Microsoft Shifting Away from PCs to Entertainment Focus in New Big Way?

Microsoft made two fairly mind-blowing announcements today at an event in its home town of Redmond, WA:

First, it announced it will be giving away Windows 10 later this year. Huh?

Second, it announced that, around that same time, it will begin shipping HoloLens, a competing entry in the emerging field of 3D holographic virtual reality gear.

Presumably there will be clear connections between the new Windows and HoloLens development which could move the OS closer to the entertainment boxes that make up an increasing share of Microsoft’s revenue and market clout.

I’ll get to the 3D stuff in a moment. But first…


Time was, Windows was the primary revenue source for the Redmond behemoth. Turns out, that’s not so true any more. And this move makes it even less true.

The company recently changed the way it reports revenue to make it all but impossible either to find out how much revenue each product line generates or to compare new results with past years. I consider that kind of obfuscation to have one purpose: to allow them to be sneaky. Which I guess is one of the Corporate America Bill of Rights or some such. So I had to piece through this article on ZD-Net to figure out that MS gets the biggest chunk of its income from licensing to businesses and consumers, most of which comes from Windows operating system and related products (like Windows Server) and Office.

But the third largest segment (14%) comes from consumer hardware (read “XBox). Until recently, the links between Windows PCs and the XBox have been relatively tenuous and uncommon. But there’s been a trend in the last year or so to start moving those two platforms — along with Windows mobile devices — closer and closer. That strategy, which mimic Apple’s precisely, is obviously smart business.

But MS has always had a problem — which has grown worse in the last two major releases — of getting its users (commercial and consumer) to switch to the new versions of Windows as they were released. There are a lot of good reasons for this which I won’t go into here. Needless to say, by giving away Windows 10, MS will almost certainly see a huge increase in the rate of conversion to the new OS. And given the continuing shift toward more convergence of all three platforms (PCs/enterprise systems, phones and XBox), that bodes well. The free offering is almost certainly a great idea.

(By the way, it’s worth noting that the free release is limited to existing users of the last two versions of Windows (7 & 8). That is a good transition tactic.

HoloLens: Driving a Stake Into Facebook and Friends

Microsoft_HoloLens__pictures__-_CNET_-_Page_3In offering the new VR headset called HoloLens, Microsoft opens a competitive front against Facebook, Samsung and Sony, who have bought heavily into Oculus Rift, a technology company Facebook acquired last year.

On one level, I find their decision not to adopt and further enhance work on the Rift as a bit unfortunate. I’m a huge fan of 3D/VR technologies and although fragmented markets can often lead to more rapid innovation, in this case I’m concerned that the slow-to-emerge demand for this kind of tech on the part of consumers may be further slowed by this competitive stance.

On the other hand, the HoloLens has one key design difference that may cause it to overtake the Rift: it is a see-through lens rather than a blackout lens. This means two things to potential early adopters.

First, it means that VR doesn’t have to be an isolationist experience. The Rift technology is essentially a blackout hood; the user lives inside the holographic projection and experiences only that reality. With HoloLens, it will be possible to engage in what is called Augmented Reality (AR) where 3D objects and VRs are superimposed over the real world image visible through the transparent viewing screen/lens. My guess is that many more people, particularly in the early going, will find that a preferable experience.

Second, it means that developers interested in creating holographic and VR games and entertainments will not be forced to recreate entire backgrounds and universes. They can rely on the user’s surroundings — even if they want or need to control them to some extent (e.g., by having them put up a green-screen or dropcloth backdrop). This should also greatly improve responsiveness and therefore the sense of immersion reality.

(If you want a cool look at HoloLens technology, check out this piece on from last fall when the editors got an exclusive first look at it. There are even some cool videos to give you a better feel for what’s in store.)

I’ve been telling my wife for years that the day is coming — and I expect to live to see it — when holographic projection TV will put the characters of movies and TV shows right in our living rooms where we can interact with them, view them from a 360-degree perspective and otherwise more totally integrate them. That combined with AI research suggests a near-term (25-year horizon or less) major shift in the consumer entertainment space that is both promising and frightening. It will be interesting to see what developers and their bosses choose to do with it.

I’m assuming that the HoloLens will require Windows 10 or higher, which may turn out to be one of those category-creators at which Apple has become so adept over the years that drives huge sales volumes in the direction of Redmond.

Meanwhile, Rift technology has a significant head start on HoloLens and the backing of a number of major players. That should make for an interesting couple of years while the technologists and the buyers sort this out.

It’s a fun time to be alive!

Charlie Hebdo, Satire, Religion and the Banning of Books

The recent attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a bitingly satirical French magazine, and the slaying of a number of its cartoonists and editors drew worldwide attention. The attack was carried out by terrorists hiding behind the Quran who objected to the magazine’s use of drawn images of the Prophet Mohammed. While there is no question many of the images the magazine published of the Islamic Prophet and Founder were intentionally insulting, the deeper question raised by conservative Muslims is whether all depictions of the Prophet are to be prohibited.

That is apparently not necessarily found in the Quran; the teaching relies on Hadith, a collection of stories about the Prophet’s life and teachings assembled during the first century or so after his death. And while Islam teaches that the Hadith are subordinate to the Quran, many Muslims, particularly those of a radical persuasion, have elevated Hadith to a level equal or nearly equal to that of the Quran. (See this good piece from the BBC on this subject.)

In the broader social context, the issue here is censorship, specifically a form of censorship called “prior restraint.” And while the term is generally limited in legal terms to rules and laws imposed by a government on a society, censorship of the more informal kind is no less real. So in some circles the argument surrounding Charlie Hebdo’s publication of images of Mohammed centers on whether it was inappropriate and insensitive for the magazine to do so in light of Muslim sensibilities.

Part of the reason it is difficult for us in the United States to identify with those who oppose the magazine’s right to print content that is insulting to another person’s religion is that we don’t have such a prohibition. In our country, freedom of speech and of the press is nearly absolute. So when Pope Francis opined that, ““You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,” New  York Times columnist Timothy Egan begged to differ. “In fact, you can. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe such provocations are in poor taste, or degrading. Yet an enlightened society should be able to take the punch of satire and ridicule, even coarse satire and savage ridicule.” As Egan continued, “A faith that cannot withstand ridicule is no faith at all. And a faith that cannot laugh at itself is a faith that defies human nature.”

But we Americans are holier-than-thou when it comes to the freedoms we’ve enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Unless, of course, their exercise results in Power being offended. We are a country that has, over the centuries, banned some great literature on the grounds that it offended the pure eyes and ears of our more conservative people. And although much of this censorship took place during historic periods, it is worth noting that James Joyce’s Ulysses, e.g., was barred from the United States as obscene for 15 years, and was seized by U.S Postal Authorities in 1918 and 1930. The lifting of the ban in 1933 came only after advocates fought for the right to publish the book. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders was published in 1749 but until 1966, its legal status as uncensored was unclear in the United States! That year, the U.S. Supreme Court had to declare its censorship to be unconstitutional.

So where does all this take me? Censorship is and always has been more of a social issue than a legal one. Sex is very often at the root of attempts in this country to censor or challenge books and most censorship in recent years has taken place quietly at a local level where librarians and school boards and teachers have been urged to remove books from reading lists and bookshelves because one or another minority of parents or citizens was offended. So perhaps before we are too quick to judge the condemnation of many conservative Muslims of allowing images of their Prophet to be displayed, we should think about the sensibilities Americans show with respect to the display of books and other artifacts that offend someone.

In recent decades, we Americans have become more sensitive to what we brand as “hate speech.” There are even laws against it which make speaking your opinion on many subjects illegal. I’m not condemning such laws, but we seem hypocritical when we question other nations’ right to pre-censor certain kinds of publication or speaking when their basic goal is to protect people from offensive encounters in the public arena.

The violence must be condemned. Its perpetrators must be pursued. But the attack on Charlie Hebdo must be viewed in the broader social context of offensive speech and in the social milieu in which it occurred. France has laws against speech which offends people based on their religion. That very un-America shouldn’t be surprising; France (and several other European nations)  has a law punishing people who deny the Holocaust. Tolerance is relative.

Dead People Don’t Bleed but Climate Change Isn’t Real

Climate change deniers seem unwilling (or perhaps unable) to grant any credibility to the notion that global temperature shifts and other long-term climatological changes are in any significant measure due to human intervention. They argue with the scientists with expertise in the area. They argue with people who believe those scientists by claiming there is significant scientific disagreement on the subject when there isn’t.

Now they’re arguing with the world’s spiritual and religious leaders, most recently Pope Francis. On his visit to the Philippines, the Pope said, “I don’t know if it is all (man’s fault) but the majority is, for the most part, it is man who continuously slaps nature in the face.”

These ostriches remind me of a story about a woman who went to her doctor complaining that she was dead.

The doctor tried reasoning with her every way he could with science and facts, all to no avail.

Finally, in desperation, he asked her, “Do dead people bleed?”

“Of course not, you silly man,” she said.

With that the doctor took her hand and poked her with a tiny lancet. Sure enough, a drop of blood immediately formed.

“There!” he exulted, believing he had finally convinced her.

She stared at her finger for a few moments, looked up at the doctor and said, “I’ll be darned. I was wrong. Dead people do bleed!”

Like the woman in this story, climate change deniers do not want to be confused with something as silly as facts; their minds are already made up. I am convinced there is no convincing them. And that would be OK if so many of them weren’t in key decision-making positions in the United States.

As it is, this handful of willfully ignorant individuals can — and appears determined to — fiddle while the world burns.

Giant Updates: They Fill Left Field Strongly; Lincecum to the Pen? Not So Fast!

Two posts on San Francisco Giants’ news today.

First, they picked up a terrific free agent prospect in the person of Nori Aoki from the KC Royals. He’s a solid .280-.290 hitter with great legs and an above-average highly accurate arm for AT&T Park’s left field expanse.

Second, I had to disagree with some current scuttlebutt around the blogosphere that already has Tim Lincecum exiled to the bullpen for all or part of 2015. I make the argument he’s not as bad as he’s seemed at times and that he’s capable of making the necessary adjustments to become at least a solid starter again.

Read both posts over on my all-sports blog.

Gase, Fangio in Complicated Dance for Niners Top Job

Back when Jim Harbaugh was fired as the head coach of the Niners, I offered my top three choices for his replacement. Heading the list was current DC Vic Fangio. In second place was Denver OC Adam Gase. Now it appears the Niners want to offer Gase the job but if they do, they may lose Fangio. On top of that, Denver is rumored to be interested in keeping Gase in their newly created head coaching job.

Read details over on my all-sports blog today.


Pot Legalization in CO Makes Everything…Better!

When Colorado voters legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational use as of last January, the doomsayers lined up to predict the dire consequences of such rampant immorality.

Fictional warning: Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said the number of children using drugs would increase.

Actual fact: Colorado teens reported a two percent decrease in pot smoking according to the last reporting period.

Fictional warning: Former attorney general Edwin Meese and Charles Stimson argued violent crime would surge.

Actual fact: Total ‘Part 1′ crimes in Denver (Homicide, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft, and arson) decreased 7.9 percent through November 30, 2014, compared to the same period in 2013.

Fictional warning: Kevin Sabet, a former senior White House drug policy adviser, warned of high addiction rates, spikes in traffic accidents.

Actual fact: Colorado roadway deaths dropped by 25 percent in 2014 compared to 2013, the Washington Post reported.

(The above data is taken from a post on the SFGate blog today.)


Conspiracy Theories, False Beliefs and the Echo Chamber

Today’s news brings a report about a study of political beliefs and conspiracy theories conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University. The poll finds surprisingly high levels of belief in conspiracy theories and other false beliefs about politics. According to the poll, Republicans and Fox News viewers are more likely to hold false beliefs about topics like the President and the Iraq war.

For example, a majority (51%) of Republicans and a surprising minority (42%) of all those polled believe the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We didn’t. You can read a story about the poll here and the entire poll report here.

Dan Cassino, a professor of political science and the director of experimental research for the poll, said, “This sort of motivated reasoning is pretty common: when people want to believe something, they’ll twist the facts to fit it.”

And that’s the problem. People who “want to believe something” not only twist facts, they deliberately isolate themselves from contrary facts, as I’ve written about here before. The echo chamber of the Internet and 24-hour partisan cable news means it is not only possible, but easy, for anyone who wants to hold a particular opinion regardless of its accuracy to find plenty of “facts” to support them and a complete absence of contradictory evidence.

This is precisely the same problem as that caused by government propaganda, only its origin is not the government so much as it is private corporations driven by greed and unenlightened self-interest.

I don’t think this problem has a solution. But I think it has far-reaching and almost entirely negative repercussions. We are all forced to live in a world where most of our fellow citizens are intentionally uninformed or misinformed about the important issues of the day, whether by Fox News or MSNBC. Having discovered that blurring the line of distinction between facts and opinions draws loyal viewers and readers, the media are certainly not going to go on a diet of objectivity. The death of objective news reporting and factual information being readily accessible to and understandable by the average voter marks, I suspect, the beginning of the end for the type of democracy that ha been our governing principle for more than 200 years,

What comes next, I can’t even imagine.


Why America’s Heartland is Conservative: A Lesson from Vietnam

I was chatting today with one of the doctors at the VA clinic where I get my healthcare. We were discussing the “old days”, by which we meant 1963 to 1965 when I was serving a two-tour stint in the Vietnam War.

Part of my job in Vietnam involved helping to craft propaganda for leaflet drops on remote hamlets and I was discussing how we discovered that those farmers simply couldn’t be made to care whether the government in Saigon or the Viet Cong were in charge of the country. All they wanted was for whoever was in charge to leave them alone, let them harvest their rice, and raise their families in peace.

My doctor, who hails from the Midwest, suggested there was a parallel in both Iraq and Afghanistan and then he pointed out that the same could be said of the vast heartland of the United States. “Basically everything from the Appalacians to the Rockies,” he said, “is much the same way. Many of those people are farmers and all they want is the right to be left alone to work their farms and raise their families without government interference.”

He pointed out that these people are accustomed to taking care of their own, by which he meant their families and their neighbors. When they oppose social programs, it’s not because they dislike other people in need or have a fundamental ideological disagreement with the Left. Rather, they see the problems of hunger and poverty being better solved by interpersonal outreach than by government intervention.

While it remains difficult for me to understand the mentality that would judge others in need as being objects which could be ignored in the absence of strong family and community support and essentially allowed to starve or worse, his comments gave me a somewhat better perspective on the underlying rationale. I think I have often been too quick to ascribe bad motives to such people, when in fact we were simply disagree about the scope of the definition of “my brother.”