Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Gadget Goodies 20 -- Taking Back Control 3

Image courtesy of Posterize /
How each of us use our devices matters.  Physical and mental conditions influence our preferences.  So do habits. And that's the real foundation of the Take Back Control series.  We learn to do things a certain way, based on the programming limitations of the systems we've used most. And our learning and our physical and mental attributes will make some ways of functioning easier and others seem harder.

Whatever it is, there's always going to be "discussion" about whose is bigger, or better, or badder.  Some of that is real, but a lot of that trash talk comes out of personal preference.  Which is why I always give reasons why I recommend what I do.  Even though those reasons may be important to me, they may not be to you.  And vice versa.  So, let's take a look at a few things. to tie up this subject.

The most recent tech trend is a decline in PC sales with the skyrocketing proliferation of smartphones and tablets.  Right now, I believe that's a mistake.  And it's a bad message we're sending the hardware manufacturers.  It's one of the areas we should take back control.  Here's why:

I understand the desire for light weight, portable devices, with good battery life.  That makes sense. But, at the same time, we have tech "gurus" telling us that netbooks are a bad idea.  Can I hit you with a different take on that?

A netbook is about the height and width of a 10" tablet, but notably thicker and heavier.  Battery life is half or less than that of many modern tablets. So, there's a greater need to haul around a charger. And, if you've ever had a netbook, you'll recall that the battery seemed to be 75% of the weight.  

To the right is one such netbook, by Asus.  The T101MT had a screen that could swivel to lie flat on the keyboard and use a stylus to navigate, etc.  And it also had an onscreen keyboard for when the physical keyboard was hidden.

All of that brings up some interesting questions.  At the point when netbooks were out and, in particular, that model (Toshiba had a 13" version, prior, using a Wacom pen), we were capable of creating that type of device.  Today, we can fit all but the keyboard into a device that is thinner and about the same width and height as the screen on the T101MT.  Am I imagining too much by thinking that some lighter combination of the two might be even better than either a tablet PC or the more modern tablet?

That's actually one area where I want to see users take back control.  The advances in hardware and battery technology should make it possible to create a tablet PC almost as small as today's tablets, with the same improving battery life, yet capable of easily running a full blown PC operating system. Compared to what we have today, it's worth thinking about.

Apple's mobile products are limited in customizability.  The upside of that is their control cuts down on malware and badly programmed apps.  There are some very advanced apps for various niche markets such as the medical field.  But most of that highly skilled programming hasn't reached the consumer level.  So, it's still behind where the Windows PC is in capability.

Android is an offshoot of Unix, just like linux is.  Although one is mobile and one is an alternative PC OS, the two are in the same comparative place.  Both have a lot of capabilities, but both have limitations in what they can do.  Both are customizable via the UI and the choice of software for various functions.  Like iOS, they don't quite meet the function level of Windows.

Blackberry's older devices did a lot, but had lots of limitations.  Even so, if you were oriented toward business type apps, it pretty well covered the bases.  The newer BB10 is much more flexible.  But that flexibility comes from being able to run most Android apps.  There aren't enough developers interested in spending time on native apps or porting from other OSes to Blackberry.  And, unlike iOS and Android, there's no tablet keeping up with where BB10 is now or is going.  The Blackberry Playbook was a forerunner of BB10, but Blackberry didn't continue the development.

The other of the Big Four is Windows Phone.  Windows Mobile was hitting a programming limitation that required a change to be able to go beyond the limitations.  In the process, MS changed the UI to what was then known as Metro.  The OS added functionality and the UI was usable, but it was so different from what people were used to that it hasn't taken off the way it should.  As a consequence, the developer interest has been equal or less what it's been for Blackberry.  With most of the devices being produced by Nokia, WP arguably has some of the best hardware in the business.  So, it's a shame that it isn't getting fully tested for where the limits are.

Microsoft really liked the Windows Phone UI.  Enough that when Windows for the PC hit the same need for change, they bridged that gap and included the WP UI on desktop Windows.  They forgot two things.
  1. PC users had several decades of using the old Windows way of doing things.  MS didn't think about a gradual transition.  That may have hurt them the most.
  2. As good as the WP UI is, that doesn't necessarily mean that it could translate well to the desktop.  WP relied of touchscreen functionality.  Many of the PCs that Windows 8 landed on were not touchscreen.  So, it bombed.  Windows 8.1 backpedaled some on the UI, but not enough that it couldn't be improved further by third party software.
Under the hood, Windows 8 and 8.1 have improved considerably.  Outwardly, it doesn't look that way.  I believe that's the underlying reason for the decline of the PC.  Which, at least for now, is the wrong thing to happen.  It's good for consumers to stand up for what they deserve as paying customers.  But, at the moment, neither linux nor any of the mobile platforms is where it needs to be.  Windows has had decades of feature, software, and driver development.  The rest still need to catch up.  And the users need to say so, instead of allowing development to go wherever it will with little or no user input.

Understandably, even the best smartphones are going to have limitations.  Screen size alone will hamper what works well on a device.  The young gal with 20/20 vision or better will have only some problems with a spreadsheet on the screen.  But what about the boss who needs glasses to even see the screen clearly and may be tech challenged, as well?

On the other hand, tablets have the potential of growing into something much better.  Yes, what they do now is pretty amazing.  But not when compared to what we've come to expect from desktop linux and desktop Windows.  There needs to be less fanboyism and more consumer communication to get the programmers and hardware designers to reach the capabilities that are possible.  The Surface Pro is a step in the right direction.  It will run most, possibly all, Windows desktop software. But desktop capability needs to happen with the rest, too.

Having said all that, there's always that small clause that says this is my experience and opinion, your mileage may vary.  I'm sure there are those who disagree with me.  Who knows.  I might be singing a different tune even six months from now.  Right now, this is where I believe things stand. And I'm enough of a rebel to think that the consumer ought to be more active in saying what he's offered for purchase.  If we don't get more active, we'll continue to get product upgrades that are better for marketing than they are for adding abilities to get things done.

Merry Christmas!  And we'd like to hear your thoughts.  Am I right?  Or am I missing some important factors?

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