Windows 8: Microsoft in a Post Microsoft Era

Like a lot of people I am watching the launch of Windows 8 in the market unfold in real time and find it one of the most fascinating shows in tech right now. There are few moments in our industry’s history that combine such a wide array of transformational disruptions on a company, while at the same time the company itself is positioning itself to break with it’s entire history and embrace change.

Here’s what I know:

  • Windows 8 is a fundamentally different approach to the Windows user experience.
  • From the ground up Win8 fully embraces a touch driven user interface.
  • Win8 features a rich immersive audio and video capabilities.
  • Built for the cloud with integrated services via SkyDrive.

Let’s run through some of the criticisms that I am reading, and contrast with how other companies are treated.

1) It’s a confusing user experience. 

Maybe, time will tell but the context this criticism is usually presented in is that of existing Windows users who are struggling to adapt to a new UX. This is the most unfair criticism that Windows 8 is subjected to because were it any other company the criticism would not be offered, instead what would be said is that the company is question is positioning for the future. How many times has Apple unilaterally changed something about their products to the sound of crickets among the chattering class?

Microsoft is at the forefront of a post-PC landscape and they are doing something about it. It’s not that desktop computing will go away, but it clearly – by any measure – isn’t driving growth and Microsoft is responding by drawing on their considerable experience in gaming, media, and mobile technologies to offer a next generation platform. I, for one, am looking forward to being confused by a new generation of Windows…

2) Companies will hold off on upgrading.

No shit, seriously is this what passes for tech journalism? We are in the midst of a recession (whatever you want to call it, the economy sucks) and companies are in no mood for an upgrade cycle. It’s also worth pointing out that Windows 7 is well supported in the modern enterprise and does what companies want it to do.

There is a bigger issue to take into account, which is that for Microsoft the future will always hinge on supporting businesses using Windows (and Office) but for the company to adapt to a bigger competitive landscape they have to change the dynamic of selling predominately through companies and OEMs.

We have been talking about consumerization of the enterprise for 10 years and it has already happened. New technologies don’t leak into companies through individuals, it is a primary path through which technology products now enter the enterprise. For Microsoft this means they need to appeal to individuals more strongly and draft on that to drive uptake with CIOs.

3) Windows 8 is a tablet experience forced into a desktop/laptop paradigm.

Perhaps, but to accept this blindly also means that we are not imagining a hardware convergence between tablets and ultra portable laptops. How many people use a bluetooth keyboard with their iPad to, effectively, use it as a Macbook Air? This convergence is already happening and Samsung has already announced a laptop with a touchscreen display…

4) OEMs are unhappy with Windows 8.

and the problem is….? Why should I care if OEMs are unhappy? The PC supply chain has stagnated, driving little innovation in recent years as consumers have put design and usability values ahead of low cost commoditization. Microsoft has allowed their OEM partners to crapify the initial user experience and force to the forefront mediocre applications that people don’t want and didn’t use. Microsoft has the chops to be a force in hardware manufacturing, they should embrace this and let Surface be a shot across the bow to companies like Dell and HP that design matters and if they won’t deliver it then Microsoft will.

In the process of writing this post I pretty much decided I am going to order one of the new Win8 devices when they become available. As much as I like my Macbook Air I am also objective enough to point out that Apple has been neglecting the Macbook product lines, substituting incrementalism for real innovation while they put the brunt of their efforts on iOS development and device support. I’m ready to give Microsoft another shot..

PS- I deliberately titled this post to reflect a “post Microsoft era”. This is not a typo from the oft heard “post PC era”. Microsoft needs to completely reinvent the platform that got them to where they are, just prettying up Windows and adding some cool features isn’t enough to capture customers like me.

Life With Android, 1 Year Later

A little over a year ago I turned off my iPhone 3 and fired up a new HTC Evo Android handset, the initial experience I wrote about here. I recently upgraded my handset from the Evo to the just released Samsung Epic Touch and wanted to share some thoughts about Android after having lived with it for a full year.

As you might surmise given that I just upgraded my handset, I’m pretty happy with Android but first let’s get some of the negative comments out of the way. Power management is a huge issue with all of these handsets, especially the ones with 4.3″ displays and lot’s of network options. Apple has done a remarkably good job of reconciling hardware and software power issues, Google needs to do better on power management in the platform and providing reference material to hardware providers in order to maximize the consumer experience in this area.

The Android UI is one which only an engineer can truly love… lot’s of icons, buttons, menus, and gestures. I know that this has been an area of focus for the Android team and they have brought on board some significant talent to lead the way to a new and improved user experience. While the current UX is not bad or in any way impairs my usage, improvements can’t come fast enough.

The Android marketplace is very noisy, a function of the explosion of applications that have become available but also a result of an interaction model that favors the carrier’s desire to feature apps of their choosing. It’s time to revamp the Android market(s) by moving away from the category navigation model to a strong search function where someone can use the search facility to find apps by stacking up metadata strings (e.g. category, keyword, rating, free/paid, etc.).

That’s really the sum total of complaints and shortcomings I would point out. Android is, today, a remarkably mature mobile platform and ecosystem and benefits greatly from hardware innovation and a highly extensible core operating system. The HTC Evo I had was one of the best phones I have ever owned and the Samsung Epic Touch is quickly proving itself as one of the best handsets on the market.

Despite being really large the handset is also very thin and light, which is probably a function of the highly evolved AMOLED display which fuses the glass and the display components together in a compact package. It’s also worth pointing out that the display is manufactured by Samsung so they clearly benefit from having a degree of verticalization in their design and manufacturing operations, something few other hardware manufacturers could boast of.

Battery life on the Epic Touch is far better than the Evo, even when the bluetooth, GPS, and wifi networks are spun up. This is a large battery at 1800 mAh, which gives a reported 10 hours of talk time, but time will tell because new batteries always perform admirably… it’s when you have been using it for 6 months that a true representation of battery life emerges.

The display quality is nothing short of fantastic, and when coupled with a very crisp 8 megapixel camera makes for pleasing experiences while taking images and video. I also noticed that the camera is very speedy in terms of reducing latency and lag, a welcome addition.

I could go on about the hardware but this isn’t intended to be a hardware review so let me close by simply saying that the Epic Touch is a significant achievement in hardware design. One of the reasons why I went with Android in the first place is that I didn’t want to be limited exclusively to what Apple decided I should have for hardware and software… Google has done a commendable job of recruiting great hardware partners and the array of handsets that are available meet a wide range of consumer requirements.

On the software side the portfolio of Android apps is deep and broad, the only application that I would like to have which is not available is Instagram. I like the ability to have additional items in my share menu, which was always a pain point for me on the iPhone and the integration of Google Apps is rich, as would be expected.

All things considered, I am glad I switched over to Android and look forward to getting a tablet later in the year when new devices are expected.

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HTML5 – A Wonder Drug

I was reading up on some of the commentary surrounding Amazon’s release of an HTML5 reader, one of the best comes from Constellation’s Charles Brett:

Amazon’s announcement of its Kindle Cloud Reader, based around HTML 5, is a wonder of irony. Apple has successfully been taking 30% of purchases made via anything bought through an app that was installed through the iTunes Store. In parallel it has denigrated Adobe’s Flash (albeit with some justice) as being insufficient for purpose while establishing a pro-HTML5 position as the ‘best’ way to move forwards. Many have been irritated by this ‘Apple knows best’ approach – but that is hardly new.

Looking beyond the immediate benefit for publishers of iOS apps as a result of Apple’s steep 30% cut of the action, HTML5 brings real and sustained benefits to anyone providing a consumer or business application.

  1. A single presentation layer that delivers mobile and web experiences… in other words, unification of the codebase which greatly simplifies application development and the capability to deliver a highly tuned user experience which is great for consumers.
  2. The “real estate” problem is satisfied through evolution of the “home screen web app” feature in iOS that will surely show up in Android. The two primary benefits of a downloadable app are the platform specific UX and the placement of an icon on the mobile desktop… HTML5 delivers the former while mobile platform enhancements are delivering the latter.
  3. The benefits for subscription businesses are evident, you don’t have to give Apple or anyone else their 30 pieces of silver, but for applications like Get Satisfaction that are a network of sites (we host over 60k communities) HTML5 is really the only practical way to deliver a mobile experience… otherwise we would face the impossible task of publishing thousand of mobile apps to support communities that demand a mobile experience.
  4. Hardware acceleration for media playback without having a wrapper plugin as a requirement.
  5. A bunch of other stuff opens up, like geolocation and local data storage, plus the code is cleaner because div codes are replaced with new structural elements and the spec has improved semantics which improves the ability for machine access.

There are disadvantages but most of those are a function of the language being a spec subject to ongoing development, and for media publishers the lack of a DRM framework imposes additional burden and media licensing issues forces compression in many formats to support multiple browsers.

I guess we should thank Apple for forcing the Flash vs. HTML5 issue and then imposing a punitive licensing scheme on their app store… both of which have conspired to catapult HTML5 into the foreground for developments of applications which have web and mobile experiences.

Why You Shouldn’t Buy an iPad

I’ve already voiced my belief that the iPad will ultimately be a disappointment. It’s certain that Apple will sell millions of the devices to technophile early adopters but the prospects for the broader market are mixed and considering that Jobs has declared the iPad the “most important thing I’ve ever done” well I can’t help but recall that pride cometh before the fall.

I admit to having mixed feelings about this myself, thinking that having a giant iPod Touch would actually be really cool in spite of the cost of acquisition and cost of operating it (assuming you believe 3G is essential for a portable device like this). Then there are the add-on charges that app developers believe they are entitled to… some are certainly justified but for publishers charging 2 and 3x for iPad apps vs their iPhone apps, I feel repulsed.

Publishers are approaching the iPad like a holy grail that gives them the superpowers to avoid having to reinvent their businesses. It won’t do that and if Time Magazine really believes their iPad version is worth $5 an issue then the only explanation is that they are taking all their leftover print mags and rolling something up in them and smoking it.

The whole notion of having “an issue” really underscores how publishers still don’t understand what is going on with digital content. I, like most of the market, don’t want to read a compilation of content like I had to do with print. I want digitally connected content that brings together many sources topically or theme

Cory Doctorow wrote something today that goes far beyond the iPad specific issues and speaks to the broader trends with devices like this (and the iPhone and the Kindle and many more) that ultimately prove themselves to be hostile to consumers. Take for example the proliferation of DRM that prevents legitimate sharing of content:

And let’s look at the iStore. For a company whose CEO professes a hatred of DRM, Apple sure has made DRM its alpha and omega. Having gotten into business with the two industries that most believe that you shouldn’t be able to modify your hardware, load your own software on it, write software for it, override instructions given to it by the mothership (the entertainment industry and the phone companies), Apple has defined its business around these principles. It uses DRM to control what can run on your devices, which means that Apple’s customers can’t take their “iContent” with them to competing devices, and Apple developers can’t sell on their own terms.

[From Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either) – Boing Boing]

Not only are we passively accepting the locking down of content that otherwise could be legally shared but publishers are using this pacifism to pressure channels to mimic physical goods pricing with digital products that have nowhere near the cost of production and distribution that physical goods have.

The arrival of the iPad, another locked down device, resulted in an unwelcome surprise from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony, which is that publishers will now set pricing on these digital content networks rather than risk having valuable content held back in favor of Apple. It is somewhat ironic that Apple is the catalyst for this move having launched the iPod with a controversial one size fits all pricing model that content owners, then and still now, gripe about but the arrival of the iPad and another dedicated content network highlights how when interoperability of content is not allowed the content owners end up being the ones with real power because they can play the devices off each other.

Doctorow also goes on to criticize Apple, and everyone else if you accept his argument, for offering a sealed hardware device that can only be extended via software applications that the very access to is controlled by Apple. There is a valid point here that abstracting the hardware layer and making it physically inaccessible gives great power to the manufacturer.

Apple’s model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of “that’s too complicated for my mom” (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn’t too complicated for their poor old mothers).

This trend was not started by Apple, it has pervaded consumer goods for decades as our society has embraced disposability over repair and durability. I doubt it will change and in many ways cannot fault Apple for sealing the device but I still cringe when my iPhone battery is on red and I can’t swap in a freshly charged battery… this is where convenience for Apple results in inconvenience for the consumer.

BTW, if we could do away with the tired “even my mother could do it” metaphor we would all be better off… not only is it sexist but it rarely holds up these days… moms are not genetically disadvantaged when it comes to tech.

Like I said at the top of this post, Apple will sell millions of these devices but I don’t believe it will achieve the lofty dreams of the hardcore apple fanboys. It’s not a laptop replacement… and you still need a computer to interact with it so it’s not a new computing model. It’s not even a new computing paradigm because tablets have existed for years and we’ll all been having fun with the iPod and iPhone for a while now. App developers and publishers are wildly enthusiastic about this device but jeez what do you expect them to be… downbeat?

It’s not a phone and it should not be one either… why would you want another number and another service (like Google Voice) to manage the call routing with? I’m reminded of Zoolander with the micro cell phone, only in this picture it’s a supersized iPhone that still doesn’t have the benefits of integrated voice telephony and data… because the carriers aren’t doing that. Maybe Apple (and AT&T) will allow for the tethering of iPads and iPhones… but maybe not… either way it’s not something they talk about now so even though it’s an obvious benefit for users why should we believe they will do it?

This gets to the last point, which is the one that I believe Doctorow is trying to make, which is that you, as a company, have to decide what side you are going to fight for, consumers or partners. You can’t have it both ways and in Apple’s case they went from standing up for clear benefits for customers with the original iPod to now benefiting telcos and content owners, as well as themselves. Amazon is guilty of this as well, rarely has a business been more pro-consumer than Amazon yet by caving to publishers they are saying that their growth aspirations for their Kindle business are more important than standing up for consumers.

Relying on incumbents to produce your revolutions is not a good strategy. They’re apt to take all the stuff that makes their products great and try to use technology to charge you extra for it, or prohibit it altogether.

Cloud Computing and the Morning After

I just read a very interesting op-ed about the opportunities and hazards of cloud computing and it resonated with me on several levels.

Some are in plain view. If you entrust your data to others, they can let you down or outright betray you. For example, if your favorite music is rented or authorized from an online subscription service rather than freely in your custody as a compact disc or an MP3 file on your hard drive, you can lose your music if you fall behind on your payments — or if the vendor goes bankrupt or loses interest in the service. Last week Amazon apparently conveyed a publisher’s change-of-heart to owners of its Kindle e-book reader: some purchasers of Orwell’s “1984” found it removed from their devices, with nothing to show for their purchase other than a refund. (Orwell would be amused.)

Worse, data stored online has less privacy protection both in practice and under the law. A hacker recently guessed the password to the personal e-mail account of a Twitter employee, and was thus able to extract the employee’s Google password. That in turn compromised a trove of Twitter’s corporate documents stored too conveniently in the cloud. Before, the bad guys usually needed to get their hands on people’s computers to see their secrets; in today’s cloud all you need is a password.

Thanks in part to the Patriot Act, the federal government has been able to demand some details of your online activities from service providers — and not to tell you about it. There have been thousands of such requests lodged since the law was passed, and the F.B.I.’s own audits have shown that there can be plenty of overreach — perhaps wholly inadvertent — in requests like these.

[From Op-Ed Contributor – Lost in the Cloud – NYTimes.com]

In recent weeks we have seen the downside of relying on third party hosted application services and having devices tethered to a remote service provider, but these recent incidents are really nothing new. Apple has over the years faced some pretty intense criticism for the control they exert over iTunes and the lengths to which they will go to restrict access by third parties, whether it be the restrictive DRM on iTunes content or their continued skirmishes with iPhone jailbreakers.

The recent case of Amazon deleting books their customers purchased that they were not authorized to sell is particularly egregious and despite their mea culpa and promise to never do it again, consumers are right to be concerned about intrusions onto their personal property by remote service providers. It is something I am increasingly concerned about, not because of bad intentions but simply because this new frontier is increasingly hostile to something that forms the very foundation of the American way of life, property rights.

Imagine the consequences if Best Buy broke into your home to search for pirated DVDs that you were playing on a device you purchased from them, these consequences would be criminal and beyond debate. Now imagine what would happen if Amazon deleted ebooks that were not authorized for digital distribution and hacked onto a Kindle (because you can’t get Kindle content legitimately anywhere but Amazon, indeed their DRM scheme is proprietary) or Apple deleted songs that were not downloaded from iTunes or Google cancelled your Gmail account because of a terms of service violation and didn’t give you your email? What would happen… bubkus because the only consequence would be public outcry and some bad PR.

Meanwhile, the Federal government wants to be a repository for my personal medical records, while also aspiring to be my insurance providers, several states are considering a vehicle tax tied to actual mileage that would be recorded through an in-vehicle transmitter, California is pushing to mandate pay-as-you-go insurance and registration fees which would again rely on forced transmitting of miles driven, and utilities are mandating smart-grid meters for electricity and gas usage that monitor in real time what you are consuming.

All of this is more than a little unsettling and while we are seeing tremendous innovations I can’t help but feel that we are getting ahead of our ability to adjust our regulatory and law enforcement framework to deal with the universal issue of my data, who can see it, and under what protocols. The privacy pendulum has in recent years swung wide in one direction as consumers increasingly express little concern about companies having our data and accessing our devices, the question remains whether that pendulum will swing back violently in the other direction or simply adjust periodically.

MS on Vista’s “Challenges”

At this point I doubt there is any new information available that would dissuade people from the notion that Vista was one very screwed up launch, so I guess Microsoft’s PR strategy momentarily shifted to stating the obvious.

The answers we got during this mid-June background conversation were brutally honest: Our source, a high-ranking Windows product manager, conceded that Microsoft botched the Vista launch. He added that the company’s biggest concern wasn’t the OS but rather the eroded faith in Microsoft’s flagship product among users of all types and experience levels.

[From Exclusive Interview: Microsoft Admits What Went Wrong with Vista, and How They Fixed It]

I don’t think Vista is that bad or fatally flawed, in fact once it’s working people seem to be okay with it. But that’s the problem, you should get more for your money than simply not being annoyed anymore… but the real problem is probably that Vista is the desktop equivalent of fighting the last war. The referenced “eroded faith in Microsoft” cuts to the very core of what Microsoft has to maintain at all costs, trust.

Apple successfully shifted the debate to “the OS is a commodity, it’s everything on top of the OS that matters” and Microsoft has never been prone to shipping useful or even tolerable applications with their OS releases. They prefer to preserve that option for upselling you a separate package later. The notion of utility has shifted from being able to faithfully support other people’s apps to value that I get out of the box and on this latter point Microsoft is far far behind Apple.

Worse for Microsoft is that their distribution strategy weakens their customer advocacy position by allowing PC manufacturers to crapify the desktop of your new machine, further adding to bloat and annoyance.

The folks in Redmond will get this sorted out and in the end it could be the catalyst that leads to major strategy shifts for the desktop business unit. As has been noted many times throughout the history of this company, they are always at their best when they have something to target.

Ironically, while Microsoft diligently works to sort itself out it may be that Apple is just passing the apex of it’s meteoric rise of recent years. MobileMe has been an acknowledged black eye, the iPhone 3G has been plagued by issues related to battery life and network performance, and there have been quality issues (MagSafe and iPod Nanos catching fire). Apple’s shine isn’t quite as glossy and this has people asking “what’s next?”.

AAPL Worth More than GOOG

And it’s a completely worthless comparison. Two companies in very different markets and subject to different economic factors related to costs and who buys their products. Lastly, it’s not a zero sum game folks… traders buying AAPL ain’t selling off their GOOG positions as a consequence. It’s also worth pointing out that AAPL is a hell of a lot more volatile than GOOG, a factor which taken in isolation drives more trading in the stock.

On Wall Street, the phenomenal popularity of the phone has fuelled a 44% surge in Apple’s share price in 12 months. By the close of trading on Wednesday, Apple’s market value had edged up to $158.8bn – a shade ahead of Google’s $157.2bn.

[From Google pipped – Apple the new king of Silicon Valley as market value overtakes hi-tech rival | Technology | The Guardian]

Apple’s 45 Million iPhones in 2008

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster took a lot of heat back in June 2007 when he predicted, three weeks before Apple even began selling the iPhone, that the company would be shipping them at the rate of 45 million a year by 2009.

[From FORTUNE: Apple 2.0 Analyst: How Apple sells 45 million iPhones in 2009 «]

It’s not entirely outrageous but the handset market is super competitive and it’s certain that Apple’s leverage will diminish in the absence of another Jesus-phone, and 3G alone ain’t gonna be that. I’ve used my iPhone since last September and am generally pretty loyal to Apple products, but I’m lusting for the Nokia N95. I might even go back to a Blackberry.

Apple is clearly a player in the handset market but to go from where they are to 45 million is beyond aggressive (mind you, as I read this article, Munster was talking run rates and not absolute shipments.) The carriers clearly want this handset and the association with Apple, but the price points are pretty steep and with no subsidies they are capping their market.

Blackberry is the most serious threat to Apple’s ambitions, but they really phoned it in (no pun intended) with the Blackberry 9000. It’s basically the same ‘ol crappy BB with rounded corners and a pretty background image. This surely can’t be the best Blackberry can do, can it? And don’t call me Shirley.

Here’s why I wouldn’t buy another iPhone even though I generally like the one I have:

1) No copy/paste. It’s a small point but incredibly frustrating that Apple didn’t include this cuz it would have screwed up their UI.

2) Battery life. Keep that wifi turned off. In all fairness, most of these uber-handsets have crappy battery life.

3) No video from the camera. The camera is okay, but just okay.

4) Clunky email interface, slow as well. I do like the virtual keyboard much more than I would have thought.

5) It’s heavy and kinda large.

One final note, the SDK will be a big step in the right direction but I suspect that Steve Jobs is only going to go the full distance on openness while being dragged kicking and screaming along the way. I want apps on my iphone and it kinda pisses me off that I can’t have them right now.

Competition is a Good Thing

Somewhat ironic to think that the biggest threat to the economics of music sales isn’t coming from illegal downloading but rather from the dominance of iTunes and inevitable commoditization of pricing that comes from competitors who have to resort to scorched earth pricing in order to establish a market position in the absence of compelling download services and portable players.

Imagine where the music business would be if they had embraced digital music and portable players early on with the goal of making them cheap, convenient and ubiquitous.

iTunes will do to online video downloads what they did to music and as a result consumers will benefit from lower prices across the board. Personally, I am enjoying watching this happen and have no sympathy for an industry that thought they could roll back the clock to a time when distribution control gave them punitive pricing power.

BTW, that I am posting this during Macworld is only a coincidence.

Yet Apple has so far found it easy to dismiss the music companies – sometimes rather rudely – because Microsoft, Sony and other competitors have failed to cut into iTunes’ roughly 80 per cent share of the market. Some download stores have been plagued by clumsy user-interfaces. Monthly subscription services win praise from executives but have had a hard time convincing all but a small core of die-hard music fans to sign up.

[From FT.com / Comment & analysis / Analysis – Bruised music majors back iTunes rival]

It’s What Is INSIDE the Machine that Counts

Mossberg says that Dell’s XPS One has the right stuff… still needs to be decrapified.

In my tests, I found the XPS One to be much better designed and equipped than Gateway’s iMac competitor, also called the One. In fact, the Dell XPS One is the first Windows all-in-one desktop I’ve tested that I believe matches or exceeds the iMac in hardware design. That’s no small feat, especially coming from Dell. [From Dell’s All-in-One PC Has the Guts, Design to Compete With iMac | Walt Mossberg | Personal Technology | AllThingsD]