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Why the MacBook Air was no big deal

Posted in Mac2 weeks ago • Written by newsdebekComments Off on Why the MacBook Air was no big deal

Three things of note happened last week. Apple announced its MacBook Air, “the world’s thinnest notebook computer” – though as someone pointed out on the BBC Technology blog discussion about this, was there a news item about the previous thinnest notebook?; Oracle said it would buy BEA Systems, a maker of “middleware”, for $8.5bn; and Sun Microsystems said it would buy MySQL, the company that produces the eponymous, free, open-source database, for $1bn.

The question is, which of these is the most important to you, the slightly above-average reader?
It’s not the MacBook Air. While this is a lovely looking beast, and does have some interesting implications – not least that your future life will feature fewer wires – it’s not a game-changer, for a number of reasons. First, at £1,200 for the basic model, it’s quite pricey. This is clearly up at the “necessary luxury” end of the market: people who buy it will already have another computer, but this will be their lightweight travelling companion.

(It’s interesting that Intel shrank the chip die by 60%, but it’s a 65-nanometre product, not 45nm as the very newest Intel chips are. As George Ou at ZDNetpoints out, that’s probably because the design had to be finalised some months ago, before Intel could be sure its 45nm designs would work. Which implies that faster MacBook Air models won’t be so hard to implement.)

Wireless future

The lack of wires – just one USB port – does point towards a future when we try to link up wirelessly everywhere. However, the lack of built-in 3G or WiMax compatibility indicates an intriguing conservatism by Apple (though Intel first shipped a WiMax-capable chip more than a year ago, and says it will have the chip in processors this year). The future, it seems, is only a bit wireless.

Oracle splashing the cash on BEA Systems? The former, of course, is Larry Ellison’s huge database company, which has been on an acquisition path for years. BEA System, which you may not have heard of, makes “middleware” – software that tries to smooth out the problems of getting different systems (particularly databases) within a large corporation to cooperate.

The Wikipedia entry does its best to explain what BEA’s products are, if not what they do. There’s no doubt that what BEA does is really important to lots of companies that you and I probably do business with all the time. Perhaps, for instance, its software (or the lack of it) is the reason why we’re told that “the computer’s gone down” or that “we don’t have any record of your ordering that” or “it says here that you have ordered it but from a different address”. (And of course “what it says here” is always assumed to be the more accurate version of real life.)

Money isn’t everything

But does the utility of the software to those organisations translate into impact on your life? Will Oracle owning BEA make a difference to you or me? I don’t think so. Money isn’t everything. Consider, after all, whether the biggest IT merger of recent years – AOL and Time Warner – has had any effect on your daily life. It was a $164bn deal, enough to stuff even a couple of Northern Rocks in if they had wanted to.

Difference to all of our lives? None, I’d say. Honestly: Time Warner still does content, and AOL has withered away. Fewer people use AOL now, but that wasn’t because of the merger.

But Sun Microsystems buying MySQL – ah, that’s interesting. MySQL, whose customers for its free, open-source database include a certain famous search engine, is small, and so are its revenues – estimated at perhaps $200m – seemingly paltry compared with the $15bn spent on databases every year.

But that number masks the open-source effect. MySQL is used by Google, by Facebook, by dozens and dozens of companies that you come across all the time. Sun has already had a positive effect on the development of the OpenOffice (formerly StarOffice) suite, so that it’s now useful on all sorts of platforms.

Technical fixes

But what Sun sees as important about MySQL is that it gives the company a way to persuade others to install its hardware – which, of course, is where it makes its money. And having a company the size of Sun behind MySQL could mean that some ways in which it still trails behind Oracle (such as transactional processing) can be fixed. Sun can fund the programmers to improve it even further.

So why would that affect you or me? It’s not going to change Google, which already plays around with MySQL in its own ways and even feeds back to the source code. But it will mean that MySQL can get better. We might see a resurgent Sun, able to persuade bigger companies to save money on the database licensing from some other company (cough, Oracle, cough) and instead spend it on Sun’s hardware, which will no doubt be tuned for a special version of MySQL very soon. Then we should see faster sites and more robust updates and more use of MySQL, which would not be a bad thing – except, perhaps for Larry Ellison.

Ellison, though, does have one thing up his sleeve: Oracle owns the company InnoDB, which writes the back-end transaction engine for MySQL. Could Ellison create trouble for MySQL and hence Sun? He could – but InnoDB is open source too, and there are plans to develop a new back-end engine, called Falcon, scheduled to appear in MySQL 6.0 (it is currently at 5.2).

So: thin laptops and fat cheques aren’t what’s really important. It’s open source that’s going to continue to make the difference. In a week of news, sometimes the story remains the same.