Google Chromebook

Google & Samsung have announced the details of the first generation of Chromebooks – thin-client laptops running Google’s Chrome OS & reliant on a web connection for all of their capabilities. But can they succeed in a competitive market-place?

The Chromebook is a nice idea. Thin-client (cloud) computing is becoming (if not yet the norm) common-place in many corporate data centres; but (to date) it’s not really been a viable option for the home-user. Chrome OS changes that – by putting a cloud-based OS (and thin-client laptop) into the hands of home users.

The question is – are home user’s ready for cloud computing?

Google claim that the Chromebook can still be used without a constant network connection, because off-line versions of Google Docs, GMail, and Google Calendars. This will redress one of the major concerns – especially in the UK where the prevalence of wifi isn’t nearly as common as it could be. Even a 3G-based Chromebook won’t guarantee a network connection – especially when travelling by train.

The other problem with cloud-computing, is the question of whether people trust the cloud… Web-based email has been around for a long-time now, and (in fact) lots of people use webmail as their primary means of reading their email. This is the first example of cloud-services that most people will have experienced. We trust the internet with our email – since it’s intended to travel over the internet anyway… But do we trust the cloud – be it google or Amazon, or anyone else for that matter with our data? Our spreadsheets? Our banking records? Our letters?

And that’s a real question. It’s not at all clear if people do… Yes there are quite a few advantages to using a cloud (your data is accessible from multiple locations, it’s backed up, and it’s not dependant on any specific user’s hardware); but are these outweighed by the dangers  – and (perhaps more importantly) the perception of danger that comes from not owning one’s own data?

And then there’s the price…

At £350 for the wifi only Samsung Chromebook, these machines aren’t cheap. In fact, apart from the battery-life (claimed to be around 8-hours) they stack up pretty unfavourably when compared to cheap laptops. £350 will buy you a Windows 7 laptop, with hundreds of Gb of local storage; and the ability to run real applications.

Alternatively it’ll go a long way towards buying an iPad or an Android tablet; and it’ll be these, I think, that’ll be the main competitors for the Chromebooks (at least as far as home users go). Given the choice between a portable tablet with all-day battery life, and a laptop – with less capability & (arguably worse usability for many tasks) – are people going to choose the Chromebook?

The US prices for the Chromebooks translate rather nearer to £250 – and at that price (less than £300) the Chromebook becomes a very different prospect; but at £350, its a far harder choice.

Now none of this means that Chromebooks won’t be successful. For business users (especially small to medium sized businesses) already using Google Apps, Chromebook can be a great platform; but for home users – where there’s so much competition – I think it’s going to come down to the price…

The end of the paperback?

Amazon Kindle

I’ve just taken delivery of a device, which I believe, will mark the end of the paperback book as we know it: the Amazon Kindle.

Electronic books aren’t exactly new.  E-readers of various types have been around for some time now – but never before have they had quite the flexibility & performance of the latest Kindle.

The single most important, and most striking, aspect of the Kindle is it’s fantastic eInk display.  For the presentation of text (importantly – and I’ll return to that thought later on) I can honestly say I’ve seen nothing better on any device.  It genuinely looks as if it’s a fake, a display model – where the screen has been replaced by someone pasting on a sheet of paper with some words laser printed on it!  Simply put, it is the screen that made me fall in love with the Kindle.

Now, I have to say, before we move on that I am not exactly what you’d call an avid reader – or at least, not of fiction. I very much suspect that most of the kindle sales are (still) to people with creaking bookshelves, and an appetite to devour novels on a daily basis.  That doesn’t describe me. I like to read fairly often: but not on a daily basis. I have a fairly full bookcase; but few fiction titles on it. So given this: why have I bought a Kindle?

Mostly it’s because I’m about to take two ten-hour flights in the course of a week – and I very much like to read when travelling (especially at airports!). Also, I’m fed up of either carrying a multiple books onto the plane: or running out of reading material halfway through the trip. Would I have bought the Kindle to use for general reading at home? No; but now I have one – and have used it – I expect to use it that way too…

So, given that I’m outside what I expect to be the main demographic for Kindle buyers, why do I think that it’s going to be such a fundamental change to the way that we read?

The best description that I can come up with for the Kindle is that it is the iPod of books: and I mean that in more than one way. Amazon have taken some excellent design, and cutting edge technology – and have produced a top quality product; much as Apple did with the iPod.  But as with the iPod, they’ve done more than that.  They’ve done what Apple did with the iTunes Music Store – they’ve made it possible, and easy, to buy content for and on the device.  In fact, Amazon have taken it one step further than Apple have with the iPod – in that the synchronization is wireless – and done (for free) over global 3G…  Of course, Amazon have it easy compared to Apple in that regard, because books are pretty small compared to music files & video… But this sort of wireless synchronisation of content is a great selling point. In fact Amazon even let you read their content on multiple devices – not just the Kindle. I can have a Kindle reader app for iPhone, iPad, Android devices, PC & Mac; and all of them automatically synchronise content.

So given that the device is a sure winner: is it the end of books?  Well, no.

There are a few problems with the device becoming the one and only way that one reads. The greatest of these is the fact that people (myself included) like physical books.  They like the experience of holding, and owning, books.  They like the smell and the feel of books; and they like the timeless permanence of the book.   A 500-year-old book is still every bit as readable today as it was when it was made … I fear the same will not be true for an eBook made today.

The other major problem with the Kindle is the fact that it’s screen (as great as it is), is black and white.  Now, depending on what you to do with the device, this is perfectly good.  If I’m reading a novel, or an essay, then it’s the words (and perhaps a few diagrams) that I’m interested in.  Most books to this day (especially paperbacks) are monochromatic: printed in simple black ink. For those sort of books, Kindle is ideal; but for all the other books – the kind with photographs (colour or otherwise), the kind with elaborate graphical typesetting, the kind where the use of colour is an integral part of the book … then really Kindle is not suitable.  But then those generally aren’t the sorts of books that people want to carry with them anyway…

So I fully expect (and hope!) that hardback books will be with us for a very long time to come.

But people treat hardback books, and paperbacks, very differently. Many people treat paperbacks as essentially disposable (read it, throw it away when you’ve done) – even if I find that somewhat abhorrent! Reading a paperback book isn’t about the experience – it’s about the content. The book, the physical pages and ink, is just a means to that end. Albeit that I’ve only read a few chapters with my Kindle so far, I am already convinced that the reading experience of reading with a Kindle is better than the experience of reading many paperbacks! (Especially the really cheap ones!)

There’s one other problem with the concept of eBooks in general: lending…

One cannot lend a friend an ebook (unless you lend them the whole reader) – because digital rights management (DRM) on the books prevent you from doing so.  The difficulty is that at present electronic files & DRM don’t really work quite like the real world… If I buy a physical book, and then lend it to a friend, then whilst it is in their possession I don’t have it.  That’s obvious. Of course, my friend could photocopy the book and then return it to me – and then we’d both have a copy – but that’s not really practical: and photocopies of books are of poor quality & hard to use.  The same is not true for an electronic book though.  As a mere datafile, I can copy it endlessly & perfectly.  Every copy being identical to the original. I don’t need to lend a datafile, I can copy it – that way we both have it.  DRM means that using clever encryption technologies these data files can only be opened by the person who bought it legitimately.  Preventing piracy, is important – I don’t think anyone (much) would argue against that; but DRM does mean that lending books is impossible; and that’s something which I think needs to change before the eBook will become truly ubiquitous…

For the paperback book to truly vanish, there needs to be a way to facilitate lending books (and selling second-hand books).  A way to ensure that each book sold can be read once (and only once) at any given time – but without limiting who is doing that reading…

This challenge notwithstanding, I really do think that the end is nigh for the paperback. And on the basis of my experience with the Kindle – it won’t be missed…

Electric Cars – tomorrow’s technology…

I’m about to buy a new car; and with a bit of luck it’ll be the last oil-burning vehicle I ever own…  But what it won’t be is an all electric car.

Toyota Prius

Before I go on, a few disclaimers.  Firstly I’m not any kind of tree-hugging hippie – in fact I am what might be described as a technophile: or (less charitably – but perhaps more accurately) as a geek…  That said, I am concerned about the environment; and I do think that we probably oughtn’t to go polluting the place (whether man-made climate change is real or not 1).

More importantly than that – I think the fact that it’s now economical to go to quite such extreme lengths to extract oil, shows that (fossil) oil is approaching the end of it’s 100-year reign as the dominant fuel.  Alternative power sources will be needed for personal vehicles (I just cannot subscribe to the suggestion that the solution is to curtail individuals freedom for self-transportation in motor vehicles); and of the alternatives electric vehicles appear (to me) to be the most logical choice.

So given all of this – why am I not going to be signing up to the order book for the new Nissan Leaf tomorrow?

It certainly appears to be a great little car.  There’s a whole load of really clever technology in there – which really appeals to my inner geek; but sadly as great as it is, it’s just too soon (for me) to go all-electric.

The Leaf is meant to be able to do about 100-miles on a full-charge.  That’s quite a long way, and it’s certainly true that the majority of my driving is on journeys of less than 100-miles – but they’re not all less than 100-miles.  This is the first problem for me.  I don’t have room for more than one car (and, let’s be honest, nor can I afford to buy more than one car) : so I need a car that can take me as far as I need to go.

The second problem is the one that really prevents me buying an electric car today.

Simply put, I have nowhere to charge one.  I live in a village in a small house without a garage, or a driveway.  Unless I run an extension cord out of the kitchen window, and across the pavement – there’s no way that I could get electricity to my car.   Worse is that fact that (today) there are only a handful of public-use electric vehicle charging points: and most of these appear to be in central London.

Given the state of the art today – I have to have a petrol car; an all-electic vehicle (EV) just isn’t an option.

I’ve decided to buy a petrol-electic hybrid car: specifically a Toyota Prius.  This is another great car – with some very clever engineering.  It appeals to me both on the level of being a very cool piece of technology, and because of it’s environmental considerations.  And, with petrol prices being what they are – having a car that can do 60-70 MPG is quite appealing!

The Prius for me, will be the half-way house – between traditional fossil oil based motoring, and the brave new world of the all-electric future.  I have no doubt that in seven or eight years time – when it’s time for me to replace it with a new car, that things will be different.

Battery technology has advanced tremendously in the last ten years – so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to project that continuing.  Even if the pace of advance slows, it seems plausible (if not likely) that by 2018 the range of a typical electric car could be of the order of 200-miles.

But even if it doesn’t change, one thing that I can be certain will – is the availability of places to recharge such a vehicle.  Today I fairly often (monthly?) drive a round-trip of about 140-150 miles in a single day: too far for today’s EVs.  But that’s not one single continuous journey.  I drive somewhere – go and do whatever it was that I need to do there – and then drive home.  It’s two journeys – each comfortably less than 100-miles. So if I could recharge my car in between the two trips – even a 2010 EV would do the job for probably 95% (or more) of my driving needs.

Hopefully with the publicity surrounding  (and apparently high interest in) in the Leaf, local authorities, companies, and housing developers will start to think about the availability of electric vehicle charging stations.  After all, if they sell you the electricity at cost plus a little profit margin, when EVs take off – they’ll be poised to make money (and if there’s one thing that will change the world faster than anything else, it’s the prospect of someone being able to make money by doing it!)

Add in technologies like wireless inductive charging (which would be very convenient for the consumer), fast-charging, or even battery-swapping stations; and you suddenly find that the calculus about EV ownership has changed significantly.

Also as the market expands the prices will (by simply application of economic theory) come down – and despite somewhat sensationalist news headlines to the contrary, the minute price per mile-traveled for electric cars will start to encourage more and more people over to EVs.

I think it’ll be a long time before EVs have the majority market share – that won’t happen overnight: and we may be twenty or thirty-years away from seeing that; but I don’t think it’d be crazy to suggest that 10-15% of all cars sold by 2020 might be EVs…

For now however, I’ll have to make do with a Prius (and to be fair, it is a great car); but I am confident that this really will be the last petrol-driven car I ever buy: at least, I hope so…

1 For the record, I think the evidence speaks for itself…

Shift Register

Whilst you have quite a few outputs to play with on an Arduino board; sometimes there won’t be enough.  One way to get around this is with the use of a shift register.  This is a brilliant way to output eight pin’s worth of outputs – using just three pins.  What’s more – it’s a fascinating insight into some elementary computer science…

I’m using the 74HC595 – purchased from the good folks at Oomlout. Here’s the data-sheet for the chip (also courtesy of Oomlout).  There’s also a really nice article on the Arduino website.

First of all we need to build a circuit.  Although this one is a bit fiddly – there’s nothing too complex here.

We connect pin 15 to +5V, pin 8 to ground.  Pin 15 & pins 1-7 are our output pins – so we connect them to whatever we want to switch on and off (I’m using an LED + a resistor – but you could easily also wire a transistor into each output to drive anything you’d like).  Pin 14 is our data input pin – I’ll connect that to arduino’s output pin 2.  Pins 11 & 12 are the “clock” & “latch” pins – and we’ll connect these to pins 4 & 3 of arduino.  We won’t be using pins 10 or 13 – but we do need to set them to the correct logic state: so connect 10 to +5V & 13 to ground.

Here’s a schematic:

And here’s a drawing of the circuit in breadboard form (both produced using Fritzing):

Note the resistors on the cathode side of each LED.  I’m using 560Ω – as I had a whole box of them around – but anything between 220Ω and 1KΩ ought to be fine (I seem to recall 470Ω being the “correct” value for a 5V circuit and normal LEDs – but as I say, as long as the resistors are there, don’t worry too much).

Okay.  So now onto the fun part.

If you want to try something quickly to check it’s all working, then as this circuit is pin-compatible with Oomlout’s ARDX circuit 5, you can try their code.

If all is well you’ll see the LEDs counting up in binary.

That’s all well & good – but how does it work?  Well the shift register library in Arduino is taking an 8-bit number (a byte – 0-255) – and then setting the output pins of the chip according to the bit values of the eight bits.

Whilst using a byte like this, is an example of a very elegant piece of computer science – bitwise operations can be quite hard to understand.  So let’s simplify things – by using a more familiar “container” for our eight bits: an array of booleans.

Now, this isn’t such an efficient way to work (most, if not all, microprocessors do their most efficient work when using bitwise operations) – but it is a bit easier to understand.

// Shift Register with array of booleans. 
// Code by AJP (cc 2010) – released under 
// Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike… 
// Pin Definitions 

int data = 2; 
int clock = 3; 
int latch = 4; 

#define bit_count 8  

void setup() 
    // Set the three pins to output… 
    pinMode(data, OUTPUT); 
    pinMode(clock, OUTPUT); 
    pinMode(latch, OUTPUT); 

void loop() 
    boolean bits[bit_count]; 
    // Set each of the "bits" to 0… 
    for(int i=0;i<bit_count;i++) 

    // Now we'll pick one, at random, and set it to a 1 
    int c=random(8); 

    // Now we're ready to send the data to the shift 
    // register. We take the "latch" pin 
    // low – to get it ready to recieve… 
    digitalWrite(latch, LOW); 

    // Now we'll simply itterate through the "bits" 
    // and set the data pin either high or low 
    for(int i=0;i<8;i++) 
        if (bits[i]) 
            digitalWrite(data, HIGH); 
            digitalWrite(data, LOW); 
        // We've sent our bit; now to tell the chip we're 
        // ready to go to the next bit – by pulsing the 
        // clock pin for 1 ms… 
        digitalWrite(clock, HIGH); 
        digitalWrite(clock, LOW); 
    // Finally we've updated all 8 bits – so we tell 
    // the chip we've done by setting the latch back 
    // to high 
    digitalWrite(latch, HIGH); 
    // To finish-up we'll delay for 125ms 
    // before going around again… 

Creative Commons License

Shift Register with array of booleans code by AJP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

This code makes it much easier to see what’s going on.  Once we’re ready to update the status, we set the latch: and then alternately setting the data pin (with the value of the bit) – and then pulse the clock HIGH for 1ms.

Now that we’ve seen how it works – let’s go back to the library code function:

shiftOut(dataPin, clockPin, MSBFIRST, dataValue);

Note that MSBFIRST is a constant denoting that we’re sending the most-significant bit first (aka big-endian) – we could also use LSBFIRST to send the least-significant bit first (little-endian). For more on the shiftOut function, see here []; and for more information on big-endian vs. little-endian byte orders, have a look at this article on wikipedia.

Now that we have a feel for manipulating bits (by way of the analogous process of manipulating the array): how do we do it for real?

How do we, for example, tell the shiftOut function to turn on pins 4 & 6?

The best way is to return to those bitwise operators I mentioned earlier.

If we want to turn all eight pins on – then we need to send a bit pattern consisting of eight 1’s … 111111111 – which in decimal is 255 (i.e. 1+2+4+8+16+32+64+128).

For each pin we don’t want to turn on – we simply reduce this value by the corresponding binary value.  So if we only wanted to turn on all of the pins, except pins 0 & 7 – then we’d send 255-128-1 = 126.

Subtraction isn’t very efficient, or very elegant though: so instead – let’s use a bitwise OR…

The OR operator (which in C, uses this symbol: | ) works by comparing two bit patterns – and for each bit sets the output to 1 – if either one of the bit’s it’s looking at is 1 – or 0 if they’re both 0.

Using this, we can mask the bits we don’t want to change: if we OR  any pattern against 00001000 (for example), then the outcome will be to leave seven of the bits unchanged – and to set the 3rd bit as 1 (if it wasn’t already).

The last thing we need to do is work out which bit pattern corresponds to the bit we want to turn on.  The easy way is to remember some elementary mathematics.

To set bit 0 – we want 00000001 = 1, bit 1 is 00000010 = 2, 2 is 00000100 = 4, 3 is 00001000 = 8, and so on…  Using this we can see that 2^n will give us the value we want (2^0=1, 2^1=2, 2^2=4 … etc).

Given that we’re dealing with powers of two – there’s on last trick we can use, to avoid having to multiply: bit shifting…

Bit shifting does exactly what it sounds like – if moves (shifts) the bits either up or down…  So if we shift 00000001 two places to the left – we get 00000100.  So if we shift 1 by 0 places we 1, if we shift 1 by 1 we get 2, and so on: exactly what we want: and (critically) bit shifting is another very efficient operation.  In C the operator to shift to the left is <<.

Putting all of that together we get the following code:

state |= 1 << bitNum; shiftOut (data, clock, MSBFIRST, state);

That works for turning bits on – what about turning them off?

We can use a very similar trick: except that this time we need to use an AND operator (& in C), and the complement of the value we used last time.

AND works by setting the output to a 1 – if (and only if) both bits of the two bit patterns it’s comparing are a 1 – and 0 otherwise.

If all eight bits are turned on (11111111) and we want to turn 0th and 1st bits off – then we AND 11111111 with 11111100.  Again this works by masking: the bits that are set to 1 in the mask will be unaffected (if the corresponding bits in the original bit pattern were 1’s then the result will be a 1 – and it will be a 0, if they were a 0…).

So to turn off bit 4 – we need 11110111: the complement of 00001000 (8 in decimal).  To get the complement we use the complement operator (~ in C).

state &= ~ (1 << bitNum); shiftOut (data, clock, MSBFIRST, state);

Pulling all of this together, we get the following code:

// Shift Register with bitwise operators 
// Code by AJP (cc 2010) – released under 
// Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike… 

//Pin Definitions 
int data = 2; 
int clock = 3; 
int latch = 4; 

void setup() 
    pinMode(data, OUTPUT); 
    pinMode(clock, OUTPUT); 
    pinMode(latch, OUTPUT); 

void loop()
    int state=0; 
    for (int i=0;i<8;i++) 
        state=setBit (state, i, true); 

int setBit(int state, int bitNum, bool value) 
    digitalWrite(latch, LOW); 
    if (value) 
        state |= 1 << bitNum; 
        state &= ~ (1 << bitNum); 
    shiftOut (data, clock, MSBFIRST, state); 
    digitalWrite(latch, HIGH); 
    return state; 

Creative Commons License

Shift Register with bitwise operators by AJP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

And that’s all there is to it!

One last thing.  You can extend the circuit shown here – by adding one (or more) additional shift register chips – giving you an additional eight outputs for each one – and still only using three pins on arduino!  But that’s a subject for another post…

Introduction to Arduino…

Something that I really want to write about here, is Arduino.  Arduino, if you’re not familiar with it, is a really splendid, simple, low-cost, open-source micro-controller based board, originally created to be an easy to use platform: specifically to permit “designers & artists” to create projects with embedded micro-controller devices.  There’s a really good introduction on the Arduino website.

Although it was created with designers & artists in mind, there’s absolutely no reason why it can’t be used by more traditional users: such as computer scientists & engineers.

The free, Java-based IDE is very simple, and easy to use – but if you want to, you can use other tools – or the command-line.  The programming language itself is a subset of C++ – so it’s perfectly possible to write quite sophisticated code; or you could program it in native C++ using the avr-g++ compiler.

As I say: you can write good code for Arduino, but the biggest problem with the vast majority of the programming examples that you’ll find on the internet is that they are often quite poorly written (at least, from the point of view of a professional computer scientist and software engineer like myself)…  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  There’s no reason why “good” coding practices cannot be adopted; and writing good code doesn’t have to be any harder than writing bad code.

Arduino is also the perfect toy (or do I mean “tool”?) for someone with a software background, to learn something about hardware & electronics; and have some fun building some things.  That’s why I wanted one.  The problem is, that as with the software side, a great many (though not all) of the websites I’ve found about Arduino are written from that same (distinctly non-technical) standpoint – and as such, aren’t great reading for someone who is technical…  For example: whilst lots of the material I’ve seen will tell you what to do (that is how to build a particular circuit) – it doesn’t cover the why…  And I don’t mean they miss out detailed stuff, like “Why is that resistor 220Ω?”; but rather the fundamentals like why is it there, in the first-place!

Having said that, not every website is bad – and in particular I can recommend Oomlout; who not only have some good training materials – but who also have an excellent online store in the UK: where you can buy an Arduino “Starter Kit”

Whilst I can legitimately claim expertise with software, I don’t claim to be an electronics expert, (by any means) – but what I’d like to do in this blog, is to share with you what I have learnt: and to try to produce some learning materials, specifically written from the point of view of engineers & software people, to try to help pass that on…   (I don’t want to seem elitist here – I’m delighted that traditionally non-technical people want to learn about computers & software: and indeed I would encourage them to do so – it’s a fascinating subject: and a device like Arduino makes it possible to create all kinds of cool thing…  It’s just that “engineers” and “normal people” do rather need things explaining in rather different ways!)

Ed Roberts (1941-2010)

I was saddened today to hear (albeit rather belatedly) about the death of the some-time pioneering micro-computer engineer Ed Robterts.  Roberts died on 1st April 2010: aged just 68.

Roberts’ creation, the Altair 8800 was, arguably, the most important personal micro-computer ever made.  It was the machine that made the dream of a personal computer viable…  Yes, of course, the Apple ][ was the machine that brought “personal” computing to the masses – but there wouldn’t have been the Apple ][, had it not been for the market that the Altair created.

Roberts was a true pioneer – leaving behind the industry he created, long before it became the billion-dollar industry it would become; and instead taking up the white-coat of a doctor of medicine…


iPad delays…

Wired is now reporting that Apple have now said that the iPad won’t get an “international” (i.e. European) release until the end of May 2010.

This is somewhat disappointing news for Apple fans on this side of the Atlantic.

Apple cite spectacular sales figures in the US as the reason for the delay.  Keeping people waiting doesn’t seem like a terribly clever marketing strategy – so I can only presume that this is down to a real shortage.

I suppose the only upside to this, is that it gives Apple a little longer to develop a firmware fix for the wifi problems that have been experienced by some users.

Why iPad isn’t a laptop killer…

There’s been a lot of comment about Apple’s new iPad – much of it very positive but not universally so

It’s Cory’s point that I want to talk about here.

Before I start, I have to “declare an interest” (as it were) – I am an Apple fanboy; I admit that – but that doesn’t (or at least, I hope it doesn’t, make me unable to take a more dispassionate and reasoned view).

I think that Cory is wrong – because he’s looking at the iPad as a computer…  It’s not; rather it’s the first serious & mass-market “web appliance”.

For as long as I can remember, the editorials in computing magazines have heralded the end “computing” as an activity for the chosen few – and it being for “the masses”.  Even long before my day, there were those who viewed innovations such as “high level languages” as opening up computers for the man in the street.

Sadly, and also for as long as I can remember, those same editorial columns have also been full of stories telling us that computers are just too hard to use.  Even the advent of the GUI, and with the uptake of internet use in the last fifteen-years, mass-market sales, hasn’t really helped.  You still read columns pointing out that washing machines don’t need you to reinstall their operating system every eighteen-months because they’ve gotten a bit slow…

Apple have a great track-record of spotting, and filling, niches in the market (albeit not generally by being the first to do something – but by being the first to do it right).  There were laptops before the PowerBook, MP3 players before the iPod, smart phones before the iPhone, and so-on…  With the iPad the niche is the one currently filled by Netbooks: except (in my opinion) that it isn’t quite that simple.  I don’t think Apple are going after the “ultra-portable” aspect of the market as such (though clearly iPad fits in there): but rather the “portable web browsing” aspect…

And there’s the clever bit; and there’s why Cory is wrong.  The iPad simply isn’t trying to be a “computer” in the sense that we think of them today.  It’s not a laptop without a keyboard – it’s something else entirely.  It’s an information delivery platform – not an information generation platform.  It really isn’t a laptop – but an overblown iPod Touch.  In short – it’s a web appliance.

People think about their computers and their phones different.  Until iPhone (with a few minor exceptions) people didn’t ever think about updating the system software in their phone.  It was what it was…  The iPhone changed that – and make the phone more like a computing platform.  The iPad’s form-factor accentuates this still further; but to think of it that way is to miss the point.

I believe that it’s been designed to be an appliance, in the way that a microwave oven is an appliance.  Yes, you still have to know how to cook to do anything useful with it – but you don’t need to be a radar engineer…

It’s the same with the iPad.  By controlling all of the variables – Apple have produced a device that will “just work”.

Now, none of this is to say that I don’t agree with Cory’s central tenet: that openness of systems is a “good thing”.  Of course it is.  But to apply that to the iPad – is to miss the point.  He writes:

“The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better…”

Well, no, okay.  That’s true.  But neither do I improve my fridge, or my TV, by “figuring out how it works and making it better”…

The truth is that over the last twenty-five years – the complexity of computers has increased exponentially (literally).  Someone keen and interested (with the right background and skills) could (can) understand how a late 1970’s vintage computer works – at the lowest possible level.  Indeed, you can even buy a (replica) of the Apple I in kit form: for home assembly.  But, with the best will in the world, no-hobbist can hope to build 2010 vintage iMac (for example) from scratch.  Miniaturisation and complexity have put pay to that.

This isn’t something that’s unique to computing.  Go back to the 1940’s or 50’s – and you’ll see that it wasn’t at all uncommon for enthusiasts to build their own radios.  Well, sixty or seventy years later – radio has given way to television as the mass-broadcast technology: and I don’t remember the last time I saw someone building their own plasma-screen TV from scratch…

The same is true with software too.  For all the myriad frameworks & libraries that exist today to make things “simpler” – they also (undeniably) add complexity.  Yes, using .net to write a Windows program is easier than writing that same program in C and calling all the APIs by hand; but even easier still is to write for the command-line…  GUIs make it easier to use computers – but harder to program them.

At the end of the day – most people don’t want to write their own code, but rather they want someone else to do it for them.

And, of course – for those that do what to write their own code: there will always be “fully fledged” computers… My suspicion though, is that the folks that buy an iPad instead of a computer – aren’t going to be the folks who want to write their own code.  The app store makes distribution easy – and safe: the installation process couldn’t be easier, and there’s no need to worry about virus and malware.  The lack of the ability to run just “any” code cuts both ways: it makes things safer, but it also limit what can be run to those apps “blessed” by Apple…  Is this a price worth paying?  For many people, honestly, I think it is.

And it’s not as if Apple are the first people to do this.  Take games consoles.  They are (arguably) the first home “computer-based” appliances.  Is there an outcry bemoaning the ability for individuals to write their own for their PS3?  No.  It’s just an accepted part of the way that these “appliances” work.  The iPad will be the same.

I think that the iPad has the potential to become the pattern for the future of computing for “the masses” (in the least pejorative sense of that phrase).  Yes, people will always want fully-fledged computers for “heavyweight” applications – but for mail, web browsing, and the like – I believe that the appliance approach is the way forward: and that iPad is at the vanguard of this coming trend.

Well, it is called “Random Thoughts”…

It’s called “Random Thoughts” – so I figured maybe I should start out with something genuinely random (though I’m not sure you could really call it a thought!), courtesy of the folks at

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