The Northern Spy: Unintended consequences
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The Northern Spy: Unintended consequences

By Rick Sutcliffe

The great shift in the computing devices market is well under way, with sales of desktop units tanking, even of laptops flattening out (sic), while those of iPads (there is no tablet market) boom. In this milieu, there are some interesting byplays.

First, sales of Windows machines have been hit far harder than those of Macs, and Windows 8 has not helped either Microsoft or the generic box assemblers. Indeed, uptake appears worse than that of Vista, when it first came out. From a technology market point of view, we are still in the 2008 downturn, and the Spy's predictions on that market when the recovery comes (2014-2015?) remain valid. The large installed base of computers is aging, but corporate replacement decisions have been repeatedly postponed pending economic clarity.

Those decisions will now be made in a vastly different technological and economic landscape than were the original purchases. Then, people bought Windows machines on herd and emotional instinct, without weighing the alternatives, without weighing the Windows tax on total cost of ownership. No more. The Spy is confident that the longer the uptick is delayed, the more informed purchasers will be, and the less likely to re-purchase in the Windows ecosystem. Look for a doubling of Apple's market share in computers over the next few years, and keep that deathwatch on Microsoft active. The company isn't the new RIM, it's the new Smith Corona.

Second, the continuing increase in Apple's computer sales and the high probability of a new and sharp uptick increases the likelihood iCook will do something for the professional user sooner rather than later. But the Spy does not expect the next iteration of something like a Mac Pro will be a conventional tower. Rather, anticipate something externally resembling an existing product with enhanced connectivity facilities to add optional professional enhancements, perhaps via a Thunderbolt PCI chassis, or even something bigger, newer, and better. Think a dockable iPad running Mac OS, a Mac Mini with ultra-connectivity, an iMac with slots, or any and all of these with ultra-fast external connectivity instead of an internal expansion bus.

Third, just as we teachers had come to take for granted all students would demonstrate literacy by handing in word-processed and spell-checked assignments in a professional-looking layout, as their job market requires every day, many households now will not have access to conventional computers--only to pads and pods. Consequently, we must now expect students as a whole to be deskilled in word processing, and in need of both computer access and training in things we have been assuming.

Dust off those abandoned computer labs and word processing lesson plans, for the 140-character, one-finger typists are going to need them. And what are they going to do when faced with a demand for a three thousand word essay as university freshmen, ten times that as seniors? Literacy, thy definition is fickle.

Fourth, the application landscape needs to be re-thought. Browsing, mail, texting, and gaming have become the realm of the pad/pod crowd. Expect the related applications to become moribund on the larger computers, and for word processing, spreadsheet, database, accounting, graphics arts, and the like (all better done with the handier input devices available for desktop and laptop use) to get more serious attention than in the recent past.

Despite periodic cosmetic makeovers, most of these application domains have seen little creativity but considerable code bloat in recent years. It's time for at least some of the people who really sell computers -- talented software designers and coders--to return to their bread and butter. Given the dearth of ideas from Microsoft these last several years, leadership is almost certain to come from elsewhere.

Fifth, although cloud and web app modes of work are much touted and may be adopted by some, the Spy sees too many security and continuity obstacles to storing sensitive documents off site at service vendors' machines. The recent Barnes and Noble decision to deep-six prominent eBook retailer and subsidiary Fictionwise highlights this problem. Once the platform on which purchases were made and stored is gone, so are the purchases. Only local, multiply backed up storage options are reasonably long-term secure and reliable. Note that the Spy does not say "absolutely secure". The first time a large cloud SAS operation goes down, taking with it the corporate document base of several hundred entities, the howl for government regulation will reach the moon.

Colour the Spy shy of the whole idea. Cloud may be good for backup and sharing of non-sensitive documents, but until the concept is very much refined, surely no IT manager in her right mind will take the risk. ('Course, those same people made the bad decision to purchase Windows machines.) Expect localized cloud products (firewalled home and office NAS) to become ubiquitous.

Sixth, the general market (not pro and business) move away from the larger general-purpose, heavy-duty computer to the small, light, limited purpose portable pad is likely to spur the only genuine hardware innovator (Apple, who do you think he could mean?) to put even more effort into creating new markets. An Apple Dick Tracy wrist gadget (iWatch), iTV, Apple sports gear (iShoes), Apple home automation (iHouse), an Apple tricked-out automobile or bicycle (iCar, iBike), and other products that go beyond conventional computing (iStylus, iGlasses, iThroatMike) all have to be in the mix down at the Cupertino Skunk Works. Does that sound like the Spy believes wearables are the next big thing? Indeed, and where are foldable, rollable computers? He needs one with a forty centimetre touch screen that will fit in his pocket.

Some fifteen years ago, the Spy's Alternate History SF already had characters using a PIEA (Personal Intelligence Enhancement Appliance). Think an iPad-like device (nano-diamond coated) with a throat microphone and eye implant/glass and either ten-finger or five finger grip for text and interfaced to his early-1980s postulated world-spanning hyperlinked Metalibrary. The latter has come to pass in the Internet, excepting two-way automatic dynamic linking and micropayments for content, and the former is only a few of the above gadget enhancements away.

Seventh, all this can only be good news for Apple's shares, which by any reasonable measure appear seriously undervalued. (Warning: The Spy is NOT an investment advisor.) The Spy suspects that when the fiscal cliff is either driven over, driven around, kicked down the road (the latter the worst possible outcome, by the way), or some combination of same (what seems to have happened) and year-end tax selling comes to an end, we'll see dramatic increases back at least to the 14 P/E ratio. And given E is likely to increase more this year than last (on first half new iPhones and iPads alone, especially in the Asian market), P could double or more in 2013--barring unforeseen developments (and all developments are essentially unforeseen). After all, the only market in which Apple has lost mind share is the stock market, and frankly, it doesn't count.

The "Something ought to be done" department is this month, not too surprisingly, devoted to a very specialized piece of technology--the gun. Unlike computers, these little marvels of destruction have only one exclusive narrow purpose -- to kill. And, when built as automatics or semi-automatics equipped with large capacity magazines, to kill as many people in as short a time as possible. An assault rife, even a semi-automatic, is irrelevant for hunting -- or if it is, there's something already wrong with the shooter's brain. How many bullets in how few seconds does it take to demonstrate one's skill as a mighty hunter by shredding a deer? How many slugs must you put through a rabbit before you're sure it's dead?

The mantra "guns don't kill people, people kill people" has, like all propaganda, a ring of pseudo-truth. The fact is that world's most gun-happy nation also has the largest proportion of gun killings. It would be more accurate to say that "people with guns kill people."

Arming grade one teachers cannot prevent a maniac who's stolen his mother's gun collection from a surprise attack on her classroom unless that teacher has her gun loaded, cocked, and in her hand before it happens, ready to react instantly to perceived threats. What's likely then to eventuate is that a grade six boy who's brought an urgent message from the principal in an excess of enthusiasm will get gunned down before the teacher can properly assess the situation. Or, if she does take said time, or has the gun in her purse or drawer with the safety on, it's already too late. Armed guards? Maybe they would deter, but most schools are large buildings with many possible points of entry, and a single guard is easily evaded. What if an undiagnosed psychopath becomes one of those guards?

No, just like the war between copy protectors and the hackers that break their every iteration, there is no solution to gun deaths in simply arming more people. The contrary outcome is more likely.

How can the situation be altered? Either by changing gun equipment, changing use availability, or changing the people in question. On a combination of the first two points, a simple partial remedy would be to deny any civilian licenses for military hardware -- assault weapons and large magazine clips for starters. There is no other conceivable civilian use for such armament. If the large clips were required at a licensed target range, they could be dispensed there in a controlled manner.

On the people side, screening potential licensees for psychopathy is insufficient. Would-be mass killers need only steal their mother's or sister's guns. We could imagine imagine a technological solution (straw man warning here). Suppose every firearm were equipped with a biometric interlock that prevented the gun from being triggered by other than the registered licensee, and this were combined with psychiatric screening for licensees. This could go partway to a solution.

Then return to reality. There is almost no possible way such a solution could be safely implemented, and not simply because of the logistics of retrofitting hundreds of millions of weapons. Rather, because of the impossibility of getting buy-in from the disparate interests. After all, who decides what sanity is--those who want to be armed to the teeth, or those who want controls?

The Spy believes this problem, except in stopgap measures of limited value, cannot be solved in legislation. The only real solution is changed people. And who among us can change the heart of a man or woman bent on destruction?

And, this leads into the broader observation that the modern world is increasingly fractured into multiple solitudes whose members can only talk past each other. The Mac vs PC divide is a harmless such debate. Religious differences, papered over in Western Civilization because of a "gentlepersons' agreement" on behaviour, have come to the fore once again, and threaten to destabilize much of the modern world. Political divisions, once hammered out to consensus or compromise under "civilized" rules of order have become sharply polarized, threateningly nasty.

The gulf between the rich and the poor, the advantaged and disadvantaged has reached a width that history tells us will soon destabilize our very society (ask Marie Antoinette). Fewer people understand or care about honour, rules of order, fiduciary duty, or the law, and more act entirely in self-interest, and self-justification, certain to the point of violence that they are absolutely right about everything.

Decades ago, the Spy observed in this space and in his books and talks, that the coming Metalibrary (Internet), by putting more people in touch with more ideas, situations, cultures, religions, and peoples than ever before in history, actuated two possibilities--greater benevolent tolerance of disparate ideas, and greater reinforcement and deepening of intolerant prejudices (or the redefining of "tolerance" to mean "only for my actions and views"). After all, the global village empowers information and wide-scale cooperation in both positive activities and in profoundly anti-social behaviour.

He also noted long ago that the ages-old tug of war between big brother government and all us little brother and sister individuals would be empowered on both sides by the new technologies--greater possibility for control on the one hand, and universal information to "out" ill behaviour by politicians on the other. He predicted a saw-off.

Our reader my judge for herself the degree to which these old worries are still a concern, or the validity of the Spy's own observations, but his hope and prayer is that we can all have a better 2013 in these many respects than we had in the old year.

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level.

He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns?

Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

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