Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

Tribute to the TI 80-something Graphing Calculators

Rummaging thru a box of stuff in storage, I ran across my old Texas Instruments TI-85 calculator.  I had to stop and fiddle it for a moment. I grabbed some AAA batteries, only to discover that the CR1616 backup had given up… the calculator operates like new, as in factor reset… but sadly, that means a game program I wrote for it 20 years ago was finally gone forever.

Back in the early 90’s, Exeter Area High School had an advanced math course that required a TI-81 calculator. I gladly used the course as an excuse to get my hands on this relatively expensive (near $100 in 1990 dollars) but amazing piece of hardware at the time.

In short order, I added its programming language to the list of languages I had already taught myself.  I loved using trigonometric functions to create pictures. I used to program it to do my trig and pre-calc homework for me. (In retrospect, my attempt at “cheating” was a hack that I learned more from than any lecture or textbook ever would teach me… you see, in order to program the calculator to do advanced math for me, I had to thoroughly understand it, myself.)

My own TI-85, which I upgraded to
for calculus at UNH. It’s a bit dusty today.
It cost about $100 when I
purchased it in the early 90’s.

The TI-8x calculators were my “gateway drug” to my love of mobile development.  I was already developing software for PCs, but I loved the challenges imposed by yet more limited footprints and hardware capabilities. 

I kept my TI with me to the point that my sister nicknamed it a “porta-geek”…  (There was even a girl who stole it from me, thinking to wound me for the fact that I wasn’t interested in dating her. It had no effect; I obliviously assumed I’d misplaced it in my own absent-mindedness. The story came out several years later, after I’d purchased a replacement.)

The term “porta-geek” is a term I still whimsically apply on occasion to my current daily driver mobile device, my Lumia 950XL running Windows 10.  My sister’s jibe didn’t phase me, either.

By coincidence, I was also in Target’s electronics department today. I was surprised to notice that they still had several 20+ year old TI-80-somethings…  but rather than the price being lower, the prices are actually higher.

A selection of same-generation TI calculators at Target today (3/20/2016).  Notice the TI-80-somethings still going for about $100+.

I can’t really say why 20+ year old calculators should still cost more than they originally did…  clearly normal technology market forces are not in effect for them.  My spidey-sense for socialistic-driven monopoly tingles.  I’m not the only one to have noticed the… discrepancy… over the past couple decades.  ( https://www.quora.com/Why-does-a-TI-83+-calculator-cost-the-same-as-it-did-12-years-ago )

That said, they were, and are great devices.

I’d love to see a Windows 10 emulator app made out of them….  maybe some day I’ll find enough spare time…  🙂

Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

Hedging Against The Risk of Becoming A Monopoly

First Microsoft with their late entry into the mobile market (and flubs leading up to it)… then Apple… now Facebook…  anyone notice that they kinda suck lately?  

Apple, clearly getting bored with it’s iPhone, is now turning its attention to it’s iWatch… which doesn’t make much sense to me;  I purposely gave up all other devices, including a wristwatch, in favor of a single unified mobile device.  It will take a lot to convince me to add a wristwatch back in, and I’m sure having to pay for it will be a deterring factor.   (Next thing you know, they’ll add electroshock notifications, and make it so that authorities will have the ability to lock it to the wearer’s wrist and cause it to electromagnetically bind to the nearest metal object in order to detain people… (but that’s another whole story)).

I’m always toying with social media, so when I ran across a Facebook post from an entrepreneurial acquaintance recently, wondering if his content was being suppressed, I had to check it out.   As an experiment, he posted a really cute puppy, and it picked up a fair number of responses.  His concern was that his regular posts were not getting the response he’d grown accustomed to.  To add yet more anecdote, there was recently a post on the New York Times’ blog about similar observations, tied to tweaks Facebook has made recently.  It seems posts that are engaging or paid for are prioritized, and posts that are not quite as popular are at best “deprioritized”.  It seems likely that even engaging posts tied to commercial products are likely suppressed unless paid for.  Anyone who dabbles in trying to build an audience through Facebook must pay or make sure their content is very engaging.   I like knowing about the books friends of mine are publishing.  I like knowing about their small mom & pop shop.  These posts are getting hidden from my newsfeed.  It’s not the most engaging stuff, but it’s part of what I use Facebook for.  Having this stuff drop off my radar makes Facebook start to suck more.  Yes, they want to make money, but I think there may be even more to it.

I digress.

But I have to ask…  with all the Big Data that companies like Apple, Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Facebook, Google, and the rest have…  and rest assured, they have it… the analytics.  How can they really not recognize the things that are hurting their business? 

Is it intentional?

If modern history has shown us anything, it’s that free markets do not tolerate monopolies.  In every case, any time a company takes advantage of its own strength in the market, the market has pushed back, forcing one of a number of “bad” things upon the company.  Just about every global company has seen this.  I recall hearing about the Rockefeller oil breakup, but in our time, it was the Microsoft / Internet Explorer shakedown…. and there have been many others.

I long suspected the reason Linux existed and was not thoroughly stomped on by the powers that be (Microsoft) was to allow Linux to be a “competitor” in the market… something that would never have a unified corporate focus that could actually unseat Microsoft.  I know that Microsoft even supported some Linux components, which anecdotally supports my theory.  I’m sure they supported it as much as they felt they necessary in order to make sure Linux was a viable competitor.

When it became clear that Linux’s strength was flagging, a more corporate competitor became necessary.  It seems Apple filled that gap very nicely in the PC market for some time.

While Apple began to dominate the mobile market, Google stepped up to become a competitor there, partially because Microsoft wasn’t committed to the market space.  (It wasn’t enough of a threat to the PC market.)  Android has the same problems as Linux… too decentralized to be a lasting threat, so while Apple had it’s heyday and now lets itself slip in the market, Microsoft will target Google.  Eventually, I predict Apple and Microsoft will take turns with market dominance with Google there to provide another safety net.

So back to Facebook…  It seems like Twitter has become a haven for market bots, but not much more of real use to the average person.  Facebook’s power grew to near monopolistic levels over 2012, but I predict that Facebook will actually allow this unhappy situation to persist for entrepreneurial folks, encouraging them to explore Google+.  This leadership transference to Google+ will bolster Google+ as a competitor, enabling Facebook to remain free of  the shackles of being a monopoly.  I suspect they’ll both start taking turns with market dominance, but despite the market competition, I bet both will claim better results in their marketing campaigns, thus leading to higher advertising prices on both.

The nasty part, here, is that the reason for preventing and sanctioning monopolies is to prevent them from strong arming their markets.  Unfortunately, what it seems like we’re getting instead is very small oligarchies taking turns to be the dominant, but not quite monopolistic force in the market.  They take advantage of each other to develop brand loyalty which improves their profit margins and gives them near monopolistic power among their followers, yet they maintain their monopoly-free, unsanctioned status.

Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

If the iPhone is "The Turn", It’s Not "The Prestige".

A week ago this past Saturday, I presented at SharePoint Saturday New Hampshire on the topic of integrating Windows Phone with SharePoint in custom apps  I got sidetracked for a moment or two… chatting about why I see Windows Phone as being a viable platform.   So far, it’s been rough.  As an anecdote, everyone I know who has a Windows Phone bought a copy of my charity-bound “Jimmy Sudoku” app.  Sadly, the contribution to the charity from it is… not what I hoped. 

Still, I think the cool-aid was worth sharing…   To be fair, all the people I know who have a Windows Phone are relatively outspoken fans of it… and that includes a number of folks you’d never suspect of being “Smart Phone” users.

Anyway, a few days before SPSNH, I ran across a relatively insightful article on TechCrunch (I’ll post the link at the end).  It opens by quoting the opening dialogue of Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film, “The Prestige”:

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course…it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.

The TechCrunch’s MG Siegler makes a great point.:  Apple’s iPhone magic is in “The Turn”.   Apple has taken an “ordinary” item, the smart phone, and turned it into something “magic”. 

Indeed, I agree, it is magic, and everything that goes with it.

MG’s article was a commentary of the iPhone 5, and it captured the sentiment I’ve been hearing over & over again about it.   The Apple’s iPhone is starting to run a bit shy of manna.  (Update 9 Feb 2013:  Slashdot, Woz says iPhone Features are Behind. )

It shouldn’t be a surprise though…  we’ve seen it all before, in fact…  we saw it first with the Mac.  It struck again to a lesser extent with the iMac, and dug in big for the iPhone.  There’s a lot to be said for the brand of magic that Apple has wielded over the past several decades, and many would argue that Steve Jobs was the one who brought focus to that magic.

Admiration aside…  If Apple’s past and present magic is in “The Turn”, (and we agree that the iPhone is a hard-won magic trick)  it follows that, within the market, there must have been “The Pledge” and “The Prestige” as well.  That’s when I started to get excited… it seems pretty clear to me where “The Prestige” is, but I’ll get back to that. 

So what of “The Pledge”?   MG’s article points to Samsung as a weak imitator.  Maybe it is (by it’s association with Android), maybe it isn’t…  I guess the courts, and maybe even the public, are done deciding this.   In any case, Samsung never represented the promise of “The Pledge”; it only ever wanted to join in on Apple’s magic.  It’s not “The Prestige” either.

The role of “The Pledge” has been played before, as well, in popular technology of days gone by.  In the early PC wars, this role was played by a small number of makers.  The most memorable of them were the Commodores and TRS-80’s.   This cadre of early PC makers had one thing in common…  the average hobbyist (aka geek) could make them do magic in fits and starts, causing loyalty that ran deep (just ask the Amiga fans), but they didn’t have much, if any, magic for the popular user.  

I would argue, despite the fact that Google’s Android came at about the same time, late 2007, Android represents the promise of this magic…   “The Pledge”…  a Phone, integrated with a pocket computer, that anyone could have a satisfying user experience with.  Open, available, and accessible, it would be… it was everything a “Smart Phone” should be, and it appealed to exactly the market that Smart Phones were made for in 2007.  Despite its fits and starts of magic and a fierce geek following, it, like the Amiga (in its day), is still too immature to be the enduring solution.  Any time I mention the idea that the Android might fade into the realm of the Amiga, the geeks in the room threaten to get belligerent.    I remember getting the same way over my TRS-80 CoCo.

Between issues with platform versions & compatibility, components that don’t integrate well, visually or functionally, and malware/spyware, Android is excellent if you’re a technical person who’s not intimidated by compilers and is savvy enough to avoid spyware & malware… but that’s not what the popular user will go for in the long haul.  (Update 9 Feb 2013:  Slashdot, Fragmentation Leads to Android Insecurities)

So what does it take to become “The Prestige”?  It takes that maturity… the ability to allow the average user to make magic with it, affordably, easily… commonly, and, well, normally…  on some level, it restores normalcy, ushering in commoditization of the magic that once was so amazing.

If you take into account that Microsoft was the successor of the IBM compatible legacy, it starts to become clear that Microsoft holds the title to a long history of taking Apple’s “magic”, and refining it into maturity.

In some ways, it’s a bit sad:  iPhone’s manna is indeed running out…  there’s a little less magic in the world…  
…or is there?  This magic will soon be in the hands of friends and family who are just starting to get the itch for a mobile device that can play Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds on.  All those late adopters who wanted maturity, affordability, reliability, and ease of use over “magic”, but now they get both.  When they get their Windows Phone /  Surface RT / Windows 8 device, they’ll get to see magic that geeks and power users have been using for years now…  and that’s the hardest part  “The Prestige”, putting “smartphone”/tablet power and flexibility in the hands of every cell phone user.

As promised, MG Seigler’s article on TechCrunch:
http://techcrunch.com/2012/09/13/the-iphone-5-event/


(Update 1/9/2013 clarified PoV a bit on Android)
(Update 2/9/2013, linked back to Slashdot on various posts that supporting my position)
Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

Time to Remodel the Kitchen?

A few good reasons to consider keeping your IT infrastructure up to snuff…

http://edgewatertech.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/time-to-remodel-the-kitchen/

(I’m honored to have the post accepted & published on Edgewater’s blog.)  🙂 

Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

Windows Phone… who knew, right?

There is something interesting happening with Windows Phone 7… (a story outside Windows 8, Metro & Silverlight 4).  There’s a chance that the stars could align in an old, somewhat familiar pattern.

I’m thinking about the PC market back in the day (for me, that’s late 80’s early 90’s).  There were three niches in the personal computer business.  The most memorable stars were Apple, IBM, and Commodore.   Apple was the early front runner with high-end consumer technology that dazzled with an artsy focus (if you could afford it).  To try to coax the lower end of the market, they gave away machines to every school that would take them, making them the defacto for education, too.  Commodore (and a few others like them) had a developer and gaming niche…  if you were a lower budget programmer/hobbyist/gamer (as I was), you probably had one of these and half-convinced yourself it was better than an Apple machine.  

The rest of the world wanted a computer, too, but didn’t want the price point of the Apples or the technical overhead of the Commodore class of machines.   That’s where IBM came in, with an affordable machine that wasn’t necessarily the flat out best of anything on the market, but the overall value made it accessible to a broad range of people.  IBM… PC… who knew, right? 

History shows that IBM’s (or, more appropriately, Microsoft’s) strategy won out, with the social forces of the now ubiquitous Windows pc’s swallowing the hobbyist market almost whole, eating most of the Apple pie, and sharing the gaming market somewhat grudgingly with consoles. 

The social force in effect was the desire to make something that worked for the non-technical consumers who weren’t so attracted to the high-end market…  since consumers found commonality in the accessible/value platform, eventually that platform swallowed up the niches.  What hobbyist wants to write software that they can’t share with anyone (short of installing Linux on their mom’s computer)?  What technologist wants to have a separate system for gaming and another for everything else (setting consoles aside)?  In a way, the IBM / Microsoft platform became the “lowest common denominator”… but the important emphasis being on the word common.

Fast forward to the mobile phone market of about a year ago.   My wife picked up a Droid based phone on a deal.  She’s not exactly unhappy with it.  It works, but she doesn’t quite trust it after she had some technical issues she wasn’t prepared to deal with.  Droid based phones seem to appeal to a lot of the guys at work, who don’t mind tinkering with the things.  The Droid reminds me of the “Commodore” of smart phones.

Even more recently, my wife was helping her mother pick out a new phone.  Seeing that the iPhone was a popular choice, they looked at it, but it was a huge step up in cost and it seemed overwhelming to my mother-in-law.  Given that her old phone was a relatively basic mobile phone, she didn’t see the need to spend a ton of money only to buy a phone she felt was more than she needed.   My wife, thinking back to my Windows Phone, realized she really likes its clean, simple-looking style and ease of use.  Since the price point was way better than the iPhones, too, the Windows Phone won out.

(I remember posting a light-hearted lament on Facebook at the time, that maybe I should consider switching phones, because…. how can you see technology which the grandmother of your children uses as the basis of an interesting, relevant, and marketable skill set (and career)? (I really was just kidding! (I still have bruises from several grandmothers over these remarks.)) 🙂  

After a brief break-in period with her new Windows Phone, my mother in law fell in love with it.  She doesn’t have to struggle to figure her phone out, anymore.  She just uses it.   She takes advantage of features she never thought she’d use, because the features are arranged so nicely that they work together.

Interestingly, this opens up technology for me, too, because now I can share the product of my technical interests with her. She was one of the first beta testers of Jimmy Sudoku, my hobby project.

I’ve come to see that Windows Phone is the IBM PC of the modern mobile phone market.  It’s poised to become the common denominator of mobile phones.  It’s less expensive , easy to use, less overwhelming / more accessible to more people, even to those without a technical degree.  (Check out that new Nokia Lumia 900?)  Still, for us geeks, it’s got readily available (free) development tools using fun and marketable skills and a reasonably open app marketplace.  Perhaps Microsoft should review IBM’s old PC marketing strategy before they overlook the opportunity they seem to have set themselves up for.

Like the frying pan in the Disney movie “Tangled”…  Practical, available, affordable, easy to use, and good for more than the obvious stuff…  who knew, right?