Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Microsoft Hobbles the Fun

Microsoft plans to limit your use of its next operating system, if you own a netbook.

Windows 7 may see limited release as early as this week. See my blog from earlier this month on why you may not get too excited, especially given its continued incompatibility with the tens of thousands of programs written for XP.

And now there's a new twist: Windows 7 will come hobbled for use on netbooks and other inexpensive computers, allowing use of only three applications at a time.

It's easy to get up to three applications at once, as I'm doing right now (my browser, a text editor, and Microsoft Word). If I go to site that opens Windows Media, I'd need to close one of the others, as I would to listen to music in the background, or to use a calculator, or open Excel tables or a Outlook/Mail.

While netbooks and small laptops have limited computing power, that's not the trouble here. Though Windows 7 is still bloated (using about the same memory as Vista. The 'improvement' is that it uses no more), it's still capable of running more than three applications, or at least it was, until Microsoft introduced this lock.

Why the change? Microsoft says it has a narrow profit margin on netbook operating systems, and while I have a hard time picturing it being as small as the $15 they claim, I do believe they should make money on their sales. We're used to demanding things for free - free shipping, free upgrades - but Microsoft has to pay developers to make a new OS, and by paying for our purchases, we support those improvements.

But it's one thing to offer additional features for a cost, like a modest charge for improved releases, and another to disable features that already exist. Apple's Quicktime is a good example of the former: the basic program comes free with a computer, and advanced users can buy and download expanded editing tools.

Running multiple applications isn't an improved feature; it's a basic offering for any current operating system, and paying more to get it feels like a shakedown.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Saving More Gas than a Prius

Hybrids are popular, hybrids are hip. A Toyota Prius can get an impressive 50 m.p.g., prompting California to give them special driving exemptions: they can use the carpool lane with nothing more than the driver.

But that's not the road to big savings in gasoline.

It sounds like it - 50 mpg is double that of most passenger cars - but the measurement itself is misleading, as you can see from this little quiz:

     Which saves more gas?
  • Replacing a 10 mpg S.U.V. with a 20 mpg station wagon?
  • Replacing a 20 mpg sedan with a 50 mpg hybrid?

Surprise! It's the first option.

The S.U.V. uses 10 gallons to go 100 miles, while the station wagon (and sedan) use 5. The hybrid uses just 2, but that's a smaller savings than replacing the S.U.V.. If you drive a 200 miles a week, moving from the S.U.V. to the station wagon saves you 10 gallons, while moving from the sedan to the hybrid saves you 6 gallons.

It's the low mileage vehicles that add up. Moving from 10 mpg to 20 mpg saves a lot more than from 20 mpg to 40 mpg or even 50 mpg.

This would be easier to see, argue authors Richard Larrick and Jack Soll, if we replaced mpg with "gallons per mile," a measure that better shows the cost and savings of improved efficiency. You can read more about their idea or try a mini-quiz on the topic.

Next week's blog will address Microsoft's newly announced strategy for Windows 7: Microsoft Hobbles Your Fun.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Microsoft: No Worse than Before

From the headline reviews of the forthcoming Windows 7, you'd think Microsoft has a hit.

Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal titled his preview 'Even in Test Form, Windows 7 Leaves Vista in the Dust.' He found it 'very promising' and 'a pleasure to use.' Could Microsoft have turned the corner?

Hold that thought.

Look more closely, and you see we have the same giant company with the same huge problems. 

What were those problems with Vista? Mossberg sums them up for us: an operating system that required huge amounts of memory, one that wasn't really compatible with the countless programs written for Windows XP.

How does Windows 7 compare? It uses the same amount of memory and also lacks compatibility with Windows XP.

What Microsoft proclaims, and Mossberg accepts, is that Windows 7 is no worse than Vista. Microsoft proudly touts that this operating system upgrade is fully compatible with the previous one, the one everyone hates, but it doesn't actually expand compatibility as hoped.

Nor does it reduce the memory costs. It doesn't make them any worse, says David Pogue of the New York Times, who calls Windows 7, 'Vista, Fixed.'

But what does it actually fix? None of the problems that Pogue notes made users 'beg, plead, and sign petitions to bring back the previous version of the product.' It just doesn't make matters worse.

Same system requirements. No improved compatibility with XP programs. And, like Vista, it will apparently be sold in six confusing versions, rather than a single, simple package.

That's progress?

This post is going up early, as I'll be away on Monday. Next week will go up as usual, and it will be on The Modern Gas Mileage Mystery.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Copyrights, Music, and 100 Percent of Nothing

Is Apple now the biggest music retailer on earth?

A memo leaked this week suggests they may have passed Wal-Mart in global music sales, and whether or not that's so, they earn quite a lot from MP3s, even as the music industry screams about declining sales.

There's a lesson there about the danger of over-zealous guarding of copyrights.

The music industry so jealously combats anything that might lead to copyright infringement that they missed the biggest source of music revenue in the world today. When Napster introduced the ability to trade songs, it quickly attracted millions of users, and instead of seeing this as a potential source of revenue, music labels fought to shut it down.

Then they offered half-baked 'rental' schemes through monthly subscriptions, and relatively few people took the bait. It wasn't until Apple offered the right to buy a song for around a dollar that online music stores became viable. Sales rose even further when Apple offered the songs without DRM copyright protection.

DRM protection is a hassle, requiring computer confirmation at best and phone-in verification at worst (as with the maligned DRM scheme for the popular game 'Spore'). Since the whole point of MP3s is convenience - they don't sound better than CD's, but they're easier to use - anything that complicates their use is unwelcome.

So here's a plea to the music industry: please, just let us buy the songs and leave your electronic policemen out of our homes.

Posts this month are on technology and society. We'll return to economics in May.

If you think the music industry is out-of-touch, please see next week's post on Microsoft: No Worse than Before.