Every viewpoint is based on assumptions. experience, and perspective. Since just about everyone has a different blend of these items, everyone will come to different conclusions about the MWSF 2003 Keynote. Especially, those involved with science and technology.

The trick is to understand the Keynote in terms of both Apple’s strategic goals, their constraints, and their customers while not confusing all that with your own specific needs. When those two agendas blur, then frustration starts.

For starters, Apple is not without problems. Motorola has let them down. Even mighty IBM is hard pressed to come up with a CPU, like the PPC970, that can compete with the best that Intel has to offer. And yet, Apple would find it almost impossible to convince its developers to recode for the Intel architecture. What’s a CEO to do?

The "Pro" Problem

Apple has developed the knack of focusing on what it does best while deflecting attention from its weaknesses. For example, when Mac OS X wasn’t ready, Apple focused on the great industrial design of the original iMac. With Mac OS X shipping, and in great shape, Apple is focusing on notebook computers and iApps until the CPU situation is improved. This is a good strategy because Apple is always giving its customers something innovative and of quality while they clean up their other acts behind the scenes. Clearly, this act is the Pro desktop line which has seen deteriorating sales for several years now.

Unfortunately, for the Scitech world these days, iApps are not real important. Computation is important. The 3 GHz Pentium 4 with the SSE Vector Processor is a formidable chip, and it just happens to run a free UNIX-like OS called Linux — which comes with all kinds of computational goodies for the scientist.

But here is where perspective and experience come into play. There is a group of people who tend to work alone and with a single computer. For them, having the "fastest computer on the block" is important. These people often publish on the Internet since they are computer and Internet savvy. Their perspective is that Apple’s computers are slow and expensive, and they are right. But what kind of life do they live in Windows? Or even Linux? Even they focus on the good part and suppress the unsavory details.

There are very few people left in corporate or government circles who have the luxury of buying any computer they so chose. For those who do, especially those spending grant money, it’s vital to get the most bang for the buck. You see, when computational work is to be done by graduate students, a fast, cheap Intel box and free Linux fills the bill. Occasionally one runs into a Scitech person who has so much money and influence that they make a point, perhaps out of love’s frustration, that Apple doesn’t have both the best OS and the fastest CPUs.

But it’s all just a smoke screen.

What really matters — on this planet with several hundred million computers is:

  1. What is the nature of your immediate computing environment?
  2. What computing assets do you have access to?

Regarding the first question, 99% of the frustration and joy of working with a computer are related to what’s in your face. What you’re holding in your hand. All a CPU has to do is be fast enough to run the OS in front of you. If you can manage files effectively, keep your work secure, and use an OS that is friendly and natural, then you are way ahead of everyone else. Mac OS X, without a doubt, does this for you.

Next, look around. What is your connectivity? Do you have an OC-192 line to a supercomputer at Los Alamos? Do you have a T-1 line to a Cray? Or do you simply have a bunch of fast Intel boxes on the local LAN? Scitech people in most settings have access to a wide range of computing assets. They just don’t happen to have bragging rights with respect to ownership. Accordingly, the catch is to learn how to access those assets.

For example, I would infinitely prefer to access a Cray X1 with a Titanium PowerBook and Jaguar with X Darwin than try to do everything on a 3.06 GHz Pentium 4 and WinXP on my desktop. But, alas, we tend to take pride in what we can touch and maybe even walk around with as opposed to distant machines. Ego massaging is a local effect.

Optimizing the Local and Distant

I think there is no person on the planet more frustrated with Apple’s plight regarding CPU capabilities than Steve Jobs. But this is a man who is in the prime of this life and tends to get what he wants. It might take another year, or even longer, before Apple is able achieve what it wants with its hardware and CPU architecture.

In the meantime, my perspective is not what I can gloat about. (I’m writing this on a B&W G3/400 with a half gig of RAM and a Radeon 7000 video card driving a flat panel 17 inch display and Mac OS X 10.2.3. It’s quite usable, thank you.) Rather, one’s perspective as a scientist should be, "Do I have the best match of local and distant environments?" Today, Apple’s Jaguar is the best possible UNIX-like personal OS on the planet, and the 12, 15, and 17 inch PowerBooks are the best possible systems to access every other really serious computing asset in your organization.

So, for the time being, I’m not really going to be sympathetic to those who write and complain that Apple didn’t jump the G4 tower to 1.4 GHz. Or that The PPC970 wasn’t announced. Or that migration to Pentiums wasn’t announced. Geez. If you want a fast computer, and you can’t get time on a supercomputer, then you probably should go buy a 3.06 GHz P4. Just so you can have fun bragging about it.

But I like to think that a superbly designed PowerBook under my arm, running a superbly designed UNIX-like OS, and the science I can do with it in a collaborative, networked environment is more important than focusing on a single GHz number.

You always knew that what is really important is the science you do. You just forgot for a time while Intel’s marketing department sidetracked you.