Linux Mint may be the Windows killer

I haven’t used the Windows operating system as my principle operating system for ten years. For a decade I have been using an iMac with its MacOS operating system and paying a premium for the privilege. I didn’t mind though. I just couldn’t stand Windows anymore. And since MacOS was basically written on top of UNIX, I could leverage my UNIX skills completely.

Linux Mint (Cinnamon edition)
Linux Mint (Cinnamon edition)

My loathing of Windows though was not enough to keep me from buying a Windows laptop. I don’t use it much and given this I didn’t want to pay the premium for a Mac laptop. I formally left the Windows world about the time I retired in 2014, where using Windows 7 was required. My laptop came with Windows 10. The more I used Windows 10, the more I realized I liked it less than Windows 7. It’s so flashy and so terribly annoying. Amongst its many faults is that it will frequently update itself during booting it up, sometimes taking ten minutes or more before I could actually use it. There’s that and it feels so bloated with all the flashy controls, not to mention all the junk software that came installed.

I’ve made it a goal to move off the Mac when I retire my iMac. The only alternative though seemed to be Windows. I couldn’t see myself going back to that. But maybe there was finally a distribution (“distro”) of Linux for the desktop that was finally mature enough to replace both Windows and MacOS?

This led me to a little project to partition my laptop’s drive so I could at least boot up to another operating system rather than wait for Windows 10 to be usable. In case you haven’t heard, Linux is an operating system. Haven’t heard of it? If you have an Android-based smartphone, you are already using it. Google’s Android operating system is actually a wrapper around a minimized version of Linux. So if you’ve been thinking that Windows was the most popular operating system, you are wrong. It’s really Linux, hidden inside your Android smartphone.

When Google created Android, it realized it was a completely different platform so the old constraints like “can I run Microsoft Office on it?” didn’t apply. They could build it properly and since Linux was already used on devices of all sorts (not to mention servers, where it predominates) they wrote a wrapper around free and open-source Linux and called it Android.

So if you are looking at trends, you are realizing that Linux is taking over. It’s only lagging behind on the desktop. One reason Linux is lagging on the desktop is that there are so many variants (distros) of Linux. I picked one pretty much at random to place on a partition on my laptop: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is nice but it doesn’t behave like Windows. It also doesn’t behave like MacOS. If you are going to move to a Linux desktop, it should at least work similarly to what you are already using.

It didn’t take me more than a week for me to say goodbye to Ubuntu. A friend recommended the Linux Mint distro saying it was written to be Windows-like. So I installed it and took it for a spin.

One thing I noticed right away: Linux Mint booted up fast: really fast, at least compared with Windows 10. Windows 10 gave the illusion that you could use it right away but in fact it sort of hung after you logged in while all sorts of background programs tediously loaded. Mint though was quickly loaded and usable. And it had a Start-like button in the bottom left corner and task bar on the bottom just like Windows. Clicking on the button brought up a Windows-like navigation pane. Nice!

But what was under the hood? Firefox came preinstalled, but also LibreOffice, an open source Office-like set of programs. I quickly learned that only the fussiest people would complain about these programs compared with Microsoft Office because probably less than 2% of us need the most advanced features of Office. LibreOffice is perfectly fine and you have to look hard to figure out what is different.

Pretty much everything I needed was already installed, but there was a Software Manager off the “Start” button that made quick work of installing lots of other useful software. What wasn’t in the Software Manager was often available from various websites. If you download a Debian package (.deb files) from a website, Firefox will recognize it and it is quickly installed. Since there is usually a Debian package for programs written for Linux, this means that few programs Linux programs that are not available for Mint.

While Mint comes with Firefox, if you love Chrome you can download that too. Only it’s not quite Chrome, but Chromium, basically the open-source version of Chrome. Google adds their own proprietary layers on top of Chromium to do things like make it friendlier with its services like GMail and call it Chrome. Since I do IT consulting, I didn’t have problems finding very familiar software I use every day. Filezilla is available for Mint. Since I couldn’t find a Debian package, I had to hunt for a RPM (RedHat Package Manager) package for XAMPP, a program that lets me install a local development environment for the web. This required some “hands on” work from the command prompt to install it, but it was the exception.

Strangely, I hooked my wife, a Windows bigot who spurned my iMac. Her needs are modest: mostly Firefox, Thunderbird for email, VLC for playing videos and Steam for playing games. It turned out there was a Steam engine for Linux that was preinstalled on Mint, as well as Firefox, Thunderbird and VLC. She put it on a rebuilt laptop, throwing away Windows 10 entirely and replacing it with Linux Mint. Tomorrow she is off to Las Vegas to visit friends, and doubtless she will show off her laptop with its Windows-friendly Linux Mint OS on it. She loves it and is amazed by how quickly it boots and is usable.

If you have to run Windows, you can run it virtually inside of Mint using WINE (a Windows emulator) which is also preinstalled. As for replacing my iMac, I don’t think there’s a way to run MacOS virtually inside of Linux. But there are Linux distros that try to emulate the Mac’s user interface. These include Elementary OS, Deepin Linux, Backslash Linux, Gmac Linux and Trenta OS. Of these, Gmac Linux looks the most Mac-like.

About the only software I can’t easily replace is Quicken. I could run it as a service online; I’d just prefer not to trust all my financial data online. Obviously there is some software like Photoshop that is not available for Linux distros, but may be some day. There are some programs that offer 90% of its functionality and are free. Chances are there is an open-source version that’s close enough to those you use everyday on Windows that you won’t mind trading a few differences for the cost (free!)

Playing with Linux Mint though has me thinking that it may kill off Windows. It behaves very similarly, is faster, more nimble, much more stable and doesn’t feel lethargic and bloated like Windows. Yet it’s also so familiar while feeling easier to use. Microsoft may be seeing the beginning of the end of Windows. To compete it may opt to turn Windows into a Linux distro, much like Android became a very unique distro of Linux for handheld devices. Or by being introduced to it through people like my wife, Windows users may discover Linux Mint and make the switch too.

The joys, glee and occasional giddiness of virtualization

We are living increasingly virtualized lives. From posting about our lives in Facebook, to wearing Google Glass, to playing games online where we don alter egos, most of us mask ourselves behind walls of electronic processors, networks and software. I’m typical. As for me, aside from Facebook there is this blog, which is not quite a true representation of me. Rather it is a projection of some part of me, perhaps my ego that I choose to share with the world. Most of you don’t know who I really am, which is by design. I go so far as to hide my domain details behind a proxy.

But there are other meanings to virtualization. In the computer world, virtualization is running a computer inside a computer. In my case, I am running Windows inside my iMac. It used to be I had separate machines, and the Windows box was a laptop provided courtesy of my employer. When I retired, I turned in the laptop, leaving me Windows-less. This normally would not be a problem, unless you need to teach a class where students will be doing work on Windows. That’s when I decided that rather than buy a new computer just to run Windows I would cheat. I would run Windows virtually inside my iMac instead.

There are a couple of ways to do this. The cheapest (free) way is actually to use Bootcamp. This allows you to boot to a Windows partition when you start your iMac. This works fine but is inconvenient. You must shut down Windows and go back to Bootcamp to boot your computer as a Mac. What I really want it to run is Windows and the Mac operating system at the same time and be able to share content between them. In short, I needed virtualization software.

Ah, but how to do it on the cheap? Windows computers aren’t that expensive, after all, so a virtualization solution would have to be cheap. It helps to be teaching a class, because I qualify for software at an academic price, roughly half the retail cost. That’s how I acquired Parallels, neat virtualization software that allows me to run Windows (and lots of other operating systems) virtually on my iMac. With discount it cost me just under $40. The only downside was I had to wait a couple of days for the USB drive with the software to arrive in the mail.

There was also the question of how to get a cheap license for the Windows operating system, as I didn’t have one lying around. Fortunately, the college where I teach has an agreement with Microsoft, which it uses on its desktop computers, wherein we teachers could install a free Windows license at home so we could do our work without having to come to campus. If you already have a license for Windows, you could install it in a virtual instance too. And after installing Windows, that’s where I stopped. I did not feel the need for a license for the Microsoft Office suite for Windows. I already have one for the Mac. Frankly, Microsoft Office is becoming obsolete. My needs are modest. I can generally do what I need using Google’s free tools, and they have the bonus of being easily sharable not to mention accessible in the cloud pretty much anywhere.

I did wonder if virtualization technology really would be reliable. I thought there must be some Windows software that simply cannot work in a virtualized environment. And there may be, but I haven’t encountered it yet. It all works perfectly fine. On my spiffy new iMac it runs at least as fast as it would if I had a dedicated Windows box.

Why bother in the first place? It’s not like I like Windows. For the class I teach, the students install a “lite” version of Oracle, Oracle 11g Express Edition, and it’s available for Windows and Linux, but students will install it on Windows. Even in a “lite” version, Oracle is a CPU and memory hog, so I was skeptical it could be run virtually, but it worked fine.

There was some puzzling installing Windows in a virtualized environment. I needed a Windows image file, which I got from the college. Since Parallels is a virtual wrapper around Windows it is software too, specifically it is a hypervisor. This is software that oversees virtual operating systems. In principle, a virtual operating system instance runs in its own little sandbox and cannot harm my iMac’s operating system. In practice though, the Windows instance may be virtual but it is still susceptible to viruses like a non-virtualized operating system, so I loaded the free Avast antivirus to keep it safe.

Aside from my needs for Windows for teaching, I have found it’s useful for other purposes. In retirement I earn income from consulting. Since I am doing web work, it helps to have web environments to do work in. Over the weekend I was involved in a hairy upgrade of a very large forum (about 670,000 posts) from phpBB 2 to phpBB 3. I tried it a number of times on my client’s shared hosting, and it kept failing. I ended up downloading both the programs and the database to my machine. I placed it in my virtual machine and converted it there. While it’s possible to install web server environments on the Mac, it’s more of a hassle. There are turnkey solutions for Windows web server environments, like XAMPP that I am using, that are so much faster to install and maintain. On my machine of course I did not have the limitations of a shared server and I was able to convert the forum.

There are some things that are just done better or more elegantly on Windows. Obviously, if you do any work for a business, they are likely using Windows, so having a Windows environment may be necessary. But there are some programs for Windows that are so nifty that there really is no equivalent for the Mac. Winmerge comes to mind and it is also free. I do have DeltaWalker for the iMac, but it is much harder to use. I have a version of Quicken for the Mac. The Windows version is much better. At some point I may move my Quicken files into my Windows virtual machine and take advantage of all these new features.

Beyond Windows, all sorts of virtual machines can be created using Parallels. I don’t have much need to install versions of Linux like Debian, but I can install it rather easily if needed and still have my iMac purring away. Parallels is also smart enough to allow copying and pasting rather easily between operating systems. In the Windows world, copy and paste is done with CTRL-C and CTRL-V. In Parallels, it will recognize the Mac’s CMD-C and CMD-V, which is more intuitive. Sharing files is more problematic. There are ways to do it, but so far I’ve been moving files on flash drives.

Overall, I am impressed by the ease of the Parallels virtualization technology. I effectively got a Windows machine without having to buy any hardware. With a free Windows license, my only real cost was the cost of the Parallels software. I have the benefits of both a Windows and a Mac without a lot of Windows hassles. I can do eighty percent or more of my work in the Mac operating system, but when I need Windows it is there reliably and transparently. Should I choose to get rid of Windows, it could not be simpler. I simply tell Parallels to remove my Windows virtual instance. Bing! Done!

So my computing life is good. I feel like I won the lottery. Among all the other benefits, virtualization technology is also environmentally friendly because I am running one physical computer instead of two. In short, it’s a slick and easy to use solution. Don’t be afraid to virtualize this aspect of your life.

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.

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.

Google’s Chrome OS aims to drive a stake in Microsoft’s heart

You may not have noticed, but Google seems hell bent on a strategy that it hopes will ultimately kill Microsoft Windows. Many have tried but so far, none have succeeded in toppling the behemoth desktop operating system. Google’s ultimate success in toppling Windows will depend in part on its success convincing people to move their data from their desktop computers into “The Cloud”.

For those of you who are not terribly tech savvy, “The Cloud” refers to the Internet in general, but more specifically to the many data servers attached to the Internet that hold personal and other data for us. You may already have much of your personal data in the cloud and not know it. For example, if you use GMail (Google’s email service), your email is hosted by Google somewhere within its cloud-computing infrastructure. Chances are even Google would have a hard time telling you exactly where your email is stored. It is probably redundantly stored among its hosting centers. Redundant hosting helps ensure that your data is always available.

In fact, there are plenty of vendors outside of Google enamored with “The Cloud” and Microsoft is among them. For example, recently Microsoft announced a stripped down version of its Office Suite for The Cloud. You may not even have to pay to use it, providing you are okay with its limited features, advertising and trust that Microsoft will forever store your personal data. Microsoft is playing catch up. Google has offered Google Docs (its version of a web-ified MS Office) for years. It too is not as feature robust as the Office Suite, but it has certain nice to have features and in most instances is free. Because it exists in The Cloud, it also allows easy sharing of documents and spreadsheets among multiple parties.

If Microsoft’s killer product is Windows, Google’s killer product is not necessarily its search engine, but its ability to maintain a highly available and scalable Internet cloud. These things do not just happen. They require many years of work, research and refinement. The reason cloud computing took off slowly is that building such an infrastructure is hard. Google did it first but there have been other leaders in this field, including Amazon. Amazon, in addition to its ability to sell you pretty much anything online, has been a cloud computing innovator too. It takes a different tack by offering businesses very cheap computing resources on demand.

It takes a while for cloud computing to work up a head of steam, but Google is getting there. For example, the City of Los Angeles will be letting Google host its email services using a commercial version of its GMail service. Whether this will be a stake in the heart of Microsoft Exchange remains to be seen. Exchange is Microsoft’s pricy but widely used business-class email server. It is a complex beast requiring many skilled specialists to keep it going. With email seen as a commodity, cloud services like GMail seem a logical way for a business to save a lot of money.

Even the Department of Interior, where I work, is rethinking email. It is seriously looking at cloud computing as a replacement for its mixture of Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes email servers. Its goal is to complete a department-wide transition by the end of 2010, which seems ambitious to me. It is possible that a year from now when I am sending work related email it will be through a hosted service like GMail rather than Lotus Notes.

It’s a little known fact, but far more email is transmitted across the Internet than web pages. (This may be due to ninety percent of email traffic being spam.) Consequently, a company that can grab a majority of the email market is well positioned to drive the future of the Internet. GMail and Google’s ubiquitous search engine are two feet into the enterprise space that may eventually kill Windows. The next part of Google’s strategy is to control the desktop. What Google is hoping to do is make desktop computing obsolete. If you store all your personal stuff in The Cloud and it is always highly available then what is the point of a big, bloated operating system like Windows, particularly when Windows can take many minutes just to boot up and costs a lot of money to set up and maintain?

To help sell this vision, Google has released its own web browser called Chrome. It’s big selling point is speed. It reputedly renders pages ten times faster than Internet Explorer and is even faster than Firefox, my browser of choice. Its market share is currently quite tiny, and is likely to remain such for the near future. For many people with high-speed Internet connections, faster rendering of web content is very much appreciated. While I like Firefox, it can be slow at times, particularly when you press the back button. If Chrome can do away with such annoyances, I might have a compelling reason to switch browsers.

Google’s strategy for killing Microsoft has two parts: selling people on netbooks and its promised new operating system called Chrome OS. If you are unfamiliar with the term netbook, it is small (generally portable) computer optimized for interacting with the Internet. It deemphasizes storing documents on the netbook. Instead, data is stored in “The Cloud” where presumably it lives longer than you do. To succeed, Google needs to convince you to trust it to not only always retain your data, but to keep it secure and highly available at all times. While Google suffers from widely scattered service problems such as a recent GMail outage, overall its track record is very good and getting better. The Facebook generation seems to be comfortable keeping its data in the cloud. Chrome OS then becomes little more than a very lightweight operating system for Netbooks. It would boot up very quickly, unlike Microsoft Windows. Presumably, Chrome would be the browser of choice for its speed and a virtual desktop operating system as well as an integrated web browser. The netbook becomes really nothing more than a portal for allowing you to interact with all your data in the cloud as well as surf the web.  In some sense, it is a Back to the Future operating system, where netbooks essentially become fancy terminals.

If Google can convince us that desktop computing in the 21st century is for Luddites, then the handwriting in on the wall for Microsoft Windows. Microsoft can try to offer its own netbooks and cloud-computing infrastructure, but it is clearly years behind Google. Nor can it offer a compelling reason for us to stick with the Windows brand in a network-computing world. Why pay for an operating system and software when Google Chrome OS would be (presumably) free, as well as most if not all of its hosted applications? Making Chrome OS available would also encourage software vendors to create their own applications that run under Chrome OS. The result could be an application-centric Internet realized through quick and response web-based applications using Chrome OS.

To the extent you believe in Google’s vision, you may wish to start selling your Microsoft stock for Google stock.

Caught in the Quicken web

I have often joked to my wife that Microsoft’s greatest invention was its random behavior generator. If you run the exact same software, using the exact same data on the exact same computer day after day you should get exactly the same results. Except that, this does not happen in the world of Microsoft Windows. I believe this thanks to their secret random behavior generator. Some days you can be lulled into a sense of complacency. You think that things are finally predictable, only to discover later that either something surreptitious is going on under the hood, or some sort of bizarre behavior that never manifested itself the last hundred times has occurred.

Because of its secret random behavior generator, Microsoft has ingeniously generated hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. This has forced us to upgrade, buy new versions of their software, reformat our hard drives and reinstall Windows, and even buy entirely new computers. We also pay money to call their technical support lines to maybe solve these mysterious problems. What is the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results? By buying an iMac, I have demonstrated that I am now sane. Release me from the rubber room, please. I now have a computer, which while not perfect, works predictably with me instead of against me.

As I documented, it is not a trivial process to move from Windows to a Mac. There is a lot to learn and a lot to unlearn. There are some inevitable compromises. You may not find precisely the same software for the Mac as you will for Windows, but you can come close. As in the case of Quicken, you can expect to pay more money for the privilege of having it work on a Mac. What you get in return is consistency and reliability.

Quicken may be the exception. I found that moving from Quicken for Windows to Quicken for the Mac was a hugely frustrating experience. Quicken is not some fly by night company. It has been around for more than twenty years and owns the lion’s share of the personal finance market. It has expanded into the business market with its Quickbooks line. It also offers an array of online services. You would think that such a large and well-financed company would offer a version of Quicken for the Mac that is consistent with Quicken for Windows. You would think that you could simply move over your data files and use them transparently.

Sorry, no. Moving from Quicken for Windows to Quicken for the Mac feels very much like trying to solve some bizarre and distressing Microsoft Windows problem. I mean the real irksome kind, where you are reduced to hacking Windows registry entries and upgrading drivers in the wan hope that maybe you will return to some level of consistency and reliability. Quicken blew it big time with Quicken for the Mac. For some bizarre reason it is largely a different product than Quicken for Windows that also looks and behaves quite differently than it Windows version.

Ironically, Microsoft did a better job of porting its Microsoft Office Suite to the Mac than Quicken did with its flagship product. I installed Microsoft Word and Excel for the Mac and there is almost no inconsistent behavior with the Windows version. Yes, you get feature windows that sit outside the main window. That is standard Mac stuff. In addition, you have to use the CMD key where you would normally use the CTRL key. That is about it.

With Quicken for the Mac, not only are the features I took for granted missing, but also all sorts of things both subtle and overt are markedly different. For example, you might want to have your register show the date column first and then the check number column so it looks like your paper register. There is no way to do this with the Mac version, which markedly slows down the process of entering transactions into Quicken. Moreover, why is the category field now on the left and the memo field on the right? It would have been just as easy to keep it consistent with the Windows version.

All these sorts of annoying inconsistencies though pale compared to the hassle of actually moving your data from Windows to the Mac. First, according to their own knowledge base, you must go through the hassle of exporting each type of data (accounts, categories, etc.) to a QIF file, which is painful. It also tells you to do things like shorten your account and category names and to move over data in a stepwise manner, which is also painful. Yet despite all this, I was not successful moving over my Quicken data. Instead, I got repeated “Transaction File Full” messages while importing. I was reduced to calling their technical support line and waiting for a call back. Their technician was anxious to end the call early because their support closed at 5 PM. However, he did give me some useful advice. He told me to create a new QIF file with all my data in it and import just that. The good news was that it appeared to worked.

However, there were some problems. The import program ignored many transactions, making the account balances incorrect in many cases. As I had taken care to trim my account and category names as instructed, I expected no problems. The problems were occurring in transactions with category names I could not change on Windows, those “automatic” categories like _401KEmployerContribution.

Searching the Quicken support forums I found a number of people with similar problems but no one who had a solution. A number of people like me though were frustrated and tearing their hair out. With 18 years of Quicken data, going through probably one hundred thousand transactions and fixing those ones did not import or imported incorrectly was not a viable option. Why could Quicken not at least provide an error log? What to do?

I figured that as a last resort I could just create a balance adjustment so that at least the account balances would be accurate. Except that in most of my accounts, the option was disabled. Naturally, I sent an inquiry to Quicken. Their customer relationship management software just automatically pointed me to articles I had already read. Of course, no human was actually going to bother to read my email. That, like, costs money! Instead, just have a computer parse it for keywords, send an email with likely matches and hope the customer goes away!

In desperation, I was reduced to changing my opening balances. That was the only thing that Quicken for the Mac would allow me to do. So now, my account and share balances are correct, but I have no idea whether it is calculating my stock portfolio values correctly, because I am not certain that all buy and sell transactions were recorded correctly. Nor am I confident that any income or expense reports will be accurate. All this for the privilege of paying $69.99 for a Mac version, which you can get for about half this price and which has about 10% less functionality than the Windows version!

Quicken though keeps sending me emails that it is still vitally concerned about my problem. I cannot be bothered to respond because it is clear even they do not know what to do. If I had to guess, I suspect their advice would be to stick with the Windows version. However, I will not shell out $80 or so for Parallels or install Boot Camp to run Windows on my Mac. My whole goal of moving to a Mac was to put Windows behind me.

There is hope. Reputedly, Quicken is rewriting Quicken for the Mac from the ground up for a future version. Maybe then, it will have the same features as in its Windows version. Maybe then, moving over your data will be simple. Maybe then, future customers will not have to troubleshoot this bizarre accounting stuff largely by themselves. As for me, I feel justifiably disgruntled and used. This is no way to treat a loyal customer.

TrueCrypt puts the personal in PC

Your computer is somewhat like a post card. Although you may be able to restrict who gets onto your machine, in general the data stored on your computer is stored as plain text and is thus easily compromised.

If you are like me, one of the reasons you own a PC is because you want not just a computer, but a personal computer. “Personal” means more than the freedom to change your screensavers. A personal computer should make your sensitive data available only to you.

Unless you take the time to password protect your documents, your computer is a treasure trove of information about you that you may not want shared. Many applications allow your data to be password protected, but that does not necessarily mean that the data itself is encrypted. Even if it is, that does not mean the vendor’s encryption algorithm is good. Ideally, you would like your private data to be only accessible by you as well as stored and encrypted in a transparent manner. You might even want the NSA to throw up their hands if they were ordered to decrypt your files.

If you feel this way, you want the terrorists to win. No wait, I am parroting our president. Actually, if you feel this way: congratulations. Your personal computer should not be amenable to electronic snooping. The problem is not with your need for privacy, which is entirely natural, but with those elements in society that figure anything is fair game, including your hard disk.

I have been experimenting with a free open source software solution that is fighting back. It is called TrueCrypt. For those of you in the Microsoft Windows world, it can ensure that data on your hard disk or other devices (like your flash drive) is stored in an encrypted format. Once you create your virtual disk (which is some portion of your actual hard disk), it behaves just like any other drive. You can move files in and out of it using tools like Windows Explorer. However, everything stored on this virtual drive is encrypted.

There is not a whole lot of data I want to keep truly private, but there is some. My Quicken data files are an obvious example. While Quicken allows you to save your data in an encrypted format there is the annoying password I have to provide each time I start it and the latency from starting and using the program. Moreover, I suspect their encryption scheme is rudimentary. Of course if you have an encrypted virtual drive you can store anything you want inside of it that you consider private, from letters from old boyfriends, to your electronic diary to your favorite porn.

If you decide to buy Windows Vista Ultimate, you can pay money for this level of protection. Of course, most of us will not want to spend extra money. In addition, most of us Windows users are still in the Windows XP world where the Windows “experience” does not include this kind of transparent file encryption. Moreover, call me paranoid, but I have a hard time trusting my hard disk to Microsoft in the first place. I would much rather trust my privacy to an open source product like TrueCrypt than to Microsoft.

After installing Truecrypt, to store private files you must first create a virtual disk. It can be as small or big as you want. From the perspective of Microsoft Windows, it is just another file on your machine. (TrueCrypt can also format entire disk partitions or devices.) If you want to make a very big virtual disk, it may take some minutes to format it. Here is Truecrypt’s downside: you must start Truecrypt, enter your password, point it to the location of your encrypted volume and then assign it to a drive letter. This is called mounting and it can take 15-30 seconds. Once the volume is mounted, it is then accessible. So if you do not dismount it before walking away from your computer, data on it could be accessible to someone else. Since it is just another drive from the Windows perspective, if you are a sloppy person who cannot be bothered to install a firewall, virus protection software and anti-spyware software, it is still possible for others to get at your private data. If you use Google Desktop Search, you will want to make sure it does not search your encrypted drives.

While not a perfect solution, Truecrypt is the good enough 90% solution at a price that is impossible to beat. While you cannot hide the space it consumes on your hard disk, you can give each virtual drive a boring looking file name. One you have your virtual disk, you can even hide a volume inside it. This way even if you were forced to divulge your password, the person would not necessarily see your stored files, since the hidden volume would not be shown.

My next computer will likely be an iMac. I assume Apple is smart enough to include features like this by default. While I wait for a financial justification to replace my PC, solutions like Truecrypt help me believe that for the first time I really do have a personal computer.

Good Billionaire

And my unlikely nominee for best philanthropist?

It pains me to say it, but it’s Bill Gates. More specifically Bill and his wife Melinda Gates. Yes, that Bill Gates, the man whose net worth is currently about thirty billion dollars. Yes, that Bill Gates, the man my wife routinely curses at. She swears someday she is going to Redmond to firebomb his house. Because many of us (I know we are so un-American) just don’t like Bill Gates. We consider Windows “technology” to be buggy and inferior crap designed to drive us nuts. I hold Bill Gates personally responsible for wasting hundreds of my hours, for which I was never compensated. When Windows 3.1 ruled the world my machine crashed every 30 minutes, if I was lucky. What a piece of crap, I thought. Why would anyone, particularly my employer, spend so much money to own this piece of shit? How could any company allow such crap to go on the market?

And it didn’t get much better. Windows 95 was marginally better but it was often BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) City. Windows 98 was the same piece of crap, and Windows Me was the most unreliable Windows product since Windows 3.1. Reliability started improving with Windows 2000 but of course something had to give. And that was security. It became clear that Windows was a hacker’s dream. My PC regularly got infested with viruses, spyware, adware and Trojan horses. To use it with any sense of security my wife and I had to become PC security experts. Even after putting in firewalls, virus checkers and plugging every hole we could think of we still have security issues. God only knows what else may be on our PCs that we don’t know about. And all this is the fault of Bill Gates, who rushed buggy products to market without adequate testing and forced us to cough up premium prices for inferior software.

Yeah, I know I should have got a Mac. Except I couldn’t work from home with a Mac. The reality was the business world was Windows centric and there was not much I could do about it. I could just feel frustrated and resent feeling like my pocket had been picked clean.

So it really pains me to admit that Bill and Melinda Gates are excellent philanthropists. I figured when it came to philanthropy they would bring their formidable software skills to it and completely wreck it. But that’s not what happened. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is perhaps not only the best funded charity in the world, but doing the most vital work out there.

For example take malaria. It kills a child in the world every three seconds. And it is a completely preventable disease. A third of the world is at risk of developing malaria. Malaria vaccines are relatively cheap by our standards, but it is hard to get to all the third world countries in order to inoculate people. But even where spraying and inoculations are difficult, simple malaria netting can greatly reduce the likelihood of contracting the disease. The Gates Foundation is taking a pragmatic approach that might actually solve the problem.

It is hard for many of us to understand just how desperately poor billions of people are. In some places of the world, like Thailand, families have to sell their own daughters into prostitution to survive. Even malaria netting costs more than they can afford. Handing out malaria netting in these areas greatly reduces the risk of contracting malaria. Clearly inoculations and systematic spraying are also important. The Gates Foundation is working in all three areas. Money and persistence can do a lot of good. And arguably they are doing a much more effective job than many governmental organizations are doing, although they often work directly with leading organizations addressing these problems. Of course many governmental organizations such as the World Health Organization are not always flush with sufficient funds. But Bill Gates can use his personal fortune to create the sustained focus needed to seriously address chronic problems like malaria.

In the global health arena, the Gates Foundation is arguably at the forefront. The Gates Foundation is funding HIV/AIDS research in both vaccines and in drugs that minimize symptoms and extend patients’ lives. It is also working on HIV/AIDS prevention strategies. In addition to HIV/AIDS the Gates Foundation is coordinating work on other common and preventable diseases like tuberculosis. It is working to make sure that people in poor countries have access to tuberculosis, measles, polio and other vaccines that the rest of us take for granted.

But one area that makes me almost want to shake Bill Gates’s hand is the foundation’s work in family planning. While our Administration wrings its hands over using tax dollars on birth control in third world countries, the Gates Foundation is pushing family planning in the poorest areas of the world. I have been giving money to Planned Parenthood World Population Control for more than a decade. I can think of no better use of my money than to help stabilize the world’s population. But the amount I can contribute is tiny. The Gates Foundation can throw hundreds of millions of dollars at the problem. And they apparently don’t give two figs if birth control upsets some Catholics and Mormons. Stabilizing the population is good for humanity and good for the planet.

In short Bill and Melinda have proven themselves to be excellent humanists. Realizing they can’t take their billions with them into the afterlife, they have decided to use significant chunks of their fortunes to target some of the thorniest and most pressing problems in the world. It would be nice if we could adequately fund efforts in these areas on the national and international level, but we seem to have other priorities like tax cuts. Free of the prejudice and ignorance that comprises much of our leadership, the Gates Foundation can potentially solve some of these persistent and thorny problems.

So while I still resent Bill Gates for all the time and money he cost me, I feel a little better toward him because he is using a significant portion of his fortune to make the world a better place. I still intend to buy a Mac one of these days though.