Posted tagged ‘Android’

Googling

September 4, 2010

Exactly 12 years ago today, the company Google was formed by two Stanford University students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. A dozen years on, and their little enterprise is everywhere, having entered the language and provided people the world over with indispensable search tools – a kind of map for modern life that we all need in order to get where we are going. In the late 1990s there were several respected search engines (remember Infoseek or Altavista, anyone?), but within a very short space of time they had all pretty much disappeared.

And of course, a company as large as Google, and with so little apparent competition, must also be looked at closely to see what it is doing. Since you and I use Google entirely free of charge, you might wonder what creates all that shareholder value. And once you start looking at it that way, the commercial essence of Google is not based on providing searches, but rather being an advertising agency. All over every Google page you look at it subtle advertising, some of it based on the electronic analysis of what you are searching and what you are writing. And Google is also engaged in a competition with Apple, as its Android operating system for mobile devices goes head-to-head with the iPhone.

Google has an academic background, and from an academic perspective it has become a vital tool: its search function, Google Scholar, the digitisation of books – all of this has placed Google at the heart of the academic experience.

Alongside the useful, even vital, functionality Google has, its size is on the other hand vaguely scary, and its near monopoly status in searches should perhaps be a little troubling. Though I like what it offers, I also make sure that, at least every so often, I use the competitors who offer something reasonably good also: Yahoo, or Bing, for example. Keeping Google to a reasonable scale is a way of ensuring that it also stays useful.

Apple, Google, Microsoft and all that – fighting the technology wars?

June 14, 2010

People sometimes like to see the development of technology not just in terms of what works best, or even what looks best, but also in terms of dramatic (and maybe romantic) struggles between various forces of good and evil. The received wisdom about computing, for example, has been that the more boring but commercially smart Microsoft defeated the more exciting and noble but commercially out-gunned Apple, establishing the dominance of Windows-driven PCs in the process. Steve Jobs was driven into exile in Elba (or maybe it was NeXT).

But hey, Jobs escaped and gathered his troops – or maybe I mean he created the iPod and then the iPhone – and before you could blink Apple had become a super-company defeating the purveyors of uniformity. And now with the iPad Apple may even be re-defining the concept of computing, and the whole idea of the PC (and with it its previously all-pervasive operating system) may be on its way out. Steve Jobs may be about to become the master of all he surveys.

Or hang on a minute, do I hear the distant sounds of battle, is Jobs heading towards his Waterloo? And who will be the winner there? Could it be Google with its Android operating system for mobile devices? Could it be that the Jobs restoration was only temporary, that history is about to repeat itself, and that the hardware-with-propietory-software model that Apple employes could lose out once again to the more flexible but also more boring model, this time offered by Google?

That, at any rate, is what some of the technology commentators are now beginning to suggest, as in this Newsweek article. Others agree that the battle is imminent, but may be less sure as to who is going to win it. For myself, I rather doubt the compelling force of the analysis. Apple’s position in the market now is very different from what it was in the late 1980s in personal computers. While Android-run devices may indeed be proliferating, their standing in public awareness does not match that of Apple. The iPod, the iPhone and now the iPad have re-defined not just technological preferences but a whole fashion sense. I doubt that this is going to go away. The power of design and fashion within consumer technology is much greater now than it was then, and Apple has mastered this more than any other company.

Apple may not have everything to itself – surely a good thing – but I don’t see it losing another technology war. At least not yet.

The changing world of operating systems

June 2, 2010

My first computing experience as an academic was in Trinity College Dublin in 1981, when I persuaded the Computer Centre there to let me use the DEC (Digital) mainframe computer for word-processing purposes. If I recall correctly, the software used was called ‘Runoff’, and it was all command line based. It was great fun but amazingly complicated; though what was even more complicated was how to store my files on computer tapes, and how in turn these were loaded and dismounted. Happy days! But at the time I would have had no sense of what a computer ‘operating system’ might be.

Then my department, the School of Business Studies, took the revolutionary step of buying a personal computer – one, for the whole department – and this was a massive machine made by a company called Shelton. And here I was first made aware of something called an ‘operating system’, in this case CP/M (‘Control Program for Microcomputers’). For wordprocessing purposes, we used something called ‘WordStar‘, again using command lines but with some WYSIWYG features (‘What You See Is What You Get’). And from there we followed the industry trend and soon had a small number of IBM-compatible PCs using Microsoft’s MS-DOS.

A good friend of mine had started using the very first Apple Macintosh computer, and in 1986 I followed suit and bought my first Mac, the old box-like computer that looked revolutionary and behaved in a revolutionary manner. As I progressed my computing skills I also watched how my colleagues managed with MS Windows, and then Windows for Workgroups. For a short while I went back to the PC standard when Windows 95 came out, and I stayed there until the launch of Windows XP; at which point I returned to the Macintosh.

Of course while I was jumping around between operating systems, Microsoft was establishing its total market dominance with Windows – which at first had been a graphic interface essentially sitting on top of MS-DOS, but which later became a full operating system in its own right. But right now that dominance may be fading somewhat. Partly this is to do with the growth of other operating systems, in particular the Apple OS and Linux. Interestingly Google has just announced that it is phasing out the use of Windows in its operations.

In mobile devices there is also a healthy development of competition between market leader Apple, Microsoft and Google’s Android.

But perhaps the whole computing world is moving away altogether from visible operating systems. As computing is perhaps going to be done more and more in the ‘cloud‘, where software and file storage is provided on remote servers and the device you have in your hand merely gives you access to that server. The interface you work with for these purposes is really just part of the internet, and operating systems (which essentially control what you do with your personal device) may become much less of a feature, or may slip away completely as far as the average user is concerned. This will be a challenging setting for Microsoft in particular, which for the first time recently fell behind Apple in market capitalisation.

Clearly we are in a era of technological transition. It should be exciting.