Rohan Jayasekera's thoughts on the evolving use of computers -- and the resulting effects

Occasional thoughts by Rohan Jayasekera of Toronto, Canada.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Windows 7

Given the widespread disappointment with Windows Vista, Microsoft is now pinning its hopes on Windows 7. But why should it get a better reception? True, Vista upon introduction had problems with device support that Windows 7 will not repeat. But that’s not the main problem, which in my opinion is this: people who have Windows XP (like me) generally don’t want a newer version. Even if they get one “for free” upon buying a new computer, they don’t want a “better” version of Windows, they want the one they have (hence the popularity of XP downgrades). They’re familiar with it, it works acceptably well by Windows standards (sad but true), and they don’t want to risk new problems, especially after hearing so many complaints about Vista. The shift to Vista caused many Windows users to decide that “well, if I have to switch operating systems, I might as well switch to a Mac”.

Why the lack of interest in improvements to Windows? To hack an old phrase, “it’s the online, stupid”. My earlier post The decline of the personal-computer operating system talked about this.

Windows 7 will be better than Vista, both by lacking Vista’s initial technical problems and by having some nice features, and power users will like it. Nevertheless I predict that Windows 7 will be a commercial flop in much the same way that Vista was. Microsoft is flogging a dead horse.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The decline, Part 2, of the personal-computer operating system

At the end of my previous post I mentioned “nothing” as one of the possible operating systems on most people’s next computer. With quotes, because an operating system is unavoidable – but it can be more or less invisible. What operating system does a BlackBerry have? I’m not sure – the manufacturer refers to BlackBerry Device Software while others refer to the BlackBerry Operating System. Contrast this with a PC running Windows: if you have Windows, Microsoft will make very sure that you know it. Even though so many users curse it! Wouldn’t it be nice for ordinary users not to have to deal with an “operating system”?

I happen to know that my Treo smartphone runs PalmOS, but just like on the BlackBerry, the operating system isn’t really visible. There is a “Prefs” application (which I access just like any other application) where I can change the phone ringtones, set how quickly the screen shuts off to save power, and some other things. There are no “files”.

Personal computers for most people should be like that. And they will be. Computers with a visible operating system (whether Windows or Mac OS X or Linux) will be used only by “power users”. (Under the hood, I expect Linux to dominate this market, and the iPhone has OS X which is very closely related to Mac OS X.)

As I said in my previous post, given the increasing price gap between a netbook and a MacBook, and an economic recession/depression, Apple can’t expect to keep selling expensive MacBooks at the same pace it has been. But it’s clearly reluctant to drop the price as long as a substantial number of people are still willing to pay the premium. One way for Apple to respond to the advent of netbooks would be to introduce one that isn’t a Mac but is more or less an iPhone or iPod Touch with a much larger screen. A good writeup on this can be found here, with subsequent speculation that it could happen as early as January 2009. Such a device would be a netbook, but the first netbook with the potential to be reasonably consumer-friendly because there would be no visible operating system. (Well, except for the OLPC XO-1, but that’s intended only for children; adults often have trouble using it.)

One thing that happened with the arrival of the IBM PC and its Microsoft-sourced operating system was that control of the user experience largely shifted from the computer manufacturer to the operating-system vendor. Windows computers are all used pretty much the same way. As the operating system “disappears” on most future netbooks (and never really appeared on smartphones, with the possible exception of Windows Mobile), the manufacturer will once again largely determine the user experience. This would obviously be the case on an iPhone-like netbook from Apple, but would also be true on a netbook that ran Linux but with a manufacturer-created user interface to hide the operating system.

An Apple netbook might also have a larger screen than netbooks to date, allowing Apple to justify a higher price. I personally would cheer, as my one complaint about existing netbooks is their small screens. Since I’m not already in the Apple ecosystem I don’t think I’d be a customer, but such a move by Apple might prompt other manufacturers to build a consumer-friendly (i.e. hidden operating system) netbook with a decently sized screen. Perhaps I’ll start saving the pennies now.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The decline of the personal-computer operating system

The personal-computer operating system as we know it, typically Windows or Mac OS, was needed back when people installed lots of applications onto their computers. To get the apps you wanted, it was necessary to use a popular OS. Things have changed. Most people use only a few apps, all of which were pre-installed on the computer when they bought it: a browser, an email program, an instant-messaging program, a media player, and perhaps an office suite, and the browser is the main one. Obtaining new functionality is certainly common, but it’s now mostly received from web-based applications that are accessed from the already-installed browser. For most users, installing apps is a rare thing, and furthermore it’s a dangerous thing because it can cause all kinds of trouble; they’re best off sticking with the key apps, and letting those apps update themselves. People are learning this.

In the past, most people insisted on getting Windows because most installable apps only worked on Windows. Now the need for apps beyond a core set is largely gone. The result has been an increasing market share for Mac OS. Not so long ago I would have hesitated to use a Mac because of the app problem, but earlier this year when given the choice of Windows or Mac OS at work it was a no-brainer for me to choose the largely superior Mac OS. (Well, except for one thing. Choosing Windows would have gotten me a ThinkPad, complete with the pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard. We touch-typists can, once used to a pointing stick, use it way faster than we can a trackpad, and a ThinkPad is what I use at home. A true no-brainer would have been a Mac with a pointing stick.)

In the longer term, however, Mac OS will suffer. If you do almost everything via your browser, it doesn’t much matter what OS you use. Macs have become relatively very expensive: a Mac laptop still costs $1000 or more while some Windows laptops cost only $500 (and smaller-screen Windows netbooks even less). In a post-credit-bubble economy, most people will be far less willing to pay the premium for a Mac.

Windows will lose out too. As laptop prices drop, the cost of Windows is getting to be a larger percentage of the overall cost of the machine, and it’s an obvious thing for the manufacturer to cut. Some netbooks don’t have Windows; others have it only as an extra-cost option.

So what’s ahead? There are three choices for most people’s next computer: Linux (free), Windows (more expensive, but with a reluctant price cut by Microsoft to stay in the game), and “nothing”. Fear not, Apple fans, Apple can still be a big player, via the “nothing” category. More in my next post!