The 3 Devices and My Take on Standards

Millions of years ago, while working for Prime Computer in Natick, MA, I suggested to Kodak representatives that they deliver a single device combining a printer, scanner, copier, and fax.  At the time my office had all of the above as separate devices and it seemed a pointless waste of space since a similar moving scanning/printing technology was part of each one.  Eventually the world built those devices.  I have a very nice HP All-In-One that I’ve been using for years.  (Kodak stayed behind the curve way too long, while HP did the right thing.)

I’m willing to make tradeoffs in performance and price to combine functionality into fewer devices, if that makes sense.  Over time technology solves a lot of problems to the extent that we save time, space, and cost without making a lot of performance tradeoffs.  And eventually I will have my Dick Tracy wristwatch.  (Talk to the hand.)

Dick Tracy stamp

The 3 Devices

Meanwhile, my thoughts recently have been about the 3 electronic devices I would really like.  They would go something like this (the pictures are eye candy, not my ideal devices):

(1)  Small portable device, deck of cards size to carry in purse or pocket: camera (2-10 mega pixels with 3-5x optical zoom is fine), audio/video recorder, phone, photo display, mp3 player, radio, calendar, to do list manager, e-Rolodex, texting capability, 2-8 GB removable memory cards to support applications.  (Sure, throw in a pedometer, why not?)  Price range $200-$300 for the mainstream iPod, I mean model.

5th Generation iPod Nano

(2)  Mid-size portable device, trade paperback size to carry on trips: ebook reader, “pc light” capability (let me work on spreadsheets and text creation or review), video/movie playback device, with or without mp3 player, GPS, wireless web connection, memory cards.  Price range $200-$500 for the mainstream model.  The high end model should have an embedded projector so you can carry a slideshow or video presentation to a meeting, price for that model might be $500-$800.  (Come on, now, LED technology will do this in the near future. Won’t it?)

Amazon Kindle eReader

(3)  Laptop and desktop pcs:  must have webcam and integrated speakers in the monitor, laptops with 15”-17” screens, desktops with 20”-23” screens.  Price range $800-$1000 for the mainstream model.  There might be a fourth device in that we increasingly expect to be able to use our flat screen TVs to surf the net, playback our photos and videos, and so on.  Still want a built in webcam and integrated speakers.  A personal “monitor” alone is not as useful today as it once was.

Dell laptop with webcam

I’ve been giving the computer a lot of thought lately because I’m planning to replace my desktop pc rather than attempt upgrading dinosaur hardware to Windows 7.  Current pc is an old Gateway desktop with 1GB main memory, combined about 1TB of internal and external hard disks, a 17” flat screen, separate speakers, no webcam.  I like having both a desktop and a laptop pc, although I would prefer to replace my old laptop with theoretical device (2) above.  A laptop is not a comfortable device to read for any length of time IMHO.

PC vendors are not doing themselves or their customers any favors these days.  Too many models, all of which are too similar.  Ultimately most of these machines are custom tailored anyway, so why should the manufacturers torture their potential customers with having to decide between product families that offer distinctions without differences?

I’ll leave the Mac world to its own devices for the moment.  I’m hardwired to the Windows OS for the foreseeable future.  We have 5 computers (home based business, so this is both personal and business use) all of which run XP.  Eventually we will migrate to Windows 7.  Hubby runs high end CAD software on two of the desktops and one of the laptops.  My graphic demands are more modest since I don’t rotate 3D objects in my graphics card.  Still, I tend to have 6 or 7 windows open at a given time and will use photo or video processing and editing software (Sony or Avid) for a project maybe once or twice a month (over a period of several days per project).  But mostly I work with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and a browser, preferably Google Chrome.

Software Standards

I don’t like Windows and its associated Office software.  It’s prone to freezing/crashing, and Microsoft seems determined to make life increasingly painful with every release of Office.  Just when you’ve figured out how to make Word do wheelies, they change it so that the 20% of features you personally use 80% of the time become embedded in non-obvious and non-related places.  (How many people you know are grateful for “the ribbon”?)  It makes one think Microsoft developers do not understand or respect human engineering.  More likely it represents some unfortunate power play inside the company.

Now then:  Standards are a good thing.  The standard that became the pc opened up a commercial goldmine of hardware and software opportunities for companies big and small.  Standards in open architectures encourage development of products to work with existing base level products and thereby increase the volumes of those products.  (As Apple learned when it lost the war to a less friendly, but more open, Wintel system.)

Usage standards like scroll bars and folders provide a working environment which people carry seamlessly from one setting to another.  When you invest time and effort to learn a piece of software, you would like it to use as many of your existing conceptual models as possible and require you to learn as little new as possible.  Your agility and speed is cut dramatically when Office changes to an interface like “ribbons” with no way to continue using the interface you know and (cough) love.  What I used to love about the Mac was that it enabled me to focus on my work, not on my computer.  In the Wintel world, knowledge workers spend too much time focused on their tools instead of their work.  The only good thing about Wintel dominance is that it is grudgingly conceded to be a standard of sorts, with all the benefits that carries.  (Now one of the key benefits of the Mac, for me anyway, is that it supports John Hodgman commercials.)

Mac and PC

Yes, there’s UNIX and Linux.  Everyone needs 800 easy to remember commands.  If you want to learn these things, fine.  I used UNIX  for many years quite happily.  One of its nicest features is that it can be made to behave like something else.  Dr. Dan Kalikow at Prime Computer kindly made my Primos OS interface behave like TOPS-10, a very very friendly old DEC operating system.  Still, the widespread use of Microsoft operating systems and office applications tends to give them an advantage in that once a company has paid to train employees on them, that training sticks for a long time.  Which brings me back to how Microsoft makes that expensive training less valuable when they change their software around too much.  Hence the current round of Mac commercials encouraging people to switch to Macs since they have to switch to Windows 7 and there’s going to be a learning curve anyway.

Unix-Linux

Hardware Standards

Hardware interface standards like the 15 or so memory card “standards” supported in many current cameras and computers are not standards in a meaningful or valuable sense.  Every vendor wants to sell razor blades, so they have done the math to demonstrate that maintaining their own standard is the best approach.  For the individual vendors that may be true.  Sony probably makes more money selling Pro Duo memory than it would if it offered a true industry standard.  So companies introduce products that benefit themselves instead of their customers.  If enough people like something about those unique products, gradually they evolve into a more prominent standard.  Lexar and SanDisk support the Sony Pro Duo format because it is so broadly established.  If the early memory cards were not patented, and were allowed to be true standards, the world would benefit from less inventory, less cost, and more innovation around using the standard.

Memory Cards

If the internet had not been made available to the world, where would we be today?   I am beginning to believe that the whole concept of patents should be reviewed internationally.  We used to have international standards committees that worked together to develop standards that benefited everyone.  That approach worked well for individual companies and for the world.  Our current system of multiple, patented, similar but incompatible, electronic devices does not serve the consumer well.  Imagine if every TV manufacturer had their own broadcast technology.  There are some standards that, by their very nature, are best given to the world openly.  We don’t need 15 separate memory card “standards.”  We do need USB2 and other standards which are evolving to support better, cheaper, faster.  But there are a limited number of hardware standards that we need.  Yes, clearly some aftermarket companies are licensing the unique corporate formats to provide alternate sources, but my point is still that we do not need all these alternatives.

At Digital Equipment (again, a million years ago), engineering was king and every engineering group that was developing a new computer was allowed to define their own unique backplane bus.  This meant the company had a ridiculous inventory problem with computer boards.  Prime Computer, on the other hand, had a single backplane bus standard and a single operating system which made their inventory situation much easier to manage.  Both companies are long gone, but the lesson learned was that unless you are wildly profitable and your customers will tolerate the high expense associated with unique products, a smaller number of standardized products can be sold in higher volumes and a healthy customization business can grow up around the standards.  Dell understood that at one point, but they’ve forgotten.  By the way, there’s an app for that.

PDP-11 Bus Handbook 1979

My point about hardware is that the technology community should promote fewer but stronger standards, where the standards are motivated and justified by technology, not by vendor patent.

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