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Psystar’s luck runs out

Written by Matthew JC Powell Wednesday, 27 May 2009 04:44

The “Clone Wars” appear to have ended before they really began, with unauthorised clone-builder Psystar filing for bankruptcy protection. The immediate effect of that will be to halt the legal proceedings between Psystar and Apple, but longer-term there may be broader implications.

It was never likely that Psystar was going to win the right to build and sell its cheap-as-chips computers with unauthorised copies of Mac OS X installed on them. That never even looked legal and no court would have allowed it to continue. Its arguments in court to date have wavered between outlandish, illogical and incoherent, and its public behaviour has bordered on belligerence. Having already awakened the hungry bears in Apple’s legal department, why keep poking them with sticks?

However, the case getting to court and Apple being forced to state its case as to its right to restrict the distribution of Mac OS X only to its own hardware would at the very least have been interesting. There may even have been a possibility of an outcome where Apple was compelled to some form of licensing, and that might have altered the landscape of the personal computer market. For good or bad, who can know? The fun would have been in watching.

The timing of Psystar’s filing is interesting. Next week, on the 5th of June, there was to be a hearing at which Psystar’s “equity creditors” would have been named. This was because Apple (and probably the judge) was as curious as anyone else as to where Psystar was getting the money for its legal defence. Speculation was rife that a big-name PC vendor like HP or Dell might have been funding Psystar, in hopes of a forced-licensing outcome. Dell has made no secret of its desire to sell Mac OS X, but whether it would go so far as to fund a quixotic legal campaign by stealth in order to do so is very much open to question.

If Apple had been forced into a settlement whereby it had to license Mac OS X to Psystar, it very likely would have entered into a licensing arrangement with a more reputable hardware vendor as well. Perhaps one that knows how to build a sub-$US500 computer that isn’t junk. We may well have seen that Mac netbook that some people seem to want, even if it wouldn’t be built by Apple — then Apple could take credit for the great OS and let someone else take the flak for the cheap hardware. An HP netbook running Mac OS X? Could work.

Or maybe we’d have seen that mid-range expandable machine, in between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro, that Apple refuses to build. Ah, the possibilities.

By filing for bankruptcy protection, all legal proceedings against Psystar are suspended. That means that hearing next Friday probably won’t take place, and the identities of Psystar’s shadowy backers will remain unrevealed. As will their grander designs.

This of course invites the speculation that Psystar’s bankruptcy is a direct result of those very creditors withdrawing their support — either to avoid discovery, or simply because they saw the writing on the wall as far as the likely outcome of the case was concerned.

(I mean seriously — arguing that Apple is abusing its monopoly power by inventing a niche “Mac OS X market” over which it has a monopoly? Picture some very worried-looking faces in a boardroom somewhere.)

Once the bankruptcy procedures have run their course, it’s likely that Apple’s case against Psystar for copyright infringement will continue, though the outcome will be a foregone conclusion. Psystar has demonstrably shallow pockets at this point, so settling out of court is the only real option.

So what happens next? Presumably whoever was backing Psystar was backing Psystar because they wanted something in particular. It’s unlikely that what they wanted was to prop up a small business out of all proportion and then pull the rug at the last second. That would have been an extremely elaborate practical joke, but not really good corporate practice. Not really all that funny either.

Most likely these backers (whoever they are) will find a different way to strive for their goals — and perhaps invest in some legal advice prior to starting anything next time.

Meanwhile Apple is primed to defend its right to sell Mac OS X only to owners of Apple hardware. It’s been tested — albeit poorly — and come out ahead. The research has been done, and the lawyers are ready for the next attack.

So whatever thought there may have been of mid-range Macs and cheap netbooks with properly-licensed and supported Mac OS X on them moves further towards the horizon. Given the current state of the personal computer market (or any other market for that matter) you have to wonder whether or not that’s actually a good thing.

Psystar — See where it says "Order Now"? I wouldn't.

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Apple Store Robina opening

Written by BGrant Saturday, 09 May 2009 00:49

How do you explain why a couple of thousand Queenslanders would take time out of their Saturday morning to line up for a store opening and a t-shirt? An Apple Store is an experience, like the Mac itself, hard to explain to someone who hasn't walked in those shoes.

Apple Store Robina, in the heart of Queensland's sunny Gold Coast, burst into life at 9:00am on Saturday the ninth of May, with whooping and cheering and lots of hand clapping and slapping to welcome its first customers. It sounds so “American”, in spite of the choruses of “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi”, but being there, it's clear that this super-enthusiasm springs from a genuine enthusiasm for the product and the lifestyle it affords. What could be more Australian than, "she'll be right, just plug it in and away it goes"? But more than that, on a personal level, it's a reciprocal response to the hundreds who queued for hours for the opening of 'their' store.

There's 16 year old Karl and his mum Grace from Robina who had been camped out since 9:00pm the night before, to be the first in line.

Or Hoyland from Brisbane, sporting his genuine last of breed Apple Newton MessagePad — the forerunner of Apple's super successful iPhone — still in working condition.

And Matt from Bargara, near Bundaberg, six and a half hours drive from Robina, who left with an armful of Apple product and a weary but irrepressible smile.

Or any of the other 350 who were lined up at 9:00am, each with their own story, each eager to experience the singular shopping experience that is an Apple Store.

What a sight it was to see the entire staff of the Robina store whooping and hand slapping their way along the entire length of a line that stretched along two arms of a large suburban shopping centre. It truly was a fitting and heartfelt gesture of appreciation from Apple and the staff toward those who waited.

With more joining the queue every minute, it took more than an hour for everyone in the ever-growing line to make it into the store. And in that time, over 1300 people had passed through the doors, to more whooping, clapping, hand slapping, Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi, from the staff. An hour later, a further 300 had passed through the doors, with no sign of the pace slacking.

So what's so special and why all the fuss? Imagine a computer store with every product not only on display, but fully working, connected to the internet and completely available for anyone's use. You can even bring in your own computer and use the store's Wi-Fi, if you like. Nobody hovering over you to stop you or pushing you to buy something — the staff actually encourage you to try everything, for as long as you like.

You could write a novel in there, a day at a time. People actually have and nobody's more pleased than Apple and the staff that they can “give back to the community” in this way. Check your email, make a movie, test out every iPod, iPhone, headsets, boom boxes, printers, tv, MacBooks, iMacs, Mac Pro — see how quickly you can master the headset controls of the even smaller new iPod Shuffle.

There are carry bags, iPod cases, earphones and accessories, a wall of Apple and third party software. There's a children's area with iMacs loaded with educational and fun software. There's the famous Genius Bar where technicians fix most problems on the spot and even copy your old files across to your new computer for you. There's training, too. Mostly free.

Another free service is an hour of Personal Shopping with a specialist to suit your needs.

Robina is also hosting in-store performances by local recording artists. The first in Apple's Singer/Songwriter Festival was James Grehan performing songs from his latest album, “Chemical Sunsets” on Thursday 14th May.

Definitely not your beige box store nor Harvey Norman, Toshiba, Dell, HP, Sony. Not likely. This is the kind of thing that people will queue for. “Good old fashioned service” has found its way to Queensland.

What struck me about the store? Its pure Apple simplicity — rows and rows of working displays and no cash register.

Robina is the fourth Apple Store in Australia. It employs 50 local staff. And at the close of trading, 5000 people passed through the doors on Grand Opening day.

Apple Store Robina — check the web site for opening hours and to schedule training or personal shopper appointments.

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Broadband saga — persistence pays off

Written by Gazza Friday, 22 May 2009 01:25

Last year's National Broadband Rollout tender process and the recent announcement by the Prime Minister of the government's $43 billion National Broadband Network initiative have led to rural people like me thinking "Oh, yeah, more talk. We never seem to get any action to address our internet needs".

Those living in cities/towns generally don't realise the very poor choices many rural Australians have when it comes to broadband. I don't live in a remote area — just 10km, as the crow flies, from my nearest town. I now have an acceptable broadband link (albeit poor by city standards) but achieving connection turned out to be a rigmarole most people wouldn't have bothered setting in motion.

This story started some 18 months ago ...

In my rural Victorian setting there are no "spare pairs" in the Telstra copper cabling passing our property, and the cable is so old between here and the exchange (some 12 km away) that my neighbours report abysmal dial-up service for internet. ADSL is obviously out of the question on distance and copper line quality, and cable? What’s that?

One obvious solution might have been mobile WiFi broadband, a service which appeared to be shaping up well. However, Telstra’s closest tower is over 50km away — OK for 2G calls, SMS, and so on, but poor for any 3G data usage. The Optus tower, only 3km away, has no 3G service yet.

This left me with satellite as the only option — or so it appeared.

In the district at that time I’d begun to notice tall masts, with a small square white “box” on top, appearing on a few farm houses. Other houses in elevated positions had this same white box attached to a small fascia board mast. My neighbour, who had two of these white devices on the mast of his satellite TV dish, told me that they were WiFi antennae for broadband reception from a dedicated tower some 30km away. Ahh, things were looking up!

Enquiries to DCSI, the provider of this broadband service, elicited the response that successful WiFi reception required uninterrupted “line-of-sight” with one of thirteen transceiver towers spread over a 30km diameter area centred on their premises. Great — what was I going to do with the tall, dense group of trees along our council-owned access road, not to mention the ridge we’d placed our new house below for wind protection? Both of these effectively shielded the mandatory line-of-sight. Incidentally our TV reception was also intermittent because of the same trees and ridge.

Discussions with the interested neighbour spurred me on to further investigation. His setup was not only for his own WiFi reception but his second white antenna provided "repeater" access for another neighbour some 2km away, who was also shielded by a ridge. Could he also be a host" for me, I wondered?

Back to DCSI. The response: "A host can provide WiFi reception from only one additional antenna, but to multiple receivers if they are within the same 90-degree footprint and within 3km of the host antenna". I was 1.6km away and had line-of-sight alright — but not within the 90-degree footprint! Stymied again.

Another consultation with DCSI: "How far from the computer can an antenna be located?" The maximum cable run was 100 metres before supplementary signal amplifiers needed to be installed. My house was shielded by trees and a ridge but my dairy farmer neighbour had a hay shed some 80m away on the favourable side of the trees and ridge.

Can't hurt to ask. "If your hayshed meets the required reception conditions would you mind if I installed a mast with a small white antenna on it?" After incredulous looks and intriguing  questions he pondered and finally replied in the affirmative. Bingo! With some luck his hayshed might have direct, or repeater, WiFi access.

Two weeks later the WiFi installer came to assess the site. Standing on top of the hayshed he gazed through his binoculars only to inform me that there was no direct line of sight to a tower. Blast! However, a few minutes later he said there was a house, some 3km away, with a DCSI WiFi installation that could act as a host or repeater — but the owner had to agree. The sweetener for such potential hosts was discounted usage charges on their own broadband connection. This was to compensate for the addition of a second antenna on their roof and for the (small) power consumption required to run it.

Another agonising wait! Ten days later the news was positive — the first broadband connection problem was solved. The installer would return when I had the cabling issues resolved.

Now, how do I run 100 metres of external/shielded Category 5E (Ethernet) cable from my house to the hayshed over two paddocks and across the council-owned roadway between? The wide, dense row of trees on each side of the road meant an overhead link was out of the question. The only option was underground.  This provided numerous complexities of its own: Wombats proliferate in this area and have been known to disturb, and even break, Telstra phone cables some 900 mm below the surface; the roadway was often graded and had deep culverts dug beside it to carry away rainfall; the farmer regularly ploughed his paddocks and also had underground water pipes supplying his cattle drinking troughs.

The farmer indicated the location of the water pipe to be avoided and he confirmed that if the cable was 600mm deep his farming activities would not interfere with it. As the council would not be impressed with a trench through its roadway I needed to engage a trenching company who also did boring work in such situations.

I had a "brain wave" at this juncture. If the farmer didn’t mind a mast and small white broadband antenna on his hayshed, would he allow a TV antenna as well?  Kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. He was, by now, becoming used to my unusual requests and wearily agreed. (Was he possibly concerned with questions about his hayshed having TV reception?)

Once I'd acquired the underground conduit and fittings, some suitable cord for a pull-through, RG6 coaxial cable (for TV), a mast, and other required gear I called the trencher. After a morning of trenching and under-road boring I laid two rows of conduit, one with the TV coax and the other with the pull-through for the Cat 5 cable. (I could purchase 100m of the coax but not that same length of  shielded Cat 5 — the installer would later run off the required length from his 300m roll.) The trenching machine efficiently backfilled the excavation and at last stage two was complete.

Another week passed before the broadband installer returned. One look at the pull-through and he said "That won't do the job, but we will use it to pull through a much stronger cord". The shielded Cat 5 cable is stiff and heavy and, with bends to negotiate, we did not want any breakages! The installer climbed onto the hayshed and I crawled under the house. Little did I know that it would take nearly an hour to pull through, first the stronger cord, and then the Cat 5 cable attached to it. After lying on my stomach and pulling strenuously for 55 minutes I was incredibly stiff and sore. However I kept the impending result in mind and securely attached the cabling underfloor and inserted it up the wall and into my study through the "pathway" I had earlier prepared. While I was doing this, the installer attached the WiFi antenna to the TV mast I'd already erected and connected the Cat 5 cable. Nearly there!

The Ethernet socket was wired-up and screwed to the wall. One of the four Ethernet pairs is used to supply 18-volt power to the antenna. Ethernet fly leads were attached to both sides of a power supply, one to the wall socket, the other the router. Once the power supply was plugged into 240 volts, the antenna kicked into action. The router was configured and my MacBook was up and browsing. Hooray ...

... but alas, that was not the end of it!

Two months after the September installation I started to have serious slowdowns during the day. Often the connection would grind to a halt mid-afternoon only to return later in the day. There seemed no pattern to it. Some days it would be perfect, others not so. The technicians were as puzzled as I was because the problem was intermittent and not system-wide — terrific! After upgrading the router firmware and even replacing the router, there was no improvement. This went on all through the rest of November, December and January. After regular and oft-repeated grumblings from me, the tech in charge of WiFi arranged to come out with a full set of equipment to replace and test systematically, including a new antenna.

A few days before he was to come the penny suddenly dropped! On hot, sunny days, as it was  warming up, the broadband slowdowns would occur. As the sun was setting, connection returned. On cloudy or cooler days, there was no problem. In fear of being ridiculed I rang the tech to present my findings. Understandably he was sceptical. However a week later, after further intermittent disruptions, we had a scorcher — 39 degrees by lunchtime. The broadband connection disappeared around 10am, but returned at 2pm immediately after a vigorous cold front passed through. Convinced, I emailed him (wimping out on a phone call this time!)

I didn’t hear back until the morning of his arranged call-out. He rang to tell me that he wasn’t coming! What? However, he had contacted the Californian manufacturer of the WiFi antenna and related my experience to them. Yes, they had heard of this heat-related problem with a batch of antennae sent to Australia! They had compiled a firmware upgrade to address the issue, which could be downloaded from their web site. The tech had downloaded it to his server and already uploaded it to my antenna — these antennae are powered, active devices with their own IP address on the wide-area network.

Can you imagine the look on my dairy farmer neighbour’s face when I related this story to him? I think his mouth is still open!

Could this simple firmware upgrade address a heat-related issue? I wasn’t optimistic, but I’m very happy to say it has succeeded. The connection has worked without fault since that day and all through the extended, very hot weather in Victoria over the past summer and autumn. The bonus is that I now also have perfect digital TV reception!

As long as the wombats behave, the hayshed doesn’t catch on fire (it happens), the wind doesn’t exceed 100km/h by too much (the installation survived a recent 110km/h wind storm on "Black Saturday"), the regular yobbos passing through don’t use the antenna for target practice with their shotguns (as per the roadside signs) and the cockatoos don’t chew the exposed cable at the antenna, all will be sweet.

Be grateful for your straightforward broadband connection. My saga provided very modest 512Kb download and 128Kb upload speeds — this is far better than the other limited options! At least I have a generous data allocation for my needs, and my plan is shaped to 64Kb if I exceed it.

Incidentally, my dairy farmer neighbour enjoys the questions he gets about his hayshed adorned with fancy digital TV antennae — his young grandson is horrified that his grandpa is banished to the hayshed when he is in trouble with the missus. "At least I get to watch TV," he explains to the boy with a twinkle in his eye!

Trango — Manufacturer of WiFi antennae.

DCSI — Internet Service Provider.

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What file format problems?

Written by Tony Williams Tuesday, 05 May 2009 15:20

I’m prompted to write this post by a couple of comments I received on my blog from someone wanting my recommendation for a laptop. I, of course, told them to buy a Mac. They replied that their Mac-using friend in the US had lots of problems opening files and lots of video wouldn’t work on the Mac.

This is, of course, total nonsense. It’s just that a Mac out of the box isn’t quite finished. So I thought I’d tell you how to finish it properly so that all these problems just disappear. That’s what they pay me for at the University so you can get it for free.

First, common document formats. You can pretty much sum this up by saying "Microsoft Office files". Now the Mac has no problem opening MS Word files previous to the latest versions — 2007 for Windows and 2008 for Mac.

There are three possible solutions to opening the latest files: buy Office; install Open Office; or download and use the Open XML File Format Converter for Mac from Microsoft. If you are a student or involved in education you can probably get a cheap copy of MS Office. The benefit of this solution is that you also get a bunch of fonts from MS that are cross-platform. If you can’t get a cheap copy of Office then you might prefer to buy a copy of Apple’s iWork ’09 which has no problem with Office files.

If you want a free alternative then OpenOffice can also open MS Office files. Running OpenOffice used to be a little problematic but it now runs natively on the Mac. There is also a port of OpenOffice called NeoOffice that has some improved features such as support for services and grammar checking.

The final, and not terribly convenient solution, is that Microsoft will give you a file converter called “Open XML File format Converter for Mac” which will convert from the new format to the old one that can be read by a large number of software packages.

Next, video. If you think exchanging documents is fraught, you obviously haven't tried exchanging video files with your Windows-using mates. Of course this, too, can be easily solved.

Under Windows most video files are in WMV (Windows Media Video, as opposed to WMA which is Windows Media Audio or WMD which is just propaganda) format, while on the Mac they are in QuickTime format. Video and audio files use software called a “codec” to compress and decompress the data (COmpress and DECompress — get it?) and each of these so-called formats are actually wrappers around the data that tells the player software which codec to use. There are a number available.

So the first order of business is to get the Mac to understand WMV files. For this you need a free piece of software from Flip4Mac (now called Telestream). Microsoft has licensed part of this software and offers it for free as Windows Media Components for QuickTime. Installing this will allow you to play a large number of WMV files.

Unfortunately some use codecs not included as part of this software. Fortunately Perian is an open source tool that will increase this to cover almost everything.

For anything not covered once you have installed those tools, as well as providing an interface I prefer over QuickTime Player and the ability to play streaming video, there is the VLC Media Player. On some Macs it even allows you to play DVDs out of region. (VLC stands for Video LAN Client, and it was originally built mainly for delivering video over networks.)

And finally, the disks. Macs and Windows machines use different systems for addressing files on a disk. The most common of these on Windows is called NTFS. You may find that people occasionally give you a thumb drive or external drive formatted in NTFS. To read this you need to install NTFS-3G For Mac, a public domain NTFS driver for the Mac. There are also tools to allow Windows machines to read Mac-formated HFS+ disks, but that's not your problem, is it?

Once you have installed these tools you have a Mac that is capable of reading and writing almost all file formats and those incompatibility problems go away.

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Microsoft Office:mac 2008 — very good pricing is available if you're a student. Or know one.

NeoOffice — Installing OpenOffice can be a little tricky, but NeoOffice makes it very easy.

Open XML File Converter for Mac — if you need to use the most recent Office files on an older version of Office.

Windows Media Components For QuickTime — personally I prefer Flip4Mac as it's a catchier name.

Perian — Massively useful video tool that every Mac user should have these days.

VLC Media Player — In the unlikely event that none of the above will open a given video file, this will do it.

NTFS-3G For Mac — if you really have to read a Windows disk.

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