Crossing Over

I’ve just been playing with a very cool piece of software for the Mac. Or is it a piece of software for Windows? Actually, it’s kind of both.

Crossover is based on the work of the WINE project – a curiously-named self-iterative anagram that stands for Wine Is Not an Emulator. WINE has long been used in the Linux community as a means of getting Windows programs to run under Linux. When I first looked at it several years ago it was still very raw and new and difficult to use. However, in the last few years, WINE (and in fact Linux too) has come a very long way. Linux development moves forward at an amazing pace and the last few distributions I looked at were very impressive indeed.

Back to Crossover. Although it’s still only in Public Beta, Crossover runs as an application on either the Mac or Linux platforms and it allows genuine Windows applications to be run natively on either of those OSes. Not emulated. Natively. That means you can take a Windows program and install it on the Mac (or Linux) and have it run as just another application under Mac OSX. It works by translating the API calls of the Windows app directly to the equivalent API calls in the Mac OS, effectively allowing the program to exist in the new OS environment. It’s an incredibly clever piece of software engineering that I think is greatly significant for those of use who don’t want to be restricted in our choice of operating system.

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The neat thing is that it truly does run the program under Mac OSX, so the speed of the programs is pretty much the same us it would be under Windows… it’s not an emulation like Parallels, and it doesn’t require a reboot like Boot Camp. It just runs the program in OSX as though it was in Windows. You can copy and paste between the two environments, and the Windows app has full access to the Mac’s file system. The application toolbar resides in the window, just as it would under Windows, while the Mac toolbar shows the Mac as running Crossover… very neat! The installation was very straight forward, and sports a long list of supported Windows apps, including several versions of Photoshop, several versions of Office, plus a bunch of others, including games. You can also try to run other Windows apps, but obviously they can’t test everything. I suppose that’s why it’s still a Public Beta.

It’s kind of weird seeing Windows apps running on my Mac. I don’t really have a need to do it, since there is a Mac program to do do pretty much everything I need to do. I suppose it would be good for software training, as you can effectively use one machine to run an application for whatever platform you need. Other than that, I’m not sure why I’d even want to run a Windows app on my Mac. Still, it’s pretty cool that it can be done, and opens up a whole range of options for those people who would really like to switch, except for that one Windows program that they just can’t live without…

We live in interesting times.

Sensing that Spirit

My daughter Kate and I went to the Sherway Gardens shopping mall in Toronto on Saturday morning to check out the opening of the new Apple Store. Apple Stores are somewhat of a novelty for me, since we don’t actually have any in Australia. (What’s the story SJ? Aussies want Macs too, you know!)

Apple Store, New York City.  Click to Enlarge

Since living in Canada I have visted the store at Yorkdale Mall in Toronto, where I bought my MacBook Pro, as well as the store in Galeria Mall in Cambridge Boston, where I had to buy a replacement power adapter for the one I left in a hotel in Sydney, Nova Scotia. (I eventually got that power adapter back btw). I also visited the very cool and funky Apple Store in Fifth Avenue, New York City when I was there last month. These stores all do basically the same thing – let you try and buy the whole range of Apple products.

The funny thing is that the product range for Apple is quite finite. The do a couple models of MacBooks, a couple of desktop models, and about 7 different iPods. There’s also the accessories and software and various bits and pieces. It’s a wide range of stuff but it’s not so big that it’s mind boggling. And every Apple Store looks more or less the same, has the same sort of feel to them, and has the same products on display. Prices are fixed by Apple so they don’t really do discounts or special deals. The just sell and display the whole Apple range.

So why did I bother going to the opening of the Sherway Store? I knew I wasn’t going to see anything I hadn’t already seen. I was pretty sure the pricing would be standard (not that I planned to buy anything anyway). The offer of a free T-shirt to the first 1000 people was kind of cool, but hey, a T-shirt is a T-shirt right? The reason I went was just to check it out, “soak up the vibe” and be able to say I’d been to an Apple Store opening.

Well, the store opened at 9:30 and we got there about 9:35. As we approached the store, the line to get in stretched back down through the mall, out the doors, across the plaza and into the carpark. It was probably 400 metres long. It took us nearly 40 minutes to get in the door, and when we did we got a T-shirt, spent about 20 minutes looking around (at products we’d seen many times before) and then we left. With any other store, I would never have waited in a line like that, but somehow, Apple seems able to create a buzz, a hype, and a sense of wanting to just be a part of that. I don’t quite know how they do it, but it’s very real and the sight of the long line of people waiting to visit the new store was just a testament to Apple’s ability to somehow draw people with that indefineable spirit that only Apple seems to be able to generate.

Steve Jobs once touched on it in an interview when talking about Apple’s early products…

“It’s the same thing that causes people to want to be poets instead of bankers … And I think that that same spirit can be put into products, and those products can be manufactured and given to people and they can sense that spirit.”

Interestingly, there was a Dell store not 100 metres away and it was totally deserted. Not a single person even browsing. I guess people can sense Dell’s spirit too.

Horse before the Cart

The release of Google’s new “Google Apps for your Domain” program is an interesting business move, and I can see more clearly now how Google is making inroads into territory that has traditionally belonged to Microsoft. GAfyD offers email, calendar, chat and a webpage designer – all for free – but enables organisations to rebadge these apps with their own domain and graphics. All you need to do is edit the MX records for any domain you might own, telling it to reroute the mail requests through to Google’s Gmail servers. End result is the abilty to have yourname@yourdomain.com become a defacto Gmail service. Same goes for the calendar and chat… runs in your own domain but is hosted by Google.

My first thought was to register for my school… the thought of having 1000 student email accounts hosted offsite, with 2Gb of storage space each, complete with calendar, webspace and chat, all at no cost, seemed to good of an option to pass up. So I registered, changed the MX records, added a custom graphic to replace the Gmail one, and sure enough it all works exactly as advertised.

Next step was to ask the school to look at this as a serious option for student mail. The alternative would be to host an Exchange server ourselves, providing infrastructure, storage and backup for 1000 mail accounts. I know which is less work.

Seems I was a few days too late though. The school had just committed to buying a new server expressly to host student email, so the GAfyD program, despite its free pricetag and simple implementation, is on hold for now as we try to go it alone and host the mail services ourselves. Sure there are some advantages to hosting the mail ourselves such as Active Directory integration, fine control over content, filtering, etc, but it sure does create a lot more work. I’m undecided as to the trade off and which would have been a better path to take.

But it did cause me to think about the need to supply student email, mainly when I asked the question “what sort of things will they be doing with their email account?” It wasn’t meant as a facetious question… I could not survive without access to email, and I think every student should have an school email account of their own. My reservation revolves around the idea that I would like to think that the other teachers should have a clear idea of what they plan to do with students via email. I doubt that many are fully prepared for the onslaught on mail volume that can be created when each student has an email address and actually uses it to submit work, ask questions, clarify issues, etc. The volume of mail will increase exponentially… say you teach 5 classes of 25 kids, thats 125 kids. If they all use email effectively to send, reply, dialog with teachers, then that’s an awful lot of mail that starts to flow into the inboxes of teachers that previously thought getting 3 emails a day was a big deal. For those of use used to getting high volume mail its no big problem, but for those not used to it… I can hear the complaints now…

With the huge boom in Web 2.0 technologies, sometimes called the read/write Web, email is not the critical tool that it once was, even a few years ago. The explosion of educational use of blogs, wikis, podcasts, forums, etc, changes things somewhat. These things all offer the same sort of publicly accessible interactions that email only provides on a private level, making plain old email a little redundant. Email is still important, but not as important as it once was. In an educational setting, if I had to chose between giving each student an email address or giving each student access to a blog or a wiki, I think I would be going for the latter option.

The point is that providing an email account for each student is a relatively small first step. It’s what they then do with that email account that really matters, and in the case of my school I still don’t think we have a clear idea of just how we plan to use email effectively to enhance real learning. It’s like being given a hammer and some nails but not having any idea of what you might make with them.