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My Predictions About the iPad And The Future Of Computing

While I’m a fairly hardcore tech geek, AAW isn’t (currently) that kind of site at all. Still, I wanted to put some thoughts down in writing mainly so I can refer back to a publicly published opinion in a few years as proof that I either accurately predicted things, or was spectacularly wrong. On account of the thematic mismatch, I’ve intentionally backdated this post so it doesn’t get in the way of the anime goodness.

I also note that nothing here is original—it’s all been said by other people many times. I’m just reiterating the opinions I think are right.

Anyway: The iPad, iPhone, and where computing is heading.

First, just to note (and I had this opinion back when I bought my father an iPad a week after it launched), the people who were saying that it’s just a big iPod/iPhone and the ones who were saying it was revolutionary and was going to change everything were, of course, both right. It is just a big iPod, and that’s exactly why it’s revolutionary—Apple decided, I believe correctly, that the iPhone/iPod Touch is all the computer a substantial majority of everyday folk need or want. Its only limitation was the tiny screen, which inherently limits what you can do with it, so they put exactly the same device behind a bigger screen, and bingo, you have the portable computer for the proverbial everyman.

I’m a geek. I do tech support for a lot of people. And if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that most people do not know how to use their computer. Not because they’re stupid, it just takes a lot more thinking and understanding of the thing than they’re willing to put in, because it’s a tool, not a goal in and of itself. To use the long-since-beaten-to-death car analogy, I don’t know how to rebuild the engine of my car, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid or shouldn’t be driving it. It just means that it’s a complicated thing with a simple user interface. So is the inside of your TV—you don’t know how it works, but you know how to turn it on, change the channel, and adjust the volume.

Computers aren’t like that. They’re supposed to be easy, but they’re not. They’re complicated things designed to give far more options and freedom than the average user needs—or, more importantly, wants.

The iPad strips away the unnecessary options and complexity and interface abstractions to let the average person do what they want—check their email, surf the web, watch some stuff on YouTube, play some games, and download some special purpose apps for whatever it is they  personally want their computer to do. It doesn’t require understanding much of anything, and—very importantly—it doesn’t break (in the software sense). I get paid good money to go to people’s houses and un-screw-up their computers, because keeping a modern all-purpose computer running smoothly is a dark art. I don’t care what you say about how easy or dumbed-down the OS is, or how bulletproof the software is, it just barely works, and people are afraid of breaking it by looking at it wrong. The iPad takes some of that away.

The real analogy is console gaming versus PC gaming. Leaving aside the update-creep in recent-generation console games, it breaks down pretty clearly, and has for the past roughly two and a half decades: If you buy a console, it does nothing but play games, and it isn’t going to look as fancy as an expensive gaming computer, but you’re pretty sure that when you stick the cartridge/card/disc into the thing and push the on button, the game will work. It doesn’t cost all that much, gives a good experience, and is bulletproof. To top it off, most software is heavily vetted (Nintendo Seal of Approval, anyone?), so while there is less of it than in a free-for-all, you’re pretty sure what is there will do more or less what it claims to.

Doesn’t mean that console games are better or worse than PC games, just that there are legitimate tradeoffs, tradeoffs that many—the large majority, depending on how you count—people are willing to make. Like me—I’d much rather spend a couple hundred bucks on a console that I know will be good for several years, and that will just work when I stuff a game in it than a couple of grand on a gaming rig that will be outdated in six months and will require regular updates, patches, driver adjustment, etc to keep in tip-top shape. Other people go for that, and more power to them. Just like other people go for turbocharged, tricked-out Honda Civics instead of reliable, un-tricked-out Civics or even stock, “easy” sports cars like a Corvette or Eclipse .

The point here is that, to date, the only option has been the equivalent of gaming computers—they do far more and are drastically more powerful than the average person cares about. The problem was that there wasn’t a general purpose console computer as an alternative. Until now.

Case in point: My dad. He’s in his mid-80s, and is a very smart guy. He taught me to use a computer, and is quite capable with his desktop computer. But when I got him an iPad—to use as a large-type e-reader only—he took to it immediately, and uses it more than his desktop. I don’t get asked technical questions or to fix things anymore, because it just works. Almost no learning curve at all, to boot.

Does this mean that “traditional” computing is dead? No. It just means that what we’ve treated as a “real” computer to date is, in fact, the souped-up, professional-grade monster that, fact of the matter is, the average person doesn’t actually need. Apple sees this, and that’s why they’re ahead of the curve and Microsoft—who as a company seems to still be convinced that the average user actually wants Windows—is flailing.

My prediction: Apple will, within a year or two probably, release a desktop iMac style computer that runs iOS. People will mock it as a toy, just like they did with everything else Apple has released in the last several years, but it will sell increasingly well. Within ten years—2020, which is a nice convenient Cyberpunk number—the majority of computing devices sold, desktop or portable, will run iOS, Android, or a similarly simplified, console-style OS.

Windows, MacOS, and Linux in their traditional form will still be around, but as “pro” machines for professionals, geeks, hobbyists, and people who actually need that kind of horsepower and flexibility. Photoshop jockeys, gamers, number crunchers, me. But everybody else—including “pros” when they’re not working—will use a console computer. Car analogy, “real” computers (which is a stupid term—”traditional” is what they really are) are big trucks, construction vehicles, and exotic sports cars; console computers are everything else you see on the way to work.

Second prediction: Nobody “wins.” I’m sick and tired of reading how Android or iPhone are “winning” or “losing” the smartphone war. It’s a war, yes, but only in that they’re competitors; there is no reason whatsoever that there be only one “winner.” It happened, more or less, with old-school desktop OSes in the ’90s, but this is not the ’90s. These days if it does email, the web, and maybe sudoku, it’s good enough for a lot of people—that’s all that matters. Document cross-compatability is dying, and along with it the idea that if your platform can’t run Microsoft Office it isn’t worth using. Microsoft probably realized this a long time ago, and that’s why they tried so hard to stall the web with IE6, ActiveX, etc—they could see it would eventually render their monopoly irrelevant, and that’s exactly what has happened. The barrier to entry is far, far lower now.

I don’t think Apple wants, in as much as a company can want anything, to own 100% of the computing market. I think they will be quite happy to own, say, 50-70% of the top third of that market, give or take, plus some portion of the middle tier. I’ll bet that the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch/iWhateverIsNext ends up with, say, 20-30% of the new console computing/phone computing market in five years. And I think they’ll be perfectly happy with that, making snazzy devices and piles of money (don’t forget that Apple is making more profit from 3% of phone handsets than more or less the entire rest of the industry combined—I don’t think they’re too disappointed with that kind of “loss”).

Flavors of Android will probably have a substantial share, including a bunch of the bottom, as will, in all likelihood, the successor to Win Phone 7 (or whatever they’re calling it this week), and maybe HP’s WebOS and other new platforms as well. Nobody will “win” any more than anybody “won” the TV market, or car market, or refrigerator market, or any other appliance market.

We will, of course, see.

To repeat: Console computing is the future, but traditional computers won’t go away entirely either, and nobody is going to win the smartphone war.

Spice and Wolf Season 2 Follow-up

The increase in emotional drama around halfway through the first (of two) story arcs in Spice and Wolf season 2 had me riveted, but also afraid that it was going to step onto the wrong side of the drama line and start going downhill.

Boy, did it ever not do that. Turns out that the things popping loose dramatically speaking made far more sense to the characters than it seemed at first, and indeed the strong characterization itself is what made it seem that way—they essentially dupe you into making the same rather obvious mistake that Lawrence does. The second story arc has fun for a little while, then takes a melancholy turn that—this time more obviously—fits completely with the characters, and is every bit as entertaining.

Lawrence messing with Holo

Lawrence sometimes gets the upper hand, and it's usually Holo's ears that tell you when--so expressive you almost wish she didn't wear a hat so often.

That’s an interesting thing about this series; when characters are broad, however entertaining and appealing they may be, the viewer can excuse a fair amount of out-there behavior without it really seeming out of character. This makes it much easier to write things around them, since you can nudge them one direction or another easily enough without breaking anything for the viewer.

The more real the characters seem, though, the more precise and careful the writing has to be, because even things that are slightly out of character will stick out exponentially more. In a way it’s limiting (I’ve run into this writing stuff of my own), because realistic characters sort of write themselves—and if you don’t let them do what makes sense to them, the audience is almost certain to pick up on it.

Getting back to Spice and Wolf, the concept sounds broad but the characters are so well-realized that it is very much in the latter category, to the point where even a slightly off note is going to stand out. This is a good thing overall—it means that the characters work, and come across as real. But it also means that it gets harder and harder to write around them without screwing up. As of the end of the second season, though, the series succeeds at not doing that—I still bought the characters entirely, and am every bit as in love with them as I was at the start. More, really.

Its only real mistake it makes is going a little easy on some background justification that, had it been hammered in a little more, would have made you think less about whether some of the things the characters do make sense or not. They do make sense, it’s just that the reasons aren’t implied strongly enough beforehand. This was also an issue in the first season—Lawrence’s blow-up after being turned away from every merchant house in town; it was implied that the reason was him having a woman with him, which was considered inappropriate for a merchant in his situation, but if they’d made the point a little more strongly you wouldn’t have had to step back and process that Holo was the reason, not his getting stuck in a very bad deal.

There’s considerably less physical drama in the second season, but interestingly, due to the heightened emotional content, it actually feels more dramatic, at least to me. It also makes complete sense—if every story ended in a wild last-minute escape thanks to Holo’s supernatural abilities, it’d start to seem contrived after a while (indeed, she never once turns into a wolf in this season, and its no worse for it). What it does do is start to acknowledge what happens when a human and a wolf deity start to do more than just goof around and enjoy each others’ company; she will outlive him by centuries, which, when you think about it, does give a realistically bittersweet little twist to her perception of the whole relationship.

And, again, this deepening of the relationship is another situation where the well-developed characters could be dangerous—it’s easy to blow the chemistry if the characters are strong enough you can’t just have them stare lovingly at each other by way of motivation. And, again, it definitely doesn’t—everything rings true, and indeed the subtle romance is hugely effective. Really, in a way, it’s about as romantic as anything, with romance being defined as a real relationship, not just heat.

Getting cozy in the chilly weather

The increasingly chilly weather mirrors the emotional tone, to a degree--cozy, but melancholy.

That’s another great thing—it establishes that, while Holo’s thing isn’t quite being a merchant, she does see herself as a partner, not just a hanger-on, and consistently works to hold up her end of things. This degree of partnership is uncommon in romantic stories, and one of the things that makes the whole series work so well. (An amusing aside: They didn’t drive this home, but Holo’s previous occupation was of course land management—she wasn’t just the god of the harvest, she explained that she specifically manipulated things to keep the soil healthy and the people as well-fed over the long haul as she could.)

There were only two things I can’t say I unreservedly liked. One is that I wanted to see Lawrence show a little more interest in some books Holo got to look for legends about herself. Admittedly, that’s not really his thing, and it’s entirely possible he didn’t want to know too much about her past—might weird him out, or scare him (indeed, he pointedly doesn’t ask much about her past), but while it may not have been out of character I’d have liked at least a bit of time spent with him looking over her shoulder or a more specific acknowledgement of why he wasn’t. Heck, I want to hear some of the legends myself, too.

A shadowy fellow merchant.

Not all the merchants Lawrence meets are cheerful and outgoing. Which is good, once you shake the feeling that Zelda is traveling incognito in the wrong series.

The other is the end; it ends on an unusual note; positive, but a little sudden and very open as to how this particular mercantile caper will close (Holo pretty strongly states she’s not about to just walk away). It’s entirely possible the series is leaving something open for a third season (which would be awesome, and indeed this season starts with a bonus episode 0 wrapping up the previous, so that’s quite possibly the intent). It’s just that after the absolutely fantastic up-note the last scene of the first season ended on, I was hoping for something similar.

Speaking of episode 0, that right there demonstrates why Spice and Wolf is something special: An entire episode spent with the main character sick in bed, dreaming and talking to the couple of people who come to visit her—and a lot more of the latter than the former. Sounds like a recipe for a dirt-cheap cop-out review, but instead there’s almost no repetition, it tells us a lot about Holo and what she’s thinking (sets up the entire second season, in fact), it’s at least as good as any other episode in the series, and it’s also periodically hilarious. That may not be quite the tour de force of Genshiken spending an entire episode with Madarame’s internal monologue during an awkward silence, but it’s close. It even works in a variant of the humors when Lawrence explains the road to health.

Now, the fact that episode 0 of season 2 wraps up the final story arc of season 1 leaves me with hope of two things:

  1. That the final story arc of season 2 will be wrapped up with an intro episode in season 3, and
  2. That there will be a season 3.

That second possibility has me both all kinds of hopefully excited, and nervous. See, I have my Given Enough Rope Principle—if you give any good idea enough time, it will eventually hang itself. And “enough time” for anime seems to be “more than 2 seasons.”

Seriously—I can count on my fingers the number of anime TV series that have gone past 26 episodes and remained good to the end, and I can count the ones that aren’t status comedies (Ranma 1/2, say) on one hand. The four seasons of Twelve Kingdoms is the big exception and, given its novel-based heritage, the example I desperately hope Spice and Wolf will follow. But, given the overwhelming evidence of the slim chances of pulling that off, I’m almost as afraid that they will make a 3rd season as I am that they won’t.

Here’s hoping that Spice and Wolf is the exception to the rule.

AAW 3.0

So, after 16 months and 2 days of work (between the initial draft and today) AAW3.0 is finally live.  The final tally was 35 initial drafts and 10 additional final candidate refinement versions between concept and the design you see now.

Among the fun stuff the new look and feel ads is a full mobile version of the site, selectable (from a desktop browser, if you’re so inclined) via the On This Page stuff over on the left of each page. It should default to that automatically, unless you prefer the full version, if you’re using an iPhone, iPod, Android phone, Blackberry, or Symbian handset, although it’s only been tested with iOS hardware currently (let us know if you get the wrong one on your phone so we can work on that!).

Some of the things that people who’ve been to the site before might not notice have changed: I’ve completely rewritten and seriously expanded the company profiles, rearranged much of the older writing on the site, added a couple of additional old photo albums from Japan that I’d prepared before but never actually published, updated a few entries in the glossary, added a new history page documenting the evolution of AAW over the past 12 years (complete with screenshots and some links to the WayBack machine, so you can actually try the old versions for yourself if you’re into nostalgia and/or making fun of my crappy 1999-era design skills).

We’re in the process of re-recording and expanding on the audio samples that accompany the Japanese lessons; we have much better recording hardware now, so the sound should be considerably clearer, and I wanted to start from scratch so it all sounds as good as possible. Currently there’s just the beginning re-done, but now that the incredibly time-consuming rebuild is complete, I’ll be working on more as time permits. They are best heard as HTML5 audio in a decent browser (meaning Safari or Chrome 4+, Firefox 3.5+, and eventually Opera and Internet Explorer 9 ); it might work with QuickTime in older browsers, but no guarantees—do yourself a favor and upgrade anyway.

Old-time readers might be glad to note the resurrection of the screencap galleries from the days of yore; we’ll see how that goes, but small galleries, including commentary on the images, have been added to about a dozen shows, with more to be added steadily over time.

We’ve also added large-sized box art images to everything. Not just cheesy “grab what Amazon’s got,” either—Akemi personally scanned every DVD reviewed here that I own. That means over 200 extra-high-quality box art images for those who like such things (the other 200 are made up of the best images I could find; if you have a copy of one of the handful of ancient VHS tapes we couldn’t come up with anything decent for, and are willing to scan it for us, we’d be eternally grateful).  Note that you can click the box art on any review to get a larger version.

Our big new feature, in terms of “fun ways to find more stuff to watch,” is an analogy added to every single anime reviewed here, such that you can get a pithy answer to the question “What else is it like?” (and let me tell you, writing anything at all for 400 anime isn’t easy).

In the “new but not quite ready for prime time” feature department, we’re also experimenting with an amusingly unscientific graph of quality versus time for TV series; the first such experiment is on the Kanokon review:

Amusing quality graph for Kanokon

Here you can see in geeky detail exactly how Kanokon is lame, and where it gets particularly abysmal.

I plan on adding more of these to other TV series over time.

Along with that is our first experiment in side-by-side comparisons of Blu-ray discs versus the upscaled DVD version of the same title, as can be seen toward the bottom of the Ponyo image gallery.  I sort of enjoy comparisons like that, so as time permits I will add more.

Finally, in addition to the two newly posted reviews, I’ve updated about 50 older reviews with adjustments ranging from minor grammar fixes and availability corrections up through significant re-writes of about a dozen others. Some of these will be showcased in the new Pick Of The Week rotation (now fully-automated from a hand-selected queue, so if I’m asleep at the wheel you’ll still get the next pick right on time).

We’ve also decided to completely ditch a few features that hadn’t been properly updated in years, and have removed a few things that were going to hold up converting to the new look due to needing significant re-writes.  These orphan pages (mostly old song lyrics that needed serious updates on the translations) will eventually sneak back in as I revise them.

Of course, some stuff is no doubt messed up; if you find such a thing, tell us and get a chance to win this month’s contest!  (Actually, it’s technically next month’s contest, but you just get an extra week to find stuff that way).  I hope people actually enter, because I have a whole shelf full of DVDs here to pick from.

A few additional comments for the geekier types who might be curious:

Everything on the site is, or should be, valid HTML5 according to the current state of the draft spec, and all CSS is valid CSS3 with the exception of some -moz and -webkit additions to add support for rounded corners, shadows, and alpha channels to older versions of Safari, Firefox, and Chrome. We’re using just a bit of @font-face fun, with the attractive Helvetica Neue Ultralight clone Lane as a fallback for the page subheadings for people who don’t have the real thing. The site has been tested to be at least usable in Opera 6-10, Safari 2-5, Chrome 4-5, Firefox 1.5-3.6, Internet Explorer 5-8, Camino 1.6-2, Mobile Safari in iOS3 and iOS4 (which just launched today, but that was enough time to install it and test!), the default Android 1.5 browser, the Wii and PS3 browsers, plus some archaic oddities, for fun (Netscape 4, IE5 Mac, Firebird, Lynx).  It uses progressive enhancement, meaning that it’s totally usable even with no styling whatsoever on Netscape 4, all the way up to a bunch of little touches like rounded corners and drop shadows in modern Webkit or Gecko browsers. It looks pretty much perfect in good new browsers (last two versions of Opera, Safari, Firefox, and Chrome), and fine but without pretty touches in IE8. IE6 and IE7 get a somewhat dumbed-down version that looks similar custom-built for them, and while old versions of Opera and Firefox screw some stuff up they work and look pretty good. The only real disappointment is that the PS3 browser chokes somewhat (ugly but usable; the Wii amusingly is perfect, since it uses Opera instead of the embarrassingly underfeatured NetFront mobile browser Sony licensed) and IE5 Mac looks relatively bad (but also usable); not enough people use either for me to care much. (That said, c’mon, Sony, fix the browser already! It doesn’t even work on your own forums. Heck, any Android or Apple phone from the last year or two makes it look primitive.)

Interesting statistic: IE6 is now down to only 5% of AAW page views, which is a huge change from when IE6 was dominant and IE5 still had about 10% share when we did our previous design—it’s amazingly freeing to just design for good browsers and decide not to waste time on anything more than a simple version for broken old versions of IE.

Almost everything has been optimized for speed—code organization and optimization, minimizing HTTP requests, server-side compression, hand-tuned content caching, and more. On a fast connection page loads should rarely take more than a second—average over DSL after the big stuff has cached, on my 4-year-old laptop running Safari 5, is about half a second until you can start reading.  Even at dialup speeds (I checked!), after the initial 45-second delay to load the stylesheet and javascripts you should be able to start reading a new page within a second or so of clicking a link.

Of course, if you’re the geeky type and you think we’ve done something wrong, by all means, give me a hard time. That’s how you learn.

And that about sums it up—hope you enjoy looking around the new site!