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HP Chromebook EnterpriseSuddenly after years of decline personal computers are hot again. Sales are up and there are shortages of some models.

It may not last. Indeed the full year could still see an overall decline in sales. Yet for now, the PC has regained relevance.

After playing second fiddle to the phone, the focus is back on the PC. That mainly means laptops.

The move to working from home has seen an explosion in demand for hardware with a decent size screen and a proper keyboard.

It’s not just office workers setting up shop on the kitchen table, it’s also students logging on to remote lessons and many others turning to digital entertainment to fill the hole left when you can’t go out so much.

HP in a good place today

HP is in a good place to exploit the exploding demand. It is, after all, New Zealand’s best selling PC brand by a fair clip. It is the leader in many countries around the world and even where it doesn’t dominate, it is an important player.

Apple’s computer strategy may not be as laser focused today as it has been in recent years, but it focuses on a handful of product lines. Microsoft does something similar with its Surface hardware.

In contrast, HP takes the opposite approach. It throws a lot of ideas against the wall knowing full well that some will stick.

This week’s announcements in the US follow that approach. The company has focused on two distinct, non-mainstream PC sectors. At one extreme it has gone big with new Omen gaming PCs. At the other there are enterprise-focused Chromebooks.

The Omen announcements are grunty machines ideal for people who need lockdown entertainment. There is a large screen 27-inch gaming monitor with 165Hz refresh rate and 1ms response time.

HP Omen 27i Gaming Monitor
HP Omen 27i Gaming Monitor

The new Omen computers are built around high performance Intel i9 and AMD Ryzen 9 CPUs. They use Nvidia RTX 2080 or AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT graphics cards. Also in the mix are a fancy new case design, Cooler Master cooling components and HyperX high-speed Dram along with WD Black SSDs.

A good Omen

Gaming PCs have been a success story for HP. They are one of the few PC categories to experience growth and because the products tend to be premium throughout, margins are healthy. With people spending even more time at home, they are likely to continue selling well.

We don’t see them so much in New Zealand, but elsewhere in the world Chromebooks are very popular in education. HP makes plenty of affordable low-end Chromebooks to address this market. Now it is parlaying some of that expertise to meet a corporate need for low-cost cloud-based hardware.

The revived Enterprise 14 G6 Chromebook won’t win any prizes for performance. It doesn’t have to. It is as a solid cloud-based laptop with a 14-inch display. There are more swept up Chromebooks and one model comes in the 2-in-1 format.

There’s also a mobile thin client, which is, in effect, a laptop for people who use a virtual desktop, another trend which is more prevalent overseas than in New Zealand.

Elsewhere HP has a new laser printer for home users. Its sales pitch is that it comes with seven times as much toner as earlier laser printers.

 

 

 

On the fifth anniversary of Windows 10, we look back at what it was supposed to be and what it ultimately became. Almost nothing turned out as planned, and that’s OK.

Ed Bott brings the state of Windows 10 up to date at ZDNet with: Windows 10 turns five: Don’t get too comfortable, the rules will change again.

He writes:

I celebrated the occasion by upgrading a small data centre’s worth of Windows 10 devices to the new build and monitoring for glitches. This year, the process was refreshingly uneventful and almost shockingly fast. On newer PCs, almost everything happened in the background, and the wait after the final reboot was typically five minutes or less.

Five minutes seems incredible. There were early iterations of Windows 10 where you might need to set aside the best part of the day for an upgrade.

That was for the essential pre-upgrade back-up along with an hour or so for the upgrade itself. On top of that was time needed to familiarise yourself with the new reality.

Often things would go missing. In some cases key features would be dropped or change beyond recognition.

One lesson at that time was to never automate or customise Windows 10 because you’d never know if an update would break everything.

There were also times when an automatic upgrade might happen without warning and you’d wake up in unfamiliar territory.

It’s not clear to me how long it took Microsoft to get Windows 10 to the point where upgrading stopped being a risky venture.

Microsoft’s cunning plan

Ed Bott:

Back in 2015, Microsoft’s vision for Windows 10 was expansive. It would run on a dizzying assortment of devices: smartphones running Windows Mobile, small tablets like the 8-inch Dell Venue 8 Pro 5000 series, PCs in traditional and shape-shifting configurations, Xbox consoles, the gargantuan conference-room-sized Surface Hub, and the HoloLens virtual reality headset.

In 2020, that vision has been scaled back. Windows 10 Mobile is officially defunct, and small Windows 10 tablets have completely disappeared from the market. Of all those chips scattered across the craps table, only the 2-in-1 Windows device category appears to have paid off.

There was a time when Windows Mobile, or Windows Phone as it was called, beat the pants off Android and gave iOS a run for its money. Windows Phone 7 was great. It integrated neatly with everything else Windows and Office. For a while the Windows desktop and mobile combination was the most productive option.

Microsoft, being Microsoft, couldn’t resist tinkering with great, making life more complicated. Let’s face it, too complicated.

Windows Phone 8 may have had better features, but it was already on the path to clumsy and cluttered. From that point things kept getting worse.

Of course the real killer was that mighty Microsoft, once the world’s largest company and still among the biggest, couldn’t assemble a credible suite of phone apps.

Microsoft would have done better spending more of its capital seeding phone app developers than on other failed investments. Or maybe it was always a lost cause. It doesn’t matter because a reinvented Microsoft went on to greater things with Azure and enterprise products and services.

There are times when 2-in-1 Windows devices sparkle and shine, but for the most part non-Surface Windows PC hardware feels almost held back by Microsoft.

HP, Dell and others give every appearance of being capable of making great hardware. Yet they never quite reach the lofty heights. Ever so often something special appears, but you have to move fast and buy it at the time because the good stuff never gains traction.

Likewise Microsoft’s own-brand Surface products don’t always hit the target. There have been missed. Yet on the whole the Surface experience is fine even if product reliability isn’t up to scratch. And if you want to spend that much money, Apple can look relatively inexpensive by comparison.

On conspiracy theories

More Bott:

And then there were the dark scenarios that Microsoft skeptics spun out around the time of Windows 10’s debut.

The free upgrade offer was a trap, they insisted. After Microsoft had lured in a few hundred million suckers with that offer, they were going to start charging for subscriptions. Five years later, that still hasn’t happened. If Microsoft is running some sort of hustle here, it’s a very long con.

There’s more conspiracy coverage in the original story. As Bott says, it is all nonsense. The conspiracy theories looked daft at the time. They showed a lack of understanding about Microsoft’s direction and where Windows 10 fits in the big picture.

Windows 10 did the job it needed to do

As Bott puts it:

Despite the occasional twists and turns that Windows 10 has taken in the past five years, it has accomplished its two overarching goals.

First, it erased the memory of Windows 8 and its confusing interface. For the overwhelming majority of Microsoft’s customers who decided to skip Windows 8 and stick with Windows 7, the transition was reasonably smooth. Even the naming decision, to skip Windows 9 and go straight to 10 was, in hindsight, pretty smart.

Second, it offered an upgrade path to customers who were still deploying Windows 7 in businesses. That alternative became extremely important when we zoomed past the official end-of-support date for Windows 7 in January 2020.

It’s taken Microsoft eight years to recover from Windows 8. In some ways it still hasn’t fully recovered. It may never recover. Windows 8 was the point where Microsoft no longer dominated.

Yes, things happened elsewhere. There was a switch from PCs to phones. But the key point is that when Microsoft faced the first serious competition to its dominance, it released a terrible operating system. Or at least the wrong operating system to meet the challenge.

Windows 10 didn’t halt Microsoft’s OS decline

If anything Windows 8 accelerated Microsoft’s OS decline.

Stockholm syndrome means that many Windows fans couldn’t see how awful Windows 8 was. Switching from 7 to 8 was a horrible experience. People who could put off those upgrades and stayed with 7. Today about 20 percent of all OS users still have Windows 7, an operating system that is well past its sell by date. Microsoft no longer supports 7.

Other users switched to Apple, Linux or even ChromeOS. And there was a huge switch away from computers to phones.

Before Windows 8 Microsoft’s OS market share was around 90 percent. Today it is about 35 percent and comes in behind Android. Apple is about 8.5 percent.

Windows 10 offers a credible path for Windows 7 users. The fact that so many users, especially enterprise users, have stuck with 7 tells you how bad things were for Microsoft.

To a degree Microsoft has lost interest in Windows. It no longer makes rivers of gold from the operating system. At least not directly. It remains important as a gateway for business users to move to the company’s Azure cloud services. But the days when Windows called the shots are over.

Many US systems that process unemployment claims still run on COBOL, a 60-year-old programming language that relatively few coders understand.

IBM plans to offer free COBOL training to address overloaded US unemployment systems:

“IBM is releasing a free training course next week to teach the 60-year-old programming language COBOL to coders. It is also launching a forum where those with knowledge of the language can be matched with companies in need of help maintaining their critical systems.

“The moves come in response to desperate pleas by state governors for anyone with knowledge of COBOL to volunteer their time to help keep unemployment systems functioning, a critical need as the coronavirus has resulted in an unprecedented surge in people being laid off and having to claim unemployment benefits.”

Younger readers may be mystified by this. COBOL is a programming language from the early 1960s. It was mainly used to write business applications1 on mainframe computers.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say COBOL is like Basic, but there are some similarities. If you’ve used Basic, especially one of the earliest forms, you’d recognise some of the concepts.

Printing numbers, text

One of its big features back in the day was the ability to carefully place printed numbers and text in the right places on forms… so that computers could, among other things, write paper cheques.

This was a strength, but, in a sense it turned out to be a weakness, as we shall see later.

Another big feature of COBOL something newer programming languages might learn from, is that it is self-documenting. That is, it is easy to write code in a way that other programmers can follow. This was important as it meant others could pick up the pieces at any point.

In 1975 I studied Computer Science A Level at a technology college in the UK. We mainly worked in Fortran, another early language, and Assembler, which is a kind of half way house between machine code and a formal language. There was some Basic and some COBOL.

COBOL obsolete in the 1970s… sort of

At that time one of the Computer Science Lecturers introduced us to COBOL. I remember him saying that the language was still important, if we were going to end up as programmers it would probably be what we would use at first. However, he went on to say  COBOL probably wouldn’t be around much longer.

That was 45 years ago. It is still going strong.

The headline mentions that COBOL is back from the dead again. That’s because it had a come back in the late 1990s. Much of the problem that was known as the millennium bug or Y2K, was to do with COBOL code.

In the late 1990s, many important programmes, especially those used for billing systems and for government, used COBOL. The printing features had standard ways of handling numbers and, in particular dates.

From memory, correct me if this is wrong, COBOL could handle the year number in more than one format, but almost every programmer stuck to using just two digits to show the year. So they represented 1975 as 75. When the year 2000 rolled around, most COBOL programs interpreted this a 1900. The error would then cause problems elsewhere in a program.

COBOL’s second coming

So in the late 1990s, industry dragged COBOL programmers out of retirement to fix up the software some of them wrote in the first place. I fielded calls from recruiter offering me huge money to work on fixing COBOL code.

Keep in mind that I have never worked as a programmer. I did one year of university Computer Science before realising this was not the career for me. And my only brush with COBOL was a few lectures during the mid 1970s. This tells you just how desperate businesses were to get their code fixed in the late 1990s.

Now COBOL is back in the spotlight as many US unemployment systems still use the language. They are busy right now with US unemployment rates going through the roof. IBM is training people to fixed COBOL code.

Undead software

Here’s the weird thing about COBOL. It wasn’t even remotely cutting edge technology by 1980, yet a lot of mainframe programs depended on it. Companies rarely reworked programs with more modern programming languages. Instead they employed teams to keep maintaining and tweaking ancient code. Over time they dropped many old programs for newer technology, but not at the pace you might imagine.

Because everyone knew COBOL was past its sell-by date, people didn’t worry about the looming Y2K problem until the late 1990s. They assumed the old code would be replaced by then. But it wasn’t. Those programs kept churning on.

I found this reference at the Six Colors website:

Back in 2015 my pal Glenn Fleishman found the oldest computer program still in use for MIT Technology Review, and guess what:

In 1958, the United States Department of Defense launched a computerized contract-management system that it dubbed Mechanization of Contract Administration Services, or MOCAS (pronounced “MOH-cass”). The system was designed to use the latest in computation and output technology to track contracts in progress and payments to vendors.

Fifty-seven years later, it’s still going…. MOCAS is written in COBOL.

On and on

That same attitude applied in the late 1990s. Programmers patched code on the assumption that the clunky old COBOL programs that had made it to 2000 were not going to stay in use much longer. This lead to another problem.

It’s not only COBOL that carried on this way. Microsoft Windows retained many original lines of code from the 1980s well into this millennium. I’m not sure if it is still true today, but for decades Microsoft Word included segments of ancient code. In many cases the app didn’t actually use the code, but developers were often unwilling to remove it until the next big clean up.


  1. In those days people rarely talked of applications. If they did, it was more often about the application of the computer to a task than a synonym for program. Likewise, the people who wrote programs were always programmers, I don’t recall hearing the term developer until well into the PC era. Again, if you remember otherwise, feel free to comment. I’m not infallible. Nor is my memory. ↩︎

In our coronavirus-tainted world, we’re realising that we depend a lot on our laptop webcams… and they’re not good. WSJ’s Joanna Stern compared the new MacBook

At the Wall Street Journal Joanna Stern takes a critical look at laptop webcams: Laptop Webcam Showdown: MacBook Air? Dell XPS? They’re Pretty Bad

Part of the problem comes down to laptops having thin lids, too thin to include great webcams. Mind you, thin hasn’t stopped phone makers from putting a lot of time and energy into making better cameras.

To a degree none of this would have been much of an issue before half the world started working from home on their laptops. For most people video conferencing was something of a nice-to-have after thought until now.

Suddenly we all notice the poor picture quality. What makes this worse is we now have much more bandwidth, so the internet connection is no longer the limiting factor. We also tend to have much higher resolution screens, so camera flaws are more noticeable.

Opportunity for better webcams

There is a huge opportunity for the first laptop maker to get this right. Apple is the most likely candidate here. It’s noticeable how much better the front facing camera is on a iPad Pro when compared with, say, the MacBook Air.

The 2020 12.9 inch iPad Pro has a seven megapixel front facing camera with all the trimmings. It handles 1080p video at up to 60 frames per second.  In contrast, the 2020 MacBook Air camera is only 720p.

No doubt there is room for improvement now the laptop camera specification matters in ways it didn’t.

The most curious thing about Stern’s video story is that Apple put a better camera on MacBooks ten years ago. Of course they weren’t as thin then.

Of course there is a trade off between thin and camera performance. Laptop lids are thinner than phones or iPads. Apple’s obsession with thin meant laptop keyboard problems until recently. Now it has to rethink where cameras fit in this.

 

The Guardian reviewer Samuel Gibbs gives Apple’s 2020 MacBook Air five stars.

In form and function the MacBook Air is just a few shades short of the perfect traditional laptop. If you don’t want a more modern convertible, you’ll struggle to find a better consumer machine than this.

The keyboard is finally as great as the trackpad, the battery lasts long enough for a work day, it’s light but strong and the screen is beautiful, while the little things such as Touch ID work great. You also get two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a long support life.

Sure, the screen could have smaller bezels and the webcam could be better – why Apple hasn’t put its excellent Face ID into its laptops I have no idea. You can’t upgrade the RAM or storage after purchase, there’s no wifi 6 support, nor SD card slot or USB-A port, but by now most will have enough USB-C cables and accessories, and if not, now is the time to buy them.

As the headline suggests, this is a positive review. The pluses are big, niggles are minor. It squares with my long term MacBook Air experience.

I’ve used MacBook Airs for the past six years. I’m on my second one. Every member of my family now has one. They are by far the best laptop for writing and other light computing tasks. There is more than enough power for everyday users.

Apple MacBook Air 2020

Price and productivity

When I write about Apple products1 there are always readers who complain about the price.

That misses a lot of context. You’re not just buying the hardware, you are buying into a different way of using computers.

Macs come with a suite of productivity software that costs extra if you buy a Windows computer.

They also come with a complete, fully realised, this is a word I hesitate to use, ecosystem.

Apple’s world is not necessarily better or worse than what you’d get with Windows or for that matter with Android or a Chromebook. But if it suits the way you work and think, the relatively small margin you pay for an Apple will pay off immediately in terms of improved productivity.

My freelance writing business quite literally took off when I switched back to Macs from Windows.

You may experience something similar. You may also experience the same kind of improvement moving from MacOs to Windows or from anything to Linux or any other operating system. This is not a one-size-fits-all world.

What my experience says does not work, is attempting to do things on the cheap. Skimping saves you dozens or maybe hundreds of dollars. Being unable to work productively will cost you thousands.


  1. It’s not only Apple, people say similar things about any premium hardware product ↩︎