Nicholas Goodchild

Historic and Pared Down

Tablets

17 June 2012 by Nicholas in Technology

Remember the netbook? Lovely little devices, battery lasted for ages, low powered laptops that you could use to browse the internet and work on simple documents using. They’re pretty much dead now, replaced by the tablet. The tablet has fewer parts to go wrong, a smaller form factor, are more intuitive and more responsive.

When I saw the first iPad I had no idea what on earth it was for and what it would actually achieve. In terms of prescience it is right up there with not signing The Beatles, and proof of a different Apple getting it completely right when others didn’t have their foresight or imagination (or, possibly, blind luck).

We’re now on the brink of the post PC age, where sites will be designed to be rendered and viewed on tablets. Intel has just readied their first mobile phone, and are obviously positioning themselves to provide chips for use in tablet devices. Microsoft is preparing a version of Windows whose UI only makes sense in the tablet marketplace.

Microsoft and Intel are both latecomers to the marketplace. I honestly think that Intel will succeed because they have invested so heavily into low powered chips and have a very aggressive die shrink plan in place. They’ll be creating chips as powerful as anyone else and pricing them very competitively just to ensure they capture some of the market. Add in the fact they have the ability to throw engineers and programmers at ensuring that there are applications and optimisations in place for their chips and it looks relatively good for them.

Microsoft, by comparison, may be in trouble. The tablet eco system already seems to have settled on Android and IOS, with HP having found there is no room for another operator. Windows will have to have been written from the ground up to be quick and responsive on a tablet and then have apps that make sense in that form factor in order for it to be able to compete. Put simply, I don’t think they can achieve it. Microsoft make their money on their productivity suite and their OS, neither of which will create much revenue at the micro prices of the tablet marketplace. And Windows applications are largely very different from tablet applications.

Microsoft doesn’t look like being the only loser in the tablet sector. AMD haven’t got a low power enough chip to be able to compete and don’t look like they will be creating one any time soon. Cisco have been beaten out of the market, having tried to create a tablet for business. HP entered and exited the market in a hurry, costing them their management.

Of the PC players, the one company doing very well from the tablet market is Nvidia. They are now a larger company than AMD and this is partially due to AMD’s failure in the processor market and partially down to Nvidia making chips that are finding their way into tablets and phones. Whether by luck or management they are the company most easily transitioning to the new landscape who rose to prominence in the old.

Yahoo

25 May 2012 by Nicholas in Technology

Yahoo recently divested itself of its CEO following a shareholder revolt. The problem, apparently, was that the CEO had lied on his CV about whether or not he was a Computer Science graduate. Although honesty, integrity and suitable experience and knowledge are arguably all important when choosing a leader, it seems to me to miss the point; what Yahoo needs now is vision and direction, regardless of the qualifications of the person guiding it.

Time was that Yahoo was where you went to search the internet and learn what was great and good on it. This was in the nineties, when D:Ream could have a number one, games with polygons were the exception rather than the rule and you watched and listened to tapes rather than files on flash storage. Yahoo also was responsible for content, with things like yahoo groups and mailing lists. The internet was a different place back then, and Yahoo was top of the tree. And then came Google.

I remember when I first used Google, I was advised to by a friend who was much better with computers than I was. It was 1999 and Fatboy Slim and Armand Van Helden were the best things ever. George Lucas had only slightly tainted his legacy and I didn’t even know George Bush had a son. It was the start of the slide for Yahoo: they clung to what they knew as their competitors innovated and invented a new internet. On the one hand Google came and made search their own, with more relevant results, faster loading times and none of the clutter that held Yahoo back. On the other hand Microsoft decided to seriously pursue the internet and did the content and groups thing better.

These days, when someone has a yahoo mail account it surprises me. Time was it was my main email provider. People who still use yahoo messenger are in the minority. Do yahoo groups even exist anymore?

it’s not just the loss of their core markets to the new pretenders, it is also the failure to diversify into new arenas: there is no yahoo social networking arena. There is precious little in the way of useful content, although yahoo answers remains a valuable resource (particularly to those of a SEO bent). The tales of companies that yahoo has let slip through its fingers reads like a who’s who of emergent behemoths: notably it includes both Facebook and Google. And search, for so long yahoo’s core product, they now farm out to other companies to do for them.

So the new head of yahoo, more than actually knowing what their own accomplishments and achievements are, must understand what yahoo is and what it can be: having lost its core market, what can it do to recapture some of it, not haemorrhage any more of what it has and to expand and diversify?

I wish them good luck. Because right now it looks like a dinosaur caught in its death throes.

VPS

25 January 2012 by Nicholas in Technology

A VPS is a virtual private server. Explaining the acronym probably makes it no clearer, as if you know what a virtual private server is you will know the acronym and if you don’t then the actual words themselves will bring no enlightenment. Basically it is a way of having server functionality available to you at a fraction of the cost: a server is segregated into a number of nodes, each of which is a VPS, and these share the functions of the server. If a server has a 2GHz processor, 4GB of RAM, 4GB of storage and a 2MBit connection you may find it segregated into 4 nodes, each of which has 500Mhz of the processor, 1GB of RAM, 1GB or storage and 0.5MBit of connection. This is a gross over simplification, but explains the concept.

Onto a VPS you put an operating system, which is usually a Linux distribution. This eats some of your storage, processor and (most importantly) memory. Careful selection of your operating system and what processes it runs means that you will have more or less memory available to you to actually process your website when it comes to people using it.

Once you have your operating system installed you usually set about installing the modules you need to host a webpage on your VPS. Not all VPS are used to host webpages, but it does seem to be the primary reason that people get them. Personally I am currently experimenting with a number of them to host various sites, having left Dreamhost last year after having been with them for 8 years.

Leaving Dreamhost was not a decision I entered into rashly, and I did do a lot of reading up and experimenting first. I also made a lot of mistakes when I did and had to learn a lot the hard way, often finding myself abandoning hours of work and configuration and ending up with a new installation. I left Dreamhost for 3 main reasons: 1) I felt I had outgrown their services and wanted to learn how to do it myself, 2) I realised I could save quite a bit of money by actually doing some of the configuration myself, and 3) the email had become a problem and the only way I could see to fix it was to change it to Google mail.

Helping me massively on my way, as well as Wayne, has been (the seemingly on its way out) LowEndBox, which was constantly updated news about VPS and a good community section as well as tutorials and scripts for creating a VPS.

Now, by using a VPS, I can add only the features I need to a server and lock down a lot of the insecurities caused by a one size fits all solution. I can omit to run an FTP as I wish, replace apache with nginx and do horrible things to the php and mysql implementations to make sure they serve only my purpose and don’t actually have anything I don’t need on them. This drives down my memory footprint, which means I can have more consecutive server requests and fulfil them, as well as making the server itself more secure. Of course, with the level of control I now have, I can just reinstall the server in an afternoon should it be compromised.

It’s been an interesting journey to this point, and it is something that I have only just started out upon. It has led me to new opportunities and means that there may be some interesting projects and sites ahead in the new year.

Orcs Must Die

13 January 2012 by Nicholas in Technology

Orcs Must Die is a game that mixes elements of Tower Defence and a more straightforward shooter. The basic premise is that you must prevent Orcs from breaking through from a point in front of you to a point behind you. Basically you do this by a combination of attacking them yourself using various skills, powers and weapons and placing a choice of traps on the walls and floors to slow them down or incapacitate them.

Although there are definite strategic elements, and such details as upgrade paths and things like weapon and trap selection, as well as making use of the geography and geometry of each level, Orcs Must Die is not trying to be a cerebral or particularly complicated game. The game has a cartoony style, which is tightly integrated from the menu, cinematic, levels and characters to things like the interface and upgrade menus. It all feels of a piece and very consistent. When you clear a level your success is measured in terms of orc skulls and your character does a victory dance. There are also mini achievements to hold your interest, such as kill streaks (how many orcs you kill in a row) and notification of when you make a head shot. Although these provide an extra level of distraction and perhaps add value, they are not particularly something I seek to get and kill streaks only really notify me that my trap placement has been particularly concentrated.

The traps and weaponry is really what the game is all about, with using  the corridors to place traps as they are narrower and allow you the best use of limited funds to purchase traps to fill the area and funnel the oncoming hordes into a tighter killzone. From there you can pick off any survivors with either the crossbow, vampiric gauntlets or bladed weapon. The crossbow, to my mind, seems a little too effective, as I only tend to drop to the gauntlets if I am swarmed and losing health. The bladed weapon I never use, and I tend to have settled on a particular combination of traps that works best for me. The traps do tend to be most effective against particular classes of orc, but you can kill the majority with a combination of a couple of types and pick of the remainder with your own hand weapons.

Orcs Must Die is not a particularly complicated game, and there is probably only a limited replay value. you can’t play online, either in co op or versus, but it makes for a fun little diversion and is enjoyable enough in its own terms. It may not look great, but it never looks bad and is consistent. I find myself enjoying it a great deal more than games that try to achieve a lot more and muddle things.

Defense Grid: You Monster

13 December 2011 by Nicholas in Technology

So, the new downloadable content for Defense Grid came out. I have to say, in many ways, I was underwhelmed. A lot of the maps have previously been seen, although they are tweaked a little. I got silver medals on all the maps on the first play through, and the only notable addition to the game is the fact that the gameplay changes mid way through some of the levels, with enemies suddenly changing direction or tower types suddenly not being available. Other than that it is a disappointing addition as several maps are too similar to what has gone before and there isn’t much in the way of taxing challenge apart from where you have to change tactics mid way through a level because of the underlying mechanics of the game changing.

That is not to say there is nothing to recommend in the addition, as more of the same when what you are making more of is great isn’t necessarily bad. However, the supposed story content is incredibly thin and the gameplay is pretty much identical if you have the sound off (which is how the story actually unfolds) apart from the shifting objectives in the final mission.

I have yet to try any of the new gamplay modes that the map pack adds, so it could be that I find more challenge and enjoyment in those. It is worth noting that Steam has the game (and DLC) at a special price up to 14th December and, even if I am lukewarm in my recommendation in You Monster, both it and the parent game remain very good value for the amount of entertainment they give you for a very low price. I think I just expected more.

Defense Grid

11 December 2011 by Nicholas in Technology

Defense Grid is getting some new downloadable (paid) content today. Now, Defense Grid is not a well known or particularly heralded computer game. THis is a pity. Because Defense Grid is actually really rather good.

Available on the PC through the Steam delivery platform, and on the XBox through XBox Live (I believe), Defense Grid is a tower defence game where you build towers in a series of build platforms (you are limited to where you can place them, but you can choose which of the platforms you utilise) to kill aliens who are trying to steal power cores from a power plant.

This is all very standard, but it is the quality of execution that rises Defense Grid into a game I really recommend. The graphics are all of a piece and attractive enough (although sadly won’t run on very old graphics cards) and the aliens design allows them to look distinct. More than this, however, the aliens are genuinely distinct: they have different strengths and weaknesses, different attributes and require different approaches.

This is the second place where Defense Grid really raises its level: you have different towers with very different capabilities which you can upgrade several times. Some towers help you to afford further towers, some only attack flying aliens, some slow aliens down, some only attack ground aliens, some are better with groups and some are better against solo enemies.

A lot of thought has obviously been expended on making sure there is a lot of variety in the game and that the player can’t complete it by adopting a single strategy. Different levels require different combinations of towers, built in different orders. They also require towers built in different places, which is often something you discover through experimentation. Luckily, there are a series of save points on each level so you can go back to a previous save rather than having to start the level from scratch as you experiment.

There are also a variety of game modes, from the straightforward, to placing limits on you in terms of how many towers you can have, which you can have, by increasing the strength or amount of enemies or reversing the direction the enemies come from. This, coupled with a series of achievements for killing enemies, doing so efficiently, using different combinations or levels of towers and myriad other metrics give the game a replayability and make it excellent value for money.

Rage

5 December 2011 by Nicholas in Technology

Rage, the new game from ID Software (who, apparently, are now part of Bethseda) was released on 7th October 2011 and, ID Software fan that I am, I had it on pre-order. It’s a FPS at heart but has additional components, which may actually be the problem.

First impressions are encouraging. You awake in a post apocalyptic future and are the sole survivor of your team. The graphics are fluid (very, very fluid, you won’t see any slow down playing Rage) but the textures sometimes take a while to draw in. Imagine having to focus on something and gaining detail as you do so. That is what happens here.

The environments are huge and the sky a long way above your head. This is not corridor territory. And then a NPC (computer controlled Non Playable Character) rescues you from some would be assailants and things diverge from what we expect of an ID game.

There are immediate RPG (Role Playing Game) elements here, with missions you can choose to undertake, or not, for equipment and money. There is a certain amount of non-linearity and a lot of interaction with characters you don’t kill. There is being a passenger in a buggy (which looks great) and even driving your own buggy. But there isn’t enough killing hordes of enemies in tight spaces.

The best bit of the game, for me, has been the sewer missions that came as a bonus for pre ordering. The area is claustrophobic and the enemies swarm you. It feels like an old school ID shooter. In a lot of the areas there is simply too much open space. And the enemies fall between twin stools: there aren’t enough at once to feel there is a horde in the open areas, but their intelligence is mainly limited to ducking behind cover in between charging at you. They don’t feel particularly distinct from one another and none of them are particularly memorable.

The weapons, too, have problems. Initially you are limited to what weapons you have and what ammo types you can get (another RPG element) and the weapon animation and sounds are pleasing. But they don’t feel powerful enough, it requires a lot of shots to put down enemies. Unless you use the rather wonderful boomerang styled weapon, which is probably the best part of the game.

Driving a vehicle is sadly underwhelming, too. It seemingly skates on the surface, the wheels not moving quickly enough in the animation and their speed not altering. There is no bob or pitch in relation to the surface and the view zooms out from first person to top down. This is inconsistent and reinforces the difference in using the buggy.

The RPG elements, although seemingly numerous, are pretty superficial. At no point do you feel you get to display character through your choices and there is no sense of divergence depending on which missions you do. They are distractions from the core of the game.

There are parts of Rage I really enjoyed, unfortunately they are too far apart and separated by rather pointless RPG elements and driving. This is a compact shooter stretched way beyond a size and shape it can support and filled with distracting by halfway implemented elements.

So, really, ID have done what they are always accused of: made a decent game engine in search of a decent game. The sad thing is, fluidity aside, the engine is not actually that far in advance of others that currently power games. I didn’t feel the old magic in many places.

Nokia and Microsoft

14 February 2011 by Nicholas in Technology

The new CEO of Nokia (whose name I forget and I am disinclined to look up) caused a few raised eyebrows the other week when he released a memo to his staff basically maligning the two software platforms that Nokia smartphones run on: Meego and Symbian. Now I used to buy a Nokia every time I needed a new phone. I had two separate N73s alone. In its day Symbian was brilliant and still has an active eco system going supporting it. Meego I know less about.

This week he raised a few more: he announced a deal whereby Nokia would use Microsoft Phone Operating Systems and basically signaled an end to using Symbian and Meego.

Obviously I know nothing about running a huge multinational company. But I can’t help but think this is the wrong decision for any one of a huge number of reasons. Firstly, just in terms of general PR: many within the company are incredibly unhappy with the decision and a large number walked out for the day on Friday to voice their displeasure. Existing users have basically just been told that their phones are obsolete and the company whose name is on them views them as a bit of a joke and useless. I don’t see that really engendering much brand loyalty (the goodwill that accountants love to over declare the value of).

Secondly, the whole thing smacks of short termism. In the rush to bring a smartphone to market, the company has turned its back on two separate platforms it could be hoping to exploit and pinning its future on the whims and relative merits of Microsoft. Windows is a PC product with a lot of flaws caused by legacy code and backwards compatibility. As it moves onto different platforms these problems tend to exacerbate themselves by it still being designed for mouse and full keyboard input and having a large footprint. Simply put, it isn’t designed for a phone, a touchscreen or a low powered processor and trying to force it to do these things stops it doing what it is actually good at. It’s a me too product with more problems than solutions in this space.

The rationale behind the decision is apparently to make phones that appeal to businesses by having the Windows brand on them. There are two things about this, in my mind: it makes the Nokia subservient to Microsoft on the phone and Apple in particular have made huge strides in appealing to businesses. Microsoft are trying to enter the smartphone space on the back of Nokia as a brand and Nokia are doing the same on the back of Microsoft. All the while the two leaders in the space are finding more and more ways to appeal to businesses using platforms that were actually designed for phones in the first place.

And where does this leave Symbian and Meego?
Symbian is a collective that produces the software, but Nokia is probably central to its success. Without them there is no real vendor and probably not the financial support it needs. Meego is a partnership with Intel which makes no real sense, but I don’t think Nokia really wants to upset Intel at this point, just in case it needs them in future.

As much as I want to see Nokia thrive, I don’t think this is going to do them any favours and is probably disastrous in the long run. And I am starting to think the trend for this decade, in technology terms, is Microsoft fading from the market leader into the sort of position IBM currently has.