Mad Dog 21/21: Defenestration
August 12, 2013 Hesh Wiener
In the 9th century BC, in northern Israel, Princess Jezebel, Phoenician wife of Hebrew King Ahab, was thrown from a window to her death by political opponents; her body was left to be eaten by dogs. In the 15th and 17th centuries, in Prague, government officials were flung from windows by their adversaries; the incidents, by now called defenestrations, each started a war. In the 21st century, all over the world, Windows clients are getting tossed out by end users; this is a disruptive and disconcerting trend to some, but ordinary, welcome progress to others.
This year, according to IDC, sales of tablets, in units, will surpass sales of portable PCs. The operating environment of most tablets is either Android or iOS; Windows barely counts. Most PCs run Microsoft Windows. Apple‘s OS X has a slice of this market, and so, increasingly, does Google’s cloud-oriented alternative to client-centric software, Chrome. In another two years, IDC adds, tablet sales volumes will exceed aggregate shipments of portable and desktop computers. But this isn’t necessarily a disaster for PC makers, because unit sales of laptops and desktops will rise a bit during the next few years. If IDC is right, tablets may be keeping a lid on PC sales, but they are not wrecking the PC business.
It’s obvious that for some purposes tablets are replacing PCs. It is equally obvious that tablets, which come out of the box with virtual keyboards and touchscreens, are not the best devices for cranking out spreadsheets, writing text documents, or developing slide shows. When it comes to business applications, the jury is still out. For now, and very likely forever, a mix of PCs, tablets, and smartphones will constitute the client base.
In most businesses, corporate computing executives can call the shots when it comes to in-office computing clients. CIOs at companies that supply client machines to field personnel can similarly select the equipment their front line personnel use. But in settings where Bring Your Own Device has become accepted, users rule. The corporate IT types must try to get their apps to work with the gadgets chosen by the people they serve and support. Firms locked into old applications that don’t adapt well to a variety of screen sizes, display technologies, web browsers, and Java virtual machines may be struggling these days, but that battle won’t last long. The outcome is set; only the timing is subject to revision.
Computing executives who try to force the client technologies they favor on end users may face consequences similar to those experienced by Jezebel and, a couple thousand years later, by the overbearing, overconfident, and ultimately overwhelmed patricians of Prague.
Jezebel had the Baals in the Ahab family. She got her husband’s power and money behind the Phoenician deity, and Jehovah took a back seat. This didn’t go over too well with grumpy, conservative (to put it mildly), and vocal characters like the prophet Elijah. When Ahab died and his kids took over, others, led by Jehu, seized the reins of power. At some point Jezebel knew her number was up. According to the folklore, when she learned her likely executioners were on the way, she got all dolled up. Commentators differ as to the reasons and meaning of this final act, and when push out the window came to shove out the window, Jezebel’s servants, more afraid of Jehu than of any remaining loyalists, gave their mistress the heave ho.
Computing suits, even if they are in their very best suits, have thought about Jezebel and her literal fall. If the end user crowd is clamoring for iPads or Android tablets, they generally conclude, let them have what they want. But in settings where the users’ demands are not met by the technological or budgetary capability of computing departments, CIOs are in a real bind. Even companies that have long since moved many aspects of their computing operations to web-based styles of computing may find that their coding is anything but independent. Web pages that work just fine on PCs and large tablets may fail miserably on small tablets and become totally frustrating to end users on smartphones.
There’s a lot more to this than just moving up to HTML5. Making apps work well on screens ranging in size from 4 inches to 40 is challenging, to put it politely. Getting interactive websites to respond to end users’ fingertip taps as well as they do to keyboard input (and leaving out, for now, the growing use of voice recognition overlays), can be a real pain in the neck. But it’s not as painful as a broken neck, the kind of injury that affected airborne ejectees in Prague on a couple occasions.
That city’s defenestrations occurred in the wake of disputes involving the flammable mixture of religion and politics that frequently cropped up in the region known for much of history as Bohemia. In both the incidents noted in history, first in the town hall and again a couple hundred years later at Prague Castle, legacy systems of rituals and beliefs were at odds with what the populace wanted. The upstarts got their way, long enough at least to launch officials whose soaring final moments made an impression on observers and, immediately thereafter, on the pavement.
To the extent popularity is the most influential factor shaping applications development, phones win. Annual smartphone sales are chugging along at about eight times the rate of PC sales, according to Gartner. With tablets catching up to PCs, their combined shipment volume approximates a quarter of the volume achieved by smartphones, making clients too big to fit in a pocket (including clients so large they must sit on a desk) only about 20 percent of the target for businesses that aim at consumers. While the phone market is largely filled with gadgets running iOS or Android, the differences in software generations, particularly in the Android base, forces app developers to come up with more than just two versions of their software. Apple has done a much better job than Google in keeping its customers enfranchised, just as Windows has, until Windows 8 at least, generally done a pretty good job providing a platform that works on newer and older, faster and slower, and larger and smaller machines. Windows 8, however, creates more of a discontinuity compared to the gap between the two prior versions favored by business (and businesslike personal users), Windows XP and Windows 7.
Microsoft’s decision to make Windows 8 quite distinct from all prior versions has made for some stark choices on the part of corporate computer buyers and, perhaps to a lesser extent, to small business and home office PC users. One key choice made by Microsoft was to abandon support for the virtual XP subsystem available for machines running Professional or higher grades of Windows. The virtual XP capability made it possible, even easy, for users with ancient apps to migrate to Windows 7 (in its most powerful 64-bit implementation) and preserve access to ancient code. The benefits made a big impression on corporate computer support teams, most of them happy to trade a bit of performance (lost in the virtual machine) for continued access to ancient, decrepit programs that were difficult, annoying and, often, disproportionately costly to migrate forward.
Similar issues related to legacy support will eventually arise in the iOS and Android worlds, reducing one perceived advantage of mobile clients, but quite a few app developers are trying to build their presentation components in HTML5, a technology that could reduce disparities among mobile devices. The browsers in client devices vary in the way they render HTML5 pages, but they are, generally speaking, pretty good when it comes to compliance with core standards. Moreover, the HTML/CSS framework includes some pretty handy tools for web developers who want their pages to adapt to the size, shape, and orientation of the displays they are painting. In typical web development projects the pages have three presentation versions: PC, tablet and phone. There are no universal standards, but these days typical web pages treat screens with up to 480 pixels (or virtual pixels) wide as phones, screens with more than 480 and up to 1024 pixels wide as tablets and screens with more than 1024 pixels of width as PCs.
One aspect of HTML/CSS presentation layers is that browsers with very good presentation capabilities are available for all operating systems including Windows, iOS, Mac OS, Android, Linux, Chrome and so on. Browsers don’t do a perfect job equating fingertip taps on touch screens with mouse clicks, but the code is pretty good and getting better all the time.
The rate and scope of change in computing have become overwhelming for many user organizations and for plenty of computer industry participants, large and small, too. Some, I am sure, will do well no matter how hard they have to work to adapt. But others, like Jezebel, won’t have a way to move ahead. They’ll just tart themselves up and prepare to die.