Archive for December, 2007

Are computer retail stores really dying?

I couldn’t help having different thoughts after reading Dat’s latest blog post on computer retail stores. Due to the recent announcement of winding down retail operation by CompUSA, and the fact that most retail stores cannot compete with their online rivals on low prices of electronic products, he cited Apple retail stores as an exception and concluded that the retail stores are dying.

First of all, Apple stores are indeed doing a very good job on retailing by their showcase-like design. However, they should not be compared with stores like Best Buy and Circuit City taking into account the size and diversity of products. I also think that’s part of the reason why OS X appears to outstand Windows in performance. Because of the exclusiveness of the OS, Mac OS designers probably know every aspect of the hardware they are dealing with, whereas Windows has everything but hardware. Thus Microsoft probably spend far more manpower to strike a balance between compatibility and performance. It is no longer (or never) plausible to use “OS X runs faster than Windows” as an excuse of buying a Mac, you’d better state your affection explicitly “I just like their designs”.

A little off the topic, all I wanted to say is you cannot expect computer retailers to be more like Apple. They simply have too much to worry about. In his blog, Dat also writes:

Retail store as its current model offers no more than instant gratification of overpriced product fed by staff who know little more than the normal customers. For a professional who knows what he is talking about, CompUSA (and Bestbuy, Circuitcity, …) offers little to no value.

As a matter of fact, I am the kind of guy who appreciates instant satisfaction and makes impulsive purchases. Sometimes I just can’t wait for a week or even 3 days to get my hands on the goodies I buy. Moreover, I believe there are people who couldn’t care less about the price and don’t want to hassle with deal searching and mail-in rebates.

The sales staff may only know a little more than normal customers, but that is already enough. Customers who have little knowledge about computers probably don’t care and don’t want to know about the details. Another piece of truth is, people who know computers don’t need technical assistance in retail stores. They are more likely to have done a thorough research on the product they want to purchase before leaving home. Guess the ratio of computer laymen and professionals and think why hire a Ph. D. when a Master is already sufficient?

Retail stores are already evolving by having an online counterpart. In-store pickup is an awesome feature that pure online merchants cannot provide, and it is inherently easier to return merchandise in retail stores. Furthermore, when sales event takes place they offer very competitive prices. The shutdown of CompUSA is merely a bad retailing example, it does not serve to imply the depression of retail stores.

More complaints on iPhone

Here I come once again to fire some complaints toward iPhone. Don’t get me wrong though, it is still a very nice toy to play with. So despite of numerous feature requests that are already out there, let me come up my own wish list based on one month of regular usage. Correct me if I am wrong, i.e. cases where features/functions already exist it is just me being dumb.

The synchronization mechanism of iPhone defeats the whole purpose of synchronizing, it should have a more appropriate name “backup” since you can only sync the iPhone with one single computer. To make it even worse, the sync process can only be achieved through iTunes via USB connection, although bluetooth syncing for calenders and contacts while Wi-Fi syncing for iTunes libraries could sound much smarter. Also, why doesn’t it sync notes? What about To-Do list?

And what is wrong with Mail on iPhone? Do I have to actually go through each of the new mails to have them automatically marked as read? Yes it wouldn’t be a problem if you check emails often so every time there would be only a few, but one of those days when you have to go through 20+ emails just to mark them as read (probably you have already read them online) I guarantee you annoyance.

The ability to open common attachments is great. Unfortunately, you cannot save any of them, not even an image. It is natural to have such need as saving images from email attachments and web pages to your picture library. Lacking this capability, iPhone’s fancy photo viewer which takes advantage of its multi-touch screen is almost meaningless. Viewing those images that already exist on the computer? I don’t think so. Neither would I enjoy browsing photos taken by the built-in camera.

Now that the photo viewer is mentioned, iTunes seems to introduce unwanted compression to the image before uploading it to the iPhone if its resolution is larger than iPhone’s native resolution (320 by 480 at 160 PPI). This, let’s call it “feature” for now, might be intended but is not mentioned anywhere whatsoever and hence there is no way to disable it.  The consequence is when you enlarge the image it becomes blurry. It is more evident when you compare the same image opened in Safari.

There was a rumor saying that firmware 1.1.3 is coming, which will finally bring us the disk mode we have been longing for. Yet the update is still nowhere to be seen and the content was not substantiated by any credible source. Come on, Apple! Why can’t we just drag-n-drop stuff we want and then browse-n-play? Having to create a playlist for syncing songs and videos is just lame.

One last thing I can think of today is why do I have to push a single physical button, a.k.a. the Home button, every time I need to navigate among applications? On top of that are intuitive presses for unlocking the phone. I have already begun to consider how much I would have to pay to have this button repaired or should I not bother to get AppleCare for my iPhone.

I am also looking forward to the iPhone SDK which is expected to be released in February. Well, actually the most intriguing part now is how many restrictions Steve Jobs will impose on top of it.

Dr. Toderici’s sarcasm

George Toderici, one signature away from graduation, is going to be a senior software engineer in Google. We worked closely together this whole semester and he taught, helped and also pwnd me a lot. Meanwhile I found quite interesting his (weird) sense of humor and sarcasm from time to time.

To be honest I have never learned coding systematically. Prior to becoming the instructional assistant for an introductory C++ class, my C++ skills were mostly self-taught and thus rudimentary. For instance, I didn’t know how header files and pointers work. Surprisingly I managed to survive from such experience of having to know the course materials before the students had corresponding classes.

GT, on the other hand, began to program in his early childhood. By fourth grade, he was already programming in C. There is a huge gap here. I am admitting this and trying my best to be as good as him in some aspects, maybe some years later when I will be graduating.

Last week I was trying to modify the acquisition program I rewrote in C++ from his C# version. Inevitably I ran into problems and asked him for help. Having observed my code for a few times, he compared my code to a big ball of mud and suggested a rewrite (not even refactor) after the data acquisition event. Although I am still not sure if he is a truly organized programmer or a great code hacker, of all those inappropriate programming practices that he pointed out I find the lack of error checking most critical.

He later asked me to take a look at a guide he wrote some time ago aiming to help people produce code that their colleague will appreciate. Apparently he was so pissed off that this 21-slide presentation contains nothing but irony after I extracted its kernel ideas, which are the following:

  • Write code in English
  • Do not handle file I/O’s with absolute (hard coded) paths
  • Always perform error checking with informative messages
  • Use STL
  • Do not use MFC (because there are simpler alternatives)

All right, I think I should just pick up this irony and say, “See? How good I am at summarizing stuff!”