Sunday, September 2, 2012

The future of the PC

    This post is all about the current state of personal computer. Recently windows domination slipped a few factions of a percentage point, but does it really mean anything to the average user? Does anyone other than the geeks really care? The answer to both of these is probably a big fat "not really". But it is the geeks, nerds and tech-heads that shape and define the digital world for the average user, so perhaps its only fitting that the architects of the future care more than its tenets.

    Let me start off by saying, I really like Linux. If you follow this blog you know that I use Linux (Ubuntu) as a media and backup server at my home. Linux is also the foundation of the Android operating system, runs computers on the International Space Station, is used in most satellites and can even be found in the engine management systems of most cars. However, as a Desktop operating system, it still flounders.

    You can locate very recent articles online that still compare brand new Linux distributions to Windows XP. Yes, Windows XP. This is a operating system that was released on October 25th of 2001, nearly eleven years ago. Even then it wasn't a "new" UI, just a slightly smoother version of Windows 98/ME. The only company that has made a serious attempt to redesign the Linux Desktop is Ubuntu with the Unity Desktop.

    The Unity Desktop gets a lot flak in the Linux community. I assume these are the same sorts of people that still prefer Windows XP over Windows 7, but that is only an assumption. When you consider that many PC OEM's are now making all-in-one PC's and Laptops with touch screen's, the Unity Desktop makes more sense. Take a look at the Ubuntu Devices page, and you will see more reasons to use Unity. Yes, it is different. Unlike many Desktop "enhancements", Unity is change for a reason. Like everyone else in the tech world, they too can see the writing on the wall, the Post-PC era is fast approaching. Every day more and more people are doing more work on smaller, less powerful, more mobile devices.

    As far as support goes, that depends on the "type" of support you are talking about. There is, of course, paid support for enterprise customers, but for "free desktop" user, its a jungle out there. There are literally thousands of websites, blog's, wiki's, user forums and more. You better have a thick skin if you venture into user forums. The denizens that inhabit this territory can smell a "newb" twelve mouse clicks away, and always seem to be on the hunt. By the time someone actually answers your questions, if they ever do, you can expect a barrage of criticism, name calling and general unpleasantness. Only after you have "proven your strength" and stuck it out in these forums will you get any questions answered. I have heard it said, "If you want to convince people to switch to Linux, let them use it. If you want to convince them to stay away from Linux, let them visit a forum.".

    This is not to say that all Linux users are smug elitists, but there is definitely no shortage of them either. In fact, it was because of these types of people that are so prevalent on these forums that I have posted "how-to's" on this very blog. Yes, for every single how-to on this blog I started with a google search that lead me to a forum, or a wiki, or some other piece of information that was either out-dated or incomplete. Turning to the forums for guidance was a minefield experience. In the end, I used a very Newtonian style of trial and error, then posted the solution that seemed to work "first-time-go" most of the time. This also gave me my own how-to should I ever need it again.

    I don't "visit" many forums these days for those very reasons, and it will be a cold day in hell before I post another question, or solution, in any Linux forum. There is no "community" for Linux, its more like a street gang, you need a good beating for initiation.

    Linux will always have its place. It is the dominate OS on smart phones, e-readers, and even at enterprise level computing it has a large market share. Yes, linux will be around for a very long time, even if the end-user never sees it. However, on the desktop, Linux is just junk-ware. Mired in its own fragmentation, incomplete or in some cases near useless software and lack of any substantial driver support will keep the desktop version of Linux in the hands of the few who feel the need to be a big fish in a very tiny pond.

    The most profitable company in the world, and arguably the most controversial. Apple, and their products seem to have a love/hate relationship with the average user. Not too many people say things akin to "eh, its ok". You have your fanboys and your haters. Love them or hate them, Apple is a force to be reckoned with.

    With the recent release of osX Mountain Lion came quite a number of changes to the operating system, and a few of those had to do with the user interface. As a Mountain Lion user, most of the new "features" could have been given to Lion, or even Snow Leopard without a major update to the operating system. However Apple, like so many other companies, is looking to the future, and it doesn't include a PC. The UI "enhancements" are geared to getting people closer to the mobile or tablet experience. Apple is also looking to the post-pc era. Tablets are gaining ground with both consumers and businesses alike. Even government agencies are trying to see how tablets and other "devices" can enhance their operations.

    The Apple support forums seem vacant often enough, that when I do use it, it is to search for questions already answered. I currently have three queries on the support forum that have yet to be answered. So as usual, Google search seems to be the fastest way to find the information you need. Where Apple shines is in the Apple Stores.

    You can find testimonials all over the net, and I have even seen a few myself, of people who have taken out-of-warranty Apple product into an Apple strore and got the same treatment they would have gotten if they were a brand new customer. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable, and always seem ready to help. Even if its just an act, Apple users almost always leave the Apple store with a smile on their face. Best Buy could learn a thing or three from this.

    In fact, my MacBook Pro recently past the two-year mark for age. Its still running strong, running the latest software, and I have no plans to upgrade anytime soon. It does everything I need, almost. There is one application that is, sadly, Windows only, Lotus Forms Viewer. I require this software because of a custom file format for documents that my employer uses. For that I use Parallels Desktop. Parallels is virtualization software that lets me run Windows on my MacBook Pro. Its sad, but I only load Windows when I absolutely need access to this one application. If IBM would ever reinstate osX support for their software, I could drop Windows completely. That, or I find another job, but I kind of like my job. I digress, that is an entirely separate blog post. Mac osX is the number two Player in the PC market by volume, and if all the hype is to be believed, they are also number one in customer satisfaction.

Microsoft Windows:
    The big kid on the block. The king of the desktop. Microsoft has been around just as long as Apple, and is amazingly more successful at market penetration and saturation than any other company before it. It has the best OEM support, user support, and the widest array of high quality games. Microsoft is a behemoth.

    They are also looking to the future, and see the PC going the way of the dinosaurs. The new Windows 8 UI is truly revolutionary for a desktop platform. However, much like Ubuntu, they are getting push back from their own user base. However, like Ubuntu, they too see the writing on the wall, and the changes are not without reason. Like Apple and Ubuntu they are trying to bridge the gap between the mobile UI and the Desktop. Why? Because of the post-PC era. As manufacturer push this self-fulfilling prophecy to fruition the current "mouse and keyboard" generation will need to be dragged into the future that all of the OEM's are making happen.

    Microsoft also has decent phone support. Granted it is outsourced to India and other countries wich can be a bit a bit of a challenge to english speaking people, they have yet to fail in helping me with any issues I have had. There is a plethora of information available on the internet, and you probably even know someone who knows enough about Windows to help with whatever issue you are having. Like it or not, Microsoft is the standard against all others are judged. Desktop UI, Office applications, games, support and even web browsers. It seems every browser is the IE killer, and every Linux Distro is the Windows killer, and every Mac is ... well ... a Mac is Mac.

    A simple Google search will tell you all you need to know about such statements. Even if IE drops to a mear 5% of users of the internet, it will still set the standard. Why? Because its Microsoft and people who try to compete just can't seem to get away from the comparison game. Every time someone says "this is better than Microsofts <insert name here>", they are giving Microsoft free press. Stop it. Let your software be judged on its own merits.

    There is a quote from a great movie called "The Pirates of Silicon Valley":

    Steve Jobs: We are better than you are! We have better stuff.
    Bill Gates: You don't get it, Steve. That doesn't matter!

    Sadly, this is true. However, Bill Gates did understand something fundamental about people; people don't expect perfection, they expect "good enough". Can whatever I am about to spend my money on get the job done quickly and cheaply? That really is the bottom line. It is also the reason for the success of Linux in Enterprise.

    So what does all of this really meen to the average user? Not much really. Users will adapt, they will find new ways to work, and OEM's will make money. Its what they do. Will the PC go away for good? Yes, but not for a while. The software for these "mobile devices" is still written on PC's, for now. As they become more powerful, and more user friendly, that may change. However, that change is still more than a few years away. In ten years, who knows?

    The fact is, we have an entire generation of children growing up with video games systems they don't have to physically touch to play and devices that respond to voice commands. The technology will get better, the voice recognition will get more accurate and the full body monitoring for motion control will get more precise and we will do it all on ever smaller devices.

    Who knows, in ten years or so, a keyboard may only be available in museums and developing countries.

    Until next time ... 

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