The everyday ramblings of an everyday geek.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Pirates ahoy

As I've been trying (and probably failing) to express in my other blog, copyright is in a weird place at the moment and Apples move to Intel only seems to emphasise that further. Leaks of Tiger on x86 have shown that it will run on non-Apple hardware, and its hard to believe that this is a mistake. There was nothing stopping Apple from requiring a certain graphics chip, or checking the serial number on the processor, or deliberately leaving a dead block in main memory... you name it, they could to it, and yet they haven't. Perhaps this isn't surprising.
Apple has been suffering when it comes to getting people to 'switch' to the Mac platform. As a switcher myself I can understand the reasons. There is no try before you buy with Macs. Sure you can walk in to an Apple store and play with a G5 for 5 minutes, but it probably won't have the apps you want, and you'll be playing with it, not using it in anger. Taking a 5 minute play and translating that in to £700 investment is a big leap of faith. So for Apple's three main switching markets (made up entirely by myself) it might be worth exploring why piracy may be the best marketing strategy.
Casual Switchers (mini, ibook, iMac)
In my own experience, this has been the group of computer users who are the easiest to switch. They don't use a computer very often, and use it mainly for surfing the web, email, the odd family news letter, or Church fayre flyer. Macs offer them some huge advantages:
  • No Spyware
  • No Viruses
  • Ease of use
but as they often don't see the value of these advantages until after the purchase has been made all they can see are:
  • More expensive
  • Doesn't play games very well
  • Can't 'borrow' my mates copy of Office or use old software
and that is enough to put them off as it takes them well and truly out of their comfort zone. Moving to x86 could make this switch a lot easier for this market. If they can 'borrow' a copy of OS X before they buy, and still 'dual boot' into Windows they can experience first hand the true advantages. So how do Apple make a sale? That's easy, product design. Provided Apple can continue to make their products the most attractive computers on the market and put them in the affordable luxury market they've created with the iPod Apple could really start to see a massive improvement in they're market share. Will they make a killing? Nope. This market simply doesn't have the disposable income to spend on computers. Its not that they don't have the cash, its just that they don't want to spend it on computers. If Apple can get 1% of the 'borrowers' to buy Apple hardware, and the iWork suite they'll still make a killing, and Apple will start to look like a real contender to software developers.
Small Business Switchers (iBook, iMac, PowerBook)
This is the core market that Apple has got to convince to buy Macs. For one reason or another, these are people that use computers to make money, but have no interest in computers except as a tool to generate money. The main difference between this demographic and the casual switchers is that they have the funds to buy what Apple really wants to sell - software (read high profit). The advantages Macs offer are:
  • Greater productivity
  • Lower TCO
Why aren't these people switching? Cost. Although they have money to spend on computers, the cost of switching to Apple represents a significantly larger sum of money when it comes to buying a new computer. It's not that this market doesn't upgrade Office/Photoshop every 18 months, its just that they don't do it in the same month they buy the hardware. Piracy opens up the doors for at least of a few of these users to try without any risk and at a much lower initial cost of ownership. And the fact is that it doesn't matter how many people tell you its cheaper to run Macs in terms of total cost of ownership until you can see you start to fill in your tax return and see that your hardware / electricity / maintenance bills are lower that you start to believe them.
So how does Apple make any money? Honesty. If they have a product that is as superior as I believe, then people will have to buy. Anyone that chooses to run their business on 100% pirated software is going to run into problems at some point in the future. It simply isn't worth the risk of getting caught - and that means buying Mac hardware.
Power Switchers (PowerBook, PowerMac)
If these guys were going to switch, they would have done it all ready - or would they. The problems that affect casual users and small businesses simply aren't a problem for power users. Spyware, malware and TCO aren't an issue if you know what your doing on Windows. I work in an office of over 300 power users, so far I've only met 2 other Mac users, the rest didn't even know they were a viable option. Linux on the other hand they are all over - they don't like it much, but they know what it is, and quite a few have it installed on a dusty partition for bragging rights.
This is not surprising as Macs are so inaccessible and inflexible from an outside view. Until now, you had to buy the 'expensive' hardware before you could try the OS out. Now, this is a market that builds its own computers, or at least knows its way around the inside of cheap Dell enough to know how to replace the processor, RAM and video card without breaking a sweat - so yes the hardware is expensive. They also aren't worried about aesthetics - and if they are they whip out the dremmel and whack a few LEDs in to the case. In short this market is unlikely to ever buy Apple hardware, apart from the laptops - and then only for extended battery life and instant sleep.
The weird thing is that it will be these guys that make the biggest difference as they are the group the other demographics listen too (and get their pirated software from). Hopefully, they will dust off an old Linux partition and try out Mac OS X. Even if they can't see an advantage for themselves (unlikely) they will undoubtedly see the advantage for the other groups and disseminate the information - viral marketing. The other thing that could happen is that they will start to play with XCode - I believe core data alone could be enough to re-ignite the passion of the casual coder and as a result see the Mac platform get a surge of new software. There is of course the hope that they will fall in love with the platform and simply buy whatever Apple throws at them.
I think the benefits of piracy for Apple are clear - and a major reason for the switch to Intel (as crazy as it may seem). The fact is, what really matters is market share, pirated or not, and Apple could do with at least 30% - if only to make the big corporations give them a second look when they roll in with the highest bid and but the only legal way of getting the OS its workers desire. I predict that by the time Longhorn is released the official market share of Apple will have risen maybe 1% at best, but 50% of the power users I work with will have tried it, 30% will like it and continue to use it, and 5% will have bought a Mac - that would have never happened on PPC, and I wonder weather it will be enough to make the release after Leopard, the biggest release in Apples history.

Friday, June 10, 2005

H.264 - A first practical look

I bought some DVDs at the weekend with the intention of watching them at work in my lunch hour. I could have gone the simple way of just taking the DVDs into work with me, but I thought this would be as a good a time as any to try out the H.264 to compress the video so I can store it on my hard disk.

I used two pieces of software: DVDBackup to rip the entire contents of the DVD to my hard disk and remove that pesky CSS stuff, and HandBrake to rip and encode these files to H.264/MP4. I had originally planned to use the H.264 encoder built into QT7. Traditionally I've always found the QuickTime codecs to be optimized better for Apple hardware than their FOSS alternatives, but Apple seem to have gone out of their way to make H.264 as difficult to use for this purpose has humanly possible. I would have add to added an additional step of 'demuxing' the audio and encoding it separately. I did try this, but the H.264 codec built into QT was actually a lot slower
than the x264 codec built into handbrake, with no noticeable gain in quality - way to waste £20 (at least I can watch it back in full screen).

The whole process felt like going back in time to 1998 - when I started backing up my music collection to MP3. You had to use a myriad of programs to do what is essentially one task, and the whole process was slow. I remember ripping a CD was measured in hours, not seconds like it is today. The same is true of ripping DVDs now. Between copying and encoding the whole
process took nearly 20 hours per DVD. During that time my poor iMac G5 thought it was running a marathon, with processor usage at around 75%. This left it useful for apps like web surfing and word processing, but severely lacking when I wanted to use Blender (really starting to love that app).

I decided to encode at 1MB per second, giving me a file size of about 1GB for 2 hours of film, reducing the size of the film by 75%, not bad. The quality is always going to be difficult to quantify. DVDs are already compressed, and although the quality is good you're still starting with a lossy source, and if anyone has tried re-encoding audio, they'll know that can often lead to some strange artefacts in the final product. Having said that I was impressed with the way H.264 handled the video. There was some loss in quality, but not enough to care about and it was significantly better than DivX at the same bit rate.

On to actual use. As I'd encoded it on my G5 I needed a way to get it to my laptop. 1GB is a funny size by modern standards as it illustrates an impasse in data transfers. Its too big to burn to a CD and its too slow to be transferred by 10/100 or airport networks (5-10 minutes is a long time). The most obvious answer was FireWire, which I figured would take around 2 mins,
but connecting my PowerBook directly to the G5 via FireWire would have meant setting up target disk mode, and that's too slow too. So I decided to use the iPod.

Everything in place, I fired up the movie. It took the poor G4 a little time to page everything in to virtual memory, but once it had enough memory the playback was rock solid! Had portable movies finally arrived? Well... no. My G4 is 18 months old now and the battery is waning. I can normally watch an hour or so of DVD before the battery gives out, I got about 20 minutes of
H.264. H.264 eats battery. Unless you are near a power supply it simply isn't an option on the move - at least not at DVD quality. I guess we're at a bit of an impasse. We need extra compression to get the content onto the laptops, but we need extra grunt to decompress it, and that costs battery life. As ever, we're waiting for battery technology to catch up. The only
way round this is to have H.264 hardware on board to reduce the processor load.

So will I continue to backup my DVD collection? Probably not. I've got around 100 DVDs, not the largest collection by any stretch of the imagination. I learnt the hard way that only a fool keeps their library in a single place with my music collection, at the moment that is covered by my iPod, and as a last resort I've still got all my old CDs somewhere. I estimate that I will need 300GB of storage just for the DVDs I've got at the moment (probably as two external hard drives) that will cost me around £250. Then there is the time it would take to backup in the first place, if I started now I'd probably be finished by September (backing up shouldn't be
measured in months). H.264 is clearly a superior standard to MPEG2 - it really is as good, if not
better because of the reduced jaggies, at 25% of the size. Unless something clever happens with the way the codec is implemented, I simply can't see a situation where I would routinely put myself through 20 hours of encoding, even at 1 hour TV program would take 10 hours to compress (not exactly real time) so its not even useful for PVR duties. The fact is that general
purpose CPUs just aren't the right tool for the job, until hardware codec's are available for £20 my DVDs are staying where the movie industry wants them... on DVDs.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Maybe I've over-reacted

I think I get it. I think I know why they're making the move and I think I can get my head around it.

I'm an ex-PC user and full time geek. Things like processor architecture, harddrive protocols and system design are my bread and butter. I read technical manuals for fun... no really, ask my girlfriend. The ideological change between RISC and CISC, big-endian and little-endian are almost a religious subject to me. Then I remembered that I use Macs now. Part of the Mac platform is that you give up your hold on the hardware. Sure you can swap in the odd bit of memory or a new harddisk, but motherboards, processors and video cards are decided for you and your pretty much stuck with them. You have to buy into the 'it just works' mentality and get on with the job in hand, using your computer, not fixing your computer.
The ONLY thing I should be worrying about when I make my next Mac purchase is does my new Mac work better than my old Mac. With the quad core Pentiums that Intel have in the pipeline and the already higher clock speeds then they probably will. I don't want to even think about having to worry about software working - I've bought into the 'it just works' - so it should just work - and if the key note presentation is anything to go buy, it should.
This opens up a really interesting future for Apple. Not being tied into a hardware platform is a new sort of freedom. The message I'm getting is that Apple have designed OS X to be the best. If to be the best it needs to run on Intel x86 processors then that is what it will do. So I guess that if in 2008, they decided that the Cell is going to be the next big thing they'll start making Macs that run on those too, and if this new Rosetta technology is any good as they say, we won't even notice.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The end is nigh

I've just found out that Apple are moving to Intel x86 processors in 2007.
This saddens me in ways that only other geeks can understand. I know that
x86 processors are currently faster than PowerPC, but that has to change
doesn't it? x86 is a fantastic platform for single processor machines, like
the current crop of desktop computers, but that has to change in the short
term. Intel have plans to role out multi-core x86 chips, but they're already
being beaten at their own game by AMD.

PowerPC is the architecture for the future when it comes to multi-core
processors - look at the new crop of games console - even they know that the
future of performance processing is multi-core PPC - x86 has always been a
dogs dinner in comparison.