Saturday, September 14, 2013

This Week, Apple and Microsoft Self-Destruct; Looking to the Future: Chrome Apps, Android and more.

In a very real sense of the word, both Apple and Microsoft self-destructed this week.

This post is about what you need to do to prepare for their possible demise. It gives a summary of why Microsoft and Apple's futures look iffy. Then it shows you reasons you need to care about this immediately. And finally, it will give pointers to alternative platforms for you to explore.



So why am I saying Microsoft and Apple are dying?


In Microsoft's case, it has been a long slow process, which came to a head at this week's Intel Developers Forum.


In short, Microsoft's developers, partners, OEMs and even Intel have made it very clear that their patience with Windows 8 is at an end. As there is no practical way for Microsoft to fix things prior to holiday season 2014 (that's next year, not this year)... it is reasonable to say that the Wintel ecosystem is in permanent decline.

In Apple's case, they just had their most boring, least innovative product launch ever.


As this is for their cash cow, the iPhone, one expects Apple to go into a sharp contraction. And as their only other cash cow, the iPad, isn't expected to launch any better, it is not unrealistic to consider the contraction permanent. Apple simply doesn't have the entrenched money makers that Microsoft does. When they go, they will go quickly.

If you want more details of Microsoft and Apple failing, you can find plenty in this blog, just put "Apple" or "Microsoft" in the search box at the top left of the page.


Why you need to care about this immediately:


Well, if you've upgraded office recently, or tried to purchase it new, you will know that Microsoft is doing its best to force you to use Office 365. Regardless of how you get it, it is more expensive than Office ever was before. Can you name any other non-Microsoft software product that has gone up in price recently? What will you do if Microsoft raises the price of Office 365 next year by 20%? Companies are known to "milk" locked-in customers as they fade. Microsoft is already doing this.

Now for Apple... consider these quotes from Apple's iTunes agreement:

(v) You shall not be entitled to burn video iTunes Products or tone iTunes Products.
... 
Apple reserves the right to modify, suspend, or discontinue the iTunes Service (or any part or content thereof) at any time with or without notice to you, and Apple will not be liable to you or to any third party should it exercise such rights.
... 
Notwithstanding any other provision of this Agreement, Apple and its licensors reserve the right to change, suspend, remove, or disable access to any iTunes Products, content, or other materials comprising a part of the iTunes Service at any time without notice. In no event will Apple be liable for making these changes. Apple may also impose limits on the use of or access to certain features or portions of the iTunes Service, in any case and without notice or liability.
... 
Notwithstanding any other provision of this Agreement, Apple and its principals reserve the right to change, suspend, remove, or disable access to any App and Book Products, content, or other materials comprising a part of the App and Book Services at any time without notice. In no event will Apple be liable for making these changes. Apple may also impose limits on the use of or access to certain features or portions of the App and Book Services, in any case and without notice or liability.

Uncomfortable about all that money you've spent in iTunes yet? Now might be a good time to actually read that iTunes agreement you've always clicked through... WARNING: you may become very unhappy. As far as I can tell (I'm not a lawyer), the only thing you retain rights to at all is music that you've burned to CD or music that was purchased without DRM. Everything else can be revoked, just because Apple says so. No refund. Oh, this isn't true only for Apple; Amazon (you know your Kindle books), Google, and others have similar clauses.


What you need to do now:


Well, the first thing to do is reduce your dependence on Apple and Microsoft. You should stop using Microsoft Office (or Apple's iWork) to the extent possible. In personal life this is usually very easy, but in a business you will need to take into account businesses that you have to exchange documents with. For example, my business uses LibreOffice and Google Docs for everything. The documents we share with others need only be read only, so we send them PDF versions. Talk with the businesses you exchange documents with... they may be fed up with Microsoft's pricing too. I recommend the combination of LibreOffice, Google Docs and QuickOffice (mobile) that best matches your needs. There are however, many other options available. I use some of these in addition to the products listed previously:


LibreOffice is absolutely free. It is an open source product. Recent reviews are saying that it has excellent Microsoft Office compatibility.

The second thing you need to do is review your media files that are trapped inside iTunes. What can you move and which ones are stuck? Consider writing to your representatives in Congress describing the unfairness of this digital rights management lock-in. It should be legal for you to access that content, regardless of what Apple wishes (or cannot provide because it is bankrupt). And indeed, your access should not be limited to only those platforms that Apple supports.  (Again, let me say this should be true for Amazon, Google and others as well.) Finally, plan your future purchases with this problem in mind.


What you need to start thinking of doing:


First, don't try switching everything all at once. Get rid of Microsoft Office, then slowly change where and how you are computing.

If you are using MacOS, then you have a reasonable platform to be using, even if Apple went under. You may want to start using Firefox or Chrome as a browser (if you haven't already). Windows is more difficult. I'm sure you've heard all sorts of horror stories about Windows 8 (which, alas, are largely true). That having been said, it is possible to use Windows 8 in a Windows XP/7 fashion. See this article for more information:


Remember that should either firm go under or become (more) obnoxious in their pricing, you need a plan for migration from the platform. Again, the first step here is to move away from Microsoft Office.

Now let's turn to alternative computing platforms.

I assume you have already converted your internal apps to be web-based. If you have not, take a look at the Dart programming language. This language, which translates very well to Javascript and is the new direction Google is headed in. Google sponsors it (and uses it internally), but it is very much open source. The Javascript that is generated is highly optimized. The reason you want to use it instead of JavaScript is that it gives a much better programming environment. If you already know Javascript, then it will only take you a few days to learn Dart. Dart provides: optional typing, operator overloading, classes and a wealth of standard libraries. It has its own virtual machine and can be used in a manner similar to node.js. (In other words you can write server-side code with it too.)

The first two (and most promising) platforms are sponsored by Google. Worried about using Google? I mean couldn't they become like Apple and Microsoft? Well yes, but both of these platforms are open source. If Google gets obnoxious, a competitor based on the same code would quickly become available.

Chromebooks and Chromeboxes


Next, look at Chromebooks and Chromeboxes. These are laptops and mini-pcs that exist purely to run the Chrome browser. They are extremely secure and easy to maintain. I do about 80% of my work on Chromebooks (including writing this post). That percentage has steadily increased. I expect I may be able to reach 95% in about a year.  Because I'm a software developer, it's possible I'll never be able to reach 100%, but one can get very close.

Recently, Google added a feature, originally called "Chrome Packaged Apps", but now called "Chrome Apps" that give Chromebooks "native" apps. These are simply web apps that run in their own windows independently of the browser. They have a permissions model that allow these apps to do more than what is normally allowed in a web app. These permissions work similarly to those used in Android. By the end of this year, I expect a significant number of these to be available. By the end of 2014, I expect you will be able to find nearly anything you want. Long term, I think these will be your best/easiest bet for replacing Windows and MacOS.

Unsurprisingly, Google Docs works very well with Chromebooks. But others do too and QuickOffice is supposed to have a Chrome App soon. You can even use Microsoft's Office 365 from one... very useful if you are in a situation where you have no choice but to use Office.

An exciting number of new Chrome devices will become available this holiday season. This blog is a reasonable source for news about Chrome devices.


Android


Your iOS devices can easily be replaced by Android. Android is still mildly weak in tablet apps, but this is changing very rapidly. By the end of the year, the lag in tablet apps is likely to have been corrected. Android devices are generally cheaper than iOS devices and come in a much greater variety.

Android is different from iOS in that it has good keyboard and mouse support. This holiday season will have a number of Android laptops/desktops/hybrids available. It will likely take six months or so for software to adapt in significant quantities, but Android could possibly become yet another route for replacing Windows and MacOS.


Linux Mint


If you are a technical person or you are a power user that is not afraid of a bit of a learning curve, this platform is very much worth exploring. It can be configured to look almost exactly like Windows XP. In fact, I often get my Linux Mint boxes confused with Windows... it looks more like "Windows" than Windows 8 does. Warning, it can be very hard to get Linux Mint to run on laptops. Problems with unsupported devices and/or power management are common. You can buy Linux specific laptops but these tend to be clunky and expensive. I am hoping that the coming round of "Bay Trail"-based laptops will run Linux Mint well. This platform is not currently useful for phones or tablets. I use Linux Mint on old Macs and in virtual machines daily. Beginning documentation can be found here.


Firefox OS and Tizen


These two are just now becoming available. Unless you like being on the bleeding edge of things, I'd wait a while before looking into these. Firefox OS is likely to be ready for prime time by the end of the year. Tizen is something of an unknown still.

Firefox OS is based on the Firefox browser and is currently made for smartphones, so it is kind of like both Chrome OS and Android combined. Programming is similar to Chrome OS and in fact, Firefox OS has a competitor to Chrome Apps called Open Web Apps.

Tizen is a Linux-based open source platform similar to Android, but programmed in C++ and Javascript. It is backed by Intel and Samsung. It has had some problems coming out, but a phone from Samsung should hit the market soon. Like the other mobile platforms here it is supposed to be very flexible.

Both of these platforms could eventually become options for replacing Windows, MacOS and iOS.

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