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Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor

Unfortunately, I Really Am That Nerdy

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Computational interlude
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Microsoft by Night

Image by Kistaro Windrider via Flickr

One of Slashdot's headlines today is that the Google Chrome OS is intended to somehow cause Microsoft to run out of steam. The goal is to take the business areas that are actually profitable for Microsoft- operating systems and office applications- and commoditize them, dropping the sale price to zero or near zero so Microsoft's business model can't function. Obviously, I have a strong bias here, but I don't think it's going to fundamentally work nearly as well as the Slashdot crowd seems to hope. I could just make this a Slashdot comment, but I suspect I'll get more interesting replies here.

Given how closely this intersects with my profession, now more than ever I've got to put up this reminder: these opinions are purely my own, informed only from my (few) years of experience in the computer industry and (several) years of education on the topic. They do not represent any position by my employer. This blog is operated by a Microsoft employee, but is not in any way a reflection of the company or the company's position; it's one person's opinions, exactly the same as I used this blog before I got hired. Microsoft doesn't exactly take positions on furries or people who think they're dragons, either, in case anybody got confused.

Anyway, I think this will be no more disruptive to Microsoft than OS X or the various Linux distributions on netbooks. This isn't to say that Microsoft should ignore the competition; complacency is the fastest way to lose. I think Google still doesn't understand the market. Microsoft doesn't, either, but they've figured out a few things, and Google has a much higher bar to clear than they think they do.

When netbooks were emerging, most of them shipped with Linux. Most low-storage-capacity netbooks still ship with Linux, because Windows is large and bloated, and you don't need app compatability on a computer too small to install large applications on. It's simply not usable that way, so the OS doesn't need to be usable that way. But Windows netbooks have much lower return rates than Linux netbooks, so it's what retailers prefer to stock on machines reasonably capable of running the OS. Microsoft's attempt to rebrand "netbooks" as "low-cost small notebook PCs" is ludicrous, but it shows a slightly stronger understanding, in my opinion, of how to treat the computers. Netbooks should be treated as less-powerful computers with small displays. Of course, my $300 Acer Aspire One is stronger in every single spec except screen size than the $1200 Gateway laptop I brought to my first year of college- and they came with the same operating system out of the box, so they're only low-spec by today's expectations, not low-spec by any objective "can I get work done with this?" measure.

The Slashdot- and, apparently, the Google- perception of a netbook is an inexpensive portable terminal to connect to the Internet with, and use for primarily Web-driven tasks. This leads to minimalist, fast, web-browser-centric designs that are not intended to be functional without an Internet connection and are not designed to have significant client-side applications that are not fundamentally communications-based installed or running. And I want my netbook to be able to do that: I want something I can turn on in five seconds and start browsing the Internet with. I can't wait for Moblin to be mature enough I can set it up as one of my alternative-boot operating systems. But guess what? I'm a geek. I understand what the Internet is. I understand what is online and what is not, and I understand the limitations of a netbook- and what will run client-side and what needs an Internet connection to work. I, like the majority of designers and developers for Google, understand the technology at hand, the design trade-offs, and why I would or wouldn't want to boot Windows for a particular use.

But I definitely wouldn't want a netbook that isn't Windows-capable. I certainly don't use it like a netbook most of the time- I just use it like a highly portable computer that doesn't have an optical drive (except, of course, when I plug one in). It also has an eight-hour battery life, courtesy of the nine-cell battery I bought last week. (I use the stock 3-cell when I need better portability, though.) I've got Office on it, because I want to be able to do full document editing without relying on an Internet connection- and that's the same reason I installed the client for Evernote, rather than calling the web version "good enough". It's probably worth noting that I also installed Steam, mostly so I could shove Chessmaster Grandmaster Edition and Civilization IV on there. Why shouldn't they be netbook fare? The computer's plenty powerful to run each of them. (When I turn the graphic settings down, anyway.)

I do all this understanding the limitations of netbooks. I don't expect it to be as zippy as my other computers. (It usually is anyway. I still don't understand why it consistently performs better than my corporate-issued laptop, a Lenovo X61 with twice the specs as a minimum on everything but hard drive space.) I don't multitask as aggressively. (There's not enough screen space to, anyway!) I know the difference between a netbook and a fully-powered computer, and I work around it.

This puts me in the top n% of computer users for values of n that are probably higher than I give people credit for, but probably under 30. I like computers. The vast majority of Google employees like computers. The sweeping majority of Slashdot commenters like computers. The majority of computer users tolerate computers, right until they start interfering with their work with all these weird dialog boxes, which they click the buttons on to make them go away, based on what they've learned makes dialog boxes go away. The Internet runs on their computer, and they're not sure why they have to subscribe to it but if they stop paying it stops working, and there are other places they can use the Internet if they have this little radio turned on. Some of them make you type a weird password in a weird place, and sometimes it doesn't work at all. Their computer is a mysterious thing that works until it stops working, and then it's Microsoft's fault. (This includes Mac owners.)

The average computer user, especially someone buying a computer because "they need one for college", will buy the cheapest computer they think they can make sense out of unless they are buying one specifically to run a particular program; in that case, they'll buy whichever one the salesman tells them will run that program. (Although to be fair, the MMO crowd is likely to at least understand graphics cards.) The problem with netbooks that run non-Windows operating systems is that they clearly claim everything they're capable of, but unless they were using Google Apps anyway, it's not like what they were used to- and it doesn't work without this weird transitory Internet thing! This isn't a computer like what I'm used to, it makes no sense! Back to the store it goes! What do they mean "it's best used with Internet-driven applications?" I use the Internet, so that must be what I need. What's this? Where'd the thing I write letters in go? What happened to my e-mail? Where's the blue "e"?

If someone wants an Internet-based netbook to work for the average user, they're going to have to do a hell of a lot of user-ed to show them how to do it, and they're going to have to figure out how to make the users actually pay attention and learn once they've discovered they need to do different things to do the tasks they're used to, but stay out of the way otherwise- they don't want to learn, they just want to use the computer. It is not an easy task to figure out how to teach someone something multi-step when they just want to do something that they've already found out (rather unpleasantly) that they can't do the way they're used to.

Whoever solves that problem first will win. Chrome OS is trying to solve the fast-booting small Internet-driven OS problem. It's a great problem for nerds to have solved- I'll probably put Chrome OS as an alternate boot if Google makes it available- but it misses the problem that made the other operating systems that aren't stock-standard Windows (with a few modified layout decisions) have trouble going mainstream. There are plenty of solutions that can be transparent to the user, but none of them will prepare them for the shock they're going to get when they aren't connected to the Internet and try to use them. Which is what Google Gears is going to try to fight, I suspect. But that's absolutely nothing a clever OEM can't do with pre-installation of the Chrome browser and pre-populating the desktop with Gears-enabled web-app shortcuts- and they can legitimately advertise the power of the Chrome OS combined with the power of Windows. Does Windows add less value to a netbook than the cost of the Windows Tax? For some people it won't, and that's the market Chrome OS will find. If Google does it right, it'll find a large enough market to keep it a lot more alive than the scattered, non-standardized netbook Linux distributions to date. But I don't think they've yet figured out how to challenge the much larger market share of people who don't really know how to use computers.

Incidentally, this is the exact market that Bing is attempting to take from Google. It's the people who ask questions in the search box instead of understanding how to use search terms. Bing's results for a clearly-written Google-style search query are still worse than Google's. But Bing's results for a badly-written conversational question blow Google's out of the water. Microsoft is wagering that there are more people who don't know how to write search queries (and don't want to learn) than there are people who know how to write search queries.

Google Chrome OS is a very interesting entry in the field, but it's not targeting Microsoft's fundamental market, and won't for a few versions. In the meantime, Microsoft has the chance to respond in kind. All this will do, if you want to disparage it as such, is cause a real fight in the domain of netbook interfaces and give Microsoft new competition using a significantly different strategy than Apple's shiny premium market target- which can only be good for the field as a whole, because nobody innovates quite so fast as when they're trying to beat the hell out of each other.

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Everything stands as a possibility that one day something will come around to either displace Microsoft somewhat, or even just become a major player in the sandbox. But lets face it, they've got their fingers in everyone's pie as it is, and are definitely leading the race. But you're right, to ignore the competition entirely would spell disaster. Somebody WILL come along with something better, and if there's nothing else to look at, people will start switching.

On the netbook side of things, I rather like my Toshiba NB200. The little thing is more powerful than the desktop computer I just replaced. The only thing its lacking is a bigger screen and an optical drive. Other than that, it does its job just fine. I can do all my schoolwork and other things on it, play games, watch TV online, you name it. Hell, it even has things my previous computer did not, like a better processor and on-board Bluetooth. Netbooks are damn nice machines these days. They can do pretty much anything that a desktop PC from even a year or two ago could.

I suppose we'll have to wait and see what folks like Google really bring to the table. Chrome is nice and all, but it still isn't so awesome that people are flocking to it on mass. Hell, I haven't even tried it yet. ^^() I don't have any reason to. Windows XP Pro continues to be all that I need on a day to day basis.

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Yeah, people have been playing around with test copies and the like, as far as I've seen. And aye, until I actually see it on the store shelf, its vaporware. ^^

until I actually see it on the store shelf, its vaporware.

That right there is very insightful for entirely different reasons. Your perception is not uncommon- it's not real unless it's on store shelves. Ubuntu Linux is available for purchase from Best Buy for $49.99, a credible price for a boxed copy of an operating system, and an amazing bargain shelved next to the $250 for Windows XP Pro or the $350 for Vista Ultimate. But it's a major-software price, in a box, and that lends it credibility.

Even though the exact same software is available for $0 for free download, or $3-ish (for postage and materials) if you ask them to mail you a DVD. The Ubuntu-In-A-Box sells.

It's credibility, and I suspect Google Chrome OS is never going to be sold in a box. Why would Google do that? They're an internet company. Plus, netbooks don't have optical drives, so if they sold it on anything, it'd be a USB keychain.

But that disregards the psychological value of having a box on shelves at a traditional store.

Well by "Store Shelf" I meant just available for purchase period. ^^ I should have elaborated. Online stores, downloads, and all that are perfectly valid as well.

I think things being available via non-standard media is going to be more common as things go on. Why bother going into a store and buying a disk when you can just download it and archive the install file however you want? I think having programs on SD cards would be a great idea. Certainly less space than DVD's.

You know, as crazy an idea as this might be, why not just sell it on a USB thumbdisk, then.

People are stupid and won't understand. That's why people insist on paying so much for OS's- any less and they'd question the integrity of the product.

If it's not on a round plastic object that goes in the computer's cupholder, what exactly is wrong with it?

No reason not to. Tax software's already starting to come like this, so people won't feel quite so annoyed at having software that's only useful once, because hey, free thumb drive.

Unlike Taren, I don't think it'd be hard to explain to users. "Plug it in to one of the square holes on the side" isn't really harder than "put it in the CD tray".

I honestly think that the only fair thing to say at this point is that it's far too early to tell what's going to come of the Chrome OS. Some people think it's the end of Microsoft and some people think it's the end of Google. I think that there hasn't been a single metric, screenshot or description of the OS released yet and that it's a bit premature to start making any kind of analysis on its future impact.

Google's already been pretty clear about their design and their design philosophy, so it's reasonable to reason about the philosophy. But I agree, I can't make any hard conclusions yet- there's nothing to do but find out what actually happens. But with pundits already making sky-is-falling predictions for both sides, I didn't feel like standing by. :p

I'm pretty sure it's not going to ruin Google, though. I doubt they're going to throw more resources at it than they can afford.

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Absolutely. I'm very glad about the iPhone because it's forcing Windows Mobile handset and software manufacturers to step up their game- to say nothing of Microsoft. (Won't say much more on that, though, I know too much.)

As a PocketPC user from the '90s, I can stay that Windows Mobile stagnated. WinMo tried to stay just ahead of Palm. Palm tried to stay within range of WinMo but cheaper. This was not a tech race so much as a tech crawl, with software stagnating far behind the rest of the industry. The massive disruption represented by the iPhone was needed and, frankly, overdue by a few years.

GoogOS is almost certainly intended to be preinstalled on netbooks, an attempt to unify the one-off Linux interfaces kludged together by hardware manufacturers (who are not software interface designers) and make there be a real, workable, industry-wide alternative to Microsoft. And for Microsoft to have any strong incentive to really compete in the netbook market, instead of winning by default, that kind of competition is needed. Netbook hardware is already remarkable; the software is lagging behind, and this may finally start the race.

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Of course it's a race-to-the-bottom. That's what capitalism is supposed to do. The market finally invented a commodity product that meets 75% of the market's needs, and now they're in competition to meet that need as efficiently as possible. Electricity became cheap. Food became cheap. Paper became cheap. (We're not there yet for printer ink.) RAM is like that, most people just don't know how to upgrade it. Clothes became of sufficient quality, and then they became cheap. Pocket calculators became cheap. Well, now someone invented a sufficient computer, and now they're making it cheap. What's wrong with the race for the bottom? It's efficient. We stop wasting resources on computers that could be more effectively used on other things.

I'm a little dubious about 10" netbooks, even. My 8.9" Acer Aspire One has a slightly small keyboard, but only slightly- it's a very usable size for me, and it'd lose portability for very little gain if it was larger. I suspect the next generation of netbooks will fold differently, especially once we have flexible displays- I fully expect a 7" netbook where the entire top half is a screen with very nearly zero border, and the keyboard folds out sideways to be full size. I have a pocket-size wireless keyboard for my PDA with full-size keys that works exactly like that. Why not make that part of a subnotebook?

"Microsoft is wagering that there are more people who don't know how to write search queries (and don't want to learn) than there are people who know how to write search queries."

This is so unbelievably true, and it's why Linux has yet to made a dent in the home PC market. The people who push it (like the Slashdot crowd) just don't get that the vast majority of people using computers have trouble figuring out their TV remotes.

Category A: I installed a recent build of Ubuntu not long ago, and before it would work, I had to add some text to a boot file. Not difficult if you know what to do, but, uhm...

Category B: My mom got a picture in her email and tried to save it. She first did 'open' and couldn't figure out 'where it was'. Then she saved it to the My Picturs folder in My Documents. Then she managed to open the my documents folder to look for it, but didn't understand that you can have folders inside folders, so thought My Pictures was itself a picture.

Which of these categories do you think represents most computer users these days?

Incidentally, that second scenario is exactly why Windows 7 defaults to sortable collapsed view for Libraries- people don't really understand subdirectories, but they're starting to understand search, so silently removing subdirectories from the view (while making them very easily available for people who know them, like them, and actually sort their stuff) can be an improvement.

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Windows (of any edition) lets you sort on any column. Windows Vista allows for a lot more columns using file metadata (especially for videos and music); Windows 7 tries to extend that even further. But, yeah, search: the salvation of the disorganized. Like me.

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I am certain that 95% of the open-source apps I've given up on would have been sufficient (or even superior) solutions to problems I've wound up buying commercial software for. The biggest thing that closed-source usually has that open-source almost never does? Competently-written documentation. Lacking that locks them out of the "interested but not desperate tech" market, which is most people who are interested in open-source without being zealots. Shiny and immediately-obvious UI you can safely learn about by randomly poking at it (my mate refuses to read manuals or directions, ever) is needed to go mainstream, and that's an even higher bar. For me, I'd be happy with docs.

Ubuntu/GNOME are the best for interface overall, from my experiences. KDE has more than a few stumbling blocks, and I haven't even seen KDE 4.x yet.

Win7 actually does burn ISOs out of the box now, but yes- users don't have a compelling reason to switch. "Try Linux! It's Almost As Good For The Majority Of Tasks!" still isn't compelling to users, and the total lack of nontechnical n00b-friendliness (except for Ubuntu, which still isn't there yet) is enough to make people still more than willing to pay the Microsoft tax.

I think you grossly underestimate just how easy Ubuntu is to use, which has absolutely nothing to do with zealotry as much as it does "we actually had grandma try to use this and she got into the swing of things pretty fast".

There are plenty of other points of contention against desktop Linux, but this "ease of use" pantload is little more that the usual line of FUD.

Edited at 2009-08-11 12:54 am (UTC)

Ubuntu can be taught to a computer user open to learning a slightly different OS in a short period of time assuming they want to perform the same tasks that 90% of computer users use. This works if they have no unusual requirements and have a teacher. So yes, Ubuntu has a great chance to get a foothold by word-of-mouth. Ignoring program inertia, the only real barrier to Ubuntu is that as soon as you fall out of the 90% scenarios, or hit a bug, it decays about as gracefully as Lotus Notes. But most users won't know the difference. My aunt Joyce went with SuSE for the better part of a year, but needed Microsoft Word to merge a mailing database for her church.

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A smartphone with a good web browser costs two to three times as much as a netbook if you don't sign up for a contract. They still aren't truly good. And a netbook with a 3G card is free-with-contract from everybody but T-Mo now (because T-Mo sucks at 3G so far). I have a netbook because it keeps me from needing to buy a much better yet much more expensive (because my contract's not up for over a year) phone.

I miss virtual desktops from when I was using Linux for college. (I went a year without a working copy of Windows. Interesting, but I did miss it.) Stardock Virtual Desktops ($20, stardock.com) is a solid implementation. It'd be nice to have it in the OS itself, but only if it's nontrivial to turn on. Users have trouble when a window goes behind another window (part of the reason for Glass: to make it a little more obvious when that happens); can you imagine what happens if they inadvertently flip desktops?

Most computer users use a computer because it's what lets them do what they want to do. Tinkering with a computer to make it work is not what they want to do- and software designers have to understand that users have a much shorter attention span for it than they're often credited with.

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Windows OEM-installed on a box usually comes with the standard apps preinstalled. Windows-in-a-box can't, even as an optional single-box bundle package, as part of the findings in the Windows 98 case without being default guilty of monopoly abuse again.

Given the interesting debates, my point is more simplistic. I think that one of the things that needs to be looked at is less whats better or whats not, its the fact that for well over a decade Microsoft's versions of Windows were what everyone and anyone worked on except for really high end labs. That simplicity is what everyone learned and is familiar with and as anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists can tell us, humans hate change. Microsoft I think is using that fact to their advantage.

I think the comment on the classes of computer users is perfectly right. I convinced my mother to get a Linux laptop (Ubuntu) and it took her about a month but now she uses it as proficiently as Windows, and I only get questions on more technical stuff like "How do I set up the printer" because she would ask that even if it was a Windows machine. So it in my mind was worth it, I just had to explain that Firefox is a web browser just like Internet Explorer, Openoffice is like Microsoft Office, and so on and so forth.

You also have a point on computers to fit the needs. I bought my netbook which still has more power than most any machine I own, and all mine are ancient by most standards. I use my netbook as my primary machine even, and it fits all my needs because I understand the demands on it that get placed. Youtube is about the most video watching I do and that is enough to fill the processor. Many people though return Linux netbooks, as pointed out, because of the lack of familiarity they would have with Windows. And its not gonna run the things they thought it was. They don't pay attention to the "Atom" part of the processor, but the "1.6Ghz" part and they think its as good as a Core 2 Duo or whatnot. Its the average person's fault thinking to buy cheap and then its not what they want and regret it. Their fault.

I think Microsoft will never have too much to fear from other OSes. Its on the playing field and always will be. As long as it continues to contend, it will do fine, it may just find itself contending with different players. And in that respect, I have not much faith in the Chrome OS until it proves itself. Ubuntu Netbook Remix, for now, will be my major contender. (I love it, and bootup is on my machine between 20-30 seconds, even when it has to run HD checks. I hope it gets more market play soon.

Also, geektalk ftw.

I've never been terribly on-board with the idea of a netbook basically being a thinclient you use to run webapps, especially in the face of the fact that a lot of them are Flash powered. Youtube videos barely run without jittering because of Flash. While cloud apps are definitely convenient in some ways, they'll never replace the usefulness and utility of client-side software suites.

And let's be honest here. The Linux community dropped the ball with netbooks. It was an excellent opportunity to gain some headground and they blew it. See, all these netbooks with the high return rates, I bet you a dollar they were they used those shitty, crippled distros that only neckbeards could hope to make actual use of (and they would probably wipe/pave and put Slackware or something on it anyway). The reviews I've seen for Linpus, the distro they put on the lower-end AAOs, certainly weren't glowing.

Which would be one thing? Because Linux's poster child, Ubuntu, is doing so much to position itself as the netbook OS of choice, putting a good deal of effort in promoting Netbook Remix. There's only one little snag in their plans, though. It wasn't until Jaunty Jackalope that it supported the Atheros cards commonly inside netbooks. And I think even then I had to install backports just to get decent connection strength/speed. And let's not also forget the incredibly poor support for the GMA chipset inside these things, ironically enough from the manufacturer commonly touted by Linux aficionados as the best supported.

Bear in mind that Microsoft did shit themselves when they finally caught up with the rest of the tech world, going so far as to extend support of XP just so that they might stave off Linux long enough to unfuck Vista and call it Win7. They publicly admitted they see Redhat and Ubuntu as viable threats.

I see Google perhaps making inroads, but only if people get off this "make Linux look shiny" kick the community seems to be on, and and make it bloody well work. Ubuntu is great for people like me who don't mind tinkering under the hood a bit to fix all these niggling problems that come up, but Joe User isn't going to have a moment of it. And until the Linux community gets this concept through their thick neckbearded skulls, it's going to continue to enjoy being less niche than Mac.

Edited at 2009-08-11 12:59 am (UTC)

I work for a gov't contractor, and let me tell you, oh BOY is the bureaucracy bad. It took FIVE people to get me signed up for a charge number so I could document my time spent, and I can't even apply it to last week's hours!

If Google wants to change the world they better start in coffee shops, 'cause large corporations aren't going to want to change. People are still struggling with Office 2007- how do you imagine life would be without the Little Blue E and that roundish blue taskbar? Everyone except the techie nerds would think it was the freaking apocalypse. "Where's the Start button? HURRRRR"

I think business in general (and the psyche of the general public) is rooted too deeply in Microsoft to ever change. Unless something absolutely freaking amazing happens that proves itself to be leaps and bounds better than Windows, it's just going to be "Macs for artsy fartsy college kids, *nix for those damn nerds, and Windows for all the normal people"

Maybe I'm being too cynical but I just don't see anything unseating the big M$.

I am not a bit fan of having to be constantly connected to the internet to do things like document editing. However, it seems to me that you are arguing a bit too much for the "people won't stop using windows because they need a familiar environment and office".
Well, if people need such a familiar environment, why does microsoft keep constantly shuffling things around? Why can't I find things in Control Panel in Vista when I knew where they were in Windows XP (which is not where it was in Windows ME, but I managed to find it eventually). How can Office sell "because it's what people are used to using" when OpenOffice looks a lot more like Office 2005 than what Office 2007 does? I don't think that most users will experience Chrome OS as a more stressing change than going from Windows 98 / IE5 / Office whatever to Vista / IE8 /Office -07.

But Bing's results for a badly-written conversational question blow Google's out of the water.
I searched for the first thing that popped into my mind in a badly-written conversational manner, and I can't say Bing impressed me.
I searched for who made those melted clock pictures and google gave me "The Artist Who Painted Melting Clocks - Salvador Dali - TRCB" as the title of hit 7. Bing mentioned Dali in the preview text on a hit on page 3, which was a comment made to an article about another clock. So if you have some backings for your claim, I'd like to see it.

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