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I started this piece with the intention of discussing the new MacBook Pro lineup, but on deeper consideration I needed to zoom out.

See it is easy to look at the various reactions and mixed reviews for the new Mac Pro notebooks and say it’s coming from longtime users who don’t get the modern Apple. It’s easy because on one level it’s true.

Most of the complaints are coming from long time Mac users; people who used the platform before Apple was cool and professionals. The problem for them and many others is that the Mac and MacOS are not the drivers of Apple’s business; iOS is. The iPhone along with the App store is the thing that drives the company and keeps it’s coffers full. Mac sales have increased, but the overall PC market is shrinking and mobile growth simply outweighs it.

On the other hand these same longtime users have reason to complain. Only Apple makes Macs. The Mac is the only OS that developers can build iOS apps on. Apple has cultivated a large following of creative professionals to the point where it is the de facto hardware/software platform. So an underwhelming MacBook is an issue. But the thing is those laptops are just another aspect of a larger change in computing; one where the PC/Mac going forward is simply  an appliance.

The Dumb PC

The idea of the computer as an appliance is not new: Oracle, SONY, and others have all thought up ways of simplifying the computer for regular use. The big difference now is there are now platforms that make the idea a reality. The difference between an appliance computer and a Mac/PC is the appliance hides the natural complexities of a device.

Think about your phone or tablet.

For most users this means running Android or iOS. Now running those systems means certain aspects of the device (files, downloads, systems, diagnostics) is not always easily accessible to users. The design is based around simplifying the OS so users get to the thing they want to do. An appliance also sometimes limits what the device can do in order to improve the user experience. For example Apple limits multitasking on iOS devices because it is not meant to be like a Mac. The point of the appliance computer or device is to make computing easier by reducing the stress points and design around a specific set of user tasks.

The Appliance Age

The perfect example of an Appliance device is the smartphone. It is a single task device which form factor means it has a set of restrictions on how it can be used. Yes the phone can be modified but most modifications are done by niche users. The phone can do everything a user expects from a computer, but in a fairly locked down manner.

It has been the explosion of mobile devices that has spurred on this Appliance age. The lockdown nature of the phone has influenced the thinking around the future of traditional devices like desktops and laptops. As mobile devices replace the desktop and laptop as the place where most do their computing they also replace the idea of what a computer is and what it should do.

Or to put it simpler: Computer companies are making laptops and desktops into hammers which after a while you toss at keep until the handle falls off.

Computer companies see the shift in usage and are now moving it up to the personal computer because even there usage has changed.

Blame Netscape

So how did we get to this point? Well beyond mobile devices there is the browser. The web browser was the first real step away from user’s needing to have high computer literacy to use one. While mobile applications have flourished in the last decade, desktop software has peaked.

On Windows the most used and updated x86 software has trickled to a handful; and most of it involves browsers. The browser has become the most important bit of software you can download. It is the window by which most view their device and use it. And the thing about the browser is it exists everywhere; it is a nondenominational piece of technology. Browser technology is why Google built Chrome OS. It’s also why, despite of an app gap, Windows tablets and 2 in 1s are good enough for many. Because the side effect of the web browser’s growth was that software development and deployment moved of the device and onto first the web, then the cloud.

The Days of PC’s Past

So returning to the MacBook Pro. The Mac is not dead, but it ain’t the future. Neither is Windows or Linux. At least they aren’t entirely the future. They and the desktop will be part of a future driven by mobile and an ever shifting audience far removed from the command line.

In my opinion the future will see mobile become the majority platform for computing. Desktop oriented task and niche activities like gaming will become this other category handled by a small market of OEMs and platforms.

iOS, Android, and to some extent Windows Mobile will all be there with appliance offerings running on ARM (unless Intel returns to mobile chip making.). And yes desktop systems will continue to be simplified for an income set of users who want to simply use a device.

Welcome to the real Post PC age.

 

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In hindsight all roads are clear, all mistakes can be seen before they are made; and all it is because we are looking at an event AFTER it happened.

Right now there are rumors Palm and Kodak will have phones on hand for the Consumer Electronic Show, CES. Both are likely to be devices running Android and perhaps a specialized skin (user interface layer) to brand the experience. Neither Kodak or Palm exist in a way where their name being on a product will bring anything special to make them stand out. The Palm phone is being made by French manufacturer Alcatel One Touch. Kodak has now moved to backend technologies and licensing its name for use on products. The companies join Nokia (Microsoft only part the hardware group) in making device plays using Android.

Nokia at least helped in designing the app launcher and the look of the tablet (Foxconn will be doing the rest).

“Go Android”

This is a phrase often used as sage advice to anyone wanting to get into mobile. It makes sense in a way because Android is the largest mobile platform by far. It outpaces iOS and is the 21st century equivalent to Windows. It has a matching app catalogue to Apple’s iOS is open enough to where a company can skin the beast to make it look and act any way they want. In the last few years it is the advice many a pundit has given Microsoft. Go Android, offer Microsoft services on top of it and everything will be golden.

The Android Panacea

I don’t know any more, maybe just going Android is what everybody should do; move with the tide. Slap your name on the ass of a device and watch the money roll in. Fork the green robot, paint it blue and go attract developers. It did not work for Blackberry, but it sort of worked for Amazon. It raised the fortunes of HTC until Samsung; and before both was Motorola. Android scales, unless we are talking tablets or laptop devices (then it becomes tricky or it uses ChromeOS).

I have nothing against Android it is a solid platform, but it is not a cure all.

Forking Android, skinning the OS and selling under your brand is no guarantee of success. It is not a guarantee the developers will come any faster or be any more committed to updating apps. Adopting it to sit alongside native development kills native; ask Blackberry. It gives you the ability to have apps but not every app and not overnight; ask Amazon but really ask Barnes and Noble.

If you can live on the thin margins and can build up a little brand strength than go ahead, go Android. But if you building a platform and go Android know that what you’ll have one day is another app launcher and the Google Play store is full of them.

I once did a post about the reasons why Microsoft made the Surface. I think I broke it into two parts. I had a conversation tonight that has brought me back to thinking about the Surface, Microsoft and its hardware partners and the future in light of Windows 10.

I’m not going to recount how we got to the point where Microsoft came to do a branded device; or how its OEM partners adopted new systems (mainly Google’s) before and after the Surface launch. That would be too long and it is also moot, both things happened. Now all is left is to understand what it means.

At this point I don’t see Microsoft ending the Surface line. For Microsoft it has entered into hardware in many ways out of necessity; this is especially true in mobile. The Surface line and brand brings a level Apple-like awareness to Windows PCs; it’s a computing brand in the broad market sense where many of its partners aren’t. I don’t think the Surface or even Lumia means Microsoft doesn’t still depend on its partner model. It does mean, I think, a recognition of the model’s limit in the face of a changing consumer market.

For Microsoft’s partners the last few years has seen them twist and turn themselves trying to understand and compete in a market that has switched away from desktop computing. In the wake of the iPad, almost every hardware vendor experienced some form of the tablet bends; experimenting with various OSes, rushing out tablets of varying qualities, or just getting out altogether. Their traditional partner, Microsoft, didn’t have an answer off the bat, then created hardware, which made their eyes wander over to Google. So now in addition to Windows the Dells, HPs, and Lenovos of the world offer tablets and pcs running various software. This gives them options but it also means split attentions.

Now both Microsoft and its partners are preparing for the launch of Windows 10. Windows 10 will be a lot of things but one thing it won’t be is a return to glory days of desktop (those days are gone). It also won’t turn back the moves made with Windows 8 (WinRT is here to stay). 10 will make it easier for people who were scared off by the Start screen and mobile touches of 8. Recent pricing changes for Windows also mean a possible increase in low cost Windows devices. Unless something changes I don’t think OEMs will ramp down production of Chromebooks for Windows; they seem to have been successful in markets like education. For Microsoft new software now likely means new hardware; the Surface line has, at least, now appears to make money after the one time write off. I do think both parties will take this time to build compelling hardware as I believe both Microsoft and the OEMs see value in the partner model.

In some ways the push into mobile has made the PC market stretch and grow. The relationship between software makers and hardware vendors is probably realistic. The tablet apocalypse has come, fizzled, and been slowly integrated into the PC side of the Force. The PC market (which I forgot to say was in decline ) has seen small growth. So in the end everything has changed, yet remained the same.

So Hewlett-Packard is getting out of the PC business.

Well really they are splitting the company into HP, the PC and Printer company, and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, the enterprise and solutions company. In many ways the split is as much an abandonment as anything else. HP is following a number of PC vendors who have either refocused on enterprises (Toshiba), stopped selling in certain markets (Samsung), or left the market altogether (SONY).

For HP it makes sense to split off the flailing PC business. It seems to have been in a spiral ever sense former CEO bought Palm in a quest to jumpstart HP’s mobile ambitions. Ever sense his firing it seems like HP has slowly been plagued by the FUD that has spread with the growth of mobile. What I mean by FUD is the moment stories were being written about the iPad as the harbinger of the end of the PC, PC makers scrambled to get to the tablet promised land.

The emergence of mobile as something that competed with laptops and desktops had hardware makers throwing a lot of different things to the wall to see if they’d stick. Couple this with a PC market that is essentially slowed down to predictable patterns and saturation and you have a field where people got nervous. Now I am not going to get into a blame game, namely because there is no one to blame. The PC market is a commodity market; they all offer the same engine (Windows) and are only bought when needed. And while PC makers have added non-Windows devices to their lineup (Android tablets/devices and Chromebooks) They have move the needle little for most. However there is a silver lining; from all accounts PC sales have improved compared to tablets.

Right now an interesting thing appears to be happening to the PC market: it’s consolidating. While the PC market has shrunk it is also stabilizing. However the market going forward will be different. The PC market unlike tablets or smartphones is both mature and saturated. While there is some growth there is also low margins. With Windows PCs the expectation is consumers can buy them cheap. There is also the fact that many keep their computers until they break or they need replacing. These factors look to be forcing some OEMs to make changes. A number of PC makers can no longer live by the meager margins of the hardware business, or if they can they want the stability that focusing on enterprise provides. It is interesting or example to see Samsung pull back from not just Windows but also Chromebooks in Europe (and anecdotally it seems from stocking them at their mini stores in BestBuy).

So what does all this mean for companies like Microsoft and Google? For Google it probably means little. Android is bigger than Chrome and OEMs like Lenovo and Acer seem not to have issues in selling Chromebooks. I do expect for the Mountain View based company to push Chrome OS as a viable option over Android. I say this because they are adding Android apps onto Chromebooks making the occasional Android based laptop or desktop moot.

With Microsoft I see both a push to gain back hardware maker support and also a continued push into branded hardware. For Microsoft I think hardware will never be the revenue stream software is, but it could be solid revenue nonetheless. In a market where OEMs are scarce and split between itself and Google Microsoft could see hardware as a form of insurance. Hardware can also be used to highlight the companies technological innovations. I think the experience with the Surface (both good and bad) will make them continue to keep their toe in the hardware waters.

For users, especially those that identify as being PC users, the future will mean a smaller set of choices and potentially choices that will be regional. The VAIO brand continues but as a Japan specific one; it’s a potential trend. Beyond that I think we will see a mix of old and new faces going forward.

In covering Microsoft I always seem to return to a few large themes. One is user interface and experience. The second is about the consumer space. And the third is Windows. In many ways these topics meld and follow each other. I return to them because they are part of the question no one ever asks or answers to my satisfaction (including myself).

To quote new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, “The question that must be asked and answered”, is what will Microsoft do about Windows. It such an easy question. The problem is the answer isn’t as simple.

From my perspective the problem is around Windows as a consumer product. Its about the PC displayed in the store that people in recent years are less inclined to buy. Its about Windows competing in a market with competitors who are just as well back, and at times the better options for most users. Its about the shift that occurred with the type if users that buy devices and the device types that moves the market.

This puts me in the minority when discussing Windows and Microsoft because most of the discussions are around the enterprise, developers, and the back end. This is the half that makes Redmond its money and its the part most think should be the primary focus of the company. And while I don’t disagree about the need for this perspective, I think its shortsighted.

We talk about the decline in PC sales and we site the numbers and check for upticks and plunges. We talk about the competition from new devices and operating systems. What we, and by we I mean the community that follows Microsoft, don’t discuss is why.

(that was loaded wasn’t it.)

Windows is a consumer product. I know its the software by which a lot of businesses large and small swear by, but its still sold to people who’ll use it solely for Facebook and YouTube. And sometimes I think its important to remind everyone of this fact.

As a product sold to consumers Windows has a reputation and a history; both of which I think has led to a level of apathy that effects sales. Windows is Windows; people got upset with Windows 8 because it wasn’t the Windows people expect. It runs on a PC which people buy and keep until it breaks. You go to the store to buy a PC and the demo unit might work. The salesperson might know what they’re talking about. With Windows you have to talk maintenance, antivirus, and extra software you buy before walking out the store. This is the experience buying a Windows device.

And you wonder why sales are declining.

Windows and the PC it runs on were developed for a type of user that no longer makes up the majority buying them. Today’s audience isn’t looking for something they have to manage or hack to make it work. They also are not looking to build out machines, They want something that works and has the software they need out of the box for no additional costs.

Windows is still considered something prone to viruses and complexities; requiring users to constantly tend to it. This image is why Macs and Chromebooks focus on selling themselves as simple alternatives.

The issue facing Nadella and his head of Operating Systems Terry Myerson is dealing with shifting tastes in computing while also catering to its strongest customers.

 

 

 

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.

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.