Tag: Microsoft

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 Wired.com 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!

New Firefox Browser to Include Pretty Unobtrusive Ads

firefox_logoWord appeared today that the Mozilla Firefox Web browser would begin hosting ads in an upcoming release. The ads will appear as tiles on the page when users open a new page or tab. That real estate is presently home to most frequently accessed Web sites.

Technically the ads are referred to as sponsored tiles. The non-sponsored tiles are called directory tiles. Mozilla allows the user to set a preference to turn off tiles completely so that each time he starts with a new tab or page, it is completely blank.

The Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit that controls the Firefox browser and a number of other Web sites and technologies, first announced its intent to find non-obtrusive (or, perhaps more accurately, less obtrusive) ways of placing advertising in the browser in February.

I’d call this a pretty unobtrusive way to put advertising in front of me. As a non-profit foundation, Mozilla has to figure out some ways to generate revenue if it’s going to stay afloat. I don’t use Firefox much myself (I’m a Chrome guy) but I do test all of my and my clients’ sites on FF.

Most of the early comments on this development, which occurred in the new version Firefox nightlies and is therefore not yet in wide circulation, have been neutral or supportive but there’s a strain of folks who begin bitching about any new aspect of free software that they don’t happen to like. Interestingly, some of the most caustic comments came from people using the largely unknown and insignificant Palemoon browser (Window and Linux only). Of course, Firefox has the second-highest market penetration of any cross-platform browser, having only recently fallen from the #1 spot and been replaced there by Chrome, which now has 20% of the total market vs. 15% for Firefox. Chrome has been in steady growth; Firefox has been in steady decline. (Internet Explorer retains a 60% usage rate but only because it ships with Windows and runs only on that platform.)

In any case, I’m not bothered much by the Firefox plans. There are numerous ways around even seeing the sponsored tiles. I hope they generate significant revenue to the Mozilla Foundation, which deserves to stay viable.


New Release of OS X is Free. Changing the Face of Computing Forever?

The next release of the Macintosh OS X from Apple will be the first commercial operating system with a price tag of $0. Apple’s departing from tradition in another way: the new OS is not named after a cat, but is called Mavericks. It is thus the first version named after a place in California (a famous surfing location in Half Moon Bay).

Apple-logoThis is a long-foreseen major shift in the computer industry. Apple reduced the price of its OS releases from $129 to $29 to $19 in the last few versions, so the handwriting’s been on the wall. This presumably will put more pressure on Microsoft, which makes a good bit of revenue selling licenses to its Windows OS to manufacturers who include it with their hardware. Microsoft sent a weak signal that it’s getting a message here when it made the first upgrade to Windows 8 free to consumers.

One major benefit of this change for Apple is that it is almost certainly going to increase the adoption rate of new releases of Mac OS X. The price has come down so much lately that perhaps the impact will be somewhat subdued but the fact is that a large number of Mac users have resisted upgrading their OS at all because of the fact that they had to pay for the new version. To the extent that Apple can approach a 100% adoption rate for new versions, it can create a far more predictable platform for software developers — including their own — and thus ease the deployment of the latest features.

The other competing OS — Linux — has always been free. Microsoft is now the only holdout but of course they’re in a completely different position from Apple. They depend for virtually 100% of their revenue on software and software-related services. All of their forays into the world of hardware have failed to one degree or another. And Microsoft has been incredibly slow to adopt new technologies (it was one of the last tech companies to decide the Web was here to stay and they have only recently, and only partially, begun  subscription services for their Office software line). This makes it quite difficult to anticipate how they might respond to the latest trend Apple has set.

But it’s good news for consumers, and Apple, as a consumer electronics company, likes to keep consumers thinking positively about it.


Who Knew Bill Gates Could be Catty?

Since his retirement from Microsoft, I’ve become something of a fan of Bill Gates. His foundation is doing and has done so much tremendous work in the world that he’s on the verge of atoning for the many terrible things he and his company did over the years.

But he made some comments in an interview the other day that are just silly and, as my headline says, downright catty.

See, Google is talking about mounting a series of balloons that would hover over remote locations to give people living there access to the Internet. It’s a pretty ingenious idea on the face of it and in keeping with the lofty goals Google has in areas like self-driving cars and Google Fiber.

But Gates’ foundation focuses on less technical kinds of problems like eradicating malaria. Obviously much higher-impact stuff.

billgatesWhen Gates was asked by Business Week in an interview what he thought of the Google effort, he said, ““When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you.” In other words, “My projects saves lives, yours makes you money while it solves a less urgent problem for the same people. That makes me better than you and able to utter contemptuous statements that make me sound like the kid who couldn’t get picked in baseball.”

Never mind that in the same interview Gates allows as how it might be useful for clinics and schools in those same areas to be interconnected through the Google Loons project (that’s actually what they call it!). He’s proud that he doesn’t undertake projects that help his old company.

Except that he does. And in some fairly insidious ways, particularly when it comes to imposing his ideas about education on the American systems. And all of that’s beside the point. These are both giant, good ideas. Why can’t Gates just be gracious?

“My Phone Has More Apps Than Your Phone!”

I find it ironic that Apple is now being touted as the juggernaut in the technology industry because of its larger ecosystem. When Apple was strictly a computer company battling Microsoft Windows, the folks who supported Windows often argued that it was superior  simply because it had a larger number of applications available.

Now the shoe’s on the other foot, as it were. Apple’s edge in the smartphone and tablet markets is seen as  largely based on the significant number of apps available for the platform.

In truth, judging the value of a platform based largely on the size of its ecosystem is a misleading approach. As we supporters of Apple in those early days were fond of pointing out, there is a limit to how many of a specific type one user could need.The fact, for example, that there might be 27 general ledger programs available on Windows and only a half dozen on the Mac was largely irrelevant. So long as the leading programs were available on both platforms, or, alternatively, data could be interchanged between different applications, the issue is essentially moot.

I would say the same thing in evaluating the ecosystems of today’s smartphone platforms. While there are substantially more apps available for the iPhone then for android phones, a failure to distinguish application types can lead to a wrong-headed conclusion about which platform is preferable.

So while it’s true that I continue to prefer Apple products, and am all but addicted to my iPhone and my iPad, it isn’t the range or number of apps available that causes that preference. As is often the case, platform choice bears a strong connection to user intent. I’m not even sure that any one smartphone platform could claim to be the best common denominator space for a broad range of uses.



Usability Guru Nielsen Crushes Win8

Jakob Nielsen, usability guru extraordinaire, has published his review of Windows 8 and his conclusion is not good news for the already-plagued new Microsoft operating system offering.

Nielsen, whom I’ve been following since my days as the Web Builder Division Editorial Director at CNET, is one of the top usability experts in the world. I agree with him about 90% of the time, which I suspect means I’m wrong about 10% of the time. He has made a career of this stuff and he conducts very closely observed study groups to reach or confirm findings.

In his study, which I recommend reading in its entirety if your job includes evaluating whether and when to switch your company’s computers to Win8, he reaches the following summary conclusion:

Hidden features, reduced discoverability, cognitive overhead from dual environments, and reduced power from a single-window UI and low information density. Too bad.

While Nielsen believes that the problems with Windows 8 on tablet devices can be fixed with some relatively minor design modifications, and he holds out very little hope for usability on desktop machines. In fact, he says he plans to wait until Windows 9 when Microsoft’s tradition of fixing things after their ship will kick in and perhaps result in a significantly improved user experience with their new operating system.

I was mostly astonished, not here for the first time, that Microsoft reverted to a very ancient single window design for the user interface in Windows. It seems they might want to change the name of the operating system to Window.

All in all, it seems like Microsoft has just done a terrible job on this latest operating system, at least from the perspective of desktop users, and more specifically those users who have invested a lot of time and experience in learning Microsoft Windows.

Microsoft’s Lost Decade and Apple’s Coming Days in the Desert

My buddy George Sidman shared this lengthy article on the decline and fall of Microsoft with me this morning. It’s a great read, if a bit wordy, and though it takes a while to get to the real point, it is nonetheless a very insightful bit of thinking.

Here’s what I wrote in response, edited to remove personal material.

I see this as a continuation or fulfillment of my long-held Saturation Theory. When a company that holds a dominant share of a market reaches the point where there are few if any new outlets for its products, it hunkers down and becomes an uninspired and uninspiring plodder more interested in managing its treasury and avoiding mistakes than in leading a charge that could cost it existing customers. What was the last innovative product Microsoft ever made? (For that matter, what was the first, but I digress.)
Apple is beginning to show the very first signs of this calcification. As it morphs from being a computer company to being a technology company to being a consumer electronics company, it begins to horde and defend. iPhone 5 and iOS6 are the first symptoms of this disease. Incremental improvements (200 of them but none of them world-changing) and poorly executed innovation (which way did they go?) combine to create a head-scratcher for which the Not-Steve rightfully and smartly apologizes. I fully expect to see the day — within five years tops — when Apple will sell its computer line to a company like a Lenovo that is great at commoditizing and carving pennies of profits out of tiny changes.
With Linux floundering on the shoals of Android’s fragmented universe, the most important technology question of the next few years is whether the Web (which is merely a loose collection of protocols) can grow up and become the new OS or whether something radically rethought will emerge and rock the industry the way IBM, Microsoft, Apple and Linux did in their now-fading days.

Microsoft Makes Classic Mistake With Tablets

Microsoft's announcement that they will ship an iPad rival demonstrates the frequent inability of larger companies to read and interpret history or to believe that their size exempts them from the rules.

The first-look overviews I've read of the Surface have been uniformly positive, even enthusiastic. It sounds like Microsoft has addressed some issues that will place it, for now at least, slightly ahead of the iPad in many consumers' eyes. Some have suggested that the price points at which MS hinted (no announced pricing yet) is too high in a competitive market where Apple's iPad is so utterly dominant. 

But I think Microsoft has made a longer-term strategic error. By placing itself in direct competition with many of its biggest customers (Dell, HP, and their ilk), it has created (or expanded) an aura of suspicion that its customers have long harbored that MS cares less about them and more about their bottom line. Competitors who have to pay Microsoft something like a reported $100 per machine in licensing fees to use Windows 8 will almost certainly begin to ask themselves:
  • How can I stay competitive with Microsoft on price if they don't have to pay for the OS?
  • What's to prevent Microsoft from using hidden or undocumented features of the OS to compete unfairly? (They've done this before with Internet Explorer, just in case you've forgotten.)
  • How much marketing support at events and trade shows can I expect from a competitor?
  • How will this move affect my ability to be sure I have the latest and greatest OS release on my machines?
Borland Software (if you remember them, I hope you've applied for Social Security!) is the classic case of a company that sold programming tools, then got into the application business and basically ate its own market. A number of software companies in the AI/expert systems world did themselves in with similarly stupid moves. 

Add to this concern the fact that MS has a pretty dismal track record building complex hardware (the XBox is an exception but a tablet or laptop is an order of magnitude greater manufacturing challenge), and you have the makings for another Zune.

Bing + Facebook = Google++?

Ad Age Digital reports today that Microsoft's Bing search engine and Facebook are teaming up on yet another deal designed to dampen Google's massive lead in search.

Coming soon: your FB friends' recommendations and comments alongside the usual search results.

This latest salvo in what promises to be a long and interesting battle of the big search engines may prove interesting but I see its value as being pretty limited. Other than searches for things like a restaurant or a book or a movie — which comprise for me a least a very tiny percentage of my searches — friends' thoughts are likely to be pretty unhelpful or non-existent. I'd find it far more interesting, e.g., if my LinkedIn network was tied into search results because a huge portion of my searches are business-related.

But integration of social with the more established use of the Web is going to be a huge story in coming years and this is just the beginning of the story.

MS Word on Mac Fundamentally Broken

One of my main clients has insisted that we use Microsoft Word for project document collaboration rather than my strongly preferred Google Docs. But of course the client is always right, so I'm adapting.

But tonight I spent an hour longer than I needed to spend editing a document that required substantial modifications. Word on Mac OS X just seems to lose its mind from time to time. I lost substantial work three different times when all of the menus in Word — dropdowns and ribbon-based — just started showing blank contents. All other apps running at the time were fine. I'd try Command-S to save a document and get an absolutely blank dialog box in the middle of the screen. It was just plain weird.

On other occasions, text entry slowed to an absolute crawl. I'd be typing 5-10 words ahead of what was displaying on the screen while the disk thrashed. 

I've been avoiding using MS Office products as much as possible for the past several years and now I understand why. They just don't work reliably.