Analysis of IT news

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

News item: Apple announced the iPhone

News item: Apple announced the iPhone

Analysis: The idea of merging all the portable devices (cell phone, PDA, MP3 player, etc) into one is not a new one. But the implementation has always been sketchy in practice. Part of the problem is that a cell phone and a PDA have incompatible goals: the trend for cell phones is to be as small as possible. The trend for PDAs is to have as large a screen as possible.

But Apple might have come up with a silver bullet. The key was to use a touch screen, allowing to have a screen covering almost the whole device while being able to use part of it for a keyboard when need be. This, and a myriad of other innovations makes the iPhone a very sexy product. Of course the pricing is a bit steep, so we'll have to see if Apple can and wants to cut costs in the long run.

Either way, this if bad news for Microsoft. First of all, the Zune was barely catching up with the iPod, Apple has just set the bar much higher and the Zune will have to improve much more to steal the spotlight from the iPod / iPhone.

But the worst news might be on the long term because the iPhone has not revealed its full capacity yet. The device indeed works with a lightweight version of MacOS X. This means it can run way more applications than just a Web browser. It can theoretically run a mini office suite. It can theoretically handle a much larger screen provided it has enough memory. So if you can plug in a portable keyboard and flat screen to the iPhone, you end up with a super PDA than turns into a laptop when you want.

In other words, Microsoft needs to ramp up their effort. On the MP3 player front, but on the PDA front as well where Redmond hasn't been doing much since Palm collapsed.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Case study: from Windows 95 to Windows Vista

With the new year and the release of Windows Vista, let's have a look at how the PC landscape changed.

If there is one huge difference about the launch of Windows 95 and the launch of Vista, it's about the excitement both operating systems generate.

In 1994-1995, Windows 95 generated a *huge* amount of buzz. Months before it was launched everybody was talking about it at length. The IT press of course, but also the mainstream press and TV. Checkout clerks at CompUSA were even asking patrons if they wanted to be put on a wait list to be the first ones to get Windows 95 when it is released.

12 years later, Windows Vista is far from receiving that much attention. And why would it? The operating system is constantly fighting to avoid becoming a commodity. Most users just don't need Vista, which requires anyway to buy a new machine anyway. Like most Microsoft new releases, Vista is indeed consuming much more resources than its predecessor. That's why Microsoft is trying to play on the multimedia aspect of the operating system.

But don't think that Vista will be a flop. Just like Internet Explorer 7 is being pushed down our throats as a "security upgrade" (unless you take explicit steps), Vista will be pushed the same way with the sale of new PCs. As a matter of fact, Windows 98 had a faster adoption rate than Windows 95 for one simple reason: it was the first operating system preinstalled on most new PCs. The only X factor is how long will users stay with their current computers.

But Windows 95 and Windows Vista have one thing in common: a half-baked backward compatibility. The momentum around Windows 95 allowed Microsoft to accomplish an amazing feat: break away with the MS-DOS legacy and have virtually everybody migrate their application to 32 bit in just a few years. Windows Vista isn't so drastic of course, but many applications just don't work with the new operation system and need some tweaking (a bit like Internet Explorer 7 actually). Too bad for corporate users who have unsupported legacy applications.

Now, could there be any serious competition for Vista? Actually, there could be. No, I'm not talking about MacOS X or Red Hat / SuSe. Sure, they're solutions from someone else than Microsoft, but they have become as fat as Windows.

To key to compete with Vista is simplicity. Think about it: for most users, the current operating system is overkill. And do we get the performance we should with the hardware we have? Of course not! A brand new $2000 computer with Vista will take just as long to boot and won't feel much faster than an older computer with Windows XP. Last but not least, the system management hasn't improved much in the last 12 years. The improvements made are immediately lost with the increase of complexity. As a result things don't always run smoothly. You still need to defragment your drive. With time Windows gets slower so you need to either reinstall or buy a new computer, which is a royal pain either way.

This is where the $100 laptop the MIT has been working on comes in. Something inexpensive, (hopefully) simple and fits 90-95% of most users needs. Sure, such a system doesn't have a multimedia capability of MacOS X or Vista. But a lot of us can live without it. With more and more application on the Web, an office suite and a Web browser is good enough for most of our needs. If on top of that the system is efficient and smartly designed so that it's easy to maintain for years, it could be a huge success.

Sure, MIT's $100 laptop isn't suited for the Western user. Yet. But if it works, you can bet it will be adapted to more powerful machines.