Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why platform matters less, part 2

There once was a time when computers were available only to a select few. Often working in specialized offices, operators used a terminal at their desk to access a central time-share system. Computers were big and expensive, not generally thought of as a general-purpose tool.

In January 1977, Commodore released the PET - and the world was introduced to the first widely-sold personal computer. This was soon followed by the highly successful Apple ][ which quickly became the most popular computer for the home. IBM responded with the IBM-PC, running Microsoft's DOS.

In the span of a few years, not only had the computer market been turned on its head, but the race was on for bringing users to the personal computer.

We're seeing a new turning point now in computing. Things are about to change.

Since about 2000, technologists have talked about "Web 2.0", where the Web transformed from simple pages and forms, to more of an application platform. Broadband was certainly a player in "Web 2.0", but really it was the feasibility of technologies like AJAX that made "Web 2.0" possible. The browser was powerful enough to become a competing platform in its own right. I talked about the Web platform in my "Part 1" post.

I believe the next generation of the Web, or "Web 3.0", will be focused on the handheld device. We've seen a build up to this over the last year or so. Actually, I've been riding this wave for a few years now. I used to bring my PSP everywhere I went - not (so much) to play video games during idle time, but to browse the web using open wifi. The web browser on the PSP is serviceable for that, and many tech-oriented web sites have had a mobile-enabled version of their site (if not mobile browser detection) for a while now.

But today, if I want to browse the web (IMDB, GMail, etc.) and I'm not at my computer, I'll just use the browser on my smartphone. Welcome to the future!

I think Steve Jobs sees that mobile/handheld computing will be the next Big Thing, so it's not a coincidence that he's betting so much of Apple on the success of the iPad. And given the success of the iPhone and iPod Touch, it shouldn't be a surprise (from an engineering standpoint) that that iPad is basically an iPhone with a larger screen.

The future of computing will focus less on the desktop and laptop - and the operating system - and will emphasize handheld "appliances".

And yes, other IT players are trying to break into the non-phone handheld device market. Microsoft has been touting their "Microsoft Courier" mobile platform for a while now - and just recently killed it. But doubtless we'll see other large-format mobile devices hit the market soon. The Kindle was there first, but they targeted only the book market - I'll be interested to see what device comes next.

If iPad devices are successful (and I think it's safe to say they will be) personal computing will look a lot different in another 5 years. How do you think computing will change?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Young developers do not like Microsoft

There's a great article on the New York Times about how Microsoft is losing touch with the younger market. And that's going to cause problems down the road for the software giant.

My favorite bit from the article:
Part of its problem may be that its ability to intrigue and attract software developers is also waning, which threatens its ability to steer markets over the long term. When it comes to electronic devices, people writing software have turned their attention to platforms from Apple and Google.

Meanwhile, young technology companies today rely on free, open-source business software rather than Microsoft’s products, so young students, soon to be looking for jobs, have embraced open-source software as well.

[Update: removed quote by Tim O'Reilly, since he says he was misquoted.]
Here's the problem, as I see it: the general idea for Microsoft is to get access to university students, indoctrinate the computer science majors with cheap developer tools, and get mindshare with the other students through inexpensive software. We've seen this with other companies before (why do you think Apple gives discounts to students?) so this is nothing new.

The concept is that these students will eventually enter the workforce, and will advocate for the tools they find most familiar - the software they used at university. In theory, the computer science graduates will want to develop software for Microsoft Windows, using Microsoft developer environments. The other students will want to use the other Microsoft suite software. Thus, Microsoft can expect to draw in huge corporate sales later, by offering discounts to universities and colleges. Usually, this works.

But in the last generation of students, Microsoft was not successful in getting access to university students. And we're now seeing the effects of that.

Where did that mindshare go, if it didn't go to Microsoft? It went right where Microsoft didn't want it to be: to Free and Open Source Software. In short, the Linux market.

This is a very real example why it's important to have a Free Software option. The students who graduate today are more inclined to use Linux and other open source software. Those who become developers will tend to use an open source software base. And that's only a good thing. I can't wait to watch the current generation of students graduate, and see how this further changes the market in a few more years.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Why platform matters less, part 1

Recently, I discussed web applications as one way to simplify an environment in preparation for moving an organization to Linux. People sometimes forget this option. Do you have applications that can run via the web? Maybe you have a group calendar system that also has a "web client". This can be an easy way to remove an obstacle to your Linux migration. If you have any applications that are "Windows only", check if there is a web option available to you.

This raises an issue that Microsoft feared back in the late 1990's. It's why Microsoft fought so aggressively to get into the web browser market after first ignoring it. The operating system platform matters a lot less if people consume applications via the web rather than through the desktop. It's awfully hard to lock users to Windows when they don't run any Windows apps per se.

In one example, when I first ran Linux at work in my current organization, our groupware application was advertised as "Windows-only". But I found the web version worked perfectly on Linux using Firefox, so I got along fine and had no problems interacting with my co-workers via the groupware.

A glaring example today is Google Docs. Available via the web to any capable browser (including some mobile platforms), you can edit documents, work on spreadsheets, and create presentations. It has the look and feel of previous versions of Office, without that Ribbon interface.

Sure, your very advanced users will find certain "power features" missing from Google Docs. But it does the job well enough for today's office environments. My work adopted Google early this year. After experimenting these last few months, I found myself gravitating to Google Docs for all my work. I'm a manager, so most of my office work is writing strategy documents or managing budget spreadsheets, with an occasional presentation. Surprise! I can do all that from within Google Docs. And it doesn't matter if I'm running Windows or Linux.

As an added bonus, many of us at work now collaborate remotely when working on documents and spreadsheets. The other person might be in another building or another state, but we can still have the same document open to add our changes, and use a text chat system to ask questions. It was a little odd when I first did this, but now it's become the new norm.

This scares Microsoft to death. I'm sure there are lots of meetings in Redmond that ask the question, "If people can use all these apps from a web browser, why do they need Windows?"

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Newspaper tries free software for a day

The Saratogian tried an experiment for Independence Day - run free software for a day, to produce the July 4 2010 issue of their (web and print) newspaper. They called it the Ben Franklin Edition *. The free software experiment is part of the Ben Franklin Project of the Journal Register Company, which owns The Saratogian.

The Ben Franklin Project’s one-shot deal is the preparation of all daily newspapers in the Journal Register Company using free software for publication on the Fourth of July, a symbolic declaration of independence from proprietary software.

Their conclusions at the end of this one-day experiment?
It was hard work. The proprietary software is designed to be efficient, reliable and relative fast for the task of producing a daily newspaper. The free substitutes, not so much.
So, staff at The Saratogian have used Windows software for years and years and years. They moved to Linux for a day and found that things were different, and "different" was hard to learn. Why am I not surprised?

To make it happen, staff had to change behaviors, and learn software that replaced the proprietary systems they had used for every other edition. An example of their work:
News Editor Paul Tackett has been working days and nights, on top of his usual job, to set up most of the day's pages in a layout program called Scribus. [...] For today's print edition, Tackett has duplicated the familiar components of The Saratogian from scratch, with the goal being that you won't know the difference between the look of today's paper and tomorrow's.
To be sure, that was a major effort. Tackett had to spend days to reproduce templates and layouts that have been built up over years in another program. But doing that kind of work would be hard for anyone. It doesn't matter if you move to free software or just another proprietary software package, changing everything is going to be hard. I give this guy huge credit for accomplishing it on time. But I also give kudos out to Scribus for being able to support what he was doing.

You know, moving from one environment that you know really well to one that you don't - it's always hard. We Linux users have trouble, too, moving from Linux to Windows. After all, that's what this blog is about. I did it for my work, and I'm constantly finding things in Windows that just don't work right or work stupidly. Or where features are missing entirely.

Linux is just easier for me. But I've been using Linux at home since 1993, and running Linux at work since 2002. Until 2009, that is, when I was "asked" to move to Windows for work.

This whole "try free software for a day" thing is a neat "publicity stunt within the journalism industry" (their words) but migrating in that short a time is very very hard to do. If you're going to move an organization to free software (or to Linux), there are ways to do it so you won't stress your users too much.

Overall, I'm very glad the editors gave a forum to demonstrate how free software is just as capable as proprietary software in publishing a newspaper. Hopefully, enough of their readers will see through the difficulties in pulling off the "stunt" to recognize that if free software can work for a newspaper, it can work for me.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The post I almost wrote

I found my old 5th generation 30GB iPod yesterday. It still worked, so the geek in me thought, "I could probably make this into a 'combo' iPod/drive, an iPod that also boots Linux". Basically, repartition the device to be a (smaller) iPod, with a partition where I could install Linux. Maybe someone out there would find that useful and interesting, worth a blog post.

I tried a couple of experiments. First, if you delete all the partitions on the iPod and repartition it for Linux, there's some basic firmware on the device that displays an error message. But it's easy enough to use iTunes to restore the iPod to factory default. So that's one test down.

I found a web page about how to put a different partition on an iPod, like to use for Linux. The guy even showed the commands to run, to create a separate partition for Linux, and still leave a usable iPod data partition. He claims it worked on his device. It didn't work on mine. Now, my iPod just boots, shows an Apple logo, clicks, reboots, shows an Apple logo, clicks, reboots ... Or it did, until the battery died a few hours later.

I bought this iPod in 2005, about a month after its debut. It's 5 years old, definitely outside the service period. Apple says they will charge me $25 just to look at it. (It's safe to assume they'd charge me a lot more to fix/replace it.)

And no, it doesn't present itself to a computer, like for me to restore it using iTunes. It's too busy rebooting. It's a dead device. End of experiment, and end of blog post idea.

But why would you want to go through the trouble to make a "combo" iPod/drive anyway, when you can just buy a new drive? So let's take a quick look at the market:
  • The iPod was 30GB. You can get a new 32GB flash drive for about $60. I'm already running Linux from a flash drive (8GB "Pico" drive, about $25) and it works fine, but it's a little slow when running a bunch of updates.
  • Or you can buy an external USB hard drive that's 10 times the size, for the same cost. I actually have one of these for keeping backups, and it's great. (For comparison, that's a slightly better deal than at Best Buy.)
Unless you happen to have an old 5th generation 30GB iPod. Then you could just repartition the iPod for Linux, and accept that it will show an error message - like I should have done. Ah well.