Archive for August, 2013

Lenovo Gets Tablet-PC Combo Nearly Right

August 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Ever since the luggable Osborne of the mid 1980s, an ideal, do-all portable computer has hovered just out of reach. Do-all was realized when 15-inch and larger notebook PCs came into the market. Ideal? Not so much if long battery life, low temperature and light weight figured into your calculus.

The astonishing blooming of device types and sizes in the mobility revolution reminds me of those intensely-lit electronic shop store windows on Broadway – stuffed to the ceiling with devices of every conceivable description.

As a Mac user for many years, I’ve been intrigued by the Macbook Air, the first of the full-powered notebook rendered ultra-light by great mechanical engineering, deletion of a DVD drive, and use of a solid state storage. But the price, high even by Apple standards, put me off and I still haven’t bought one.

Windows 8, with its touch screen capabilities has spawned yet another class of ultralight in which the screen, actually the computer, pops out to become a tablet with a software keyboard. I’ve been trying one out, the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix Detachable Ultrabook. It has a generous 11.5-inch (diagonal) touch screen, and it’s powered by a highly capable Intel Core i7 vPro processor. I found it attractive and solidly put-together, as I’ve come to expect from the ThinkPad series dating back forever. My model, without a mobile broadband chip, runs about $1,900 – a serious piece of change.

The computer is relatively lightweight at 3.8 pounds, compact at 11.5 inches wide and 8.5 inches deep. And thin at less than one inch. It’s small enough that it lets you eliminate the “second brief case”. It slides nicely into the rear zippered case of my L.L.Bean brief case. The charger, though, is clunky and because of the way the wall cord and computer cord are attached to it, the cords don’t wrap around it easily. Also, you must supply your own Velcro cable tie to keep it all together.

The Lenovo’s display is sharp and bright, but default fonts on web pages are simply too small to read easily, at least by these 58-year-old eyes. In fact, this Lenovo has a retro feature – namely a stylus that stores in a hole on the top of the unit. In operating routine functions in, say, Google Docs or at WordPress, the stylus is practically a necessity to invoke tiny icons. Be careful, though. The stylus is not tethered so it’s easy to lose.

But the negatives add up. The machine is less a tablet than reworking of a PC to include a software keyboard mated with a customized mechanical keyboard-dock. The keyboard is excellent, firm and responsive. But the design has unfortunate implications.

For one, most of the weight is in the tablet part, so Lenovo by necessity limits how far back it can tilt, lest it flop over on its back. A flimsy plastic limiter is mounted to the keyboard; the machine simply doesn’t open wide enough for some viewing situations. (The limiter piece is the only mechanically questionable part of this machine.) Worse, on more than one occasion when I released the machine from the dock to go to tablet mode, it crashed and I had to restart it.

Battery life is another matter. On a full charge, I found the Lenovo down to half power in about an hour. I’d give it a generous battery rating of three hours, not the claimed eight. That’s notebook territory, not tablet. When clapped shut but not powered down, the battery charge dissipated within a day. So this machine is like earlier generations of portables in that your first task on arriving in a conference room or airport terminal is to scan for an electrical outlet you can sit near.

Using the machine in charging mode made it uncomfortably hot on the back. Two tiny fans located on the dock couldn’t quite keep up.

I can’t comment on the software. From Lenovo the machine unfortunately went first to Federal News Radio’s IT department, where the guys rolled back the version of Windows from 8.1 to 8.0 in order to accommodate an ancient version of Adobe Audition we use. They also installed a virtual station desktop as one of the application tiles on the home screen, spoiling the full experience you’re supposed to get with Windows 8. Windows 8 has well-known of issues, but that’s not Lenovo’s doing.

Judging the machine, though, from what I do – writing – I found come anomalies. The big trackpad-button panel seemed to have a life of its own, sometimes barely responding, sometimes anchoring itself on a word and then highlighting whole paragraphs. Between the standard keyboard controls, the trackpad, the stylus and the touch screen, the user has a lot of ways to navigate and it takes some practice to find the right ones.

I’d judge the Lenovo UltraBook Helix Detachable Ultrabook a decent Version 1.0 for a Ultrabook-tablet combo. It’s sturdy, compact, fast and good-looking. The company needs to address battery life and the undocking-while-running issues.

B-5 (Ballmer) To Exit the PC Scene, And an Era

August 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Some colleagues and I used to call Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer B5 — Big, Bald, Blustering, Bombastic Ballmer. To me his retirement really signifies the close-out of the PC revolution and the departure of its Rock Stars. Some, like Eagle Computer founder Dennis Barnhart, died early and tragically, in his case in a car crash (Ferrari) on the way home from his company’s IPO. That was in 1983. IBM’s PC creator, Philip Estridge, died along with four other IBM executives in a 1985 plane crash.

Others faded early and went on to other things. Lotus Development founder Jim Manzi is now a board member and investor, having left Lotus in 1995 after its acquisition by IBM. John Sculley was another sort. He didn’t invent anything like a new spreadsheet, but controversially brought his marketing expertise from Pepsi to Apple in 1983, departing in 1993. Still others move on to new-era ventures. Scott McNealy, after leaving Sun Microsystems in 2010, is now chairman of Wayin, a company that combs Twitter for content valuable to marketers.

Even the trade shows have come and gone. The tech world at one time seesawed annually between PC Expo in New York and Comdex in Las Vegas.

To those of us who edited computer magazines in the go-go years, these and so many executives were remarkably available to the trade press. I met and interviewed Steve Ballmer a couple of times. The first time he teased me about having a Palm IIIc instead, of course, of a Windows CE device. A year later, he remembered. “Still have that crummy Palm pilot?” he asked.

You see a PC now, and it almost looks like an aging appliance, like a Sony Trinitron with dial tuners. The 4.7 MHz processor in the original IBM PC may seem laughable, but you need the perspective of having made a living on a manual typewriter and a dial telephone, as I did early in my career, to really grasp the profound way the PC changed everything.

Now we’re in the mobile revolution. Mobility is incomplete. Tablets are horrible at handling documents and spreadsheets — and make no mistake, written documents like Word and Excel files and their analogs still exist as essentials for people and organizations. Even the mobile version of WordPress is balky. One reason is touch-screen and mouse-enabled operating systems don’t play all that nicely together. Maybe that’s why Windows 8 is so bad.  Also wireless connectivity feels spotty and expensive. For these and many other reasons, the console approach to computing will be around a while.

Getting back to Ballmer, his announced retirement does evoke an end-of-era feeling. Microsoft as a wondrous growth phenom — hated, admired, feared — has faded. Now it’s another middle-aged packaged products company, rich in cash but struggling to find the next sustainable big thing. Remember when people waited all night and the ensuing frenzy to buy copies of Windows95? That ain’t happenin’ again. In fact, Microsoft shares rose on the initial announcement from Ballmer. Analyses of his tenure at the top of Microsoft are decidedly mixed.

Still, I’ll miss Ballmer and others like him for a simple reason. He’s human. The Google, Amazon, Apple, Samsung, Twitter crowd seems colorless, distant, or just plain odd.  When Amazon’s Jeff Bezos agreed to acquire the Washington Post, the NYTimes pointedly referenced how Amazon always has “no comment” on anything.  By contrast, McNealy once saw me at the Washington Convention Center on a platform where Federal News Radio was doing a live remote broadcast. He wanted to be on the radio, unscheduled, so he pestered our producer and came on the show, by golly. Imagine Bezos doing that.  Some of the others seem too concerned with Washington, as if innovation happens there. I’m sorry, it does not, not since the Manhattan Project. I don’t like business executives who pal around too much with politicians. Washington is essentially antithetical to business. Plus, I trust greed for wealth more than I trust lust for power or fame.

Ballmer was an unabashed salesman, as old videos like this attest. That founders crowd seemed more human, as in this video where Steve Jobs seems to shed a tear. Though investors and a good many insiders feel it’s past time for new leadership for Microsoft, don’t shed a tear for Ballmer. A Wall Street Journal blog notes, his very departure announcement made his stake in the company worth another billion dollars.

Categories: Uncategorized

A Personal Washington Post Reflection

August 8, 2013 1 comment

The Jeff Bezos acquisition of the Washington Post shows with both poignant and shocking clarity something. But I’m not sure what. The conventional wisdom — as the Post itself reported it — was somehow connected with wealth moving west to Silicon Valley and its offshoot regions. I’m not so sure. Plenty of Eastern wealth could have bought it. Michael Bloomberg comes to mind, except that he’s still mayor of New York. The Boston Globe, which was managed nearly to oblivion by the New York Times Company, was unloaded for a mere $70 million to Eastern money, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry.

I think what these transactions really show is that the financial value of newspapers has slipped so far that people who can afford to take a gamble are the only ones left to buy them. That is, they’ve become baubles. I’m not saying that’s good. I think it’s terrible, but that’s just the way it is.

The Internet is one well documented problem for newspapers. I think another is how far what they report and the way they report it has bored or turned off large numbers of people. Many newspapers, and nearly all editorial pages, have become governmentalists, with everything they judge and report on measured against a few sacred shibboleths that are frankly becoming more, and more obviously, tattered every day. That’s about all I’ll say on that.

A lot of the published analysis comments on how well the new Post owner, Jeff Bezos, will be at customizing content for people so they only get the news they want. That’s ordinarily posited as a good thing for building readership. I’m not so sure about that either. The large format, graphic setup of newspapers honed over the century and a half they’ve existed fosters a browsing mentality that lets people’s minds wander to new ideas. I make the analogy of the disappearing card catalogs in libraries and books arranged by gradually changing subject, rather than by size for efficient storage and retrieval. The new way makes it easy to find exactly what you want. But it precludes you from discovering what you didn’t know you wanted.

On the other hand, Bezos is an unconventional thinker and you can’t presume he’ll end print production of the Washington Post. Maybe the natural circulation floor is 250,000 copies a day, or 200,000 and not the 700,000 or 800,000 of years past. What you print and how you deliver it is a rich area for analysis. Maybe the self-styled no-print iconoclasts are dead wrong. I think they are. Plenty of specialized and highly visual fields such as sports, fashion and food support healthy print-and-web models. News on paper could have a good future if someone fresh can figure it out.

The best thing Bezos can do is make the property commercially successful — that’s the best way for it to stay an independent voice. He’ll have no shortage of advice from the usual journalism furies. Judging from what Bezos has done in life, I hope he listens to himself first.

In the sense of having four or five big sections every day and comprehensive coverage of everything from local restaurants to the big international stories, I borrow the phrase of former Post business editor Jill Dutt. “The blanket just doesn’t cover the bed.” People in Washington love politics, although people who describe themselves as “political junkies” aren’t, in my view, paying themselves much of a compliment, directly or ironically. I’ve learned way more over the years from sports columnist Tom Boswell than from the flunkies at so many publications who turn out political stories that, like Seinfeld, are ultimately about nothing.

People should know what a kind and ethical outfit the Washington Post Company is. I worked there, not at the newspaper itself, for 10 years. When it decided to sell the conglomeration of Government Computer News, Washington Technology, FOSE and a few other properties of which I was editor in chief, I found out. If you worked hard there and did a decent job, they took care of you. Don Graham has a great memory for names and faces, enabling him to make everyone in the company he encounters feel important. More important, the company has an ethical culture that started with how it handled the newsroom but informed everything the company did. So, yes, I am proud to have worked there.

When the company first bought the properties from the old line Cahners Publishing Company of Boston, I wasn’t sure the new company fully understood what it was getting into or why it wanted the properties. But management learned fast and for 10 years the Post Company was a good steward. For a few years, the night before FOSE opened the big exhibitors were treated to a private dinner at the home of Katherine Graham, no less, with after-dinner speeches by famous political reporters. Once when Don Graham showed up for the dinner in the house he’d grown up in, I commented to him that he was the only one who could walk in, open the refrigerator and drink milk directly from the carton. He gave me a funny look.

Eventually the same internet troubles hit the trade magazine business as surely as they hit the newspaper business. As the Post Company started to deal with its blooming problems with its flagship newspaper, the relatively small unit I worked for became too much of a distraction.

Now the Post Company will change its name, inasmuch as there is no more Post in its portfolio. The Washington area is losing local ownership of a newspaper a family has doted on for generations.

Categories: Journalism, Uncategorized