Love Notes to Newton

I’d somehow failed to notice that a documentary about the Apple Newton had been released: Love Notes to Newton is a mix of historical footage about the machine’s development and tributes to the dwindling band of Newton aficionados who have tried hard to keep their Newtons in daily use in the modern world where the smartphone in your Pocket utterly outclasses its ancestor.

It’s fair to say that the Newton was an inspiring failure: Palm were the most visibly successful company that tried to follow in the Newton’s footsteps, but they didn’t ever get beyond the geek market. 1 While few users refer to their smartphones as a PDA that’s just what it is. The biggest difference between a smartphone/PDA and a Newton is that the Newton’s operating system took great pains to revolve around collections of object-oriented data that it made available to any other program on the device, where modern smartphones run standalone Apps and tend to have tighter constraints on what data is visible to different apps. To a large extent, if you can trust Newton fans to be objective for a minute, is that smartphones substitute sheer processor horsepower for smart software.

It’s tantalising to wonder what could have happened if the Newton had survived a bit longer after the return of Steve Jobs to Apple: might the improvements in Newton OS 2 (and whatever might have come to pass in Newton OS 3 if they’d got that far) have allowed the platform to flourish, or was it unfortunate enough to be a revolutionary product from a company that couldn’t afford to wait for it to outgrow the bad reputation it was saddled with because they over-promised what it was one day going to be capable of, and doubly cursed because it was a highly visible effort by a recently ousted CEO to be a visionary in the mould of his predecessor/successor?

The thing is, right now Apple’s iOS team would look at this documentary and think it couldn’t happen to them. It not only can, but one day it almost certainly will.2

Anyway, Love Notes to Newton is definitely worth a watch if you have any sense of how things were when John Sculley was running the show and it wasn’t at all clear where Apple’s next hit product was coming from.

[Via 512 Pixels]

One Day

I guess the reason people keep coming back to being inspired by Vannevar Bush’s Memex, Alan Kay’s Dynabook and what have you is that the internet as it currently exists falls so far short of the dream of what a global information network could have been. Thank goodness that dreams like this keep popping up:

[This is going to be…] a very rough sketch of an idea about what a future computing system might look like. I don’t know how to get from here to there, or even if ‘there’ is entirely satisfactory. But I feel that a ‘there’ roughly in this vicinity is somewhere we should be heading towards.

Let’s start with what the ‘here’ is that is less satisfactory.

We currently have an Internet made of vast layers of complexity layered on each other; software layers going back to the 1960s at the very latest, built on traditions and workflows originated in the 1950s. Our current model of deploying computing services, ‘the cloud’, thinks nothing of **simulating entire computers* – with gigabytes of RAM and hundreds of gigabytes of disk – on other computers, just to get one service that listens on one TCP/IP port and sends a few bytes in response to a few other bytes. [Emphasis added]

The operating system inside these simulated computers-on-computers then consists of, essentially, an entire simulated computing department from the 1950s: a bank of clerks operating card punches (text editors and Interactive Development Environments), other clerks translating these punchcards from high-level to low-level languages (compiler toolchains), machine operators who load the right sets of cards into the machine (operating systems, schedulers, job control systems), banks of tape drives (filesystems and databases), printers (web servers, UIs )… and a whole bunch of prewritten software card stacks (libraries, component object systems, open source projects).

This seems a bit less than optimal. […]

Just a bit, yes.

The point isn’t that this essay points to an obvious right answer: it’s that the current solutions fall so far short of what could be done. Building ever-taller stacks of old technology on top of stacks of even older technology might be good for maintaining the market share of the market leaders, but it’s probably not the best way to get to where we’d like to be one day.

Anyway, the point is the essay I’ve linked to offers plenty of food for thought.

[Via Extenuating Circumstances]

LinkedIn: The Game

Beating LinkedIn: The Game is tricky, but not impossible. If you can believe this guy:

The general goal of LinkedIn (the game) is to find and connect with as many people on LinkedIn (the website) as possible, in order to secure vaguely defined social capital and potentially further one’s career, which allows the player to purchase consumer goods of gradually increasing quality. Like many games, it has dubious real-life utility. The site’s popularity and success, like that of many social networks, depends heavily on obfuscating this fact. This illusion of importance creates a sense of naive trust among its users. This makes it easy to exploit.

To novices, the game appears to be open-ended, and impossible to “beat” in any clearly defined sense. But it is, in fact, possible to win at LinkedIn. I have done so, and you can too, by following this short strategy guide. […]

This would be even funnier if I could just shake the premonition that a few years from now some high-flying junior minister in the DWP will announce that in the interests of reassuring hard-working taxpayers that their hard-earned money was being used to fund the most agile, modern and thoroughly digital solution to the problem of unemployment available, all claimants of Universal Credit would be required to provide evidence that they had registered with Microsoft’s LinkedIn service and that they had pursued at least 10 job opportunities a week. Even more importantly, Microsoft had kindly agreed to take up a contract to police this target and consequently a portion of existing DWP staff in Jobcentres would be transferring to the private sector to work in the new MSDWP service, which would also be taking over the contract to run the Universal Credit system.

Magically, this move would both allow the DWP to wash their hands of all responsibility for administrative cock-ups in Jobcentres, but also bring to an end all those boring National Audit Office reports that kept on rating the Universal Credit programme as risky and over budget.1 You might laugh, but give it a few years and some Ayn Rand-reading acolyte a decade or so out of university and a couple of years into his or her tenure as a Conservative member of Parliament will think this the best way to distance the government from the embarrassment of Universal Credit. The main problem will be finding someone within Microsoft both senior enough to agree a deal of that size and dumb enough to not recognise this for the hospital pass that it would be.

[Via The Tao of Mac]

Atari 520 STM

Having just read The Jackintosh: A Real GEM – Remembering the Atari ST, I feel a massive nostalgia rush coming on:

After Commodore Founder Jack Tramiel was forced out by his board, he decided, after a brief hiatus, to get revenge.

Tramiel knew that a 16-bit computer was next on the horizon for Commodore, and he wanted to beat them to the punch. So, in early 1984 he formed a new company, Tramel Technology (spelt without an ‘i’ to encourage people to spell his name correctly), and lured a number of Commodore engineers to jump ship and come work for him. […]

Back in the late 1980s, after several years of following Sinclair Research’s product line up to and including the Sinclair QL1 I found myself tempted by the Atari 520STM, the model with a decently high-resolution (for the day and price) monochrome monitor. OK, so the 520STM was never going to be a games machine, but it was a cracking little workhorse for Desktop Publishing (I adored Timeworks Desktop Publisher) and I spent way too much money on nifty GEM-based word processors and spreadsheets over the years. That first version of Digital Research’s GEM environment worked beautifully on the hardware, to the point that several years later when I finally gave in to the rising tide and bought a Windows 95-based machine for my personal use (having long since been using DOS/Windows systems at work) I genuinely felt like I was taking a step down usability-wise and looks-wise.

[Via Extenuating Circumstances]

2001 remembered

Stephen Wolfram, on the legacy of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey when he was eight years old:

It’s hard for me to believe it’s been 50 years since I first saw 2001. Not all of 2001 has come true (yet). But for me what was important was that it presented a vision of what might be possible-and an idea of how different the future might be. It helped me set the course of my life to try to define in whatever ways I can what the future will be. And not just waiting for aliens to deliver monoliths, but trying to build some “alien artifacts” myself.

[Via Sentiers No. 37]

Surfacing

Microsoft are clearly very proud of the Surface Hub 2, which looks all shiny and ready to suck up every byte of bandwidth that your network connection can offer to power all those pixels it wants to deliver.

No question about it, it’s a handsome beast of a device. I work in an office where we’ve just switched to Windows 10 earlier this year and we’re in the process of encouraging everyone to make as much use as possible of all the collaborative technologies that we now have access to1 and I can just imagine our managers drooling over one day deploying this sort of technology. I can’t help but note that Microsoft are refusing to quote a price just yet, but it’s amazing what you can justify spending money on when you’re kitting out new offices so give it time and I’m sure a Surface Hub will pop up somewhere near you.2

[Via Future Drama]

Kindles and touchscreens

I had no idea that my post earlier today was going to be eclipsed by a much better, deeper take on the whole topic of how touchscreens make for a user-hostile interface, this one from Craig Mod:

I’ve been using Kindles on and off ever since they launched. Our relationship has been contentious but I’ve always been seduced or re-seduced by their potential. At their best, they are beautiful devices. At their worst, infuriating. They are always so close to being better than they are.

Initially they didn’t have touch screens, but Kindle.app on iOS did. The iOS app worked in its own funny way: adopting its own interaction model. An analog to that model found its way to hardware Kindles. I think this was a mistake. […]

A different corner of the same topic, to be sure, but the basic “invisible user interface elements are bad” problem at the heart of the issue.

Via Tim Carmody, guest-posting at kottke.org

Reasons why touch interfaces are terrible as tools for discovering new features, part 89

From Federico Viticci’s post 11 Tips for Working on the iPad:

[Here’s…] a list of my favorite long-press shortcuts in Safari.

9: Tap and Hold in Safari

Safari Reader (text icon on the left side of the address bar). Display settings to always use Safari Reader on the selected website or for all websites.

Considering how much I’ve missed per-site Reader activation since last I used Safari on MacOS X (where I used CustomReader to achieve precisely this effect, I have to wonder Why Was I Not Told About This?

The thing is, I have no doubt that that feature got the odd mention in any number of reviews that appeared when it first appeared. If Apple are going to hide it away behind a long-press shortcut, I have to assume that Apple are OK with users not being aware of all the features they roll out in iOS once a year or so. This is where an operating system with a menu bar wins every time…