Category Archives: Commentary


The Coming War

I like to think of the various technology companies as being armies on a battlefield. This is inevitably going to be a really strained metaphor, as battles as typically fought between only two armies, but let me run with it.

Each army has some advantage, home turf it wants to protect. Apple sits in a curve of a river, defended by fast-flowing water. Google has a spot on a hilltop, with a glorious view. Microsoft has a pass through the mountains. RIM is lying bleeding in a ditch. And so on.

Inevitably, the way to find the company’s turf is to identify how it makes money. Google sells ads on search, Apple sells hardware, and Microsoft sells Windows and Office. Almost every other activity these companies engage in is a flanking offensive, designed to prevent one of their enemies from breaking through and hitting them where it hurts.

That’s why Google has things like Android and Chrome OS, and Microsoft has Bing, which are all absolutely haemmoraghing money. Bing exists to stop Google entirely flanking Microsoft on the web, Android exists to prevent Apple entirely tying up mobile, etc. They’re pre-emptive strikes, to act before it’s too late.

This, incidentally, is why Apple is so furious at Google; Google started the war by striking first at Apple’s home territory. I suppose Google would have been equally furious if Apple fired the first shot into ads or search (a business Apple still isn’t in).

So to understand Windows 8, you really have to understand how the generals at Camp Microsoft think; they have a damned good mountain pass, and so it would be great if their mountain pass could exist in more places, so they could expand their mountain-pass empire. Possibly they need new sorts of passes, because mountains are easier to surmount than ever before. And to be fair, I did warn you that the metaphor was going to get strained. The trouble with their strategy is it really is as stupid as it sounds, and it’s a really good example of that old war saying: “Lions lead by donkeys.”

For those of you who haven’t kept up with the Windows 8 hoopla, it’s going to have a full-screen touch-based UI (codenamed ‘Metro’), which is what you see when you first boot up your machine, and whenever you want to launch a new program. The pre-existing Windows desktop is something you can jump into from this new UI, and the start menu is gone, replaced with jumping back to the full-screen Metro UI.

Microsoft were loathe to admit it, but Metro is clearly a response to the iPad; especially as Windows 8 will run on the power-efficient British-designed (national pride FTW) ARM processors used by the current crop of tablet devices and mobile phones, as well as the Intel-designed processors in current PCs and laptops. The poor power efficiency of the Intel chips are the primary reason that your lap gets rapidly scorched by the searing heat put out by a laptop.

The thing about the iPad is it’s like how I imagine people felt when they first used text-interface computers in the 70s and 80s; right now, they may be difficult and limited, but you know that the descendants of this thing are going to be the future. There will always be a place for the PC as we know it today, just as there’s still a place for connecting to a terminal over ssh and using emacs to edit a cron job, but tablets and similar devices are going to take over an increasingly large amount of our day-to-day needs.

And the iPad is already selling like hot cakes, so Microsoft needs to flank Apple, and they do it the only way Steve Ballmer can comprehend how: make it so something iPad-like can run Windows.

And so Windows 8; a iPad-like touch UI jammed on top of a standard Windows 8 desktop, with ARM support. For Microsoft, it’s an absolutely instinctive response. It’s the reason that Windows Phone 7 is called that, even though it a) Isn’t based on the same code as desktop Windows b) Doesn’t even have windows in the interface. They’re bound, inexorably, to the idea and brand of Windows, even when it doesn’t make sense.

What they’re relying on is their backwards compatibility advantage. Why buy a device with Windows 8 on it? Because it’ll run all your old Windows programs. Because it’ll be familiar. Because, essentially, it’s easier than switching to Mac or Linux. This is especially prevalent for gaming, which is severely underdeveloped on those two operating systems.

The trouble here is threefold: firstly, old programs written for existing Intel-based Windows machines won’t actually work on the new ARM-based devices. Theoretically, they could be reworked and recompiled to run on ARM, but it’s currently unclear if this will even be allowed. Regardless, on Day 1 of Windows 8, hardly anything is going to run on the ARM-based iPad competitor Windows 8 devices.

Secondly, backwards compatibility is a millstone. On a device like the iPad, the contract with applications is that they’re run in tightly controlled conditions; for instance the OS can kill them dead at any moment with little or no warning. The advantages of this are manifold; you’ve got massive security benefits, as well as improved battery life, etc. But you can’t impose conditions like this on applications retrospectively, at least not without enormous difficulty. Look at the kerfuffles around UAC in Vista, and that was merely enforcing what had been recommended practice for many years.

Thirdly, developers are lazy. They could write applications for the new Metro UI, or, they could write a standard desktop application that works on all versions of Windows. Microsoft are promoting a new framework for Windows development using the new Metro UI called WinRT, and it’s going to be a wonderful replacement for Win32, the old API, and it’s going to be wonderful and brilliant etc. etc.

Except that we’ve been here before. Windows codename ‘Longhorn’ was supposed to introduce a new platform for Windows development, called WinFX, which would be the foundation on which the OS rested. Longhorn eventually became Vista, most of the new framework arrived, although as a framework for applications, not actually used by the OS. Sure, some people are using it, I suppose. But it’s hardly taken over the world, and it was backported to XP so that it could be widely used. WinRT isn’t going to be backported at all, so it’ll be Windows 8 only. Incidentally, commenters, I’d be glad to hear of any WPF apps you know of; the only high-profile one I can think of is Visual Studio 2010.

Based on that history, WinRT is going to tank really, really hard. Why would you write an app using it, knowing that you’ll restrict yourself only to people running Windows 8?

Honestly, if I was in charge at Microsoft, I would spin off Metro into a serperately marketed OS. Base it on the existing Windows kernel, but totally rebuild the top layer to jettison Win32, then make Metro the best OS for touch devices it could possibly be, with no compromise to the old way.

Then make a Windows 8 that is essentially very, very dull. At this point, there’s not a lot of innovation to be wrung out of the desktop, so it’s really a polishing exercise. Microsoft mostly makes money by selling OEM copies of Windows anyway, so all it has to do to continue making versions of Windows which are good enough to stop people switching; this is a relatively easy job.

Mashing the two things together is the stupidest thing you could possibly do. You really risk angering people who really just want Windows with windows and don’t want to be using a mouse or trackpad with UI designed to be touched, and on the other side you’re going to do a half-arsed job of being a tablet.

For instance, I’m sure someone is going to try and build an Intel-based tablet, which will get hot, and have a fan, and terrible battery life. And poking desktop apps with your finger will suck, so it’ll include a stylus, which will get lost.

Maybe Microsoft’ll succeed with all this. Maybe. Honestly though, I think it’s going to be a failure. Possibly a failure larger than Vista, although they may have the sense to course-correct in time for Windows 9 so that they don’t permanently damage the dominance of Windows itself.

I think the engineers and designers have really done a remarkable job; honestly, reading about WinRT, and looking at the boldness of the Metro interface, they’ve really done themselves proud. It would have been really easy for them to do what others in the industry have done and just rip off the iPad, and that they’ve tried to reimagine the concept is commendable.

I suspect that the problem comes from the top; Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, talks about “Windows everywhere”. It honestly doesn’t make any sense. There’s a reason that Apple didn’t put OS X on the iPhone and iPad, even though the foundation of iOS is the same. It’s a real shame that Steve Ballmer is too stupid to understand that.

And yes, I know stupid is a litte ad hom, but honestly, look at this video; you can’t get much more wrong than he turned out to be.

The iPad

As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, I took the plunge and bought myself an iPad, as a kind of post-exams, post-degree celebratory splurge.

I have to say, so far I’m really rather enjoying it. It feels like this slab of glass and metal has just arrived from the future; it has this sense of violating usual expectations simply by existing.

The screen is glossy and beautiful, and it feels dense and sturdy. It’s heavier than you’d initially expect, but certainly not uncomfortably so. I’m not exactly a bulgingly muscular he-man, but I don’t find it uncomfortable to hold. They’re not wrong about the keyboard being large, it’s actually pretty comfortable to type on with the iPad in your lap, and you can get a pretty respectable typing speed with a little practice.

Pages load fast, browsing is fluid, and video on sites like the iPlayer work great. I started watching a Bettany Hughes documentary on Atlantis earlier on here, and it was a very pleasant experience. YouTube videos too look great, and I just last night found a service (although I now remember being told about it by Will Otter) called TV Catchup that allows me to stream live TV directly to my iPad, which is pretty cool.

As apps go, iPhone applications look flat-out ridiculous on the iPad. There’s not really a way around that one. They run, but you have the choice of running them at normal size, isolated in the middle of your display, or blown-up to fullscreen where they really just look appalling, pixellated, only having the iPhone keyboard rather than the superior iPad one, etc. You’ll want to use dedicated iPad apps wherever possible.

The catalogue of available iPad apps is comparatively smaller than its iPhone stablemate but there are already some pretty impressive apps available, and the number will only increase as more developers make iPad optimised versions of their existing apps. For instance the brilliant Google Reader client for the iPhone Reeder should be releasing and iPad version soon, and I can only hope that the Twitter for iPhone app formerly known as Tweetie will too receive an iPad version.

The in-built apps all look and work great, and one thing that surprised me was that even on the wifi-only model, location still seems to work fairly accurately, if not pin-point. I thought there was no GPS hardware, so I suppose it’s doing a trick using wifi hotspots to figure out my location. Whatever it’s doing, that’s quite cool.

I have a feeling that i’m going to change my habits quite a bit having this. I’ve already been tempted to impulse-purchase a movie from iTunes, and the iBook store would look terribly appealing if I didn’t already have a backlog of physical books (currently going through Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman) and I can see a lot of sitting in bed, browsing, tweeting and reading email in my future. Apart from high-powered hard-core gaming and writing code, there isn’t a huge amount of reason to go turn on my PC any more.

Anyways, I really like it, so there. This post was entirely written on the iPad.

Google and Wifi

So Google are in a bit of trouble because they captured a bunch of data from open wifi access points using their Street View cars.

Personally, I’m going to apply Hanlon’s razor to this: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

Google were collecting wifi data for the purposes of performing rough geolocation without the aid of a GPS module; if you collect the approximate position of a wifi access point (identified by its SSID and MAC address), then you can later calculate the location of a mobile device by cross-referencing with what wifi access points it can see. This is perfectly legitimate — all this data was being broadcast in the clear into public areas, it’s not personally identifiable, and Google were never going to disclose it directly anyway; only the results obtained from the use of the data.

The contentious bit is that they hoovered up payload data as well as just SSIDs and MACs. This means emails, web pages, downloads etc. etc. This isn’t too horrendous as anything actually important and sensitive e.g. financial stuff,  is encrypted at the transport layer by SSL anyway. The collected data could potentially be compromising and embarrassing however, and it is legally very dubious to collect and store.

Given that it’s a PR disaster and potentially illegal, I think the most plausible explanation here is cock-up. Somebody on the Street View team got sloppy and used some code from another part of the company without asking too many questions about what that code did, over and above what they were going to be using it for; said guy is now probably getting one hell of a bollocking.

The Smearing of Nick Clegg

I can smell blood in the water, and it ain’t Nick Clegg’s.

The debate and the Lib Dem surge it provoked have thrown this election campaign wide open, and it’s scaring the Fourth Estate shitless. I can’t blame them; they’ve been witness to an event which aptly demonstrated their own irrelevancy.

A Liberal Democrat was allowed to speak – unmediated – on equal terms with his rivals directly to the public, and the public liked what they saw. They didn’t need pundits or commentators to view events and decide what to think on their behalf (although various papers did try to sell conclusions totally at odds with the evidence; despite what the Mirror thought, Brown was not the winner). The journalists are used to setting the narrative, creating the structure of events as much as reporting them, and the story they wanted, expected, to tell us was of Dave, the compassionate Conservative, brushing Brown aside on his inevitable ascent into power.

But that hasn’t happened, and the papers are crapping themselves.

The current smear stories are laughable; one is an out-of-context quote from 8 years ago, the other is a non-story: Clegg received money from donations into his personal account, the money was declared with the relevant authorities, and the donors are satisfied that their money was used for the intended purpose. The worst case scenario you could claim, I suppose, is that he pocketed it. That would be a pretty serious allegation, and one the Telegraph is studious to avoid; likely because such an allegation would probably attract a libel suit that they would almost certainly lose.

If anybody had any real dirt on Clegg, they would have used it by now. Toppling a Lib Dem leader makes a pretty good story even when there isn’t an election. No, this latest behaviour just reeks of desperation. If this is really the worst they could dig up, you have to wonder what weak stuff they didn’t print.

They’re throwing whatever they can at Clegg to try and recapture their narrative for this election; to try and spin the Lib Dem surge as a temporary blip, a blip that will be corrected back to story we’re supposed to be reading, the story of the triumphal coronation procession of David Cameron, finally taking his rightful place behind the famous black door of Number 10.

Fuck that.

I think this election can be different; we finally have a chance here to smash two-party politics that we haven’t had in decades. Power doesn’t have to shift from Labour to Conservative and Conservative to Labour as sure as the swing of a pendulum; we can vote for something different. We can have something different. Words can’t quite express how happy I am that in my first General Election the choice isn’t just between the lesser of two evils.


I’ve had this discussion possibly a million times with various people, so I think I ought to post once what I think, and then never again get drawn into this argument. So, here goes.

Trident missiles are incredibly sophisticated, unimaginably destructive weapons; they enter low-earth orbit before releasing multiple 80-100 kiloton warheads onto their preprogrammed targets, utterly obliterating them within half-an-hour from the initial fire order. Each of these nukes is 4-5 times the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. There’s a submarine armed with a few dozen of these bombs constantly on patrol somewhere in the world. We have phenomenal, near instant, world-wide destructive power at our fingertips.

Trident, and its predecessor systems, were designed and built for an extremely specific purpose: to nuke the crap out of Soviet cities in the event of a Soviet first strike against Britain. As soon as we detect the Soviet launches, we issue the order to fire back, and then a few minutes later everybody dies. Well, the lucky ones, anyway.

That threat is gone. Here is the unassailable fact: we have no geopolitical enemies with the will or finances to build ICBMs. We can’t even build them ourselves; Trident is American technology. There are no such enemies on the horizon. People argue that we might not know who our enemies will be in 50 years, but look at the past: it wouldn’t take a genius to realise that the Russian Revolution and the rise of Soviet Communism would become a problem. There is not even a hint of a credible emerging threat on that sort of scale.

Sure, Iran or North Korea might well be developing nuclear weapons, but they have no method of deploying them to our shores, and certainly not in any kind of scale, or on timescales of less than an hour.  Nor are they ever likely to! Trident is overkill for insurance against Iran. Similarly, the idea that Trident is a deterrent against China is laughable; they honestly have no reason to attack the West, and they have more than enough conventional firepower to fuck us right up anyway.

I’m not advocating Britain’s total unilateral disarmament. I agree that that would probably be a mistake. We should maintain a store of nuclear weapons, albeit probably reduced from our current stockpile, with some alternate deployment strategy, e.g. short-range missile or air drops,  in order to counter any future threat.

We should, however, be comitted to a multilateral process of disarmament. How can we take the moral highground against Iran, telling them to not develop the bomb, when we’re replacing Trident? It makes us hypocrites, frankly. There’s nothing that hurts our diplomatic standing more.

To sum up: I don’t believe that there is a single possible reason why we would need to spend £100 billion to continue to be able to utterly annihiliate any location in the world in 15 minutes. We could easily maintain an ability to deploy bombs – we did a fairly good job of participating in shocking and awing Baghdad – while scaling back the ludicrous overkill represented by Trident. We should do a proper Strategic Defense Review to validate these ideas, but I find the idea of dogmatically sticking to a straight replacement for Trident unsettling.

And that’s all I have to say about that; comments are disabled on this post because I’m not really interested in discussing this topic any further. If you want to present your own views, please make your case on your own blog. Thanks.

iPhone Macro

I’m about to express an unpopular opinion, so I’m just going to come out and say it: I really want an iPad.

Yes, yes, I know, early adopters always get screwed, it’s locked down, doesn’t multitask, there’s no camera, there’s no Flash,  etc. etc.

Sorry, I just don’t care. It’s thin, it’s light, it’s a goddamned multi-touch tablet that’s going to have awesome third-party app support on launch (not only running legacy iPhone apps, but I bet there are going to be dedicated iPad versions of the best apps, e.g. Tweetie) and with a UX that’s pretty much second to none.

The web-browsing experience on it looks phenomenal. I already browse a lot on my iPhone, and being able to do the same on a screen that size? That’s the stuff tech dreams are made of. I’ve been wanting a device like this for over a decade, and now it’s here I’m not going to get sniffy because it doesn’t have a camera. Can you even imagine taking a photo with an iPad? It’d be horrible!

Honestly, I can see something like the iPad quickly becoming my go-to computing device. Need to look something up on Wikipedia? Want to book some train tickets? Quickly checking email? Want to show a friend a YouTube video? You bet you’ll be reaching for an iPad rather than trudging to a desktop or even a laptop computer. It’ll also be great for stuff like iPlayer, Facebook, Twitter… The experience on offer here is already worth the price of entry, no matter what features they’ll put in the second gen.

The one thing that seems like a missed opportunity with the iPad is that even if you get the 3G version, which presumably has all necessary radio-gubbins, it doesn’t support making phone calls or sending SMS messages.

Now, I can almost understand the justification for not supporting phone calls; there’s a real risk of looking somewhat like a 21st Century Trigger-Happy TV sketch, holding a giant iPhone up to your ear.

That problem could be entirely avoided though if it was mandatory to use some kind of hands-free kit to make calls.

The perfect scenario would be Bluetooth; your iPad could sit in your bag, month-long standby life only somewhat curtailed by being connected permanently to a phone network with the Bluetooth radio powered up. All the necessary interaction with the iPad required to make and receive calls could be made wirelessly via a Bluetooth headset. Heck, it would finally validate the existence of the bloody things.

Then I wouldn’t need an iPhone any more; the only time I’d miss it would be those times when I really need portability, like looking at a map while walking about on foot – mostly using iPhone apps while walking is a bad idea anyway (not that’s stopped me walking and tweeting, I might add). This is entirely counteracted by the much better battery life and superior usability afforded by the larger screen.

It seems like such a good idea I’m surprised they haven’t done it.