Firefox: must it be adios instead of adieu?

This blog post by a Firefox developer is making the rounds in the techno-blogosphere. Firefox developer Jono Xia makes the point that constant updates to the open-source Firefox web browser is driving its devotees nuts. It has made me switch from Mozilla Firefox to Google Chrome for most of my browsing. In Xia’s opinion, the problem is that Firefox developers have become enamored with features, and keep adding bells and whistles to the browser. Most actual users (like me) mostly want high usability and for new features to be introduced gradually. In particular, we don’t like radical changes to our user interface.

This should not be hard to figure out. Imagine if once a month you went to drive your car and the ignition key moved to a different location or that the turn signal had moved from left of the steering wheel to right of it. That’s how it’s been with Firefox for a while. But now these changes occur stealthily. It used to be you were told when a new version was available, and then had the option of downloading it. With the latest versions of Firefox, new versions download quietly in the background and appear the next time you restart the browser. This has its strengths. If there has to be bug fixes and critical patches I’d largely prefer to be kept ignorant of them. What I don’t want is to start my browser and find new tools on my toolbar, or that suddenly some of my favorite add-ons no longer work because they were not upgraded to the latest stealthily upgraded version.

Yet if you use Firefox religiously, this sort of stuff feels like it happens all the time. To say the least, it is jarring. Many if not most of us spend much of our lives staring at content in our web browser. A consistent user interface is good. This means browsing requires less thought and becomes automatic. Add irregular but relatively frequent amounts of change to the user interface and it becomes annoying and at some nebulous point intolerable. It used to be that a year or at least many months would go by between a major version of Firefox. Now it can be weeks!

I use Firefox on a Mac. I noticed over a period of months that Firefox kept slowing down. It loaded slowly. Pages reloaded slowly. If I had a half dozen tabs open when starting up it would take a minute or more for the data in the tabs to be refreshed. Moving from tab to tab was often slow and full of latency, where the current tab just hung there for a while with an hourglass cursor. Sometimes the browser just hung and I had to do a Force Quit to kill it, or would not shutdown when I shut the computer down.

These sorts of problems don’t happen naturally. They are a result of poor software engineering. I speak with authority here because I happen to have a master’s degree in software systems engineering from George Mason University. Granted, building a web browser is hardly a trivial task. There are so many aspects to integrate correctly. In short, it is a complex engineering challenge to make it work on just one operating system, let alone the many operating systems that Firefox supports. Mostly these problems point to a process problem, rather than a programming problem. Just as you can build more cars if you speed up the assembly line, but those cars may suffer something in the way of quality, to keep up with the competition you can push out new versions of a browser more quickly if you cross your fingers and hope that current functionality is not compromised in doing so. It’s clear that a lot of current functionality is compromised by Mozilla’s current approach.

I don’t know exactly how the Mozilla project is run. I certainly like its goals: create a browser that is platform agnostic, that won’t make anyone rich, and that rigorously adheres to the latest web standards. It was this approach that lead to the rise of Firefox in the first place, including a glowing review by me a full eight years ago when it was not yet official. At the time, Microsoft had put its Internet Explorer browser on the back burner. At least you could say that IE did not change a lot. It was quirky, but it was consistently. You could go years between new versions of the browser.

With Firefox, what seems to be missing is good and frequent regression testing. Regression testing means automated testing that tests when you add in new functionality that the current functionality still works. Mozilla is hardly alone in having problems with regression testing. It is a decidedly unsexy thing to do, but vital for good software engineering. It’s also a hard thing to do. I know this from personal experience. The regression testing tools out there tend to be very pricey (Mercury’s suite, now owned by HP, comes to mind) and, for the most part, annoying to use. Most of them cannot handle tiny changes in canned tests, like the change of location of an image on a web page, without failing the test. You are expected to create whole new tests. I am looking into one testing suite that looks like it allows test cases to be reasonably fault tolerant. If so, we can gain a whole lot of productivity doing regression testing.

Doubtless Mozilla is doing some regression testing, but it should probably do a lot more and probably have a much more well thought out process for doing it. If satisfying users is truly their primary goal, they may need more testers and fewer developers. It sounds like it is the other way around.

So I have been seduced by the Google Chrome browser. I won’t use IE. I just loathe it and I can’t quite put my finger on why but certainly it’s not a good thing that it is developed by Microsoft, and its bright blue theme jars me. Chrome, like Microsoft, is a product of another empire, just not one quite as evil, at least not yet, but certainly one targeted to encourage you use all things Google. It’s clear after you run Chrome for a while that it is a slicker product overall than Firefox. It’s also faster and better engineered. For example, each browser tab has its own CPU process. This has lots of benefits; the primary one being it is much less likely to crash. Firefox is catching up here, but even so it is still buggy and slow on my Mac.

I don’t want to love Chrome, but considering how much time I spend in a browser I have to have a browser that works fast, reliably and consistently. Chrome has not been perfect here, particularly with its user interface, which has morphed faster than I would like. But it is standards based, multiple-platform, fast and reliable.

I really want to go back to Firefox. It is the reference implementation for browsers, although maybe not so much anymore the way they throw out new features so quickly. There are certain Firefox behaviors I really miss, like the Bookmark manager in a sidebar. For right now I simply cannot revert. I hope Mozilla gets its act together, and listens better to the needs of its users.

So will it be adios and goodbye forever for Firefox? Or can I say adieu for now, and I’ll be glad to come back when you have your act together? For right now, I say adieu, but pretty soon it is going to be adios.

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.

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.

Windows 7: Microsoft puts the soft in Windows

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

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.