Today an interview with tech gadfly and Rackspace Startup Liaison Officer Robert Scoble brought up a continued argument around the future of Microsoft and Windows. In an interview with GeekWire, the former technology evangelist at Microsoft was asked about Seattle and Windows Phone. His responses were let’s just say provocative. 

On Windows Phone:

“That train has sailed,” “The real answer is, give up Windows Phone, go Android, and embrace and extend like you did with the Internet. But they don’t listen to me.” “The problem is that Microsoft has 4 percent market share for mobile. The reason for that is that they have no apps, and there’s no love for developers of apps.

On Microsoft:

The problem with Microsoft is that it’s so committee-driven and slow. It’s not a startup anymore. It’s a big-ass company with a lot of people. And let’s be honest — you work at a big company because it’s comfortable. You don’t have to work 80 hours per week and you get paid, have nice benefits, and the family is all happy. It’s collected a lot of those kinds of people and they are all in committees. Committees don’t do anything.

 

You can read more of his sound bites on GeekWire (warning if you work in Seattle or for Microsoft you might need to restrained). The interview is interesting because it highlights the issue of what exactly is the nature of Microsoft. Is it the next IBM, an enterprise technology company that should focus on software and services. Or is it a company that has a place in the mass consumer computing space. Windows Phone successes and failures seem to be representative of this issue, as is the success of Azure and Office 365.

There is an argument to be made that Microsoft would be better served abandoning the consumer market and mobile as a platform maker. The company’s market share has been slow despite having years in the market. Windows phones and tablets have also had issue in gaining traction with the new set of app developers created with the emergence of the iPhone. In mobile success has come from software and services which don’t need to run on devices with the Windows logo. And serious growth has come not from the fickle consumer market, but from the enterprise with Azure and Office 365.

I think the question around consumers and enterprise is what good does it do Microsoft to have anything to do with computing beyond developers and enterprises. I was in a conversation today where this case was essentially being made. Does it make sense for Microsoft to invest heavily in having a mobile platform if its limited in adoption when they could go for services and have virtually no costs and all benefits? Could they win just by putting Office, Xbox, and desktop Windows on Android phones and iDevices?

Yes they could, but they also would be limiting themselves.

Imagine a situation in which Microsoft’s mobile efforts were built around managing iPads, Android tablets, and Chromebooks. They’d provide software and support using Intune and MDM. Now both Apple, Google, and say Amazon will also be doing the same; except they’ll have actual devices with software they make to complete the package. Now Microsoft’s strategy would manage these devices well but they would be a third party. Their solution would also have to mean the shop buying would have previous investment in the Microsoft ecosystem; this is a workable scenario but not best case.

One thing I have come to realize with computing is that it is both easy to discern enterprise computing from consumer computing and hard to divide it. It is easy because we can come up with a list detailing the need of a business and the wants of a regular consumer. Its hard because the devices and software you use for one, you use for the other. Beyond this users themselves make devices dual use. The mobile platforms people think Microsoft should abandon Windows/Windows Phone for are still largely consumer focused. The computing field has moved beyond supporting specialized software on a large scale.

I don’t think I have an answer to, “Why Windows or Windows Phone”, that will appeal to the rational. I have no answer to how to make it grow. I have my opinion and suggestions, but I’m an armchair analyst like everyone else. I can say that having a mobile platform means having a showcase for your services. It creates a physical product that makes what you sell real to people. It allows for access where otherwise you be restricted. And it is the natural step for most companies seeking growth.

So maybe Scoble is right. I mean Microsoft could make it work. It’d make Value Act and investors happy. It make Google and Apple happy. It would likely destroy whatever would be left of Microsoft’s developer base. And it would relegate Windows to the closet where all back end tech goes.

If Microsoft is okay with this I guess its the right course, but I doubt it. 

 

 

Recently news leaked about another delay in the release of Tizen, the open source system created by Samsung and Intel. In particular the delay was over the Galaxy Z which would be the first mobile device (other than the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo watches). Samsung is said to have delayed the Z to work on further refining Tizen, but the delays have more and more people saying dead OS walking.

I think tech writer Mary Branscombe said it best when she said Tizen might be cursed. The code on which the operating system is built has a certain amount of bad juju around it. It is a Linux based OS made up Intel (Moblin), Nokia (Maemo), Intel/Nokia (MeeGo), and Samsung (Bada). In its first incarnation it was used by Intel to push mobile phones, tablets, and Netbooks. This was when Intel was pushing Intel App Up as a way to get x86 specific apps. Then Intel hooked up with Nokia to create MeeGo. Of this union one phone was created, the N9, which was stillborn. Then came the announcement of Tizen. It was backed by Samsung and other than watches and prototype devices, there’s been little noise.

People like to complain about Blackberry or Microsoft’s struggles in keeping a foot in mobile. Then there are those who want to rewrite mobile history and say that everything was fine until (insert person) changed (insert company/platform) for the worse. Then there is the dreamers and idealists who think true, open Linux, or HTML5 is the answer.

Mobile is growing rapidly and it has changed the face of computing. But its also changed computing in different ways. A phone is a more locked down device than a PC. Mobile is also more dependent on applications than a laptop or desktop. Its a market where the OS is more important. The PC market and especially the rise of Windows PCs made it easier for Linux adoption.

In the mobile world Linux is something trotted out at a small event during Mobile World Congress. Some chip vendor or OEM will remark on the need for a true open source option and the Linux Foundation will launch a new initiative. Afterwards you may see a prototype, meanwhile the same company will show an Android device they will actually ship,

Software and Hardware is hard, but doable. Building an ecosystem and maintaining it is madness. That’s why there are few companies that do it or can do it. Tizen is just another example of how hard it can be. 

 

Today, or Tomorrow take your pick, Neowin.net wrote of a possible update to the Surface/Surface 2 to be shown off in October. The news follows on the heels of Microsoft canceling the Surface Mini and the premier of the Surface Pro 3.

The Neowin article citing DigiTimes claims the Surface 3 will be thinner and lighter than the Pro 3 and be a 10.6 inch device. Neither site said whether what operating system the device could run, however Neowin seems to lean heavily toward the ARM based Windows RT.

If this is the case Microsoft will have to have certain things ready before they even think of scheduling an event. Because while I and handful of others will be happy to see it, a lot of people will not be.

For those that don’t know Windows RT is the version of Windows rewritten to run on ARM chips. The best way to think of ARM is that it is the chip use to run tablets and smartphones. ARM has the benefit of mobile capability (LTE) and also lower power (ARM devices run longer on a charge). Windows RT devices have longer battery life and, unlike the x86 version, is largely immune to viruses. Windows RT also doesn’t run legacy applications or programs built for the Intel/AMD x86 platform. This means the things people usually do on a PC won’t run on an RT device (Chrome, Firefox, iTunes). Like iOS or Android you can only run tablet apps.

The lack of legacy support on RT has made it a bit of a pariah in some circles. It has found some success as the application market has grown and amongst those who like its low maintenance styling. Much like the Google Chromebook, Windows RT devices have found a home in education (especially amongst students looking for a complimentary device).

If the Surface 3 is indeed real and comes out it will need to do something to differentiate itself from comparable devices running full Windows (x86, usually a low powered Intel or AMD chip); not to mentioned the iPad and various Android devices. According to the above sources, the Surface 3, or 3, will come with a stylus like the Pro model. We can assume this pen will be N-Trig and thus compatible with the Pro 3. I hope it means the 3 uses the same aspect ration for its screen. The Surface Pro 3 uses a 3:2 screen which makes it easier to use in portrait orientations than previous models that used the widescreen 16:9. If the 3 uses 3:2, it will be better aimed at its target audience.

Another factor that will make the Surface 3 palatable is new apps. A best case scenario is the 3 is the premier for Office Gemini (tablet/touch version of Office for Windows) or a new book service. Given the Redmond giant’s move toward productivity as a sales hook, the Surface 3 will need something that highlights it as a mobile workhorse of merit. So things like ports will be needed; also a kickstand that resembles the Pro 3. Microsoft will need to show it has the applications to sell the Surface 3. One of the big issues that faced the Surface RT (One) was a lack of apps; this needs to be different with the 3.

The Last thing this rumored device will need is to be THIN. While the Surface Pro 3 has been met with a lot of praise, its still a PC. It requires ventilation for the Intel processor. The Pro is also larger, sporting a 12 inch screen which could be too large for some. There is also the price; the Pro 3 is $799 with an i3 and goes up from there. The Surface 3 would be smaller, run cool, and be cheaper. Hopefully it is also cheaper including the TypeCover (which it will need).

Now I could be wrong and the Surface 3 could run a Baytrail chip from Intel. Doing that will make PC diehards happy (Its REAL Windows), but it would signal Microsoft was done with Windows RT. The Surface 3 could be an interesting product, if it sells its strengths. It will need to signify Microsoft’s productivity mantra (the productivity tablet) along with providing the apps. And it has to be thin.

No Pressure.

Occasionally I start writing a post and in the early sketches it runs into a whole other topic. When this happens I get whatever is the opposite of writer’s block is. So if I run long apologies.

When Steve Ballmer declared Microsoft a, “Devices and Services”, company it set in motion a shift in focus. It is a shift that has moved applications like Office and Azure to the forefront and Windows into flux. One of the interesting aspects in this change isn’t so much about Office for the iPad or Android, but on possible future services.

Looking at the immediate future I can help but think the next milestone for Microsoft’s services is a mixture of cross platform support and what it does on Windows. Its evident that Redmond wants its services on the platforms people use. They also want these experiences to be compelling. I expect the Android version of Office to be as well done as the one for the iPad. The big question in the near term is about the Office Gemini.

Gemini is the codename for the tablet versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook for Windows tablets and phones. It is an awaited suite by both users and Microsoft watchers. Gemini has to not only be pretty, not only compelling, but full featured enough to satisfy fickle users. The apps also have to work in the mobile context (so featured, but not TOO featured). The importance of these modern programs can’t be underestimated; they show commitment to the idea of Windows as a tablet system. Its also a test for Universal Apps. Its hard not to end this by saying Gemini will make or break Windows (and especially Windows on ARM), but I think I did. (So, no pressure).

Beyond Office there is OneNote which in many ways has always been an app waiting on devices to catch up. I remember college student volunteers giving out OneNote when you got it on a disk (I am old). It was always one of those hidden gems that Microsoft occasionally creates; the kind that develops cult status like the Amiga. I personally think OneNote is one of those applications that fits in the new productivity being espoused by new CEO Satya Nadella. It sits in that spot between work and home. I don’t want to dwell too long on the app, so lets move on to the future.

In my opinion, Office’s future will be one where it goes beyond the big four (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook) and into other areas. The same is true for OneNote; its has a future where its core is used in other applications. If you run with the idea of Productivity that crosses work/home; Office needs to think about how what it does is processed. Some of this will be done by Gemini which will simplify complex apps like Excel (mastering Excel is like mastering Dim Mak).

But it also means putting parts of them into other services. For me the big thing is education or at least reading. Imagine you’re a college student. Part of your life will involve diving into large amounts of data. This could be actual numbers, equations, or articles in periodicals. Given the variety of information you may need it may not all be online. This means by semester’s end, you have amassed two volumes of research that is in folders, a laptop, and maybe a tablet. Now imagine you’re the type of student for which all of this will be turn into a paper in 24 hours before its due (Houston we have a problem). Imagine a book service that makes it easier to move information between not just a tablet or a PC, but between itself and Word or PowerPoint. Imagine a bookstore that could interact with OneNote or even Evernote to better save notes or even citations.

With OneNote I see it going into something similar to Evernote; taking its note taking abilities and applying them in different fields. On the desktop users can use OneNote to record lectures. Now imagine a OneNote recording application, let’s call it Record That, which lets people record lectures, interviews, whatever a user wants. Record That allows a user to have an automatic transcript of the proceedings as well as edit it on the fly. 

Thinking about the future of Office services makes me think they should seriously consider creating a set of apps aimed at kids. In my mind I would call it Encarta, but its goal is to create programs that use Office as a platform for learning art, history, and math. Imagine an Office Math app that helps children visualize equations and problems; create graphs by writing the numbers without worksheets or boxes.

But all this is just a suggestion.

PS: If Microsoft is planning a book store might I suggest using Bill Gates book list as part of the store. Its from Bill so at one or two of these books will be used in a class somewhere.

So I had planned on writing about the future of Microsoft branded hardware and its PC partners when Neowin reported a possible refresh to the Surface ARM lineup.

So I guess it’s a sign.

With the accession of Satya Nadella to Iron Throne of Redmond many wondered what he would do with the hardware Microsoft has accumulated. Many analysts have argued the margins and costs for hardware are not worth the time and effort the software giant has invested. Unlike Bing (the other money pit) many investors cannot see the benefit to Microsoft in any way. The hope was Nadella would jettison hardware (and in turn the entire consumer market) and move the company firmly into enterprise software and services. The anti-devicers were buoyed by Bloomberg news revealing Nadella’s hesitation in buying Nokia’s Hardware group. I mean Nadella comes from the Cloud/Enterprise side and hates buying Nokia; devices out in 3..2..1..

Not So Fast

Satya Nadella has been said to have been against the Nokia deal, but he also came around to it (though this is often left out). Also with recent pronouncements he has made clear he will keep Microsoft producing first party hardware. Like his predecessor, Nadella will walk the tightrope that is the Surface and Lumia.

As of now Microsoft seems intent on positioning its branded hardware as to not compete with its third party hardware partners. So don’t expect fire sales or prices that undercut HP or Dell. With the Surface, Lumia, and Xbox Redmond is working on building brand name, aspirational products. There is a reason Microsoft compared the Surface Pro 3 to the MacBook Air and not a PC. There is a power in the Apple logo and a prestige in owning one. Its like wearing a limited addition pair of Air Jordan’s or Adidas; you’re buying more than just the shoe.

To date there is no Apple equivalent in the PC space. And I’m not talking about a Samsung, which is close, but something that truly can/does represent the best of the PC. The PC market doesn’t have a brand that is lusted after; that is aspirational to own. 

And that is the deal with Microsoft’s first party brands.

So no the Surface Pro 3 isn’t the Yoga or the Zenbook, or the Series 9; its not something most techies would consider. But it is attractive and it makes you imagine that place you’d put it if you did have it.

On a more basic level, having branded hardware also ensures you have devices running your software in a NICE package. Think about Windows Phone and the lack of interest paid to it by HTC and Samsung and its former partners in Windows Mobile. Imagine trying to build a platform with no physical representation of it, then tell me to rely on third parties.

 

The Third party OEMs, Microsoft’s partners in crime, are not to be left out. The emergence of Microsoft branded hardware has changed the partner model; as has the emergence of Google as an OS provider. If you check out the Laptop and tablet section you will see this shift.

The last decade has seen PC makers shift from just Windows to multiple operating systems (basically Goggle’s Android and Chrome OS). With the appearance of the iPad and the predictions of a tablet takeover hardware makers began experimenting with anything that could move them in the Post-PC age. Hewlett-Packard bought Palm and put out the TouchPad while others flocked to then still young Android platform. All of this was met with mixed results but it all changed the PC market. And lest someone thinks I’m biased, there is also the fact Microsoft created the Surface brand (which must have caused all kinds of grief). There was, likely still is, animosity about the software vendor moving into their hardware domain. Some cite the Surface as the main reason OEMs went in on Chrome OS.

Despite the emergence of the Surface and devices running things other than Windows, PC makers still partner with Microsoft.

 Now having discussed a bit a background on first and third party hardware, what’s in it for you the buyer? With competition from Google and Apple along with the growth of mobile computing, Microsoft has had to make changes. For one thing, Redmond is now offering Windows and Windows Phone for free or reduced cost.

They also offer a discounted version of Windows (Windows with Bing) for zero dollars on laptops. Microsoft is also working with certain manufacturers on tablets and laptops in the $99-199 range, taking on low cost Android and Chrome devices. Specifically noted is the Toshiba Encore 7, a seven inch tablet going for $99. Hewlett-Packard is also getting into the game with the HP Stream; a 11 or 13 inch laptop costing $199. The Stream is interesting because it will include tablets and looks like it will be rebranded Android and Chrome devices. On the Microsoft side, indications are clear that the Surface and Lumia lines will be concept designs we can buy. I expect the Lumias will showcase imaging and the Surface line to be about covering new form factors and experiences.

As Microsoft closes its current Financial year, it is preparing for the coming year and the thing most of us tech enthusiasts are looking forward to; Threshold.

Threshold, for those that don’t know, is the codename for the next release of Windows along with Windows Phone and Xbox. Threshold has been a big topic in the Windows community because it is following the not so well received Windows 8. Threshold has become a symbol for those wanting a return to Windows 7 or XP.

It doesn’t help matters that what we know about Threshold is miniscule. Microsoft has been tight lipped and a lot of the information around the system is mired in conjecture and false info. With each new piece of information comes the inevitable mangling of it.

So what is really known about Threshold?

Well it will be released in 2015 with a possible preview by the end of this year. It will be focused on productivity and will be aimed at enterprise with new features. It will be based on the work started in Windows 8 and allow tablet applications to run windowed on the desktop. Windows Threshold will also bring back the Start menu.

So what do we THINK we Know?

Threshold from the two accounts I take seriously will bring the first interface refresh to the Metro UI since it appeared. On the desktop this means Metro will be optional but also designed to fit better with keyboards and mice.  The discussions around the desktop seems to be about updating both the returning Start Menu and the taskbar. The modern, flat design of Windows 8 and Windows Phone may show up in Threshold.

Another change is the merging of Microsoft’s ARM based systems Windows RT and Windows Phone. For tablets and phones this new OS will eschew the desktop that is on Windows RT for something closer to the Phone OS. There is also talk that the new OS will adopt Windows RT multitasking (side by side apps with possibility of more options). For both tablets and phones Cortana will be integrated.

What we DON’T Know

What Threshold looks like. Some speculate (read hope) it is the return of Aero and Windows 7 or XP (for masochists). Some have said the early prototype shown at Build is what it will look like (I hope not). This was followed by fakes.

Right now Windows Threshold is a McGuffin; its an unknown thing that moves the plot. Because of this we have attached our hopes and fears as to the future of Windows. We now know more, but it is still not enough. 

Last week Microsoft proved the rumors true and announced cuts to its job force. In a series of emails across divisions the software company announced 18,000 would be laid off. While most of the news was about cuts to the recently acquired Nokia hardware division; there were also cuts to other divisions.

In the Operating Systems Group cuts were made to testing, and over in Xbox the biggest news was the closure of Xbox Entertainment Studios (which was to make original content for the Xbox). Microsoft also made cuts in its contract workforce and sales divisions.

These cuts also coincide with restructuring of a number groups within the company. In the OSG, testing is being integrated into regular software development . In the hardware group, Nokia assets are being integrated. And even Sales is being streamlined to split itself between business, consumer, and its channel partners.

All this has been well received by Wall Street. And many commentators have said the cuts were a long time coming, but it has to be hard for those let go. And then there is the fanboy reaction.

Any cuts (especially around Nokia and Xbox) were going to cause consternation amongst the faithful. I have to admit that like some a part of me looks at the cuts as a sign that Satya Nadella’s Microsoft is all but done with the consumer market. The layoff has seen a reduction in manufacturing on Nokia’s side

And the closing of Xbox studios feels like a short term strategy. I know Phil Spencer and his team are working on gaining back hardcore gamer trust, but I think it should not come at the expense of possible. I know a lot of people will be sore about cuts to Nokia hardware, but I think it will be positive over time. The key thing there is the focus on integrating this new hardware group into Microsoft.

At the end of the day a mass firing like this will not be easy on anyone. As a fan I want Microsoft to concentrate on products and not wasting anybody. As someone watching a technology company I understand that the reality facing Microsoft will make require a restructuring to account for changes in the computer landscape. Microsoft is on a journey into the future; walking backwards.

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