Mossberg: The Disappearing Computer

Mossberg: The Disappearing Computer

But just because you’re not seeing amazing new consumer tech products on Amazon, in the app stores, or at the Apple Store or Best Buy, that doesn’t mean the tech revolution is stuck, or stopped. In fact, it’s just pausing to conquer some major new territory. And, if it succeeds, the results could be as big, or bigger, than the first consumer PCs were in the 1970s, or even the web in the 1990s and smartphones in the first decade of this century.

All of the major tech players, companies from other industries, and startups with names we don’t know yet are working away on some or all of the new major building blocks of the future. They are: artificial intelligence / machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, robotics and drones, smart homes, self-driving cars, and digital health / wearables.

All of these things have dependencies in common. They include greater and more distributed computing power, new sensors, better networks, smarter voice and visual recognition, and software that’s simultaneously more intelligent and more secure.

This is Walt Mossberg’s final column. As someone who first got into technology in the 1990s, I can’t overemphasize how much I associate him with my love for tech. I wish him all the best.

MP3 Lives On

“MP3 is dead” missed the real, much better story

Marco Arment has perhaps the most lucid take on the “MP3 Is Dead!” articles that sites like Engadget and Gizmodo have done over the last few days. The truth is, the expiration of software patents regarding MP3 is a good thing. It doesn’t kill the format. If anything, the patent expiration will give the format new life.

From the article:

MP3 is very old, but it’s the same age as JPEG, which has also long since been surpassed in quality by newer formats. JPEG is still ubiquitous not because Engadget forgot to declare its death, but because it’s good enough and supported everywhere, making it the most pragmatic choice most of the time.


MP3 is supported by everything, everywhere, and is now patent-free. There has never been another audio format as widely supported as MP3, it’s good enough for almost anything, and now, over twenty years since it took the world by storm, it’s finally free.


Ubuntu 16.04 Impressions

I have to rediscover my Bluetooth mouse on a regular basis.

I love the idea of Open Source software. I just wish it loved me back as much. Outside of the excellent MuseScore, I consistently find myself frustrated or disappointed by my time with open alternatives to commercial software. OpenOffice and LibreOffice have great features, but they aren’t the easiest on my eyes. SongBird was a nice idea, but I found the actual implementation to be clunky. I love Firefox‘s privacy settings, but it integrates poorly into macOS. The SWORD Project has a great mission, but it can be very confusing to actually use. And the same is true of Ubuntu. I love the idea. I just don’t love using it. Case in point: it can’t remember my mouse.

At first I thought the issue might be with my Bluetooth adapter, so I booted back into Windows to check how the mice behaves there. Windows 10 has no problem reliably reconnected to the mouse between uses. Ubuntu, however, loses the mouse constantly — every time the computer goes to sleep and every time I shut down. The only reliable solution is to go into my Bluetooth settings, remove the mouse, and then re-add it. It may seem a small thing, but it illustrates my entire experience with the operating system.

A Quick History Lesson

A screenshot from an older version of Ubuntu
Ubuntu 6.06, the first version I used. GPL,

Ubuntu is a Linux operating system that Canonical launched back in 2004, and it has become the most popular Linux distribution (distro). It is built around security and ease-of-use, and it’s billed as a truly user-friendly flavor of Linux. Over the years, Ubuntu has gained more capabilities and has continued to refine the user experience. 2010 saw one of the biggest pushes in this direction with the adoption of a windowing system called Unity, which brought a new look-and-feel to the Ubuntu desktop environment while also being more space-efficient on smaller screens.

I’ve used various versions of Ubuntu off and on for years, but I’ve always returned to macOS as my primary operating system. Right now, that’s not a choice in the short term, so I’ve been more motivated than I have in the past to make Ubuntu my primary environment. While I can say it’s come a long way, I’m still not convinced it’s the best non-Mac solution for people who just want something that will work and require little attention or maintenance.

Look and Feel

a screenshot of the Ubuntu desktop showing off the file manager

Ubuntu looks great on the surface. This is, in itself, a nice surprise. Many open source applications struggle from a visual design perspective. In many ways it does feel a little dated with its use of heavy gradients for illusory depth, gloss on folders, and the rather basic transparency/blur filters, but those details feel more charming than antiquated. I’d say Elementary OS has a small advantage over Ubuntu in terms of pure aesthetics, but it’s still one of the better-looking Linux distros. From the boot screen to the shut down dialogue, you can see the care put into the overall visual design.

Ubuntu also gets credit for some daring color choices. Where Windows and macOS make safe choices with grays, blues, whites, and blacks through most of their interfaces, Ubuntu bravely sports shades of purple and orange. It gives the system a unique look, and even from a distance or over the shoulder, it’s certainly recognizable to those familiar with the system. I wasn’t a fan when older versions of Ubuntu relied heavily on browns and golds, but the purple and orange scheme is quite striking.

Firefox on Ubuntu
Mozilla Firefox

The Unity windowing system also gets credit for improving some third-party offerings. I usually have a hard time swallowing LibreOffice’s heavy toolbar gradients, but Unity smooths them out entirely. Even Firefox looks downright respectable in Unity. If you want the prettiest Linux distro available, check out Elementary OS. But Ubuntu holds a close second in my book, and it gets better with each subsequent release.

Usability and Features

Ubuntu’s biggest draw has historically been its ease-of-use compared to other Linux-based operating systems. For the most part, it succeeds well in this mission. However, its shortcomings are pretty glaring when they happen, and they demonstrate how hard it is for any Linux distro to move away from the challenges faced by those that have come before. For example, there’s no easy way to change the brightness of your screen, and it’s been that way for years. To anyone used to working with macOS, you know a couple of the function keys (or Touch Bar buttons) accomplish this in no time. Ubuntu and its relatives are yet to address this simple convenience.

Ubuntu Dash showing numerous applications

Ubuntu Dash is impressive and overwhelming. Last time I used Ubuntu, this area was more of an application launcher. Over the years, however, it’s gained more functionality, to the point where it is more comparable to Spotlight on macOS than any basic app launcher. The beauty of Spotlight is that it doesn’t begin to give you results until you begin searching. In contrast, Dash shows a ton of items the moment you launch it, and it can be a bit overwhelming.

Take the Application tab in Dash as an example; if you expand the list of installed applications, be prepared. Where something like LaunchPad on macOS selectively determines what applications are user-facing, Dash shows everything. It’s to the point where things like Reboot and individual preferences are displayed in the list alongside some downright obscurely-named things like QJackCtl. All of that said, though, the search function of Dash works really well. The only drawback is that it doesn’t search the contents of documents the way Spotlight will. I have numerous old sermons archived by nothing more than the date they were delivered. Being able to search the contents of those documents through Spotlight was a life saver on my Mac.

Ubunu preferences

Then there are the times I’m trying to do something simple like highlighting a paragraph I want to copy when suddenly Ubuntu misinterprets what I’m doing with the trackpad and begins rapid-switching between applications. This wouldn’t be a big deal if there was an easily accessible location to customize trackpad gestures, but there isn’t. Sure, there might be some command line magic I can do to fix this, but that undermines the entire point of Ubuntu. (I also should point out here that I can adjust trackpad sensitivity but not mouse sensitivity. Odd.) It stops being user-friendly when I can’t simply adjust such a major piece of functionality.


screenshot of the Ubuntu app software center

I’m not going to mince words here. If you rely heavily on Apple-specific or Microsoft-specific applications, you’re going to be disappointed. Yes, there are some equivalents. There’s LibreOffice in place of Microsoft Office or iWork. There’s Inkscape in place of Adobe Illustrator. There’s Gweled instead of Bejeweled. Minecraft is available, however, if you don’t mind jumping through some hoops.

An application called Ubuntu Software serves as a sort of app store for Ubuntu. If you fins something you are interested in here, you can download it and Ubuntu Software will handle the installation process. Installing applications from external sources can be somewhat dicier. It involves downloading a software package. If the system recognizes this package for what it is, it will try to let Ubuntu Software handle installation. This is an bit of a mixed bag. I never did successfully install the Vivaldi web browser.


Ubuntu is a clear winner in terms of performance on modest specs. Before installing Ubuntu, I spent a few days in Windows 10, and then Elementary OS was the first Linux distro I tried. Ubuntu runs more smoothly than either. Elementary OS performed acceptably with the exception of the application launcher. There was a noticeable lag between clicking the icon and the launcher opening — enough of a lag that I would often click it twice, only to have it suddenly open and immediately close.

Windows 10 is perhaps the roughest experience from a performance perspective. It’s obvious Windows 10 is more resource-hungry than either Elementary OS or Ubuntu. Running Windows 10, I can often type faster than the computer will render. Ubuntu runs fairly smoothly in everyday tasks. Editing images in GIMP and complex web apps like Microsoft PowerPoint 365 slow things down considerably, but that’s as much the hardware as anything. The side effect of all this is that Ubuntu consistently got better battery life as well, about an hour more per charge than Windows 10.

Unfortunately, performance is more than raw speed. It’s also reliability and predictability, and that’s where my experience with Ubuntu starts to break down. It intermittently forgets my trusted WiFi networks, or it won’t see them at all. As mentioned before, it constantly loses my Bluetooth mouse. These issues were the deal-breaker for me; on top of some software unpredictability and unreliable updates, having to constantly restart my computer to do something like connect to my home WiFi met my frustration threshold.

Under the Hood

The managed live kernel is a fantastic idea. I love the idea of OS updates without having to always reboot the system. The fact that my system has yet to successfully run an update may be evidence why commercial operating systems like Windows and macOS are yet to adopt such a feature. It’s certainly an exciting goal, and it should change the world of computing. Already, I was to the point where I never restarted my Mac except for system-level updates. Live kernel could potentially eliminate that need as well.

Unfortunately, software updates have completely stopped working for me. I consistently get an error message that the package manager is broken. It gives me a command to run in the Terminal, which then returns nothing. This is especially problematic when it comes to system security as the security updates are simply not installing. And no amount of rebooting or Terminal fiddling has overcome the problem. If the connectivity problems had not already been a deal-breaker, this would have.


At the end of the day, I’ll be removing my Ubuntu partition pretty soon and settling for Windows 10 until I can return to the Apple fold. While I have reservations about Windows 10 — most notably around general performance and security — I’d rather deal with slow but predictable any day. Ubuntu may be snappier, but my experience has been far less predictable. Every major operating system comes with its own sets of concessions and frustrations, even macOS, but Ubuntu’s added up to too much for my tastes.

Overall, Ubuntu is on a good track. It’s come a long way since the first time I ran a live CD. It still has a long way to go, and it’s just not where I want it to be for my own daily use. Some more mindfulness in how the Dash presents its information, some rethinking how software installation goes, smoothing out the wireless experience, and being thoughtful about user input settings — these could go a long way into making Ubuntu a more welcoming and user-friendly experience. It might well be the most user-friendly version of Linux to date, but that’s still an unfortunately low bar to clear.

Quick Recommendations

Despite my rough experiences, if you want to give Ubuntu a try for yourself to see just how wrong I am, here are some recommendations for applications:

* I’d probably recommend Vivaldi based on my experiences with it on other platforms, but I could never successfully install it on Ubuntu.

Cupertino, Please Start Your Copiers


iOS 7 liberally borrows ideas from other mobile operating systems while deftly wrapping those ideas in a distinctly Apple style. Shadows of Android, Windows Phone, and even WebOS make appearances in the new iteration of Apple’s reliable mobile OS, just like our modern desktop operating systems incorporate influences from each other and numerous other systems to come before them. While I have little love for Android as a whole (and many understandably disagree with my bias), there are a fair number of individual features that are quite good, and I would welcome their addition to iOS 7. Here are a few.

Default Apps

If I could choose only one feature from Android to bring to iOS, this would be it. If I prefer browsing the web in Opera over Safari, then let’s have all links I click in other apps open in Opera instead of always defaulting to Safari. If I want to use Mailbox as my default email client, Google Maps for navigation, Amazon Kindle for ebooks and PDFs, then let the system respect them as my favorites.

Hiding Apps

I get it that iOS doesn’t want me to delete the default apps. There are apps you can’t delete on Android devices too (though some make less sense than others.) That’s fine. Android, I think, has a good compromise to this problem. You can hide apps from the launcher. Right now, I have a folder of apps on my iPhone I never use but I can’t delete. I’d be just as happy if I could simply hide them.

Better Sharing and App Communication

The Sharing menu in Android is another one of its great strengths. Any app that has sharing capabilities goes there, reducing the need for roundabout methods of getting things to your favorite social bookmarking site or non-integrated social network. I’d love to see Apple open a Sharing API up to third parties.

On a related note, one thing I did appreciate about Android’s odd Pictures app was the ability to select which app I’d use to edit a photo. The current iOS method of launching an image editor and then using its in-app browser to find the picture you want isn’t particularly painful, but it would be nice if I could launch that app from within the Photos app.

User Accounts

Maybe this isn’t as big of a deal with phones, but it’s time for at least the iPad version of iOS to gain user accounts. The iPad is a family computer – no two ways about it. When I pick our iPad up, I should be able to have app icons where I want them, and my wife shouldn’t have to worry that I might delete an email on her account. When our daughter picks up the family iPad, I’d love for her just to be able to swipe across a picture of herself and immediately have access to the apps and services we want her to have without having to fiddle with the parental control settings every time. Mac OS X has wonderful multi-user support. iOS should be no different.

More Customizable Home Screens

An ICS homescreen with a few app icons.

This is pure frosting, but I’d like a weather widget, please. I’d also like to line up icons on the right-hand side of the screen. I’m not looking to create the busy messes that are most Android home screens, but I’d like the freedom to decide how cluttered or uncluttered they are. With the inclusion of unlimited-item folders in iOS 7, Apple has taken one step in this direction. A few more steps would be appreciated. Perhaps a scrolling dock would fit the bill.

Still iOS, Just Better

With all of these wishlist items, you might wonder why I don’t just switch to Android. The answer is that I like my iPhone. I like our iPad. I like the iTunes ecosystem. I like the selection and quality of apps on the App Store, especially the quality and variety of apps aimed at children. (Honestly, the difference in quality between the kids’ apps on iOS versus Android is like the difference between looking for good children’s books at Barnes & Noble versus Walmart.) I like Apple’s aesthetic. I like how scrolling and swiping feels on iOS. I like how many things Just Work™.

Anyone wants things they love to be better, though. I don’t want iOS to stop being iOS. I don’t think anyone wins if the entire market ends up centered around one system the way the PC market did in the 90s and after. But Apple would do well to take a hard look at some of the individual features that Android does well and learn from those.

Android 4.0 and the Galaxy Tab 8.9

This post is ridiculously late coming. This tablet found a new home several months ago, but it would drive me crazy if I didn’t finish this write-up. Subsequently, some of the information here is a bit out-of-date, and I try to acknowledge where those points are.

Updating to an Outdated System

When I first opened my Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 back in early 2012, one of the first apps I installed was Temple Run – which promptly crashed. A month later, my tablet updated from Android 3.1 to 3.2, and the crashing problem disappeared. I was grateful for the update but couldn’t help but notice that Android 3.2 had originally been released in July of 2011. That meant my brand new Samsung tablet shipped with a version of Android that was over a year old, and an incremental point update came to it almost a year late. In fact, Android 4.0 was released a few months before I got my shiny tablet. Surely, another update was imminent.

A couple months after Android 4.2 saw its debut at Google I/O, Samsung rolled out the 4.0 update to my Galaxy Tab, and that right there was and still is my biggest sticking point with a large portion of Android manufacturers. System updates should not come months after their release. Yes, there are a small subset of Android devices that guarantee timely updates, but those are the exception, not the rule. By and large, if you go out and buy an Android tablet, chances are that you will:

  1. Be purchasing an outdated version of Android.
  2. Have to wait a long time to take advantage of new releases, if you’ll get them at all.

If you bought a Galaxy Tab in 2011, your device stopped getting Android updates after Android 4.0 which also came out in 2011 (but you got the update in mid-2012). If you bought an iPad in 2011, it will update to iOS 7 when it comes out later this year, on the same day it comes out for all Apple devices. Of course, you can do all sorts of warranty-voiding things to get around the lack of updates on an Android tablet, but you shouldn’t have to. I personally like the idea of rooting a Nook HD+ to install Android 4.3, but a normal tablet user should not have to consider such alternatives to receive timely updates. If there is anything about the Android ecosystem that still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s this.

The Good Stuff

The single biggest and best improvement Android 4.0 brings is the ability to install Google Chrome and set it as your default browser. Almost all of the browser issues I had previously are gone with the introduction of Chrome, and, unlike iOS where Chrome has to exist as a wrapper to Apple’s WebKit, the Android version is true Chrome. Most pages render correctly. HTML5 video works as expected. It even helpfully zooms in on small links and buttons when you tap in their general regions.

On a related note, I love being able to define default apps in Android, and Google provides a very simple method for choosing things like your default browser. You can even replace the default launcher with a third-party alternative, and I found myself preferring GO Launcher HD over TouchWiz. If I was to put together a list of features I’d like Apple to copy from Android (and I might just do that now), the ability to choose your default apps for certain tasks would be right at the top of the list.

I like that Android has an app launcher separate and apart from the home screen. I would keep my Android tablet’s single home screen very clean and minimal, and use the app launcher to access my stuff. Another great feature of the launcher is the ability to hide apps. You might have some apps – like the preloaded browser – that you can’t delete but you never use. Just hide them. This is also nice if you have apps that you might not want your kids to open. Hide them, and bring them back when you want to use them. (Of course, Android 4.3 takes care of this with the creation of user accounts.)

Other nice touches:

  • Android 4.0 adds support for folders.
  • You can now customize the number of home screens on a tablet.
  • Setting a custom wallpaper has gotten easier.
  • Home screen widgets are very nice. I do not like them on a phone, but they fit very well on a larger screen.
  • The windowed mini-apps are great for utilities that don’t need the entire tablet real estate.
  • Sharing on an Android device is far more than robust than on an iOS device since the sharing API is open to all developers.

Quibbles & Bits

Updating to Android 4.0 added no new issues, but many of those I noted in last year’s review are still present.

  • After the 4.0 update, I still couldn’t put common games like Bejeweled and Scrabble on my device without side-loading pirated versions. There is no technical reason for this to be the case outside the tablet being overlooked amidst the highly fragmented Android ecosystem.
  • Apps continue to launch themselves in the background and consume system resources. It appears background apps will simply continue to launch and run until the system is almost out of memory.
  • Managing notifications on an app-by-app basis is a pain.
  • The stock Gallery app loads every image on the system, sometimes creating directories of interface elements for installed apps.
  • The button for activating Samsung’s mini-apps still lives directly below the space bar, interrupting your workflow if you miss the space bar by a millimeter while using the on-screen keyboard.
  • The ubiquitous back button is still unpredictable.
  • Scrolling through documents, webpages, photos, etc. was still periodically jittery. On paper, the device is more powerful than my old iPod touch. There’s no reason it should give the impression of being less responsive.

The Store

The tablet app situation is improving, with Google working hard to motivate their developers to focus on tablets, but Google Play is still a decidedly phone-centric app destination. You can find a category in Google Play that highlights tablet-friendly apps, but, unlike the Apple App Store, searching in Google Play on a tablet does not automatically prioritize tablet-optimized results. Also, I can’t get over how many shameless knockoffs (like this and this) exist and even flourish on Google Play.

While the media offerings on Google Play are not as robust as the iTunes store, the selection is still very good. Google Play Music has a great selection, and the prices are competitive with iTunes and Amazon MP3. The movie and television selection seems similar on the surface, but a disappointingly large number of movies, like The Dark Knight and the Harry Potter films, are available only as rentals, meaning you have to look elsewhere if you want to own your media.

Google Play Books seems to have a collection very comparable to Apple’s iBooks. The prices are good, and Play Books is a very pleasant ebook reader. You can even upload your own EPUBs and PDFs to view on your tablet. Nook still sits atop my list of reader apps, but Google’s app, while the selection may be smaller, is a far more pleasant experience than Amazon’s Kindle app. Google’s bookstore and is easily the strongest component of Google Play.

Wrapping Up

For every feature an Adnroid devices does right, there is a misstep to counter it. Good system specs get paired with poor optimization, creating the illusion of an underpowered device. Good security updates get hampered by staggered and delayed release schedules that compromise user security. Innovative new features (like multi-user accounts) stay constrained to the newest devices and a very small percentage of existing devices. Amazing screens are hampered by a lack of apps designed for them. Every advantage gets an equal and opposite disadvantage.

I parted ways with my Galaxy Tab some time ago, and I can’t say I miss it. That’s not to say I’ll never again own an Android device, but I can’t see the Android ecosystem becoming the center of my digital life in the foreseeable future. Despite Google’s efforts, fragmentation in the Android ecosystem is improving at a barely glacial rate. They’ve put themselves in an uncomfortable position where carriers and manufacturers have more control over the Android user experience than they do. I can’t imagine they’re thrilled about it, but, outside of using some uncharacteristically draconian tactics, there’s little more they can do.

In the end, I’m in the place I was when initially reviewing the Galaxy Tab 8.9 a year ago. If you just want a good, usable tablet, get an iPad or an iPad mini. iOS is not an ideal tablet environment, but the iTunes App Store is a nearly perfect tablet destination. Also, iOS is consistently smooth and responsive on even more modest iPads whereas you need a much more powerful Android tablet to get comparable responsiveness. If you are staunchly anti-Apple, and you want Android to be your alternative, then a Nexus device is my recommendation. You will get more timely updates, and the both the Nexus 10 and Nexus 7 feature good hardware for their price points. I’ll be curious to see where Android will go in the next few years, and I hope it continues to improve and push the overall tablet market in new and innovative directions.

On a related note, if you enjoy ogling screenshots, be sure to check out my Android 4.0 gallery.