Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gadget Goodies 18 -- Taking Back Control 1


                                                      
cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Intel Free Press

There’s power in controlling the things that allow us a wide range of capabilities.  When we look at The screens and functioning of Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, it’s some company determining how we ought to do things.  It can be how we do things, some type of security, what we see when we look at a screen.  We’re not saying that a lot of what goes into those designs isn’t useful, doesn’t look good, isn’t a good way to do things.  And we’re not playing the radical, “down with the Man” card.  But the design ideas in most tech items are not perfect for everyone.  And those realizations set in motion several trains of thought, over a number of years.  And they cemented a way of thinking that isn't likely to change anytime soon.

To see what we mean, let's start with a bit of history.


Back in prehistoric times (for many, that's prior to 1980), Microsoft was the bad guy, imposing its will on the masses.  Popular computing started with DOS that was able to control hardware in a limited way, but the UI was nothing more than characters on a screen.  Then Microsoft brought out Windows.  It was first a layer over DOS.  Later, that became an OS of its own, growing in capabilities to get things done.  At the same time, Microsoft was making some very savvy deals with various computer makers.  That got a small but sizable segment of the computer owning population worried about MS taking control of how we did things.  

That led to alternatives.  Those were interesting, then.  And in the phone/tablet market, they get interesting today.  Back in the day, the choices were limited to UI or operating system.  There were companies like Stardock who made commercial UI variants.  And freeware alternatives like LiteStep. Some of those changes brought some additional features not found in native Windows.  In contrast there were Unix and its growing number of Linux variants.  Completely different operating systems with ways of doing things that were different from Windows.  And then, along came Apple.  

Apple was different from them all.  Apple controlled everything -- hardware, operating system, software.  And, by comparison, Apple computers were expensive.  But they could do that.  They were different, higher quality, and it was a blatant way of "thumbing your nose" at Microsoft.  The good thing about all that control was that it fostered quality in specialized areas that Microsoft and PCs weren't keeping up with.

We all know what that did for Apple.  By the time we got to the smartphone and the tablet, Apple was the new Microsoft, detested by some, feared by many.  To hear some of the comments, Apple's headquarters had to be on the Star Wars Deathstar.  Wow!  Apple taking over the world via smartphones and tablets!  Sounds pretty stupid when it's said that way, doesn't it?  The reality is something less dastardly.

Apple's efforts (and Microsoft's before them) came out of the visions of their founders.  Whether you like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, you can't fault the genius they displayed.  But the visions of both men were directed, in part, by the technological areas they were immersed in.  Part of why each does some things a certain way is because of how the programming languages do things differently. And each has its own limitations as to how things can be done.  So, some of how the user is directed to do things comes from how the OS is created and how programming languages interact with the OS.  It's not all some nefarious plan by huge corporations.  Still, there are those of us who want more control over how our device screens look and how the devices act.

It's users taking back control that makes things interesting.  Some of the features make it into the mainstream OS features.  And, at other times, they're part of third party add-ons.  We'll explore that further, next time.



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