Category Archives: Microsoft

Microsoft culture must change, chairman says

Microsoft culture must change, chairman says – Fortune Tech:

“I would argue that there are some attributes to Microsoft today that do look vaguely like IBM circa 1990. The Windows monopoly is in fact under attack, and therefore we’re going to have to change or think differently about the management systems and the associated culture of the company as time goes on.”

I hope this reflects Satya Nadella’s thinking too.

A Mac and iPad user’s view of the Surface Pro 2

Back in 2003, the fully-fledged Windows Tablet PC was a pretty amazing machine. You could work on it (I wrote hundreds of thousands of words on my Acer C110, with its 9in screen and tiny keyboard). You could play games on it. You could read on it. You could do everything you could on a laptop and more. It cost more than a normal laptop, and the performance tended to be lacklustre compared to laptops of the same price. But it allowed you to do things no other laptop could do, from note taking using a stylus (with handwriting recognition which put the Newton to shame) to reading nascent ebooks in a much more natural way than on any other device. It was expensive, and clunky, but it worked.

Or at least, it worked for me. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for the rest of humanity, which – despite the constant promotion of the platform by Bill Gates – took one look at Tablet PC, went “huh?” and bought normal laptops instead.

Fast-forward to 2014 and Microsoft is still trying to sell people on the concept of the one-size-fits-all combined Windows PC and tablet. The company is so convinced this is the right way to go that it’s backing its hunch by building its own hardware, the latest of which is the Surface Pro 2.

Microsoft wants you to think of Surface Pro 2 as a “no compromises” PC that’s also a tablet. This is exactly the same line which Gates span in 2003, and unfortunately for Microsoft, it looks like being about as successful as marketing spin as it was ten years ago.

I’ve spent the last few weeks using Surface Pro 2 extensively. I’ve taken it on trips, where I might otherwise have taken my iPad. I’ve used it at home, instead of my MacBook Air, for everything from playing games to social media to business with Office. Although I’ve enjoyed the experience in some respects, the compromises Microsoft has been forced to make in creating something which supposed replaces both PC and tablet are probably more than I’m willing to put up with.

By being a tablet, Surface Pro 2 is a compromised PC: compared to laptops with equivalent performance it’s expensive, especially when you factor in buying a keyboard (£100 to you, sir!). It’s high-end ultrabook territory.

Compare it, also, to Apple’s latest iPad. The iPad Air weighs half as much (1lb vs 2lbs), has longer battery life, and will cost you $200 (or $79 if you want cellular networking, something that’s not even an option on Surface Pro 2). And that 64GB Surface Pro 2 will have a lot less space remaining after Windows has eaten into it than you’ll get with the iPad.

So what, exactly, is the point of the Surface Pro 2? Continue reading

Microsoft Surface is still a failure

Jason Del Ray, writing for Re/Code on the apparently-impressive Microsoft Surface:

In its fiscal second-quarter earnings release today, Microsoft said Surface revenue was $893 million during the final quarter of calendar year 2013, up from $400 million in the preceding quarter. It didn’t, however, provide information on the number of units sold and it did cost the company $932 million to generate the Surface revenue.

Still, that’s some holly jolly holiday season news, considering the Surface’s track record. The bad news, of course, is that Microsoft’s share in the tablet market is still minuscule.

The market share is irrelevant at this point: The bad news is that Microsoft is still losing money on every Surface it sells. 

Why I fucking love Bill Gates – and you should too

Great interview with the man that too many techies think of as The Great Satan himself. Gates has now found something better to do than create second-rate software: saving the world.

And better yet, he has no time for young whipper-snappers who think all that needs to happen is connectivity for the poor:

“These days, it seems that every West Coast billionaire has a vision for how technology can make the world a better place. A central part of this new consensus is that the internet is an inevitable force for social and economic improvement; that connectivity is a social good in itself. It was a view that recently led Mark Zuckerberg to outline a plan for getting the world’s unconnected 5 billion people online, an effort the Facebook boss called “one of the greatest challenges of our generation”. But asked whether giving the planet an internet connection is more important than finding a vaccination for malaria, the co-founder of Microsoft and world’s second-richest man does not hide his irritation: “As a priority? It’s a joke.”

Then, slipping back into the sarcasm that often breaks through when he is at his most engaged, he adds: “Take this malaria vaccine, [this] weird thing that I’m thinking of. Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that’s great. I don’t.””

And to those who think making new companies does more good than charity, he's equally-dismissive:

To Diamandis’s argument that there is more good to be done in the world by building new industries than by giving away money, meanwhile, he has a brisk retort: “Industries are only valuable to the degree they meet human needs. There’s not some – at least in my psyche – this notion of, oh, we need new industries. We need children not to die, we need people to have an opportunity to get a good education.”

This is why I fucking love Bill Gates. He's going to save a lot of kids lives.

 

Where next for Microsoft?

Paul Thurrott – yes, that Paul Thurrott – has written an interesting post on the quandary Microsoft finds itself in:

Windows is in trouble because people simply don’t care about it anymore. It’s not outright hostility; there’s far less of that than the anti-Microsoft crowd would like to believe. It’s ambivalence. It’s ambivalence driven by the nature of “good enough” mobile and web apps. It’s ambivalence driven by the allure of anytime/anywhere computing on tiny devices that are more cool to use and even cooler to be seen using.

Where Paul gets things right is in identifying an attack on two fronts on Windows’ relevance to developers and users. On the one hand, for most people, web apps used on a desktop browser are more than good enough: they’re often better than the huge, complicated behemoth that is Office. Yes, there are cases when only Office will do (usually when only Excel will do). But users who need Excel are now few and far between.

On the other side of the attack are tablet and phone apps. This is where all the action is. Developers are not only excited by the possibilities of newer, more interesting APIs and platforms in iOS and Android, they also sit up and take notice every time Apple puts out a press release about a new revenue record for the App Store. Yes, the overall Windows software market is a lot bigger than $10 billion; but a large chunk of that Windows software market goes to Microsoft, and Adobe, and other top-tier vendors. The chances of a break-out hit Windows app are small, unless it’s a big-budget game.

However, this raises a question: If developers are attracted to fresh APIs and to the glamour and commercial possibilities of iOS and Android, why are new applications arriving in the Mac App Store every day?

There’s several reasons. First, Apple has continued to develop and innovate in its APIs. Every recent release of OS X has seen pretty cool stuff added to it. Even “bug fix and performance” improvements like Mountain Lion added new features for developers to take advantage of.

Second, there’s the halo effect of the iPhone. Many applications are “companion apps” to releases on iOS. The text editor I’m using to write this (Writer Pro) has a Mac version which I’ll probably use to edit, polish and post. I doubt that iA would have developed it if iOS hadn’t existed.

Third, and finally, there’s the Mac App Store itself. Its existence means that if you’re developing a new application you instantly have a place you can sell your product. Yes, it’s not perfect (and the decision by some companies to remove their products from the Store shows that) but it means that companies have a shop window that a new product can be sold from.

I would go a little bit further than Paul. Devices like the iPad (and the Chromebook) have shown people that getting stuff done on a computer doesn’t have to be complicated and messy, a constant battle with the machine to not get crafted to hell. You don’t need to have to “maintain” your computer anymore – we have moved beyond that.

Except with Windows, where we haven’t moved too far beyond that. You still have to install anti-malware software, you still have to make a conscious effort to keep things up to date, every now and then you still have to nuke the machine from orbit (it’s the only way to be sure). The same is true of the Mac, but (as it’s always been), to a lesser extent.

Can Microsoft fight back against this? Yes, it can: but it has to be brave, and bold and prepared to dump compatibility with the dull Windows of old. It has to invent its own simplified operating system, capable of exciting developers in the same way that iOS and Android have, while also being easy and reliable enough to attract customers who’ve come to expect iPad/Chromebook-level ease of maintenance.

Windows RT could have been that operating system, but it seems that Microsoft would rather kill that off. There’s still time, though: but not much more time.

Surface Pro 2: Day… what day is it now?

One of my heroes is the philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle’s big ideas – and there are many of them – is the notion of a category error. A category error is a mistake you make when you talk about something as if it were one kind of thing, treating it as such, when in fact it’s a totally different kind of thing, and should be treated in a completely different way.

Thinking of Surface Pro 2 as a tablet is a category error. The Surface Pro 2 just isn’t a tablet. It just looks a bit like one – and, importantly, I’d make the mistake of listening to its proponents, who demand it should be treated like one.

To give a concrete example: All the talk about Surface Pro 2 as a tablet had led me into the category error of wanting to use apps for everything, when perfectly good web apps exist and are fully-supported by Internet Explorer.

Take Feedly or Pocket as examples. I was looking for a decent Pocket client (hint: there isn’t one) when I could use the web site. This reflects the way I would work on my Mac, but is very different to the way I’d work on the iPad, where web apps tend to be a last resort.

Or take my annoyance at how horrible the Surface Pro is to use in portrait mode. The answer was simple: Stop using it in portrait mode. Forget, in fact, that portrait even exists as an option.

Of course, in some senses this is surrendering to the device’s limitations. However, it means that I stop being annoyed with it, and start to enjoy it for what it is: a good laptop which can sometimes be used as a tablet-like device, rather than a tablet which makes much of what a laptop does redundant.

If you wanted to sum up the difference between Surface Pro and iPad Air, this would be it: Surface Pro is a laptop, first and foremost, and makes a pretty terrible tablet. The iPad Air is a tablet first and foremost, which can be used to do maybe 80% of what most people use a laptop for.

For some people, the iPad Air is better than this. I know folks who have replaced their laptops with iPads. I think the “80%” estimate isn’t too far off for the majority of people.

For some people, Surface Pro is all the tablet they’ll ever need. All they want is to be able to occasionally use it propped up in a lap for reading, or scrawling on using the stylus, or some light email replying. And that’s OK.

Surface Pro 2 Days Four Five and Six

Day four, and I’m typing this on the iPad. There’s a reason for this, which I’ll come to later… Oh hang it, I’ll say it: I’m on a short trip and needed a portable device that I didn’t need to take a charger for. The Surface doesn’t cut it for this kind of journey.

This is one of the hidden things about the Surface Pro 2. Yes, for a laptop (I’ll come back to that too) the battery life is good, as acceptable as my pre-Haswell MacBook Air. But compared to the iPad… Well that three or four hours additional use that I get from the iPad matters.

And “not taking a charger” doesn’t just mean “because of the battery life”. It’s also down to the fact that almost everyone I know has an iPhone with a Lightening connector, which means chargers capable of topping up my iPad are all around. Can I give the Surface Pro 2 a hit of charge when I’m in a car? Nope – at least not if I want to be able to start the car later.

So, no Surface Pro on this trip. But I have been using it today, and I do have a few new comments…

Pie in the Sky(drive)

Another day, another issue connected to Skydrive. You would think when it was offline, it would let you save into a folder and sync it later. No: it makes you save it in a local folder and move it later. That’s the opposite of the way that Google Drive or Dropbox work, and it’s not really good enough.

This is not how cloud storage should work. Writing this using iA Writer Pro, I don’t have that issue. Sync is invisible, which is how it should be.

Epiphany: it’s a laptop (dumbass)

What’s become clear is you have to look at Surface Pro as a laptop. It happens to be able to be used in some tablet-like ways – for example, for a reading task in your lap. But it’s really not very good in those roles. If you think you could “replace” a real tablet with it, you’re just not using a tablet much.

The 12 Days of Surface Pro 2 – Day two

Day two of the Surface Pro 2 summed up nicely both the pros and cons of the device. First, the bad bit: I became a victim of the failed firmware update, and found myself with a tablet which wouldn’t charge, at all. It merely stayed at 10% charge, which meant that it was confined to being plugged into the wall.

However, Microsoft clearly worked overtime on this one: by midday, another firmware package had downloaded and installed which (judging by the date) reverted the firmware to the version issued at the end of October. And after an hour or so turned off and charging, it was back to full working order again.

Despite this, I’m growing to like using the Surface Pro 2 a little more. As a laptop, it’s a pretty good machine – powerful enough to do lots of stuff, and I really like the feel of the Type Cover. And I’m growing to like the modern Metro interface more and more. Once you get used to it, it feels really good. Of course, that only makes the times you are dumped into the Windows desktop even more jarring…

But – and it’s a big but – there’s still quite a few rough edges to deal with. For example, I’ve yet to manage to get Chrome working properly as the default browser. Every time I try and change it to being the default (running in Metro mode, rather than Desktop) it misbehaves, refusing to display full-screen and instead occupying a small portion of the screen, with controls and menus off the top of the screen and no way to move them back. I think this is probably something to do with the Hi-DPI display, but I have no idea how to fix it and can’t find a way to sort it out online.

And one thing that’s really clear is that 64gb simply isn’t enough. I have a few apps installed – the biggest one is Office – and I’m down to less than 20gb free. That’s with no music, no photos, no video. If I was going to buy one of these, I don’t think I could go with less than the 256gb version, and that would push the price up considerably.

The 12 days of Surface Pro 2 – Day one

If you follow me on Twitter, you’re probably aware that I’ve been using a Surface Pro 2 off and on for a few weeks. So far, my impressions of it haven’t exactly been positive. As a tablet, I’ve found it to be pretty woeful. As a laptop, it offers less than my MacBook Air.

However, prompted by Kevin Tofel, who’s been using his Surface Pro 2 as a kind of souped-up Chromebook, and Mary Branscombe, who’s been vociferous in her defence of the product, I’ve decided to give the Surface Pro 2 a proper go. In keeping with the time of year, I’m going to use the Surface Pro 2 as my only computer for 12 days, replacing my MacBook Air, iPad Air and Nexus 7.

Importantly – for this is a test of mobility as much as anything else – I’ll be carrying the Surface Pro 2 everywhere that I would normally carry one of my usual devices. This means it’s really got to replace the iPad as a tablet (carried everywhere), the MacBook Air as a laptop, and the Nexus 7 as a sofa-surfer and occasional book reader.

Day One

It’s not a good start. One of the uses I put tablets to often is reading books, using Amazon’s Kindle software on pretty-much every platform. Kindle is generally pretty amazing. It keeps my reading position in sync, and (on tablets) any book that I start reading is downloaded to read when offline.

Happily, there’s a Windows 8 “Metro” version of the Kindle software, which looks and acts the same as on other tablet platforms. Except that when I went to continue reading a book that I’d started earlier, Kindle told me it couldn’t: “An error occurred while loading the next page. Please try again later.” Because I wasn’t connected to the net, it wouldn’t load the rest of the book – which is different to the way Kindle behaves on other tablet platforms, where if you download the book it’s available offline.

The second somewhat jarring thing is the lack of a reminder of the battery life that’s left. In Windows 8.1, to get to the battery indicator, you need to swipe in from the right hand side. That’s fine, but at the back of my brain I’m feeling like this is a laptop (and a Windows one to boot) – I should be keeping an eye on the battery.

This is an objective thing: the Surface Pro 2 actually has pretty good battery life, according to every test I’ve seen. But it feels like a laptop, rather than a tablet, and that tells my computer-addled brain to keep an eye on battery.

One thing that I am instantly missing is my iPad Air’s built-in 4G. Yes, I could tether the Surface Pro to my phone, but I’ve always found that tethering is more of a pain than it should be.

Some positives: I’m using the Type Cover 2 rather than the lighter (but horrible) Touch Cover, and it’s a really nice keyboard to type on, at least when you’re using it at a table. In the lap, the combined depth of Type Cover, Surface, and kickstand (adjusted to “lap-friendly” angle) isn’t as comfortable as a regular laptop, and if you’re lying on a sofa it’s even less comfortable still. I certainly prefer either the MacBook Air or iPad Air (with or without Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover) when sofa-surfing.

The screen is a bit of a mixed bag. I love the resolution – it’s as good as the iPad Air – but the shape and size leave something to be desired. When you’re using it in landscape orientation, it’s great for video but actually pretty poor for reading documents. If you use the onscreen keyboard, you’re also left with only a sliver of content above it, which makes it tricky to write much. Portrait orientation is just generally a bust. It’s really clear Microsoft doesn’t expect anyone to use this much. It’s too long and thin for most web pages, and the width make books into the same experience as reading a newspaper with too-narrow columns. And the Windows button, which is fixed on to what’s normally the bottom edge, sits at precisely the point where your thumb is likely to rest if you hold the device in portrait mode.

Skydrive is a mixed bag too. There appears to be a limited range of syncing options: either you have only the files you’ve accessed recently available offline, or you have every file available. You can’t select individual folders and make everything in them available, as you can with Dropbox or Google Drive (UPDATED: Yes, you can, although it’s not obvious. And the default appears to be “keep everything in the cloud” rather than “download and sync”). Of course, I could just install Dropbox or Google Drive.

The selection of apps in the Windows App Store is also a mixed bag. There’s some good, high-quality products from small developers. But there’s also some categories where there just isn’t anything of decent quality. For example, there are plenty of Markdown editors, but all of the ones I’ve looked at are (at best) nothing out of the ordinary and at worst just crap.

A fictionalised conversation between me and a Surface Pro 2 fan

Me: “Surface Pro 2 makes a pretty poor laptop, because of its crazy kick stand and lack of a bundled keyboard. Just buy an ultrabook or MacBook Air.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What laptop can you just take off the keyboard and use as a tablet?”

Me: “Yeah, but the Surface Pro 2 makes a really poor tablet. It’s too heavy, really hard to use in portrait mode, and you keep being dumped back into the crappy old Windows desktop to do things. Just buy an iPad or good Android tablet, or even a Surface if you like that sort of thing.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What other tablet can you clip a keyboard on to and have a fully-fledged laptop?”

Me: “But it’s a pretty poor laptop…”

And so it goes, round and round. Point out Surface Pro 2 is a poor laptop, and you get pointed towards the fact it’s also a tablet. Point out it’s a pretty poor tablet, and you get pointed back towards the fact that it’s also a laptop.