Gates, Jobs, Foleo, Milan, the 86 Mac Plus: Is the Past the Future of the Desktop?

Rob Enderle

I've really been pondering this whole desktop future thing and what is wrong with Windows Vista, Desktop Linux and even Apple's Tiger. Coincidently, SlashDot picked up this piece comparing a Windows XP SP2 Dual Core AMD desktop to an old 1986 Mac Plus. In this piece they conclude the Mac Plus is generally, when you think of basic productivity, the better box.


This was all in the context of the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates interviews last week where both guys seemed to envy the other. Then when I factored in Palm's Foleo and Microsoft's Milan (Surface) announcements, and got to play with an incredible 3D browser enhancement that vastly simplifies search, it hit me -- we've spent most of the last 20 years making the PC less productive than it was initially. Gartner's TCO stuff was, at least with regard to new PC operating systems, generally pure crap because, from a user perspective, we were going in the wrong direction.


Given this is TechEd week and the month of the Apple developer's conference, it's time to chat again on what is wrong with the desktop and why traditional Linux isn't the fix.


Why the 86 Mac Is better than the 2007 AMD Dual Core


This isn't about hardware -- the hardware guys didn't screw up, and the AMD will toast the older Mac on any benchmark that will actually run on both systems (try to find one). But, the PC initially was relatively easy to use, fast to boot, and simple. Nobody worried about PC software images; it took minutes to reload the operating system and seconds to boot it. I remember as an OS/2 administrator cringing every time I had to boot an OS/2 system because of the time it took to get the system up.


It's hard to do simple. But this was a core benefit to the Mac, Commodore, and Atari systems that were so popular in the '80s. Somehow, we lost focus on the need to keep things simple. While we clearly couldn't actually use the 86 Mac today -- a little thing called the Internet made sure of that, and the new Mac and PC industrial designs are vastly more ergonomic, not to mention that we've become addicted to color, high resolution, and larger screens. The loss of simplicity has turned what was once an amazing tool into a chore to use and a nightmare to manage.


This isn't just Windows -- both Linux and the MacOS are based on UNIX, and no one would have seriously considered putting that on anyone's desk in the '80s. (I know a lot of IT guys that still view that idea as just short of insane.) You could certainly argue that, at least, it got easier to use, but neither the MacOS nor any form of Linux are as easy to use as that early Mac, except for embedded versions.


Embedded or Simplified


Now let's look at the iPhone, Xbox, and Palm Foleo. All are based on embedded versions of a full OS. In effect, all the complexity is pulled out and what you are left with is a purpose-built product that does a few things very well. If you've never used an Xbox, it is actually easier to use than that old Mac -- it boots faster than Windows XP and it has a very rich visual intuitive interface. The iPhone conceals the complexity of OSX, runs in a phone format (imagine what something like this could do with access to a full PC's resources) and the interface makes the Tiger version of OSX (and most other mobile OSs) look incredibly complex by comparison. And Foleo takes Linux and creates an experience that is incredibly close to the simplicity of that 1986 Mac.


But embedded isn't the only way to go. If you look at Microsoft's Milan, it runs a full version of Windows Vista. They have simply tied it to a strong back end service and vastly simplified the UI. It is arguably easier to use than the 86 Mac, iPhone, or Foleo because the complexity is passed to someone else and concealed from the user. In addition, it uses the hardware technology to improve the user experience -- not to just add more features that most will seldom use. If you get a chance to play with Milan, or any of these new products, take it. I think you'll see what I mean -- these things are correcting a wrong turn we took in the late '80s and PCs based on these simplified concepts are already coming.


How to the Fix the Problem Partially Our Fault


When the PC software market started, systems had an 8-plus-year service life and we often replaced the OS on these systems several times before we got rid of them. It was this cycle that funded companies like Microsoft, and they justified the purchase largely by increasing features and capability. At the same time, separate products in common use like spread sheets, word processors, and database offerings became suites. These suites were made up of vastly different products with little relation to each other, each on their own feature-chasing future path. There was an attempt to create a simplified suite product, Lotus Symphony, but it failed miserably in market.


We did kind of push back through the '90s as we slowed our movement to new operating systems on old hardware. The base was growing bigger but much of it was refusing to update. If it hadn't been for Y2K the market likely would have stalled in 2000.


One of the big problems with adopting new versions of any of the core products (Windows/Office) was user training and migration disruption and costs. But we clearly weren't vocal enough because those problems largely remain with us today, and even though the Mac is vastly better in this regard, the other connectivity and multi-vendor benefits provided by Windows appears, based on market share, to easily have eclipsed the Mac's point advantages.


Vista Wake Up Call


I'm still seeing little in the way of demand for Vista in enterprise shops. The security improvements alone should be creating more interest as is the inability to buy XP in volume on hardware after next January. It's not like folks are truly rushing towards alternatives, either. Yes, there is some interest in Linux and it is really vocal but, in term of volume, I would argue that with all its faults, Windows XP is the platform most appear to be planning to continue to use for the foreseeable future.


Given the incredible pain typically associated with running an old OS on new hardware and that a new OS is basically free on new hardware, this should serve as a clear indicator the market is simply not happy with what it is seeing. And what it is seeing is no core benefit, and enough additional problems, to suggest avoiding the offering.


The Market is Ready for Change -- Be Heard


This suggests that the PC market is desperately looking for a change. IT buyers, and I would argue most consumers, simply have not been seeing what they want, and what they want is a lot closer to Apple circa 1986 than anyone, including Apple, is offering in 2007. Only HP appears to be working directly to fix this and only with one system.


Buyers want things to get vastly easier to use, and that means they will likely not respond well to feature creep. It is events like TechEd where feedback like this can be provided to Microsoft; the Apple Developer conference is likely more effective than MacWorld for this feedback to go to Apple. For, Linux, maybe it's time for the advocates to actually ask users what they want rather than assuming everyone wants to be a programmer and lives to go to war with Microsoft.


I think Foleo for Linux, Milan for Windows, and the iPhone platform for the Mac represent good examples of where the UI and user experience for the PC needs to go to become vital and exciting again, and Milan's back end services model is where the platform must go in general. With your assistance and direction we could see solid progress in my lifetime.


I'd kind of like that.

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Jun 4, 2007 8:38 AM Andre Da Costa Andre Da Costa  says:
"Now lets look at the iPhone, Xbox, and Palm Foleo. All are based on embedded versions of a full OS. In effect, all the complexity is pulled out and what you are left with is a purpose-built product that does a few things very well."I assume you have never used an iPhone and an XBOX. The iPhone does over six things:1. MP3 Player2. Cellular Phone3. You can watch videos and view photos on it4. Its a personal digital assistant5. You can surf the web on it6. You can email on itHow is that a purpose built device if it is doing more than one thing, sounds like a "multi-purpose" device to me. Yes, its a complex device, but at the same time its a simple one, depends on who you ask. As for the XBOX, you can download movies, connect to your PC and stream your videos and photos from it. You can play multi-player games on it, and do a lot of "multi-purpose" stuff. Reply
Jun 5, 2007 1:40 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Compared to a full OS this is a few things, that's the difference. Try loading a 3rd party application on either the iPhone or the Xbox. The real difference is you build up an embedded version of an OS, full versions are general purpose. Reply
Jun 11, 2007 4:13 AM Bernard Le Tourneur Bernard Le Tourneur  says:
UI / Usability seems to be something that has remained a challenge - one would have thought that as computers became more widespread there would be improvements. The first major step was the transition from command line OS to same with GUI front end. And as you point out, that was in the early to mid 80's. Since then we have toyed with variations on this GUI and have find some nice gadgets occasionally but still lean heavily on increasing operational costs to sustain the whole thing. So inessence i agree with you Rob. And yes, some devices, like the iPod (never seen or used an iPhone or Milan yet), are astounding in their simplicity. I guess when we are dealing with specialised devices its easy to conceal the complexity which, at the end of the day, is around configurability. The need for broad configurability is a function of flexibility and this must be remembered. There is a demand for flexibility for this has helped the PC become pervasive. If it wasn't flexible it wouldn't be - we can't forget this. What we are dealing with is a double edge sword (can't give to Peter without robbing from Paul). So we cannot polarise our views but rather we helpto define where these devices have their place. There is a demand for mp3 palyers and there is a demand for mobile phones and there is no need to introduce to much flexibility into the equation as they just need to connect to the networks/ play the required format and therefore simplicity (the lack of flexibility) is an option. I am afraid it would not be fair to say we have this option with the PC. The PC will need to remain a device which is broadly capable. the option we do have here (and which is where we can focus in the enterprise but can't at the consumer level for a while) are things like group policies locking down configuration and some of the overwhelmingly many options found in our current desktop OSs - must run - nice 'chatting' Reply
Jun 11, 2007 12:02 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Back when the PC was born we had no idea how it would be used and the effort was to return control to the user so they could configure as needed. With that came a great deal of complexity. Now we know, and if we don't can ask, how the machine is going to be used and can configure it automatically. The Lenovo machines, for instance, go farther than most to automate things like networking, security, and backup. But look at the iPhone in particular, is there really that much more you do regularly on a PC in terms of different tasks?You likely do email, write documents, browse the web, and run some dedicated applications. Each could simply be a button. So if you eliminate setup, and go simpler for the core things, well, you kind of have a Mac right? Now what if you went further, you'd have Surface or the iPhone. With a services back end, appliance computing could finally become real. Its where we are going anyway, be nice if we got their faster. Thanks for posting! Reply
Jun 12, 2007 5:48 AM Bernard Le Tourneur Bernard Le Tourneur  says:
Hi Rob,Agreed - I think at a generic level we have lost sight of the laymens requirement of the PC (My usage is significantly more diverse than joe soap as I do the enterprise architecture stuff and cut code). But at the consumer level we really have lost sight of it. I recently was forced to put pen to paper and identify my 4 key passions - the one I hold on to as dearly as the other undisclosed 3 is the user experience (and therefore all usability associated issues). Given that a browser runs on these various devices talk of web as an OS is not misplaced - and web 2.0 has a place in the usability space if AJAX falls into this category. However the way applications are built on the web is primitive and more diverse than ever before. I think the applications you have tended to refer to Rob, are applications that function without data (and I am talking business data). So perhaps, and maybe i should phrase this more as a question, would it be right for me to think that the above holds predominantly true within the consumer space but struggles a little harder to hold true in the business computing space? Reply
Jun 13, 2007 12:52 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
The difference is that Business can likely better assure the pipe, that is the basis behind things like PC Blades which basically turn whats on your desk into a toaster. With SLAs you should be able to assure data delivery, often even wirelessly, to a high degree (at least on premise) and by doing so vastly simplify the endpoints while maintaining performance and increasing security and reliability. In that example you do take a cost hit, but the trade off may be worth it. So agreed that it might be a bit more complex, but given ITs resources, it might actually be easier to accomplish than in the consumer segment (and it is being worked by ClearCube, HP, IBM, and Hitachi). Reply

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