Charles Moore's Mailbag

Thunderbolt's Superiority Doesn't Mean It Will Succeed, Perfect Screen Size and Resolution, and More

Charles Moore - 2011.11.28 -Tip Jar

Thunderbolt: Superiority Doesn't Imply Success

From RedZone,

Dear Mr. Moore,

Hello. I've been wondering for some time about all this hubbub aboutThunderbolt. I'mwondering specifically if the technology really has any chance topenetrate the market. Now, I'm no businessman, but I do know this: theItanium line, though far superior to Intel's x86line in innumerable ways, did not make it as a consumer processorbecause consumers didn't know what it was and were still more familiarwith the "Pentium" name - plus they were also familiar with AMD, whopushed Itanium out of the way with the invention we now know as x64, ormore accurately 64-bit x86. The Itanium sank in the consumer market andfound use only as a server line.

Now we have Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt is superior to USB in justabout every way. The fact that it is (mostly) a new design as opposedto something built within and on top of the confines of old frameworkshelps it to achieve much of this superiority. USB 3.0 is by contrast clearlya ship-in-a-bottle, impressive to look at once built but ultimatelyimpossible to take out of the bottle intact. The secret behind thespeed boost of USB 3.0 is that there is actually an entirely new buscalled "SuperSpeed" housed within the old USB 2.0 cable.* USB 3.0capable computers use this bus instead of the actual USB bus when a USB3.0 cable is connected, and USB 2.0-only computers just use the USB 2.0bus, completely unaware that the SuperSpeed bus exists. The backwardscompatibility and the squeezing of the new design into the old iscertainly a feat, but it makes the technology more complex and limitsthe length of the cable.

Similarly, the x86 line has continually tacked new instructions,improvements, and modes onto the ends of the old ones, continuallyadding new functionality and maintaining backwards compatibility butrequiring all x86 OSes to jump through hoops to enable newfunctionality and requiring the processor itself to jump through hoopsto make the old functionality still work the way it did before. Thisbalancing act is so precarious that it is no wonder that Intel tried tophase out x86 and phase in Itanium, which was an entirely newarchitecture boasting the best innovations of the day while having noneof the hindrances of the x86 line. But consumers didn't have any way ofknowing anything was different, and even if they did know, chances arethey wouldn't have cared. x86 was what they knew and what raneverything they already had, and so x86 won out. With that in mind,much as I want Thunderbolt to succeed, I fear it too will fade intoobscurity because it is largely unknown to consumers while USB bycontrast is very well known. It doesn't matter the limitations imposedby adding new technology onto old - the consumer will want what theyknow and what works with everything they have. You can't make a newtechnology with a new name that does the exact same thing as somethingold and known and expect the new thing to get more than a niche market.As much as we love the Mac and as much as its popularity has beengaining in recent years, for a long time Windows dominated simply frominertia, even in light of Macs' superiority. What allowed Apple tobreak into the consumer market past Microsoft was to make products thatdid different things from what had been done, or that did the samethings in ways visibly different to the consumer.

Sadly, cool though Thunderbolt is from a technical standpoint, Idoubt it will hold any impact in the eyes of the general consumer.

Sincerely,
RedZone

* Publisher's note: This is not technicallycorrect. USB 3 cables have twice as many wires as USB 2 cables - oneset of wires for older USB speeds and one set for SuperSpeed USB - andit is not possible to access the USB 3 SuperSpeed mode with USB 2cables. USB 1.1 and 2.0 support cable lengths to 5m (appr. 16'), whileUSB 3.0 has a practical maximum length of 3m (appr. 10'). dk

Hi RedZone,

I've long been a big FireWire fan, and havealways regarded USB 2.0 as a poor substitute for data I/O.Unfortunately, FireWire never established real traction in the WindowsPC world, partly because of Apple's licensing demands.

I think Thunderbolt has a better shot at becoming anindustry standard for several reasons, notably that it's Inteltechnology with that entity's market clout, and also the fact thatApple has a lot more market share (some 14% in the US) - andconsequently influence - now than it did back when it rolled outFireWire in the late '90s.

Thunderbolt is also technically more versatile thaneither FireWire or the USBs ever have been.

Charles

Publisher's note: See Why FireWire Failed andThunderbolt Won't for other factors that contributed to FireWire'sfailure to attain traction in the market. USB 3 is undoubtedly going tobe a huge success, but Thunderbolt offers so much more than the simpleserial bus of USB. dk

14" PowerBook G3: Perfect Screen Size andResolution

From Lloyd:

Dear Charles,

It is always a pleasure to see your Mac musings in print. (Since weseem to view the world the same way, I recognize your touch of genius.)On the subject of screen resolution, I personally prefer using alaptop, and the best screen I've used is that of the PowerBook G3series. My old Pismo and the WallStreet 266 MHz Ihave now both had exactly what I wanted: A screen that sized more likea sheet of paper - tall, not wide - and the surface was less glossythan subsequent models. (I write this to you on a 2.4 GHz MacBook laptopbecause it handles WPA encryption; otherwise, the old WallStreet wouldbe a daily driver.) The less-bright, no-glare WallStreet display doesnot fatigue my eyes, even after long use, while I find that theMacBook's [glossy] display eventually does. (The WallStreet's keyboardis also easier on my fingers, another reason for keeping the old tankaround.)

Widescreen glossy displays seem more suited to video consumption; asthat isn't what I want a computer for (a la your previous columnabout 'car' vs. 'truck' computing), the display, which may be perfectfor what it was designed for, does not suit the way one made for aproductivity machine like the old PowerBooks does. That's my twocents.

Regards,
Lloyd

Hi Lloyd,

Always a pleasure to hear from you, and thanks for thekind words. Once again we are in harmony on the excellence of the oldPowerBook G3 Series. I've never been able to decide whether I liked theWallStreet keyboard or the bronze Lombard/Pismo keyboard the best, butthere is no equivocation in naming them jointly as the best computerkeyboards I've ever encountered, bar none.

I'm not quite as effusively enthusiastic about thePismo display as you are, but I do agree about the aspect ratio, andwhile eyestrain has never been an issue for me with laptop SuperTwist(remember passive matrix?) or TFT displays, I comprehend what you meanabout the brightness of the newfangled LED backlit units.

I do think that the 14.1" Pismo display has the rightresolution for that size screen at 1024 x 768 - not so much that sameresolution on my 9.7" iPad display, which I do find causes eyestraindue to a combination of really glaring brightness and small size textrendering on many websites. Makes me wonder what text is going to looklike on the iPad 3, with its rumored twice the display resolution ofthe 2.

I'm also with you on productivity and laptops. TheiPad is an excellent content viewing device, except for theaforementioned eyestrain issue. I can't imagine ever trying to read afull-length book on the iPad, but I do a lot of my Web surfing andemail on the 'Pad, and with the new Google Search app (essentiallyChrome for iOS) and the superb new German text editor Textkraft, the 'Pad is beginning to show some possibilities as aproductivity machine, at least for research and rough drafting.

Charles

More Post-Arrival iPad Thoughts

From Alex:

Took me a while to come up with an update. I have, and here itcomes:

Being low on money (depend on student loans for disposable cashafter buying tuition sadly most), I have no money at present to replaceany of my key electronics, so when I hear about how onerous it is toupgrade to iOS 5, both on the computer syncing the iPad and on theiPad itself, and since it is already plenty annoying enough in iOS4.3.3, I will probably not be updating it to iOS 5, and I pity youwho for work reasons had to upgrade your iPad 2 to iOS 5,thinking I'll take my at least slightly more responsive to my needs,wants, and desires iPad 1 with iOS 4.3.3 and run with it, and beas happy as possible (although iOS 3.2 would be my dream version, Applewon't let you downgrade - that really disappoints me!)

I feel sorry that your job leaves you saddled with an iPad you don'treally want running an OS version you really dislike. My funds may bemore limited and my iPad may be older, but iOS 4.3.3 is so much closer(even though it's not really close at all) it's sad.

Hi Alex,

Thanks for the follow-up.

Updating, since the initial issues with upgrading toiOS 5 were ironed out, it's been solid as a rock.

Gesture-based switching between open apps instead ofrepeatedly pumping the Home button has alone been worth the upgradehassles. There's also a new iPad word processor/text editor calledTextkraft that looks like it's going to solve some of the iOS textselection/editing issues and has potential to be a game-changer.

Charles

New Machine = New Software?

From Scott:

Charles,

I enjoy your column even at times like now, when I don't agree withit. I often hear people like Jonathan who are Linux users complainingabout the Mac and how they should be able to tweak every bit of it totheir heart's content. And I read many comments about the App Store andthe "walled garden" Apple's created. And so often, I read thiscomplaint but no detailed idea of what they should be doing. So, I haveto ask - specifically what do you exactly mean by "open" and what is ityou'd have Apple do?

I think the App Store, while not perfect, will help most users keeptheir software updated, instead of using Software Update and updatingthe OS but not the other applications they're using and wondering whysomething doesn't work. And I don't know if this is one of yourcomplaints, but I'm also curious when people want to buy a new machinebut don't want to update any other software. I think it's unreasonableto buy a new machine and keep the OS updated, but try to keep a pieceof software from 1999 running on it.

As far as Jonathan's iPad/iOS 5 comments, there are a number ofstylus type devices already on the market. Again, maybe he's got aspecific product in mind that doesn't already exist. If so, he shouldcontact a manufacturer and see if they can implement that.

Thanks and keep up the good work!

Scott C.

Hi Scott,

Thanks! I appreciate your affirmation of potentiallyconstructive dialog even when there is disagreement.

What do I not like about the App Store paradigm? Wheredo I start. Essentially it's the lack of user autonomy andindependence. I like being able to download a software installer tokeep on file and reinstall whenever I need/want to regardless ofwhether I have Internet access at the time and without the hassle ofhaving to enter an Apple ID, I haven't upgraded to OS X 10.7 Lion yet and don'tintend to anytime soon, but the many accounts I've read sound like it'sa major pain compared with being able to buy a DVD and re-up anytimeoffline. I never used Software Update for OS updates, but ratherdownloaded the Combo Update installer and proceeded at my leisure.There are workarounds with Lion that make something like that possiblewith considerable hassle, but it sucks compared with the old way.

I have an extensive library of software installersthat dates back to 1992, and it's been remarkable how many of themremained usable with OS X until Apple killed off Classic Mode inOS X 10.5 Leopard. Ican still use the copy of Microsoft Word 5.1 that I bought back in 1993on my two machines still running OS X 10.4 Tiger, and being that Iprobably have a thousand or so Word 5.1 document archived, being ableto access them with full formatting intact is more than an interestingexercise.

Then there's my recent experience upgrading my iPad toiOS 5, which ate all my installed apps, obligating redownloading themall. In most instances stored data that hadn't been backed up toDropbox or back to my Mac were lost as well. Leaves a bad taste. In mynearly 20 years on Macs, I've never had any significant data lossassociated with software updates (and precious little for anyreason).

I tend to run recent software unless there's acompelling reason not to. For example, most of the time I'm runningalpha or beta Web browsers. However, there are a number of applicationscontaining PowerPC code that have no satisfactory Intel nativesubstitutes, so that's another roadblock to using Lion.

I'm never going to be a thoroughgoing Cloud computingaficionado, and I vigorously resist the push to become Cloud dependent,effectively turning our computers into dumb clients. I have Dropbox and Box.net accounts, and mostly use Gmail for email,and I trust all of them more than I do Apple to not shut me out witharbitrary obsolescence. For example, Dropbox works great with my oldPismo PowerBooks running Tiger, as well as my Snow Leopard machine andmy iPad. For iCloud, I would be obliged to upgrade to Lion. Boo,hiss.

This reply has turned into a bit of a rant, and Icould go on (and on and on), but I will spare you. It's a matter ofphilosophy I guess, and Apple's current trajectory is at odds withmine.

Charles

Publisher's note: "I think it's unreasonable to buya new machine and keep the OS updated, but try to keep a piece ofsoftware from 1999 running on it." I have to disagree with Scott. Westill use Claris Home Page 3.0 (last updated in 1997) at Low End Macheadquarters, and it runs just fine in Classic Mode under OS X 10.4Tiger. I haven't yet found a better low-cost or free replacement forit, although BlueGriffon (whichrequires an Intel Mac and OS X 10.5 or newer) is promising. I alsostill use AppleWorks 6.2.9 (last update 2003), Photoshop Elements 3.0(2004), and TextWrangler 2.3 (2008), which I use in preference to newerversions because of its feature set. Home Page keeps me using a PowerPCMac with OS X 10.5, and AppleWorks and Photoshop Elements keep me frommoving to OS X 10.7 Lion, which will not run either program. Given thechoice between a new OS that doesn't run my familiar apps and an olderOS that does, I'll stick with what I know works. dk

Charles,

I can see your point about keeping an archive of things as well asnot having Internet access to re-download something. However, I'mseldom without access, so perhaps that's why it hasn't been an issuefor me. When I updated my gen 1 iPad to iOS 5, iTunes came up witha message about performing a backup before installing it and that itwould wipe out the device.

I personally use SugarSyncafter Dropbox's not exactly clear statements on their security policy,from "everything's encrypted, we can't see it" to "we can get at thefiles if we need to" to "well, only select employees have access tothat". That turned me off of them. SugarSync also allows 5 GB forfree.

Personally, I think if I'm upgrading the OS, that I should expect toupgrade most of my software to go with it. I wouldn't buy a BMW 7series car and ask that the tires from my Honda Civic be put on it.

I also think the Cloud thing will take a leap forward, then asprocessors become more powerful and bandwidth is choked by providersagain, we'll shift back toward being more machine centric. Thenbandwidth will catch up and pass where we are, and everything will bestored in the Cloud again. I may be wrong, but it wouldn't be the firsttime. Heck, if Intel doesn't get their act together, Apple might justbe making processors for everything in their lineup in a few years.

I do have the older Macs, including a clamshell iBook and white iBook,a Pismo, a Titanium1 GHz, and even a Duo 270c and PowerBook 165, but seldom fire themup anymore. I particularly want to use the Titanium with OS 9,just because I think OS 9 at 1 GHz on a G4 is pretty snappy.I'd love to use the Duo, since it was my first Mac, but time is thereal culprit. Not enough of it.

Thanks for listening to my side, and more importantly, thanks forthe discussion. Keep up the good work. Whether I agree or not, I'llenjoy it.

Scott

Hi Scott,

When one lives in a remote rural redoubt like I do,one doesn't take Internet access for granted. For me it ends 150 feetfrom my router. The nearest public hot spot is 12 miles away, and afterthat it's at least another 40. We also get relatively frequent powerand Internet outages. I miss the dependability of dial-up, but it'suseless for online software downloads.

I must check out SugarSync for possible futurereference, but I notice that it requires Mac OS X 10.5 or later, whichdeals my Pismos out of the equation, so is a nonstarter for me at thispoint. I don't put anything really sensitive up on Dropbox, so theirsecurity issues, which I was aware of, haven't been much of a concernto me.

Being a consummate car enthusiast, I frequently useautomotive analogies too, although for me computers are more akin totoolboxes - another analogy that comes naturally to me, since I've mademy living by times as an auto mechanic and a carpenter/cabinetmaker. Idon't expect to have to replace my entire toolset when I buy a new sawor wrench.

However, my computer philosophy also approximates myautomotive philosophy in the sense that I buy older cars and keep thema long time. For example, we bought our 1990 Toyota Camry in 1998, andit's still my wife's daily driver.

I spend nearly as much time on my 11+ year old Pismosas I do my Snow Leopard Core 2 Duo MacBook, typically 4-5 hours a day,so backwards-compatibility is a huge issue for me.

I do agree about the likelihood of Apple switching itsMac systems to ARM A-series in-house in the mid-term.

Thanks for the discussion.

Charles

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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