11 Dec 2009

Good guys, bad guys

Remember when IBM were the bad guys?

Not so much that they were evil per se, but there was a time when IBM was the 800 lb. gorilla, throwing their weight around and making everyone negotiate with them or imitate them or, if they were particularly saucy, set themselves up as an underdog against them. IBM is International Business Machines, man! Who the hell is Apple?

Anyway, that state of affairs ended quite some time ago; it turns out that opening up your architecture for everyone to imitate, commodifying it, is fantastic at achieving the goal of getting everyone to adopt your architecture and less good for a bottom line based on producing high-quality instances of that architecture. Especially once the architecture has matured to a point where other than increased speed, the main effect of an upgrade is relatively minor tweaking that non-power-users won't much notice; it's hard to whip up a buying frenzy for minor tweaks. And so, after some time, the hardware battles ended, and IBM "won" but sort of receded into the background. These days I mostly know IBM for sponsoring programming contests, recruiting superb programmers, and developing large-scale "business solutions", which I sort of make fun of but honestly, it's a legitimate need and they seem to be doing a good job at it. So they're good guys now.

I'm beginning to wonder if 2009 Microsoft is in a transition similar to 1989 IBM. Certainly they're a dominant force that a lot of people are wary of, and supporters of Mac and Linux cheer for their respective underdogs; Microsoft has been hit with multiple lawsuits over the years about their monopolistic practices, some of which stuck and have caused them to change their ways.* Their Windows platform is matured in a way very dangerous to their Windows-centric business model: a vast number of their users would, if not absolutely forced to change, happily remain with Windows XP for decades. They certainly won't upgrade for the sake of upgrading if the "upgrade" isn't good, as we saw in the Vista debacle. I kind of hope they got Windows 7 right, because it may be the last major ("everybody switch") upgrade that they are able to pull off. The face of big bad Microsoft, Bill Gates, is fast becoming better known as a world-class philanthropist that tends to focus on education and global health.

And it's clear that Microsoft will not be the dominant force in the next era, as we graduate from OS/systems software to application platforms and the so-called "cloud".** Bing, which you may not have even heard of, is their search engine, but it'll never get the market share that other MS products have in the past. Zune, their similarly-obscure MP3 player, is hardly a bust but will likewise not be taking over the world. Even in the OS world, Apple has finally turned the corner and re-recruited two of their traditional markets from the 80s and early 90s, education and graphic design; and Linux variants such as Ubuntu have finally become viable options for people who aren't system administrators. Both are chipping away at Microsoft's market share, slowly but surely, and general developers are having to think seriously about making sure their stuff works for non-Windows users (if only by making it a web app).

Meanwhile, the new fronts in the computer wars are pointing to two likely candidates for the next "bad guy": Google and Apple.

Google has their famous mantra, "don't be evil", which may yet protect them, but boy howdy are they expanding into an entity you should be worried about. I do use Google for search, and after more than ten years, they're still great at that. I have in the past used Google maps, and will probably still do so from time to time, but their interface has gotten clunky and slow and I'm shopping for something better. But I haven't got a gmail account, I don't use Google docs, and I don't log in or accept cookies from Google so that they can track and coordinate what I'm searching for. GMail is particularly insidious because they can bounce email as "spam" with impunity, and if you or your ISP complain to them, their main suggestion is to just get a GMail account and use that instead. This has, of course, made me even more reluctant to get a GMail account, but maybe that's me. Just in the last few days, their CEO is on record as saying that if you wanted privacy for something, you shouldn't be doing it—and that should raise the hackles of just about anyone.

Apple seems like a pretty unlikely candidate for Next Big Bad Guy, given that they've been underdogs in both of the last two rounds (first against IBM in the 70s and 80s, then against Microsoft in the 90s and 00s). The game-changer has been the fact that they were among the first to achieve success in the MP3 player market (with the iPod), the first to achieve real success in the per-track digital music market (with iTunes Music Store, which they successfully linked to the iPod), and the first to link cell-phones and PDAs with a (multi-)touch-based interface that everyone is now imitating (the iPhone, which they successfully linked to the iPod and iTMS). There's now much more of a my-way-or-the-highway attitude about them now that never was there before. And they're doing all the things that Microsoft did back in the 90s that we hated: muscling other companies out of their markets with anti-competitive practices, and taking good services provided by third-party addons and bundling with the OS an implementation that is buggy and crappy but that nevertheless drives the good implementations out of business (I'm still bitter about Spaces). Their handling of the App Store is already notorious in the developer community for how fickle and unreasonable they are in approving iPhone apps, how abusive they are of their third-party developers, and how much more they seem to care about control than quality.

It's not going to be easy to divest ourselves of either one. There are other music players, but the iPod's still a great design, and of course anyone that's bought much from the iTMS will have a bit of work in converting all their DRMed AAC files into something that other players can read. For the desktop machines, I've happily switched to Ubuntu at work, and as my iMac is still running Tiger (MacOS X 10.4, soon to be end-of-lifed) I'm contemplating Ubuntu-fying that as well; my future hardware purchases will almost certainly not be from Apple. Google is even harder, of course, although less hard for me than most (because, as I said, all I really use is search and mapping). For mapping, I may revert to Mapquest or Yahoo Maps, which were my servers of choice until Google Maps became draggable. For searching itself, I may try Microsoft's Bing despite completely making fun of it as recently as a couple months ago, but I've recently been put on to a lovely little number called DuckDuckGo that seems to have pretty good coverage and has some very nice UI upgrades over Google's search. The main thing there will be to retrain the muscle memory that puts me in the location bar typing "google whatever" and hitting Return before I've even actually thought about anything other than "Search".

Maybe I'm wrong. I'd like that; Google and Apple have been my heroes for a long time now, and it's too much fun calling Microsoft the Evil Empire to give that up easily. I think that age might be passing, but I'd be pleased to be wrong, at least about Google and Apple. Stay good, Google! Stay good, Apple!

*Sometimes the companies with the best practices in an area are those who have been burned in the past by having the worst practices. Nike, for instance, was one of the first big companies to be boycotted for running sweatshops in Asia, back before anyone knew or cared about "fair trade"; these days they're sometimes held up as a model for how big companies can outsource clothing manufacture in a basically responsible way.

**I really, really hate the term "cloud". I can't even say why. Bleah.

"Everyone at Knox is responsible for holding up the illusion that this campus is a microcosm of the real world. Obviously, nobody is going to care how or why feminists were denied a house in ten years, but if we don't fake it for a while, we'll never learn how to stand up for ourselves in the real world." --Deana Rutherford

Posted by blahedo at 6:37am | Comments (1)

9 Dec 2009

Two books

I recently finished reading (well, listening to) two Isaac Asimov books in the course of my bathroom renovations: The stars, like dust, and Pebble in the sky. In both cases, I picked them up at the library because I'd been thinking I need to buff up my Asimov—despite being generally a sci fi fan, I'd read almost nothing by him—and I had, let's say, mixed reactions to them.

The first was The stars, like dust, which is a space drama about the dispossessed heir to a planetary despot running all over known space to reclaim his title and/or get revenge on the folks that overthrew his father. There are, to be sure, some nice moments in it, but the drama is not very good, the romance isn't very good, and the central plot point is so blindly rah-rah-USA I couldn't help but roll my eyes. I'm going to spoil it here because it was telegraphed so obviously in the very first chapter: the secret weapon, threatening to a galactic empire, that was part of the lost lore of ancient history, that most had never heard of but those who had were literally dying to protect or steal its physical on-paper representation, was, drumroll, the US Constitution. This is only explicitly revealed in the last sentences of the book, but the way they go on and on in just about every chapter, wondering what the contents of the military secret could possibly be, what could the ancients of Earth have known that could bring down a modern empire.... well, I confess I wasn't sure if it would be the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

It didn't help that almost from the first time I heard of the king of Rhodia and his daughter, my mental image was of the king and his daughter from Spaceballs ("funny, you don't look Druish"), but I suppose that part at least can't be Asimov's fault.

Nevertheless, despite being underwhelmed by the first book, knowing Asimov's reputation I decided to try another. Pebble in the sky was considerably better, though not without its faults. This time we see future Earth itself in some detail, with virtually the whole book taking place in a future post-apocalyptic Chicago on a radioactive Earth that has become the backwaters of a space empire. What I found most remarkable about Pebble was its ability to turn a lot of our racial hangups on their head—and how many of them are not a whole lot better now than they were sixty years ago when he wrote it. Though a few discerning scientists know better, the general feeling is that Earth people are necessarily of an inferior race, not suitably evolved for polite galactic society, not nearly smart enough to be worth bothering with, and too savage to be able to bring into proper civil society. For their part, the Earth people aren't much for equality, seeing themselves as the superior race....

The book has two puzzling weaknesses, though, both forms of deus ex machina. The first, which seems basically forgivable, is that one of the protagonists got magically* transported into the future from our own time; this did give Asimov an excuse to portray future-Earth differences as they would be seen from the eyes of current-Earth readers, so I guess it's okay. It's sort of part of the initial premise (and laid out in a prologue before the main action), so it doesn't bother me too much. The weirder one, though, involves one of the characters developing psychic abilities that manage to get stronger in steps just as the plot requires it, with the final plot climax hinging crucially on this ability. Which is sort of explained, except that most others who had undergone the same treatment didn't acquire the same abilities. It certainly didn't ruin the story, and as I said, there's some very nice social criticism throughout. But it still isn't what I'd think of as the mark of a great writer.

* well, by some strange reaction involving radioactivity and uranium. Like I said, magic.

"I have decided not to take a sabbatical after all. You go off to the woods for a year and it puts you under terrible pressure to write 'Moby Dick' or something worthy of having had an entire year in which to write, and the longer you work at this masterpiece, the shabbier it looks, the whale turns into a guppy, and at the end of the year you have torn up almost everything you wrote and you are filled with self-loathing and bitter regret. No thanks. I am sticking to my post and recommend that you do, too." --Garrison Keillor

Posted by blahedo at 4:37pm | Comments (1)