Category Archives: Computing

Tom’s not buying an iPad

This is a very techie post – so feel free to move on if tech is not your thing.

So Tom’s not buying an iPad on principle and he’s written a wee blog post attempting to explain why. Tom’s particularly bothered that the iPad doesn’t run Flash, a type of web content that’s widely used and been around for ages. Because the iPad (and iPhone) doesn’t use Flash, some websites don’t work on the iPad. But more than that, Tom’s bothered about Apple being anti-competitive, taking away choice from users as well as being unfair to developers and content producers. (Apple takes a 30% slice of everything sold through it iTunes store: apps, music and, most recently, magazine subscriptions.)

Since Tom asked me what I thought about his post, I thought I’d write something down…

So Tom’s not buying an iPad on principle. I’m trying to get my head around what the principle is and if I can make sense of it.

My first shot is this: it is as if Tom was a petrol head and saying that, as a matter of principle, he won’t buy a car that can’t fill up with petrol. Of course, he doesn’t mind it working on electric too. It is just he wants the choice: fill her up or plug her in. But the makers of these new electric-only iCars – you know, the ones with the cool design and smug adverts – they are taking that choice away. Tom cries foul. Fuel should be cross-platform. If I go to the trouble of refining some oil, how dare a car maker stop people putting my fumes in their tank?

Tom and others have pointed out how, unlike in the car case, technology makes it easy to be cross-platform. There is no technical reason not to run Flash on the iPad. And between improvements Adobe has been making and the increasing speed of Apple’s mobile devices, it might even run well.

Does this mean it is just about the money, a desire from Apple to rake it, to extort developers and, now, content publishers, ruthlessly exploiting their stranglehold on the phone and tablet market?

Well, it might be a bit. Apple is a business after all. But it’s not only about that. Tom is bang on when he says Apple is set against the “browser-based web becoming a platform for rich device-independent applications”. That makes Tom sad — and a little cross. My emotions are different. Whenever I hear ‘cross-platform’ or ‘device-independent” I associate to “lowest common denominator’ and ‘shocking user experience’. Of course, there are exceptions to this – Adobe do a pretty good job at supporting two platforms with a good user experience on both. But you know, less work by the developer, usually means a less positive experience for the user. With mobile and tablet devices that’s especially so.

There is nothing like writing an iPhone app for reinforcing this point. Until you start to really sweat the details, you have no idea how many details there are to sweat. Having seen my app on the iPod touch, my pal Martyn asked if I had plans to produce a version to run on his Android phone. Tom’s argument might be that if I’d used a good cross-platform tool to develop it, I’d be able to tell Martyn, no problem, porting between platforms is small beer. My argument, having sweated all the user interface details I couldn’t port ‘my’ app (the one that is polished), even if I could port some version of it. But it is my app, the one with the polish, that I care about and want to share. The price of sharing it with Martyn turns out to be quite high. Sorry Martyn. But I’m sure there are lots of great Android apps out there, the makers of which have really given their heart to, the details of which are super-polished. (And if that is the case, if those developers want to move across to an Apple product, they’ll have to sweat those details again.)

It’s worth nothing that Apple’s business model is hardly uglier than anyone else’s. I’m not saying it’s OK, but any reservations would need to be targeted at the capitalist system rather than individual players within it. Yes, they are a big and ambitious player. Yes, they want to change the landscape and not merely compete within it. Whenever a landscape is changing, competition is fierce and some businesses get hurt. (Read up on alternating vs direct current at the end of the 19th century and the Adobe-Apple spat seems positively mild.) But Apple’s moves will only work if the market follows them. If they weren’t selling bucket loads, the lack of Flash and the 30% cut would simply seem eccentric or idiot risk-taking. As it is, the evidence is unequivocal: both end users and developers will stand for this. End users because the products are great to use, despite some websites appearing to be broken. Developers and content producers because 70% of a decent sized chocolate cake is way, way better than 90+% of dried up muffin.

So Tom is missing out on the fun of being an iPad user just now. I hope that when he jumps to a rival tablet some time down the line, that his tablet runs great software, software made with love and polished to within an inch of its life. And that’s a definite possibility. After all, manufacturers and developers for those rival tablets have some stiff competition.

By the way, Tom is as far from a petrol head as it is possible to be and has an admirably low ecological footprint.

Free – as in mind

An outfit called MacHeist is running an interesting promotion with, as I write, just nine hours to go. The pitch is six applications for your Apple Mac, applications ‘worth’ $154, for… well, for no money at all. What they say is ‘for free’. But I don’t think that’s right.

When they’ve run this sort of thing before, there’s always been a cash price. So far I’ve never jumped in.

My best guess about my own motives used to be this: I was holding back because although the price was low, it was still not low enough, it still exceeded the value I put on owning any one of the applications in the bundle. Just to be clear, each time around there has been at least one application that I really thought I liked the look of.

Well I think my best guess about my own motives was just wrong. Because I’m still not jumping in.

So here’s what I have got out of MacHeist this time around: a clearer insight into why even free – as in no cash cost – is too high a price for me.

It’s the same when the pizza chain guy comes to the door with this no strings money off voucher scheme – and there’s “no commitment” and “if you do it even once you’ll save money”. I say no. The hidden cost is stuff in my head, clogging up my decision making processes, in a way that I just don’t want. When I’m trying to decide who to order my carry out from, I don’t want marginal cash savings to run interference with my choosing style. I don’t want, say, to be steered to pizza rather than curry just because, in a moment of weakness, I picked up some voucher.

So if I am going to install a new application on my computer then, again, I want the right values to inform that decision making. Is the application going to make my time at the screen better or worse, more elegant or more like using a scratchy biro? And, in any case, do I want to be making decisions about that right now, on the seller’s schedule and not mine.

Well, I could just sign up, get the goods and then, at a time of my choosing, evaluate the new applications along with other potential candidates. Couldn’t I? I could just take the pizza voucher and only spring it after I had decided that, tonight, yes, I do want pizza. Couldn’t I? Well, maybe you could. I know what I’m like when I let this kind of stuff get in my head. If I’ve invested a bit, I feel some sort of obtuse obligation to follow through. And then I’ve given away a bit of my mind to pizza guy, sold a bit of my soul to software seller.

These sales folk are smart and creative. For some people they are offering a great deal. But I’m not biting. Not at zero cash cost and, hey, not even if you paid me.

Micro Men – stirring memories…

I’ve just finished watching the BBC drama ‘Micro Men’ on BBC Four. It’s a strange thing to see a drama in which many of the events and characters are familiar on a personal level. I worked for both Clive Sinclair and Hermann Hauser in the late 80s and early 90s, two of the most prominent characters portrayed in the show. I knew of, but did not know personally, the third key character, Chris Curry.

My contact with Clive was limited, though I used to see him about the office when I worked on the Z88 project . His right hand technical man, Jim Westwood, was someone I had daily contact with for several months. For the purposes of drama, he was portrayed as shy and retiring. He was, in some ways, a gentle man. But the drama completely failed to capture his powerful personality which included occasional moments of fierce anger. As in the show, there was a lot of swearing, but it was by no means limited only to Clive. It was the first time in my life that I’d witnessed grown ups really swear. It was exciting, as well as a little scary.

Sadly, the show missed the depth with which engineering ran right through Jim’s very being. I remember a particular occasion where I had some very elaborate theories as to why my prototype Z88 model might be misbehaving. Jim, always methodical, thought first about power. He had me investigate the batteries by rubbing their ends gently on some clean white paper, revealing tell tale black marks. Jim’s hardware was fine. Slightly greasy batteries were the source of intermittent power. For me, it was an early real world example of how experience can trump quick thinking. I’m not sure I wholly absorbed the lesson at the time, but the memory stays with me.

At one point in the show Hermann says ‘I’ll make the tea’. In the early days of the Active Book Company, based then in the Market Square in Cambridge, I remember a particularly hot day. Hermann bought the whole team cornettos. In one way, we knew it was a calculated gesture, an act carefully designed to raise morale. But in another way, it was quite genuine. He was happy to do this small thing for us, knowing that he couldn’t, at that point in time, do anything more to move the project forward in a technical way. And, given who we were and what we were doing, we rather respected the calculated gesture. It was like a well thought out program, designed to achieve a specific effect. It worked.

Hermann made you believe in the project and he oozed a sense of vision. He didn’t always say much, but I always had a sense of him thinking big, thinking beyond the details. He was confident in himself, to be sure. But my experience was that he made me and all my colleagues feel confident, he helped us believe that we were really good and could could achieve the goal. In the case of the Active Book, it was too much. We were trying to make Objective Oriented Programming (then we used Smalltalk), now common place, work on hardware that just didn’t have the grunt. A short lived skunk project to rewrite all the software in C never quite came off. But the vision was always fantastic. It was a privilege and a delight to work on the Active Book project. Or it was, until the directors decide to sell up and move on. With the advent of the iPhone, the hardware has caught up with the vision. That was the kind of product we were shooting for.

The BBC film mixed drama with historical footage including stills of computer magazines that I remember buying at WH Smiths and poring over for hours. The pub in which the characters met, the Baron of Beef, was once run by the father of a school friend. I went to parties there as small child and, later, as a teenager, drank the occasional pint.

Watching the film, I grew nostalgic for the friends and colleagues that were not portrayed. Paul Bond, the big brain behind the Z88 and the Active Book, was a mentor and a role model for the late teenage me. He once took me flying in his Cessna. As exciting as that was, and it was exciting, the battle to break his software and to persuade him to accept some of my user interface ideas, was even more exhilarating. With a bigger canvas, Paul would have been at the edge of this drama. As would, I suspect, Eric the wireman, who shocked me with his homophobia at an age where I lacked the confidence to protest and, indeed, in an age where such protest was much more of a challenge. Perhaps further out of this drama’s brief, not least because further forward in time, I thought of other good friends, such as Jamie, whose Scottishness seemed so exotic to me then, and Martin, with whom I shared Thatcher’s passing – a delight for me and a disappointment for him. Most of all, the show made me remember how exciting it was to be making new things. And, of course, it still is.