Software & IT

How the Telecommunications Act of 1996 Brought Us Donald Trump

Over two years ago I started writing a treatise on the effects of the Internet on music, attempting to debunk the popular theory held among technologists like myself that the Internet is an inherently democratizing force that empowers individuals. I collected charts and graphs, pulled industry data, and created a very compelling storyline.

I even began to compile a global database and build a visualization tool to present all the hundreds (thousands) of “independent” record labels that are actually branches of Sony, Warner, or Universal by tying together the hierarchical structures that are employed to disguise the fact that your favorite cuddly “indie” band is actually just a product squeezed out of a tube or a guy who “sold out to buy in.”

Unfortunately, the deeper down the rabbit hole I fell, the more depressed I became about the situation. I actually became so depressed about it that I abandoned the article, picked it back up a year later, got even more angry and depressed, and put it down again. My research not only caused me to despair and not finish my article, but also made me almost give up on both technology and music as well. It was that bad.

Maybe the truest statement ever made is: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

I’ve tried to get it finished several times, but at this point it’s become the Third Rail of Depression and Futility and I can’t bear to look at it. Also, the data collected in 2014 are starting to age, and I have absolutely no desire to re-mine the data again.

This article, therefore, will perforce need to be written at a sprint, because the longer I steep in this reality, the more I despair. I will attempt to annotate as I can, but I’m not here to prove anything, merely to lay out a line of reasoning that others can follow and bolster (or tear down) with facts, and instead of drilling into source data, spreadsheets, and databases, I’ll probably just quote Wikipedia and leave enough links at the bottom that you know I’m not spinning this yarn out of whole cloth.

Instead of laying out irrefutable proofs, I intend merely to connect some dots with a reasonably thick line. Sorry about that, but I got a life too.

In 1990 I graduated from Texas A&M University, aptly described by one of my dearest friends as “a hotbed of conservatism,” from the Lowry Mays School of Business. After graduating, I attended the Red McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin where I received an MBA in Information Systems Management. As it turns out, those two individuals – Lowry Mays and Red McCombs – will become instrumental in this story.

I was a big fan of Milton Friedman (still am, generally speaking) and a True Believer in capitalism as the engine of enriching the masses (this view has since become more nuanced). I called myself a small-L libertarian, wanting little to do with the quacky Lyndon Larouche party, but finding value in small-L libertarian principles: fiscally limited government, small defensive military, an absolute defense of civil liberty, generally open borders and free trade, and the use of progressive taxation (Friedman’s “negative income tax”) to provide a minimum guaranteed income instead of highly invasive and inefficient government services like public housing and food stamps.

I bring all of this up to share that I am not by birth a radical anti-capitalist, but actually someone who came into this situation with views far different than I have now been beaten by reality into accepting. I am still no radical anti-capitalist, but my eyes are a lot more open than they once were.

First I must dispel a notion:

“The Internet is inherently decentralizing and democratizing.”

As one of the very earliest Internet developers (I started building complex database back-ended web sites in 1995) and a small-L libertarian, I gulped this Kool-aid the moment it was offered. It fit exactly into my ethos. As a technologist, I could see that the Internet had the potential to decentralize everything. And as a musician, I was sure that a New Era of Music was upon us, one where a musician could simply create and distribute music directly to fans without middlemen, and that this empowerment would destabilize and destroy the record label business which had done such terrible disservices to the artists it supposedly represented.

Without getting into the charts, data, spreadsheets, and suicidal ideations from my abandoned article, let me just cut to the chase: this view was balderdash, at least over a two-plus-decade timeframe. In a nutshell, the top 1% artists now 77% of all music revenue, the top 3 labels control roughly 90% of the music you hear, access to the key new music discovery media (radio, satellite, and curated playlists) has narrowed tremendously, and more money than ever before is required to build and maintain an audience. If you doubt all this, write your own article, because I couldn’t finish mine without wanting to drink Drano.

In 1994 nobody as far as I knew was using the term “disruption,” but what I have learned from my work in tech, and from my research, is that disruption is really mostly analogous to a game of 52-pickup: a change comes along that suddenly seems to throw all the playing cards in the air. For a brief moment in time, the former holder of all the cards is destabilized, and everyone in the room has a narrow window in which to grab a few cards while they’re still in the air. Some individuals get lucky, and grab enough cards to empower themselves before the cards are grabbed back up by their original holders. These lucky individuals can then serve as useful anecdotes to the world about how the “disruption” has “empowered people.” Everyone knows the story of the musician that got famous by building a fanbase on MySpace and never signed to a record label. Sadly, far too many of us thought that was a trend not an anecdote.

Even sadder, at least some of these anecdotes were simply propaganda stunts by massive Internet businesses to market their brand. For example a particular Internet giant tried for years to spin the story of how their social network was helping to make a particular “artist” quite famous (3+M social followers!), when really all they did was push this person onto everyone’s social feed and hope for the best while nothing actually happened in that artist’s musical career. Heck, the “artist” never even completed a full album of music. Still, millions of people saw the story and got hope, including me.

Silly, silly me.

I’m not here to bash disruption per se. My view is that disruption, like the technology that enables it, is value-neutral. The point is that it is not inherently value-positive, as so many of us technologists cling to as if it were religion.

So the Internet did not tear down the evil record labels as predicted. In fact the overall market for commercial radio increased 13% in the decade 1998-2008. The Internet also did not destroy radio as predicted. The power of radio has surely diminished somewhat since 1994, but the current and continuing influence of radio on music is almost impossible to overstate. At least as of 2014 (when I collected data for my aborted article), terrestrial radio was still the #1 source of new music discovery.

Let me repeat that: 20+ years after the invention of the modern Internet, FM radio is still the #1 way that people discover music. And the #2 way people discovered music is through word of mouth — in other words from a friend who probably discovered the music where? On radio.

So I will say it again: it is almost impossible to overestimate the influence of terrestrial radio on new music discovery.

Radio is not dead. Not even close.

When researching my previous article, this was where the rabbit hole opened up and swallowed me whole. Because something else had changed in the intervening years since Marc Andressen brought us the Mosaic browser – in fact, this giant change was largely because of that browser.

That change was the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Before we fall down that rabbit hole together, I want to sidestep for a moment, because something else happened in 1996: my rock band from college got its first single played on a top radio station in a top-ten market by one of the nation’s best-known DJs, a man we all call Redbeard. How this happened wasn’t luck or payola: we made a demo, took a CD to the radio station, met Redbeard (cool guy), he listened to the song, liked it, and agreed to give it some spins.

That song didn’t make us famous. But Redbeard and his peers at the competing station broke a lot of influential North Texas bands during this period of the 1990s: the Nixons, the Toadies, Tripping Daisy, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, and many others got their start on the radio exactly this way – by taking a demo to a local station and getting spins – in drive-time rotation in a Top 10 music market. That’s a Big Fucking Deal. It’s also a feat that is practically impossible for an unsigned local artist to pull off today, for reasons we shall soon learn.

Spins on radio means fans at shows. More fans at shows means more requests for the song on radio. More requests means more spins, more spins means more fans — then better shows at better venues, etc.. Eventually the effect is spillover onto other stations and into other neighboring markets. It’s an easy to understand, meritocritous, “bottom-up” virtuous cycle that Made Music Great from 1970-1996, the Golden Age of FM Radio for anyone old enough to remember it. It’s a process that played out for years on hundreds of stations across the country, surfacing local talent and exposing it to the wider world.

This Golden Age was made possible only because of the existence of largely independent local radio stations employing independent DJs to curate a playlist for the local demographic and to develop the local market. This was the formula that had served music listeners since the advent of radio, and that, for all intents and purposes, ended after 1996 and has yet to be replaced with anything.

Particularly on the Internet, where “local” goes to die.

As a young technologist in 1996, I was on the front line of Internet hype. A few years prior, the “Internet” was still something for nerds wearing propellor hats like me. Suddenly, the light bulb came on, seemingly for everyone at once. ISPs like UUnet previously thought to serve a tiny potential market of only hackers started doubling in valuation every few months as people realized “everyone’s going to want to get online!” Startups like Amazon and eBay and Google – and Pets.com – achieved insane levels of hype. The Internet, it was thought, would eat everything. And it probably will, eventually.

It became relatively obvious early on that the Internet as well as other recent disruptive technologies of the time like cellular and cable would radically change telecommunications. In the wake of this sudden disruption, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed. This landmark piece of legislation was the most important piece of legislation affecting telecommunication of all kinds since the 1934 Communications Act which created the FCC.

The purpose of the 1996 Act was stated as:

to provide for a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapidly private sector deployment of advanced information technologies and services to all Americans by opening all telecommunications markets to competition

which, in 1996, sounded like a good idea to a young, small-L libertarian. And in fact I’d guess that there are many aspects of the Act that have been good for the country and its inhabitants. Probably. Maybe.

The Act did many things, mostly oriented around de-regulating the boring communications infrastructure maintained at the time by AT&T and the Baby Bells to try to re-orient it around serving the needs of the coming Internet market. That was the part of the bill that everyone was discussing and arguing about at the time. However, unbeknownst to most, it also significantly de-regulated radio, television, and print media for the first time since 1934.

Under the 1934 Communications Act, radio was held to be a (at least quasi) public good – like clean air, street lighting, or libraries. 1934 was a time where most of the print news in the country was controlled by a small number of political machines, like that of William Randolph Hearst, which used sensationalism and “yellow journalism” to promote political agendas. The goal of the 1934 legislation was to prevent such monopolization from taking hold in the nascent radio market with its limited space on the dial for competition. The mechanism was straightforward: limit the number of stations any entity can hold in any market, and the overall number of stations that any entity can hold. It also limited the ability for media channels to “forward integrate” into radio – to prevent a company like RCA from controlling the distribution channels for its competitors’s music, and to prevent a company like Hearst’s from commandeering the airwaves for political purposes. (Hearst, originally a Roosevelt supporter, would turn strongly against FDR after the passage of this bill).

In other words, radio was kept decentralized with the goal of maximizing local and independent access.

It is important to understand that at the time, it was not unusual for most people to have access to a small number of radio stations. The great 20th century urban migration was not complete, and radio was nascent and capital-intensive. It is for this reason that the FCC was created to ensure that the fledgling technology was deployed in a way that prevented monopolization.

It is from this philosophy – radio as a public good – that later notions like the “Fairness Doctrine” and “Payola” sprang. In the 1940s, the FCC held that radio programming must present opposing views on controversial material instead of only presenting one side. This was the so-called “Fairness Doctrine.” Likewise, rigor was applied to keep record labels from buying access to stations (and crowding out competitors) by rigorously enforcing laws regarding Payola – a law still (theoretically) enforced today. Under Payola laws, a radio station can play a song in exchange for money, but must disclose the song as “sponsored content,” and cannot count the spin in the song’s ratings.

The Fairness Doctrine was struck down in 1987, but the anti-monopoly laws stood until the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which relaxed or removed the restrictions against the number of stations any one entity could own (both in one market and overall), and removed or relaxed restrictions against forward integration, allowing media creators to own networks, and vice versa.

The effect was that the 1996 Act, which was supposed

to provide for a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapidly private sector deployment of advanced information technologies and services to all Americans by opening all telecommunications markets to competition

actually did no such thing at all, at least not in radio and media. The centralization in media has been dramatic: in 1983, 50 companies controlled 90% of US media – that number is now 5 (Comcast, Walt Disney, News Corp, Time Warner, and National Amusements) with almost all of the consolidation occurring since the passage of the 1996 Act. In 1995, companies were forbidden to hold more than 40 radio stations, total – by 2003, only eight years later, one company owned over 1200 stations, including having outright monopolies in many markets where they own and program every station on the dial. Where once FM radio was a unique place to discover new, unusual, and local music, today 80% of playlists match.

And – even though Payola is purportedly still a crime, these media empires enter into profit sharing agreements with the major record labels (who control 90%+ of the music you will ever hear). Folks, this is Payola writ large. Good luck if you’re actually indie.

The degree of consolidation has been breathtaking. I think this infographic sums it up best.

That the Telecommunications Act of 1996 increased efficiency in radio is undeniable. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 people have lost their jobs in radio broadcasting since the Act was passed – even as the total number of stations broadcasting in the USA has increased. This has happened because there is often absolutely no local “station” at your “local” station, but just a transmitter, broadcasting a program that sounds completely local, but which is programmed by Who Knows from an office in Who Knows Where. This has allowed for massive efficiencies of scale: it now takes approximately 0.5 people to run a “local” radio station.

As a small-L libertarian, the notion of efficiency has a certain nice ring to it, until you ask, “what, really, is the product, and how have we saved and benefitted as a society?” The answer to that question is complex, but in a nutshell, the product is simply advertising: advertising for products, sure, but also advertising for big-time-record-label music through these profit-sharing agreements, and – thanks to the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine – advertising for a specific political point of view. The notion of radio as a public good is long gone.

This was basically where my previous attempt to write a similar article about the music business broke down. Because once you, the small-L libertarian technologist-musician, understand that:

  1. Even though the Internet supposedly “changed everything” you still need good old radio to build local markets but
  2. You’re basically cut out of local radio altogether
  3. By the major record labels we said we “disrupted”

you want to just give up and make that nice big Drano cocktail. It’s hopeless.

I remember some of the discussion when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed. As a technologist caught up in the pre-bubble phase of Major Internet Hype, it was “clear” that the future of radio was dead. “Soon” we would be streaming an infinite number of stations digitally. The use of AM and FM waves would “soon” be a dinosaur. With digital, an infinite number of “channels” would be possible, so the idea that radio was a limited “public good” in need of strong mandated decentralization seemed instantly obsolete. So the idea that we should deregulate radio and allow it to blend with media companies had a certain air of logic to it, since radio itself was going away to be replaced by the Internet. And after all, “less regulation equals more competition,” right?

This all might, in fact, happen one day. But satellite radio and streaming have not displaced terrestrial AM and FM radio. Most people still listen to radio in their car – and 25 years in, the Internet still really hasn’t penetrated the vehicle to eliminate broadcast radio. It is displacing it, somewhat – but the number of radio stations in the USA since the 1996 Act was passed has not shrunk – it’s grown. And, since the Act allows conglomerates to own and operate virtually without limit, they’re chewing up space on you satellite dial, too – and have excellent control over the Spotify playlist you’re probably listening to.

And, I’ll add, in much of what we call “flyover country,” far removed from urban culture, AM radio is still the only thing you can reliably find on the dial due to its superior reach.

In the early 1970s, Lowry Mays and Red McCombs formed Clear Channel Communications when they began to acquire failing radio stations and return them to profitability, typically by changing their formats to less operationally-expensive formats like religious programming or talk radio. By the mid-1990s Clear Channel owned 40 radio stations and over a dozen TV stations.

Conversion to religious and talk-only formats was not profitable because they were products with greater demand – they were profitable because they were products with lower cost. As researcher Jackson R. Witherill writes:

Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj of Tufts University interviewed a number of radio executives in 2011 and they found common ground on the sentiment that “the surge in talk radio programming was supply driven, not demand driven” (Berry and Sobieraj 2011). This means that as individual stations within national corporations became unprofitable, switching to talk radio programming was an attempt to stay in business through producing inexpensive and nationally broadcast programs.

The rise in the number of talk radio stations has meant that syndicated programs, which have become increasingly common, have gained a higher level of exposure through the creation of more stations airing the same material in new locations. This increased exposure results in higher ratings for the show.

(emphasis mine)

In short, the conversion of radio to talk formats was less about listeners demanding that material, and more about the low costs of production and economy of scale of delivery. In short, they’re saying what we musicians have known for a long time: generally speaking, people like whatever they’re fed by the radio. Therefore the curator – or program director – or talk show host – has a powerful shaping role.

Enter the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed the restrictions on station ownership, and suddenly Clear Channel’s acquisition + talk-format conversion strategy can be done at scale. Along with other hungry conglomerates, Clear Channel started gobbling up independent radio stations en masse. In three years the company had grown 10X – to over 400 stations. In five more years, Clear Channel would triple its radio reach again, growing to over 1200 stations – as well as 41 television stations and over 750,000 outdoor advertising displays. Clear Channel is now known as iHeartMedia, which is still the nation’s largest holder of radio stations and, through it’s subsidiary (Premiere Networks) is the largest producer of syndicated talk radio.

Suddenly, giant radio conglomerates like Clear Channel / iHeartMedia were able to push syndicated talk radio formats completely across the country, coast-to-coast. Gone were the local DJs and commentators, in were the preprogrammed music stations and religious and celebrity radio talk show hosts. Premiere even created “Premiere on Call” – a service that offers fake callers to call in shows that fit the story or agenda of the show.

As a by-product of this change to religious and talk radio, this period in history saw the rise of a new kind of syndicated radio personality: the shock jock. As Wikipedia defines it, there are two overlapping species of shock jock:

  1. The radio announcer who deliberately does something outrageous and shocking (to improve ratings).
  2. The political radio announcer who has an emotional outburst in response to a controversial government policy decision.

And who are Premiere’s (iHeartMedia’s) top earning syndicated talk show hosts?

  1. The Rush Limbaugh Show
  2. The Sean Hannity Show
  3. The Glenn Beck Program

Premiere’s top competitor is Westwood One. Who are Westwood One’s top syndicated hosts?

  1. The Mark Levin Show
  2. The Savage Nation

These top 5 syndicated talk shows represent the lion’s share of syndicated commercial talk radio. Of the five, only Limbaugh had a significant following prior to the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The other four are creations of the post-1996 radio consolidation phenomenon.

These sort of political talk shows would have been very difficult if not impossible to justify under the Fairness Doctrine that existed from the late 1940s until 1987. However, it’s important to note that it was not the removal of the Fairness Doctrine that led to the overnight explosion of right-wing shock commentators. The reason for the explosion is clear: these shows are products of vertical integration and economies of scale enabled by the 1996 Telecom Act. The typical pre-1996 local radio station in Average, USA would never be able to afford even one hour of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, but a giant conglomerate can actually save money by owning both the program and the distribution network and subsequently firing all the local employees of “Average 1310AM.”

And that is exactly what happened, in thousands of stations and communities all around the USA.

In a matter of a few years, this trend pushed high-volume shock-jock national-level syndicated radio right down into Average, USA. Gone were the local farming programs, the state politics talk shows, and Redbeard playing my demo. In came the right-wing talk radio movement, and the rest is history.

And that, my friends, is the direct line from the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to President Donald Trump.

Epilogue

This article would be remiss without its own version of the Fairness Doctrine. Because I think there’s another radio phenomenon that must be mentioned, and that is National Public Radio.

I’ll state here that NPR is overall a left-leaning organization, and has (had) a number of left / center-left talk shows such as Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, The Takeaway, and Latino USA. However, only Fresh Air makes it onto the Top 20 syndicated talk show list.

NPR’s most successful programs are news programs: All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace. These shows are also left /center left in focus, but as a rule do not offer editorial commentary.

In fact, only two progressive talk radio programs makes it to the Top 20 – Fresh Air (NPR), and the Thom Hartmann Program broadcast from the (commercial) Westwood One radio network.

As a result, the counterbalance of progressive, left-wing talk radio is dominated by an 800-lb gorilla called NPR, which crowds out other stations with its high-quality, listener-supported, and at least partially federally-subsidized broadcasting.

Now, while Terry Gross and Diane Rehm are surely left-of-center, there can be no comparison between the political slant of these sober NPR commentators and Michael Savage screaming “liberalism is a mental disorder” at the top of his lungs. There are no hyperpolarizing “shock jocks” on NPR stoking anger among their listeners with outbursts of rage. Nobody on NPR is “connecting the dots” Glenn Beck style to hypothesize various absurd yet certainly entertaining conspiracy theories. You will never hear an NPR personality refer to the Republican Party as a “terrorist network operating within our own borders.” And its most popular programs by far are the news shows – again, with next to zero commentary, and less-than-zero raving and pulling of hair.

So consider the polarizing effect of the top 5 syndicated radio programs:

  1. All Things Considered (NPR) – news
  2. Rush Limbaugh (Premiere) – conservative talk
  3. Morning Edition (NPR) – news
  4. Sean Hannity (Premiere) – conservative talk
  5. Marketplace (APM) – news

So NPR pulls the left towards the center, while commercial right-wing talk radio pulls the right to the right. Meanwhile, NPR’s large budget and high-quality commercial-free program sucks much of the air out of the room for any potential left-wing audience to support a more vitriolic, aggressive left-wing talk format (as though that would somehow help the country find balance).

More Reading:

Understanding the Rise of Talk Radio, Cambridge Core

The year that changed radio forever: 1996, Medialife Magazine

Why All The Talk-Radio Stars Are Conservative, Fortune

War of the Words: Political Talk Radio, the Fairness Doctrine, and Political Polarization in America, University of Maine

Dr. Chromelove (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Goog)

In Which We Pit the Lowly Chromebook Versus the Exalted Macbook Air

Let me get something out of the way: I am a straight-up Macintosh fanboi. After owning a couple of Macs in the early 1990s, I switched to PCs around 1997, largely because my software-development-centric job compelled me to live in a pro-PC world.

Then, around five years ago, I fatigued of maintaining Windows and the generally crappy hardware that runs it, and switched back to Mac. I bought a beast of a notebook: a 15″ MBP quad-core i7 with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. I wanted something strong enough to run Pro Tools natively, and to virtualize Windows and Linux machines without a stutter. And, five years later, that Macbook Pro is still a very current machine. It was expensive, but it was worth every penny, especially when amortized over five years.

The only trouble is: it’s big and heavy. As a machine to travel to and from the office, it’s fine, but these days I find myself increasingly traipsing all over the world, usually with everything I can carry in one backpack. Space and weight have become a premium, and I have a bad back to boot.

So I wanted to find a machine that would solve every computing need I have while I’m out on the road – basically, everything I use my Mac for except Pro Tools:

  • Must be small enough to fit in a day-bag and light as possible, definitely < 4 lbs
  • Must handle all my basic productivity & social needs (mail, docs, spreadsheets, twitter, dropbox, etc.)
  • Must be capable of running a development LAMP stack and typical development apps like git, ssh, etc.
  • Must be capable of light-duty audio editing (just editing, not a multitrack studio)
  • Must have good battery life (all-day unplugged usage)
  • Must have a good screen and keyboard
  • Must be inexpensive in case it’s lost, stolen, or damaged while travelling
  • Strong cloud support a big plus (see above)
  • Easy connectivity to phone a big plus

I admit that I came very close to knee-jerking and purchasing a Macbook Air.  The MBA would definitely meet all these needs but one: it’s awfully expensive to be a “beater” notebook.  After pricing them out and deciding that a new MBA would definitely not fit in my budget, I considered buying a used MBA.  But even a used MBA in decent shape and well-appointed costs around $600, which I still felt was more than I really wanted to spend.

Then I decided I should do some research on Chromebooks.  Like most people, I had fallen victim to the “Chromebooks are useless unless you’re always on the Internet” trope.  I think this might have been true at one time, but after doing some reading, I learned that the ChromeOS world had advanced considerably since I last learned about it.  In particular I learned that Google has made great strides in developing “disconnected” versions of its key apps – specifically docs and spreadsheets, the key things that one wants to edit while disconnected.

The other thing that really piqued my interest (yes, it’s piqued, not peaked) was the stunning realization that someone had figured out how to install Ubuntu on a Chromebook.  And folks, this isn’t Ubuntu running in a virtual machine, but Ubuntu running on bare metal – simultaneously side-by-side along with ChromeOS.  I was skeptical but intrigued: with Ubuntu as a fall-back, I could rest assured that anything that ChromeOS couldn’t handle, Ubuntu could.

“But Chromebooks are basically cheap pieces of crap,” was my next intuition.  Compared with Apple hardware, it’s true that most devices pale in comparison.  There’s no question that generally speaking, Apple makes the best hardware going, bar none.  But I don’t need perfect, I need good-enough and inexpensive.  And after a bit of research, I discovered an excellent machine for my needs, at least on paper: the Toshiba 13″ Chromebook 2 FHD.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 13" FHD

Toshiba Chromebook 2 13″ FHD

After living with this machine for a little over a week, I think I’m ready to start drawing some comparisons versus the 13″ Macbook Air.  Here’s how the two stack up.

Price

Let’s get the 800-lb gorilla out of the room.  No question who wins the first round.  At $330, the 13″ Toshiba is roughly 1/4 the price of a new 13″ MBA and 1/2 the price of a used MBA.  For the price of one new Macbook Air, you can buy a Chromebook for every member of the family.  ‘Nuff said.

Winner: Chromebook, by a country mile

Storage

The MBA comes with 128 GB of storage (256 GB is also available, but costs more) while the Chromebook comes with only 32 GB of local storage.  This is offset considerably by the fact that Google gave me 1TB of free Drive storage (100 GB is standard, but I already had that – your mileage may vary) and by adding a 128GB SDHC card as extra storage ($65 on Amazon) to bring total storage up to 160 GB.  Another mitigating factor is that ChromeOS minimizes use of local storage, while MacOS depends on it for everything, so ChromeOS presents a smaller footprint than MacOS in real-world use.

In the end I believe a 128GB Mac is no less limiting than a 32GB Chromebook for the applications I intend to use and it’s easy enough to bump up the Chromebook to 128GB if you need it.

Winner: tie

Keyboard & Touchpad

Here Apple is the clear winner, with a perfect-feeling backlit keyboard and a wonderful-to-use touchpad.  The Toshiba’s keyboard is perfectly usable and unproblematic but lacks the elegant feel of the MBA and is not backlit.   The touchpad is usable and sufficient but smaller and more plastic-feeling than the MBA.  It’s not a bad experience at all, but it’s hard to beat the best, and I think Apple offers the best keyboard / trackpad available.

Winner: MBA

Display

I hope you’re sitting comfortably, because the Toshiba’s display is absolutely spectacular.  How Toshiba managed to deliver a 13″ full-HD (1920×1080) display in a $330 machine is baffling, but they did, and it’s lovely.  Viewing angles are very good, colors are not perfect but whites are white, blacks are deep black, colors are bright and nicely saturated, and the resolution is astonishingly crisp.  The screen does not attract fingerprints and doesn’t have any coatings that cause pixellation or moire effects, though glare can be a problem if you’re backlit.

Winner: Chromebook

Sound

The Macbook Air has arguably the best speakers in an ultraportable notebook, so the competition is awfully stiff.  However Toshiba has partnered with Skullcandy to deliver a similar listening experience.  I still prefer the MBA because it’s a littler warmer, but I have to say that the audio from the Toshiba is very, very good for an ultraportable.

Winner: MBA, but just barely

Size and Weight

The Macbook looks smaller, but it isn’t – it’s just a design illusion.  In actuality the two machines are close enough in size and weight to be considered identical.  The MBA is a few hundredths of an inch wider and longer, the Toshiba is .06″ thicker.  The Toshiba weighs .01 lb less.

Winner: tie

Battery

The Macbook Air delivers better than 10 hours of real-world use, while the Toshiba falls short at roughly 8 hours.  8 hours meets my needs for “all-day unplugged use” but the winner is clearly Apple.

Winner: MBA

Inputs & Outputs

The two machines are very comparable.  Both offer 2 USB ports, audio out, power in, an SDHC slot, and a video output port.  In the case of Apple, the video is a potent Thunderbolt output, while the Toshiba offers a more basic – but more standard – HDMI output.  Unless you already use a Thunderbolt monitor, this means you’ll have to use a dongle adapter on the Macbook.  Both machines offer an HD webcam.  Both offer stereo mics, but the Toshiba’s are placed intelligently on the top of the display border (where the stereo image will actually correlate to the webcam), while Apple placed the mics in a poor location both on the left side of the machine.  Toshiba’s power supply is smaller, has a longer power cord, and is cheaper to replace; but the Mac offers the MagSafe connector.

Winner: tie

Horsepower

The Mac easily trounces the Chromebook in terms of sheer processing power.  However the only instance I have discovered where the Chromebook’s processing power is insufficient is multitasking while streaming HD video – which if you think about it, isn’t much of a shortcoming, as most people will pause the video when they leave it to perform other tasks.  It’s safe to say that if video editing ever becomes possible on a Chromebook, it will pale in comparison to the Macbook Air.  But for all other day to day tasks the Chromebook is more than sufficient for my usage.

Winner: MBA

Apps

Here, the Macbook trounces the Chromebook in terms of choice – at least on paper.  The Mac ecosystem offers a wide variety of apps to choose from, while the ChromeOS ecosystem is still a work in progress and definitely lacking in the multimedia department.

However, for my day-to-day use, I’m quickly realizing that I am missing very, very little.  I already live in the Google ecosystem (Chrome browser, Gmail, Drive, Docs, etc) which function as good or better on ChromeOS.  The key thing I lack is a top-notch image editor, but Google has promised to deliver a ChromeOS version of Photoshop in the near future, and in the meantime there’s Pixlr.  For text editing and software development, there’s Caret, an outstanding replacement for SublimeText on Mac. For light-duty music editing, I have to switch to Ubuntu (more on that later) but this gives me access to Audacity, which is a very full-featured editor.  I have yet to find a good video editor for Chromebook or Ubuntu, but this wasn’t part of my original requirements.

In short it’s pretty amazing to me that the ChromeOS ecosystem can even begin to compete with the Mac ecosystem with all of its advantages, particularly its 20+ year headstart.

Winner: MBA

LAMP-based Development

On the Mac, I use MAMP Pro as a turnkey LAMP server for web development.  It’s pretty hard to beat turnkey, and MAMP Pro is really easy to use and set up.  There does not currently exist a MAMP-like turnkey server solution for ChromeOS.

However, I was very surprised to discover how well Ubuntu runs alongside the ChromeOS.  It isn’t turnkey – you’re going to have to get your hands dirty – but the process is deceptively simple: you enable “developer mode” on your Chromebook, you install a script called crouton, you execute a few shell commands, and voila! Ubuntu is running right alongside ChromeOS – you literally switch back and forth between the two OSes by hitting CTRL-ALT-BACKARROW and CTRL-ALT-FORWARDARROW.  It’s super-slick, and opens up your Chromebook to the entire world of Linux.  I encountered zero issues with the process – no driver issues, no battery issues, nothing – though as usual I had to noodle around with Apache settings to get the environment working to my satisfaction.

While it’s true that turnkey beats DIY, if you’re a developer, you’re already accustomed to getting your hands dirty, and you’ll find nothing onerous about the process of installing Ubuntu alongside ChromeOS.  It’s weirdly easy and took me roughly 45 minutes, soup-to-nuts, which included the 20 minutes to download and install Ubuntu.

The cool part (for me) is that once you have a local development server set up and running, you can resume your development workflow entirely in ChromeOS, and forget completely that there is a Ubuntu server running alongside.  You can edit files on the local filesystem directly using the Caret editor.  SSH is provided inside ChromeOS using an extension called SecureShell so it’s quite easy to work with remote servers right inside the Chrome browser.  It all works a lot better than I would have ever guessed.

Winner: MBA + MAMP Pro

Backup / Restore

The idea behind an ultraportable is that if you lose or break it, it should be of minimal impact.  Here the Chromebook kicks serious ass.  Unlike the Mac, which relies on “old-school” backup & restore solutions like Time Machine, the Chromebook is literally a “throw it away and buy another” type machine.  All of your data is already backed up on Drive.  And all of your apps live as Chrome extensions.  So if you get a new Chromebook, you log in to your Google account for the first time, and magically, your device restores to exactly how your old device looked, without installing a single application.  Technically you can restore a MBA with a Time Machine backup, but seriously, it’s an entirely different and more perilous process.

Winner: Chromebook

Etc.

Apple has a good track record of keeping OS updates to a minimum, but this is starting to change as Apple keeps pushing Mac more and more into an iOS-like App Store model.  Increasingly there are more and more updates and downloads that require restarts, etc.  ChromeOS, by contrast, is more or less always up-to-date.  I really like how minimal the OS footprint is on the Chromebook and think that this bodes well for the device’s long-term usability.  I really admire how painless the install and update process is for apps.

The Mac is a metal-body machine, and while the metal can dent or bend, it’s undeniably more premium grade than the almost-identical-looking plastic used in the Toshiba.  Apple manages to brand its computers with an actually-cool illuminated logo, while the lid of the Toshiba sports ugly “Toshiba” and “Chromebook” branding.  Like all non-Apple computers, the Toshiba ships with a plethora of stupid, ugly stickers that have to be removed.

If you have an Android phone or a Chromecast dongle, you’ll love the seamless integration with ChromeOS.  Likewise, Apple offers similar integration with an iPhone and Apple TV, but those devices can cost considerably more than their Android counterparts.

Summary

Let’s face it: a $330 ChromeOS portable shouldn’t be able to beat a $1200 Macbook Air.  It’s a terribly unfair comparison.  The Mac has a superior processor, more storage, more memory, a better keyboard and trackpad, and of course a “full” OS and the 30-year-old Mac app ecosystem.  It’s like a bantamweight getting in the ring with Tyson.  Not a fair fight at all.

What’s surprising is just how well the Chromebook actually stands up in real-world use.  The display is better, the size and weight are identical, and for typical day-to-day chores, the Chromebook is just as usable as a Macbook Air.  Battery life isn’t quite as good but is still very good.  It meets my needs for a development machine just as well as a Macbook Air.  Software updates are easier.  There is essentially no need for backups, as all the data is backed up to Drive automagically, and the OS is practically disposable.  The only place I care about where I think the Chromebook falls short is multimedia editing.

So the verdict: if, like me, you’re a power user, you will probably not be happy with only a Chromebook as your sole device.  There are still areas like multimedia where the low-power processor and / or lack of robust applications will prevent you from ditching that Mac or PC.

But if you’re a “consumer grade” user who doesn’t edit music or video, or if you’re a power user who needs a cheap, lightweight, travel-ready portable, then you owe it to yourself to take a good hard look at Chromebook.  Especially if you’re already using the Google application suite.

Quick Review: Logitech Tablet Keyboard for Android

As I mentioned in my last post, perhaps the secret to phone blogging is to carry a keyboard.

Today I’m writing this blog post using my Logitech Tablet Keyboard for Android and the WordPress Android app, and it’s definitely a completely different experience.

The keyboard itself is about as small as it can be and still be considered “ergonomic.”  The keys and spacing are almost exactly the same proportions as my Macbook keyboard, and though the keypress travel is a little shallower, the overall typing experience is very good.

The keyboard travels in a case that doubles as a stand for your phone / tablet.  This makes it very easy to convert your device into something with a form factor very similar to a computer.

I have never gotten used to touching a screen instead of moving a mouse / trackball / touchpad, and I wonder if I ever will.  I find the experience of taking my hand from the keyboard and lifting it to the screen disruptive to data-entry (as well as leaving the inevitable fingerprints)  – but it works.

The keyboard works very well with the Android app.  I haven’t taken the time to learn the various shortcuts available with the keyboard, but the usual hotkeys like CTRL-C work as expected.

Of course, carrying a keyboard is not much better than just carrying another device, like a Macbook Air or Chromebook.  The keyboard is only a little smaller and lighter than a small computer.  One advantage comes to mind though: with the phone + keyboard solution, I always have the option of jotting down a quick blog post just using the phone sans keyboard, or jotting down some ideas in the app and fleshing the post out later with the keyboard.

Of course you can achieve a similar result using a phone + computer but this option saves a step.  And of course it’s easier to post photos taken on the phone directly from the phone itself, instead of having to transfer the content first to the computer.

Maybe the smartphone didn’t kill the blog after all.

Did the Smartphone Kill the Blog?

Used to be, I consumed all of my internet content on my computer. Any time I wanted to read an article, check my friends’ statuses, send an email, check the weather… it always meant a trip to the computer.

In that world, blogging came naturally. Here I was already at the computer, with its spacious and ergonomic keyboard inviting me to type my thoughts. It was almost irresistible.

I created a lot of content back in those days. I created the original prorec.com, participated in a group blog with my friends on cuzwesaidso.com, started and killed a humor site called skeptician.com, and of course blogged here on my personal blog.

But these days I no longer head to the computer when I want to interact with the internet. Now I reach for my phone.

The phone is a lovely way to consume internet content. It’s always with me. It’s 4G wireless. The form factor is convenient. I read novels on my phone.

But as a data entry device, it’s horrible. The keyboard is no match that of my Macbook and the screen is just too small for editing hundreds or thousands of words. And no phone app can compete with the page-layout power of a real computer.

And so I rarely blog anymore. It’s become inconvenient. When I want to say something I’m likely to jot down an email to my buddies (email being a forgiving text medium that does not mandate perfect grammar and page layout, where incomplete sentences and clumsy writing aren’t a showstopper). Or I’ll tweet or post a photo.

But blogging? This is my first blog post in years. I suspect it could well be my last. I’m actually writing this entry on my phone. And, I gotta tell you, it’s a royal pain in the ass, even though the WordPress app is mature and powerful and I’m hard-pressed to see how it could be improved.

Perhaps a Bluetooth keyboard could work. But then I’m practically carrying a computer again.

Time will tell if the phone has killed the blog. But from where I sit, things are looking gloomy in the blogosphere.

The Problem with EC2 Micro Instances

If you keep up with my blog you know that I really dig the EC2 micro instance running the Bitnami WordPress stack.  I’ve written about it before.  I’ve been hosting a few low-utilization web sites on mine for over a year now and generally speaking, it’s a great concept.

The problem is the occasional lockups.  Maybe once a month or so, the site dies, and the only information I can find that helps me to troubleshoot is that there has been prolonged periods of high CPU utilization whenever the crash occurs.

Well it turns out this is a problem with the Amazon micro instance.  On a micro instance, Amazon allows CPU bursting of up to 2 cores – but if CPU utilization stays high, it gets severely throttled.  And when that happens, sometimes, it crashes the server.

Today I decided to move up from a micro instance to a small instance.  I’m using the same disk image, so I’m running the same virtual machine.  But where the micro instance has up to 2 cores (with throttling) the small instance just has one core.

How much difference did the change make?  Turns out, a big difference.  Micro instance throttling is far more debilitating than I ever would have guessed.

Here’s typical CPU utilization for my server running as a “micro” instance:

As you can see, there is a bump every half hour as a cron job cranks up – and sometimes the CPU is maxed out for several minutes.  That almost certainly results in the web site becoming unavailable or at least very sluggish.

Here is the exact same virtual machine running as a “small” instance:

Wow – that’s an incredible difference: almost 10X the performance!

So while the micro instance is a great way to “get started” with EC2, the “small” instance provides far greater value – at 4X the price, it offers roughly 10X the performance.

Bring Social to the Blog, or Bring the Blog to Social?

I create content: I write, I shoot photos, and I create music. I also make the occasional video.

I want an online location where I can keep up with all my content, and my interaction with others.

My website – a WordPress blog I self-host – the one you’re reading now –  is the only place that truly gives me the control I want over my content. With my blog, I can

  • Create text posts with any length or formatting I like
  • Upload photos at any resolution with my choice of viewers
  • Upload music for download or insert Soundcloud or Bandcamp widgets
  • Interact with my guests using comments or Disqus
  • Integrate 3rd party content from other sites that offer feeds
  • Maintain 100% creative control over the look, feel, format, and style

The problem is – and it’s a biggie – is that the now-dinosaur-like “blog” format is completely isolated from social media. If I post something here on the blog, a few dozen people will see it. Nobody really reads my blog. But if I post something there, on Google+, a few hundred or even a thousand people might see it. It might even go viral, and millions of people might see it. On my blog, there is a next-to-zero chance that any content will go viral.

Of course, I can do what Guy Kawasaki does: publish on my blog, and link back to my blog from social media. But by failing to bring the content actually into the social media stream, I’m losing a lot of potential readers.

Or I can do what guys like Robert Scoble do: post everything everywhere. Scoble is ubiquitous. I don’t know how he can keep up with it all. In the memorable words of Mick Jagger, “I just don’t have that much jam.”

Alternatively, I can migrate to the available social tools instead. I can post my text diatribes over on Google+, but I have no control over the formatting and the layout is terrible for anything longer than a few paragraphs. I can also post my photos there and that works, mmm, OK, at best. I can’t post music, but I can share videos (a terrible situation) if I upload them to YouTube first. I can interact, which is probably the best feature. But I have zero creative control over the look and feel of my content. And I can’t integrate with 3rd party tools like Instagram, Twitter, Tripadvisor, or Hipster where I also create content.

So I end up with most of my most important content – my long blog posts and my music – hosted outside Google+.

What I really want – what someone needs to figure out – is how to have my cake and eat it too. Allow me to have my content on my blog – give me full creative control over it – but also allow me to interact on my blog through social media.

Alternatively, allow me to do everything I can do with my blog on a social media platform: customize it, post anything on it, and integrate anything into it.

The closest thing out there, actually, is Tumblr. Tumblr offers a social platform that is rich in content and customization and strong in supporting “viral multimedia.” The two problems Tumblr has are:

  1. Almost zero support for interaction – the only real interaction on Tumblr is sharing others’ posts, and
  2. Almost zero support for long text, since 99% of the content on Tumblr is visual. It just doesn’t work well for long posts, like this one.

Let’s figure this problem out together! I know I’m not alone. What are you doing to combat this problem?

Backing Up a Bitnami WordPress Stack on an AWS Micro Instance

If you follow me, you know that I am quite enamored with Amazon’s EC2.  Scalable, reliable, powerful, and cheap – it’s a revolution in computing.

The smallest and least expensive EC2 instance is the Micro instance.  It’s perfect for a light-duty web server: it has low memory and CPU capability but is capable of bursting to two processors, giving it responsiveness when you need it.  And Bitnami has the perfect partner for your Micro instance: a WordPress stack customized to live in the cramped space of the Micro instance.

What you get in the package is nice: a complete LAMP stack running on a simplified Ubuntu 10.04 server with WordPress preconfigured and ready to go.  Bitnami conveniently puts the entire stack in a single directory – you can zip that directory and drop it on another server and with very little effort you’re up and running again.

There’s plenty of info on the Bitnami site, so if you’re interested in setting it up, head over and check it out.

Where I was left a bit in the dark was… backups.

My first instinct was to use an S3 rsync tool to sync the Bitnami stack to S3.  There’s S3rsync, but that costs money, and I’m seriously committed to spending the smallest amount of money possible on my web server.  So I passed and instead settled on using S3cmd instead.

Using S3cmd, I was able to write a simple script that performs the following:

  1. It stops the Bitnami stack temporarily (this is acceptable in my application)
  2. It ZIPs the contents of the Bitnami folder to a ZIP file that uses the date as the filename (2011-07-11.zip)
  3. It copies the ZIP file to an S3 bucket
  4. It restarts the server

As a once-a-week backup it worked pretty well.  Backups were a little large, because they contained a full snapshot of the entire stack, but S3 storage is cheap, and it’s nice to have your entire stack in a single backup file.

However, occasionally, the ZIP process would crash the little Micro instance (HT to +Ben Tremblay for first noticing during a heated debate on his Google Plus page).  So I started looking for another solution, and realized there is a much more elegant and powerful option: automated EC2 snapshots.

Turns out there are a number of different ways to skin this cat.  I chose Eric Hammond’s ec2-consistent-snapshot script.  Turns out this was a good choice.

Since the Bitnami Ubuntu 10.04 server was a bare-bones install, a number of prerequisites were missing, notably PERL libraries (DBI and DBD) etc.  Fortunately all of the answers were already available in the comments section of Eric’s web page.  For me, all I needed to do was:

sudo apt-get install make
sudo PERL_MM_USE_DEFAULT=1 cpan Net::Amazon::EC2
sudo apt-get install libc6-dev
cpan -i DBI
cpan -i DBD::mysql

The first time I tried it, it worked.  One line of code – in about 0.8 seconds I had taken a snapshot of my disk.  In no time at all I had installed a CRON job to automatically snapshot my server.

EBS snapshots are always incremental (only the changes since the last snapshot are written to disk) and restore in a flash.  I’ve done a restore and it takes just a few seconds to reinstantiate a machine.  And the actual backup is absurdly gentle on the machine – the script runs in about a second.  Bang! Instant incremental backup.  It’s a miracle.

The script is designed to flush the database and freeze the file system so that the snapshot is performed in a “guaranteed consistent” state.  Unfortunately, to freeze the filesystem, you have to be running XFS, and the Bitnami machine uses While I agree that it is important to quiesce the database prior to snapshotting, I don’t know that it is required to flush the filesystem, since EBS volumes are supposedly “point in time consistent”.  Regardless, my web sites do so little writing to disk that it is inconceivable that my file system would be in an inconsistent state.

In short: *rave*.

Lessons in WordPress Conversions

Over the past few days I’ve been performing a pretty significant WordPress migration for a set of sites that I have been hosting.

The source is a set of individual WordPress sites running on an small Amazon EC2 Windows instance.  I migrated them to a multi-site installation running on a micro EC2 Linux instance.

Over the course of the conversion I learned a variety of lessons.

First, I learned that the WordPress multi-site (“network blog”) feature is still fairly half-baked.  You have to be prepared to get your hands pretty dirty if you want to make it work.

I also learned to really appreciate the Bitnami WordPress Stack AMI.  It allows you to spin up a fully-configured, ready to use Ubuntu LAMP / WP stack onto an EC2 micro instance with a minimum of fretting.

I will update this post with some details of the process for those interested.  In the meantime – success is mine!

iPad vs. Android vs. Windows 8 – Further Thoughts

Several people made some good points in regard to my article on iPad vs. Windows 8.

The most salient one, and the one I keep hearing, is the comparison to iPod.  It goes like this:

Yes, Apple only garnered a minority market share with the Macintosh and the iPhone.  But with the iPod, Apple was able to create and hold a substantial majority market share by establishing such a strong brand identity that “iPod” became synonymous with “portable MP3 player.”  Now, the iPad seems to be holding a majority market share as well by making itself synonymous with “tablet.” Therefore we should compare its trajectory to the iPod, not the iPhone or Macintosh.

The other salient argument goes like this:

Apple has a lock on the “high end” tablet market.  The iPad is better conceived, designed, and constructed than its Android or Windows counterparts.  Users really aren’t that interested in a marginally lower priced machine that offers lower design / build quality, and its hard to see how other manufacturers can “out-quality” the iPad, or if users really want a “better quality” tablet than the iPad.

I like argument #2 best.

The problem with argument #1 is that it ignores the market dynamics.  Macintoshes, iPhones, and iPads all have one thing in common: they are pieces of hardware running an operating system.  OK, technically, this is also true of the iPod, but only technically so. The OS of the iPod is more like an embedded firmware.

Apple’s minority market position with the iPhone and Macintosh stems from the fact that the OS and hardware are coupled.  Apple competes not just with Microsoft (for the OS), but with a gazillion other PC manufacturers (for the hardware).  It does this with phones as well, competing not just against Android but against every phone maker that produces an Android device.  So Apple can sell more PCs than any one PC maker, and more phones than any one Android manufacturer, but against the market as a whole it remains a minority player, albeit a large, powerful one.

Well, tablets are no different from phones and PCs: they are a piece of hardware running an OS, and it is a matter of time before tablet makers are able to closely copy the hardware designs of the iPad and the software advantages of iOS and release an Android tablet that competes well.  Will people buy it?  Yes.  Android has a majority market share in phones and a compelling tablet offering will appeal to that majority.

Windows is more of a wild card here.  In my previous post, I pointed to the fact that corporate IT departments will be much more likely to adopt a Windows 8 tablet than an iOS or Android tablet since it is an OS which they already support and understand.  I still think this is true.

Many people countered with the argument that with HTML5, it is irrelevant which device you support.  I agree but remain skeptical whether corporate IT departments will develop mission-critical wireless HTML5 applications. Corporate IT is happy with hard-wired web apps, but when it comes to running a mission-critical app over 3G or 4G networks, I think that is a far more risky proposition.

If I was asked to develop a mission critical application that ran wirelessly over a 3G or 4G network, I would almost certainly develop a “fat app” that replicated its data with the mother ship and which could run at 100% during network unavailability.  And, as a corporate IT developer, I would lean heavily on Windows as the platform of choice for developing that application, especially since the odds are very strong that the company already has a sizeable investment in technologies like .NET and MS SQL server.

If (and this is a very big “if”) Microsoft can deploy a compelling tablet version of Windows before the market has saturated, I think there is a good chance that they will capture significant corporate sales.  As we’ve seen in the past, inability to penetrate the corporate market was a serious impediment to Macintosh and, for a while, also the iPhone.  If Microsoft can execute, this is a strong opportunity for them to stay in the game.

Windows 8 vs. iPad: Advantage Microsoft?

There’s been a lot of buzz in the industry press recently about Windows 8, the new touch-centric Windows from Microsoft.

Much of the press has been understandably skeptical.  Apple definitely hit a home run with the iPad, building it on top of the iOS mobile touch interface.  Microsoft, instead, is building “up” from Windows by layering a new browser and application UI paradigm on top of existing Windows.  It’s easy to see where Microsoft might stumble, and hard to see how Windows 8 could possibly approach the seamless elegance of iOS.

And, the truth is, it probably won’t.

And, the truth is, it probably won’t matter.

Here’s why.

A History Lesson

The year is 1990.  I’m sitting at my workstation in Classroom 2000 on the University of Texas campus in front of two state of the art machines: a 386-powered IBM PS/2 running OS/2 and Windows 3.0 and a Motorola 68030-powered Mac IIci.

I’m teaching a class of IBM Systems Engineers (a glorified term for salespeople) who have come to learn about desktop computers. In this class we’re learning about PostScript, but really, the whole exercise is to throw Macintoshes in their face to scare the hell out of them.  And it works.  More than once, you hear an IBM employee mutter, “we can’t win.”

But they did.

In designing the Mac from the ground up as a windowed operating system, Apple has the clear technical advantage.  The machine is slick as hell: 32 bit architecture, peer-to-peer networking, 24 bit graphics, multitasking, and a beautiful, well-conceived UI.  Conversely, in PC-land, there’s Windows running on top of 16 bit DOS: a veritable Who’s Who of Blue Screens of Death and a nightmare of drivers and legacy text-based apps running around.

And yet, Apple failed to capitalize on their obvious competitive advantages, barely growing their market share over the next 10-15 years.

Why?  Because the largest purchasers of computers are corporations, and corporations purchased IBM / Microsoft as an extension of their current computing platform.  In part this was out of ignorance of what Macintosh could do, in part it was due to specific shortcomings of the Macintosh platform – but those aren’t the reasons corporations failed to embrace Macintosh. The real reason Macintosh never broke through the corporate barrier was because it never made sufficient sense to throw out all the legacy apps and start over again on a new hardware and software platform.

Office applications are not the engine of the productivity boom.  Word processors and spreadsheets don’t offer competitive advantage.  Factory automation, enterprise resource planning, sales force automation, customer and supplier portals – these are the expensive and risky custom-built applications that drive competitive advantage.  For that reason, you sometimes still see applications that remain GUI-less – you don’t screw with stuff that works – and oh by the way, throwing a nifty UI on an app like that can cost a fortune and offer negligible – even negative – payback.

So to synopsize our history lesson: Apple failed to sell to corporations because it never made good financial sense for those corporations to reinvent their line-of-business applications for a different platform.  Apple established itself as a great consumer brand and carved out niches in media production and desktop publishing – markets that were not tied to traditional corporate IT.  But because the corporate world used PCs, most individuals purchased PCs for the home, and Apple was unable to substantially grow its market share in spite of technical advantage and overall coolness.

Fast-Forward

We are now seeing the same history lesson repeat itself with the iOS-based iPad tablet going head-to-head against the next generation of Windows tablets.  In order to create the ultimate tablet experience, Apple has adopted iOS as the application platform for the iPad.  And while the iPad is a formidably slick and compelling machine, iOS is probably not the operating system of choice on which to develop mission critical corporate IT applications.

Enter Microsoft with Windows 8.  Will it be clunky?  Almost certainly.  Will it fray around the edges?  Yes.  Will there be jarring experiences where the user drops suddenly and unexpectedly into the old mouse-based paradigm?  Definitely.

But Microsoft can offer something that Apple can’t.  There are thousands, maybe millions of line-of-business applications deployed with technologies like C++, .NET, Access, and SQL Server.  Companies cannot and will not jettison them in order to rewrite for iOS.  But they will extend them to a Windows 8 tablet.

Microsoft’s decision to layer a touch interface on top of Windows is the only logical decision.  It’s the same decision they made in the late 1980s when they layered a GUI on top of DOS.  With Windows, Microsoft retained the established customer base while expanding their market reach by extending, rather than reinventing their operating system.  The business advantage outweighed the technical disadvantage. With Windows 8, they can do it again.

I think the decision is brilliant.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Now, we simply have to wait and see if Microsoft can deliver.  That may be a stretch.  Microsoft has a “hit-miss-miss” record with Windows.  With Windows, it was not until Windows 95 that Microsoft pulled within reach of Apple, and only Windows XP was solid enough to truly compete technically.  Microsoft cannot wait 10-15 years like it did with Windows to catch up.

I think that it’s fair to guess that Windows 8 will not be an iPad-killer, no matter how great it is.  Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an iPad-killer.  It just has to establish a baseline of functionality and provide a suitable application development platform. Corporations will develop impressive line-of-business applications for the touch interface – specifically field-worker automation applications – if the platform is robust.

If compelling touch-based business applications can be deployed on Windows 8, it will have done its job: it will have convinced corporations that Windows can meet their needs for a touch-tablet computer, and Apple will be stymied in their attempt to finally break the barrier keeping them out of corporate America.

PS: I am writing this on my brand new, and very sweet, MacBook Pro.