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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.

 

In a matter of hours Microsoft will once again take the stage in California for their E3 Briefing.

This year finds the Xbox group in an interesting place. While the Xbox One has seen a growth in sales it is still behind Sony’s PlayStation 4 by large numbers. There has been confusion in regards to Microsoft’s strategy for the Xbox and PC gaming; leading to a noted game developer saying Microsoft was trying to “take over” gaming through the Windows Store. Microsoft has also closed down a number of studios and projects, most notably Lionhead Studios and Fable Legends.

And then there is the ghost of the Xbox One launch that still hangs over the console even as it has become more gamer friendly.

So what to expect when Xbox chief Phil Spencer and company take the stage?

New Hardware

Thanks to Petri.com editor and nemesis of Paul Thurrott, Brad Sams, we know that today’s briefing will feature new hardware. And not just hardware focusing on pure gaming, but also media streaming.

According to Sams, Microsoft will be premiering a refresh to Xbox One in terms of a smaller, slimmer model (which according to leaks will be dubbed the Xbox One S). Additionally a new standard controller will also be shown off.

Bigger news, at least to me, is Microsoft is finally getting into the living room streaming game with two streaming devices.

According to both Mr. Sams and others, these two devices are aimed at competing with the Apple TVs and Rokus in the market and will make use of the Windows Store for content. I should note here that while the Windows store lacks the deep catalogue of the App Store and  Google Play it has a decent catalogue in terms of Movies, TV, and Music and Xbox already has media deals to make it a solid option. I’m expecting if the Streamers are shown off they will come with the announcements of new services.

Games, Games, Games

Now I am not certain of specific titles but I believe we will the release dates for games such as Re: Core and Crackdown 3. Some games like Titanfall 2 and Mass Effect: Andromeda have already been announced so they may be on and to show gameplay. I think the bigger news will be on Xbox as a gaming platform that stretches from the Console to the PC. Windows 10 has been used to bring together PC gaming and Xbox and I think we will see an update on where it’s going.

So that’s my spiel for this year’s E3. Turn in later to see if I was correct or horribly wrong.

 

Image: Tim Bradshaw

Image: Tim Bradshaw

The Consumer Electronics Show is happening once again in Las Vegas. Once again a collection of companies, journalists, vendors, and sellers will converge into the weeklong event. The main purpose of CES, as it is known, is mainly for vendors and sellers to gather to makes deals and stock stores. CES is interesting in that it’s the unofficial start to the consumer technology season; the cycle of new devices and software that feed the tech market.

The electronic show is a mix of small one man companies to major firms like Samsung and SONY. A lot of CES like many trade shows occurs behind the scenes; private meetings and showings. For me CES is a mixed bag, most of the show is of little interest to me and the stuff I am looking at may never reach shelves or will late in the year. CES is also noted for the amount of grousing on the part of attending reporters (honestly some act like they are being tortured by the thought of having to go).

So what has been the big trends so far?

Well there is the obvious: TVs, phones, computers. NVIDIA spent it’s keynote on its work to get into auto and introducing the next iteration of the K1 mobile chip. The Internet of Things (IoT) was touted by companies like Samsung along with new washers, stoves, refrigerators. IoT is supposed to be the next big computing platform with sensors and data married together to create a hopefully benevolent mesh of AI.

On the computing front it looks like some small victories for Microsoft. HP has announced a series new devices including new laptop workstations, 4K displays, and two affordable mini PC boxes (the Pavilion Mini and Stream Mini).

image: DigitalTrends

Lenovo announced a refresh of its entry level Flex laptops; the big change is they now fold the full 180 like the Yoga line and now come in 11 and 14 inches. The bigger news is the re-redesigned ThinkPad Carbon X-1 which looks like a Throwback with the return of the left/right click buttons and the nubbin pointer.

Asus brought Jonney Shih and he brought with him three new versions of the Transformer 2-in-1 PC line in form of the T300 (13), T100 (12), and the T90 (8.9 inch). All come with keyboards.

Samsung, which of late has concentrated on its Android lineup, pre-announced the 2015 version of the ATIV Book 9 Ultrabook now in 12 inches. Know that most of these devices will not be in stores until late January at the earliest.

Now this was just the first official day of CES and more news will be leaking so check again and hopefully I’ll have dug some more up.

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.

With the release of Windows 10, Microsoft has announced (whether they want to admit it or not) the end of Windows 8 and in many ways a period of uncertainty for users who like and use it. While the heads of Windows were assuring they were not retreating from touch or hybrid devices many are in a mode of wait and see.

Others are openly saying Windows 10 is a major step backwards in terms of mobility.

Right now, I feel like we are too early into Windows 10 to say it’s a retreat. Realistically it is an acknowledgement that Windows 8 didn’t move every Windows user toward the mobile promised land. I hate saying it but Microsoft had to address the wants and desires of its customers that wanted a desktop in the traditional Start menu mold. Not having the menu was an issue hampering progress; in fact the debate between mobility, touch, and mouse and keyboard was a serious distraction.

So now we find ourselves on the march to Windows 10 and it begins by addressing the desktop. We also now are facing a reverse situation in which people who have embraced 2-in1s, hybrids, and Windows tablets wondering what is in it for them. People like technology reporter Mary Branscombe have been vocal on Twitter about the pull back and the seeming reduction in functionality of Windows 10 for Windows 8 users. It is an issue that is not only coming from enthusiasts but also developers who adopted the new Modern environment.

Right now we know little about Microsoft’s plans for touch in Windows 10. We know they will be overhauling the Charms bar (replacing it with an unknown new UI). We know that the designers at Redmond will be introducing Continuum which will switch a users’ device between being a laptop and being a tablet. Lastly, we know the gestures instituted in Windows 8 are being changed. Beyond the Charms bar, swiping from the left will bring up a new task switcher which will show all open apps and desktops.

I don’t know what to make of what we are seeing in Windows 10 from the perspective of a tablet fan. Windows 10 will make the changes from 8 palatable for some diehard keyboarders but not all. It could also alienate users who have come to embrace the benefits of Windows tablets and hybrids. People who have found benefit in having mobile devices that can be workhorses. The whole thing makes me concerned, only in so far, as I think the idea of the tablet being another form factor and not totally divorced from the PC is solid. It is just the execution that needs fine tuning.

Windows 10

For the last few months one of the big discussions in Microsoft circles has been about the next release for windows codenamed Threshold. The next release has been greatly discussed because if the mixed reaction to Windows 8. With 8 the focus was on touch and mobile and this alienated (hand air quotes) traditional keyboard and mouse users. So with the next release a lot of people’s hopes have been pinned on this being the Windows release.

So on Tuesday of last week Operating Systems chief Terry Myerson along with Windows UX head Joe Belfiore talked about the next release of Windows…Windows 10.

Tech-Preview_Start-menu

No one was expecting the name. Most assumed it would be Windows 9 or Windows One or even simply Windows, but it is Windows 10. It’s funny because during the small press event Myerson had to say he wasn’t joking. The first showing for Windows 10 was for the Enterprise.

Now it has been days since the announcement and the release of the first Technical Preview. Given that stretch of time I wanted to give my impressions of the release more so than a simple repeat of the event. I should also not there have been numerous posts written about what you can expect downloading the beta software which are miles more helpful than what I could tell you. Having said that I do want to put in my two cents.

Tech-Preview_Task-view

During the hour long presentation I got the clear impression that the team in charge of Windows knew what the headlines would say; that Windows 10 was a backtrack from Windows 8. It was something Belfiore addressed directly when discussing the future of touch. In so many ways this is a retreat from the aggressive stance took by Windows 8. Windows 10 is an acknowledgement that people wanted something familiar, so the Start menu has been returned. It is not the same Menu it’s a little flatter in terms of design and also includes changes started in Windows 8 such as Live Tiles and controls. Windows 10 also adds search (Windows 8.1) and new for 10 Task View (virtual desktop similar to Linux and OSX). There have been visual tweaks for Windows adding shadow effects new icons, and Windowed apps. The cumulative effect of the features in the Technical Preview is something to appeal to users of Windows 7 or older. In fact a lot of time was spent on making the case that Windows 10 was suited for users of Windows 7.

I think something that also should be noted while everyone else is talking about a return to a Windows of old is how they mentioned Windows 8. In the presentation neither man shunned Windows 8 or pretended that the audience that adopted it didn’t exist. In fact the goal of Windows 10 seems to be a better merging of desktop (Windows 7) and touch/mobile (Windows 8). And this idea is represented by Continuum. Continuum is a future feature of Windows 10 in which the operating system transitions itself between desktop and tablet scenarios.

The big takeaway I had was the thing Windows 8 brought to the PC, such as touch and mobility, were not going away with the reintroduction of the Start Menu. That going forward the plan for three screens and a cloud was still the goal. Now having said that there are still questions but I want to discuss those in my next post.

If you want to download the Windows Technical Preview go HERE. Understand this is a beta; don’t use it if you don’t want to experience bugs or issues. Also this is a BETA and Microsoft wants feedback so signing on means you agree to them gauging your usage to make a better system.

images: Microsoft

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.