Tuesday, May 22, 2007

S-Plus 8 emerges from Beta

Back in April 2006, I wrote about S-Plus 8 going to public Beta and predicted therefore that it would be out in Q4 2006.

Well it has finally appeared in May 2007. With such a long release cycle one might expect dramatic changes, but the new features list is largely as I described a year ago:

- Improvements to the Eclipse based Workbench (debugging and profiling)
- New graphic enhancements
- A new package mechanism
- "Over 100 new functions" in the S language

Since there is no information on their site about exactly what is in any of these changes, I can say no more!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Mathematica 6 released

Wolfram Research have released a new version of Mathematica with the claim that "Mathematica's been reinvented."

This is certainly a huge upgrade with around 500 items on the new features summary, all of which (from a quick scan) appear to have substance.

To get a sense of the major directions, you are better off with the marketing version which summarises the most exciting things on the interface side as new application building tools with a free "Mathematica Player" which is some kind of runtime version. Depending on the details, this may be important for deploying tools developed in Mathematica.

On computation, the most important seem to be related to data (I/O, and built in data sources), and new optimization tools.

There is a lot of new visualization stuff which seems to cross over from computational features to interface features.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Labview adds Vista support

Story title says it all, LabView is now Vista compatible.

I was amused by two paragraphs of the press release. First was the hint of resentment at Microsoft for the way Vista works...

"...this version of Windows requires 64-bit hardware drivers. National Instruments has invested considerable time and energy in providing updates to existing 32-bit drivers to support Windows Vista and in creating new 64-bit hardware drivers for Windows Vista x64 Edition, the 64-bit version of Windows Vista."

And second...

" “National Instruments continues to be among the first to market with compatibility for the latest PC technologies, including Windows Vista,” said Tim Dehne, NI senior vice president of R&D. "

Obviously Tim doesn't read my blog where I listed some of the first to market over a month ago.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Link: The death of computing

Here is a link to a very well considered piece "The death of computing" from Neil McBride at the British Computing Society, which deserves to be read. I suspect that much of his arguments also apply to scientific computing.

If you can't be bothered to read the whole article, settle for this snippet: "If the gap between public knowledge and academic curriculum isn't large enough, the gap between academia and industry practice is a gaping hole. While academic departments concentrate on developing new computer systems in an ideal organisational environment, a lot of industry has moved away from in-house development to a focus on delivering a service."

Monday, April 02, 2007

O-Matrix sales shake-up

Developers Harmonic Software have decided to give up selling their product, and will have someone else do it for them. Exclusive world wide distribution rights have been granted to TecPlot.

Lots of software companies choose to use partners to distribute in fields our regions outside of their expertise, but it is a bold decision to hand over the entire world.

TecPlot certainly seem a competent outfit, but the problem is that the product is a bit too close to their own. Just looking at the front page of www.tecplot.com at the side-by-side listing of products finds that O-Matrix is for "analyzing data, creating simulations, visualizing results" while TecPlot 360 is "Simulation Visualization Software... analyze and explore complex datasets, arrange multiple XY, 2D and 3D plots...".

It is pretty hard to imagine TecPlot will push O-Matrix too hard against their own products.

It looks like it is not good news for the customers either. As far as I can tell O-Matrix has jumped in price from $365 (as listed at www.sciencesoftware.com) to $950 on the TecPlot site. The developer kit from $420 to $2500.

Friday, March 23, 2007

MathCAD drops Maple

I have finally confirmed what a reader pointed out to us a couple of weeks ago. The new MathCAD 14 has dropped the Maple engine which previously powered its symbolic calculations.

I wrote about plans to do this back in Jan 2006, though I predicted the wrong replacement. The MathCAD gig goes to Mupad. PTC's only explanatory comment was this "improves robustness". While anyone who reads comp.soft-sys.math.maple knows that Maple bugginess is a recurrent theme, the truth is probably more likely to be a cost cutting exercise.

Mupad also replaced Maple as the engine in Scientific Workplace a few years earlier and one must speculate that Mupad will now have its sights set on the one remaining Maple OEM deal, the Matlab Symbolic Toolbox. Perhaps this helps to explain Maplesoft's recent re-implementation of the toolbox, to put it under their own control?

Stable income from this deal will be a much needed boost to Mupad, who had seemed in trouble a year ago. Likewise, this must represent a significant loss to Maplesoft. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece called "Maple loses three million users" which was a dig at press release bullshit. But now, it seems, it was partly true. If PTC is to be believed, this will remove Maple technology from between 1.4 and 1.8 million desktops, over the upgrade cycle.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

FORTRAN developer dies

John Backus, who lead the IBM team that developed FORTRAN in the 1950s has died at the age of 82.

While I am no fan of FORTRAN (probably because I had already learned some more recent languages before I was taught the (then current) 1977 version), there is no doubt that it revolutionized computing and has had a long lasting effect on scientific computing.

With a more subtle effect, he also worked on early functional programming languages FP, and FL.

The NYT obituary can be read here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Upgrade: Quality Companion 2.2

Minitab have released an upgrade to their Six Sigma product, Quality Companion.

The upgrade is a modest collection of interface improvements, (new toolbar actions, auto-filling forms etc), new import export options (always good to see) and increased flexibility (better search and editing tools, use of images within documents etc).

There is nothing that you won't already be used to seeing in other products, but they are filling out the regular feature space at a rate that seems fair for the 9 months that have passed since Version 2 was released.

I did like "Automatically Convert 2.1 projects to version 2.2 projects". A self fulfilling feature that would appeal to people who like to have a car so that they can drive it to the gas station!

The full list is here.

Oddly it looks as if Minitab skipped a version as I never noticed, and can't find any information on Quality Companion 2.1. It must have existed though as there were maintenance releases to 2.1.1 and 2.1.2.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Maple NAG connector - a link to the past

I was going to pass on commenting on the new Maple NAG connector because adding the ability to call NAG C subroutine libraries directly from Maple seemed a quaintly old-fashioned idea.

I didn't realize how old fashioned until I was reminded of Intercall. I Googled InterCall and it looks like exactly the same product except connecting Mathematica to the NAG libraries. The entertaining fact being that Intercall was something that was created at least 10 years ago!

Compare elements of the press release for the "new" Maple NAG connector with an eight year old Intercall page in the NAG website:

Maple:"Easy access to the powerful NAG C Library numeric routines from inside the Maple environment"
Mathematica:"easy access to all the routines in the NAG subroutine library."

Maple: "Appropriate default values for many parameters are provided automatically"
Mathematica: " straightforward declaration of default settings for arguments in external routines."
Maple: "NAG C Library documentation is integrated into the searchable, indexed, Maple Help System, and includes hundreds of examples coded in Maple"
Mathematica: " a detailed TeX manual describing how to use InterCall with Notebook examples"

As far as I can tell, Intercall is no longer available. I can't particularly see any reason why it should appeal to Maple users more than Mathematica except that Maple's home grown numerics are weaker than Mathematica's and Maple already has some NAG libraries included (for the same reason).

But I don't really see the appeal. O think that one is either a C/FORTRAN libraries and subroutines kind of person, or an application using person. Bridging the gap technically, doesn't bridge the gap psychologically.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Vista support in scientific software

Here is a quick survey of the current state of Vista support, in scientific software, based on information on suppliers web sites.

Where Vista did not appear on the supported platforms page, I have taken that to mean that it is not supported, though it is quite possible that the product works, but that the supplier has not yet formally tested it.

Supporting Vista:
Comsol Multiphysics
Origin (32 bit only)

Not supporting Vista:
O Matrix
Scientific Word
Scientific Workplace

And in a special category of its own, Endnote, which works under Vista, but you have to follow some manual steps listed in their support pages to make it work right.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Systat 12 released

A new version of Systat is out. You can read the details here.

My stats knowledge isn't good enough to comment on the major features: extended mixed model analysis, robust regression. But they seem decent enough to be worth existing users upgrading to. Though, since it has been three years since the last upgrade, I am not sure they were worth the wait!

Some of the lesser features seem unimpressive. The improved plotting interface and cluster analysis sound rather like the claims from the Version 11 press release, and interface improvements sound more more like window dressing than real innovation.

What I was most drawn to were the removal of some limitations, only to be replaced with new limitations. Variable names can be longer to be more descriptive... but still only 256 characters. I know that 256 should be enough, and I can't think of a realistic reason why it shouldn't be. But history is full of such mistakes ("640k RAM is enough for anyone", "you only need 2 digits to store a date" etc). If you are going to fix that problem, why not fix it completely (or at least absurdly far above current expectations).

Likewise, a new multi-step undo... but only up to 32 steps. I am sure that I have undone more than 32 steps in a document before!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Link: Vista Spin Unspun

I didn't yet have much to say about Vista when it came out, so since there is no interesting news today, here is a fun piece from The INQ, which is not so much about Vista, as a good summary of IT journalism and IT PRs.

Or, if you are in a hurry, today's Dilbert says pretty much the same in three pictures!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

TI-NSpire advertising isn't the solution

As directed by an irate reader of a previous TI-NSpire article, I was doing a little Googling to see if there was any news on its shipping status, when I found a fun thread on an HP site. It was pointing out that the calculation in an example screenshot of the nSpire, on TIs site, is wrong.

Perhaps more surprising is that one of the writers claims to have mailed TI to point out their mistake a month ago and it is still there. Perhaps the TI web people don't think correct answers are important.

Assuming, that they do fix it soon, here it is recorded for posterity. (Correct answer is 1/2 and -9/2).

[[Update 26 Feb: Within a few days of appearing on this site, the page has now been fixed. Here is the new, fixed, version of the image]].

Sunday, February 18, 2007

MathCAD 14 released

Its appealing to try and find a simple narrative to summarize new software - either it is total junk or some excellent advance. But the contents of the first release of MathCAD since PTC purchased the company is not so easily categorized.

There is unsubstantiated and weak claims, and there is real development.

Lets start with the lame...there are several items where one's natural response should be "what? didn't it do that before?" like the ability to enter more than one step of a calculation at a time in a single piece of input and support for UNICODE (so that the majority of the world can type their own non-ASCII based words into it) and they think that "Polar plot can now accept negative radii" is a significant advance! And perhaps the best "IMPROVED Worksheet Search – Search results are more complete, including collapsed and hidden regions of worksheets." - so, before, if you couldn't see the text, neither could the search feature!

There are some features with limited evidence "improved symbolic engine robustness" (I have a theory, which I will report if it turns out to be true [update]). And disingenuous features e.g. one of the "Highlights of the enhancements in Mathcad 14.0" was "Increased technical support" - they should license that code!

Then there is the solid... PTC exerting its more significant development resources, by providing translation into 9 languages (fitting in with the Pro-Engineer existing market) , integration of document difference highlighting (fitting in with the existing Arbortext document workflow products).

Really what I think this release shows is that PTC knows what PTC knows. The most significant features are the more prosaic ones that are about integrating with their existing business, and the more technically interesting, are no more solid that when MathSoft was a small company standing alone.

There is nothing wrong in that per-se, but you can also see where corporate culture can be negative. In the cheer leading over the improved symbolics, you find the phrase "Power users, research and design engineers, and other Ph.D. level users requiring symbolics will benefit from these improvements." Hold on. I was doing symbolic math when I was 13 or 14 (OK, it was only simple equations, and I didn't do integrals until 16, but it was useful and I didn't have a Ph.D!).

But PTC has always built numeric-only software and you can almost sense their confusion that there are people who need more..."Oh, it must be some Ph.D level thing"

Monday, February 05, 2007

New O-Matrix 6.1 Performance claims

Matlab clone O-Matrix has released a new version, 6.1, with the summary: "This release has made many ease-of-use enhancements, added numerous application-oriented examples and made significant performance enhancements for newer multi-core machines such as the Intel HT and Intel Duo Core CPU."

I can't find a single reference to what these" ease-of-use enhancements" might be on their site or elsewhere.

As for the performance enhancements, there is plenty numbers to demonstrate 6.1 going much faster than other things, but as ever with such things, a little scrutiny reduces their credibility.

They have tables of O-Matrix 6.1 vs O-Matrix 5.62 --- but NOT against O-Matrix 6.0, so we can only assume that most of the improvements were in 6.0 not in this 'performance enhancing' release. They have also updated their comparison against Matlab (which I commented on here) to use 0-Matrix 6.1 but have still not upgraded the Matlab side of the comparison to anything newer than 7.01 which was released back in 2004.

Dodgy scientific methodology in marketing comparisons probably don't reflect poorly on you when you are selling shampoo or cat food but it surely does in technical software.

Having said that, I can't actually find any claims that Matlab has got any faster in the last three years, but still- show us the current comparison, if you want us to take it seriously.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Did MapleSoft censor their own blogger?

Strange occurrences at the MapleSoft sponsored user forum, that are likely of little interest to anyone except me...

The site manager added a blog entry to the front page of the MaplePrimes site about an item that I wrote about calculators. It's always nice when people link to your site, so I went back a few days later to see if I could contribute anything useful to the discussion. However, in that time the links to scientificcomputing.blogspot.com had been removed and replaced with plain text.

Now I can't think of any logical reason why one would write a piece talking about a web page one read, and then decide to later remove the links to where it was, having initially made the effort to put it in.

The only hypothesis that I can come up with is that his superiors didn't agree him linking to a site that has been critical of them at times.

I thought I was exactly on-topic for MaplePrimes, which says that one of the purposes of it is "To offer a contrast and complement to the corporate Web content".

Kind of amusing. Perhaps in a few days I will get annoyed and edit out the links in this item!

[[Update 26 Feb: I decided to do the opposite, here is a link to his personal blog where the original version of the article still lives]]

Minitab 15 released

Minitab have announced a new version of their flagship statistics package. Headline new features are listed as...

  • Ability to assign formulas to columns in the worksheet
  • Expanded Gage R&R capabilities
  • Power (OC) curves for power and sample size
  • Probability Distribution Plot
  • New Reliability methods for forecasting future warranty claims
  • More than 40 new calculator functions
When you read that the top new feature is "Ability to assign formulas to columns in the worksheet", you prepare yourself for a completely underwhelming upgrade.

But when you dig into the full list there is quite a lot more new stuff than the press release suggests, with modest improvements in many, many areas.

Where the release disappoints is by a lack of any clear direction to R&D, perhaps that is why it was hard to write a press release that made it sound interesting. There is no attempt to extend the reach of Minitab. They are happy with what they do, and just want to do the same a bit better.

The result is an upgrade that should please Minitab users, but is unlikely to attract anyone who had previously dismissed it.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Design Science releases news - MathFlow 1.7

Back in October I was rather sarcastic at Design Science's expense over their lack of news output. In the comments, BruceV from Design Science, promised that news would start flowing again as he was hiring a new Marcoms person the next week.

So it has been with some anticipation that I have been waiting to criticize their first output! I have to report that it is a nicely written and hype free piece of news.

The item is an announcement of a new version of MathFlow, their XML oriented math typesetting tool.

Though the news was too late to prevent 2006 being empty of news, I wonder if one of the key new features is also a bit late. Headlining the new features, is compatibility with Arbortext XML authoring system. Now that isn't too late to be a sensible and useful feature, but it would probably have got a lot more traction from the users and makers of Arbortext if it had been a year earlier.

In the last year Arbortext was bought by PTC, who then also purchased MathCAD, which can also be used to write math, and outputs in XML. So it is likely that PTC will have little interest in making Arbortext users aware of Design Sciences solution and will instead push their own solution.

I should mention that I have previously argued that MathCAD is not a good way to author XML (though that would be easy to change).

The release also alludes to behind-the-scenes changes to MathFlow that might be more significant, but not yet of major benefit to users.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Site comment

Apologies to those who subscribe to the RSS or ATOM feeds, which are all messed up.

I upgraded to the new engine for blogger.com and implemented some basic tagging on the archive of articles here.

For those who blog, the new engine is certainly an improvement with better layout editing and faster content management, as well as the tagging. However, the transition managed to convince it that a lot of old articles should be at the top of the feed, instead of the newest ones!

I guess the answer is just to write some new articles!

[Update: 12-Feb, the solution is to edit the recent articles, so I have hyperlinked a lot more of the text]

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Guessing at MapleSoft's strategy for VSNI

In a good start to this year, scientificcomputing.blogspot.com managed to break two world exclusives that have now both been confirmed. The announcement of Maple 11 and the appointment of MapleSoft's Jim Cooper to the board of VSNI.

Looking in more detail at the VSNI tie-in... the press release from VSNI is all very sensible, talking about using Mr Cooper's experience to help grow VSNI. But there is still no clue as to what's in it for MapleSoft to lend out their (presumably) most expensive employee for the benefit of another company, or if its in his own time, why Mr Cooper would want another job.

I now think the idea of shared sales channels seems unlikely, as VSNI have few major resellers that are not already selling Maple and are not, themselves, a large sales force. So MapleSoft must be interesting in accessing the statistics technology and expertise that they currently lack.

It would fit with previous strategy, since little of recent versions of Maple, except for the interface, are created by MapleSoft themselves - they have mostly been assembling parts from other organizations (numerics from NAG and GMP, algebra from INRIA, ORCCA etc) why not statistics from VSNI?

Two key choices would be needed: whether to do lots of work to interface existing data structures seamlessly, or just bolt it on the side and lets the users do the work. And whether to use the existing statistics language design of Maple as a user layer, or to deprecate all of that and expect users to re-write their work in a language more akin to Genstat. If you take the NAG integration as an example, then you could expect a middle compromise on the first, and the deprecation route on the second. Either way, there is enough to do to make this a Maple 13 or Maple 14 feature, not Maple 12!

Whatever the choices, I can see no downside for VSNI, who at the least get some advice from an old hand, and at best might be at the start of a negotiation for a big sale.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Maple 11 to be announced next week

Some more news leaking out of MapleSoft...

On January 8, they will be pre-announcing an upgrade to their principal product Maple although the actual product is not anticipated to be ready until (at least) March.

I will comment again when the actual details are out, but I understand the headline features to be mostly improvements to their Java interface. Unlike the recent minor upgrades to the interface (see comment here) these look not so much bug fixes as design fixes. eg Allowing the typesetting to work within a graphic, equation numbering that works between documents, and the confusing "in place" menu driven operations that previously left no history as to what you did to get your result, now automatically insert a comment.

Features that are actually new include a "preview version" of new handwriting recognition for math. But if you recall my comments on the handwritten character recognition in current Maple, I think we can read "preview" to mean "doesn't work". There is also a Mathematica style "slide show" mode for documents and some kind of content "annotation" feature.

There are some new computational capabilities, mostly "speciality packages" or centred around some nice new Groebner basis capabilities, which they already announced back in March.

So with the central drive still being the document interface, it will be interesting to see if this is the release where they push people to move from the "Classic interface" or if that will still ship alongside the Java interface.