This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell discussing their experiences with Microsoft’s Surface Duo device, analyzing the launch of the second generation Motorola Razr foldable 5G phone, chatting about the details of the next generation XBox gaming console and previewing Apple’s Event for next week.
Podcast: Samsung Unpacked, T-Mobile 5G, Apple App Store, Microsoft-TikTok
This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell discussing the announcements from the Samsung Unpacked event, including their new Note 20 and Galaxy Z Fold 2 smartphones as well as their partnership with Microsoft on software and gaming services, chatting about T-Mobile’s launch of the world’s first 5G SA (Standalone) network, controversies around Apple’s App Store policy and cloud-based gaming services like Microsoft’s upcoming xCloud, and analyzing the potential purchase of TikTok by Microsoft.
Podcast: Microsoft Build, Work from Home Forever
This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell discussing the news as well as the structure of Microsoft’s recent virtual Build developer conference, as well as the trend of tech companies offering their employees the ability to work from home for as long as they would like.
Microsoft Project Reunion Widens Windows 10 Opportunity to One Billion Devices
Sometimes, things just take a little bit longer than expected. At Microsoft’s Build conference five years ago, the company made a widely reported prediction that the Windows 10 ecosystem would expand out to one billion devices over the course of a 2-3 year time period. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it by the original deadline, but just a few months ago they were finally able to announce that they had reached that ambitious milestone.
Appropriately, at this year’s virtual Build developer conference, the company made what could prove to be an even more impactful announcement that will allow developers to take full advantage of that huge installed base. In short, the company unveiled something they call Project Reunion that will essentially make it easier for a variety of different types of Windows applications—built via different programming models—to run more consistently and more effectively across more devices.
Before getting into the details, a bit of context is in order. Back in 2015 when then Executive VP Terry Myerson made the one billion prediction, Microsoft’s OS efforts were more grandiose than simply for PCs. The company was still actively pursuing the smartphone market with Windows Phone, had just unveiled the first HoloLens concept devices and Surface Hub, talked about the role that Xbox One had in its OS plans, and generally was thinking more about a multi-device world for its then new OS.
Looking back now, it’s clear that we indeed entered an era of multiple devices, but the only ones that ended up having a significant impact on the Windows 10 installed base number turned out to be PCs in all flavors and forms, from desktops and laptops, to 2-in-1s and convertibles like the original Surface. In fact, the nearly complete reliance on PCs is undoubtedly why it took longer to reach the one billion goal.
In retrospect, however, that’s actually a good thing, because there are now approximately one billion relatively similar devices for which developers can create applications, instead of a mixed group of devices that were more related to Windows 10 in name than true capability. Even with this large similar grouping, however, not all applications for Windows 10 were created or function in the same way. Because of some of Microsoft’s early bets on device diversity under the Windows 10 umbrella, they made decisions about promoting a more basic (and legacy-free) application development architecture that they hoped would ensure that applications ran across this wide range of devices. Specifically, Microsoft promoted the concept of Universal Windows Platform (UWP) APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) and a number of developers took them up on these initiatives.
At this point, however, because of some of the limitations in UWP, there really isn’t much need (or demand) for these efforts, hence Project Reunion. At a basic level, the goal with Project Reunion is to provide the complete set of Windows 10 capabilities (the Win32 or Windows APIs) to applications originally created around the UWP concept—in essence to “reunite” the two application development platforms and their respective APIs into a single, more modern Windows platform. This, in turn, allows programmers to have a more consistent means of interaction between their apps and the Windows 10 operating system, regardless of the approach they first took to create the application. In addition, thanks to a number of extensions that Microsoft is making to that model, it allows developers to create more modern, web and service-friendly applications.
Specifically, for example, Project Reunion is going to enable something the company is calling WinUI 3 Preview 1, which is a new framework for building modern, fast, flexible user interfaces that can easily scale across different devices. By leveraging the open-source, multi-OS friendly Fluent Design-based tools, developers can actually achieve an even more widespread reach not only across different Windows 10-based devices, but those running other OS’s as well. Plus, thanks to hooks into previous development platforms, developers can use these UI tools to modernize the look of existing apps as well as build new ones.
Another specific element of Project Reunion is WebView 2, which is a set of tools that lets developers easily integrate native web content within an app and even integrate with browsers across different platforms. As with WinUI 3 and the new more modern Windows APIs, WebView 2 isn’t locked to any version of Windows, giving developers more flexibility in leveraging their application’s codebase across multiple platforms.
Microsoft also announced new extensions that allow Windows developers to tap into services built into Microsoft 365 such as Microsoft Search and Microsoft Graph. This allows developers to create a modern web service-like application that can leverage the capabilities and data that Microsoft’s tools provide and offer extensions and connections to the company’s widely used SaaS offerings.
The Project Reunion capabilities look to finally complete the picture around the one billion device installed base that the company promised, but in a much different way than most people originally thought. Interestingly, thanks to the growing importance and influence of the PC—a point that’s really been brought home in our current environment—there’s arguably a less diverse set of Windows 10-based devices to specifically code for than most predicted. However, the new tools and capabilities promised for Project Reunion potentially allow developers to create applications for that entire base, instead of a smaller subset that realistically was all that was possible from the original UWP efforts.
Additionally, because of Microsoft’s significantly more open approach to application developments and open source in general since that 2015 announcement, the range of devices that Windows-based developers can target is now significantly broader than even that impressive one billion figure. Obviously delivering on that promise is a lot harder than simply defining the vision, but it’s certainly interesting to see how Microsoft continues to keep the world of Windows fresh and relevant. Throw in the fact that a new version of Windows—10X—is on the horizon, and it’s clear that 2020, and beyond, is going to be an interesting time for a platform that many had written off, albeit incorrectly, as irrelevant.
Microsoft 365 Shift Demonstrates Evolution of Cloud-Based Services
If there’s one piece of software that has held up remarkably well over several decades, it’s Microsoft’s Office suite of productivity apps. From business to personal life, the applications in Office have proven their value time and time again to people all over the world. Perhaps because of that, Microsoft has used Office as a means to push forward the definition of what software is, how it should be delivered, how it should be sold, what platforms it should run on, and much more over the last decade or so.
In June of 2011, for example, the company officially unveiled Office 365, which provided access to all the same applications in the regular suite but in a subscription-like “service” form that was delivered (and updated) via the internet. Since then, the company has added new features and functions to the service, made it available to mobile platforms such as Android and iOS, in addition to Windows and MacOS, and generally used it as a means to expand how people think about applications they use on a regular basis. In the process, Microsoft has made many people comfortable with the idea of cloud-based software becoming a cloud-based service.
Yesterday, the company took the next step in the evolution of the product and renamed the consumer, as well as the small and medium business versions of Office 365 to Microsoft 365—changes that will all occur on April 21. The name change is obviously a subtle one, but beyond the title, the changes run much deeper. Specifically, the new brand reflects how the set of applications that make up the company’s popular subscription-based offering is evolving. It also reflects how the company itself is changing.
In the case of the SMB versions of Microsoft 365, the name change is simply a branding one, which better reflects that the service includes more than just basic office productivity, particularly with the Teams collaboration tools and service. For the new consumer-oriented Personal and Family versions of Microsoft 365, the changes are more extensive.
Notably, the consumer versions of Microsoft 365 include the addition of several new applications, a number of AI-powered intelligent enhancements to existing applications and—in an important first for Microsoft—some mobile-first advancements. The new version of the Microsoft Editor function works across Word, Outlook.com, and the web, and is essentially a Grammarly competitor that moves beyond simple spell and grammar checking to making AI-powered rewriting suggestions, avoiding plagiarism and more.
The AI-based Designer feature in PowerPoint—which I have found to be incredibly useful—has been enhanced in this latest version of Microsoft 365 to support a wider array of content that it can “beautify” and includes support for a greatly expanded library of supplementary graphics, videos, fonts and templates.
The biggest change to Excel is the forthcoming addition of Money for Excel, an add-in that gives it Quicken-like money and account management features. In addition, working in conjunction with Wolfram Alpha, Microsoft is adding in support for over 100 new “smart” data types that makes it significantly easier to track everything from calories to travel locations and more. In essence, it provides the type of intelligence that people may have expected computing devices and applications to have all along.
The addition of both Teams (for Consumers) and Family Safety are interesting because of the capabilities they bring to the service and because both will launch first on mobile OSes—Android and iOS. Microsoft has had mobile versions of its main productivity suite apps, as well as its One Drive storage service for a while now, but this Microsoft 365 launch marks the first time the company will debut new apps in mobile form. On the one hand, the move is logical and not terribly surprising given how much people use their mobile devices today—particularly for communications and tracking, which are the core functions of Teams and Family Safety respectively. Nevertheless, it’s still noteworthy, because it does show how Microsoft has been able to pivot on its typical “deliver on PC first” strategy and keep itself as relevant as possible.
In the case of Teams, the company isn’t replicating its Enterprise version, but instead has developed a consumer-focused edition that allows for real-time chats, document sharing, creating and tracking lists, and more in a manner that should make sense for most consumers. Family Safety is completely new and allows parents to provide limits and controls on digital device usage and content, as well as track the physical location and even driving of other family members. Importantly, Microsoft made the point to say that it’s doing all these things without sharing (or certainly not selling) any of this information to auto insurance companies, advertisers or any other companies. While the company would have undoubtedly created a bit of an outcry if it did any of that, it was still reassuring to hear a big tech vendor emphasize these privacy and security-focused concerns. Let’s hope all major tech vendors follow suit.
Speaking of privacy and security, Microsoft took the opportunity with its Microsoft 365 launch announcement to also unveil the latest version of Microsoft Edge, the company’s significantly improved browser. In addition to several convenience-based features, such as the addition of vertical tabs, smart copying from web pages, and the ability to easily create portable “collections” of content from web-based sources, the company debuted some important privacy features as well. Password Monitor, for example, can automatically track whether any of your logins are available on the dark web and encourage you to change your passwords on sites where that may have occurred. Given the huge number of security breaches and data exposure that have impacted almost all of us at this point, this could prove to be an incredibly valuable new feature. In addition, the company added refined tracking controls that allows you to set the amount information you are willing to share with other websites as a result of your browsing sessions.
All told, it was a pretty impressive set of announcements that highlights how Microsoft has managed to continue adjusting its strategies to match the changing needs of the market and its customers. Of course, many consumers will still be content using the free versions of the basic Office applications and services that Microsoft will continue to make available even after April 21. However, the functionality that the company has built into its new Microsoft 365 Personal and Family offerings will be compelling enough for many to make the switch, and the success that the Office suite of applications has enjoyed for so long will continue with the new Microsoft 365.
Microsoft Cortana Pivot Highlights Evolving Role of Voice-Based Computing
Ever since the debut of multiple voice-based digital assistants—including Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana among others—there have been questions about how many the market could realistically support and what specific role these AI-powered tools could play.
As time has passed, it’s become clear that Alexa and Google Assistant have become the dominant forces in the “general” assistant market—where you basically can ask a wide variety of different questions—with Siri continuing to remain an important, but much less influential player. Microsoft’s Cortana, on the other hand (and Samsung’s Bixby, among others) has faded from prominence, primarily because of its initial positioning as a PC-focused assistant. Despite some interesting potential, it turns out that not many people are interested in interacting with personal assistants on PCs—it’s much more natural and convenient on smartphones and other types of mobile devices, and it’s more critical on devices that don’t have any screens.
Despite these setbacks, Microsoft clearly recognized that the technology behind Cortana was very sound. In fact, there have been some studies that have shown Cortana was the most accurate digital assistant for certain types of inquiries. However, the company also acknowledged that it’s AI-powered voice computing platform needed to be used and positioned in a different way in order to have the biggest possible impact. As a result, at its annual Ignite developer conference, Microsoft debuted several new ways to interact with Cortana that reflect the realities of how most people prefer to invoke digital assistants—on mobile devices. In addition, and arguably even more importantly, this pivot also reflects a more mature perspective on the evolution of voice-based computing and points the way towards more focused, and more refined applications of the technology.
Specifically, Microsoft announced the ability to use Cortana within the iOS version of Outlook (with Android support coming in spring of 2020) to read back and reply to emails purely by voice, as well as to help schedule meetings and organize calendars using natural language requests. It’s clearly a much smaller set of requirements than would be placed on a general-purpose digital assistant, but the end result will (hopefully!) be an accurate and thorough delivery of those capabilities. In other words, instead of trying to go wide, Microsoft clearly wants to go deep and leverage its AI capabilities in a category (personal information management) and an application in which it has an extremely strong legacy. While ultimate success or failure will be determined by the execution of the idea, strategically this repositioning of Cortana makes a great deal of sense.
Remember that one of Microsoft’s biggest efforts over the last several years has been the development of what it calls the Microsoft Graph—a collection of data about an individual user’s productivity habits, documents, device usage patterns and virtually every aspect of his/her working life that can be gathered. By leveraging the Graph data in an intelligent way, the AI-powered capabilities driving Cortana should have a very rich data set from which to learn. That, in turn, should give this more focused version of Cortana the ability to deliver well-informed, intelligent responses that provide a richer, more robust experience than a general-purpose digital assistant could. Again, the proof will be in the pudding, but the concept of what Microsoft is attempting makes perfect sense.
Microsoft is also leveraging its strength in the business environment with these additions to Cortana, instead of focusing on the consumer market, as most of the other digital assistant platforms have. To that end, Microsoft said that it plans to bring more productivity and enterprise-specific additions to Cortana through upcoming integration with Teams and other parts of the Office 365 (O365) suite of services. In essence, the company is using Cortana as an AI brain that can be leveraged to help bring more intelligence to O365 users. It’s a more specialized approach that, frankly, Samsung would be wise to follow with its Bixby voice platform, which has similar challenges when it comes to rates of adoption.
Initially, many viewed voice-based digital assistants as general-purpose platforms that were essentially capable of responding to most any type of query. As the technology and marketplace have evolved, however, it increasingly appears that there are going to be opportunities for many different types of voice-based computing platforms, some of which are optimized for specific functions, just as there are many different types of people who have specialized knowledge in different areas. It’s still not entirely clear how these various assistant platforms and voice computing models will interact with one another (and how they’ll avoid stepping on each other), but the notion of a winner-take-all approach for voice-based digital assistants looks increasingly unlikely as time goes by. Instead, as Microsoft has demonstrated here, it’s time to start thinking about a multi-platform voice computing world.
Podcast: Microsoft Surface Launch Event
This week’s Tech.pinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell analyzing the announcements from Microsoft’s recent Surface hardware launch event and discussing their impact on the future of devices, semiconductors and operating systems.
Podcast: Microsoft Build 2019, Google I/O 2019
This week’s Tech.pinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell analyzing the announcements from the big developer conferences hosted by Microsoft and Google, including advancements in smart assistants, browser privacy, and more.
If you happen to use a podcast aggregator or want to add it to iTunes manually the feed to our podcast is: techpinions.com/feed/podcast
Microsoft Bot Frameworks Enable Custom Voice Assistants
If you’ve read much about the concept of digital transformation, you’ve probably heard the idea that all companies are becoming tech companies because of the overwhelming influence that technology is having on industries of all types. On one hand, this makes sense, because technologies like cloud computing, AI, and more are enabling a level of involvement with customers and partners that simply wasn’t possible without them. On the other hand, the practical realities are that most companies don’t have the in-house technical expertise to deliver on that promise. This is particularly true with regard to the more advanced technologies—like voice-based digital assistants—that today’s tech industry leaders are starting to offer.
At the company’s Build developer’s conference in Seattle, Microsoft announced important efforts designed to bridge the gap by democratizing the use of technologies like AI and natural language processing in “non-tech-native” companies. The company delivered AI and cloud computing-related enhancements at this year’s conference that ranged from autonomous systems to IoT and beyond. The ones I believe will have the most important long-term impact, however, are those that allow regular organizations and IT people who aren’t data scientists to take advantage of these powerful new technologies. Features like Intellicode, which is built into the latest 16.1 release of their Visual Studio programming application, eases the process of creating AI-enhanced apps, and the new enhancements to their Azure chat bot frameworks look to be particularly interesting.
Voice-based personal assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana have had a particularly profound impact on the consumer market, but many businesses immediately recognized that they had important potential applications in business as well. To that end, we’ve seen initiatives like Alexa for Business get unveiled, as well as a number of efforts to create automated chatbots for online support and other applications. One of the challenges that companies who want to use these capabilities face, however, is that the “partner” provider—such as Amazon in the case of Alexa for Business—becomes the means by which customers interact with their products. So, for example, a car maker that integrates Alexa into one of their automobiles would lose the direct interaction between their brand and their customer. Needless to say, while that’s great for Amazon, it’s not ideal for the car manufacturer.
In order to overcome that gap, Microsoft announced a number of enhancements to their bot frameworks that essentially allow customers to put their own brand back into the conversation, but leverage Microsoft’s natural language processing and conversational AI tools in the background. In essence, Microsoft is serving as a platform provider and allowing partner companies like BMW and Coca-Cola to “white label” these technologies in their own products. So, for example, BMW can offer its customers a voice assistant in its new high-end cars, but the entire experience is BMW-branded and BMW-controlled.
This voice-based customization strategy looks to be a particularly smart move for Microsoft, because the company has had little success in getting people to regularly use their Cortana assistant. At this year’s Build, Microsoft did demonstrate an impressive business-focused application of Cortana, that showed it taking some important steps to becoming a truly useful personal assistant (as opposed to more of a gimmicky reminder setting tool). Thanks to new technology it acquired when it purchased a company called Semantic Machines last year, Cortana is adding the ability to switch between contexts, take specific actions and generally respond in a significantly more intuitive manner.
But the beauty of Microsoft’s platform-type approach for conversational AI means that while Microsoft Cortana-branded features will have these capabilities, eventually, so too will other customers who want to integrate a responsive, effective voice-based UI into their products and services but in the context of their own brand. Frankly, it’s a classic example of Microsoft thinking more about the platform opportunities these types of services can enable than simply the Microsoft-branded functionality that something like Cortana can provide.
As AI pervades all types of applications, industries, and products, it just makes sense that we’re going to end up with a very diverse set of voice-based assistants across a wide range of products. While Alexa or Google Assistant-branded assistants will certainly be appealing for certain users and/or certain devices (and could end up with a larger individual share of the total market than, say, Cortana or any specific application of Microsoft technology) the combined opportunity for voice assistants is likely going to be so large that individual offerings won’t matter as much. That larger opportunity is what Microsoft appears to be targeting with these new efforts, and while only time will tell, it certainly seems to be a strong strategic move on the company’s part.
We’re still in the very early days of voice-based UIs and other AI-powered capabilities, but it feels like we’re starting to get a better glimpse into how these markets are evolving (and how non-tech companies can take advantage of these capabilities and customize them for their own purposes). The image ahead looks exciting.
Microsoft and Partners Evolve the Modern Enterprise Desktop
The concept of a business PC and the digital environment it enabled used to be pretty easy to understand. You bought a PC from a vendor like Dell, HP, or Lenovo, installed a copy of Windows and a copy of Microsoft Office on it, connected it to the network, and you were basically done.
Today, however, there is an enormous array of different solutions to bring that same type of functionality to life for the modern business worker. From different types of buying, leasing, and hardware “as a service” business models for physically acquiring the PC, to several means of delivering the Windows desktop to a given device, to multiple choices of productivity suites and means of interacting with documents created with those tools, the modern enterprise desktop has become a surprisingly complex topic.
At the recent Microsoft Ignite event in Orlando, FL, the company provided yet more ways to deliver a digital workspace experience to today’s devices. First, Microsoft joined the growing movement of companies offering physical devices as a service with their Microsoft Managed Desktops solution. Like other device-as-a-service (DaaS) offerings from the big PC vendors, the Microsoft solution provides access to branded hardware products and cloud-based support and device management services for a monthly fee. Initially, the company is offering their own Surface Pros, but eventually they plan to make other PC brands available as well. In addition, Microsoft is providing some important (though likely expensive) differentiation by also bundling Microsoft 365, which includes Windows, Office 365, and integrated security features, as well as ongoing support for all that software, as part of the package.
For those who already have the PCs they need and prefer a virtual desktop offering, the company also launched Windows Virtual Desktop, which includes licenses for Windows 10 and Office 365 bundled together and hosted on the cloud by Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform. This is the company’s first VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) initiative under their own brand, and it delivers a secure and managed Windows desktop to whatever PCs a company has connected. Unfortunately, the industry has fallen into the naming trap of also calling this DaaS, but in this context, it means Desktop-as-a-Service, which is entirely different (though conceptually related) to the other Device-as-a-Service. In both cases, companies are getting access to a Windows desktop for their employees, but through entirely different means. Needless to say, this naming issue is a serious challenge that can trip up IT professionals, vendors, and industry observers who often end up talking in circles before they recognize the confusion.
Despite the naming issues, however, the fact that Microsoft is now offering their own version of a managed Windows desktop via the cloud is actually a big step forward for the company and the whole concept of virtualized computing models. Many companies have large investments not only in lots of Microsoft software, but also service and support relationships, and this new offering will give companies who want to move for moving some of the tedium of desktop management, updating, etc., to a partner like Microsoft.
In the process of developing this solution, the company was careful not to cut out partners, such as Citrix, who have had desktop-as-a-service offerings for some time. In fact, Citrix just announced a new partnership with Microsoft that extends from being a Microsoft certified Cloud Services Provider through a variety of channel and service offerings. As part of it, they will offer a new version of Citrix Workspace offering that builds on Microsoft’s Windows Virtual Desktop offering. In addition, they will be developing a new DaaS solution that leverages Windows Virtual Desktop but also includes Citrix’ extended capabilities for multi-device support, app virtualization, app management, desktop management, and integration with other Citrix tools.
On the Office side of the desktop experience, Microsoft announced a number of important new initiatives that add more contextual intelligence and overall smarts to the applications. While it’s hard to imagine finding new capabilities that don’t already exist in the feature-laden MS Office suite, the all-inclusive search capabilities delivered via Microsoft Search, as well as the AI-driven Ideas functions look to be attractive new add-ons for most users. Integrating enterprise-wide search across Office 365 lets users get access not only to files, but even elements of files, such as charts and data, that can be incorporated into their own documents, which can be a huge help in many organizations. Ideas builds on the concepts found in the AI-powered Designer feature introduced in PowerPoint last year and helps make suggestions not just on elegant designs, but spelling, consistencies, and other details that just make using the applications feel smarter. I’ve been an active user of Designer, and I look forward to how the Ideas instantiation of the concept extends the capabilities even further.
In addition, Microsoft has incorporated Ideas into Excel by adding what look to be some very clever new capabilities that can look for patterns and anomalies in data. For those of us who work with large sets of data, these capabilities can be both incredibly powerful and tremendous time savers.
Altogether, the combination of new ways to deliver Windows and Office experiences in easier (and smarter) ways adds up to a surprisingly useful set of additions to what many often perceive as a very slow-moving market. They also highlight how the combination of the cloud and AI are extending their influence well beyond more esoteric applications of the technology into our day-to-day computing experiences. From my perspective, that’s definitely an important step forward for us all.
Here’s a link to the original column:
Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
Bringing Vision to the Edge
In case you haven’t been paying attention recently, one of the hottest topics in the tech industry is the concept of “the edge.” Virtually every major tech company has been talking about their strategic approach to this new method of computing recently, and the announcements are bound to keep coming.
Standalone PCs are an example of edge devices, but when most companies talk about the edge, they really mean things like drones, smart home gadgets, sensor-based industrial devices, autonomous cars, and so on. While these devices can—and often do— connect to the Internet, they can also compute independently, courtesy of built-in x86 processors or Arm-based microcontrollers, and embedded software.
At Microsoft’s Build developer conference in Seattle, the company had a particularly strong focus on what they term the “intelligent edge” and touted it as one of the next major revolutions in computing. The “intelligent” moniker stems from the use of AI, machine learning and other advanced computing concepts in these edge devices, bringing a whole new level of capability—and attention—to them.
As appealing as the concept of intelligent edge computing may be, however, there have been some real challenges in enabling the potential of these new devices. The biggest issue is around creating software to run on the often novel architectures used inside of them. To that end, Microsoft has been making a great deal of effort both on the platform side, as well as the application development side.
Because there are a wide range of different devices with various levels of sophistication and diverse amounts of hardware, Microsoft now has several platform choices, including Windows 10 IoT Core, Windows 10 IoT Enterprise, and Azure IoT Edge Runtime, which the company is now open-sourcing. The Azure Runtime offering, in particular, is ideally suited for the enormous array of smart products appearing everywhere from our homes to hospitals to factories, farms and more.
Technically, the Runtime is collection of programs that runs on top of the various types of Linux, Windows or other embedded operating systems found in these smart devices, hence the name. What it does is create a common platform for which applications can be created. Without the consistent capabilities enabled by the Azure IoT Edge Runtime, developers would have to create new or different versions of their applications for each potential hardware/software combination—an impossible task.
In addition to this common base, Microsoft’s Azure IoT Edge Runtime leverages the same cloud-based computing platform offered by “regular” Azure that the company uses in its cloud computing offerings. This is very important for developers because it means they can use the same development tools and methodologies that they use for cloud-based programming models, including containers, to create software for these intelligent edge devices. This, in turn, makes it much easier for companies to build edge applications without needing people with entirely new types of programming skills.
Microsoft used their Azure platform approach to build and release a set of AI-based computer vision processing tools called Custom Vision that can leverage cameras and Qualcomm-based image processing silicon on edge devices. Part of what Microsoft calls Azure Cognitive Services, Custom Vision essentially brings “eyes” to the edge, letting companies build applications that react to visual information that these smart edge devices see—without needing a connection to the cloud.
A great example of this showed off Microsoft’s new partnership with DJI, the world’s largest drone maker. Using a DJI drone running Custom Vision on Azure Edge IoT Runtime, the two companies showed how you could create an app that would be capable of seeing and visually annotating (in real time) anomalies or other faults on a pipe that was being inspected by a drone. Microsoft is also working with DJI to build a Software Development Kit (SDK) for Windows 10 devices that allows for the creation of flight control and real-time vision or sensor-based applications for DJI drones.
With Qualcomm, Microsoft announced a vision AI developer kit that uses Azure Machine Learning services to create vision-aware applications for edge devices that can be accelerated by Qualcomm silicon and the Qualcomm Vision Intelligence Platform and Qualcomm AI Engine software tools that they have created. In practical terms, this means that developers could create applications such as smart home visual doorbells or security cameras equipped with certain Qualcomm chips to recognize specific objects, or individuals, and react appropriately—such as providing security notifications only if a person isn’t “known” to the household, and so on.
What’s particularly intriguing about this example, is that it’s one of the first of what will likely be many AI edge applications that can take advantage of the unique characteristics of certain types of silicon. Look for many more accelerated AI edge applications to come.
The potential opportunities with intelligent edge computing are already enormous, and that’s why there is now tremendous excitement within the tech industry about how these technologies can be applied. There’s still several hurdles ahead and a fair amount of work involved, but real progress is being made. As Microsoft demonstrated, we’re starting to see some critical strategic steps towards simplification on what can be a very complex topic. As a result, it shouldn’t be long before a much broader range of developers can start leveraging capabilities such as vision on the edge. When they do, the kinds of applications and services we can enjoy are going to be amazing.
Microsoft Takes Computing to the Extremes
Sometimes, context and comparison can really make a difference. At the company’s combined Envision and Ignite events in Orlando this week for both business and IT professionals, Microsoft showed off its ability to reach the extremes of computing. It talked about both new low-end (sub-$300) Windows 10 S-based notebooks, as well as entirely new types of computing with a circuit board, prototype device, and programming language built for a functioning quantum computer.
On a practical level, the new Windows 10 S devices coming soon from HP, Lenovo, and Acer are probably a much better iteration of what 10 S-based computers should look like. Recall that Windows 10 S is a “simplified” or cleaned-up version of Windows 10 that can only run modern Windows 10 applications available from the Microsoft store, and was (until now) primarily targeted towards the education market. Specifically, the apps must comply with all the “rules” that Microsoft has defined for the most optimized performance and long-term stability on Windows.
In theory, 10 S is a great idea that can rid the world of problematic applications, allow PCs to run faster and more consistently and, best of all, avoid the inevitable Windows “rot” that slows your computer down as you use it over a period of time. In reality, however, there are a lot of applications that don’t conform to all of Microsoft’s rules—especially in business environments, where custom applications are extremely common.
Not surprisingly, as a result, 10 S has seen relatively little adoption in the enterprise, even though Microsoft initially tried to drive a higher-end view of 10 S by installing it on the pricey Surface Laptop. With this week’s announcement, however, Microsoft is targeting Windows 10 S at what it calls firstline workers—everyone from receptionists, to sales clerks, and 2 billion others who are often the people that first interact with a business’ customers on the front lines. The argument is that many of these workers have more simplistic computing needs, so a less expensive, less powerful, and less flexible device will still be more than sufficient.
While it’s easy to pick apart some elements of Microsoft’s position, frankly, this is the same group of workers that companies who build and sell thin clients have successfully focused on for years. At least with these new Windows 10 S notebooks they get a mobile computer and local storage—two key detractors against thin clients. Plus, it comes at a price point that is actually cheaper than some desktop-only thin clients. Finally, and most importantly, one of the real distinguishing parts of this new offering is a low-cost version of Microsoft 365, which combines Microsoft’s Office 365 productivity applications, along with security and manageability services. Taken together, it’s a pretty compelling package that I think will finally bring some life and opportunity to Windows 10 S in business.
At the other extreme, Microsoft’s announcements on quantum computing were absolutely revolutionary. The company has chosen to follow the path of topological quantum computing—apparently, one of several options being researched around the world—and discussed an array of extremely complex math, physics, and computer science challenges coming together via a 12-year effort.
Using a vocabulary that practically sounded like a foreign language—qubits, Majorana fermions, decoherence, etc.—the company described its efforts to turn mathematical theory into practical reality via a chip that can perform quantum calculations, a steampunk-looking computing device that operates at near absolute zero (the extreme cold is currently necessary to manipulate qubits), and even a programming language built into Microsoft’s Visual Basic programming environment that can create algorithms designed for quantum computing applications.
All told, it was an extremely impressive, though still confusing, discussion of where the next several decades of computing will likely be focused. To make it a bit more practical, the company even announced the ability to create quantum computing algorithms that, for now at least, can be simulated on the Azure cloud computing platform.
While Microsoft never made any comparisons between the low-cost Windows 10 S notebooks and quantum computing announcements, as an event attendee, you couldn’t help but notice how stark the difference was between them. Some might argue that the range was a bit too wide, but it reflects the breadth of Satya Nadella’s vision for Microsoft, and how the company has extended its idea of computing across an enormously broad spectrum of possibilities.
Podcast: Microsoft Build 2017
This week’s Tech.pinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi, Ben Bajarin and Bob O’Donnell discussing Microsoft’s Build 2017 event and the implications it has on platforms and key technologies like AR and VR.
If you happen to use a podcast aggregator or want to add it to iTunes manually the feed to our podcast is: techpinions.com/feed/podcast
Microsoft’s Two-Pronged Approach to Education
On Tuesday, Microsoft held an event in New York where it presented its new version of Windows called Windows 10 S as well as the new Surface Laptop. With the combination of the two, plus apps targeted at teachers and educators, Microsoft is hoping to gain traction in the K-12 as well as higher education.
In January 2017 at the BETT show in London, Microsoft announced “Intune for Education” which delivered a simple device management solution for schools that can customize over 150 settings, apply them to hardware and apps, and assign them to a student so they “follow” any device they use as they log in. Microsoft also announced a partnership with Acer, HP, and Lenovo to bring to market Windows 10 PCs starting at $189 including some 2-in-1s.
Chromebooks have been steadily growing in US education market which, according to FutureSource Consulting, represented close to 13 million units in 2016, of which 58% were Chromebooks. While most of the commentary around Chromebooks’ success rests on hardware pricing, there is a lot in the simplicity of the platform that is a big appeal for schools. However, with prices as low as $120, competing against Chromebooks is not an easy task.
Windows 10 S aims at taking Microsoft a step further from what we have seen thus far, especially when it comes to the initial set up of devices and subsequent management. By stripping down Windows 10 to its essential components and granting access to only store apps, Microsoft is hoping to deliver the simplicity schools are looking for.
Windows 10 S will need OEM Support to make a Difference
The battle in education is, however, a Windows/Microsoft battle for now, not an OEM battle, as most Microsoft hardware partners are selling Chromebooks. While Microsoft announced a list of partners that will bring to market Windows 10 S devices, the commitment will be judged on how many models, channel support, and overall push we will see from brands such as HP, Acer, and Dell.
No details have been given on the royalty OEMs will pay Microsoft for preloading Windows 10 S and how that differs from Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro. Nor have we heard whether Microsoft will help in any other way, such as marketing, to position the devices. My guess is Microsoft will have to do something, at least initially, so that Windows 10 S actually gets a shot to prove itself.
The Surface Laptop competes with the MacBook Air not Chromebooks
Looking at the Surface Laptop Microsoft announced during the event and dismissing Microsoft’s chances to compete against Chromebooks is a mistake. Surface Laptop, in my mind, has a different role to play.
First, it plays to Millennials’ need for a laptop form factor vs. a 2-in-1 or a tablet. In a recent study Creative Strategies conducted in the US, college students clearly shared their preference for a traditional laptop form factor with 73% primarily using a laptop when working on a school or work project.
Second, the Surface Laptop aims at picking up higher ed students who, in the past, might have picked up a MacBook Air. Eighty-eight percent of Mac users in the Creative Strategy study said they would pick a Mac if their employer offered them a choice. 9% said they would pick a Surface. Surface was the only Windows-based brand to register any real interest among the overall panel with 16% of Millennials mentioning Surface as the brand they would choose. If we exclude Apple from the brand option and only consider brands within the Windows ecosystem, then the preference for Surface grew to 43%. If you are not convinced, just watch the video Microsoft played at the launch. It is a love affair between you, the user, and Surface Laptop. They could not have made it more personal if they tried. I guarantee you, that is not how a school administrator picks hardware.
Lastly, Surface Laptop can appeal to those enterprises invested in the Windows ecosystem but who are looking for more affordable Surface hardware and a more traditional form factor. If they have not yet embraced Windows 10 apps, enterprises can upgrade Surface Laptop to Windows 10 Pro.
Windows 10 S has a Role to Play Outside Education
While the focus of Microsoft’s event was education, I see Windows 10 S playing a role in other areas as well, although Microsoft did the right thing by not talking about it at the event. People need time to get their head around Windows 10 S and trying to make it something for everybody would have been too confusing.
I see Windows 10 S as the modern implementation of the Windows ecosystem, one that puts Windows 10 apps right in the middle of the experience. Because of this, I see Windows 10 S appealing to consumers who want a mobile-first experience and are not concerned about support for legacy apps. I also see Windows 10 S potentially appealing to enterprises that have already transitioned to a Windows 10 app environment.
From a consumer perspective, I hope to hear more from Microsoft next week at Build how they are planning to help developers invest more in Store apps. This is going to make a huge difference in how users see their devices going forward – productivity only to one-stop device for both work and play. There is no question Microsoft has been putting a lot of effort in first party apps but more needs to be done for developers so the vision of inking, mixed reality, and 3D printing is brought to life sooner rather than later.
As to be expected, a lot of attention was given to Surface and the Windows 10 S but the other tools Microsoft launched today, such as Minecraft Code Builder, Microsoft Teams for education, and the STEM programs and camps really show the full commitment, not just to education but to the next generation of Windows users.
Microsoft Takes Another Shot at Windows on ARM
At its Windows Hardware Engineering Community (WinHEC) event in Shenzhen, China this week, Microsoft announced a partnership with processor vendor Qualcomm that will bring Windows 10 to the ARM platform. It’s an interesting, if widely expected, move that sets the stage for some unique new Windows products going forward.
Of course, Microsoft has been here before. Back in October 2012, when the company launched the ill-fated Windows 8 for traditional X86 platforms (Intel and AMD), the company also launched the Windows RT operating system, running on Surface RT (as well as a few partner devices). This ARM-based version of the OS looked like Windows and even mostly acted like Windows. But it couldn’t do the one thing everybody expected Windows to do: Run years of legacy X86 applications. While Microsoft tried to make up for this by creating a special Windows RT version of Office, other application vendors failed to follow and, after several years of poor performance in the market, Microsoft quietly ended support for WinRT.
Neither Microsoft nor Qualcomm has disclosed the specifics of how Windows 10 runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor except to say this time out they’re using emulation technology. Emulation is a process that essentially tells the operating system it’s running on X86 when in fact it is running on ARM. The industry has used emulation for years, often as a stop gap measure when shifting from one technology to another. Traditionally, emulation has solved the problem of legacy apps, but at a significant cost to performance. If we believe Microsoft’s online videos of Windows 10 running on Qualcomm, there appears to be plenty of headroom in the Snapdragon processor to account for this. Performance looks robust and during the demonstration, the presenter launched and used several legacy X86 applications with no apparent performance penalties. I look forward to testing this firsthand in the future.
Why Revisit ARM?
While Microsoft’s decision to do the work required to bring Windows 10 to ARM is significant, it’s worth noting it has had a version of Windows running on the platform continuously since well before it launched, and ultimately killed, Windows RT. It’s called Windows Phone and at present, its smartphone market share is hovering around 0.2% percent, as Microsoft has all but exited the market. Clearly, Microsoft realized Windows Phone was a dead end but it felt Windows 10 on the platform could still be viable.
It’s an interesting decision and one with multiple potential implications. A primary one, cited by Microsoft in its announcement, is the desire to enable highly mobile, power efficient, and always-connected cellular PCs. That last element—always connected—is something I’ve been arguing I’d like to see from PC vendors for ages. Microsoft apparently sees Qualcomm’s chips as a key element to making this more viable in the market. The company also announced it would enable eSIM technology it says will let vendors ship products with no SIM slot, as well as let customers activate data plans on the device.
Second, the company clearly sees value in driving competition in the silicon space. Back in 2012, Windows RT was most certainly Microsoft reacting to its relative displeasure with the slow progress of X86 toward more mobile, lower-power processors. That frustration likely hasn’t entirely abated. As in all markets, competition is good for consumers and, in this case, Microsoft (and its hardware partners) are the consumers of X86 and ARM processors.
Third, Microsoft is trying to anticipate the future of personal computers. One such future may comprise the ultimate in convergence where one device acts as phone + notebook + desktop. For some time, there have been rumors of a Surface Phone; rumors that didn’t make much sense when Microsoft seemed to be abandoning Windows Phone. That version of Windows has always been a non-starter for business because it can’t run the legacy X86 apps needed by most companies. HP’s Elite X3 Windows Phone addresses that problem with its own virtualization technology. Now, Microsoft has addressed it at the OS level. That said, this solution still doesn’t address the fundamental issue that few people (especially consumers) want to replace their iOS or Android phone with one that runs Windows.
2017 Is Getting Interesting
During its keynote, Microsoft also outlined its plans with Intel around the new Project Evo; updated its campaigns around Microsoft HoloLens and the Windows Holographic Platform; and added another vendor (3Glasses) to its list of head-mounted display partners expected to ship next year. But the Qualcomm news is likely to be the most impactful in the near term. The company was deliberately vague about when new products might ship, saying simply “as early as next year.” Once we see the first products, their performance, battery life scores, and price points, we’ll have a better idea of just how big a deal Windows 10 on ARM turns out to be. I, for one, look forward to what the PC industry will cook up with this new option.
Sleeping with the Enemy Would Benefit Both Microsoft & Apple
Because of what I do, I try different devices all the time. While I have used Windows 10 PCs since they became available, I never made one my main working device. For the past nine years, my main PC has been a Mac with the 12” MacBook as my latest device. Last week, I received a Surface Book with Performance Base and, after setting it up, I decided to try and make the switch.
I was particularly interested in understanding how, as a user, I could continue to benefit from the Apple ecosystem even if I did not have a Mac. Also, what is the opportunity Microsoft has to deliver the best Windows 10 + iOS experience. This is important because there are more iOS users with a PC than there are iOS users with a Mac. So it offers an opportunity for both companies to improve the cross-platform experience. While there might be an opportunity for Apple to convert a few of those PC users, the great majority are comfortable right where they are. Offering an easier cross-platform experience between iOS and Windows 10 as a differentiator for Surface would clearly benefit Microsoft.
Hardware and Windows 10 are the Easy Part
As I prepared to transition to Surface Book, there were specific aspects of my workflow I needed to address.
The hardware was not a problem. I love the keypad. I spend a lot of my day typing and I was not a fan of the keypad on the 12” MacBook. Typing on the Surface Book is extremely rewarding. The mousepad is a little more sensitive than the one on the MacBook but it did not take long to get used to it. The Surface Book’s fan kicks in often and it is quite loud which was a bit of a distraction at first. The quality of the screen is great but I did not find myself touching it very much other than with the pen to write quick notes.
I am not new to Windows 10 so transitioning was not an issue. The most annoying thing was trying to paste using the equivalent of Command-V which obviously did not work. Mac users are very different and many use their systems in a much deeper way than I do so I do not intend to speak for them. If you already use Office on the Mac, your transition will be much easier. If your documents are all in iCloud, your transition will also be easier. When I joined Creative Strategies back in April, I moved to the cloud and my multi-device life became so much smoother. Once I got on the OS X Sierra Beta, things got even better as all the files I am working on are saved to the iCloud Desktop automatically, making my ‘grab and go’ routine more accessible. Something else that changed back in April is I now only travel with my 9.7” iPad Pro. Not having to think if I have all the files I need was extremely liberating. I downloaded iCloud for Windows on my Surface Book and all my work was easily accessed. Pages, Numbers, and Keynote were also fine to use although Numbers documents missed a few functionalities and Keynote presentations had some font issues.
While the files were not an issue, remembering all the passwords for all the websites I use certainly was annoying but, of course, that is something you only do once.
I was concerned about my Apple Watch not being able to unlock my PC but Windows Hello on Surface Book was seamless. I sat down at my desk and the Surface Book was unlocked. It felt like there was no password set up in the first place.
What it All Boils Down to: iMessage and Apps
In the end, what I really struggled with were two things that had nothing to do with the OS per se or the physical device.
I use iMessage a lot during my day and, while my iPhone is always next to me, I have become accustomed to using it on my Mac. I do this because it is more convenient using a full keyboard to type but mostly because it feels more part of whatever I am doing. It remains more central to my workflow rather than a side conversation on the phone.
The other big part of my day is Twitter and the client on Windows is just painful. I asked input from my followers but the sad answer was a validation of my pain. Using Tweetdeck over the browser was far from perfect as, more often than not, I would accidentally close the window. So, as with iMessage, I resorted to having my iPad open next to the Surface Book which really impacted my workflow.
iMessage for Windows
Why does Apple do that, you ask? Because it cements iOS users even more into iMessage vs. having them look for other apps that could have them disengage from iOS. I am not advocating Apple replicate all the features iMessage has on iPhone. There are features that are not unique. So, for instance, keep invisible ink for iPhone and allow stickers. Apple has much to gain here, contrary to what it would be if it put iMessage on Android. iMessage for Windows is about recognizing not all their iOS users will be Mac users and allowing them to still get the best experience from iOS. Opening iMessage to Android will not really do much as far as driving churn and there are plenty of other apps that go cross-platform in phones that leave users with plenty of choice.
With Windows launching People with third party app plugins, it would be a perfect time for iMessage to be included.
More App investment
Microsoft has options to both improve Windows and differentiate Surface. There are steps Microsoft can take in engaging with developers more to get apps to Windows. Even without a phone business to worry about, the Windows 10 environment is behind. There are two sides of this equation. One speaks to the creators Microsoft is focusing on for the next software update and one speaks to consumers who are still very engaged with their PCs and, therefore, want a rich experience. With Apple’s new MacBook Pro on the market and the eagerness to prove the Touch Bar is the right approach for touch on a Mac, I expect Apple to make developer engagement a top priority. Microsoft needs to do the same for the platform but also should step up efforts in first party apps both for Windows and Surface. So, if Twitter is not interested in improving its app, why is Microsoft not building one?
There are other things the Windows Devices team could do for Surface like creating apps that help with content transfer for those people who are not already in the cloud.
Think Beyond Devices and Platform
What my experience made crystal clear is both Apple and Microsoft need to think beyond devices and the OS and think about the whole ecosystem and their ultimate goals.
If Apple is serious about shifting more revenue to services, why not take Apple Music out of iTunes and make is a standalone app? I have not used iTunes in years as, whenever I get a new device, all my backups are in the cloud. Having to use iTunes to play my music on a Mac or download iTunes to the Surface Book seems a very unnecessary step. While I am sure people still buy music, I would bet they are less likely to do it if they subscribe to Apple Music. Even if they did, a simple link to the store would be all they need.
For Microsoft, it is about recognizing that, whether in the consumer space or the enterprise one, Surface buyers are more likely than not to have an iPhone and be entrenched into iOS. Embracing what they are attached to, rather than forcing them to use other tools, would benefit engagement (although it might not benefit a specific service). One Drive is a good example. While it was possible for me to access iCloud, there were more steps to take when wanting to save documents as the default was either One Drive or DropBox.
Together Against Google
Both companies need to also realize facilitating this Windows + iOS world will help limit the risk of Google taking advantage of the weaknesses and grabbing users. Again, this is not about devices. I do not expect Google to win consumers and enterprises with Chromebooks and Android tablets. This is about the much bigger battles: Digital Assistants and AI. Google has always been very good at using its device-agnostic approach to its advantage. Google Maps, Google Photos and now Allo are great examples of the extent Google goes to make sure it reaches valuable customers on other platforms. It is about time Apple and Microsoft started to play the same game.
Touchscreen or No Touchscreen, That is the Question!
A lot has already been written about Apple’s Touch Bar for the MacBook Pro and how Apple should have just gone all in and actually added a touchscreen. I hinted on the day of the event that the Touch Bar could actually end up being more impactful than a touch screen and I would like to explain why.
Windows Touch Screens Were a Response to Mobile
I think it is important to look at why we have touch screens in the Windows camp.
Touch screens on Windows were not the result of a platform need. When we started to see hybrid devices running Windows, we were still on Windows 8, which was not optimized for touch. Nor were touch screens the result of an innovation aimed at changing the way we worked and interacted with content.
We got touch screens because Windows as a platform was trying to catch up to mobile.
With very little opportunity for growth in smartphones, and iPad at the high-end and cheap Android tablets at the low-end impacting PC sales, Windows PC makers wanted to fight back by adding the one function the world seemed never to get enough of. By adding touch to PCs, vendors were hoping to shift the downward trend in PC sales while decelerating tablet growth.
Then there was Surface. Microsoft started Surface because what vendors were releasing at the time was failing to compete with tablets. Consumers were not interested in buying a new PC and enterprises were still not sure they wanted to invest in the premium that touch was bringing to the new machines. Surely productivity did not need touch!
Not just about the hardware
Even Surface did not hit a home run the first time around. While it was the best hardware Windows had to offer at the time, the first iteration of Surface running Windows 8 was a less than optimal experience when using touch. The obsession of competing with the iPad was also giving way to confused products like Surface RT.
Fast forward to today and you have Surface Pro 4 running on Windows 10, offering a full computing experience in a versatile form factor with an OS that runs well with using both touch and keyboard.
Looking at hardware alone, however, is not enough to understand how far a device can go when it comes to bridging PCs and tablets. Apps have been key in tablets. So much so that the market has been clearly split in two: a high-end that is dominated by iPad, where there are over one million dedicated apps, and a low-end market where Android tablets reign supreme mainly as content consumption screens.
Windows based 2-in-1s, Surface included, suffer from the lack of touch-first apps that would help move the needle in adoption and, most of all, with engagement and loyalty. It is for this reason that seeing Microsoft invest in first party apps is so refreshing. Microsoft is delivering value and hopefully showing the potential to developers even with both apps and new devices such as the Surface Dial. In an interview with Business Insiders, VP of Microsoft Devices, Panos Panay said something I could not agree more with: “The entire ecosystem benefits when we create new categories and experiences that bring together the best of hardware and software.”
Meanwhile, across the fence, the Mac OS store has not captured developers in the same way the iOS Store has. The prospect of being able to reach hundreds of millions vs. tens of millions of users has kept a lot of developers focusing on iPhone and iPad.
Adding touch support for macOS Sierra might have left users not much better off than they were before. I assume developing for the Touch Bar is much easier than designing a brand new app for Sierra optimized for touch, which ultimately would result in a better experience for the user.
The “I need a keyboard” argument
Clearly, Apple did not just do the Touch Bar because it was easier to develop for. Apple continues to maintain that vertical touch is not the right approach. Many disagree because the extensive use of touch is getting us more and more often to reach out to touch our screens. Yet, when we touch our screens, we generally want to scroll or select. We really do not want to do complex things which begs the question, why can’t we do it on the trackpad we have on our keyboard? We can discuss this point till the cows come home and we will find pros and cons on both sides.
So let’s look at this point a little differently. There are two main reasons why someone buys a MacBook Pro today: OS and the keyboard. Rightly or wrongly, many people still think iOS is not a “full OS” – another point we can discuss till the cows come home. But the keyboard is key.
If the keyboard is so important for these users, it seems fitting Apple focused on making that experience better. In a recent interview for CNET, Jony Ive said:
“Our starting point, from the design team’s point of view, was recognizing the value with both input methodologies. But also there are so many inputs from a traditional keyboard that are buried a couple of layers in…So our point of departure was to see if there was a way of designing a new input that really could be the best of both of those different worlds. To be able to have something that was contextually specific and adaptable, and also something that was mechanical and fixed, because there’s truly value in also having a predictable and complete set of fixed input mechanisms.”
Taking touch and contextualizing it to the keyboard to make gestures, steps, and functions more natural, immediate,and precise makes a lot of sense to me. As often with Apple, you get what you asked for but not in the form you thought you wanted it.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
For Apple, it means it is serving two different audiences that think of computing in different ways. Apple will do so for as long as it will take for MacBook users to be convinced the iPad Pro and iOS 10 represent the next computing platform.
For Microsoft, it is about focusing on the larger and longer term shift that will see Mixed Reality play a big role in the way we interact with devices, the way we do business, and the way we learn. Microsoft is making sure it is shaping its own path rather than finding itself blindsided and left to scramble as it did with mobile.
Microsoft’s Two-Pronged Creativity Push
Microsoft has been refining its identity and strategy since Satya Nadella took over as CEO, and much of that focus and strategy has been centered on productivity and helping people get things done. That vision has married well with Microsoft’s renewed emphasis on business products and services but it has also reinforced the sense that Microsoft doesn’t get consumers or, at least, the consumer halves of its users’ lives. Microsoft has needed a rallying point for a set of efforts around consumer use cases, and it appears to have decided on creativity as the catchphrase for this push, as demonstrated at Wednesday’s event in New York City.
A two-pronged strategy, not a single device
That creativity push has two main strands to it and it’s important to look at the totality of what Microsoft announced to see the full picture. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the hardware side of the announcements – the Surface Studio – as evidence this effort will be marginal but I think that misses the point. This new creativity emphasis includes both new creative tools within existing products like Windows and Office and new hardware in the form of the Surface Studio and the existing Surface product line. Microsoft seems determined to challenge Apple’s historic edge among professional creatives but it is also making a play for the creative element within a broad base of consumers and professionals.
Yes, the Studio is a high-end PC that’s going to be out of reach for the vast majority of consumers, most of whom will be left with traditional PCs that don’t have all the capabilities Microsoft showed off today. But the role of the Surface Studio is, arguably, to put a stake in the ground that says Microsoft is serious about serving the creative community, not to address the needs of its mainstream audience. However, by unveiling premium hardware that’s both beautiful and innovative, Microsoft is sending a broader message about its commitment to this space and to creativity more broadly.
Where most ordinary consumers will encounter Microsoft’s creativity push first is not in hardware but in software. Microsoft’s new Paint 3D app what looks like a GarageBand competitor called Groove Music Maker. Other enhancements in the new version of Windows 10 are more mainstream attempts to establish Microsoft as a creativity brand. Whereas the Surface Studio is a niche product, Microsoft now has over 400 million users of Windows 10 who will get the free Creators Update in the spring (or earlier, if they’re on the Windows Insider program). That’s a more mass-market strategy around creativity and has to be seen as part of the same concerted push to demonstrate leadership in this area.
Changing perceptions takes time
Though Wednesday’s announcements are a good start, it takes a long time to change deeply entrenched perceptions. Microsoft has its work cut out in trying to convince potential customers its products are more than just the workhorses they’ve always been for many. Workflows and cultures in many creative companies are built around Apple products and that won’t change overnight. However, Microsoft’s timing for these new products is great, coming at a time when Apple has been accused of neglecting its creative community. Apple, of course, has its own event on Thursday and will get an opportunity to make its case for its own vision of the future of computing.
It’s also easy to overestimate the role creative professionals play for Apple – though its Mac base was once heavily skewed towards these users, it’s long since broadened its appeal well beyond those users and well into the mainstream. Though losing creative professionals as a constituency might be painful for some at Apple, its mainstream appeal is what matters. It needs to shore that up with its announcements this week and beyond. In addition, Microsoft still largely relies on third-party developers to meet the needs of professional creators, whereas Apple does much more to meet those needs directly through products like Final Cut Pro and its add-ons, Logic Pro, and so on. Microsoft has Office for more generic work tasks but still doesn’t have a direct presence in the more creative fields specifically.
Lastly, the 3D enhancements to Paint and other apps were a mix of interesting and gimmicky. I’m not sure how many people are actually interested in creating 3D scenes of their trips to the beach but 3D animations in PowerPoint could enrich presentations in useful ways. The 3D push feels as much about finding a useful way to tie HoloLens into the consumer story as it is about creativity. Microsoft has put a lot of its next generation interface efforts into augmented reality with HoloLens but it has ended up with a product that’s far from mass market in nature. Its VR announcements on Wednesday are a concession to the reality that VR is where today’s mass market opportunities are, though Microsoft’s PC-centric push with $300-plus headsets will have a smaller addressable market than existing smartphone-centric solutions selling for around $100.
Of course, now we all wait and see what Apple has in store Thursday. It obviously won’t respond directly to announcements made the day before but, as I wrote on Tuesday, it does need to demonstrate whether the next round of competition between Windows laptops and MacBooks will be defined by hardware performance advantages or by philosophical differences. Apple has been using the iPad lineup to meet many of the needs Microsoft has in its more PC-centric Surface products for Windows users, so it will be interesting how Apple sets its new MacBooks apart. Not only creative professionals but mainstream users have been waiting for updates to the MacBook Pro and either an update to or replacement for the MacBook Air. Apple’s event on Thursday will need to give them compelling reasons to upgrade to new devices rather than jumping ship to Windows.
The Indefatigable PC
By all rights, it should be dead by now. I mean, really. A market based on a tech product that first came to market over 35 years go?
And yet, here we stand in the waning days of October 2016 and the biggest news expected to come out of the tech industry this week are PC announcements from two of the largest companies in the world: Apple and Microsoft. It’s like we’re in some kind of a weird time warp. (Of course, the Cubs are poised to win their first World Series in over 100 years, so who knows?)
The development must be particularly surprising to those who bought into the whole “PC is dead” school of thought. According to the proselytizers of this movement, tablets should have clearly taken over the world by now. But that sure didn’t happen. While PC shipments have certainly taken their lumps, tablets never reached anything close to PCs from a shipments perspective. In fact, tablet shipments have now been declining for over 3 years.
After tablets, smartwatches were supposed to be the next generation personal computing device. Recent shipment data from IDC, however, suggests that smartwatches are in for an even worse fate than tablets. A little more than a year-and-a-half after being widely introduced to the market, smartwatch shipments are tanking. Not exactly a good sign for what was supposed to be the “next big thing.”
Of course, PCs continue to face their challenges as well, particularly consumer PCs. After peaking in Q4 of 2011, worldwide PC shipments have been on a slow steady decline ever since. Interestingly, however, US PC shipments have actually turned around recently and are now on a modestly increasing growth curve.
The reason for this is that PCs have continued to prove their usefulness and value to a wide range of people, especially in business environments. PCs are certainly not the only computing device that people are using anymore, but for many, PCs remain the go-to productivity device and for others, they still play an important role.
To put it simply, there’s just something to be said for the large-screen computing experience that only PCs can truly provide. More importantly, it’s not clear to me that there’s anything poised to truly replace that experience in the near term.
Another big reason for the PC’s longevity is that it has been on a path of constant and relatively consistent evolution since its earliest days. Driven in part by the semiconductor manufacturing advances enabled by Moore’s Law, a great deal of credit also needs to be given to chip designers at Intel, AMD and nVidia, among others, who have created incredibly powerful devices. Similarly, OS and application software advances by Apple, Microsoft and many others have created environments that over a billion people are able to use to work, play and communicate with on a daily basis.[pullquote]PCs have actually never been stronger or more attractive tech devices—it’s more like a personal computer renaissance than a personal computer extinction. “[/pullquote]
There have also been impressive improvements in the physical designs of PCs. After a few false starts at delivering thin-and-light notebooks, for example, the super-slim ultrabook offerings from the likes of Dell (XPS13), HP (Spectre X360) and Lenovo (ThinkPad X1) have caught up to and arguably even surpassed Apple’s still-impressive MacBook Air. At the same time, to the surprise of many, Microsoft’s Surface has successfully spawned a whole new array of 2-in-1 and convertible PC designs that has brought new life to the PC market as well. It’s easy to take for granted now, but you can finally get the combination of performance, weight, size and battery life that many have always wanted in a PC.
Frankly, PCs have actually never been stronger or more attractive tech devices—it’s more like a personal computer renaissance than a personal computer extinction. The fact that we’ll likely be talking about the latest additions to this market later this week says a great deal about the role that PCs still have to play.
Apple and Microsoft’s Battle for the PC Market
If Your Computer was an iPad Pro: Apple has Come Full Circle
Apple has a new ad for the iPad Pro asking you to “Imagine what your computer could do…if your computer was an iPad Pro.” With this, Apple has come full circle in its positioning of the iPad.
I have argued before that, when Apple brought the iPad to market in 2010, it tried extremely hard to position it as close as possible to the iPhone and as far as possible from the PC. At the time that made perfect sense. Smartphones were still growing in popularity, we were only three years away from the iPhone launch, and the App Store was in full swing. Drawing the parallel to what consumers wanted and loved was bound to generate demand. At the same time, Apple had to make sure consumers did not think the iPad was a tablet PC and so created a clear divide between the larger iPhone cousin and the Microsoft computer world. The easiest way to mark that divide was to concentrate on the fact the iPad was more about entertainment and content consumption – worth remembering that iOS did not have the enterprise presence it has today. While Apple also talked about content creation with the iPad, the underlying theme, especially in the Windows camp, was that tablets were not as powerful as PCs and certainly not up to the job when it came to productivity.
A Different Market
Six years later, the market is quite different. While smartphone sales have considerably slowed, their functionalities and size have only grown, making them perfect for content consumption on the go. This, coupled with the fact smartphones are always with us, has left little room for tablets to become a more sentinel part of an average consumer’s device portfolio. Most consumers also still do not believe a tablet is as capable as a PC neither do they do not think of it as an alternative to a PC when shopping for a new one. According to a recent study we ran at Creative Strategies, less than 5% of our US panel had considered replacing their PC with a tablet. As replacement cycles for iPad lengthen as many consumers see enough value coming from software upgrades alone, the vast number of PC users out there need to be convinced an iPad, and the iPad Pro specifically, could do what a PC does and more.
I advised before that vendors and Microsoft should stop talking about PC replacements because that does not allow consumers to see what an opportunity the new devices running Windows 10 offer. It seems in its latest ad, Apple is doing exactly that — not just implying the iPad Pro can replace your PC but saying it is actually going to do more than your PC.
But What is a PC Today?
While the iPad Pro has everything from a hardware perspective that allows it to compete with a PC, it seems to me the biggest battle Apple has on its hands remains the preconceived idea of what a PC is. Reading comments on Twitter on the new iPad ad, I saw the same points being made as six years ago: iOS is not a “full OS”, there is no file manager structure, there is no access to a disk, multitasking is not comparable, etc., etc. But the world is not the same as six years ago. Why do you need a disk when you have the cloud? Why do you need a file system when you are using different apps and your work is contained within those apps? Granted, not everybody works like that but more and more people do. Our data shows that, in the US, 80% of early adopters have embraced the cloud and about 30% of mainstream consumers have.
Surface Initiated the Change but Legacy is Keeping it Down
The iPad Pro is, of course, not the first tablet trying to convince you it can do what your PC does and more. Microsoft has been trying to do the same with the Surface. As a matter of fact, many think the iPad Pro is nothing but a “Surface wanna-be”. On the surface, these two devices look very similar but the premise that got them to the market is very different.
There is not a question that, when the Surface came to market – way before anyone was ready for it – it started something bigger than even Microsoft realized at the time. While the focus was on Windows 8 and the fact Microsoft vendors were struggling to both compete with the iPad and fuel PC upgrades, the Surface actually started to challenge the idea of what a PC was. In its 4th iteration and with a much better operating system at hand, the Surface could do more than a PC. Except, not many people actually thought of it in a different way. Yes, it has touch. Yes, it has a pen. But ultimately, most people still see it as a PC. The Surface calls itself a PC: “Your PC is restarting”. So it is not surprising the Surface commercials show people using the Surface in their non-conventional businesses and end with “I could not do that with my Mac.” I see this as a burden for the Surface. One that impacts its ability to convert more iPad and Mac users as well as attract developers to the platform so that you would have more use cases beyond traditional productivity to appeal to a younger generation both outside and inside enterprise. Microsoft is doing a great job in creating its own apps and adding functionality to the underlying OS that benefit the Surface – inking being the best example – but more could be done so that the Surface could be whatever one wants it to be.
It is interesting that, as Microsoft and Apple came to one similar product from two very different perspectives, they are now fighting a battle on opposite fronts but with one common interest — changing how people think of a PC. While the task seems more arduous for Apple because of the millions and millions of PC users there are, I actually think it will be harder for the Surface as Microsoft needs to balance its own desires and goals with those of the partners in the Windows ecosystem.
The AR/VR Platform Wars have Begun
While the hype around virtual reality and, to a lesser extent, augmented reality, has been steadily ramping up, to date there haven’t been all that many actual device shipments. Two recent major AR/VR platform announcements from Microsoft and Google should help change that. At Computex, Microsoft announced it would make available to its hardware partners the Windows Holographic platform that powers its own HoloLens product, enabling them to bring to market compatible Windows-10 based hardware. Google, at its recent I/O Developer Conference, announced it would offer partners a screenless VR viewer hardware reference design and a new platform called DayDream that will enable them to bring to market Android smartphones that offer virtual reality capabilities baked into the operating system. Both announcements promise to accelerate the number of hardware products headed into the market in the future. Just as important, both announcements represent the respective company’s early attempts to establish their platforms as key places for developers and content producers to focus their creation of new AR/VR apps and media.
DayDream is a platform within a platform and reflects Google’s knack for driving scale. The company’s first foray into virtual reality was via Google Cardboard, which let users download an app on their Android or iOS phone and then slide the phone into a literal cardboard and plastic viewer to enjoy a rudimentary virtual reality experience. This was millions of people’s first taste of VR. Now the company is rolling Daydream into the upcoming Android N release which means, in relatively short order, the software will begin shipping on millions of new Android phones with apps and content available via Google’s existing Play Store and YouTube. Unfortunately, because DayDream requires Google-certified hardware specs within the host Android phone, most consumers won’t be able to update their existing Android smartphone and get the full DayDream experience. The one exception: The Huawei Nexus 6P. Near term, expect only high-end Android phones to meet the DayDream hardware specification requirements, but that shouldn’t be true for very long.
While many expected Google to announce Android-related VR plans at I/O, few expected the company to roll out the screenless viewer reference design. By taking this step, Google has enabled smartphone vendors to quickly create viewers that work with their phones, getting the products to market in much less time. The reference design is also unique in that it includes a handheld controller with its own set of sensors. This should help drive a better, more immersive VR experience than can be achieved with a simple screenless viewer that lacks a controller.
At I/O, Google said eight smartphone vendors were set to launch DayDream-enabled phones later in the year — Alcatel, Asus, Huawei, HTC, LG, Xiaomi, ZTE and Samsung. The latter is notable because Samsung is, to date, the only smartphone vendor currently shipping its own screenless-viewer product, the Gear VR, which works with its high-end Galaxy S6, S7, and Note products. Interestingly, the Gear VR is co-branded with Facebook’s Oculus, which provides the VR platform and content. With DayDream, Google is clearly targeting Facebook’s entry-level beachhead in VR (the Oculus Rift, the company’s high-end product, runs on a PC). It will be interesting to see if Samsung continues to utilize both platforms going forward as it has done with Tizen and Android Wear in wearables.
Microsoft’s Windows Holographic
While Google’s announcement offers vendors a near plug-and-play solution that should drive new VR hardware into the market as soon as the second half of 2016, Microsoft’s announcement sets the stage for a longer play. Instead of a ready-made reference design and hardware specifications, Microsoft is making available to its partners the underlying Windows-10 based platform that drives its own HoloLens hardware. HoloLens is a high-end, standalone augmented reality device, but Microsoft is pitching Windows Holographic as a platform for everything from basic VR to advanced AR, running on a wide range of different types of hardware.
The platform itself includes what Microsoft calls its holographic shell, a primary interaction model, its own “perception” APIs, and access to Xbox Live services. In other words, instead of building all of this from scratch, Microsoft has created something upon which hardware vendors can build, as long as they’re willing to do it in Microsoft’s world. That said, the company isn’t offering up a reference design. Just as it did with Surface, where it sought to drive innovation by creating its own competitive product, Microsoft sees HoloLens as a product from which other hardware vendors can draw inspiration. Microsoft listed off a who’s who of key hardware players as partners, including Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, HTC, Acer, ASUS, CyberPowerPC, Dell, Falcon Northwest, HP, iBuyPower, Lenovo, and MSI.
The Microsoft announcement is interesting because it’s been clear from the start HoloLens is and will continue to be for some time a high-end product geared toward commercial users. In order to drive some level of scale to attract developers, the company was always going to have to get additional hardware into the mix. This plan gives hardware vendors a way to bring new products to market by piggybacking on the work Microsoft has already done. It’s far different from what Google is making available with DayDream and it will take some time to see if hardware vendors take Microsoft up on its offer.
With these announcements, we now have the early stages of an AR/VR platform story from Google and Microsoft. The lingering question: What will Apple do in the space and will the company give its first glimpse of its plans at the upcoming WWDC?
The Tech Battle for U.S. Education
For many years, U.S. educators had a somewhat uneasy relationship with technology. Forward-thinking teachers and administrators knew their students needed to learn and use it but questions about how to insert it into the learning process—and how to pay for it—often lead to poor results. That’s changed dramatically in recent years, as hardware, software, and services have evolved and become less expensive and educators have figured out ways to embed technology into the classroom. As a result, device shipments into K-12 and Higher Education institutions in the U.S. has surged. This positive development has also quietly created a fascinating microcosm of the battle among tech titans Apple, Microsoft, and Google. At stake: The hearts and minds of the next generation of tech workers.
The Impact of iPad and Chromebooks
Obviously, Macs and Windows PCs have played a long and storied role in US education. But a review of historical data shows that, for much of recent history, the number of personal computers purchased by educational institutions was, at best, on a slow build. In 2000, total U.S. education shipments were about 4.3M units. By 2009, that had increased only modestly to about 6M units per year. Then, in 2010, Apple introduced the first iPad and educators instantly gravitated to the device. In 2010, total education device shipments (tablets plus PCs) increased to 6.7M units. Apple iPads, and to a lesser extent other tablets, fueled significant growth for the next few years, driving total shipments past 8.5M units in 2012. (Note: These totals represent units shipped to educational institutions and do not represent devices purchased by students or parents.)
During this time, Google recognized the opportunity and moved to make its formerly consumer-centric Chromebook offering into an education product. It worked: In 2012, low-cost Chromebooks began to ship and the combined market of Microsoft, Apple, and Google-based products saw shipments increase from about 10M units in 2013 to 13.5M units in 2015.
Many things changed from 2010-2015. In addition to devices becoming more affordable, more manageable, and more portable, educators began to explore new ways of using them in the classroom. Instead of banishing devices to the back of the class to be used during down time, teachers started using the connected devices during class, driving new, tailored learning experiences to each student. New apps that were easier to find and less expensive to buy thanks to online app stores drove much of this growth. Students weren’t the only ones to benefit. Teachers went from being tentative tech users to serious advocates and found it often made their lives easier, freeing them up to spend more time teaching and less time shuffling papers.
2016 and Beyond
In the course of the last 15 years, the US education system has seen Microsoft, Apple, and Google each as the flavor of the moment. Google’s Chrome clearly has the momentum as we head into the 2016 education buying season. But I’d argue all three companies have done good work in 2015 and 2016 to better position themselves for growth this year. Google has signed up a growing list of hardware vendors–willing to sell devices at ever-lower prices–while continuing to build out a simple but robust system for deploying and managing Chromebooks. Apple recently updated iOS to make it easier for multiple students to sign into the same iPad, launched the iPad Pro with Apple Pencil support, and continues to drive great app innovation on its platform. And Microsoft, which saw its share of the market decline with the rise of iOS and Chrome, is battling back by focusing on unique capabilities within Windows and Office, prepping a more competitive online store, and focusing on the learning possibilities engendered by devices with an active stylus.
So why does this matter? In addition to the fact education has been one of the few bright spots in the US device market for the last few years, I’d argue Microsoft, Apple, and Google are competing for more than device shipments in the current year. They’re fighting to become the platform of choice for the next generation of U.S. workers. A positive experience using Chrome, iOS or Windows, and the key apps on each platform, paves the way for that platform to become their preferred one when they enter the workforce. Conversely, repeated bad experiences with any of these platforms in school could have the opposite impact.
Competition is always a good thing and the increasingly competitive battle among these companies to serve students and educators is a very good thing. As more schools in the U.S. slowly march toward the dream of one device per student, and the new ways of learning this will enable, I expect continued innovation from all three companies and their partners.
Microsoft’s Bot Vision is Expansive but Faces Challenges
Wednesday’s first day Build keynote from Microsoft was a mishmash of many different topics, between incremental upgrades that will be delivered in this summer’s “Anniversary Update” to Windows 10 to new demos of HoloLens functionality and using the Xbox as a developer device. But it was the last hour or so of the keynote, when Microsoft articulated its conversations as a service vision built around bots that was by far the most interesting thing talked about. Microsoft is getting in on the ground floor in the conversation UI trend and clearly has some solid technology here as well. But it also faces some significant challenges.
Conversations as a platform
By now, it’s well established Microsoft has largely missed out on the mobile operating system opportunity – Android and iOS are dominant while Microsoft’s mobile operating systems have tiny share. Closely related to this marginal role is the failure of Microsoft to attract many of the world’s most popular apps to its mobile operating systems. Meanwhile, it’s becoming clear messaging platforms can act as quasi-operating systems in some important ways. This may well be a way for companies like Microsoft and Facebook, who missed out on mobile operating systems, to find roles for themselves as mobile platforms.
Enter Microsoft’s new vision for conversations as a platform or conversational user interfaces, as others have referred to it more generically. Such a vision potentially helps Microsoft overcome both its poor mobile market share and its lack of apps – a messaging platform takes the place of a mobile OS, while bots take the place of apps. And of course, this is very similar to Facebook’s strategy for Messenger and their M assistant as well. (I’ve written quite a bit about all of this on Techpinions previously – see here, here, and here.)
The vision Microsoft articulated at Build on Wednesday was expansive and impressive and it’s clearly laid a lot of the groundwork to make the technology here really impressive. Both Microsoft’s own mockups of potential bots and the tools it’s making available to developers have been well thought through and perform their tasks admirably. I absolutely believe conversational UIs have an important role to play going forward and Microsoft has demonstrated that it has the technology chops to be a major participant. It’s also launching its effort very early in this trend, which should help it avoid the slow start it got in next-generation mobile operating systems.
Challenges for Microsoft’s bot strategy
However, as I see it, Microsoft has several key challenges as it aims to implement this strategy:
- The need for context and rich data may be thwarted by Microsoft’s third party status on the vast majority of mobile devices
- Skype isn’t a leading messaging platform and getting users to see it this way will require a significant education effort
- With many others building similar conversational UIs, Microsoft may struggle to compete against those with much larger installed bases
Firstly, Satya Nadella emphasized Microsoft’s conversations as a platform strategy rests on the foundation of massive amounts of data and specifically context for the conversations users may have with these artificial intelligence agents. That’s fine as long as all the information is contained in users’ PCs, as it may well be if such conversations are exclusively restricted to business use. But if these bots are to manage elements of our personal lives which we’re much more likely to manage on our mobile devices, Microsoft will be flying largely blind, especially when users are iPhone owners. This is where Microsoft’s lack of mobile market share still comes back to bite it – it has very little access to the most personal information we tend to keep on our phones, whether messaging conversations, phone calls, personal notes, and so on. This can only really be overcome if users opt in to sharing this information with Microsoft (something iOS doesn’t enable as fully as Android) or if Microsoft can also convince people to use its own apps for managing other parts of their lives. That’s an uphill battle and, unless Microsoft can solve it, it may be left hamstrung as a participant in its customers’ personal lives.
From the keynote, it was apparent the combination of Skype and Cortana will be a major part of Microsoft’s strategy here. Yet most people don’t think of Skype as a messaging platform along the same lines as Facebook Messenger, Apple’s iMessage, WhatsApp, Snapchat, or WeChat. Some users certainly do use the messaging functions but my guess is this is mostly within an enterprise context, not something many people do in their personal lives. As such, it’s going to be another uphill battle for Microsoft to get users to see Skype in this new way and to think of Skype as the platform when they want to engage with companies and brands. This will again be especially challenging on Android and iOS, which each have tightly integrated personal assistants and messaging apps.
Thirdly, Microsoft may be getting into this market early but it’s far from the only player here. With so many potential channels for bots to communicate with users, companies are going to have to prioritize which they target in much the same way as they do with app development today and a lot of that depends on the size of the various user bases. Given that other messaging platforms have hundreds of millions of active users already, Microsoft will have to fight hard to convince companies and developers its version of the conversational UI is worth targeting. Given there are no standards for these bot apps, developing for each is going to require working with different APIs and their unique capabilities and Microsoft will have to convince developers its platforms are worth developing for. Its vision seems more expansive than just Skype and Cortana, although this wasn’t well articulated during the keynote. So it may be able to solve this problem in other ways through opening up APIs for other platforms. But proprietary approaches from huge competitors such as Google, Facebook, and Apple are likely to be hard to compete against.
Parallels to VR
As with virtual reality, what we’re seeing here is the emergence of a variety of possible approaches, all of them proprietary, in a market that’s still in its very early stages. There are no guaranteed winners or losers yet and it may well be we see a period of significant proliferation before we see any consolidation and the emergence of dominant players. It may even be that, over time, there’s enough de facto standardization on some elements that several players can coexist. Microsoft has certainly positioned itself well to succeed by starting early and leveraging many of its existing technology assets. But it’s not yet clear whether it will be able to overcome these significant challenges it faces and win out in the end.
Top Tech Predictions for 2016
Another year has come and gone, and in the tech world, it seems not much has changed. 2015 was arguably a relatively modest year when it comes to major innovations, with many of the biggest developments essentially coming as final delivery or extensions to bigger trends that started or were first announced in 2014. Autonomous cars, smart homes, wearables, virtual reality, drones, Windows 10, large-screen smartphones, and the sharing economy all made a bigger initial mark in 2014 and continued to evolve over this past year.
Looking ahead to 2016, I expect we will see changes that, on the surface, also don’t seem to amount to much initially, but will actually prove to be key foundational shifts that drive a very different, and very exciting future. Here are the first five of my predictions of key themes for the new year (the next five will appear in next week’s column.)
Prediction 1: The Death of Software Platforms, The Rise of the MetaOS
Proprietary software platforms like iOS, Windows, and Android have served as the very backbone of the tech industry and the tech economy for quite some time, so it may seem a bit ludicrous to predict their demise. However, I believe the walls supporting these ecosystems are starting to crumble. Device operating systems were built to enable the creation of applications that worked on specific devices, and they did an incredible job—perhaps too good—of doing just that. We now have somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million apps available each for iOS and Android and hundreds of thousands of Windows apps. The problem is, the vast majority of people download less than a hundred and actually use more like 5-10 apps on a regular basis.
More importantly, most consumers now own and regularly use multiple devices with multiple operating systems and what they really want isn’t a bunch of independent apps, but access to the critical services that they access through their devices. Yes, some of those services are delivered through apps, but many of the biggest software and service providers are altering their strategies to ensure that they can deliver a high quality experience regardless of the app, device, OS, or browser being used to access their application or service. Factor in the increasing range of smart home, smart car, and other connected devices we’ll all own and regularly use in the near future—plus the general app fatigue that I think many consumers now feel—and the whole argument around an app-driven world starts to make a lot less sense.
Instead, from Facebook to Microsoft to DropBox and hundreds of other cloud service providers, we’re seeing companies build what I call a MetaOS—a platform-like layer of software and services that remains independent of any underlying device platform to deliver the critical capabilities that people are ultimately looking to access. Bigger companies like Facebook and Microsoft are integrating a wide range of services into these MetaOS platforms—particularly around communications and contextual intelligence agents—that will increasingly take on the tasks and roles that other individual applications used to. Want access to media content or documents or (eventually) commerce and financial services? Even better, want a smart assistant to help coordinate your efforts? Log into one of these MetaOS megaservices and your unique digital identity (another key element of a MetaOS) will give you secure access to these services and much more.
Look for Google, Apple, and Amazon, among others, to start making a bigger effort in this area, and expect to see some of these larger companies make key acquisitions to fill in gaps in their MetaOS efforts over the course of the next year. This isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight, but I think 2016 will be the year we start to see more of these strategies take shape.
Prediction 2: Market Maturation Leads to Increased Specialization
The era of products that appeal to a broad, cross-section of all consumers is coming to an end and it’s being replaced by a new era where we will see more products that are more tightly focused on specific sets of customers. The key product categories have matured, and it’s hard to find broad new product categories that appeal to a wide range of consumers in the same way that PCs, tablets, and smartphones have.
That’s not to say that we won’t be seeing any exciting or interesting new product categories—after all, something has to be next year’s hoverboard—but they won’t have the same kind of wide-ranging impact that the now more “traditional” smart devices have had. As a result, I think we’ll see a wide variety of sub-categories for smart homes, connected cars, wearables, drones, VR headsets, and consumer robotics that will perhaps sell in the tens or hundreds of thousands instead of the tens of millions that other product categories have enjoyed. The Maker Movement and crowd-funding efforts will go a long way towards helping drive these changes, but I also expect that we’ll see the China/Shenzen hardware ecosystem start to adjust and focus more efforts on being able to specialize and even personalize devices. The end result will be a wider range of devices that more specifically meet different consumers’ needs. At the same time, I believe it will also be harder to “find the pulse” of where major hardware developments are headed, because they will be moving in so many different directions. The key will be in developing manufacturing technologies that can enable greater abilities to specialize and that can produce products profitably with lower production runs.
Prediction 3: Apple Reality Check Leads to Major Investment
Apple has had an incredible run at the top of the technology heap for quite some time and, to be clear, I’m not saying that 2016 is the year this will end. What I am saying, however, is that 2016 is the year the company will face some of its biggest challenges, and the year that the “reality distortion field” surrounding the company will start to fade. With two-thirds of its revenues dependent on a single product line (the iPhone) that’s running into the realities of a slowing global smartphone market, the company is going to have to make some big new bets in 2016 in order to retain its market-leading position. I’m not exactly sure what those bets might be (augmented/virtual reality, financial services, automotive, enterprise software, media, or some combination of all of the above), but I’m convinced there are a great deal of very smart people at Apple who are undoubtedly thinking through what’s next for them. Maintaining the status quo in 2016 doesn’t seem like a great option, so this should be the year they seriously tap into that massive cash reserve of theirs and make some major, game-changing acquisitions.
Prediction 4: The Great Hardware Stall Forces Shift to Software and Services
As most companies besides Apple have already learned, it’s very hard to make money on hardware alone, and those problems will only be exacerbated in 2016. With expected declines in tablets and PCs, the flattening of the smartphone market and only modest overall uptake for wearables and other new hardware categories, we’re nearing the end of a several decade-long run of hardware growth. We’ll see pockets of opportunity to be sure—see Prediction 2 above—but companies who have been primarily or even solely dependent on hardware sales are going to have to make some difficult decisions on how they evolve in the era of software and services. As a result, I expect to see more major acquisitions such as the recent Dell/EMC/VMware deal. The challenge, of course, is that many hardware-focused organizations don’t have the in-house skill sets or mindsets to make this transition, so I expect we’ll see very challenging times for some hardware-focused companies in 2016.
Another potential impact from this hardware stall could be an increased desire for hardware companies to become more vertically oriented in order to maximize their opportunity in a shrinking profit pool. This could lead either to acquisitions of key semiconductor vendors and other core component providers by device makers, or vice versa, but either way, hardware-focused companies are going to have to focus on maximizing profitability through reduced costs. After decades of widening the supply chain horizontally, it seems the pendulum is definitely swinging back towards vertical integration.
Prediction 5: Autonomous Car Hype Overshadows Driver Assistance Improvements
The technological advancements in automobiles have been impressive over the last year or two, with the idea of a connected car, and even a partially automated car, quickly moving from science fiction to everyday reality. However, there are still a number of major legislative, social, and technology challenges that need to be overcome before our roadways are filled with self-driving cars. The real advancements that are starting to take place in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), such as lane departure warnings, automatic braking, more sophisticated cruise controls, etc., offer some very beneficial safety benefits. But they’re not as sexy as autonomous driving, so much of the press seems to be overlooking them. Even the car vendors seem to be focused more on delivering their vision of autonomous driving than on what we’ll be able to actually purchase and drive over the next five years. In reality, they’re showing the modern-day version of concept cars instead of production cars, but that point is being missed by many. Remember that, unlike the tech industry, the automotive industry regularly builds and displays products it has little or no intention of ever releasing to the world at large.
Improvements in car electronics and intelligence are happening at an impressive pace, and the quality of our in-car experiences is going to change dramatically over the next several years. It’s important to put all the advancements in context, however, and recognize that they’re not all going to occur at the same time. We’re really just now starting to get high-quality connectivity into the latest generation cars, and there are many improvements that we can expect to see in infotainment systems (with or without Apple and Google’s help) over the next few years. As we learned this past year, there are still critical security implications just from those changes, and they won’t all be easily resolved overnight.
Eventually, we will get to truly autonomous cars that regular people can actually buy, but it’s important to understand and appreciate the step-by-step advancements that are being made along the way. These advancements may not be as revolutionary as driverless cars, but they are the news that the automotive industry can realistically deliver on over the next 12 months. Unfortunately, I think the message is going to be lost in the noise of “autonomous automania” this year, leading to thoroughly confused consumers and unrealistic expectations.
Next week I’ll finish off my 2016 predictions with five more on wearables, foldable displays, IOT, connected homes, and VR/AR. In the meantime, have a Happy New Year!