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Friday, January 29, 2010

The Android Tablet

While Apple has introduced the iPad tablet computer, MSI has quietly been developing an alternate based on the Android platform. Here's a taste:

Here are some comparisons:
The MSI has a camera; the iPad does not.
The MSI supports Flash; the iPad does not
The screens are nearly identical in size
The MSI is based on NVidia's Tegra chip; the iPad on the A4. The processors are comparable in horsepower
The MSI will cost as much as the cheapest iPad
The MSI will ship in about 5 months; the iPad; about 3 months
The MSI is an Android (Linux) device; the iPad runs on a proprietary OS
The MSI will multitask; the iPad does not
However, MSI native apps will not support pinching and zoom gestures like the iPad
The MSI has several physical buttons on the chassis.
The MSI will support 1080p HD video; the iPad 720p

MSI says the specifications are "flexible". It's not yet revealed what connectivity there will be... WiFi or Broadband. We just don't know. We also do not know how the devices will compare with storage and memory. But it is nice to see somebody who can develop a product without overhyping it. Apparently I'm not the only one who is already weary of the "magic".

Now that's just plain silly.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


According to the criteria Steve Jobs set out in his announcement of the iPad, the device has no reason for being.

In order to really create a new category of devices, those devices are going to have to be far better at doing some key tasks. They're going to have to be far better at doing some really important things. Better than the laptop, better than the smartphone.

What kind of tasks? Well, things like browsing the web. That's a pretty tall order. Something that's better at browsing the web than a laptop? OK. Doing email. Enjoying and sharing photographs. Video. Watching videos. Enjoying your music collection. Playing games. Reading ebooks.

If there's going to be a third category of device, it's going to have to be better at these kinds of tasks than a laptop or a smartphone. Otherwise, it has no reason for being. Now, some people have thought that that's a netbook. The problem is, netbooks aren't better at anything. They're slow, they run low-quality displays, and they run clunky old PC software. So they're not better than a laptop at anything, they're just cheaper. They're just cheap laptops, and we don't think that they're a third category of device.

But we think we've got something that is. And we'd like to show it to you today for the first time. And we call it the iPad.
-- Steve Jobs
OK, so there's Apple's design goal in a nutshell. But first let's be aware that we're NOT talking about a "new category of device". We're talking about a tablet computer, which has been around for years and years. Just because Steve Jobs wants to engage in shameless self-promotion on-stage doesn't make it actually new and different. This is just a tablet computer whose keyboard comes extra, and which runs what amounts to a single-tasking operating system. That said, how well did they hit their design goals? Steve Jobs listed six specific tasks that the iPad had to be far better at (not "as good as", not "good enough") to have a reason for being. Let's look at each task and see whether the iPad is an improvement over the PC, the laptop, and the smartphone. "WIN" denotes that the iPad is the best there is at the task; "FAIL" does NOT mean it's terrible... just that it's not better, much less "far better".

1. Browsing the web. A lot of commentators have had little orgasms over the fact that you can see the "whole page" when browsing the web. Well, for starters, you can't. You just see a portrait orientation rather than a landscape. This is something, incidentally, that your PC can do quite easily. You can even buy swivel mounts for your LCD monitor to facilitate it. Beyond that, Apple missed the boat. They didn't even define the problem properly. The next wave of devices don't need to be good at browsing the web, they need to be good at using it. Web apps. Google Docs. Microsoft Office Live, etc. What good is your portrait view of a page if your fake keyboard is taking up half of it? How well can you use that keyboard when the screen is laid flat so you can type with both hands, or you're trying to type with one hand while holding the device with the other. If it's tilted so you can see what's left of the screen, then the device is at an odd angle, making typing awkward. (UPDATE: And here's the kicker... even if you're just browsing it doesn't do Flash content. Who uses Flash? YouTube... Hulu... all those nifty online games...)

Conclusion: EPIC FAIL

2. Doing email. All of the keyboard issues that exist for browsing the web are issues for email, five-fold. Elsewhere in his presentation Jobs says that using the "almost life-size" keyboard is a dream to type on. Unless by "dream" he means "nightmare" he is, to put it charitably, exaggerating. Even if the orientation issues were solved, you don't get tactile feedback from a touchscreen. Email absolutely requires a decent keyboard, and the iPad doesn't have it. What the iPad does have is portability. But if you're working in email, this does not by any stretch of the imagination, beat a laptop with a real keyboard. It doesn't even beat a hybrid tablet which has all of the iPad's portability plus a fold-out keyboard.

Conclusion: FAIL

3. Watching Videos. Just what I need... to hold the damned movie in my hand or to prop it up on something. At least a laptop's screen angle is continuously adjustable. And then we're listening to it through what? Those crappy built-in speakers? Or are we chained to out headphones? Sorry, but the laptop and the PC both beat out the iPad for video. In addition to digital content, they allow me to watch DVDs and Blu-Ray, hands free, and hear them through some decent speakers.

Conclusion: EPIC FAIL

4. Enjoying your music collection. Just yesterday a friend related to me how his wife had replaced her iPod with an iPod Nano because the classic iPod was too big for working out. Imagine how thrilled she'd be lugging this around. Which highlights a couple of interesting observations. The first is that though Apple wants you to compare this machine to PCs, laptops, and smartphones; by bringing up this issue they're competing with other devices such as their own iPod line and other MP3 devices. And the fact of the matter is, that there are times... a lot of times... when combining all functionality into a single device simply isn't desirable. It's just a bad, bad move to declare that this device must do the task better when that clearly isn't possible.

Conclusion: EPIC FAIL

5. Playing games. What can I say? Having attempted to play some "games" on the iPhone and iPod Touch, I'd point out that they're pretty good at playing some pretty simple games. But hardcore gamers who are into first-person shooters or driving games are going to have a lot of fun making fun of the iPad. With the exception of screen size this form factor offers no advantage over a smartphone. Compared to a PC it's a disaster.

Conclusion: EPIC FAIL

6. Reading ebooks. This is pretty much identical to my experience with reading eBooks on a PC, Notebook, or tablet, except for portability. And since portability is raised again, I will re-iterate my oft-stated stance that the ideal ebook reader fits in a pocket. The iPad won't even fit in a pocketbook. A satchel, yes. A "man-bag", yes. But I'm not getting a man-bag to lug around this piece of kit to do the same thing I can do today with a PalmTX which fits in my shirt pocket. The one and only advantage it poses over the PC with regard to this task is portability, and there's too little of that. Other folks, who like oversized readers like the Kindle will take exception about the size issue, but will still lambast the iPad for using a harsh LCD screen instead of ePaper.

Conclusion: NO WIN, NO FAIL

(Update: to these six tasks we should add one that Jobs mentions deeper in the presentation: sharing photos. This is the digital era. People who share do it with Flickr. If you want to share photos casually, you want a device you can carry easily on your person or in your purse, just as you would do with your wallet-size photos. You certainly don't say, "Hold on while I go get my cafeteria tray." Conclusion: FAIL)

So having examined the tasks Jobs listed, it doesn't have a "win" in a single category. I'd have to conclude that by Steve Jobs' own criteria this device has no reason for existing. Therefore you have no reason to buy one. But let's not sit still while Jobs bad-mouths his own lackluster product (tic). Surely there's something to recommend it.

There are two things this device at which this device excels: being cool and pretending to be innovative without actually innovating. To those I'd ad that it is exceptionally portable for a device of its size.

Let's look one more time at portability. This has Wi-Fi and 3G. That's nice. It has 10 hours of battery life according to Jobs, which means about 6 or 7 hours according to me (A bit less if you're actually using it to do any of the cool stuff demoed, especially listen to music or watch movies). And it is thin and light. An excellent business use would be to display contracts which require a signature, or filling out medical questionnaires. In other words, the very same things we've been doing for years on tablets, which is to be expected because it IS a tablet PC. That being the case, it's worth looking at the OS. Apple's chosen to scale up the iPhone interface for this device. OK, except that you won't be doing much multitasking with it if you don't have a windowing OS. The WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer) interface has been taking a lot of flak lately, but I personally keep a number of windows open, not just to switch between them, but for status, moving data about, etc. In contrast, the iPad gives you one thing on the screen at a time. You do that, you switch to something else. So those data manipulation tasks on your PC... you're probably not going to be using this device for that, because it's bloody bad at it.

Depending on the sensitivity of the multitouch interface, it may be quite good as an artist's pad... it's just the right size for that. I'd have to see it used as such before coming to the conclusion, though, as "accuracy" is pretty much a foreign concept to multitouch displays. The iPhone's is horrendous. We're talking about an interface designed to process gestures made by one or more remarkably fat human fingers whereas serious graphic artists require the accuracy of a digitizing pad and a stylus. Many artists already use other tablet PCs. But the potential is there.

What is certain is that as long as people have the promise of "gold in them thar hills" (those hills being located in the Apple App Store), they will find new things to do with this device.

All in all, if Jobs thinks he just introduced a new class of device, he's a sad, tired, deluded old man with a failing memory. If he's introducing a new lightweight tablet PC, then I think he has a contender.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Windows 7 is a cluttered mess

I spent some extended "quality time" with Windows 7 lately. A customer needed to upgrade his server, and in so doing, get the networking to work with a mixture of Windows XP and Vista clients, all of whom would be running various apps on the server including one legacy app that was written for MS-DOS.

Before some commenter puts his foot in his mouth by suggesting an upgrade of the legacy app, I'll point out that it's not broken; it's fully functional; a replacement would have to be commissioned at a great deal of pointless, wasteful expense. Besides, getting it to work was the least of the problems he faced, and it was solved by installing the open-source DOSBox virtual machine, complete with the open-source FreeDOS operating system (which is included with DOSBox).

Basically, what I've found from the "experience" is that whatever benefits are to be had from Windows 7 on a technical basis are completely eclipsed by the astoundingly bad user interface. I put "experience" in quotes because Microsoft sets great store by the user experience. Sadly, they've managed to screw it up royally with this release. I find it to be a cluttered mess.

Part of it is the brain-dead options. Part of it is Windows 7 constantly trying to guess my intent, and failing in every single instance. Part of it is the haphazard and confusing UI. And it's not a matter of simply not being flexible or "familiar" on my part. I'm used to a wide range of UIs, including, a plain terminal, OS/400, all preceding versions of Windows and DOS, OS/2, KDE, GNOME... even GEM and the Amiga Workbench. Some of these are good, some bad, but Windows 7 sets a new standard for the sheer effort that went into its failure. The machine is a Dell Vostro desktop, and my criticisms are written specifically about the default settings of Windows 7 as they appear straight from the OEM. Keep in mind that nothing prevented me from actually getting the work done, but "the UI experience" was FAR from satisfactory.

Setting up a network has always been more difficult on Windows than on other platforms, but this experience was just silly. I wish Microsoft would simply stop screwing with their network protocols every bloody release and settled on something like NFS. It simply works reliably and securely, and has for 25 years.

Libraries are a reasonable idea gone horribly bad. Read this Microsoft Team Blog to learn the rationale behind them. The bottom line is that you previously chose to put files exactly where you wanted them rather than where Microsoft wanted you to put them. They imagine that your search "experience" is damaged by your lack of desire for any search experience whatsoever, and they then conclude that you really wanted to put them where Microsoft wants them and not where you do. Your lack of desire for their useless CPU cycle-wasting indexing function is some sort of derangement on your part. They "correct" this by providing a virtual folder that contains the stuff that's in their chosen location as well as your chosen locations. Now they can go ahead and index all the stuff you didn't want indexed, but should have if you were sane and living in Redmond.

In practice, a library looks just like Google's Picasa... a bunch of files grouped by folder in a big honkin' scrollable window. In fact, if you didn't know the godlike extent of Microsoft's innovative powers, you could reasonably conclude that they ripped off the feature from Google. The fact that they copied it doesn't necessarily make it good... I tried Picasa as well and I can't say I enjoyed it at all. It was a cluttered mess there, and it's a cluttered mess in Windows Explorer.

Nevertheless, Windows 7 users are intended to go to Libraries in order to manage their documents, music, pictures, and other files. This can make for a bit of confusion and difficulty when a user wants to save content. The user expects it to go in the place indicated, and it doesn't. This is further complicated by Windows 7's insistence on trying to second-guess your decisions. For instance, if you're trying to put a file into a location Windows has restricted, you're told that you don't have the proper rights... would you like to put it in Timbuktu instead? If you click "no," meaning "No, I don't want it in Timbuktu... I want it here," your reasonable expectation would be that you are given an opportunity to provide sufficient credentials to save the document exactly where you wanted it. That doesn't happen.

Furthermore, libraries require you to index the files. So if you imagine you might just turn off the indexing service and do your part against Global Warming, forget it. You're going to burn those cycles anyway.

Your average user will be stymied by trying to change a file's type. Really, now, how hard would it be to put in an option on the context menu or in the properties dialog to simply change the file type? You could call it... oh, I dunno... "Change File Type". Microsoft believes it shouldn't ever be necessary, so they hide it under the dustbin, unnecessarily. Here's how it's done.

The command prompt (cmd) never actually displayed on the screen. These instructions never worked on that box. It was displayed in search results, and a subsequent shutdown claimed it was running, but it was never visible or accessible in any way. Fortunately, on my USB flash drive I carry a portable command prompt that I used with success.

In general, I found it much easier and more productive to simply forget almost the entire Windows 7 user interface, and use the excellent xplorer2 utility instead. Xplorer2 works exactly as expected, and has the advantage of a dual-pane interface to facilitate file moves and copies. This is the single feature that would most improve Windows Explorer, but 15 years after introducing Windows 95, Microsoft still hasn't adopted it. Hmph.

Speaking with other Windows 7 users didn't reveal any great love for it in this neighborhood. Basically, people are pissed at much the same things that I am, and aren't really thrilled with the changes to Microsoft Office, either.

My personal opinion? Microsoft's Windows 7 makes Ubuntu Linux look GREAT. In addition to having higher security than Vista, it has the ease of use I haven't been able to get out of any Microsoft OS without having to install something like xplorer2. On top of that, the application repositories makes the "experience" of installing programs superior to that of any Microsoft product ever. And the included acts exactly as it should. I'm biased, because I've liked Linux for a long time (My preference is Kubuntu), but the users I've shown Ubuntu to have preferred it to the newer Microsoft OSes, hands down.

Of course, you can download a run-live CD image from the Ubuntu website, but here's another nifty way to run it: get VirtualBox from Sun Microsystems (it's free) and run a virtual image. That way you can run Ubuntu at the same time as Windows and really get an apples-to-apples comparison. Here's the latest: (link).

Friday, December 04, 2009

VIC CRM and Lotus Notes 8.5

I've not upgraded to Lotus Notes 8.5 yet, as $BIGCLIENT, who constitutes most of my revenue, hasn't. But other people have, and I've gotten my first report on VIC CRM on 8.5.

The bottom line is, as it stands right now, VIC CRM is NOT compatible with R8.5. The core problem is that the From field doesn't appear to contain the expected data. Until I examine and fix the problem, I don't recommend using VIC with Notes 8.5

I'll post an update as soon as it's fixed.