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

Occasional thoughts by Rohan Jayasekera of Toronto, Canada.

My Photo
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).

View Rohan Jayasekera's profile on LinkedIn Rohan Jayasekera's Facebook profile twitter / RohanSJ
Subscribe in a reader

Or enter your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Following up: Hardware vendors get elbowed aside

In my December 2009 post Hardware vendors get elbowed aside I said that hardware companies were “not up to the task” of software-laden devices like smartphones, and concluded with “I want even my television set to come from a software company.”

My current phone is a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which is a “Google phone” with a big Google logo on it. Yet even it is running an outdated version of the operating system (4.0.1, not December’s 4.0.3 or March’s 4.0.4), because apparently it’s up to Samsung and not Google to update it, and Samsung clearly doesn’t consider that a matter of any urgency. (Or possibly it’s the carrier I bought it from. Same thing: it’s not the creator of the operating system.) I am incensed, and now would like that purchase of a software-heavy device to be my last from a vendor that is not a software company.

I was very pleased with Microsoft’s recent decision to introduce the Surface tablets, and am similarly pleased with Google’s announcement today of the Nexus 7 tablet. Apple gets the credit for forcing this.

UPDATE: I'm getting the impression that the Galaxy Nexus problem is ultimately caused by Google's not having a build of Android that is suitable for Canada, forcing Samsung to create one – without being forced to keep it up to date. If the phone had come from Google and not Samsung, Google would have been forced to support Canada (or not sell the phone in Canada, which seems unlikely) and my phone would be up to date.

UPDATE 2: Article One line of HTML can wipe or reset Samsung smartphones gives an example of where a hardware manufacturer adds a software feature that brings security problems. Software companies make such mistakes too, but much less often since software is their core competency.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Let's abolish the term "mobile"

According to what I read, a tablet that’s only used at home is “mobile”, while a laptop that’s constantly used on the go is not.

That makes no sense at all.

And it causes bad decisions to be made around the expected uses of a device that’s called “mobile” versus one that is not. As Martin Belam remarks, “The assumption that using a mobile device means I’ve only got twenty seconds to snack on information whilst dashing for a train is one that belongs back in a world where data connections were expensive and bandwidth was scarce. I could just as easily be sitting on my sofa at home, picking up the phone because it is in my pocket, whereas the tablet or laptop I have are a couple of metres away.”

In many cases the terms phone, tablet, and PC (or computer) are quite sufficient. Today’s smartphones and tablets are pretty similar except for size (and whether there’s phone functionality, though even this is blurry given that you can Skype over WiFi): they’re touchscreen-driven and run iOS or Android or something like that, rather than a PC operating system like Windows or Mac OS. So it’s understandable that they’re often referred to collectively – but “mobile” is the wrong term to use for them. When tablets running Windows 8/RT arrive later this year, will they be called mobiles too?

It would be great if we could stop using the term, and instead say what we really mean (e.g. “phone or tablet”). It would take more words for a while, but then new terms would emerge that do make sense.

Monday, June 11, 2012

End-user platforms for the next while

Sometimes I read a statement by a supposed expert that I think indicates a ridiculous level of misunderstanding. This post is prompted by one of those (I won’t identify its author, and it was a few weeks ago).

There’s apparently confusion out there about what platforms we use that run on specific end-user devices and for which applications can be written by any third party. Operating systems are such platforms – but they’re not the only ones. Web browsers are too. A Java Virtual Machine is as well, and Adobe’s AIR.

Here are what I think are the near future’s most common platforms for end-user devices (not in any particular order):
  • Windows 7 and earlier
  • Windows 8/RT Metro (this is a new platform since applications will need to be rewritten for it)
  • Mac OS
  • Browser with medium-size screen – i.e. on a laptop/desktop/tablet (I’m reserving “large” for TVs)
  • Browser with small screen – i.e. on a phone (note that if you have to create two versions of your website it’s because there are two platforms to be addressed; there are also differences among browsers but those are generally handled within a single version of the site) UPDATE: There is a trend toward using Responsive Web Design so that a site can handle a range of screen sizes with just one version.
  • iOS with small screen – i.e. on iPhone and iPod Touch
  • iOS with medium screen – i.e. on iPad
  • Android with small screen (Android with medium screen isn’t on this list because not only have Android tablets not caught on but not many apps are being written for them, with users relying on a browser and on apps written for phones)
People writing apps for laptops/desktops often write them for the “Browser with medium-size screen” platform, because (among other things) a single version of the app (which in this case is a website) will cover both Windows and Mac users (and desktop Linux too), and (moving forward to modern times) may even be somewhat usable on a phone (and is likely quite usable on a tablet, unless it contains Flash and the tablet is an iPad). But those who try to use it on a phone will likely be disappointed, i.e. more and more people all the time, and a second version is a good idea. This puts website developers in much the same position as those who in earlier days wrote for only Windows or Mac and who put off as long as possible creating a second version for the other platform. More and more sites now also have a mobile version, though many of them are quite pitiful (like Facebook’s at present, which doesn’t even provide a “Use full site” option to get past its severe limitations).

The iPhone initially didn’t permit third-party apps to run “native”, i.e. directly on iOS; instead developers had to write their apps as websites. But this was before HTML5 came along and allowed websites to do things that had previously required a native app, so a developer revolt forced Apple to change its mind and permit native apps – though only through an app store that required approval by Apple in order to guard against malware. (What Apple did reluctantly has turned out wonderfully for them.)

Particularly on phones, native apps have provided a much better user experience than browsers. But this was once the case on Windows and Macintosh machines too, and then both the browsers and the web apps that ran on them got much better, to the point that (for instance) doing email could be done just as well through a website instead of a native app, thanks to the creation at Google (a web-centric company) of Gmail. I don’t think it’s happenstance that the popular browser that’s been lagging its peers of late has been Apple’s Safari: Apple wants apps that are usable on its hardware to be usable nowhere else, so it encourages native apps for iOS and Mac OS and is not inclined to encourage web apps.

So if you’re writing an app and you want people on the above popular platforms to be able to use it, how should you write it?

The very best user experiences are those designed specifically for the device or at least tailored to it, and where the app’s response to a user action is, when possible, generated locally without requiring server involvement that might take a while – depending on the user action, even a tenth of a second might be an irritating lag.

In native apps that’s the norm. In web apps, local actions often require more work, particularly in apps built on application frameworks. I think it’s time for the general standard of web apps to be raised: the norm should become a single-page application, where the app consists of a single page which is mostly JavaScript that runs entirely locally except when it needs something from the server. Then the web app is a client to the server in much the same way as a native app would be.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this post, except to say that I hope it gives even one person a better understanding of the end-user device platform situation.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Windows 8 vs. the "no OS" device

An anonymous comment on my previous post The "no OS" device as a disruptive innovation remarked today that "Windows 8 is partly taking us in the same direction". Indeed it is, and the word "partly" is key. My response to that comment turned out to be so long that I decided to turn it into a full post.

I can't wait to find out how important the "partly" will be. Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets will be competing against "no OS" tablets like the iPad and Android tablets, but they'll have a more visible operating system as the "cost" of being able to do anything a "real computer" can do.

Disruptive innovations start off with fewer features than the incumbents they compete against, but over time they add features and do so in ways that are more suitable to the times. Eventually there's no reason to use the old things – unless you're already doing so and perceive your switching costs to exceed the savings gained by moving to a cheaper disruptor.

With the emergence of the iPad, the people at Microsoft found themselves in a very difficult position. They had their own equivalent of iOS or Android, namely WP (which stands for Windows Phone, but it really has little to do with Windows and reflects the love of Microsoft marketing people to confuse everyone by using the same name for things that have little or nothing to do with each other, the latest example being their borrowing from "WinRT" for "Windows RT"). They could have used WP as their tablet OS. That would have matched Apple's approach, which is to let iOS slowly replace Mac OS. But Apple makes its money selling hardware, and which OS each piece of hardware uses is not important from a revenue or profit standpoint. Microsoft is a software company that's highly dependent on Windows revenue, and since WP is a direct competitor of e.g. Android it can't be sold for much money. So they needed to make Windows run on tablets, and Windows 8/RT is the result. In order to hold its own against iOS and Android it's very tablet-oriented, which these days implies a user interface that's optimized for touch. (Microsoft has actually been promoting tablets longer than anyone else, but using a stylus rather than touch.)

So it's not surprising that the complaints I'm seeing about Windows 8 from existing Windows users seem to be mostly about a perceived lack of suitability for laptop/desktop use, where touch is impractical (your arms will get tired if touching a screen requires reaching up to it). It's no wonder that some people are already pronouncing it to be a disaster, and I have no doubt that many people will prefer to continue with Windows 7 on laptops/desktops (as happened when Vista was introduced: many people chose to "downgrade" to XP), or switch to a Mac. But the concern may be overblown as it's based on non-representative usage. To use Windows 8 properly on a laptop requires a touchpad that supports multitouch and edge detection, like current Macs have but not current Windows machines. Any upcoming laptop that's designed for Windows 8 will have it. (So don't upgrade your Windows 7 laptop to Windows 8. Buy a new laptop or stick with Windows 7.)

As for tablets, Windows users buying a tablet can go with either Windows 8/RT (for some degree of resemblance and compatibility with what they're used to, plus no sacrificing of features) or iOS/Android (for a more streamlined experience on a device they intend to use primarily for information consumption rather than creation). In my own case, I can easily see myself getting a Windows 8/RT tablet, because I'm used to putting up with all the complications of Windows (even though I don't like them) and would have a hard time putting up with the limitations of iOS or Android (I use an Android 4.0 phone and frequently get irritated by how long it takes to do things that would be quick on a Windows PC or a Mac). In contrast I expect that other people who are "the opposite of power users" would find frustrations on Windows 8/RT that don't exist on "no OS" devices, like a more complicated process for software updates and having to deal with antivirus scans, and would prefer iOS or Android. But Microsoft is doing its best to minimize the number of people who would find a Windows 8/RT tablet complicated, by making it resemble "no OS" as much as practical – because that is the future.