And another thing 62

by Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball ponders Microsoft’s low profile at CES, and the wonders of the Raspberry Pi.

HardCopy Issue: 62 | Published: February 25, 2014

You know that annoying feeling you get when you go to the supermarket to get your favourite item, only to find it has been discontinued? Or rebranded? It’s like a small part of you has been taken away, and someone decided this was a good thing. Now scale that thought up, and imagine a significant section of your local supermarket has gone. Or even that the place has closed completely. The hole in your life is very significant indeed.

It felt like that visiting CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, this year held, as always, in Las Vegas in early January. It wasn’t just that Microsoft wasn’t there – no stand, no keynote from Ballmer. It’s that Microsoft’s influence wasn’t there either. A dearth of devices with Windows 8, a small number of tablets running Redmond’s finest – it was as if the ship had sailed and no-one bothered to get on board.

Raw Mac power

My new Mac Pro has arrived. It’s a tiny thing, especially alongside the old Tower of Power version. Mine is a fairly well-stuffed specification – 8 CPU cores, 64GB of ram, 1TB of PCIE solid state storage which can delivered a sustained 1Gbyte read/write speed per second. 6 Thunderbolt 2 interconnects running at 20Gbit/sec. Two GPUs each with 6GB of RAM. Enough video horsepower to run three 4K monitors at the same time.

It is an amazing achievement. When I look back at devices like the Silicon Graphics workstations of years gone by, and see just how much faster the Mac Pro is, it really puts things into perspective. This is supercomputer performance from only a few years ago.

But as with all extremely high performance devices, it comes down to the synergy of hardware, OS and software. With Apple’s latest Final Cut Pro X, optimised for the Mac Pro’s GPUs, I can edit 5k native video from the Red camera without a stutter. I can overlay multiple 5K video streams, do rotations effects and distortions, and the CPU meter doesn’t even twitch.

Compare and contrast to the same workload on a recent fully stuffed iMac, which stutters, wheezes and emits smoke from its vents when asked to do the same task, and it is clear that tuning is everything when you are the highest peak of the high end. Is this a product for everyone? Absolutely not – if your tasks are a normal mix of Web, documents and so forth, then the MacPro is a very shiny indulgence. But give it some serious workload on properly optimised applications, and it will bend reality on your desktop. I can’t wait to hook up some 4K monitors – I saw some stunning prototypes at CES on the Samsung and LG stands, and the prices even promise to be moderately reasonable.

As you would expect, the large manufacturers like Samsung and so forth had Windows products. But the scale and influence was not there. It was as if we had forgotten to ask them to the party, and then only noticed half way through that they hadn’t come.

Of course, this is an overly pessimistic look at a company through the wholly artificial lens of a huge trade show aimed at the consumer. But where was the big Xbox One presence? The Surface devices? Windows phones?

This is fascinating stuff. If you look at the latest revenue figures from Microsoft, they are still doing very well thank you. It will be a long time indeed before Microsoft’s bankers get a little nervous with the company’s cash holdings or its overall business. But there was a distinct feeling in the air, both at CES and in the latest figures, that the tide had turned. That Microsoft had less relevance to the consumer anymore, and that it was turning into a company that we remembered, sometimes fondly, often not.

Now don’t misunderstand me. There was a huge amount of Microsoft stuff going on at CES. All sorts of briefings and things happening away from the show floor. That’s where the real interest happens at CES, not out amongst the row upon row of third party iPad cover manufacturers, each desperately trying to differentiate themselves from their next door neighbour.

But still, talking to friends and colleagues who were there, and to any number of attendees, there was the feeling that Autumn had come. That the excellent work being done in the Cloud was Microsoft’s future, that there would probably be no real need for an Xbox Two in six years’ time. That there was no real hope of Microsoft breaking into either the tablet market with Windows 8.x or the phone market with Nokia.

At this point, the Microsoft PR wonks are doubtless foaming at the mouth, spitting bile at the mere thought that they might have left it all too late, and that catch-up is now impossible. Of course, in true Microsoft fashion, we are being leaked details of Windows 9, or is it 8.1 Update 1, or some other naming nonsense. Apparently, this will be much better, this is the one we will really like and want to have. That the ingestion of some tens of thousands of staff into Microsoft from Nokia will go well. A senior Microsoft phone executive who I happened to sit next to at breakfast, maintained that this would all be just fine, and that it would work out great in the end. I asked what the ratio of Microsoft to Nokia employees would be fired given the obvious overlap in many, but not all, areas. He nearly choked on his smoked salmon bagel, and then made his excuses to leave.

Microsoft might argue that Google didn’t have a presence either, nor did Amazon, both huge cloud technology providers. That is indeed true, but then neither of them are trying to sell high priced hardware with expensive OS runtimes. Amazon’s new Nexus range is extremely strong, and the prices for sim-unlocked hardware is breathtakingly low. Amazon continues to steamroller ahead with Kindle. Both seem oblivious to the Windows 8 threat, maybe because it really isn’t there?

CES 2015 will be fascinating. Will the new Microsoft CEO turn things around, or take the safe if predictable route of spinning off Xbox, retreating to the corporate services cloud, and trying to get Office365 revenues from anyone who will pay? And what shape will the laptop, ultra book and Windows tablet market be in at that point? I can’t wait to find out.


Raspberry PI

Goodness me, what a lovely little thing the Raspberry PI is. A board no bigger than a playing card with enough computing power to do real work. I bought a kit of bits, including a case and camera, and hooked it up to my TV. Within a few minutes, allowing for OS choice and setup, I had a fully working graphical desktop, a web browser and a bunch of useful tools. Maybe the TV vendors should be thinking of bolting PI’s into their TVs to make them truly “Smart TVs” rather than the somewhat pathetic efforts of today?


The wondrous Raspberry Pi, and it costs less than a round at the pub.

But my lightbulb moment came when I installed Wolfram Runtime and Mathematica onto my PI. Suddenly things got serious. I had seen the Mathematica PI items recently at the Wolfram Conference, held next to their HQ in Champaign, Illinois. I was blown away then, and I am still blown away today. It is not super computer quick, but that’s the point – it is fast enough. And if you want significant CPU power, then call into the Wolfram Cloud infrastructure and do your number crunching there.

PI has really caught my imagination. Looking back to the early days of computing at schools, I started with CP/M and then the Apple II, IBM XT and BBC Micro. My career took me slightly sideways into instrumentation control via IEEE488 bus controlling test equipment driven by devices like the HP85 and HP9816. But back then, things were fun. With the rise of Windows, the focus of computer training seemed to move to “can you use Office?” It would be utterly delicious to see children returning back to the core issues of computing – logical thinking, maths work and handling hardware. At the trivial cost of a PI, this is possible and should be encouraged.

If you haven’t looked at PI, get one now. It’s less than the cost of a decent round at the pub, especially if you live in London. They have already sold millions, and they deserve to sell millions more.

Of course, this could have been a Microsoft Research project, with a lightweight Windows 8 RT running on the ARM processor and the development tools to match. And wouldn’t that have been interesting?