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.


Folding Tablets

Sony Tablet P - Click for slide show

We have still to see any real Android challenge to the iPad. The simple fact is, they’re not as nice. Apple’s hermetic approach to design means that they can tweak the whole package until it’s really quite lovely. Almost every rival product so far feels like an inferior imitation.

It shouldn’t be this way. The advantage of the more open Android platform ought to be that, like Windows, it gets used on an interesting variety of hardware. That should allow creative manufacturers to experiment and innovate. Inexcusably though, most don’t. But just now and again someone lets loose, and the results justify the wait.

Sony simply call it the Tablet P, and though it looks like one of those concept devices that are demoed and then never seen again, it is actually coming to market – along with its more conventional sibling the Tablet S – any day now. I don’t even usually like Sony’s stuff; for my tastes it seems too shiny and insubstantial. But the idea of a folding tablet is just gorgeous.

Why? Well the iPad has been touted as somehow a replacement for print publications – even the potential saviour of the publishing industry. But it is not a device you can easily carry around with you to read in the places most people read casually: During journeys and commutes, sitting at a café table. Basically it’s too big; smartphones on the other hand are too small for comfortable reading. A device that has almost the same screen size as an iPad yet can be slipped into a jacket pocket or handbag makes sense in so many more situations.

Meanwhile, there are strong rumours that Amazon is about to enter the fray too, attempting to beat other tablets where so far there’s been a painful absence of competition – on price. So despite Apple’s courtroom tactics and the demise of HP’s Touchpad, it looks like competition is finally beginning to happen. The biggest upset though may be yet to come. So far, Microsoft has been noticeable in the consumer tablet market mostly by its absence. Are they having second thoughts? More soon…


No More Pencils, No More Books

iPad showing OpenStreetMap content
Homework never looked more attractive

Giving iPads to kids in school. How lovely. St Kevin’s in Crumlin is the most recent of something like seven around the country, starting with St Colman’s in Mayo, to join this revolution.

What the hell are they thinking?

I guess it tells you a lot about the world some people live in, that this idea wasn’t shot down on the grounds that the iPads would be stolen by children from other, less well-equipped schools. We assume all these kids are being delivered to the gates by car. It’s even more charming to realise that the kids themselves are being trusted not to break, lose, or ‘lose’ such valuable devices. Of course there’s one advantage – right now, most children who had the cash price of an iPad would probably use it to buy an iPad.

What I find either more touching still, or just hopelessly naïve, is the idea that kids will be able to use iPads, in class or for study, without becoming terminally distracted. They’re being encouraged to do their homework in an amusement arcade. Schools say the tablets will be blocked from things like Facebook and Twitter, but it doesn’t take a child to figure out that there are about a billion other available distractions on the Web, and it’s quite impossible to block them on an individual basis. And remember, this is in school – the only place in the world where it’s legal to enforce hours of brain-crushing inaction on innocent children. I spent thirteen of my most impressionable years being bored to tears, I would have killed for such distraction.

On the other hand, I am distracted every day by the fact that I work on devices I can use to access the Internet. Raised from the very start with the temptation, maybe these kids will develop the iron discipline necessary to keep their concentration in this all-singing, all-dancing world.


One thing that isn’t a problem though – you may be wondering how the hell it makes economic sense to give such expensive tools to every child in a school. To understand, you just need to know about the cost of schoolbooks in Ireland. School teaching is free here, yes. But school books are basically a massive scheme to ream hapless parents until their eyes pop. Compared to that, the cost of an iPad over a few years is almost trivial.


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.


Tablets In Court – Continued

As for your “Apple is killing the [tablet] marketplace”, as companies like Palm/HP and RIM are showing: there’s plenty of competition that’s doing fine without toe-ing the copying line.

~ Comment by reader Azijn

Not so much, it seems.

HP have thrown in the towel, after their tablet being on the market for an astonishingly brief three weeks. The world’s largest computer manufacturer doesn’t think it can make its money back on tablets. What chance does a relative minnow like RIM have?

Both HP’s WebOS and RIM’s QNX are – or were – really interesting and attractive operating systems, and it’s true that they’re arguably a lot less similar to Apple’s iOS than Android is. (Though it has been argued by some that they’re a little bit too similar to each other.) But it’s immaterial; only Android has the ecosystem of apps to compete with iOS. For the foreseeable future, there is no other realistic alternative to the iPad.

Samsung have clearly being sailing close to the legal wind – in part perhaps to establish just what can and can’t be copyrighted. It’s interesting legally because many of the laws being invoked by Apple were designed to prevent counterfeiting or passing-off of fake goods. Now clearly Samsung are not passing-off. Their products say ‘Samsung’ on the front in large letters. But they know that Apple have managed to create an aura of sexiness around their products. Is the iPhone the ideal size and shape? Is it the most beautiful design possible? It doesn’t matter; people now want something that looks like that. So to compete, it may be necessary to look as similar as you legally can. Perhaps Samsung will argue in court that consumer electronics is more like the fashion industry now.

But I would be happier to see companies attempting to innovate with Android instead. HTC have tried of course, but for sheer inventive madness I think you have to hand it to their neighbours Asus.


Apple Versus Samsung Galaxy Tab – Update

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and 8.9 Review
OK, here

A quick update to the story about Apple blocking sales of the rival Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 throughout the EU. In good news for people who want to get their hands on this device, the ruling by the German court has been clarified. Confusion arose because Samsung has a German subsidiary, and the court had the jurisdiction to prevent this company selling the Tab 10.1 throughout the EU. However the court is not competent to ban the South Korean parent company from selling it in any other European country.

Glad to sort that one out.

I still prefer the iPad 2 as a device, but this probably is the best direct rival it’s seen so far and I hope the courts eventually do decide that it’s fair competition. Though I suppose it goes without saying that my favourite of all the available tablet devices is something else again. And no, not the one you’re probably thinking. More on this soon!


Thou Shalt Have No Other Tablets Before Me

Steve Jobs while introducing the iPad in San F...
Steve "Moses" Jobs

Update: The legal situation has been clarifiied, though it doesn’t affect most of the points at issue here.

This is what Apple effectively said to all of Europe this week, raising fears the the world’s biggest technology company has totally lost it.

Apple claims that a rival product, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1, infringes its “design rights”, and that therefore we shouldn’t even have the choice of buying one. A German judge has agreed that there is a case to be made. Apple sought the injunction in Germany, analysts suggest, because that country has a lot of its own design-based industries so the courts are more likely to sympathise with the plaintiff, and trade rules are such that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 cannot now be sold anywhere in the EU until the issue is resolved – with the exception of the Netherlands, where such a case is already under way.

So does Apple have a case? Well the Galaxy Tab is superficially similar to the iPad. But that’s because they are both tablet computers with touch interfaces. The iPad is certainly a great example of such a device, but Apple didn’t invent it. They are both devices that run operating systems originally designed for phones, but “make a phone bigger and take out the phonecall part” is hardly patentable design. There is nothing illegal about trying to compete. In fact our entire economic and social model depends on the idea.

And under the skin of course they are fundamentally different beasts. There are some components that are absolutely identical, yes – but often because those components were designed by Samsung. They cannot run the same software, so the Galaxy Tab is in no way passing itself off as an iPad. Yet Apple’s case seems to be based mostly on the fact that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 looks a good bit like the iPad 2. It doesn’t even apply to the original 7″ Galaxy Tab.

The real reason why the are out to stop you getting your hands on a Galaxy Tab 10.1? Because it’s too good. Because by a lot of measures, it’s a better product than the iPad 2. it’s significantly lighter for one, which makes a huge difference in a tablet device, plus it has a larger yet sharper screen. What make this abundantly clear is that Apple are trying to do the same to Motorola‘s Xoom, also tipped as a serious rival.

Though these are good products, I still prefer the iPad as an experience. Apple’s total control over hardware and software does lead to a refinement that Android devices never will quite attain. The main reason I would still choose to buy an Android tablet is Apple’s restrictive practices. Now it seems, Apple are restricting the market so that I have no choice but to accept their restricted products. If they ruled the world, the person who built a better mousetrap would find no one beating a path to their door except the police.

Humour Technology

Mac Fixin’ Again

Circuit City

Some laptops are a lot easier to fix than others. My Toughbook can basically be maintained with a bicycle spanner. At the opposite end, I once had such a hard time taking apart an Acer that I didn’t bother to put it back together again.

Apple’s are in the middle, though some are better than others. The last couple of MacBooks are far better than past models – they actually let you take your own hard drive out, without needing power tools! The Intel iBooks are fairly OK, except that all the connectors inside seem to snake into one bizarre nexus. The iBook G3 on the other hand, though actually my favourite from the outside (it’s the weird curvy one from about 2000), has about 650 screws – no two of which are the same.

But the iBook G4 (1.33GHz) is my poorly-designed nemesis. It’s notorious because the Wi-Fi card has a tendency to come loose, crashing the thing. I fixed one almost exactly a year ago, for my musician friend Niceol. And guess what? It came loose again. As I said at the time:

To help prevent the Wi-Fi card working loose again I needed something to pad out the clamp holding it, make the grip tighter. So I found a nice pale grey piece of card, cut neatly rounded corners, got a pen and wrote “iPad”.

Because Apple design is all about attention to detail.

Seems my design was underpowered. So I replaced the soft card with a thicker piece of plastic. On which, naturally, I scrawled “iPad 2”.


What Phone Is Right For You? 6 – Paradigm Shift Hits The Fan

Siemens "Fernscheiber 100" teletype....
Humble, and Deeply Unattractive, Origins

Though the iPhone changed personal computing forever, its significance was not immediately grasped even by Apple’s competitors – perhaps particularly by them. Sure, the likes of Nokia and Blackberry probably appreciated the threat it represented in the high-end smartphone sector. Almost beyond doubt, Google saw the potential it had to control a huge slice of the market for Internet services. Microsoft would have recognised a major new extension of Apple’s many-tentacled marketing strategy.

What may have taken longer to sink in was the fact that Apple was taking them all on at once… As the iPad and its imitators demonstrate, the iPhone was harbinger of a new and very significant generation of devices – one that would break personal computing free from its clumsy origins.

For half a century, computers have followed essentially the same design paradigm. This is strange when you think about it, because they could really use almost any. All the operator is doing fundamentally is putting numbers in and getting numbers out, there must be a million ways to do that. Many were explored in the early years: dials, punched cards, paper tapes, patch cables, levers, bells, rows of switches and lights. The possibilities were endless – and deeply unstandardised.

Then some pioneer had the brilliant idea of using a teleprinter. You may not even remember these, they’re now almost extinct, but the teleprinter (also called teletype or telex) is essentially a networked, motorised typewriter. You type on your terminal, the one at the recipient’s end rattles off a printed message. The bright idea was to wire one of these up to a computer so its keyboard could be used for input and its printer for output. Using a pre-existing technology not only meant a big cost saving, but harnessed a recognised interface metaphor that users could grasp immediately. Replacing the printed paper display with text on a TV-like monitor made it all the more familiar and friendly. This metaphor was so effective that it has basically gone unchanged ever since. Even devices as svelte as the iMac or petite as a netbook are, under the skin, just fancy telex machines – like a shape-changing alien from a SciFi cartoon, unable to prevent hints of its true nature showing through its disguise.

There have been attempts to break the mould; perhaps the most effective was the use of pen input on devices like the PDA or Tablet PC. But that was just swapping the restrictions of one metaphor for those of another. What Apple realised was simple but profound – you could design a device without metaphor. Let the application in use dictate the interface; the device itself should come with as few restrictions or presuppositions as possible. Beyond the necessary limitations of form factor – it must be this size if you want to carry it as a phone, this size if you want to read comfortably and so on – it should be as reconfigurable as possible. Thus the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad family is a device as rich in possibility as we have ever had, and perhaps ever will until we figure out how to make shape-changing hardware.

But just because it’s revolutionary, that doesn’t necessarily mean the iPhone is the best phone you can get. And while some rivals still seem to be in shock even now, one company was ready to respond to and rival Apple’s innovation. One company may already be beating them at their own game.


Untangling The Cables

Enough about the government for a while. Time to catch up on the gizmo fun we’ve been missing.

When I heard that the new MacBooks sported a connector called Thunderbolt I admit I was mystified. Sure, it’s said to be twice as fast as USB3 (only just out itself), but twice as fast was not enough. I knew that Intel had a fiber-optic connector called Light Peak in the works. In future, computers were going to be linked by light, not by the same old copper wires that have been with us since the days of the telegraph. It wasn’t like Apple to be going down a technological cul-de-sac.

It turns out of course that Thunderbolt is Light Peak – but in a transitional copper-wire form. If things go according to plan, it will be upgraded in the future to fiber-optic versions. We’ll see. For the moment though, it does 10 Gigabits per second. That may not be light speed, but it is roughly twenty times faster than USB2. Fast enough to, say, transfer a HD feature film in 30 seconds, or enough MP3 files to play non-stop for one year in just ten minutes. So, it’s a start. And though it’s being launched in cooperation with Apple, it should soon be everywhere.

But the really interesting thing about Thunderbolt is that it isn’t just for the usual things you’d connect up by USB – printers, hard drives, scanners and so on. It can also be used for external displays. So in the near future, the same cable could be used for just about every device a computer can connect to.

On top of that, it also carries power – like USB does, only more so. It’s capable of providing 10 Watts. That means many devices that now need external power supplies such as printers or routers, and even some displays, will be able to get it over the connection to the computer instead, cutting down greatly on cable clutter.

It makes you think, doesn’t it? 10 Watts is sufficient to charge some quite potent devices. The iPad requires a 10 Watt charger, funnily enough… Charge your iPad by plugging it into your MacBook.

So you can imagine Apple very soon building a device with just a single socket – used for charging, printers, displays, everything. A single port, a single cable; it can’t really get much more simple than that.

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