April 30, 2009

PSA: Widget Purchasing Guidance

Filed under: digital,future,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 11:46 pm

A Dandelion

Cult Following, I have not forgotten that I love you. And therefore I have some advice: if you are thinking about purchasing a portable computer-widget in the next few months, here is what you should do:

Nothing. For now, do nothing.

Allow me to explain.

First of all, it should be clear at this point that, provided you’re not buying third-rate off-brand knockoffs or anything that says “Motorola” on it, everything is pretty awesome right now. Netbooks, especially last-gen ones, are super-cheap, computers in general are universally powerful and reliable, that sort of thing.


A couple of rumors, trends and bits of news are coming together here in a way that you should be aware of. We appear to be at the tail end of a couple of different product cycles, and the following things are expected to happen in the next few months:

  • a company called Pixel Qi will begin shipping screens. This doesn’t sound like much, but their CEO Mary Lou Jepsen was the quite-substantial brain behind the OLPC’s screen, and the original OLPC screen is a ridiculously amazing piece technology. In addition to being an extremely low-cost and low-power-consumption screen, it manages to flip from being a high-resolution LCD to being a sunlight-readable, medium-resolution electronic-paper-like thing. It’s hard to describe (or even take a video of) but once you’ve seen in front of you, it’s obvious that all portable displays will be like this someday. The OLPC project wasn’t willing to share that tech, but Pixel Qi sure is, and they will likely start to appear in netbooks (the 10″ size is their first production run, I think?) soonish.
  • Also, a new (in this space, at least) processor type is on the way, an ARM processor. The short story here is that in the personal-device space there have been two major types of processor, x86 and ARM; x86 was fast but power-hungry, and the ARMs were lightweight but very efficient; traditionally in the portable space this meant x86 for the laptops you could put a much larger battery in and ARM processors for PDAs and smartphones. But recently the ARM side has been steadily catching up speed-wise, and now they’re on the threshold of good enough too, for this new netbook category. But their power consumption is still great, and so we’ve started to see a few different options in that space (I’ve had my eye on this clever little hybrid thing for some time now, though I’m wary about the beta-ness of it) and there’s more on the way. At this point, Windows isn’t built for non-x86 processors, these things will all run some variation of Linux (the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, or possibly Android). But:
  • NVidia, best-known for their graphics cards, have created a platform called “Ion”, which is part of the x86 camp and promises a much better media-viewing experience for netbooks that adopt it. These are expected to start showing up at stores in late June to early July, after Computex 2009.
  • As well, Windows 7 is likely going to ship late this year, presumably October, and from the betas I’ve played with it will be a very, very good OS. It’s still Windows, so if you have some visceral objection to that then hey, but it looks like Microsoft is going to ship an attractive, eminently usable OS here, one that will be a substantial improvement over Vista and a compelling reason to stop holding on to XP in a way that Vista wasn’t. And it there’s going to be a pared down, lightweight version of it to run on netbooks, which is probably a good idea, though ARM compatibility is apparently either undecided or extremely unikely (which is my own belief) depending on who you ask.
  • Apple is rumored, from a variety of sources, to be coming out with one (maybe two?) of three things; a next-gen iPhone, a media-tablet or netbook of some kind, or (possibly, I think unlikely) an entry-level 17″ iMac. If you (like me, sadly) are willing to pay the admitted premium for multitouch and OSX, then you will want to watch the Apple space around their WWDC (where iPhoneOS 3.0 is due and OSX 10.6 (“Snow Leopard”) is rumored), and possibly a September event if nothing exciting happens then. I’m expecting a user-facing camera and built-in videoconferencing on next-gen iPhones.
  • Palm, who’ve needed a home run for some time now, might just have two of them; the Palm Pre and, later, the Palm Eos both look like the first legitimate contenders for the throne the iPhone currently occupies, not to mention the first Palm product worth buying at all in maybe five years. If they ship, and it does what the mockups seem to say it does, it’s going to be a very, very good product. The Pre is scheduled to arrive first-half of 2009, the Eos at some unspecified later time.
  • Nokia is likely, though this is unconfirmed, releasing something that actually runs the Maemo platform they’re continuing to work on. The Maemo 5 alpha release came out in February, and Nokia is still throwing time, money and effort at it, but they’re not actually shipping anything that runs it. Watch this space, as they say. Also watch for their quite compelling N97, though that looks less interesting and way more expensive than anything else I’ve mentioned so far.

(Also, psst: the economy is still kind of in the toilet, so wait for the good sales!)

So if you’re shopping for computer now and can bring yourself to heed my advice, it is that you do nothing. Not for at least two, possibly as many as six, months depending on what you’re looking for. There’s a lot of great stuff on the way, not just in terms of incremental improvements but really revolutionary technology.


  1. I began offering similar advice at the office to anyone who’d listen after trying out the last Windows 7 beta, and it’s nice to know that if I’m wrong, I at least won’t be utterly alone. XP’s methuselian life cycle has been a barrier to progress here, in terms of convincing people to budget for newer computers, so I’m very pleased to have new ammunition. Vista’s reputation was such that, had I suggested getting new computers for it, I’d have been laughed out of the room.

    Comment by Ian Hurst — May 1, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  2. Well, I’m of two minds about that. On the one hand XP is clearly inadequate in a lot of ways in this modern world, but the retraining cost for an organization (not to mention the cost of dealing with compatibility issues for corporate applications) has meant Vista was a cost-benefit non-starter for a lot of places. XP is getting pretty long in the tooth, though, and Windows 7 looks like it will be better in a lot of important ways.

    Comment by mhoye — May 1, 2009 @ 11:27 am

  3. Certainly any new operating system represents an enormous cost to businesses, one I’m sure just about anyone has been happy to avoid for the last, what, 8 years? I’m as resistant to change as the next sysadmin. But that original investment in XP is probably no longer paying dividends.

    I don’t want to comment too much about other operations, because I’m not sure how well my experience maps to anyone else’s. But here, at least, when I’ve pushed for new hardware, the immediate response has been, “But they’re using the same software, so why do we need upgrades?”. Even though perhaps 95% of our work is done via a browser accessing a much, much heavier web.

    Incidentally in what ways is XP inadequate in your environment? On the desktop side I manage an even split of XP and linux systems (around 200 in total) and if I have a non-hardware gripe, it’s that I’m (shudder) using Samba and Winbind instead of Active Directory. And I’m painfully aware of how stupid and weird that is, as well as just how much I’m missing. But otherwise compatibility with newer hardware is the only issue that comes up for me on a regular basis. Oh, and difficulty with temporary privilege elevation, I suppose. There’s probably a hundred other things now that I think of it.

    Comment by Ian Hurst — May 1, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

  4. It’s hard to imagine getting much of a dollar-value benefit out of any new OS these days, given the general stability and settledness of thing. It’s not like the ’90s, where things sucked so bad that getting something new was going to give you things like “now supports TCP/IP” or “can multitask.”

    Ian, as far as XP being eight years old, that’s true, but remember that corporations were very slow to upgrade to XP, too — I know plenty of companies that didn’t upgrade until SP2 in 2004, and for those places, XP is has been around “only” 4-5 years.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — May 1, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

  5. “Ian, as far as XP being eight years old, that’s true, but remember that corporations were very slow to upgrade to XP, too — I know plenty of companies that didn’t upgrade until SP2 in 2004, and for those places, XP is has been around “only” 4-5 years.”

    Yeah, “only”, hah. In principle that should not be a lot. But a suitable replacement back in say, 05 or 06, coinciding with the explosive growth of website footprints, would have helped me convince people to spend some money on new hardware. Of course, the hesitance to spend may be idiosyncratic of this company, or, for that matter, might just represent my failure to push the right buttons. Meh.

    Comment by Ian Hurst — May 1, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

  6. Aw, how sweet of you to think of us.

    Comment by Kate Nepveu — May 1, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  7. I am here to help!

    Comment by mhoye — May 1, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  8. It’s also interesting to note that Lenovo is soliciting feedback for a Thinkpad-branded be-nippled netbook:

    Comment by Quotation — May 2, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

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