Category Archives: tech

Of Google Hotel Finder and comparing Apple, Microsoft & Google

In an interesting critique of Google Hotel Finder, these lines stood out:

As Google grows, its willingness to float bad products is starting to seem a little bit similar to Microsoft, ten years ago. You know what’s also similar? Its dependence on a single cash cow that keeps them from caring whether any single side venture lives or dies.

Which leads us to:

The direct contrast of course is America’s best design-driven company, Apple. Steve Jobs would rather die than release any new product that wasn’t a step-wise improvement over everything that existed before. That’s the mentality of someone that cares about whether people use a product. It’s the mentality of a designer. Google’s mentality is that of an engineer, content to labor over one cool feature at the expense of creating any overarching value.

And finally:

As the example of Microsoft vs. Apple showed us, the engineer’s mentality can win early in a product cycle, when new features can create great advantages over competitors. But over time, as the tech gets commoditized, it’s companies like Apple, which are focused on integrating all the features, that create world-changing products.

On the iPad

I’ve been meaning to write a detailed piece of the iPad ever since it was announced, but knowing myself, it’s no surprise that I haven’t gotten down to it yet. So before everyone receives their iPads over the weekend, I would like to put some thoughts on record, essentially for me to look back at this article 3 years from now and see what all I got right 🙂 Not the detailed article I had hoped to write, but more like important points that need to be made. Some, of these points may have been made by someone or the other, I am not sure.

First off a couple of points, that should be clear to anyone who’s even heard about the iPad.

  • A device for technophobes

    The kind of device you’ll give your grandparents and forget about it, so they can do everyday things like check mail, photographs, videos etc. without having to worry about “fighting” with their computer. Without worrying about viruses, malware etc. For you and me, it means no more remote support over TeamViewer trying to fix their computer!

  • Geeks stay out!

    As a corollary of above, and as has been (very) well documented, not your cup of tea if you like to be in “total control” of your computer. The tight control that Apple has over the device is what makes the device what it is (in terms of usability as well as end to end user experience) and “hackability” has to lose out. 10 bucks says Apple comes out with a similar device in the near future that runs full OS X and is as geek friendly as OS X on the desktop. You can quote me on that!

  • Now that we are warmed up, let’s look at the significance of the iPad in the larger scheme of things.

  • Computing as an appliance

    Not sure if anyone has used this term wrt an iPad, but to me, this is, finally, computing as an appliance! You don’t care about the hardware inside your Television set, DVR or set top box, why should your computer be any different? The fact that you interact with a computer in far more complex and various ways as compared to, say, a Television, doesn’t mean it HAS to be as complex as that. An iPad (or for that matter any similar device that is capable of hiding the underlying complexity from the user) is finally going to unveil the joy and simplicity of using a “computer” to the masses. Of course, you may refuse to call them computers in the traditional sense, but they would do what most people wanna do with a computer – Connect, Consume (media/ games) and Create (basic documents/ spreadsheets etc.), what I would call the 3 Cs, if I wanted to sound like one of those B-school types.

  • iPad clones

    Ever since the iPad was announced, everyone has been playing the “me too” game. If these devices try to attend to the perceived “gap” that the iPad has (i.e. user being “in control”, hackability etc.) then they’ll just end up being slightly sexier looking version of netbooks. It’s going to be the iPod all over again, where the other players claim “but we offer *insert features here* that the iPad doesn’t have” and the market will just crap over them, because 95% of the people don’t care about those extra features. They just want to deal with the simplest device that doesn’t get in their way.

    The iPad clones that’ll have an impact will come from the people who learnt from the iPod scene and realized that cramming more features into your product isn’t the way to defeat Apple. Of course if anyone out there has actually learnt the lesson and is willing to build an entire ecosystem around their product(s) like Apple does is anyone’s guess. This “walled garden” approach that people (geeks/ commentators) criticize about Apple is what keeps the user happy. The idea that “if it’s in the app store it won’t crash and burn my computer”, works very well for most, thank you very much. If you look at the numbers, those who care about “openness” are an insignificant minority.

  • Apps not Safari

    One thing I foresee, which I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, is a move away from the browser as the starting point. Mind you, I am not saying a move away from WWW, even I am not that foolish, but I see Safari (or whatever your browser is on your “iPad like” device) being launched less and less. You wanna check your mail, you’ll use either the built-in email app or Google’s Gmail app. Weather? Weather Underground app. NYT? An app for that. Pictures from the vacation that your grandkids went on? Facebook or Flickr app.

    The way I see it, the app (or widget or channel as various platforms do or will call it) model relates much better to the way “regular” people consume information in the real world. You want news, you pick up the paper. You wanna see photos, go look at the albums etc. A different application (icon, essentially) for different tasks is easier to understand/ relate to for most people.

    Technically speaking, I see machine readable formats like RSS (or more likely some other format that serves a similar purpose) playing an important role with this. Not for consumption by end users, but by the apps/ widgets/ channels by the same content producer, but on various platforms. So NYT produces content and publishes it (at a private URL) in a machine readable format. The NYT app on the iPhone/ iPad/ *insert device here* connects to that URL, downloads the content and displays a version optimized for your device. MVC anyone? Pretty much what happens today as well, but with the wide variety of devices that we are likely to see in the future, this is going to really take off.

  • The iPad impact

    If you don’t know it by now already, or are one of the skeptics/ iPad bashers, let me tell you the impact this device will have is going to be huuuuge! And I am not just talking about the impact on Apple’s bottom line 😉 As I mentioned earlier, this will completely change the way people think about computers. This is the device we promised people when we sold them the idea of computing. Not machines that were breeding grounds for malwares and viruses or a gazillion other frustrations that regular people face when “confronted” with a computer.

    As I mentioned earlier, this is the beginning of a new movement. The iPad will force everyone to rethink the basic principles on which we have designed the user interfaces that we expose to the end users. Make no mistake about it, the entire “desktop” based UI paradigm that has been with us for 20+ years now is being challenged as we speak and “computers” as you and I know them today will perhaps we restricted to a small subset of the audience who extract a more specific purpose than the 3 Cs (see above). But the majority of the population don’t care about GCC, 3D accelerated video cards or the ability to run Logic Pro. The iPad and its approach to UI actually works better for them.

    At the risk of repeating myself, those who adopt this “new” approach, will be the winners and those who try to fit old ideas in a new bottle, like they tried on the mobile platform (a Desktop with a start button on a 2″ screen is a great idea honey!) will fail.

  • Flash killer

    Yes, the iPad doesn’t have Flash and unless the folks over at Apple have a drastic change of heart, it probably never will. Does that mean you will not be able to watch Hulu and the likes? No! It means that Flash would be used less and less because no one wants to leave the iPhone/ iPad guys out. We’ve already seen this before, when Youtube started offering MP4 versions of videos, atleast partially, to cater to the iPhone crowd. Even with the iPad there’s talk of people releasing optimized versions (e.g. TED, who’ve already done that I believe) and plenty of buzz around Hulu doing something similar. Expect almost all the major players to follow suit. And it won’t be long before they realize it’s not worth producing content in two different formats, and since the iPad format works well for non-iPad users as well, let’s chuck Flash!

    Adobe knows this, and which is why it has tried to publically put Apple under pressure on more than one occasion, including accusing them of denying access to OS X APIs. Of course, such methods don’t work with Apple (howz that countdown going Opera folks?) and, if anything, would have made the guys at Apple more determined to hold on to their post – as if they needed any more convincing! So while Flash may continue to be around for games and fancy UIs, its days as the de-facto standard for videos on the web are numbered.

Delhi Metro Airport Express

I remember reading something about the baggage handling at respective stations a few years ago. Found confirmation of the same. Sounds even more high-tech than what I had imagined!

The Sibag Train baggage handling system from Siemens Mobility will offer passengers an added convenience: travelers to the airport will be able to check their baggage in at the metro stations at New Delhi City Airport Terminal Station and Shivaji Stadium City Airport Terminal Station. There they will be able to pick up their boarding cards, get on the Airport Express and ride to the international airport. Upon arriving, they can then go straight to the security check and proceed to their departure gate. Independently of this, the baggage which they checked in at the metro station will arrive at the airport, where it will be fed into the existing baggage handling system, taken through the automatic security check and loaded onto planes according to their respective flight destinations. To ensure seamless baggage transport from the station to the airport, the baggage car of the train will also be equipped with a conveyor system. An automatic container loading mechanism located on the station platform will automatically load the containerized baggage through the door and onto the conveyor in the car. When the train enters the metro station, the container system will be aligned precisely to the loading door of the baggage car. Passenger boarding and container loading happen simultaneously and very quickly to shorten station dwell time for the train. The whole process will be controlled fully automatically and accurately by Sibag Train.

Source

Let’s see what is actually implemented 🙂

Tatoo



tatoo, originally uploaded by Avi_Abrams.

The Bill everyone loves to… love!

Lines that stood out for me from Bill Gates’ remarks at Harvard:

I remember going to Davos some years back and sitting on a global health panel that was discussing ways to save millions of lives. Millions! Think of the thrill of saving just one person’s life – then multiply that by millions. … Yet this was the most boring panel I’ve ever been on – ever. So boring even I couldn’t bear it.

What made that experience especially striking was that I had just come from an event where we were introducing version 13 of some piece of software, and we had people jumping and shouting with excitement. I love getting people excited about software – but why can’t we generate even more excitement for saving lives?

He spoke about issues close to his heart, but he started off with a couple of jokes, which is always a nice way to start, and made me think, again (( Remember AllThingsD and the “I am not Fake Steve Jobs” remark, again, right at the start? Either this guy is good or well tutored :p Ya ya, once a Microsoft cynic, always a cynic. )), not bad, this guy has a sense of humor (( There’s no such thing as a good sense of humor or bad sense of humor. You either have a sense of humor, or you don’t. )).

I want to thank Harvard for this timely honor. I’ll be changing my job next year … and it will be nice to finally have a college degree on my resume.

I applaud the graduates today for taking a much more direct route to your degrees. For my part, I’m just happy that the Crimson has called me “Harvard’s most successful dropout.” I guess that makes me valedictorian of my own special class … I did the best of everyone who failed.

But I also want to be recognized as the guy who got Steve Ballmer to drop out of business school. I’m a bad influence. That’s why I was invited to speak at your graduation. If I had spoken at your orientation, fewer of you might be here today.

And this little gem:

Radcliffe was a great place to live. There were more women up there, and most of the guys were science-math types. That combination offered me the best odds, if you know what I mean. This is where I learned the sad lesson that improving your odds doesn’t guarantee success.

Keep up all the good work Bill, the world appreciates it. Needless to say, I am talking about all non-technical projects.

Dumb as Dell – Part 2

Part 1 was about matters in the “real world” – a customer willing to give a company money, on top of a large amount that he has already spent. But the company denies him the service, instead questioning whether he was the right owner of the machine. I still can’t get my head round to that one – never expected a company to turn down money. I guess pigs will fly next.

Part 2 – this post – is about matters “technical”.

Now this laptop I bought comes WITHOUT any form of Windows pre-installed ((It comes without any OS installed, but a FreeDOS CD is enclosed. This was part of the reason I bought the laptop in the first place, as I had already bought Windows, and thought I could save some money this way.)). Of course I knew what would come as part of the territory – installing the OS of your choice y(duh!) and, significantly, as you’ll soon see, all drivers etc. from the accompanying drivers CD (( You do not get a “restore CD” like a typical machine which comes with Windows pre-installed, which, again, is quite obvious, because this machine’s “initial state” is the “clean state”, which you don’t need no restore CD to reach. Given long enough, any Windows machine sooner or later will reach that stage in any case, but that’s not the point here.)).

With the OS installed I proceeded to install the drivers. Upon inserting the drivers CD, I was greeted by an application which gave me a list of all drivers available on that CD. To it’s credit, the application was smart enough to detect what hardware I had and as a result I could see a “Setup has detected the presence of this hardware” message next to the relevant drivers. So far so good, but that’s as far as the joy goes.

From then on, it was a case of clicking on each of those driver names individually, getting the setups running, “telling” each one of them where to extract themselves and clicking on a series of “next” buttons to get things over and done with. Imagine doing that a dozen times or so.

Now the reason I am upset is not because I had to run a dozen setups inside a few minutes, no – if you need the drivers, you’ve got to run the setups, right? I am upset, and frustrated, because a lot more could have been done to make this entire experience relatively pain free. The “hard part” had already been done i.e. identifying what hardware I had and what setups correspond to that. I know that in itself isn’t exactly hard, but it’s atleast the “harder” part compared to what I am about to suggest.

How difficult would it have been to automatically run all those setups at just one click?

Do you seriously think each of the drivers need to be extracted to a different location – can’t they use a common folder and just create sub-folders? Apart from that, there’s no answer that the setups expect from me – I am just expected to keep on clicking Next. “Are you sure you want to..” – Yes, Next. “This folder does not exist, should I…” – Yes, Next. “Do you agree.. ” – Yes, Next. “Do you want me to install..” – Yes, that’s why I started this process in the first place, Next.

Allow me to digress a little bit.


Next. Next. Next. Next. Have you ever seen a Windows user install a program i.e. run through a setup? ((I genuinely believe this phenomenon doesn’t happen to as large an extent in the Mac world, perhaps because we do not encounter that many “wizards”. I know when my Mac “asks me something”, it deserves my attention.)) Most of them just keep clicking on “Next” unless they find the button disabled or some other thing interrupts their “flow”, even when they are running that setup for the first time. You could very well write “I’m gonna kill your cat and format your hard disk now” and they’ll still click on Next. Because they simply don’t read what’s on the screen.

I don’t blame the users for that – they just have too many questions to answer! I blame the developers. Don’t ask the user a question unless you REALLY have to. Where should you install the application? Yes, ask that. Informing the user about other products you have to offer? Come on dude, that’s not even a question – no wonder the user will just skip over that and click on Next. Keep that out.

Developers have screwed up so much, that crap in the “standard” in the Windows world. That’s the way we do things, they say. Then you bloody well change it, because that is the reason people are getting frustrated with computers and believe that’s how computers are. They don’t have to be, and the Mac is an example of that.

Is it a surprise that viruses spread so fast on Windows, when perhaps 95% of the users don’t even bother to read what they are saying “Yes” to? To them every alert, every dialog box is an interruption to their work flow. They don’t care what it says as long as it vanishes, because they have to deal with so freankin’ many of them. Unless things grind to a halt and they have no real option but to pay attention to what it’s saying. Of course, by then, it’s too late.


Back to Dell.

Here’s what Dell could have done instead. I’m thinking check-boxes.

A single application that detects what hardware is present on my machine and gives me a list of corresponding drivers next to it. A little check-box next to each of the drivers, checked-on by default, if that driver is NOT already installed in my machine (shouldn’t be hard to detect that?). Conversely, if the driver is already installed on my machine, leave it unchecked (however, allow me to select it anyways, in case I want re-install). When I click Next, show me the EULA and other mandatory stuff you need to show. Once I agree, ask me ONCE where I would like to extract the setup for future reference, if at all. (Hint: nobody cares if the sub-folders are called “DL8362” or “HD3723”). Once I tell you that, go ahead, install ALL the drivers without asking me any further questions. The next time I should hear from you should be that “Reboot now or later” screen. That’s it.

How hard is it to implement that? Not at all. High school punks could do that in a couple of hours, so Dell with it’s army of engineers should be able to handle it. But question is, are they willing to? Scratch that, willingness comes later, are they even aware their software is lacking in these respects? How many “Usability Engineers” does Dell employ and what exactly have they been upto?

[tags]dell, microsoft, usability, software, interface, HIG, Mac, drivers, install, setup[/tags]

Dumb as Dell – Part 1

I picked up a Dell laptop for my Dad during a weekend trip to Dubai recently. I had no intention of buying a laptop but I couldn’t resist the “deal” that was being offered. ((I think the MacBook is excellent value for money, atleast at the US price, but my Dad would never boot into OS X, as his work involves using Windows only software. I know about Parallels and everything else, but buying an Apple machine and never or rarely booting into what makes the Mac experience what it is, would be dumb to say the least.)) I don’t think I have been this non-fussed over the purchase of any “gizmo” ever – I didn’t open the box for full 7 days until after the purchase and the only thing I did then was to see the box had a real machine which powered up. I logged onto the BIOS to verify the configuration was what I paid for and back it went into the box until it was time to come back to Delhi.

I come back to Delhi and realized that the charger plug is UAE/ Muscat type and not India type – as one would expect. I thought I would call Dell and buy a replacement cable – just the part with the plug, that goes from the socket to the adaptor (power brick) and can be detached. Mind you, I knew I could have just bought a cheap converter (which would have cost me around 40 bucks) but it’s an additional thing to carry, which you can very easily forget somewhere, rendering the laptop unusable (atleast when the battery runs out). Hence I thought let’s spend the 1000 bucks or whatever it costs, and buy a replacement cable.

So I called Dell. First I was asked how I knew the problem was in that cable. Who said anything about a problem? I just want to buy a new one, I said. I quoted the serial number (Dell has a fancier name for that, which I can’t recall) of the laptop and was told I couldn’t buy a cable from them, because that number was not showing up in their database. When I told the customer representative I had bought the laptop in Dubai, I was told that Dell couldn’t verify I was the rightful owner of this laptop and hence cannot sell anything to me! I should get the ownership of this laptop transferred to my name, she said, by sending a couple of emails and only then could I buy anything from them. I asked her in as many words – “are you telling me I can’t buy any Dell accessories, unless I quote a right number?” (aka I am throwing money at you and you are saying no?!!). She told me she couldn’t help me and went on to say how this was somehow supposed to make genuine customers safer – am I the only one reminded of WGA? ((I’m sure studies have statistically proven that Dell notebooks are stolen less than Apple ones, and I’m sure it’s down to this practice of Dell.))

Exasperated, I asked, you expect me to wait 2-3 days, while I wait for the “formalities” to get completed, with a non-functional laptop, because your database doesn’t have my laptop number, when her helpful best came out and she said, no Sir, you can go out and buy a convertor. For once, I took her advice and did just that – I bought the darn convertor.

[tags]dell, wtf, microsoft, india[/tags]

What IBM thinks of AMD and Intel

“Since IBM has been on the cutting edge of dual-core technology with its Power line, it would certainly be an embarrassment if companies like Intel and AMD were to deliver dual-core merchant market products in 2005 while IBM didn’t,” said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood.

😀
Complete story at CNET