Category Archives: Tech Companies

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. 

Samsung’s road to smartphone dominance is a dead end

How many stories in the tech press have you read over the past year which posited a theory of Apple being in trouble? Tens – probably hundreds of articles have appeared which put forward the idea that Apple’s needed to move the iPhone downmarket and create a cheaper version to gain market share. Failure to do this means doom.

So let’s take a look at a company which has followed exactly this plan, competing at every level of the smartphone market from cheap devices for the masses through to expensive, high-end phones: Samsung.

Samsung’s earnings are out, and they’re not pretty:

“Earnings will remain stagnant this year as the explosive growth of the past two to three years seems to have ended,” said Lee Sun Tae, a Seoul-based analyst at NH Investment & Securities Co. “Although the lower-end smartphone market will continue to grow, the scale of profit from that segment doesn’t compare to the high-end market so the growth seems limited.”

Samsung’s problem is simple: at the low end it is being squeezed out of existence by low-name and no-name Chinese manufacturers, all happy to stick “good enough” Android on their phones with no costly extra software. Although the company has tried to differentiate its products by value-ended extras and services, for price-conscious consumers these are meaningless or, in some cases, a turn-off.

At the high end, it is being squeezed by Apple, which has proved it can compete in any market.

If you want to make a comparison to the PC market, Samsung is like IBM was: a “quality brand” producing products which aren’t sufficiently different from cheaper commodity players like Dell. In the smartphone market, for Dell read Lenovo or (long term) Xiaomi.

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.

 

Some thoughts on what Google has bought Nest for

Some smart points about Google’s acquisition of Nest from John Gruber, who notes that in Tony Fadell Google has got someone who knows how to do hardware capable of scaling to tens of millions of units.

However, one minor point about John’s story, from this paragraph:

One of Alan Kay’s numerous oft-cited quotations is, “People who are really serious about software should partner with an OEM in Asia.” No, wait, that’s not what he said. What he said is, “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” That’s never been true of Google, putting aside Motorola (which they seemingly acquired more for its patent portfolio than for its phone hardware acumen) and the niche Google Search Appliance.

In fact, Google has independently designed two pieces of hardware: The Chromebook Pixel and Nexus Q. But that, I think, makes John’s point stronger. Both the Pixel and Q were expensive, high-end pieces of hardware which could never have scaled to selling tens of millions of units. The Pixel was (and is) effectively a flagship demonstrator the potential for Chromebooks; and the Nexus Q was a unique media device which, because of its design, cost about four times as much as its competition.

With the Pixel and Q, Google proved it could design high-end hardware on its own. What it hasn’t been able to do is create high-quality hardware capable of being mass produced at low cost. Of all the tech hardware companies, only Apple and Nest have really nailed that one. And Apple wasn’t available for sale.

Apple “not in the bidding” for Nest

Liz Gannes, for Re/Code:

Nest had been close to completing a funding round of upward of $150 million that would have valued it at more than $2 billion, Re/codereported earlier this month. That round never closed, because Google swept in with its huge offer. Sources familiar with details of the acquisition said that Google was the only serious bidder and Apple was not in the mix.

I get the feeling from the extremely sarcastic comments on Twitter that Google just pushed themselves way beyond the creepy line. Being on your phone gathering data is one thing: being in your home gathering data is quite another.

Gmail and Google+ sitting in a tree…

Sarah Perez, writing for TechCrunch about a new feature that Google is implementing to link Google+ with Gmail:

Google is today making a change to Gmail that will further bake in Google+ to its webmail product in a way that’s actually somewhat practical, though also potentially invasive. Going forward, you’ll now be able to directly email your Google+ contacts from Gmail, even if you don’t know their email address. And by default, anyone on Google+ will be able to email you as well, thanks to this new option, if you don’t adjust your settings.

Yes, of course the default for this feature is on: Google wants more social data to flow into its data centres, because it needs to know more about you to deliver more “relevant” search results (and, by the way, ads).

While I’m comfortable with this kind of thing, the assumption that it should be default-on is exactly the reason I’m gradually weening myself off Google’s services.

Chromebooks are like iPads

Ben Thompson gets the Chromebook better than any one else, possibly because he uses a Chromebook Pixel himself:

In fact, the best comparison for a Chromebook is not a Windows PC, but an iPad. Both are appliance-like devices that are easy-to-use, impossible-to-break, and designed first and foremost for the experience, not the feature list. And, if you write like Dr. Drang and need multiple windows, a Chromebook is in fact superior to the iPad.

Spot on. Both Chromebook and iPad are examples of what I call “friction-free computing” – devices which remove the cruft and hassle of an old operating system, requiring little to no maintenance. What this class of device allows you to do is live in the applications you use to get stuff done, with the operating system getting out of the way.

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.