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Another Perspective


The ironically yclept News Corp, purveyor of Fox and fishwrapper, has launched the Daily Nothing, its news service for the iPad.  Fox sells the Daily Nothing as a subscription app, but most of the feed is also available for free.  The pregnant possibility of Apple's charming but dimwitted device becoming a game-changing outlet for intertainment will bring fresh hope to indomitable IBM i shops with crusty, trusty green screen applications.  Unfortunately, the often augured mass resurgence of dumb terminals, like the reported rediscovery of Prester John's kingdom, never turns out to be true.

Daily Nothing
Is this the future of the press?

The technical limits of green screens on IBM's i (and on mainframes before the i was a glint in IBM's eye) pressured software developers to create elegant solutions to the problems inherent in man-machine interactions.  Some of the results became corporate classics, forming the foundation of efficient and user-friendly applications even when the software was bumped up to work in graphically rich environments such as Windows.

Many parties in the computer industry keep attempting to restore the control and consistency provided by green screen setups, hoping to bring back what they believe were better old days, at least as far as end user support was concerned.  Getting applications to work well and consistently in the diverse world of rich client devices, mainly PCs but also Macs and sometimes Linux boxes, can be a chore and a considerable expense.  Moreover, some of the coders who say they would like to go back to less taxing old days may have a point: Good application design, even when the code is conceived for use on rich client devices, does require elegance.  But it's obviously possible to build working applications with appalling aesthetics.  And this is the case whether the apps are hosted on corporate servers or in the cloud, whether the software solves business problems or attempts to afford users Web access to goods, services, or information, and whether the code is aimed at use with big HD-type displays or dinky smartphones.

The closest thing to a resurgence of the dumb client that is actually important in computing is the kind of virtual client that runs on a Windows server and provides multiple users with a centrally managed Windows experience.  This arrangement is typified by Citrix Systems' XenApp or XenDesktop and also by Microsoft's Remote Desktop or Terminal Services products, two offerings that, confusingly, both compete and fruitfully coexist.

Vendors that provide servers set up to deliver virtual desktops, such as IBM, say their customers save money compared to user organizations that stick with complete Windows systems on every desktop.  Their sales pitches might even suggest that virtual desktops are just green screens with a GUI on top, but this of course is not actually the case.  But there is no denying the centralized control afforded by replacing unfettered clients with digital Stepford Wives.  But in practice the machines on users' desktops, even in settings that include services beaming out virtualized Windows technologies, may be as difficult to manage as any free range PCs, particularly if corporate IT departments overestimate their power to control end users and the users sense (and abuse) their unbounded access to the Internet and to weakly managed client software.

Corporate computing departments may seek the Holy Grail, the return of the simple and tightly controlled end user devices, but all they will get is the quest; they will never find the Grail.  They might as well look for Prester John, the mythical ruler (or chief spiritual influence) of Nestorian Christian empires in India, China or Mongolia.  Marco Polo, who might have found pasta in the land of the Mongols, didn't find the Prester or even some signs of his presence.  The legend of Prester John, which probably took root in the twelfth century, kept coming back like the reincarnated (in hopes if not on desktops) green screen, moving, by some accounts from the fifteenth century, to Ethiopia.  Scholars who have chronicled the many tales of Prester John and his purported empires say that the mythical priest was a great inspiration to monarchs, explorers, and adventurers; real or not, our culture apparently owes him a huge debt of gratitude.

Prester John
This late medieval depiction sets the mythological cleric in what is now Ethiopia

News Corp might not be in the same league, unless you can make a case that efforts to pump up Tea Party politics and birthers are on a par with Templar tales and the Holy Grail, but it thinks it has found its chalice that will run over with profits.  The means to this intended end is a pact with Apple that puts the Daily Nothing app exclusively in the iStore and the content on Apple's popular tablet clients.  News Corp thinks readers will pay a buck a week to get the feed.

The curious, including anyone with Internet access on kind of suitable client, can see the basic content (but not experience the full touchy-feely iPaddy concoction) as a kind of blog on tumblr.  (If you want to get an idea how stuff might look on an iPad and you don't know anyone with one of these gadgets, a first step might be ipadpeek.)

Maybe I shouldn't be so snarky.  Maybe I'm a couple standard deviations off the mainstream because I associate Bieber with that shocking, unforgettable, award-winning photo of the Afghan girl whose nose was cut off before we think of the Canadian who is probably making more money than that delightful nation's excellent whiskey industry by turning teenagers upside down and shaking their parents' money from their pockets.

We all know that you don't have to be an intellectual, a newshound, or a gifted application programmer to yearn for a classic green screen experience, a tour of Prester John's Three Indias, an antifreeze experience involving a Grailful of Canadian whiskey, or a world so benign that we could all afford to read only what's in News of the World.  We fully appreciate that News of the World makes much more money than we do, but then it provides a more important service, one the Daily Nothing on iPad cannot provide: it helps Londoners hide their teeth while riding the tube.

Let's face it.  These are strange times in mass media.  AOL (Motto: You can't spell aerosol without A O L) just paid a nice chunk of its dwindling fortune—$315 million—for the current events styling Web site Huffington Pose.

So let's suppose New Corp did not underestimate the intelligence of the public.  In that case, you are entitled to some joy, particularly if you happen to write application programs.  Forget whatever you have been taught that you haven't already forgotten, get an iPad and the Daily Nothing, and let those far wiser than we are be the guides to providing experiences the users will love.

— Hesh Wiener February 2011

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