Suffering the Surface

Microsoft SurfaceYes, I’m enough of a geek that on first weekend the Microsoft Surface was introduced, I found out which local mall had the Surface on display and spent some time testing it. At the time, my impression was that the interface was far too complicated for a tablet and that while Microsoft trumpets the keyboard as an optional accessory, the reality is that it is all about the keyboard. The Surface without a keyboard is like owning a laptop, well, without a keyboard. The Windows RT operating system feels like it assumes you’ll be using the keyboard and the actual shape of the Surface is too long to hold comfortably in portrait mode. To add insult to injury, the first Surface model I was playing with had a problem bringing up the touchscreen keyboard when I disconnected the keyboard cover. The Microsoft representative was baffled why it wouldn’t work and claimed “somebody must have uninstalled the keyboard driver”. Wow. If anyone still doesn’t understand why the iPad is enormously popular, the fact that the iPad will never have a problem like “uninstalling a keyboard driver” should be all the proof required.

Early reviews seemed to back up my own testing. The Windows RT (and Windows 8) operating system felt like Microsoft had created a Frankenstein-ed mess, clumsily throwing together concepts from traditional Windows with a brand-new tablet interface. The Surface all together just did not feel like a final, polished product, awkward to use and rough around the edges. It’s been a few months now and unfortunately for Microsoft, the reviews haven’t changed much. I read an article, Sorry Microsoft, I am breaking up with the Surface, that highlighted many of the issues I uncovered.

After too many hours trying to make the Surface fit into my daily work routine, I have placed it on a shelf while I use other devices to go about my business.

This is exactly what many of my clients did with older tablet PCs running Windows that were available years before the iPad. They were all excited to get them, and then the reality of the the devices were underwhelming at best. Many of them went unused or relegated to use as a heavy laptop. It looks like Microsoft hasn’t learned their lesson.

It’s because I require the gear I use to do everything I need and without fuss. The Surface fails me in this regard despite a big effort on my part to make it work.

“Without fuss”. That is exactly what most people expect from their technology devices. Which is exactly what Apple delivers so much better than any other company. Which is exactly why Apple catapulted past Microsoft and everybody else to become the most valuable technology company in the world.

Whatever the reason, I am tired of constantly trying to get stuff done with my Surface, only to put it away after a few hours in sheer frustration. I can pick up any other gadget in my possession, and that’s quite a few, and easily get things done with little effort.

Do I need to go on?

I am sure some will think I’m too sensitive or that I haven’t given the Surface with Windows 8 enough time. That may be but I’ve given it far more time and effort than I’ve given any other platform and device I’ve used. It’s left me in a continual state of frustration every time I’ve used the Surface to work and I just can’t take it anymore.

I think this statement can easily apply to the Old World of Technology in general. Years of suffering with hard-to-use technology left people frustrated. As soon as a viable alternative showed up, people flocked to Apple and haven’t looked back. Microsoft’s Surface is a throwback to those long days of suffering, and I don’t think anyone wants to go back to that.

RIM is Dead; Long Live BlackBerry?

BlackBerry 10The company formerly known as RIM, whose claim to fame is the BlackBerry smartphone line, has changed their name to BlackBerry. I, for one, am entirely ecstatic about this, as this will be the last sentence I will ever write explaining that RIM is the company that makes the BlackBerry. Most people had no idea who RIM was, they just assumed the company was called BlackBerry. Apparently, RIM finally got the hint. Oh, and by the way, the company also finally released their long-delayed and somewhat-anticipated new smartphone platform, the BlackBerry 10.

I long ago wrote off RIM, er BlackBerry, as dead. Once they announced they were delaying BB10 until after the 2012 holiday season, I called Time of Death. Truly, last year was their only chance at capitalizing on a new platform, and by missing the holiday season, they effectively lost an entire year. Assuming there even is room for a 3rd place competitor in the mobile device market, BlackBerry will be fighting for table scraps against Microsoft and there really won’t be any winners in that war.

By and large, most pundits agree that BlackBerry’s chances are extremely slim. But if you follow the technology industry at all, or if you are exposed to people in the technology industry, you will read or hear some positive reviews as well as some arguing that BB10 will save BlackBerry. Let me summarize why none of this matters, especially to consumers and small business owners.

While I haven’t had any hands-on with a BB10 device (the devices won’t be released until March or April), many reviews are positive regarding the BB10 user experience. I won’t argue those points. The real question should be is BB10 so much better than its competitors that it will cause a huge defection from people using iPhones or Android-based phones? Almost certainly not. Especially considering that changing phones will mean the loss of purchased apps for that platform, and in the case of the iPhone, a move away from the iTunes ecosystem. BB10, just like Microsoft’s Windows 8 phones, will have a huge challenge fighting the inertia of the installed user base of the iPhone. Evidence shows Android phone users are not as loyal, so they might gain some adopters from that platform, but not likely much of any consequence.

Why should you care if BlackBerry has a large marketshare? The reality is that most developers will not put the effort into writing Apps for a platform without a sufficient user base to profit from. But without quality Apps, a platform will not attract a large user base. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem that BlackBerry just doesn’t have the time or financial resources to overcome. Microsoft maybe, but even that’s to be seen.

One train of thought I’ve seen from technology writers is that the BlackBerry 10 will be a hit among its traditional stronghold of corporate IT departments. They claim that IT departments will be eager to upgrade the BlackBerry devices they currently deploy to their corporate users. This might be true, although there is also a chance that IT departments will be slow to adopt the entirely new BB10 platform, either because they want to take the time to thoroughly test it or because they aren’t convinced of its future. Even assuming that IT departments like the BB10 platform, the reality is that it simply doesn’t matter.

First, corporate smartphone users, who used to make up the vast majority of the market in The Old World of Technology, now make up a fraction in The New World of Technology. Consumers and small business owners now rule the roost, and they have all but forgotten about BlackBerry. Second, because of this consumerization of the technology market, the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement is spreading rapidly across the corporate IT world. In a nutshell, BYOD is the idea that employees are expecting that their workplaces will support the use of their personally-owned technology devices, such as smartphones. By and large, these devices are iPhones – not BlackBerry phones. And by and large the movement is so strong that corporate IT departments have little choice but to comply with their users’ wishes. The era of corporate IT dictating smartphones to their users has passed. The idea that corporate IT will have any significant influence on the smartphone market is wishful thinking.

The bottom line is that if BlackBerry’s only hope is in corporate IT, then they have almost no chance at all. The era of trickle-down technology, where small business and consumers waited to see what technology shook out from big business, is over. Since small business and consumers drive The New World of Technology, BlackBerry has simply become irrelevant. BB10 is BlackBerry’s last gasp before they sink below the surface; don’t get dragged down with them.

Consumers Are the Future of Information Technology

CES 2013Just as I’ve been saying for a while now, The New World of Technology is a bottom-up movement. Consumers and small businesses are now driving the technology industry, much to the chagrin of many in corporate IT departments. It’s nice to see that others are recognizing this trend now. The bottom line for small business is that waiting to see how technology shakes out is now a fool’s game. If you aren’t taking advantage of new technologies, your competitors surely are.

Microsoft Enters the Tablet Wars

Today is a historical day for Microsoft, and not just because they released their latest operating systems (the various flavors of Windows 8 and Windows RT). By also introducing their “Surface” tablet device, today marks the first time that Microsoft has produced a computing device of any sort. For all the devices that have run Microsoft operating systems and software, Microsoft has never made PCs, never made laptops, never made smartphones, and up until now, had never made a tablet. The Surface represents a huge step for Microsoft’s future, but the important question for those planning technology purchases remains – what does Microsoft’s future hold? And how does the Surface play into that future?

At this point, Microsoft’s future is quite uncertain. For as large of a company Microsoft still is, all of their strength lies in the PC market. However, the PC market is shrinking rapidly, largely being replaced by mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. Mobile devices won’t completely eliminate the PC market, but it will reduce it down to a size that will likely not support a company the size of Microsoft – at least not in the manner they are accustomed to existing. So while Microsoft is in no immediate danger of collapsing, such as a company like RIM, their future 5 years out is shaky at best. Microsoft’s only chance of remaining a dominant company in the future is to compete successfully in the mobile device market. Up to this point, Microsoft has had no success at all.

Windows 8/RT is Microsoft’s attempt to bridge their dominance in the PC market into success in the mobile device market. The Surface is Microsoft’s attempt to inject a level of control over an entire platform, both hardware and software as Apple has successfully done. The strategies are independent yet intertwined. If Windows 8 and RT are wildly successful on their own, it will prove that the Old World Technology paradigm of one company making software for a plethora of hardware vendors can still be viable. However, it appears that Microsoft is hedging their bets and getting their feet wet with hardware manufacturing. If Microsoft’s hardware partners can’t make inroads into the dominance of Apple’s iOS devices and Google’s Android-based devices, then Microsoft’s last hope will be to offer consumers a 100% Microsoft solution, one in which they control all aspects of production and, perhaps more importantly, marketing and promotion. The next few months should give us a good indication how successful Microsoft’s strategies will prove. Unfortunately, even today at day one, it seems they are already off to a rocky start.

So far early reviews have been mixed. The general consensus is that while Microsoft’s Surface may have strong hardware specs, the software leaves much to be desired. Too many inconsistencies and missing features plague the new Windows RT platform. While Microsoft could afford to release subpar products into the PC market, they are not afforded the same luxury in the mobile device market. Consumer expectations are set very high due to the ease-of-use and robustness of Apple’s iPhone and iPad. Consumers and small business owners are not as forgiving of flaws as are corporate IT departments. These flaws could very well hurt Windows adoption on the mobile device front.  Given the rapid pace of technology development and the speed at which products come and go, a slow start is a bad sign for a mobile device platform these days. If Microsoft strikes out with Windows on a mobile platform now, they may be relegated to a third-place also-ran, behind Apple and Google.

Microsoft is betting that those people who currently are still tied to Microsoft on the PC will hold out for Microsoft on mobile devices. While that’s Microsoft’s only bet, it’s not a good bet for consumers and small business. The mobile device market has established itself without Microsoft and will continue to entrench itself over the next few years while Microsoft is still figuring out how to catch up. I can not recommend that any small business wait to see how Microsoft fares in this market. The longer any business waits to jump into The New World of Technology, the further they fall behind their competitors who are embracing it. Waiting for Microsoft to get their act together is time that most small businesses simply can’t afford.

Lack of iPhone Was Major Factor in Android Growth

Apple vs AndroidA recently uncovered Apple research study showed that prior to January of 2011, the largest factor for people buying an Android phone instead of an iPhone was that the iPhone was not available on their carrier. This was just prior to Apple releasing an iPhone for Verizon in February of 2011 and then later for Sprint in October of that year. Since last year, the iPhone is now available on the top three carriers in the United States. Not coincidentally, iPhone sales have continued to grow at record paces, and as I wrote previously, carriers who don’t have the iPhone are losing customers to those that do.

The release of the next iPhone model this fall will mark the second upgrade cycle opportunity that customers will have to switch to the iPhone on Verizon and Sprint. This past year I have seen a high number of my clients switch to the iPhone that have Verizon or Sprint. I know many people who say they are waiting for the next iPhone to switch away from their Android or BlackBerry phones this year. Assuming that this small sample size will extrapolate out further, Apple stands to benefit from some pent-up iPhone demand this upgrade cycle. By next year’s iPhone release, customers on Verizon and Sprint will have had at least two full years to complete the usual two-year contracts that most carriers require before upgrading their phones. I expect that we will see the full impact of Apple’s entry into the Verizon and Sprint markets by that time.

Regardless, even if one is inclined to look at the raw marketshare numbers of the various Android-based smartphones on the market, the reality is that pure volume does not drive the success of the smartphone market. Studies have shown that iPhone users are very different than Android users, primarily when it comes to spending money on apps or driving profits for mobile carriers. In addition, Apple makes a lot of money from their iPhone sales, where most of the various Android device makers are not generating great profits, nor does Google derive any real profit from their Android platform. For the sake of the long-term health of a platform, not making any profits doesn’t bode well for continued industry support.

The bottom line is that any perceived marketshare victories for the Android platform in the past were largely due to the simple fact that people who wanted the iPhone on their carrier couldn’t get it. After this upcoming upgrade cycle, we should see further evidence of the ever-growing dominance of the iPhone. There’s little reason to believe that the iPhone is losing its status as the premier smartphone platform, especially when bolstered by the dominance of the other iOS device, the iPad. If you are considering an iPhone or iPad purchase, proceed without hesitation. If you are planning an Android device purchase on the premise that the Android platform is reaching parity with Apple’s iOS devices, please consider very carefully before committing your money.

Stick a Fork in ’em; RIM and the BlackBerry are Done

BlackBerry DeathThe news has been going from bad to worse over the last year for the Canadian manufacturer of the BlackBerry phones, Research in Motion, also known as RIM. It is no secret that RIM’s sales have suffered ever since the iPhone was originally released back in 2007. Since then, RIM has endured misstep after misstep and is on the verge of extinction. Let’s look at some of the low-lights over the last 12 months:

  • The October 2011 BlackBerry outage was a huge PR nightmare for the already struggling company
  • RIM announced earlier this year that that their upcoming BlackBerry 10 operating system would be delayed until fall 2012.
  • RIM warned it would post a Q1 loss, its first operating loss in 8 years
  • RIM’s stock slipped under $10/share, the lowest the stock has been since 2003, and down from it’s highpoint of $147.55 in 2008
  • RIM’s announced loss for Q1 was significantly higher than expected
  • RIM cut 30% of its workforce in an attempt to preserve its cash reserves

Even with all that, I gave RIM a sliver of hope that if they could survive until the fall of this year, the release of their BlackBerry 10 operating system before this Christmas holiday season might give them some sales that could keep them breathing for another year. But now, a couple of things have happened that I believe are the final nails in the coffin for this once great company.

First, RIM has just announced that the BlackBerry 10 operating system will now be further delayed until early 2013. This means that they will miss this year’s holiday season, effectively putting them another full year behind the iPhone. That by itself is a fatal blow. Start writing the eulogy because RIM is terminal.

If that wasn’t enough, it has been confirmed that carriers are negotiating to lower the fees they pay RIM for the BlackBerry service. These fees are charged to the carriers by RIM for every subscriber that uses a BlackBerry and accounts for one-third of RIM’s revenue. RIM can ill-afford to lose any revenue right now, but it is likely that the carriers have leverage against the struggling company. Consider that there are no such fees charged by Apple for their iPhones or Google for any Android-based phones or Microsoft for any Windows-based phones. The reality is that due to the legacy nature of the BlackBerry service, RIM must support infrastructure costs that Apple or Google or Microsoft do not. When BlackBerry was king of the Old World of Smartphones, carriers just had to deal with those fees. Now with RIM on the ropes, carriers probably know they can get lower fees. So if RIM loses even more revenue it will only accelerate the end.

The question is what does “the end” mean for the BlackBerry? RIM is rumored to be courting companies to buy them out. The question is who would want to buy them? What company could do anything better with the BlackBerry brand? It may be very possible that no company is truly interested. If this is the case, the end may come suddenly and abruptly for the BlackBerry, possibly leaving their users without e-mail service if some company or companies (perhaps the carriers) do not pick up the management of the BlackBerry service infrastructure. However, even if some company does buy out RIM, will the BlackBerry brand fare any better than the Palm brand did when HP bought them out? HP couldn’t gain any marketshare with their WebOS-based devices and completely killed the line last year. The tale of Palm’s WebOS and its fate with HP seem to be have many parallels with BlackBerry’s situation to this point. Companies may be heeding HP’s costly lesson which would explain why there is little interest in purchasing RIM. Any way you look at it, It seems certain that the days of the BlackBerry are numbered. If you currently depend on the BlackBerry, it would be wise to start planning a migration to another platform as soon as possible.

Eight is Not Great

Windows Metro InterfaceA recent article, Microsoft’s big bet: Windows 8’s ‘too many cooks’ problem, highlights one of the more common concerns technology experts have about the upcoming Windows 8: that it is trying to be everything to everyone and in doing so, will please no one. This isn’t the only article that brings up this concern, but it does do a very good job of explaining the reasons why Microsoft is trying to make Windows 8 all things to all people.

The first part of article’s title, “Microsoft’s big bet,” says a lot. For a company that still commands the largest marketshare in the PC industry, they are virtually betting the company on Windows 8. How could this be? The reason is pretty simple: Microsoft is attempting to navigate a technology transition unlike any it has ever attempted before. And as I referenced in a previous article, transitions are where tech companies go to die. From the mainframe era, to the PC era, to the Internet era, and so on, history is littered with the remains of companies that failed during times of transition. We are in the middle of the transition to The New World of Technology and Microsoft has missed the boat up to this point. They realize that they can no longer afford to rest on their laurels, but Microsoft has very little experience playing from behind. Given the incredibly rapid pace the technology industry is transitioning, Microsoft is scrambling to do something – anything. But without a clear vision of how to make Windows fit into The New World of Technology, Microsoft appears to be trying to change Windows for change’s sake.

A quote from the article sums up Microsoft’s predicament nicely,

Windows 8 has become a “Franken-system” of mish-mashed ideas, thoughts and concepts. Microsoft is desperately trying to make the forthcoming operating system a one-size-fits-all solution to everyone’s troubles.

With Microsoft betting the company, going “all in” with a Franken-system Windows 8 seems like a highly risky play. But Microsoft seems desperate and given how far they are behind, it may be their only move. Windows 8 can’t be just “good enough”. It has to be game changing if it is to preserve the current user base of Windows while transitioning to the new world of tablet devices. Microsoft needs a home run and they are definitely swinging for the fences – but in this case they only have one strike left and they aren’t very good at hitting curveballs.

The Future is Tablets … and the Future is Already Here

iPadsResearch firm NPD expects that tablet shipments will grow fivefold over the next five years and will overtake notebook shipments within that timeframe. They also predict that Apple’s iOS will still dominate the market, with over 50% marketshare.

This information is all well and good, but it doesn’t really take a rocket scientist to see this trend. As the article I linked to summarizes, tablets are quickly becoming the portable PC of choice. But not 5 years in the future – it’s happening today. However, the term “tablets” is far too generic. As I’ve said before (and others are as well), Apple’s iPad so thoroughly dominates the industry that there is no “tablet” market – there is only an iPad market. We’ve already seen that the “iPad Effect” is significantly cutting into PC marketshare. So the reality is that iPads are quickly becoming the portable PC of choice. Research firms are usually fairly conservative in their reports. So we should probably expect that given Apple’s success over the last several years, the predictions by this research firm will probably either happen much quicker or to a degree much bigger than they predict.

This report acknowledges that the tablet market has been dominated by Apple. But in the usual conservative nature of the industry, it also predicts that others will begin to make inroads, believing that the Android operating system will have 40% of the market in five years. However they base this prediction on the assumption that, “competitors become better attuned to consumer preferences and find opportunities to break new ground …” Given the way that Apple’s competitors have yet to figure out why Apple has been and continues to be a runaway success, this assumption is very weak. More likely, given Apple’s lead in the industry, it will be many, many years before anyone can “catch up”, and by then Apple may have moved on to the next big thing. If anyone thinks this isn’t possible, just take a look at the iPod market. Apple still dominates after over 10 years and the battlefield is littered with the corpses of competing devices that failed. Basically the iPod’s only competition are Apple’s own new iOS devices. The iPhone is responsible for any decline in iPod sales, but if you consider the iPhone (and the iPad) to be an iPod, then it obviously isn’t any decline at all.

The bottom line is that the future is already here. We don’t need to wait five years. Apples’s iPad is the future and the present. Other devices are years away from even getting close to where the iPad is today. But many people and business are waiting. And that is a recipe for failure. The New World of Technology gives everyone a chance to get on an even playing field. There are no more excuses for being “technology illiterate”. If you do fall behind, the only person to blame will be yourself.

The Biggest Impact of the New iPad May Be the Old iPad

New iPad and iPad 2I’ve had a chance to view and play around with the recently released “new” iPad. What Apple says about the Retina display is definitely true. My eyes, which have perfect non-corrected vision, can not discern the pixels. Text looks absolutely as sharp as a printed page and everything else is noticeably sharper across the board. There is no doubt Apple is going to sell an astronomical number of new iPads, but the question is which model will be the biggest seller? Because as Apple as introduced the new iPad at the same price points as the previous two iPad models, they have kept the previous model iPad 2 around at 16 GB capacities, but have lowered the price $100.

As amazing as the new iPad’s display is, the practical matter is that the iPad 2’s display is more than plenty capable for just about any purpose. Even as I had an iPad 2 and a new iPad side-by-side comparing the difference, I had to concede that the differences were simply not that great from a very pragmatic viewpoint. If $100 makes the difference between having an iPad vs. not having an iPad, then I could not argue against getting the iPad 2 at its new price point. About the only caveat I would make is for the purposes of reading. If someone is planning to buy an iPad for heavy use as an e-reader, I think the extra $100 is worth it. And maybe photographers or creative professionals would appreciate the extra resolution. But for average use, the extra $100 isn’t worth it if it makes or breaks the purchase.

It is entirely conceivable that the new lower price of the iPad 2 16 GB models will spur growth of the iPad into more price-conscious markets. Just how large that growth will be is yet to be seen. But it is possible that while the new iPad will garner all the headlines for months to come, when all is said and done the biggest impact on the technology market may come from the iPad 2.

Origin of The “New World” of Technology

Marcel BrownBack in February of 2010 when I wrote a series of articles discussing the introduction of the iPad, I first mentioned The New World of Technology. It was a concept that I had been talking about for years in a vague way of “appliance” computing, but never had a concise term for. Since that initial mention, I’ve been expanding the concept and it has become core to my outlook of the present and future of technology as well as my consulting business.

However, I must give credit where credit is due. I did not come up with the New World/Old World term. That was Steven Frank, co-founder of the company Panic, Inc. and a fellow technology enthusiast. I was introduced to the term by a wonderfully written article he authored right after the iPad was introduced. When I first read that article it was as if I was reading my own thoughts and I knew that he hit the nail perfectly on the head with the New World/Old World phrasing. So I borrowed the term and linked to his article where I referenced it.

Last year I was reviewing some of my old articles and found my link to Steven’s article. I wanted to read it again, so I clicked on the link and found that the article had been removed! It seems Steven is very picky about his writing and decided to take his old blog down. I almost panicked and tracked down Steven to ask if he would re-post it or give it to me so I could re-post it. He graciously sent me his article and gave me permission to re-post his writing here. It was only later after my near-panic attack that I found the original article had been saved on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. But I think this article deserves a place of its own – and so that I may continue to give him the proper credit – here in its entirely is Steven Frank’s blog post introducing the New World/Old World terminology. I encourage you to read it because I think it is as relevant today as it was 2 years ago.

Steven Frank, January 28, 2010, 10:20 pm,

I need to talk to you about computers. I’ve been on a veritable roller-coaster of “how I feel” about the iPad announcement, and trying not to write about it until I had at least an inkling of what was at the root of that.

Before we begin, a reminder: On this blog, I speak only for myself, not for my company or my co-workers.

The thing is, to talk about specific hardware (like the iPad or iPhone or Nexus One or Droid) is to miss entirely the point I’m about to try to make. This is more important than USB ports, GPS modules, or front-facing cameras. Gigabytes, gigahertz, megapixels, screen resolution, physical dimensions, form factors, in fact hardware in general — these are all irrelevant to the following discussion. So, I’m going to try to completely avoid talking about those sorts of things.

Let’s instead establish some new terminology: Old World and New World computing.


Personal computing — having a computer in your house (or your pocket) — as a whole is young. As we know it today, it’s less than a half-century old. It’s younger than TV, younger than radio, younger than cars and airplanes, younger than quite a few living people in fact.

In that really incredibly short space of time we’ve gone from punchcards-and-printers to interactive terminals with command lines to window-and-mouse interfaces, each a paradigm shift unto themselves. A lot of thoughtful people, many of whom are bloggers, look at this history and say, “Look at this march of progress! Surely the desktop + windows + mouse interface can’t be the end of the road? What’s next?”

Then “next” arrived and it was so unrecognizable to most of them (myself included) that we looked at it said, “What in the shit is this?”

The Old World

In the Old World, computers are general purpose, do-it-all machines. They can do hundreds of thousands of different things, sometimes all at the same time. We buy them for pennies, load them up to the gills with whatever we feel like, and then we pay for it with instability, performance degradation, viruses, and steep learning curves. Old World computers can do pretty much anything, but carry the burden of 30 years of rapid, unplanned change. Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X based computers all fall into this category.

The New World

In the New World, computers are task-centric. We are reading email, browsing the web, playing a game, but not all at once. Applications are sandboxed, then moats dug around the sandboxes, and then barbed wire placed around the moats. As a direct result, New World computers do not need virus scanners, their batteries last longer, and they rarely crash, but their users have lost a degree of freedom. New World computers have unprecedented ease of use, and benefit from decades of research into human-computer interaction. They are immediately understandable, fast, stable, and laser-focused on the 80% of the famous 80/20 rule.

Is the New World better than the Old World? Nothing’s ever simply black or white.

Floppy Disks

An anecdote: When the iMac came out, Apple drew a line in the sand. They said: we are no longer going to ship a computer with a floppy disk drive. The entire industry shit its pants so loudly and forcefully that you probably could have heard it from outer space.

Are you insane? I spent all this money on a floppy drive! All my software is on floppy disks! You’ve committed brand suicide! Nobody will stand for this!

Fast-forward to today. I can’t think of a single useful thing to do with a floppy disk. I can go to the supermarket and buy a CD, DVD, or flash drive that is faster, smaller, and stores 1,000 times as much data for typically less than a box of floppies used to cost. Or better still, we can just toss things to each other over the network.

To get there, yes, we had to throw away some of our investment in hardware. We had to re-think how we did things. It required adjustment. A bit of sacrifice. The end result, I think we can all agree regardless of what platform we use, is orders of magnitude more convenient, easier to use, and in line with today’s storage requirements.

Staying with floppies would have spared us the inconvenience of that transition but at what long-term cost?

Nothing is ever simply black or white. There was a cost to making the transition. But there was a benefit to doing so.

To change was not all good. To stay put was not all bad. But there was a ratio of goodness-to-badness that, in the long run, was quite favorable for everyone involved. However in the short term it seemed so insurmountable, so ludicrous, that it beggared the belief of a large number of otherwise very intelligent people.

For a species so famous for being adaptable to its environment, we certainly abhor change. Especially a change that involves any amount of money being spent.


John Gruber used car transmissions for his analogy, and it’s apt. When I learned to drive, my dad insisted that I learn on a manual transmission so I would be able to drive any car. I think this was a wise and valuable thing to do.

But even having learned it, these days I drive an automatic. Nothing is black and white — I sacrifice maybe a tiny amount of fuel efficiency and a certain amount of control over my car in adverse situations that I generally never encounter. In exchange, my brain is freed up to focus on the the road ahead, getting where I’m going, and avoiding obstacles (strategy), not the minutiae of choosing the best possible gear ratio (tactics).

Is a stick shift better than an automatic? No. Is an automatic better than a stick? No. This misses the point. A better question: Is a road full of drivers not distracted by the arcane inner workings of their vehicle safer? It’s likely. And that has a value. Possibly a value that outweighs the value offered by a stick shift if we aggregate it across everyone in the world who drives.

Changing of the Guard

When I think about the age ranges of people who fall into the Old World of computing, it is roughly bell-curved with Generation X (hello) approximately in the center. That, to me, is fascinating — Old World users are sandwiched between New World users who are both younger and older than them.

Some elder family members of mine recently got New World cell phones. I watched as they loaded dozens of apps willy-nilly onto them which, on any other phone, would have turned it into a sluggish, crash-prone battery-vampire. But it didn’t happen. I no longer get summoned for phone help, because it is self-evident how to use it, and things just generally don’t go wrong like they used to on their Old World devices.

New Worlders have no reason to be gun-shy about loading up their device with apps. Why would that break anything? Old Worlders on the other hand have been browbeaten to the point of expecting such behavior to lead to problems. We’re genuinely surprised when it doesn’t.

But the New World scares the living hell out of a lot of the Old Worlders. Why is that?

The Needs of the Few

When the iPhone came out, I was immediately in love, but frustrated by the lack of an SDK. When an SDK came out, I was overjoyed, but frustrated by Apple’s process. As some high-profile problems began to pile up, I infamously railed against the whole idea right here on this very blog. I announced I was beginning a boycott of iPhone-based devices until changes were made, and I certainly, certainly was not going to buy any future iPhone-based products. I switched to various other devices that were a bit more friendly to Old Worlders.

It lasted all of a month.

For as frustrated as I was with the restrictions, those exact same restrictions made the New World device a high-performance, high-reliability, absolute workhorse of a machine that got out of my way and just let me get things accomplished.

Nothing is simply black or white.

Old Worlders are particularly sensitive to certain things that are simply non-issues to New Worlders. We learned about computers from the inside out. Many of us became interested in computers because they were hackable, open, and without restrictions. We worry that these New World devices are stifling the next generation of programmers. But can anyone point to evidence that that’s really happening? I don’t know about you, but I see more people carrying handheld computers than at any point in history. If even a small percentage of them are interested in “what makes this thing tick?” then we’ve got quite a few new programmers in the pipeline.

The reason I’m starting to think the Old World is ultimately doomed is because we are bracketed on both sides by the New World, and those people being born today, post-iPhone and post-iPad, will never know (and probably not care) about how things used to work. Just as nobody today cares about floppies, and nobody has to care about manual transmissions if they don’t want to.

If you total up everyone older than the beginning of the Old World, and every person yet to be born, you end up with a much greater number of people than there are in the Old World.

And to that dramatically greater number of people, what do you think is more important? An easy-to-use, crash-proof device? Or a massively complex tangle of toolbars, menus, and windows because that’s what props up an entrenched software oligarchy?

Fellow Old Worlders, I hate to tell you this: we are a minority. The question is not “will the desktop metaphor go away?” The question is “why has it taken this long for the desktop metaphor to go away?”

But, But I’m a Professional!

This is a great toy for newbies, but how am I supposed to get any SERIOUS work done with it? After all, I’m a PRO EXPERT MEGA USER! I MUST HAVE TOOLBARS, WINDOWS, AND…

OK, stop for a second.

First, I would put the birth of New World computing at 2007, with the introduction of the iPhone. You could even arguably stretch it a bit further back to the birth of “Web 2.0” applications in the early 2000s. But it’s brand new. If computers in general are young, New World computing is fresh out of the womb, covered in blood and screaming.

It’s got a bit of development to go.

I encourage you to look at this argument in terms of what you are really trying to achieve rather than the way you are used to going about it.

Let’s pick a ridiculous example and say I work in digital video, and I need to encode huge amounts of video data into some advanced format, and send that off to a server somewhere. I could never do that on an iPad! Right?

Well, no, today, probably not. But could you do it on a future New World computer in the general sense?

Remember, the hardware is a non-issue: Flash storage will grow to terabytes in size. CPUs will continue to multiply in power as they always have. Displays, batteries, everything will improve given enough time.

As I see it, many of these “BUT I’M AN EXPERT” situations can be resolved by making just a few key modifications:

  1. A managed way of putting processes in the background. New Worlders are benefiting already from the improved performance and battery life provided by the inability to run a task in the background. Meanwhile, Old Worlders are tearing their hair out. I CAN’T MULTITASK, right? It seems like there has to be a reasonable middle ground. Maybe processes can petition the OS for background time. Maybe a user can “opt-in” to background processes. I don’t know. But it seems like there must be an in-between that doesn’t sacrifice what we’ve gained for some of the flexibility we’re used to.
  2. A way of sharing data with other devices. New World devices are easy to learn and highly usable because they do not expose the filesystem to users and they are “data islands”. We are no longer working with “files” but we are still working with data blobs that it would be valuable to be able to exchange with each other. Perhaps the network wins here. Perhaps flash drives that we never see the contents of. The Newton was, to my knowledge, the first generally available device where you could just say “put this app and all data I’ve created with it on this removable card” without ever once seeing a file or a folder. Its sizable Achilles’ Heel was that only other Newtons understood the data format.
  3. A way of sharing data between applications. Something like the clipboard, but bigger. This is not a filesystem, but a way of saying “bring this data object from this app to this app”. I’ve made this painting in my painting app, and now I want to bring it over here to crop it and apply filters.

By just addressing those three things (and I admit they are not simple feats), I think all but the absolutely most specialized of computer tasks become quite feasible on a New World device.

A Bet on the Future

Apple is calling the iPad a “third category” between phones and laptops. I am increasingly convinced that this is just to make it palatable to you while everything shifts to New World ideology over the next 10-20 years.

Just like with floppy disks, the rest of the industry is quite content to let Apple be the ones to stick their necks out on this. It’s a gamble to be sure. But if Apple wins the gamble (so far it’s going well), they are going to be years and years ahead of their competition. If Apple loses the gamble, well, they have no debt and are sitting on a Fort Knox-like pile of cash. It’s not going to sink them.

The bet is roughly that the future of computing:

  1. has a UI model based on direct manipulation of data objects
  2. completely hides the filesystem from the user
  3. favors ease of use and reduction of complexity over absolute flexibility
  4. favors benefit to the end-user rather than the developer or other vendors
  5. lives atop built-to-specific-purpose native applications and universally available web apps

All in all, it sounds like a pretty feasible outcome, and really not a bad one at that.

But we Old Worlders have to come to grips with the fact that a lot of things we are used to are going away. Maybe not for a while, but they are.

Will the whole industry move to New World computing? Not unless Apple is demonstrably successful with this approach. So I’d say you’re unlikely to see it universally applied to all computing devices within the next couple of decades.

But Wednesday’s keynote tells me this is where Apple is going. Plan accordingly.

How long will it take to complete this Old World to New World shift? My guess? The end is near when you can bootstrap a new iPad application on an iPad. When you can comfortably do that without pining for a traditional desktop, the days of Old World computing are officially numbered.

The iPad as a particular device is not necessarily the future of computing. But as an ideology, I think it just might be. In hindsight, I think arguments over “why would I buy this if I already have a phone and a laptop?” are going to seem as silly as “why would I buy an iPod if it has less space than a Nomad?”

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