Apple, Microsoft, Google & the future of computers

How the three tech companies are shaping the future of portable computers. Also, what's up with the chinese-style surveillance sweeping across Europe?

Welcome to the FWIW newsletter about tech, media & audio written by David Tvrdon. 🌐 Read it online and 👉 be sure to subscribe, if you were forwarded this newsletter.

In this edition

💻 The future of portable computers is emerging

👀 Surveillance in the times of pandemic

💬 Other news: Online learning tools, App winners & losers, FB troubles, Bye-bye cookies, late-night show hosts are broadcasting from home.

How Apple, Microsoft, and Google are shaping the future of portable computers

📷 by me (taken from Apple’s website)

Last week Apple introduced its fourth generation of iPad Pro tablets, which would have been less interesting news if it wasn’t for the new magic keyboard with a “standing option”, USB-C connector and a trackpad (!).

I am sure you have seen the headlines (‘Apple finally admits Microsoft was right’). And frankly, I kind of agree. Even though, looking at the sales of both Surface and iPad, Apple has a significant market share.

When reading and talking about what really happened I have been thinking a lot about what iPhone has done for the smartphone market. There is a clear point in the history of mobile phones - before iPhone and after iPhone.

With tablets, notebooks, and computers this won’t happen so clearly it seems. Let’s just stick with tablets for now.

Tablets have been around for a while. The overall market share is best described by how much traffic comes from tablets to websites, worldwide it’s only 2.65 %. You can say tablets are not dominant players - it’s the smartphones, followed by computers.

🤔 Yes, but. Consider what is happening at the moment. You have tablets, whatever Surface Go considers itself and all kinds of Chromebooks - they change, evolve, experiment.

On the other hand, portable computers haven’t changed for a while. You could even say that they are slowly becoming alike.

Now, with the latest iPad Pro with the new Magic Keyboard, the Microsoft Surface Go and Chromebooks there is a pattern.

The pattern is that you need a trackpad with your touch screen to serve as a semi-decent working station, not just a tool for browsing the internet and watching Netflix while cooking (yep, that’s me).

📷 by me

🤨 What’s next? So far, you have the iPad trying to become more like a computer, the Surface Go with the computer/tablet dilemma and the Chromebooks with all different shapes and sizes, but a clear philosophy - cheap computer for remote office work; or take this description by Wirecutter:

A Chromebook is a laptop that runs Chrome OS, an operating system that uses a Web browser (Chrome) as its primary interface and focuses on Web apps and online storage. A Chromebook is ideal for someone who spends all their computing time in a browser checking email and social networks, working in Google’s app suite or in other Web apps, and juggling lots of tabs. A Chromebook also makes a good bare-bones secondary computer if you already have a laptop or a desktop and prefer a traditional laptop with a keyboard to a touchscreen-first iPad.

Noticed that “makes a good secondary computer” reference? Well, that is true today for iPads and even Surface Go. Maybe Surface Go is the closest not to be labeled a secondary computer.

So, what’s next? For all the three ‘new computer generation‘ (not an official expression, I use it for this argument’s sake) the hardware is or has been ready for a while and now must come the interface, the operating system (OS) that gets rid of all of their snags. Ok, maybe Chromebooks stand a little apart in this debate, though I think they belong more in this new category than in the ‘normal computer’ one.

💡 Conclusion. The ‘“second computer” label will be around for a while because the OS needs to catch up to work seamlessly and really not to pose any limitations to word using these devices.

Most of them all I am looking at iPad to catch up, especially iPad OS, Surface Go has been more of a computer than a tablet (which is nice if you are looking for a portable computer, though not so good when looking for a leisure device).

What I am trying to say is that there is a sweet middle point none of the devices above have touched yet and Chromebooks will probably never get there. Basically the iPad and Surface Go are at the same distance from that point, just from different directions.

For now, I am waiting for an iPad case with keyboard and trackpad that will not cost the same price as the device (the basic iPad starts at $325, the Magic Keyboard starts at $299), perhaps Logitech will come up with a more reasonable proposition, and not just for iPad Pro. If you could have a tablet & computer in 1 for $500, that would be a great deal for most people. Surface go starts at $600, the keyboard is additional $100, so in this case, the Apple deal would make more sense. Good enough Chromebooks start at $330 (here is a nice guide).

Regarding the iPad Pro hands-on reviews, I recommend these two:

Surveillance in the times of pandemic

📷 by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash

At the time of writing this, more and more news emerge saying that ‘In the fight against coronavirus, governments embrace surveillance’. It seems that governments are no longer asking “should we do this”, but “how are we going to do this”.

Slovakia is the latest example:

The government wants to use sensitive data from telecom operators to find out with whom the people who have developed the COVID-19 disease were meeting and whether they are following home quarantine. Only the police and secret services have had access to this kind of data so far, to help them map serious crimes. Even they can't just simply look at the data anytime on a computer screen in real time. To access it, they needed court authorisation, and only then telecom operators gave them the data, for instance on a CD. On Tuesday, the government passed and submitted for a short-tracked legislative procedure an amendment to the law on electronic communications, based on which the Public Health Office will gain access to data about the localisation of mobile phones, for the purposes of containing the COVID-19 pandemic. (Edit: On Wednesday the law was passed)

Just to note from the piece by The Financial Times, the new Slovak government has been extremely vague regarding the specifics which caused a public unease and attacks from the opposition. The good thing is people still care for their privacy, worse is the botched communication in such a sensitive matter.

I have been thinking about this issue a lot and came to the conclusion that this type of data gathering to fight the pandemic is necessary at this point. Some countries have proposed to install an app for everyone, which would serve at one point as giving consent, and citizens would have full power over their information. The problem is you could never get this done well, my grandpa doesn’t have a smartphone and he is not the only one.

An app accomplishes nothing in this case. You would have to have extremely orderly citizens. And even though, if only one takes it lightly, you could be where you started (take this example from South Korea where one individual, ‘patient 31’ spread the disease to thousands).

The governments say they will collect only anonymized data, activists say they could still figure out individuals. Also, the data should be stored only for a while and such laws are passed with an expiry date.

Do you feel safer? No? You are not alone.

What Europe is experiencing at the moment is a test in trust in the government. It does not help when you see news such as this one: ‘Hungary to consider a bill that would allow Orbán to rule by decree’.

At this point no one knows, people familiar with these matters from past occurrences are quite worried that it is too much power and will be tempting to misuse.

Results of this trust exercise will come in later, now is the time to ask questions, get specific information and demand scrutiny, maybe from non-governmental watchdogs with a past track record to call out the government on civil privacy violations.

In other news

📺 Many of America's most popular and influential television hosts are now broadcasting live from bedrooms and basements. Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, and others are taping the shows either at home or from temporary studios. Sometimes it’s fun to watch, other times I feel like they all should learn from YouTubers and just get themselves decent microphones, but that’s just me. [CNN]

What's lost: Multi-million dollar studios and the video quality that comes with it. What's gained: Efficiency and intimacy. Live shots from home are candid and relatable, showing viewers that their favorite TV personalities are stuck in the same stay-at-home boat.

🎓 Google and YouTube launch new resources to help teachers and families educate students at home. The new resources page, called Teach From Home, aims to help teachers and families with the education of students while they’re home from school due to the novel coronavirus. At the moment, the page features ideas like doing a video call with a class using Hangouts (Meet) or creating an online quiz using Google Forms. There’s also a ‘Teach from Home toolkit’, basically a series of slides with instructions for teachers available in 12 languages. [The Verge]

📱 Communication apps, games and streaming apps are on the rise. On the other hand, shared economy services (Uber, Airbnb), dating apps or location/navigation apps (Google Maps) are downloaded less and less. [App Annie]

🦠 Facebook coronavirus troubles. The New York Times has a nice piece on how the social media giant is coping with remote work. Honestly, it sounds like the workers struggle. Take this bit regarding communication:

To communicate, Facebook employees were told to use BlueJeans, which provides technology for videoconferencing calls, they said. But they quickly found that calls were frozen, or the video quality so bad that it was hard to make out who was speaking. Many employees instead turned to Apple’s FaceTime feature, Google video hangouts or Zoom conference calls. Some even built their own version of a video conference call, according to two employees.

I mean, this is just one part of the story. Facebook has published a blog post addressing some of the questions it got regarding the stability of service and also answered whether increased time spent by users means more revenue (TL;DR: Nope):

Much of the increased traffic is happening on our messaging services, but we’ve also seen more people using our feed and stories products to get updates from their family and friends. At the same time, our business is being adversely affected like so many others around the world. We don’t monetize many of the services where we’re seeing increased engagement, and we’ve seen a weakening in our ads business in countries taking aggressive actions to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

According to people familiar with the matter, increased activity is in the communication apps, which the company is not monetizing at the moment. [NY Times]

🍪 Safari now blocks all third-party cookies. What does it mean? By default, no advertiser or website will be able to follow you around the internet using the commonplace tracking technology, if you are using Safari. Google said in January that it would start phasing out third-party cookies but not fully until some time in 2022. [The Verge]

Cookies for cross-site resources are now blocked by default across the board. This is a significant improvement for privacy since it removes any sense of exceptions or ‘a little bit of cross-site tracking is allowed.

🎙️ The New York Times Company acquired Audm, which turns long-form stories into audio. The Audm app allows users to subscribe to its service for $8.99 per month or $59.99 per year. The Times Company hasn’t yet offered any detail as to if or how its business model will evolve or if Audm’s service will be further integrated with its own NYT app. Together with the news of NY Times in talks to buy Serial Productions, the breakthrough podcast studio that has attracted more than 300 million downloads, there have already been speculations the Times is building its version of ‘HBO of podcasts’. [TechCrunch]

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