Monday, October 22, 2012

Apparently, I'm wrong about the New Chromebook

My friend A-Rock ripped me about my last Chromebook post, saying I was reviewing something that wasn't out. It wasn't a review. It was discussion about whether there is a value proposition for the Chromebook.

Either way, I can own up to when I'm wrong, and I may be wrong about this Chromebook thing. It seems that the new Chromebook has plenty of interest. It's currently #1 on the Amazon store under laptops and tablets.

So I started considering more about who would be interested in this device. I had a couple thoughts.

  • College students at schools that are using Google Apps. It turns out that 61 of the "top 100" (not sure of metric) are using Google Apps. Yale, Northwestern, BU, and a lot more. If I were a poor college student again and didn't have a computer of my own, I would probably consider one of these.
  • K-12 students. It seems that districts out there are trying to get a laptop in every child's hands. It occurred to me that advanced districts might be web-based enough to make something like this worth it.
  • Companies that are using Google Apps or are otherwise entirely cloud based. I heard of a bank with >100K people moving to Google Apps recently. Chromebook could be a good device for my company's sales folks -- except for the lack of Skype and Go To Meeting. Although, even Windows-based organizations that use Citrix could benefit from using Chromebooks like this.
So, maybe there is a market for this device. With the "cloud storage" benefits, I can see how it starts to add up to having some real value.  Either way, I wish Google luck on this endeavor.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The New Chromebook

I commend Google for hitting the $250 price-point on the new Chromebook. No matter what your opinion of the Chromebook, that's a cool achievement. I think their vision for this device is ultimately kind of like what Jeff Bezos' vision for the Kindle is: the thing will be free. We'll just hand you a Chromebook because we know once out of every hundred searches you do with Google, you're going to give us $8 by clicking on an ad for refinancing your mortgage (e.g.).

Except, as much as the geek/gadgeteer side of me wants to grab one of these just to have it, I cannot for the life of me figure out why I would.

Buying a disposable toy tablet like an iPad is one thing. With the iPad, you know what you're getting into... this is a device that will never supplant your laptop or your phone. It's more like a slick toy/consumption device. The kids love it. Yeah, it's nice for browsing around while you have "The Bachelorette" on in the background. Neat. But even if the device is fairly unproductive overall, there is a clear place and time for that device to be used. It fits a niche.

The Chromebook, not so much.

I'm typing this on a Macbook Pro Retina (I'll review that at some point). My wife uses a Lenovo Thinkpad. My prior 4 laptops have been Macbook Pro 15" supplied by workplaces, and before that, high end Dell and HP laptops. Even my kids use a 2008 Macbook Pro I bought off a friend.

I would never buy a Chromebook because what's the case for me to use this? I have laptops coming out of my ears. I don't need a less powerful one.

So... what's the use case for this Chromebook? What is the value proposition for the consumer?

  • Netbooks are (were?) around $250 and ran Windows and Office, this doesn't.
  • I bought a used Macbook for $75 from my friend.
  • There are Macbook Pros galore on Fleabay for under $250.
  • Don't even get me started on the cheapness of desktop computers, Linux, etc.
The consumer can buy a Chromebook for $250 and be locked into Google's web based life, or they can choose any one of these computers that aren't limited to browser-life.

So let's go back to this value proposition... what are Google's selling points here? Paraphrasing some:

  • It's always up to date. So is Chrome on my kids' $75 Macbook Pro. And Office. And Firefox. And iTunes.
  • It's cheap. So what, so are the above options.
  • Always connected. So is my Macbook Pro.
  • Virus-free. Frankly, so is Windows. At least for me.
  • Boots up in less than 10 seconds. All of my machines are kept in sleep mode, all the time. And so they wake up instantaneously.
I, for one, actually believe in Google's vision of a completely online future and the browser being a huge part of applications in that realm. I think the browser is one of the few hopes we have towards avoiding another decade of something like being MFC experts, just this time with AppKit.

Even with a totally online world, the Chromebook struggles to have a customer.  It's not shiny and cool like the tablets are.  It's not as useful as a Mac or Windows laptop -- which a huge lot of us have already anyway.  Is there anyone on this planet really asking for a $250 laptop that does less because it's all web-based?  $250 is out of reach for the very poor, and the product is an unnecessary one for those who can afford it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On Dart

Dart was announced a year ago today. They celebrated by pushing out their "M1" (aka arbitrary milestone) release of their SDK today with a lot of cool tools and such.

The reaction is mixed. Many, including a commenter on HackerNews who I believe works at Google, ask "What is the point of this? Why is Google wasting their time with something no one will adopt?" Others think it's a significant development. One commenter on Reddit wrote "Dart- the language for the silent majority of programmers."

I agree with the second commenter, here's why.

"The silent majority of programmers" are the people are working in statically typed languages every day. C, Java, C++. They're not top commenters on Hacker News, they're not at Hackathons or Mongo meetups. These are the people who are going to lock into something like Dart and use it. Why do you think so many people took up Google's last statically-typed-browser-language-thingy GWT? It gives structure for programmers who are not used to dynamic languages. Tons and tons and tons of contractors I've talked to over the past couple years have used GWT in the enterprise.

For myself -- someone who actually is used to working in dynamic languages -- I like Dart because I recognize that Javascript is too unwieldy for the kind of very large web application development that is coming down the road. At some number of lines of code -- I have no set number for this, but it eventually happens -- Javascript becomes just too difficult to work with. It's so dynamic and unstructured that tooling cannot help you make sense of what's going on in the program. Can you imagine a million lines of Javascript? Me neither.

Big software engineering companies like Microsoft and Google seem to recognize this shortcoming. Dart and Typescript are both attempts to help correct this with the biggest feature being static type checking. Typescript looks good too, but Dart is a more ambitious attempt that includes a new VM, standard libraries and very robust tooling.

Look at it this way. If Javascript is C, Dart is C++. The goal is to add better type safety and more structure to better deal with larger programs. C++ was compiled to C for a long time via CFront. This is no different. For the short term, Dart will compile to JS. If Dart catches on, then the Dart VM will become more widespread. (The Dart folks might not like me comparing their language to C++ but C++ is a hell of a successful language and IMO a decent model to work from.)

Probably the most absurd thing I read today though is the notion that Google should be simply making a new cross-browser VM like the CLR or JVM and open sourcing that. This has a more difficult adoption path than Dart's proposition right now, where you can use Dart and ship it to any browser. And besides, it has been tried. Heard of Silverlight? That was the CLR, embedded into web browsers. That should have been the holy grail. You could write in Ruby, Python, and C#... in the browser... with .NET libraries available ... Microsoft made it available on all browsers ... and no one, anywhere, ever cared or used it. Maybe in 2004 it would have mattered if Google went that route, but not now. That ship has sailed.

So kudos to the Dart team. Nice job. It looks good.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

On Nokia

Tomi posted a another good article on Thursday.  I love Tomi.  He has done a great job of illustrating how Stephen Elop has destroyed Nokia.

However, Tomi is a Symbian apologist and has been trying to prove for two years now if Nokia had just stuck with Symbian and developed MeeGo, everything would be fine. I agree with him that the burning platform memo destroyed the Symbian market overnight, but I think most here will agree that Symbian was a dead end strategy and Android would have eaten that as well.  As a counterpoint to his"it was growing in 2010" belief:  RIMM was also seeing growth during 2010.  How are they doing now, sticking to their strategy from 2010?

He also fails to mention that Symbian was "winning" marketshare because it was installed on candybar phones and called it a "smartphone".   I tried these phones. It was a horrible user experience and I doubt that many actually used it as a smartphone.  On the MeeGo front, I tried to play with MeeGo in late 2010.  It was a disaster.  I couldn't get any kind of developer environment even running, much less do anything with it.  I believe I mailed the developers and asked them "how the hell do I get this to work?"

Elop was right to think a new strategy was needed.  Except, with a company as large as Nokia, you can't bet the whole company on someone else.  That is a great plan for a small company.  Go get Apple's runoff money by betting everything on making widgets for the App Store.  Whatever.

But for Nokia?  A company valued at $43 billion when Elop wrote his "burning platform" memo?  In 2007, valued at $167 billion?  That's insane.  Yet, that's what Elop did.  He bet Nokia's future on Microsoft's success.  You cannot risk that kind of shareholder value on someone else, even Microsoft.  Right now, the most recent Lumia is at risk of not shipping because Microsoft can't get the software together in time.

Now, Nokia is releasing fantastic hardware and valued at just $9 billion.  Elop must be fired before the company folds in on itself completely.  He traded one loser (Symbian) for another (Windows Phone), with apparently no hedge.  HTC, Samsung, LG -- they all adopted Android while keeping their Windows Mobile / Windows Phone lines in place.  Nokia threw it all out and bet everything on Windows Phone 7 before either Nokia or Microsoft had anything shippable.  I can't figure out if Elop is a Microsoft mole--trying to save Microsoft from the outside or make it so Nokia can be acquired by MS--or just an idiot.

And if the Nokia board has not demanded the Lumia line be prepped with Android at this very moment to release by the end of the year, they should all be relieved as well.  This whole thing is idiocy.  Microsoft should probably just buy Nokia, though I fear for Tomi's health if they do so.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Coming Mobile Backlash?

I've had an iPhone or Android device on me at all times since 2008. I have owned 5 tablets in the past 12 months. I'm no stranger to the "Post-PC" era.

And yet, sometime last year, something clicked.  When I use my phone or a tablet or anything that's supposed to be "post-PC", I wish I had a PC.  Mac, Linux, Windows... even BeOS, I don't care, just something with a normal keyboard, a big screen, a mouse and multitasking, overlapped-window OS.

Someone else out there feels this way too, right?  You're trying to type on tiny screen keys and even with the auto-completing dictionary you can't type even one-third of the speed or accuracy as you could on a real keyboard.  Or you're trying to browse the web and that awkward focus/refocus thing just to see a block of text.  Or you've been harassed by a website enough to install their native app only to find out it's buggy, lags behind the real site in speed and functionality.  Or you've got that iPad awkwardly set up on its foldable case at a coffee shop, enjoying the 4" screen area not covered by a keyboard like a TRS-80 model 100.

In the pre-slab-phone era -- aka Blackberry/Treo era -- I used to make fun of Blackberries as "Great, Awesome, Thanks" devices.  People I knew who used them (mostly my managers at a large games company) typed replies to email with pretty much one word:"Great", "Awesome" or "Thanks".  And now, I'm one of those people with my 4th generation slab phone Galaxy Nexus.  How far we've come.  I am paying $200-$300/yr for these devices and $400 for a data plan where, most of the time when typing a reply, I long to be sitting at a desk with a keyboard and mouse.  So I just type "Thanks", "Awesome" or "Great".

Yeah, it's great to be able to have a device with you everywhere.  I also have my laptop with me everywhere, which is about ... this is just an approximation ... 1,374x more useful than any of my tablets or slab phones have ever been or ever will be.  So far, the truly useful things I've experienced with my phone are maps and Google Now.  Everything else has been kind of meh.  And now "the desktop" is being eroded by the trends in mobile because of this Post-PC thing.  The worst case scenario, to me, is Microsoft's proposal with Windows 8:  all the advantages of a PC form factor with a walled garden of application deployment through an app store.

I don't want another tablet.  I don't want another phone.  I think a lot of people looked at the iPhone 5 and said, "neat, now what?"  Seriously:  now what?  What can we do with the latest iteration of any of these devices that's an improvement over what I do at my desk every day?  The PC revolution was about business, learning, workplace efficiency, and creativity.   Remember Lotus 1-2-3, or AppleWorks?  Those were like "WTFOMGHOLYWHAT".  This mobile revolution is, what?   Games?  Texting?  NFC?  When I try to pay with my phone, it's slower than using a credit card.  The pictures are worse than my camera, phone calls worse than my original RAZR flip phone and everything else worse than my laptop.

So as you can tell, I'm having a bit of a backlash against mobile, and I wonder if other people will too.  I suspect so.  Once they get terribly bored of staring down at their phone on a BART platform, checking Facebook for the 50th time, then realizing that typing a blog post about how annoying phones are would be torture to actually type on that phone, maybe people will start to conclude that all the claims of the Post-PC era are kinda premature.

And with that, I'm going to go grab Xcom: Enemy Unknown off of Steam.