Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

I make it easier and faster for you to write high-quality software.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Six Colours

Apple has, in my opinion, some of the best general-purpose computing technology on the market right now, and has had some of the best for all of this millennium. However, their business practices are increasingly punitive, designed to extract greater amounts of rental income from their existing customers (“want to, um, read the newspaper? $9.99/mo, and we get to choose which newspaper!”), with rules that punish those who aren’t interested in helping them extract that rent.

Throughout the iPhone era, Apple has dealt arbitrary hands to people who try to work with them: removing the I Am Rich app without explanation; giving News Corp. a special arrangement to allow in-app subscriptions when nobody else could do it; allowing Netflix to carry on operating rent-free while disallowing others.

People put up with this for the justifiable reason that the Apple technology platform is pleasant and easy to use, well-integrated across multiple contexts including desktop, mobile, wearable and home. None of Apple’s competitors are even playing the same game: you could build some passable simulacrum using multiple vendor technology (for example Windows, Android, Dropbox; or Ubuntu, Replicant, Nextcloud) but no single outlet is going to sell you the “it just works” version of that setup. Not even any vendor consortium works together to provide the same ease and integration: you can’t buy a Windows PC from Samsung, for example, that’ll work out of the box with your Galaxy phone. Even if you get your Chromebook and your Pixel phone from Google, you’ve got some work ahead of you to get everything synced up.

And then, of course, since the failure of their banner ad business, Apple have successfully positioned themselves as the non-ad, non-data-gathering company. Sure, you could get everything we’re doing cheaper elsewhere: but at what cost?

My view is that the one fact—the high-quality technology—doesn’t excuse the other—the rent-extracting business model and capricious heavy-handed application of “the rules” with anyone who tries to work with them. People try to work with them because of the good technology, and get frustrated, enervated, or shut down because of the power imbalance in business. It is OK to criticise Apple for those things they’re not doing well or fairly; it’s a grown-up company worth trillions of dollars, it’ll probably weather the storm. If enough people on the inside learn about and address the criticisms, they may even get better, which will be good for a massive global network of Apple’s employees, suppliers, and customers.

It seems to me that some people (and I’m explicitly talking about people outside Apple now, obviously employees are expected to abide by whatever internal rules the company has and it takes a special kind of person to blow the whistle) will brook none of that. There are people who will defend the two-trillion dollar corporation blocking some small indie’s business; “they’re just applying their rules” (the rules that say I’ll know it when I see it, indicating explicitly that capricious application is to be expected).

It seems weird that a Person On The Internet would feel the need to rush to the defence of The World’s Biggest Company, and so to my mind it seems like they aren’t. It seems like they’re rushing to the defence of 1990s Beleaguered Apple, the company with three weeks of salary money in the bank that’s running on the memory of having the best computers and the hope that maybe the twenty-first model we release this month will be the one that sells. The Apple with its six-coloured logo, where you have to explain that actually the one-button mouse doesn’t make it a toy and you can do real work with it, but could you please send that document in Word 6 format as my Word can’t open Word 97 files thank you. The Apple where actually if you specced up a PC to match this it would probably cost about the same, it’s just that PCs also cover the lower end. The Apple where every friend or colleague you convinced to at least try it out meant a blow to the evil monolith megacorporation bringing computing to the dark side with its nefarious, monopolistic practices and arbitrary treatment of its partners.

That company no longer needs defending. It would be glib to say “that Apple ceased trading on February 7, 1997”, the date that NeXT, Inc. finally disappeared as an independent business. But that’s not what happened. That company slowly boiled as the temperature around it rose. The iMac, iBook, iPod, Mac OS X, iPhone, iPad: all of these things came out of that company. Admittedly, so did iTools, .Mac, and Mobile Me, but eventually along came iCloud. Obviously 2020 Apple is a continuation of the spirit and culture of 1997 Apple, 1984 Apple, 1976 Apple. It has some of the same people, and plenty of people who learned from the people who are and were the same people. But it is also entirely different. Through a continuum of changes, but no deliberate “OK, time to rip off the mask” conversion, Apple is now the IBM that fans booed in 1984, or the Microsoft that fans booed in 1997.

It’s OK to not like that, to not defend it, but to still want something good to come out of their great technology. We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, everyone else has to lose.

posted by Graham at 09:03  

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Nvidia and ARM

Nvidia’s ambitions are scarcely hidden. Once it owns Arm it will withdraw its licensing agreements from its competitors, notably Intel and Huawei, and after July next year take the rump of Arm to Silicon Valley

This tech giant up for sale is a homegrown miracle – it must be saved for Britain

posted by Graham at 14:35  

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Fairness

There are two different questions of fairness when it comes to the App Store rules. Apple always spin it to mean “these rules are applied fairly”, which is certainly not true. Putting aside questions of why Netflix get to do things Hey don’t, it’s pretty obvious that the rules include “don’t make apps in these spaces where Apple has apps” that don’t apply to Apple. It’s also clear that nobody in the App Store team is rules lawyering Apple apps on the rest of the rules, either.

But all of that ignores the larger question, “are these rules fair?”

posted by Graham at 21:11  

Friday, August 7, 2020

grotag

Lots of Amiga documentation was in the AmigaGuide format. These are simple ASCII documents with some rudimentary markup to turn them into hypertext, working something like TeXInfo manuals. Think more like a markdown-enabled Gopher than the web though: you can link out to an image, video, or any other media (you could once you had AmigaOS 3, anyway) but you can’t display it inline.

Unfortunately choices for modern readers are somewhat limited. Many links are only now found on the Internet Archive, and many of those don’t go to downloads you can actually download. I found a link to an old grotag binary, but it was PowerPC-only.

…and it was on Sourceforge, so I cloned the project and updated the build. I haven’t created a new package yet, but it runs well enough out of Idea. I need to work out how you package Java Swing apps, then do that. It’ll be worth fixing a couple of deprecations, putting assets like the CSS file in the JAR, and maybe learning enough JavaFX to port the UI:

grotag AmigaGuide viewer

To use it, alongside your Guide file you also need a grotag.xml that maps Amiga volume links onto local filesystem paths, so that grotag can find nodes linked to other files. There’s an example of one in the git repo.

posted by Graham at 21:26  

Friday, August 7, 2020

Concrete freedoms

Discussions about free software or open source software can always seem a bit abstract. Who cares if I’ve got the source code, if I’m never going to read it or change it? Why would I want “free” versions of my apps when there are already plenty of zero-cost (i.e. as free as I need) alternatives in my App Store?

This has been the year in which Apple tightened the screws on the App Store, making it clear that anyone who isn’t giving them their 30% or 15% cut or isn’t Netflix or Spotify is on thin ice. In an Orwellian move, they remote-killed Charlie Monroe’s apps and told users that they couldn’t run apps they’d paid for, because the apps would damage their computers.

At the base of the definition of free and open source software are the four freedoms. The first:

The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).

This is freedom “zero” not just because of the C-style zero indexing pun, but because it was added into the space preceding freedom one after the other three were written. The Free Software Foundation didn’t think it needed explicitly stating, but apparently it does.

In a free software world, YOU are free to run software as you wish, for any purpose. Some trillion-dollar online company pretending to be a bricks-and-mortar retailer equivalent isn’t going to come along and say “sorry, we’ve decided we don’t want you running that, and rather than explain why we’re just going to say it’s for your own good.” They aren’t going to stop developers from sharing or selling their software, on the basis that they haven’t paid enough of a tithe to the mothership.

These four freedoms may seem abstract, but they have real and material consequences. So does their absence.

posted by Graham at 17:15  

Monday, August 3, 2020

The Object is the Advantage

NeXT marketed their workstations by letting Sun convince people they wanted a workstation, then trying to convince customers (who were already impressed by Sun) that their workstation was better.

As part of this, they showed how much better the development tools were, in this very long reality TV infomercial.

posted by Graham at 20:13  

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Getting started on my Vampire V4

Apollo accelerators make the Vampire, the fastest Motorola 680×0-compatible accelerators for Amiga around. Actually, they claim that with the Sheepsaver emulator to trap ROM calls, it’s the fastest m68k-compatible Mac around too.

The Vampire Standalone V4 is basically that accelerator, without the hassle of attaching it to an Amiga. They replicated the whole chipset in FPGA, and ship with the AROS ROMs and OS for an open-source equivalent to the real Amiga experience.

I had a little bit of trouble setting mine up (this is not surprising, as they’re very early in development of the standalone variant and are iterating quickly). Here’s what I found, much of it from advice gratefully received from the team in the Apollo Slack. I replicate it here to make it easier to discover.

You absolutely want to stick to a supported keyboard and mouse, I ended up getting the cheapest compatible from Amazon for about £20. You need to connect the mouse to the USB port next to the DB-9 sockets, and the keyboard to the other one. On boot, you’ll need to unplug and replug the mouse to get the pointer to work.

The Vampire wiki has a very scary-looking page about SD cards. You don’t need to worry about any of that with the AROS image shipped on the V4. Insert your SD card, then in the CLI type:

mount sd0:

When you’re done:

assign sd0: dismount
assign sd0: remove

The last two are the commands to unmount and eject the disk in AmigaDOS. Unfortunately I currently find that while dismounting works, removing doesn’t; and then subsequent attempts to re-mount sd0: also fail. I don’t know if this is a bug or if I’m holding it wrong.

The CF card with the bootable AROS image has two partitions, System: and Work:. These take up around 200MB, which means you’ve got a lot of unused space on the CF card. To access it, you should get the fixhddsize tool. UnLHA it, run it, enter ata.device as your device, and let it fix things for you.

Now launch System:Tools/HDToolBox. And click “Add Entry”. In the Devices dialog, enter ata.device. Now click that device in the “Changed Name” list, then double-click on the entry that appears (for me, it’s SDCFXS-0 32G...). You’ll see two entries, UDH0: (that’s your System: partition) and UDH1: (Work:). Add an entry here, selecting the unused space. When you’ve done that, save changes, close HDToolBox, and reboot. You’ll see your new drive appear in Workbench, as something like UDH2:NDOS. Right click that, choose Format, then Quick Format. Boom.

My last tip is that AROS doesn’t launch the IP stack by default. If you want networking, go to System:Prefs/Network, choose net0 and click Save. Optionally, enable “Start networking during system boot”.

posted by Graham at 23:55  

Saturday, August 1, 2020

6502

On the topic of the Apple II, remember that MOS was owned by Commodore Business Machines, a competitor of Apple’s, throughout the lifetime of the computer. Something to bear in mind while waiting to see where ARM Holdings lands.

posted by Graham at 16:06  

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Obsolescence

An eight-year-old model of iPad is now considered vintage and obsolete. For comparison, the Apple ][ was made from 1977-1993 (16 years) and the January 1983 Apple //e would’ve had exactly the same software support as the final model sold in November 1993, or the compatibility cards for Macintosh sold from 1991 onwards.

posted by Graham at 12:28  

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