Buy Our Superior Celluloid Cylinders

M., brandishing new telephone: I find it a bit difficult to actually make phone calls, but it’s great for the internet. No, I really like it. The battery’s hopeless though.

Me: How often do you have to charge it?

M.: About every two days. I thought it was defective at first.

A fun mental exercise is to think of an old product that has been superseded by a newer one, and imagine that their roles are reversed—would you be able to sell anyone the old product as a replacement for the new?

VHS tapes, for example: more intuitive seeking than your old DVD player; no unskippable gubbins at the start; the tape remembers where you’d got up to if you stop and restart; easy to record and re-record on. Very practical!

Awful picture and sound quality though, and much too big. Probably wouldn’t sell all that many, but you’ve at least got the beginnings of a promotional campaign there. You could have a crack at it.

Similarly, DVD looks pretty promising as an improvement over Blu-Ray, being superior in almost every practical detail.

I can imagine trying to flog LP records as an alternative format to digital audio, with quite distinct areas of strength, though I can’t see all that much hope for CDs in between.

Selling your “All-New Feature Phone” as a low-cost, lightweight, miniaturised upgrade for a smartphone would be tricky. Popular new technologies often involve new input methods, and users find it very hard to go back. But if you had to try, you could make a pretty good start by talking about batteries.

Imagine being able to go on holiday for a week or more, and still stay in touch without having to ever worry about finding a charger. That’s what the latest battery management technology exclusive to “Feature Phones” brings you!

The original iPhone reintroduced the sort of comically short battery life familiar to those of us who had mobile phones in 1997 or thereabouts, and since then phones seem to have been going about the same way as laptops did during the 2000s—a series of incremental improvements consumed by incrementally more powerful hardware, meaning we ended the decade with much the same order of magnitude of battery life as we started with.


End of the laptop line

I realised not long ago that, for my purposes, laptop PCs have stopped improving.

It didn’t happen recently: it just took me a long time to notice.  In fact I reckon it happened about five years ago.

My decline and theirs

Sony Vaio PCG-R600MX (2002)The first laptop I bought with my own money was a Vaio R600MX in 2002. It must have cost about £1400. A lovely hardware design, it had a beautiful case and keyboard and a clear 12.1″ screen, but it was noisy, even for the time it was slow, battery life wasn’t good, and the screen was only 1024×768.

Still, it was easy to carry, and that’s the first thing I looked for in a laptop because I only used it when on the move. I stuck with similar criteria for years after that, up to a Vaio Z in 2010.

But the way I work has changed during the last five years or so: I lost the desk and desktop PC I had at home when the space was upgraded to a chest of drawers; I do less number-crunching than I used to, and rely less on the power of a desktop machine. I can “get away with” using a laptop more.

I now have most of my data online, so I no longer have any need to carry the same computer between work and home.  And having a family I travel less.  I haven’t left Europe since 2002, meaning that first Vaio is still the only computer I’ve ever tried to use on a plane.

So I now work on a laptop far more than I used to, but it doesn’t actually have to move about as much.

During the same five years, something bad has happened to laptops.

Screens have got shorter and shorter and gone all shiny. Keyboards have turned flat and featureless. The hardware has got faster, but quite a bit of that is down to solid-state drives—which you can retrofit in any machine. For the former me, an 11″ MacBook Air would have seemed like the ideal machine: to the current me, it starts to look a bit fiddly.

When all this eventually dawned on me, I made a couple of trips to the Queensway computer market and to eBay and discovered that a Thinkpad T60, made in 2007, now costs about £150.

Quadratisch, praktisch, gut

There are machines that do individual things better than the T60, but nothing else I’ve found yet is so consistently nice to use.

Thinkpad T60The 14″ non-widescreen high resolution display! All those lines of text!  Funny to think this was once commonplace.

A proper bumpy keyboard!  And a good one, if not quite your Sun Type-5.

Of course it’s not fast as such, but it was certainly fast “only” five years ago, and it’s good enough, especially with another 70 quid spent on an SSD, to feel broadly contemporary rather than totally antique.

(Software no longer seems to bloat as rapidly as it used to, either because I’ve been fixed in the same tasks and development environments for too long, or because the increasing proliferation of lower-level general-purpose hardware and the limitations of Moore’s law have moderated other developers’ ambitions.)

Very solidly built; easy to find spare parts and replacement batteries; battery life isn’t bad. The styling is a bit divisive, but it appeals to me.

Finally, the T60 was the last Thinkpad that actually said IBM on it. I’m a sucker for that.

And a hundred and fifty quid!  Just writing it makes me want to go and buy another… although even at that price, I can’t currently afford to. Even so, it puts dramatically into perspective the amount I’ve spent on new hardware over the years.

Is this just because I’m becoming obsolete along with the computers I use? Is it an affectation that I’ll forget all about next time something really shiny turns up? Or is it a symptom of the PC age running out of appealing novelties?

Operating systems

Windows 8: Mixed metaphors

I haven’t yet paid much attention to the Windows 8 Developer Previews, but having found Windows Phone 7 so likeable I thought I should take a look.

It’s very disorientating. It’s as if two different agencies are at work in designing it, one pushing for radical simplification in the mould of WP7 and the other for plenty of extra features. And whoever is responsible for running the show has decided the only way to make everyone happy is to do both, but to flip between them depending on context.

So there’s the Metro home screen with WP7-style squares:

Windows 8 MetroDevelopers are encouraged to produce applications that work in the same style, so when you start one up, it runs full-screen but with a “feel” that is familiar from the home screen.

But when you run up a traditional application like Windows Explorer, it flips to the old-school desktop and comes up with something with more accretions and fiddly bits than ever before:

Windows 8 TradI have a certain affection for that sort of complexity—it reminds me somehow of KDE3—and I can see the ribbon is intended to be more touch-friendly than traditional menus, but it’s not exactly coherent, especially since it isn’t obvious from the Metro home screen which tiles are going to launch you back to the desktop and which will leave you in Metro-land.

There are other idiosyncracies, like the way the right mouse button behaves quite differently in the different kinds of application, or the fact that Metro apps wouldn’t run at all for me at first because they have a fixed minimum size and my VirtualBox window was too small. All this leaves the impression that Microsoft are trying to crunch their way through a major change in interaction style by brute force, without ever really knowing where they’ll end up or how.

A bit like the early days of X11, before the question of what to do with all those mouse buttons had really been settled and the conventions from the now-traditional Windows application laid down. A fascinating business.


How come Windows Phone 7 isn’t a big hit?

I’ve read some speculation recently about why Windows Phone 7 hasn’t been more successful.  (For example, here by Charlie Kindel and here by MG Siegler.)  But they don’t seem to mention the Obvious Reason.

The Obvious Reason

HTC Sensation

Above, left: an exciting, vibrant, joyful-looking phone with appealing pictures on the front.
Above, right: a grey object ruefully displaying a handful of murky green squares.

Microsoft have missed any opportunity they might have had to compete directly against the iPhone for consumers’ attention.  Besides getting in first and making a compelling product, Apple have spent a decade building what turns out to be a very effective means of selling phones to people — by actually showing them to people and letting people try them — without asking anyone to deal with the horror of the mobile phone shop.  Microsoft haven’t got that option.

No, the competition for Windows Phone is Android, not iPhone. WP7 has to compete against Android on the shop floor, on the wall of plastic replicas, in the hearts and minds of mobile phone salespeople.

And it can’t do that, because it looks dull.

Why would anyone buy a phone that looked boring, but that was in fact the unusual, hazardous choice?  Who wouldn’t rather get the phone that looks exciting, especially when it is also, underneath the facade, the popular and safe choice?

“Good taste”

Windows Phone 7 is a lovely operating system to use; like many people I really appreciate its design, and I imagine that most people who do use it will enjoy it.

It emphasises information over decoration; creatively uses text itself as a responsive, dynamic interface element; and is as close as a mainstream OS has come to finding a successful replacement for every letter of the previous generation’s WIMP acronym.

WP7 exhibits “good taste” in a way that no other current operating system does.  I use the term “good taste” in a rather loaded way.  Apple show good judgement, but that’s not the same thing: when it comes to taste, Apple are always willing to exploit the appeal of the toylike, shiny, luxurious.  WP7 resembles minimalist architecture in comparison.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, minimalist architecture isn’t very popular.

Tired Technologists

WP7 might have been designed to appeal to people like me, long-standing technology users for whom the thought of another shiny glass-look 3D-effect icon is a tiring one.

I like it for that.  But for me to like something… let’s just say it’s not a good indicator of commercial success.  The products I like best largely seem to flop, and I suspect many people whose interest in products is broadly technical find the same thing.

Does the fact that I like WP7 mean that it’s doomed, or does the fact that I think it may be doomed mean that it could take off after all?  I’ll have to wait and see.