Why it’s healthy that Microsoft and Google are eating Apple’s lunch

Last week Apple announced their new Macbook Pro laptops.

Their great innovation (a “game-changer” in their words) was a sliver of a touch screen above the keyboard which is able to show touchable context-specific buttons. They’ve dubbed this the TouchBar. Although the OLED technology is certainly pretty, one could almost hear the enormously disappointed collective “MEH” uttered by millions of users and suddenly erstwhile Apple fans world-wide.

Was Apple, in the form of the Phil Schiller really trying to sell this? By the way, if you represent Apple, a company traditionally known for its great design sensibilities, should you not spend just a little more money to dress a little better than the couture equivalent of an old Lada? Suit up man!

Phil Schiller not suiting up.
Phil Schiller not suiting up.

Collectively, the internet was disappointed. Why no touch screen? Why no new iMac (last refresh a year ago) or Mac Pro (last refresh 3 years ago)? What is happening at Apple?

The day before, on October 26, 2016, Microsoft revealed the Surface Studio. Watch this introduction:

… and also this video with Microsoft partners who have in secret been working with the Studio:

Even if you did not like Microsoft, you can get a good sense of the emotion around this new product.

They’ve managed to make something that speaks to the imagination. When I see this, as an outspoken Microsoft critic, I do get the distinct feeling that the Surface Studio is a physical artefact of the science fiction dream that my reality is gradually (and very pleasingly) turning into. My less nerdy technology-critical better half’s first reaction was: When can we get this?

It seems that Microsoft has convincingly out-Appled Apple.

In other words, Microsoft has somehow become sexy whilst Apple seems to have developed strong feelings for the Lada.

As an interesting related tidbit, a friend, whom I was trying to convince NOT to get Google’s new Pixel XL phone because reasons, recently sent me this short post on The Verge by Vlad Savov, a camera phone expert who until recently was of the educated opinion that the iPhone 7 was still the king of the smartphone castle. He writes:

On the basis of my extended experience with Google’s Pixel, I consider it an all-around better phone than the iPhone 7. The final exhilarating straw that broke the camel’s back was the photo below, coming straight out of the Pixel XL’s camera, undoctored other than for a horizon adjustment.

WHAT IN HEAVENS IS HAPPENING?! OUR WHOLE WORLD IS COLLAPSING!

Perhaps not…

During a Signal App conversation (you should really use Signal, it now has privacy-conscious Giphy support) with another friend, I realised that what’s happening here, is in fact wonderfully capricious human emotion interfering with the machine that is capitalism.

Left to its own devices, the nature of capitalism means that successful companies tend to evolve into capitalistically optimal dead ends. In other words, large successful companies lose the will to innovate, because they realise they are able to make more money at less risk by simply not rocking that boat. Instead of investing in innovation, they invest in sales and marketing to milk their large customer-base.

Ironically, Steve Jobs explained this idea quite eloquently during this interview where he talked about the decline of Xerox:

Fortunately, when a company like Microsoft throws an innovation curve-ball that appeals to our emotion and to our imagination, they can rock the boat for everyone.

Even although we’re talking about three absolute behemoths, it’s gratifying that they, as well as their smaller competitors, keep each other on their toes through the fickle wonder that is human behaviour.

Here’s to hoping that AI never manages to model or predict our precious caprice. :)

South Africa, why are you not running Linux?

Ubuntu, my personal favourite Linux distribution, has recently released version 14.04 LTS. LTS stands for Long Term Support: LTS releases are supported for 5 years, meaning that with 14.04 you are covered until 2019.

Trusty Tahr, as 14.04 is known, is beautiful, functional and still free.

Ubuntu means "humanity to others". It also means pretty desktop!
Ubuntu means “humanity to others”. It also means pretty desktop!

This seemed like an opportune moment to get something off my chest. I’m trying to understand why South Africa, my current home, is not running more Linux. In this post, I’m going to summarise the reasons why I think that, especially in SA, we should move away from proprietary solutions such as those offered by Microsoft and Apple, to solutions that are technically at least as good, are completely open and free, and, perhaps most importantly, better empower us to stimulate our local technology ecosystem and the national economy.

Cost to the national economy

Every year, I and a few million other South Africans pay a boat load of income and other taxes. Because in SA not everyone is able to pay tax, it is especially important that this money is used for the common good, for issues such as health-care, education and job creation.

However, instead of using my hard-earned tax to stimulate local industry, the South African government is sending millions of rands, each and every year, to Microsoft, a fantastically rich company in the USA, a fantastically rich country in comparison to South Africa.

The majority of government workstations absolutely don’t need MS Windows, MS Office or Outlook. The majority of government employees would be able to do their job (email, reports, spreadsheets, forms, use of web-apps) better and more securely using Linux.

Furthermore, the use of Linux and open source software encourages the use of open standards for public documentation. In 2007, the SA government officially standardised on the OpenDocument format. However, MS Office use is still rife, and encourages people to use Microsoft’s own XML formats. Although MS standardised these in a bid to stay in the global government game, OpenDocument should be preferred, as it’s better supported by more free and open packages that are available to all citizens, not just those with money for MS Windows and MS Office.

As an added but very important advantage, some of the considerable funds that would have been sent to the USA for MS licensing and support would then be injected into the local Linux support economy, stimulating local skills and creating more high-tech jobs.

Don’t you find it strange that South Africa, a developing country, is sending that much money to the USA when better solutions exist? Don’t you too think that it would be great to have a thriving and more independent Linux-based operating system and application industry right here in SA?

Personal cost

I just checked, it looks like the cost for an OEM license of Windows 8 in SA is R1000. We want as many as possible South Africans to have access to computers and to have access to internet. You can get a cheap PC for R3000 to R4000. It really makes absolutely no sense to spend R1000 on Windows, when Linux would work perfectly well on that same PC hardware.

It gets even more silly when you add in the price of MS Office. For 95% of personal users, packages like OpenOffice or LibreOffice, completely free and even open source, or Google Docs, not open but free, are more than sufficient.

A part of the problem here is simply momentum. Because everyone is still using Microsoft products, everyone thinks that that’s what you need to have. Imagine that the government standardised on Linux, it would not take long before people would then evaluate this as a serious choice when acquiring a new PC.

Security

For the largest part due to Edward Snowden’s actions, and great journalism by The Guardian, it is now widely known (and much has been corroborated), that the NSA and other intelligence agencies around the world have been eavesdropping on everyone and everything.

An important part of this practice, is the working relationships that these intelligence agencies have built up with software vendors around the world. When you run MS Windows or Mac OSX, or any other prioprietary software, you have absolutely no way of knowing, or checking, what your computer is doing with your information. It sounds like something from a spy movie, but the NSA works closely with Microsoft to be able to hack into computers running Windows.

In the case of personal use, this may not be such a problem, but in the case of the South African government and the whole corporate world, it’s slightly crazy that everyone is willing to take the risk that all of their information is being snooped on by cooperating intelligence agencies.

With open source systems one can’t be 100% sure either, but one is able to check and modify and part of the system, at the source code level, that one is working on. Based on this openness, I have personally in the past programmed kernel drivers to support new hardware, and fixed low-level driver bugs. This was possible only because I have access to the source code of everything on my system.

Conclusion

There you have at least three reasons why we here in SA should be running more Linux. Not doing so is costing our national economy money, and it’s costing our people money. More importantly, we’re missing a huge opportunity of technologically and economically empowering South Africans.

A more general point I would like to make, is the following. It turns out that the whole world is actually running Linux already: android telephones, tablets, TVs, zillions of servers, and so on. When you teach people how to use this open and free Linux system instead of the proprietary alternatives, you are in fact teaching them how to control the world.