Why Tablets Will Fail (If We Don’t Fix Them)

(Note: This was partially written a few months ago. Times have changed a bit, but tablets are still terrible in my opinion. I have to pat myself on the back for guessing that the Xoom and BB Tablet would fail, although it WAS a fairly safe bet.)

If look at the pipelines of major technology companies, you will see one item on all of them, tablets. Granted, it’s probably a good idea right now because tablets seem to be the hot new toy. Many tech columnists are saying that it’s the future of computers. Though they also acknowledge there will always be that segment that needs high performance. The problem with tablets right now is they don’t deliver on their promises. Tablets are supposed to be lightweight, portable, and most of all, easy to use. Since the dawn of computing there has always been a push to make it simpler. I’m going to pick on the iPad here because they have such a large part of the market and they somehow made a previously dead market come alive again.

I’m going to start with what Apple got right, app management and price. Geeks who have used Linux/Unix package management for years probably wonder why it took so long for a mainstream consumer OS to catch on. Apple did it right and you can easily download, install, and uninstall applications with a finger press or two. No install wizards where you have to choose directories (this is also a downside) and you have less chance to make mistakes. Price is where Apple also got it spot on. Normally Apple over prices all their products, lovingly called “The Apple Tax” by many, but at $499 for the base iPad model it creates a decision for consumers that use their personal computers lightly. They can decide to spend the same amount of money on an iPad or buy a cheap laptop that has a much more flexible operating system. Apple did a brilliant job marketing the iPad since many consumers with enough disposable income just buy both. As Steve Jobs had said before though, it creates an unnecessary device between laptops and desktops that consumers truly don’t need. Every other company coming out with a tablet is piggybacking on the marketing communications coming out of Apple and aren’t developing any new use cases for the tablet devices. I can’t fit the iPad in my pocket and like the iPhone or iPod, I can walk around staring at a 10″ screen instead of a 4″ screen walking into people and doors I don’t see.

Other tablets are going to fail way before the iPad for numerous reasons. The Motorola Xoom will fail because it’s too expensive and Android isn’t as mature as iOS, so customers won’t see as much value in it. The Blackberry tablet will fail because it requires a separate device to access email and have 3G access. I don’t care if it’s a wireless Bluetooth connection to a BB phone, it’s going to be hard to convince enterprise customers to buy a tablet instead of laptops. If you’re just monkeying around with email, all of BB’s phones do just fine and people have grown accustomed to that. On the flip side, say you need to type up a business proposal. Fat chance you’re going to type that on a touch screen. Also, unless you have giant hands, the 7″ still requires two hands to hold steady. Now that we cleared those competitors away, lets get back to the iPad.

The iPad’s interface may seem so intuitive, but in all honestly, it still doesn’t address some of the problems some computer illiterate face (namely a lot of the older generation). I’ve found this with a lot of people who don’t completely understand how computer interfaces tend to work. When I tap a link in Mobile Safari and it opens up a new page, the other page goes away. Now, it may seem silly…it’s still there, but I’ve seen people freak out and don’t have a clue where the page they just had open went. Also, there’s no way to restore recently closed tabs in the interface. Sure there’s history, but a lot of times I see people closing tabs to “hide” them and then they wonder where the heck they went. That’s just an example in Safari which is probably one of the most used applications on iPads. Another big problem is file saving. While there is an argument to not have a file browser, it cosmetically limits what the device can do. You can’t just save Word document from an email and then access it offline from the iPad. We still have a long road ahead of us in terms of usability and HCI, but I think the interfaces can be improved significantly, but not limit the power of the device. This is the older generation though, we have a new generation of kids who interact with cellphones before calculators.

I was talking to teacher at an event I was at and he made an interesting comment about the first graders he was teaching. They were teaching them how to use a basic calculator (those blue TI calculators that always seemed to go missing by the end of the year) and instead of just pushing the buttons with one finger, they started typing with their thumbs and were holding them up to each other and “texting” each other numbers. The next generation will even more so be able to handle the complexity of these interfaces so what would they have a use for these “simplified” interfaces? They’re being exposed to it at such a young age, they won’t have any problems with them. They’re not going to need or want a device like an iPad or tablet. They’re going to want the power and flexibility a laptop provides and as they’re getting ever slimmer with SSD technology and ever smaller processors so portability won’t even be a factor. For almost the same price and size in the future they’ll be able to have a laptop with a physical keyboard (anyone truly like a virtual keyboard…even with haptic feedback?)

I hope the market matures and we’ll see better tablets in a few years, but for now I’m going to stick with a regular laptop and desktop.

Taking a Chance with x.0 Releases

For the past three days, I’ve had the Snow Leopard disc that’s in the mail sitting in a pile. Generally I couldn’t care less about installing software, but for some reason I was second guessing myself. From the people I know that have Macs, they are generally split between getting the latest release and waiting for the first point release (i.e. 10.6.1). I can easily see the logic in waiting, but you hold off on getting the latest and greatest. The same dilemma will arrive in a few weeks for PC users when Windows 7 launches. I’ve been using the Release Candidate for quite a while and I find it fine with the exception of a few compatibility issues with software here and there.

I usually don’t like to get into specifics, but I think maybe holding off for a point release may have been better with Snow Leopard. Most of the problems I was having didn’t really get fixed and now I have a few more bugs to deal with.

Exchange Support

What a load of nothing Exchange support has been to me thus far. The only reason I intended on using it was to hook up my school email with my regular email in Mail. Unfortunately, I presumed the same technology was in Snow Leopard that is on the iPod/iPhone. Apple’s portable devices license a technology from Microsoft called ActiveSync which allows it to directly connect with an Exchange server. On the desktop/notebook side, they connect to Exchange using EWS or Exchange Web Services. I assume since I can access my school email through the web, they have this enabled on their servers. I could be horribly wrong and pointing the finger at Apple, but they should have just used the same technology.

WiFi Connection

Apparently a ‘cool new thing’ in Snow Leopard was that you can see all the signal strengths in the drop down menu. Whoop dee doo! The problem that I currently have after upgrading to Snow Leopard is that it likes to time out my connection. It’s not dropping connections like a few other people are complaining about, but when I try to load any web page it will time out. The funny thing is that Adium still appears to be connected for a minute or so until it eventually times out and signs off.

QuickTime X

While I generally like the improvements they did with the new QuickTime Player, I wonder why they didn’t take the time to build in WMV playback into the player. It’s like the freaking Swiss Army knife of players with Perian installed, but it still lacks support for WMV playback. I have to use a turd of a plugin called Flip4Mac WMV. It might not be the developers fault it’s a pile of crap since Apple probably has him go through plenty of hurdles. The import time of a WMV file on Leopard wasn’t that bad, but it’s currently slow as molasses in Snow Leopard. This is most likely a result of the beta version I have to run.

In general, Snow Leopard is more refined than Leopard though. Expose is a lot better, along with new version of the Finder which is a bit faster than the old version. Start up and shut down times are a bit faster. Also, Stacks on the Dock can actually dig down into other folders and the Put Back ‘feature’ in Trash has already been put to use (Only god knows why it took them so long to put this in). I haven’t had a chance to test out the HFS+ read support for Boot Camp yet or the built-in support for Cisco IPsec VPN connections. I must say this though:

I wouldn’t have purchased 10.6 if it had been the normal price. ($129 USD)

The $25 price made it a lot easier to swallow.

Is RSS Dead?

A few months Steve Gillmor posted an article called Rest In Peace, RSS. He has this notion that the real-time web will take over and supersede RSS. If there’s one thing that I can be sure of, it’s that RSS is never going to go away. The biggest problem is that websites like Twitter and FriendFeed are single companies, but RSS is a protocol. A protocol is a general set of rules and RSS isn’t controlled by a single entity. The big question is, what happens if Twitter or FriendFeed fails? They are seemingly becoming large companies, but they aren’t public companies and rely on private investment. Unless they start becoming cash cows within the next few years, they’ll be thrust out of existence and a thing of the past.

This isn’t to say the entire idea of the real-time web is completely defeated. There are new technologies like Google Wave that emerging, but they’re still in a testing phase. There is no telling whether it will catch on or not. Although the problem of a single point of failure arises again. Twitter has been down a lot, but it most likely doesn’t affect 99% of the people in the world with internet access. If people start piling onto a single service, it creates a problem. This probably has even reared it’s ugly head in the enterprise as companies increasingly move their applications to the “cloud”.  The recent outage at Google shows that no matter how large a company is and how large it’s infrastructure is, there are still failures.

Of course failures will still happen on separate systems, but it’s a contained failure. If I get all my news through Twitter and then Twitter goes down, so does all my news. RSS allows for separation and if one feed goes down, it’s not an apocalypse. I have to admit that I’m now somewhat of a hypocrite though. I use NetNewsWire on the Mac for my news feeds. The new version syncs with Google Reader. I believe Google Reader has it’s own service that goes out and crawls the feeds and puts them in the reader. So instead of pulling directly from the site, there is an abstraction. I wish it pulled the feeds directly, but NetNewsWire is a great client and even if the feeds can’t update, I still have a nice list I can view on my computer of all the feeds I’m subscribed to and go there separately if need be.

Another problem Steve mentioned was information overload. He doesn’t want to parse through all the information. The problem is that the real-time web will eventually get like that. If you follow too many people on Twitter you’ll be getting updates faster than you can read them. I have about 50 feeds in my RSS reader and I currently follow 113 people on Twitter. I’m fortunate that many of them don’t post a lot otherwise I would probably have to stop following them. Newspapers have spoiled us in a way. They have editors that filter through a lot of news and gives us what they think is the best. Going onto the web, your friends and you are the only filter. The world is a large place and if you try to view all the raw news, your brain would explode.

Real-time and RSS both have their separate places. In my mind they serve different purposes and one will not be taking another over. I’ve always loved the fast pace of innovation in technology, but some technologies are so pervasive and deeply rooted in society that they’ll never leave. RSS is one of those technologies and it is not dying nor will it ever be dead.

PS: Just to note, there’s a button in your browser to subscribe to my RSS feed.

6 Basic Things A Techie Should Know

I recently read a few articles on Digg that said what every ‘geek’ should know. While some of the lists had good ideas, most of the items on the lists are really specific to ‘computer geek’. I figured I would make my own list of what a techie should know.

HTML

I’m not saying that you need to know how to program, but at least learn a bit of HTML. It only takes a few hours to grasp the basics and it’s always a good resume booster.

The Basics of Hardware

When you say you’re a techie you better know a little about hardware. I don’t mean that you need to know about every single component thorougly, but you should be able to open up a computer and understand what is going on inside. If someone says their computer isn’t booting, you should be able to test each piece of hardware and deduce what is broken.

The Basics of Software

Like I said with hardware, you don’t need to know about every single piece of software, but have general knowledge about how it works. You should know what a boot loader is and how to install an Operating System. You should hopefully understand the differences between the major operating systems and be able to suggest what is best for a user based on their own knowledge.

Read

I find this one very important. Technology moves so quickly nowadays, you need to stay up to date on the latest developments. I recommend getting a feed reader or use something like Google Reader and subscribe to some tech feeds. A few good sites to get started on are CNet, Slashdot, Digg, Techdirt, Engadget, Wired, TechCrunch, PCWorld, MacRumors, Technology Review, and Popular Science. I have about 50 feeds in my feed reader right now and they keep me up to date on the latest news.

History

Along with reading, you should really know some history behind technology. If you look at the past, you better appreciate what we have now and will give you a bigger picture of how technology has advanced over the years. While Wikipedia is always a good place to start, you can find a lot of books in your library or off Amazon.

Know Best Practices (Also Practice What You Preach)

A lot of people ask me for advice about what kind of anti-virus software they should get or what they should do to protect there data. You should know that backups of data is essential for everyone and storage space is so cheap these days, there isn’t much reason not to do it. You should also actually do the same things so you can talk about it from personal experience.

There is a lot more you can do, but I think these are the basics every techie should really know. If you are intrested in this stuff then you obviously like to expand your horizons and usually you like to get smart in a specific subject. For me, I understand a lot of hardware, but I’m more of a software person. I program with some languages and I read a lot of software-related books that interest me. It’s up to you to find your niche.

Shared Hosting

While working on the site for The Recorder (Central’s newspaper) I’ve had to deal with what we were going to do for hosting. CCSU currently runs all club websites on a Microsoft IIS server. There isn’t even database access so we’re left with either static pages or crazy ASP flat file systems. Neither of these was what The Recorder wanted. Their current system was ASP and seemed as if it was on the brink of collapse.

After a quick check of prices we came down to GoDaddy. I use GoDaddy for all my domain names, but I never thought of having sites hosted there. None of my personal projects were “mission critical” so I thank ZoomCities for hosting them for free on a fast VPS. I can’t put a major site on a free hosting provider though. I wasn’t involved in budget discussions, but they settled on the 24 month Unlimited plan. It’s $13.49/month or $323.76 for the whole shebang. Obviously there are limitations to that. There are physical hardware limitations, but one thing I can’t get over is the speed.

Since it is an “Unlimited” plan I bet a lot of people host a lot of illegal files and are sucking the bandwidth of the shared server, but it seems overly ridiculous. Look at these statistics that compare ping time with my site (dweitz.net) and the recorder site.

--- dweitz.net ping statistics ---
10 packets transmitted, 10 packets received, 0% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 15.594/17.816/20.278/1.380 ms

--- therecorderonline.net ping statistics ---
10 packets transmitted, 10 packets received, 0% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 97.226/98.067/101.293/1.112 ms

I haven’t forgotten about speed of light differences though. GoDaddy’s servers are in Scottsdale, AZ while the server I have my site hosted on is in Ashburn, VA. Those two sites are about 2,203 miles apart from each other. The speed of light is 186,000 miles/second. So that means data can travel at a theoretical limit of 186 miles per millisecond. So every 186 miles we can add 1ms difference and not fault the server. For 2,203 miles that would be a difference of 11.8ms. So for round-trip that would be 23.6ms added. So if that GoDaddy server was in Ashburn the response time would be in the area of 73.626ms round-trip minimum. That’s a difference of 58.032ms between the two. Even if you slow down the routes between here and GoDaddy it wouldn’t be enough to bridge that 58ms gap.

I can’t blame GoDaddy though. A lot of service providers oversell their shared hosting. 1&1, Bluehost, and Dreamhost just to name a few. If you want to go to a dedicated virtual server it starts at $50/month most places and that’s a basic package. You get a lot more value add with a shared hosting package. Most people are going to be stuck with shared hosting still though, unless you have enough advertising or a massive budget to pay for dedicated hardware.

I hope I get FiOS in my area soon so I can build a server and run it from my house just for the heck of it. Having a server in my kitchen was one of my childhood dreams. I had messed up dreams as a kid.

(PS: First Post of 2009, w00t!)

My Favorite Mac Apps

I’ve owned a Mac for a few months now and there are a few apps that I really can’t live without on a daily basis. These are in alphabetical order:

Adium (Free)

I love Adium. I can be signed in across multiple protocols seamlessly which is a plus because I have accounts on six different IM networks. Also, it is readily customizable with a plentiful amount of themes. It also integrates with growl so I get little notifications when people IM me.

Handbrake (Free)

Handbrake is an awesome application that takes DVDs and turns them into MPEGs to store on my computer. I have a pile of DVDs at home and I’ve already lost a few to scratches and unfortunate encounters with my cat. There are a plethora of options you can set, but you can also go with the presets if you don’t know what you’re doing. Handbrake will now also convert between other formats as well from your hard drive instead of a DVD.

Little Snitch ($29.95 to buy / 3 hour free trial)

Have you ever had the curiosity to know what apps are doing in the background? Well Little Snitch satisfies that need. It tracks all incoming and outbound traffic on your computer. It works much better than the built-in firewall in OS X and allows you finer grain control over port blocking and what types of packets you let through. It’s a little annoying for the first minute while it learns everything, but after that, the little network monitor pop up is fun to watch.

NetNewsWire (Free)

If you’re like me, you read a lot of news on the web. RSS feeds have simplified the consumption of all that data. I have some main feeds on my iGoogle homepage, but I have a lot more feeds in NetNewsWire. It automatically syncs so I can check them elsewhere and it will sync up when I get back on my main computer.

smcFanControl2 (Free)

The Macbook Pro has this nasty tendency to heat up to burn your lap. smcFanControl solves all of that. I tend to keep the fans running about 4,000rpm which keeps my lap cool and battery life isn’t affected that much. It sits in the taskbar and have your choice of display options, but the default is compact and gives the CPU temp and fan speed. This was the second application I downloaded besides Adium when I first got my computer.

TextMate (30 Free Trial / $51 to buy or $43.35 with EDU discount)

I absolutely love this text editor. Some people prefer BBEdit, but I’m on the TextMate side. It does exactly what I want it to do and the project features are hands down the best. I use it for everything I create from simple HTML templates to advanced PHP scripts.

Transmission (Free)

I use BitTorrent…a lot. I find Transmission to be a great minimalist application on OS X. It gets my torrents down at blazing speed and its integrated support of IP blocks and bandwidth throttling are a plus. uTorrent recently came out with a beta application for OS X, but I’ll wait until it’s out of beta.

Twitteriffic (Free, $14.95 helps support them and remove the ads)

I do the occasional twittering and this app is excellent. I used to use Snitter (which is a great app), but I heard a lot of good reviews of Twitteriffic, so I tried it out and I was sold. It sits in the task bar and it uses growl to show the updates. The text box is a bit small, but I don’t find it much of a nuisance.

UnRarX (Free)

This nifty little utility is a godsend. I’m always getting files to download in lots of different formats and broken up into a million different files. UnRarX handles them nicely and quickly. It can recover corrupted files and it supports password-protected archives.

Versions (~$50 / 30 Day Trial)

As a programmer, I use version control a lot on large projects with multiple people. There is TortoiseSVN for Windows, but I never found something easy to use on the Mac. Versions seemed to come out of nowhere. I downloaded the beta and instantly took a liking to it. There is no crazy menus or slow Java programs to run to update and commit files. It’s all done in a Mac native GUI. It’s a bit pricey, but it works REALLY well.

Data Security

Over the past few days many stories were written that show critical systems aren’t as secure as one might think. I just read an article on Slashdot called Most Companies Admit Their Data Is At Risk and it’s no wonder there are many stories about identity theft. Health care records, financial data, social security numbers, etc. are all at risk. A lot of that risk can be reduced though.

The biggest problem I see is a lot of data is out there and accessible on the Internet. Spending more on IT security is all fine and dandy, but many risks stem from uneducated employees who accidentally leak data onto the web. The most secure system in the world is no match for the idiot who has access to the Publish button.

The Large Hadron Collider’s network was attacked recently as well.[source] While it was a simple hack, the LHC IT people revealed that the crackers were one step away from a computer controlling part of the LHC. I don’t even know how this can happen. Who thought it would be a bright idea to stick those computers on any network that was accessible to the outside world? Computers that control ATLAS and the other experiments should be on their own network. That network should not have any physical connection to the outside world.

The company I work for recently had a breach as well. It wasn’t a computer system though. It was a CD containing information such as names, social security numbers, and other personal information. It was suppose to be sent to the state for some tax reporting purposes. The disk never got there though and I got a piece of snail mail about two months after it happened that laid out the situation. I was offered the chance to sign up for a two year LifeLock account for free, courtesy of my employer. Since I now have a LifeLock account, I can safely say my Social Security number is…why should I tell you? Spending money on IT security wouldn’t help in this case, but I wonder why the state still runs it this way at all.

IT security can always continue improving, but it’s the people, not the hardware or software that is to blame most of the time. If a system gets breached because the adminstrator set the password to ‘admin’, who is to blame? The IT administrator of course. The system is obeying what the human is telling it. Artificial Intelligence is just that, artificial. A system can learn over time, but that’s just the wisdom of the crowd. The solution to all of this is to shutdown the internet, but unless you want to live in the stone age, then I would advise against pulling all those plugs.

Woah!

Figured I would post to make sure I don’t go completely dark. Working on lots of projects and going to college soon!

Boo to Validity

Not really though. Validity is an important aspect of being a web developer, and as one, I believe that I should try my hardest to implement the various standards that have come to be on the web. Although, I occasionally get in arguments with people about some of the finer points of validity and semantics.

I just read HOWTO Avoid Being Called a Bozo When Producing XML, and I must say, it’s a little over the top. In reality, I think just about every single XML feed that is dynamically produced is done with sending the header text/xml and printing out lines while in a loop. It may not be the best way to do it, but it works. Sending it as application/whatever creates messy situations in IE and it’s all around not fully supported by any browser.

The same deal has happened with XHTML. It is suppose to be pure XML, styled and transformed with an XLST stylesheet. I have never seen that anywhere on the web with the exception of starcraft2.com. In place of true XML, we tend to just use HTML sprinkled with slightly stricter rules. Then, a text/html header is sent and the browser just ignores all the strict markup we did and parses it as normal HTML! I now understand why a lot of people like to use HTML 4.01.

It really isn’t the standard creators fault. The W3C has done a wonderful job creating very specific and well layed out standards. The problem is not them, it’s the browser makers. Some are obviously worse than others (*cough* IE *cough*), but none of them have fully implemented some of the latest standards. I can’t really pin down Mozilla because they’re an open-source, community developed browser. I can, however, yell at Microsoft. They have an entire team of dedicated people that just work on Internet Explorer. They get paid crap tons just to work on it. It seems like all that money really hasn’t paid off. Other browsers are light-years ahead of them in terms of speed, reliability, security, and just plain rendering ability. No one is perfect, but it seems to take YEARS for some basic implementations.

I would love to implement these standards on the sites I create, but the hard truth is, they just don’t work right yet. Until everyone can work together, nothing is ever going to work the best it can be.

PS: I know I haven’t posted in a while. I’ll keep trying.

Going To Get Back In It

I’ve been sick for a few weeks and have been busy with a bunch of school work. I have a couple partial posts which I’ll finish up and post when they are ready.