About 18 months ago, after long consideration, I switched from a PC-based laptop to a MacBook. It wasn’t an easy decision. I carry around some 15 years of files and my laptop is my office. My major concern was retaining the ability to open older MS-Office files and use the laptop for demos (some Windows-based, some Linux-based).
After the Vista disaster and an increasingly slower laptop after every OS upgrade, I made the jump. The transition wasn’t so much of a hassle, except that I couldn’t read my older Outlook files. But it was okay because I kept them online via webmail.
The change was a wonderful experience. No longer having to wait for a minute or more to boot up or shutdown, partly due to changing to an SSD, working on the laptop became a pleasant experience, especially with an external 24-in. display. My demos were running fine using VirtualBox.
Meanwhile, at the office, we were looking to replace MS-Office. While Office was pretty good at keeping file formats compatible, with the introduction of the *x formats, we were increasingly experiencing issues when exchanging files. We tried OpenOffice and its derivatives, including some that weren’t free. But alas, that didn’t improve things. Actually, the experience was so negative that we decided to switch back to MS-Office, and using LaTeX when layout really mattered.
This is a bit of a cold shower if you know how old LaTeX is. It also reminds me of a Sony laptop I had in the early 90s – monochrome display with a 400 MB disk drive and 1 MB of RAM. Yet this computer ran WYSIWYG FrameMaker, producing LaTeX-style manuals like a breeze. We are now gigabytes further, but besides more complexity and formatting issues, what have we gained? Specifically, what have we gained in quality?
Most people would refer to me as a software guy. While software is at the heart of what I do, so are systems engineering and formal methods. My company is involved with embedded systems, which must be trustworthy. Apparently, today they must be shiny as well. They have more sex appeal when a touch screen is attached. And often, they should run Linux, even on DSPs, just because it’s free. But where is the catch?
The Linux community is based on a strange, old monolithic software architecture and advocates the open-source religion. No design documents or user manual is needed. Moreover, every month there’s a new release, which means that things like APIs can freely change. Even hardcore Linux engineers have started to hate it, their experience boosted by a similar story on the their Android phones.
I thought I was immune to all this because I was running MacOS 10.8 (OS X Mountain Lion). I had barely bought the MacBook before the Mavericks upgrade came along. Notwithstanding an extensive beta period, it looks like Apple never consulted Oracle as VirtualBox had serious issues. Fortunately, the issue was fixed after three months and I could demo again.
The Mac bug hit my family and my kids were converted. That’s when the issues really started. Both my MacBook and theirs would freeze up from time to time. Apple support was clueless, even when stress testing it for days and replacing the motherboard (I’ll spare you the details). I located the issue myself, scrutinizing the system log after a hard reset. The cause was an automatic upgrade of Sophos, the antivirus program that worked fine on MacOS 10.8, but not on 10.9. Maybe Apple claims that they are immune, but should I trust that statement?
Then I bought an iPad mini. I had barely started using it before it upgraded itself to iOS-8 after an innocent click. When done, it gracefully informed me that I had to upgrade my MacBook to MacOS 10.10 (aka Yosemite) if I wanted to sync the two devices. The only problem was that Yosemite was still a month away from public release. It also told me to upgrade my Pages program while I was still running Mavericks.
A colleague upgraded to Yosemite, but I’m still cautiously waiting. Alas, we now discover that the new Pages format is no longer compatible, even when saving to the older format, which leaves me with a dilemma. I bought a spare MacBook when my machine started freezing up. So I use that when I need Pages with the newer format.
As (bad) luck would have it, new machine just died. Fortunately, I had the files backed up on a USB stick. Nevertheless, the shop confirmed that the machine is dead and we need to wait ten days for the Apple store to repair it (yes, I purchased the warranty and a service contract).
What’s the point of this story? First, I’m wondering whether Apple marketeers really care about their customers, specifically their business customers. Or are Apple iDevices only meant for pleasure and free time? Even then, having to wait ten days while not being sure that they can fix the machine (without losing data) is unacceptable. After all, these iDevices are not cheap.
These issues aren’t restricted to Apple (although we thought they were better). Windows and Linux Circus aren’t much better. For business people, there’s a looming and costly disaster. Processors and memory got way faster and bigger while the prices have dropped, resulting in fancy portable computers that sometimes work.
It is not clear to me what’s really wrong, but if I look back I can’t say that my productivity increased by a factor of 1,000, like the clock speed on my processor. Sometimes it even looks like we took a step back. Software has been growing in size like a mushroom but does it delivering any more?
A few years ago, we analyzed how efficient a data center is and the sobering conclusion was that the number of transactions that could be obtained was 1,000 times less than what the hardware could handle. Most importantly, for business people, continuity is crucial.
Eric Verhulst, CEO/CTO of Altreonic, has a broad engineering education in electronics and software, most recently focusing on developing a formalized approach for embedded systems engineering. His broad scope spans from deep nano-level electronic design to the application software level.