I am a writer and I travel a lot. I also suffer from the laughable delusion that I can work on the road. I live surrounded by a chaotic miasma of weird and semi-functional mobile computing devices, some of which have strange habits; I've sometimes been tempted to turn this into a tech/gadget blog, but I'm not rich/mad enough to buy the gizmos out of my own pocket, and I'm not really interested in going back into journalism and doing it as a business. So you can take this posting as one in an occasional series of twitches from my not-quite-dead magazine pundit reflexes.
I've just spent three out of the past six weeks away from home, and I am annoyed. Nothing quite works right for me; moreover, it's probably not a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it. The sad fact is, mobile computing is trapped in a local minimum — a sub-optimal point in the phase space of cheaper/lighter/faster from which it cannot escape without some corporate entity somewhere taking a gamble and launching a new hopeful monster of mobile computing upon the world ... frankly, the situation has barely improved since 1999, when I was happily toting around a Psion 5MX. It had its drawbacks (it, in turn, had stepped back from the omnicompetent brilliance of the Psion Series 3, which was basically a real computer that did just about everything you expected of a desktop in those days and which you could stick in your pocket), but within those limits it kicked sand in the face of today's mobile gadgets. (And it's the direct ancestor of many of them; it's operating system, EPOC/32, is today better known as Symbian.) Bluntly, mobile computing devices today are crap. Here's why ...
For starters I'm going to nail my colours to the mast and declare that I am a Mac user. There: I said it! I dislike Windows. Partly this is because I come from UNIX-land — I pre-date Windows — and I expect my operating systems to make sense, and to be designed along consistent lines. Windows wasn't designed along consistent lines; it just sort of happened, and bits got bolted on top. If operating systems were houses, Windows would be a chaotic jumbled rookery. Mac OS X is the current best-of-breed desktop workstation environment in UNIX-land; and although stuff's been bolted on top over the years, there's still a relatively clean BSD layer underneath all the cruft. Linux would be a contender if you could collectively slap the development community around the head with Apple's circa-1985 Human Interface Guidelines, but as things stand they're more interested in featuritis than usability. Apple, for all their sins — have you noticed how Steve Jobs comes to resemble a Bond villain more with every passing year? — understand the value of industrial design (vital at a consumer level), and know that raw computing power is useless if the users can't get at it (vital at a developer level). Apple, as a friendly hack of my acquaintance put it, has one single customer: Steve. For any given product, if Steve doesn't like it, it doesn't ship. And Steve is reputedly a perfectionist asshole and a control freak. These are personality traits I hate in my customers, but adore in my suppliers. So count me in on the cult of Mac (up to a point).
Microsoft, in contrast, also has just one customer: Steve. Balmer, that is. Microsoft makes products that only a company like Microsoft could like — a corporation with 87,000 employees and a huge IT departmental spend. Microsoft eats its own dogfood eagerly, and if anyone in-house needs a piece of software, they'll build one to fit the requirement — and it will have features galore, features to match every bullet point on the PowerPoint pitch, regardless of whether they're useful, necessary, or even belong in the product. This is not an intrinsically bad way to run a software company — but Microsoft's products are managed by developers: design and usability come a long way down the ladder. Evidence: let's look back to last year and compare Windows Mobile 6.0 with iPhone OS 2.2. Windows Mobile wiped the floor with the iPhone OS on features (what, no cut and paste?!) but the iPhone OS knocked the spots off Windows Mobile on sheer usability — for any given task, if it could be accomplished on both systems, the iPhone was much easier to use.
Linux: here, hand me those pliers and that duct tape. Look, it works now! What's your problem?
(Yes, the server this blog sits on is running Debian. I've been intimately familiar with Linux for years — I used it as my main desktop OS from 1995 onwards until OS X got powerful enough to do what I needed. Nevertheless, when I'm trying to Get Stuff Done, having to pull out the duct tape every fifteen minutes gets old fast. The newer Ubuntu releases are promising, but they're not in OS X getting-stuff-done land yet. Watch the skies ...)
Now, I travel. A lot. I want portable computing.
I've tried Netbooks. The problem with netbooks is this: they suck. Many of them have keyboards designed by folks for whom western European languages are not their first, or even second, script. I am sick and tired of keyboards where the right shift key is buried among the arrow keys, so that half the time you try and type a W or A you end up inserting a lowercase letter on the line above. I am sick and tired of keyboards too small to type on, or with missing characters. Welcome to netbook land!
If the keyboards are good (and HP have got them right), the screen resolution is low. And if they get the screen right as well, you end up battling with an asthmatic, gutless processor. The Intel Atom family CPUs have just about no cache, and they deliver piss-poor performance. The icing on the cake for me was installing OS X on an Asus Eee 1000 with an SSD. Two minutes to boot! Welcome back to the 1980s and the world of floppy disks.
I have a first-generation Macbook Air. Unlike the netbooks, it has a full sized screen and keyboard. It also runs on a real processor — a Core 2 Duo — and even the gutless first generation model (with an iPod's hard disk and a cheap Intel 950 video chipset) can boot in less than 30 seconds. It does, however, tend to wheeze loudly when I throw my regular working set of apps at it — OpenOffice, Thunderbird for email, and Firefox with about 30 tabs — spinning up the fans and blasting hot air over my knees. If I have a rush of cash to the wallet I'll trade up to the current model which has a whole lot more grunt (and where the high end SSD-equpped model costs a hundred quid less than this low-end one did when they first came out). The only real problem with the Macbook Air is its lack of ports (come on: one USB socket?) ... but remember, Apple is the company that first launched wifi in a laptop, back in 1998: if they've got any sense, the next revision of the Macbook Air will come with Wireless USB (at which point: problem solved).
Yes, there are cheaper laptops that resemble the Airbook, and can be coerced into running Linux rather than XP — from the likes of Acer and Asus. Alas, they tend to have Atom CPUs. A cheap knock-off is a cheap knock-off. And there are expensive knock-offs: the Dell Adamo (come on, a 1.2GHz Core Solo processor? For 50% more than a Macbook Air?) or the new Sony Vaio P (ditto, and don't get me started on Sony's attitude to after-sales service).
But. The Airbook isn't really usable in economy-class seating. What if I want to whip out a computer, Psion 5-like, and tap away in coach class for 20 hours on a pair of AA cells?
The story here is even more dismal.
I'm going to turn 45 next month, and my eyesight is succumbing to presbyopia. I can cope fine with a laptop screen with a traditional pixel dot pitch of 72 to 95 pixels per inch (ghastly imperial units again — why can't we go metric, dammit?). But modern handheld gadgets are going for much finer dot pitch, in the range 120-200 pixels per inch. At which point you need a user interface that scales up gracefully, or older eyes can't see the menu or mouse pointer any more.
I've got one device, a media player — the Viliv S5 — that runs Windows XP (and would run Linux too, if the vendor hadn't crippled the BIOS). It does run my core applications (one at a time; it's another gutless Atom CPU), as well as playing movies. The trouble is, the screen has a 5" diagonal, and somehow crams 1024 pixels into the 10.4 centimetres of its width — that's a little under 100 pixels per cm, or around 250 pixels per inch. Windows XP does not do 250 pixel/inch displays terribly well. In fact, although I can happily watch a movie on it, trying to use desktop apps on it makes my eyes bleed.
I gather Sony market a class of subnotebook, the Vaio P, which would fit my bill (if I went for one of the high-end models that are only sold in Japan, and ripped Windows Vista off the thing). Unfortunately they crammed a 1600x768 pixel display onto the thing ... with a 203.2 mm diagonal! Welcome to the eye-bleed clubhouse. And that's before I mention the 2 hour battery life (or you can shell out £180 notes for a 4 hour extended battery).
Sharp have gone one better, with a palmtop I'm still drooling after even though I know I can't use it: the Netwalker. It runs Ubuntu and comes with my core productivity apps and an acceptable battery life ... but again: it has the same size screen as the Viliv M5.
Who the hell are they designing these devices for? Anyone aged over 40 is going to find them impossible to use without reading glasses (memo to self: get reading glasses!). We're stuck with user interfaces that don't scale well to high pixel density displays, and a mess of brain-damaged pen-based machines (have you ever tried to write a novel with a pen?), and nobody seems to be paying attention to usability. Maybe the legendary Apple tablet will save us all, but I'm getting awfully tired waiting. Meanwhile: our portable medium-sized device experience is still way behind what it was like in the late 1990s. Maybe I should go on eBay and hunt down a second-hand Psion 5MX ...