Sunday, March 23, 2014

The trend in mobile computers

At one time I was fairly current in the handheld electronics segment.  Sucked in by the lure of ultra-portable tools with which to pursue my writing hobby, and later enamored with the idea of these devices' supposed convergence with mobile phones, I owned several Palm PDAs, numerous early Pocket PCs, a few Palm phones, and the very first Pocket PC Phone (yep, pre-Windows, literally Windows Phone).  Sadly, they were not great experiences.  The promises of these early devices always fell far short of expectations.  I suspect that for many the sheer pleasure of having such toys outweighed many of their profound shortcomings (Pocket PCs could not be carried in the pocket as they would turn themselves on and repeatedly overheated due to the body's temperature).  The bottom line on these devices is that none of these "smart" tools were very smart.  None did both phone and PIM (personal information management) equally well.  It was always one or the other, and usually very much so.  The ability to multitask, i.e., access your notes app while on a call, was rare, for example, and worse, using the PDA side of the device often caused hard resets.  

So when smartphones really hit their stride I was jaded and skeptical.  It wasn't until I borrowed an iPad on a business trip a few years ago that I came out of my funk technology-wise and embraced portable electronics again.  Today I own both an iPad and an iPhone.  They are everything all the previous things promised to be and weren't.  And then some.  I also went through a couple of Droids in my search for the perfect instrument, and still own a Samsung Galaxy Tab 3.  The Tab 3 is not even close to my iPad2 in ease of use, by the way, though it has its good points.

In my mind the most significant consumer electronic device ever produced has to be the iPad.  Millions of us can never be happy using a laptop again.  Why would we?  I have done incredible things with my iPad.  Bought a house (everything from finding it to signing the papers), built all my currrent webpages, wrote all my website articles of the past two and a half years, continue to maintain a number of blogs, run my business (not only emails but a makeshift but very workable CRM as well), keep a Facebook presence, created QR codes, and a lot more.  Yup, a rabid iPad convert, that's me.  And for the record, I loathe iOS7; a huge step backward for Apple and indicative in my mind of the lack of sense driving the company post-Jobs.  

I think Jobs did something extremely few do today.  He developed products until they were great ("insanely great," remember?).  No one does this any more.  Much the way auto manufacturers strive to deliver new models each year and in the process never take the time to develop cars to work really well, computer (and by extension, mobile device) companies, in their quest for staying on the leading edge of technology, do the same thing; they never really develop their products to the point that they do the basic things exceptionally well.  Worse, this means software has to change to keep up, another aggravation for those of us who go through the agony of finding the best software, only to have it soon stop functioning because the OS has been updated.  Do you find it interesting, as I do, that legacy PC software is gathering more and more adherents?  Two increasingly popular legacy Windows software sites are and  Check them out.  Furthermore, the worth of used iOS6 iPads on eBay and Craigslist has gone up, vintage Windows 3.1 File Manager has recently been recoded to work on 64-bit machines, and the popularity of alternate OS such as Linux is increasing.  It's sad when technology is so good it isn't usable any more.  Many people want hardware and software that adds actual productivity to life, not merely entertainment.  

Because another piece of this is that both hardware and software developers are focusing their energies on entertainment.  Maybe it says something about this era's society.  It is becoming a chore to find apps for either Apple or Android devices without first wading through pages of games.  Where do folks find the time for this stuff?  And the devices themselves are first and foremost multimedia vehicles, and productivity tools a distant second.  Who is driving this, I wonder.  Is it the buying public?  Or have developers discovered that in the same way sex sells beer, Netflix and angry birds sell tablets?

It's possible that both the hardware and software usability devolutions are tied to how corporations work today.  Upwardly mobile professionals have to regularly reinvent existing products to stay on their supervisor's radar, promotion-wise.  We're at the point I fear that this constant reinvention has taken precedence over genuine product development.  Far from being a Luddite, I embrace improvement.  But new is not always better, is it?  And must we increasingly, with improvements also endure products driven by a corporation's objectives instead of the user's needs?