Microsoft Mesh Empowers A Heterogeneous Holographic Collaboration

On day one of the winter edition of Ignite, Microsoft announced the launch of Microsoft Mesh, a new collaboration platform powered by Azure, that allows people to have a shared virtual experience on a variety of devices from Mixed Reality (MR) and Virtual Reality (VR) headsets to PCs and Macs and phones. In his opening remarks, CEO Satya Nadella compared Microsoft Mesh to Xbox Live’s launch in 2002. The service made online multiplayer gaming for consoles mainstream by making it easier for developers to connect their games to the internet. The launch’s result was a rapid growth in online multiplayer titles for the Xbox and Xbox 360, giving Microsoft an advantage over Sony and Nintendo for years. It will be interesting to see how Mesh will change the approach taken by companies like Spatial, a brand that many already associate with virtual collaboration. In my mind, a common platform is the only way to achieve a level of collaboration that can be genuinely inclusive and natural. Yet, I realize all too well that business models sometimes get in the way, and it is much easier for Microsoft to focus on a common platform when monetization comes not from the platform itself but the cloud that powers it.

Microsoft’s Alex Kipman, the mind behind Kinect and HoloLens, spent an hour on the keynote stage talking about the opportunities this platform opens up as several guests from the science and entertainment business, all appearing in holographic form, bore witness to his belief that the future is paved with potential for shared virtual experiences.

I had the opportunity to experience the keynote, not through my PC, as I have been accustomed to for the past year, but as an avatar by the edge of the stage where Kipman’s hologram stood. While Kipman looked like himself, my fellow participants and I appeared as much more basic AlspaceVR avatars. The fact that I could not tell who was in the audience, even if I was aware that there were other fellow analysts and reporters I knew, did not make the experience less engaging. I could see people moving around, using emojis to react to the presentation, and even being annoying when they teleported themselves too close for comfort.

It is not a secret that I am not a great fan of VR. I usually find the effort I put into setup and the experience always to outweigh the perceived value I get from it. So I was surprised to find the keynote experience quite engaging. While there was still a gimmicky side to it, like having a whale shark circling over my head, it clearly gave me an idea of what events like Ignite could be like in the future. More importantly, though, it showed me what collaboration might be like. Maybe it is because I have not been in a room with as many people in over a year, but the experience did feel more personal than watching it on a computer screen. Having experienced HoloLens as well, I can certainly say I prefer the holographic experience in the room I am in, especially when it comes to collaboration. When working with someone, the experience is created more so by the interaction you have than the environment. This is why we have been struggling so much with remote work during the pandemic.

One of the aspects of workflows and collaboration I have been highlighting over the past year is how heterogeneous the set of applications and operating systems we work with every day really is. Whether you are a Microsoft Office or a Google Workspace user, you are most likely jumping between the two environments and using apps like Zoom or Slack on top, even if both productivity suites offer chat and video solutions. This might be because of personal preference or because of the people you work with. Either way, it is rare to be all in with just one solution. You might be able to do it within your organization but not when you work with external people.

Now think about a real-life meeting. While our work might be on a PC, a Mac, or a phone, shared across several apps, what we bring to the meeting is, first and foremost, us. Now think about how not having a common platform would limit that experience. Mesh offers developers a full suite of AI-powered tools for avatars, session management, spatial rendering, synchronization across multiple users, and “holoportation” to build collaborative solutions in mixed reality. More importantly, however, Mesh allows people to meet others where they are. The ability to benefit from this future even without a top-of-the-line device like HoloLens means that, hopefully, we will all have a seat at the table. Mesh also guarantees consistency in the way I show up to my meetings. I am me, and in real life, I show up in the same way. This is, of course, critical if you want to create a realistic experience, and right now, it is not possible. The way I showed up at a Spatial meeting a few weeks ago was very different from how I materialized at the Ignite keynote. It goes without saying that these inconsistencies prevent you from creating a genuine connection with the people you interact with.

The proximity with our office co-worker will make collaboration easier, but at a societal level as well. I loved what filmmaker James Cameron (Avatar, the movie) said about MR driving more empathy because we can share more with someone. Again, think about the past twelve months and how being in your colleagues’ home office, kitchen, or living room helped us increase our empathy, and that was simply through a screen.

Satya Nadella wrapped up his opening remarks with one of his favorite lines used to describe the possibilities for HoloLens: “When you change the way you see the world, you change the world you see.” It will certainly be fascinating to see what people build on Microsoft Mesh. Still, there is no doubt in my mind that building a platform that brings different devices together is an excellent example of a growth mindset; something Nadella has instilled throughout the company.

What Is Next For PC Sales?

There’s been a lot of excitement around the trajectory of PC sales in 2020.  The pandemic clearly reinvigorated demand for PCs, and sales could have been even greater had the market not faced component shortages. Working from home, learning from home, and fighting boredom at home drove upgrades as well as new sales, expanding the overall userbase.  Sales reached volumes we had not seen for almost 20 years.

Many were eager to point out that the rise of smartphones at PCs’ expense was rebalanced as consumers and enterprise users alike rediscovered the PC. I think a more realistic read of what 2020 brought to the PC market is that more time was spent on PCs at home than ever before. And this was rooted in the fact that everything was done more at home than ever before, and with that, more was also done digitally. If you’re looking at the time that a typical knowledge worker would have spent on the PC at the office, it probably didn’t change much. It just so happened those working hours on a PC were taking place at home. One trend that did change with everybody transitioning to online life was that with more time spent doing things online, sharing devices became much more difficult. This meant that, on average, household penetration grew, with many seeing a one on one PC to human ratio.

As we look forward, of course, the big question that PC vendors are asking is what happens to this base when we return to a more predictable life pattern that involves activities outside the home. I purposely don’t want to call it the new normal or back to normal, mostly because I hope that what we will go forward rather than back both in working and school embracing a richer, more equitable digital transformation. Everybody is trying to predict how this new base is going to behave going forward. Yet, for the chip vendors, Microsoft, and every PC brand in the market, the focus should be on keeping these users engaged with that PC they might have bought in 2020. Only continued engagement will move that 2020 sale to a 2025 upgrade. Focusing on an upgrade is certainly better for the industry than focusing on a sale.

The state of the consumer PC market pre-pandemic was characterized by a large number of users that had what I would call “an emergency PC”. Most of their computing needs were taken care of by smartphones mostly, but they would use a PC for those tasks that required a larger screen, a keyboard, and maybe some applications that just did not run on mobile. That emergency PC did not drive any emotional attachment or a strong need for an upgrade. Even when a user would consider an upgrade, the budget they would allocate was limited because the PC’s value was seen as limited, except for gaming. 2020 changed that. 2020 emphasizes quality computing experiences, from video calling to connectivity to brighter and larger screens. Consumers realized the need for a better PC experience, and with that realization came the willingness to invest more in their purchase. This is great news for the industry, regardless of where overall sales end up as average selling prices had been falling outside of the premium segment for quite some time.

So what now?
If most of us transition back to a more smartphone-first computing experience, where does that leave the brand-new PC we bought over the past year?  Will PC life cycles return to a pre-pandemic average, or will they shorten? I would argue that a few things have changed in favor of shorter life cycles and continued engagement on a PC. I would also argue that every vendor in the PC ecosystem has his work cut out to continue to show the value by focusing on strengthening the app ecosystem, continuing to drive designs that highlight the overarching experience rather than individual features, and finally showcasing what can be done with these new PCs.

What are the factors that I think play in the PC favor?
First of all, that our digital life has grown. Whether you’re thinking about gaming, or entertainment, or online shopping and telehealth, we have been doing a lot more through a screen, and some of these experiences have been better or more convenient than doing them in person. While some of this time will return in person, I firmly believe the overall time spent online will remain higher than before the pandemic and the kind of activities we will be done using a PC will be more engaging than in the past.

When it comes to business, there are two factors positively impacting demand. First is the recent awakening of many organizations on the importance of driving employee engagement and satisfaction through the tools, hardware, and software provided to get the job done. While I do not expect every employee to benefit from this newfound awareness, I anticipate knowledge workers and first-line workers will. The second factor is the continued increase in security threats and the high risk associated with that. This, coupled with a higher number of remote workers, will get organizations to broaden their portfolio of enterprise liable devices to adequately cater to their users.

Aside from returning to increased mobility, what plays against PC demand are two main factors: continued supply chain constraint and limited budgets. The supply chain will likely return to normal by the second half of the year, vaccine rollouts and Covid variants permitting. Spend will vary depending on the markets. There is more clarity in mature markets, where especially on the commercial side, organizations might shift some spent from other budgets such as travel to ensure every employee is taken care of. What is certain is that the pandemic caught many businesses unprepared, and this is not something they want to repeat. On the consumer market, it might be time for some out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to financing and other incentives that work so well in the smartphone market.

Some bullish forecasts see 2021 PC volumes above 350 million units. While that might be possible from a production perspective, I would expect some inventory replenishment will occur, leaving sell out to be flat to only slightly up 2020 volumes.

Apple Fitness+ Built to Help You Keep Fit Wherever You Are

This week marked the launch of Apple Fitness+, the workout service that Apple announced back in September, together with the new Apple One subscription bundle. I spent some time checking out the trainers and some of the videos across a range of workouts. While jumping around to check everything out and have a sense of the service, I was glad to see that diversity and inclusion were clearly top of mind for Apple. There’s a good mix of female and male trainers. There are different body types, skin colors, ethnicities, and even accents all represented. The trainers are making an effort to be as inclusive as possible by suggesting modifications to the workout for beginners and using sign language to welcome and encourage users who might be hearing impaired. I also noticed different-limb people are working out in the studio with the trainers.

As expected, the overall number of trainers is still limited, but I do not doubt that it will grow over time as the user base grows. It will certainly be interesting to see if the talent acquisition battle in tech will expand to include trainers, given how much of the experience is directly linked to them.

Apple Fitness+ vs. Peloton

The first class I took was a cycling class as I was curious to compare it to my Peloton experience.

First, let me say that I’m not a hardcore Peloton user. I just started at the end of September, and I am on ride 61! I got to Peloton with a good dose of skepticism. I really wasn’t interested in the whole Peloton Tribe, class and instructor fandom thing that I saw so many users talk about all the time. And yet, in such a short while, I came to change my mind about those instructors and how much they drive the actual engagement.  Peloton also offers quite a range of instructors in a similar way to what I explained about Apple Fitness+. I made an effort to try out different instructors gravitating towards US-based and UK-based instructors and ultimately favoring women over men. I then landed on two particular trainers, Tunde Oyeneyin and Ally Love, who I find to offer the right balance of carrot and stick, but most of all, some inspiration and mind release at a time when we all can do with some. I also appreciate the effort by Peloton in creating theme-based classes rooted in celebrations like Black History Month, International Women Month, or LGBTQ or different music, which is used as a way to open people up to something new.

With this as my experience backdrop,  the other day, I got on my Peloton, I set it on “just ride” where you see your stats, but there is no instructor, and I started a workout with Apple Fitness+ and Sherica.

You start the workout, and your Apple Watch is in total sync with the device you are using, being the iPad, Apple TV, or the iPhone. You can control your workout from the device or right from your wrist. I used my iPhone set on the side of the bike for this specific workout but I would turn to Apple TV and the larger screen experience it would offer if it were not so early in the morning. I could see my heart rate data, where I ranked on the Burn Bar, and the workout’s elapsed time. The data displayed made up for some of the data I usually see displayed on the Peloton screen. Sherica was an excellent instructor, maybe a bit less polished than those I rely on the most with Peloton but effective nonetheless. One thing that struck me was how much she was panting, which made me feel better about my own panting, of course. This is not something I ever notice with Peloton instructors even when they say they are finding the workout hard. What I missed the most in my workout experience, which shows Apple’s limitations of not being able to tap into the equipment you might be using, was the resistance set up.  The instructor could only suggest increasing or decreasing resistance, but there was no base of reference for any adjustment I was making. This made me feel a disconnect between the call out on the RPM and how hard the instructor wanted me to work. In the end, I burned more calories and reached a higher output goal than I usually do when not taking a class, proof that I worked harder than I do on my own even if I did not benefit from an “informed” instructor.

The more I thought about my experience, the more I came to conclude that the narrative around Apple not wanting people to go back to the gym when they reopen is a false one. On the contrary, Apple is clearly thinking about the opportunity that the gym will offer to drive value through the Apple Watch’s connection to the equipment. Remember that Apple already started to drive integration between Apple Watch and gym equipment such as treadmills, ellipticals, indoor bikes, and rowers. Think about going back to the gym and using any equipment, your Apple Watch, and AirPods and do a class without having to pay a personal trainer or pay extra for a class. It seems like a compelling proposition to me.

One Service Can Fit All

The ultimate hook Apple Fitness+ offers that will create real stickiness to the service is flexibility. It ranges from providing a quick workout with no equipment needed while you’re at home or on a business trip, to coming with you to the gym and be that loyal fitness coach who supports you through your effort to stay fit and healthy.

One interesting thing I noticed with Apple Fitness+ is that the workouts seem to end quite abruptly at the end of the allotted time, but this is because the different workouts are intended to be added to one another to create a longer workout session. So while Peloton has a warmup and a cooldown period with the ability to add more if you want to, Apple offers a warmup but no cooldown. Apple also provides specific videos that walk you through equipment setup, posture, and so on, while Peloton reminds you of how the bike works at the start of every workout. As a user, you can skip this part, but I am guessing given that Peloton is responsible for the bike, they are addressing any possible liability by providing the reminder.

I will continue to explore workouts and take more bike classes, but I will not cancel my Peloton subscription just yet. I am curious to see how Apple will grow Apple Fitness+ because it seems to me that this might be the first product that they aimed at the broadest set of users by appealing to first-time users and fitness enthusiasts. One aspect I am particularly interested to see is how Apple intends to facilitate discovery. This is not something you can walk into an Apple Store and try, which makes me think that the tie into gyms makes even more sense if Apple can link the subscription to the gym and users log into equipment through their Apple ID. Time will tell, but considering Apple made Apple Watch the center of the Fitness+ experience, I expect Apple to make a significant and prolonged investment in the service.

Gaming Consoles’ Battle Royale

I lost count of how many times, over the weeks leading into the release of Microsoft Xbox Series X and Series S and Sony PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, I was asked which model will sell more. Sales figures often make the headline, but I think this year, there is much more interesting conversation to be had on gaming as a form of entertainment and its role during the pandemic.

It is clear to me that gaming has been changing in more ways than one. First of all, gaming has been democratized by smartphones when we think of the number of people who would consider themselves “serious gamers” and how non-console gaming is no longer seen as inferior. Technology on smartphones and PCs has been keeping pace, if not outperforming in some respects, to deliver a rich and immersive experience that is different because content developers have embraced these devices and created content tailored to them. Titles like Fortnite and Pug G proved the opportunity for success in both brand share and revenue.

With broader appeal came the added value of game streaming as a form of entertainment in its own right. This, in turn, helped expand gaming even further and not just from a number of gamers’ perspective but as a revenue source for merchandize and a content category that drives a level of attention never quite seen before.

A Different Approach to Gaming

This is the backdrop for the market in which the new consoles landed following a clearly different strategy Microsoft and Sony are taking to the reinvigorated gaming market. As much as we can compare and contrast the four options consumers have across Microsoft and Sony, there is more than the hardware that comes into play when these two companies think about their addressable market.

It is clear to me that Microsoft is focused on reaching gamers wherever they might be. Whether you play on Xbox, a PC, or an Android phone, as long as you subscribe to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, you are guaranteed an ample selection of titles and an experience that can connect you and your gamer friends across devices. Considering that the cloud is at the center of Microsoft’s business, it is easy to understand the shift to game streaming. The recent acquisition of Bethesda Softworks speaks precisely to developing a strong pipeline for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate’s subscribers. As Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella said:

“Gaming is the most expansive category in the entertainment industry, as people everywhere turn to gaming to connect, socialize, and play with their friends. Quality differentiated content is the engine behind Xbox Game Pass’s growth and value—from Minecraft to Flight Simulator. As a proven game developer and publisher, Bethesda has seen success across every category of games, and together, we will further our ambition to empower the more than three billion gamers worldwide.”

On the other spectrum of the console world, we have Sony, which sees the future of gaming centered on a much more immersive experience where all senses come together to elevate your gaming experience on a console.  In an interview with the Washington Post, PlayStation’s President and CEO Jim Ryan said:

“We want to give gamers clarity, we want to give them certainty. We want to future proof them so that they know the console they buy will be relevant in several years time. It’s a considerable capital outlay, and we want to make sure people know they are buying a true next-generation console.”

The approach here is about delivering the best hardware and purposefully designed content that can elevate each other. Sony’s first-party content like Astro’s Playroom guide PlayStation 5’s users through the new DualSense controllers while offering content creators an opportunity to see what is possible. Staying focused on console gaming will limit overall reach, but it also means engaging with the most profitable audience.

Covid’s Impact on Demand

 Strategy aside, both Microsoft and Sony face the difficulty of predicting demand in a market that has never quite seen so many different variables playing both in favor and against sales.

Covid’s impact on the economy has dampened consumers’ confidence, negatively impacting spending on non-essential items. Yet, spending more time at home has created a stronger craving for content and entertainment, which might benefit from some redirected discretionary budget that would have otherwise gone to eating out or other entertainment such as movies, theater, and other social activities.

The launch of the new consoles was quickly followed by a worsening of the pandemic and the start of what political and health experts started to call a “dark winter.” The prospect of having to spend the next two to four months at home might drive more consumers to make the investment after initially having dismissed it as unnecessary as life was reopening to the old routines.

We also have to remember that TV and movie productions have also been impacted, limiting new content reaching consumers during the next six to twelve months. This leaves a void that gaming can certainly help to fill. Some big titles like Halo have also been delayed, but the catalog of existing games is so wide on both Xbox and PlayStation that consumers would not be worried that their investment might not payback.  Considering the growth in games sales seen thus far, as reported by NPD at a record $11.6 billion in the April to June timeframe, there is clearly a lot available to purchase. This was an increase of 30% when compared to the same time period in 2019, and a 7% increase over the first quarter of 2020 (January – March) record $10.9 billion.

Time will tell, but I am confident the renewed and expanded love affair with gaming will remain strong even when life will return to be lived out and about.


Apple’s One More Thing Turned Out to Be Three

Apple announced its transition to Apple Silicon back in June. Since then, industry watchers have been formulating a hypothesis on which Mac will be the first model to sport Apple’s new silicon design. Over the past few events, leakers had left only a few surprises for the official event, but for the “one more thing” event, Apple delivered at least a couple from a device launch perspective as well as its strategy.

A More Aggressive Transition

The MacBook Air was the best bet when guessing where Apple would debut its own silicon. A very popular model in the portfolio, the MacBook Air, would appeal to users who care about mobility, battery life, and a slim design but don’t usually run very intensive workflows. Expectations were met as Apple introduced the MacBook Air as the first home for the new M1 chip.

But Apple did not stop there!

After the MacBook Air, Apple added the M1 chip to a new Mac mini, a model that Apple updated back in 2018. The Mac mini is Apple’s most affordable Mac, and the newly launched model starts at $100 less than its predecessor. This is the only price concession Apple made contrary to what some industry watchers were expecting. Some analysts argued that the in-house design would allow Apple to lower prices without necessarily impacting margins. I was somewhat skeptical of such a move for two reasons. First, Apple is not under any time pressure to get market share. Over the past couple of quarters, sales have been growing due to higher demand driven by Covid-19 and supply issues on the Windows camp. Second, aggressive pricing might have sent the wrong signal on how competitive the new silicon was compared to Intel’s designs. Given the times we are in when people are re-evaluating the tools they are using while working from home, the Mac Mini certainly offers Apple an interesting opportunity.

The big surprise of the event, however, was that the M1 chip made its way into the 13″ MacBook Pro. Most people expected that support for what is considered the most popular Mac model and the model that appeals to more pro users might come in a second wave in 2021 once Apple has some time to put the M1 to a real-world test.

Such a broad portfolio right out of the gate shows the confidence Apple has in its solution overall. The combination of silicon, OS, and apps optimization that Apple claims will deliver unprecedented performance.

The other surprise and sign of confidence on Apple’s part was timing. While we knew a launch would happen before the end of 2020, Tim Cook even confirmed that during the latest earnings call, most expected the first product to ship in 2021.

Macs Get iOS Apps but No Touch

It was fascinating to notice that, at least on Twitter, not many people commented on the lack of touch. It seems as though most have given up even on the idea that Apple might change its mind about adding touch to the Mac.

The M1 ability to support iOS apps without developers having to optimize them would have been the perfect reason to add touch to the Mac. Although they might still not believe in vertical touch, Apple could have explained that they thought users might want that option.

An alternative that could have met users halfway was to add the same cursor solution Apple put on the iPad Pro’s Magic Keyboard, something I hypothesized since the product was released.

Instead, we have neither.

Maybe this is so that developers actually choose to optimize their apps for the Mac so users can have a better experience. It will certainly be interesting to see if Apple can replicate the developer engagement they had on the iPad. You might remember that when the first iPad came to market, Apple had the 2X option that made iPhone apps run on the larger iPad screen out of the box without developers having to do anything. That played a significant role in helping people see the iPad’s potential, but the actual value came when apps were purposely designed for it. With the Mac, Apple was never able to replicate the success of the iOS app ecosystem. The numbers just did not make it worthwhile for mass-market app developers to invest in the Mac. The hope now is that, as volumes grow from the appeal of the consistency between iPhone and Mac experience, developers might feel different about their investment. If this plays out, Apple would be able to achieve even more differentiation against Windows-based PCs, which should be the ultimate game.

The M1 performance and OS optimization might be enough to get Mac users to upgrade, but Apple cannot stop there. We know switching OS is a much bigger decision for people to make, especially in an enterprise environment. iOS apps’ support can really facilitate that move. It would be much easier for an enterprise that is already supporting iOS devices to justify expanding to the Mac than it ever was to think they needed to add Mac support to their Windows support.

No New Designs

Another expectation people had was that together with the new silicon, there would be a new Mac design for whatever product Apple decided to ship first. This did not turn out to be true. Another clue on how Apple is thinking about the transition to its own silicon design.

The shift is not about differentiating within their portfolio, which would have been easier with a new hardware design. The M1 is about perfecting the Mac formula. Changing the design would have distracted from the true value of these new products. It would have diluted the impact of what Apple is building. Some of the benefits the M1 brings could have enabled a change in design, shaving a couple of millimeters here and there or maybe using a different screen technology. Had Apple done that, like for like comparisons with current products might have been harder to make.

At the “one more thing” event, Apple sold one thing only: the power of vertical integration, what they learned, and made them so successful with the iPhone. If you buy into it, Apple will have a much stickier proposition than any hardware design change they would offer.

The iPhone 12 Family Future-Proofs Apple’s Lineup

At the “Hi, Speed” event Apple aired on Tuesday, it was all about the iPhone. Of course, it was about the iPhone 12 new models, all four of them, but the iPhone was front and center even as Apple introduced the new HomePod Mini and Apple’s vision of the smart home.

Many have covered all the speeds and feeds of the different models, so I will not spend time doing that. If you have missed something, you can easily find a model comparison on the Apple website. What I want to spend time on are a few key bigger picture points that help to position the new models in the market and broader Apple context.

The Super-cycle

I was asked several times whether Apple would see a super-cycle with the iPhone 12, and the answer I gave was honest but not very helpful: it’s complicated. All things equal, Apple has the perfect product lineup: new design, four products that span a wide enough price range, and a new technology, 5G.

However, the reality is that the iPhone 12 models are hitting the market during an economic downturn and, in the US, a time of considerable uncertainty. There is a high degree of reliance on technology that we all have experienced during the pandemic, which might counter this market negativity by encouraging an upgrade cycle for the device that we still all turn to the most: the smartphone.

On Apple’s side, there is a user base with the largest proportion of users falling into higher-income brackets, a factor that will soften the impact of the economic downturn. Outside the early-adopter group looking for the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max, and likely to jump on the new products as soon as they are available, we might see a more spread out cycle. This is because different countries are opening up more while others are fighting the threat of a second wave of the pandemic.

Three LTE models remain in the portfolio, iPhone SE, iPhone XR, and iPhone 11, which will continue to drive some decent volume for Apple both from users who are upgrading from older models as well as for users and markets moving to 5G more slowly. Being a year old or less, combined with the value Apple always provides through software updates, gives buyers choosing these models confidence in their purchase.


Apple had a slide during the event that said “5G just got real.” Depending on where you sit on the 5G hype cycle, you either think that 5G has been real for over a year now or, that we are still all waiting for it to be real. As it’s often the case, the truth is somewhere in between. 5G has been available in many markets for a while, but networks’ coverage and performance still leave much to be desired.

I did not think Apple would make a big deal out of 5G, and by and large, that was the case. Tim Cook reminded us of the privacy and security benefits of 5G over Wi-fi. The rest of the time dedicated to the topic was spent explaining how Apple differs in its implementation of 5G.

Apple made a couple of interesting decisions given when they are joining the 5G party. First, as expected by most, the full iPhone 12 family is 5G. Apple highlighted its space efficiency, which allows enough room for multi bands support.
In the US, the entire iPhone 12 family supports mmWave rather than just having one Verizon model. This helps Apple with economies of scale and better production and inventory management at a time when the pandemic is making it harder to forecast. With mmWave support spread across the family, the premium that we have seen other manufacturers put on the Verizon skew is less evident but might become more apparent as we see pricing in other regions.

The second interesting decision was to apply AI to 5G through “smart data mode.” This means that the iPhone smartly decides when to use 5G or LTE based on speeds and use cases. When your iPhone doesn’t need 5G speeds, it automatically uses LTE to save battery. But when 5G speeds matter, the iPhone 12 starts using it. Apple also delicately pointed out that users will experience different 5G speeds based on where they are located.

iPhone SE vs. iPhone Mini

When the iPhone SE was launched in April 2020, I wrote:

“The iPhone SE feels like a different kind of product, though. It is not a model we should expect to be refreshed with the regular cadence we see in the rest of the portfolio. Instead, it’s a product that serves the purpose of getting the most pragmatic users to upgrade after holding on to their phones for years. These users might be coming from a hand-me-down or a secondhand iPhone or even be Android users looking for their first iPhone… If I had to guess when a good time for the next refresh of the iPhone SE might be, I would say that in another four years sounds like a good time considering that by then, 5G will be truly mass market.”

After this week, I have started to change my mind, and I am guessing that the iPhone SE we have in the lineup today might be the last model that will bear the name. Going forward, the iPhone Mini will reflect a more compact form factor with all the essential features and a lower price point. Next year as the iPhone 13 Mini is introduced, I would expect to see the iPhone 12 Mini hitting a price point much closer to the iPhone SE, which will probably remain in the portfolio perhaps till 2022.

iPhone 12 Pro Max vs. iPhone 12 Pro

At the other end of the iPhone 12 Mini, we find the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. After a couple of years of providing parity of features but a difference in size in the high-end models, Apple returned to making the largest model the one with the best camera system. When Apple first did this with the iPhone 6Plus, they were unprepared by how much the mix skewed towards the larger size. Users were prepared to buy a larger device to take advantage of the superior camera system.

Both Phone 12 Pro models offer the ability to shoot in RAW format, meaning that the user can manually make the photo look its best rather than having the iPhone automatically do it for them. For video, both Pro models support HDR video with Dolby Vision, up to 60 fps, and even better video stabilization. The iPhone 12 Pro Max takes the pro camera experience even further with a new ƒ/1.6 aperture Wide camera with a 47 percent larger sensor delivering an 87 percent improvement in low-light conditions. It also includes the expansive ultra-wide camera and a 65 mm focal length Telephoto camera for increased flexibility with closer shots and tighter crops. Combined, this system offers a 5x optical zoom range.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max impact might end up being quite different from what we saw with the iPhone 6 Plus. The iPhone 12 Pro Max might not end up skewing sales volume, but it might certainly capture new generators of creators, a segment that Apple has always cared a great deal about and that over the years have become more and more mobile-focused.

Much like many users buy into 5G to future-proof their smartphone purchase for a few years, it seems to me that Apple has used 5G to rethink its iPhone portfolio setting it up in a way that makes it easier for buyers to pick the right product for them. I will be sharing more about the iPhone 12 cameras, the new MagSafe wireless charging, and 5G performance as I test the devices between October 23 and November 13. With no MacBooks being announced at the “hi, Speed” event, I am also guessing we will have “one more thing” from Apple before the end of the year.

Google Workspace Elevates Collaboration by Focusing on the Task at Hand

In July, Google gave us a taste for a more integrated collaboration experience when it brought Meet and Chat into Gmail. This week the metamorphosis continued as G Suite becomes Google Workspace. Back in July, I looked at the news from a communication vs. collaboration perspective, making the point that communication is really at the center of  Google’s collaboration strategy. However, this week, as Google talked more about Workspace and how it plans to deliver a more integrated experience across collaboration and communication, it seemed that content is at the center of the Workspace and att the center of collaboration.

With Workspace, Google is addressing some specific issues. First, the fact that due to Covid-19 collaboration has changed. Of course, we have all experienced that in one way or another and when we move past the hours of video analysis one aspect that really has changed is that you are likely to be collaborating more with people outside your organization. This is because those face to face meetings which would have been independent of the work to be done are now happening online. This means that the tools must be more flexible when it comes to sharing information and collaborating than they might have been before.

Second, Google wanted to address first-line workers by making them better connected with their own organization which is likely not in the same place as they are. This goal of connecting people to get the job done extends to reaching consumers, the final user of whatever product businesses are trying to sell. By doing so, of course, Google bridges the consumer and the business world by giving people (2.6 billion MAU) tools they are already very familiar with.

While we will eventually go back to an office, we will face a more heterogeneous work environment we did before the pandemic. This means that connecting people who are not physically together in a rich but simple way will remain a priority for a long time.

Workspace also builds on Google’s focus on delivering helpful technology. This has become the big theme that brings together the different areas of the company from the CEO Sunday Pichai to the Head of Made by Google Rich Osterloh. Helpfulness in this case comes from a simplified user experience by also from the intelligence that Google is able to offer on top. One of the features that better explain this balance between simplicity and richness is “picture in picture” which gives you the ability to hear and see people you are collaborating live with on a document. This featured was launched in July for Gmail and Chat and it will soon also include Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

Not Just a Rebranding

I am sure, given there isn’t an actual new product, one could be tempted to see this as a rebranding exercise. But the new features that have been introduced and the way all the tools come together really speak to the direction Google is taking with productivity and the G Suite name no longer fitted with that vision. Workspace is no longer a bunch of apps that take care of the different tasks you need to perform, it’s an orchestrated experience empowered by AI. I wish there was a different name than Workspace, to be given to this hub especially considering consumers will have access to it as well. The name is often seen as a location, a landing place, which, although technically correct, fails to convey the active lift these tools deliver. Yet, it is certainly a better illustration of the experience Google wants to deliver compared to G Suite.

Google also introduced a new pricing plan that adds one level for medium businesses and now takes Workspace from small businesses all the way to large enterprises in a more granular way. Mostly the difference in price accounts for the number of users, cloud storage size, and security features. Not much has changed with the first two levels, Basic and Business still priced at $6/user and $12/user. The new tier called Business Plus edition offers enhanced capabilities for $18/user to those organizations that might be large in size (up to 250 users) but don’t need the entire enterprise-level offerings. I would argue this last one is the category where Google has a lot of opportunities and where organizations might have struggled in the past to feel their needs were properly addressed.

Betting on Content Rather than Meetings

There were two aspects of the announcement that I found particularly clever and I want to highlight.

One is that Google does provide the option not to sign up for the whole experience. Thanks to Workspace Essentials ($8/active user), which lets a business get started with video and collaboration without having to replace their current email or calendar systems. This can lower the barrier of entry considerably if you think about how much more effort and disruption migrating mail and calendar system represents for an organization. It might also help Google entering businesses dominated by Microsoft with a “land and expand” tactic. Our data points to a lot of crossover within organizations between Office 365 and Google Workspace especially for Docs that remain the preferred tool for collaboration. This is not a new offering but it is certainly one that has become much more relevant in the current environment when digital transformation is accelerating but also when IT professionals are already extremely stretched.

The second aspect that I believe will give Google an advantage long term is centering the Workspace experience on the content to be created or the task to be completed rather than the way in which one will do so. There are many collaboration hubs offered by the likes of VMWare, Citrix, and of course, Microsoft. Office 365’s Workspace equivalent is Teams where users are led to choose how they work together first. In other words, I get to Microsoft Teams to do a video call or a chat while I get to Google Workspace document or email and then decide how I communicate with others bout the task at hand. Albeit subtle, I think the approach Google is taking might better withstand the return to the office and a shift back towards face-to-face meetings when we will eventually be able to do so.

It will be fascinating to see how all these different hubs will drive value to users. Locking people in is never a good approach. Creating different points of entry and delivering value across the board will ultimately determine the success across a workforce that is probably the most varied in both age and skills than it has ever been.

Whose Home Is It? Amazon? Google? Apple?

In the tech world, September has been synonymous with Apple for many years. Over the past couple of years, however, Amazon has also started to claim the month as its big device reveal. Last year Amazon introduced fifteen new products with Alexa integration and focused on privacy. This year the number of devices was a little lower, and together with privacy, the focus was on sustainability. But that was last week! This week it was Google’s turn to announce a new smartphone, Pixel 5, as well as new smart speakers and Google TV.

Apple’s iPhone event is rumored for mid-October, and the same sources expect the launch of an updated HomePod and an HomePod Mini. So, it might seem unfair to attempt to name who is winning the control of the home before then. Yet what we have seen from Amazon and Google shows enough of a difference in approach to at least attempt to highlight what it would take for Apple to be considered at the same level.

The Core Business

I said before that looking at a company’s core business model will shed light on many of its products and business decisions.  If your business is built on selling hardware, it is more likely that you focus on individuals. If your business is centered on advertising, you are also likely to focus on individuals.

As Prime services started to expand, Amazon has been able to cater to both the individual and the household. This approach seems to be working and can grow to the car, which Amazon clearly sees as an extension of the home. Within a home context, Alexa remains extremely useful, especially since that individual users can choose to register their voice so that Alexa knows who is interacting with it. Alexa can now even join multiple people in a conversation.  The car is no different from the home. The interactions we are likely to have are related to content, navigation, or the car itself, making it reasonably straightforward to deliver value. Out in the world, Amazon and Alexa quickly lose impact as users turn to their phones’ assistant. The recent move into wearables with earbuds, glasses, and fitness bands all aim at addressing this weakness by offering Amazon valuable ways to collect information and provide value when out and about.

As Amazon moves beyond content into services such as home security, health, and even personal care, it starts to lock people into services that are more about delivering a better quality of life, in one way or another, rather than entertainment. This is a similar formula Apple has used for Apple Watch. Providing health benefits has considerably increased the appeal of the device. Apple will continue to find ways to use this aspect of Apple Watch to open the door into its ecosystem as it did with the recently launched Family Setup. Monetization for Apple will come from hardware; however, while for Amazon, the opportunity rests in the services, not the hardware.

Google falls somewhere in between Amazon and Apple by delivering good value for money hardware and services. But the real value is not in the services per se, but the AI, often associated with Google Assistant, that delivers helpfulness. This is possibly Apple’s weakest link both against Amazon and Google. Siri has improved, and it can provide moments of delight like reading your messages when you are wearing AirPods. Yet, across the board, Siri lags both Alexa and Google Assistant. Value is also dependent on what kind of services Apple will embrace. While I expect Apple to continue to get deeper into health and content, I do not expect it to have a wide range of services or penetrate the home with the number of devices we will continue to see from Amazon.

The Phone as an Entry Point to the Home

There are different paths to our homes, but the phone remains the strongest because it is easier to drive value from the outside than the other way around. This is especially true about digital assistants, and while it is not the case right now, most of us spend more time away from their homes. A digital assistant that can always be with me will just be smarter because it will know more about me. The phone is the significant advantage Google and Apple have over Amazon. The phone is the device we interact with the most, creating stickiness and generating data these companies can use to improve my experience with both the device and their services. The phone’s importance does not mean that Amazon cannot play a substantial role in the home. It has clearly demonstrated the opposite thus far. However, it means that Amazon will have to have a broader set of devices to capture our time and interactions and find different hooks for users.

As critical as the phone is to get into the home, more is needed to be useful in a family context, and this is where Apple has to cover more ground. The expansion of Apple TV as an app is helping content. More HomePod models will help music, podcasts, and smart home. HomeKit support on other brands will not be enough for users to connect the dots between the device they are using and Apple. As unsexy as it is, home networking seems an obvious opportunity for Apple considering the firm stand on privacy. I am not sure that when Apple exited that business, it was clear that delivering a networking solution meant providing a digital security and privacy solution not for the home but the family. It might also be interesting to see if Apple believes that delivering more screens to the home should only be done through iPads rather than through a HomePod with a screen.

They say there is strength in numbers. It seems to me that when it comes to the home, strength is in the meaningful interactions a brand can deliver. Whether those interactions are through hardware, software, or services does not matter as long as the user is crystal clear on who is bringing them value.

The Future of Work Calls for Employees’ Wellbeing

Close to six months into different levels of sheltering in place, most organizations have been shifting their focus from temporary measures to supporting working from home long term, whether fully remote or hybrid work. A lot must come into play when working or learning remotely: connectivity, security, device deployment, and management, but nothing has been talked about more than collaboration tools. Maybe this is because collaboration involves both work and productivity and a natural need for human interactions. Technology providers that are active in the modern-work space have been adding features and intelligence that make collaboration easier and effective as well as more natural and less mentally and emotionally tasking.

As Microsoft kicked off their Microsoft Ignite conference this week, CEO Satya Nadella spoke of the foundations that technology must build on. There are four: inclusivity, trust, equity, and sustainability. Nadella also highlighted that when it comes to modern work, collaboration does not start and end in a meeting, and organizations should focus on continued learning and the wellbeing of their employees.

Corporate VP of Microsoft 365, Jared Spataro, built on that idea by highlighting the importance of not focusing on short-term productivity from treating employees like machines.

Microsoft already announced back in July some features focused on making collaboration easier like Together Mode in Microsoft Teams, but at Ignite, Spataro talked about the responsibility Microsoft feels to study the challenges and opportunities that remote work and hybrid work are presenting organizations across the world. To do so, Microsoft is relying on its own telemetry and first-party research as well as commissioning research from partners, including the likes of Harvard, Stanford universities. Finally, Microsoft will depend on their daily conversations with customers.

So far, Microsoft has learned from its Work Trend Index that people experience more flexibility and greater empathy for team members. 62% of people surveyed said they feel more empathetic toward colleagues, mostly because they connect with them in their homes. That said, there are concerns about a loss of connection and feelings of isolation. The lack of clear boundaries results in people working longer hours with growing fears of burnout, especially among information workers and first-line workers. Microsoft Teams usage gives a sense of the new work practices with hours extended from the typical nine to five, including weekends. Workday length increased 17% in Japan, 25% in the US, and 45% in Australia.

According to Spataro, business leaders went from worrying about employees’ ability to be productive while working remotely to worrying about whether people are working sustainably and healthily.

All this information has pushed Microsoft to double down on using technology to empower every person and every organization to achieve more, but doing so sustainably in all the ways possible.

In the new year, Microsoft Teams will add the option to schedule a virtual commute to allow for that time many used in the morning to get mentally ready for their day and decompress on the way home at the end of the day. Microsoft’s global study also showed that 70% of people think meditating could decrease their work-related stress. To help with that, Microsoft announced the integration of the meditation app Headspace right into Microsoft Teams. This is an interesting idea and not that different from some applications that wearables brands like Apple and Samsung have already added to their devices. The interesting part for me will be to see how organizations will communicate these features to employees as part of a broader effort to improve working conditions or a tool they see as ticking the box and getting them out of delivering any other support.

Data is helping Microsoft, but it is also helping organizations through the Microsoft Graph. From October, Microsoft will help managers through the integration of Workplace Analytics into Microsoft Teams. Managers will have the ability to analyze teamwork, after-hour collaboration, meeting effectiveness, and focus time. The integration with Microsoft Teams will allow to schedule unplug reminders, monitor the number of meetings to avoid burnout, and even check in with the employees on how they feel on a particular day. Balancing trying to help achieve a more balanced work practice with the feeling of being continuously monitored will rest mostly on how these tools are used, managers’ transparency, and the trust they built with their employees. Suggesting time to unplug when setting unreasonable deadlines will only add to the frustration and ultimately achieve the opposite result, with employees not feeling valued and cared for.

Employees are not the only ones coming to terms with this new way of working. Organizations are facing a similar learning curve. To build a more resilient business, Microsoft created a Productivity Score that will help organizations understand how they work and how they function. The Score covers five categories content collaboration, meetings, communication, teamwork, and mobility through tools such as the creation of workspaces and industry best practices on meetings effectiveness. The data across the organization can get down to the individual level or be entirely anonymized.

Microsoft is very clear that the Productivity Score is not designed as a tool to monitor employees and their output. To limit the risk that organizations could use the data in such a way, Microsoft only provides data as an aggregate over a 28-day period. The Productivity Score is about measuring the efficacy of productivity tools, and technology employees are using. It is the technology that is getting assessed, not humans.

Despite all these warnings, once again, there is a concern that organizations might just inappropriately use these tools because, sadly, it would not be the first time. Today, we have apps like Sneek, that takes photos of employees to see if they are at their desks. Meanwhile, project management programs such as Jira and Basecamp can allow managers to spot when workers are not maintaining a high level of output. The reality is that, while we have all proven we can be productive working from home, trust, often, is yet to be proven.

Apple “Time Flies” Event Lets the Spotlight Shine on Apple Watch and iPad

The rumors went back and forth on whether Apple would unveil the iPhone 12 at this event. I argued that, with the events now being digital, Apple did not have to cram everything together in one event, especially given they had said the iPhone 12 would be shipping a little later than usual.

All being business as usual, Apple might have announced everything into one event, but given the circumstances making lemonade out of lemons meant that the iPad and the Apple Watch got some undivided attention for a change. The new iPad Air was even the showcase for the new A14 Bionic chip. This is usually something the iPhone gets to do, as the iPad adopts it in the cycle immediately following the latest iPhone release.

These two devices share one common trait: in one way or another, they have been playing an important role during the pandemic. Whether it’s using Apple Watch to keep active and balanced or using the iPad to do distance learning, gaming or binge-watch Netflix, many have been turning to these devices daily, and some of the announcements from the event will add to their appeal. Apple also referred in a couple of occasions to Apple Card Financing, which had been introduced already for iPad, Mac, and AirPods and now can be used for Apple Watch as well, with monthly payments as low as $12.

Apple Watch Widens Appeal with Family Setup and Lower Price Points

There was a lot of news on Apple Watch, starting with the new affordable Apple Watch SE, the new high-end model Apple Watch Series 6 with its blood oxygen measure and Family Setup, to connect an Apple Watch to someone else’s iPhone.

Family Setup had been rumored for a while, I was actually expecting it to launch with the Apple Watch 5, but it turned out we had to wait a little longer. I am sure Apple would have launched Family Setup even without the pandemic. Still, with kids returning to school and many families caring for older relatives, it certainly seems like this feature is very timely. Family Setup will be available for cellular models only, from Series 4 and later.  I do wonder how much cellular connectivity will be a hindering factor for potential buyers, given the extra monthly cost. Of course, if you see these devices as emergency devices, being always connected is a must. Unfortunately, carriers in the US still seem to be profiting way too much from a connected watch, which in most cases uses very little data.

The choices Apple made in what kids are allowed to do right on the watch vs. what the parent or guardian can do on the phone connected to the Apple Watch are quite interesting. Apple offers some thoughtful options like being able to set up which contacts can be called and messaged, or the ability to set up automatic location notifications, and a “Do Not Disturb” mode for school time. Kids can create their own memoji for messages, and they can track their move goal.  I appreciate that Apple took a more kid-friendly approach to the rings by focusing activity on minutes of movement rather than calories. Kids who are still growing should not concern themselves with calories, but how active they are, associating physical activity with good health.

Apple is doubling down on Fitness, with the new Fitness + service that ties Apple Watch to fitness videos one can follow along on an Apple device to deliver an integrated work out at a time when most people still cannot go to the gym. Apple also continues to pursue medical research with the new blood oxygen level readings linked to three new studies.

Keeping the Apple Watch Series 3 in the lineup for $199 and adding an Apple Watch SE at $279 offers some new entry points into the ecosystem for new users or multi-device users as Apple makes Watch an integral part of the new Fitness + service.

At $9.99 a month or $79.99 for an annual subscription for a family up to six people, Fitness + is priced quite aggressively compared to subscription such as Peloton, which is currently $39.99 a month. Furthermore, with the new Apple, One service bundle for many users who already subscribe to multiple services, Fitness + might end up being free. For instance, if you are paying for Apple Music Family ($15), Apple Arcade ($4.99), Apple TV+ ($4.99), 2T iCloud ($ 9.99), and Apple News+ ($9.99), you would see a savings of $25 and a free Fitness+ subscription if you signed up to the Premier tier. The Premier tier will only be offered in selected markets, depending on service availability, which keeps things easier than adjusting pricing by market. It will be very interesting to see how Apple will let current subscription holders know pricing is changing.

The iPad Air is Back

iPad Air used to be Apple’s most popular iPad, and then came the iPad 7th generation. Apple surprised most by refreshing the iPad Air to a design and specifications that positioned it right below the iPad Pro, making it an appealing option for users who want a high-end experience for both creation and consumption but don’t need cutting edge features like a Lidar scanner.

The portfolio before the Apple Air was leaving a gap in the middle. If you want to think about it in terms of iPhone, Apple was missing an iPhone 11 iPad equivalent. We will see if Apple retains the smaller iPad Pro model in the future, especially as there will be an ARM-based Apple Mac that could play as a continuation of the iPad portfolio.

With the iPhone/iPad launch out of cycle, I am sure many were reading the tea leaves of what features we saw on the iPad will be in the iPhone aside from the A14 Bionic. I would guess the colors are one, as it would be strange that Apple went for different colors for the two product lines. The second feature would be TouchID integrated on the power button. Considering wearing masks will stay with us for longer than first anticipated making unlocking with FaceID more challenging, adding a fingerprint reader would be very useful. Samsung already offers that option on the Galaxy Z Fold.


Apple continues to widen its reach by strategically lowering the barrier of entry for those products that have the potential to delight the user and create a level of engagement that will make it difficult for them to leave the ecosystem especially now that it is not just about hardware and software but services too.








Motorola Updates Its Foldable razr

These past few weeks sure feel like foldable heaven. In the span of a few days, we have seen the Microsoft Surface Duo, the updated Samsung Galaxy Z Flip now with 5G, the Galaxy Z Fold2, the LG Velvet and now the new Motorola razr.

In an exclusive online event, Motorola introduced the new device, which stays true to its predecessor in form but adds some improvements to the foldable display technology, the processor (going from Snapdragon 725 to the 765G), the camera (from 16MP to 48MP for the primary camera and from 5MP to 20MP for the selfie one) and drops the price by $100 to $1399.

The event was nothing like a phone launch, similar to the launch of the first foldable razr about seven months ago when Motorola held a party in Los Angeles for the big unveil. In the era of COVID-19, this event was digital and focused around a short movie directed by Luke Gilford and starring Julia Garner. While, to be honest, the film itself felt more like a glorified commercial, the experience that was meant to be shared over a PC and a phone screen was quite intriguing. I would say the same about the choice of words to describe elements of the movie, which also reflected the razr positioning: “evoke confidence and spark excitement,” “sexy, nostalgic sleekness.”

In an interview with Bloomberg, Motorola’s President Sergio Buniac shared some interesting data points.  Twenty percent of buyers of the first foldable razr was iPhone or iPad owners. Also, Motorola accounted for 50% of foldable sales in North America. While, of course, we are talking about a small number of sales as a whole and a minimal number of brands, the results must be encouraging for Motorola.

Part of Lenovo and under Buniac’s leadership, Motorola has been focused on profitability and creating a solid foundation in some key markets like China, the US, Brazil, Mexico, and India. Such a foundation was built, mostly on more affordable products like their Motorola G, Motorola E and Motorola One series. The razr was the product that opened the door for Motorola to re-enter the high-end segment. The razr brand, as well as the foldable design, created an aspirational product that will work as a halo on the rest of the portfolio. Given this intent, Motorola was smart in focusing on marketing and positioning around life-style rather than tech. The foldable design of the razr, similarly to the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, is certainly more about design and individuality than productivity. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it just addresses a different market to the one the Galaxy Fold and the Surface Duo (yes, I know this is a dual-screen, not a foldable) are targeting.

This round two of foldables from both Motorola and Samsung has two things in common: first, it adds 5G and second, it strengthens the durability of the screen. The two brands take a different approach to it, but the goal is the same: limit damage from wear and tear, or in this case, fold and unfold, and limit damage from debris entering underneath the screen itself. Motorola reduced the moving parts within the hinge itself and added a metal plate underneath the screen to give it more support.

The Quick View Display is, for me, the biggest differentiator against the Galaxy Z Flip. From some of the video footage, there are a few new apps that are supported by the external display like Google Maps, which could come in handy for pedestrian navigation. I compare the Quick View screen to the screen of a smartwatch. A small screen that helps you view and take quick actions on notifications, control your music and even allow you to take a selfie using the more capable external camera system while using the display as a viewfinder. The familiarity of the main screen centered around a one-hand operation and the comparable experience to a smartwatch of the external screen considerably lower the learning curve on the razr. Considering Samsung moved to a larger external display for the Fold, I expect the next Galaxy Z Flip to also sport a larger external screen.

I know there has been a lot of talk about nostalgia with the razr brand and design, but I do believe it would be a disservice to the foldable razr to think of it as riding on nostalgia alone. The younger generations are likely to have never heard of the name or seen the form factor. And older consumers will remember that the original razr had this super cool design but delivered a terrible experience because of poor software. This is precisely where the foldable razr is very different. While the design is most likely the biggest purchase driver, users will not be disappointed by the razr’s performance and how it addressed essential needs like camera, fast charging and battery life. As far as durability, Motorola says that “the razr is designed to withstand up to 200,000 flips, which would take a power user more than five years to reach this level of use.” Of course, all foldables today should be considered as more delicate than the traditional smartphones we have been using and this is not a flaw of these devices, but a reality of the new foldable displays that are used and the hinge mechanism wrapped around them.

Looking at Motorola’s website, the first razr remains in the lineup, at least for now, at the reduced price of $999, which is not a bad price if you are interested in trying out for size the foldable experience.

There are more foldable products coming with less traditional form factors like the upcoming LG Wing that has two screens folding open like a T. Hard to know which one will win. Still, one thing is sure there is a limit to how much sexy alone will sell, especially with a price tag of a couple of thousand dollars. Brand experimenting with designs should always ask themselves what the benefit is and whether the unique design will never come to life because the lack of apps will limit what users can do. Ultimately a phone is our most precious device because we do so much with it and we cannot allow for it to let us down.

Surface Duo: Windowing Is The New Lapability

Yesterday I participated in a press and analyst briefing during which Panos Panay, Chief Product Officer, Windows + Devices and the Surface team spent about an hour going over the Surface Duo, its specs, some key features, but most importantly, in my mind, the thought process that brought the team to this device. We first saw the Surface Duo back in October 2019 during the annual Fall Surface event. At the time, we also saw Surface Neo and together, these two products were clearly positioned as the future of productivity.

The big difference between the two devices, aside from size, is that they run two different operating systems: Duo runs Android while Neo, once it ships in 2021, will be running Windows 10X.  Panay positioned Surface Duo as the combination of the “Microsoft you love and the Android, you know.” Users might not be quite thinking about Microsoft in terms of love. Still, there is no question that when it comes to productivity, the Microsoft + Android combo is what the vast majority of US users consider their reality.

The Journey

Panay took us on a Surface journey to remind us of what the team set out to achieve when they brought to market the first Surface and the journey that they have been on since then. This was not about nostalgia; it was an essential reminder of the drivers behind a product that came to inspire a long list of devices both in the Windows and Apple camps. I genuinely believe Surface Duo is the start of a new journey, or maybe it is the next leg of the same journey.

The original Surface was about creating a more dynamic device that brought together a PC and a tablet so that a more stationary workflow could seamlessly blend into a more mobile one and vice versa. With Surface Duo, we have a product that empowers new workflows on the go thanks to the different posture the hardware allows for, but also thanks to the software. Surface Duo does this while having a strong dotted line to the PC that sits on your desk or, at the moment, more likely, on your kitchen table.  The more I listened to Panay talk about Surface Duo, the more it was clear to me that, much like our smartphones do, the power this device has is not limited to when we are on the go. The additional benefit of Surface Duo is that it bridges two ecosystems by bringing together the apps that you depend on your phone and the apps that you use every day on your PC. From what I saw from the demos, the team made a real effort in staying true to the Android experience as much as they possibly could while anchoring some core Microsoft experiences.

The Phone

I was struck by one sentence in the blog published by Panos Panay: “So, with Surface Duo, we did not focus our energy on the places the industry is already advancing – processors and networks will get faster, and cameras will get better with or without us.” This makes it quite clear to me that Panay did not set out to launch the best smartphone in the market. Had he done so, clearly, networks, cameras and processors would have been the main focus as these, and maybe screen size and battery, are the battlefields of smartphone innovation.

As I wrote back in October, it would be a real shame if we just measured Surface Duo against traditional smartphones and decided that it wasn’t worth the investment because of what might be perceived like hardware shortcomings such as the camera system, or the lack of 5G support. The team set out to launch the best productivity device for users who spend most of their day in Microsoft 365 apps. Also, users who want a Surface product because they stand for high-quality hardware and attention to detail. A product with a design centered around enabling you to do your best work by freeing you from hardware constraint.

Staying true to the mission of delivering the best hardware for the best workflow, not just the best hardware, requires a certain degree of discipline in deciding what you add and you don’t. With Surface Duo, I am sure most people will concentrate on why Microsoft opted for a dual-screen rather than a foldable one. This question was one of the most asked after the unveiling last year and it has probably become more top of mind after Samsung’s sneak peek of the Galaxy Z Fold 2 last week. Microsoft reiterated the neurological benefits that come from using two windows compare to one larger screen. You can buy into this argument or not. Still, the reality is that a foldable form factor wouldn’t have allowed for the slim design the Surface Duo sports, nor would users have been able to use a pen, a key ingredient in many Surface users’ workflows.

I also wonder if windowing will drive users to discover new workflows rather than adapting how they do things on their phone or their PCs. Having a larger screen usually just makes people think about doing things in the same way but using more space to do so. Some of the ‘enlightened” apps the Surface Teams showed during the briefing from Outlook to Kindle, to the options of “grouping” two apps that you usually use together, are really trying to push new workflows or turning some analog ones into a digital one, like reading a book on one window while taking notes on the other, something that apparently CEO Satya Nadella loves to do on his Surface Duo.

The Cornerstone

I pointed out who I believe will be the most obvious addressable market for Surface Duo. I also can tell you that Surface Duo will disappoint anyone who is not willing to invest some time in figuring out what the device can do for them. As it is often the case with a new category of devices, you need to have an exploration period. Maybe you think it is just semantics, but I consider this different to a learning curve. With Surface Duo, there is nothing to learn per se. It is the software and the apps you know and hardware that, at times, behaves like a phone and others like a compact PC. What you need to figure out is how you bring together all those things you know and make them work for you. This is not a process that everybody wants to go through, especially when it comes with a price tag of $1399.

Whether the Surface Duo is for you or not, what matters most is the opportunity it brings to reinvigorate the Android app ecosystem thanks to the work that the Surface and the Android team will continue to do. This work will benefit Android smartphone players like Samsung and Motorola, who are already foldable segment. It will also benefit PC OEMs and Microsoft first-party apps that will benefit from the tighter connection between phone and computer, possibly what many PC users envy Mac and iPhone users the most. Ironically, even Chromebooks could end up benefitting from this effort. The Surface Team brings a deep understanding of the synergies between hardware and software more so than even a company like Samsung can bring and this is ultimately what is exciting about this collaboration.

For the Surface team, Duo will test what users will be willing to do with the form factor and give a good indication of what can be done for Neo and other products with dual screens and eventually folding screens.

I look forward to exploring how Surface Duo will transform my workflows and rest assured, I will share that in a column soon.

Samsung #Unpacked2020: Strong High-End Portfolio & Deeper Collaboration with Microsoft

The Samsung Galaxy Unpacked part one, back in February, was the last live event I attended. Hence, as we approached this week’s Unpacked, I was as curious about the products to be announced as I was to see how Samsung would pull off their first digital launch.

Overall, I thought Samsung did a good job mixing content videos, technical and informational videos and time on the virtual stage. Personally, I was not a fan of the virtual audience, but I think it did fit the feeling that the live venues over the past couple of times created, with the big floor to ceiling screens that displayed both content and the audience in the room.

I appreciated having the opportunity to see new faces from the engineering and design teams. I suppose it is the silver lining of having a digital event and recording in Korea. This setup also brought more women on stage, which is always a good thing!

There was a lot to cover product-wise, but Samsung kept a fast pace and, for the first time, brought all the products together, demonstrating the value of having more than one Samsung product. Samsung has been trying to paint that “better together” picture, but what was missing was the software portion that would bring the products together. This time, both thanks to Samsung’s software and a renewed partnership with Microsoft, that the dotted line between products was much more obvious and natural.

Products that Do More At a Time When We All Do More

With August-Unpacked being the Galaxy Note reveal show, we have been accustomed to focusing on the latest and greatest tech and so the very high-end of the Samsung portfolio. Over the past year, there have been some questions on whether the Note line continued to fulfill the initial promise of being the best of what Samsung has to offer in mobile, especially as the market moves into Foldables. I think the Galaxy Note20 Ultra took care of those concerns by embracing quite a few technology firsts from the 5G Snapdragon 865+ chipset to Gorilla Glass Victus and UWB.

What was interesting this year is that Samsung announced a whole portfolio of high-end devices around the Galaxy Note line. Galaxy Z Fold 2 teaser aside, we saw the Galaxy TabS7, the Galaxy Watch 3 and the Galaxy Buds Live. While it might seem strange to bring to market high-end products in the current economic environment, we need to consider that this is not Samsung’s only offering. Earlier in the summer, Samsung launched a whole range of mid-tier phones that added to its Galaxy S line to give smartphone buyers an ample choice of features, designs and price points.

Together with a lot of economic uncertainty, the pandemic also brought a stronger need for technology and reliable devices, whether it is for working from home, distance learning, keeping healthy, or just trying to stay sane. While being stuck at home might have increased the time we spend on larger screens, it has not taken away how much we rely on our phones. Phones also remain the tech device that you can more easily plan for financially thanks to installment plans that limit the impact that a one-off purchase would have.

Samsung’s strong carrier channel and 5G integration might also make the Galaxy TabS7 line to be as easy to purchase as a phone at a time when many consumers are re-evaluating their computing needs as well as their broadband constraints!

The one product that I find harder to justify, although it fits into the portfolio, is the Galaxy Watch 3, where the price point reflects more design choices than technology ones. I would have liked Samsung to double down on its Galaxy Watch Active line maybe with a new color variant to fit with the new Galaxy Buds Live. The good news is that many of the features and capabilities announced for the Watch 3 are software-driven, which might mean we will see them trickle down to the Watch Active line at some point.

The Galaxy Buds Live is possible the product with the smallest footprint and the biggest opportunity across everything that Samsung announced on stage. Having used them for a few days, I am convinced they will become the default for Android users and possibly win over some iOS users too because of their price point and fit. They are by far the most comfortable earbuds I have ever used with good sound and ok active noise canceling.

Samsung and Microsoft Better Together

Microsoft has been focusing on improving how users can move seamlessly from their Android phones to their PCs for quite some time. In the process, the relationship between Samsung and Microsoft got tighter to the advantage of both companies.  For Microsoft, Samsung offers a fleet of mobile phones for their apps and services, especially in the enterprise. For Samsung, Microsoft offers apps and services that help them lessen their dependence on Google and offer differentiation within the Android ecosystem.

This week the relationship between the two companies deepened on the productivity side and expanded into the entertainment side.

On productivity, Microsoft’s Your Phone app and Link to Windows will allow Galaxy Note20 users to access and interact with their Android apps. Samsung updated its Samsung Notes app, which soon will be able to automatically synch with OneNote feed in Outlook on the web or OneNote as an image. Inking support for the Note20 was also extended to photos and Outlook brings the Play My Emails feature to Android.

On entertainment, Xbox Chief, Phil Spencer, announced that from September 15, Galaxy users would be able to download the Xbox Game Pass app from the Samsung Galaxy Store. This version will allow Xbox players to redeem tokens and make in-app purchases like buying skins or DLC items in the Xbox Store. The Xbox Game Pass on the Google Play Store will not offer these types of in-app purchases. Customers pre-ordering the Galaxy Note20 can select the Gaming Bundle at purchase and get three months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and PowerA’s MOGA XP5-X Plus, the controller used with xCloud. For xCloud to be successful, Microsoft must reach beyond console and PC gamers and rely on the army of Android users out there. Working with Samsung offers a way to bypass the Google Play Store for some offers as well as leverage Samsung’s market share in TVs, the next logical step where xCloud gaming has a natural fit. For Samsung, who stated two years ago at their developer conference, that it wanted its devices to the best gaming experience in the Android ecosystem, xCloud offers an alternative to Stadia and with it another differentiator against competitors.

A Peak at the Galaxy Z Fold 2

Understandably the Galaxy  Z Fold 2 only appeared briefly on stage, most likely not to steal the moment that belongs to the Galaxy Note20. The time on stage, albeit limited, was very focused. True to its customer-focused nature, Samsung started the segment with an acknowledgment that the launch of the original Fold did not unfold as planned, sorry I could not resist the pun! From acknowledging we issue, Samsung moved on to show what has changed with the Galaxy Z Fold 2 from a design perspective to improve usability and increase confidence in durability. We saw the larger 6.2” external display, the front camera system that went down to a punch-hole from the previous design that took up a larger corner of the screen, creating a lopsided forehead. We were also shown a pretty detailed video on the new “sweeper” technology that Samsung created to limit the amount of debris that can affect the now even thinner gap along the hinge. Technology that apparently was inspired by the bristles used on vacuum cleaners.

We will have to wait till September 1 to know more about the Galaxy Z Fold 2, but from what we heard today, it is clear that there has been quite a bit of refinement from version one.

The Big Picture

 For the first time at an Unpacked event, we had a Q&A where Samsung Mobile’s President and Head of Communications Business, TM Roh, shared his view on the business direction saying 5G and Foldables will be the cornerstones of Samsung’s future. He also shared that he understands the responsibility Samsung has to make a better world safeguarding privacy and security as well as the environment. While not quite the off the cuff conversation I would have liked, it seems that TM Roh wants to make more of an attempt at storytelling (see his blog Steering the Mobile Industry through the next normal), a skill that is certainly growing in importance among tech leaders.

Leading up to Unpacked, there were rumors that Samsung was in discussion with Google to embrace more of their services, but we heard nothing about that on stage. This is not surprising as Unpacked was really centered on the relationship between Samsung and Microsoft. Something we also did not hear much about, however, was Bixby, which to me, is where Samsung might move into more with Google and decide just to embrace Google Assistant. The currently added friction of using Google Assistant on Samsung’s devices is a limitation that will become more and more noticeable as users’ reliance on digital assistant grows and as Google Assistant is embedded in more services and applications and becomes a value add in the experience that products like the Galaxy Buds Live can deliver. The relationship with Google might be more center stage on September 1 when Samsung will provide more details on the Galaxy Z Fold 2, let’s see!

Universal and AMC Make Up for the Good of Cinema and Consumers

Covid-19 has impacted many industries and forced changes that might have seemed impossible just last year—working from home, distance learning, online shopping and entertainment. As Covid-19 cases are continuing to climb in the U.S., the prospects for movie theaters to reopen seem bleak. AMC theaters were due to reopen on July 15, as part of a phased rollout, but now opening has been delayed to August. Reopening plans included a series of safety and health measures such as initially capping movie showtimes at 30% seating capacity, cleaning every theater between each showtime, disinfecting seating areas nightly using electrostatic sprayers, temporarily reducing menu selections at concession stands, upgrading ventilation systems in theaters and requiring all AMC employees to wear masks while in the theater. Interesting to note that AMC’s CEO, Adam Aron, said that customers would be strongly encouraged, but not required to wear masks.

According to data from Screen Engine/ASI, 13% of frequent moviegoers, defined as people who go six or more times a year, say they plan to return to theaters right away, no matter what’s playing, while 29% said they would go when there’s a movie they’re interested in. Another 18% said they plan to wait until the pandemic is entirely over. The 1000 or so theaters that have been open across the United States face customers’ concerns as well as lack of content. Big movies that were due to open in early summer have been postponed, like Mulan now expected the third week in August. Others like Tenet have been postponed and will be first released overseas where the reopening of theaters has been going more smoothly than in the U.S.

Releasing a big movie in these circumstances is a significant risk, but these big productions have to get their money back somehow. So alternatives started to emerge that might not give the big opening weekend kind of cash but will certainly help the bottom-line. For the theaters, the concerns are different. It is about not selling tickets as well as not profiting from concessions spend. This last factor has been the one preventing any deals to be made before Covid-19. Theaters owners are also concerned that the number of customers will never quite recover. Some theaters even considered screening older movies just to get people back into the habit.

A Win-Win or a Give and Take

This is the environment that set the scene for the deal on Tuesday this week between AMC Theatres and Comcast Corp’s Universal Pictures who agreed that studio’s movies could be made available to U.S. audiences at home after just three weekends – or 17 days – in cinemas. The agreement comes with a revenue share deal that sees AMC receive a portion of the sales for the first weeks when a movie is offered as premium on-demand video. As a reminder, the typical timeline between theaters and home release is 90 days.

Studios have argued for years that the long window between theater and home release increased their advertising costs to remind the public of the movies being released. Furthermore, when smaller productions were released on the same weekend as blockbuster titles, they had no choice than leverage more heavily the home release.

Comcast knew that the early home release model could work. Earlier in the year, NBCUniversal released Trolls 2 World Tour, which generated roughly $100 million worth of rental revenue during its first few weeks of availability, almost matching the first film’s box office take. At the time, AMC threatened to stop showing Universal’s movies in theaters. Emboldened by the success of Trolls, Universal also released Emma and The King of Staten Island directly to the home, bypassing the theaters.

It seems that Covid-19 forced AMC’s hand in accepting this revenue share deal from showing the movies through its AMC Theaters on Demand platform rather than being bypassed for good. I would also like to think that AMC’s final agreeability might have something to do with knowing that new movie productions will not come by without money. So in a way, they are investing in their future by funding new content.

What about the Consumers?

For the consumer, these early releases mean spending $20 just to rent the movie. This is usually how much a blockbuster costs to buy when it is first released on digital. Of course, the rental price covers everybody who will be watching it in the home compared to having to pay individual tickets at the theater. Significant savings for consumers come from the concessions. If you have been to the cinema, you know that popcorn, candy, or drinks can end up costing the same if not more than the movie itself.

I don’t doubt that the big screen and sound of the theaters will return to be appealing to the public when going to the movies will not seem like putting your life at risk. Still, hard to believe AMC will be able to go back on this decision entirely. Of course, movie theaters have been challenged before, like in the late 50s, when TV sets started growing in popularity. Going to the theater provides you with a much more immersive experience even now that technology at home is getting better with both size and quality of the screen as well as the quality of the sound.

Many argue it is not necessarily technology that will bring us back to the theater but the social construct of the cinema experience. I am more skeptical about this point as our world is becoming more and more about personal experiences rather than communal ones. As far as technology goes, theaters will soon face competition from more screens than just out TV and some of those screens, like in VR, will have the ability to drop us right into the content.

Home is Where Gmail is for the Redesigned G Suite

On day two of Google Cloud Next Online, Google announced a big redesign for its productivity suite that delivers a deeply integrated experience between Gmail, Chat, Meet and Rooms, whether on the web or on mobile. First available to the G Suite early adopter program, the new integration will roll out to a wider user set in the coming months.

It is hard to define what this new G Suite experience is. You are tempted to call it an app on your smartphone and a single tab in your browser, but Javier Soltero, the VP and GM of G Suite, calls it an “integrated workspace.” I think of it as my communication mission control.

I look at this redesign from two angles: the user and Google. From what I have seen so far, the promise of this new integrated experience will bring dividends to both sides.

Communication is the Start of Collaboration

From a user perspective, it is hard to deny that the way we communicate has become more and more fragmented. We use chat apps, messaging apps, video apps and good old emails. We do all of this across our phone and computer of choice which increases the complexity of managing all our conversations and our reliance on tools that synch properly across devices and sometimes platforms as well.

Despite the current narrative that would make you believe that only your grandparents now use email the data points to a different reality: email is indeed alive and well. A study that we, at Creative Strategies, conducted at the start of the sheltering in place period across 1000 American workers, found that 54% use Outlook every day and another 26% use Gmail every day. Fifty percent of the panelists also admitted to be using email to collaborate while on a video call.

Corralling other communication apps like Chat and Meet around Gmail seems like the right move, but not necessarily a magic wand that will make all our communication pains disappear. The team has taken the opportunity to use this new mission control to ease some of the management pain we all have when using so many different channels. For instance, you can now set a Do Not Disturb status across all the apps as you can mute all notifications in one go. Searching across Gmail and Chat will also now be possible as is joining a meeting right from your inbox. It is all about taking friction away from the experience.

When it comes to collaboration, Google is helping manage how we collaborate by guiding quick exchanges in Chat which now can include people external to your company or longer-term projects in Rooms where Google added the ability to real-time collaboration on a document and assign tasks.

Driving Value and Creating More Stickiness

As Microsoft started pitching the value of the Graph and organizing workflows more and more around Microsoft Teams, I started to feel that for Google, the power of G Suite of having two strong hooks in Gmail and Google Docs was starting to turn into a weakness. In other words, as a Gmail or Docs user you could be totally satisfied and never feel the need to try any other G Suite apps even if you have access to them through your corporate account.

Organizing the G Suite individual apps into this digital workspace offers higher discoverability by creating touchpoints throughout the workflows and has the potential to highlight the value of the suite in G Suite.

I am sure there will be a learning curve for users especially in the mobile experience, but there are a few things that will play in Google’s favor like the fact that users who rely more heavily on mobile are also those with a more positive attitude towards change. While I will know more once I use the new G Suite, it seems to me, that Google was very intentional in creating those touchpoints across apps while not altering the fundamental experience in Gmail. This will likely limit any frustration for users and avoid the feeling that other apps are being pushed into their workflows.

Both G Suite and Microsoft have now created an anchor for their productivity suites and it is interesting how they settled on different aspects of collaboration the former with mail and the latter in meetings. While at first, it might look like they took this approach based on where they see the cornerstone of collaboration reside, I believe it has more to do with a competitor risk assessment. Microsoft’s Teams started as a response to Slack and over time it ended up fending off Zoom and becoming Microsoft’s command center for collaboration. For Google, it is more about solidifying G Suite within organizations leaving no room for individual apps like Word or Outlook to take time away from it.

More to Come

One of the strongest values that G Suite has for me as a user, whether it is smart replies or the nudge feature in Gmail or the smart compose in Docs is that the more I use the tools the more they adapt to my workflow and facilitate it. Since COVID-19 the way we worked has changed so much that our workflows have had to adapt and many of these changes will stay with us in the future. Collaborating with others is done mostly digitally now, which means that as we move across email, chat, video, there is a lot to be learned from our behavior across all of these channels rather than just every single one individually. This to me is the biggest opportunity for Google going forward. The more G Suite is able to intelligently orchestrate my workflow the lower is the risk that I look elsewhere to replace one of these apps. There will be no question in the mind of a user that the value is coming from the Suite as a whole, not from any individual app.









Microsoft Teams and the Meeting Lifecycle

In June, Microsoft announced a substantial update to Microsoft Teams, which included support for up to 49 people in the gallery view, virtual backgrounds, support for 300 participants, instant channel meetings and more in the IT Admin suite for management and security.

But today we got more. Microsoft launched “Together Mode” for Teams. This new view turns the meeting participants into avatars who can have some level of interactions like a wave, tap on the shoulder or high-five and can be used in settings like a coffee shop or an auditorium depending on the number of participants.

Other features include a dynamic view to share content more dynamically, video filters that help with lighting and camera focus, live reactions with emojis, live captions with speaker attribution, suggested replies and the integration of Cortana.

There is a lot there to unpack, but what is particularly interesting about today’s announcements is the focus on people and on making video meetings more an integral part of collaboration rather than an island that has a beginning and an end when we turn the camera on and off. Meetings are born from work that happens before people come together and continues after people leave.

I have always thought about meetings as part of my daily workflow.  During quarantine, the growth we saw in the number of meetings made this realization even more critical as it has implications in the tools we are using as well as the features we see as most valuable.

In a study we, at Creative Strategies, conducted across 1000 US respondents working from home during the pandemic, daily meetings became a reality for 62% of the panelists up from 25% before the quarantine. As I discussed before, I do expect more flexible work and more remote working to remain in place once offices reopen. Thirty-one percent of our panelists said they would like to continue to work from home once the sheltering in place is lifted with another 22% who want the flexibility to do so a couple of days a week. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index Report published on the back of a recent study the company conducted supports our finding as 82% of managers they reached out to, said they expect to have more flexible work from home policies as the economy reopens.

It’s All About the People

So now we have established the long-term need to look at video meetings as an essential and integral part of our workflows. We have also clearly found that working from home is productive, but it has been interesting to see how video calls have impacted the way we feel about our colleagues. Microsoft said that 62% of people surveyed said they feel more empathetic towards their colleagues because they feel they made more of a connection with their personal lives by being in their home. My own set up has undoubtedly offered a glimpse into how demanding my cats are, how much my dogs sleep and how well trained my kid is at not just walking into my home office!

While people might have a better appreciation for their colleagues, they do not necessarily feel more connected to them. Sixty percent of the people Microsoft surveyed said they feel less connected to their colleagues and yet 52% of people surveyed feel more valued or included as a remote contributor. As a long time, remote worker, this last point hit me very early on this quarantine phase. It was apparent to me that everybody contributing remotely, in the same way, was democratizing the virtual meeting room table we were joining. The combination of the amount of time we spend in virtual meetings and how our brains process the visual and audio information it is receiving is having an impact on how tired and overwhelmed some people feel while working from home.

All these data points informed Microsoft’s decision to focus on tools that will make the video interaction more natural and more focused on the people. There is certainly a degree of maturity in how today’s features came about. I am not sure if there is a hype cycle of video meetings, but if there were, it would certainly show us edging from the slope of enlightenment to the plateau of productivity.

The new Together Mode might seem like a gimmick at first, but if you do not get too carried away with the high-fives, you can see there are benefits to it. First, there is a decrease in distractions as the focus shifts from what is going on around you to the people. It also draws participants more into the meeting, providing more body language cues. This is particularly useful in a lecture format, either in a business or education context. Other features help spotlight people like live captions with speaker attribution make it easier to follow along, especially when you are not familiar with the people in the meeting and the new filters that help improve the clarity of the picture so you can better read facial expressions.

The Meeting Lifecycle

I want to go back to the concept of the meeting lifecycle or, if you prefer, how you should think about the meeting as part of your daily workflow rather than an event in isolation. In a real-life context, it might be harder to see the flow but if you think about it for a second there is a flow. You would take your computer or a notebook into a room together with any documents or information you might need. During the meeting, you would take notes, brainstorm on a whiteboard, take pictures of the information and walk out of the meeting to pick up the next step over email or in future meetings.

When we come together virtually, however, the way the meeting blends with what happens before and after is much more obvious and the tools that will allow that blending to be as smooth as possible will drive more significant engagement and grow loyalty. This is why I believe video only or chat only solutions will find it harder to compete with solutions that have the ability to transcend what are becoming more unnecessary artificial boundaries between people, content and task at hand. Being able to have content and people engaged onto one platform will provide better data which in turn will provide solutions that will easily surface information at the right time, connect the right people in a timely fashion basically offer more and more value but taking care of the most frustrating aspects of collaboration.


There is no question that remote work, video meetings, in particular, will continue to see an array of developments for quite some time, including welcoming new entrants like the new collaboration app mmhmm to the space. On the one hand, this focus highlights how overlooked remote collaboration has been for so many years. On the other hand, it shows how much our current experience can be improved today by AI and software rather than having to wait for the proliferation of XR based solutions.

Microsoft’s Initiative to Upskill Workers Looks Beyond Charitable Donations

Covid-19 dramatically acerbated the current economic recession that the US and many countries around the world are facing. Yet, workers across different segments were already starting to see the impact technology is having in changing current roles, creating new job functions and requiring new skills to get a job as well as progress in your career.

I have written in the past about how companies like IBM are preparing the current and future workforce for digital transformation, something I find some companies in tech feel responsible for, and rightly so, given the role they play in transforming the workplace through technology.

The Context

The current environment created an urgency we had not felt before, mostly because the change that we thought was going to occur gradually has happened over a couple of months due to Covid-19. That “two years of digital transformation happening in two months,” Microsoft CEO mentioned just a while ago, is already having an impact on workers.

This, coupled with unemployment figures that exceeded what the US experience during the Great Recession in the 1930s, means that as much as we want to reopen the economy, many people will not have a job to return to.

During a video event announcing the launch of a new initiative to upskill 25 million people, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, made it clear that for the economy to recover fully “we must ensure no-one is left behind” and this means empowering people to be the best they can be and do the best job they can.

Covid-19 has been impacting Communities of Color in the US more acutely than any other community, not only by taking more lives but also by suffering the most with the unemployment crisis coming out of the pandemic. If you are wondering why this is the case, you only need to refer back to Nadella opening remarks on racism and social inequity. The higher number of deaths among People of Color can be explained by the lack of access to good health services and the higher number in unemployment is linked to lack of access to education and an attitude from some employers that see People of Color as more disposable than white workers. Nadella’s statement was strong and clear: “There’s absolutely no place for hate, bias or racism in our world, the cracks of injustice and inequity in our society hinder progress for everyone. And call on us to act.”

Brad Smith pointed out during the event that over the next five years, nearly 149 million new tech jobs will be created in fields like software development cybersecurity and machine learning. For those jobs to become an opportunity for people, however, Microsoft feels there needs to be more focus on training, and, to some extent, this requires a shift in how employers think as, over the last 20 years, employer investments in employee training have been declining.


The problem, as you can see, is a complex one, and Microsoft is tacking it from two fronts: on the one hand, providing tools for people to get the skills and qualifications and for employers to have access to more data to make informed decisions.

For upskilling, Microsoft is bringing together every part of the company LinkedIn, GitHub and Microsoft and will focus on:

  • Free access to learning paths and content to help people develop the skills these positions require;
  • Low-cost certifications and free job-seeking tools to help people who develop these skills pursue new jobs.

Through the same assets and the use of the Economic Graph, Microsoft is also aiming to use data to identify in-demand jobs and the skills needed to fill them so they can create learning paths for these via LinkedIn Learning. Using this data, they identified ten jobs that are in-demand in today’s economy and are well-positioned to continue to grow in the future. These ten jobs were identified as having the greatest number of job openings, have had steady growth over the past four years, pay a livable wage, and require skills that can be learned online.

As part of the training resources, Microsoft is also providing low-cost access to industry-recognized Microsoft Certifications. To expand the reach, Microsoft is also providing $20 million in financial grants plus technical support to nonprofit organizations around the world so that they can support with complementary initiatives. Five of the $20 million will be dedicated to nonprofit in the US aimed at alleviating the impact among those who, as data shows, are hit the most by unemployment, which is both People of Color and women and, in particular, Women of Color.

When it comes to social issues such as unemployment, we know the solution is not just within the private sector. This is why Microsoft pledged to make more reliable analytics available to governments around the world if those governments are willing to open up public data sets and look at innovating government systems around workforce training and education.


This is an ambitious initiative on Microsoft’s part; there is no question about it. The thought the leadership put into breaking down the problem to come up with solutions that leveraged their assets and would have the most significant impact gives me confidence in the success it will achieve.

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet and this cannot happen without the company owning up to the impact technology is having on the world as well as the responsibility it has to use its power and wealth to impact society positively. I look forward to seeing other tech companies stepping up and follow suit.


#WWDC20 An Apple Original

Leading into Apple’s developer conference (WWDC) I was as curious about the way Apple would run the event as I was to hear what news the California company had in software. A lot of the attention since the keynote on Monday has been on Apple Silicon. Still, there were many interesting announcements made that said a lot about the state of Apple’s ecosystem and offered some hints into Apple’s strategy with some of its products.

Let me start with the keynote, a product in itself, and then move on to a few announcements I found particularly interesting.

There were many speculations as to how Apple would approach the event. We had a little bit of an idea from the iPad Pro launch from back in April, but many questioned whether Apple would be doing the keynote from the stage of the Steve Jobs Theater as it might all feel awkward without an audience. Apple masterfully used the empty theater to make a point that this time is unprecedented and almost embraced those empty seats making them the backdrop for Tim Cook’s initial remarks. Cook’s remarks started not with COVID-19, like many events I have attended over the past few weeks, but with addressing racism in America.

“To start, I want to address the topic of racism inequality and injustice and to recognize the pain being felt throughout our nation, especially in our Black and Brown communities after the senseless killing of George Floyd. And while the events of this past month are sadly not new. They have caused us to face long-standing institutional inequalities and social and justices. This country was founded on the principles of freedom and equality for all for too many people and for too long, we haven’t lived up to those ideals. We’re inspired and moved by the passionate people around our nation and around the world who have stood up to demand change.”

Two weeks ago, Apple announced Apple’s racial equity and justice initiative, committing $100 million to challenge systemic barriers that limit the opportunity for communities of color in the critical areas of education, economic equality and criminal justice. For developers, Apple announced a new developer entrepreneur camp for Black developers.

The almost two-hour-long keynote was all pre-recorded, with a good variety of speakers orchestrated by Apple’s SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi. The fast pace of the announcements, the change in locations, and the lack of corny awkward moments made the whole keynote quite pleasant. The attention to detail that Apple put into its keynote was evident in many ways: the diversity of the speakers, the shots of the Apple Spaceship highlighting the rainbow stage designed by Jony Ive, the number of times Mythic Quest, the Apple TV+ series about a game developer company, popped up in the demos.

Cook did address COVID-19 by way of thanking healthcare workers and talking about the impact that the virus has had on the products they design. We saw a mask Memoji and a handwashing app for Apple Watch. Most importantly, though, was the message that ran at the end of the keynote highlighting the health and safety precautions taken by Apple to film the event. At a time when the US sees the number of cases increase throughout many states, a statement of how serious the virus should be taken is very important and a more persuasive statement than words alone could convey.

Cook closed the keynote bringing it back to diversity and calling on how Apple has been thriving thanks to the very diverse developers’ ecosystem that comes together this week for WWDC. The theme of the keynote was carried forward into the developer sessions I watched on Tuesday both in terms of style and diversity of speakers. The production of the whole event felt like an Apple Original TV series.

Default Browser and Email

Apple did not make a big announcement about the ability in iOS14 and iPadOS to change the default email and browser apps, but it was listed on a slide below as well as brought up in the Platform State of the Union. This means that you will be able to change your default browser and email to be used from any app the same way as you already do on the Mac or other platforms.

It is hard not to think that the timing of this change might help Apple alleviate some of the scrutiny it is getting from Europe on its perceived anti-competitive practices within the developer ecosystem. I am not sure if this is a carrot of sorts, but it certainly feels like Apple has nothing to lose by providing more flexibility on these two apps. Apple does not benefit from forcing mail on people, especially as it is not as differentiated as what competitors are offering. As far as the browser goes, I believe Apple is counting on most of its users appreciating the many improvements it brought to Safari as well as its continued improvement on privacy. It will be interesting to see if Maps will be next on the list, although I would argue that Maps is much more central to a wider set of experiences than email and browsing are.


iMessage is one of Apple’s most popular services; we all know about life as a blue and green bubble. What has transpired over the past few months, however, as more people have been working remotely, is how much iMessage has become a full-fledged collaboration app. In a recent study, we, at Creative Strategies, conducted in the US 31% of respondents named iMessage as the collaboration app they chose to use every day. This number grows to 50% among Mac users. It is no surprise then that Apple announced a series of new features that make iMessage feel much more like Slack than text messaging. Apple added the ability to pin conversations with people we care about the most, added more visuals to groups including the ability to assign a picture to a group and added Mentions as a way to navigate conversations to better surface those exchanges that include you.


It had been so long since Siri had her moment on stage that I think people were quite surprised. Apple addressed one of the biggest complaints users have had about Siri UI, which is the fact that when you invoke her, the whole screen is taken over. Now Siri’s logo floats on the screen more discretely. We also heard that Siri is going to be able to reply to more complex questions as well as send audio messages and translate more languages. Apple also added a new app called Translate, which helps users have conversations in different languages, all done through on-device ML playing catch up with Google on this feature.

These enhancements did not feel like the significant change that many have been expecting since John Gianandrea became the SVP or ML and AI strategy, but they are welcomed improvements. As Apple moves more and more to a single architecture across its platform; however, I feel the inconsistencies of Siri will be even more evident to users.

Sleep Tracking

I mention this mostly because I have been hoping for the past two years to see something new in connection with sleep. There is a ton of research that points to the impact that sleep has on stress, overall wellbeing and weight management that made it impossible for Apple not to address this aspect of health. Considering that Apple did not mention anything different in watchOS7 that allows for more accurate tracking, I assume Apple worked on delivering an overall experience that starts with preparing for bedtime routine on the iPhone, then using Apple watch to track sleep and wake up to the information needed to start the day including battery status. The other part that Apple might have been working on is the ML models that Apple Watch will use to sense the user’s motion and detect the movements caused by breathing, providing signals of when you are asleep or awake. Adding information on battery notifications and charge time shows Apple’s awareness that for some people using Apple Watch as a sleep tracking device might require a change in routine. It is important that, as users adjust, they do not have a negative experience with Apple Watch running out of battery in the middle of the day. Interestingly, Apple also pointed out that sleep schedule, winddown and sleep mode are also available on iPhone with iOS14 even for users who do not have an Apple Watch.


There was so much more announced during the keynote to cover everything in one article, but what was common throughout the announcements was a purposeful effort to deliver an even more seamless experience to multi-device users. Whether this was highlighted by the iPhone, iPad and Mac UI blending more and more, or by AirPods connecting naturally from device to device based on where you are playing music or picking up a call, it felt like Apple wants to deliver a familiar experience across all devices. Differentiation will be added only when it matters. For developers, that cohesive ecosystem represents an even more homogeneous addressable market. Overall, I feel Apple is also focusing on making it easier for iPhone users – its largest user base  – to add other devices by lowering their learning curve and this might mean that power users, especially Mac power users, feel that their experience is being gentrified. The upside of having a much wider set of apps should, however, make up for it.


Powering a More Inclusive Future Often Starts With Your Organization

This week Cisco held their customer and partner conference with over 120,000 registered attendees across the world as well as 600 analysts and press. The event was initially scheduled for the week of June 1 but was postponed following the killing of Mr. George Floyd and the protests that arose from it.

While many announcements were made during the event in areas such as networking, collaboration and research, I want to talk more about some of the initiatives Cisco spoke about in their corporate social responsibility effort.

In a blog published on Tuesday, Cisco’s CEO, Chuck Robbins, wrote: “We know our responsibilities don’t end with technology. It’s now about making the world we envision possible. Over the past six months, we concluded that our new purpose is to Power an Inclusive Future for All.”

To do that, Cisco developed a framework to guide decisions in how to respond to what they see as a crisis, an injustice, or a global challenge. Four primary pillars of response anchor this:

  • The Most Vulnerable, led by Tae Yoo, SVP, Corporate Affairs, will focus on the non-profits and partners that support underserved communities and those disproportionately impacted by systemic issues and crises.
  • Families and Community, led by Fran Katsoudas, EVP and Chief People Officer, will focus on expanding care and well-being services beyond our employees.
  • Research and Resilience, led by Liz Centoni, SVP Emerging Technologies & Incubation, will focus on technology solutions that can advance healthcare research and address social inequities.
  • Strategic Recovery, led by Maria Martinez, EVP and Chief Customer Experience Officer, will focus on helping healthcare and education institutions adapt their operations so they can continue to provide care to impacted communities and critical pathways to job opportunities during times of uncertainty.

There are two points I really appreciate about these pillars. The first is that they are born from four critical business components: corporate affairs, people, technology and customers. This, to me, is the only way corporate social responsibility is entrenched in the business rather than a project. Being entrenched in the business is what will make it effective because it will drive change while making a difference to the bottom-line.

The second point I appreciate is how these four pillars are entrusted to four senior women leaders of a diverse background. As a woman and someone who follows diversity and inclusion in tech closely, this does not surprise me. Cisco made top lists in the Fortune 2019 Best Workplace for Women, 2018 Best Workplaces for Diversity and just this past March Cisco took 3rd place in the Great Place to Work For All 2020 Leadership Awards.

I have been arguing for a long time that building a great company culture is one of the best ways to attract and retain talent. And not just talent from a skillset perspective but talent that shares your value and is a driver of change within the organization. Listening to Cisco’s Chief People Officer, Fran Katsoudas talk about how they built and scaled a program to support mental health is an excellent example of how to foster a safe space within your organization:

“Mental health is embedded and integrated into everything we do, which is I think exactly where it needs to be. We built some internal response elements around things like “safe to talk,” where our employees create this environment where people can seek out advice or get some help. We have leveraged technology; we have something called talk space where people can text and get some relief as well. When we started having our COVID check-in sessions, where we were just answering basic questions from employees, we had a mental health expert with us to answer questions about anxiety and stress and depression. Our biggest learning is embedding mental health in the conversation make it one of the most natural conversations and helped to acknowledge that mental health is health.”

The role of leaders is undoubtedly becoming more complex as technology and politics become more intertwined, but also as employees are holding their employers accountable in the role they play within society. Over the past few weeks, we have seen many tech companies speaking out against racism and donating to organizations focused on bringing about equality. Still, there is no question that tech, as an industry, could and should be doing more.

Responding to a pandemic is something that nobody will ever be criticized for. One would think that standing up against racism and working towards a more inclusive world would be met with the same degree of positivity. Yet this is not the case. Corporations navigate politics and shareholders and ultimately, it boils down to the conviction of the CEO in doing the right thing.

This week is not the first time we have heard Chuck Robbins talk about the role he wants Cisco and its technology play in the world. For years Cisco has been working with local governments in several countries to close the digital divide by bringing together the private and public sectors and move communities forward. When asked about how a company goes about balancing its employees’ needs with corporate social responsibility while still delivering value to shareholders, Robbins made it very clear:

“It’s a complicated balance that we’re all trying to deal with. But I will tell you two things, as you think about the community efforts, the purpose of the company, what inspires employees and motivates them and makes them excited about showing up, which in turn leads to more innovation, which in turn leads to more success for our customers. I think they’re all connected.”

I will continue to follow closely the steps Cisco will take to drive its vision of inclusion. I hope Chuck Robbins is right in believing this time will be different, that social justice and inequality will remain not just on Cisco’s agenda but on the tech agenda till hard solutions to hard problems are found.

Extended Reality: A Sceptic Wishlist

Today kicks off Augmented World Expo USA 2020, one of the annual touchpoints for the world of Extended Reality (XR), basically from Augmented Reality to Virtual Reality and anything in between. Like many other events, the tech conference has gone digital due to COVID-19, so it will be interesting to see how they use XR in their own lineup. What is certain is that we can expect several announcements to be made during the week. A couple of brands even got ahead of the news cycle by announcing early.

First, Qualcomm announced a partnership with 15 global operators to bring VR viewers tethered to 5G smartphones to market within a year. Then, former HTC CEO, Peter Chou, introduced his new project: a new VR company called XRSpace. The project comes with an all in one 5G-connected XR headset called XRSpace Mova as well as a social reality platform called XRSpace Manova. Although the two announcements been only a few hours apart was probably pure coincidence, there is a lot that these two companies are doing to try and accelerate adoption, including delivering on some of my wishlist items that would considerably change my attitude towards XR. I have a feeling, however, these items are far from being unique to me, considering the still relatively limited uptake we have seen thus far.

Don’t get me wrong I do believe XR will play an important role in the way we communicate and experience in the future. Adoption will happen much faster in a business context than in a consumer one, mostly because the return of investment and the value add in a business context will be much more apparent to users.

At a time when so many are physically isolated because of COVID-19, and despite VR still limited penetration, we have seen an attempt to use VR to alleviate solitude, improve fitness and mental health.  At the same time, the current economic downturn coupled with what was a tech overload for many parents dealing with distance learning while trying to work might have also not been the optimal environment to test out VR. All in all, too much of a mixed bag to assess how effective VR could be during shelter in place orders but not a reason to be negative as far as a future opportunity.

XR Viewers as a Steppingstone to Broader Adoption

I’ve been excited about the role that XR viewers could play in broaden adoption since I first heard Qualcomm talk about their plans and roadmap at Mobile World Congress in 2019. The excitement came from two main components of this new kind of viewers: first, the ability to lower the barrier of entry represented by the cost of many VR headsets. Second, the richer and more user-friendly experience that can be delivered compared to those viewers where the mobile phone would sit within the viewer itself.

For many consumers investing $400 to $700 for a VR headset remains a hard choice, mostly because the value these headsets bring is unclear either because they have never tried it or because they don’t see themselves using VR often enough to justify the investment. Some consumers who do appreciate what VR has to offer are put off by the bulky design of most headsets and the clunkiness of the experience.

The Qualcomm XR Optimized Certification Program will help OEM partners deliver on that rich experience by guaranteeing compatibility between the 5G phone and the viewer, specifically looking at these key features: Six Degrees of Freedom (6DoF), head tracking performance, display calibration validation, motion to photon latency validation, power and thermal performance.

5G connectivity and the lighter, nimbler designs of the viewers will also help make the experience more mobile, creating more opportunities for engagement. Another limitation of the current systems is that they are mostly used within the home.

If the relative success of Oculus Quest is something to go by, it seems clear that standalone VR headsets are what users want, but for those who might not be quite as ready to invest XR, viewers might be the closest thing to a standalone experience. Linking XR viewers to 5G smartphones is a smart move because of the experience that can be delivered through 5G but also because it represents a great opportunity for OEMs and carriers to offer bundles lowering the barrier of entry some more.

XR Must Connect Not Isolate

Peter Chou has always been a big believer in VR after all HTC got into this business when he was still the CEO. He first teased the idea of XRSpace back in 2019 at Mobile World Congress when he talked about an XR experience with a social component at its core. The idea of bringing a social component to VR is not new. Last year, Facebook launched Horizon, basically a VR world designed for Oculus users to meet and socialize. The move seemed a pretty obvious step to make Facebook relevant in the future and limit the risk of missing the transition from mobile in a similar way as we saw from the PC to mobile. Chou’s decision, however,  has little to do with business model and a lot to do with opportunity as he claims that without a social component, VR will fail to win over a broader set of consumers.

While XRSpace Mova grabs the title of the world’s first 5G consumer mobile VR headset powered by Qualcomm, it is the XRSpace Manova platform that should get much of our attention. Manova introduces full-body avatars that can interact in a different social context like work, health and fitness, education and entertainment. Mova is capable through its sensors and a proprietary scanning technology to understand hand gestures and analyze real-world spaces to replicate them within the VR app. Between 5G and this scanning tech, it sure sounds like Mova will allow for much more freedom than the current head-mounted displays allow for, which will help build a broader set of use cases and, therefore, a wider appeal.

If there is one thing that COVID-19 has shown us is how much can be done digitally. What it has also made clear is that humans will always crave real-life human contact and interaction. So, it seems to me that Chou’s idea that VR should connect not isolate people makes a lot of sense. Whether or not the platform will be successful will depend on how much content is created, another limitation the segment is currently facing, and how much it will all cost.

As I look at the marketing videos and material for XRSpaces, I am struck by the lack of diversity that comes screaming through these vignettes. If we want to extend our reality and create more opportunities for social interaction, let’s make sure it is a better reality, one where everybody feels seen and represented. The lack of diversity in VR could ultimately cap its opportunity much more so than cost and tech.

Microsoft Build Shows The Future of Events and Collaboration

On Tuesday, May 19, 2020, Microsoft kicked off Build, its annual developer conference. The live event held in Seattle for the past few years was this year turned into a fully digital gathering due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Build follows the sun with 48 hours filled with sessions streaming live across different time zones.

Towards the end of day one, Head of Comms, Frank Shaw, shared some numbers about the event: 202,219 people registered, of those 87,000 created a profile and scheduled 1 million sessions. The live Twitter feed recorded over 200,000 views. Pretty impressive numbers for an event that was reengineered from the ground up to fit a fully digital consumption model. For seasoned attendees, part of the event had a familiar feel: Satya Nadella’s keynote, the technical keynotes with Scott Hanselman, Scott Guthrie and Kevin Gallo, the Imagination Cup and a long list of sessions. There was plenty of news about Azure, Power Apps, Project Cortex, Microsoft 365, Project Reunion and Fluid Framework. What struck me the most, though, was how much learning opportunity there was for developers. Of course, this is not new, but it was much more apparent this year as labs, panels, focus groups and Microsoft Learn sessions were intertwined in the schedule in such a way that it made it much more obvious to see plenty of opportunities for attendees to bring it back to their needs and their business.

While many in the analyst and press world were lamenting not attending in person, I have to admit there were a few things that the digital format really facilitated.

First, a diversity of speakers. If you follow me enough, you know I tend to pay attention to how diverse the main stage of every conference is and, I must say, I was quite impressed with Build Day One. There was a great mix of speakers across gender, age, race, geographies and because of the format, it felt everybody shared the main stage because everything you watch was your main stage.

Second, a variety of topics. Side by side technical sessions and product announcements, there was the opportunity to hear about students’ mentorship into science and tech jobs, diversity and inclusion (I could have spent much longer on this), ethics and fairness in AI and more. The fact that you can do back to back sessions gives you the flexibility to fit more on your schedule and so does the shorter format that most sessions took on – a brilliant move from Microsoft.

This is the first digital even from Microsoft and won’t be the last as all events moved to digital until July 2021. In a pre-Build analyst session, Julia White said it is unlikely we will return to events the way they were before #COVID-19 both because it will take a while for people to be comfortable but also because they will learn the strengths of going digital.

From an announcement perspective there was one bit of news most Windows and Office users will be particularly interested in:

Fluid Framework

Last year at Ignite, Microsoft announced the public preview of Microsoft Fluid Framework aimed at making collaboration more seamless by making workflows go more fluidly across apps. This week we had a glimpse at the first integration of the Fluid Framework into Microsoft 365 with Outlook and

Instead of creating documents, Fluid creates canvases where multiple people can collaborate in real-time and bringing together different elements like text, pictures, charts, tables. Each component is instantaneous and editable, making for a flexible and fast-paced experience, according to Microsoft. The simulation video sure seems impressive and Microsoft 365 enterprise and education subscribers will get access to a beta in the coming weeks.

The underlying concept is not dissimilar from Google Docs, but the implementation is quite different as each Fluid component is pulled together into one canvas, not a multitude of tabs. This could potentially be easier for current Office users to adopt and might cement users more into Microsoft 365. Right now, Office suffers from a lack of loyalty as users turn to Google when they need to collaborate. In a recent study we, at Creative Strategies, conducted in the US across 1000 users, we found that among Microsoft Office 365 users, 28% use Google Docs, 23% use Gmail and 18% use Google Sheets. Interestingly, Gsuite does not have a monopoly on its users’ time either, creating an opportunity for Fluid to convert users fully to Microsoft 365. Among our Gsuite users, 47% dabble into Word, 39% into Excel and 32% into Outlook.

The staggered approach Microsoft is taking with Fluid will allow users to experiment without imposing too much change too quickly. After the initial rollout to Outlook and, we will see Fluid incorporated into Microsoft Teams later this year and into the desktop versions of Outlook next year. Microsoft has also opened up the Fluid Framework to developers by making it opensource. This means that aside from Microsoft’s first-party Office apps, we will see other apps being able to create components to be added to the canvases. This might prove quite interesting for large enterprises that have proprietary apps. It will certainly be interesting to see how the likes of SalesForce, SAP and IBM will look at taking advantage of the Framework. It could be an opportunity or a threat depending on how breaking down an app into components might end up disenfranchising the app itself, making less clear where the value is coming from beyond Microsoft 365.

With Fluid and Edge, Microsoft is certainly moving more into a cloud and browser first experience for Microsoft 365. This, of course, means that the competition with G Suite and Chrome will heat up, which in turn means users will see more innovation, never a bad thing.


Lastly, whether you were attending those sessions that talked about the ability to schedule appointments, broadcast events, add automated workflows or a chatbot, there was one product that was center stage across Build: Microsoft Teams. If the growth Microsoft Teams has had over the past two months weren’t enough, these two days were a pretty strong testament to the robustness and capabilities of the product but also how much Microsoft has riding on it. It was clear to me Microsoft Teams is as central to the success of Build as it is to the success of Microsoft 365.

Distance Learning During COVID-19: A Parent View

A couple of weeks after the shelter in place orders started rolling out across the United States, we, at Creative Strategies, ran a study to capture some valuable information on remote work. We wanted to know which tools, both hardware and software, people are using while trying to work and supporting their children’s education efforts from home. We tried to get to a lot of the sentiment, both positive and negative, that emerged from using specific solutions and the pain points of new workflows. Our online questionnaire was taken by just over 1000 Americans, 850 of whom have been working from home during the quarantine. Among those, 342 have children living with them and in school.

There has been plenty of data shared by the leading tech companies on how they worked with schools and school districts to enable distance learning practically overnight. Many tools were made available for free by Microsoft, Apple, Google, Zoom and Cisco to enable teachers to hold classes over video, share material, mark work and more. With the success stories, we also heard the reality many schools faced with students who did not have access to devices or a fast and stable internet connection. The challenges schools faced were different in nature. Teachers faced technological hurdles, like learning how to use brand new tools like Zoom. They also faced more practical challenges, like deciding whether to deliver a class synchronously or asynchronously. Many settled on a mixed solution so they could be in touch with their students but also let them free to organize part of the workaround their family’s circumstances.

When we set out to do our study, we wanted to hear the voice of the parents, understand the challenges they faced in supporting their children as well as how prepared they felt their school and their children were for this new normal.

Device Ownership Paints a Familiar Picture

The trend that Chromebooks reign supreme in education was confirmed by our data that saw a range between 29 and 44 percent of children in the panel using a Chromebook for their schoolwork between third grade and college. Children between Kindergarten and second grade relied more on Windows PC (38%) and iPads (33%).

iPad penetration by grade is particularly interesting as it seems to corroborate the “need a notebook to do real work” mantra we often hear from enterprise users. iPad penetration among the respondents drops from 33% in K-2 to 17.5% among high-schoolers and 16.6% among college students. Benefitting from this decline seems to be the Mac, which grows from 13.3% in K-2 to 25.7% in high school and 28.4% in college.

Google Classroom Dominance

Considering the strength of Chromebooks, it should not come as a surprise that Google Classroom dominates as the most used software solutions across all age groups in our study, with the highest percentage among middle-schoolers where 52% are using Google Classroom for their distance learning. Google Docsmirrors the strength of Google Classroom with penetration as high as 49.4% among sixth to eighth-graders.

The correlation between iPad penetration and Apple Classroom shows there is more work to be done by Apple to match the popularity of its devices with their classroom software. Apple Classroom is most popular among third to fifth graders, but even there penetration remains limited, reaching 7%.

When it comes to video, Zoom is the clear winner with an average penetration across all children of 43% and a higher penetration of 51% in grades 3 to 5. It is interesting to note that Google Meet was unable to capitalize on the strong presence of Google Docs and Google Classroom, reaching a peak of 20% among middle-schoolers. Google Meet is certainly suffering from some branding issues as well as a less flexible set up compared to Zoom. Up to this week, in fact, Google Meet was only available to enterprise and education accounts, which meant, similarly to Microsoft Teams, it required a top-down set up through an IT manager. From May 12, Google has opened up Google Meet to anyone with a Gmail account. Users will be able to have video calls with up to 100 people and, until September 30, users will have no time limit. After that date, meetings will be limited to 60 minutes.

Kids’ Top Struggles

Kids will be kids, no matter their age! They all struggled with a lack of socialization. Third to fifth graders were the most impacted, with 62% lamenting that video is just not enough to connect with friends.

The very young (42%) and the pre-teens (41%) struggled with motivation because distance learning just did not feel like school. Kindergarteners to second graders also struggled the most with keeping still and staying focused, with 44% of the parents finding this to be an issue.

Parents’ Struggles

Except for college students, parents felt that their children required more assistance than expected in submitting classwork and doing assignments like taking pictures of work or videos (31%) with parents of kindergartners to second-graders most heavily impacted by this – 43.8%.

The other side of the same coin showed that, on average, 32% of parents wished that the school prepared their kids to problem solve more on their own. This sentiment was particularly strong among parents of third to fifth graders – 44%.

Post COVID-19

Most states have already said schools will be out for the remainder of the academic year and State Colleges in California announced this week that in-person classes would remain suspended even in the Fall semester. We wanted to see what parents hope will be retained once kids can go back to school.

Fifty-two percent of parents on our panel hope to see distance learning be an option when their children are sick or cannot attend school for other reasons. Another 35% expect to see their kid’s school use video for teacher/parent conferences. Finally, 28% of parents would like to see teachers offer “office hours” to get support for homework.

All in all, the parents in our study seemed to have been able to cope with their newly found role of teacher aid. This is neither remote work nor homeschooling, but a juggling act that we hope will end as soon as it is safely possible. That said, there is no doubt that this experience will impact both businesses and schools going forward. The extent of the change we will see as we establish yet again a new normal will depend on many factors from the level of investment required to the forward-thinking mentality of the leaders as well as any kind of crisis preventative measure imposed by the government.

What Windows 10X Can Learn from the Making of Surface

It has been a busy week for Windows and Surface. We started on Monday with a blog post by Chief Product Officer, Windows and Devices, Panos Panay outlining what is coming in the Windows 10 May 10 update as well as some changes in the rollout plans for Windows 10X. Then today, with another blog, Panay announced the Surface Go 2, Surface Book 3, Surface Headphones 2 and Surface Dock 2 all updates to popular products in the Surface lineup. The announcement also introduced the new Surface Earbuds, first seen back in October 2019. I am sure we will see plenty of reviews of the hardware over the coming days and I will share my experience as I try some of the products myself. Still, there are broader and more fundamental points linking these two sets of announcements I thought were worth highlighting.

Panay took over the leadership of Windows about three months ago and, since then, has spoken quite openly how being able to design hardware and software together would make the Windows experience better for the whole ecosystem. A shared leadership has the potential to accelerate innovation and improve execution, two aspects that it would be fair to say Windows could have benefitted from during the past few years. I could not agree more with Panay’s intent and I am convinced there are vital lessons learned from bringing to market the Surface portfolio that will benefit Windows 10 as a whole and Windows 10X in particular.

New Form Factors Are Hard

The original Surface showed that for PC users, getting used to new form factors takes time. This is especially true when in addition to new form factors, you also have a new operating system with different input mechanisms and UI.

Users, especially in the enterprise, are mostly set in their workflows often reliant on legacy apps that don’t do well with change. Business users, or maybe their IT managers, also have expectations of what it takes to do productive work.

The Surface portfolio grew, in some ways, because that early start, aimed at taking users into the PC of the future, had to be accompanied by more traditional form factors for those users who were not quite ready to embrace the future either because of comfort or because or concrete needs that desktops and notebooks can deliver. Now Surface has a full portfolio catering to different users and their workflows. One size does not fit all, especially in an enterprise context.

Making New Workflows Natural

As the Surface portfolio was evolving, so was Windows from Windows 8 to Windows 10. A dual-screen device will certainly require new workflows to be developed to take advantage of the new form factors fully and to do so, Microsoft has been developing Windows 10X. Getting used to a new OS, even when the core stays the same, is even harder than breaking in a new form factor.

Back in October, when we first heard about Windows 10X, I wrote:

“Time and time again, we see users bending backward to fit their workflows around their phones. We do not question whether or not that phone is a computer; we simply use it to get things done. Surface Duo will empower users to find new workflows that take advantage of the dual-screen and highly mobile design. Because it is a phone, Surface Duo will not have to fight for a place in a portfolio of products, which means that users will be heavily engaged with it.”

Windows 10X can help consumer embrace cloud-based workflows now, so they can be ready to transfer them onto dual-screen devices when the time comes, thus making the transition much easier than having to learn both a new form factor and workflows at the same time

Business Response to COVID-19 as a Catalyst

The COVID-19 crisis has been an incredible driver of digital transformation. Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, said, during their earnings call, that he saw two years of digital transformation in two months. Because of our new reality, the needs and priorities of businesses and individuals alike have changed. It is understandable then that some planned releases both of software and devices might have changed also.

In this week’s blog, Panay said:

With Windows 10X, we designed for flexibility, and that flexibility has enabled us to pivot our focus toward single-screen Windows 10X devices that leverage the power of the cloud to help our customers work, learn and play in new ways. These single-screen devices will be the first expression of Windows 10X that we deliver to our customers, and we will continue to look for the right moment, in conjunction with our OEM partners, to bring dual-screen devices to market.”

Microsoft wants to continue to facilitate this wave of digital transformation to deliver an operating system that is meant for cloud-based workflows. Being able to fit into this wave of change is critical for Microsoft not just for Windows but for Office as well. With more enterprises embracing digital transformation, the search for the right partner and the right tools is on. The strength of having been at the center of most workflows in the past might be seen as a limitation, not an advantage, leading some companies to look for partners like Google, the poster child for the future of work.

Must-Have vs. Nice to Have

The economic downturn kicked started by the COVID-19 pandemic has changed people’s priorities overall, including what they might be able and interested to spend when it comes to tech. The newly found needs to work and learn from home pushed both enterprises and consumers to buy more technology in the past few months than they had likely planned.

Microsoft said they registered a 35% increase in time spent on Windows devices since the beginning of February. People are relying on their PCs more than they have done in a very long time. Under the current stressful circumstances, users want familiarity, straightforward workflows, and ease of use. When the demands for our time and attention are high, the last thing we want is the added stress of figuring out new workflows or new form factors.

Microsoft’s reprioritization of Windows 10 X to focus first on delivering better user experience and improved functionality on single screen devices fits such needs and requirements. The cost of dual-screen and foldable devices, as well as their unproven track record in enabling productivity, would make it difficult to gain the support of IT managers and the budgets of mainstream consumers.


It might be disappointing for industry watchers not to see highly anticipated devices like Surface Neo and frustrating for some partners to have to put on hold their foldable devices. Yet, a lot has changed since last October, a lot has changed since last month, really, and for Microsoft to continue as if it were business, as usual, would be a huge disservice to partners and an insult to customers.


The Mid-Tier Smartphone Opportunity

If you live in North America, you could be forgiven for thinking the mid-tier smartphone market died a cruel death a few years ago. According to GFK, in fact, 81% of smartphone sales in 2019, in the US, came from smartphones costing $600 and higher. Across the rest of the world, however, where the $600 and higher price points captured anything between 11 and 65 percent, the mid-tier smartphone market is alive and well. There are different reasons why consumers chose a mid-tier device. The biggest driver is, of course, cost. Consumers might have limited disposable income to allocate to the device many see as their computing device in their pocket. Price for some is not only what they can afford but what they are willing to spend, the right balance between cost and return on investment.

Not Every Mid-Tier Smartphone is Created Equal

For many years, mid-tier devices were mostly designed as a stripped-down version of a higher-end device. Brands would start from a higher-end device and lower the feature-set to hit the price they thought was right. Often this meant that phones aimed at emerging markets did not quite feel as if they were designed for the users in that market. There was a disconnect between wants and needs and the product, which in turn was impacting what potential customers were prepared to pay. Another side effect of this lack of focus was that consumers might have preferred to opt for a refurbished or secondhand flagship product or a new but older version of that flagship model.

In the last couple of years, we have seen a drastic change in the way some top brands have been addressing the needs of consumers in this space. The drive behind this more targeted approach was born out of necessity as Chinese brands started to expand outside of China with a very aggressive pricing strategy. Brands like Huawei, Xiaomi and the brands in the BBK franchise were delivering smartphones showcasing features akin to a high-end device with a price point much closer to a mid-tier. Brands like Motorola started to bring to market more tailored mid-tier products and, as their position in the higher-end of the market weakened, they doubled down on product families like the Moto G and the Moto E.

But what could vendors with a robust high-end portfolio do to win share back and reinvigorate upgrades of a sizable part of the market? Well, in September 2018, Samsung’s Mobile CEO at the time, DJ Koh, made a decision that left some industry watchers puzzled. He announced a change in its mid-tier strategy. Koh wanted to bring to market new technology in its mid-tier portfolio first, rather than its flagship products, at first trying to appeal to the growing numbers of Millennials across the world who were in the market for a phone but saw flagship models just out of reach. Before the year was over, we saw the first example of what Koh envisioned in the Galaxy A8s, the first Samsung’s phone with an Infinity-O Hole-punch display. Then in early 2019, at an Unpacked -like launch event in Bangkok, Thailand and Milan, Italy, Samsung introduced the Galaxy A80 sporting Samsung’s first slide up triple camera system and an in-display fingerprint sensor. As the Galaxy A series grew, so did the number of countries where Samsung started to bring these products with skews that addressed both consumers’ needs and the competitive landscape.

The Times They Are a Changing in the US

Historically, the Galaxy A series phones you could purchase in the US were unlocked and mostly international models not optimized for the American networks or market dynamics. Earlier this month, Samsung announced a whole set of Galaxy A models that will come to the US market starting early this summer. In the portfolio, two models stand out the A71 5G and the A51 5G two devices that bring 5G to the $600 and $500 price points. As 5G networks continue to roll out, it is clear that carriers cannot only rely on high-end buyers to get their return on the huge infrastructure investment they made. At a similar time as Samsung’s announcement, we also had TCL confirm their TCL 10 line up, which included the TCL 10 5G prices at €399 or $488. Samsung’s strong brand, channel presence and marketing power will no doubt make TCL’s effort harder. Still, the opportunity in the market is sizable, sadly also due to the expected economic recession generated by the COVID-19 crisis.

This is not the first time that the smartphone market has faced an economic recession, but it is the first time such a recession happens at a time when there are no strong technology or market shifts. Back in 2008/2009, we were still at the very beginning of the smartphone market. Innovation around software, cameras and 4G technology were converging, giving consumers a solid reason to upgrade from their feature phones. Today most consumers have a capable smartphone already, it might not be the latest model, but it does the job. This means that, as their disposable income is restricted, if they need upgrading their phone, they will be driven by core purchase drivers such as display size and quality, camera and battery. For those consumers who are particularly pragmatic and usually hold on to their device for three to four years, they might also be interested in future-proofing their purchase when it comes to cellular and buying an affordable 5G device might look appealing. Bringing 5G into the mid-tier should also help Samsung lower the risk of churn towards the newly released second-generation iPhone SE.

The current economic environment might also bring to the US a trend that has been developing in Europe: the resurgence of the corporate-liable smartphones in the enterprise market. Having mid-tier devices that tick the box on crucial features will help organizations provide a full portfolio of options that are attractive to users. Samsung’s ability to have Samsung Knox support across the portfolio, including the Galaxy A series product, provides differentiation for enterprises looking at Android devices that have attractive features at a lower cost.

What About Cannibalization?

If you are a consumer, having options is great. If you are an investor or an industry watcher, however, you might be concerned about the cannibalization that products like the Galaxy A series and iPhone SE might bring to the flagship models. Well, you should not worry. I want to remind you of one point I made at the start of this article: the needs of consumers who could not afford a high-end phone have been met by older flagship models and secondhand phones. These will be the two main markets that will be impacted. Vendors will benefit from higher satisfaction and higher engagement that the newer features these mid-tier devices offer will drive in their users. In turn, that satisfaction and engagement might drive unique revenue opportunities from adjacent product categories like wearables or new services.

The Purposeful Nature of the iPhone SE

Today Apple introduced the highly rumored update to the iPhone SE. With a starting price of $399, Apple says in its press release that the second-generation iPhone SE embodies the core qualities of the original model affordability, compact size and, thanks to the A13 Bionic, performance. Of course, since the original iPhone SE, the market has changed quite a bit and so has the concept of a small size phone. Considering that today’s phones are as big as 6.7 inches, it clear that as cute as it is, a 4inch screen would have been too small for most people. I also think it is important to consider the type of customer who would be drawn to the updated iPhone SE because if there is a model that, in my view, has been designed with a purpose, it is this one. Do not get me wrong. Of course, Apple must consider the role that each model plays in its portfolio as well as the market. Still, usually, Apple does not narrow down the addressable market for a specific product. In the case of the iPhone SE, it is hard to neglect the most significant opportunity offered by much of the install base who is using a 4.7-inch iPhone. Whether it is the iPhone 6, the iPhone 7 or the iPhone 8, users have been accustomed to that size as well as features like the home button. It would be fair to characterize this user base as a more pragmatic one, that puts value on core features that have a long-lasting impact on their experience.

The Name

Leading up to today, the rumors on the name of Apple’s new phone were split between the iPhone 9 and the iPhone SE. Given the changes in the naming convention that we saw last September when Apple moved from the XR to the 11, one can understand why people thought we might have had an iPhone 9. At the time, I wrote:

“While not immediately evident at the start, it became clear that iPhone 11 is the new iPhone XR. The name is a smart move from Apple as it simplifies the naming convention but, even more so, because it does not label the product as inferior. You might not be able to afford the iPhone 11 Pro, or you might not see yourself as a pro user, but you do not feel like you are settling for a “second best” product by buying the iPhone 11.”

The iPhone SE feels like a different kind of product, though. It is not a model we should expect to be refreshed with the regular cadence we see in the rest of the portfolio. Instead, it’s a product that serves the purpose of getting the most pragmatic users to upgrade after holding on to their phones for years. These users might be coming from a hand-me-down or a secondhand iPhone or even be Android users looking for their first iPhone. Last September, I felt the new price of the iPhone XR at $599 and the iPhone 8 starting at $449 offered some great options for upgrades. But in some markets where installment plans are not as common or for those consumers on a tight budget, $50 makes a difference, so the new iPhone SE will certainly further widen the addressable market.

For Apple, upgrades are not only driving hardware sales nowadays, but they also assure that as many users as possible can take advantage of Apple’s new services, such as Apple TV+, which comes free for a year with the new iPhone SE.

Future Proof Purchase

Despite the irregular launch pattern of the iPhone SE, the model still fits into a portfolio and hitting the right price with the right features seems like a carefully balanced recipe. The iPhone SE offers a single camera system similar to the iPhone XR but with the computational capability of the A13 chip, which makes up for some of the limitations. The iPhone SE also starts with 64GB of memory compared to the meek 16GB of its predecessor, but now it also has a 128GB and 256GB at $449 and $549. At the higher configuration, the iPhone SE slides in where the iPhone 8 was and replaces it. Apple gave the iPhone SE wireless charging and fast charging (with the right adaptor), two features that are much appreciated by users and will allow the SE to better compete with similarly priced Android models. Finally, Touch ID instead of Face ID. While if you have an iPhone model with Face ID, you might never entertain the idea of going back to Touch ID (even with the current mask requirements) the consumers who are likely to be interested in the iPhone SE love their Touch ID.

If I had to guess when a good time for the next refresh of the iPhone SE might be, I would say that in another four years sounds like a good time considering that by then, 5G will be truly mass market.


Launching a product in the current environment is certainly not easy. I argued a few weeks ago, when Apple introduced the new iPad Pro, that this kind of device is likely to appeal to a segment of the market that might not be too concerned about the less favorable economic environment. In contrast, a more mainstream device like the iPhone SE, although competitively priced, might remain out of reach in the current uncertain economic climate. I was asked whether Apple should have delayed the launch further and to be honest, I am not sure if it would have made a difference if the economic downturn many are forecasting will materialize. It could be that Apple was hoping to have at least some stores open by now. The type of customers interested in the iPhone SE might be reluctant to purchase online without seeing the device first. That said, bringing a phone to market impacts the supply chain partners as well as the channel partners. Delaying any further might have had a channel domino effect on other products both from Apple and from other brands.

One last point on the iPhone SE is that it is one of those slow-burning models that will have a long-tail impact on sales and considering how much more we depend on technology the need for a phone that does the essentials well especially for consumers who use their phone as their primary computing device.