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Clausnitz without the black and white

If you haven’t heard about the events at Clausnitz involving a bus of refugees and an angry group of 100 protesters, then first take a look at e.g. this  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/19/mob-chanting-bus-refugees-germany-politicians, which should give you an idea. (There are plenty of articles to be found with a simple Web search if you want to dive deeper.)

After this incident, the usual black and white accusations started up in the German press and in the few online comment sections which are not yet closed for any refugee-related articles. There was hate against the police for failing to control the situation, personal accusations against individual policemen for dragging refugees from the bus, massive blame on the refugees for not staying calm throughout, and even the always regrettable accusation against all protesters of being “non-human”.

From what I’ve read about the incident, most of this lacks balance, and a lot of it is just plain wrong.

There seem to have been too few police there on the ground to disperse the mob. So getting the refugees out of the bus and into their assigned housing looks like a sensible idea. This greatly reduced the interface surface and increased the refugees safety. If some force had to be used to get them out of there, then so be it. I was not in the situation, and I will not judge any police personnel in the situation about how specifically they did this if there do not appear to have been any obvious excesses (which there do not seem to have been). Criticism at the police for doing the correct thing, but not doing it as well as they might have are valid, but do not warrant the hate, and should not be the focus in this situation. They certainly don’t warrant personal attacks on any personnel involved. I do not expect our police to be perfect. I do expect them to act reasonably. This seems to have been the case here.

Where criticism towards the police is due are two areas, and in both cases these are towards the police leadership, not people on the ground.

The first is that there was not enough backup sent to bring the situation under control earlier. A large group of protesters blocking the way of a legal and necessary transport of refugees and refusing to follow police orders to desist in their actions is not something that can be accepted. It certainly isn’t in the case of the regular transports of nuclear waste, which was rightfully brought up often in the discussions I read. In those cases matter is transported, and passive resistance is dealt with swiftly and, nowadays, mostly calmly and professionally. The costs are huge, but it is done every time. Here people were transported, and the protest situation obviously was one where the police expected that escalation to violence against these people was possible. This also requires bringing in any amount of personnel necessary to resolve the situation. Not doing so and capitulating to a hundred protesters (one hundred!) shows a deep lack of judgement of the leadership. If it was not possible to bring in the necessary amount of personnel, then this calls for a statement to this effect by the police leadership, and for efforts to remedy the underlying problems. (Calling for more security and downsizing the police at the same time has always been nonsensical. It is time to end this. I am a strong supporter of civil liberties, and firmly convinced that these are better protected by a police force which has the personnel to enforce the laws than by indiscriminate automated surveillance and data collection which has little real effect but a huge potential for abuse!)

Secondly, the official assignation of blame in the situation and the announced criminal proceedings are way off.

The people who assembled to protest did not have a right to block the way of the bus. They did not have a right to stay assembled after the police told them to disperse. To be clear, these are minor infractions, and I generally support the moral rights to a peaceful protest irrespective of such minor infractions. I certainly do not want to see anybody prosecuted for showing up there. Blocking a bus with innocent people in it for hours, constant angry shouting, threatening behavior, on the other hand, are not acceptable. People have a right to their opinion about the German government’s handling of the refugee crisis. They have a right to express this in protest. They do not have a right to threaten individual refugees. Not dispersing after it became clear that this was not a peaceful protest and that there was a risk of escalation is not acceptable morally as well as legally. The ringleaders here should be prosecuted. That may only be a few people, and I do not expect any heavy punishments to come out of it, but there should be an investigation as a signal that these are not acceptable actions.

Unlike the protesters, the refugees on the bus were not there voluntarily. They did not have the possibility to leave and end the situation at any time. They should not have made insulting gestures at the protesters (one never should insult anybody, really), but there is a lot less blame on them. Losing patience in a situation you’ve been trapped in for a long time and that you cannot escape is understandable. Blaming a ten year old child in this situation is plain ridiculous. Announcing on the day after the incident that there will be further investigation who to assign blame to on the side of the refugees, with possible criminal punishment as a consequence, while not stating anything about investigating the other side is absurd and inexcusable.

tl;dr: The blame here lies not with the police on the ground, but with the leadership for its utter failure of action during the situation and ridiculous reaction afterward. Focusing blame on the refugees in this situation is just wrong.

 

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Apple != Invention

When discussing Apple, sooner or later somebody will disgustedly ask what Apple ever invented. The question itself is easy to answer: not much. The PC, the GUI, PDAs, MP3 players, touch screens, smartphones and tablets all existed before Apple released the first product in the category. Apple did not invent them. In most cases, though, their releasing a product fundamentally changed the playing field in the category. (As the inclusion of the PDA shows, this is not universally the case. And they needed two attempts for the GUI.) This is because Apple are not an invention company. Their strength is taking the technical basis for an existing product, and then transforming it into an Apple product. This entails leaving out any features that do not work well enough yet, cutting any other features they deem not essential to the core experience, and polishing what remains. This polishing includes all parts of the experience, from packaging to casing to small details of the UI and UX. They then apply a bit of pixie dust (aka the reality distortion field) and market the hell out of it. It is this entire chain that makes Apple, not any particular huge inventive step. Accusing Apple of not inventing new technology thus misses the point of the company entirely.

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Unblocked

Seth Godin’s blog is one of the few non-tech blogs that I have in my RSS reader. And while I check the others at least of  (there are not that many that this leaves me with an overwhelming number of accumulated posts), I often leave his for longer. There are just too many posts there that make me uncomfortable. Posts that point me at things I’m doing wrong, or show me things that I could be doing – should be doing in a lot of cases. Much like the next guy, I don’t really like being uncomfortable, and I simply don’t see a way to do something about a lot of what’s covered there. Not all at once, at least.

But when http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/09/talkers-block.html appeared a few days ago, I felt compelled to do something about this. I don’t write daily, but I do write quite a bit. It’s just that most things stay fragments, or rough drafts at best. There’s a growing pile of posts that could have been in my OneNote notebooks. While this pile is not exactly weighing me down, it is nagging at me in the back of my mind. So better to get at least some of it out there, even in a state where I’m not entirely satisfied with it. The base requirement is that there should be something of interest there, that they shouldn’t be just navel-gazing or completely idle musings. I’ll try not to waste your time, but it’s up to you to decide whether to continue reading. I’ll also not commit to writing, and posting, something every day. Three posts a week should work as a baseline for now. I’ll be generous to myself this week and count this as the first of three.

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The last of the Nokians

There was quite a bit of buzz about the N9 last week, including a lot of gadget lust for the device. There’s a lot of love out there for Nokia yet, and the N9 is a handset to bring this out. Amid the inevitable questions about what could have been if Nokia had stayed with MeeGo as a part of its portfolio, there were even showings of hope that the relegation of MeeGo to a research project wasn’t final. A twitter petition was started and even the occasional  blog post proclaiming a change of heart on the part of Steven Elop were written.

Of course this is nonsense. Even a huge success of the N9 would not change anything at Nokia, not with the current management in place. And then, of course, there is the unfortunate fact that the N9 will not be a success. While some of the reactions to the N9 really were ecstatic, there is no telling how much even of that will keep until the actual release sometime in the fall.

The hardware of the N9 certainly looks gorgeous. Colorful yet simple, with a nicely curved screen, it is something to be desired, and feels at place among the current high-end phones. Once you dig underneath, however, it comes from the same family of SoCs that powered the N900 – which was announced 22 months ago. High-end hardware back then, but now outdated in this segment. Even worse is that performance upgrades can only come from switching to a newer line of SoCs, which needs new OS adaptations under the hood. A reason for using this SoC is that the core OS is the follow-up to Maemo 5, which powered the N900 – and which was canned at the beginning of 2010 when Nokia announced the cooperation with Intel on MeeGo. There’s Qt on top, which as a cross-platform toolkit was developed independently of Maemo and MeeGo, and thus probably not as affected by the recent changes. The entire thing is not fully MeeGo compliant. This strongly indicates that MeeGo was, as a matter of fact, not close to launch-ready, since it was apparently easier to go back to a software/hardware combination from early 2010 than to finish anything currently in development. It also indicates support for current top-end hardware is nowhere there yet.

Thought experiments about reviving MeeGo not only have to take this into consideration, but also that a considerable amount of the development team has left for other companies. Rebuilding the team, and then continuing a product that was further from launch than software abandoned over a year ago – well, it’s hard to see a product launch there before the first WP 7 devices.

So the N9 does not clearly demonstrate  tech leadership on the part of Nokia, as some would have it, but instead speaks of delays and execution problems – once again.

Now users aren’t interested in OSes and only peripherally aware of release schedules. Functionality and ecosystem are what matters to them. The functionality of the N9 out of the box is certainly impressive. All the basics are covered, there is deep integration of social networks, and Nokia Maps on the N9 could well turn out to be the best satnav experience on a smartphone yet. There is even Angry Birds (which was also available for the N900, so this is not that surprising).

Beyond that, once you need an ecosystem to extend this functionality, things aren’t looking so good. There is a small dedicated developer community around the Maemo devices, but the main repository currently only lists 657 applications. A lot of these are going to make it onto the N9, but neither is that an impressive number, nor do most of these have mainstream appeal in their funcionality or UI. Qt as the development toolkit eases porting of newer Symbian applications, and, to be fair, the apps situation there has improved a lot, but again the question is how many developers are actually going to bother to adapt their applications for a single device.

Alien Dalvik is seen as a trump card to solve the application problems by many. It allows Android applications to run on the N9, so potentially the entire Android application catalogue could run on the N9. Aside the point that this is not true for anything that runs native code (read: at least all games that use computing-intensive graphics),  this again requires some developer effort in repackaging their applications. This is not going to happen for the vast majority of the applications, not for a single device. Add to that the problem of discovery, installation and payment absent a central marketplace, and the trump card turns into a dud for mainstream users. Nobody’s willing to hunt the web for install files anymore, or to pay on developer’s websites.

What about the UI, which has gotten people so excited? Could this play a role?  It’s certainly different, it’s fluid, it has interesting ideas. The same was true for webOS. Palm bet the company on it, lost big time, and is now part of HP. So no, the best UI in the world can’t bring about the success of a smartphone in the current market, not without an ecosystem around it.

Not that Nokia is betting the company on the N9. The bet here is without a question Windows Phone 7, and the company management did their best last week to make this clear. First there was the ‘Sea Ray’ leak. A professionally produced video about an internal company presentation of the first Nokia WP7 device, leaked to a Hungarian website. Timed perfectly to land square in the middle of the post-release chatter about the N9. Then Steven Elop followed this with an interview to a Finish newspaper, in which he plainly stated that no sales success of the N9 could change the current course. As he also recently said: “Plan B is to make sure that Plan A works!”

I guess he needn’t worry much about a sales success that would call this decision into question. Nice hardware, with a spec sheet that will be even less stunning by the time the N9 is in shops among a slew of dual-core top-end phones, and with a non-existent ecosystem is unlikely to attract much more than the Linux enthusiasts and Nokia fans who bought the N900. For them the 91,000 units, which Eldar Mutartzin has claimed are the entire production run for the N9, might suffice. It is certainly believable that with no real commitment behind the launch, there are no plans for producing more than a token amount.

Which brings us to the why the N9 was launched at all. The situation here looks murky at best, with several theories out there.

Following the February announcement there were stories that Nokia is contractually obliged to Intel to produce a MeeGo device this year. It is hard to see how a device running on Texas Instruments ARM hardware could benefit Intel directly, but it’s possible they insisted, either to spite Nokia or to get some affordable developer hardware capable of running MeeGo out there. In case of the latter, they might also be willing to accept this as the obligation fulfilled, since it otherwise they could well argue that this is not, in fact, a MeeGo device.

Another line of reasoning has fractions within Nokia still pushing for MeeGo, and the N9 as their baby. I have no idea whether anybody would actually have the pull, e.g. through connections to the board, to get this launched against the resistance of the upper management, but I strongly doubt it.

But then the new management might have found the release to be useful as well, to demonstrate to the world, through its failure in the market, that choosing WP7 over MeeGo was the right decision. The leak of the WP7 video lends a little credence to this theory . Maybe that there are fractions that want this to succeed, and ones that are actively working against this.

Finally, there is the possibility that it is really just there to test some concepts, and as developer hardware for MeeGo as a skunkworks project. The design of the casing, after all, will be reused for the first WP7 device, and there’s even talk of reusing the interface at some point in the future, so the extra work might have been acceptable for this.

Whatever the reason for its launch, in the end it doesn’t matter: It is clear that the N9 is the last device to truly represent Nokia as an integrated hardware and software company – at once intriguing, beautiful,  and doomed. It is the last of the Nokians – and despite, or maybe because of this, I want one. In black, as a beautiful memento of the Nokia that ended on February 11th 2010.

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