Apple on WWDC: Innovation or Catch Up?

I was present at Apple’s WWDC yesterday and witnessed one of the historical moments in Apple’s history, the introduction of their 64-bit platform. Am I impressed? The answer is complicated. I was happy to see Apple moving on and deliver. But I would have expected nothing less from a 4 billion tech company who had the need to catch up with the “other” platform, the 32-bit PC. You all heard by now what’s new in yesterday’s press releases and news coverings. But here is a wrap up of the first day of the conference and a commentary on what Apple really announced yesterday, underneath its surrounding distortion field.

We got there (myself and my friend,’s Jill Ratkevic) quite early so we got through the media registration on time (thankfully they let me in, as they couldn’t find my name on their list, while I was already pre-registered via the Apple PR!!) and then we spoke to a few Apple people around. I waved to Steve Sakoman from a distance (the Newton & the BeBox architect; was at Be/PalmSource before he got back to Apple a few months ago after 13 years) and saw a few well known journalists in the tech area. At around 9:30 AM the gates opened, and they let us into the auditorium, where the keynote would take place.

The Media people were all in the left area of the room, next to the VIPs, and after half an hour everyone in the room was already sit, all 3,500 of us. Lighting was good, air conditioning was also good, and everything was going according to plan. All very well organized.

At 10:00 AM, Steve Jobs got on the stage. That was the second time I was seeing Steve live, but I somehow knew he would be… wearing the the same black t-shirt and jeans as in every other public appearance/event (yeah, for us women, clothing is a matter of discussion :).

Click for a larger version So, the keynote kicked in with a roundup of the current achievements of Apple the past few months, the 5 million songs sold via iTunes, the iPod etc. Then, the Panther presentation started and we learned about the updated UFS file system (possibly with journaling support by default), Samba 3, VPN updates, rootless X11 by default included in the OS, faster Preview PDF version, local file encryption, built-in fax capability (showed in every Print dialog) and some font management. Nothing really groundbreaking here, just updates on the OS for things that were really needed and that other OSes already have. A nice update nevertheless.

The cool-stuff-to-look-at would definately be the new Finder, which is really not “new,” but it has being reworked on its usability side and now it includes more options on its root menu. A new “Actions” menu allows you to extend the functionality of the file manager while you now have the ability to add labels to your folders. What not many people have realized though, when Steve was doing the Finder search demo, is the kind of search that was performed. BeOS users would absolutely recognize the pattern of “spitting out” results in the search window, one by one. The new file system is obviously indexed by default and what remains to be seen is if Live Queries are also included. Live Queries is, in fact, the only feature that BeOS’ BFS still has over other fs implementations, as it requires kernel support. XFS has this feature, but the Linux kernel does not embrace it, and even worse, there are no Linux apps to actually support these specific XFS features.

So, what is “Live Queries” you ask? Well, let’s say that you have two Finder windows open, and you search on a large directory (let’s say, /Users/Eugenia/files/) for all files that start with the word “tap” on them. The search Finder window will get you the results. Now, go to the other Finder window and drop from your desktop the file taper.jpg to the /Users/Eugenia/files/ folder. Now watch the search Finder window and it has automatically updated its search results to include the new file! It might not sound very useful in this example, but under BeOS were every file had attributes, you could search by this attribute and have complex searches (“Queries”), which could also be saved for future searching). My husband never used an email client for example when he was using BeOS. Each email was an individual file under BeOS, so you could use the file manager itself to sort out your email via multiple/advanced ways! Anyways, enough ramblings about Finder and Live Queries. It is not much of a surprise though, as Dominic Giampaolo (creator of BeOS BFS) and Pavel Cisler (creator of BeOS Tracker file manager and part of the Easel Nautilus team) now work at Apple too!

Expose and Fast User Switching are impressive for “MacOS X first timers” as these feature sport funky visual effects when you use them. I heard a number of “wow” in the salle, including the journalist sitting next to me. I told him, “it is just Quartz Extreme hard at work, nothing new”. He wouldn’t listen. And at the end of that specific presentation, Steve Jobs said “so, you wonder how we do that? With Quartz Extreme!” And then the guy looked back at me and said “aaah…”. Just made me think how people get easily excited over a few visual effects, without understand what’s what and where they come from, and how much or how little engineering might these features really needed.

So, what is Expose? It is the Apple way of dealing with window clutter. It is Apple’s ‘virtual desktop’ solution. It zooms down the opened windows using Quartz Extreme’s 3D capabilities, and then you easily select which window you want to come into focus full-size. Fast User Switching is just like XP’s, but each time you are changing to a different user, it moves the whole screen as a cube to the other user’s desktop. Yeah, innovation. Pretty much like this innovation. Hehe…

And then, it was iChat AV and its iSight web camera (every attendee in the WWDC got one for free btw). Well, nothing to say about it really. The camera is slick looking (and shouldn’t have cost more than $80 or $90 at best), it is just an IM application with camera/audio support, just like MSN 6. Only with less features.

I was happy about the development updates though. The Apple version of GCC apparently supports precompiled headers just like Visual C++ has for years now (props! no other version of GCC does that), they now support distributed compiling (at last, Rendezvous hard at work!), Fix and Continue support (SGI does that since 1995, VC++ does that too now), and background compilation (just like Basic on AtariST – yeah). Well, no matter if the above sentence sounded bitter to you, it is not. I am happy seeing Apple providing good support for development stuff. But don’t expect it to be revolutionary and don’t believe Steve’s hype. It is definately evolutionary. It is a positive evolution. But it ain’t innovation. It is catch up.

Click for a larger version And same goes for this Panther release. This release of the OS — at least the features presented to us — did not reveal any major innovations. No re-definitions of how we do things. Please, don’t think that I am negative on Apple, because it isn’t true. But I do see things the way they are and not as Steve Jobs would like me to. Last year’s Jaguar WAS innovative, WAS revolutionary: Quartz Extreme, Renderzvous, Inkwell, Sherlock 3. These were brand new features not found on other systems of the time. With Panther, we actually see Apple try to USE these technologies into their system instead of just having them lurking in the background having us pray that new apps might come out that actually use them. Yes people, Panther is the continuation of Jaguar; it is the version of the OS that uses these last year’s innovative technologies, but it doesn’t really include any new innovations of its own (except being 64-bit that is, which is not really a user feature, but a system feature). Where is full MIME support for example? But hey, you can’t (truly) innovate every year, I’ll give you that. 😉

Then, it was the time for the G5. Yes, this is an exciting hardware release. The G5 is a solid and fast machine. Some people said that it doesn’t look sexy, but I think that we see a turn of Apple into more workstation markets, so this “professional and serious-looking” case is actually appropriate and to be expected.

So, Apple now has a brand new 64-bit processor, the PPC970, with up to 2 GHz speeds and promises for 3 GHz in 12 months. Support for FW800, USB 2, AGP Pro 8x, PCI and PCI-X (depends which model you buy), 9-fan but quiet case, up to 8 GB RAM (“broke the 4 GB barrier” as Steve Jobs puts it), 1 GHz bus for the high-end model.

Let me jump the gun and say that if you plan to buy a G5, get the dual 2 GHz one, yes, the $3000 high-end one. The lower end ones are bad buys (especially the 1.6 GHz model). I don’t know what Apple was thinking when creating the 1.6 GHz (money probably) but they use DDR333 on a 800 Mhz bus. That means that the CPU has to wait for the RAM to finish its cycle before it receives the new data. They should have included DDR 400 on that model too in my opinion.

Apple showed us demos of Logic, Photoshop, Mathematica and a 3D rendering app going against a Dell dual Xeon machine. We were not told of the specifics of the Dell Xeon machine, nor if HT was properly turned on in the BIOS. We were also not told if these Mac apps were specifically optimized for the G5, e.g. if they were versions that will never see the light of day on a retail box, but built specifically for the demo. Anyhow, on all instances, the dual 2 GHz G5 had much-much better performance than the Dell machine. However, I would advise to not jump the gun so fast on this. I mean, come on, iTunes and Safari are still not baby-smooth… when resizing their windows on the fastest G5! I played with the machine for a few minutes and was [again this year] negatively surprised by this simple thing that Apple still haven’t being able to master with both Panther and the new CPU: scrolling and resizing. I think I will send a copy of BeOS or Windows XP to Steve Jobs for Christmas, just so he can compare.

Power Mac G5 Additionally, Apple did the SPEC benchmarks using GCC 3.3 on both x86 and PPC, while the vast majority of the C/C++ developers in the x86 Windows land actually use the much faster and much more optimized for P4/Xeons/HT Intel ICC compiler. Then, you will probably find out that Apple’s numbers are not really that fair. They keep calling their x86 benchmark results to have come out of the “best PC money can buy,” but they don’t explain to us how the Pentium 4 scores more than ~1200 at, while Apple gives it a measly ~800 number on its own results. Apparently, the PC they tested with, it’s not the fastest P4 money can buy. Most user-oriented applications are using integer and not floating point anyway (PPC970’s main strength). But workstation-class applications might need fp. [Update: Others had similar thoughts as well regarding the real speed of P4/Xeons. Here is another article as well at hand. And another one.]

I am not saying that G5 is slow. It is not! It is a fast machine. It is the product that has made Apple really caught up with the competition. But I don’t see the dual G5 at 2 GHz overcoming the x86 today. Intel released today a 3.2 GHz P4 and they expect a new P4 version (faster core per same speed), to go all the way up to 4 GHz before the end of this year. Apple’s roadmap is to reach 3 GHz in a year from now. So, has Apple caught up now for real, or Intel will speed through again and leave Apple in the same condition as it was until last Sunday night? We will know in a few months.

My other problem with the G5 is its entry-point price. The lowest-end model (the one with the slaughtered memory version) starts at a minimum of $2000. Seeing how close the prices of the 1.6 and 1.8 are, I would argue that Apple could go lower and introduce the low-end model for $1700 or $1800. This new G5 business, are really in need of a cheap offering. Oh, and while you are at it, move down the price of the eMac G4 to $499 to better compete with the cheap PCs. Apple really needs to offer cheaper computers. In my opinion, the important thing in this point in time in Apple’s history is not the profit margin. It is the market share percentage. This is where Apple loses a small sum everyday these days and it could prove fatal if developers leave the platform because of the declined user base. So Apple, show us that $499 eMac of yours! We know you got margins!

Anyway, enough rambling. After the keynote was over, we got downstairs to the actual showfloor, and it was nice to see companies like Perforce, Oracle,, Metrowerks, Trolltech, Big Nerd Ranch, LaCie, O’Reilly, 4D, Frontbase, REALBasic and more. The participation of the Mac developers was quite high. There were many people at the conference, even with this hefty registration fee. I suggest you go over to the conference sometime this week if you got the needed money to register. It is a nice, interesting, well-organized event overall with some interesting development sessions throughout the week. Get yourself up to speed with the Apple world. It’s worth it. Just don’t take into account everything as served to you by marketing, but use your head.


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