Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Apple after Jobs

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at the fifth D: All ...
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at the fifth D: All Things Digital conference (D5) in 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
That is question on a lot of tech pundit's mind. I've followed Apple news since the 80s, having started on the Apple ][e. The best way to figure out what Apple could look like is to look how other companies have moved beyond their original founding or influential founders. The story is very much varied.
There is that other company that Jobs have left and worked out ok, Pixar. He believed in having good people around in a company. His hiring of Scully from Pepsi in Apple's early day is an example of that. He refined this belief further in Pixar, where he has a team that has taken it to great successes, stayed hungry and welcome (and look for) change. I remember John Lasseter's comment in the mid-90s on how they at Pixar love the fact that Jobs was getting busy back at Apple. They now effectively controls Disney, with John Lasseter heading Disney Animation Studios. Jobs is the largest single shareholder via Disney's purchase of Pixar. Lesson: making a company great is a team sport.
Jobs has left Apple before.Contrary to popular belief that he was fired, Jobs left on his own will. Jobs wanted control over the direction and results of his vision. The board was worried about how much it would cost. We all know what Apple leadership went through after that. Guy Kawasaki puts it best in the documentary Welcome to Macintosh where he says "everybody wanted to be somebody else". He probably meant each wanted each other's success and tried emulating them. One CEO, Michael Spindler, wanted to sell Apple to Sun or IBM. All that while, I believed that the only way to fix Apple was to bring Steve Jobs back. Not that the Apple faithful didn't dream in those times of his return. All of us was right. Lesson: Apple is an expression of Steve Jobs's vision of looking and creating the future, instead of just looking at the balance sheet.
Another company with iconic founders, Hewlett-Packard, began life in the garage, much like Apple. In fact, there were the original home-garage computer company. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built it into a mult-billion company. They enshrined their beliefs in management as the "The HP Way". However, I feel that it was largely abandoned after the tech bubble burst in the late 90s and began to lose it's way as a technology leader. It became yet another computer company with many interests, with no distinctive features other than it's corporate maneuverings, sales forecasts and stock price movements. The exception is probably in printing where the brand is strong and products are respected. HP is now at a crossroads, with a CEO clearly looking for a buyer for it's 'low-profit' division, despite what it says otherwise. HP is a company lost not because of itself but it's leaders who have decided to let the numbers do the leading. Their most recent move in looking to sell their PC division is purely financial. And their customers can see right through it. They are worried about their support contracts, their investments in technology and more importantly in the people at HP. The question on their minds are: "Will the HP of tomorrow be the same HP I'm talking to today?" Lesson No 1: Anybody can have a vision and be visionary but the real question is: what is that vision? Lesson No 2: In the pursuit of profits, don't leave your customers behind.
Apple's current management is well suited to continue Steve Jobs' legacies. But soon it will need a new visionary leader. Someone who is committed to the values of Apple and is surrounded by a team willing to follow.
You see, Jobs's deal is that he wants to change the world. He wants to change the world by changing how people feel. He affects how people feel by changing or controlling how they interact with their world, whether their experience is visual or through touch. He believes that by making that experience of interacting with Apple products "revolutionary" and "magical", it will make people feel good and thus positively affects their world and the world in general. He understood that while the computer can do useful things, it is also a useful tool to impress people. Those that are impressed will go and buy the same computers. So, computers need to be useful and impressive. Now that's vision. Making a buck along the way is not bad, too.
Apple will survive after Jobs, it's just not going to be this Apple.
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Monday, August 22, 2011

Will WebOS be another opportunity lost?

You know you have been in the game too long when you see things happen twice. Or more.
When I heard about what HP did with WebOS tablets and their future 'direction' on it, I was amused and upset at the same time. Amused because the way it was announced speaks volumes on the decision makers themselves rather than WebOS itself. You can bet that it was no knee jerk reaction. This was planned for some time by those who opposed HP buying WebOS or did not see it's value. They were just waiting for an excuse. How else to explain the suddenness of the decision? Why else would you talk smack on something that you wanted to sell? "My car is crap, would you like to buy it?" What normally would happen is to they'd talk about it's good points and try to get the best value from the sale. When you say bad things about that you want to sell, you want it to be valued low enough so that the reluctant buyer sees it as a bargain instead. When the value is low enough, people who would not normally buy something like it, may be tempted to do so.
I am upset because WebOS represents good technology. When the tablets came out, WebOS got favorable reviews. Some reviewers did complain about some rough edges but forgave them because the tablet was a first model and bound to have growing pains. They expected that HP would work out the kinks in the next model. I was looking forward to picking one up.
But history is littered with good intention and great technologies. The most analogous example I can think of a is PC-GEOS. For the briefest of time, PC/GEOS and DR-DOS represented a strong challenge to Windows 3.0. PC/GEOS, later GeoWorks, was graphical desktop environment that was advanced in it's day. GeoWorks came with a word processor, graphics editor and communications software. It had a Motif-like UI with advanced features such as scalable fonts and Postscript support. It provided multi-tasking, tear-away menus and an advanced API. The API provided services for almost all of the basic functions for desktop software. The word processor was about 25kb because almost of of the functions were system calls. And since it was the early 1990s, it worked well with only 640kb of RAM. Yes, the early 1990s. Windows 3.0 still had bit-mapped fonts. Some credit it for making Microsoft to come out with Windows 3.1 just after a year it released 3.0, just to add scalable font support (it still used bit-mapped fonts for the OS).

GeoWorks Ensemble running on DosBox on SUSE
If you want to try it yourself, you can download a basic version of it called Ensemble Lite from Breadbox. There are general instructions on how to get it running on DOSBOX or you could run in a VM running FreeDOS. Here is video of a working example.

GeoWorks was a lost opportunity to put ahead a an easy to user, technically superior system that worked on existing computers. It was also a lost opportunity to make using computers less about knowing about computers than getting work done. The two biggest gripes users had about GeoWorks then was that the word processor didn't do tables and there was no spreadsheet. People had little problem using it because it was very stable. In short, it was also a lost opportunity to put applications before operating systems.
WebOS by most accounts is a system that could offer a choice other then Apple and Android for tablets. Competition is the key to keep innovation humming. Apple has already chosen to litigate while it innovates. The iPads are also still not considered enterprise ready while Apples doesn't care about the enterprise. Androids will always be struggling to keep a balance between openess and security. It also has to balance between apps running locally and depending on the cloud to deliver productivity. WebOS could be that middle ground between flexibility and security, offering fewer apps but have apps that just work out of the box and aren't afraid to live on the box. All the while continuing to push the OS into the background. Which Microsoft can't and won't do.
GeoWorks is a great product that didn't gain prominence because it couldn't compete against Microsoft's business practices back then (which effectively made PC makers pay for Windows for every machine shipped regardless of whether Windows was bundled or not). This was a time when people still ran other graphical operating systems on PCs and Windows was still version 3.0. GeoWorks didn't do disk operations so it still needed MS-DOS or DR-DOS so it wasn't like it was cutting into existing DOS sales. It also failed because it was hard and expensive to develop for. Sales were so bad, the company behind it later looked to revenue from sales of the SDK to help keep it running, what we now know as suicidal. This created a catch-22. People won't use it because there are no apps and developers won't develop for it because there a few users.
At first I ran GeoWorks on my PC but I eventually moved on to Linux 0.99pre12(?) and I bought an old 640kb Laptop (with a lead-acid battery!) to run GeoWorks. Printing was a snap because I printed to a file using  the postscript printer driver. I would then pipe the file to a postscript printer for output. Sweet.
In the end, Geoworks became an ultra-niche product and a promise of better computing unfulfilled. Don't believe me? Try it yourself, guess when you thought the OS came out and tell yourself it came out in 1991.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Webmin: The Unsung Hero

Webmin is probably one of the best kept secrets of sysadmins around. Everybody uses it but rarely talks about it. Less still admit using it. Why? Because it makes the difficult config jobs point-and-click easy. It makes what seems to take countless command line commands into a few clicks of the mouse. That is probably why it's an open secret. It does take away some of the mystique of being a sysadmin. Managers, if they knew, would demand faster turnarounds. But it still needs you to know what you are doing.
Basically webmin is a web-based config front-end for your system. I recommend it all around. Even if you run your own personal Linux desktop, I recommend you installing it. Even if you are Mr. Security Conscious, install it and configure it so that you can only access if from localhost. Because it provides something more valuable beyond that what it does superficially. I'll get to that in a minute.
Webmin is a collection of server-side scripts, separated into modules, to run local commands to configure your system. It throws up webpages that recasts the various command line options for commands that configure one component of your system. Each module corresponds to a particular component of service. Some offer interactive tools, like access to a java-based file manager. It covers everything from booting up, boot services to server services like Samba and DNS.
It hides the nitty gritty and allows you to focus on the decisions both technical and managerial. I have used webmin for a long time, I think over a decade. I've seen it' growing pains. It's epic battles of configuration controls with SuSe (one of the reasons I stopped using SuSe regularly) was an example of how much respect developers should place upon users. Suse, at boot time, kept over-writing standard configuration files (which webmin modifies) with values from it's own config file. It chose to favor it's own config files over that which the user has chosen. It was the first step towards a registry-like model and users voted otherwise.
Some things still don't work great, like Samba. But other than that, are rock solid. It hides the nitty gritty so well, that I used it briefly to manager a Sun Server. I was thrust the responsibility when someone foolishly bought a Sun server because "It was what the vendor uses". The big deal was that it was to run a database (for which there was a linux version available). To Linux users, Sun is different and the same. It has different device naming conventions, slightly different service startup mechanism, to name a few . But it is the same because it is Unix.. So, I installed webmin for Solaris and was able to manage it even though I almost never went to the command line. Manage users, assign resources. Webmin did all I needed.
But the truly valuable service Webmin gives sysadmins is the time to plan and think. When pressed for a deadline or users breathing down your neck to fix a service, webmin offers an overall view of the command options and simplifies it to clicks, freeing you to come out with solutions and make decisions. Rather than focus on and getting tripped by command line options, you can focus on what is possible and choose what is best, knowing that Webmin won't let you send the wrong command options because of typos. Less time to worry on that, results in more time to think. And contrary to what some people think, thinking is a good thing.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Lawsuit a Day, Keeps Competitors At Bay

When did Apple become the Man?
Apple has always been protective about it's copyright. Some of us remember their Interface Wars with HP and Microsoft in the early 1990s. But they have been smart about it. They have been protective of their copyright but generally shared their innovation. They popularized 3.5 inch Floppy Drives, Ethernet,  Laser printers, Firewire to name a few.
But their lawsuit against Motorola revealed in their injunction on Samsung's Galaxy Tab smacks of fear of competition. Is Apple so insecure of their post-Jobs era that it will anything to milk the most out what they have now? Apple is respected for it's style and design, quality and innovation. They can always manufacture two of them. But are they running out the third?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Nokia afraid of Linux success?

Just to follow up on the last post where I touched on the growing prominence of Linux on the Consumer Computing devices:
The news that Nokia is not going to sell the N9 in the US yet should not be surprising. What surprising is the decision to stop selling phones altogether. The situation is likely this: they don't sell a lot of smartphones (Symbian phones) in the US. The market segment that they are huge in everywhere, the feature phones and basic phones, are not selling in the US and is being eroded by smaller phone makers who sell their phones cheaper. Maybe they are looking at what IBM faced with PC and decided to take that critical step earlier.
IBM sold the original PCs but later were being outsold by other "PC clone" maker. They eventually lost money on the business but kept it around to foster brand recognition. Nothing says your business is successful by having an IBM PC on your desk. Also kept them in visible to the decision makers who would decide on the more profitable sever and services business. Don't get me wrong, those machines were no pushovers. IBM means quality and it shows. These decision makers can't see or touch the servers that they bought but using a quality IBM laptop makes them feel connected somehow.
It seems that Nokia is probably not waiting for that. They are losing money already. But to make their brand disappear feels like they are putting all their eggs in the Windows Phone basket. Microsoft loose nothing either way. Nokia wins and start selling loads of Windows Phones, they make money. Nokia goes bust again for another year despite the Windows phone and MS can pick them up for a song, positioning them squarely against Apple. Why not?
A possible success of the N9 powered by Meego could derail this. They probably had to release the N9 because it was so far down the production pipeline. It's not like it would be a surprise. Their previous Linux-based non-phones were a hit among the tech crowd. N900 showed promise. But if N9 is an improvement on that and the result is a more polished, consumer friendly experience, it would not only be trouble for Andriod and the Iphone but also other Windows Phones.Would they continue making a popular selling phone or would they compete against themselves by having both the N9 and the Windows phone? You have to wonder how much is Nokia listening to MS (remember this is not like MS "helping" Apple)? Samsung does that just fine. They have phones for every segment; Android, BadaOS, basic phones, and they are making money. Even review units of the N9 are not available to the press. Nokia says that they are reviewing market by market. They were surprised that instead of the focus on the hardware platform, which they wanted to highlight with the N9, the entire phone caused a stir. Missing maketplace or not, Flash in a phone solves a lot.
My guess is that it'll be released after the Windows phone to little press or in markets that cannot afford it and be killed off quietly. The march to MSNokia continues...

Monday, August 08, 2011

Rise of Consumer Computing and Fall of the OS

Like it or not, Linux as we know is changing. With the rise of the IPad, the face or the interaction between a user and their computer has changed significantly. The interface is simpler, touch interaction, full screen and instant-on. Interface between man and their machines has always been evolving. This most recent wave of change is significant in relation to Linux because it sees the goal of getting Linux everywhere being realized but at the cost of the Linux desktop. For years the battleground over Linux has stalled when it comes to MSOffice. The central role it places at the office, makes it a key target of any effort to implement Linux on the desktop. While OpenOffice is a choice, I have seen many efforts fail because OpenOffice was either too buggy or too MSOffice95. The countering point to this was the rallying cry of "focus on what you want to do, not the applications". To make it more palatable at the workplace, it was modified to "focus on producing work, not the tools". Even though users most of the times use the computer in the office as a super-typewriter, that is not using the majority of the functions in MSOffice, they still demand it to be installed, if anything else, for familiarity. That coupled with office politics and brand-consciousness, together with OpenOffice's own failings noted previously, halted most conversion efforts. Without weaning users off MSOffice, the Linux desktop efforts have either forced to take the "tech-users only" road or give business to Codeweavers for their brilliant CrossOver Office. This has been made worse by offices switching to web-based office systems such as Google Apps. MSOffice's resource appetite has driven users to these types of solutions, bypassing OpenOffice, the junction to desktop Linux.
I believe fundamentally that the relationship between the majority of users and their computers have changed. I am not old enough to be from the generation that had to build their first computers from kits but I have built and restored machine of that age to appreciate what personal computing might have been then. If you trace the evolution of computers in the home, you could draw a line from the first home computers for hobbyists to the personal home computers to the home office computers and laptops to the iPads and tablets (and in cases, smartphones too). In each step of this evolution, the user is still someone who wants to use a computer at home. But that person is no longer the tinkerer of yesteryear. They are not interested in how the computer works. That person now just uses the computer at home without even thinking. They don't think about using the computer, they think in terms of reading e-mail, using facebook and watching YouTube. Call it consumer computing. And if the past is any indication, those tools and concepts will start appearing at offices as users demand tools that are familiar to them to be productive.
In short, the place of the OS in our conscious thinking of computers is almost gone. Think about it. Windows was about hiding the command line. X Windows, KDE, Gnome were about that too. Browsers, HTML, Java and Flash gave us information and interaction within a window, obscuring the OS further. Now not only we don't see the window, we don't even see the OS. It all falls away as we focus on using the computer for whatever we want to use it for.
Will the choice of OS no longer be relevant? Will that work in Linux's favor? I think yes and yes. Look at the Linux underneath Android. It touts it's Linux connection to get the tech guys buy-in but soon enough it wouldn't matter and Google won't mention it anymore. IPad users don't care it runs IOS. They care that it runs.
When it come to running stable for longer, Linux is already there. There is an opportunity here. The 'fall' of the OS's importance is an opportunity for Consumer Computing solutions running Linux. Key to any success is apps and Linux has quality apps in spades. Nokia (soon to be MSNokia) bailed on MeeGo but don't count it out on tablets yet. Intel is hungry for the tablet market and may pull off another netbook-like push with tablet reference machines running MeeGo (followed by hordes of clones from China). Ubuntu is there with it's Unity interface. All it needs is compatible hardware. Not to mention other efforts to make Linux work on the multi-touch interface. Each effort represents potentially more Linux everywhere.

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