TV-PGJanuary 12, 2004: Rumor has it that Hewlett-Packard has pressured Apple into adding WMA support to the iPod-- but consider the source. Meanwhile, the state of Maine discovers the many rewards of unpaid child labor, and unconfirmed reports claim that Virginia Tech gets to trade in its 1,100 Power Macs for an equal number of sleek G5 Xserves...
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Just Call Us Chicken Little (1/12/04)

Oh, no, the sky is falling! Seriously, it's falling! Big chunks of it are plummeting to earth even as we speak! A jagged slab of blue with some clouds in it just crashed right through the windshield of your car! Don't believe us? Then you must not have heard that Apple's going to add Windows Media Audio support to the iPod by June-ish. Because, you know, that's certainly proof right there.

The news that has the entire Mac world in a tizzy came to us via faithful viewer Jason Nieckar in the form of a Connected Home Media article from last Friday. It declares that the recent HP-Apple digital music partnership will result in HP's Microsoftification of everyone's favorite little music player; reportedly HP "will be working with Apple to add support for Microsoft's superior Windows Media Audio (WMA) format to the iPod by mid-year." What this would mean is that the iPod could soon be able to play downloaded songs purchased from non-iTunes Music Store sources-- which is fantastic news for all the masochists out there who hate it when things are easy and actually work, and therefore eschew the iTMS for, say,, which we're told delivers a shopping experience roughly comparable to grinding one's teeth down to the gumline with a belt sander. But you heard Microsoft: Windows is all about choice!

But let's pause for a moment, shall we? Consider the source of this report, especially in light of the manner in which the article's author casually refers to WMA as "superior," when neither testing (by, say, Tom's Hardware, or some guy named Roberto) nor blithely unscientific mob opinion (just read the article's reader comments, for Pete's sake) bears that out. (Gee, an audio format developed by Dolby sounds better than one developed by the software company that brought you Microsoft Bob-- who knew?) It's worth mentioning that so far the only person claiming that the HP deal will result in WMA-enabled iPods is Paul Thurrott.

Yes, that Paul Thurrott, the guy behind Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows-- the only web site with a name cheesy enough to send unwary lactose-intolerant surfers into convulsive cramps. This is a guy who frequently insists that he's not a Redmond puppet, but c'mon... the guy runs Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows. He's the only person on the planet categorically describing WMA as "superior" who isn't wearing a straitjacket and dodging Nurse Ratched. (Yet.) And his statement today in a WinNetMag editorial that-- we swear, this is a direct quote-- "Apple and HP have just set back the convergence of PCs and consumer electronics an untold number of years" is hardly the sort of hyperbole you get from someone who hasn't earned two dozen merit badges as a card-carrying member of Redmond's Rangers. It's all too clear that Bill Gates need never experience a colonoscopy, because he can always ask Paul Thurrott to give Bill's doctor an eyewitness account of just how things are going up there.

That said, we're not saying that Paul's wrong about WMA support coming to the iPod; we really don't know one way or the other, and frankly, we don't much care, as long as the thing keeps supporting AAC and MP3 and we can keep buying our music at the iTMS. Remember, Apple makes money on the iPods, not the song sales, so adding WMA support to the iPod doesn't hurt the company in any direct way (although supporting WMA might hinder the acceptance of AAC and QuickTime in the long run). And there's no question that Apple has at least considered supporting WMA: control-click on the iTunes application, choose "Show Package Contents," take a peek in the Resources folder in Contents, and bam-- there's an icon file named "iTunes-wma.icns" which you can open in Preview and stare at all you like.

This isn't news. The news is that Paul claims that HP made WMA support in the iPod a condition of the deal and set a mid-year timeline. That may or may not be true, and all we're saying is that right now we have only the word of a Windows fanboy to go by, so maybe that sky thing isn't exactly crashing to the ground just yet. And, of course, even if the iPod winds up supporting WMA, that won't mean you have to use it. What? We could buy our music at the iTMS or any of the WMA-based competitors that are currently Windows-only services? Gee, and here we thought it was Windows that's "all about choice."

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And It Sure Beats AV Duty (1/12/04)

Question: how do you provide tech support for 34,000 junior high school kids with notebook computers if you're constrained by limited public funding? Well, if those notebooks are Wintels, you can pay for additional support staff by eliminating certain nonessentials from the school budget-- stuff like textbooks, lab supplies, history classes (hey, the past is the past-- why dwell on it?), heat, and cafeteria substances that qualify technically as "food." If the laptops are iBooks, on the other hand, you're better off just conning the kids into doing the tech support themselves. It's cheap and you get newspaper coverage and everything.

Faithful viewer Peter Krug tipped us off to a Portland Press Herald article about the state of Maine's first line of defense against iBook "issues" that crop up in class: what the teachers are calling "iTeams," groups of tech-savvy students who are willing to lend a hand when things go awry. Dropped from the AirPort network? Don't bug the teacher; an iTeam classmate can get you all wirelessed up again. Can't print? No worries-- iTeam to the rescue. Trouble circumventing the school's porn filter? Once again, iTeam is there. The iTeam members get a kick out of helping, and the teachers responsible for keeping everything running gain an invaluable resource for fixing small problems, configuring large numbers of systems, and test-flying new software before it gets rolled out to the other, lesser students.

The brilliant bit is that the thirteenish-year-old iTeam members tend to be (rather unsurprisingly, really) far more knowledgeable about the iBooks than the teachers themselves are, and so they frequently find themselves helping the staff connect a Mac to an LCD projector and the like. We love what this must be doing to the balance of power; just wait'll these kids figure out that they can unionize (iTeamsters?) and strike for pizza twice a week and a certain "flexibility" in homework due dates. Nothing beats a technocracy except a technocracy ruled by early teens.

So there's Apple technology at work, once more making the world a better place. We don't mean to imply, of course, that Maine's seventh- and eighth-graders couldn't still do tech support if the laptops were Wintels instead of Macs; indeed, we're sure those kids are packing all sorts of high-tech know-how these days, and it's not just limited to byzantine cheat codes for Heartmuncher 3: Quest for Ketchup. But with the increased problem load 34,000 Wintels would bring compared to the same number of Macs, forget about having an iTeam of eight students to support a class of 200. If Maine had gone with Dells instead of Macs, the state would be busing in extra students by the thousand from New Hampshire just to have enough kids to handle the load, and then you have to feed them and put them somewhere, and... seriously, they're better off with the Macs. Trust us.

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Dense Can Be A Good Thing (1/12/04)

Still marveling at the accomplishment that is Virginia Tech's "Big Mac" G5-powered supercomputer, despite CNET's feeble attempts to downplay its significance? (Gee, does anyone know if Intel still owns a chunk of CNET? That's a totally unrelated question, of course.) Well, marvel you should, because slapping together the world's third-fastest supercomputer for $5.2 million and the cost of a bunch of pizzas to feed the student volunteers was no small feat-- especially since the whole thing was built in less than three weeks. Geez, it takes us three weeks to find our car keys-- and that's with a map, a compass, and a big flashing neon arrow that says YOUR CAR KEYS ARE RIGHT HERE, STUPID.

So yeah, that Hokie cluster is as worthy an object of lust as any we know, although ever since last week's Stevenote, we've noticed that footage of it makes it look a little... well, Rubenesque is the polite term. And no wonder, really: stick 1,100 operational Power Macs anywhere and they're going to take up some serious space. It's just that we never really noticed before-- but now that we've seen just how little room a pair of 2.0 GHz G5s can occupy, we can't help feeling that "Big Mac" could maybe stand to slim down to a Quarter Pounder or so.

Well, if you're in the mood to swallow a rumor whole, consider "Big Mac" on a diet; an unconfirmed MacRumors Page 2 report cites a Slashdot comment claiming that Virginia Tech gets to trade in its 1,100 Power Macs for an equal number of svelte new Xserves, at no extra charge. If you need a little something extra to choke that rumor down, MacRumors adds that while it's still a "Page 2" item, they've "since received further word" that the swap is a go and "the migration plan was reportedly part of the original Power Mac deal." There's no word on what Apple would do with the 1,100 Power Macs it'd get back from such a transaction, but we hope they wouldn't just get sold as refurbs; they're part of history. We say, eBay 'em.

Now, given that "Big Mac" currently houses those 1,100 G5s in 96 racks, each of which is built to hold 52 standard units, a deft flick of the calculator reveals that 1,100 dual-processor Xserves will take up less than a quarter of the space. If this swap-out really happens, Virginia Tech will have over 74 racks left over; time for another 3,892 Xserves? Surely the university can scrape together another $20 million or so to quadruple its baby's performance scores and knock that snooty Earth Simulator out of the top spot, right?

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