When small is big

It’s that time of the year. When we’re either running crazy carrying out errands or time seems to be frozen and calm, birds singing in the back yard, the cool and wet spring blending towards Christmas. A time for reflection and review, if you have the time.

What’s happened in the IT sphere? We’ve been pre-occupied with the trees that it’s time to see the forest. In the Microsoft world, we’ve grown used to experiencing a stable, effective and defensible platform in Windows 7. Unless you’re in a corporate environment mired in Windows XP. Office 2007 has proliferated, overcoming initial circumspection with The Ribbon. There are even corporates who skipped Office 2007 and are now on Office 2010. Fancy that! Jumping over an experienced version into a brand new one – again, that points to a perception that the product is stable and useful. In late breaking news, Microsoft Labs delivered that bundle of joy, Kinect. Not only is it an impressive lead over last year’s Wii controller but hackers rapidly acquired and transformed it to fulfil their dreams.

But in other aspects and in the overall personal sphere, Microsoft may have this year, finally lost the edge. Bill Gates retired and we will not see the likes of the notorious Internet Tidal Wave memo from Steve Ballmer or Bill’s appointee for head technologist – Ray Ozzie (who has since declared defeat and retired from Microsoft too).

It is a pity for Microsoft to have gone rudderless right now, when Microsoft and Bill worked so hard to establish and sponsor the actual technologies that are happening. Maybe the giant will recover and swing back but all those side ventures away from the twin orchards of income – Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office – have petered into sand, not monuments.

The Tablet

Remember the Tablet PC vision? Bill was really blowing hot on it. We survived heavy, clunky, short battery life deadweights like HP’s TC1000 and there was a second wave of products but it was a weak delivery. The Apple iPad has that lifestyle, cool dude! feel that Windows tablets never had. And the public’s bated breath is for Android Tabs like the Dell Streak or Samsung Galaxy Tab. What made the difference? Improbable contentment with coarsely multi-touch capacitive screens (instead of a fine pointing stylus), an emphasis on light (instead of do more). A downsized unit price. Converged 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS, accelerometers. The un-noticed voluntary training of users by the first wave of converged devices, the Apple iPhone.

The Windows Tablets didn’t “see” the melding of these technologies. Windows 7 Tablets are not in the public consciousness and Windows CE 6.0 occupies bottom rung status on China sourced, cheap notebooks.

The Phone

Whilst we still meet people who say “My mobile phone can’t do anything except make a simple phone call”, myriad people on public transport, shopping malls and corporate offices are flicking and flicking their fingers on iPhones, Androids, Nokia-Symbians and Blackberries. Where is Windows Mobile or Windows Phone? Gosh, the brand disappeared from view for a long while. Yes, we persevered with earlier Pocket PCs and Windows Mobile phones that dragged our pants down until our belts bent out of shape, waiting for the good version. But the good version never came. Even now, the pre-Christmas release of the latest Windows phone in the same hardware as Androids does not bring the fervour or distinction that iPhones, Androids or BlackBerrys enjoy. All we see is flipping panels completely at odds with the training carried out by the iPhone approach.

The User Interface

Windows 7 has the sweetest interface ever, for a Microsoft Windows design. Translucent Windows borders, smart behaviours, the lot. But has a new branch of interfaces based on the simplest icon begun? Remember Windows Program Manager?

It’s crude but not that different the iPhone and Chrome OS attempt

People have got used to a simple icon to launch a program. They really don’t care whether it is the proxy for a browser bookmark, a client PC hosted app or a server hosted web application. They just expect it to work.

The Cloud

Ray Ozzie’s worked really hard to conjure up Azure. Anders Hejlsberg has advanced so many aspects of software development and pushed .NET into a premier position for cloud computing considering Microsoft almost got Sun burnt. But turn around and there’s a hodge podge, ragged taggle bunch of software frameworks that just works. Google, from early naiveté in regard user privacy, has amassed a suite of email, calendar, office document apps, mapping that just works – sometimes with inconsistent interfaces but they work. And there are third parties and startups just bustin to get into action. Microsoft too has ported their apps into .NET speak and The Cloud. But that’s that uncomfortable word. “Ported”.

The Bottom Line

The thing with The Cloud is that it’s just there. It’s not visible. You need something to consume it. You need a User Interface. A Tablet. A Phone. The epiphany comes when you realise it isn’t just about the Desktop or the Notebook Computer. It’s not about Pervasive Computing. It’s about Pervasive Use.

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