Friday, 27 December 2013

Shopping

There was a time that the technology mattered when you bought a new PC. The out of town pc superstore or the town centre electronics store were basically crowded warehouses of products that you just bought. Mostly you didn't ask an assistant for help because they were only bothered to earn a commission and, for any IT Pro, they didn't know a lot about the product.

The stores are still there but these days IT Pros buy from the Internet and the stores are looking a little tired and old fashioned.

This is not true of the Apple Store. The Apple Store is a new kind of technology shop. It is spacious and consciously a retail experience. There is little box shifting and the service desk looks like part of the experience. The control of what is in the store, how it looks and the simplicity of design is all part of the Apple brand.

If you are buying an Apple Mac then the choice is fairly simple. Clear names and brand identification. The prices are expensive but the brand, like most fashion stores, is expensive.

In fact if you just want to try the products they sit there openly on desks waiting to be tried. There are chairs so you can sit and use the products. There is in-store training so you understand how to use the hardware and software. The act of selling is also smooth. The till is actually a handheld scanner, credit card machine and device to send your receipt by email.

On the other hand the PC buying experience is a confusing mess of processor names, model numbers, features and the buyer can easily drift towards cheaper discounted models that don't really meet their needs.  The stores are crowded with items. Each pc has hardly enough space to move or try.

If consumers are buying technology based on the retail experience then Apple is doing very well and the rest need to step up and understand how consumers are changing.

 

 

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Crapware

Sometimes you listen to something and it's both so wrong and so right. There is always the argument from Mac Users and, to a lesser extent, Linux users that Windows is rubbish.

It has to be said that a MacBook or Mac Pro will start at £700+ and move upwards. The average price that consumers want to pay for a PC is probably £300 - less than half the cost. it is no wonder that the marketing of Windows is a whole different game from the world of Apple. In the world of Apple you have a £500 (cheap) iPhone, a £500 tablet and a £900 laptop. People pay this price because they believe, with some justification, they are getting a quality product.

The Windows world has traditionally been a 'value market' for consumers. Whether it is the £150 netbook pc with a tiny keyboard or a £300 laptop. Should you really be surprise that the touchpad isn't as good as a MacBook Pro or that the build quality is not as good as a MacBook Air.

To keep prices down the Dell, HP and Lenovo's have wafer thin profit margins on their PCs. With sales reducing they are even losing volume sales. All these manufacturers rely on advertising to bulk up profit. So when you buy a pc you get evaluation anti-virus products, some games, you probably find the browsers are hijacked with terrible additional toolbars etc etc. Basically a whole bunch of pre-installed products that you wouldn't really want on your PC if you had a choice. Some of the stuff you think is free but 30 days later it starts nagging you to buy a pro version of the application you didn't want in the first place.

Even if you don't use this stuff it probably starts automatically when the PC boots and over time updates and slows down your PC. Then you meet people who just blame Windows for being slow. The reputation of Windows and the Windows PC has been blown out of the water by the installation of 'crapware' on the PC. It's not really software because software should enable you, it should be useful, it should be what you want. Since the pre-installed software is largely useless and destroys the experience of using a PC it is rightly called 'crapware'.

Nothing would improve the image of Windows more than if  Microsoft's hardware partners just banned crapware and gave people a really positive experience of Windows.

Crapware is why IT Pros spend their first hour of a new PC experience removing all the so-called 'free software' you get on a PC. Alternatively IT Pros just install a vanilla copy of Windows.

The Apple fans are right in one sense. Windows is bad - but only because people expect to buy cheap PCs full of software they don't need or want that destroys the experience,

 

 

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Why you might be better off with pirated content

Digital media means that you can make a perfect copy of content every time. As long as you accurately copy all the bits of music, movies or software you get a perfect copy every time. This has not been lost on content creators who have created a model of digital content based on complex anti-piracy systems using encryption and digital certificates. This is called Digital Rights Management  (DRM).

From a customer perspective this is creating digital ecosystems on the Internet. Content islands where the stuff you spend money on will only work on specific devices. The side effect is that you get locked in to manufacturer specific hardware and software with an inability to choose and alternative provider without  losing your digital content. This is exactly the opposite to traditional physical goods. If you have a DVD you can loan it to your friends and they can play it without a problem. It doesn't matter if you buy your DVD from Amazon or a supermarket you can play the DVD on any player, anywhere at any time. I tend to still buy CDs and DVDs for this reason.

The same is not true of the new digital world. If you have bought a movie from iTunes and you visit a mate and want to watch the content you have purchased on his PlayStation you are out of luck. The iTunes content will only play on Apple equipment with your ID logged on to the system - a double padlock. Of course other companies do exactly the same thing.

What this means for consumers is having to purchase within an ecosystem. You can't mix and match. The family with Sky TV, an iPhone, an Android phone, a Windows PC, Playstation and a Mac is in a bad place for digital content. The movie dad buys from Xbox on his Windows device wont play on the family PlayStation or his iPhone. However if he buys from iTunes then he is locked out from using it on his PC. Simple things like playlists of music on Google Play cannot be passed to an Xbox Music subscriber. Gradually consumers will begin to be frustrated that the simple matter of copying the content they purchased to a different device they own is nearly impossible.

Apple, in particular, have used iTunes to dominate digital content via the iPod and the iPhone.

One form of content that can be easily copied is pirated content. People who have done the right thing and paid for their music, videos and ebooks are being frustrated by not being able to easily view their content on any device of their choosing. However people who just download pirated movies are not restricted to specific devices.

So one of the strange conclusions that people might come to is that paying for content is a bad deal because it locks you into one ecosystem with no way of moving your content to different devices. Personally I believe that all digital content should have a license signature that allows you to easily transfer your data around. However this lock-in process suits the electronic retailers of digital content as much as the producers so there is little chance of flexibility in the near future.





Saturday, 2 November 2013

Pre-order Fail

Like many people I pre-ordered the Xbox One. Pre-Order should mean the manufacturer knows almost exactly how many products are needed on day one. I pre-ordered in September.

Today I got an email from Game (game.co,uk) saying that my pre-order would not be delivered on the first day of availability but 'before Christmas'.  I guess the fan boy inside me should have just let it go. Maybe most people would let it go. However I cancelled the order. I think pre-orders should mean delivery on the day of release. Otherwise a pre-order   becomes a queue. An online queue is exactly the same as a real queue. The only difference is that you don't sit outside a store in Microsoft's virtual queue.

So over-hyped and not available unless you are at the front of the virtual queue.

Link: Meet the Xbox One

Monday, 14 October 2013

Busy month for the media

The coming week looks very busy for IT journalism. On the 18th October Microsoft are launching Windows 8.1. On the 22nd October we will be seeing the first day of availability for the Microsoft Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 tablets/hybrids. On the same day Apple is likely to be launching the new iPad and iPad mini. Just to add further interest Nokia might be announcing some new stuff at Nokia world.

Times change. Ten years ago the Microsoft products would be leading the news cycle. Today Apple is likely to be everywhere and make everything else an also ran.

 

 

Sunday, 29 September 2013

New Surfaces

Microsoft have announced Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. This is the updated versions of Microsoft's entry into the tablet market. The confusing thing about Surface is that one version of Windows will run normal Windows applications and the other will run only the new 'Metro' style applications with the exception of a special version of Microsoft Office.

The Surface Pro 2 is a very expensive 'ultrabook' type of PC that has a 10 inch screen and can be used as a tablet. The Surface 2 is a tablet that can be used as a PC occasionally to do some work with standard Office apps.


The Surface Pro 2 product makes a lot of sense. A fully Windows compatible PC. A premium priced product for people who have the money to pay extra for that particular format. For a half gigabyte drive version of Surface Pro 2 you will be paying £1400. That is not the PC most people would buy. A very decent super thin laptop can be purchased for around £900 with a 14 inch screen.

Most tablet purchases right now are about consumption; movies, photos, web browsing, reading books etc. Most buyers are buying the iPad because of the Apple brand and most buyers of Android devices buy on price. The Surface 2 is the tablet that is not cheap nor from a brand that is recognised for making tablets. People who recognise the Windows name will be confused that the Surface 2, unlike the Pro, will not run Windows applications.

Last year the original Surface RT didn't sell well. Microsoft took a $900 write down of stock. I can't see how this new product changes the situation.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Blackberry heads for the exit

This week Blackberry, the company that used to be RIM (Research In Motion), announced 4,500 redundancies and a loss of just slightly less than $1 billion. This is possibly the announcement of the end of a company that once was the premium supplier of secure mobile phones to business.

The end has been a long time coming. Blackberry dismissed the iPhone and Android as toys because business needed a real keyboard. In reality the onscreen keyboard would do for most people. The extra screen real estate and touch was what people liked. The extra mis-step was to create a tablet that could not do email unless you paired it with a Blackberry. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time! The Blackberry Playbook ended up heavily discounted and cheaper than no-name Chinese Android devices a year or so after launch.

The greatest Blackberry asset is in fact Blackberry Messenger (BBM). This was the IM that defined secure messaging. They could transform to a much smaller software and secure messaging company.

Blackberry has now reduced it's model range to 4 devices and now says it wants to concentrate only  on business.

That's a sensible strategy because in recent months Windowsphone has move to being the third mobile ecosystem. This has partly been increased sales but also because a complete collapse of Blackberry sales.

The mobile market has become mostly Samsung and Apple. Even Blackberry seems to have been beaten.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Iphone 5c not iCheap

The new Apple iphone has launched. The iphone 5s is the flagship phone and the 5c is the lower priced version.

The rumour was that the 5c was going to be the cheaper version of the iphone to usher in a new period of affordable Apple phones for a younger audience wanting a less conservative designs that can be bought off-contract. In the USA and Europe contract phones are subsidised phones. This means that the price you pay for the phone is just a part of the cost. The monthly fee from the wireless phone company includes a monthly amount to pay for the phone.

For the rest of the world you buy a phone. This is referred to as off-contract. In the UK many people now buy last years' smartphone on ebay and then get a sim only contract with 30 days cancellation as a reaction to 24 months contracts.

Traditionally phone manufacturers have dealt with off-contract purchases in several ways. Some have sold locked pre-paid phones to try and force customers into paying for minutes on a longer term basis. Some offered cheap old models of Android phones. Apple has tended to offer last years' model on a cheaper contract plan. Not completely off contract but a move towards a wider audience. These days you can still buy a iphone 4S on a contract albeit half the contract price of a current model with only a small upfront payment.

So the stage was set for Apple to announce an obscenely expensive fashion icon of a flagship phone and a new accessible low-cost 'peoples iphone' for the masses. This would break Apple into the mass market of low cost Android phones and potential own a second market rather like the ipod Nano conquered low cost flash memory based music players.

This did not happen. Instead the iphone 5c looks a little like the iphone 5 but with a choice of colour cases. Nokia helpfully pointed out that they have had a range of coloured cases on their Lumia range for a couple of years! The main surprise was that this phone was not priced very cheaply. In fact you would not get much change at all from £500.

Added to this there is no nfc chip for mobile payments and no wireless charging (available in £199 Google Nexus 4). Apple are not big on standards preferring their own (closed) ecosystem, or, as they might put it, thinking differently.

If you are not an Apple fan but perhaps what you might refer to as a man or woman in the street looking for a low cost off-contract phone then this is probably not a price bracket you would be considering. In the real world I am still seeing a lot of cheaper Android smartphones being sold off-contract by budget conscious consumers. I am also seeing more Windowsphones costing £89 beginning to appear on my commute. Apple has effectively decided not to compete in this market. This is not necessarily a bad thing if they make great profits out of the premium market. However that market is now mature and is beginning to look like a replacement market whereas the budget consumers are becoming a mass market.

This may have been the last chance Apple had to become a genuine mass market player in developing countries.

Link

Apple Website

 

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Podcast Mystery

The latest figures on Windowsphone show that sales are now up to 9.2% market share in the UK. Now rocketing ahead of Blackberry. So maybe I might have a moderately popular Nokia Lumia 820 by this time next year.

In the meantime I got the GDR 2 update this week. GDR stands for 'general distribution release'. Apparently Microsoft are releasing more patches at some point called GDR 3 and then next year the update formerly codenamed 'blue' will become Windowsphone 8.1.

With this update the FM radio feature was restored. It was last seen in Windowsphone 7 but disappeared when 8 was released. However I was hoping for podcast support. I used to like listening to downloaded podcasts on my Windowsphone 7 and I was amazed that if was not in Windowsphone 8. Apparently US customers have this feature but the rest of the world doesn't. I can't understand the logic of this.

The workaround for Windowsphone owners is bizarre. Basically you download the desktop sync app from Microsoft and then ITunes. Use iTunes to sync your podcasts and then setup the desktop sync app to work with iTunes. In other words you use an Apple product to get podcasts on a Windowsphone.

Thanks Apple for helping out Windowsphone!

 

 

 

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Long GoodBye

Techies get worked up about having the latest PC, the latest mobile, upgrades and tablets but in the real world a lot of people get by on last years' model. According to recent stats its worse than just last years' tech because some people are still using Windows XP - now 11 years old.

Most estimates are showing out of all the copies of Windows currently being used around 37% are XP. However from 9th April 2014 there will be no support for the venerable old OS. The new reality is that users will be vulnerable to new malware, virus and security issues. So the question might be 'What is stopping people from upgrading?'

Some people will have made a conscious decision not to upgrade due to a dislike of the current revision of Windows. This can be both a rational and emotional response to change. Others may have applications that depend on XP. Perhaps the largest group of people just bought a PC with Windows XP on it and they see no reason to change and will just wait until their computer fails before upgrading.

For some cost could be a factor. You normally get Windows bundled on your PC. You never actually 'buy' Windows. Essentially huge numbers of Microsoft customers don't choose Microsoft or which version of Windows they have. This is all done seamlessly in the background by their PC maker and Windows is 'free' with the PC. Many people regard Microsoft Office as a 'feature' of Windows because they paid a one-off fee on a trial version of Office that came with their PC. All these people have a relationship with Microsoft which is 'arms length'.

So if you want to upgrade your version of Windows how much does it cost? On the Microsoft UK website the cost is £189.99 for Windows 8 Pro. Buying a PC with Windows is not much more. If you are prepared to go for the non-pro version then £99.00 will get a copy. Although there are a few launch upgrade packs in stores for £49.00 left over from earlier in the year.

For the average consumer upgrading makes no financial sense at all.

There are around a billion Windows users in the world and with 37% using Windows XP that translates into more than 350 million people. If XP customers were given an upgrade at £20 then that is potentially more than half a billion pounds cash Microsoft could make and they would kill off Windows XP.

I suspect the current pricing strategy will mean people will wait to buy their next PC. The problem for Microsoft is that many people might think they don't need a PC and a low cost tablet might well meet their needs. If that happens then Microsoft will not just say goodbye to XP but also to their next sale of Windows.

 

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Will the real Steve Balmer stand up.

[caption id="attachment_107" align="alignleft" width="240"]Steve Balmer (CEO Microsoft) Steve Balmer in 2012. (Official Microsoft Press Photo)[/caption]

The announcement that Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer is to retire is another pointer to the end of an era in the growth of personal computing. Bill Gates and Steve Balmer were at the heart of the Microsoft dream of having a PC in every home. More than a billion people on earth run the Windows operating system today, a huge number run Microsoft Office and vast numbers of businesses depend on Microsoft.

I have been reading a lot of journalistic comment on Steve Balmer's career at Microsoft. At lot of Wall Street seems to be pleased he is retiring. The tech community seems to hold him responsible for all the decisions Microsoft got wrong over the last 13 years but don't seem to credit him with making lots of money for Microsoft. Some people seem to hold Microsoft to a higher level of loathing than any other tech company. Apple, Google, Yahoo and almost everyone else has a more generous reception than Microsoft. Some journalists seem to enjoy putting the words Balmer and disaster in the same sentence. More than 90% of the world's PCs run on Windows and only 7% run on all the versions of Apple OS X put together yet people regard the current version of Windows as a disaster. An army of hacks writing about technology heap praise on Apple and Google while simultaneously cast Microsoft in the role of the 'dark side' of corporate power in the IT industry.

While Balmer was CEO, Microsoft did not make compelling products for digital music, did not address the emergence of consumption devices like the iPad, spent too long in operating system development cycles, missed out on the mobile computing revolution and came late to the new opportunities of the Internet. We all now 'google' things on the Internet rather than 'bing' stuff. On the enterprise field the area of virtualisation was something that was neglected for a long time.

Steve Balmer did oversee the success of the Xbox and the dominance of Microsoft Office as standard business productivity tool. Microsoft servers and enterprise tools are the backbone of most businesses. Microsoft is a multi-billion dollar business without needing to address consumer products at all.

Unfortunately people expect more than this from Microsoft. Microsoft absolutely dominated computing in the 1990s and the bar was set very high. Labelling Balmer as a failure is wrong. I think a CEO that has more than a billion people using a key product for over 10 years has done a good job. Even if you regard Microsoft as some great satan in the IT world the numbers speak for themselves.

So is the real Steve Balmer the failed CEO of legend or something else? My own view is that Balmer did a good job of the non-sexy bread and butter products like servers, office and operating systems. Microsoft failed to be cool or be loved. Ultimately those emotional responses to Microsoft products are not there and it seems that this promotes the hostility to Microsoft.

 

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Being Evil?

The question of the week for all Windowsphone users is perhaps is Google being 'evil'. The Google mantra is 'Don't be evil' but this week they banned the Youtube app for Windowsphone for the second time.

The whole story is a bit strange and Paul Thurott's Supersite for Windows is one of the best authorities for this. The shorthand for the situation is that Google have not created a Youtube app for Windowsphone. In the USA Windowsphone has just a 3% market share (elsewhere somewhat higher) so there are no commercial pressures on Google to do this. Although you might argue since Blackberry is now disappearing fast Windowsphone is the third ecosystem.

So to get over this little difficulty Microsoft created their own Youtube app for Windowsphone. Google blocked it because it violated their terms of service. By this they seemed to mean it didn't serve Google ads and didn't use the Google API. Microsoft said they were happy to modify the app but Google had not given them access to the API like other developers. The two sides then seemed to have a 'love in' and agreed to co-operate. All was well and a new app came out this week. However 24 hours later it was blocked again for violating Google's terms of service. This was a bit strange because they (Google) was supposed to be working with Microsoft.

Google's explanation was that the app wasn't using HTML 5. This was somewhat bizarre because, as Microsoft said, neither the Android versions of Youtube apps or the IOS versions used HTML 5. The excuse looks spurious and perhaps a little bit like kicking the small guy. In this situation small is correct.

Microsoft has a minuscule portion of the mobile phone market, a small segment of Internet search and no presence in the social media sphere. They are the new kid on the block. Their 90%+ share of the PC market gives them no advantage here. Google is the market leader and dominates the mobile space with Android. The Linux crowd and the 'free' software crowd might be cheering at Microsoft being pwned by Google but there is a problem.

Microsoft have spent 18 months targeting Google with some relentless ribbing about their 'free' business model. The talk about being Scroggled. They claim that the 'cost' of Gmail is that your private mail is read by Google and then keywords are extracted to drive ads to your mailbox. Unlike the security services reading your mail this is just a commercial activity. Microsoft have also run a 'bing it on' campaign where they allowed people to blind test the results of their Bing search engine against Google. I have never really heard of anyone 'binging' an answer but the idea was to point out how good Microsoft search was. The campaign also criticised Google's shopping results as really just being another set of ads where paid ads ranked results higher rather than the best match for a shopping query regardless of advertising.

Whether these criticisms are valid or not there is a clash of business models. Microsoft is the traditional vendor of paid for software and services. Google is the 'free' provider as long as you accept the advertising. It is fair of Microsoft to point out that with Google you are the product that they sell to advertisers.

The irony is now that for a long time Microsoft were the great satan in the software world. People wore the badge of 'free' software and 'free' Google services with pride. They felt liberated from big corporations and perhaps felt that Google was an ethical company that functioned with higher moral values. It must be a shock to these purists that Google is a big corporation and can act exactly the same. This is what seems to be coming out of this dispute.

 

 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Wintel World

Wintel was the word used to describe the happy co-existence of Intel microprocessors and the Windows operating system. With an 'Intel Inside' the PC became the standard computer for a generation with over 90% of the market for both processor and desktop. The x86 series, based on the original 8086 Intel processor, has defined personal and corporate computing. On the road to 64 bit computing AMD created a new architecture but Intel have pretty much followed the trend.

Most servers in the Enterprise are now Intel 64 processors running a Windows server operating system.

Intel chips were somewhat power hungry beasts. Mostly they worked best when a PC had a mains power supply. Laptops and notebook PCs had notoriously poor battery life and struggled to work a whole day on one battery charge. However this mostly didn't matter because the Windows PC was king for 20 plus years.

Meanwhile in Cambridge during the late 1980s the Acorn Risc Machine was born. A powerful processor using less instructions and less power. ARM processor designs were licensed and became the standard for the smartphone and then the tablet. Intel processors were nowhere to be seen. The mobile world became the ARM processor world. Since Windows ran on x86 and x64 processors Windows was outside this new reality.

The result was that although Intel and Microsoft remained big in the server world the new mobile world was open to the new ideas from both Apple and Google. With no Intel processor to provide superb battery life the team at Microsoft came up with Windows RT (Windows RunTime). It was something that looked like Windows 8 but ran on an ARM processor. It could not run traditional Windows applications with the exception of Office but had to rely on the new generation of touch friendly 'metro' apps.

The problem for Windows RT is that it wasn't really Windows. It was something else. With few native applications and not very good performance it was really a version 1 device but priced at the cost of a traditional laptop with real Windows. It was up against premium devices such as the iPad and really cheap Android tablets from China. In short it was competing in a whole different market place.

Microsoft manufactured too many and they cost too much. The result is that Windows RT hasn't sold and they have written down $900 million of inventory this week in their annual results.

From a consumer perspective the mobile world is not the Wintel World. Arguably Microsoft is neither a cheap throw away tablet competing with Android or a premium product competing with Apple. Personal computing is becoming more personal. Devices are literally things that people expect to carry easily with battery life that gives a whole day of use. Microsoft can still sell a productivity device but they have to get to the point where there are enough applications that make it worthwhile and where the performance is what people expect on a laptop.

The PC market isn't going to collapse. There are more than a billion people using a PC and Windows on some version of the x86 architecture. There is time for Microsoft to get it right. If they want to create a new personal computing experience based on ARM chips they have to make it a product that is genuinely productive, has useful software and has sensible price/performance point that has some benefit for consumers. Microsoft also have to recognise that they are the new kid on the block in this market and they are a minority player in the tablet area. A touch of humility might be required.



Microsoft Surface with Windows RT against the IPAD.

 

Friday, 12 July 2013

Nokia's 41 Megapixel Smartphone

Nokia-Lumia-1020-Nokia-Pro-Camera-zoom

Nokia announced a smartphone with a 41 megapixel camera. The idea is to capture everything so you can dispense with a huge lens but still benefit from a great zoom capability. The actual pictures will be uploaded to photo sites at a 'sensible' 5 megapixels.

The interesting thing will be how the technology press cover this. My guess will be that while the image capability will be praised they will suffer because it is a Windowsphone. Had Nokia released an Android phone or if Apple had added a Nokia-like camera to their phone then this would be called  a game changer.

Nokia has actually added a great deal to the Windowsphone ecosystem. Their maps application, drive and transit apps plus the superb digital imaging mean that Nokia sells 80% of all Windowsphone devices. In some ways Nokia is more committed to Windowsphone than Microsoft because it has moved the whole company's strategy to these devices.

So it's not an iPhone and it's not Android but it's a great piece of technology.

Nokia

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Technet Subscriptions are no more

Many IT Pros, including me, subscribe to Microsoft TechNet. For just under £100 per year you get access to licenses that permit downloading virtually any mainstream Microsoft product and installing it for test and evaluation purposes. Many IT Pros have a small server at home and have replicated a Active Directory business environment for serious testing of the latest software

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Fanbois

I watch a keynote from a conference and the audience goes wild. It is often said that the first two rows at these events are full of employees sitting there to scream and shout at any old mediocre announcement. it is now an established format a technology product launch. Then there are the carefully selected journalists who are allowed into a inner display area to view a new product and get those YouTube exclusives.

A lot of this is down to Steve Jobs. He raised the game in product announcements. He removed dry technical detail and made it a statement of design or fashion. He knew how to work the crowd like a market trader.

It could all be a bit of fun. After a while you will know which columnists will spin the tale that Apple can do no wrong, that Google is the nicest technology brand or that Microsoft is key to innovation. These hacks live in their own bubble as little more than an extension of the company PR machine rather than independent product reviewers.

It gets a bit silly when you get down to computer users who have made a choice and seem to want to justify some superior exclusive knowledge. You get the Apple Mac user who tells the Windows guy that his system never crashes and has no viruses. The Google fan tells me that he doesn't want all his data captured by big corporations like Microsoft and Apple. Then there is the Microsoft person who claims that open standards are pointless because Microsoft has created default industry standards.

It gets down to 'my choice is better than your choice'. Not a very adult debate.

My own choices are partly made for me. I work in an industry where 90% of desktop PCs run a Microsoft operating system. Most servers in business either run a Microsoft operating system or you need to understand Microsoft technology to use them. So to earn my living the choice of Windows is a no brainer. However to be fair most ordinary people don't choose either. Manufacturers bundle Windows on their PCs. You might argue that people should be able to choose their OS but the reality is delivering support for multiple OS systems to millions would make PCs much more expensive. Providing the 'free' Linux alternatives to the general population would be less cost effective then the semi-monopoly of Microsoft.

The 'free' cost of Google products is a trade off. Google is an advertising company. More than 90% of it's revenue comes from advertising and it knows how to advertise because of the information it trawls out of it's users. This is OK if you are prepared to accept an advertising driven model. You will never know if the search results on Google are the best results or the highest paid adverts. However just because you don't pay money to Google don't pretend it has better ethics or standards compared to Microsoft or Apple. They are all big corporations.

It is always slightly amusing when someone writes about Microsoft Office because there is always some comment from a slightly superior Linux troll saying "I don't pay for my software  you can use OpenOffice for free and it's just the same". Of course there are plenty of free alternatives but in the mainstream where businesses and government need to get problems resolved, need technical support, software updates etc there is a legitimate place for commercial software.

Fanbois - give it a rest.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Apple, Android, and Windowsphone

The next big shift in the mobile Internet is the move from smartphones being the preserve of the rich western world into the less prosperous world. The next billion smartphone owners will be earning significantly lower salaries than the first billion.

For each of the smartphone platforms this represents a challenge. Apple are the Gucci or Prada of the smartphone world made 'exclusive' by price. Iphones are often bought as a fashion and design icon than a piece of technology. However it is priced for first world wealth. At the moment Apple is beginning to flatline on sales. Apple is still selling millions of phones but the customers who can afford the premium price are getting rarer. Hence the company has an almost annual upgrade cycle to re-start the adoration that sells new Apple product. The question for Apple is do they produce a iphone junior at a lower price targeted at less prosperous markets or does it settle with the premium only strategy.

Android has a different problem. Only a few phones have the pure Google experience. The premium phone sector is dominated by Samsung and the dozens of other cheaper Android phones have no common interface, common specification or run the same version of Android. The market is fragmented and customers are getting a wide variety of smartphone experiences. The question for Google is can it unite the fragmented market and, with a 70%+ share, does it want to.

Windowsphone has a tiny world market share of 3%. The good news is that Nokia, as the largest player, has a range of phones that hit most price points. Outside the USA it has superb brand recognition. Plenty of potential to sell to the surging economies of the developing world.

People think the smartphone wars are all over with Android in first place, Apple in second and everyone else trailing behind. I think the next billion phone sales will really determine the winner and those customers may well choose very differently from the rich western world.

 

 

 

 

Friday, 14 June 2013

There can be only One (or Two)

The Xbox One is the all new console that is scheduled to be released in the autumn of 2013 in Microsoft's battle with Sony over the issue of the best games console.

In recent years Xbox has been the cool brand with Xbox Live being the online gaming membership of choice. When Sony launched the PS3 with the 'experimental' Blu-ray disc format and cell processor it was late, overpriced and clunky. However steady sales and 'free' multiplayer gaming have attracted gamers not willing to join the Microsoft ecosystem. This progress was slightly hampered by a serious security breach in their password system last year.

So Microsoft did not have to do too much to produce a next generation console. Sony had all the work to do. Earlier in the year Sony 'launched' their PS4 console without actually showing what it looked like.

Microsoft's successor to the Xbox 360 is to be called the Xbox One. The launch focus was that this is a device to make TV a better experience, have exclusive content, voice control, Skype video calling and gaming. In the weeks that followed up until E3 additional information came out describing the new concepts and new features.

Unfortunately Microsoft suffered from some kind of marketing process that firmly placed their feet in their mouth. Instead of showing new features and facilities as customer benefits it all became an exercise in damage control. In particular not being able to allow gamers the option of trading in old games for cash. A 22 second video highlighting the different approach from Sony with the PS3 went viral and simultaneously slammed the Microsoft marketing machine.



This really registered with me. Microsoft's bold changes in mobile, Windows, and now Xbox have been followed by much explanation and frequent backtracking. The world has changed since the last version of Windows, Windows Mobile and Xbox - we get this. However marketing hasn't changed that much. To sell to a customer you must make the benefits of being a customer seem real. Removing value from the customer is going to get a negative reaction.

The first problem MS had was context.The launch presentation was all about TV. My impression is that most viewing on an Xbox 360 is by gamers doing something else with a game console not a household buying an Xbox for entertainment. Most people have other set top box options. Apple do a reasonable job with the Apple TV, there are also smart tvs that run apps and a cheap Blu-ray player will normally include Internet connection and Youtube. I was trying to work out why Microsoft would persuade a consumer that it was a good idea to pay 5 times the cost of an Apple TV for a device to watch TV and movies.

To be fair the voice control and the gesture controls are great but the value proposition is poor.

Games played a smaller role than watching TV at the launch. The problem for Microsoft is that games are the 'trojan horse' that gets this device in the living room so you have to persuade people to buy it based first on the games. In the future it may become a central point of all entertainment but not right now.

At this point Microsoft decided to reveal that every 24 hours the console had to call home in order to work. We are in an Internet connected world but there are still plenty of people who just play single user games or don't have an Internet connection. There are also plenty of places that have such a slow Internet connection that online gaming is next to impossible. It's not a deal breaker but a pointless limitation.

The problem with the limitation of an 'always on' connection is that it feeds into the issue of rights management and trading in your old games for cash. Many people do buy second hand because of the cost of games. The argument form the other side is  that publishers loose out in this trade and if everyone bought new the cost of games would go down. The implication is that digital sales would tie your id to a game effectively removing swapping games, lending games or re-selling them.

My problem with this is there is no evidence on the Xbox platform that digital only sales have driven down prices. Buying videos and music digitally is often more expensive than getting the disc in the mail from Amazon. Very often things are not available to all markets digitally even when you can buy physical goods in that market. Until pricing is much better there is still space for the games store over a pure digital download.

All this plays into the idea that Microsoft is this big corporate entity working with games publishers to extract more cash from customers in a duplicitous way rather than provide a better value experience. In a sense they have damaged the 'cool' part of the Xbox name by overlaying a negative corporate marketing strategy.

You also require an Xbox Live subscription to make this product work. If you just want to rent movies and watch Netflix why do you need to be a subscriber to the Microsoft games features? This just makes it even less attractive as a pure entertainment hub. If you are going to subscribe to something then just subscribe directly to content providers. Some of them will even provide a free box to view content.

Of course there is the community that will buy the Xbox One because it is the next new thing. As an owner of 2 Xbox 360s (different rooms) I am trying to work out what the benefits are of buying this product. So far Microsoft seem to be advising me that I will loose features I currently value if I spend  a chunk of money on an Xbox One. Sony seem to be selling the idea that they are people who will keep gaming traditions alive with the PS4.

 

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Apple's New IOS 7 and other 'innovations'

I have owned quite a few Apple products over the years and there have been a number of real innovations. The iPod revolutionised personal music, the iPhone changed the paradigm of the smart phone and many other things have both excited and changed the world. Many pundits almost expect Apple to change the world and read volumes into situations when they don't. Apple fans are also not aware of the genuine innovation by other platforms and assuming something Apple does is new just because Apple are doing it.

In this context the new IOS7 operating system has been launched. A new 'flatter' and 'translucent' interface primarily aimed at the iPhone is extraordinarily conservative in it's scope but very necessary.

The necessary part of the problem is that the simulated leather and homely backgrounds of the iPhone going back to 2007 are now looking dated. The digital simulation of the very analogue world of leather note books, pages and post-it notes are something of a 'ye olde worlde' look. The result of the redesign is a flatter interface that used translucence to provide depth. No one has played with this yet but to many of us this seems very much the interface already available on the latter Android versions or Windowsphone. Not a copy as such but rather a homily to the opposition without actually mentioning them.

Then there is the little niggle over the iCloud being a service. Approximately 20 minutes of the WWDC keynote was editing documents in the cloud with iWork. Excuse me Apple have you not heard of Google Docs or Office Web Apps. The iCloud has been 'a disk in the sky' with a bit of email or calendar even though the late Steve Jobs claimed iCloud was much more. Adding IWork in the cloud seems to acknowledge that the iCould has been exactly a 'disk in the sky' whereas Google, Amazon and Microsoft have led the charge towards cloud services. The new 'IRadio' seems a response to music streaming services previously ignored by Apple.

Apple have been a key innovator over the years but in 2013 I detect a little catch-up. Some of the things seem to have been previously stopped from happening by the 'vision' of the company founder.

I happen to think the new announcements from Apple are welcome enhancements to products but on this occasion even Apple's greatest fans must surely acknowledge the 'innovation' is that Apple are now joining a party that has already started.
Link: Apple Event 2013

 

 

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

I am the three percent

Three percent is the market share for Windowsphone in the USA right now. Of that around seventy five percent is the share for Nokia. A big fish in a three percent pond. For Microsoft this is a reversal of position in a specific technology market it used to own. Microsoft dominated micro computing and mobile leaving pretty much every other manufacturer a long way back in a distant second place. Windows mobile was a leader just a few years ago.

My own phone is a Nokia Lumia 820. This makes me the owner of a device that is a minor player in the mobile space. If you want to know about it just check one the video reviews below.


I don't have the exact figures to hand but the mobile phone space is dominated by Google's Android operating system followed by a favourable showing by Apple in the 18-20% range and then the scraps of remaining sales are made up of Windowsphone and Blackberry. In the Android market itself the dominant player is Samsung with most other manufacturers trying to find space in a 'me too' phone market.

Of course it has to be said that making a phone call is one of the least likely activities you will probably perform on your smartphone. Listening to music, taking pictures and surfing the Internet are much more important. Looking back with hindsight it's easy to see that Windowsphone was late to the party and is still struggling. The history of mobile could leave you laughing at Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer who was very negative about the iPhone at launch only to see it become the fashion phone of choice.


Ballmer was right in many ways. When he made the comments Windows Mobile was the leading OS in the mobile space along with Blackberry. However it was focussed on the business user. The business user often had no choice in his or her device instead an IT department choose what worked best with enterprise software such as Exchange email. The iphone and Android experiences built on consumer services such as email, music, video and developed an 'ecosystem' of products that was already locking in customers. The iphone was the ipod that could make calls and Android was the Google experience on the move.

Microsoft was, at the time of the iphone launch, a failing online services brand. It's entertainment offerings were not in the mobile space and, more importantly, were tied to the Xbox brand associated with gaming. Hard core gaming is a significant but small market. The Microsoft attempts at selling music were problematic. The digital rights management to prevent piracy had led to cumbersome software and hardware that were not easy to use and came up with obscure error messages when customers copied music between their own devices. The 'plays for sure' logo had a number of problems of which perhaps the most significant was that devices made by partners were not interoperable and didn't actually play for sure. In contrast Apple and Google had gradually developed products that just worked for consumers.

One of the great Windowsphone advances is the belated admission that ecosystems are important. It is an admission that came from creating a better ecosystem via the Microsoft account id, cloud storage, etc all together with the hardware.  They still haven't got music and entertainment services right but perhaps that is coming.

Windowsphone itself may be saved by their OEM partner Nokia. Nokia have been carefully creating lots of Lumia devices at a variety of price points and they are not 'cheap looking' devices. With tiny proportions of people in many markets being able to afford the premium priced iPhone and with Nokia strong in markets outside the USA it might be that Windowsphone growth could now happen almost entirely outside the USA.

Apple could produce a cheaper iPhone for some markets but they have generally been unwilling to drop from a premium price. As long as Microsoft continually improve their new mobile OS and don't shoot themselves in the foot the Nokia link might be the thing that means that I may own a device that makes up more than three percent of the mobile market sometime in the future.

 

Friday, 31 May 2013

Xbox Music - 8 months after launch and still a beta product

Zune was Microsoft's little competitor to the iPod. Outside the USA virtually no one knew it even existed. This is because Microsoft took the decision not to sell it outside the USA. The latter versions of the Zune were actually pretty good MP3 players that were cheaper than the 'i' products but Microsoft were just a little too late to join the MP3 party. They also had a fairly dubious record of extensive software protection, dropping products suddenly and poor content provision.

They did actually a music store and a music streaming service called Zune Music Pass. However as the Zune never really sold outside the USA and this was the only device that was supported almost no one had heard about it either.



This Zune advert from a few years ago pokes fun at the cost of filling up your iPod legally from an online music store - not mentioning any specific names.

When Windowsphone 7 arrived the Zune devices were discontinued in the USA and you could now use the Windowsphone with a Zune Music Pass. In the UK this was pretty good value as a 12 month plan worked out around two pounds a month cheaper than Spotify or other streaming services.  The actual Zune software was not bad with good music discovery, social features, free music videos and a web based interface for times when you wanted to use your subscription on a friend's PC.

Yes Microsoft had produced a usable subscription service. Although only a small group of people had a  Windowsphone and could use the service. If it were made available to other mobile devices it could have gained real popularity.

When Xbox Music was announced there was a bit of buzz about the successor to Zune. I thought this was all branding and marketing. They had a mature music service already that a small rebranding and some cloud features combined with moving to other devices could be really successful.

Unfortunately for Windowsphone users, Microsoft had a different idea. Firstly they removed the Zune web interface, social features and the ability to view music videos as part of your music pass. This instantly devalued the existing subscriptions. The second task they managed to do was make the existing client not work with the new Windowsphone 8. Finally they pressed the self-destruct button and made sure that the digital rights management did not work with their latest devices meaning customers would have to download all their music again if they wanted to use it offline.

The new 'metro style' Xbox Music App was good eye candy but had few useful functions. The initial release didn't even play in the background when you swapped apps. For most people their music became instantly unmanageable. The cloud features failed to match music collections properly splitting collections across multiple titles, duplicating and then triplicating entries. It became a complete mess very quickly and the Microsoft community was full of complaints. Even podcast functionality was removed from outside the USA.

The astonishing thing is that the best sync tool is now a Windowsphone desktop sync app plus Apple iTunes. Microsoft support iTunes synchronisation!

Microsoft seem to have gone from having a good but unknown music service called Zune and have replaced it with a well publicised but less useful service called Xbox Music.

As for me,. I cancelled my Zune Music Pass subscription when it was clear that Xbox Music was a bit of a downgrade. Right now I am trying Spotify.