Companies have used technology to snoop on workers for years. It ranges from spy-in-the-cab devices used to measure truck driver movements to key-loggers counting the number of keystrokes a desk bound employee makes every hour.
If you want you can check if an employee takes many tea, toilet or lunch breaks. There are even home detention style ankle bracelets used in warehouses and similar workplaces to track where everyone is.
For many tasks surveillance is plain dumb. It’s easier to measure a worker’s output. That’s what matters.
They earn their pay as long as they add value, serve customers, clear call backlogs or otherwise improve profits. It shouldn’t matter how many key strokes, phone calls or trips around the warehouse floor they make to get there.
Now companies use similar employee snooping technology to watch staff working from home. The companies who sell these systems have seen their business grow at a cracking pace.
The names of these products say a lot about the mindset of companies using the technology:
That last one is vile.
On top of everyday snooping there are products which let bosses watch what is going on through the webcams on home computers.
One product that does this goes by the name of Sneek….
There’s a naming pattern emerging here, at least the people who make this software are self-aware. You’d have to worry about managers leafing through brochures for products with names like Sneek and StaffCop.
Others products let managers listen in on people’s home. There are tools that automate camera watching or listen in case trigger words are used.
And then there is this example from the Wired story
“PwC has developed facial recognition software that can log employees’ absences from their computer screens – including for bathroom breaks. The accounting firm insists the technology is to meet compliance regulations as the financial world adjusts to home life.”
Much of this is thought of as normal in the US. The products can be illegal elsewhere in the world. This review of StaffCop in PCMag) evaluates the product without any reference to ethics or morality.
It’s one thing for a company to put this software on computers in its offices, or even on computers that it buys and distributes to staff working from home. Asking people to install the software on their own hardware is another level of evil.
The idea of watching people in their homes using a screen was talked about 70 years ago. That’s when George Orwell wrote 1984. In the book Big Brother has a screen where government spies watch people in their homes all the time.
In other words, it’s no exaggeration to describe these applications as Orwellian. We overuse that term, but it applies here.
Once again we are at a point where 1984 is a training manual, not a warning.
Where they can, workers are fighting back. Wired magazine’s story is about the resistance movement fighting home employee surveillance.
As with the bosses, many of the weapons workers use to counter surveillance are digital. It’s an arms race. A range of new software helps workers get around surveillance. Surveillance software companies respond to block the blockers then the blockers block back.
One trick mentioned in the Wired story, which works if you have a powerful computer, is to use a virtual machine. That is, in effect, a software computer that lives inside of your computer. It can fence off the surveillance software.
There is software to fake mouse movements and software to emulate keyboard use. People even stick tape over webcams or microphones and then claim the hardware isn’t working. The potential to fight back is as unlimited at the potential for snooping.
The Japanese computer maker had a long run. It made its first laptop in 1985. As Sharwood says:
Toshiba “…claims to have been the first to make a mass-market computer in the now-familiar clamshell form factor. By the 1990s the company was producing solid workhorses in the Satellite range and started to make meaningful stretches of mobile work possible with the small, thin and light Portégé range.”
It’s no accident that the first tiny, portable computers came from Japan. In the 1960s and 1970s country was ahead of the world when it came to miniaturisation. This is the culture that introduced the world to the Sony Walkman.
Space saving Toshiba
There’s another reason laptops took off early in Japan. They take up less room.
Japanese homes and offices have far less space than elsewhere in the world. Even senior managers would have small desks. A desktop computer, which in those days meant a large and heavy CRT display along with a hefty main box, wouldn’t leave much space for anything else.
Toshiba enjoyed an early success in New Zealand. For years it was one of the top five PC brands. In September, 1993 I interviewed an IDC analyst who told me Toshiba was a leading brand here because its products “allowed executives to take work home with them”. The NBR published this story.
In their day Toshiba laptops were great, but as Sharwood reminds us:
“As the 2000s rolled along Toshiba devices became bland in comparison to the always-impressive ThinkPad and the MacBook Air, while Dell and HP also improved. Toshiba also never really tried to capture consumers’ imaginations, which didn’t help growth.”
It matters for the PC sector. Yet the implications go much further and could affect international trade, even politics.
Intel was the world largest chip maker for decades. Although it didn’t always have the best designs, it had the best sellers and the key relationships. The company’s ‘Wintel’ partnership with Microsoft defined the PC.
When Apple switched from PowerPC to Intel, the dominance looked complete. That relationship lasted 20 years. Now Apple is moving back to its own processor designs. This means Apple can build faster computers and lighter laptops. Devices will be slimmer or have a longer battery life.
Intel was one of America’s key industrial giants. It continued to make chips in the United States long after other manufacturers, including high tech companies, moved their factories off-shore or outsourced to Asian factories.
In its prime the chip giant seemed incapable of making an error. It was relentless.
Economies of scale
One reason for Intel’s might was the economies of scale. The first of a new line of processors would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Towards the end of the run, it could measure the cost per-chip in pennies.
Scale meant it got the best engineers, the best scientists.
And then it all stopped. Apple’s iPhone was the turning point. Intel missed out on making chips for mobile phones and tablets. Instead computer makers turned to companies like Qualcomm. Apple decided to design its own.
Either way, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company or TSMC, got to make the chips. It became better at the job than Intel. If Intel does outsource manufacturing, TSMC is the most likely candidate for the job.
TSMC now makes more processor chips than Intel. It has the economies of scale. It has sharper skills, competitive pricing and everything needed to be market leader. At least when it comes to making processors.
Unlike Intel, AMD is working with 7nm technology. That is, more advanced chip technology. We need to be careful here, 7nm refers to the size of chip components, but different chip makers have nuanced uses of the term.
If losing Apple wasn’t enough, last week the company announced it would delay moving to its 7nm process. The company slipped behind when it was late to market with 10nm technology. Now the 7nm line is at least 12 months behind schedule.
Intel isn’t going away. It managed to grow revenue 20 percent in the last quarter. The company sold almost US$20 billion worth of kit. Even the PC chip business, that’s the bit everyone worries about, was up seven percent.
Yet, it does look as if Intel is no longer the world’s leading chipmaker. It’s brand is no longer a name to conjure with.
It is more than a decade since people started telling us we are in the post-PC era. I’m guilty1. From memory the idea took off soon after crowds first queued to buy the original Apple iPhone.
There is something in the idea. PC sales peaked in 2011 at 365 million. In big picture terms it has been downhill ever since. Last year people bought 260 million PCs. In comparison phone hit 1.5 billion sales. That’s roughly six new phones for every computer2 .
Yet, to steal Mark Twain’s joke, reports of the PCs’ death are an exaggeration.
Who you gonna call?
Nothing illustrates this better than the response to the Covid–19 pandemic. Phone sales dropped when companies, schools and whole communities moved into lockdown.
All the big brands saw strong growth of notebooks and desktops. Apple, Acer and HP all saw double-digit year-on-year growth. Apple is up 36 percent on the year earlier. HP remains in the top slot with 17.7 percent growth. Dell was weakest with only a 3.6 percent increase.
Reports say HP took a punt early on in the quarter and increased its notebook orders with its suppliers. The bet paid off.
Notebooks were the biggest winners. Channels around the world reported selling out of many models. It didn’t help that China, where most computers are made, was in lockdown during the period and the logistics firms moving hardware around the world had reduced capacity.
The main driver was the shift away from offices to working from home. Schools sending students home to continue learning online was another major cause. Both of these were obvious to anyone watching events. Less obvious was the number of people buying home computers to help relive lock-down boredom.
An untold story of the quarter was the shift from retail computer sales to online stores. Customers couldn’t shop, but they could click online. It’s possible this change may stick as the world moves on from lockdowns. This may have wider implications.
The PC may not be dead. Yet despite the new relevance, sales are still nowhere near the peak. And most analysts see the recent strong result as a one-off. The long slow decline may, or may not, have bottomed out, but no-one sees long term recovery.
Indeed, a worldwide recession is likely to have an impact on future PC sales. Mind you, the impact could be worse for phone sales.
Still, the key point here is that when the going got tough, people didn’t reach for phones, they reached for PCs. That should restore some confidence to the market.
A previous, long dead blog of mine used the term post-PC an August 2011 entry IBM CTO: PC dead, we bailed long ago. ↩︎
Tablets change things a bit, but you get the picture here ↩︎
Some employers will give you a work-from-home computer. Others leave the choice or even the cost up to you. You may be your own employer and make all your own decisions.
Either way here’s a short, straightforward guide on choosing the best computer for your needs.
Start by taking a breath. There is no need to stress. You won’t fail this test. Making the wrong choice will not be a disaster.
That’s because for most people reading this almost anything you buy will be adequate. It will get the job done. There are some exceptions. We’ll look closer at them later. But if you fall into the exception camp you already know that.
Here we’re going to focus on finding the right kind of computer for you to work from home. That means something you are comfortable with. One that fits with both your work and the way you live at home. We’ll consider entertainment and other non-work tasks.
We’ll leave specifics, which brands, operating systems and models for another time. This is the first of a series of posts.
What is a computer anyway?
Let’s start by looking at the big picture. When we say computer, we mean what people in the industry might call a device. It could be a desktop personal computer, it could be a laptop or a tablet.
There are devices that sit between these classes. There are 2-in–1 devices that sit between laptops and tablets. Desktop replacement laptops are another class straddling category. As you can guess from the name, occupy the space between conventional laptops and desktop PCs.
At a pinch the right device for your needs could even be a high end mobile phone. Premium smartphones are a least as powerful as most conventional computers. You can connect many phones to keyboards and screens to act more like everyday computers. Samsung designed the Dex range to make this easier and better..
For the sake of keeping things simple, let’s say a computer comes with a screen, a processor and storage. Most come with a keyboard and either a mouse or a touchpad. There are devices worth considering where these are an optional extra.
Cloud does heavy lifting
Earlier we saw that almost anything you buy will be adequate. That’s because cloud computing can do much, even all, of the heavy lifting. So long as you have a reliable internet connection you’ll be able to connect to cloud services.
There’s a good chance the software and tools your company work with are already hosted in the cloud. The most popular cloud software is Google G-Suite and Microsoft 365.
Even the most basic device can connect to the cloud. In some cases there are cloud versions of applications that you might run on a desktop when working in the office.
Being able to connect to cloud apps and tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams covers most of the important stuff. Up to a point everything else in this post is about the icing on the cake. Your choices can make for a better working experience. They will give you something more comfortable to live with, can make you more productive and will offer more fun when you’re not working.
The perfect device depends on what you intend to do, where you intend to do it, how you live and how much budget you have.
Laptops are the most popular choice by a long way. They range from tiny ultraportable laptops to huge desktop replacements. You can pick up a serviceable low-end laptop for a few hundred dollars or spend thousands.
If you don’t have a spare room or a rumpus that can act as a home office, a laptop you can pack away means you can work on the kitchen table or anywhere else. As things return to normal you can take the laptop to a cafe or the local library. You’ll also be able to carry it between the office and home when needed.
The laptop downside is they often don’t last as long as desktop computers. In part that’s because they can take more of a hammering. Moving them around and bumping them doesn’t help.
Some laptops are fragile, others are more robust. As a rule of thumb smaller, lighter, thinner models are more robust. But first impressions can be deceptive.
Although it is easy to upgrade some laptops, that’s not always the case. This means the internal hardware can become out of date if newer, more demanding applications come along or if your needs change.
Unless you have technical and fine motor skills it is best to leave laptop upgrades and repairs to professionals. There is a cost, but it is often worth the investment.
You will hear stories of people who made a laptop last a decade or more. It happens far more often than the industry might have you think. Yet in general you can expect about five years useful life from a laptop if you look after it.
If mobility is your main consideration you may do better to choose a tablet with a keyboard case.
Tablets are easier to move around even when compared with light laptops. You can sometimes work on them in places where laptops feel clumsy. If space at home is tight or there’s a lot of competition for the kitchen table, a tablet could be your best bet.
Although tablets are not always more robust than laptops they often cope better with knocks if you have a nomadic working life. You will need to buy a cover or case to protect the screen. Often tablet keyboards double as protective covers.
Tablets tend to go a longer time between charges than laptops, but that can be down to how you use them.
You can buy tablets that connect direct to the mobile network for communications. Yet most tablet users do fine relying on Wi-fi or by tethering to a mobile phone to reach the internet.
Some laptops fold, origami style, to become tablets. Some can also work in a tent configuration. This is useful for watching movies or giving presentations.
It’s not always the case, but foldable laptops can be more fragile than straightforward tablets or laptops. Take care when choosing.
Another consideration with hybrids that almost everyone overlooks is that buyers often end up using them as only a laptop or tablet.
Given they tend to cost a little more than straight laptops and tablets, this means you can waste money. There are almost always better ways to spend that part of your tech budget.
Desktops almost forgotten these days
Laptops outsell desktops almost two to one1. In round numbers that means desktops only account for one computer sale in five.
There is still a strong case for choosing a desktop computer. Yet they are not right for everyone2.
Desktops can have big screens, far bigger than even the largest laptop. Big screens are great for productivity. They allow you to place documents or windows side by side. If you work with spreadsheets you can see a lot more data.
Desktop computer productive, fun
At a pinch a large desktop computer screen can double as your television. Lots of people do this with laptop or tablet screens, but larger screens are better. Desktops can also have far better audio speakers than laptops. In general they are better than laptops for games and other entertainment software.
You can also use a proper keyboard. While many laptops have great keyboards, desktop keyboards are often better. Again this can help productivity, especially if you are a touch typist.
In some ways desktop computers can be less expensive than laptops. You generally get more raw computing power, storage and graphics for your money.
Desktops also tend to be far easier to upgrade. They take less of a hammering, so you can make them last far longer than a laptop.
You need to have enough room and a spare desk or table for a desktop computer. You can’t pack it up when you’re not working. You can push the screen back and store the bulky part under the desk.
Don’t get too hung up on specifications
At the top of this story it says specifications are not the most important thing to consider any more. That’s true, but it needs more explaining.
Almost every device has more than enough power to handle all your everyday tasks. Writing, web surfing, playing music, watching videos and Zoom calls will not challenge any modern device.
Likewise every modern device will come with a screen of some description, that way you can see what is going on.
Storage used to be a huge deal. Today, if there’s not enough in the device you choose, you can make up for the shortfall by using cloud storage.
Where computer specifications matter
More processing power and memory means you can run more applications at the same time. You also need a more powerful processor if you want photo, video or music editing.
People who work with large databases or huge spreadsheets also need more powerful processors. But you can often let cloud computing do that kind of heavy lifting.
So by all means choose an upscale specification, but don’t waste money buying more computer than you will ever need. You’d be better off spending that money on a better quality device. We’ll come back to this point in a later post.
In case you were wondering laptops outsell tablets by around four to three. ↩︎
I’ve recently gone back to using a desktop as my main work-from-home computer. ↩︎
The analyst company says it expects consumers to extend the life of their mobile phones replacing them on average once every 2.7 years. For more on this see How long should I keep my phone?
Pandemic device impact
Looking at the worldwide numbers, Gartner says the fall could have been so much worse if it were not for pandemic lockdowns. Because millions of people were forced to work or study from home there was an increase on spending on notebooks and tablets.
Gartner says getting on for half of all employees will work remotely for some or all of the time after the pandemic. This compares with around 30 percent of employees beforehand.
This has accelerated the move from desktop PCs to notebooks.
While people have used their phones more during the lockdown, Gartner says lower disposable incomes mean that people will upgrade more slowly than in the past. Gartner sees the average life of a mobile phone increase from 2.5 to 2.7 years.
One other trend spotted by Gartner is the relative lack of interest in 5G handsets. Before the pandemic it was widely thought that the appearance of 5G mobile networks would kick-start a handset upgrade cycle.
Gartner now forecasts that 5G phones will only account for 11 percent of handset shipments this year. In part this is because of the delayed delivery of new handsets. Gartner also says the extra charges imposed on 5G customers is inhibiting sales.
Microsoft’s uses Surface to take the laptop fight to Apple. While it leaves mainstream Windows hardware to the likes of HP and Dell, its own brand adds an element of sophistication and a different take on innovation.
This week there was a new Surface Book and a new Surface Go.
Surface Go is Microsoft’s smallest and cheapest tablet. Local prices start at less than NZ$600. You can get cheaper tablets, but anything other than an iPad or Surface in that price range or lower is likely to disappoint.
More screen, less bezel
The new Surface Go 2 is the same size as the earlier model, but the screen size bumps from 10 to 10.5 inches. That’s thanks to smaller bezels, the edge around the screen. Surface Go 3 works with existing Go 3 accessories.
That kind of size increase might not sound much, in this case the screen resolution also increases to 1920 x 1280 pixel. The battery is bigger, Microsoft says you now get 10 hours.
There is also a new model with a faster Intel 8th Gen Core m3 processor. Yet the base model still comes with a Pentium Gold processor, that’s the same as the earlier Surface Go. You might want to avoid that.
The Surface Book 3 has a big speed bump, there are 10th generation Intel processors and updated NVIDIA graphics.
Sadly, there’s not much else to excite potential buyers. Physically the new laptops look much the same as the models they replace.
They still have the neat ability to unlock and remove the screen so it can be used as a large tablet. In my review of the earlier Surface Book I speculated that owners rarely use this feature. That appears to be correct.
It still feels like the most interesting variation on the Windows 2-in–1 hybrid theme. Yet it would be nice if there was some fresh innovation in this department. When the first Surface Books appeared the design was well ahead of the curve, today other notebook models feel more up to date.
Microsoft hasn’t sent out review models in New Zealand to date. From the promotion material it looks as if the new Surface Book models continue the solid, well constructed design. Surface Books feel more robust than other mainstream PCs. Apparently it is heavy by laptop standards at about 1.5 kg for the 13.5-inch model.
The next comment will annoy many Windows fans, but the touch screen Windows 10 operating system doesn’t always feel right on 2-in–1 hybrids from other brands. Microsoft seems to have nailed this aspect of design in the past and there’s no reason why the Surface 3 doesn’t continue that legacy.
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.
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
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.