Back to the Mac, to my true passion

Tom Yager returns to Apple and loves it

Several months ago, I determined that my years-long fondness for Macs required re-examination. I quietly took a break from the Mac to get some perspective, to check out Vista, AMD and Longhorn (Windows Server 2008) untainted by Apple's PR and uninfluenced by other journalists and bloggers. I elected to take a break from reviews of new Mac hardware, the occasion of which always piques my interest in Apple's platform. There were times when I felt I'd chosen the worst possible time for this hiatus. I ended up passing on MacBook Air, Time Capsule, Harpertown Mac Pro, and most painful of all, the new MacBook Pro. It was difficult seeing InfoWorld pick up reviews of these from sister publications, but I take my responsibility to readers very seriously. I can't very well counsel you on technology choices if I consider the field limited to one worthwhile player, especially when that player projects the image that it competes only with the generation of systems that preceded what's presently sold. I found enormous value in my time away from Mac. I made the kind of discoveries I used to make routinely before I took on the Mac as a specialty, and as I take up the Mac again — which I am doing immediately — it's clear that my appreciation for the platform is justified, and that the customary split of my effort and attention between Apple and AMD is justified. The genuine, practical superiority of AMD's Barcelona server platform, and its Phenom desktop platforms that derived from Barcelona, came to light during the break I took from Mac. A one-socket, quad-core Spider (Phenom plus ATI CrossFire graphics) runs Vista so obscenely fast that even a die-hard Mac user's head will turn. Privately, of course. I found it extremely intriguing that systems built on Phenom platforms can tune themselves autonomously for the maximum possible CPU and GPU speed over a surprisingly broad range, based on a whole system approach that takes cooling, power supply capacity, and your preferences for noise and maximum power consumption into account. I found that I could speed bump an AMD Phenom desktop for free by moving it closer to the floor, where the cooler air prevails. What a grand idea that in itself shows genuine customer-focused insight. I gained a fresh appreciation for the GNU compiler collection, which has taken remarkable strides since I last took a deep dive in it. I was unaware of the level of engagement from commercial partners, including Apple, AMD and Novell. Each is undoubtedly pursuing its own agenda, but it does so within the framework and culture of one of the most tightly controlled and liberally licensed open source projects in existence. AMD has finally embarked on the long road to compiler parity with Intel with its contribution of Family 10 (Barcelona/Phenom) architecture-specific optimisations to GNU. Apple has been busy on the gcc front as well. Objective-C 2.0, with its desperately needed garbage collection, has been a reality in the GNU toolchain since Xcode 3 was in non-disclosure beta. In release 4.2 of gcc, auto-parallelisation joins auto-vectorisation to adapt projects to multiprocessing and vector acceleration without developer intervention. Unless I'm mistaken, the public beta versions of the iPhone SDK, now at Beta 3, mark Apple's first swing at Microsoft-style free public distribution of pre-release dev tools. The privilege of early access has been reserved for paid members of Apple's Developer Connection programs. That iPhone SDK carries all of the latest GUI tools, documentation, and GNU command-line compilers, including Fortran, into Apple's default distribution. Go toApple's iPhone Dev Centre website and scroll to the bottom of the page for the download link. You do not need to pay the $99 fee to register as an iPhone developer to use the new tools, which compile applications for Leopard as well as iPhone. Apple is getting ever more daring in its engagement with open source in other ways. WebKit, the fast HTML/CSS/SVG rendering and JavaScript engine used in Safari, has caught on like wildfire outside Apple, and why not? To get a commercial browser, loaded with current and emerging standards, free and open for incorporation in your software, is the stuff of fantasy, and Apple holds virtually nothing back. The WebKit project is not strictly Apple's. It enjoys broad community engagement, but it is worked as a priority by Apple's staff, even to the benefit of direct competitors. For example, the browser on Nokia's E-series phones is WebKit-based, and this is not the only example where Apple effectively put its staff and technology to work for the benefit of a competitor. The GNU toolchain's adaptability to multiple embedded platforms will see WebKit in everything from phones to toys, starting with iPhone and iPod Touch. Now that WebKit has been accepted into Google's Summer of Code, I can't wait to see what innovation comes from that gathering. I plan to ply the most influential attendees with the libations of their choice and get their take on where development is headed. Apple pushed the source code for the publicly exposed innards of OS X Leopard, known as Darwin 9, out for public download on MacOS Forge. Every time it does that, I imagine the move preceded by arguments inside the office about the effort and risks that such a program visits on Apple's platform business. The work of preparing a project of Darwin's size for public distribution is inestimable, and Apple deserves credit for putting it on the agenda of its top OS engineers and project leaders. I love the conservative approach that Apple is taking with iPhone, especially with regard to multiprocessing. iPhone applications need to launch and quit instantly, yet relaunch after the first execution, having cached and persisted their closing state in detail. It's a freeze/thaw model of state persistence that I'd like to see extended to applications in general. Apple's Xcode has Instruments (prior: xRay), a tool that jams electrodes into your program's and the system's running environment. It records and charts statistical data at runtime along several axes for later examination. It's the most effective means of hand-tuning code for efficiency that I've ever used, and it shows the benefits of persistence quite plainly. Taking a break from Mac hardware gave me a chance to drink more deeply of the software that Apple maintains off its beaten path. MacPorts and Apple's validated versions of open source projects are open source treasure troves stuffed with some 5,000 free applications tuned and packaged for Intel and PowerPC Macs. Digging through these repositories is so addicting that I had to issue myself an edict to get back to work, which I shall do, newly confident in my mission and purpose. I'm a Macophile for good reason.

Tom Yager noted after posting this column online: I made a couple of statements in my recent "Ahead of the Curve" blog that Apple asked me to correct. First, contrary to my claim that the iPhone SDK is the first time that Apple has released a public preview editions of Xcode in the past, Apple claims to have done so. Apple tells me that it is not incorporating FORTRAN into beta 3 of its iPhone SDK, a release that includes the newest stable build of the GNU Compiler Collection toolchain. MacOSForge lists FORTRAN as a default language in its distributions of gcc after v4.0, This accounted for my confusion. Note that while gcc 4.x will build for OS X, it is only supported informally by Apple, as are all Apple open source projects.

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