At last, a PC with a decent screen resolution

Pity it’s so small!

I’ve been longing to see a resolution as good as 2048×1536 on a flat-panel 14″ laptop or 19″ desktop screen. Clearly it was possible, but it never arrived.

Perhaps that’s because the one company that seems to take an interest in these things nowadays (Apple) has a desktop operating system that won’t let you change the font size.

So there’s never been much point in their making a screen with such a high resolution, because you wouldn’t be able to read the text—unless the screen was huge… and a huge screen needs to be widescreen or else it’ll be too tall to scan by eye easily… and so here we are, surrounded by rubbish monitors. Hey ho.

No, the last time anything at all comparable was available, it looked like this:This 19″ screen, from about a decade ago, managed 1920×1440. That’s looking pretty good by now.

The Third Pad

I’ve become used to thinking of Apple’s product releases as falling into two categories: “outreach” or “consolidation”.

Outreach releases are new products, or products introducing features that users will be unfamiliar with or that are novel enough to be headliners in adverts.

Consolidation releases do essentially the same as the previous release, but faster or more neatly. Usually they look the same as well.

Early adopters buy and promote the outreach releases, with the “new” stuff in them. Late adopters are reassured that the product is “safe” in time to buy the consolidation release, which also has better specifications, is perhaps more reliable, and has a longer lifetime before replacement.

(I’m sure there are standard names for these two in business terminology. I’ve never had any education in business. From random things I’ve read, I’d like to say “disruptive” and “sustaining”, but I don’t think my uses really match the established meanings of these.)

Of course, there’s some room for argument about which release is of which type.

That’s what pubs are for.

In my view, outreach releases include the first iPhone, the iPhone 3G, the iPhone 4, the first iPad and the first MacBook Air.  Consolidation releases include the iPhone 3GS and 4S, subsequent MacBook Airs, and all the iPod touch models.  Roughly speaking, the release types alternate.

What about the iPad 2?

I think of the iPad 2 as the ultimate consolidation release.

Although it looked different from the first iPad, essentially every change in the iPad 2 could be seen as a deliberate elimination of a specific reason that buyers and reviewers had cited as putting them off the original.

Reviewers complained that the iPad was too heavy. (They did this so much that, when I first picked up an iPad, I was surprised by how light it was because all the reviews had got me to expect something much heavier.)  But the iPad 2 was much lighter, and it looked slighter and easier to hold.

The iPad was too hard to grip and hold: so the iPad 2, as well as being lighter, had an accessory cover that could be used to prop it up for reading.

The iPad was dismissed as being only for reading and consuming content, not for doing anything creative with: the iPad 2 launched in conjunction with dedicated versions of products like Garage Band and iMovie.

Potential tablet-producing rivals liked to talk about the inferior speed of the iPad, so the iPad 2 had a faster core. Even though it didn’t make an enormous difference to the usability of the product, the speed boost comprehensively eliminated a nominal reason to buy anyone else’s product.

Everything about the iPad 2 was an exercise in eliminating objections. Other than simply not being able to afford it, almost all of the factual objections to the iPad were dealt with in its successor.

Consolidating strength

The iPad 2 is the most impressive product, in terms of design and launch expertise, that I have ever seen from a company.

Without doing anything radically new, Apple turned a product that was brilliant, but received with some uncertainty, into a product that was almost impossible to refuse on any grounds other than cost.

The launch of the iPad 2 was the moment when it became apparent that Apple was flattening its competition. After the original iPad came out, I thought—as clearly a lot of other people did—that “the tablet” was, generically, going to be a huge thing, and I started plotting the potential fortunes of all the existing smartphone companies in terms of how well I imagined they might do in the “tablet space”.  (I own the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, and I really like it: I certainly hoped Samsung would do well with it.)  I overestimated all of them, and I certainly overestimated my own estimation abilities.

The iPad 2 marked the point of failure for anyone like me who was trying to understand the market by analogy from established PC or mobile phone manufacturers.

The “iPad 3”

The sort of historical alternation between product types I’ve alluded to suggests that the iPad 3 should be an outreach product—one that looks or feels substantially different, or that has some really novel feature to promote.

I’ve no way to know, but I suspect that isn’t really going to be the case. The iPad 2 is still so far ahead of any alternatives in the market that there is no appreciable competition to attack through novelty. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have one yet, but the iPad 2 has been so successful that it’s reasonable to expect the speed of its outflow to continue: nothing substantial has changed for the worse in the environment it has to work in.

Presumably the iPad 3 will have the double-resolution screen that many commentators have talked about, and will have voice control. Beyond that, anything new that Apple include might almost be seen as a gift to their future customers. They don’t need to do it.

Hard edges, small keys

Joanna Stern reviews the MacBook Air as a Windows laptop.

I enjoyed this—I’ve considered in the past whether the MacBook Air would be a suitable laptop for me even though most of the time I don’t run OS/X. (Conclusion: probably not any more, though it might have seemed that way once.)

She does highlight the thing I’ve always found most painful about the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro: that vicious sharp edge along the front. (sucks teeth in recollection of past pain)

But she likes the trackpad. I’m not keen on the Mac trackpad, finding it too easy to operate by accident and too hard to “click” reliably. Perhaps it’s just that the PC vendors’ attempts at the Crazy New-Era Big Trackpad are worse.

The review is of a machine with a US keyboard, so although there are some quibbles about keyboard layout, there’s nothing to compare to the difficulties presented to the UK programmer—most obviously the lack of a hash sign (#) anywhere on the keyboard, and the tiny, tiny Return key (right).

The Return key is hard to hit on every current Mac and MacBook UK keyboard, even where there’s plenty of room to spare in the chassis.

It just feels gratuitously punitive to me. And that’s surely the way it is, given that Apple did it perfectly well in their older keyboards. They do know how to make a big Return key. They have learned the technology. They just think it’s not quite appropriate to accommodate whims like that from us.

Operating system updates

Google have released a version of their Chrome web browser for Android, and it seems to be rather good—but it only runs on the very latest version of Android, version 4. Which is a bit of an annoyance, because hardly anybody has that version.

Glancing at the 12 most popular Android phones on the Expansys site, I can see only two—the two variants of Google’s Galaxy Nexus—supplied with Android 4. That’ll change, but in the mean time there hasn’t been much of a rush to provide updates for older phones.

I’m generally ambivalent about operating system updates. I believe that both phones and PCs are bought on the basis of the way they look and work at the time, not in the expectation that updates will change anything significant.

As a long-term Linux user I’m all too familiar with the concept of the Ubuntu update that breaks everything, but I think my uncertainty about the wisdom of updates is common among people using most kinds of computer.

I updated my Galaxy Tab from Android 2.2 to 2.3: it improved battery life a bit, stopped cut and paste working in some applications, and provided no obvious interface improvements—not a big net positive. I know iPhone users who complain about Apple persuading them to install updates that slow down their previously perfectly good phones. My wife updated her WP7 phone recently, grumbling about the amount of time and laptop disc space used by the installer, only to find the update made no detectable change at all. OS/X 10.7 had a decidedly mixed response from users of earlier versions.

Why would anyone want to update anyway?

What drives updates is application support. The only time most users will start hunting for an operating system update—as opposed to installing one that’s thrust into their face by the device itself—is when they find they can’t run applications they care about because their OS is too old.

Even then, they’ll probably resent having to update to do it.

I don’t really care about Android 4 on my own device, which is fortunate because it doesn’t appear to be available. But I would like to try out Chrome. (There are several OK browsers for Android, but no really good ones—and the one I like best in principle, Firefox, itself gets less stable for me with every update.)

I wonder how fundamental Chrome’s dependency on Android 4 really is. Perhaps the only reason it didn’t exist before was that it needed some quite basic OS support that earlier versions couldn’t provide.

Or perhaps the dependency is seen as a serendipitous one, and the release of Chrome as a way to encourage users like me, and phone manufacturers, to update as soon as possible.

Was Windows popular?

Paul Robert Lloyd writes: “As more services require a Facebook account to use them, I wonder if it’s set to become the next Microsoft Windows; a popular piece of software that becomes the only choice available.”

I first read this as “an unpopular piece of software that becomes the only choice available.”

Plenty of people grumble about Facebook. Windows doesn’t seem to have inspired many people to delight when its manufacturer became the biggest company in the world, as Microsoft did in 1998. To me, it feels as if both are unpopular in an emotive sense, despite their ubiquity—though I feel more confident saying that about Windows than Facebook.

But my perspective is probably horribly slanted. Was Windows popular, in its heyday of the late 90s? Popular, that is, in the sense of being widely loved rather than just widely used?

Perhaps it was. I was in the privileged position at the time of being able to look on Windows from a height as a user of Unix workstations and tedious geek blah, so I would never have appreciated its value as a straightforward way of running a personal computer.

Perhaps there were millions of people given liberation and joy by the friendliness and flexibility of Windows, and by its universal availability as a result of its straightforward, resource-friendly design.

Were there?