Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Monday, April 20, 2009

I may have not been correct

When I said Apple should buy Sun, whether that was a good idea or not, it seems to have failed to occur. Instead, we find that Oracle have done the necessary. Well, there goes my already-outdated SUNW tag. Presumably they’ll keep Java (the licensing revenue is actually pretty good), MySQL (I’ve heard that Oracle make databases), the OS and a subset of the hardware gear. Then they’ll become the all-in-one IT industry in a box vendors that Cisco have yet to organise, with (presumably x86) servers running the Solaris-Glassfish-Oracle-Java app stack in some insanely fast fashion. I wonder how many of the recent leftfield hardware projects they’ll just jettison, and who will end up running the Santa Clara business unit…

posted by Graham Lee at 22:22  

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Solaris iPhone Edition

Apple’s one new feature in Snow Leopard is support for Exchange, which if not squarely an Enterprise lure is certainly bait for medium businesses. But here we hit Apple’s perennial problem; they want to sell more into businesses (because that’s where at least 2/3 of all PC money is to be made) but they want to design their systems for home users. When a system is designed to cover every possible potential use for a computer we end up with Windows, which is the kind of “few things to all people” solution that Apple are – rightly – keen to avoid. But as Tim Cook’s “state of the Mac” segment in the recent laptop event showed, one of Apple’s biggest growth areas is education which is organised along enterprisey lines.

Their solution thus far has been a partial one; we get Mac OS X which is basically a consumer OS, and then we get Mac OS X server which is the same OS with a few configuration changes and extra apps to support being used as a workgroup server. This is less distinct than the changes between Mac OS X and iPhone OS X, but the principle is the same; the same technology is used in different ways, so we get different interfaces to it. Note that these aren’t really very divergent products – a UNIX expert could set up an Open Directory Master on a standard Mac OS X box were they so inclined. We get the Mac Pro and the XServe as nods to the existence of more powerful hardware than the iMac. While Apple do have a network of business development managers, enterprise sales people, sales engineers and so on who can support larger customers, their capabilities and freedom are restricted by working on a consumer product in a consumer organisation.

Assuming that Apple aren’t going to retreat and consolidate all of their effort on the consumer/prosumer, the logical plan seems to be “the same only more so”; carry on the scheme of applying a common technology base to multiple markets, but with the product interfaces and configurations being specific to the role in which they’ll be used. Empower those enterprise sales, support and development teams to make the changes required in both the shared technology base and the domain-specific parts in order to advance their own cause. Allow them to do so in such a way that the consumer focus of the standard products is not diluted. To do all this, what Apple would need is to clearly delineate their Core OS, Consumer OS and Server OS engineering groups, while adding staff, expertise and intellectual property to their Server OS, Server Hardware and Enterprise Support groups.

The bit about “adding staff, expertise and intellectual property to their Server OS, Server Hardware and Enterprise Support groups” can be easily achieved by using the Blue Peter principle. Here’s one I prepared earlier. And no, I’m not going mad. Sun have plenty of experience in supporting larger customers and what marketing people like to call vertical markets, and have some good technology: hardware, operating systems software, enterprise services and applications. Their only problem is that they can’t make any money on it. On the other hand with Apple it seems that the money is there to be made, and the problem is stepping up to that plate without compromising the consumer products. Consolidating Mac OS X [+ Server] and Solaris 10 would not be trivial but is not beyond the realms of fantasy. NeXTSTEP ran on SPARC hardware, and as we know that Mac OS X runs on PPC, two different Intel architectures and ARM it’s likely that the effort to port Mac OS X to SPARC would not be great. But perhaps more useful in the short term is that OpenStep ran on Solaris before, and could do again. Even though Sun have switched Solaris to a SYSV-derived platform, due to Apple’s recent push for standardisation with Leopard the two OS are likely more source-code compatible than NeXTSTEP and SunOS 4 ever were. Getting Cocoa up on Solaris would mean that application portability (for the sorts of apps that server admins will want – including Apple’s own server admin tools, not for OmniDazzle) becomes viable while the combined company (Snapple?) concentrate on integrating the core tech. They could even get Jonathan Schwartz to do the coding.

Another factor in this proposition is that JAVA is cheap. Apple currently have about $20B in cash and Sun’s shares are worth $3.6B, but taking into account that Sun have lost 98% of their dot-com-boom value without slowing their R&D projects, the value for money when you want them for their tech, smarts and goodwill rather than their user base is astounding.

Oh, and speaking of JAVA, what about Java? Java currently represents Sun’s main income due to the licensing scheme, but Apple’s investment in the platform has declined over time from the Rhapsody days of “everything is Java”; currently the available Java on Mac OS X lags behind Sun’s version and isn’t ppc64 compatible. The WebObjects team (and hence the Apple store and iTunes) have a heavy Java investment, while other teams have dropped Java (Cocoa) and still others eschew it completely. The iPhone has a very busy developer ecosystem – and absolutely no Java. Where the hypothetical Snapple would leave Java is entirely open, but the option of packaging up the combined company’s Java assets and re-selling them would seem unnecessary, unless you thought that even $3.6B was too much to pay.

posted by Graham Lee at 00:43  

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It was asked for: the “features” post

Someone anonymous once said:
I’m intrigued by your feature comment. Please publish said blog post!
Where said comment was:
The fact that I have stopped using the word ‘feature’ in many contexts is an entire blog post and a few therapy sessions in itself.
So here, for your delectation, is that entire blog post.

When you’re trying to decide what software people want, and indeed how to tell them that they want whatever software they’re going to get instead, that’s marketing (mainly – it’s partly sales, and there’s yet another tangential post on why I occasionally deliberately conflate marketing and sales). Marketing works in terms of features, which for the purposes of marketing means “properties or qualities of the software which we think might make people interested in that software”.

When you’re trying to decide what software to build, or trying to build the software, more specific terms are used. Initially people split requirements into two distinct groups, functional (what the system is capable of) and non-functional (how the system goes about its capabilities), but a more precise organisation is often needed. For instance, a requirement of system security might result in both functional and non-functional aspects of the system being specified.

Of course, some or all of the capabilities are also features, in fact it’s generally true that the set of all features, the set of all known requirements and the set of things the customer wants are intersecting subsets of the set of all possible qualities of a software system. Companies without an intersection between any two of these sets tend to go out of business very quickly. But the sets rarely perfectly overlap.

For instance, it’s a feature of Windows 7 that it’s named differently from Windows Vista, because Microsoft’s marketing requires that customers believe that they’ve put Vista behind them. However, it’s also a feature of Windows 7 that it not be very distinct from Vista, because marketing require that application compatibility doesn’t get broken. Hence we have the interesting situation that Windows 7 is also Windows 6.1. And if Microsoft think they’re being innovative in that version numbering policy, they should try looking up the history of SunOS/Solaris version numbers. BTW, indeed I haven’t switched my SUNW tag to JAVA, because I already use the java tag to mean the Java language and the Java platform. Marketing people can be funny sometimes.

Another example, less confusing though more contradictory, is Apple’s Snow Leopard collateral. The fact that marketing are telling us there are no new features in Snow Leopard means that “no features” is something they believe we might want to buy, which in turn makes it a featureā€¦Ā confused?

So anyway, I try to avoid using the word “feature” when I’m talking about software, because I’m usually instead talking about a capability or property of a software system, and not about marketing that software system. For instance, in Properties about a year on I described properties as a capability of the Objective-C 2.0 language, which indeed they are. It happens that properties is also a feature of the language (don’t believe that programming languages have marketing departments? What else do Apple’s tech evangelists do, if it isn’t marketing?), but in the case of that post I was talking about what can be done with properties, how properties can be used, and not how they can switch developers to Leopard from Tiger or .NET.

And in other news, it seems that badly-parked tech company founder Mercs are back in fashion.

posted by Graham Lee at 20:27  

Friday, June 13, 2008

WWDC day four

Not so many sessions attended today – partly because I’ve reached the limit of what the human physiology can achieve on a diet of coffee and doughnuts. But also due to ducking out of sessions to meet with ex-NeXT guys, ex-Lighthouse guys and ex-colleagues for most of the afternoon. Of course, this was followed by the beer bash, no longer the campus bash which we all know and fondly remember (or at least we all fondly remember queueing for a couple of hours at each end for the coach) but still a good event. Speaking of ex-Lighthouse guys, Wylie and I spent a bit of time putting Sun’s world to rights (essentially, if they were to stop diluting the Java brand, stop pulling themselves in every which way and try to make some money, they might do OK).

So tomorrow is the NeXT meetup at the beginning of lunch, I have a lab appointment at exactly 12 which is a little annoying but I’ll try to make it over. If the G4 cube is the right shape, wrong CPU and Real Men’s Objects use the NX prefix, then come over to the front of the Moscone West after the second session.

posted by Graham Lee at 06:26  

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