Modern Technology for Dummies

 
 

Living under a rock for the last few years? Never fear – Conor Murphy offers a quick catch-up for the tech scene

Most people seemingly have lives, and don’t spend all day checking technology news. If you’re one of these people, this catch-up on the world of tech and gadgets is for you.

Three companies have traditionally dominated individual parts of tech for the last few years: Google (the web), Apple (mobile and music) and Microsoft (operating systems). Google has dominated the web for a decade now and has total control over nearly all internet revenue with Google Adwords. However, the future is definitely more ‘cloud’ and less silver lining.

Google’s main problem is confusion: it’s panicked because it has no social networking services, and has tried to fix this by going all ‘mid-life crisis’, releasing more software than anyone wanted or needed. If I want to tell a friend ‘I got a dog’, I can use Google Chat, Google Voice, Gmail, Orkut, Google Wave and Buzz. Extreme geeks couldn’t be bothered telling you about their dog in six or seven ways, every single day, so the public definitely won’t. Google needs to clean this up – and badly.

Apple has redefined what it means to have a successful phone in the last few years. In this key space they are now facing new competition from Google – and soon from Microsoft. Google’s Android operating system (or ‘OS’ for the cool kids) is soon going to become the Windows of the phone world. It’s free, available for any phone maker, well-rounded and powerful – and the actual Google phone, the Nexus One, has received even better reviews than the iPhone. The iPhone now looks old to some, and is feeling the heat so much that Apple has started suing Android phone makers for silly things.

Technology becomes more interesting for the average person when we talk about mobiles. Everyone with a pulse has heard of the iPhone, and its domination is clear – but in the last few months, Google’s Android has gone from two per cent to seven per cent market penetration in the U.S. One problem is anyone who likes Apple can only buy an iPhone, which is pretty but has problems – you can only use one program at a time, for example. Android can be loaded onto hundreds of phones already and more are coming.

Microsoft has always been the Daddy of this group: big and important but definitely not cool. Windows Vista was the closest we’ve come to Hell on Earth, and although they’ve gone decidedly less diabolical with Windows 7, in the phone game Microsoft have been roasted alive.

Windows Mobile has, up until now, been an ugly unwanted offspring – trying to jam a computer OS onto a 2-inch screen. No one outside of the business community has heard of it, and no one cares for it. Microsoft had an App Store for a decade, and no one cared for that either. Then Apple makes it shiny, and everyone goes for it like magpies. That said, Microsoft have just announced a completely new phone OS (Windows Mobile 7), set for launch this November, to great reception.

Despite their respective screw-ups, what’s good and interesting for you is that everyone’s moving into each other’s space. No doubt you own a computer; you probably use Windows. Aristocrats and trendy graphic artists use a Mac. But have you thought about a Google computer? By the end of 2010, Google will release a range of computers with everything the average person needs to work and play – kind of. These machines will be ultra cheap – possibly €100 or less – and fast. The secret? Google thinks everyone is online all the time anyway, so all you really need is a browser. No dedicated music player, no software bundles or other programs… just a browser. Because they are so basic, these machines – running the Chrome OS – will be insanely fast.

This could be a major flop or the best thing to hit cheap computers in a decade – we’ll find out by Christmas. Apple’s OS X works wonders, so that won’t change, while Windows 7 almost works for everything and has kicked Vista to touch, so Microsoft will just improve on that bit by bit for the next few years.

The Internet should be the battleground of this century, yet Google have failed miserably on social networking and need to clean up their other programs. The company really making the ground here is Microsoft: its Bing search engine might acquire Yahoo! and although their normal search still throws up stupid things, their images and video search beats Google’s hands down. They might even be interested in Facebook, and for music their Zune service actually beats the iTunes store for value. Finally we are seeing some competition to provide worthwhile internet services.

One trend that’s both impossible to ignore and hard to understand is the rise of the tablet (or ‘slate’ if you’re cool). These are 10” touch-screen devices that nobody asked for but everyone wants. The iPad is the best-known and, technologically speaking, one of the worst, with a great but awkwardly-sized screen, but it seems people would buy dung in tinfoil if it had an Apple logo on it (iPod shuffle, anyone?) as the iPad sold over 300,000 units on the first day – better sales than even the iPhone. Google meanwhile have a few Chrome OS tablets planned – one from Dell and some from Asian firms, including one for under US$100. Microsoft is planning a slate with HP which looks OK, but we’ll see whether it can integrate some of the cool factor of Apple.

The big three are certainly up to their old tricks in certain areas, but have plenty of new tricks in others. There’s real competition for everything we can think of, and not a moment too soon.

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