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Sun Microsystems

Apple Notes By Martin Russ
Published March 1996

Whatever the reality of Apple's finances, the money men have decided the company is ripe for the picking.But will upsetting the Apple cart produce a windfall for the user? Martin Russ keeps his ear to the ground...

By the time you read this, the Apple world may be very different. Okay, in the past, there have been rumours of a possible takeover, but they have always had the feel of a rumour, and so far none of them have come to anything. But this time, it looks like something far more serious is going on.

Released in a press statement in the middle of January, Apple's first quarter results (the quarter ended in December 1995) made interesting reading. Both net revenue and unit shipments were at their highest quarterly totals ever: $3.1 billion revenue and 1.3 million units shipped. Both of these are more than 10% up on the same time a year ago. And yet in spite of this, the bottom line is that Apple made a loss of $69 million, which compares with a profit of $188 million this time a year ago. Apple also announced a company‑wide restructuring, and some redundancies — 1,300 people out of a total workforce of approximately 16,000.

The rest of the news release stresses the strengths of Apple: brand identity; loyal customers; technological leadership; excellent products and key market advantages. It goes on to describe the sort of belt‑tightening and non‑essential service pruning that bedevils local government, and is no more than you would expect from a company attempting to recover from a temporary blip in its finances.

But the world money markets are a savage place, and Apple's share price fell. Once the rumours about a takeover started, memories of the previous IBM offer were resurrected, and rumours began to circulate about Apple and Sun talking. Motorola have also emerged as a potential suitor, but in spite of their denials, there are strong indications that something is going on between Sun and Apple.

Unless you have ever been exposed to serious computing power in research laboratories, Sun may sound more like a dishwashing powder than a computer company to you. They make powerful workstations — the type that often provide WWW servers, or do the computer graphics for movies. Sun's marketplace is very different from the cut and thrust of consumer computers where Apple operates. Sun workstations start at a few thousand pounds, and rapidly move up to hundreds of thousands. They run Unix, use RISC‑based SPARC processors, and to paraphrase Atari, offer 'power with the price'.

Sun's greatest asset has always been its hardware, but as the internet has burgeoned, so people have put their hardware to other uses. This has prompted a number of developments in software, with the programming language Java perhaps being the most significant. Whilst at the moment, WWW pages are scripted using HTML, and then converted into text and images by a WWW browser like Netscape or Mosaic, Java is an interpreted programming language. It therefore allows programs to be written which will work on any computer (with a suitable interpreter, of course) — but which put their output into a WWW browser. This means that instead of having to download an audio program to play the sounds on an HTML page, you could send a Java program to the computer, and this would deal with the audio. Equally, a graphics program to animate part of the screen could be sent via Java, again with no need to change the browser. The result is that a simple WWW browser which can interpret Java could offer facilities for just about anything, without any need to have those facilities built‑in — they could be downloaded via Java only when required.

This combination of simplicity and expandability means that a simple computer terminal could provide facilities which might otherwise require a large and sophisticated multimedia system. So tomorrow's Java‑equipped computer might cost £300 instead of £3,000. With almost every computer software manufacturer you can think of jumping onto the Java bandwagon (including Microsoft, by the way), the future looks bright.

So where do Apple fit into this? It turns out that after Sun, probably the second most popular platform for running WWW servers is Apple. The combination of some very good software and the ease of configuring and maintaining WWW‑specific servers has made the Mac a very popular platform. The same ease of use makes the Mac popular for WWW page producers too. The marriage of Apple and Sun begins to make sense when looked at in the internet context. There's been no announcement as yet (late January), but I shall be keeping a close eye on the engagement notices.

Tip Of The Month: Don't Panic!

The famous words from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy definitely apply here. A $70 million loss may sound like a lot, but Apple's reserves are allegedly in the billions, and it is selling lots of Power Macs: more than a million in the last quarter alone. With more than 10 million Mac owners around the world, the Mac is not going to vanish overnight. In any case, there are now several Mac clone manufacturers (see Paul Lehrman's review of one of the Mac clones on page 38), so Apple is no longer the only source of Mac‑compatible machines.

By way of comparison, look at the fate of the Atari computers. The ST may now be showing its age, but the Falcon lives on, despite being sold off so that Atari could concentrate on games consoles. Many musicians still use Ataris, and the software producers still make software for it. I don't see Atari Notes disappearing from this magazine, and Apple Notes is also here to stay.

If anything, a change at Apple could actually work wonders. Apple have struggled with making the transition from an expensive, exclusive computer company to a mass‑market, low‑profit operation, and a takeover by a rich and powerful company might get some of the technological innovation out of the R&D environment and into the real world. Apple have always had an enviable record for inventing things, but they have not been quite so good at fleshing them out. With space to catch their breath, the boffins at Apple may yet surprise everyone.

How It Works: The Modem

All this talk of the internet rarely mentions the nitty gritty technology that you need to make it happen. There's two parts: the software and the hardware. Both have their problems and their traps for the unwary. This month I will deal with the hardware side, while next month I will start on the software side.

You connect to the internet via your telephone line. However, the internet is digital, and requires a special interface instead of the audio interface which the telephone provides. As you might have gathered if you have ever tried to get audio in and out of a computer, computers and audio aren't exactly well suited to each other. So, just as MIDI requires an interface to convert the Mac's serial port into suitable musical event messages, so your Mac requires an interface to get at cyberspace — and it's called a modem.

As with most technological equipment, the word 'modem' is a clever combination of other words: MOdulator/DEModulator in this case. As usual, knowing what the word means doesn't really help much, since modulation is probably most familiar to you as the vibrato wheel on a synthesizer. Well, as it turns out, this is actually not a bad starting place. Computers work with digital signals: on and off, whilst audio is a continuous series of values. Turning one into the other is what a modem does, and it does it by turning the on and off signals from the computer into audio signals — using something very similar to vibrato. At the other end, another modem undoes the process and retrieves the digital information. So the information from your computer is converted into a warbling audio sound, sent along the telephone line and converted back again. If you have ever listened to decent quality audio after it has been sent down a telephone line, you might begin to appreciate how hard a modem has to work to transmit the digital information correctly without errors.

The amount of information that a modem can convey is measured in bits per second. MIDI runs at 31,250 bits per second, and the fastest modems in normal use manage almost the same rate: about 28,800 bits per second. A 28.8K modem (as they are called) won't set you back more than £200 these days, whilst one with half that speed won't be half the price, except second‑hand. It makes no sense to buy one that's slower than this. 9,600 or 2,400 bps modems may be very cheap, but they are so slow that they are unusable for internet purposes.

With a modem, you get a serial lead to connect to the 'Modem' port of your Mac — aren't Macs wonderfully obvious! For the other end, you need a telephone socket to plug into. For occasional use, it makes sense to buy one of those telephone extension socket kits and put an extension near to your computer, whilst for serious net‑surfers a separate line may be worthwhile, if only to free up the telephone for voice calls! Look out for deals on installing extra lines from your local phone company, and check for cable TV companies: some of them offer free local calls and low‑cost extra line installations if you subscribe to both their TV service and their phones. Beware of Call Waiting (that service where the phone bleeps to tell you that another caller is trying to talk to you), because it can cause modems to end a call prematurely.

Appearance‑wise, a typical modem looks suspiciously like a MIDI Interface. There's the same plug‑top power supply, the same LEDs lighting up like a car's brake lights, and lots of cables going in and out. Unfortunately, the two aren't interchangeable, although, as we shall see, they may well need to share the same serial port on your Mac.

On The Net

Here's some more interesting and useful places to visit on the internet.


News, tips, updates and freebies

Beta‑test versions of the WWW browser

Goodies for explorers

QuickTime goodies


A non‑commercial WWW browser

A WWW browser & email combo

Mac resources‑mac.html

A widely‑used email program

Apple News In Brief

    There's so much new included in QuickTime 2.1 that I wonder it isn't called QuickTime 3.0 — for many other programs, it would be! Probably the most intriguing is the provision for sprites: blocks of memory that can be moved around on the screen and which are probably most familiar as the moving characters in computer games. Once the appearance of a sprite is defined, then the only additional information required is where it moves to on the screen.

Talking of screens, QuickTime 2.1 also allows faster playback of movies and better support of full‑screen movies — in fact, the quarter‑screen sized movies of the past may well now look just as good at half‑screen size. Almost hidden in the headlines is QuickTime conferencing, which makes audio and video conferencing a reality, instead of an expensive luxury. QuickTime 2.1 can be freely downloaded from:

    Last year saw a World SF convention in Glasgow, and this year sees the world's largest computer and information technology show coming to London. From the 23rd to the 26th of April, Earls Court will be full of computer types — non‑Apples too! Phone 01203 694131, or look at:

    Pippin, Apple's games console made by Bandai, is due to go on sale in Japan this spring, with the US and Europe later on. Several variants are planned, with other manufacturers showing an interest in the low‑cost, PowerPC‑driven, CD‑ROM‑based multimedia machine.
    Okay, so you're impressed by the latest PowerMacs, with their clock speeds of 120MHz. Sit down. A Californian firm reckons it can make a PowerPC chip that runs at 250MHz or more, perhaps even 500MHz. In my book, anything that reduces the time from a crash to the desktop re‑appearing just has to be a good thing!