Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Computer Blathering

If you've been reading with any regularity, you'll know that I got a new computer in August which has the Ubuntu Linux operating system installed. I don't run a dual-boot with Windows, just Linux. If you know me, you know that I'm fairly clueless when it comes to computers. Being slow on the upstart it came as no surprise when I read Robert Strohmeyer in PC World this week write:
The dream of Linux as a major desktop OS is now pretty much dead.
It's pretty typical for me to adopt technologies when they're already over, my collection of music on cassette for example. Strohmeyer's argument in a nutshell is that what really matters today isn't the desktop but the cloud:
But if Linux ever manages to win equal footing with Windows or Mac OS X in a cloud-centric world, it will likely be a hollow victory, made possible only through the sheer irrelevance of the operating system itself.
I don't see a smart phone or even a cell phone in my near future, although I see Strohmeyer's point.

Previously I've only owned computers running Microsoft Windows. I never was tempted to upgrade any of the operating systems because I felt certain I'd break them. Ubuntu has a six-month cycle of updates to new operating systems, with releases with long-term support (LTS) released every two years. My computer came with the current Ubuntu LTS version LucidLynx 10.04. I'm not quite sure what came over me but I decided to upgrade to the most recent release MaverickMeerkat 10.10. It didn't go well for me, almost certainly user error; what I ended up with is a computer that wouldn't boot. I'm not sure that a clean install was the only appropriate response, but that's what I did. So now I'm running MaverickMeerkat 10.10.

One thing about being clueless as I am is that as long as things are working I'm reasonably content. I had been using XP and as it aged there were things that stopped working, most everything around Windows Live seemed broken. That probably had to do with settings regarding ActiveX that I must have changed when trying to recover from nasty malware. What annoyed me the most about XP was how long it to boot. That annoyance made MS updates irritating, and the frequent updates to McAfee anti-virus consumed so many systems resources to grind my system to a snails pace. But essentially I was happy with XP because most of the time because the computer did what I wanted it to do.

The new Ubuntu LucidLynx booted in about a half a minute. Once up and running the look was much nicer. My flat screen resolution was better than my old machine could muster, so the images stretched, not so with my new computer. Ubuntu allows for an enormous degree of choice about how things look. Many users enjoy using a dock similar to Macs, but I don't use that feature. Aside from choosing wallpaper and a theme, I have done little customization. There's a nice feature in Ubuntu of workspaces which I only use occasionally. Basically I'm happy with the way the computer came right out of the box. Probably I'd feel happy had I gotten Windows 7 too. But I'm sure I'm happier because I like the idea of Linux.

Some of my friends are Mac fans. I've never questioned that Macs are nice computers, rather like I'm sure Cadillac are nice cars, but I doubt I'll ever own either. The only opportunity I've had to play around on a Mac is at a friend's house. I was frustrated the other day in using my friends's Mac when I realized that tabbed browsing wasn't enabled and the tabs bar hidden. I find tabs so useful I can't imagine doing without them, even though I did for many years. Clearly if I had a Mac I would enable tabbed browsing. My friend won't do anything without making an appointment at the Apple Store to let an authority weigh in. Different strokes for different folks.

There's a great interview with John Sculley at Cult of Mac. My friend who lets me play on her computer probably isn't typical of Mac fans because she didn't know who John Sculley is and even the mention of Steve Jobs produced a puzzled look questioning why in the world I'd find such an article interesting. I found it interesting because Sculley, the former CEO of Apple, pointed out that Jobs is first and foremost a designer, something I'd never quite understood before. Another friend who is a Mac fanatic is an artist. The interview with Sculley helped me to appreciate my his deep love for Macs.

In an earnings call this week Steve Jobs presented a short speech saying among other things:
“open systems don’t always win.”
Since going to Ubuntu I've been more attentive to what people are saying about it. The stereotype of Linux is that it's an operating system that only geeks could love. It is true that plenty of geeks talk about Ubuntu and Linux. I particularly enjoy reading and listening to young people who are fans. Among the many sorts of people who comment on Linux I'm most like what I call the Gramps contingent. The view of this contingent might be summed up: It works and you can't beat the price.

The fact that there are Grandpas and Grandmas who proudly identify as Linux users in comments at places like Slashdot is just one more reason that Linux is right for me. It may be helpful to point out that Geek-culture is known for its rudeness. So there are some tough old birds out there. I hasten to add that Ubuntu as a brand is pretty serious about keeping the discussions civil. The Ubuntu brand is tied to the philosophical construct of Ubuntu. that Wikipedia article copies a quote from a 1999 book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Of all my friends the one with the Mac who wouldn't change anything without first consulting at the Apple store surely is a person with Ubuntu, but Ubuntu the operating system probably isn't right for her. Macs are right for my artist friend because Job's ethic that "the most important decisions you make are not the things you do – but the things that you decide not to do" is a touchstone for his daily work.

Here's a YouTube video which is really just the audio of Steve Jobs conference call. Jobs asks: "What's best for the customer: integrated or fragmented?" He answers with solid support of the integrated approach. His comments are very much in line with the guiding philosophy that Sculley reveals in the interview I linked to earlier. But I'm not sure he's right about what's best for the user; or rather I'm not sure he's right to think that he knows what's right for me and everyone else.

Apparently the interest in Netbooks, small laptop computers, has fizzled. In the process of losing my old computer and getting a new one, I also acquired a Netbook. It's not surprising I think they're the greatest thing since sliced bread and that I'm late to the party again. Anyhow despite the fact that I can't afford an iPad, I don't really want one either. And my misgivings about the iPad have to do with what I do online. I consume content online of course, and I like to be social online; I like to do stuff online. The iPad seems great for consuming content, not so much for creating it.

Navneet Alang asks some really smart questions in an article What If the iPad Magazine is Already Obsolete? Note that Alang isn't really addressing the iPad, but rather the idea of iPad magazines.
"There’s at least an argument to be made that very concept of the magazine is changing because the multiple, networked nature of the web changes our need for one publication to bring us info on a given topic, whether that’s baking or current affairs. And maybe the idea of a ‘tablet magazine’ that simply recreates the idea of a publication that somebody else put together for you isn’t such a great idea anymore."
A YouTube video introducing Flipboard for iPad is embedded with the article. Flipboard aggregates links from our online social connections and organizes them as a personal magazine. Alang also links to Paper.li which say offers a way for people to "read Twitter as a newspaper." I don't have an iPad to enjoy Flipboard, but I do enjoy using Paper.li for my Twitter stream.

Here's my problem with Steve Jobs thinking about what's best for users: the approach seems primarily about users as consumers rather than users actively engaged. It's a mess when people are engaged. Jobs paints a nightmare picture for customers and developers with the many variants of the Android phone. The premise is that customers don't want to be "systems integrators" and therefore will choose Apple products because integration is their focus. It's true that things like Flipbook and Paper.li address the social connectedness in the way we experience the Web. The social is complicated and nuanced, so they are useful but not enough

I think about myself as someone who doesn't care about how computers work, I just want them to work. Following that logic, clearly Jobs is right about what I seem to want. But when I think about what I do online, it's gets more complicated, because so much of it is social. For example people came together on Ning when Ning was still free, but now have to think about going elsewhere or paying. Or take MySpace, it's still a place to hear bands and see pictures and maybe even to see updates, but the social aspects around bands mostly has seemed to migrate elsewhere. Online collaborations of people come together, fall apart and come together in different configurations. As far as the social Web goes all of us are systems integrators. Users at least part of the time are thinking in terms of social systems.

There's a clear logic for the iPad not to support Flash, but from the users perspective what's seen is a Flash-is-broken icon. Not to worry says Apple, there's a whole collection of iPad ready Web sites you can visit. The logic follows technical specifications as well as the idea of users as consumers. It does not place the social systems, which are important to users, front and center, instead suggests that users need to be led. Technical issues are real and important, but it seems to me that when gadget makers forget the primary social importance of the Web they've lost the plot.

Apparently there's a crop of 7-inch Android tablets coming out. Tim Carmody at Wired thinks they can succeed. They're easier to hold, type on, take pictures with and use as an ebook reader. You can hear in Job's trashing them: "These are among the reasons that the current crop of 7-inch tablets are going to be DOA — dead on arrival,” a confidence that Jobs knows what tablets are for and the other guys don't. I think that the smaller form is easier for people to be social with, but still large enough to have richer apps than the Touch or iPhone, will make them popular.

Accommodating another size is exactly the sort of fragmentation that Jobs finds so unaesthetic. Wired suspects that if this form factor succeeds Apple will release their own version. I think that's a smart bet. It's a dilemma, nobody really wants beta crap, but the beta nature of things is rather baked in because people what to discover new ways to use these devices. And the importance of the ways we wish to be social can't be underestimated.

Despite the fact that Linux still has low penetration in the desktop area, Linux as an operating system has developed social systems which help users get computers which do what they want. Microsoft, Apple and even Google seem very slow to see the need for this sort social engagement with users in the development and deployment of software. The great strength of Linux is the social aspects are baked in.

1 comment:

The 27th Comrade said...

This would be the second time I am seeing the link to the Scully-Jobs interview (“job interview”?), and it would be the first time I open it. ‘Cause when I see it among geeks, it’s geek cultism. When I see it here, it is sane shit.

Funny that Steve Jobs says “open does not always win,” but is rooting for open standards in HTML5 against Flash, where Flash is almost certain to win. Save, of course, for the probable case where HTML5 wins because of Apple.
I think Flash is broken for users of some Apple stuff. People will, for example, want to swipe back to the previous level in a game (or something like that), but Flash is built with clicking as the main input method. So, you see, I understand why the designer in Jobs refused to let this thing roll. It would be a tough decision, of course, but these are the people who stuck to the single-button mouse even when it looked like a joke, and who stuck to Mail.app when every other mail client seemed to be the terminus of a long, long evolution according to Zarwinski’s Law.

Steve Jobs is right about good design. In the geek world, we see the detrimental effect of geeks having the design powers, rather than designers having the design powers. You end up with user interfaces like those of Microsoft Office applications (compare with Mail.app!). You end up with interfaces like the back of your desktop PC (compare with the back of the iMac!). You end up with protocols that can eat a child in one bite (see the specs for any XML-based protocol of your choice—for XML itself is a bug). You end up with systems that nobody should be trying to configure, if he/she is also mortal. You end up with programming languages that can cause cancer of the breath (see C++—“see see see see” heh—versus Ruby, noting that Ruby was designed to be “enjoyable”, while C++ was the issue of a PhDs—both senses of both these latter words).

Geeks find it hard to know that things can be better because of what is taken/left out, rather than what is put/added in!
Google—and the Linux World—is good at geeking, but they should not think that good geeks are good designers. The opposite is often in force. Would that geeks exercised more of their designer powers, so they do not atrophy so ashamingly.