What Lies Beneath the Surface Tablet’s Screen

The last thing people probably consider when buying a new gizmo or gadget is how hard it might be to fix, but according to the teardown team at iFixit, Microsoft’s shiny new Surface tablet is easier to repair than the latest iPad, but it is still difficult to take apart.

Surface teardown

After removing a total of 17 T5 Torx screws — 10 under the kickstand and 7 under the camera cover — the rear case comes right off — almost. (Credit: iFixit)
(click image to enlarge)

The online teardown site rated the Surface’s “repairability” a 4 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the easiest. That is a marked improvement over the iPad’s 2 rating, but far short of the Amazon Kindle Fire’s 8.

Getting inside the device was where the Surface scored over the iPad.

“Microsoft made the Surface’s internals accessible through the back — like the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 — as opposed to through the front glass/LCD — like the iPad 3,” said Miroslav Djuric, chief information architect at iFixit.

“Aside from the original iPad’s clip system — which allowed the user to open the tablet without having to use a heat gun to unglue the glass — making the tablet guts accessible from the rear panel usually makes for an easier opening procedure,” he explained.

“The Surface falls somewhere in the middle: Users won’t have to risk shattering the glass to open it, but they’ll have to carefully remove a long, plastic bezel, a tamper-evident sticker, and tons of screws to do anything inside,” Djuric told TechNewsWorld. “Thankfully, the battery replacement is quite easy once you’re inside. The user just needs to disconnect a ribbon cable and carefully pry the battery off the rear case in order to remove it.”

Adventures Through the Tablet Glass

After getting into the device, however, the would-be repairer would still have a ways to go to make those repairs.

“The glass and LCD, which will undoubtedly be the most-broken part of the tablet, is strongly adhered to the VaporMG frame, requiring lots of guitar picks, patience, and heat gun action in order to separate,” said Djuric. “It also doesn’t help that all of the Surface’s other guts are placed on top of the glass/LCD/Vapor MG frame, but that’s the usual trade-off with having a tablet accessible from the rear.”

This also isn’t really all that unexpected. The devices aren’t made, as is still the case with desktop computers, to be upgraded or even repaired by the end user. These are devices — much like a television — that should be left to the professional to service.

“The more integrated a design is, the harder it is to pull apart,” said Roger L. Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates. “A removable battery takes up more space than a hard-wired one. But then there’s just plain old good design. Some are better than others.”

Form and Function

One of the reasons that these devices are difficult to repair comes down to consumers often wanting devices that are sleek and lightweight, while still being reliable. It is thus difficult to produce a product that fits all the criteria and can also be easily repaired.

“Consumers consistently are pushing manufacturers toward lighter, sleeker and more portable devices,” said Chris Silva, industry analyst at the Altimeter Group. “We’ve seen with things like iPhone and Macbooks, the more the manufacturers do to make these items sleek and lightweight, the less user-serviceable they are.”

That, plus the accelerating pace of innovation among these devices, adds up to a dire electronics-waste impact on the environment, Silva told TechNewsWorld.

“While feature phone innovation did not have as high a correlation to handset replacement every 18-24 months, on the smartphone front devices innovate so fast that users are swapping out devices at least that fast, if not more quickly. Tablets innovate even more rapidly, meaning that the ability to fix one of these devices is less important than our likelihood as consumers to attempt to repair vs. upgrade these items.”

In the case of the Surface, this could be a reflection of Microsoft’s newness to hardware in this class of products, but it also comes back to the cost to repair vs. the cost to simply replace.

“Their prior experience was the Xbox, which was generally just cheaper to replace, even though it was repairable,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. “As you get to (US)$1,000, it makes more sense to design a product to repair, but as you get to $500, the added cost to make a product easy to repair starts to exceed the benefit.”

With the Surface, very little should go wrong — but if anything were to break, it likely wouldn’t be something that an average user could readily fix, so it falls into the replace category.

“This is a solid state device, and the kinds of things that fail on this class of device are generally due to misuse and not because the part itself fails,” Enderle told TechNewsWorld. “If the user mistreats the device, the warranty doesn’t cover the repair, and if a component fails because it is bad, that cost is passed back to the component supplier.”

Repair or Replace?

The issue with the difficulty of repairing is that clearly the companies see this as something that could, or even should be replaced rather than repaired. In these cases, the efficiency of manufacture means that repairing something that has a seemingly minor fault requires major effort. The question is whether consumers should consider this when buying such a product.

“There are lots of different e-recyclers out there,” noted Djuric. “Some strip devices to their most basic materials, different metals, plastics, etc., while others refurbish a portion of their devices and make them sellable again.”

The overarching problem is how to separate all the parts in an electronic device cost-effectively, Djuric stressed.

“Increasing the difficulty of separating the components hurts the e-recyclers’ bottom line, and makes some devices cost-infeasible to refurbish,” he said. “Those devices will eventually end up in a pile of raw materials — at best — instead of being used elsewhere by another person who can’t afford the latest-and-greatest gadget.”




Graphs are Everywhere: Solving the Complexities of Social Connections

Graphs are everywhere. From websites adding social capabilities, to telcos providing personalized customer services, to innovative bioinformatics research, organizations are integrating graphs into their web sites. Many high profile companies are specifically adopting graph databases to solve social graph complexities and meet the high query performance levels required at Internet scale. As websites scale from zero to millions of users, traditional relational databases degrade to paralyzing levels of performance. Graph databases, based on decades of research, model and query connected data without performance degradation as the size of the graph grows. However, ‘going social’ does not come without its challenges. To render valuable information from interconnected data, organizations are dealing with massive connected data issues. Companies now look to graph databases to solve the consequential data challenges associated with going social.

Graph databases and the social graph

Graph databases are the most scalable, high performance way to query and store highly interconnected data. They help improve intelligence, predictive analytics, social network analysis, decision and process management – which all involve highly connected data with lots of relationships.

A relevant use case for graph databases is the social graph. The social graph leverages information across a range of networks to understand the relationships between individuals. Facebook, LinkedIn and Amazon are all examples of companies that derived tremendous value from leveraging social and professional graphs and providing a deeper analysis of the data they collect everyday. The biggest challenge that companies face is the ability to handle the exponential growth and massive connected data challenges associated with the social graph.

Most applications today handle data that is deeply associative, i.e. structured as graphs (networks). Some examples of this include social networking sites, tagging systems, content management systems and wikis, that deal with inherently graph-like data.

This results in a challenge as it’s difficult to deal with recursive data structures within traditional relational databases. Each traversal along a link in a graph is a join, and joins are known to be very expensive. With user-driven content, it is difficult to pre-conceive the exact schema of the data that will be handled. The relational model requires upfront schemas and makes it difficult to fit this more dynamic and ad-hoc data.

This is where graph databases shine. A graph database uses nodes, relationships between nodes and key-value properties instead of tables to represent information. This model is substantially faster for associative data sets and uses a schema-less, bottom up model that is ideal for capturing ad-hoc and rapidly changing data.

Why graph databases?

Graph databases improve intelligence, predictive analytics, social network analysis, decision and process management. Many organizations – from websites adding social capabilities to telecommunication companies providing personalized customer services to innovative bioinformatics research – have started realizing that graph databases are one of the best ways to model and query connected data. Anyone with a Facebook account is familiar with the result of what graph databases can do.

According to former Forrester analyst, James Kobielus, the market for graph databases will boom in 2012 as companies everywhere adopt them for social media analytics. Social graph analysis, although not a brand-new field, will become one of the most prestigious specialties in the data science arena.

Why is this? Graph databases find relationships between disparate pieces of data. They run analyses over terabytes of information while maintaining the relationships between the data, even as it changes and evolves. As websites scale from zero to millions of users, traditional relational databases degrade to paralyzing levels of performance.

Graph databases simplify application development—resulting in shorter development times, lower maintenance costs and higher performance. Socially enabled applications are gravitating towards graph databases because other types of databases are not effective for managing relationships between millions of users with multiple connections. A graph database is the ideal solution for any application that relies on the relationships between records.

Social graph database technology will become a key trend in the data science arena throughout 2012 and beyond. We’ve already seen organizations flock to the social graph to help build software, web and mobile applications that take into account information across a range of networks to understand the relationships between individuals. If an organization’s data contains a lot of many-to-many relationships, if recursive self-joins are too costly or limiting to the application and scaling needs, and/or the primary objective is quickly finding connections, patterns and relationships between the objects within lots of data, graph databases are the best solution.

Graph Databases: The New Way to Access Super Fast Social Data

Emil Eifrem is the founder of the Neo4j graph database project and CEO of Neo Technology, the world’s leading graph database. Emil is an internationally recognized thought leader in new database technology, having spoken at conferences in three continents.

Until the NOSQL wave hit a few years ago, the least fun part of a project was dealing with its database. Now there are new technologies to keep the adventuresome developer busy. The catch is, most of these post-relational databases, such as MongoDB, Cassandra, and Riak, are designed to handle simple data. However, the most interesting applications deal with a complex, connected world.

A new type of database significantly changes the standard direction taken by NOSQL. Graph databases, unlike their NOSQL and relational brethren, are designed for lightning-fast access to complex data found in social networks, recommendation engines and networked systems.

Pancake, for example, which is Mozilla’s next-generation browser project, uses a graph database to store browsing history in the cloud, since the web is just one big graph.

Graph theory dates back to 1735, when Leonard Euler solved the Seven Bridges of Königsberg problem by devising a topology consisting of nodes and relationships to answer the then-famous question, “Is it possible to trace a walk through the city that crosses every bridge just once?” Graph theory has since found many uses, but only recently has it been applied to storing and managing data.

It turns out that graphs are a very intuitive way to represent relationships between data.

Think back to your earliest whiteboard graphing session. Traditionally, the developer would hand this off to a DBA, and if she were lucky, would receive a database one month later and start coding. This is because the relational model is tabular, and it takes both time and expertise to represent non-tabular data in a tabular format.

Graph databases let you represent related data as it inherently is: as a set of objects connected by a set of relationships, each with its own set of descriptive properties. With a graph database, the developer can start coding immediately, because the data stored in the database directly parallels the whiteboard representation.

Development agility is handy, but it wouldn’t amount to anything without nose-bleeding speed. A recent benchmark took a “friends of friends” query (which finds all of the immediately adjacent nodes and progresses outward one level at a time) and compared performance between a relational database to a graph database. With a query depth of three, the graph database ran over 150 times faster. With a query depth of four, the graph database was over 1,000 times faster.

The reason for this vast difference in performance lies in how data and relationships are stored inside the database. Native graph databases use a technique called “index-free adjacency.” In simple terms, this means that each data element points directly to its inbound and outbound relationships, which in turn, point directly to related nodes, and so on. This technique allows million of related records to be traversed per second.

Relational databases, on the other hand, need to carry out a number of steps to determine whether and how things are connected, and then to retrieve related data records. Response times slow down as a relational database grows in volume, which causes problems as a business grows. However with a graph database, traversal speed remains constant, not depending on the total amount of data stored. This allows the database to naturally keep up with one’s business as it grows.

Neo4j Awarded in Bossies 2012: The Best of Open Source Databases

The database for interconnected data, Neo4j provides a reliable Java-based platform for conquering highly interconnected database problems. Available with full ACID transaction compatibility — rare in a NoSQL database — Neo4j has a SQL-like query language called Cypher and a scripting language called Gremlin for graph traversals. Best used to accurately and efficiently model highly complex, interconnected networks like network topologies, social networks, and conditional access control problems, it provides indexes on nodes and relationships. Direct path calculations take hundreds of lines of code for a RDBMS but two lines of code for Neo4j.

Office Web Apps upgrade offers better iPad experience

An upgrade of Microsoft’s Office Web Apps has been finalized, and a combination of enhancements makes this Web-hosted Office version work much better on iPads than previous iterations.

As a result, Microsoft, which has been reticent to create a full-featured Office version for iOS, may be able to at least appease unhappy users who want to use Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote on their iPads.

This new Office Web Apps version has “embraced” HTML5, has been optimized for tablets and smartphones, and has been further “fine tuned” for iOS 6 specifically, Microsoft said on Monday.

With the HTML5 enhancements, Office Web Apps runs in “virtually” all modern browsers, including Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari, without the need for plug-ins, according to Microsoft.

Moreover, as detailed in an August blog post, the new touch capabilities of the new Office Web Apps — then in preview mode — were designed “to bring the full-fledged capabilities of viewing and editing” to browsers and tablets such as IE on Windows 8 and mobile Safari on iOS.

At the time, Microsoft said its goals included letting users get up and running with touch-based Office Web Apps right away without learning a new user interface. In addition, Microsoft strived to offer users of touch-based devices the “full feature set of the Office Web Apps, including editing tools.”

Microsoft declined to comment on the user experience of Office Web Apps now on iPads. A quick check by IDG News Service of Office Web Apps on an iOS 6 iPad using Safari indeed shows a marked improvement in the interface and user experience, compared with the prior version.

Although Microsoft has released iOS applications for OneNote and Lync, it hasn’t ported the full-featured Office suite to Apple’s mobile operating system, and it has been criticized for this.

Microsoft probably wants Office to be a selling point for the upcoming Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets, including Microsoft’s own Surface device. However, critics point out that keeping Office away from iPads could end up hurting Microsoft more than Apple, since there is no shortage of vendors providing office productivity applications for iOS.

Thus, with this new Office Web Apps version, Microsoft could still protect the competitive edge of the new Windows 8 and RT tablets, while also meeting some of the demands of iPad users, many of whom use the Apple device for both personal and work tasks.

Office Web Apps, launched in 2010, offers a subset of the features found in the PC-installed Office version and is intended primarily as a complement to it, not a replacement. It contains online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

Office Web Apps is a component of the SkyDrive cloud storage service and of the new webmail service Outlook.com. Office Web Apps is also part of the Office 365 cloud-hosted collaboration and messaging suite, which also includes online versions of Exchange, Lync and SharePoint.

This Office Web Apps upgrade, in preview tests since July, is now live on SkyDrive and Outlook.com, Microsoft said Monday. A spokeswoman added that it’s being rolled out to Office 365 customers as well, a process expected to be completed by the end of the year.

In addition to the iOS improvements, Office Web Apps has also been tweaked to work better with the final versions of Internet Explorer 10 and Windows 8.

There are also feature improvements in areas such as document authoring, touch interface, collaboration and performance, amounting to what Microsoft described in July as the most significant update of the product to date.

Editing, layout and formatting features have been beefed up, while the interface has been optimized for touch-based screens such as those in tablets, following the design of the new Windows 8 interface, formerly called Metro.

In Monday’s blog post, Microsoft specifically highlighted improved rendering of graphics, images and layouts in Word, as well as new capabilities to view and add comments to documents.

Meanwhile, Excel offers what Microsoft calls “essential” spreadsheet features such as merging cells and auto-fitting of columns, while PowerPoint now lets users play back video and audio from presentations, as well as do joint editing and commenting for collaboration. OneNote now features the ability to search on a page or within a section.

Microsoft also said it improved the performance of Office Web Apps, so that basic operations such as typing and formatting don’t slow down as documents get larger. The performance improvements are particularly noticeable in Excel and PowerPoint, according to Microsoft.

Office Web Apps is used by about 50 million people per month, according to Microsoft.

45 years of creative evolution in the IT industry and beyond

How different is the world of computing now from when the first issue of Computerworldrolled off the presses in 1967?

Here’s a glimpse: One day around that time, Edward Glaser, chairman of computer science at Case Western Reserve University, was giving some of his students a tour of the rooms that held the school’s Univac 1107. As he stood in front of the computer’s flashing lights, the sound of tape spinning in the background, Glaser said, “By the time you’re my age, maybe 20 years from now, you’ll be able to hold all this computing power in something the size of a book.”

His students weren’t impressed. “I remember us thinking, ‘This guy is nuts,’ ” says Sheldon Laube, who recently retired as CIO of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Yet Glaser was, in fact, off by only a few years and several orders of magnitude in predicting the debut and the processing power of notebook computers.

Today, of course, the iPhone in Laube’s pocket can do things that would overwhelm a Univac 1107 or any other multimillion-dollar computing behemoth of that era.

Thanks to the miniaturization of hardware, advances in storage processing, vast improvements in software and the proliferation of high-speed networks, computing now belongs to the people.

Over the past 45 years, “the overarching trend is consumerization,” says technology pundit Esther Dyson, chairwoman of EDventure Holdings, an investment firm. The IT leaders who read Computerworld “used to own all the computers, and now [their] customers do.”

This brings one practical change, she notes: more technology choices for users, who have always wanted access to information via any device and any operating system, and now expect it.

For IT, it creates a new master: “Your 3-year-old kid can do things with your cellphone you can’t,” says Suren Gupta, executive vice president of technology and operations at Allstate. “[IT] better be on that curve. Kids and consumers are learning technology much faster, and we need to make sure we adapt our products to reflect that.”

Technologies are created to improve life. Corporations use technologies to become more efficient and improve their ability to give customers what they want. Some corporations — those with foresight and flexibility — use it to create entirely new ways of doing things.

Without a doubt, high tech has reshaped the world in the past 45 years. The most visible example comes from the smart devices that millions of us keep within easy reach. Personal digital assistants, indeed — cellphones and tablets extend our beings into a realm no less real for being virtual. But it wasn’t always this way.

Riding Moore’s Law

“My father was working on computer programming and technology back in the ’50s. He would come home and say, ‘This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Whatever you do, stay away from these things,’ ” recalls Ray Lane, a managing partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Lane didn’t listen to his father. After graduating from college, he became a systems analyst at IBM (he also did systems work in the military during the Vietnam War). By the early 1970s, he could write code in a formal language like Fortran (“Cobol was kind of for sissies,” he says), submit a deck of punch cards and 24 hours later find out what mistakes he’d made.

Thanks to the relentless pace of Moore’s Law, which posits that the number of transistors that can be put on a semiconductor will double every 18 months, the kind of computing power once available only to those who worked in austere information temples is now available in the palm of one’s hand, says Lane. And today, those temples — or data centers, as they’re now known — all look more or less the same: They’re made of servers with Intel chips inside, and they boast vast storage resources. We connect to them from anywhere, ultimately through the Internet’s protocol, TCP/IP.

Chris Perretta, CIO at State Street, remembers that he had to drop a microprocessor lab class when he was an engineering student in the late 1970s because he fried a CPU — it was too expensive for him to get a second one. “People get mad now when [technology] breaks, and I’m amazed that it works ever!” he jokes. At this point, Perretta says, “we can build systems with basically infinite computing capacity and access to an incredible amount of data.”

An Operating System in the Cloud: TransOS Could Displace Conventional Desktop Operating Systems

Computer users are familiar to different degrees with the operating system that gets their machines up and running, whether that is the Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac, Linux, ChromeOS or other operating system. The OS handles the links between hardware, the CPU, memory, hard drive, peripherals such as printers and cameras as well as the components that connect the computer to the Internet, critically it also allows the user to run the various bits of software and applications they need, such as their email programs, web browsers, word processors, spreadsheets and games.

While, operating systems seem firmly entrenched in the personal computer and their files, documents, movies, sounds and images, sit deep within the hard drive. Traditionally, software too is stored on the same hard drive for quick access to the programs a user needs at any given time. However, there is a growing movement that is taking the applications off the personal hard drive and putting them “in the cloud.”