C1 The Naked Computer

Summary

This is an introductory chapter that sets the scene for the remainder of the book. It briefly describes some of the components of a computer, describes the relationship between a computer and the Internet and introduces a major idea that runs through the last two-thirds of the book: that not only is the PC in your home a computer, but the Internet is a major multi-computer computer that has revolutionised our lives. The chapter also looks at software and how it powers a computer. Finally the chapter outlines some of the main themes of the book:

  • How hardware advances have enabled the computer to be deployed in areas which would have been unheard of a decade ago.
  • How software developers have taken advantage of advances in hardware to produce novel applications.
  • How the Internet has enabled computers to be connected together in such a way that they behave as if they were just one big computer.
  • How the Internet has provided creative facilities that were only available to professionals.
  • How advances in computer processor hardware have enabled number-crunching applications.
  • How the computer has become a disruptive technology in that it has both transformed and eliminated many skills.
  • How the computer has become insecure and the target of criminals using both technological and non-technological means.

Chapter Links

  • The National Museum of Computing is an excellent place to visit. Here is part of their web site showing an Elliot 803. Here are some details. It’s on the same site as the Bletchley Park wartime site where mathematicians, physicists and electrical engineers (there were no computer scientists in those days!) played a major part in defeating axis forces in World War II.
  • This is a good introduction to how computers work which goes into more detail than the book.
  • Jonathan Zittrain’s book on the future of the Internet can be found at Amazon here. The blog devoted to the book is here.
  • Nick Carr’s book, The Big Switch, on utility computing and its relationship to electricity generation can be found at Amazon here. This is his blog.
  • I briefly describe the Therac-25 incident. Here’s an article from Wired describing some more serious software and systems problems. It includes a short account of the Therac-25 incident
  • The book, The Spy in the Coffee Machine, can be found at Amazon here.
    This is a good historical account of computer chess. This is an archive of the games that Kasporov played against the Deep Blue computer together with some historical documents.
  • This a much more detailed description of how the Internet works.
  • A good introduction to programming. However, it is not for the faint-hearted.
  • The data.gov.uk site and the Data.gov sites.
  • The Flickr web site.
  • The 12 million zombies discovered by McAfee.
  • This is how Google tracks influenza.
  • Genome@Home and Folding@Home.
  • The excellent wordia web site. Remember to switch your loudspeaker on when you access the entries.
  • This is the web site for Google Apps, it shows the difference in terms of facilities between Google Apps (the free version) and Google Apps for Business which is the paid-for version of Google Apps. The page contains a link which allows you to register yourself for Google Apps. All you need is a domain name.

Blog Posts

Office 365

Since this book was submitted for printing Microsoft released a competitor to the Google Apps suite of programs.  The suite is known as Office 365 to distinguish it from the Office product that resides on your computer and which I refer to in the chapter. Here’s a review from the Guardian. Here’s a news item from the BBC. Office 365 is a service rather than a software item that you can implement on your computer. The tussle between this and Google Apps will be an interesting one over the next few years. What is clear, though, is that if Microsoft is taking an interest in the cloud then it has arrived!

Netbooks

In the time that this book was submitted for publication netbooks have moved on. Some still feature what is known as solid state discs (SSD), here’s a recently announced model and here is a netbook (marketed as a Chromebook) that has a close relationship with the cloud idea that I describe in Chapter 7; many, though, now feature conventional hard disks. This is because manufacturers are probably trying to orient them toward their being seen as mini-laptops. One trend, however, is that solid state prices are coming down to the point where it is becoming feasible to take your hard disk out of a laptop, or even desktop, and replace it with a solid state drive. Here’s an example of this. Prices are bound to drop considerably over the next few years: computing moves very fast. The current generation of tablet computers employ solid state memories for data, video clips, programs and MP3 clips. Here’s an example of a computer that combines both tablet and netbook hardware.

Thirty Computers?

In the book I describe the fact that the average home will contain 30 computers. I decided to test this out. Until recently my wife, myself, my two daughters and my son lived at the house. I guess that makes us averageish.  Here’s the count of computers: MP3 players (4), laptops(5), burglar alarm(1), TVs(2), Sky boxes(2), oven (1), central heating controller(1), iPad(1),  Android tablet(1), mobile phones (5), DVD players (2), digital radios(2), normal phones(2), sound synthesiser for my Akai Wind Synthesiser(1), printer(1) and digital clock(1). This makes 32. Recently all my children left (in the same week) a cataclysmic change in our life; I actually miss my youngest daughter telling me off. This would reduce the number to 25.

What Does Major Increases in Broadband Speed Mean?

Yesterday British Telecom (BT) announced that it was accelerating the timetable for delivering increased broadband speeds, promising up to 100 Megabits/second. My current broadband connection delivers between 1.5 to 3 Megabits/second as the house I live in is quite a distance from the nearest exchange. For me this speed is fine: all I do is surf the web and process emails.  However, it lead me to thinking what would be the effect of such speeds.

First, I am sure that it would accelerate cloud access; for example if the response time of a word processor hosted on the Internet is the same as for a word processor situated on a home computer then, provided costs are lower, there would be no competition.  Currently cloud office systems lag somewhat behind the heavy duty package Microsoft Office in terms of functionality; however, with Office 365 entering the fray this year we might see the end of home installed office software as increased broadband speeds kick in.

The second effect will be on home entertainment.  Already BT is using the Internet to stream television with its Vision programme. Netflix is looking to enter the British market soon.  The speeds quoted by BT enable high definition streaming. If I was a conventional provider of television and film feeds, for example Sky, I would be looking very hard at what this announcement from BT means.

Another home entertainment effect is associated with music. About a year ago I stored all my CDs on a computer drive. I now listen to them on a fine pair of Bose speakers attached to my laptop when I work in my study, and via my iPod connected to an amplifier in my living room.  I really thought that I was being state-of-the-art. That is until I saw some stuff on Amazon’s Cloud Drive. Here you store your files in the cloud and use an application called the Amazon Cloud Player to play the music. This is the music analogue of the move towards the office in the cloud. With increased broadband speeds there will be little incentive to store MP3s locally. There may even be models of access that enable the user to rent MP3s for a short period.

One possible future is that with a much greater use of bandwidth there may come a pressure to charge users on volume use just like any other utility. I currently use a broadband plan that gives me unlimited download volumes. I just wonder whether the logic of computer power as a utility will mean that charging will follow the electricity and gas models of charging and this plan will become a fond memory.

Here is an interesting article on the increasing use we make of the broadband in terms of download volume.

The Steve Jobs Biography

I bought a Kindle ten days ago (My wife and two daughters now regard me as having joined the dark side) and the first book that I downloaded and read was the recently published biography of the late Steve Jobs. It’s a very good read: if I was to review it on Amazon I would give it four and a half stars (if Amazon allowed me to give fractional stars).

The only bad point I would make is that it is 50 pages too long; there are parts of it, particularly the early days,  that really didn’t interest me.  So here are the good points:

  • Jobs did not interfere in the writing of the book (I think the only thing he insisted on was the cover photograph). Because of this, what comes out of the book is a warts-and-all portrait of one of the titans of computing.
  • The chapter that describes his relationship with the co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak, is terrific. This and other fragments are fascinating glimpses into two different people with two different attitudes to technology and the world.
  • Jobs attitude to design is brought to life. His twin mantras of perfection and minimalism come out clearly. Something both hardware and software developers should take much greater notice off.
  • Jobs comes across not only as a businessman and technologist, but as someone who can think up radical business models, the book is really good at tracking this thinking.
  • The book could so easily have just concentrated on the success, for example the iPhone and iTunes; it also looks directly at the failures.
  • Chapter 26 on design principles and Chapter 36 on the iPhone should be read by every designer who wants to give birth to successful products.
  • The relationship between Apple and Google: their technologies, their ethos and its people is particularly well-handled, albeit quite briefly. The next five years will see Apple vs Google (Android) as a major battlefield and the book provides some background.

There are three titans of computing: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Thomas Watson. Jobs was a primarily the visionary who knew what people wanted tomorrow, Gates was primarily a world class business man and Watson, who created IBM, was a world-class salesman. All, however, had many other subsidiary strengths and this book confirms the panorama of strengths that Jobs possessed.

It is worth saying that one of the depressing things about the media reaction to the book was how it concentrated on the demented genius tag. I would have preferred ‘the man who changed computing’.

Jobs will clearly be missed by Apple; the only remaining question about him is whether he has left enough of his intellectual, business and technical DNA behind to take it into the commercial tussles with companies such as Google and Microsoft.

Here are a couple of reviews here and here. The customer reviews of the book at Amazon are also worth reading. Many are really perceptive.

So what do I think of the Kindle? I don’t think I’m going to use anything else. I have read some books using the Kindle app on my Android tablet; compared with this the Kindle is superior: light, easy to read, long battery life and it can be used outside. Would have preferred a colour screen, but what the heck.

Office 365 vs Google Apps

This year Microsoft announced a set of office products Office 365 that was oriented towards cloud computing.  This was in direct opposition to Google Apps, the cloud computing offering from Google. There have been a number of reviews of each product set. This, I think, is a good one from PC World. Clearly each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Email and Convergence

There are some email figures which tell us some interesting things about convergence. The company CampaignMonitor keep data on around 300 million Internet users who use email. Here’s their recent results displayed as a trend. There are three caveats to be made about the data: the first is that it represents activity when a user reads an email, not when an email is sent; the second is that the technology they use for tracking underestimates the email clients Gmail and Microsoft Outlook; and, third, the figures combine both home and industrial use. However, as a trend I would regard it as both reliable and illuminating.

At first sight what seems to be happening is a migration away from desktop packages to mobile computing with a small decline in web-based email. This reflects the explosive growth in the purchase and use of smart phones such as the iPhone and its Android competitors and the increasing use of tablet computers such as the iPad and its Android competitors .  A number of commentators have pointed out that this means a decline in web-based email. What they forget is that smartphone and tablet users almost invariably tie their phones and tablets to some web-based email service (mine is tied into Gmail) and that the graph in the Campaign Monitor report only shows email reads. If smartphone users are anything like me then they will be reading emails using the web, answering urgent ones on reading and sending most emails at home (I find using the text creation facilities of my smartphone somewhat awkward).

So what is the history of home-use email?

  • Initially home user email was dominated by desktop packages such as Microsoft Outlook Express (a sort of light version of the heavy-duty Microsoft Outlook).
  • There was then a major growth in web use which coincided with the disengagement of Microsoft from its Outlook Express offering that had become, far and away, the most popular way of accessing emails.  There were a number of offerings of web-based email services including the most popular: Microsoft’s Hotmail.
  • Web email dominated home email until 2009 when mobiles kicked in and started changing the figures. As can be seen with Campaign Monitor graphic the effect was dramatic.

Here are my predictions: that package-based email will stay static. This mainly represents industrial and commercial use of Microsoft Outlook, an excellent heavy duty software offering that is suited to the volume use that it gets in these environments. Second we will see a shift from direct web access to indirect use of web email using operating systems such as iOS(the iPhone and iPad system) and the Android system as a consequence of an increase in the use of social sites and an increase in smartphone and tablet purchases;  but this will still use the popular web-based systems, albeit indirectly. One wildcard in the future might be the fact that the hugely popular social networking site Facebook has now added email to its list of facilities.

Disclosure: I use Gmail for home use, I employ Microsoft Outlook at work.

It’s Coming Your Way

In Chapter 1 I write about tracking influenza using Google search. Here is an interesting item from the BBC about tracking diseases using social media such as Twitter.  I had always thought that tracking illnesses such as influenza was an interesting but not very useful activity: all you really need to know is that there is an outbreak and you need to take sensible precautions. However, I guess this work is vitally important in providing the tools necessary to quickly establish an outbreak or tracking something very serious.  What do you think?

Email and Social Media

In a previous post I talked about what is happening to email. Here’s an update from the BBC. Unfortunately there are no hard figures, just opinion. The opinions are still interesting though. However the play-off between social media messaging and email is an interesting one and one that will be worth watching over the next two years.

Google and Children’s Names

I remember when my wife and I talked about the name of our first child. Both of us liked Alice, but I was keen to have something that spoke of my welsh roots. In the end we decided on Alys, lovely spelling I think. Recently I came upon this article  in the New York Times Fashion and Style section ( a regular port of call for us elderly computer science profs). It seems that Google is helping with name choice. It’s such a long way away from the time when you would name your child after a rich relative. Perhaps a further confirmation of Nicholas Carr’s ideas expounded in his recent book The Shallows.

Botnets on the Increase

The BBC reported today that millions of computers throughout the world had been infected by viruses that, for example, send out spam to other computers. Here’s another link. In the first chapter of the book I described a survey by the security company McAfee that reported that in 2009 this was a major problem. The survey that McAfee carried out referred to an infected computer as a zombie. The report by the BBC describes a long term study that showed that the problem is increasing; it describes an infected computer as a bot and a collection of computers as a botnet. Although the UK came off pretty well in terms of infected computers the figures are still really scary. There is some excellent advice from Microsoft about infections and botnets here.

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