Archive for April, 2010

Curses to Microsoft

April 20, 2010

May the fleas of a thousand camels infest… Oh, oh, I should be a little less vehement. Microsoft – please fix your Word application! (I said please…)

I am trying to write a book with Microsoft Word. Word has every feature I could ask for: extensive headers and footers, table of contents and indexing, caption numbering, footnoting, page numbering. The feature list is mind blowing!

But Word doesn’t work 99.9% of the time – more like 90% of the time. An example: I mark an index entry, and then immediately edit the hidden text entry in the document because I misspelled the index entry, and Word will crash. Or caption numbers will usually update correctly when I rearrange sections – but not always. These are awful flaws in the application. I suspect that these features are not used by 99.9% of Word users in their work day to day, so these features were not tested extensively by Microsoft – ever.

This brings to mind an interesting element of complex system usage I have observed again and again. It is really a skill that children learn very quickly today: avoid actions that break a complex system. I find this fascinating. I was asking a very experienced Windows user one day why he did a certain action that I thought was a little quirky and indirect, and the answer was, “If you do it this other way, it will crash the computer…”. I will crash a Windows computer fairly often, but my good friend (a Windows enthusiast) never crashes his computer because he has learned to avoid the dangerous flaws of the Windows OS.

There is psychology working on us, here. Here is what I think it amounts to:

By learning to work around the flaws of a complex system, you feel like you are its “Master”, and you have “triumphed” over something somewhat difficult. Your victory was not easily won, and and you have overcome a number of challenges. You derive a good sense of self-satisfaction.

Windows’ flaws are just obvious enough for the average person to overcome by trial and error, but not so challenging that they will resolutely defeat the user before they are learned and worked around.

You like your Microsoft Windows experience because you “conquered” it!  You have mastered its flaws, and that is a highly satisfying accomplishment in your otherwise less-that-satisfying world. You are “in control.” It was rough going for a time, but you have won! Anything new that comes along threatens your “in charge” status and demands that you climb another painful learning curve… You covet your “victory” no matter what the pain of actually living it – because the victory is your reward for your hard work.

For the record, Windows 7 is a terrific improvement in usability over its predecessor versions, and it is “pretty”, too. I give Windows 7 a humble “thumbs-up”. I think that Windows 7 is “2-9’s” 99% reliable, but my experience with Windows 7 surely demonstrates that it is not yet “3-9’s” 99.9% reliable.

Contrarily, I like my Apple experience because I don’t need to do anything in particular to finish what I am doing – unless I am writing a Word document… The last time my computer crashed was – well, I can’t remember when. The last time an Apple application crashed was  – well – never that I can recall since Apple offered the iLife and iWork application suites – never. It all works 99.9% of the time.

I am learning to avoid the flaws in Microsoft Word – lately, Word has not crashed! I have my fingers crossed that Word for the Mac 2011 will be a better product – that it will graduate from 90% reliable to – well, maybe 99% reliable – I doubt that Microsoft can ever achieve three-nines availability. That, or Apple Pages will get a few more features for headers and footers and indexing – Pages is pretty darned good and needs to “stretch”.

iPad makes for Pretty Clouds

April 4, 2010

Yes, I am an Apple fan.  Not a “fanboi”, just a fan. I think the iPad will be highly impacting – I’m excited. Oh – and it will help to usher in the era of real cloud computing. There is a revolution coming in computing that really began just yesterday.

I have not been a fan of much-hyped “cloud computing”. Without continuous, ubiquitous, secure, high-speed “anywhere” net access, you can’t rely on the “cloud”.  Without a highly portable device with a large display and no other peripheral user IO attachments, whatever you could access through the cloud was certainly less convenient in a taxi that at the desk. The cloud was hyped as more than a remote content server architecture – it was envisioned for remote app services and “much more”, but if network performance was too  slow, the cloud became the weak link that would stymie productivity; and if the cloud was unavailable, productivity could come to a compete stop. Reliance on cloud computing architectures before now was simply premature or overreaching except for limited enterprise applications deployed on a relatively small-scale. If I can’t count on something 99.9% of the time, I won’t rely on it day-to-day (one reason I use a Mac). Until today, I was not excited about cloud computing. But its value equation has just changed.

Until now, a truly convenient, capable, portable client computing device with useful screen area has been a compromise with significant shortcomings. Smart phones – a four-inch display simply has too many limitations for me. A 6 pound laptop – overkill for much of what I do when I am on the run, and a strain on me if I lug it with me everywhere in the world I go. A netbook – nearly as large as a laptop, but compromises heavily on display and keyboard quality – not a desirable laptop replacement unless one is very highly price driven. I thought that the Apple MacBook Air was compelling, and it was joined by a small number of capable form-fit-function Windows competitors. The Air didn’t quite hit the “sweet spot”, though – close, but not quite – you still have to open it, boot it and connect it to a network to use it in the cloud. No 3G built is in, so you can’t count on the cloud always being available to you unless you use a peripheral cellular modem. The Air was not quite a paradigm shift in the product space – in form-fit-function it, like a netbook, was just a different laptop, and it was likely to be used like a laptop.

Enter the iPad! I won’t be buying the first version of Apple’s iPad. Give me a camera in the display bezel, though, and I am sold. Grab my pad of paper, a few magazines, my iPad and “dash”. It’s all the same size, all fits in my hand and bag. Over time, leave out the pad of paper and magazines and toss in a bluetooth keyboard, and I am set! But what does this new iPad product have to do with cloud computing? I’ll tell you:

1) The iPad has PAN/LAN/WAN networking (Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n and 3G HSPA/EDGE), and the 3G is speedy-fast, pay as you go and relatively inexpensive month to month.  The networking is as ubiquitous and as versatile as you can buy, and the 3G WAN carries only a first-cost penalty unless you use it. Can a netbook do all that networking out of the box without peripheral devices? The cloud is there 99.9% of the time right out of the box.

2) The iPad includes a super web browser, a flexible IMAP/POP-3/Exchange e-mail client, an address book, a calendar, a to-do-list, a photo browser, a movie presenter, and even more included with the supplied software. For a few dollars more, you can add a word processing, spreadsheet and presentation application suite. The iPAD is location-aware out of the box, and with the optional 3G data feature comes extensive GPS features, too. It does 99.9% of what I need to do on the run – anywhere in my office, my home, or in between, or anywhere else in the world I happen to be right out of the box.

3) The iPad is a spectacular content consumption and presentation engine – not a content creation engine. This is the paradigm shift that distinguishes the iPad from other devices in the same price range. The iPad displays H.264, MPEG-4, M-JPEG and AAC media and a large number of file formats including aiff, mp3, wav, avi, mov, m4v, mp4, html (supporting HTML5, Javascript and CSS3), jpg, gif, tiff, txt, rtf, pdf, Microsoft Office doc & docx, ppt and pptx, xls and xlsx formats, and Apple iWork key, numbers and pages formats. Flash aside, 99.9% of the files I use are supported by the iPad right out of the box. Can your smart phone display all those files? They will all come from the cloud right to you – whatever you want whenever you want it wherever you are.

4) The iPad is 1-1/2 pounds with a 10 inch touch display (no mouse required) and an all-day battery. It’s light in weight, and the display technology is superb. It’s touch-screen gesture interface is well designed and quickly learned – almost “natural”. The dock connector can connect to an external VGA display and to a limited range of USB devices including some comeras. It is “instant-on”. I will want to hold it and use it – and so will you. It connects to the cloud, and you will, too, through it.

5) The iPad lives seamlessly in the “Apple” cloud – the App store, the iBooks store, the iTunes store, your iTunes purchase library, your shared iPhoto library, your collaboration services, your sync’ed e-mail, calendar and address book – and your iDisk in time, I’m sure. Just like your Mac laptop and iPod Touch combined – it makes fuller use of the Apple cloud than any other single Apple product, in other words…

6) In time, the iPad will be able to live well in “other clouds”, too – I bet it does so right out of the box for many other cloud services by other providers – the Google “cloud” of GoogleApps, Docs or Gmail for starters (the Google cloud is comprehensive and extensive), or the Microsoft “cloud” of Live Meeting, Communications Online  or Web Apps for starters.

7) If your content lives securely and for the long-term in the cloud, you won’t need terabytes of local storage in your hands. A few gigabytes of local storage is all you need for what you need now. That’s another paradigm shift – a barrier that the iPad begins to shatter.

8) Competition is coming – you can count on it – maybe an Android/ChromeOS Google device that could take advantage of a much larger cloud of services than Apple’s. And Microsoft is always lurking – maybe a WindowsMobile/WindowsCE gadget in time, too…

I bet that in time – in a short time, the iPad will get: multitasking (maybe just window and memory management), a camera and iChat features, peripheral hard drive support, printing services and a wrist strap for those of us with the “dropsies”. Maybe even Flash flv content support, and maybe even GSM voice services in addition to the 3G data services.

Sometime, you don’t need a “killer-app” to start a revolution in computing – you need a “killer-it” – or in Apple’s vernacular, a “Killer-i” like the iPad. With one highly successful product will come a swarm of wannabes and capable competitors – a critical mass of devices and content consumers will finally flip the switch to the ON position for the cloud. Now, the cloud will be useful and something I can rely on – and you, too. And the iPad is as convenient as you can imagine. And there will be more to come. I’m sold on the iPad – and now on the “cloud”!