It’s not easy being large

The Thinker by Rodin

People tend to look up to us taller people, both literally and sometimes figuratively. With two otherwise equal candidates in an election, the taller is much more likely to win. Being tall has certain advantages. Seeing the full screen in a theater is rarely a problem. It’s easier for men to find a mate when you are tall and your pickings tend to be better. It sounds sexist but it’s generally true that women prefer tall men. Reputedly, the air is better at my altitude too. I often wonder if I miss much of the world’s flatulence.

At six foot and two inches (188 cm) I’m not always the tallest in the room. Statistically, I’m at taller than 94.5 percent of American men, with the average man at 5 feet and 9 inches (175 cm). This does have some effects on everyday life. Take shoes, for instance. I take a size 14 on one foot and a 14.5 on the other. Most of my life I wore size 13 because I couldn’t find a size 14, which was probably a mistake given the many foot problems I had over the years.

More recently I find myself at a disadvantage finding an acceptable computer chair. I’ve been scouring Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley in search of a chair that will work for me. My height is a big problem, as the chair has to be elevated high enough so that my feet don’t cross when I sit on it. The chair needs to help me avoid sciatica not to mention the acute problem of the moment: pain in my wrists, arms and pinkies.

No, it’s not carpal tunnel syndrome, but close: strain of the extensor capri uluaris. As for the pinky finger on the right hand, that’s due to “weakness on the extensor tendon” according to Gail, an occupational therapist who came to my house to help me figure out my problem. I am a victim because I am a tall male with big hands who works with a mouse and keyboard a good part of my day using equipment designed for people at the 50 percentile. In addition, my desk is wrong. My keyboard is wrong too. And my mouse is wrong. The only thing that’s right is my monitor: it’s at the right elevation and angle. One thing is clear: being in the 95 percentile, it’s going to be costly to fix.

Take my mouse. It’s designed for the average hand, which mine is not. Donald Trump defensively claims that his hands are not short but anyhow they certainly are beautiful. While he brags about the size of his genitals if there is such a thing as hand envy, he surely would envy mine, which mirror my long feet and toes.

My large hand with Magic Mouse
My large hand with Magic Mouse

My hands are so large that most computer mice won’t work well with them. This was not obvious when I bought my latest iMac a few years ago, which came with the nifty Apple Magic Mouse. It was my therapist Gail who pointed it out: it may be sleek and sexy looking, but Apple utterly failed to make an ergonomic mouse. It has at best half an inch of elevation, which means the palm of my hand cannot rest on it, so I must engage wrist muscles and all finger tendons just to use it. That’s causing the “weakness on the extensor tendon” and is inflaming my wrist joint as well.

Moreover, it’s not wide enough. With long fingers my hand width is also wide. To use the pinky finger and the one next to it I have to scrunch them up unnaturally close together. In short, while Apple tends to get an A in designing sexy products, they got an F designing an ergonomic mouse. My solution is actually a number of solutions. There are a few mice designed for larger hands, like this one that costs $109 plus shipping. I’m also encouraged to change devices during the day. I am currently using this Logitech trackball mouse, which is still not quite big enough. My pinky falls off the side and hits the surface, irritating it. I also have a standalone Apple track pad, but I have to be careful there too, particularly to use a light touch. From all that use of my Magic Mouse, my pinky wants to push itself off to the side when I use mouse or keyboard, which inflames the joint with the hand. To cope, I’m trying putting some tape around the two fingers.

But I am also being told to move the mouse from the elbow. This means (as I’ve already discovered) that armrests on my chairs are bad, so I need a chair that doesn’t have them or one that can get out of the way. My Apple keyboard is not ergonomic either. I’m accustomed to its chicklet keys now but the keys are probably too close together due to my large hands and it might be better to use a keyboard that requires less force by the fingers. All this plus I’d do better with a split keyboard because regular keyboards force the wrists to move unnaturally toward the outside. I can’t use the Microsoft natural keyboard, because it won’t work with an Apple computer. There are some that can be ordered (example), but they are not cheap.

With my tall back I need good lumbar support, but it has to reach higher than most lumbar supports, so I need something that is adjustable. That’s the problem with my current chair, but there is also no upper back support so my back muscles tend to get tense, causing me to pinch my shoulder blades and lean forward. I could use a chair with a headrest as well. I’ve learned from my years with sciatica that the seat has to be flat and ideally padded with memory foam. It took a professional massage and three visits with a chiropractor to stop my back from hurting. I’m getting physical therapy for the arms and hands as well.

Then there is my desk. It’s too low. Because my legs are long, I need something an inch higher, but just as important I need more space for my legs. I have 28 inches and need 36. Right now my knees touch the bottom of the keyboard tray and, oh yeah, the keyboard tray needs to come out further too.

My future chair?
My future chair?

So I’m working through this piece by piece, concentrating on the chair and mouse for now. For the mouse I am trying the Magic Mouse Fixed, a $12 block of silicone that should allow the seat of my hand to rest on the mouse. It probably won’t solve the problem because the Magic Mouse is simply not wide enough. I found a used office chair in Springfield that might work. Even used they want $450, but they have a five day “try before you buy” program.

I’ll try to let you know in the months ahead whether all these changes will actually work. I’m being told there is no silver bullet, but I can improve things a lot. Meanwhile, I’ve got to stop and do some more of these ulnar nerve glides that the physical therapist wants me to do twice a day.

There may be a Chromebook in my future

The Thinker by Rodin

In principle, I am against getting in bed with any computer company. And yet it is hard to avoid.

Since 2008, I have been principally using Apple computers. I have an iMac where I do most of my work, and an iPad when I want to read more than interact with the web. I also have, courtesy of my employer, a Windows 7 laptop. I need it for work but there are also times when I just need Windows. Unfortunately, I’ll have to turn in that machine when I retire August 1. I don’t like Windows enough to want to buy a Windows computer, or even pay a license to run it virtually on my iMac, particularly now that Windows 8 is your user interface. In any event, upon retirement this will leave me with an Android-based Smartphone as my remaining computing device.

So you basically have to pick your platform. It’s almost always Windows or Mac for the desktop, and Android or iOS for mobile devices. None of them are ideal, even Apple with its shiny computers and snappy user interfaces. There is also no one-size-fits-all device, which is probably good because what you need often depends on your intended use.

For example, I don’t need to run Quicken on my Smartphone. I don’t need to edit Microsoft Office documents on my smartphone either, although seeing them on my smartphone is occasionally useful. When I am doing financial stuff, writing or banging out code, that’s when I really need a desktop or laptop computer. This kind of work is either mostly a lot of entering numbers or text. The work is primarily assertive computer use.

By the way, this is a term I just made up. It means I need to assert lots of real world facts to a computer, basically translating my thoughts into something that a computer can use. Assertive computer use often involves repetition but it also means expressing structured content and thought. Creating this post, for example, is assertive use. It requires not just a brain dump, but structuring my words carefully so exact meaning is communicated. In theory I can do this with voice recognition software. In practice it is much more efficient to do it with a keyboard.

During my last vacation I brought along just my iPad and a wireless keyboard, basically to see how realistic it was to do assertive computer work on this kind of device which is really optimized for browsing. What I discovered was that it was possible to do assertive work, but it was a hassle. The Microsoft Office suite has now arrived for the iPad, but it doesn’t make doing assertive work that much less challenging. It’s a hassle because I am using an iPad, and it’s not a desktop computer, and a tablet computer is basically used for browsing and for simple interactions that can be done by pointing. For assertive work, it’s like expecting a subcompact to haul a trailer. It is technically possible perhaps, but not close to ideal. Moreover, by its size and nature, it never will be ideal for this work.

So there is no one-size-fits-all device. We like to think that it can be done, but it can’t all be done elegantly on one device. But even when a device can do something elegantly, it cannot always do it optimally. That’s what I’m learning about my iMac. Mostly what I am learning is that after six years with the machine, I need to replace it. It’s not because there is something wrong with my machine, it’s that software has evolved a lot in six years. It’s gotten bigger and fatter and is causing my iMac to go into conniptions.

My 2008 iMac has 4GB of memory. It’s no longer close to enough, particularly when I am using Google Chrome as my browser, but also when I am running Dreamweaver or any Microsoft Office product. Chrome is fast, provided you have the memory. I now need 16GB of memory to get good performance and keep all the programs I use regularly handy. Unfortunately, I can’t add more. Once memory is used then when I start new programs I often wait, and wait. The operating system had to create a whole lot of virtual memory on my disk drive, which is much slower to read and write to than memory. It can take a couple of minutes to open Excel for the Mac, particularly if I have Chrome running.

Apple would like me to buy a new Mac, and I may have to. Six years is a long time to use any computer. However, the computer still looks like new. There is no reason to replace it other than due to general slowness due to new and more bloated programs I am running. I can’t replace the drive with a solid state drive to improve performance. And I can’t reengineer Chrome, Microsoft Office or any of these memory hogs. I can choose less memory intensive programs, perhaps by using Firefox instead of Chrome. But I moved to Chrome from Firefox because of its instabilities.

The general problem is there is no way to really know how efficiently a program will run until you use it a while with other memory resident programs. Software developers, being lazy, assume you have the latest machines with plenty of memory and super-fast processors. Coding for minimal memory use generally does not occur to them. What I can do is use my iMac just for assertive tasks, like writing documents, coding and email and stop using it for web browsing, in favor of devices which are better optimized for that, like my iPad. Or I can get a new computer and go through the same cycle again in a few years.

Or I could get a Chromebook. A Chromebook is Google’s version of a laptop computer, optimized exclusively for Google services. It runs on its own ChromeOS operating system. It basically requires you to do all your work inside of the Chrome browser. To use it effectively you generally need to be on a high speed wireless network. Of course you have access all the features of Google Drive so you have word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. Google is working hard to allow it to work easily disconnected from the network, via Chrome Apps.

Why does this help? Well, for one thing, I don’t need to wait a couple of minutes for Excel to load my spreadsheet. The functionality is there in a Google spreadsheet already. It’s true that their spreadsheets are not quite the same as Excel, but they are now close enough. In addition, all the stuff on your Google Drive is readily sharable. Google spreadsheets even have capabilities that Excel does not, perhaps the most useful of which is they are in the cloud, instead of sitting on your hard disk when you are a thousand miles away. And since my use is minimal, it is essentially free. There is no need to worry about installing the latest version of Google spreadsheets. There is no requirement to pay a Microsoft ransom periodically to keep writing or maintaining a spreadsheet. I also don’t need to spend more than a grand to upgrade my iMac. It’s all done in a web browser. These hassles of doing a lot of my assertive work, if it works as advertised, largely go away.

Moreover, I don’t need to spend a lot of money to buy a Chromebook. A decent Mac laptop is going to cost well over $1000. Chromebooks start around $200. Even if it only lasts you a few years, your data is in the cloud, hence always backed up. In addition, the device is cheap enough to easily replace. It can be used for most assertive tasks, as well as for browsing. Perhaps most cool of all, there is almost no “boot” time. Your Chromebook is available when you need it in seconds.

Its downside is limited use. If it can’t be done in a browser or one of their apps, you can’t do it at all. But I don’t see a Chromebook as my only computer, but as a primary computer to use except when I need the power of a desktop computer.

In short, it’s a pretty compelling solution as long as you don’t mind getting in bed with Google. If I’m going to have to get into bed with any company however, I might as well save money and time.

iPad first impressions

The Thinker by Rodin

So I’m a wee bit distracted. My iPad 2 arrived Monday from some factory in China where it was assembled and engraved. (Yes, I have my name and email address engraved on the back so hopefully it will return to me if it gets lost. No extra charge for the service, at least if you order it online.) My evenings have been occupied playing with the device.

Did I need an iPad? I didn’t think so. It was sort of a belated Christmas present to myself. I don’t use a cell phone enough to justify the expense of a smartphone, but I wanted to understand this whole mobile computing arena a little better. The only real choice with tablet computers was whether to use the iOS or Android operating system. If it is iOS, it meant buying an iPad. I went with Apple’s iPad because I already have an iMac, and I knew from many reviews that it wouldn’t suck. Consumer Reports liked the cheaper Samsung Galaxy Tab just as well. However, once you own an Apple product, you expect it to give you the same thrill driving a Lamborghini gives a racecar enthusiast. It’s hard to say precisely why it does this to you, but it does, and in this case it’s worth an extra $200 or so. I bought the basic version: WiFi enabled but without the pricey 3G option, and with 16GB of memory. I don’t need to constantly watch movies or listen to music, so extra memory was not worth paying for.

The iPad turns out to be an excellent product, even by Apple’s fussy standards. Not that it is perfect but it is darn near perfect. It has some oddities and quirks that I will get into, but just holding it and using it is an electric and almost reverential experience. As you use it, you cannot help but marvel just how amazing a product it is and how intelligently it is designed. Steve Jobs went to meet his maker, but arguably this last product that bears his stamp was his greatest triumph. It is just so incredibly slick.

What’s neat

  • Portrait mode. Since the iPad is eminently portable and offers a fine resolution, portrait mode is possible. It’s amazingly how much better web pages and all your applications are in portrait mode. That’s because reading in landscape, even though we should be accustomed to it, is unnatural to our eyes and brain. The eye is lazy and it wants to read down more than across. You can take in so much more content at a glance in portrait mode and do it much more easily. Of course you can move between portrait and landscape simply by turning the device sideways.
  • Maps. Map interfaces are now standard, but using the Maps application is so amazingly slick. Using finger movements to zoom in, zoom out and scroll horizontally and vertically is so much faster than using a mouse. There is no delay waiting for images. Boom: they are there. Switching from street view to satellite view puzzled me for a while, until I saw the little page drag symbol in the bottom right corner. Drag it and options appear. What a neat and intuitive way to hide and reveal options in an application! More of this in other applications please.
  • E-mail and calendar integration. It couldn’t be easier to set up my email, and information carried over to the calendar application automatically. The calendar application just looks gorgeous. It makes you want to create meetings just for the fun of using the interface. And it synchronizes transparently with my GMail calendar.
  • On/Off. I bought the optional cover for my iPad, which has magic magnets that adhere like glue and in just the right spot to its left edge. Flip the cover over the display and it turns off instantly. Pull it back and it turns on and is fully functional instantly. This is the way all computers should be and hopefully all soon will be, thanks to cheaper persistent memory.
  • Touch keyboard. It’s amazingly usable. It’s not quite as productive as using a real keyboard, but almost, providing it’s in landscape mode. You can certainly reply to email with it but until you are fully proficient typing with it, you will tend to keep your emails short. A wireless Bluetooth keyboard is available.
  • Your bathroom Internet appliance. The iPad is the perfect bathroom companion. A laptop is too cumbersome, and a smartphone has too small a screen and keyboard to be fully functional. For toting around or anyplace where space is at a premium, it is the ideal device for full and unfettered access to the Internet.

What’s not so hot

  • Extras. Apple and their app vendors want to sell you stuff. eBooks, music, video access, apps, iCloud hosting, you name it and you mostly have to buy it online through Apple’s store. So set up an Account in the Apple Store and don’t be surprised if you have a sizeable bill every month for all the content you are buying.
  • Safari only. Want to surf the web? You had best learn to like Safari, because it’s your only option. It works great, but it is quite stripped down for the iPad. The good news: few confusing options. The bad news: by keeping it simple, it is what it is. I don’t think you can add extensions, and I haven’t found a hidden menu to customize its settings.
  • Single user only. This is your personal device. It helps to think of it as a diary. Unless your life is incredibly vanilla, be aware that anyone using your iPad can act as you. You cannot set up different accounts for different people. So they can get into your email, calendar, Facebook accounts etc. with no problems. Philanderers, beware!
  • Home, End, Page Up, Page Down. Perhaps there is an easy way to get to the top and bottom of a document, probably by first invoking the touch screen keyboard, but I haven’t found it yet. There is an iPad manual (PDF) you can download with instructions that I am making my way through. The iPad aims for simplicity but in achieving that goal it seems like things you take for granted, like convenient Home and End keys, are mostly not available. Prepare to use your fingers a lot to scroll. On the plus side, scrolling is very slick. It does not come with a PDF reader, but I was able to download a free Kindle reader app and thus was able to use that to read it like a stored local file, easily jumping to content of interest. Load it into Safari and Safari will keep refetching the document every time it starts.

Technical things worth noting

  • Battery life is about seven hours of continuous use. Finally, a useful fully functional, portable Internet device. Unless you are flying to China you aren’t going to run out of juice on a flight.
  • Opening and closing applications. Maybe I’m missing it, but I can’t seem to find a way to close an application. Basically Apple doesn’t want you to worry about these things. Stop worrying about these things, along with booting up and formally shutting down.

These are just some first impressions. Many of the limitations may not be limitations at all once I get to know the device better. Overall, the iPad is an immensely satisfying and amazing device. I didn’t think I needed one but now that I have one, I cannot imagine not having a tablet computer. In the future I don’t plan to take my laptop on travel, but just my iPad because it is nearly as functional at a fraction of a laptop’s weight. A rolled up Bluetooth keyboard will probably go in the backpack as well.

Thanks are not enough, Steve

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not news that one of the founders of Apple Computers and the visionary behind a plethora of Apple (and other) products died yesterday. Even people who don’t usually tune in real news tuned into the news of Steve Jobs’ passing. There’s a good chance when they got the news, it appeared first on their iPad, iPhone or iMac, just a few of Steve’s many inventions. (I got the news on my iMac.)

The more attached you are to Apple’s products, the more the news affected you. Part of your feelings was also the anguish that the iPad or iPhone you held in your hand may be the last cool product you would own. Unquestionably, Steve Jobs was an extraordinary inventor and creator. It will take a couple of decades for it to sink in just how greatly his life impacted humanity.

To call him the Thomas Edison of his generation is not enough. In reality he was some combination of Edison and Sir Isaac Newton. Edison’s genius was that he could figure out how to make inventions that seemed beyond our technical grasp. (He also patented many inventions that never took off.) The need for a more reliable and cleaner source of light was understood in his time. Someone just needed to figure out how to do it. That was Edison’s genius. When the Apple computer was unleashed on the world, it filled a void we never knew existed. Like Sir Isaac Newton, who discerned order behind the forces of nature, Jobs could model a usable version of the information centric age the rest of us simply could not even imagine. Jobs could do that with almost any product he invented. Jobs’ genius was pulling our inchoate needs right from our id, figuring out a way technology could fulfill them, then designing irresistible products that could realize them. But he could also turn an invention that had been done before into something everyone suddenly wanted. The iPad by all rights should have not succeeded because it had been done before. The problem was that no one had built a tablet computer so easy to use and so sexy that we would be pulled to it like a moth to a flame.

I have a particular reason to mourn Steve Jobs’ passing and to be thankful to the guy. It wasn’t because I thought Apple products were particularly cool. I am typing this on an iMac, which is pretty neat, but not all that much neater than my Windows 7 computer at work. Rather, I am grateful to Steve for the Apple 2 Plus computer that he helped create. It literally changed my life. It did not make me a wealthy man, but it did make me a well-moneyed man. In part because of Steve’s Apple 2 Plus, I changed to a career I found that I loved and which paid much, much better than my old career. I became an information technology geek.

Sometime around 1983, the management where I work purchased an Apple 2 Plus computer and put it on a table near my desk. No one really knew what to do with it, but there it was all shiny and new. It was mostly ignored, but when my work was done I’d sit down at it and start playing with it. I was not entirely new to computers, but I had never experienced a personal computer before. I had experienced a mainframe computer, which in 1975 meant tediously constructing Fortran source code using a keypunch machine, delivering a stack of cards to an operator behind a glass wall, and waiting for a couple of hours until your job was run. Invariably you made some sort of syntactical error in your code, so you’d redo the cards that were coded incorrectly, being careful not to disturb the order of the cards. And you’d go through the cycle many times until with luck your program ran correctly. You would get a printout from a wide dot-matrix printer with sprocket holes on both sides of the paper. In short, programming computers could not have been more difficult, tedious and time consuming. I got through the class but if I had an idea of doing computer programming for a living, it went away. Programming was for masochists.

The Apple 2 Plus changed that. It had a keyboard and a monitor, and it ran a computer language called BASIC that was simple enough for even a novice to pick up. More importantly, it was personal. I could use it in real-time and get immediate feedback. At the time I was using pink copies of handwritten forms to track the movement of “service requests” through the printing plant I worked at. I kept them in a binder. With the Apple 2 Plus, I figured out a way to do away track these service requests on the computer. I stored the data on five and a quarter inch floppy disks. I impressed my bosses and I recall getting an award. The award included lunch with other award winners and our director in the director’s conference room. I was onto something good.

The details of what happened since then are not important except to say I wiggled my way into a journeyman’s computer programmer slot. Since 1986, I have made my living first through computer programming and later more advanced information technology stuff. The Apple 2 Plus totally changed my life. It made computer programming fun and profitable at a time where anyone with modest computing skills could get a job. My income soared, my sense of self worth and job satisfaction went through the stratosphere and eventually I had the income to live a larger and more comfortable life I craved.

That was what the genius of Steve Jobs’ mind did for me. He gave me wealth and he gave me work that was both creative and mattered in the real world. He did it by making a computer actually personable. It was a long time between that Apple 2 Plus and my 2008 purchase of an iMac, twenty-five years in fact when I lived mostly in a Windows world. I followed the market, which were machines running MS-DOS and later Windows. However, it was inventors like Steve Jobs who made computers relevant to the masses, in fact they became must have items, which stimulated demand, drove us to email systems, and then the web, and more lately into social networks. Steve was not only a creator and inventor; he cemented us into the information age. He personally connected us with technology and each other in ways that had never been done before.

He died way too young at age 56, but he could not have died without knowing the huge impact of his life. He deserves monuments and museums, cities renamed for him and, if we ever build an American Pantheon, perhaps the biggest statue in the room. I am quite certain I will not live long enough to see the rise of another man or woman of his caliber. Quite frankly, I believe that Steve Jobs may ultimately prove to be one the most influential Americans that ever lived, ranked right next to Lincoln. Through intelligence, foresight and boundless energy, he invented a broader and more connected future for all of us.

Will the iPad mean the death of Windows?

The Thinker by Rodin

Microsoft Windows has shown amazing resilience for much of its existence, in spite of its arguably inferior status. Microsoft is now busily creating its next version of Windows, Window 8, and is already heavily hyping it. Many years of observation suggest to me that this means the company is running scared. They fear the success of the iPad and the whole new mobile computer market, where Microsoft has floundered.

Apple dazzled the world with its iPad, but it was just the latest in a number of well-received innovations that included the iPod and the iPhone. The cool factor was primarily a result of its amazingly well thought out user interface. Its success spawned a huge developer community that wrote apps for these devices, making them even more useful. While Microsoft was arguably first in the tablet market by creating stylus-based devices like the Tablet PC, they naturally tethered it to Windows. It’s understandable that they would see value in embedding it with Windows, since it is their brand. What they did not see was that a tablet computer needed an operating system where mobility was at its center, not at the periphery. When Apple and Steve Jobs delivered the iPad, they achieved a breakthrough: a highly useful mobile and connected computer that could also do virtually everything you could do on a desktop computer yet not weigh enough to feel burdensome.

What cemented my feeling that Windows days were numbered at last was observing a woman in my chain of command. She dutifully dragged around the required Blackberry for years, but it was largely used for reading and responding to email. With its tiny keyboard, it was hardly ideal for email either. When the iPhone came out, because she had the clout, she quickly got one and realized the freedom of having a useful mobile product. She retired the Blackberry. Just this week her iPad arrived. It’s bigger than her iPhone, of course, but not too big or too heavy not to be easily carried around. Moreover, it was WiFi and 3G friendly. She could be as productive on the go with her iPad as she could in the office.

Executives everywhere are discovering the iPad and to a lesser extent Android-based tablet computers like Samsung’s Galaxy pad. Some of those executives are CIOs and CTOs, and the light bulbs above their heads began glowing brightly as they figured out that these devices make them more productive on the go while also doing 95% of what their desktop computer can do. In fact they do more than their desktop computer can do, because their tablet computers are so portable and geographically aware. When something is 95% as useful as your desktop computer while you are in the office, and more useful than your desktop computer when away from the office, the end of Windows as a client operating system is not hard to infer.

No, Microsoft won’t go away, but desktop computers will become a declining share of the market in general, which in fact is already underway. Instead, you will carry your iPad or Android-based tablet to work, but probably plug it in to keep the battery charged. You will also probably skip the network cable for the convenience of the office’s wireless network. You will mostly use a wireless keyboard to put content on it (at least until voice recognition software too become ubiquitous), and if its relatively small screen is insufficient for the office, you will plug it into your big honkin’ high-resolution monitor. When it’s time to go home you will slip it automatically into your briefcase or bag. It will follow you pretty much everywhere you go, and its low power requirements will mean you can go for many hours without needing to recharge it. But if you do, you are probably near the power grid anyhow.

Windows 8 is supposed to be Microsoft’s answer to iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system) and Android. But no matter how well it is engineered, it is unlikely to be more compelling than iOS and the iPad, which the nation’s opinion leaders are already using. It is they who will slowly strangle Microsoft Windows, and over time kill its Office suite and the other products tethered to it as well. In time, we will discover that iOS and Android are really nothing but smartly thought out thin-client operating systems, because content (most of it resting securely in the Internet cloud) and an optimized mobile user interface to read and manipulate it is what really matters in our 21st century information age.

I think Windows will die a slow death, with income principally coming from its server-based products like Exchange. Eventually the backroom tech team will find alternatives for Exchange, Active Directory and many other Windows server based products, because they will be cheaper and many of them will not be proprietary.

If you own Microsoft stock, I would not dump it all at once since it probably still has a decade of profits ahead of it. However, I would be selling it in hearty slices over the next few years because its value is likely to sink. I believe that eventually Microsoft will become just another niche company, like Novell or Computer Associates, selling dated legacy products at premium prices to a reduced set of customers too incompetent or lazy to go through the cost and hassle of ditching them.

Windows 7: Microsoft puts the soft in Windows

The Thinker by Rodin

At home I use a Mac. I like it just fine and I don’t see myself going back to Windows. However, like most office denizens, at work I am forced to use Windows, which until recently has meant Windows XP. XP is standard but getting creaky and is coming up on its 10th anniversary later this month.

XP is at least predictable and generally stable, which could not be said of its predecessors. Blue screens of death, while not unheard of, since XP’s arrival, are few and far between. At home, using XP is still a frustrating hassle, given that you need a firewall, antivirus and have to keep it patched regularly. At work for me using XP is not a hassle at all because like most businesses of a certain size we have an enterprise team that mostly handles the hassle part at night by slipping out patches and updates. My Dell Optiplex desktop computer was a different matter. It got so slow that I finally got permission to get rid of it, which was timely because we were also finally allowed to install Windows 7, Microsoft’s latest incarnation of Windows. I decided to go whole hog and ordered a 64-bit replacement desktop computer with Windows 7 Enterprise. For a couple of months now I’ve been putting Windows 7 through its paces.

I don’t see myself reverting to Windows at home, but it’s nice to see that after twenty years Microsoft has finally issued a respectable version of Windows. I won’t say that Windows 7 is slick, but it is the first version of Windows that I feel honestly earns the plaudit “professional”. With Windows 7, you at least don’t have to hide your PC in embarrassment as your friend with his slick Mac laptop running Mac OSX Lion slips in next to you. Part of the reason is because if you use a Mac you will notice that Microsoft, as usual, has stolen a lot of ideas from the Mac. What’s more interesting is that Microsoft has invented a few features that out-slick the Mac.

Microsoft can credibly claim that it beat Apple in making a user interface that is gentle. In Windows 7, dialog boxes appear softly, nonthreateningly and gently. They sort of fade gently in and fade gently out, softly expand and fade in from the task bar and softly collapse and fade out to the task bar when needed. Thumbs up, Microsoft. It is not until you have used “soft windows” regularly that you realized how jarring popup windows have been thus far. Hopefully, those days are gone for good. (The Mac does this somewhat, but the process is faster and you don’t have the transparency.)

The whole taskbar behaves a lot more intelligently than under XP. Hover your mouse over an item on the taskbar and a miniature of the application’s screen appears. If there are multiple windows you see miniatures of each window, which you can kill without expanding the window. Microsoft has stolen a number of ideas from the Mac dock, including the ability to “pin” an application to the dock by right mouse clicking on its icon, or by dragging it to the task bar. It has also finally done the obvious and put a Windows Explorer icon right next to the Start button. The Mac has had its equivalent Finder cemented there for years. Yes, we all need to work intimately with files. It’s nice that Microsoft finally acknowledges this. It has also figured out that if you have the Microsoft Office suite, and who doesn’t, they should be somewhat cemented to the task bar as well. Better late than never, Microsoft. It’s not like we can get much done without having Word, Excel and Powerpoint handy anyhow.

Also gone are the annoying and generally pointless “asking you twice” dialog boxes. When logging out or shutting down, I still reflexively wait for a dialog box asking me if I am sure I want to logoff/shutdown. Instead, it just does. It would be amazing if it weren’t something so brain dead it should have been done in Windows 3.1. Windows 7 is just a prettier experience overall. When asked to log in you get a serene background bitmap with a flower. Desktop icons don’t seem as close together. Desktop themes have a more serene look to them as well.

Even in 64-bit mode, 32-bit legacy applications mostly work and install easily. (Not all will. I did not even try with an old version of Visio I had a license for. I was told it would not work.) Unless you look under the hood you would not know that the 32-bit applications are in a separate folder. One of the more annoying things for power users is having to install applications as an administrator. To do this without leaving your desktop you had to see if “Run as…” was available on the context sensitive menu. Now it’s “Run as Administrator”. It’s a small thing but makes so much more sense.

Do you a lot of documentation? I sure do, which is why the modest little Snipping Tool is one of the first applications you should pin to your taskbar. Click on it, drag a rectangle to a portion of the screen, then save (to a compact PNG, not a bloaty Windows bitmap) or copy/paste it as you prefer. It would be hard to make it simpler. It does have one curious limitation: you cannot scroll and select to copy, so you are limited only to visible text. Presumably, if you want to capture the whole window to the clipboard, Alt-Print Screen still works.

Search is more intuitive. Click on the Start button (I guess it’s really the Windows button now) and right above it is a search box. The File Explorer also has some subtle but nice tweaks, particularly with the hierarchy of the folder under focus at the top of the window allowing for a more intuitive navigation.

I am sure there are thousands of other improvements, as well as other significant improvements I don’t care to document. Overall, Windows 7 lives up to its billing. It makes it an easy decision to ditch XP for good, but is still intuitive enough where the process of learning Windows 7 won’t intimidate an XP user.

I won’t be giving up my Mac, but I don’t feel as embarrassed to be running Windows anymore as I used to be.

The beginning of the end of Microsoft

The Thinker by Rodin

It did not make many news reports, but on May 22nd something remarkable happened. Apple Inc. became worth more than Microsoft. The worth of Apple shares totaled $222.12 billion. Microsoft shares totaled $219.88 billion.

Why is this so important? Clearly for as long as most people can remember, Microsoft’s value out shown Apple’s by many order of magnitudes. Also, Microsoft technology is pervasive. You really have to look hard to find a business that does not have its information technology centered on Microsoft. In spite of this, and Apple being hardly seen in the business world, Apple is worth more.

How can this be when Microsoft Windows is on ninety percent of desktop computers, and its pricey Microsoft Office software is the de-facto business-standard? The answer appears to be that Microsoft has peaked. Its products are lackluster and generally boring. Apple on the other hand is now a brand with sparkle. Its iPhone, for example, is the pricey but niftiest smartphone on the market. Its newest product, the iPad, which left me unimpressed, is being snapped up across the world. Apple always had a reputation for having cool products. Particularly since the iPhone was released, Apple now has a product that is no longer niche but widely used by people at all income levels. Even if AT&T’s service leaves something to be desired, people marvel at the cleverness and usefulness of the pervasive iPhone, and take that as a sign that other Apple products are the same way. When the time comes to upgrade home computers, many are now happily paying premium prices for the Mac.

Microsoft’s strength has hitherto been playing copycat and offering similar but not as great products with the official Windows seal on them. Its Windows operating system began as a blatant rip off of Apple’s graphical user interface. I have to think hard to find any Microsoft product that is truly innovative. Its Microsoft Office suite is not. It’s success, like Internet Explorer, was due largely to its ability to bundle it with its Windows product. Why should a company buy Lotus 1-2-3 separately when they could get Microsoft Office preinstalled with their PCs? If I had to pick an innovative Microsoft product, I would pick its Xbox gaming console. Even there, Microsoft was hardly first in the game box market.

Microsoft remains a very profitable company, but reading its tealeaves should be making Wall Street reach for the Pepto Bismol. With the introduction of Windows 7, revenues are up substantially this year as businesses refresh their Windows operating systems. Yet, like most of their operating system upgrades, they did not get it right until they went through an unsuccessful introduction of another Window version, Windows Vista. Much of Microsoft’s revenue stream comes from customers paying premium prices for just so-so products: Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. However, both of these products have serious long-term viability issues.

Although Windows 7 is being well received, it is unclear whether ten years from now we will still want Windows at all as a desktop operating system. After all, Windows is proprietary. Open source operating systems have been available for a long time, and certain desktop Linux variations are entirely free. These have not caught on, but the Google Chrome OS might, once it is formally introduced this year. Particularly on lower end machines like cheap laptops and netbooks, computer manufacturers are going to find the combination of the free cost of Google Chrome OS along with its rapid boot up and swift loading time to be compelling reasons to use the operating system. If nothing else, a model with Chrome OS will cost less than the same model with Windows on it. Microsoft may find itself discounting the price of Windows, or maybe even making it an open source product so it does not lose too much market share. In either case, the profitable and reliable Windows OS revenue stream looks precarious.

On the Microsoft Office front, things look better for Microsoft but perhaps not forever. Google Docs is a sort of Microsoft Office-lite product that is free and lives in its Internet cloud. Right now, most people will not prefer Google Docs to Microsoft Office, but for personal use, Google Docs is free, whereas Microsoft Office requires spending at least a couple hundred dollars for a license. You don’t have to be particularly smart to imagine that the well moneyed Google will work hard over the next decade to up its Google Docs feature set so that it will work faster and be more functional. It is already pushing Google Docs for business, allowing businesses to offer similar functionality to Microsoft Office for a fraction of its cost. For businesses that need the basics and don’t want the hosting hassle, it’s good enough and quite a bargain. Microsoft Office is the other major component of Microsoft’s profits. Drive a stake into it, or just dilute its market share and shareholders will be hollering.

Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Outlook rule the business email universe, but in a decade, this can change as well. Exchange is pricey, needs beefy servers and is hard to administer. GMail has proven to be reliable and as quick as Exchange/Outlook, plus there are no hassles with hosting GMail and no desktop software to install, maintain and patch.

Microsoft’s server and entertainment lines are profitable, but make up only a small percentage of their profits. Others, like their online services, currently do not make a profit, although Microsoft claims its Bing search engine should soon be profitable. It’s unlikely though that Bing will ever overtake Google’s search engine.

The general problem for Microsoft is the same: lack of innovation in general and always playing catch up with the more agile players in the IT world. At what point does the desktop become obsolete because most of the work is being done in the cloud? When that time arrives, the handwriting will be on the wall for Microsoft.

Things are not guaranteed for its agile competitors, of course. Google and Apple still have to show they can continue to be innovative. Given their records of accomplishment the smart money is on them, and was borne out recently in Apple’s share prices. Microsoft stockholders might want to petition Bill Gates to return as CEO and software architect. During Gates’ reign, Microsoft steadily advanced in both sales and market share. It is unclear though even if Gates could be convinced to return to Microsoft whether he could change the dynamics at play.

It appears that Microsoft is being slowly being bested. It won’t disappear entirely, but in ten years it may be but a shadow of its current self, perhaps where Apple was in relation to Microsoft ten years ago. If I owned a lot of Microsoft stock, I would make it a goal to sell about half my stock over the next five years. While it may lose market share, it will still be profitable for quite a while, just not as profitable as it could be. I would begin putting my money into more agile and promising companies instead.