Obscuritus.ca A nerd making a nerdy blog

Technology As Fashion

On twitter this morning someone mentioned how much they liked the Blackberry Playbook. Which is awesome and cool, since the playbook isn't awesome, but it's a lot better than a lot of the Android tablets on the market. The issue with it was the lack of a native email app. Which is a rather surprising and weird things for people to hate (especially, since it was assumed that you had a phone or computer that would do this). But that's not really the point.

My favourite phone was, for years, the Nokia E71. It's a damn cool phone, it had a keyboard, it had a lot of the features I always wanted, and it had an SSH client - and it did what I wanted. And then, the coolest phone in the world was the Nokia N900 - which was a linux box with GSM support and fit into your pocket - which is a pretty damn good piece of technology. But then they were killed by Android. All of them.

And, infact, everything is currently being killed by Android (including Linux and Windows if we don't start worrying).

Bell Labs created Microsoft by charging $25,000 for Unix. If they'd charged $50, Unix would be the world standard. - Ted Nelson

Part of the problem is one of price of course - Android is free, Windows CE is expensive. iOS is expensive (hell, it's expensive because it pays IOS, since well, thinking of names is hard). But I don't think that's the majority of the story, Unix was already deep in the Unix Wars and BSD was in play at this point, there was a lot of non-commercial Unix to compete with DOS. And deeper it's a case of marketting, and long drawn out battles. Microsoft spent years looking into Linux and then trying to kill it. DOS won the Unix wars by pairing hardware and OS together in a way that will have ripples through computers for the foreseeable future. As long as the idea that buying a computer is a package - with a processor, RAM, OS, and browser, and each of those affects the choices you make buying the computer - persists, we wont be able to properly figure out what makes most software sell. Since the competition is all in the hardware space, and people only buy computers with Windows (or computers by Apple with OSX).

This isn't a new insight of course. The Unix wars are pretty well documented, and the Halloween Documents tell us a lot about what Microsoft was doing at the time. However, there was another development that happened after the rise of personal computing.

Computers were status markers early in their creation - markers of being a member of a group who were wealthy, important, or intelligent enough to warrant owning one. However, after a while, computers were owned by everyone - rather than by this privileged elite. And that was the genius of the rise of Apple. Macs are a nice Unixy computer who are reliable and powerful - which is nice - but the success of the iPod gave the company enough money to make software for their computers, and then, sell them. Not as tools, or as household goods, but as fashion accessories. They were part of the look of being a technocrat.

Computers have spent a very short time in our lives, over the course of the last thirty or so years computers have gone from far away behemoths, to objects of work, to object of play, to necessary and normal tools that it would be insane to be without. They have gone from large rooms to handheld devices. But they have also gone from status markers, to toys, and it's hard to seperate all of the roles of the computer in our lives. You often hear this in conversations about law enforement dealing with online harassment (just turn off your computer) or in schools saying that misuse will cause students to be banned from using computers, like the enforcers don't understand that removing someone from computers is the same as ostracizing them from society.

Computers are part of our social fabric to the point that they mediate our social lives (the concept of "social networking" is all about corporately mediated socialization via computer networks). They also sit in lightbulds, stereos, cars, and anything else we might want. But - we make the choice that the user interface is selected for us, and the concept of changing that is considered strange. Apple wants to make it illegal for you to install unapproved software on your small computer with a touchscreen that they call a phone. So does Google. People are considered bad or wrong if they want root access on many devices. The operating system is getting tied to the hardware. And you'd think that Samsung wouldn't care what OS you run once you've bought their phone (and I suspect that LG or HTC don't), but, they want the "consistent user experience" which they can market - and therefore claim. They want to market to you not just what you're buying, but they also want to market how you buy it.

Claiming the user experience and defining it as a lifestyle choice is some method of strange marketing of multiple things. Rather than simply having ASUS selling a computer, and possibly installing an OS for you if you want - they market "NOW WITH WINDOWS 8". And Apple markets the Apple lifestyle (I don't know how much I love that concept as a real phenomenon, but it's definitely the core of the marketting strategy). Apple is trying to be the sophisticate OS and computer, and Windows is trying to keep itself in the "default" position, so they can literally win by default.

But then - we go into a weirder space of business OSes. Where Microsoft is trying to make itself the default toolchain of choice. My current company has a battle to place Windows into the workplace, just because it's the way that people have done it before. We've spent years (and thousands of dollars) building an OSX infrastructure - including our really important security policies. If we can't rely on those tools, we would need to spend our time rebuilding them. But, people are choosing their tools based on the group definition they have.

For the case of phones - it feels like Android has successfully taken the default that Windows did (off the back of free of course) - so maybe I gave too little credit to Ted Nelson. But OSX is continuing to leverage the fact that they successfully have gotten all of their devices into the same stack, and broke specific tools on one to enforce use of another. But Blackberry is the "business phone" and therefore is "dead" since people want to bring their own device - or use their home device.

And it's a weird situation when our technology choices in the business space are being made within the world of marketting, rather than technology. I suppose I would need to dig deeper into the past of technology choices.

UPDATE: 2015/11/24 Upon reading an article (I apologize for any and all Reddit), I found someone else expressing this sentiment more sarcastically here