January 31, 2019

Apps are where it's at (7/7)

After repeated failed attempts, an industry giant debuted a completely revamped operating system. The tech press was impressed across the board. With true multitasking, higher screen resolutions, expanded storage, and an innovative graphical user interface, this new OS, wrote Brad Molen, was "precisely what we wanted to see in the first place."

The new OS had only one—fatal—weakness: a lack of native apps. Concluded Molen,

It is going to take a fair amount of time for developers to push out enough earth-shaking apps to persuade the typical user that has already heavily invested in their ecosystem of choice. An OS is only as strong as its ecosystem, it's been an ongoing struggle to sell the platform to developers and attract popular titles.

A succinct summary of the challenges IBM faced trying to sell OS/2 in a world dominated by DOS and Microsoft Windows. Except the above excerpts are from a 2012 article in Engadget. Brad Molen is writing about the debut of Windows Phone 8. The struggle wasn't IBM's but Microsoft's. Microsoft came late the market with a technologically competitive product but failed.

In the words of the philosopher Friedrich Hegel, "The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history."

As Jim Seymour explained in his 8 December 1992 PC Magazine column, "No one buys a PC to run an operating system. Good applications sell PC hardware; good applications sell operating systems. Every single dazzling PC program I can think of right now is a Windows app."

The "accidental" origins of the personal computer caused much of the confusion about the primacy of the hardware or the operating system or the software that runs on it. The hardware specs of the first IBM PC were pedestrian even by the standards of the time. In his 15 March and 26 April PC Magazine columns, John Dvorak recalled that

to move from a red-hot CP/M machine to an early IBM PC was a step backward. None of the purveyors of 8-bit microcomputers saw the utility in the IBM PC. Theirs was a robust and mature industry and the 16-bit upstarts had nothing to offer. The IBM, though, had more potential. None of the potential was apparent to the CPM-ers.

That was true of my father's Epson QX-10 CP/M machine. Dvorak correctly pinpoints the potential of the 16-bit PC and the standard-setting status of IBM as conntibuting to its success. But he drew the wrong lesson for the future, that "all we need is a platform that the core influencers all agree on and we're off to the races."

William Zachmann conceded in the 10 September 1991 issue of PC Magazine that "nobody is going to buy new hardware system or new operating systems is there is no software for them." But then he jumped to the same wrong conclusion.

It's the fundamental capabilities of a new platform—not applications—that determine its success or failure. If the platform has "the right stuff" it will succeed even if applications vendors are intially slow to develop for it.

The widely cited proof of this thesis is the Macintosh. Dvorak argued in his 29 May 1990 column that just as the IBM PC "had virtually no software when it arrived on the scene, the Macintosh also arrived with nothing but a word processor, an operating system, and a paint program." He thus concluded that "initial massive software support" was not important.

In fact, the Macintosh proved the opposite. It debuted with no development tools native to the platform. After a year on the market, it had a quarter of the applications that the primitive IBM PC had a year after its release. Apple only survived because the other Steve—Wozniak—returned to reboot the Apple II line that was keeping the company in the black.

Rather, the lesson is that if you are going to establish a new standard in a world not looking for one, you need a lot of patience and a positive cash flow. For his NeXT project, Steve Jobs had more of the former and less of the latter. The NeXT line of computers failed to garner any market share. The future of the NeXT OS was to be acquired by Apple.

Without an extensive library of software, NeXT never extended its market beyond a handful of vertical applications. Steve Jobs learned his lesson. Soon after returning to Apple, he buried the hatchet with Bill Gates. Along with a $150 million investment, Gates promised ongoing development of the hugely popular Microsoft Office suite for the Mac.

In his 29 October 1991 PC Magazine column, Michael Miller provided a better rule of thumb:

In order to be successful, a new operating system has to be both necessary and sufficient: necessary in the sense that it must give computer users a compelling reason to switch; and sufficient in that it must have enough functionality to do all of the things that a computer user would want to do.

In other words, the 8-bit computers of the late 1970s were better than nothing, only viewed favorably in terms of the the very low expectations of personal computer users at the time. But by the late 1980s, 16-bit DOS applications like Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect had feature sets more complete than the typical consumer even today will ever use.

Keeping the market alive meant selling consumers software solutions they could only imagine they needed, and often, as in the case of the graphical user interface, were sure they didn't.

To coax that customer to make that leap, Bill Gates resolved to maintain backwards compatibility at the cost of sleekness and simplicity. That ruled out the elegant "clean break" that Steve Jobs championed, also making it a more technologically challenging task. As Charles Petzold explained in the 12 September 1989 issue of PC Magazine,

A GUI that can potentially support every graphics video display and every graphics printer ever made for the PC is going to more complex than one needs to support only one video display and two printers, as was the case with the original Mac. I guarantee you, if Apple had put complete Apple II compatibility into the Mac, it would have lost a lot of its simplicity.

Microsoft's clunkier but open architecture solution pushed Windows forward on all fronts while generating the necessary cash flow from its legacy operating systems and applications. IBM tried to duplicate this model by building DOS and Windows support into OS/2. But if DOS and Windows were already good enough, why spend more to switch?

In his 31 October 1989 column about the downsides of RISC architecture (which also was supposedly going to conquer the PC world), OS/2 stalwart William Zachmann inadvertently explained why OS/2 wouldn't succeed either.

For users, the costs of moving from the Intel x86 family to an incompatible RISC-based microprocessor architecture, which would require new versions of every bit of software, are very steep. Users aren't going to make the move without a compelling reason, which RISC alone doesn't provide.

Bingo. OS/2 didn't provide a compelling reason to make the move. The default position for anyone not seeking an IBM-branded solution was to keep using DOS and Windows while waiting for the Microsoft to slowly evolve its product line. Which is exactly what the rest of the computing world did.

Jim Seymour observed in his 11 June 1991 column (and the same could be said about WordPerfect's OS/2 efforts), "Lotus spent a fortune developing 1-2-3/G for OS/2. It was released—and almost disappeared. No one was using OS/2 so no one cared about apps for it. You've gotta have DOS and Windows versions of your programs."

Perhaps nothing drove the point home more decisively than an article by Christopher Barr in the 12 May 1992 PC Magazine. Titled "Waiting for Godot," he summarized a report from the Software Publishing Association, according to which "OS/2 applications accounted for .03 percent of the market" in 1991. Not 3 percent. That's 3/100 of 1 percent.

The release of OS/2 2.1 (with Windows 3.1 compatibility) in the summer of 1993 finally propelled it onto the bestseller chart, debuting at number five in the 14 September 1993 issue. IBM had additionally come to its marketing senses and sold OS/2 at retail and via mail order in the same price range as Windows.

With IBM claiming to be moving 300,000 copies per month, Bill Machrone noted that "if OS/2 were anything other than an operating system, it would be a runaway bestseller." By contrast, in 1993 alone, MS-DOS 6 shipped a combined 5 million upgrades and 10 million OEM installs.

Two weeks later, OS/2 2.1 rose to number four, except those were upgrades from older versions. At number one was Windows 3.1, and those were new installations (everybody with Windows 3.0 had already upgraded). The 12 October 1993 chart showed Windows 3.1 slipping a notch to second place. OS/2 2.1 fell completely off the chart.

In one of those signs of the times, in the July 1993 issue, Charles Petzold switched the focus of his Environments column from OS/2 to Windows NT, calling Microsoft's new preemptive multitasking 32-bit operating system "what OS/2 should been in the first place."

Over the next five years, new releases of OS/2—such as OS/2 for Windows (ironically) and OS/2 Warp—propelled it onto the bestseller chart for several weeks at a time until it vanished once again, while DOS and Windows upgrades and Microsoft office applications dominated it issue after issue.

To see where things were headed, consider the bestseller chart following the release of Windows 95 in August of 1995.

Microsoft released Windows NT shortly after OS/2 2.1, though not as a consumer product. NT was a high-end workstation and server OS with far more functionality than OS/2. Both NT and Windows 3.1 could natively run apps that were Win32 compliant. OS/2 2.x ran Windows code licensed from Microsoft, a license that expired at the end of 1993.

As a result, OS/2 for Windows ran a separate copy of Windows in a virtual DOS machine, a cumbersome solution. In the run-up to Windows 95, IBM at first promoted OS/2 Warp, but ended up licensing Windows 95 on the same terms as Compaq. "IBM officials conceded that OS/2 would not have been a viable operating system to keep them in the PC business."

And so Michael Miller had correctly concluded in his 28 September 1993 column that

the desktop operating system standard for the next 12 to 18 months will be DOS and Windows 3.1. That's because I've become convinced that we've all understated the importance of compatibility. It's been clear for a long time that for an environment to work, we need great applications that work under it.

With so many applications available on the Windows platform, Microsoft eventually became a victim of its own success. Old luddites like me could put off upgrading their computers because what they already had was "good enough."

With an 85 percent market share, Microsoft still owns the desktop. But to gain a foothold in the portable environment dominated by iOS and Android, Microsoft has to make Windows software platform-agnostic. Instead of "Windows Everywhere," Microsoft is moving its software to the cloud and providing "Microsoft Services Everywhere."

And once again, against the odds, Microsoft appears to be succeeding. Abandoning Internet Explorer and adopting a Chromium-based browser is one more step along that path. Because no matter how they are delivered to whatever screen the user is using, the apps are where it's at.

Related posts

The future that wasn't (introduction)
The future that wasn't (1/7)
The future that wasn't (2/7)
The future that wasn't (3/7)
The future that wasn't (4/7)
The future that wasn't (5/7)
The future that wasn't (6/7)

The accidental standard
The grandfathers of DOS

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January 24, 2019


The anime Hinamatsuri is based on the manga by Masao Otake, serialized since 2010 in Comic Beam, an "alternative" manga magazine published by Kadokawa.

Comic Beam has a monthly circulation of thirty thousand (Young Jump has a weekly circulation of two million). Manga writers and publishers hardly ever turn a profit on first serialization rights. The manga has been collected in fifteen tankoubon compilation volumes to date.

Sort of like an art house film that hits it big in DVD/Blu-ray distribution.

The title is a play on "Hinamatsuri" (雛祭り). The traditional Doll Festival held on March 3, it's the second of Japan's five seasonal festivals. In the manga and anime, Hinamatsuri means "a festival for Hina," around whom the world must revolve because she'll destroy it if it doesn't.

Except the first episode begins with Mao, not Hina. Then we flash back three years and don't learn anything more about Mao until episode nine. Get used to it. I'd have to read the manga to see if this lack of continuity results from an attempt to condense a whole lot of plot into a dozen episodes.

Not every anime based on a manga has the budget or audience to step through each chapter in order. The plot compression can be handled well, as from the Chihayafuru manga to the anime to the live-action movies. Or it can be a disaster, as with the Ghost Talker's Daydream anime.

Despite taking in medias res to a bewildering extreme, Hina­matsuri works surprisingly well as a string of interconnected stories that could be titled "Down and Out in Tokyo's Red Light District." Though Hina is the de facto main character, she's more a catalyst.

Hinamatsuri is about the people whose lives and outlooks change after they come into contact with Hina, quite often for the better.

The first is Yoshifumi Nitta, a mid-ranked yakuza. In addition to the illegal activities they are infamous for, most yakuza organizations in Japan are legal corporations that own above-board companies. Nitta is in charge of several (real estate, in particular) and enjoys a comfortable lifestyle.

Then one day Hina drops into his condo through an inter-dimensional portal (also never explained). Nitta's first reaction is, "I'll pretend I didn't see that." But Hina is impossible to ignore.

Hina has about as much emotional affect as Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 and is no less destructive. Some sort of bio-engineered child assassin with telekinetic powers, she doesn't know what what she's doing there either, and assumes she's on a mission and Nitta is her handler.

As will become apparent, the technologically advanced society that produced Hina and her sisters has serious quality control problems.

This mistaken assumption quickly comes in handy when Nitta has Hina literally defenestrate an entire rival gang in one fell swoop. As best I can tell, Hinamatsuri follows the George of the Jungle rule: "In this film nobody dies, but they will get big boo-boos."

Except by that point, Nitta is stuck with her. After she demolishes his condo several times over (including his collection of porcelain vases), they come to a truce about when and how she can use her superpowers. He further buys her acquiescence with salmon caviar. She really loves caviar.

Hinamatsuri thus turns into a very odd addition to the "single dad raising a kid" genre. At first, Nitta tells people that Hina is his long-lost daughter. By the time he begins to grasp the repercussions of this handy explanation, the two of them have assumed their respective roles.

As a brand new dad, Nitta finds himself with the responsibility of turning his tiny T-1000 into a "normal" girl.

But Anzu has already been dispatched to "deal with" Hina. There's a whole squadron of these telekinetic pre-teens ensconced somewhere. Fearing a full-on fight could destroy several city blocks, Nitta convinces them to settle their differences with a powered-up version of rock-paper-scissors.

Which Hina handily wins. And then, while doing the laundry, Nitta accidentally tosses Anzu's inter-dimensional portal switch into the washing machine. (It does kind of look like one of those Tide pods.) Stuck here, written off as "missing in action," Anzu is taken in by a homeless camp.

Meanwhile, Hina starts attending school, but only because that's what she observes other kids her age doing. She sleeps through class. Otherwise she tags along with Nitta, plays video games, and eats caviar. Well-intentioned attempts at housekeeping only result in her wrecking the house.

Hitomi, one of Hina's classmates, takes it upon herself to make friends with Hina (to whatever extent Hina can grasp the concept). The problem is, getting together with Hina after school usually means meeting her at the Little Song Bar, where Nitto likes to hang out and hit on Utako, the proprietress.

One thing leads to another and Hitomi turns out to be really good at bartending. Really good at business, period. Unfortunately, the anime ends before we can watch her hit her stride as a young Warren Buffett.

So it's Anzu who ends up with the most compelling character arc. She starts out with nothing, at the very bottom of society, and slowly but steadily climbs Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to become an authentically good person with a strong sense of moral responsibility.

"Moral growth" for Hina means "no longer a cute sociopath." When her actual handler finally tracks her down, she is surprised that Hina hasn't demolished the city and is even more amazed to discover that Hina is a functioning member of society. Hardly self-actualized, but functioning.

Mao's story has the most complete plot, except she only gets a couple of minutes in the first episode, an episode in the middle (that's a dang good remake of Cast Away), and half of the last episode. Mao deserves a series of her own. Equally true of Anzu and Hitomi too.

The anime ran in Japan from April through June of this year. So it's possible we'll see another cour or two. One Peace Books released the first English-language volume (of fifteen to date) in September.

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January 17, 2019

The old brand new

AT&T CEO John Donovan recently announced that, going forward, DirecTV would be transitioning from satellite transmission to streaming technology for content distribution. In other words, depending less on outer space and more on wires hanging from telephone poles.

To be sure, in large swaths of the United States and the world, there are still no viable alternatives to satellite content delivery. But like a medieval circle of fate, technology is always circling around to where it began. The old becomes brand new again.

In terms of the large-scale infrastructure, the communications satellite was a simpler solution than the microwave relay stations that once dotted the land. In turn, those relay stations were a vast improvement over the copper wire telephone circuits they replaced.

Fiber optic cable wiped out the microwave towers and may soon do in the communications satellites.

Like the transistor, vacuum tube electronics, and the internal combustion engine, the amazing thing about television satellite service is that it works at all, let alone that it can be mass-produced as a consumer good.

A communications satellite orbits 22,236 miles above the equator, a tenth of the way to the Moon. And yet it beams a signal down to the Earth's surface that can be scooped up with an eighteen-inch dish on your roof and decompressed into 500 channels.

When I first got Dish, I was impressed at how "clean" the picture was. Completely static free. These days, it's ho-hum compared to free over-the-air HDTV.

OTA HDTV breathed new life into the old UHF broadcast spectrum. 5G networks promise to steal that precious "last mile" connection to the home away from fiber and cable.

Google's foray into the home Internet business ran into the buzz saw of regulatory capture, which lets cable cartels box out the competition. So Microsoft is going wireless instead, much as the smartphone leapfrogged the landline in the developing world.

The Microsoft Airband Initiative launched in July 2017 with the goal of working with partners to make broadband available to 2 million Americans in rural communities who lack access today and to help catalyze an ecosystem to connect millions more.

Radio really is all the rage these days. Smartphones are just smart radios operating at UHF frequencies. That microwave relay technology that got passed over by the telecommunications satellite and then buried by fiber optics? It didn't go away. It mutated.

Back in 2016, Ars Technica reported that some of those old microwave towers are being repurposed to augment fiber optic networks. Because it's cheaper than laying brand new fiber and because radio signals move through the air faster than light through fiber.

And let's not too hastily write off satellites either. Elon Musk plans to tackle the latency problem of satellite-based Internet service with a swarm of satellites in low Earth orbit (such that at end-of-life they'll simply burn up in the atmosphere).

Every time you turn around, another moribund technology is "not dead yet." The solid-state disc drive should have sent old-fashioned "spinning rust" into retirement. Except every time it's knocked to the canvas, the hard disk drive staggers back to its feet like Rocky Balboa.

For example, Seagate has successfully prototyped a 16TB HDD using HAMR (Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording). The heat comes from a laser diode attached to the read/write head. Western Digital answered that challenge with a 16TB MAMR HDD (Microwave Assisted Magnetic Recording).

In the steampunk space opera future I like to imagine, the only way to build a faster-than-light starship engine will be with old-fashioned vacuum tubes and analog circuitry. And thus technology from the 1930s will end up being the most modern thing ever.

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January 10, 2019

The last year of Heisei

Shinchosha's final press release of 2018 on the Twelve Kingdoms website included a nod to a fairly monumental political, social, religious, and cultural event commencing on 30 April 2019.

According to the Japanese Constitution, the reign of the new emperor begins with the death of his predecessor. The formal enthronement ceremony, including elaborate Shinto rites, takes place later at a designated date.

The Showa Emperor (Hirohito) died in 1989 and was succeeded by his son, Akihito. Thus 1989 was the last year of Showa and the first year of Heisei. Confusing, indeed, especially if you make calendars for a living.

This time around, Akihito will abdicate. After open heart surgery in 2012 and now in his eighties, he "worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being as I have done until now."

He means that business about "my whole being." Not only is he still the most active and engaged monarch in the world, the man is a solid mensch.

When he visits the site of a natural disaster (which Japan has plenty of), he doesn't settle for waving to the crowds from behind the tinted glass of an armored sedan. He sits down on the floor in the evacuation center and talks to people.

So 2019 will be the last year of Heisei and year one of—well, we don't know yet. The era name (nengou) is chosen by a convocation of scholars and is announced with great fanfare at the time of succession.

At the end of Shadow of the Moon, Youko chooses Sekiraku as her nengou ("red" + "Rakushun"). But back here on the other side of the Sea of Nothingness, we'll have to wait until April to find out.

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January 03, 2019

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (Happy New Year!)

Shinchosha posted its 2018 Year-End Greetings on December 28. A little news, a little marketing, and a nod to a big historical change the new year will bring.

We are coming to you for the last time in 2018. This year, with an enormous sense of relief, we were able to make the long hoped-for announcement that a new installment in the Twelve Kingdoms series is heading to publication. That announcement was met with a deluge of delighted voices through SNS. We thank you again for your warm messages.

The new novel is a sequel to Tasogare no Kishi, Akatsuki no Sora ("The Shore in Twilight, the Sky at Daybreak") and takes place in the Kingdom of Tai. How about reacquainting yourselves with the series during the upcoming holidays? For those of you new to the series, please take this opportunity to dive into the world of the Twelve Kingdoms and enjoy it to the fullest.

Shincho Paperbacks has now published new editions of all of the Twelve Kingdoms novels, including The Demon Child and Hisho's Birds. Available at a bookseller near you! You can find the eleven volumes on Amazon too.

Whilst coping with her long spell of ill health, Ono Sensei's unfolding Twelve Kingdoms drama turned into a massive epic! More than anything else, as we work towards the day when the book will go on sale, we pray for her continuing convalescence. Fresh information will be posted here in "Kirin News."

This is our last Year-End Greetings of the Heisei era. The New Year will also bring with it the first year of a new era, full of newborn promise. And so with that same sense of hope we shall continue to ask for and thank you for your continuing support.

Please have yourselves a Happy New Year!

I'll explain a bit more about the historic end of the Heisei next week.

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