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What I Use: The Changing Face of Tech

I first started the What I Use page in response to user questions about my own computing environment, but as you may have noticed, it's been a while since I updated it. This has a lot to do with the site's recent transition to a new backend, and a little to do with laziness and disinterest. But while I do intend to get that started back up, and soon, I've been engaged in a bit of technology navel-gazing lately, if you will, and what I'm seeing is that my usage trends are really changing. Chances are, yours are as well.

To understand why this is so, it may be easier to describe what hasn't changed.

I still sit in front of a traditional desktop PC every day, for probably too long, much like I did in 1995 while writing books about Windows 95 and Office for the educational market. Ignoring for a moment the health and fitness side-effects from such a lifestyle, the Paul of 1995 would have recognized today's PC for what it is: A simple evolution of what came before. In fact, aside from today's much thinner and bigger LCD screens, little has changed from a form factor perspective. The PC is still very much a PC.

Ditto the laptop. While I happen to use a very nondescript, middle-of-the-road ThinkPad, the basics here haven't changed either: It's a keyboard, a screen, and some ports connected to a battery. I take it with me on the road. (I didn't actually own a laptop until about 1996, but let's just stick to the script, OK?)

Of course, by definition my particular job requires content creation--in my case, "typing"--on an ongoing basis, so I'm going to be using traditional PCs for some time to come. Those with less specific needs--i.e. most people--now have an interesting variety of computing choices, including ultra-mobile PCs, iPads and other tablets, and even smart phones. My expectation is that traditional PCs will become less common from a percentage standpoint than these other devices, which, frankly, offer enough of the functionality these people really need: Email, web browsing, Facebook, some form of live chat, and so on. (Apple CEO Steve Jobs likened the PC to a truck, with the iPad being a car. He may have had a point, and Apple co-founder Steve Wokniak's recent comments about the iPad being for "normal people," pretty much just restates that opinion in a different way.)

From a software perspective, I still use Windows, not just because of the day job but because I prefer it over Mac OS X or Linux. (If life ever worked out in such a way that buying Mac hardware made sense, I'd still put Windows on the thing, in an instant. It's not even close.) Windows 7, like the PCs on which it runs, would also be immediately familiar to the Paul of 1995, prettier, yes, and more functional, but clearly part of the same heritage.

This familiarity is part of the reason for Microsoft's ongoing success, of course, but also the reason it's fallen behind in newer, key markets like those for MP3 players, digital media software, phones, online services, and so on. Microsoft has emphasized Windows (and other core legacy products like Office) at the expense of new, potentially lucrative markets. The problem is, the face of computing is changing, and this tunnel vision could be a liability.

Looking past the OS, my PC software usage is evolving with the market. Whereas I used to install an incredible assortment of desktop PC software, today I use a mix of traditional, locally installed applications and web apps and services. And frankly, if it weren't for age, familiarity, and my job requirements, it would probably be mostly or all web apps by now. I'm sure this is true for the coming generation already.

So I use Word, Photoshop Elements, and iTunes regularly. But I also use Gmail, Google Calendar, WordPress, Google News,, Facebook, and Netflix. And honestly, it's not hard to imagine moving from my few remaining local application holdouts to web apps. I could replace Word with Word Web App or Google Docs, as others have. I could use any number of online (or phone-based) photo editing tools. And I could (and sometimes already do) just replace iTunes with Amazon Cloud Player. Just not having to install this stuff makes the possibility interesting.

And the phones, the wonderful mobile phones we have today. In 1995, I owned a pager because we simply couldn't afford a cell phone, though such devices were common for the day. The first big cell phone, the Motorola Star TAC, came out a year later, and while I did finally get one years after the fact, I was late to the mobile game. Today, I have Windows Phone, iPhone, and Android handsets, devices that in many ways outstrip not just the computational power of the 1990's PCs I used, but also their capabilities. These devices would have looked like science fiction movie props to the Paul of 1995, though I'd have grokked their usefulness as quickly as any youngster does today.

And those web apps and services? Yes, we could still browse to them in an old fashioned way, using a browser. But modern browsers like Internet Explorer 9 and Chrome allow you to make local shortcuts to those apps in Windows 7, so they can appear side-by-side with locally installed applications. My taskbar is a mix of such (local) applications and (web) apps, and I expect Windows' ability to blur that line even further to continue in the future. And while other companies are pushing devices based on phones, not PCs, Google is working on an OS based on its browser. Which is to say an OS with no real OS.

This raises an interesting point. Years ago, Netscape's overrated co-founder Marc Andreessen infamously said he would evolve the web so fast that Windows would simply become a "buggy set of device drivers" on which his browser would run. He failed at that goal, of course, but you can't help but notice that today's world does in some ways resemble the future he predicted. This is more true of the coming generation than it is of me, but again, I'm old, somewhat set in my ways, and have certain job related requirements. For many, many people, it's the browser (and the phone) that matters, not the PC.

In this world of the future, traditional Windows becomes less important and Windows simply becomes a backdrop, or an on-ramp, to web-based apps and experiences. Microsoft's strategy to avoid this fate is interesting and perhaps unexpected. Rather than push rival technologies like Windows Phone (which, despite its name, has almost nothing in common with Windows), it is rallying around Windows like never before, even while it works diligently to move many of its other products--especially its servers and productivity offerings--to the cloud. The next version of Windows, due in 2012, will run on everything from phones, tablets, laptops, Tablet PCs, and desktop computers to servers. The goal, of course, is "Windows Everywhere."

But I wonder how this strategy works in a world where users, increasingly, don't care about the OS that much. Again, this is particularly true of the coming generation, which is at home with Macs and web browsers as it is with Windows. I wonder sometimes about the people buying Macs, and how they deal with the Spartan and inscrutable OS X operating system. But then it occurs to me that all they need to know is how to launch a few apps and find the web browser. To these people, OS X simply disappears for the most part. As does Windows for many of its users.

For these companies, looking beyond the core products of the past becomes important. Even in my role as Windows enthusiast, I use a lot of non-Microsoft products every day. Normal people, probably even more so. Apple has evolved to the point where its hardware is the most important piece of its own strategy, and the company relies on (and gets) repeat purchasers each time a new version of any iPod, iPad, or iPhone ships. Microsoft hasn't done this. What it's relying on is an established user base and an inclination on the part of these users to migrate, over time, to subscription-based services.

That strategy may work, it may not. I'd argue that many of the services Microsoft competes with are free, not paid. And Microsoft would argue that its offerings are often superior, which is generally true too. But however this shakes out, one thing is clear: The future is not going be like 1995, when Microsoft ruled alone at the top of the tech heap. And things aren't just changing from a usage perspective, away from traditional PCs and software and towards the web and mobile devices, it's changing to become more heterogeneous as well.

That's healthy and positive, and while many will point to this as the sign of a Microsoft "defeat," it's perhaps just as fair to say the market is simply expanding and evolving. And lest we forget, Microsoft's profits and revenues are going up, too, so there's even evidence that what's really happening is that Microsoft is simply getting a smaller piece of a bigger pie. I see it on my own desktop. I suspect you see it as well, regardless of how you compute these days.

Which is all a long way of saying, things change. As I was reminded during a recent meeting (ironically, perhaps, with Microsoft), if you fear change, you're in the wrong industry. Fair enough. I'm not sure I'd say I fear change per se. But I do respect it.

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