The new Fox News Deck

October 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Using large touch surfaces for manipulating news data is probably a good idea, but these 55″ units that Fox have installed in their new News Deck are just comical. But my favourite bit of the video comes at 4′ 12″ where Shepard says:

We call these BATs – Big Area Touchscreens

Of course. What else would “BAT” stand for. Someone in the Fox tech department is not taking this seriously, I think.

Apple’s long game

September 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

Robert X. Cringely speculates that apple is aiming to replace the desktop with iDevices plugged into monitors with keyboard and mouse on Bluetooth, using 64-bit processor “desktop architecture” as clue. There are some interesting ideas in the article, but I don’t think that’s where Apple are heading. It may be that they would, as Robert suggests, have people attach their phones or iPads to the desk, but I think it is more likely that they will have a distinct device for the desktop. A trend that Apple have supported and encouraged is for apps to run on all devices and share the data in the cloud. The big transition in computers that I have experienced over the past 5 years is the separation of data from device. More and more, the physical devices are just endpoints from which I access my data. I wrote the first draft of this post on an iPad at the breakfast table using iA Writer. I edited and polished it on iA Writer on my iMac. I didn’t need to do anything to transfer it, it was simply there when I changed device. Tethering the devices doesn’t seem to me to fit in with

I believe Apple is aiming to unify desktop and iOS in long term, which is where the new processor comes into play. I fully expect Apple to be transitioning their desktop and laptop computers to ARM at some point in the next few years. They’ve done this before. When they looked at the PowerPC roadmap and realised that it wasn’t going to deliver what they wanted, the migrated to Intel processors. But they didn’t do it overnight; they spent 5 years compiling all their software on Intel in secret, just in case they needed to make such a change. They provided an emulation system to support PowerPC applications for several years so users didn’t have to make a big-bang switch.

Apple play a very long game. They trial new tech in minor roles. For example, the used trackpads on laptops for several years to let them perfect multi-touch long before they put the technology into a phone as the primary feature. iPhone 5 introduced different screen size in a very minor way which meant that existing apps still ran perfectly well, letterboxed to the iPhone 4 screen size. But the good developers learned how to use the SDK features to respond to different screen sizes. Apple introduced an entire new mechanism for laying out components on the screen that let apps deal not just with two screen sizes, but with a wide range of sizes.

Universal apps have let people build a single app that works on iPhone and iPad with different UIs for some time. The experience that developers have gained through this would make it easier to move on to apps that will suit large monitors. Apple know where they want to be when the possibilities of the hardware reaches the right level, and in the meantime they introduce small changes along the way to guide developers towards being able to match their goals with the software.

My view is that putting the 64-bit ARM processors into iDevices is not a way of having a portable, plug-in desktop, but is a way for them to transition to large-screen support for apps on the way to unifying their mobile and desktop worlds. 

Innovation

September 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

From the press over the past week, the iPhone 5s looks to most users and pundits like an incremental change. Same form-factor, no amazing whizz-bang headline feature. There has been the predictable “end-of-innovation at Apple” backlash. As a programmer, though, and as someone who appreciates that what is going on inside the box is of much greater significance than what the box looks like, the innovations apple have put into the 5s are obvious and significant. The sheer amount of processing power, managed by a great architecture, will let developers run wild with new ideas. The user experience will be fantastic because of the sheer responsiveness of the hardware. The result will be a superb experience for the user, even if the user has no idea what it took to give them that experience.

Anyone can take a processor, a screen and an OS and stick them in a box and sell a lot of cheap devices, but building something that has intrinsic quality at all levels is a rare ability.

The core of Microsoft’s problems

September 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

From The Verge:

“The Nokia deal is a lot of things,” said Ballmer. “One of the things it is, is a way to make sure we can capture the gross margin upside because we’re making most of the investment today, that we need to make even owning Nokia.” It’s clear Microsoft wants to take some of the smartphone profits away from giants like Apple and Samsung, and Nokia is a key part of that plan.

That, right there, is the difference between Microsoft and Apple and, I believe, the core of Microsoft’s problems. I appreciate that this is a conversation with investors, but Balmer is laying out his goal purely in financial terms; a goal that is simply to take profits away from the other players. Even on investment calls Steve Jobs always talked about the passion to create great products that people want to use. He knew that the profits are a side-effect of that goal. It’s not always what the investors wanted to hear, but he didn’t change his message depending on who he was speaking to.

When your goal is simply to make money, to take profits from others in the market, then you can’t focus on making great products. If you always have one eye on the bottom line you can’t keep both eyes on the ball. You are prone to panicking, and doing things like buying Nokia, a company that has already been ruined by pursuing the same strategy.

Balmer also said:

“We know that we’ve gotta do a great job”

There’s no doubt that’s true. The question is, do they know how?

A word about software quality

December 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

This is an extract from a rather long comment I left on this blog post and thought was worth posting separately:

Something that has become apparent to me in the past decade is that software quality is something that can only be measured in hindsight. Most good programmers can write a program that achieves an immediate goal in a reasonable number of lines of code, with a reasonable performance profile. But any significant body of software itself does not exist in a static environment. Really good software is easy to change when the environment it runs in changes. The software might be running inside a company that frequently, or even continually, is evolving its operating practices. Low-quality software impedes that evolution by being rigid and difficult to update. High-quality software can be easily updated to cope with that change. The updates are isolated into well-defined modules with high cohesion and low coupling to other parts of the system. High-quality software is software that the other parts of the business to not end up coming to despise because of its lack of ability to support what they want to do next.

Truly great software goes one step further: it sparks the imagination of its users to think of doing things that they would not have though of otherwise, and is easily changed to support those new ideas. This creates a feedback loop that results in both better software and better use of that software than anyone ever anticipated.

What is the effect of “first-to-file”?

June 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

I came across this article this morning, talking about the US House of Representatives passing a patent reform bill. The thing that jumped out at me was this:

The Senate and House bills would ensure that the first person who submits an application gets the patent, switching from a “first-to-invent” system.

Now, I’m not a patent lawyer, and everything I know about this new bill comes from the article I’ve quoted, so maybe I’m missing something here, but there seem to be a couple of things very wrong with this idea.

Firstly, where does this leave the whole concept of “prior art” as a reason for invalidating an application. If I file a patent and someone can show that they invented the particular innovation first, then the way things currently work is that I can not be awarded the patent, even if I was the first to file. So if this change to “first-to-file” is to have any practical effect, it seems to me that prior-art could no longer be a cause for invalidating an application. After all, if I am first to file, and someone comes along to show they invented it first, then my application should be invalidated, and the other party would then be free to file a patent. I.e. the patent goes to first-to-invent. If the intent of the bill is to essentially remove the prior-art restriction on patents then that is simply evil. If not, then the change has no logical meaning.

Assuming the worst, that the first-to-file can be awarded the patent regardless of prior-art (i.e. a first-inventor trumping the application) then that would seem to open up an entire new industry to sit alongside patent trolling – business whose sole purpose is to look for inventions whose inventors have not patented them, and make applications for those inventions. After all, patent application is a time-consuming, costly business and many people don’t bother. A company consisting solely of patent lawyers and patent authors could really clean up, adding no value to the world apart from lining their own pockets. I have to wonder what the result would be for the original inventor. Would they end up in violation of the patent and have to pay damages? If not, then what exactly does this provision mean?

I hope I’m wrong in my interpretation of this, but given the way that intellectual property laws have been skewed and abused in recent times towards lining the pockets of big businesses, at the expense of individuals and small companies, I really fear for what this might mean.

(p.s. what’s with the mainjustice website? They seem to have pulled some trick that prevents me from selecting text on their page)


Printed books versus eBooks

June 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Paul Boag writes that proponents of printed books are clinging to the romanticism of the past. I’ve been an early adopter of eBooks. I bought an iRex iLiad when they first came out, experimented with a Sony Reader, and finally started reading eBooks in earnest when I got my Kindle, and now frequently read eBooks on the Kindle and iPad.

Paul lists several points of advantage of eBooks. They’re all good, valid points. What puzzles me is his apparent insistence that printed books have not advantages at all, or that any advantages are simply romantic throwbacks. I feel that his list focuses entirely on the technical advantages, and ignores the human element. Indeed, if your aim is to most efficiently consume a book as a sequential set of pages, chapters, words, then the eBook wins hands down. I have now read several novels on Kindle and iPad, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I like being able to size the font to compensate for fact that my eyesight is starting to flag. I like having the convenience of accessing the books on a number of different device, synced to the most recently read page. It’s not so convenient when I find that the Kindle on my bedside table has run out of battery because I haven’t used it for several days and left the network on, but that’s not a huge problem.

But in that model, the book is just something to be consumed and then discarded. Here is a photo of the bookshelf in my bedroom. It’s what I see last thing before I go to sleep at night, and first thing when I wake in the morning:

My bookshelf

Each one of those books holds memories for me. Some represent ideas that changed the way I think, others remind me of specific periods of my life, or of people I have known. I often sit on the edge of my bed of a morning or evening and let my eyes wander across the titles, reflecting on my life, or taking down a volume to flick through and read a passage.

Some were given to me as gifts. To me, this seems to be one of the aspects of books which will be most irreplaceable by eBooks. Even if we resolve the lending issues (still unavailable to owners of Kindle books outside of the US), there will simply be no equivalent to the personal experience of selecting, wrapping, giving and receiving of a paper book at Christmas, on a birthday or just because.

I’ve no doubt that over time eBooks will replace paper books more and more, just as CDs have largely replaced vinyl, and MP3s have largely replaced CDs; just as movie downloads are replacing DVDs, and more and more people will enjoy the definite technical benefits that that brings. But let’s not pretend that the experience is the same, or that something very human will not be lost in the process.

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