New Windows 2 – The Ecosystem

windows 8 preview
A Glimpse Of The Future

Perhaps as early as next year you will be able to run Windows on the same sort of low-energy ARM processors that iPads and phones use. Interesting.

What exactly is the point though? By itself, Windows for ARM doesn’t change a lot. All the programs that we use on Windows were written for Intel chips. They won’t run on ARM. They would have to be “ported” to the different architecture, and there’s no guarantee that a heavyweight program converted for a nimble processor would be anything you’d really want to use. Apple didn’t get where it is by simply porting Mac programs to the iPad. Garage Band, to take one example, is pretty much a wholly new version written to take full advantage of the touch interface.

It will be up to the market to create the software that really suits ARM-based Windows, and that of course depends on the platform taking off, which depends on the market… The Catch-22 of new technologies. Microsoft can seed it for success, but a huge amount of the detail still remains to be seen. It will surely run many Windows Phone 7 apps, but will it be able to take on the full-fat version of Office? (Rumours that it already can are probably based on an Intel tablet demo.) What about all the software created in Microsoft’s .NET framework? In Java?

Will it even have a desktop? This may seem an odd idea – Windows without a desktop? But in Windows 8, the desktop has been demoted to the status of an app; just another program, rather than an integral part of the operating system. Instead, the default interface of all Windows versions will be Metro, the “live tile”, highly touch-orientated look pioneered on Windows Phone 7. It’s all about fast and attractive access to information feeds. To do traditional work, with one or more heavy-duty application program running at once, you first open out a desktop. So it’s at least a possibility that the ARM-based version of Windows will only run lighter apps purposely designed for the touch interface. I am sure that “heavier” Intel versions of Windows will run those too though; Microsoft wants touch to be ubiquitous.

At the moment, leaving aside special-purpose and older versions, there are basically two Microsoft operating systems: Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7, and in most respects they’re distinct, incompatible things. In the near future though there could be a pretty continuous spectrum of Windows 8, over not two but four distinct types of device:

  1. Phones that can run lightweight touch-based apps.
  2. Light ARM-based tablets that can run the same apps – and some traditional software?
  3. Full Tablet PCs that definitely can run traditional software as well, but are still totally touch-orientated.
  4. Laptops and desktops that have an optional touch interface.

Hopefully they should all blend well so that data (and perhaps apps) move from one device to another seamlessly, even by touching them together. One can turn to the device suitable for your situation – a phone for walking, a desktop for work, a slate for sitting back – and find little changed about the user experience other than the size of the screen. It’s easy to see that merging very gracefully with “Surface“-type touch- and object-aware furniture. It’s as interesting as Windows has sounded for a very long time. Perhaps ever.

New Windows

Windows 7, the latest client version in the Mi...
A thing of the past

Since last we had a new version of Windows, the IT scene has changed beyond recognition. With the big growth areas now phone and tablet devices running operating systems from Apple and Google, Microsoft’s position as global software king has gone from undisputed to suddenly very vulnerable-looking. How will they respond?

Well what they’re not doing is reinventing themselves. Microsoft biggest asset is that they are already on the vast, vast majority of the world’s PCs and laptops. Their task therefore is to keep that position relevant.

Both Apple and Microsoft have distinct desktop and phone operating systems. With its latest desktop OS version though, Apple has integrated a lot of the phone version’s functionality, and it seemed obvious that Microsoft would have to do much the same thing. But they’re going about it in a fundamentally different way. Key to the difference is the two companies’ very distinct tablet strategies.

Microsoft actually pioneered the tablet computer. Theirs was launched back in 2002. The idea though was to put full-strength Windows on a device with a touch screen interface, using a pen and handwriting recognition instead of a keyboard. This actually works fantastically. The only problem is, it’s not a product that many people wanted to use. They’re great for work in the field, factory, site or hospital, because you can walk with them, enter text while standing, use them like paper with built in computing power. I have one because by day I’m an artist, and it means my sketchpad has Photoshop right there. But while it’s a wonderful product in a great variety of professional niches, it doesn’t have the broad consumer appeal that has made Apple such an incredible pile of money.

The key difference is that Microsoft decided that tablets should be full computers – they call them Tablet PCs – while Apple decided they should be large phones. Microsoft’s approach is more flexible, a Tablet PC can run any PC software. But the Apple approach had key advantages: Lightness, and long battery life. And it makes all the difference in the world. It took Apple to see the obvious: A device you hold in your hands needs to be light.

The chief reason for this is that the Apple-style tablet (under which I also include Android devices and other rivals) are built around ARM chips, whereas Microsoft’s tablets, like all PCs, use Intel’s x86 architecture. ARM was designed from the ground up with low power consumption to the fore of its priorities, while the x86 was built for speed without compromise. And though Intel have worked hard on producing x86 chips like the Atom with greatly reduced power demands, they will probably never be ideal.

Microsoft’s response was more radical than anyone expected. They’re going to bring out a version of Windows that will run on ARM chips – the same chips that are found in iPads and Android Tablets, and indeed in nearly all smartphones. It will be the first wholly new Windows version for many years – and the first break Microsoft has made with Intel, bringing an official end to what was once dubbed the ‘Wintel monopoly’.

But this is just one manoeuvre in a strategy. More to follow.

The End Of Google Freebies

Image representing Google Desktop as depicted ...
Clear Your Desktop

If you use Windows XP, there’s a product you should get while you still can. Google Desktop is a useful way to search all the documents you have on your own computer, instantly. You may be familiar with the search built into XP, and how slow and basic it is. Google’s Desktop brings their Web-search speed to your own computer.

OK, it is getting to be a bit obsolete. More modern operating systems have similar fast searching built in. And there is an alternative from Microsoft called Windows Desktop Search. But I liked the Google product best, and in less than two weeks they’re not going to let us have it any more. Boo.

As the link shows they’ve in fact discontinued the whole Google Pack, of which this was just one part, along with a whole lot of other projects that were far less popular. That’s a shame I think. It was always a good place to point people to get some essential software from a source they could trust. (We still do trust Google, don’t we? Basically I mean.)

Sure the links are still there, but the package had a mechanism to keep them updated for you. It was all very beginner-friendly. (You can still get it from here, but there’s little point if the update system is going to stop.) It was an endearing little feature of Google’s corporate personality, I found it quite useful over the last few years, but now it’s gone.

And no, it never did get out of beta.

Steve Jobs – An Astonishing Career

Steve Jobs
The best technology CEO since Thomas Edison?

There would always have been more to do. This is a good time for Steve Jobs to depart. Apple is at its peak; both triumphantly successful and wealthy, yet simultaneously admired and even loved. Since the company returned Steve Jobs to his – there is a strong temptation to say ‘rightful’ – leadership role, it has been on an almost unparalleled tour de force.

It began so apparently simply, with products that looked more like quick fixes for the mess he found Apple in than parts of any masterplan. The iMac was in all respects except one an obvious stopgap, an almost desperate attempt to stem the flood of computer users away from the Mac to PC. Make them cheap and paint them bright colours. But stopgap products don’t normally become best-sellers. And more subtly, attractive design revitalised the idea that a computer could be a consumer product.

The diversification into media players too seemed like a quick way to bolster revenues, and yet it evolved into a product that utterly conquered the top end of the phone market. And kept evolving, into one that some say will replace the laptop and the desktop. How the hell does that happen? Whether it was a secret plan of astonishing foresight, or ‘merely’ an extended run of inspired improvisation, virtually everything Jobs touched turned to gold.

In one of those coincidences, I was joking on the phone with my girlfriend yesterday about the news that Apple’s stock was now worth more than that of all the banks in the eurozone combined. (This, on top of having more ready cash than the US government.) I said that gold and Apple shares were the only things people dared invest in now. But what if Steve Jobs resigns? It’ll be like if gold suddenly evaporated.

Will Apple stock plunge? I doubt it, but it will fall some. It has fallen a little already, even though the news only went public after Wall Street shut for the night. Markets are nervous animals. But share price means little to a company that has no need to raise money. What does matter is whether they will continue to be great.

One strongly suspects that the attention to detail in Apple products, the integration of the technical and the aesthetic, is a direct expression of Steve Jobs’ personality. Without that obsession actually in the driving seat, will Apple continue to make great, pioneering products?

For the foreseeable future, I think they will. But somehow it won’t be the same.

Scam Scum

Credit Card
Scammers will do you nicely

This morning my mother received a call claiming to be from some sort of technical support, warning her that everything possible was wrong with her computer. And more. Fortunately I was staying, so she passed the call to me.

If you haven’t heard about these scams, they call you up – often using your name, wherever they get it – and tell you horror stories. Sometimes they claim to be from Microsoft or perhaps a well-known vendor of computers or antivirus software, something that sounds vaguely familiar and worrying to the inexperienced user.

Then they may ask you for a credit card number to pay for their ‘repair service’, or tell you to download a program or security patch – which will actually be a virus. They will do terrible things to your computer and/or bank account. I regret now that I didn’t patiently sit through the whole spiel so that I could reproduce its exact details here. But the idea of what these people do, lying to me in a pleasant voice, out to rob my mother, that got to me.

So someone who works a scam for a living now has little reason to doubt that they are doing evil. I was fairly explicit on that point. They also have grounds to believe that the police are on their way. Far fetched as that claim might seem, I backed it up with action. It was German number – +495188859403 – and since the call I found a computer crime authority in Germany to forward it to.

I also had quite an exciting stream of invective lined up, of which ‘scum’ was perhaps the most – indeed, only – printable word. Sadly though she picked up on my general drift and hung up, on or about the word ‘arrested’.

I have too much anger.

Anyway, don’t believe the bastards. Legitimate companies simply do not call and tell you there is something wrong with your computer. So warn the less savvy computer users you know. If these people called one number in Ireland from Germany they’ll probably call many, and it seems likely they’ll be trying UK numbers too.

This has been an emergency interruption to your service. The usual (?) afternoon update will now go up in two hours’ time.

Chips With Everything

Irish Politican, Sen. Fidelma Healy Eames, sta...
She's Full Of Bright Ideas!

Speaking of Senators having bad ideas, Fidelma Healy Eames (FG) tweeted this yesterday:

Playstn Xbox danger 2 health as 20 yo dies.Makers shd install auto shutdown chip af’r 2hr play w/ 12hr break on all game.http://t.co/kR0ebnu

The link goes to the Daily Mail – but don’t worry, I’ve read it so you don’t have to. This noted UK journal of objective health information explains how a twenty-year old died from deep vein thrombosis because he played on his Xbox for twenty hours a day sometimes. Well they don’t actually say because, they say he played Xbox and he died of DVT, but the inference is there to be drawn.

Therefore she wants all Xbox-PlayStations to have a chip that will turn them off for twelve hours after two hours of play. (Strikes me that a games console already has all the necessary hardware for a timed shut-down, but politicians do like “chips”.) Even the Daily Mail didn’t go that far, merely reporting the father’s call for parents to pay attention to what their kids are doing. That is actually good advice. Our failed TD Senator however believes in discipline through technology.

Of course games consoles are only the beginning. If DVT is caused by sitting too long, then anything that causes you to sit too long should logically have a Healy Eames chips in it. Two hours of TV a night should be enough for anyone. Two hours on your work computer, then a twelve hour break. Sounds good to me. And of course there will be Healy Eames cars that will only run for two hours at a time, then drive along beside you while you take a healthy walk.

But of course one might sit for twenty hours doing crossword puzzles. Healy Eames will eventually have to put a chip in the real culprit – your chair. Well less a chip, more a sort of giant spring mechanism.

Can’t you still cheat, by sitting on a box instead of your proper government-approved childsafe anti-sitting chair? For a while maybe. Until she finds out how to put a chip in your arse.

Facebook and Microsoft?

May I be the first to run around the room with my arms flailing? Facebook may merely be working with Skype to introduce video calling, and Skype may have only been recently bought by Microsoft, but it immediately makes you fear that Microsoft are on the point of buying Facebook. And that would be almost unthinkable. The lumbering old PC monopolist, owning the nimble new social network. The folks at Redmond, with their hands on our personal profiles. Shiver.

Yet… It seems a compelling match. Though not officially on sale yet, the estimated asking price of Facebook is The Largest Number You Can Think Of – a sum which Microsoft just happens to have.

Will they? Would they? They may have to. If Google actually begins to rival Facebook with its Google+ network, it is going to have a fantastically powerful strategic position. And remember, as the main way that the world interacts with the Web and the maker of what is going to become the world’s most popular phone OS, Google has a strategic position already far in advance of anyone.

It’s clear already what they’re planning to do with Google+. They’re going to blend social networking in. They want a person’s online activities, their socializing and their Web searching, to merge casually and seamlessly together. Search for an air fare to Italy, let your friends (or a certain group of friends) see that you’re searching, get their comments and tips. It’s amusing that just after all the browser-makers introduced an “In Private” feature so that you could explicitly search without being seen, Google realised that an “In Public” option would be even better.

This will work. People will like their social networking being blended into their general online activities. It will make using the Web as a whole a much more social thing, a lot more like being with people. It will be great and Google will become even more fantastically powerful.

So if Microsoft want to stay in the game, they need Facebook. The chances of them successfully introducing their own social network system seem poor. There’s really just one question. If Facebook becomes a property of Microsoft, will it instantly become uncool? It seems likely that being owned by Mr. Fox contributed to the demise of MySpace, possibly a similar effect could strike down Facebook. Especially if Google are successful in selling Google+ as the cooler alternative. I’m not sure. Facebook is so big now that it seems almost unimaginable that it could falter. And yet, anything can happen on the Web.

Then again, Microsoft could actually improve Facebook’s image. MS is not exactly the world’s most trusted and loved company, but it is at least known to be businesslike. Facebook is so good at giving the impression of being fundamentally unreliable that Microsoft could actually make it seem a lot more trustworthy.

What’s more, if MS keeps blundering around with the sense of direction it’s displaying right now, if Apple and Google keep running rings around them like this, it’ll soon be able to portray itself as the loveable underdog.

As I say, anything.

Nokia’s Last Hurrah

N9 © Nokia

There’s no argument, the N9 is a beautiful device. It’s almost hypnotically attractive, better perhaps than even the iPhone at the magical trick of making you feel that this is how phones were always meant to look. Sculpted from curved glass and a single block of matte polycarbonate, graced with a simple, powerful new operating system, this is the most radically restrained design that Nokia has ever produced. Aesthetically, that is; from a feature viewpoint it’s downright exuberant. All in all, a tour de force of phone engineering.

Only one question really: What exactly is it for?

This is not the first of Nokia’s new Windows phones, rather it is the first with MeeGo. First, and quite possibly last. For MeeGo is the operating system that Nokia were developing to take on the iPhone. Until they lost their nerve, decided it couldn’t possibly be done in time to save the company, and let themselves be bought into Windows Phone 7 instead.

And yet here’s a MeeGo phone, somehow ready before any Windows one. What exactly happened there?

It had to be this way. If the Windows device had come out first, MeeGo might have been allowed to drift on without ever becoming finished product, and MeeGo was the one chance Nokia’s designers had to prove to the world – and to their boss – that they could have taken on Apple and won.

Launching an already doomed product might seem a bizarre expense for an already beleaguered company, but not bringing MeeGo to fruition also had a price – one that might have been paid in resignations. The N9 may best be understood as a magnificent gift; from Nokia’s management, to Nokia’s talent.

Open Source, Closed Book

Visualization of the various routes through a ...
I Definitely Left That File Here Somewhere

Another really pleasant April day. The last one of course; by the time you read this it will be May, and instead of considering the good days a bonus we’ll see the bad ones as short-changing us. This is why April is the far superior month, it rewards optimists.

But I’m back in the windowless Windows cave, a net café with 17 PCs in various stages of broken. Late last night I defeated a secret second level boss defending them against their own administrators. Tonight I have two cleaned and ready to take the set of applications that the public will want.

If it were up to me of course, the public would get the apps I want. And they’d all walk out of the shop pleasantly astonished at how good open source software is now.

Yeah right. Customers faced with OpenOffice instead of the Microsoft equivalent are just going to react with panic and dismay. Though there isn’t really much to choose between the two, it’s a classic case of the market leader being the market leader because they’re the market leader; office applications are a natural monopoly. The only reason why OpenOffice still even exists is that it’s not for profit.

What I think stands a better chance at competing, in this market at least, is Google’s still-nascent attempt at doing the thin client all over again, Chrome OS, where the computer is running absolutely nothing but a browser, and all the applications and all the documents are out there in what marketeers now want us to call “the cloud”, or what we used to call cyberspace. In other words, a server farm in Indonesia.

Is it crazy? Doing your computing right there in front of you has simply got to be quicker than doing it over a network, however fast. But consider me. It’s six in the morning. I started at one in the afternoon. I am still tweaking the drivers and software and settings of these Windows machines so that I can start to make them ready to be made ready for the public tomorrow.

Just one installed program – and even that kept updated automatically over the Internet? For public situations like this, yes please. For the customer too, the convenience of always having their documents to hand no matter what computer they were made on would be wonderful. No more schlepping them around on flash drives. They’ll learn to love Google Docs.

If need be I’ll pay them to.

Little Boxen

A USB flash drive in the shape of a piece of i...
I'm Starting To Hallucinate

Sitting in a late pub, torn between throwing up my hands in despair at those damn computers, and going back and coddling them all like sick hens. They really are depressing. Aside from some of them being basically made of string and spit, they have been the unfortunate victims of good ideas.

Naturally in a net café you want to keep the computers safe from the customers and whatever crap they might download or bring in on their dirty little flash drives. Someone had a scheme here, to totally lock down these computers. Good? Unfortunately, they’re locked to Windows Updates, to new software, to antivirus that can still  get updates… You can’t change anything as a user and you can’t log on as an administrator, even in Safe Mode. These computers are frozen in the past.

There are supposed to be Norton Ghost images to restore them from, but so far every one I’ve tried has this anti-change software on it, so they’re just frozen further in the past. It’s like whoever did this job last decided to set a fiendish puzzle to those who came after. Normally I’d relish such a challenge, but this café does need to start making money some time.