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Another Perspective


THE MALADY OF ALL EMPIRES

Here we are, more than five years after the debut of the iPhone, welcoming the fifth generation of this iconic product.  Actually it's more than iconic.  Late last winter, Forbes pointed out that Apple's iPhone business had become bigger than all of Microsoft.  People like their iPhones a lot, and their Androids, too.  They enjoy iPads and Kindles, and soon, perhaps, other tablets.  Love for PCs? Not so much.  In fact, it's a tragedy.  If the vendors and their suppliers want to survive, they ought to reflect on mythical Greeks, such as Narcissus and Echo and Nemesis.

Echo
Echo
You can say that again, and only that again

Just in case you don't have a Bullfinch on your bookshelf, this is probably a good time for a refresher on the three Greeks.  Let's start with Nemesis.  Nemesis is the spirit of retribution, mainly retribution for the sin of hubris, which is arrogance that offends the gods.  The Greeks had gods for just about everything, and no shortage of arrogant characters, so Nemesis was plenty busy.  Sometimes Nemesis was involved in meting out retribution to lesser gods from greater ones, or, in the case of Echo, from a goddess to a nymph.

Echo just yakked and yakked and yakked, and she had enough charm and guile to distract others, including Hera, wife of Zeus.  Zeus was a philanderer.  He liked to party with wood nymphs, including Echo's sisters.  Hera would have caught him at his mischief if she hadn't been so easily ensnared by Echo's nattering.  When Hera realized she'd been fooled, she figured that if Echo wanted the last word, she'd have it, and only the last word.  Echo could no longer speak first, but instead could only reply to others, and then only by repeating their last words to her.  In some versions of this story, Nemesis was the hit goddess, putting the curse or spell on Echo.  In the end Echo faded away, her bones merging with rocks, but her voice lives on.

Before Echo died she experienced a sad episode with the extraordinarily self-centered Narcissus.  Narcissus was a very good looking guy who just loved the way he looked.  In fact, that's how he met his end.  He was so captivated by his image reflected in a clear pool that he just couldn't stop looking.  Echo, who was attractive in her own way, tried to catch his eye, struggling because she could only say to Narcissus what Narcissus said to her, but failed to charm the beautiful Narcissus.  And so she felt just awful.  That, of course, was just the sort of thing Hera had intended.  Meanwhile, Narcissus was so rooted at the edge of the reflecting pool that at some point he literally took root.  All that remained was the pretty flower bearing his name.

Industrial empires are sometimes like people and sometimes like gods.  Maybe it is fair to say they are in between, like nymphs or other super-human creatures of myth and legend.  Empires can come down to Earth to engage in some practices, more or less the way the inhabitants of Olympus sometimes came down to earth for a bit of recreation and romance.  Empires don't enjoy carnal activities, not literally anyway, but they can romp in PAC country, performing unnatural acts on truth and decency.  Still, while they are having fun they may lose touch with others, including their customers.

Empires at play, dizzied by their partial immortality, can end up at risk of fiscal mortality.  They can go from big shots to nothing in an instant, the way Digital Equipment Corp, the mini-god of minicomputers, did.  Today the only recognizable remnant of the briefly great American minicomputer business is, of course, the Power Systems machine running IBM i and Itanium machines running OpenVMS from Hewlett-Packard.  However, younger companies, such as Dell, make servers that are the heirs to the mini, while others, such as Cisco Systems, leap into the race even as former leaders, such as Sun Microsystems, were sunk ink below the waves.  (Beneath Larry Ellison's yacht, in fact.)

Narcissus
Narcissus
Are you lookin' at me?

The tales of Narcissus and Echo out to be instructive to HP and Dell, lessons for Cisco and EMC, and cautions to other technology giants as well.  Microsoft, Intel, Google, Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Oracle, SAP, and others are all susceptible to the potentially fatal flaws embodied in the mythical Greeks.

They can't fully engage with the market if all they do is echo like Echo.  They may have reasons to be proud but they may also pay a huge price for huge pride.  And when they tempt the fates, or, worse, show hubris, it won't be long before Nemesis comes around to slip them a devastating or even lethal dose of cosmic retribution .  .  .  on top of whatever their competitors can dish out.

Only now, five years after the iPhone first took off, are computer companies beginning to give customers for their PCs and servers some of the things that Apple put into its mobile masterpiece.

Here's a simple thing that has baffled or eluded computer makers for the past five years: Start up fast.  You turn on a smartphone and it is up and running very quickly; same for a tablet.  But the PC business still can't stop staring at what it apparently sees as its grandeur and greatness, even as it dims.  PC makers, abetted but surely not aided by Microsoft, Intel, and their other suppliers did come up with a fast start concept.  They offered costly solid state disks to replace spinning disks, thereby speeding up a boot process that is convenient for legacy software and motherboard makers but annoying to users.  Even the Mac, at its heart a machine that still gets pangs of PC envy whenever Apple executives look at market share data, is a dud when it comes to startup.

I am happy to have a laptop that includes a gadget that didn't catch on the way I expected it to, flashtop.  Basically there's a teeny Linux system that I can wake up in seconds to do a few basic but common tasks, such as check webmail or talk to servers through Citrix or its RDP kin.

Why Windows boxes (or Macs) can't start right up with stuff people can actually use when more time-consuming apps get organized is impossible to explain.  Would anyone buy a car that wouldn't move until the engine fully warmed up or the cabin temperature reached a comfort zone? Would anyone want a five-course dinner served all at once only after the slowest dish was fully prepared?

And it's not just a PC thing.  Servers should start in stages, too, and the stages should be based on user needs not OS developers' traditions.  Lightweight stuff like basic web serving ought to pop right up, even if hairy DBMS activities and complex applications must take a while to gather their wits.  Virtual machines should come alive in seconds, if not sooner, and wake up with their basic defensive technology in place.

The iPhone and its rivals, particularly the more recent variants, hook up to networks so gracefully, shaming the way client systems in offices and homes plug into cyberspace.  A richly featured phone will, moments after it is powered up, connect, in an orderly way, various services to WiFi, wireless cell-phone WANs, Bluetooth affiliates, and near field financial terminals.  Email will come and go over a good path and usually the best path based on the box of assorted radios in the phone.  Same goes for phone calls, audio input and output, software updates, and coordination with various cloud services such as Dropbox.

The idea with a PC seems to be that the end user or the end user's tech support team has to decide how the machine ought to talk to the outside world.  What nonsense! In offices where some people bring in smartphones or tablets and tie in, all the time-wasting, talent-wasting network folderol is left behind and there's no suffering.  Work gets done, probably faster and better.

There's nothing wrong with leaving a client device with the possibility of managed settings, but nothing right about having that be the only way to manage the thing.

One of the prevalent arguments in favor of the traditional computing culture is that it's the only way to allow corporate or individual users to get the special custom apps they really need.  Fine.  But what about a PC or server system that has multiple virtual systems baked right in? Standard apps, whether for productivity or communications or graphics or entertainment or anything else, if chartered by the OS maker or a user community approval board or a any other authority, ought to run with the serenity users experience as they tap apps on their phones or tablets.

That exotic Java app built on top of a customized Oracle middleware ought to have its own sturdy virtual machine.  And once it does, it ought to be able to grab updates from the development team just as soon as they are released.  If it fails, its thrashing should be strictly confined to a portion of the computers it uses so the rest of the workload can keep running.

In other words, when it comes to apps, from Office to Outlook to Chrome and right on down to Your Company's Exotic Bean Counting Stuff, it's about time all software was built and used in a way that is in perfect harmony with the wisdom of the ages:

A program is like a nose.  Sometimes it runs.  Sometimes it blows.

— Hesh Wiener September 2012


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