Retail appliances

I had occasion after the turkey dinner yesterday to muse a little on computers and software in the retail channel. My brother-in-law-to-be was waxing lyrical about the TiVo he’d just bought, and rather than restrict my thoughts to just that device, I started thinking about the retail channel as a whole for these computer and software driven one-use devices.

First, we have the TiVo, essentially a Linux box with some TV hardware, a big hard disk, and some fancy software. It’s certainly a one-use device: it "merely" enables you to record TV programs and play them back. (I’m deliberately minimizing discussion of the features of TiVo here; my intent is not to market it to you.) Despite the fact that it’s a pretty standard PC, there’s been no attempt to make it available for other uses. And, there are other set-top boxes out there that perform the same kind of function, some better than others, some with extra features, all based on PC hardware as far as I know.

Second, we have the Apple iPod. A tiny computer with a hard disk that is designed for one thing and one thing only: playing digital music. The latest version is a color device and doubles as a digital photo album. But why is an iPod so popular when modern PDAs can also play music?

Third, we have the Xbox and the other game-playing consoles. A device that can only be used to play games (although, it must be noted, many people have hacked the Xbox, thereby enabling it to do other things). Compare that to a standard PC, which can also play games, but has so many other uses as well.

Fourth: cell phones. These are a great appliance, although they are starting to become more and more flexible in the sense that their OSes are opening up to other software. But as they become more flexible, we are in a great danger than their optimized-for-phones keypad will disappear (for a touch screen, perhaps), or grow (with extra buttons).

Last, there’s calculators. To be honest, a calculator’s functionality, including graphics, could be done equally well with a PDA. (On my Clie, I use a programmable RPN calculator app called MathU Pro that mimics HP calculators.) But calculators are still being designed and sold.

My thought here is why do these appliances or one-use devices fare so well? After all there is nothing more flexible, more able to have multiple uses than a standard PC or PDA. I think it has to do with that very flexibility. We want our appliances to be designed for their stated purpose. We don’t want the appliance to be flexible, because with flexibility comes the inevitable blurring of functionality and increased complexity. Imagine if the iPod used a Palm-like handwriting recognition engine with a touch-sensitive screen. It could then possibly be used for far more than just playing music. But it would lose that impressive geared-for-one-purpose-and-do-it-well user interface.

Another benefit of appliances is that they seldom crash. There’s no other, possibly rogue, software running on these machines. Their operating system is optimized for one purpose. It used to make me laugh when I worked in Las Vegas, walking down the strip and seeing the giant displays outside the Paris casino showing a Windows 98 blue screen. Using a PC to drive these displays seems innocuous enough, no? Imagine how much better they would run if there were an appliance that did the same job.

So I can see appliances continuing to have a great market share compared to "special" software on a standard PC that mimics the appliance’s function. And I can foresee that Linux will have a big role here: it’s easier to produce a specialized OS for a device with Linux than anything else.

I realize that Microsoft is trying with Windows Media Center and Windows Mobile to target these appliance markets, but their big problem is that it’s the hardware manufacturers who dictate the agenda here. Suppose, for example, that someone, HP say, were to provide a photo printer with a photo editing function. You slip your camera’s memory card into the printer, and through a tuned-to-photo-editing user interface you can tweak the contrast, brightness, and color balance of the photos and remove red-eye and crop the image and all that fun stuff before printing. Do you think that would be a big seller? Do you think it would be running Windows under the hood? To me the answers are yes and no.

Long live the appliance! Now, how do I get a piece of the action?

The Learned Elders of DotCom

I have discovered irrefutable proof of the existence of a the much-rumored secret cabal of shadowy industry leaders who secretly pull the strings of power, thereby directing the fate of our business – and indeed, our own fate. This group, who I’ve identified as the Learned Elders of DotCom, meet in secret, forging their unholy alliances and hatching their nefarious plots. There has been no shortage of circumstantial evidence of this new Illuminati for many years. Surely there is no other logical explanation for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act? AOL? The popularity of the C programming language? Microsoft Bob?

It was with IBM’s release of OS/2 2.0 many years ago that I first suspected our collective destiny was being steered by The Elders. Sure, a real 32-bit operating system was nice and all, but did the distribution really require 23 floppies? It was at that point I began to suspect the leaders of IBM and Verbatim had forged a blood alliance. The “truckload o’ floppies” distribution clearly invited far too much suspicion, causing the Elders to invent data CDs, allowing hundreds of megabytes of bloated bits to fit on a single, innocuous looking disk. With Microsoft’s release of Windows 95, the collusion between the software giant and Seagate was plain to see, and the real purpose behind the CD become clear: buy more hard drives.

The latest example of The Elders’ handiwork – the undeniable proof of their existence – is almost beautiful in its diabolical simplicity. This scheme afflicts virtually anyone with a wireless mouse. If you, like me, were duped into purchasing a wireless mouse for its “freedom” and “convenience,” I invite you to do the following: look at the top of your mouse. What do you see? A few buttons? Maybe a scroll wheel? Exactly. Now turn the mouse over, and you’ll find maybe a little red light and perhaps a small button to engage the wireless connection. What’s missing? That’s right: THERE IS NO STINKING ON/OFF SWITCH! Your only choices are to make a substantial investment in Energizer or face the ridiculous inconvenience of removing your batteries when the mouse is to be unused for any length of time. Of course, you can buy a charger and some rechargeable batteries, but guess what? Energizer makes those too!

Now that I have blown the lid on the whole Elders of DotCom operation, I fully expect retaliation. I guess I might as well alert my attorney ahead of time of the impending RIAA lawsuit.

Where are the Smart Locksmiths?

Bill Gates spoke at the MS IT Forum in Denmark today, commenting that one of the primary problems with IT security is the fundamental weakness of passwords. He added that smart-card and biometric technology were, in his view, the authentication schemes of choice for the future. I totally agree that passwords are a weak link in security. Protecting critical systems or data with a phrase that can be stolen, peeked at, guessed, hacked, etc. is inherently scary. However, the reason passwords, despite their flaws, stay with us today is because, wherever you go, there they are; they’re convenient. You don’t have to remember to put your password in your pocket before walking out the door in the morning. You don’t have to keep a spare password under a hollow rock in your front yard. As long as your brain works (and if yours is like mine, it might take a few false starts before it does), you can get into your password protected system or data. Moving to smart card technology means that, like most automobiles, you must always remember to keep your physical authentication credentials on your person. And if you forget your cards, it’s not like you can just call up your computer club to jimmy the lock for you.

I do like the idea of biometric technology. After all, my fingerprints, irises, and DNA tend to be with me wherever I go. However, it will be many years before biometric technology hits the mainstream because there are a number of hurdles the must be overcome before mass adoption can become a reality. Chief among these hurdles is the lack of software and hardware support. Most authentication schemes support username/password or smart card, but few support biometric mechanisms. And while hardware such as fingerprint scanners are available at a relatively low cost, the are still not widespread, and integration with PCs is sparse. I also see a battle coming with privacy advocates on several fronts over biometrics, and it remains to be seen how these will play out.

Got you right where we want you

The New York Times reported recently that the popularity of Firefox has caused Microsoft Internet Explorer’s market share to slip 2.5% to a paltry 92.9%. It’s a both sad and humorous to me that Microsoft has so completely sewn up the browser market that it becomes newsworthy when their market share teeters on the brink of the mid-nineties. We all know that the real innovation in web browser technology came during the era when Microsoft and Netscape were duking it out for dominance. Of course, Netscape paid dearly for their choice of competitors, but the playing field is different today thanks to the legal smackdowns resulting from the Netscape-IE feuds. We can only hope that in the near future a 2.5% slip in market share for IE won’t be so news worthy.

Nice knowin’ ya, Palm

Speaking of market share, PC World quotes a Gartner report saying that Windows CE has overtaken PalmOS for the overall PDA market lead (excluding smart phones). Microsoft’s share now stands at 48.1% compared to PalmOS’ 29.8%. To put PalmOS’ free fall into perspective, they led the market last year with 46.9% compared to Windows CE’s 41.2%. I used to be a die hard Palm user, but I admit that over the past couple of years I have been slowly sucked into using Windows CE devices, mostly due to the ease of development with the .NET Compact Framework. However, I truly hope PalmOS can get back on track – we need the competition. Otherwise we may find it noteworthy if two years from now some upstart mobile OS makes a 2.5% dent in the market share of the Windows CE juggernaut.