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Mobility

Mobile has been a disruptive technology for almost a decade now. It shifted the fortunes of a number of companies; turning some into kings while making others paupers. Mobile devices have overtaken personal computers as the way most people compute.

Think about it; all the task we have associated with computing; gaming, doing bills, watching movies; is now done on devices we keep in our pockets. The mobile market grew exponentially faster than the PC market and has in many ways made the PC look like the mainframe; a relic for the back office.

Given the changes it becomes clear why Microsoft did a reboot with Windows Phone and also why despite failing to catch on Windows Mobile is still with us.

Continuum_Concept

Continuum Machine

Back at the beginning of Windows 10, Continuum was a feature that simply described modal use; tablet mode/pc mode and mobile/desktop-like experience. The Phone side of Continuum was always more intriguing because it was an adrenaline shot to a platform that had/has been given up for dead.

However as a feature Phone Continuum  lacked features to make it’s desktop truly functional. The feature resembled Windows RT; only one app can be seen at a time along with the additional restriction to apps built to UWP guidelines. This changes with the next update for Windows 10. The Creator’s update will allow for windowing so multiple apps running on screen along with improvements for wireless connections. Add to this new reports of x86 emulation, allowing users to natively run desktop applications, and the idea of a phone replacing a computer for periods become feasible.

I have to say these latter features have shown up faster than expected given the last update to Continuum was around the Xbox controller. I should also note this makes the case for accessories like HP’s Lap dock for the Elite X3.

Design in Neon

Right after the Thanksgiving holiday it was reported that Microsoft was working on a new design language for Windows 10 codenamed Neon. While details are scarce Neon appears to a effort to improve and streamline the overall look and behavior of Windows.

For Mobile this will most likely mean improvements to the Start Screen and Continuum desktop experience. Neon may also pave the way for new devices like tablets and Chromebook style notebooks.

Focus on the Enterprise and Services

The last two years have seen Microsoft retrench its mobile efforts (much to the acrimony of users). It has been a period of slumping sales and write offs as Microsoft moves the mobile focus toward enterprises. Much of the announced and known information around Windows Mobile drives this home; x86 emulation and Continuum are primarily feature sets businesses probably asked for.

Microsoft is also continuing to push UWP to be the replacement for .exe and pure x86. Initiatives like Project Centennial are trying to put Windows developers on a platform path toward the Universal Windows Platform. They are also working on features to make UWP as powerful as x86 without too much baggage.

So what does all this mean?

Well right now little.

The Continuum features will arrive sometime in the next year and a little before for those using the Windows Insider program. Any additional features, especially something like Neon, are coming in another update codenamed Redstone 3 in late 2017. And with what we know there are still questions. For example what will be the consumer facing features? Will there be new partners for hardware and software?

According to reporting done by Mary Jo Foley Microsoft is working with Qualcomm on getting the emulation feature working on their newer chipsets. Which is fascinating and proves the company is still committed to mobile. However this work is happening on a platform with no real pull in mobile (and statically no real share of the market). So where does it go from here?

2017: The Slow Return of Windows Mobile

Recently both Microsoft’s CEO and it’s head of Windows have been asked about mobile. The questions follow the usual script in which Microsoft acknowledges it missed mobile and that yes, they are committed to Windows Mobile and mobile hardware. Now Ms. Foley asked the million dollar question: Why bother?! I mean Windows Phone is dead and most want Redmond to follow the list of the former mobile leaders on the path to wherever Android is going. Or why not quit and restart like Nokia.

“When you stop investing in these things, it’s super hard, super, super hard to restart. And at Microsoft, we have a few of those examples where we stopped.” This was the response from Windows chief Terry Myerson. He also cited the ARM chipset and cellular as additional reasons for mobile continued existence.

In my opinion I think Microsoft understands where it is in mobile. I remember an interview done with Microsoft’s Chief Marketer in which he talked about needing to create something that would be truly compelling for phone buyers. His statement was echoed by Myerson and Nadella. This acknowledgement that whatever is coming needs to be truly compelling and groundbreaking to overcome Windows Mobile shortfalls.

So in 2017 expect to see features and functionality added that 1) closes some feature gaps with iOS and Android 2) Bring parity between mobile and pc 3) Entice more hardware partners to join and 4)Provide better user experiences. This will occur alongside updates for the PC so don’t look for a mobile specific update, yet.

Now beyond that I feel like long term Windows mobile’s future will be in helping Microsoft define the future of mobility. I’m talking about something that may go beyond the best guest work around mobile’s future form; or maybe just move the needle to where most think its going. This includes Windows mobile finally running on tablets and possibly laptops similar to Chrome OS. And even then this is leaving out aspects like AI, bots, mixed reality, and inking.

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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.

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.

You know how you have a conversation that  stays with reverberates with you it makes you write?

 

(Well write until the moment leaves and then you go to sleep, wake up, go back and find the moment has past but you still want to post? No? Must be me then.)

So I was having this conversation on computer hardware and it of course it goes into comparing Macs to PCs and of course you have to give the iDevil its due and lament PC offerings. None of this is new. But the conversation followed a week in which Microsoft was rumored to be showing off new Surface hardware (last week they bought Nokia’s hardware division), and Intel pushed a new initiative to get their chips in Chromebooks (with Google’s permission of course).

 

As much as technology fans and analyst talk about software or services hardware is just as important. I mean without that shiny device in your hand or the one I’m typing on we wouldn’t be able to use all this software. And yet hardware is often overlooked except during review time.

Now most of this is more applicable to PC side of the fence, Macs have the benefit of being the equivalent of Nike Air Jordan’s. There is no Mac clone market (clone is the old school term for computers running the same OS).  Apple invested a lot of time, effort, and money in turning the Mac along with its mobile devices into devices people invest more than their time into.

 

This is the opposite of the PC and mobile market; the one in which Windows and Android live.

 

There has always been a clear benefit to having multiple hardware makers running one OS. It lowered prices. It produced a variety of devices. And it makes platforms appealing to developers. However the downside to this is it creates a race to the bottom. It also has the bad effect of needing to sell in high volumes (This is always good until the well goes dry).

Now when I first started looking at technology, I looked at the PC market and thought what was ultimately good for PC vendors would be to diversify their offerings. That was around 2008 or 2009, flash forward and almost all the vendors have added new operating systems. Primarily this has meant one or both of Google’s systems, Android and Chrome OS. Now over the years PC makers have tried various systems including various Linux distros, but only now have they seen uptick.

 

However outside of Lenovo, adding Chrome and Android has done little to stem the decline of the PC market.

 

(Here is the place where I go into the long history of the PC markets rise and slow fall but that’s too long. So the TLSV is most people treat a PC like a car so like a car people keep a PC for a long time.)

 

So what about Windows? It still on the majority of PCs but its breathing room has somewhat evaporated. First by the iPad and early tablet rush. Now by cost undercutting Chromebook on the low end and a Mac lineup that has moved slowly down to the low high end (You can now buy a MacBook Air for around $750-900). Microsoft’s recent moves into hardware with the Surface and Windows 8 have been said to have both caused the PC slowdown and pushed their partners into the arms of Google.

The truth maybe it was a mix of a lot of things, but the present will see more shifts before this is over.

From the perspective of hardware makers the OS has been somewhat inconsequential to the process. You can see an example of this with Chromebooks; they are being positioned to replace the budget netbooks the PC market pushed for years.

 

Cheap devices move numbers but they sometimes erode the market as they bring in the numbers (this is place where the price of the thing times the branding equals how its viewed by the public). All of this makes it seem like the PC market is no longer a monolithic thing but a series of smaller ones. There is the “Classic” PC market; the one that has Windows on the box. There is the weird “Android” market; where PC makers try to stuff Android into as many device categories as they can conceive. Last is Android’s twin, Chrome, which is finally the desktop Linux people (who don’t identify as Linux fans) were waiting for.

This new market will bring changes. On one level I see PC makers “swapping out” Windows for a mix of Android/Chrome for consumer devices. Some may even push Valve’s SteamOS as something aimed at PC gamers. All of this will force changes to Microsoft and the various Linux distros. Outside of Canonical, very few distros have pushed toward mobile which is the next big push for the OEMs.

 

As for Microsoft that is the subject of the next post.

 

SO STAY TUNED!

I have been looking forward to seeing the Acer Iconia W700. I knew it would be a thick tablet running an Intel Core processor and thus would have a fan (which is known to be undesirable for a tablet they say), but I still wanted to get a hands on.

And while you can purchase the device online, you can’t walk into your local Best Buy, Staples, or Office Max and try one. And see that is a problem.

If you have been reading the technology section of the news other than Apple and sometimes Google, a big story has been around the slow death of the PC. Usually the story surrounds Windows 8 and its inability to turn around the flattening sales of desktops and laptops.

One aspect of the story, and one I’ve written about (sometimes too much) is the debate around Windows 8 and traditional PC devices and how confusing or intuitive it is for users. I’m not going to go into this (its late) but the gist is no one wants Windows 8 because its not Windows 7 which was built for desktops and what people want are desktops and laptops. Now the flipside to this is that what people want isn’t a laptop or a desktop, but a tablet.

The reality at least that I can ascertain is that the growth in mainstream computing is in tablets. It doesn’t matter if we are talking the small seven inch tablets or the larger ten inch models; people are moving to tablets like salmon going upstream to spawn.

Now the hardware makers know this. They’ve known about it since the announcement of the iPad in 2007. They were the one’s who rushed Android tablets before Google was ready (see first generation Galaxy Tab). One of the forgotten aspects of the the rush to tablets is the summer/spring before the first big tablet rush, a number of OEMs planned to bring out devices running Windows Embedded to market. Then Google announced Honeycomb, the Android OS version built for tablets, and suddenly all those Windows Embedded tablets became Android Tabs.

Let’s just say they didn’t fair well.

Now all the while their hardware partners were building and sometimes floundering building tablets, Microsoft began working on Windows 8. Windows 8 would be optimized for touch and given a touch first interface, something suitable for tablets which the Redmond company rightfully saw as the next big form factor.

Now I imagine when the OEMs were not seeing their return on their Android tablets and they caught wind about Windows 8 they got happy. That was until the summer of last year when Microsoft announced two tablet devices which signaled that Microsoft was entering the hardware business.

Which brings me back to Acer. Acer in the post Surface announcement has been quite vocal in its displeasure of Microsoft entering hardware. At first they were dismissive, saying Microsoft would falter. Later they said it was a distraction. Now they are openly hostile about Windows 8; even making statements where they said they may switch to some other OS. Now Acer wasn’t alone, HP made a couple of statements, but not to the extent Acer has.

All this talk would be well and good, OEMs sticking it to Microsoft and all that, if not for the fact that OEMs went looking for greener pastures first.

PC makers in the last few years have been making it clear that Microsoft and Windows will share space with Ubuntu, Android, and Chrome. Like a frequently cheating spouse, PC makers expected Microsoft to sit patiently at home while they ran in the streets. The Surface announcement was declaration that if OEMs can move to offering multiple operating systems, then Redmond could move into hardware.

And given the slim pickings of Windows devices I’m glad they did. Windows 8 was built for the tablet market. Yes if you can use it on a desktop or a laptop, but it was built for the tablet form factor.

Acer announced two Windows tablet PCs for the launch, I haven’t seen either in my local electronic stores. The same Acer complaining about Windows 8 is not a factor in the market because its product isn’t on the shelf. Except for ASUS with its Windows RT tablet, only Microsoft has offered a Windows based tablet in stores. Only recently have HP and Samsung devices shown up.

People questioning Windows 8 tend to overlook the obvious, it is aimed at the tablet market. OEMs who keep trying to push none touch devices are not going to make headway. And as long as OEMs make devices running other systems they should expect Microsoft to keep working on hardware. 

image: Bloomberg