There may be a Chromebook in my future

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.

The laptop is not going away

Among the things I am attempting on the road here in Phoenix, Arizona (well, technically Mesa, Arizona) is to take my iPad out for an extended spin. Can I really use it instead of a laptop computer for mobile computing? The answer is, “It depends on what you are trying to do.”

If what you are trying to do is something fairly complicated, like write a blog post, you will miss having a laptop. You can technically peck away using the iPad’s on screen keyboard, but your experience is likely to be like mine. You will make plenty of mistakes and spend much of your time correcting your mistakes. In short, it’s not a viable means for doing any serious writing, at least not without a little help. Which is why I bought a Bluetooth keyboard (a Rocksoul model) with me. Combined, the iPad and the keyboard weigh much less than a laptop. But even with the keyboard, it doesn’t come close to being as usable a laptop.

In short, I don’t quite see tablet computers doing away with laptop computers. To be productive, ten years from now you will still want the convenience of a laptop computer when you travel. However, if your needs are simple, substituting a tablet computer for a laptop makes a certain amount of sense.

You can keep up on email easily enough on a tablet computer, but you will find it’s like using a Blackberry in that you will find plenty of incentive to keep your emails brief. Some things are arguably a better experience on a tablet computer. The iPad comes with a stripped down version of Safari as its web browser. The experience is making me something of a Safari fan. The downside is that there are no plug-ins or extensions that I can install, which means I am assaulted by advertising that I normally block out with the adBlock extension. On the other hand, simplicity is a virtue, and Safari does certain things very elegantly on the iPad, like intelligently reloading web pages.

The iPad may be a few years old, but it is really just beginning to mature. For example, there is no decent word processor for the iPad. Reportedly, Microsoft is working to port its Office suite to the iPad, which will be welcome. Meanwhile, you basically have the built-in Note application, which is very basic. No italics or bolding are possible. For composing a blog post though, it suffices although it is hardly ideal.

The iPad’s user interface is quite elegant, but hardly ideal. Designed for the finger as its pointing device, it is easy to miss selecting the right spot to edit. A stylus would be a useful addition. My wireless keyboard comes with a delete key, but there is no backspace key, which becomes very annoying. Easy methods of emulating the top, end, page up and page down buttons are also missing. Yes, you can use your fingers instead but it is more time consuming.

On the other hand the iPad is amazingly portable. Weighing a fraction of a laptop, it is easy to transport,  doesn’t anchor your briefcase yet renders resolution similar to a desktop monitor. The seven hour battery life is often longer in practice, particularly when in airplane mode. The newest laptops, like the new Macbook, also can survive as long unplugged, so this by itself is no longer a compelling reason to own an iPad. With 4G service, if you can afford it, you also get the convenience of Internet access virtually anywhere.

I also want to use my iPad as an electronic newspaper viewer. So far, I have not found it to be quite there, unless your expectations are modest. Newspaper sites keep trying to arrange content optimally for the iPad but with the newspapers apps I have tried it is clear they still have a way to go. The Washington Post app is a pretty good attempt to make content fit on an iPad, but they still leave so much out. Comics and classified are two glaring omissions. Without them you feel like you are missing something. Instead, you get selected contents in the newspaper. Perhaps the Post is waiting for enough readers to put those features behind a paywall. I confess when that happens I might cancel my print subscription. For traveling, the Post app is good enough to sort of feel like you got the gist of the newspaper experience.

Tablet computers thus hit a sweet spot, but do not fundamentally solve the portable computing issue. Doubtless much more money will be spent trying to close the gap. Most of us will live with their annoyances compared with a laptop or desktop computer while we are mobile, but be glad to swap in real keyboards and mice (mice allowing easier fine-tuned editing) when we need to be highly productive.

Speculations on the new computing paradigm for the 21st century

Last September I speculated that the introduction of the iPad might mean the death of Microsoft Windows. Microsoft seems to have gotten the iPad message. Last week it gave a preview of its newest incarnation of Windows, Windows 8 Metro that according to reports is looking very iPad-ish. In fact, apparently it’s hard to find the windows in Windows 8. Microsoft seems to be betting the farm on portable computing and a next generation of tablet computing in particular. The mouse is out. Using your fingers by touching the screen of your device is in. Windows are out. Sliding from application to application, like on the iPad, by simply moving your finger side to side on the touchscreen, is in.

At least that’s as best as I can figure out from press reports. I haven’t tried Windows 8 personally. But I have been using my iPad for a couple of months now and understand it quite well. Indeed, for a change I was prescient last September when I suggested Windows was in the early stages of its death throes. How we will compute in the 21st century is now fundamentally changing, driven largely by the late Steve Jobs and his singular vision of how portable computing should work.

Microsoft seems to be making it official in Windows 8: the desktop era is soon going to be history. Windows 8 is being careful to be backwards compatible, allowing mouse movement, windows in a desktop environment and 100% compatibility with its Microsoft Office suite. It has to be this way. One of the reasons Microsoft sucks at innovation is that they have backwards compatibility as a core part of its business strategy. Windows 3.1, later Windows 95 and even today in Windows 7 made sure that the DOS command prompt remained, and that you could still (largely) run all those text-based DOS applications. Microsoft must now make sure that Windows 8 maintains backwards compatibility with Windows 7, while fundamentally changing the user interface so that it is primarily a pad-based operating system. The price Microsoft pays as a result is a serious loss of agility and innovativeness as a company. Their business model essentially requires them to always play follow the leader.

The mouse seems destined for the trash bin, just like the five and a quarter inch diskette. Also going: the humble monitor. In the future the monitor you use will be the one built into your pad computer. As I suggested in September 2011, you might plug your pad computer into an external monitor at work, or might not. The larger screen is needed now because the windows metaphor requires lots of display real estate. When one application gets sole focus on the screen, and you effortlessly slide between them through simple finger gestures across your touchscreen (which by definition must be within a comfortable reach), the windows metaphor becomes obsolete, as does the need for a lot of screen real estate. The modest screen size of a tablet computer becomes usable and more productive.

Perhaps it was inevitable. As computing became increasingly portable, it becomes untethered from wired connections like mice, power cords and even keyboards. As batteries retain charges longer and CPUs get better at conserving power, we can work off our pad computer’s battery for an entire day, if needed. Integration adds value; components keep you tethered to a clunky past.

What will replace the desktop computer? Last September I envisioned a world where you carried your pad computer with you everywhere, and maybe plugged it into a keyboard and a larger monitor when you got to work. Now I see it differently. The desktop computer will effectively be consumed into the pad computer. Instead of having a computer monitor facing you, you will look down on your desk or at a forty-five degree angle to the screen of your pad computer. You will probably prefer a wireless keyboard, at least if you are a certain age. For those now in school, keyboards too are likely to become obsolete. Your keyboard may appear on a translucent area of your desk when needed, or for many tasks you can use the on-screen touch keyboard built into your pad computer instead. More likely, the latest generation will consider a microphone built into their pad computer as their new keyboard. They will simply say what needs to be put into electronic words. Unlike the voice recognition software we have today, this new class of software will be much more sophisticated, understanding context, adjusting for your style and retaining a natural fluency. Most of the time you will talk instead of type. To navigate, you will use finger movements. The combination of finger movements and voice will make you far more productive.

And what about the venerable Microsoft Office suite? It too is going to evolve and eventually may be subsumed into the operating system. In ten years it may have evolved into a product that we simply will not identify today. The whole notion of a document may be undergoing a fundamental shift. Like documents have sort of evolved into web pages, in the future how we communicate may no longer rest on a page metaphor at all. Documents will almost be alive. They will not be considered primarily textual anymore, but inherently multimedia creations where words, pictures, movies, animations and simulations all exist comfortably side by side, and all communicate information much more richly than they do today.

Whoever builds that (and it likely won’t be Microsoft) will be reinventing our concept of useful and structured information. It will be exciting to see it emerge.

Flying cross country on Virgin America

In spite of the rumors that winter gave the United States a miss this year, there is winter out there in parts of the country. These include Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming for sure, as evidenced by the white stuff on the ground viewed from a height of 36,311 feet. Of course, it is 36,311 feet because on Virgin America, at least, you know these sorts of things without having to ask. Even in Economy class you get a nifty personal information device attached to the seat in front of you, which shows you where your flight is on a map, along with the aircraft’s altitude and ground speed, all rendered on a ubiquitous Google Map.

Seeing where you at any moment is just one minor strategy in Virgin’s attempt to keep you distracted from the tedium of flying. You can also watch a host of satellite channels, watch on demand movies, listen to music or radio, and order your meal with the device. You can even do a text chat seat to seat, or so they promise when the feature is enabled (it wasn’t on our flight). What I can’t do on this flight, and what was advertised, is use the Internet. I was planning to work on this five and a half hour flight between Washington Dulles International Airport and San Francisco. I was looking forward to it, to relieve the tedium of a long flight, because it is work that needs to be done and it would be kind of cool to do testing at 36,311 feet over a VPN.

Virgin America is trying to drag airlines into the 21st century. They missed it on this flight by leaving out the Internet but otherwise they are getting it. Each seat comes with 120 volt power socket, a feature I have not seen on any other airline. Each seat also has a USB port and for those of you afraid to use the WiFi, an Ethernet port as well. Maybe it will be available on my return flight on Thursday.

Anyhow, I am being hurdled across the country at 36,311 feet to go visit one of the masters of the universe. That would be masters of the Internet universe, also known as Google, headquartered in nearby Mountain View, California. Yes, all this way and three days taken out of my week for a five hour meeting at Google headquarters tomorrow. It’s little known, but the mighty Google gives one percent of its profits to its nonprofit arm, And has had mixed success getting my agency involved in its nonprofit mission. creates quick websites around major events, such as the Japanese tsunami last year. They are working to integrate more real-time information on emergencies into their search engine, so if you are on their search page and there is a tornado nearby it will tell you. It’s exactly the sort of information the U.S. government collects in abundance, so we have been seduced in spending a day in Mountain View with other agencies where they try to coax us to publish our emergency information in a rather obscure protocol called Common Alerting Protocol. Google hates developing and maintaining custom programs to acquire this kind of information. I can’t say I blame them.

So I am being hurdled across the country at 521 miles an hour. Meanwhile there is this flight to finish, all five and a half hours of it. At least February is a great time to travel, if you don’t like crowds. Washington Dulles was nearly deserted this morning, which meant getting through security was a breeze. If there is no precipitation there are no flight delays to worry about either. Moreover, this flight on Virgin America was dirt cheap, beating the other carriers by hundreds of dollars, and it was also nonstop as well. I am depending on Virgin America to be on time, not so much today, but on Thursday. I have to get home in time to teach a class that evening.

Virgin America is likely a more laid back version of Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Airline’s international wing. On Virgin Atlantic you get flight attendants who pass rigorous tests for grooming, tact and friendliness, or so I have read. On Virgin Atlantic: not so much. They basically try to stay out of your face. So instead of actually talking with flight attendants, you are encourage to order from a device at your seat instead, which also reads your credit card. You do get a round of beverages but at least so far no second round has arrived. The captain is not the least bit loquacious and to make this cross country flight even less interesting, the flight is amazingly smooth. This leaves me with time to kill. With no Internet I have few excuses to avoid blogging.

But I did my best anyhow. I spent much of the flight absorbed in my iPad, parked in Airplane mode. It is still a fairly mysterious device to me, but I’ve been making my way through its user manual, finding more things to like about the iPad and others to pan. I like its built-in cameras. It is so easy to take pictures and movies. I am trying it out with this quick business trip. With the camera and email program sort of integrated, it should be nearly effortless to take pictures, dress them up, and post them to friends. The same goes with taking movies. With luck I’ll be able to use it to take pictures and movies of the Google campus tomorrow. Reputedly Google doesn’t know what to do with all their money, so they have couches you can sleep in in their lobbies. I’ll know soon enough if the rumors are true.

Google is one of the centers of the Internet universe, so it’s sort of like going to visit the Vatican, if you are an Internet junkie. In short, I am glad to go on this trip. At least Google usually tries not to be evil, although their recently updated privacy policy and their blatantly ignoring of privacy settings on Safari browsers to collect personal information about you that they should not suggests they are pushing the envelope. How many of us could pass a background investigation if our browsing habits were part of the investigation?

It’s hard to argue too much with their success. Though we know all that data they are mining on us comes at a hidden price, we like the illusion of a free Internet better. Anyhow, Google is a big enough force that even the mighty U.S. government which I represent may deign to afford it a special accommodation, since its dominance helps us spread important emergency related news. Still, we have our ethics rules to ensure we cannot be bought off by Google and its billions. We have been assured that the free lunch in their cafeteria won’t be an ethical compromise, because it is valued at less than $20 per person and that’s the maximum amount we can accept from a company or organization per calendar year without getting in trouble. $21 implies corruption, but $20 does not. Go figure. We are also wondering whether we will be allowed to sign their non-disclosure agreement. Supposedly they won’t let you in their building unless you sign it. But we are the mighty government, mightier even than the mighty Google, and we have pricey lawyers too (just not as pricey as Google’s; they are living on a civil servant’s salary) and they are parsing their nondisclosure agreement and frowning at it. Google might have to cut us a pass. I’ll find out tomorrow.

Meanwhile I am flying over the partially snow covered peaks of Utah. Our descent into San Francisco cannot be too far away.

iPad first impressions

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.

Will the iPad mean the death of Windows?

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.

Me and my Kindle

Since getting my first eBook reader for Christmas (a complete surprise; I don’t recall asking for it) I have been using it and pondering what it means. My wife selected an Amazon Kindle, largely because it was top rated by Consumer Reports. She loaded it with three books (all histories; she knows what I like) and I am making my way through the first one: a recently published history of Genghis Khan.

Small screens are just one of the many reasons I haven’t bought a smartphone. I just crave more real estate. I have yet to see a computer monitor large enough for my needs, yet I am supposed to run much of my electronic life on a screen a few inches wide, at best? My wife bought me the basic Kindle, which comes with a six-inch screen, typically oriented in a portrait mode. That makes it a wider and bigger screen than a smartphone.

It sort of fits in one hand, but does so uncomfortably. It might fit more comfortably if it had small and strategically placed rubber grips. Grips on the corners or the edges, particularly above or below the page forward and back buttons would help considerably when I try to read in bed. It might also be more usable if it were a bit narrower. The screen size would not necessarily have to shrink; the engineers would just need to get rid of some of the plastic that borders the screen.

I am quickly learning that an eBook reader is not a miniature computer or a netbook. It is network aware, like almost all electronic devices these days. It may be too network aware. Unless you turn off its wireless, it is glad to get on your wireless network and give Amazon insights into what you are reading and how you are using the Kindle. Yes, I am sure Amazon is saying that they are not using this feature inappropriately. Even so I keep its wireless feature shut off, as I probably won’t need to refresh my book list until late this year.

The other big drawback to a Kindle is that unless you want to upload books in a PDF format, you need to get books in a Kindle format, which it will locate only on the Amazon network. PDF is portable, but not necessarily more usable than the Kindle format, which flawlessly reformats a page when you expand or shrink the font size. This means, of course, that they effectively become your sole eBook supplier and your electronic book price is whatever they want to charge you. Oh, and charging you is easy since you give them your credit card information. It doesn’t really have a browser built into it, but you can query Amazon’s enormous book database for other books, download them in within seconds. A Kindle is arguably friendlier to the environment. There is no need to drive anywhere to buy a book. We need to save forests, not turn their pulp into books that we pick up at our local bookseller.

Aside from these rather minor complaints, there is actually much to love about my Kindle. One thing you notice right away is the electronic paper display. The screen is black on white, but it is not lit from behind. Moreover, text is not pixilated. It actually looks printed, as opposed to imitating print. This makes it much easier to read. You should not have the problem you encounter with monitors wherein you end up rubbing your eyes from staring at its bright surface most of the day. It is black and white done right. You may find yourself preferring black and white to all those fancy colors. I imagine colored electronic paper displays will be coming soon. I suspect eventually most of us will want colored electronic paper devices once they are affordable and we have a choice. Our optometrists will probably recommend them.

My Kindle blessedly aims for simplicity and does not try to do more than it should. It is not a web browser. It cannot be used as a smartphone. It does have a headphone jack, although I have yet to find any sound content that uses it. It probably exists so you can download music from Amazon as well. There is also a microphone reserved for future use. So it sounds like the Kindle will not stay simple forever, and may be part of some master strategy to compete in the Smartphone and PDA market.

You can get magazine and newspaper subscriptions on your Kindle. Even I am wondering why I am still subscribing to paper versions of newspapers. One reasons is that there is so much more content on a page in a newspaper compared with a computer screen. My Kindle though suggests that even with a six-inch screen there may be a way to render a usable newspaper in it. At some point I may try a trial electronic newspaper subscription to see if it works well enough. The Kindle should also work well to facilitate reading while exercising. If like me you spend too many hours at the gym on aerobic equipment, you may find that reading your Kindle is a much more superior experience compared with listening to your MP3 player.

My Kindle has a keyboard, but it is not designed for more than casual use. I cannot see writing a blog entry on it. I suspect in time I will be able to use a wireless keyboard with it.

It may be that I am more of an iPad than a Kindle person. With the iPad’s larger screen size, reading electronic newspapers and magazines becomes a much more usable proposition. Apparently there is an iPad app that will let you read books in a Kindle format. Still, the drawback of the iPad is its larger size. A Kindle is much more tote-able. It weighs almost nothing and if you turn off the wireless it hardly ever needs recharging. It slips fine into purses and tote bags.

A few other nits: I miss title pages, page numbers and tables of contents. They are probably there somewhere but hard to find. And while it’s neat to get a picture of a prominent author every time you turn off the device, it would make more sense to show the cover of the current book you are reading instead.

Time will tell if the paper-based bookstore becomes obsolete. I would not discount the possibility, although like the loss of Tower Records I would mourn the opportunity to simply go to a bookstore and browse. Going to a bookstore is very much a social experience these days. There is inevitably a coffee shop attached. It is nice to be around fellow booklovers. The last thing Americans needs is more reasons to spend time alone. Devices like the Kindle appear to be moving us toward that future.