THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE
So just what is Apple up to anyway? Where are all those new Macs? And is the lack of recent refreshes a key reason why global sales of new Macs are, according to recent estimates from Gartner and IDC, falling? Apple has been growing ahead of the PC market for years, but that appears to have stopped.
At least, if you believe the numbers from the industry analysts.
While I wouldn’t accuse Gartner and IDC of undercutting Apple, the real numbers won’t arrive until later this month, when the financials for the June quarter are released. Until then, we’re looking at estimates, and it’s not altogether certain that people aren’t buying new Macs because they aren’t sufficiently different. To someone whose Mac is several years old, any current model represents a significant improvement.
Besides, it’s not that Apple doesn’t know why sales have dropped, or appear to have dropped. At this point, though, there will probably not be any more new or refreshed models until fall. How different will they be? There have been rumors, but you have to wonder just what Apple needs to do to make Macs more compelling. Touch capability? Well, it’s not at all certain that sales of 2-in-1 PCs, which tend to be the more expensive models, are soaring, or even that it’s a form factor that Apple should consider.
Apple’s touch-based PC is the iPad, although industry analysts have not usually been willing to regard that product as a PC.
In any case, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured columnist, podcaster and show regular Kirk McElhearn, also known as Macworld’s “iTunes Guy.” Before getting to the meat of the discussion, Gene and Kirk discussed their choices for Internet service. Essentially, Kirk has one hookup available for his UK home, though he can use different providers, but it offers relatively slow uploads. Gene explained why, as a cost-cutting move, he recently switched providers and what level of performance he receives. The discussion moved to Kirk’s snap decision to buy an entry-level Lenovo Chromebook during Amazon Prime Day for 99 pounds UK, and his surprising reaction upon being exposed to Google’s web-based PC platform.
I’ll have more to say about this in the next article.
You also heard from columnist Rob Pegoraro, who writes for USA Today, Yahoo Tech and Wirecutter. With reports of slowing Mac sales, Rob presented his concerns over the lack of significant Mac hardware upgrades in 2016, except for a refreshed MacBook. The discussion moved to political incorrectness. Rob discussed an open letter from some technology executives that opposed Donald Trump. He also summarized Hillary Clinton’s tech policy paper (Trump didn’t have one when this show was prepared), and what we can learn from her email situation when you move past the politics. Rob went on to explain some best practices to make your email as secure as possible without jumping through hoops.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: It’s shop talk time once again, as Gene and Chris take extra time to catch up on a host of subjects, including how to treat guests with wacky viewpoints, whether Chris is, of late, more accepting of a possible extraterrestrial solution to cattle mutilations, music and beliefs in UFOs, and strange sounds from time and space. Or from somewhere. We even include a few samples with which to assault your eyes. The discussion also focuses on upcoming guests, and there is, yes there are, a few moments of politically-related chatter and a response to people who prefer we not talk politics. After focusing on the harmful effects of trust funds on some of the rich and famous, Gene mentions his pal, the late Jim Moseley, and how he might have saved more of his fortune had he left well enough alone.
A RETURN TO THE THIN CLIENT AS A PC ALTERNATIVE
Once upon a time, the computer placed on the desk of the typical employee in a large company wasn’t a PC at all. It consisted of a simple terminal, no local storage, providing just enough processing power to run a display with decent performance. The main computer was a mainframe placed in a special room or datacenter, managed by a team of system admins, and each terminal was connected via a physical cable. After all, this was long before the advent of Wi-Fi.
Over the years, most computing systems became independent, fully-capable machines that might still depend on a single network for data. The connection might still consist of a cable, but more often has become wireless, since performance may no longer be all that different.
With the growth of cloud-based services, most anyone can utilize an online network for data storage, rather than just email or web access. Apple’s iCloud Drive, Google Drive, and Microsoft One Drive, are key examples of interactive online storage systems that can serve as extensions to your computer’s storage device in extending its capabilities, and perhaps as a potential replacement.
Beginning with macOS Sierra, you can have your Mac’s Desktop and Documents folder mirrored on your iCloud account. The Optimized Storage feature will allow you to maximize local storage by helping you eliminate duplicates or other unnecessary files.
Google’s Chrome OS takes the concept of cloud storage even further and, in a sense, is intended to restore the desktop computer to the form factor that existed in the old days. A Chromebook is a minimalist notebook, with just enough processing power, wireless networking capability and storage to deliver a satisfactory user experience. But all or most of you data exists in the cloud, and your main interface is via the Chrome browser.
With a Chromebook, your apps also exist in the cloud, although your data may be downloaded locally to allow you to work on your files even if you’re knocked offline, or you’re working in an environment without immediate Internet access. Obviously, you will be using Google’s products and services.
Depending on your needs, that may not be such a bad idea. You can certainly manage your email — and Gmail is able to retrieve messages from other accounts — and visit your favorite sites. If you want to engage in productivity largely focused on the core functions of an office suite, Google Docs can often get the job done. Indeed, among the major office apps, Google’s is alone in allowing interactive collaboration. As soon as someone working on a document makes a change, other users see that change. I suppose things can get a little screwy if two or more people are making contradictory changes at the same time, but otherwise it’s a useful idea.
You can even play online games, though obviously you’d be limited to a large extent by the capabilities of your Chromebook’s graphics hardware and your Internet connection.
My friend and colleague Kirk McElhearn decided to try a Chromebook when he found an older Lenovo model discounted for 99 pounds during the recent Amazon Prime Day. As of the time this article was written — and the exchange rate of the British pound has been volatile mostly due to Brexit — it was worth $131.02 US. Pretty cheap.
Despite the low price, and the use of an ancient Intel Celeron processor, Kirk found his new Chromebook to be fast and fluid with the sort of work he did. He also wondered whether such a computer might just serve the needs of most users. This is particularly true if you’re on the road and don’t need to use apps, or the type of apps that aren’t available on Google’s platform.
Earlier this year, it was reported that Chromebooks had achieved higher sales to American school systems than Apple and regular PCs. Of course, that was one of the quarters where school system orders were at a lower ebb, so it’s not at all certain if those high percentages sustained themselves during traditional ordering seasons. But it’s also true that school systems nowadays are facing tighter budgets, and thus must be more frugal about choosing notebook computers for students. After all, you can buy packs of these Chromebooks for $150, each, or less. Traditional Macs and PCs simply can’t compete with that, even if they offer more power, a rich selection of apps, and more expansive management controls.
While Chromebooks have not succeeded so well in the regular commercial markets, having millions of students using them will only advance the platform in the long term. When parents want to buy PCs for their children, they might be asked to buy Chromebooks. Why? Because that’s what the students are already using at school. When Apple ruled the educational roost, students were more inclined to ask for Macs.
Is that poised to change? Does Google stand to benefit from these educational gains?
In part, maybe. In large part, I don’t think so. You see, many students are not going to want to be tethered to a limited selection of online apps beyond what they need for school. What about games? What about all the other apps, from chatting to creative, that they would routinely use on their Macs and PCs? Would they be willing to tolerate such a minimalist approach to personal computing?
I suppose as more and more people gain higher an higher online speeds, it may be possible to deliver web apps in a variety of categories that are fully as capable as those installed on your computer. Is this one of the reasons behind Google Fiber, where users in some U.S. cities are offered relatively affordable gigabit Internet access? Other ISPs are getting into the act. In the Phoenix area, both Cox and even CenturyLink, descended from a traditional telco, are busy rolling out gigabit services.
If the touchy issue of bandwidth caps can be dealt with, it may reach a point where the experience of flexibility of accessing apps on your Mac or PC, or from the cloud, may be mostly identical. You could still buy or subscribe to an online app, and, some day, you’d have a rich selection free of the needs of local storage, except for enough to manage local backups when online access is not available or interrupted.
Maybe Steve Jobs had the right idea after all when he envisioned web apps for the first iPhone. But the world wasn’t ready. I don’t know all the reasoning, but would that explain, in part, why he reluctantly agreed to an App Store? Now it appears Apple may be poised to move in the other direction to some degree. If cheap and, for all practical purposes, super fast and unlimited online access expands around the civilized world, it may be that a relatively inexpensive thin client solution will take over the PC world. And, yes, I assume your data will be securely encrypted during its back and forth journey.
As a long-term bet, is Google onto something with the Chrome OS and Chromebooks? How does Apple and Microsoft respond?
In case you’re wondering, I’ve contacted Google about reviewing a Chromebook, so I can properly evaluate the platform and its potential.
THE FINAL WORD
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