Christopher Kalos

Technology, Hobbies, and New Ideas

An avid techie since childhood, I've finally decided that it's time to establish my own presence on the web, as opposed to outsourcing it to a bunch of social network pages.

Here you'll find musings, my professional history, and anything that catches my interest.

As will become obvious as this page grows, I'm an Apple user, through and through:  When I work, I use the best tools for the job.  Sometimes that's Microsoft-based, sometimes it's Apple-based, and often, it's Linux-based.  Once I'm at home, though, I find that comfort, simplicity, and ease of use trump all of the flexibility in the world.   

Cool counts for a lot.  Simplicity counts for a lot more.


Gaming, the 2DS, and what's next?

I can sum up my thoughts on the Nintendo 2DS pretty simply: Do you have a 3DS? Yes? Then it's not for you.

It does lead me to an interesting set of thoughts, however. The 2DS is somewhat similar to the Wii U's Gamepad:  Slate, controls on either side of the touchscreen, etc.  It's almost indicative of a new design direction, though I suspect the next-generation handheld from Nintendo may either stick with the clamshell design, or go all out on the tablet front.  The latter's looking more likely, as there's enough pressure from Xbox's SmartGlass and PS Vita's Remote Play to justify a move in that direction.

The weird part, though, is that I've taken stock of all of the gadgets that I keep on accumulating, and I see a few simple trends come up.  Everything's got the same family of chips inside (ARM, often a PowerVR graphics chip,) a touchscreen, a gyroscope, and so on. 

I'm not going to get into a holy war over who makes the better portable device, but people do tend to simplify, and if these gaming systems are struggling to keep up with our smartphones, then what's the next step?  I'm guessing that the phone is going to get involved soon.

On iOS, you have the iPhone and the iPod Touch.  Granted, these make for expensive gaming consoles, but they do just about everything else better than their gaming-specific counterparts.  Web browsing, location apps, Netflix, music playback and management, it's all simpler on the iOS front.  Add in the AppleTV, and we're just waiting for Apple to release some games for it, giving you an instant wireless touchscreen controller.  With the upcoming iOS 7 adding native support for game controllers, this would be a huge entry into the market, and Apple's already shown better chops in digital distribution and online multiplayer than Nintendo has. 

On Android, you have countless Android phones, the Google Play setup, and Chromecast.  Once again, two screens, controllers are optional, and the pieces are just sitting there, with some assembly required. 

Microsoft will probably be content to turn your Windows Phone or a potential Surface Mini into the same exact thing, and Sony and Nintendo are already there. 

I think Nintendo has a way to go before worrying, of course: They have a rich first-party library of games.  You can't just fade away overnight when Mario, Zelda, and Pokémon basically exist to print money.  You also can't compete with a $129 handheld designed to play those games:  Nobody is buying a $199 iPod Touch for their six-year-old, after all.

I'll admit to being a little worried about the idea that Nintendo is going to be limited to the children's market for upcoming consoles, but it's a comfortable niche, and one that the other companies aren't touching.  Where's the kid-friendly Vita? The kid-friendly Surface? The kid-friendly iPod?  While $129 isn't cheap, it's definitely cheaper. 

My best guess?  Smartphone and tablet games will continue to grow in the tween-through-adult markets, Sony will enjoy a small-yet-loyal Vita fanbase, and Nintendo will continue releasing platforms that support their games until Apple comes around with a $100 iPod Touch.  Even then, Nintendo will go a little crazy, releasing their own niche-y handhelds with features that only make sense for gaming, just like they have with 3D displays, stereoscopic cameras, analog pads/sticks, and so on. 

I'm personally looking forward to the possibility of the 2DS Micro:  With some aggressive design, a higher-resolution display along the lines of the old Game Boy Micro, and the almost-unthinkable possibility of no physical media outside of an SD card, they could make a pocketable tablet-style system with 3DS compatibility.  If they DO toss in the 3D screen, as gimmicky as it is, they can basically charge whatever they want and get the hardcore market.  Doubly so if they make it look like an old Game & Watch.

The inexorable rise of x86

So, when I was a kid, there was always this big divide between the major camps:

  • PC or Apple II.
  • Nintendo or Sega.
  • Game Boy or Game Gear.
The really crazy part? The hardware was wildly different. PCs used an 8088 back then, and Apple used a 6502. Nintendo used a 6502, Sega used a Z80. Game Gear used a Z80, Game Boy used a... modified Z80.

What's really odd there is that the Z80 could run Intel 8080 code, and the 8080 was the predecessor to the 8086, aka, the first x86 chip. (The PC's 8088 was basically a mildly crippled 8086, designed to be used in lower-cost systems.)

At some point, 6502's inspiration, the 6800, grew up into the m68k, which led to the Mac, the Super Nintendo, and so on. Apple's since moved to x86 on their desktop and laptop systems, and Microsoft and Sony have now banked on x86 for their next-generation consoles. PowerPC lives on in custom hardware and the WiiU, but as the Xbox 360 rides off into the sunset, so too does PowerPC, at least as far as most home users are concerned.

We're basically down to two major architectures today: x86 for high-performance devices, and ARM for portable devices.

That's not to say it's a good thing: x86 has flaws. It's a complicated architecture to develop, it's hard to develop for in a lot of ways, and it's got variants all over the place. ARM works great for low-power devices, but you end up hitting a performance wall.

The thing is, Intel's not going to walk away from x86. The latest batch of ultrabooks just doubled their battery life with their latest Haswell chips, and they're on the verge of releasing an Atom CPU that can keep up with, and maybe even beat ARM in terms of power needs and performance at the same time. (Right now, it does one or the other, but never both at once.)

There's always the joke amongst gamers when a new system comes out: "Can it run Crysis?" That's just an extension of the old "Does it run NetBSD?" crack. The joke there was that NetBSD was an operating system that was made to run on almost anything.

Now it's going the other way: Does it have an x86 chip in it?

At this rate, we're looking at a major shift in computing: Phones, tablets, laptops, and even workstations, all running on x86 hardware. Yes, the operating systems will differ. Yes, the UI will differ. However, the frameworks are going to converge, and there's likely going to be a much more limited handful of things to deal with when making applications that work on every class of device.

The next fight is going to be Apple vs. Google vs. Microsoft, but that's a whole separate piece right there.

Windows 8 Tablets: Not for everyone!

I'd like to consider myself a fairly open-minded tech geek.  I've played around with Android, I use iOS and OS X daily, and I've used every release of Windows since 3.0.  I've swapped mobile devices around so many times that loyalty is more of a matter of convenience than anything. 

With all of that dabbling, I've come to accept change as inevitable, and sometimes necessary, which is great, because I've stalled too long on really living with Windows 8.  I gave the Surface RT a shot, and there's a few things that I found utterly brilliant about it. 

  1. It's running an OS built for touch.  The Live Tiles concept, the new Start Screen, it's all utterly brilliant on a touchscreen device.
  2. It's running on hardware that can last all day.  A tablet that can't go all day between charges isn't one I can use. 

That said, I have a handful of Windows applications that simply don't work without the real deal, and I can't justify carrying around a full-size tablet alongside my laptop.  As much as I like my MacBook Air, the hardware is nothing special when it comes to all of those sleek new Windows 8 enhancements.  No touchscreen, no detachable tablet setup, nothing.  I wanted to test Windows 8 out as Microsoft's bold new entry into tablets. 

So I did.  I purchased an Acer Iconia W3, which actually meets my needs pretty well.   It's small enough to travel with me, the battery lasts all day, and it does everything that the Surface RT does, only smaller.  If you're looking for a small Windows 8 tablet, it's your only option, yes, but it DOES work, and rather well!

There are, of course, a few caveats.  The CPU is an Atom, which isn't the most powerful chip out there.  The RAM is a paltry 2GB, the storage tops out at 64GB, which isn't much at all, and microSD slot will only accept up to 32GB.  None of this is terrible, but this isn't going to be a primary computer for most people.   

The bigger problems are ones that should be resolved as Microsoft evolves Windows 8, and Acer can't do anything about it on their own:  There simply aren't enough apps in the new Windows Store to keep you in the new Look and Feel.  This ranges from a handful of utilities that a techie like me would use, all the way over to the entire Microsoft Office suite, a toolkit that really deserves to shine on a new, Windows 8-specific layout.   

Simply enough, any time that you go back to the old Desktop, you're trying to use a system designed for screens over twice the size of this tablet by poking at it with your fingers.  It doesn't work well, not because the hardware can't handle it, but because it wasn't designed to be used this way.  Unfortunately, there's still quite a bit of settings management that depends upon the older Desktop tools, which makes things a little messy.

Fortunately, much of this is being fixed in Windows 8.1, and I look forward to that release.

Xbox One, Microsoft, and conviction

First off, let's start with the fact that I'm an occasional PC gamer, and mostly a console gamer.  This goes back to my switch to Mac:  While I enjoy a good number of indie games via Steam, the fact is that I miss out on a lot of PC games, so the consoles fill in most of the gaps.

Of course, when the Xbox One announcement came around, I thought that there were some poor ideas in there, primarily the proposals that the Kinect would be "always on" and that the unit would have to "check in" every 24 hours.

Well, I live in an area with great broadband, but above-ground power lines.  Sometimes, things go bad.  Sometimes, a tree takes out a few lines, a substation is disabled, etc.  These things happen.  When they happen to ME, it's irrelevant:  I can't power up my consoles anyway.  When they happen to my broadband provider's switch in the next town, however, I'm suddenly dead in the water until it's fixed.

 (This, I might add, is why I keep a POTS line at home.  No matter how bad things get, I have always been able to dial 911.)

These aren't edge cases.  There are areas poorly served by broadband.  Demographics with intermittent access, including vast swaths of our Armed Forces.  Most importantly:  Customers.

What's the harm, I wonder, in someone playing games on their DRM-equipped gaming system with zero internet access for a few days?  That someone's going to rip out the hard drive, copy the data, and give it to a dozen friends?  Do you think THAT little of your customers that they're going to resort to piracy?  Ridiculous.  I have a device with DRM-enabled games with me right now, and those games play fine for weeks without Internet access: It's called an iPad. This is far from a relevant problem, but Microsoft painted a picture in which it was.

As for the Kinect, I get that they're really just trying to get the Xbox One to be an active participant in all TV-related activities.  That doesn't mean that it shouldn't have an off switch.  Accept that some customers are paranoid, and let them disable it. Warn them that they'll lose features.  Make some games with killer features based on Kinect, and stop worrying about it.  

Instead, we get a dramatic reversal.  No constant check-in.  Remove the Family Pass.  Drag us away from a system which was the opening salvo in an attack on $60 games, nigh-worthless resale value at GameStop, and profits going to the hands of GameStop execs instead of game designers.

Why?  Because Sony's marketing team was clever enough to capitalize on the weaknesses of Microsoft's marketing team.

Change the message, NOT the vision. It's a common Microsoft problem, ranging from their infighting between the old Tablet PC team and the Office team in the XP days to the unwillingness to embrace the overall vision of Longhorn, resulting in Vista, a half-baked product, or the capitulation in Windows 8.1 to "bring back" the Start Button.  

(They're not really bringing it back, at least not in the way that people hoped.) 

Microsoft has a few good ideas right now.  Live Tiles, which move the user to a data-centric interaction model. An OS that can, when used properly, embrace both a tablet and a desktop UI all at once. A gaming juggernaut in the US. Brilliantly simple motion gaming, without the extra gadgets in-hand. Digital distribution of content. Subscriptions to their Office suite, the 800-pound gorilla in productivity software. There's all the slowly growing parts of an overall ecosystem to rival Apple and Google.  Against Apple, they have overwhelming marketshare. Against Google, they're already pitching themselves as the company that doesn't sell your personal information.  This may be hyperbole, but that's how marketing tends to work.

When using a Windows Phone/Windows 8 system properly these days, that's not a Start Screen.  That's a dashboard.  It's the access to everything you might want, and a single pane of glass into the key things that you need.  It's the Windows Mobile Today Screen, the iOS Notification Center, the PalmOS fast access keys, all in one place.

Xbox One was merely the extension into the living room, moving all of your content to the digital realm where possible, removing the need for easily-scratched discs, and tying together the application and content ecosystems with one Microsoft Account. 

Sound familiar? iCloud Backup? Android's long-envied Google Account tie-in? WebOS' Synergy, to a certain extent?

Instead, Microsoft looked at the precipice, and instead of leaping forward, stepped back. Again. 

I could've accepted a compromise. I wanted a compromise, frankly. What we got was a cop-out, and one that may resign the next generation of console gaming to your cell phone.  I have games that I downloaded in 2008, on an iPhone 3G, on my current iPhone.  It's handy. It's nice. It is, honestly, how things should be. I download games to my Vita instead of schlepping to the store, and with PS Plus, I've downloaded the "free" version of launch games that I have on cards. My content follows me, now.  We've all embraced it, but if I described it as a system where my licenses could disappear on a whim?  Where the Wi-Fi is always on, checking where I am? Suddenly, we go from location-enhanced gaming to grabbing our tinfoil hats.

I'm certainly more than a little disappointed, but with any luck, MS' next move will be a gradual series of patches to enable as much of the One's potential while slowly convincing us all to move away from disc-based media. It's an inevitability, and one that we should accept for its conveniences, as opposed to balking at the more esoteric conspiracy theories.