I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Chrome OS and IT platform longevity

Google’s targeting of Chrome OS is interesting. Rather than trying to attract consumers, who have demonstrated that they’re not interested in “Net PC”-like browser-only hardware, Google is positioning Chrome OS hardware as inexpensive, low-IT-overhead alternatives for businesses to deploy instead of desk computers.

In last week’s Talk Show, John Gruber and Dan Benjamin discussed why it may finally be a good time for this: a lot of computers today in businesses exist solely to run a web browser. John’s example is almost every computer in a typical bank branch, on which the agents usually just type your information into a series of web-browser forms in order to do their jobs. Assuming any Internet Explorer dependencies can be removed without too much trouble, these are ideal candidates to be replaced with Chrome OS.

But there’s a major problem with this idea: technological conservatism at this scale.

Most businesses that could use such a setup are large, and deploying a major technological change to their staff is a huge and very expensive undertaking. Even if Google somehow gave them thousands of Chrome OS netbooks for free, any company attempting this will need to spend a ton of money in IT labor, employee training, and increased help-desk needs as the organization deployed the new setup.

That’s why that PC on your banker’s desk is probably running Windows 2000, an 11-year-old platform: because it’s extraordinarily expensive to update it, and the current system works acceptably without any massive, one-time expenditures on this year’s budget.

In the context of replacing business software platforms, longevity is a major requirement. For Chrome OS to be considered by any reasonably large business, their IT decision-makers are going to want to know that Chrome OS is going to be around and supported by Google many years from now.1 Support means, at least, that compatible hardware must be available, software licensing must continue, and security issues must be patched.

And any reasonably competent IT executive can plainly see that Google, for all of their algorithmic might, isn’t known for product longevity.

Sure, their core web products have been around for a while and aren’t going anywhere. But they launch a lot more products every year that we quickly forget about, and many of the unsuccessful products are quietly discontinued a few months or years later.

Google’s just not in the business of providing long-term support for an unsuccessful product line. It’s part of what allows them to keep releasing new things all the time while geeks declare Microsoft a boring old dinosaur. But IT departments need their platform vendors to behave much more like Microsoft.

I doubt many corporate IT execs are going to take the risk that Chrome OS will be a stable enough long-term platform to deploy to their companies’ workforces. As the saying goes, nobody ever got fired

  1. Windows 2000 was officially supported until July 13, 2010 (really), just over a decade after its release. Windows XP, which was released in 2001, will be supported until at least 2014↩︎

Rotary FiOS

We got FiOS installed today. There was a convincing bundle with land-line phone service, and since both Verizon and AT&T have spotty coverage in the area, we took the option.

But we needed an actual phone to plug into the wall during the installation.

So, over Thanksgiving, my mother generously gave me her rotary phone from Brooklyn in the 1970s, which has been in full-time use for over 30 years:

It’s a Western Electric Model 500. It still works flawlessly and has required no maintenance or repair at all except for a replacement cord every decade or so. (It even still has their old 212 phone number typed on the card in the dial hub.)

It rings satisfyingly and substantially, since there are actually two little bells in there that get struck with a little hammer, 10 times per second each, elegantly alternating with the 20 Hz AC ring current’s cycles.

These phones were owned by Bell and leased to customers (my parents presumably stole this one when they moved out of Brooklyn). This meant that the incentives were the opposite of today’s: Bell was encouraged to build the sturdiest, most reliable phones possible, because if anything went wrong, Bell had to send technicians out for repairs at their expense. Today’s awful plastic phones are lucky to last a day past their one-year warranties.

The FiOS technician didn’t even flinch when I pointed to this rotary phone, older than both of us, sitting on the floor in an empty room of an empty house, and said that it was the only phone we owned.

And I can report, for anyone curious, that rotary dialing works perfectly well on FiOS digital phone lines.

Microsoft hopes these slates will offer an alternative to the iPad because they move beyond play, people familiar with the tablets said. ‘The company believes there is a huge market for business people who want to enjoy a slate for reading newspapers and magazines and then work on Microsoft Word, Excel or PowerPoint while doing work,’ explained a person familiar with the company’s tablet plans.

Microsoft’s press release disguised as a news article (seriously, is there any doubt that this is a controlled leak?) about their upcoming CES announcement of new-old tablet PCs that sound a lot like all of their other tablet initiatives to date.

The use case of regularly doing nontrivial work in Microsoft Office on a touchscreen, slate-type tablet is… optimistic. (And for all eleven people who really want to do that, surely the ground-up touch redesign of the iWork apps on iPad, and the iPad OS itself, would be more productive.)

If this is Microsoft’s answer to the iPad — and that’s likely — I don’t think anyone at Apple is going to lose sleep over it.

Quick review of SimTower on iPad

Yoot Saito, designer of SimTower, somehow worked out the rights to release it for iPad, but under the name Yoot Tower (iTunes link), currently for $7.99.

It’s not a great port. Animation and UI performance is sluggish. It feels like it’s running under emulation (and it very well might be). UIKit widgets are abused, often comically. It takes a while to get used to the awkward interface conventions. Every language string has been poorly translated. (I even found one, the “that person is not currently in the tower” message, that was still in Japanese.)

But we just got an hour of enjoyment out of it. I could have kept playing, but it’s the middle of the day and I wanted to get back to work.1 I bet Tiff and I will get many more hours of enjoyment out of it.

Because it’s SimTower. On the iPad. And even though it’s a mediocre-at-best port, it works, and it’s fun.

  1. This post is actually part of today’s “work”. I still can’t believe it. Thanks, The Deck! ↩︎

Fatal (for me) flaw in the B&W P5 headphones

I hadn’t yet tried my Bowers & Wilkins P5 while walking until today. And there’s a fatal flaw if you intend to walk with them, if your ears are shaped anything like mine.1

I had noticed that their earpads are a bit uncomfortably sealed. They’re nearly airtight when worn, since the entire pad surface is leather (with holes in front of the drivers) instead of the more common cloth or foam:

This results in a seal on the ear that’s too airtight for comfort when putting on or taking off the headphones — I feel the air pressure on my eardrums. But I can deal with that minor annoyance when putting them on and taking them off.

But when walking, the seal causes a much bigger problem: I hear my footsteps. Loudly. Every footstep is like a bass-drum hit next to my ear. It’s similar to the pounding that many canalphone owners hear if they tap the wires. I tried adjusting the pad positions and walking more softly, but neither had a significant effect.

So I can’t recommend the P5 for walking. And I’m going to try to return mine.

I guess I’m getting out the soldering iron and removing the volume-adjustment blob from the Sennheiser PX 200-II cable.

  1. As far as I know, I have normally shaped ears. But if I hadn’t included this equivocation, someone would surely email me to complain that I’m misleading the world and I’m a moron because the P5 doesn’t have this problem on their differently shaped ears. ↩︎

We don’t question the power of the OS, but the fit, finish, and ease of use simply is still not there.

Engadget’s Nexus S Review


Many Android customers recognize the lack of polish, usability, or elegance in certain features or certain aspects of the platform. The assumption, either implied or stated, is often that these issues will all get better Any Day Now, and we’re just waiting for Google to get all the way down to “attention to detail” on their Android development checklist.

I’m not holding my breath. Android will continue to exhibit what Google does best: great low-level engineering and tight integration with Google’s other services. But it’s never going to be Apple-like in user experience, polish, or design.

Attention to detail, like most facets of truly good design, can’t be (and never is) added later. It’s an entire development philosophy, methodology, and culture.

Great products, far more often than not, are great since day one.

Yahoo! actually went on the offensive and claimed they weren’t going to kill Delicious but sell it, which makes me laugh, because no such thing could be true – the most glaring reason being that Yahoo’s authentication system infests every one of their properties, and a lot of people on Delicious are using Yahoo IDs. Another is that Yahoo are incompetent assholes. Back in January of 2009, Archive Team announced that Yahoo! was not to be trusted. Someone from Yahoo! showed up and said we were wrong. I’m having this image he was fired, as was the entire staff of Delicious. Tell me how you intend to transition a site when you fire everyone first. You don’t. A place buying it would be buying the name and maybe the right to use the software. Maybe. Who would want that?

Jason Scott

Top 10 Tech Failures of 2010

  1. Something from Apple that everyone loves
  2. Something else from Apple that everyone loves
  3. Your favorite cellular telephone
  4. Something Facebook did
  5. Something Google launched
  6. A crappy tablet nobody has ever heard of
  7. Microsoft’s latest initiative
  8. Desktop Linux
  9. Michael Arrington
  10. Ping

There. That should generate some pageviews.

The technological revolution is more intertwined every day with our economy and our society—more than 50 percent of America’s gross national product comes from information-based industries—and most political leaders today have had no background in that revolution. It’s going to become crucial that many of the larger decisions we make—how we allot our resources, how we educate our children—be made with an understanding of the technical issues and the directions the technology is taking. And that hasn’t begun happening yet.

Steve Jobs to Playboy in 1985. We’re still waiting for this to happen.

For Google, nearly all of whose profits depend on advertising revenue, dominance expressed as clickstream traffic is the currency. To maintain that dominance the ‘Don’t Be Evil’ company has been willing to go into business in China despite all evidence of rampant human rights violations, get into bed with the worst phone carrier to rape net neutrality, let its ‘walled backlot’ search become a cesspool of SEO swindlers, collect unauthorized data via illegal WiFi mapping all over the globe, risk exposing private email account data in hopes of capturing social graph info by default, favor its own properties in search results in surreptitious ways and so on.

Kontra (via Daring Fireball)

There really isn’t much of a “tablet” market

There’s an iPad market, and the iPad could be classified as a tablet, from a hardware-centric viewpoint. But the market for non-iPad tablets is about as big today as it was before the iPad, which isn’t nothing, but it’s close enough to nothing that Apple doesn’t need to worry about it.

How many people do you know who wanted or received an iPad for Christmas?

Alright, same question, but this time, for the Samsung Galaxy Tab or any other tablet that’s not the iPad. (Kindles are not tablets. The new Nook Color might be. You can count it if you’re arguing with me.)

Now, from both groups, exclude those who know what RSS is, because we don’t represent the bulk of the market. How big is that second group now?

Before the iPad, tablets were a tough sell:

The lack of graceful software is the most fatal problem: bad software’s limitations, frustrations, poor designs, and bugs hinder or prevent the delight and attraction that make people start rationalizing away the other problems because they just want this cool new thing. And that’s critical: without that inexplicable desire that people get when they pick one up and play with it for a minute, people will start asking rational questions like “Do I really need this for anything?” and “Will I actually bring this anywhere?” that kill the mass-market demand for unnecessary $500 gadgets pretty quickly.

Apple could solve the software problem exceptionally well, putting them in a strong position to release the first mass-market tablet that had a chance of being successful. So they did. And they ignored the other tablet problems, for the most part: they did what they could to minimize them where possible, but they’re all still very good reasons for many people not to buy iPads. Fortunately, there are millions of other people swayed by the appeal of this low-needs, tactile, and downright fun computer because of its incredibly good software.

But no other device maker today can solve the software problem as well as Apple did.

Most of them are hardware companies relying on someone else — Google or Microsoft — for the majority (or the entirety) of the software.

Neither Google nor Microsoft will ever be able to tailor their software to other manufacturers’ specific (and varied) hardware devices as well as Apple can (and does) with theirs.

And, like they’ve done so far with Android, the hardware manufacturers will continue to attempt to make their own user-facing applications and front-end interfaces, but these usually suck. (Other people may describe “suck” with kinder, apologist adjectives like “getting better” and “not bad”.)

These manufacturers aren’t software companies: they’re hardware companies that write software out of necessity. Apple is a software company that makes hardware out of necessity. The software side of a modern computing platform is far more difficult and expensive to create and maintain than the hardware. Anyone can cobble together the same processors, DRAM, flash, and radios as Apple, put them into a plastic case, and run a commodity OS on them with slight front-end customizations. But not everyone can create an entire software platform.

It’s not just a matter of interface design. Apple has built an entire ecosystem to support and enrich the iPad for both customers and developers. To be competitive, a newcomer to the tablet software market needs to replicate or sidestep the need for nearly all of Apple’s major efforts, including synchronization of media and data with Windows PCs and Macs, integration with popular web services, an integrated payment system that customers will actually use at a reasonable rate, a well-stocked music and video storefront, plenty of high-quality third-party apps and fun games, a sophisticated SDK and development environment, widespread retail availability and customer support, and an assortment of good first- and third-party accessories to fulfill common needs (cases, chargers, docks, screen protectors, extended batteries) and give the device new uses (tripods, speakers, styluses, input and output adapters, wall and car mounts).

Because when normal people — not gadget bloggers and geeks like us — need to consider an alternative to the iPad, they’re not just thinking of Apple’s lack of “openness” (as Google so vaguely and poorly defines it in relation to Android) or the iPad’s lack of some individual hardware feature. Buying an alternative means giving up Apple’s entire ecosystem. That’s worth it to some buyers, but it’s incredibly impractical for many.

A successful mass-market iPad competitor needs to be so good that people will ignore all of that, buy it in large quantities, and let it develop its own entire ecosystem.

But when the device-of-the-moment is so short-lived that accessory markets never develop, and the hardware fragmentation and shoddy craftsmanship prevents the software from ever getting good, and developers need to suffer through immature tools to release apps that then don’t make much money, that’s unlikely to happen.