Microsoft: obituaries are premature

This morning’s Observer column:

One of my favourite cartoons shows a team of scientists in a Nasa control room clustered around a big screen. Their spacecraft has just landed on a very distant planet and has begun transmitting data back to base. A guy in overalls is saying to his assembled colleagues: “Now all we have to do is figure out how to install Windows 95.”

Ah yes, Windows 95… I remember it well. It signified the moment when Microsoft finally managed to implement the user interface invented by Xerox in the early 70s. It was launched with the biggest hype-storm that the computer industry – or indeed any other industry – had ever seen. Microsoft paid the Rolling Stones an unconscionable amount of money (we never found out how much) to use Start Me Up as the musical backdrop for the launch. The first internet boom, triggered by the web and the Netscape browser, was just beginning to roll and Windows 95 was the first Microsoft operating system to have a TCP/IP stack (needed to connect to the internet) baked in.

Back then, the PC was the sun in the computing universe around which everything else revolved. And Microsoft controlled well over 90% of the PC software market. So Windows 95 really was a big deal.

Last week, 20 years on, Microsoft launched Windows 10 with the kind of faded hoopla that accompanies 60s discos…

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And then, of course, there is the fact that Microsoft is one of the very few large corporations that is still doing serious, high-quality, long-term research.

The posthumous fame of Vivian Maier


Vivian Maier was one of the great street photographers of our time — as a visit to or a dip into this beautiful book will confirm. She was possibly also the most mysterious photographer who ever lived, and all her fame is posthumous because of the remarkable efforts of John Maloof, who stumbled on her work after buying a box of negatives at a public auction and who has since done an amazing job of rescuing and publicising her work.

Vivian Maier was a nanny who lived and worked in Chicago for over four decades. On her days off — and on the days when she was caring for kids — she always carried a camera (a Rolleiflex) with which she recorded the streetscape of the North Shore of Chicago. In her lifetime she took 150,000 photograph which cumulatively provide one of the most comprehensive visual visual record of urban life in mid-20th-century America. And the strange thing is that nobody knew: she never published her work, and doesn’t seem to have shown it to anyone. She died in 2009, a lonely and solitary figure, an unknown genius.

I’ve just watched a terrific documentaryFinding Vivian Maier — made by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel which tells the story of Maloof’s painstaking quest to uncover Maier’s identity and piece together the story of her troubled and puzzling life.

It’s an amazing story which leaves one with two thoughts. The first is that to be a great artist one needs to have — in Graham Greene’s words — “a sliver of ice” in one’s heart. Maier’s photographs of the people she encountered on the streets of Chicago are often unflinching (though not heartless) photographs of people in distress or under stress. And Maloof’s revelations of her reclusive personality and strange obsessions (she was an Olympic-class hoarder of newspapers, for example) suggest someone who had been damaged in some way by experiences in her early life.


The other thought is a reflection on what a remarkable camera the Rolleiflex was. The technical quality of Maier’s images (as the prints in the book show) are often stunning. Those Zeiss Planar and Schneider Xenotar lenses were — and are still (I’ve got one) — superb.


But also the fact that it was a twin-lens reflex camera meant that she was looking down into the viewfinder rather than interposing the camera between her and the subject and this enabled her to focus and frame the shot, and then to maintain eye-contact with the people whose lives she was recording while she pressed the button.

Ou est La Seine?


It’s been very dry in France this summer. But I hadn’t realised how dry until I came on this bridge in Châtillon-sur-seine, which is quite near the source of the river in Burgundy.

A better mousetrap



The three-pin plug has always been a bit of a pain for those of us who have to carry one around in our rucksacks. So this re-design was a welcome surprise. Guess who sells it? Er, Apple.

The 15% refuseniks

From the latest PEW survey:

For the first 13 years of the decade, Americans embraced the Internet at a whirlwind pace. The percentage of Americans who use the Internet grew to 84 percent in 2013 from 52 percent at the turn of the century, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

But since 2013, the percentage of American adults who go online has remained virtually unchanged, according a new Pew study released on Tuesday. The 15 percent of Americans who still do not use the Internet is essentially the same portion as in 2013.

So why the slowdown?

Pew found that Americans who remain offline do so for a number of reasons: the cost of buying a computer and paying a broadband or cellphone bill, the perceived relevance of Internet content or even the physical ability to use devices.

Want to network your Jeep Cherokee? Try smoke signals: they’re safer

This morning’s Observer column:

‘‘Jeep Cherokee hacked in demo; Chrysler owners urged to download patch”, was the heading on an interesting story last week. “Just imagine,” burbled the report, “one moment you’re listening to some pleasant pop hits on the radio, and the next moment the hip-hop station is blasting at full volume – and you can’t change it back! This is just one of the exploits of Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek … when they hacked into a Jeep Cherokee. They were able to change the temperature of the air conditioning, turn on the windshield wipers and blast the wiper fluid to blur the glass, and even disable the brakes, turn off the transmission, take control of the steering, and display their faces onto the dashboard’s screen.”

In some ways, this was an old story: cars have been largely governed by electronics since the 1980s, and anyone who controls the electronics controls the car. But up to now, the electronics have not been connected to the internet. What makes the Jeep Cherokee story interesting is that its electronics were hacked via the internet. And that was possible because internet connectivity now comes as a consumer option – Uconnect – from Chrysler.

If at this point you experience a sinking feeling, then join the club. So let us return to first principles for a moment…

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LATER: Chrysler has issued a recall for 1.4 million vehicles as a result of the hacking revelations.

Three generations


One of the really nice things about being on holiday in Provence is the number of extended families who appear to be holidaying together. In a restaurant last night there were were several family parties, one of which appeared to have four generations present.

You don’t say

Well, well. The New York Times is reporting that the penny may have finally dropped in Washington:

WASHINGTON — American officials are concerned that the Chinese government could use the stolen records of millions of federal workers and contractors to piece together the identities of intelligence officers secretly posted in China over the years.

The potential exposure of the intelligence officers could prevent a large cadre of American spies from ever being posted abroad again, current and former intelligence officials said. It would be a significant setback for intelligence agencies already concerned that a recent data breach at the Office of Personnel Management is a major windfall for Chinese espionage efforts.