quartz
Windows Search Spotlight
Windows Sidebar / Gadgets Dashboard / Widgets
Internet Explorer 7 Safari
(IE 7 finally gets tabbed browsing/rss) (Safari already has that)
Windows Media Player 11 iTunes/Quicktime
Windows Mail Apple Mail
Windows Calendar iCal
Windows Photo Gallery iPhoto
Windows DVD Maker iDVD
Windows Media Center Front Row *
Windows Meeting Space iChat AV *
(formerly Netmeeting)
Shadow Copy .Mac Backup *
Better security (UAC, BitLocker, Defender) built in, FileVault (no viruses exist)
Microsoft Services for Unix BSD
Windows Workflow Foundation Automater *

* Note: In some of the examples above, there is not a 1:1 feature comparison.
Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) which is due out this spring will further establish Apple’s lead in this area with features like Time Machine, Spaces, Core Animation, etc.

From the media’s point of view, its taken Microsoft years, spending billions along the way, to produce a “me too” product that doesn’t break any new ground. Yawn.

5. Nothing can live up to Microsoft’s marketing hype.

What does Microsoft say? “The Wow starts here” or something like that? I guess that’s what you’re supposed to say when you see something like Flip 3D. That’s Microsoft’s eye candy equivalent of the Alt-Tab window switching mechanism. It offers nothing new in terms of functionality. It’s far less practical than something like Expose’ on the Mac. I suppose if you’ve never seen Aqua (Mac OS X’s interface), or something like KDE on Linux, etc. then you might be impressed by transparencies, etc. Maybe that applies to some, but it probably doesn’t apply to people writing software reviews.

Is the bad press warranted?

Still, I can’t help but wonder if some are getting a bit carried away with the dumping on Vista. Some of the more popular bloggers are getting a bit carried away in my opinion. For example, Christopher Null suggests that Microsoft should re-release Windows XP. In support of his argument, he links to various other negative Vista issues.

“It’s time to sober up on Windows Vista. This just isn’t working out, and your users are getting frustrated to the point where they’re souring on Windows altogether. In case you haven’t seen some of the more noteworthy blog posts on this topic, I refer you to Chris Pirillo, Scot’s Newsletter, or Spend Matters. Or check out the recent bug reports regarding product activation and security flaws. This is all stuff I managed to dredge up that was written yesterday.”
http://tech.yahoo.com/blogs/null/18428?comment_start=26&comment_count=20

Fortunately, the more mainstream press has been kinder than the bloggers. Still, when you rip-off your competitor, there is no getting around the feature comparison and comments that point out what you’ve done.

Vista Wins on Looks. As for Lacks …
By DAVID POGUE

“If the description so far makes Vista sound a lot like the Macintosh, well, you’re right. You get the feeling that Microsoft’s managers put Mac OS X on an easel and told the programmers, “Copy that.”
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/14/technology/14pogue.html?ex=1323752400&en=1cde0d24860d1fac&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss

Mossberg Review: Vista best for Microsoft crop, but it’s no Apple
By WALTER MOSSBERG, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL,

“Nearly all of the major, visible new features in Vista are already available in Apple’s operating system, called Mac OS X, which came out in 2001 and received its last major upgrade in 2005. And Apple is about to leap ahead again with a new version of OS X, called Leopard, due this spring.”
http://content.hamptonroads.com/story.cfm?story=118344&ran=87842

Conclusion

There has been mixed press and an overall lack of enthusiasm for Microsoft Vista. The mainstream press hasn’t very critical of Vista, but the blogger community hasn’t been shy at venting frustration. The irony is that happened despite Microsoft’s attempt to bribe some of the most influential bloggers.
However, even the most favorable reviews of Vista can’t help compare it to what Apple has already done years ago.

One some levels, I understand where they media is coming from. If you’re going to take years on a project, spend billions of dollars, create all sorts media hype, one would expect the product to break new ground with a truly innovative product. Instead, this is what Microsoft does while just playing “catch up” to Apple.

On the other hand, Microsoft Vista is a very solid improvement over Windows XP. With any new operating system, there will be some compatibility issues. There will also be bugs. The general consensus is to wait until the first patch is released for any operating system before diving in. Suggesting Vista is a “me too” product is certainly condescending, but in reality, that’s not really a bad thing. Apple’s OS X 10.4 (Tiger) is an outstanding product. While being a “me too” product is faint praise, it also recognizes that it’s a significant leap from the outdated Windows XP product.

Also, while Apple has been ahead of Microsoft from a technology perspective overall, it’s not always completely one-sided. For example, Microsoft has implemented ASLR (Address Space Layout Randomization). Briefly, this is a security feature which makes it more difficult for a potential vulnerability to be converted into a working exploit.

The point being is that those who suggest Microsoft should re-release Windows XP don’t know that they’re talking about. However, there are things Microsoft can do to help itself going forward. They are:

1. Don’t promise features and fail to deliver on the promise.

2. Don’t go 5 – 6 years without an operating system update. In six years from now, Vista will FAR behind the current version of the Mac OS at that time. More timely updates help bring out new technology sooner and it helps make the transition between operating systems smoother.

3. An operating system update doesn’t have to be a ground up rewrite. That’s the point of modularization and layers, etc. This also helps keep the code more reliable as well.

4. Try to concentrate on being more innovative rather than just copying what others have done. If you’re behind the curve in terms of features, you do need to catch up. However, your product will only gain respect if it leads the way. Microsoft does this on rare occasion, but it’s the exception to the rule generally speaking.

This advice may sound like common sense, but apparently, it is not. Not coincidentally, the four items above are examples of what Apple is doing right and Microsoft is not. Apple has demonstrated how to do this right. If Microsoft is going to copy Apple, why stop at the product features and not also consider the development model. Just look at what Apple has been able to deliver at a fraction of the cost Microsoft spends on development. It’s an embarrassment for Microsoft and it’s been recognized by Microsoft’s own management. The good news for Microsoft is that these problems can be fixed. The question is: How will Microsoft rebound after the Vista development fiasco?