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An Interesting Future

It looks like the computer industry is starting to get back to its glory days and a real battle is starting to emerge. We’re looking at a genuine revolution where computing will move away from traditional PCs and move to a variety of new devices, plus there will be a new emphasis in connectivity through the Internet, location based services, new interaction and user interface techniques, and integration with more non-computer devices.

The participants in this battle will be Apple, Microsoft, Google and (to a lesser degree) Adobe. Whether one will appear victorious like Microsoft did after the PC battle is doubtful. More likely all three will share the victory: Apple because its best at producing easy to use but closed devices most people want, Microsoft simply because it has the momentum with its existing installed base, and Google because it “owns the internet” and has a strong contender for the next open platform.

Computers are likely to become more open and more closed at the same time. Apple seems determined to keep tight control over their devices: they control the hardware, operating system, software and media on the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Many people condemn this approach and I agree it has its disadvantages for the user and for competition, but it also has significant advantages: greater integration and compatibility, and better security being two of the more obvious ones.

I don’t think a closed approach is bad at all as long as the content on that platform is transportable. So audio files and movies should be encoded using a standard like MP3 or H.264 and preferably be unencumbered with DRM, but if it is required at least it should be in a form which works on multiple systems. Files should be in a form which can be used anywhere. For example for word processing files RTF would be good but I guess Word files have become a standard.

If files can be freely moved around I don’t see a closed platform as being a major problem as long as the company involved (such as Apple) maintains the positive advantages of that approach instead of just using it as an anti-competitive advantage.

Google’s Android operating system is more open but there are lock-ins there as well. The calendar program doesn’t use standards for example (as far as I know this is still true), and requires Google calendar services. So in that way its less open than the iPhone.

As Steve Jobs has recently commented, Google’s slogan “don’t be evil” isn’t necessarily strictly accurate. Google is a large corporation, intent on maximising profit, so in some ways its just as evil as any other company – maybe not quite as much as Microsoft, but no less evil than Apple or Adobe I would have said!

Jobs also criticised Adobe for being “lazy”. This was mainly in relation to Flash which is undoubtedly a terrible environment in terms of reliability and performance, but it could easily also apply to their efforts in modernising their major programs like Photoshop and In Design. I’m not saying these are bad programs – I love Photoshop – but they really don’t interact with the advanced features available on modern Macs very well.

Of course Adobe products are fantastic compared to Microsoft’s, because their software is just truly hideous. I can see no reason to use Microsoft products at all except for momentum. Interestingly though Apple is avoiding criticism of Microsoft. Ironically it might be through agreements with them that they are able to fight off the attack from Google (if iPhones and iPads defaulted to Bing instead of Google for search it would hurt Google).

So a few years ago things didn’t look great. Microsoft was in charge and it looked like most people were doomed to their approach of avoiding real innovation and maintaining the status quo. But that has all changed and now the future looks much more interesting!

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