Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: January 2010 (page 1 of 7)

What Amazon and Macmillan are fighting about

Author Charlie Stross explains the business reasons why Amazon pulled all Macmillan books from their online store last week. It’s the best overview of the dispute and why readers should care about it that I’ve seen.

Also check out this post by Jim Henley, in which he links to a bunch of reactions and runs some of the numbers in the dispute, and explains in concise terms exactly what’s at stake:

There are $7-8 in incremental costs coming off of every hardcover book as we move from print to bits, with some small new incremental costs for ebook production. So call it $7 a book.

One way or another, that $7 is going to be split among authors, publishers, retailers and customers. The question is, who gets how much?

Update: Macmillan wins, for now.

Can we call hardware/software integration a trend?

Ted Leung points out some parallels between the iPad and Oracle’s new strategy integrating Sun’s hardware:

I spent most of yesterday watching the Oracle/Sun strategy webcast, and a major theme was the way that Oracle plans to tightly integrate Sun’s hardware, and to optimize the entire hardware and software stack. The Oracle Exadata database machine was repeatedly touted as an example of this kind of integration. If the benchmarks and early customer experiences are indicative, this integration has paid off handsomely, as it has also with the Sun Storage 7000.

And the bottom line:

Many of us in the “open” world decry vertical integration because it is almost inevitably closed, but the kind of engineering virtuosity that is on display does impress.

Phil Agre is safe

In November I posted an item on Phil “Red Rock Eater” Agre, who had been missing. He’s been located and is apparently fine.

Smart iPad writing

There’s a ton of interesting writing about the iPad floating around that you may have already seen.

Steven Frank writes about Old World and New World computing, and explains that the exemplars of the new world are the iPhone and the iPad (and their competitors from other companies). I agree. The first thing I thought when I saw the iPad was that it would be the perfect device for my wife. She uses her computer to read email, surf the Web, and do some basic productivity stuff. She hates laptops, and she’s not a fan of the complexity of desktop computer operating systems. She’s ready for New World computing. (I, on the other hand, want a 27″ iMac and the opportunity to steal the iPad when she’s not looking.) Steven’s piece is really great, full of astute observations. You should read it.

Alex Payne is disturbed by the iPad because he sees (as I do) that it is the beginning of the end of computers for people who tinker.

Adam Pash says that forcing people to choose between open and user friendly creates a false dichotomy. This is one of those things that I wish were true, but that I’m not sure actually is true.

Fraser Speirs posts the positive take:

If the iPad and its successor devices free these people to focus on what they do best, it will dramatically change people’s perceptions of computing from something to fear to something to engage enthusiastically with. I find it hard to believe that the loss of background processing isn’t a price worth paying to have a computer that isn’t frightening anymore.

If you’re interested in the iPad itself rather than its implications for the future of computing, you have plenty of options. Stephen Fry is incredibly impressed. John Gruber talks about how fast it is and the chip Apple has built to make it so fast. He posted more hands on details yesterday. Usability expert Luke Wroblewski talks about the new user interface interactions introduced in the iPad presentation.

And finally, I agree with Roger Ebert — they should have called it the iTab.

My take on the long term implications of the iPad is here.

Cell phones make you more likely to crash, but …

Efforts to stop people from using their mobile phones while they’re driving are stepping up lately, thanks in part to Oprah Winfrey’s efforts to warn people of how dangerous it is. She did an episode on the topic last week, and it’s up for free online. Today, she asked people to celebrate her birthday by taking her No Phone Zone pledge.

The science would appear to be on Oprah’s side. Researchers have found that people talking on the phone are four times more likely to crash their car than they would be otherwise, but neither the increasing use of cell phones nor subsequent bans have had any measurable effect on overall crash numbers.

Having used my phone to talk and check email in the car, I’m completely convinced that I don’t drive as safely when I do it, and I’m trying to cut it out. Even so, I’m fascinated by the discrepancy in the numbers.

Adobe’s John Nack defends Flash

I like to beat up on Flash a lot, but there’s no way to argue that it hasn’t delivered a ton of value over the years. Here’s Adobe’s John Nack arguing making the argument:

But let’s also be honest and say that Flash is the reason we all have fast, reliable, ubiquitous online video today. It’s the reason that YouTube took off & video consumption exploded four years ago. It’s the reason we have Hulu, Vimeo, and all the rest–and the reason that people now watch billions of videos per day (and nearly 10 hours apiece per month) online. Without it, we’d all still be bumbling along.

Read the whole thing. (Via Webmonkey.)

No one else can say it for you

It’s always hard to say, “I don’t know.” But no one else can say it for you.

Ta-Nehisi Coates with the utterance of the new decade.

Is the iPad the harbinger of doom for personal computing?

In 2002, there was a lot of fear of Microsoft’s trusted computing platform, Palladium. The idea was that Microsoft was going to add new security to computers that was enforced in the hardware which would put an end to viruses and some other security problems but would also fundamentally change the relationship between computers and their users. Your computer would no longer be fully under your control, nor would it be functionally anonymous. Steven Levy’s original article hyping Palladium explains the purported benefits, then Ross Anderson explained what was scary about it.

In the end, Palladium was a total failure. It never went anywhere. But people at the time reacted very strongly when the traditional idea of the general purpose personal computer was threatened. People were afraid that if Palladium were implemented, the PC maker, application developers, and media companies would all be able to exert control over your experience.

Now we turn to Apple’s iPad. It’s just an iPod Touch with a big screen, but that’s all that many people need from a computer. You can use it to surf the Web, read email, listen to music, watch video, or compose documents. That’s the personal computer use case for many people. And I think a lot of people are going to buy them.

The fundamental difference between a Mac and an iPhone is that I can run any software I want on my Mac. I can buy it on a DVD, I can download it from the Internet, or I can compile it myself. I can get rid of OS X and install another operating system. The Mac is a general purpose computer in the classic sense. The iPhone is not.

Apple decides which software I can run on my iPhone. Apple provides the only means by which I can get it. The platform is for all intents and purposes, closed, and the hardware is closed as well. Sure, the iPhone is great to use, but the price of using it is that you’re rewarding Apple’s choice to bet on closed platforms.

What bothers me is that in terms of openness, the iPad is the same as the iPhone, but in terms of form factor, the iPad is essentially a general purpose computer. So it strikes me as a sort of Trojan horse that acculturates users to closed platforms as a viable alternative to open platforms, and not just when it comes to phones (which are closed pretty much across the board). The question we must ask ourselves as computer users is whether the tradeoff in freedom we make to enjoy Apple’s superior user experience is worth it.

The Setup just published an interview with free software pioneer Richard Stallman about the tools he uses. He uses a crappy Chinese netbook as his only computer:

I am using a Lemote Yeelong, a netbook with a Loongson chip and a 9-inch display. This is my only computer, and I use it all the time. I chose it because I can run it with 100% free software even at the BIOS level.

If Apple is really successful, it’s likely that other companies will be more emboldened to forsake openness as well. The catch is that customers won’t accept the sudden closing of a previously open platform, that’s one of the reasons Palladium failed. But Apple has shown that users will accept most anything in an entirely new platform as long as it offers users the experience they want.

I think that it’s a real possibility that in 10 years, general purpose computers will be seen as being strictly for developers and hobbyists. The descendants of the iPhone and iPad and their competitors will rule the consumer market and people will embrace the closed nature of these platforms for the same reason that Steve Levy hyped Palladium almost 10 years ago — because what you get for trading off freedom is reduced risk. There will be few (if any) viruses, and applications will “just work.”

General purpose computing is too complicated for most people anyway, and the iPad’s descendants along with similar competing products from other companies will offer an enticing alternative. So I see the death of the traditional, open personal computer as a likely occurrence.

Will closed personal computing matter?

The other question that arises for me is whether, in the the long term, the computer you hold in your hand really matters. If all of the applications we use run on other people’s Web servers, and all of our data lives in the cloud, then the fact that our computers are closed appliances we use to get to the Web isn’t such a big deal.

When you look at the performance curve for JavaScript, it does not seem unreasonable to me to imagine that one day in the not too distant future there will be no difference in performance between desktop applications and applications running in the browser. Apple has done a lot to make it possible to build Web applications that are nearly indistinguishable from iPhone applications. It seems likely that every platform vendor will be following their lead, so for most users it won’t matter whether they launch an application by clicking on an icon or by choosing a bookmark in their browser. Indeed, on the iPhone you can already assign icons to Web sites as though they are full-fledged applications.

I foresee an era where people who really care about computing freedom use whatever closed personal computer is available, but run their open source applications on a virtual machine in the cloud somewhere running an open source operating system. Their data is stored in some other location, perhaps in encrypted format so that the fact that it’s not in their physical control matters less. It’s not quite the same as the traditional definition of a “personal computer” but it’s not any less free than what we have now, and it provides the benefit of being accessible from anywhere with an Internet connection.

A future where applications and data in the cloud are more our own than the computers on our desks seems bizarre, but I can see things playing out that way.

For more on the threat to open computing posed by the iPhone platform, check out this piece from Create Digital Music.

The future of app stores

Stephen O’Grady argues that app stores (of which the iPhone App Store is an example) are going to continue to be a big deal. I’m inclined to agree, and I love his example of the WordPress plugin directory.

I’m also going to quote from one of his sources, Farhad Manjoo’s negative article on app stores to make a slightly different point:

That’s a miscalculation, because the App Store’s true rival isn’t a competing app marketplace. Rather, it’s the open, developer-friendly Web. When Apple rejected Google Latitude, the search company’s nearby-friend-mapping program, developers created a nearly identical version that works perfectly on the iPhone’s Web browser. Google looks to be doing something similar with Voice, another app that Apple barred from its store. Last fall, Joe Hewitt, the Facebook developer who created the social network’s iPhone app, quit developing for Apple in protest of the company’s policies. Where did he go? Back to writing mobile apps for Web browsers.

The question I’d ask is, how is this a loss for Apple? Web browsers are becoming increasingly powerful platforms for applications. It would be a problem for Apple if these companies were going off and building Android apps, but if they’re writing apps that still run well on an iPhone, then Apple is still a beneficiary of their work.

The real State of the Union

Whats truly depressing, however, is that as a country we seem to have completely lost the will and the capacity to collectively confront these challenges. Our union has been torn asunder by a clash of ideologies and special interests and brigades of power-hungry partisans that has resulted in a paralyzing political stalemate. In response, our citizens have become angry, cynical, distrustful and dispirited.

From Washington Post business columnist Steve Pearlstein’s The State of the Union speech Obama would give in a more honest world.

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