Back To Where They Came From

Back in the eighties and early nineties, we had home computers. These home computers were sleek all-in-one beasts, could be plugged into family TV set, and very importantly, were used for leisure. Not to play down the significance of the Apple Macintosh, it was actually the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga that stole the show in my generation. And why was this? Games.

Let's face it: the majority of Atari STs and Amigas were used almost entirely as games machines, with maybe a little bit of time spent in Deluxe Paint, Degas Elite and STOS. (To be fair, one of my my best friends wrote a DBMS while I played Lotus Elite Turbo Challenge, but I suspect he was the exception.)

And then something happened: dad brought his work home from the office.

Enter the IBM PC (and compatibles). The big, boxy, beige machines invaded the home, straight through the front door: families only needed one serious computer, and what better to pick than the one that was already familiar from the daily grind?

The PC, while running all manner of CAD and spreadsheet packages very well (remember when we called apps packages?) wasn’t so hot on the games front at first. From the humble beginnings of Sierra graphical adventures games and some dodgy flight simulators, games on the PC went from strength to strength as the teenaged children of the aforementioned father spent their weekend job money on sound cards, graphics cards, motherboards and processors. One upgrade at a time, the office PC became the home-office PC, the family PC, and finally the gaming PC.

The next twist in the PCs unusual life was the explosion of home internet. The internet gave the PC more strings to its bow: no longer just a productivity and gaming machine, it was now the information and communication hub of the home. And lest we forget shopping.

While all this was going on in the spare bedroom, games consoles were enjoying a parallel life in the living room. Each generation of console became more powerful, more accessible, more mainstream. Some people preferred the PC for games, others the console, but before long we were all playing the same games, on almost the same hardware.

So what was next for the PC? Well, what many didn't see coming was PC becoming so cheap and portable that everyone got their own. The PC unwittingly really did become the personal computer. And then the iPhone happened. And we all realised that actually, that was what we really wanted when we said personal computer. The iPhone, in hindsight, marked the major step in giving us a personal computing device that could manage most of the tasks that most people want to do.

The iPhone spawned the iPad which spawned numerous other tablets, and we now live in a world where an iPad will do 90% of the tasks 90% of home PC users. This is not to say that the PC is dead. Far from it. The PC is the best tool for many, many tasks, but the majority of those tasks are associated with work, not leisure. The PC is the ideal tool to be used in many workplaces for years to come. And yes, I'm talking about Windows PCs with mouse and keyboard input: this paradigm is actually fantastic for many productivity tasks, that are just horrendous when carried out on touch screens or machines held in one hand. Even the ecosystem that has grown up with them, the enterprise market, is in many ways a mature and solid setup, that like the sub-optimal "design" of the mammalian eyeball, is actually quite fit-for-purpose.

The thing is about the PC: we just don't need one at home anymore. Consoles and set top boxes provide us with amazing gaming and entertainment. Tablets and smartphones provide us with much better ways to consume news, knowledge and information, and to communicate and remotely socialise. These devices all do what they were designed to do where for years the poor PC had to limp along, doing it's best. It's time to give it a break.

I’m not calling time on the PC: I’m just saying it’s time for the PC to go back to the office.


The musicians are better behaved. Wait, what?

There's been a resurgence of high-profile tech bloggers deciding to turn off comments on their sites. I've written previously about comments, and how they can be a real turn-off, and potentially damage reader numbers (even if they shouldn't). It's interesting to see how this issue develops in two communities Im involved in, technology and music.

SoundCloud has grown in the last couple of years from a fairly niche site of home-grown music to become one of the go-to places for new sounds, both underground and commercial. The other got-to place to hear new music is of course YouTube, a site famous for its quality of commenter.

SoundCloud has a really neat commenting system: they can be attached to a moment during the uploaded recording, so that the commenter can make a comment about a specific moment in the music. SoundCloud also has a really nifty view for each recording: a representation of the waveform. The result looks like this:

Now, I may be jumping the gun here, but we've found that the vast majority of comments are positive. You get a few that are thinly-veiled adverts for someone's own SoundCloud page, but the amount you could actually put in the trolling category is really small. In fact, when a comment is negative, its often actually constructive, maybe about an aspect of the sound that could be better. That's not to say negative comments don't exist, but on the whole, there are fewer than you might expect.

It might be that all our music is just great, of course. Don't take my word for it, here's the link to the latest 'hot' tracks on SoundCloud, and below are a couple I chose at random: just hover over a view of those comments, and you'll see what I mean: positive comments drown out the negative!

Around 18 months ago, SoundCloud was hit really hard with spam. Fake accounts were being created in droves, and spam comments were numbering tens each day. They quickly got onto it though, and the problem has mostly gone away now.

The SoundCloud community is a fantastic one, a brilliant example of how a grassroots community can grow up, supporting its members along the way. Maybe it's just testament to this community that the commenting system hasn't gone the way of so many others. Is it that the music community, as opposed to the tech community, is just better behaved? More positive? Less bitchy? I'm not sure they are attributes we'd all apply to musicians. Maybe though, the difference is that almost everyone at SoundCloud is there to create something new, and this is something everyone has in common. As the community grows (and it is growing increasingly quickly), will these qualities remain, I'm not sure. For now though, I'm happy to be a part of a community like this. And the tech community could learn a lot.

24 Hours of iOS 5 (on an iPhone 3GS)

Yesterday morning, when the seed was finally live and the servers had finally recovered, I updated (well, restored) my trusty two year-old iPhone 3GS to iOS 5 Beta 1. Since then I have made calls, sent messages, listened to music, tweeted, planned journeys and made journeys. This is a brief summary of what I've found. Speed

It's no secret that the 3GS only just about copes with iOS 4. I certainly couldn't go back to version 3, but I do miss the snappiness that my phone had back then. Version 5 is pushing the ageing hardware even more, and this beta is just balancing on the usability line, occasionally falling off into a pit of hanging crashiness. Since there aren't really any new features that should really tax the hardware that iOS 4 didn't (apart from perhaps Notification Center) I'm going to put the rest down to this being an early beta, and that the bugs (and debugging code I assume is in there) are both to blame. If they're not, and the final release of iOS 5 on the 3GS is the same speed as this beta, it will be debatable whether this update is for all 3GS users.


I can flag mail! I can mark it as unread! And here's the best bit: weirdly formatted messages with tiny fonts and stupid forced line lengths get reformatted! No longer will I actually have to ignore someone's emails (there's a handful of people I know send mail like this – what is it that does it: Outlook, Blackberrys?)  just because of the chore of sideways scrolling that was necessary to read their unholyl rich-text musings.

And also: on the train with horrendous 3G coverage, mail was failing to send. The status bar at the bottom detailed these unsent messages until they successfully wooshed off, with an extra little vibrate too! Good, good.


If you use Twitter, you'll love the integration. if you don't, I doubt it's going to bother you. It would be nice if the tweet menu items get hidden if you don't install the Twitter client (I haven't test this but it would make sense).

I took a photo, and tweeted it straight from the camera app without switching to Twitter: it uploaded it using Twitter's new photo sharing service. I located myself on the map on a train to Manchester, and direct from there tweeted my location. It's not rocket science, but all good, and not switching apps is always a boon on older hardware, as this is where some of the biggest slow-downs can occur.


If you're in the UK, you'll have no doubt spotted the option to plan a journey by public transport, only to be disappointed that it never seems to find anything. Now it does! Now it finds ridiculous journeys for you that you'd never use! Baby steps though. And I've just bought the LJP app anyway.


A better notification system was needed the moment push notifications were introduced and turned out to be A Really Good Thing. Even if you only call and text, the updated home screen view is a big improvement, and after that day out when you return to your phone that you left at home, you have a much more structured list of tiresome tasks to complete.


You can now use the shutter button to increase the ringer volume on your phone. Finally.


Ok, so no-one at Apple has admitted it yet, but see Weather and Stocks in Notification Center? they're widgets they are, and there's no getting away from it: there's gonna be a whole set of apps asking if they can put a widget up there in six months time.

And a good thing too. I just wish I could get rid of the damned Stocks one: not even deleting every stock I track has removed it yet, it stubbornly stays, empty, acting like a massive 'go to Yahoo!' button.


A subtle change here: no longer will you find an iPod app on your phone, instead you'll find the much more sensibly-named Music app. At the moment Apple get a new word accepted by the common tongue then they distance themselves from it like a self-conscience teenager huffing at his uncool dad who's trying to use the word 'brap' in conversation.


Not much going on here really, although maybe I'm being unobservant. The switch control (UISwitch) has gone from rectangular to round (steady on, Apple). Oh, and in iTunes on the Mac, the volume control has been updated a bit to be more metallic and shiny.


There's a few biggies here that in another 24 hours I'll wonder how I ever did without (NC, Twitter, Mail flagging) and there's a big bunch of tiny things that have been fixed or improved that will keep me happy for weeks to come. The one big downside is the speed issue, but this is beta 1, and this is a two year old phone, filled to capacity (32GB of apps and data, I make Mail access 5 accounts totalling 7GB of data, 2 years of text messages...). It would be interesting to see if these sorts of things rally affect performance, I doubt they do very much (apart maybe for the SMS messages), I suspect that the beta-ness, the debug and the interaction between applications that really affects speed. This will be the main thing I'll be watching as we move through the beta versions, but I suspect my advice for any 3GS owners wondering whether to upgrade when the time comes will be a hearty 'yes'.


You can argue the pros and cons of pushing a new OS to all your users ad infinitum, including where you draw the line (there were iPhone 1 owners upset they couldn't have iOS 4, iPhone 3G owners upset they had to have iOS4...). Indeed the entire area of upgrade cycles of both hardware and software, and support for those systems, is very difficult to get right – I personally think Apple are actually very good at treading the middle path on this one (and yes, I've been on the losing side sometimes). WIth iOS 5 though, Apple have introduced delta upgrades to the OS, which means they can have much more control of how far they push new features to older hardware, which should help to soften the edge of the ever approaching upgrade cliff.