2014’s Paradigm Shifts in Tech

Technology is all about change, and rapid change at that. But even with the pace of technological development being dizzyingly fast, there are still larger paradigms, grander assumptions and codes of conventional wisdom, that are more or less static. In 2014, though, a lot of those paradigms shifted, and many of our preconceptions and understandings were altered, enlightened, or totally overturned. Here’s a short list of some of those paradigm shifts in tech in 2014.

Microsoft the Scrappy Upstart

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In another age, Microsoft was the Borg, the unstoppable and loathed behemoth that destroyed all in its path. Then, sometime in the middle-to-late twenty-aughts, it became the ridiculous giant, releasing silly products, failing to even approach the hipness caché of its once-defeated rival Apple, and headed by a boorish clown prince. Zunes? Windows Vista? The Kin smartphone? Windows 8? “Scroogled”? Each risible in its own way.

And then Microsoft got a new boss, and Satya Nadella’s ascent immediately changed the public perception of the company, especially among the tech punditocracy. The products still weren’t fantastic (Windows 8.1, Surface Pro 3), but the company began to emphasize its role as a service provider, ubiquitous not in terms of desktop machines, but in terms of the various services through which all manner of machines and OSes did their work. Think OneNote, Office 360 on iPad and Android, Azure, and OneDrive. The tide had turned, and now as Google and Apple (and Facebook and Amazon) battled for supremacy, Microsoft would simply work with anyone.

To get a strong sense of the change in attitude toward Microsoft, listen to prime-Apple-blogger John Gruber’s interview of Microsoft beat reporter Ed Bott on The Talk Show early this year, recorded at a Microsoft conference, at which Gruber was featured as a marquee user of Microsoft services. Gruber and Bott were full of hope and admiration for the old Borg, which would have been unthinkable even five years ago. It is a new day indeed.

“I Was into Big Phones Before it Was Cool”

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When Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note in 2011, it was ridiculed for being absurdly huge, as though anyone who bought one should be embarrassed about it. Today, the original Galaxy Note would be considered “medium sized” compared to today’s flagship phones, almost all of which have displays over 5 inches. Meanwhile, even larger phablets are objects of high desire and status, such as the Galaxy Note 4 and the iPhone 6 Plus. “Mini” phones (the 4.7-inch HTC One Mini, for example) are those with displays bigger than the biggest displays offered by Apple as recently as 2013, which topped out at 4 inches.

No longer silly, phablets are now considered high-productivity machines, the mark of a busy, engaged technophile, and are perceived to be eating well into the tablet market. (They’re still too big for me, but even I could be turned.) Big phones are now just phones.

Podcast Inception

At some point in 2014, it was decided that everyone in tech must have a podcast. If you worked for a tech site, you had a podcast (like me!). If you worked at a tech company, you had a podcast. If you’d just lost your tech job, your new tech job was to have a podcast. And on those podcasts, they woud have as guests and co-hosts who also had podcasts, because, of course, everyone had a podcast. On those podcasts, they would talk to their fellow podcasts hosts about podcasts, making podcasts, the future of podcasts, the monetization of podcasts, and podcast apps.

I predict that sometime in the middle of 2015, there will be a Podcast Singularity which will swallow up all tech podcasts into an infinitely dense pundit which will consider how this will affect the podcast industry, and will be sponsored by Squarespace.

Amazon’s Weird Hardware

Amazon was on a roll. The Kindle had proven itself to be an excellent piece of hardware years ago, and solidified this position with the magnificent Paperwhite in 2012. In 2013, its Fire tablets had become genuinely high-quality devices that were well-suited to most of the things anyone would want a tablet for, with strong builds, good performance, and beautiful screens. It seemed like Amazon was a serious hardware company now.

Then it released the Fire Phone, and everyone got a queasy feeling in their stomachs. A half-baked, gimmicky device that was incredibly overpriced, it landed with a thud, and Amazon continues to slash its price to clear out its inventory. (People really like the Kindle Voyage, I should note, and the Fire TV has been much better received as a set-top box, though my own experience with the Fire TV Stick was very poor.)

And then they awkwardly previewed the Amazon Echo, the weird cylinder that caters to the dumb informational needs of a creepy family, and the head-scratching turned to scalp-scraping. Amazon’s status as a serious hardware maker was no longer a given.

The Revolution Will Not Be Tablet-Optimized

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The iPad was going to be the PC for everyone. Most people would not even bother with a computer with a monitor and a keyboard, they’d just get a tablet, and that’d be it. PCs would be for professionals in specific situations that required a lot of power and peripherals. For the rest of humanity, it would be tablets all the way down.

Of course, now we know that in 2014, tablet growth has slowed, and few people use their tablets as their primary computing device. Instead, they’re causual devices for reading, browsing, and watching video. Despite the niche cases heralded in Apple’s “Verse” ads, on the whole, tablets have become the kick-back magazines of the gadget world.

That’s fine! I’ve written before that iPads/tablets are “zen devices of choice,” the computer you use when you don’t have to be using a computer, unlike smartphones and PCs which are “required” for work and day-to-day business.

The shift this year is the realization that tablets are (probably) not going to take over the PC landscape, especially as phones get bigger, and laptops get cheaper and sleeker. Could there be any better argument against an iPad-as-PC-replacement than Apple’s own 11″ MacBook Air? Even Microsoft, which once positioned its Surface machines as iPad replacements now markets them as MacBook competitors. Why? Because tablets just don’t matter that much, they’re more for fun, and the Surface is for serious business.

Forcing the tablet to be a PC has proven so far to be awkward and hacky, and PCs themselves are better than ever. The iPad revolution may never be. Which, again, is fine, but in 2014, we realized it.

(And relatedly, e-readers aren’t dead!)

The Souring of Twitter

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Twitter hasn’t always made the best decisions, and sometimes even its staunchest defenders have had to wonder what the company really wants to make of its crucial service. But to my mind, in 2014 the overall feeling toward Twitter has tipped from reluctant embrace to general disapproval. It’s gotten worse on privacy, it’s been MIA or unhelpful in handling abuse and harassment, and it’s began to seriously monkey with what makes Twitter Twitter. And more and more, I read pieces about once-avid Twitterers saying just how miserable the torrent of negativity makes people feel. Once the underdog to Facebook that all those in the know called home, it now looks like a hapless, heartless, clueless company that has no idea how good of a thing it has.

You Have Died of Ethics in Games Journalism

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Tech has always been a boy’s club, but in 2014, a lot of the industry decided it shouldn’t be anymore. As more and more instances of harassment, abuse, sexism, and overt misogyny were exposed – in the wider tech industry and in gaming particularly – the more people stood up to declare the status quo unacceptable. A wider embrace of inclusiveness and encouragement of women in tech emerged, along with, of course, a counter-reaction of hatred and attacks from those who liked things as they were.

2014 forced the tech universe to confront some very, very ugly things about itself. But it will likely prove a net win, as more of us work to fix it than don’t.

(I have this shirt with the above image, and it’s here.)

Google’s Glass Jaw

In 2013, Google Glass was the future, the way all things tech would soon be. In 2014, no one wears them, a consumer version seems to remain a fuzzy concept, and even those who were breathlessly enthusiastic about it have felt their novelty wane. The tech punditocracy is now waking up from its Google Glass hangover, and they’re all a little embarrassed.

Now, of course, we’re all excited about watches. It remains to be seen what we feel like the next morning.

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I Swear I Don’t Understand Microsoft’s Marketing

Microsoft has a new ad campaign for their tablet-laptop hybrid the Surface Pro 3, which compares the device directly to the 13″ MacBook Air. Here’s one of the ads.

Now, of course I get that it wants to show that the Surface is comparable to the MacBook in tech specs so that folks don’t presume it’s an underpowered netbook piece of crap, fine. I won’t get into all of the device’s now well-documented problems and shortcomings. You gotta compare your product favorably to the competition. Fine.

But what’s with the music? It’s not lighthearted, nor is it empowering, it’s just menacing. It tells me that this product is somehow for the combative, or that it’s being pushed as more “macho.” Which is ridiculous. Who wants a computer that seems threatening?

This reminds me of when they first introduced the Surface concept a few years back, and look at this. It’s like they want to scare you with it:

Or when the Motorola Droid was a thing, and to stand out against the iPhone played up this scary, dystopian, hyper-industrial cyborg angle, as though the Droid would leap out of your hand if it was in proximity of an iPhone and try and kill it. Whee!

Contrast that to when Apple introduced the MacBook Air for the first time. Steve Jobs slipped the damn thing out of a manila envelope and grinned. He didn’t then slit someone’s throat with it.

Why do Microsoft and other tech companies want to make their consumer product, ostensibly to be purchased by regular folks, seam so, well, mean? I understand that these are often aimed at a male demographic, but as a male who buys tech gadgets, I don’t want to feel intimidated that my device is going to take my lunch money and stuff me in my locker.

I don’t care for Samsung’s marketing, being too glitzy and smarmy, but at least they want you to like their product as opposed to fear it.

There Will Be No Hybrid Device (And That’s Good)

Microsoft insists that the Surface is “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” But even from the press event with enthusiastic demonstrations, and never having held the thing, it’s clear that this simply isn’t true. Yes, it seems passable as a laptop I suppose, but to qualify as something that “replaces” it, it has to be as good or better than a standard laptop (and really, better than a MacBook Air, a much higher bar). It’s clearly not. Its laptop functionality, for one, is a separate add-on, its keyboard not included. Its trackpad is reported to be inferior. Even with the keyboard attached and with the improvements Microsoft has made, it’s still unstable and awkward on a lap, according to reviews. So it fails here.

And as for the tablet part? No one is going to want to use the Surface as a tablet. It’s enormous, it’s heavy, and it has a poor tablet-app ecosystem. Is it passable as a tablet? Maybe? But again, passable isn’t good enough. 

The other selling point left is that is reduces the load of gadgets you carry. But for that to be the kicker, the benefit of having fewer things to lug around has to be so great as to overshadow the device’s other drawbacks. The Surface plus a keyboard weighs 2.42 pounds. A MacBook Air and an iPad Air together weigh 3.96 pounds. We’re not talking about back-breaking differences, here. And the tradeoff is that by having one device instead of two, you have one heavily compromised and inferior device instead of two excellently refined devices (and that presumes you even want to carry both around). I’ll take the extra pound and a half, please.

So while the Surface may be a very well made and interesting device, it’s not the Grand Unified Device it’s being trumpeted as. And it goes a step further in proving that such a device may not exist, or at least oughtn’t.

Bringing this back to Apple, when the top brass at the company made a lot of claims decrying the idea of a unified tablet-Mac hybrid thing, one thing I presumed was that their denials could be standard Apple evasion. Remember, no one wanted to watch videos on an iPod, until Apple made a video iPod. No one wanted to read books anymore, until Apple made an entire bookstore platform. They often look askance at features or ideas, only to adopt them later. I don’t fault them for this. They want the attention on the products they have now, not what they might make someday. 

But after Monday’s WWDC keynote, it’s clear to me that they weren’t bluffing about not melding OS X and iOS. Nor were they just being obstinate. For I certainly thought I wanted this unicorn device, the One Thing I’d Ever Use for both relaxing on the couch and for serious work. And when Apple said they’d never make that device, I also thought that perhaps they were being stubborn, the we-know-better company that they get panned for being so often, by simply folding their arms, sticking their noses up and saying “no!”

I revisit this interview that Craig Federighi, the operating systems guy, and Phil Schiller, the marketing guy, did with Jason Snell at Macworld last year, and you can see just how prescient it is, or rather, how the guys at Apple were telling us exactly what they were doing.

“The reason OS X has a different interface than iOS isn’t because one came after the other or because this one’s old and this one’s new,” Federighi said. Instead, it’s because using a mouse and keyboard just isn’t the same as tapping with your finger. “This device,” Federighi said, pointing at a MacBook Air screen, “has been honed over 30 years to be optimal” for keyboards and mice. Schiller and Federighi both made clear that Apple believes that competitors who try to attach a touchscreen to a PC or a clamshell keyboard onto a tablet are barking up the wrong tree.

“It’s obvious and easy enough to slap a touchscreen on a piece of hardware, but is that a good experience?” Federighi said. “We believe, no.”

“We don’t waste time thinking, ‘But it should be one [interface]!’ How do you make these [operating systems] merge together?’ What a waste of energy that would be,” Schiller said. But he added that the company definitely tries to smooth out bumps in the road that make it difficult for its customers to switch between a Mac and an iOS device—for example, making sure its messaging and calendaring apps have the same name on both OS X and iOS.

“To say [OS X and iOS] should be the same, independent of their purpose? Let’s just converge, for the sake of convergence? [It’s] absolutely a nongoal,” Federighi said. “You don’t want to say the Mac became less good at being a Mac because someone tried to turn it into iOS. At the same time, you don’t want to feel like iOS was designed by [one] company and Mac was designed by [a different] company, and they’re different for reasons of lack of common vision. We have a common sense of aesthetics, a common set of principles that drive us, and we’re building the best products we can for their unique purposes. So you’ll see them be the same where that makes sense, and you’ll see them be different in those things that are critical to their essence.”

Unlike Microsoft and a handful of other manufacturers, Apple sees a unique place for each device in the gadget triad of phone, tablet, and PC. Rather than meld them, and worry about merging for the sake of merging — for the sake of reducing the number of devices one has — they work on perfecting each device within the contexts of their individual places. And instead of hybridizing them, they build bridges, highways, tunnels, and even wormholes between them, drastically reducing the friction for making them cooperate, without making them the same. If they make good on their promises from WWDC, they will have proven that strategy to be very right.   

(How this will play out with a larger-screened iPhone, or dare I say it, an iPhablet, remains to be seen, though I feel some dread about it.)

And for Microsoft and its would-be customers, the question is begged, why would I want my tablet to replace my laptop? Yes, it’s great when new functionality comes to existing device categories. More data-sharing and third-party support on iOS will be great for letting me do more on my iPad, for example, but I don’t want new features at the cost of the iPad being a crummier tablet. And I really do want to replace the laptop I have (an aging 2011 11″ MacBook Air), but I want to replace it with a better laptop, not a worse laptop that also happens to be tablet-like. Who would?

Microsoft is Right to Be Terrified of the Chromebook

I remain fascinated by the emergence of Google’s Chromebooks, not because I’m in the market for one, but for what they bode for the future of the PC industry. Microsoft is also clearly thinking very hard about them, and I think for good reason. But not everyone thinks so. Tom Warren at The Verge comments on Microsoft’s new ads which ham-fistedly diss the Chromebook:

Microsoft appears to be targeting a threat that doesn’t really exist yet.

The only part of that sentence I can get behind is the “yet.” Obviously Chromebooks are not sweeping the marketplace, but that, I think, is obviously because of Windows’ generation-long entrenchment and Chromebooks being just shy of sufficiently functional for general purpose use.

And on the question of entrenchment (or better put, mindshare), Warren is quite right about one thing:

Microsoft’s offensive could backfire, drawing more attention to a platform that many consumers aren’t familiar with. Google has been aggressively pushing its range of Chromebooks with simple ads that focus on the price of the laptop and its simplicity. The devices won’t appeal to every consumer due to their various restrictions, but many potential customers might not even be aware of their existence yet.

Right. It’d be one thing if Chromebooks were the product of some quirky startup or Kickstarter project — Hey guys! Let’s make computers that are really just web browsers!!! — these things come from the beast that is Google, the one company that Microsoft fears most, the ruler of the Web, with the resources to power a full-scale assault on the market should they choose. So while I understand that Microsoft wants to strangle Chromebooks in the cradle, now millions who never heard of them now know there’s a cheap computer available out there.

More to the point, I think Chromebooks are not by any means complete in their evolution as products, and I bet that’s what a lot of people are missing. They see the cheap, somewhat-crippled clamshells that they currently are, and not what they might soon become. As Warren notes, there are important restrictions on a Chromebook (a pittance of on-board storage, slow processors, semi-uselessness when not connected to the Internet), but at the rate at which technology advances and lowers in cost, how long will it be before a $250 Chromebook has a non-crummy processor and enough internal storage for the general consumer — coinciding with greater ubiquity and speed and lower prices of cloud storage for photos and music? Two years? Five, tops?

Imagine a person in the next couple years goes into an electronics store to get a new laptop after his or her $800 Dell has shit the bed. They do email, look at photos, listen to Spotify, and need to be able to do a little work with documents at home once in a while. That probably applies to approximately 75 bazillion people, give or take. They could get a tablet, sure, but it’s not really what they’re looking for. They still want a “computer.” I have to imagine that a $250-$300 Chromebook, particularly with the improvements I’ve mentioned, would be an easy sell. It wouldn’t even be a steep learning curve: they’re not “leaving Windows” so much as paring down to just a browser, which they already know how to use. If anything, they’d be liberating themselves from all the Byzantine cruft of Windows and getting to the core functionality they actually give a damn about.

So the threat to Microsoft may be nascent, but it’s coming. Oh, and it could be a threat to Apple too, at least to their Mac line. iPads are a different beast, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the next decade or so, at least in the consumer space, is shared between iPads and Chromebooks, leaving MacBook Pros and higher-end Windows machines to the professional space.

Or maybe something akin to a merged Chromebook and iPad comes about. Small, light, with a touch-screen and keyboard. Yes, kind of like the Surface, but vastly improved and simplified. If so, like the old Windows “tablets” of the 90s and early aughts, Microsoft may once again be in the position of having generally the right idea, but bad execution and worse timing.

Apple vs. Google vs. Microsoft Keynote Gimmicks

Inspired by the conversation on the recent edition of John Gruber’s The Talk Show, here’s a totally unscientific comparison of some approaches to product introductions at huge tech keynotes.

Google Glass (2012): “Hey look, this shit’s great for video conferencing while jumping out of airplanes and rappelling down a building!”

Microsoft Surface (2012): “Hey look, this shit is so hardcore it’s like destroying a chunk of rock with a big metal spike!”

Apple MacBook Air (2008): “Hey look, this shit fits in a manila envelope.”

I am biased toward the effectiveness of the latter.