Posted tagged ‘Microsoft’

Grabbing the Apple

July 19, 2011

I was trying to remember today when I first, consciously, installed a new operating system on a computer. To be honest, I’m not sure I really understood the concept of a ‘new’ version of an operating system until Microsoft introduced Windows (which at first was really just an application that sat on top of MS-DOS, of blessed memory), and Apple introduced System 7 (before that I was never aware there was a System 6, or whatever) – both of which happened in the late 1980s. Then again, before that time operating systems were really odd things – you had them on a floppy disk (remember them?) which you inserted into the disk drive as you switched on your computer, and once it was loaded you removed the floppy and inserted another with your documents. Can you imagine that now, an entire operating system on a 1MB disk?

By the time Microsoft launched Windows 95 the thing was (if I recall) on 11 floppy disks which you had to insert one after another, each one taking ages to load. Not long after that operating systems appeared on CDs and eventually DVDs.

But today there’s another change. Apple is introducing its latest operating system – OS X Lion – online; you go to the Apple website and purchase it. You then download and instal it. That’s it. And it costs $29.99. It doesn’t seem that long ago when a new operating system was several times that price.

Apple’s Lion is being launched a day after the company announced record quarterly profits of $7.3 billion, on revenues of $28.6 billion. Not only are the revenues staggering, but profits amounting to nearly 25 per cent of revenues also show the extraordinary power of this company, which 20 or so years ago looked like a basket case. How times change.

The power of design

April 29, 2011

Welcome to the wedding-free zone…

Two news items yesterday told an interesting story. The Guardian newspaper (and others) reported that, for the first time in many years, the IT company Apple reported higher revenues and profits than Microsoft, thereby bringing to an end an era in which, at first, Apple was thought to be dying and Microsoft was thought to be so dominant that its power eclipsed that of many countries. Now Microsoft is stagnating, while Apple is the company that appears to be unable to do anything wrong in business terms.

Also yesterday, there were reports all over the world of customers queuing in extraordinary numbers to buy the newly released white iPhone 4. In Hong Kong all available supplies had been sold within hours. The extraordinary aspect of this news item is that the white iPhone does absolutely nothing that its non-white counterpart (which has been on sale for nearly a year) cannot do – and yet hordes of people, many of whom already own the iPhone 4, are buying it; and are doing so despite that fact that insiders believe the iPhone 5 will be launched later this year.

In fact, it is likely that many iPhone customers are standing in line not because the handset is technologically superior to what is offered by the competition, but because of its aesthetic appeal. It just looks good. It feels right. And according to this report, some customers believe it makes them appear younger and more attractive. Apparently.

So what’s all this then? Is this the world gone mad, sacrificing substance to superficiality? No, I don’t think so. Design and appearance matter to humans, on the whole. We appreciate art; we are influenced by style and fashion. Commercial design that engages these instincts, as Apple has been so good at showing, triggers something that goes beyond appreciation of technological discovery. When the two are combined, however, the result is powerful. Apple’s rise and rise has been due to the way in which Steve Jobs and his team have understood this and harnessed its potential. It is an interesting story.

I’ll bet that when the in-crowd in Westminster Abbey switch their phones to silent, a majority will be handling iPhones. Oh wait, I wasn’t going to mention that.

Motherhood and Apple pie

January 18, 2011

I have mentioned previously that, in technology terms, I am an Apple man. I have two Apple Macintosh desktop computers and one laptop; I have an iPhone; I have an iPad; I have two iPods; I have an Apple TV. At times in my long life I have used PCs, and I am proficient in the use of Windows, but I am always glad to get back to my Apple stuff.

But part of the Apple culture I subscribe to was formed in days of, if not adversity, then at least underdog status. First it was the hegemony of ‘IBM-compatible’ computers (a term the younger generation will never even have heard of), then of MS-DOS (which was the dawn of Microsoft), then of Windows. While these systems controlled 90 per cent or thereabouts of personal computing, it was fun to be part of the alternative Apple culture. Or at least, it was fun until Steve Jobs left Apple and its products started to look like the faceless IBM/Microsoft competition. Those were the days that I moved over for a while to Windows, made more fun by the fact that my computers were home-made by my Faculty’s then technology officer.

But Jobs returned to Apple, the Truth was re-discovered and made more Perfect still, and everything in my house went back to Purity and Good Design. Then came the iPod and the iPhone and the iPad, and all this is even more perfect than anything before. Indeed, the iPad is probably signalling the New Age of electronic enlightenment. But something is not the same. We are not the oppressed minority, we are not the under-dogs. Apple has become the largest global technology company, it almost totally controls online music sales. It does not have the dominant market share in either smartphones or computers, but it has the recognised leading product in each. Out-manoeuvered for so long by Microsoft, Apple is now thought by some analysts to be getting ready to take over its old rival. The future is Apple.

Or is it? The question mark in the story hovers over Steve Jobs himself. Here is the man who, without a doubt, gives Apple its identity, its style, its ability to fuse technology with design and culture. And he is ill. Yesterday he announced, again, that he is taking leave from the company to deal with health issues. How dependent is the world’s Apple future on this one man? Or has he now instilled in the company a sense of design and destiny that will survive him if he were to retire?

Indeed, the question is this: is computing success the product of better technology, or is it a cultural matter? I must do a bit of research on this. On my iPad of course.

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.

Online competition

May 3, 2010

Statistics released in March of this year indicating market share of operating systems and internet browsers offer a somewhat healthier view of the state of competition than might have been expected until recently. It is true that Microsoft still holds over 80 per cent of OS market share, but interestingly the overwhelmingly largest share within the Microsoft offering is held by Windows XP, which has not been the current product for a few years. Adoption of newer Microsoft products has been slow. While clearly there is still an unsatisfactory position here, the usage statistics would suggest that a new entrant with a fully compatible product might do well. There are also signs that the Macintosh OS – which obviously runs on Macintosh computers only – is growing its market share.

As regards browsers, the situation is much livelier, with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer steadily losing market share, mainly to Firefox, but also to Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari.

I have always thought that Microsoft’s domination of the online world had to be a temporary aberration, given the somewhat anarchic nature of the internet. Added to that is the company’s notoriously slow development of its own understanding of the internet. And also, we still don’t really know how big a movement the open source community will eventually get to be online. There is still everything to play for.

‘Gadget Man’ and his outlook on 2010

January 6, 2010

When I started this blog some 18 months ago, my more ambitious hope was that I would be recognised as a leading commentator on academic matters and on the growth of the knowledge society; and maybe as someone with something to say on arts and culture; and an astute political analyst – that sort of thing. So have my dreams come true? I don’t know, really. A couple of weeks ago I was introduced at an event as ‘an important blogger, with a special emphasis on technology and gadgets.’ Oh yes? Well perhaps that was correct, because this week I got an email from what the TV broadcasters like to call ‘a member of the public’ (how do you acquire membership?), which addressed me as ‘the key European expert on the Amazon Kindle’, in which capacity he was asking me for advice.

It is indeed true that my three or four posts on the Amazon Kindle have gathered more readers (from a global readership) than anything else I have written. But an expert? I own two Kindles, and am about to order another (see below), and indeed developed a workaround for using it in Ireland before Amazon was ready to let me do that – but an expert?

Oh well, maybe for the purposes of this post at least I shall throw away my intellectual, academic, artistic and political pretensions and present myself solely as a gadget enthusiast; indeed maybe that’s where my career should take me…

And 2010 looks like it will be a bumper year for gadget freaks. After all the gloom and depression of 2009, it seems like tech companies are anticipating that we will want to burst out of the recession this year and trade up in our gadget portfolios. First out of the gate is Google with its Nexus One smartphone, based on its own Android operating system. This has been anticipated for a while, and will attract some attention in part because everything that Google does is observed widely, but in part also because it will be analysed for its potential as an ‘iPhone killer’. In fact look at any of the reviews, and inevitably it is all about how the Nexus One compares with Apple’s market leader. I haven’t directly seen or held one of the Google gadgets – and indeed Irish customers will have to wait a little – but my prediction is that, lacking some of the iPhone’s versatility and the sheer volume of the applications available for it, it will not kill off Apple’s market dominance or indeed get anywhere close to doing so; but competition is always good.

Apple in turn is expected to announce a multi-media touch screen tablet computer, incorporating an e-book reader and possibly television capability, early in the year. No further information is available at this point, but you can expect a sleek, design-conscious versatile gadget. But that too will not be without competition, as Microsoft and HP are combining to launch their own tablet computer, and may in fact beat Apple to it. And in the meantime Amazon will provide the Kindle DX (which has a larger screen than the original Kindle) for customers outside the United States; and of course I have one on order.

In the meantime more traditional technology will decline. Nearly 26 years ago I bought my first CD player and, with it, my first CD, and the beauty and versatility of this technology just amazed me. And who would have thought that this innovation would be so short-lived, because right now the CD is in free-fall decline, as music downloads (lawful and unlawful) take over. And now we can observe how the music industry, and indeed musical artists, are scrambling to salvage some sort of business model from the resulting situation.

But there is one other gadget I have just acquired that I find exceptionally satisfying, but in this case in an extremely retro sort of way. I have splashed out and bought a Montblanc ballpoint pen. So I can say if you’re tired of new technology and want something quite special in a more traditional range, these pens are awesome. I can’t see them disappearing from the market, no matter what the tech companies do. And when I put my Montblanc just next to my Apple Macintosh PowerBook laptop, it creates a particularly pleasing image. Something old, something new.