FileMaker Can Settle the iPad Productivity Argument

Filemaker screenshot Of all the endless arguments that roil the tech world, there is none I find more tiresome than the endless debate over whether the iPad can be used for “real work.” My iPad has been an indispensable part of my working toolkit since I bought one on the day the original model shipped in 2010. Over time I have learned what it does well and what it is not so good at, but I have never doubted that this go-anywhere tablet made me a lot more productive. For those who still need convincing, however, the results of a new survey from FileMaker should help. Of course, there’s something more than a little self-serving about FileMaker promoting its success on iPads and iPhones–the database management software is owned by Apple. But the survey of 499 customers –I’m surprised they couldn’t find one more to make it an even 500–sheds some interesting light on how tablets are being used in business.

The most striking finding is the extent to which devices are being used from within an organization’s home network rather than out in the field. (The survey unfortunately does not distinguish between iPhone and iPad use, but a Filemaker spokesperson says the majority of the respondents used iPads. Certainly, the Filemaker Go mobile app is more comfortable on a tablet, as pictured above, than on a phone.) Those survey said that 59% of the time they connect to databases over a local area network rather than over the internet or a virtual private network. Unsurprisingly, just over half said the mobile database was being used to replace pen-and-paper processes and that the most popular taks were CRM, inventory, and invoicing, quotes, orders and estimates. It’s a bit ironic that the iPad is pulling off the original mission that Microsoft saw for the Windows Tablet PC when it released it to general disinterest a decade ago.

It’s hardly surprising that the iPad is succeeding where the Tablet PC failed. Tablet PCs were either laptops that converted to a slate-like configuration with a tricky hinge or a few pure slates that were far bigger and heavier than today’s tablets. Battery life fell far short of the all-day usage we have come to expect and the resistive single-touch displays had severe limitations. Worse yet, except for a few applications aimed at verticals such as health care and some customer line-of-business apps, Tablet PC users had to peck with their fingers or styluses at software that was designed for a mouse and keyboard.

FileMaker, by contrast, is a nice example of how Apple uses its software to drive its hardware business. The FileMaker Pro server and desktop versions run on both Mac and Windows (it’s Apple’s only paid Windows software product, but the FileMaker Go mobile gap is for iOS only.) But a key is they way apple made it extremely simple to deploy a FileMaker Pro application to iOS devices. It takes some database and form design skill to put together a decent FileMaker Pro app on the desktop, but once that is done, creation of a FileMaker Go touch-ready mobile version is a matter of pushing a couple of buttons. FileMaker Go apps are not free-standing iOS apps–you must have the fileMaker Go application installed. But they behave like apps and connect automatically and securely to the server or desktop database. You can use the app to read, edit, and create records and you can take advantage of the special abilities of mobile devices, for example, using the iPad or iPhone camera to fill a photo field.

It’s true that tablets are less than ideal for what are regarded as classic productivity applications. Writing or editing large or complex documents is somewhere between difficult and impossible. The display size renders tablets near-useless for any but the smallest spreadsheets.  An iPad is great for viewing a slide presentation, but terrible for creating one. At the same time, however, some imaginative software, such as the FileMaker Pro/Go combo, enables new uses of mobile devices, increasing the productivity of workers away from their desks (if they have desks to begin with) and sometimes replacing much more expensive and more limited specialized devices.

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As a side note, the illustration at the top of this article is an example of a simple little database I created to catalog artworks in my house. I can go around the house to create the records  and snap pictures of the art (by the way, the first use I have ever found for an iPad camera.) Later I can fill in data I don;t have in my head from filed records.

 

What are the Implications of Increased 7” Tablet Popularity?

Last month, DisplaySearch published an analysis, entitled, “Smaller Tablet PCs to Take Over in 2013?”  The report essentially laid outipad-mini-nexus-7 the volume decrease of 9.7-10” displays and the increase of 7.X” displays in January of 2013.  While this isn’t the freshest of data, it’s still valid and certainly makes sense, given the popularity of the iPad mini, Kindle Fe HD, Nexus 7 and the long tail of “white tablets.”  If we are indeed in a volume shift from larger displays to smaller display tablets, there are two key implications which I think are very important as they impact the entire tech ecosystem.

Let me start by taking a brief look back at tablets a mere 9 months ago as it’s important to know where we came from to appreciate where we are going.

Until the Nexus 7 tablet was launched, Android tablets were literally dead in the water and the “tablet market” was really the “iPad market”.  This makes sense even today as 10” Android tablets lack the app ecosystem that Apple provides.  Why would a consumer pay $399-499 for a tablet that has maybe 5,000 optimized tablet apps?  They didn’t and still won’t.  Google attempted to compensate by “stretching” phone apps to 10” displays, but the experience is still lacking. Stretched phone apps still look and operate horribly on a 10” tablet.  7” Android tablets like the Nexus 7 were different in that they can effectively leverage Android’s large phone app ecosystem.  The rest is history as volumes rise for 7″ tablets.

Let me dive into the implications.

The first implication of 7” tablet popularity is the creation of a new ecosystem. Let me focus on hardware.  The iPad hardware ecosystem is large, but not diversified, particularly in hardware, as it is essentially Apple, Foxconn, and Apple’s chosen IHVs.  On the OEM side, I believe companies with subsidized business models will be the most likely OEM winners in 7” tablets.  These are companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.  They can accept lower hardware margins as they drive their corporate profits from e-tailing, advertising, operating systems and application software.  Other winners will be OEMs with strong consumer brands or huge marketing budgets like Apple and Samsung. Less clear are the 7” opportunities for PC giants HP, Dell, Asus, Lenovo and Acer.  With a new crop of OEMs come new ODMs like Quanta, Pegatron, and the long tail of “white tablet” manufacturers.  With new OEMs and ODMs come the component manufacturers.

To get the full appreciation of just how many different component suppliers are involved, you just need to go over to iFixit’s iPad 4 teardown and see the myriad of companies involved. The challenge before was that if you weren’t in the 9.7″ iPad, you were out of luck, because Apple rarely second sources components and they owned the tablet market.  On the SOC side, now Nvidia, Qualcomm, Intel, Mediatek, Hi-Silicon (Huawei), and even relative unknowns like Rockchip (in the HP Slate 7) will have opportunities.  Needless to say, all this new competition will lead to lower prices and hopefully more innovation. I say “hopefully” because with the lower prices, it’s not a foregone conclusion there’s money left over to invest in a lot of innovation.

The final implication of the increased popularity of 7” tablets has nothing to do with tablets at all, but with personal computers.

10” tablets, more than 7” tablets, had the ability to augment or replace certain PC usage models.  Like many, I used the iPad for years as my primary (% time spent) productivity device when paired with a ZAGG/Logitech Bluetooth keyboard. My personal iPad usage model was probably ahead of the curve, but a 9.7” iPad worked well for email, calendar, research via the web or news apps, reviewing presentations and documents, and even writing reports and research.  I would never never finalize a document on the iPad as I would do this on a notebook, but the initial research and text entry worked well.

Usage models are different on a 7” tablet versus a 10″ tablet.  7″ tablets are more appropriate as content consumption devices, driven primarily by the screen size and input methods.  If you have ever had to type out a lengthy email on a 7” tablet, you know what I mean.  Typing on a tablet entails some very uncomfortable typing where half the display is covered by the on-screen keyboard. 7” tablets are great, however, for reading and deleting emails, watching videos, reading e-books, and browsing simple web sites.

With all of this considered, I believe this means that those with the 7” tablets have a greater need for a modern notebook more than those with a 10” tablet.  This is not to say that I expect the market for MacBooks and PC notebooks to explode immediately with amazing growth, but I do believe it will lead to increased notebook sales. When you consider the aging installed base of low battery life, thick and chunky Windows XP and Vista-based notebooks, my thesis gets stronger.

Net-net, the popularity of 7” tablets make notebooks look more attractive and I believe will give a boost to MacBooks and Windows notebooks.

Summary

Until the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD arrived, the “tablet” market was really the “iPad” market.  While not providing the best experience, 7″ Android tablets provide a good enough consumer experience at a very low entry price.  The iPad mini launch validated the 7-8″” tablet market and, based on DisplaySearch figures, the mass of volume appears to be headed to the 7” form factor.  This shift brings with it two key implications.

Android will becomes a player in the tablet market and with it, brings much more competition across OEMs, ODMs and even component suppliers.  This increased competition will drive lower prices and hopefully more innovation.  There is a case to be made that only those with subsidized business models or a stellar brand will survive, but we will have to wait and see on that.  Finally, I think notebooks will get a boost from the popularity of 7” tablets driven by the usage model differentiation between the two devices, which is absolutely the most ironic implication.

Who thought a display size change was boring?

Are the New Crop of Enterprise Tablets a Threat to Apple?

Over the last three years, Apple has reshaped many industries, including the smartphone, tablet, PC and even SOC industry.  One areaHP-ElitePad-900 of Apple success that was in Microsoft’s own backyard was enterprise tablets, where, according to Apple, 94 percent of the Fortune 500 is either testing or deploying iPads.  For a product that has only existed for a few years and the slow pace of enterprise change, this is no small feat.  While no competing enterprise tablets emerged over the last three years to challenge the iPad, technologies developed over the last few years by Intel could very well change the competitive dynamics.

Enterprise iPads were deployed for very similar reasons that consumers bought truckloads of iPads for themselves.  IPads were thin, light, sexy, easy to use with 10 hours of battery life.  Through the use of EAS and an MDM, iPads were “secure enough” for enterprise email.  As time rolled on, Apple added even more security features and companies like Oracle, SAP, and Salesforce.com started to develop enterprise front-ends to their products and services.  This enabled iPads to be more than email machines, but devices where workers could quickly get access to HR and financial system data.

8024514200_050496a1feBecause iPads aren’t Windows PCs, enterprises needed to spend a lot of time and money making iPads “enterprise-compliant”.  By this, I mean IT had to buy products and services and create parallel processes to secure, provision, deploy, manage, service and support iPads.  They did this because of the benefits iPads brought and the lack of a Windows alternative.  At that point, the Windows alternative was thick, hot, and expensive with no more than 5 hours battery life.

Intel Atom Z2760, aka Clover Trail, could change this enterprise dynamic.  If you look at many of the vectors where Windows tablets had an issue, many of them are solved with Clover Trail.  With the Atom Z2760, HP, Dell, and Lenovo have just recently started shipping created tablets that are thinner, lighter, as sexy with better battery life than today’s iPad.

Here are a few snippets on the new tablets that only became available for pilot and deployment:

  • Dell Latitude 10: Dell’s tablet is made from shock-resistant magnesium alloy yet weighs in at nearly the same weight as the iPad.  The battery is user-replaceable, too, providing up to 20 hours of battery life and enabling the user to focus on the client, not searching for a plug.  The desktop dock enables users to come in from the road and dock the tablet to their giant display via HDMI, GigE LAN, and 4 USB ports for a full-size keyboard, full-size mouse and even external storage or a printer.
  • HP ElitePad 900: Made with an aluminum design, the ElitePad is thinner, lighter, more durable and serviceable than the iPad.  HP even provides enterprises with a fixture to remove and repair the display, PCB and battery.  We all know what happens to an iPad 4 when the display breaks.  Also, HP’s “jacket” system provides every imaginable port a user and enterprise would want, including an extra battery that doubles battery life to 20 hours.  Other jackets are available, including rugged designed and one with a keyboard.
  • Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2: Almost a full 100g lighter than the iPad, the ThinkPad is made of plastic design and comes standard with ports that typically only come standard with a PC, like USB, HDMI and SD.  Lenovo also provides an optional desktop dock and keyboard.

Windows 7 is still the enterprise desktop standard and Windows 8, with its issues, is actually viewed by the enterprise as a simpler choice.  You see, while enterprise isn’t enamored with Windows 8, it’s a lot easier to secure, provision, deploy, manage, service and support a Windows 8 tablet than it is an iPad.  This is because it is a PC and can use the same tools and process they do on their 100s of thousands of PCs.  These new tablets can also run legacy desktop apps, too, which means as productivity devices, they can access more of the company’s systems and data without any changes to the older apps.  Finally, the tablets are compatible with the 100s of thousands of USB peripherals, the ones important to enterprises like corporate standard receipt printers, laser printers, full-sized keyboards and mice.

Net-net, these new Windows tablets offer support or the tools enterprise IT already know and have paid for and eliminated the downsides of the previous 22 years of Windows tablets.  The large enterprise CIOs I have talked to really like this combination, too.  Because these new tablets only now became available for pilots and deployments, it will take a while for them to start driving mass volume, so the iPad impact will be minimal at first.

Just as it took Samsung and Google years to get their act together in smartphones and consumer tablets, HP, Dell and Lenovo are now ready to lean into enterprise tablets and have the potential to start chewing aggressively into enterprise iPads.  Apple finally has real tablet competition in the enterprise and will need to amp up their game to maintain their position.

If you would like to learn more about this, I have published a detailed white paper here.

Asus FonePad Phone Functionality not as Odd as it Seems

20130226-074657.jpgAfter having spent a few days in Barcelona at this year’s Mobile World Congress, I have had the chance to play around with a few mobile “toys”. A few of these devices caught my eye and the Asus FonePad was interesting not in form factor, but utility. The FonePad is essentially a 7″ Android tablet that makes phone calls. The phone usage model has been the butt of jokes, particularly when holding the tablet u to your face to make a phone call. After seeing the tablet and thinking of future applications, it’s not as silly as it seems.

As a tablet alone, the Asus FonePad is relatively straight forward 7″ Android Jelly bean tablet. The graphics resolution isn’t spectacular at 1,280×800 but in line with other low cost tablets. It also offers storage upgradability, which is a nice feature the Nexus 7 doesn’t offer. The biggest differentiator is the inclusion of a 3G phone, and when priced at $249, provides a real interesting value proposition. This is particularly true as 5″ smartphones can cost $699 unsubsidized.

Let me drill into the phone functionality.

Backup Phone

Too many people focus on the phone functionality as a primary phone…. but it doesn’t have to be the primary phone. The PadFone could make a decent backup phone if your primary has run out of batteries. When I travel, I undoubtedly run out of battery power on my primary device and scramble for a Mophie charger or a power cord. I’d prefer to eject my SIM and put it into my tablet. Sometimes while on a call and while charging, the phone will run out of power and interrupts the call. I’d much rather put my SIM in my tablet.

Primary Phone

It is a little harder to think of the PadFone as your primary device, but there are certain use cases, phone features, and demographics where it cold make sense. Let me dive into those.

Headphone user Many people don’t put the head up to their ear and opt for a headset. I am one of those. I use a high quality cabled headphones. Others prefer Bluetooth enabled headsets. The worst case is that if they lose their headphones they can put the PadFone up to their ear.

Purse or murse carrier– A 7” tablet for most people puts it out of range to comfortably place in a pocket. Some carry 7” in their back pockets or put it in their coat pocket, but most don’t. Anyone who carries a purse or murse (man purse) won’t have an issue, though.

Battery life– Tired of your smartphone running out of batteries? The PadFone gets 9 hours of continuous use, more than a phone, and it makes sense because it has a much larger battery. It could even get more battery life in usage models where the display isn’t lit up because essentially the guts are a phone.

Speakerphone- A good speakerphone typically has two microphones that are spread out to do noise and echo cancellation. The PadPhone is wider than a phone and theoretically could make a much better speakerphone. Tablets also have more area with louder speakers, too, which is better for a speakerphone.

Price– At $249, this is cheaper than almost every smartphone without a subsidy. You would think a larger 7” tablet costs more than a 4-5” phone, but in some cases, it’s the opposite. With more surface area, manufacturers can use less expensive components that are less integrated, cheaper thermal solutions, and even cheaper glass. Smaller and integrated is more expensive. It’s similar to the way desktops were back in the 90’s. They were cheaper than laptops because they could use larger components and were cheaper to assemble.

Summary

More tablets like the Asus PadFone will emerge that blend voice with tablets. Samsung launched the Galaxy 8 that had voice, too. As consumers and business people get more comfortable with this usage model, it will start to become pervasive, particularly as vendors are looking to differentiate their tablets. Just as some said video was to be watched on TVs, not personal media players like the iPod, consumers want to do most of their usage models on multiple devices and not limit themselves, more people will make calls with their tablets. They already make Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts on tablets, so what makes a phone call any different?

 

 

 

A Few of My Favorite and Significant Products of 2012

One great thing about a tech industry in transition is that manufacturers amp up the amount and breadth of the products they announce. 2012 was a transition year for PCs, smartphones, and tablets, and there were so very many great options to choose from.

My selection criteria for my favorite, significant products was simple:

  • I personally used for extended periods of time as my prime device.
  • It brought something significantly new or better variable to the table.
  • It delivered a good or great experience.

Google Nexus 7 Tablet

The Nexus 7 tablet was announced at Google I/O 2012 at $199 when the going rate of a 10″ tablet was $399. The Nexus 7 sported a 7″ display, NVIDIA quad core Tegra 3 silicon, and Jelly Bean. The tablet leveraged Android’s phone ecosystem, not Android’s anemic 10″ ecosystem. The most significant thing the Nexus 7 brought to the table was “feel.” It felt great, almost as good as iOS, through the “Butter” enhancements, and that is something Apple had the advantage on for literally years over Android. I still use my Nexus 7 on an almost daily basis.

Apple iPad 3 Tablet with HumanToolz iPad Stand

I was a daily user of my iPad 1 and iPad 2 so it made sense to explore the iPad 3. Even though it was thicker and heavier than the iPad 2, I bought one because of the Retina Display. The display was simply awesome, particularly for a near-sighted person as I. The iPad 3 also ushered in the beginning of the public “graphics wars”, where Apple mistakenly went after NVIDIA’s Tegra 3 using some synthetic graphics benchmarks. This made Apple look weak and defensive and NVIDIA look strong.

My kids are now the primary users of the iPad 3.

The best stand for the iPad 3 was the HumanToolz iPad Stand, which equaled the iPad in design and mechanical craftsmanship. The forged aluminum stand fits like a glove through a combination of connectors, magnets and pads, and enables the user to use the iPad in about any angle or configuration.

Dell XPS 12 Touch Ultrabook

I was an advocate for hybrids and convertibles way before it was cool 🙂 and am still one today. The Dell XPS 12 is a touch Ultrabook whose display swivels to become a tablet. Make no mistake, as in the name, the XPS 12 is an Ultrabook, tablet second. Mine sports an Intel Core i7, 8GB RAM and 256MB of flash drive storage, so it’s no lightweight on performance and, like any Macbook, it’s a bit heavy, between an Air and Pro. As a tablet, it is heavier of course than a tablet-only device or Microsoft Surface, but until 2013 and Intel Haswell, you can’t have everything.

Motorola Razr I Smartphone

The Razr I is the first big-brand phone with Intel-inside and with a unique industrial design. The phone was fast and got really good if not great battery life. Some of the unique things I noticed was just how fast the phone was on basic tasks and just how precise it was on speech to text and web browsing, things that are important to me.

The Razr I proved many things for Intel:

  • X86 can be power-efficient for phones and tablets. In fact, tests at Anandtech show the Intel besting ARM-based silicon in power.
  • X86 at low power can deliver the required performance
  • Intel’s risky strategy of cloud recompiling or on-the-fly translations of ARM-based apps worked
  • Intel can effectively design, develop and manufacture mobile SOCs with third part IP (Silicon Hive and Imagination)
  • Respected, global brands will engage with Intel on phones

The Razr I wasn’t perfect as it supported 4G HSPA+ (not LTE), did not yet have Jelly bean but is on its way (up to Motorola), and I’d like a little better camera. The Razr I is one of three phones I carry.

Nokia Lumia 920

I got this late in the season so I’ve only had a few weeks with it. The reason it makes the list is its camera and overall experience. The camera, quite frankly, is the absolute best I have used so far. Low light really is amazing, and unlike my iPhone 4S pics, doesn’t white out while using a flash. Its physical optical image stabilization is part of the magic, the other part is finely tuned software connected to its sensor and ISP. The overall experience is elegant, and in my opinion, more elegant than on iOS, but then again more limiting, too. True multitasking is somthing of a black box as you’re not quite sure what is happening or can happen in the background. I never noticed a single lag which I will attribute to Qualcomm silicon, Windows Phone 8 integration, and the minimal allowable multitasking.

The only major downside is the absence of some of my “front-page apps” without replacements like TWC TV, WatchESPN, Instagram, Pulse, Sugarsync, TripCase, and Expedia. The Lumia 920 is one of three phones I carry.

HTC One X+ Smartphone

Like the 920, I got HTC One X+ late in the season, but it deserves to go on this list because it “feels” like the fastest phone I’ve ever used and it has really good battery life. If the phone sounds familiar, it is. It’s basically the HTC One X with NVIDIA quad core Tegra 3 clocked at 1.7ghz instead of a Qualcomm Snapdragon. Ironically in a chip sense, it does include Qualcomm LTE wireless.

What do I mean by fast? If you’ve used Android, you know that more things you allow in the background, more widgets used, your phone starts to bog down. I loaded the HTC One X+ to the absolute max and it didn’t skip a beat. Very impressive. With LTE in Austin, I got 53Mbps down on AT&T, which blew me away, too. With all the speed came good battery life, too. HTC claims on their web site that it actually gets “up to 50% better battery life than the HTC One X”. I am skeptical about sweeping claims like that as I want to see the details, but the phone did deliver very good battery life. The HTC One X+is one of three phones I carry.

Honorable Mention: ASUS VivoBook U38N Ultrathin

This ultrathin came in last week, so I haven’t been able to take it through its full paces, but I am initially so impressed that it makes it on my list. Why? Think brushed aluminum, thin, light, AMD Trinity quad core APU, AMD discrete graphics, 1080P IPS touch-display with Windows 8, gesture touchpad, back-lit keyboard…. low price. You get the idea. I will drill down into this the more time I spend with it, but this is a very nice laptop.

So these are my favorite, most significant products that I have used in 2012. Products that brought something entirely new to the table and ones that provided a good or great experience. I would love to hear your comments below.

 

How To Make Windows 8 Great

Del XPS Duo 12 Convertible
There has been a lot of discussion here lately, both in posts such as Why IT buyers are Excited About Convertibles and Hybrids and Microsoft Surface: How Relevant Are Legacy Apps and Hardware? about the failings and the potential of Windows 8. So inspired by these posts, and even more so by readers’ comments on them, here is a radical if only partially baked idea: How about a hybrid operating system for hybrid devices?

In Metro (I’m going to go on calling it that until Microsoft comes up with a real alternative), Microsoft has designed a very good user interface for tablets and touch-based apps. The legacy Windows Desktop is still an excellent UI for a traditional mouse-and-keyboard PC. But in bolting the two together in Windows 8 and, to a lesser extent, Windows RT, Microsoft has created a very ugly two-headed calf. The tendency of Metro to pop up while you are working in Desktop, and for Desktop to be necessary for some tasks even while in touch mode, renders both interfaces far from optimal.

Microsoft should do three things. The easiest is to get Metro out of Desktop by allowing booting into Desktop and restoring traditional UI elements, such as a start menu, that were removed from Windows 8.  Fixing Metro is harder. Basically, Microsoft has to finish the job by creating features, utilities, and apps that allow the user to do everything in the touch interface. The toughest challenge is Metrofying Office. It would be extremely difficult to recreate all the functionality of Word, Excel, and the rest in a tablet app and almost certainly unwise to try. Instead, Microsoft has to pick a core feature set that can work in a touch interface on relatively small screens and build the applications around these. (If reports are to be believed, Microsoft is doing this for iOS and Android anyway; why not Windows?)

But the really cool thing would be hybrid Windows for hybrids, a shape-shifting operating system designed for a new generation of devices that can convert from traditional PCs to tablets (the forthcoming Surface Pro probably belongs in this class.) Why not an OS that presents the traditional Desktop UI when the device is being used with a keyboard and touchpad or mouse, then converts instantly and automatically to a touch-first Metro-type UI when the device transforms?

The key to making this work is the use of solid state storage, which allows for very fast saving and restoration of state. I envision a system where you could be editing a Word file in Desktop, then switch to tablet mode, where you make some changes to the file in the touch version of Word. When you switch back to Desktop, Word would still be open with your file, but it would include the edits made in tablet. I suspect that the Desktop and Metro versions of programs would still have to be different applications and this would require closing and reopening of files when switching modes. But SSDs can make this happen so quickly that the user will barely notice.

I’m not suggesting this is at all a trivial job or that in can be done very quickly. The Office project alone is a very large undertaking, one that I can only presume is already underway, although Microsoft has been totally silent about it. There is a great deal of work beyond that, and third-party software vendors would have to get on board with mode-switchable versions of their applications.  But the result would be new and exciting computing experience.

Microsoft Surface: How Relevant Are Legacy Apps and Hardware?

Microsoft Surface has been on sale for a while now and reviews  are out where reviewers tell the public what they thought about their experiences. The reviews varied widely as I illustrate below, but I wanted to spend some time digging into one of the more controversial topics, Surface’s backward compatibility with legacy hardware and software.

Early Reviews Mixed
The headlines and results for the early reviews were mixed, ranging from ZDNet’s Ed Bott “enthusiastically recommended” to Gizmodo’s Sam Biddle “this is technological heartbreak” and everything in-between. Why the big disparity?

The big disparity comes from the different way reviewers approach their personal experiences, their projected experiences and the time frames in mind. Most of the positive review comments are coming from today’s sophisticated hardware and the potential for an improved software experience in future. The more negative comments involve the here and now software experience, primarily around the kind and numbers of apps in the Windows Store. Those reviewers who didn’t find the apps they wanted also pointed out that Surface cannot run legacy Windows apps. Some of those reviewers made it sound somewhat like Microsoft will make no future improvements down the line. This is a bit unfair in that Microsoft will improve the software experience, but, if a consumer does order a Surface today, this is what they are getting today. Thus we see the importance of having everything in place on day one of the reviews.

Product reviews reflect a snapshot in time of the reviewer’s personal experiences, sophistication levels, favorite software, preferred ecosystem and usage patterns. If you are like the reviewer, then it should work out well for you. Better yet, choose a friend you know who has the product and ask them what they think about it.

Is Windows Desktop Software Important?
One important thing for consumers to ask when considering Surface is whether they want to load any of the current Windows desktop apps they own today or if they will want to buy and install new Windows desktop apps in the future. Surface owners must select and buy all their “Metro-style” apps from the Microsoft store but cannot buy or load Windows “Desktop-style” apps.

Surface comes pre-loaded with full (not trial) versions of high quality Microsoft productivity apps Word, Excel and Powerpoint, so the basics of productivity are covered. Will consumers miss loading their older Windows software or buying new Windows desktop software? It depends. It’s not as simple as asking snarky questions like, “do iPad users miss this,” and moving on. It really comes down to perception and reality of what consumers will want to do with the tablet.

Shopper sophistication will run the gamut and the more sophisticated users will make a more surgical decision tree. All things equal, they will ask, “what programs do I run today and want tomorrow on my Windows 7 PC that I would want to run on my Surface tablet?”

All things equal like price, weight, brand and battery life, I want my tablet to run a few key apps that aren’t in the Microsoft Store or I just prefer in a desktop mode. For me, I want the following desktop apps to run on my tablet: Wizard101 and Pirate101 games for my son, Google Chrome web browser, and Evernote. Other consumers may want to run apps like World of Warcraft, iTunes, Microsoft Outlook, Picasa, VLC PLayer or Quicken.

The biggest challenge comes down to naming, unfortunately. When some uneducated consumers hear “Windows”, they could think they can load Windows software and “Windows”, albeit “RT”, will be splashed across every piece of marketing collateral. I believe some consumers will see “Windows” and buy Surface thinking it runs their older Windows desktop apps. Other consumers will view Surface more like an iPad or Kindle Fire and not care at all. I think this will be a short-term challenge until the entire ecosystem gets educated on the differences between Windows 8 and RT and consumer’s favorite apps become available in the Windows Store.

Is Legacy Hardware Important?
Another important thing consumers need to consider is whether they want to “fully” run all their currently-owned peripherals with Surface. These are peripherals like webcams, mice, printer-scanners, game controllers, label makers, receipt scanners, etc. At this point, no one publicly knows which legacy peripherals will work perfectly, work without special capabilities provided by desktop software, or not run at all. There will be new devices or relabeling of older devices as “Windows RT” compatible, but for other devices, it isn’t a known entity.

Let me use a personal example to illustrate my point. I have an HP printer/scanner/fax machine and a Neat sheet scanner for receipts, business cards and documents. On my HP today, I can scan a document in and it magically shows up as a PDF file in “My Documents” folder. Also, when I am printing I can set quality levels and the paper tray. My Neat scanner uses software where I repeatedly change features like color-BxW, dual sided, ignore blank sheets and collated scanning. Will these features work with Surface? I don’t know and I don’t know when or if I will know unless I have a Surface to use. For the record, neither my iPad or Nexus tablets support any of these special features.

Will this become an issue? The answer is the same as the one above on desktop software. It will depend on the user, their knowledge, their expectations of a device with a Windows brand and their experiences with other tablet devices. For those users who equate Windows with backwards peripheral connectivity, it will be an issue as they won’t know until they buy it and something doesn’t work as expected. Like legacy software, legacy hardware is a short term issue and should work itself over time.

What’s the Impact?
I believe even with all the Surface goodness, its lack of support for legacy Windows desktop software and legacy peripherals will continue to subtract from reviews and perceptions on the consumer side and particularly on the enterprise side. Enterprises use more of their head and less of their heart as IT is about business, not new and shiny objects. However, the legacy objections will die down on the consumer side over the next year as more high quality apps get added to the Windows Store and everyone gets proper expectations set. Right or wrong, given enterprise’s fixation on legacy everything, I can see a more protracted time-frame for them to get comfortable with Surface. I’m very interested to see the reviews in a few days on Intel’s Clover Trail-based Windows 8 tablets that compare the experience to Surface and other Windows RT-based devices.

As for impact to sales, that is a much more complex question which I will address in another column.

Note: This column previously appeared on Forbes.com.

Evernote and Sugarsync: Headed in Reverse Windows 8 Gear

Two of the apps that changed the way I work are Evernote and Sugarsync.  Evernote allowed me to go paperless and Sugarsync allowed me to have access to all my data accessible by any device.  Both of the apps have very robust Windows 7, OSX, Android and iOS capability.  Robustness stops, though, at Windows 8, where Evernote and Sugarsync are the biggest disappointment I have yet to encounter with the new OS.  It has been 15 months since Microsoft’s BUILD event, more than enough time to architect, design, develop and test any application, particularly one with robust Windows 7 functionality.

Evernote for Windows 8 Metro

For the last few years I have infrequently used a pen or pencil to take a note in a meeting or at home.  I take all notes with Evernote.  Even if someone hands me a piece of paper, I will take a picture and import into Evernote.  Business card?  Import into Evernote and throw it away.  Whiteboard?  Take a picture and import into Evernote.  The great thing is that every image imported into Evernote is searchable, too.  This experience gracefully (relatively) scales across my PC, Mac, iPhone, Motorola RAZR I, Nexus 7, and iPad.  But falls miserably apart on Windows RT and 8.

homescreen_ipad_iphone_large
Evernote for iOS

Evernote for Windows 8 looks kind of similar, but falls down immeasurably.

Screenshot.789.1000002
Evernote for Windows 8 Metro

For the first few weeks, Evernote would not sync.  It pulled in one note from each month, then stopped.  Windows RT-based systems would just crash.  About a week ago, the sync feature started working on Windows 8 but still to this day, will not sync and just crashes after a few minutes of sync.

Here is the delta list of what I can do on Windows, OSX, Android and iOS that I cannot do on Windows 8:

  • Sync on opening app
  • Edit a note with any rich text.  Will only append.
  • Adding attachment
  • Edit text font, size, color, bold, italics, strike-through, alignment, bullet, number
  • Adding check-boxes and grids
  • Voice notes
  • View attachments (ie pdf, doc, ppt, xls).  You can see the file and it looks like you can touch it and open, but you cannot.
  • Sync in background (cannot on iOS either)
  • Save searches
  • View by pictures
  • Auto-subject by calendar
  • Paper image clean up
  • View by place (geo-positioned)

As you can see, the list of unsupported features is immense and keeps it from doing anything other than viewing or making very basic notes.  The continued crashed with the Windows RT app is inexcusable.  Judging by the mass of one and two start ratings in the app store, I’d say I’m not alone.  Stay away from Evernote and Windows 8 Metro; they don’t mix well.  Use the desktop app with Windows 8 desktop.

Now, onto Sugarsync.

Sugarsync for Windows 8 Metro

Sugarsync for Windows 7, OSX, Android and iOS enable you to keep your files in sync across devices.  On PC, Mac, and Android, files can be automatically synced in the background, too.  Therefore, every file you have on every device can automatically in sync to view and edit.  This all breaks down on Windows 8.

Sugarsync for iPad
Sugarsync for Windows 8

The Sugarsync experience is equally weak as Evernote.  Again, Sugarsync is multi-platform just like Evernote, but for some reason, they have decided to support a narrower subset than even iOS or Android.  Here is the Windows 8 delta list:

  • Search (no, you cannot search your files, online or offline)
  • Offline access to synced files (you must be connected to have access to documents)
  • Background sync
  • Select all devices synced to Sugarsync
  • Look for recent documents
  • Sort files by date

Finding what you are looking for is nearly impossible as there is not search, sort by date, or recent documents.  I cannot recommend any alternatives because none are better.  Literally, with Windows 8, you are landlocked.

Where to Next?

Evernote and Sugarsync need significant improvement or users will simply not use these apps.   Ironically on Evernote, this type of behavior reminds me how they treated Blackberry OS, which they do not support anymore.  While I don’t believe Evernote will discontinue Windows 8 support, they need to improve quickly and substantially to keep it from becoming naturally extinct.  With Sugarsync, the story is a bit different.  Even Microsoft hasn’t enabled Windows 8 offline storage with SkyDrive and at least with some of their messaging, they are trying to help the user learn how to do some sort of offline updating.  Sugarsync prompts the user to, “If you make changes to this file, please open Sugarsync again to automatically save your updated file to Sugarsync.  This way your updated file will be available across all your other decives [their misspelling] with Sugarsync”.  Very kludgy but at least it’s a way to keep files fresh.

Both companies have had over a year to plan, code and test for Windows 8 and there’s really no explanation other than lack of belief and priority in Windows 8 that explains this.  For the sake of users, I hope the situation is remedied quickly.  At a minimum, can you at least call them “preview”, alpha” or “beta”?

Dell XPS 12: Windows 8 Ultrabook Re-imagined

With the advent of Microsoft’s Windows 8, computer makers developed different form factors to take advantage of the new operating system.  Most of these new Windows 8 form factors were shown for the first time at Computex in Taipei and then at the official Windows 8 launch event in New York.  The new PC form factors extend the functionality by taking advantage of touch screen and the Windows 8 Metro interface.  Consumers and businesses can now choose from a myriad of innovative form factors: hybrids where the tablet disconnects from the keyboard, convertible flippers, convertibles that flip 360 degrees and large, portable displays that are carried from room to room.

One of the best of these new devices is Dell’s XPS 12 Convertible Touch Ultrabook.  I have been using it for nearly a month as my primary notebook and wanted to share my experiences.

Ultrabook First, Tablet Second
The XPS 12 is an Ultrabook first and a tablet second.  This is important to understand, otherwise you may fall into the trap of comparing this to a tablet-only device, which would be a big mistake.  The XPS 12 operates as a tablet secondarily through the use of a very innovative flipping hinge, which allows the display to swivel back when you want to use it as a tablet, and swivel back when you want to use it as an Ultrabook. It also enables what I like to call “movie-mode” where the display is at the front and the keyboard is hidden but acts as a great stand.
The swivel display frame is very durable, regardless of what you may read elsewhere.  When you swivel the display into place, it emits a very robust “click”, which comes from magnets all around the frame. One thing that impresses the engineering side of me is that ability to deliver power, display and touch signals signals over a moving swivel mechanism.  Dell has added a few other details to improve use as a tablet.  Dell changed the power button from a bezel button to a side slider which enables the user to turn on the device in any form factor, Ultrabook or tablet, and keeps it from accidentally getting pressed when used as a tablet.  One other comfort feature that I only noticed after a week of use was that the rubberized “feet” act as great place to put your fingers when using as a tablet.
Industrial Design
The XPS 12 pulls from the design language of the entire XPS line, which looks premium but also very functional and durable.  The lid and bottom are both made from carbon fiber, which is not only durable and very light, but cool to the touch. The metal frame is machined aluminum, which is very sturdy and looks great.  The palmrest is made from magnesium, covered with black, rubberized material that is gentle on the eyes but also keeps your palms from slipping like mine does on my MacBook Air (MBA).  Like other notebooks made with machined aluminum, the XPS 12 is a bit heavier than some other Ultrabooks, but I personally like that trade-off  And at 3.35 lbs, it’s lighter than the MacBook Pro (MBP) 13″.
Beautiful 1080P Display
The XPS 12’s display is gorgeous.  It is 12.5″ with brightness up to 400 nits and at 1,920 x 1,080 resolution.  It’s made from bonded Gorilla Glass and therefore bright and durable.  Pictures and movies looked incredible.  This delivers a much higher PPI (176) than a standard 13″ MBA  (127) and less than a 13″ MBP with Retina Display (227).
Base Specifications
While thin and light, my XPS 12 came with relatively robust features:
  • Intel Core i7 3667U operating at 2.0Ghz up to 3.2Ghz in Turbo Boost
  • Windows 8 Pro 64-bit
  • 256 GB SSD/8 GB RAM
  • Intel HD 4000 GPU and mini DisplayPort out
  • Over 5 hours battery life (per reviews) with 47 wHR battery
  • 802.11 a/g/n, USB-3.0 with with PowerShare, eSATA/USB-3.0, BlueTooth 3.0, and WiDi 3.0
  • Intel RapidStart and Smart Connect Technology
  • 3.35 lbs/1.52kg
 All of these specs were very solid, but I would have appreciated an option for discrete AMD or NVIDIA graphics to play some higher level games and take advantage of programs that use GPU compute.
Apple MacBook or Dell XPS 12?
Ultimately, consumers must make a choice and in many cases, Apple and Windows Ultrabooks will be in the consideration set. If, and I mean “IF” the consumer is neutral on an Apple versus Windows 8 ecosystem and purchase experience, here are the things they should consider:
  • how important is touch?  The XPS 12 has it, Macs do not.  Apple may say that reaching across the keyboard to touch the display is bad ergonomics.
  • how important is being able to use the laptop as a tablet? The XPS 12 can, the Mac cannot.  Apple may say buy an iPad because it performs better as a tablet.
  • how important is having the highest resolution and PPI? Apple has the highest.  Dell may say look at the price penalty you pay for the Retina Display.
  • how important are discrete graphics?  Apple offers Nvidia’s latest graphics on the MBP, Dell does not.  Dell may say with such a thin and light design starting at $1,199, it’s not practical.
  • how important is price?  The XPS 12 starts at $1,199 with 1080P display, the MBP with Retina starts at $1,699.  Apple may say the XPS 12 isn’t retina, 500 MHz. more CPU, ThunderBolt and discrete graphics. Or Apple may say look to the MBA 13″, which starts at $1,199.
 Net-net, it is great consumers have such great choices with laptops and Ultrabooks.
Dell XPS 12: Windows 8 Ultrabook Re-imagined
As an industry analyst, I don’t publicly publish many product evaluations, but with the Dell XPS 12, I thought it was important, given its unique design and new usage models it enables.  As an Ultrabook, the XPS 12 was one of the most solid devices I have ever used.  It’s fast, light, thin, sturdy and Dell has paid great attention to details in form and function. As a tablet, I enjoyed it a lot better than I ever expected, and this is coming from a long-time iPad user.  I found myself using the XPS 12 on the couch propping it on my lap and even in bed in “movie-mode” where I historically used my iPad.  It doesn’t replace my iPad or Nexus 7, but I could see using my Surface a lot less.
Dell has a real winner with the XPS 12 and I applaud their courage for developing and productizing such a unique convertible, shape-shifting Windows 8 device during such turbulent times in the PC industry.

Windows 8: Tepid Marketing–>Slow Sales

Win 8 display at Microcenter

Kind of sad, isn’t it? This sorry attempt at a festive display of new PCs at a Micro Center store in Rockville, MD, says a lot about the thud with which Windows 8 seems to have landed.

Windows guru Paul Thurrott recently reported that Win 8 sales are running below Microsoft’s expectations. Microsoft executives, Thurrott says, put much of the blame on OEM partners for being late to market with exciting hardware. But much of the problem may be closer to home. Neither Microsoft nor its retail partners seem to be making all that great an effort to sell new systems, especially compared to past efforts.

This week, I stopped by several big box retailers, the sort that generate most of the sales of Windows PCs, and what I saw was dispiriting. Instead of the end caps, banners, ceiling-high stacks of boxed software, and the occasional brass band that accompanied past Windows launches, I saw a distinctly low key effort. Windows 8 has only a modest presence on TV–most of Microsoft’s ad buy is dedicated to Surface, which is sold only online and in Microsoft’s own sparse retail outlets–and I saw no sign of any Microsoft promotional effort at my local Best Buy, Staples, Microcenter, or H.H. Gregg. In fact, the display below, at Staples, was about as flashy as it got:

Now it is a fact of life in retailing that vendors literally get what they pay for in terms of shelf position, end-cap displays, store advertising, and other promotion. It appears Microsoft isn’t paying much this time around. It doesn’t help that Microsoft is not, at least at this point, selling Windows 8 as physical media, so there are no in-store displays of the software itself. Still, it’s telling that Windows is missing from this row of promotional posters at the Micro Center entrance:

Micro Center poster display

On the shelves, things are just as bad. The main selling point for Windows 8 is touch, but most of the new touch models have yet to come to market. Laptops are generally grouped by price, sometimes by size. In no case did I see touch models grouped together or in any way featured. Best Buy at least had little tags on some non-touch models proclaiming their lack of touch screens, but otherwise, you had to figure it out for yourself, either by reading the detailed product descriptions or by touching the screen and seeing whether anything happened. (A clue: If it costs less than $1,000, it probably doesn’t has a touch screen.) In most stores, there are some Windows 7 machines mixed in among the newer models, and I wouldn’t be surprised if few shoppers managed to figure out just what was supposed to be superior about Windows 8.

Unless Microsoft is going to open a whole lot more of its own stores (there is only one full-fledged Microsoft Store in the Washington area–in Arlington, Va.,–and just two pop-up stores, really glorified mall kiosks, in the entire state of Maryland), it should work with OEMs and retailers to do something to improve a horrible shopping experience. Most of the machines I saw on shelves made it impossible to get any sort of meaningful Windows 8 experience. Many of the machines were dead, or were locked into demo screen shows. Of those that were running Windows 8, almost none were both connected to the internet and linked to a Microsoft account, two features necessary to understanding what the new OS is all about. And while I understand the need of retailers to keep stock from walking off, their approach to theft prevention is lethal to sales. For example, it’s impossible to get a real sense of the sleekness of this Hewlett-Packard Spectre XT Ultrabrook at Staples with that horrible anti-theft clamp and cable device on its side:

HP Spectre

 

Even worse was a similar clamp (at Best Buy) that prevented a Lenovo Yoga convertible notebook/tablet from going through its agile tricks.

I only ran into one true Windows tablet in my shopping tour, a $600 Asus Vivo Tab RT. To my complete lack of surprise, the display was free of any information on the differences between its Windows RT software and the full Windows 8 on the systems surrounding it, another bit of consumer education that Microsoft is sorely ignoring.

 

 

Samsung ATIV SmartPC 500T: Intel Strikes Back

Over the course of the Windows 8/RT industry discussions, ARM-based tablets have received the lion’s share of the discussion.  This has been particularly true with Microsoft’s announcement of Surface RT.  Does this mean Intel cannot deliver a competitive tablet solution?  Hardly.   Intel’s CloverTrail platform is shockingly competitive and I wanted to share some early experiences with the Samsung’s ATIV SmartPC 500T.  In particular, I wanted to share one of the differences between it and Surface RT.

First, just in case you were living under a rock for the past two years, two Windows operating systems exist, Windows RT and Windows 8.  Both run the newer Metro tile-based apps. Windows 8 devices will run those apps and all previous Windows 7 desktop applications and Windows RT devices come pre-loaded with Microsoft Office.

Offline Syncing

One of the major weaknesses of Windows RT devices is that they currently have no way to sync files so they are accessible offline.  With the Samsung 500T, I can install Sugarsync, Box, Dropbox or SkyDrive and have a folder of files that is accessible and synced, online and off.  This isn’t some corner case usage model for me as I have working like this for years and for me is a requirement for a “PC”.  I can even sync files with my iPad, so it’s not like this is foreign to tablets or even phones.  I do expect Microsoft to eventually add this capability but it’s just not here now which was very dissapointing.  They will need to write an ARM-based, desktop compatible connector to achieve this.

Outlook

Windows RT devices come standard with key Office apps like Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote, but it doesn’t come with Outlook.  With my Surface, I bounce back and forth between Metro-based Mail and Desktop Office, which is a bit of a shocker when in work-mode.  On the Samsung 500T, I can take advantage of Office’s features I us a lot like rich email salutations, filters, social media connectors, Word-like formatting, mail-merge, and reply with meeting.  I have to admit, I was surprised how responsive Outlook was with CloverTrail.  Intel really did their homework on the Atom Z2760 and Outlook.  I must point out that Outlook is an adder, a $199 adder, so this isn’t free, but a requirement for me when doing heavy duty work.  The Metro email app is good, but not good enough to run my business from.

Games

The Windows App Store does not currently have many games, but I am optimistic given the amount of Windows game developers out there.  One of the advantages of the Samsung 500T is that it can run legacy apps and games.  It’s not like you would want to run the latest Call of Duty game, but certainly you can run some of the lighter weight desktop games.  For instance, my son, as I have written many times before, plays a game called Wizard101 from KingsIsle Entertainment.  He literally plays this every day, and because Intel’s CloverTrail will run Windows desktop apps, he can play his favorite game.

Printer-Scanner-Fax

It’s hard to buy a printer without an integrated scanner, fax and copy machine built in.  I had no problem network printing from Surface, but I couldn’t install any of the advanced features that made the scanner work.  The Samsung 500T loaded the entire driver and app set and I could use all of the features.  The one I appreciate most is where I scan a document and it automatically shows up in the “My Documents” folder of the 500T.

Evernote

Because the 500T can run Windows 7 desktop apps, it runs full Evernote.  My entire life is on Evernote and I have been paperless for years because of it.  Quite frankly, Evernote for Metro is unusable.  It doesn’t sync in the background, crashes a lot, doesn’t handle viewing or adding attachments properly, cannot format, does not support audio notes, and does not support “Places”.  Other than that it’s great. The Evernote folks have been busy working on their iOS and OSX upgrades but I sure hope they get to Windows 8.

Chrome Browser

Chrome is my favorite browser.  I have all my favorites, folders, and even some passwords already setup.  I can use the full-strength browser.  Internet Explorer is nice, but unfortunately in Metro-mode it does not support favorites in folders.  Internet Explorer just lists a 1,000 of bookmarks without folders which is just untenable.

Camera

I will never understand why some tablets have such crummy cameras.  This includes the iPad and Surface, too.  It literally costs a few dollars to improve it.  I get the segmentation reasons and that every penny counts, but we are talking $500-700 devices.  I was quite pleased with the 500T’s camera as it captured stills at 8MP and vide at 1080P.  This is comparison to Surface’s 1MP still and 800P video capabilities.  Why would anyone want to take pictures or videos with a tablet given it looks so geeky?  In meetings I take pictures of white boards and even slides being presented.  Also, because cameras drain so much smartphone battery life, many times I will use a tablet because it will last so much longer.  So yes, I am the geek taking photos and videos of their kid’s volleyball game with the tablet.

Battery Life

Most people expected some monumental difference in battery life between Intel and ARM-based tablets.  I did a year ago, too.  I have not experienced any discernible difference between the 500T and Surface but some reviewers have noticed differences.  Given no one even thought Intel could even show up to this tablet battery life battle, Intel has proven a lot.

Startup Time

From cold start, the Samsung 500T started up extremely quick in around 13 seconds.  This is in sharp contrast to Surface which took around 29 seconds to start.  I think the last major update slowed the cold boot start for Surface, which is odd.  Users won’t need to do this often unless they run out of battery life because both devices support connected standby. The Samsung 500T and Surface, once on started immediately came to life and had updated content.

PC Oddities

The Samsung 500T is a full PC, meaning you get the advantages and disadvantages of a PC.  It is very easy to load an app that can bring it to its knees, like a video encoding app or game like Call of Duty.  If you want to run a program like that, you’d be better off getting an Ultrabook or ultrathin, but be prepared to pay a lot more.  So I did need to be aware of what was running in desktop if I noticed something was slow in Metro.

It’s also real easy to run out of storage.  I loved the synced files, but it does require that you have enough to store the data.  This may sound trite, but for many basic users, this is difficult.  Finally, I did notice that when I did restart or turn the 500T off, some app or process would keep it from shutting down.  Just like a full Windows PC.

Where to From Here?

This blog is about sharing my initial experiences with the Samsung 500T and not meant to be a sweeping analyst opinion piece on Intel versus ARM.  I will follow up with that as soon as I have used more Windows RT and Windows 8 systems.  That’s only fair. What I can say is that Intel has delivered every bit as good of a tablet experience as anything ARM-based companies have delivered so far, if you know how to navigate a Windows PC.  The Samsung 500T is responsive, thin, light and has good battery life.  In addition, it runs Windows 7 desktop apps, too, unlike Windows RT devices like Surface.  That cuts both ways in that an unsophisticated user could easily make a mistake and flood it with too much processing and/or storage from a Windows 7 desktop app.  But if you know what you are doing, you won’t do that.

What I can definitively say right now is that it is “game-on” between Intel, NVIDIA and Qualcomm in the Windows mobile space.

Of Tablets, Phones, and Apps

iOS 6 and Android logos (Apple/Google)This began life as a reply to a comment on Part 4 of John Kirk’s “Why Android Is Winning the Battles, But Google Is Losing the War,” but quickly got out of hand.

John’s post sparked a discussion of Apple’s and Google’s different approaches to developing apps for tablets vs. handsets. Commenter rj said that Apple’s approach is to favor development of “Universal” apps that will run on either the iPad or iPhone. This is correct, but it rather misunderstands what a Universal app is. If implemented following Apple’s user interface guidance, a Universal app will effectively create two different versions in a single package.

The Android guidelines focus heavily on scaling and are marked by a belief that, at worst, developers need make only modest adjustments to phone apps to make them suitable for tablets:

Provide different layouts for different screen sizes

By default, Android resizes your application layout to fit the current device screen. In most cases, this works fine. In other cases, your UI might not look as good and might need adjustments for different screen sizes. For example, on a larger screen, you might want to adjust the position and size of some elements to take advantage of the additional screen space, or on a smaller screen, you might need to adjust sizes so that everything can fit on the screen.

Apple is much more concerned with the need to redesign apps for different display types:

Ensure that Universal Apps Run Well on Both iPhone and iPad
If you’re planning to develop an app that runs on iPhone and iPad, you need to adapt your design to each device. Here is some guidance to help you do this:Mold the UI of each app version to the device it runs on. Most individual UI elements are available on both devices, but overall the layout differs dramatically.

Adapt art to the screen size. Users tend to expect more high-fidelity artwork in iPad apps than they do in iPhone apps. Merely scaling up an iPhone app to fill the iPad screen is not recommended.

Preserve the primary functionality of your app, regardless of the device it runs on. Even though one version might offer a more in-depth or interactive presentation of the task than the other, it’s important to avoid making users feel that they’re choosing between two entirely different apps.

Go beyond the default. Unmodified iPhone apps run in a compatibility mode on iPad by default. Although this mode allows people to use an iPhone app on iPad, it does not give them the device-specific experience they want.

But reading the two sets of programming guidelines, I noticed a much deeper difference. Both, of course, are intended as developer references and contain a great deal of nitty-gritty information about APIs and how to implement specific features. But the Google version is full of code snippets and parameter definitions while Apple’s approach is much more concerned with reminding developers that what matters is the user experience and how good app design contributes to that experience. The Google approach is more practical, but Apple’s may be more useful. I don’t want to read too much into a couple of pages from developer manuals, but at least to me, they do sum up important differences in how Apple and Google approach the world.

 

Things I Prefer to do on my iPad versus my Surface

Last week, I covered areas and usage models where I preferred to use Microsoft Surface over my Apple iPad(s). I was actually surprised I would like Surface in so many areas given it is such a new device and ecosystem.   This week, I will reverse gears and discuss areas where I still prefer my iPad.

Games

I prefer genres of games like action, shooter, and racing.  With the iPad, I get choices like Infinity Blade, Real Racing, Metal Storm, Modern Combat, Zombie Gunship, and Need for Speed.  The Windows Store is starting to have some decent titles like Hydro Thunder Hurricane that show the potential, but for right now that’s what it is, potential.  With the performance NVIDIA Tegra 3, I hope that the store starts to get filled with good games.

Podcasts

Since Apple added its own podcast app, they have been so simple and reliable.  On the iPad, I can simply subscribe and auto sync with the bare minimum toggles to manage everything.  Slapdash is a decent start for Surface, but it doesn’t auto sync and gets some nasty errors or crashes if I wasn’t connected.

Heavy Social Media

The iPad literally has a social media app for everything and more times than not, they offer the first native apps for a new service.  Also, the best apps like Tweetbot are on the iPad, too.

On Surface, the apps are OK for some casual social media, but not heavy duty.  They are a bit sluggish and lack key features.  One, for instance, is a very simple one, where you can pin a Twitter list to your start screen.  I can do this on multiple Android and iOS apps but not a single Windows RT app.

Viewing Photos 

I still prefer viewing and editing photos on the iPad.  It’s fast to open the app, open pictures, view and edit.  The editing tools are more sophisticated, too, with auto enhance and redeye.  While the Surface display is nice, I do notice a big improvement on the Retina display on the iPad 3.  One other pet-peeve I had with the Surface was when I wanted to sync photos.  It never asked me if I wanted to delete the photos on the iPhone.  Therefore, to delete the photos off the iPhone, I needed to add one more step.

Taking Notes

I take a ton of notes with my iPads using Evernote, unless it becomes unreliable and crashy where I then switch to the Notes app. The Evernote on Windows RT is the biggest disappointment of any app I have used so far.  I consider it Alpha as it either won’t sync, is slow to sync, or cannot view attachments without being connected.  Even though the app has access to the file system, you cannot add attachments other than photos.  Emailing notes works have the time and the other time crashes or displays the following error: “We’re having problems connecting to verify your info. Try signing in again.”  I tried OneNote for the tenth time. Incredibly confusing. OneNote then notes are displayed as “Personal (Web)>Quick Notes”. I’m sure if I used OneNote for years I would know what all that meant but I don’t.

Business Collaboration

While the iPad is primarily a consumer device, it has support for tools like Webex and GoToMeeting.  As an industry analyst, I get briefed a lot and these tools are invaluable for doing these.  Unfortunately, Surface does not currently have support for these and does not support them via the web browser, either.

Wireless Video Mirroring

This may sound uber-geeky, but I routinely mirror my iPad to my Apple TV to my HDTV.  I do this for many reasons, including to show off a web site, play a game, show off a new or funny app.  While the PlayTo functionality for non-DRMd video and audio is appreciated over the Xbox, it does not currently mirror the entire device.

Managing Contacts

I can very quickly and accurately view, open and edit contacts with my iPad.  I really do appreciate the linking of contacts on the Surface, but unfortunately, it is excruciatingly slow.  If I need to edit over 5 contacts, I usually just give up and go use Outlook instead.

Cloud Storage

iCloud storage for Pages, Numbers, and Keynote for the iPad is nothing short of awesome.  Now, if the apps were more compatible with Office, I’d switch over right now.  Surface does not make it easy to automatically store and update Office documents.  You see, there is no SkyDrive for Windows Desktop, only for Metro.  There is an Office Upload utility in Desktop, but it only works if you pulled the document from SkyDrive or created a document or saved once to SkyDrive.  Therefore, if you created a document offline, there is no way to have it autosave once you are connected again.  Neither Box nor SugarSync have Windows RT desktop handlers, either, which is very disappointing.

Where does this Leave Us?

Surface and the iPad are very good tablets.  What is most surprising is that Surface is brand new and it can do many things better than the iPad, now on its fourth generation.   I was surprised just how well Surface did “tablet-only” usages like video playback and even surfing the web.There is room for both these devices as they take two very different tacks.  Surface is a PC that’s also wanting to be a tablet.  The iPad is trying to be a tablet, not a PC (or Mac).   Surface will be good for those consumers like me who want it all and are willing to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the PC or have another tablet for 100% content consumption.   This battle is just getting started at a time when many pundits thought it was a closed and shut case for Apple.

In Praise of Old-fashioned PCs

.Photo of IBM PC (Wikipedia)

I’m a big fan of tablets, especially the iPad. Altrhough I find myself spending more and more time with a tablet and less and less with a traditional computer, I can’t imagine getting by without a Windows PC or a Mac. And that is why, though the market for traditional computers will shrink, they aren’t going away.

The tablet is the only computer a lot of people will ever need. If the iPad or an Android tablet isn’t quite up to the job, the new, more PC-like Microsoft Surface might well be (See Patrick Moorhead’s post on Surface’s advantages.) But a lot of people falls well short of all people.

When he introduced the iPad in2010, Steve Jobs famously observed that that PC was like a truck and the iPad was a car, and most people don’t need trucks. He was right, but seriously underestimated the importance of trucks. Nearly half of all vehicles sold in the United States are light trucks. Even if you eliminate the more car-like crossover SUVs (maybe those are the Surfaces), trucks still account for about a quarter of the sales.

I’m writing this on a Windows desktop PC (for a change; I usually work at my iMac  when I’m at home.) Because I can. I’ve done WordPress posts entirely on the iPad (with a Zagg keyboard) and while it is quite possible, it isn’t much fun. I regularly work with multiple windows open and often cut and paste material from one app to another. You cannot easily do that on a tablet.

There are three activities that keep me on the traditional PC. I do a lot of technical writing and editing, which generally involves large (100-pages plus), highly formatted Word documents. There is no alternative to Word, and often Excel and PowerPoint for collateral material. A lot of tech pundits who keep predicting the imminent demise of PCs and heavyweight Microsoft Office applications underestimate how deeply these are ingrained into enterprise workflows.At the recent Apple product announcement, the thing I found myself lusting for was not the featured iPad mini but the new 27-in. iMac with a Fusion drive.

I also do some video editing. Not a large amount but enough to know that I want the fastest, most capable system I can lay my hands on. Even simple editing is taxing on a system and transcoding and rendering video can get really time consuming. Also the process of capturing an hour of live video and editing it down to a five- or ten-minute cut can generate many gigabytes of files.

Finally, there’s photo editing. I love the hands-on aspect of photo editing on a tablet and iPhoto for iOS is a fun tool. But for serious work, whether it is preparing graphics for Tech.pinions posts or processing my own photos, I turn to Photoshop.

While we are talking about threes, there are three things that PCs have and tablets lack. First is processing power. Today’s tablets have plenty of power for the tasks they are intended to do, including rendering HD video. But to achieve 10 hours of battery life in a very thin, light tablet, thingsa have to go, and one of those things is raw computational power. There’s no way an ARM chip or even an Intel Clover Trail Atom is going to match the performance of an Intel Core i5 or i7 with Intel’s latest integrated graphics, let alone with a discrete graphics system.

Second is a big display. Some tasks, especially those involving multiple windows, want all the display real estate you can throw at them. I generally work with 27-in. displays and am thinking of going to dual monitors if I can figure out how to make them fit. A tablet limits you to one smallish window (one and a half, sort of, on the Surface.)

Finally there’s storage. I haven’t taken an inventory lately of how much storage I have connected to my local area network, but it’s more than five terabytes, with a terabyte of local storage on my two main desktops. A tablet offers 64 GB, max. Yes, there is all but unlimited storage in the cloud, and I keep a lot of stuff in the cloud. But I want local copies of my important content, and that includes lots of music and photos, as well as thousands of documents.

For all these reasons, my PCs aren’t going to disappear. And neither, I suspect, are an awful lot of others. (On the other hand, I do find that I am using my Mac and Windows laptops less and less, as tablets take over the mobile chores.) Many business users are going to continue to need full-bore PCs as well, although there too we may see fewer laptops and a return to desktops.

At the recent Apple product announcement, the thing I found myself lusting for was not the featured iPad mini but the new 27-in. iMac with a Fusion drive. I love the super-portability of the tablet, but I still need the heavy iron too.

Ten Things I prefer to do on Microsoft Surface versus my Apple iPad

My primary tablet of choice for years has been Apple’s iPad. The iPad, iPad 2, and the New (now old) iPad (3). This is after trying at least 20 other tablets with Android phone, Android tablet, Kindle Android, Windows 7, webOS, and QNX operating systems. Before Surface, I used my iPad 2 primarily in productivity mode with a Logitech keyboard in “fridge toaster mode” and used my iPad 3 as my primary entertainment device when paired with the HumanToolz stand. I find that combination suited my distinct needs.

After all of the contextual “research”, I have finally found a device that could make me leave the iPad at home, that is, after some improvements. After using Microsoft’s Surface for about a week, there are some usage models that I prefer to do on the Surface over the iPad. Before you decide to go directly to the comments section and flame me without reading the article, my next column will be on where I still prefer the iPad in specific usage models, which are many.

Email

I have been critical of Windows 8 email earlier versions, but in the final throes of pre-launch, Microsoft redeemed themselves with a very solid Mail update. The email client is fast enough, is threaded, pulls in avatars from other services that personalizes the experience and easily handles attachments in a way that I am familiar with Windows. Emails are very quick with Surface’s keyboard, too. It’s not perfect as I want a unified inbox, in-message web links, and shortcuts like “add to calendar”, but given this is only version 1.0, I am certain Microsoft could enable it if they wanted to. Question is, how good will they make it until it pulls business from Outlook?

Random, Unplanned Web Browsing

Internet Explorer on Surface is a full, PC-grade browser, unlike Safari on my iPad, but it feels as fast as a tablet browser. While I run into sites that are just ugly on the iPad, Internet Explorer just works as it doesn’t need to cut corners. I never get a down-featured mobile site either, which I routinely get on iPad Safari. Like Mail, it’s not perfect either as it doesn’t even have synced bookmarks. For planned browsing where I go down my favorites list I still prefer the iPad, but I have to think Microsoft will add this or lose many customers to Google Chrome, which works very well on X86-based Windows 8 tablets. In fact, on my Intel Clover Trail-based tablet, I’ve already shifted to Chrome because of the lack of IE bookmarks.

The other thing that is, quite frankly, emancipating is being able to interact fully with a web site or service. I am very disappointed with the lack of Metro-based social media apps, but overjoyed that I can do EVERYTHING on my tablet with a social media site I can do with my full PC. Literally, upload, download, post, reply to every and any site without worrying about if that app has connected with that API or not. IE supports every Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Pinterest feature. Why? It’s simple, because it is full-featured PC browser with access to the system’s file system and peripherals. That, paired with Nvidia’s quad core Tegra 3 that accelerates HTML 5 drives a complete web experience.

Does this mean I don’t want apps? No way. I want apps for speed too, but want the web when I want the whole experience. I want it all.

Writing Research and Blogs

On my iPad, my blog workflow today moves from iPad Evernote to WordPress on the iPad and then final edit on a PC. If you have ever worked with iOS WordPress and photos, you understand why. With Surface, I start with Word then publish inside the app to WordPress. One app, one device; what could be simpler? And it is so, so much easier with the type cover with a trackpad to pound out a 1,000 word piece of work. For research papers, there is no substitute for Word. It’s just the gold standard of productivity. Enough said.

Wireless Printing

While not that sexy, I have appreciated the consistency of Surface’s wireless printing. Like web browsing, it just works. When printing from my iPad, half the time it prints garbage or ten pages when I really only wanted the first page. This has come in handy for my kid’s school projects and when printing out contracts to sign and scan. For the record, no, Surface doesn’t support my HP or Neat scanner and I do that on a full PC.

Task Switching

It seemed for the longest time, Apple was “holding out” for easy task switching. Then came the very much appreciated two finger gesture for the iPad. I thanked Apple profusely for this. Microsoft and the Surface take this a few steps forward with the simple left thumb flick, which allows the user to keep both hands on the device and task switch. When I am showing friends and family the Surface, they are all “gee whiz” on this very simple feature. I liked webOS and QNX task switching better than Windows 8, but must say, I have warmed up to Windows RT and 8 task switching, and certainly prefer over my iPad.

Instant Access to Information without Opening Apps

If you want to get an Apple fan boy riled up, just start a discussion about Live Tiles or Android panes. You can just see the blood pressure rising and the next hour of conversation is around ease of use and what normal consumers want. Well, I like Live Tiles because it saves me time and some don’t because they are “confusing”. Without even touching the Surface display I can see emails, calendar, and weather, stocks, Tweets, breaking news, updated podcasts and about 100 other pieces of information. I think other consumers will prefer, too, after some time as icons are so 1980’s. I believe Microsoft jumped ahead of the curve on this tile concept and Apple will follow at some point.

As the industry moves to large surface usage models and environments for full rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, etc., live tiles will be commonplace. And, yes, I had PointCast and Yahoo widgets and stopped using them because they became a hindrance over time, but these tiles are different, as they are the experience, not an add-on.

Rental Videos

I watch a lot of rental movies and TV from the Apple Store on my iPad. I do this a lot while crashing on the couch or in bed. I use the HumanToolz stand to prop up the iPad 3 on my chest so I didn’t have to hold it. When Amazon Prime came to iPad, I still used the iPad, but switched to Prime. It wasn’t about the deals, it was that Prime enables streaming and the Apple Store does not on the iPad. I sometimes had to wait over an hour for an Apple Store video to download. I get the QOS challenges with streaming, but somehow Amazon and Netflix deals with those. Plus, Apple deals with streaming on my Apple TV just fine, so it’s just frustrating. With Surface, I use the Xbox movie store where I can stream or download and play. This is a lot more convenient than the iPad.

One broadcast channel app that was quite good was the ABC Player. My wife and I watched “Revenge” together and Surface provided a better quality and stable video experience than the iPad. I haven’t had the chance to test every service, but I also thought the Netflix and Hulu+ experiences were also very solid.

Anything that Really Requires a Mouse

As I use my iPad for productivity in addition to entertainment, I attempted presentations with Keynote and spreadsheets with Numbers. I tried for years to love these on the iPad but ended up abandoning them after each new release. Pages was fine but spreadsheets and presentations were nightmares even for editing files I created first on a PC. The lack of a mouse was the biggest issue for me as I had to learn a bunch of new gestures on a small 9.7” screen. With Surface, I have a keyboard, trackpad, optional mouse, Excel and PowerPoint. If you’ve done spreadsheets and presentations, you know how much easier this is and can relate. As in web browsing, this is an area where the four Nvidia Tegra 3 cores are making an impact.

Group Music Listening

I still prefer personal listening of music on the iPad as it’s faster and simpler, but in a group environment, Surface is just all that better. Microsoft essentially took the Xbox music experience and put it on Surface. If you’ve never experienced it, you should, as it’s as much about the video as it is the music. As you play a song, you are fed some incredible transitions that go way above cover art.

Sharing Anything

With my iPad, it’s up to Apple to determine what app or service I can directly share to. Like rental movies, this is Apple simplifying for the consumer and ensuring QOS. Also, if all apps had access to all Apple APIs, Apple couldn’t fully monetize its connections. Microsoft has chosen a different another route, one that is more partner-friendly and inclusive. This isn’t Microsoft jut being the good citizen, it’s part of their business model of monetizing the OS and they are years behind in the tablet war.

In Metro, I literally click on the “Share” charm and any, and I mean, any app that has a “contract” to share, I can share with. Let me use sharing pictures as an example. On my iPad from the Camera Roll, I can share a picture to 2 non-Apple apps, Facebook and Twitter. On Surface, I can share that same picture to 6 different non-Microsoft services and apps and that’s only two weeks in before many social media apps even surface.

Hate my iPads?

I love my iPad and it has been the “chosen one” for many years, for basic productivity and for fun. I cannot tell you just now many times I received flak years ago, before the iPad, for forecasting three years ago that the tablet would be the primary content consumption device for the home by 2015. I think there are many more believers now. I am here to say that the iPad finally has some authentic competition, stiff competition, and that’s from Microsoft Surface and from other Windows RT and 8 devices. Holistically, the iPad has it more together, but then again, it doesn’t do as much, either, and has a multi-year head start. Surface is far from perfect, has its flaws, but also delivers a much better experience than expected, and selectively delivers a preferred experience in certain usage models.

Next week, I will outline usage scenarios where I still prefer my iPad.

Why Does Microsoft Make It So Hard?

Surface with Excel (Microsoft)Are you planning to use a new Microsoft Surface for business? You might want to think again, at least if you are concerned about legal niceties.

At ZDnet, Windows guru Ed Bott examines the strangely complex  legalities of using Microsoft Office on Surface. Office 2013–at least its Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote applications–is part of the Surface’s Windows RT operating sustem. But the bundled software, Office Home & Student 2013 RT, prohibits use of the programs “for any non-profit, commercial, or other revenue-generating activity.” Which seems to mean that if I were writing this in Word on a surface, I would be violating the license.

It’s not as though you have a choice about the version of Office on your Surface. Office RT comes with it and is the only version that can be installed. (The forthcoming Surface Pro will support any Windows version of Office, but probably does not come with any Office software included.)

There are several ways out of this. If the Surface is owner by a company and if the company has an Office Volume License Agreement, the restrictions are waived. Same if you subscribe to a business version of Microsoft’s forthcoming Office 365 service, $150 a year for Small Business Premium, $20 per user per month for Office Professional Plus.

Bott says you are probably also in the clear if you own a fully licensed version of Office 2013 Professional and maybe Office 2013 Home & Student, although those products won’t ship for a couple of months.

Pages, Numbers,  and Keynote aren’t the greatest word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software in the world. But at least if you buy these iPad apps, for $10 apiece, you can use them for whatever you damn well please.

 

Why Surface Will Be Good for the iPad–and the Rest of Us

Microsoft SurfaceFor the past 2 1/2 years, iPad as has ruled the world of tablets. Except for Amazon’s Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble NOOK Tablet, both special-purpose devices dedicated to consumption, there has been no competition worth mentioning. But with the entry of Microsoft into the fray, both with the Surface and an assortment of third-party Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets, the business is about to get a lot more interesting.

I start from the premise that only competition keeps the tech business driving forward and that in the absence of effective competition products stultify. This definitely happened in PCs. After Apple failed to respond to the introduction of Windows 95, the Mac market share fell to the low single digits and without effective competition, Microsoft innovation faded. It has only been Apple’s across-the-board success in recent years that lit a fire under Microsoft.

The iPhone never had iPad’s grace period. It entered a crowded market, where it had to displace the entrenched market leaders: BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm, and Symbian. That proved to be surprisingly easy, helped by lunkheaded competition, but  Android soon came along as a serious challenger. I don’t think there is any doubt that the iPhone and Android have made each other better and I expect this process to continue, especially if Google can build and app and services ecosystem that rivals Apple’s. And I think the entry of Windows Phone 8 can  only improve things, pushing both Apple and Android, though its commercial success is an open question.

The fact that iPad has improved quite a bit since its 2010 introduction seems largely the spillover of iPhone features into the tablet space: better apps, better services, faster processors, and the retina display.  The first notable effect that tablet competition has had on the iPad is the introduction of the iPad mini, which is clearly a response to smaller tablets finding at least some success in the market.

Android tablets, especially the larger ones, have suffered from many problems. but the overwhelming issue is the lack of decent software. The success of iOS devices and even, to some extent, of Android phones has proven that consumers want native apps. But Google has had a very hard time seeing beyond the browser. The Android app situation remains calamitous, with most of the available choices being blown-up phone apps that are terrible on a 7″ tablet and unspeakable on a 10″.

Microsoft is not making this mistake.  The selection of Windows RT apps is still quite limited, but Microsoft understands the care and feeding of developers. The RT apps that are available are designed for the Surface’s display (and those of Windows 8 laptops and tablets) and consistently speak the Metro (for lack of a better name) design language common to Windows 8/RT and Windows Phone. Many of the apps are quite good (a notable exception being the built-in Windows 8/RT Mail app, whose awfulness is both inexplicable and inexcusable.)

Equally important, Surface is being launched into a mature Microsoft ecosystem. Microsoft has spent years seemingly pouring money down the holes of Xbox and what used to be called the Windows Live collection of online services. But now, those investments may be about to pay off, as the company pulls together the entertainment content of Xbox and cloud services such as SkyDrive, Outlook.com, and Office 360–not to mention the deep understanding of cloud services it has gained from its enterprise back office offerings. iOS devices sold a lot of Macs because of the way they work so well together in the Apple ecosystem. The same dynamic could work for Microsoft in reverse: the vast installed base of Windows PCs could sell Surfaces and Windows Phones to gain the advantages of the Microsoft environment.Surface is being launched into a mature Microsoft ecosystem..

Surface is not designed as a head-on competitor for the iPad. In many ways, from its ability to work with USB peripherals to its all-but-mandatory keyboard, it is far more PC-like. Like the iPad itself, it represents a new device class in what is turning out to be a surprisingly big space between smartphones and traditional PCs.

It’s going to take a while before we can judge the success of the Surface strategy. Microsoft, however, is a patient company that is smart enough not to expect an instant payoff from its very big bet. But by offering tablet-hungry consumers a worthy alternative to the iPad, Microsoft has put pressure on Apple to keep its game up. That can only be good for all of us.

 

 

Microsoft Pulls it Together (Almost) for Windows 8 Launch

I attended Microsoft’s launch last week for Windows 8, Windows RT, and Surface. While launch day is only one milestonephoto 1 (3) in a string of milestones, launch day is the one day that everything must come together, the day where some make their final judgment. So how did Microsoft do?

Importance of Launch Day

Launch days is one day in many important days that a product or service goes through in its lifecycle. I believe it is one of the most important days, though, as it pulls together all the hard work of the previous years into just a few hours. The value of launches differ between consumer and commercial products, too. In the commercial world, buyers like IT managers don’t expect and quite frankly don’t believe that everything would be together on day one. They’re a skeptical bunch, due in part to just how many times they have seen products and services not live up to their promises in the past. Maybe they even lost their job or got reprimanded for making what ended up being a tech mistake that cost their company time or money.

Consumer product launches are different, in that those product and services get measured by press and reviewers based upon what it can do on launch day, not at some point in the future. There are some exceptions that consumers make, where if they trust a brand and they make a future promises the company is believed, but for the most part, what is launched on that one day sticks for a very long time.

One final important piece about launch day is “permanence”. What gets written by press and analysts on launch day is rarely updated if something changes. With most consumers checking out the internet before they buy, this is vitally important. So how did Microsoft do?

Windows 8 Launch Day Plusses

Looking holistically at the day, I have to give credit where it is due. Microsoft did a very good job pulling everything togetherimage on game day. Microsoft made a good case that Windows 8 was the best Windows yet, good for older and the newest systems. On almost every metric, Microsoft showed that Windows 8 is better than Windows 7. They didn’t address the lack of a Start button or the potential confusion, but I don’t think this was the right place to do that. That is best demonstrated in the marketplace.

The demos were some of the best I’ve ever seen from Microsoft as Mike Angiulo and Julie Larson-Green did their magic. They made a pretty good case for why consumers would want Windows 8, particularly on touch-based devices. I particularly thought they did a good job showing and talking about how Windows 8 works with other Microsoft-based properties. Angiulo and Larsen-Green also did a very good job in showing the absolute breadth of designs supporting Windows 8 and Windows RT. The device onslaught was impressive, from notebooks, to hybrids, tablets, convertible flippers, convertible swivelers, to all in ones. They showed devices from all the big brands at prices ranging from $499 to $2,499.

Steve Ballmer was in rare form too, with a good balance of his famous passion and facts. He was there to put the final stamp on the event by showing just how committed Microsoft is to the Windows 8 ecosystem and experience by outlining just how many Microsoft apps and services have been developed to support a seamless Windows experience.

The launch wasn’t perfect, though.

What I Wanted to Hear More About

Microsoft demonstrated their best launch I have ever seen, but it could have been better, had they made a stronger case on a few items.

I have been a bit critical previously on how Microsoft has handled the rollout of Metro-based apps in the store. Without having enough high-quality apps, Windows 8 could have been compared to the webOS Touchpad or 10” Android tablet ecosystem, which would have been disastrous. Microsoft definitely came through on video streaming services by adding Netflix and Hulu within weeks of launch. They also showed up with many key new site apps, even though CNN is still MIA. What Microsoft missed at launch were key social media apps. While I understand that the People app has some good connections to services, it does not replace a native social media app for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or Google+. One example is Twitter. I, like many, have Twitter lists they want on their primary start screen. Not a single Metro Twitter app supports this. I would have at least liked for Microsoft to address this head-on and give a date when some of these apps are committed. In Surface reviews, the number of high quality apps was on key criticism in every single one of them. It didn’t have to be like that and was avoidable.

I would have also liked for Microsoft to address any hardware incompatibilities with Windows RT as opposed for users to find out on their own. Microsoft stated that Windows RT “works with 420,000,000 devices” but how do I know if that one Neat scanner or HP scanner that is so important to me works well? Microsoft has done a ton of work testing, but I would have at least liked to see accessible resources for consumers to check if their special peripheral works well. By not disclosing this, it made them appear to be hiding something.

Finally, there is the commercial PC and tablet market. Enterprises are currently shifting from Windows XP to Windows 7 on standard form factors like notebooks and desktops and therefore Windows 8 for the most part is irrelevant to them. Tablets are another matter altogether. Tim Cook routinely announces the extremely high per cent of enterprises rolling out or evaluating iPads, the latest figure pegged at 92%. Given Microsoft makes 75% of their profit from the commercial market, this seemed like an oversight. Given the competitiveness of the Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro tablets, many enterprise IT people would be hard pressed to justify an iPad purchase, Microsoft should have at least given a tip of the hat to Windows 8’s applicability to the commercial market.

Where We Go From Here

Many consumer reviews have been written and there will be many, many more in the future for Windows 8 and Windows RT. For the most part, the die has been cast and the Microsoft marketing and ad machine are in full swing, all which will make a difference on perception. The Windows 8 launch was the best Microsoft launch I have ever seen or attended, and I have personally attended many. While Microsoft didn’t address everything they needed to in order to seal the deal, they absolutely got Windows 8 and RT off to a solid start. Now it’s time to see if that translates to sales.

Windows, iOS, and Android All Have Something to Prove This Week

Prior to Apple developing iOS and over the last 25 years, there had never been much of a threat to the Windowsecolove ecosystem. With iOS, Apple proved many things, including the value of a holistic experience delivered through purpose-built combinations of hardware, software and content. Now in mobile, it’s Microsoft looking into the window wanting to get inside. After iOS came Google’s Android, which was focused on the same areas as iOS. This week, with multiple announcements, Windows, iOS and Android all have some things to prove and I wanted to dive a bit deeper into some areas.

Windows 8 Launch

For decades Microsoft has been the uncontested PC market share leader. Macs made a little bit of a dent, but for the most part, Microsoft ruled and for years it looked like Microsoft would have uncontested dominance. That was until the iPad. While the iPad isn’t trying to be a PC, it did provide an optimal experience for specific usage models the PC once delivered. Sure, you can surf the web on your PC, but when kicking back on the couch is it the best way to do this? Not for me and not for 100s of millions of other people. I still must have my PC, but I prefer my iPad for certain tasks my PC previously performed.

With Windows 8, Microsoft hopes to bridge the gap between PC and tablet. They will attempt to do this by releasing Windows 8 on about every conceivable form factor possible and seeing what sticks. This is a huge risk in that they are also sub-optimizing the experience for desktop-only experience by adding the Metro layer and removing the start button. The Windows 8 experience is optimized for devices with touch and an accessible keyboard, turning the devices into a Swiss Army device. I have used my iPads for years with an extended keyboard, so I absolutely see the value here. This week, Microsoft must prove that flexibility of Windows 8 trumps the purpose-built focus of an iPad.

Windows RT adds another proving ground. For decades, Windows equated to compatibility with the past, which is inextricable linked to Microsoft’s IT roots and the fact that many consumers are peeved about wasting a prior, large investment. I am not saying that consumers care less about backward compatibility, but they care more about what the device does today and in the future then the past. Unlike Windows 8, Windows RT will not run all the older Windows 7 desktop applications. Microsoft bridges the gap with some key Office apps, but forget about loading up iTunes or Quicken that you have. Hardware compatibility with USB devices is an unknown as well. This has never been an issue with the iPad, but then again, neither iPad or Apple stands for backwards compatibility.

Finally, we have Microsoft Surface, the first Microsoft-branded PC that directly competes with its ecosystem. This test will take a long time to play out but rarely do these examples of suppliers competing with customers work out well. While we don’t know exactly how pricing and features will work out over time, few premium-branded Windows tablet makers are excited about this. If Ballmer’s email to its stakeholders wasn’t clear enough, future Microsoft does two things: devices and services, and those devices that its customers currently provide.

While we will need to wait months and some cases years to fully understand how all these play out, the official launch for Windows 8, Windows RT and Surface this week will give better indications on where Windows is headed.

Windows Phone 8 Launch

Windows Phone was very respectable in the early days of smartphones and was one of the few phones until RIM’s Blackberry to be accepted by businesses. Then came the iPhone and iOS, which undoubtedly changed Microsoft’s mobile fortunes for the foreseeable future. Instead of a commanding 90-95%% OS market share like it does in PCs, in mobile, Microsoft is looking right now, at best, 3% share of the mobile market. Given how Windows Phone 7.X has done, there must be some huge change for Microsoft to start gaining share.

Microsoft’s biggest challenge in smartphones is consumer apathy. Metro is differentiated, the maps are good and Nokia has some really good imaging but consumers are not yet all that excited about Windows Phone. Microsoft needs more black and white, differentiated, and demonstrable features to break consumers out of their addiction to iOS and Android phones if they are to make big progress.

With the launch of Windows Phone 8, Microsoft could start to reverse its fortunes. If Microsoft can show that a Windows Phone 8 is a must-have device to pair with a Windows 8/RT PC or tablet and an Xbox, I do believe they can start to make faster traction with those audiences.

iPad Mini Launch

Apple, plain and simple, invented a new category with the iPad. Sure, there were previous Windows Tablets, but the biggest issues were a lack of apps, pen requirement and very high prices. Tablets , particularly iPads have started to eat into the PC market. It’s not that an iPad can replace a PC, but some consumers are choosing to buy the new category (and shiny thing) instead of buying a replacement PC.

The iPad Mini will be interesting for Apple. Apple has always been able to command a price premium in, quite frankly, all devices. Whether it’s an MP3-playing iPod, iPhone, iPad, or Mac, consumers are willing to pay more. The iPad Mini will test this pricing elasticity more than ever. I believe to hit its profit goals, Apple will need to be priced at least at $299, which puts it into that 30-40% gross profit range. They could margin blend on the rest of the iPad line to get the price even lower, but that’s pushing it.

With Amazon Kindle Fire at $149, a $299-349 price will be pushing the pricing power farther than I have seen in a long time. I do expect an iPad Mini to have a much better experience than a $149 Kindle Fire, but with many consumers just glad to be able to have an affordable tablet, many will opt for the Fire. Apple will sell truckloads of the iPad Mini this holiday season, but not nearly as many as they could have if the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire didn’t exist.

Google Nexus 10” Android Tablet Launch

While Android has done well on smartphones and 7” tablets, anything above 7” has been a business and marketing disaster. Google had clearly deprioritized the 10” category as the smartphone market eclipses the size of the tablet market. At some point though, Google needs to bring their “A” game to large tablets and incent developers to create high quality tablet apps. Right now, Google does not allow anyone to easily count the tablet-specific apps as they number in the 100’s. Not 100’s of thousands, I am saying hundreds.

Google is rumored to announce this week a Google Nexus 10” tablet with Samsung. Price is almost inconsequential in that without more native Android tablet apps, a new Nexus tablet could be worse than bad. I expect 10″ Android tablets this holiday to be relegated to the bottom of the pricing barrel below Windows 8 and iOS. Unless Google can pull off something completely amazing and unexpected, this Nexus 10” will sell as well as all the other Android 10” tablets, not well.

An Amazing Week

Yes, this week will be one that all the ecosystems will have something to prove. When I step back a bit, I marvel at the amount of innovation and competition that is happening and just know this will be great for consumers this year and five years into the future. Competition and innovation are important as evidenced more than ever by this week’s announcements.

Why Maps are “Really” Important to Apple

In my last Apple Maps column I discussed why Apple would have delivered a suboptimal maps experience. This analysis was really a short term view of why they would do this, and the answer was Wall Street. Net-net, Apple would have felt the Wall Street wrath more than they are already feeling post-iPhone 5 launch had they delayed their launch for a quality product. Now, I’d like to look at the long term value of “maps” and why this could be so important to Apple. The answer is simple, it’s to monetize a huge portion of the internet they aren’t getting a piece of today.

Maps are for More than Getting from Point A to B
For most general consumers, “maps”, if they are even aware of the smartphone functionality, means getting help from getting from point A to point B. My son’s pee wee football coach even places a Google maps link to each away game that provides directions on the smartphone. Even if someone isn’t aware that phone maps exist, all they need to do is click on that link and they will get directions to the game.

For more advanced consumers, “maps” help them find brands or categories of products near them to get phone numbers or driving directions. Want to see how late that Jiffy Lube near your house is open on a Sunday? Search for it and it should have that info of it’s in the database. Looking for some coffee and you don’t care about the brand? Search for “coffee” inside of maps and be directed to the closest place.

With an Android device and Google Now, users can easily check in via Google+ once they arrive at a destination. If you’re searching on Yelp or checking in on FourSquare on any phone, you may even me able to find discounts on your visit.

You see, “maps” are more than about just mapping, they are a portal to the future of local advertising, commerce and payments. You need to teleport yourself five years into the future to get the best idea of just how valuable this is. This is about big money, money that dwarfs what Apple lost in market cap over the past few weeks. Let’s peel back the onion a bit.

Local Advertising, Checkin and Deals
Advertising as a business is larger than movies, games and music combined. Most of those ad dollars get spent locally by the billions of small businesses across the globe and the large businesses trying to reach local consumers. Getting a cut of this would be huge and is no surprise that Google, Groupon, Yelp and Facebook are all going after this full force.

Today and even more in the future, every place we go will be tracked and most consumers allow it. In fact, in the future, telcos will provide subsidies to consumers who let them be tracked and be anonymously “checked-in”. In-context deals will be provided to these users that actually provide value, not the horrible deals most users get today from Groupon and Google. The problem with Groupon offers is that they don’t have good enough profiling or enough deals in inventory to tee up enough relevant deals. The same thing for Google and even Facebook.

Knowing where people are and what they are doing is crucial to building these profiles and for delivering the ultimate in ads, the “pick-off”. The “pick-off” is when an advertiser knows you are going somewhere and will provide you an ad to go somewhere else. Let’s say you search for “pizza” and get directed to “Joe’s Pizza” on 5th and Lamar. “Luigi’s Pizza” is on 7th and Lamar, and through their real-time ad network knows this and sends you an immediate $10 off coupon message if you spend $30, and a window seat for the best people watching. You accept, and you, Luigi and the ad network benefits. OK, so this may be a bit exaggerated but you get the idea.

So who could Apple impact with this? Google, Groupon, Yelp and Facebook. That’s big. This isn’t the only opportunity. How about commerce and payments?

Local Commerce and Payments
Now that Apple and their network knows you have arrived at Luigi’s, the coupon will show up in your Passbook and you are ready to roll. You show up at the front door, show the coupon, and you and your friends are seated at the best seat in the house, right in the front window. The party tweets about what good seats they have and check in on Apple’s Maps.

What about when it’s time to pay? Apple, because they are tied into Luigi’s, has a deal that everyone who uses “Passbook Wallet” gets 1% cash back. Apple has a frequent flyer kind of program where they get freebies toward content and devices. So you are motivated to pay with your “Passbook Wallet”. Upon checkout, the waiter scans your phone’s bar code with their smartphone camera, similar to a Starbucks checkout, and you are off to the next big party.

What companies does this disrupt? It effects a ton of people including Isis, Google (Wallet), VISA, Mastercard, and American Express. Can you even imagine how much profit this could be for Apple?

Maps Drive Big, Long Term Apple Opportunities
As I outlined in my previous analysis, Apple delivered a suboptimal mapping experience to limit the punishment they would have received from Wall Street had they delayed iPhone 5 or iOS 6. Long term, though, the stakes are outrageously high and involve Apple monetizing an enormous profit pool, local advertising and payments. Apple need maps, and evolved maps, to make that a reality and they are well on their way to do this.

HP’s Surprising Tablet Attack

I recently attended HP’s Securities Analyst Meeting (SAM) where HP made its case to Wall Street on why investors should believe in
the company and buy the stock. I will write about the conference later when I have thought through the content a bit more, as, unlike financial analysts, I need to think three to five years out. Thinking short term about HP doesn’t do anyone any good. What I do want to talk about are two of the products shown at SAM, a new impressive tablet lineup.

The tablet market right now is exhibiting all the traditional signs of any tech market. You have a lot of experimentation going on right now to see what consumers and business users really want. Apple, like the early days of the consumer PC, is punishing everyone who stands in its way in the tablet market. If you have any doubt on that, just ask Motorola, RIM, Samsung, and anyone attached to webOS. As experimentation progresses, the markets starts to settle into more of a predictable rhythm and then after that, massive segmentation and specialization will occur. This is classic product lifecycle behavior. HP, like Dell and Lenovo have learned a lot over the last 18 months, and HP, in particular, put the pedal to the metal with their latest tablets.

HP segmented its line into a consumer and large enterprise line. What about small business? Too early to know and quite frankly this will be the last market to adopt tablets, so I like this decision. Technologically, HP has opted to forgo ARM-based technology in its latest offering and instead has opted for the Intel CloverTrail solution. Only after we all see pricing and battery life will we know if this is a good decision. Let’s dive into the models.

HP ENVY x2 for the Consumer
The first time I saw the ENVY x2 at the Intel Developer Forum I was stunned, quite frankly, at how thin, light, and sexy the unit was. My latest Intel tablet experience was a thick and heavy Samsung tablet with a loud fan used for Windows 8 app development. The HP ENVY x2 wasn’t anything like this as it was thin, light, fan-less, and sexy industrial design made from machined aluminum. No, this didn’t feel like an iPad… it felt in some ways even better. This is a big thing for me to say given my primary tablets have been iPads… gen 1-2-3. It is very hard to describe good ID in words, but it just felt good, real good.

It was apparent to me that HP stepped up their game in design and after talking with Stacy Wolff, HP’s Global VP of design, they have amped up resources a lot. While most of Intel’s OEMs are focused on enterprise devices, this consumer device stands out. The only thing that could potentially derail the ENVY x2 is Microsoft with a lack of Metro applications or too high a price tag. Net-net I will need to see pricing and Windows 8 Metro launch apps before I can assess what this will do to iPad and even notebook sales.

HP ElitePad for Commercial Markets
Let’s face it, commercial devices run counter on many variables to what consumers want. The tablet market is no different. Enterprise IT wants security, durability, expandability, cheap and known deployment, training, software, and manageability. Consumers want sexy, cool, thin, light, easiest to use, and based on the amount of cracked iPad screens (mine included), durability is not that important. HP has somehow managed to cross the gap between beauty and brawn in a very unique way. When I first saw the ElitePad, I thought it was a consumer device. It even has beveled corners to make it easier to pick up off the conference table!  Like the ENVY x2, it also feels like machined aluminum.

The ElitePad, because it has at its core an Intel CloverTrail-based design, can run the newer Metro-based Windows 8 apps and legacy and new Windows 8 desktop apps.  IT likes to leverage their investments in software and training, and they will like that they can run full Office with Outlook as well as any corporately developed apps without any changes.  You don’t want to be running Photoshop on this as it is Atom-based, but lighter apps will run just fine.

IT “sees” the ElitePad as a PC. Unlike an iPad, it is deployed, managed and has security like a Windows PC. For expandability, durability and expanded battery life, HP has engineered a “jacket” system that easily snaps around the ElitePad, which felt to me like the HP TouchPad. The stock jacket provides extra battery life and a fully bevvy of IO including USB and even full-sized HDMI. If HP isn’t doing it already, they should be investing in special jacket designs for health care, retail, and manufacturing. Finally, there is serviceability. While I don’t want to debate if throwing away a device is better than servicing it, IT believes that servicing it is better than tossing it in the trash. For large customer serviceability needs, HP is even offering special fixtures to easily service the tablet by attaching suction cups to the surface and removing the display. Net-net, this is a very good enterprise alternative to any iPad enterprise rollout.

I am very pleased to see the care and time put into the planning and design of these devices. The three unknowns at this point are pricing, battery life and Windows 8 Metro acceptance and the number of tablet apps. If there are a lack of Metro apps at launch, the entire consumer category will be in jeopardy in Q4, but commercial is quite different as ecosystems can grow into their show size over time. I cannot give a final assessment until I have actually used the devices, but what I see from HP in Windows 8 tablets is exceptional.

Apple Maps: Decision by Wall Street?

Just as we all start to get sick of reading and debating the Apple Maps debacle,  a new interesting thread, issue, or new piece of information comes up.  This time, it was, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook apologizing for the lousy experience Apple Maps delivers.  You should put to rest the debate on whether it’s a good experience or not as it is per Apple’s own admission.  I applaud Apple for its admission, but Apple should never shipped it.  From a company who has defined itself by delivering the best experiences, why was there a decision made to ship a sub optimal experience?
 
Apple redefined for the entire technology industry what the word "experience" means. While There may be some debate debate if Apple has redefined the personal computer, There’s no one who can legitimately argue that Apple did not do this for the smart phone and even the tablet.
 
This is why it is just so odd as to why Apple would allow this low-quality map application to be released in the first place.
 
There are really only two different and mutually exclusive ways this can be explained:
1) Apple forgot how to deliver and evaluate a good experience.  Essentially this scenario says that Apple, after delivering great mobile experiences for years, forgot how to do that and how to measure it.
-OR-
2) Apple knew they were delivering a poor experience and decided to ship the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 anyways.  they would deal with the consequences afterwards.
 
Any reasonable person who follows technology closely must know that it’s the second option.
 
This then gets to the decision making process.  Anyone who has ever spent any time in product management knows that near the launch of a product, you have many launch readiness reviews. Apple may call their review something different, but they have something like it.   It involves cross functional teams, typically including product management, product marketing, program management, engineering, manufacturing and operations. Each group goes through their review, one after the other. These types of meetings essentially compare the minimum launch criteria with the current state of the product. The outcome of this meeting determines if the product is ready to ship or not and the critical actions to close the gap. The most senior executives rarely attend these meetings, but are sought afterwards for escalation If there are issues.
 
You can bet that Apple maps was reviewed and scrutinized over and over and over. You can assume some people said that the experience was good enough to ship and there were those who said Apple maps was not ready to be shipped.  The decision probably came down to Tim Cook himself, who opted to ship a sub-optimal Apple maps experience.
 
Tim Cook had a very difficult decision to make in that none of them resulted in anything optimal. He had to choose between:
1) Ship a sub optimal experience coincident with the launch of the iPhone 5, "hitting" commit dates made to Wall Street, press and retailers. With this decision Apple would potentially take the heat from consumers and the press.
2) Delay shipping the iPhone 5  until Apple Maps delivered a good experience. This would raise the ire of Wall Street and investors.  As we have seen over the last two weeks, Even though Apple shipped millions of the new iPhone five, it still wasn’t good enough for much of Wall Street. Imagine, if the iPhone five were delayed by a few months.  Imagine what that would’ve done to the stock price.
 
So how did it work out for Apple? Short-term, it worked out pretty well if you measure in terms of sales. They sold 5 million iPhone 5s the first weekend and 100M ungraded to iOS 6.  Apple’s stock hit a massive hit this week, but it’s unclear to say if Apple Maps were the culprit, if it was financial analyst expectation versus how many they sold, or fears of production issues.  It was a combination of all of these.   Apple’s reputation has surely taken a hit but it’s unknown if it will have any lasting impact. Apple’s prior issues with products stemming from things like iPhone antennas, MobileMe, and Ping barely made a brand scratch and was followed up by record selling products.  I do believe that people will start to question brand-new things that Apple gets into that are related to their core competencies.  These are could be markets like search and products like TVs.
 
So why was the decision made to ship a lousy Apple Maps experience? As we’ve seen Apple’s stock get hammered as of late, it was about the stock price.  Imagine if Apple had delayed shipping the Phone 5.  The stock would have been hammered even harder.  Therefore, Apple’s Tim Cook probably made the right short-term business and stock decision even if it wasn’t in the best interests of its customers.  You see, brands have half-lives, and while Apple cannot have a string of incidents like Apple Maps, it can afford this one in isolation.  Tim Cook, Wall Street thanks you.  Apple Maps users, not so much.

Without Metro Apps, Innovative Touch-based Windows 8 Consumer Hardware is Meaningless

Last week at IFA in Berlin, Germany, HP, Dell, Samsung, and Sony announced some very unique hardware designs for Windows 8.  They included touch notebooks, convertibles, sliders, flippers, hybrids, and tablets that can take advantage of Microsoft’s Metro touch-based UI. The hardware was very impressive and it was obvious that a lot of thought and effort went into the design.  Will these be successful?  It’s impossible to say at this point because two huge questions have yet to be answered: device price and the number of high quality Metro applications.  Device prices will be announced by Windows 8 launch on October 26, but I want to dive into the applications question.  Without many high-quality Metro-based application details on the horizon, it’s hard to get excited about the hardware.

Let’s first look at the diversity of products.

Touch-based Hardware for Windows 8

There were many innovative devices launched at IFA to take advantage of Windows 8 touch for the Metro environment.  Here are a few that appeared innovative:

  • HP SpectreXT TouchSmart– Premium 15.6″ HD touch display Ultrabook with Intel Thunderbolt technology.
  • HP ENVY x2– Ultrathin notebook whose 11.6″ HD display can be removed and used as a tablet.
  • Dell XPS Duo12– Premium Ultrabook  with 12″ touch whose screen flips around to be used as a tablet while in Metro-mode.  The design includes use of machined aluminum, carbon fiber, and Gorilla Glass.
  • Dell XPS One 27–  Premium All In One with a 10-point touch enabled, Quad HD (2560×1440) 27″ display.  The all in one will lay flat as well, enabling multiple users to use it at the same time.
  • Sony VAIO Duo 11– Slider with an 11″ display that operates as a notebook and a tablet when the HD display is slid onto the keyboard.
  • Samsung ATIV Tab– Windows RT tablet with 10″ touch display.  It’s thin at 8.9 mm and light at 570 grams

As you can see, the diversity of Windows 8-based touch devices was very wide, which, given a wide variety of high quality apps, would usually mean that something would stick.  The problem is, few really know the true state of Metro-based touch apps, including most PC and chip makers.

Ecosystem Losing Confidence in Metro Application Delivery Timing

Nearly ten months ago, Microsoft held its BUILD conference for Windows 8 software and hardware ecosystem partners.  Microsoft also launched their development platform for Windows 8, called Visual Studio 11.  Every attendee went home with a robust Samsung developer tablet and keyboard with Visual Studio Express Beta, intended to spur development of Metro-based applications.  As of April 2012, six months later, 99 applications were available.  As I outlined here, this was way behind where Apple was but far ahead of where Android was.

So where does that leave the state of Metro apps?  Microsoft is now seven weeks away from launch and virtually no one has much of a sense for how many compelling Metro apps will be available at launch.  Here were some key milestones that Microsoft has anounced:

  • April 18, announces developer submission locales from 5 to 38 markets, but limited to select partners; app catalog at 21 markets
  • May 31, “hundreds of preview apps in the catalog-including the first desktop app listings”; app catalog increases to 25 markets; Share contract added
  • July 20, Microsoft outlines how to monetize and get paid for apps
  • August 1, RTM Windows store opens; “qualifying businesses can submit apps”; 54 new markets and 24 app languages added

As of today with my version of Windoes RTM, I can only see 844 Desktop + Metro apps in the Windows 8 store.  I do not see most of my favorite apps, including Facebook, Path, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon Video, HBO Go, ESPN Video, Time Warner Video, CNN, Flipboard, Pulse, Nike Running, MyFitnessPal, Pandora, Flixter, or E*trade.  I am concerned and many ecosystem executives are telling me that they are very concerned with the state of Metro-based applications.  Should we really care about how many Metro applications will be available at launch given Windows 8 is a five year investment?

Why Should We Care About Apps at Launch?

Having microscopically observed and participated in the launch of the Motorola XOOM, HP TouchPad and the BlackBerry PlayBook, there were some common threads that led to their failed launches and quick retreat.  These issues included:

  1. Incomplete hardware: hardware features did not work or were not available, including SD cards, and LTE support.
  2. Incomplete paid content: lack of support for paid movies, music, games and books.
  3. Sluggish and buggy: experience was slower than expected and/or included many bugs
  4. Lack of high quality apps: few applications were available that consumers recognized or were compelling.  In some cases, basic apps were missing like calendar, mail and contacts.
  5. Priced at iPad: tablets even with issues above were priced on top of the iPad, an already known and successful product with a great consumer brand

Many of these issues were addressed shortly after launch, but it didn’t make a difference.  The damage was done and in most cases, irreparable.  What developer wants to write apps for an ecosystem or platform that just got slaughtered by the press, analysts and consumers?

What about post-launch? Some issues still exist even for 10″ Android tablets.  Android 10″ tablets have come a long way with ICS, Jelly Bean and paid content, but still suffer from a lack of high quality apps, which still number in the 100’s.  Remember, part of the the success of the Google Nexus is that it leverages the Android phone applications, not those designed for tablets. And, let’s not forget it is priced at half of the iPad. I believe Windows 8 will launch with #1 complete hardware via PC makers, #2 paid content via XBOX Live, Netflix and Kindle and so far it looks that even #3 Windows RT will have acceptable performance.  As for #4 and #5, well no one know yet and if we can learn anything from Android tablets, a robust supply of touch-based applications are required for success, which eludes them almost 2 years later.

I’ll say it again…… innovative consumer hardware for touch-based products is meaningless without thousands of high quality, compelling and popular apps.

How Significant is the Synaptics ThinTouch, ForcePad and ClearPad Technology?

As I have cited previously, human computer interface (HCI) changes have defined the winners of the last decade in the phone, tablet, and premium PC and game console markets. I believe this will continue into the future. As important as the singular technologies are the way that different kinds of controls come together as a system to deliver multi-modal input methods. This is why I am so excited about Synaptics three new technologies, ThinTouch, ForcePad and ClearPad. They have the chance to revolutionize the way notebooks, convertibles and tablets will be used in the future. Over the last few months, I got an insider’s view of the technologies, talked with the designers and HCI experts, and of course, got my hands on the technologies. I’d like to share some insights I’ve gained on the technologies.

Multi-Modal is the Future of HCI

The future of all device interaction will not be governed by a single way of interaction, but via multi-modal interactions. Essentially, devices will take inputs in a myriad of ways, whether they are via keyboard, direct touch, voice, and even through machine vision. To not confuse the user, they will all need to work as a cohesive “system” and therefore need extensive systems integration and software work. In the next few years, this will be especially true on notebooks, convertibles and tablets. Synaptics has some incredible smartphone technologies with its InCell and TDDI (touch display integration), but I want to focus on HCI for notebooks and tablets. Let’s dive into the technologies.

ForcePad Technology

Over the last ten years, Synaptics and Apple have driven the biggest advancements in touchpads. Just look at how theforcepad touchpad has morphed from a small, three button touchpad to a large, button-less touchpad seen today’s premium Ultrabooks and Apple Macbooks.

ForcePad technology removes all moving parts, is pressure sensitive, and at less than 2.8mm, is thinner than a slice of cheese. ForcePad has the ability to perform all the functions users can perform with a ClickPad, even without knowing there is pressure sensitivity, thus reducing any adjustment period or learning curve. Synaptics usability research scientists (with whom I met) have tested this and observed that on average a user with a ForcePad easily adapts to this hingeless touchpad and quickly prefers this experience over the majority of hinged PC designs on the market today. The “gesture continuation” capabilities that the ForcePad pressure sensitivity offers, provides a smoother and easier method to perform the core functions from pointing to scrolling and zooming.

By adding pressure sensing, this enables consistent interactions on any part of the touchpad and it never wears out, making it much more reliable. There’s even an auto-calibration feature that has several benefits. For the OEM it enables a consistent OEM branded feel & behavior across models, that is something that is not in PC notebooks today as the hinge mechanism in today’s ClickPad is developed by the OEM’s choice of ODM, using several ODMs, and OEM may have different feels for the ClickPad even if using the same supplier because the ODM designs the hinge. Next the auto-calibration feature has the ability to compensate for chassis-flex, with thin and light notebooks, some can flex and activate a click just by picking the notebook up with one hand, ForcePad can detect this behavior and reduce accidental clicks. Lastly, while the OEM can pre-select the desired feel, this auto-calibration feature can enable a user to personalize their response, adjusting if for how firm or light they may want.

Its ability to “feel the force” also opens up new usage models where by adding a third, relative dimension, a user could conceivably replace a joystick to play a game, eliminate the need to choose new brush sizes in a paint program, or even eliminate annoying, slow scrolling on long web pages or documents.

The ForcePad, codenamed “Jedeye” in the a User Interface Software and Technology conference (UIST) competition was selected for the student software development and is expected to look at innovative methods to provide innovative methods to HCI through the addition of pressure sensitivity.

The benefits of making the touchpad 40% thinner by eliminating the hinge are straight forward. By making the touchpad thinner, the PC maker has the ability to use that volume to make the device notebook chassis thinner or even use that space for extra battery.

Users will need to get used to the lack of a clicking sound and feel, but as the entire industry learned, clicking is optional. As we learned from Apple and BlackBerry phones, what many thought would be an issue wasn’t at all, and those who sat in the past learned to regret it. Now on to the keyboard.

ThinTouch Technology

There hasn’t been a whole lot of innovation on keyboards over the last 20 years. Even while some of the best OEMthintouch-edge companies like Lenovo and their customers pride themselves with the ThinkPad keyboard performance, it is open to the same issues as all scissor-based mechanisms. That is to say, they are more open to break and become full of gunk. Have you ever had a key pop off and have to replace the entire keyboard due to a scissor mechanism?

ThinTouch removes the entire mechanism and replaces it with a capacitive touch enabled mechanism that is 40% thinner and brings several benefits. First, by removing the scissor mechanism, they keyboard should be lighter, thinner, and backlit keyboards should be more effective, brighter and require less battery draw due to the design without a scissor mechanism and also more reliable and manufacturable according to Synaptics. Secondly, keys are capacitive, there is the potential to enable personalization and turn on pressure based controls and even near-field “air gestures” into the mix. Imagine if you had a gesture to “fling” an image from your laptop to the TV by gesturing a certain way without even touching the keys. Reading a book, air swipe to turn the page. Once you make the keyboard, capacitive, the sky is the limit. Now onto the touchscreen.

ClearPad Technology

Synaptics got a bit of a late start in the touch display controller market but they are making up for it by expanding their controller line that supports windows 8 touch specifications from 12” now up to include the13.3, 14.1, 15 and 17” displays. And, in the future, but evidenced today in the smartphones up to 5”, tablets and convertibles could move to InCell, which removes and entire discrete sensor, thinning the product, improving the optical qualities and increasing performance. The ClearPad Series 4, TDDI smartphone technology, shrinks the number of controller from two to one; integrating Touch with the actual Display Driver IC this will significantly improve responsiveness while lowering cost.

For now, Synaptics biggest advantage in tablet and convertible touch display controllers as it marries up perfectly with ForcePad and ThinTouch. And that happens to be one of Synaptics’ biggest advantage, which is they don’t stop at the hardware. Their offering is the system and total HCI experience that is the blend of hardware, firmware, software, and the test tools to deliver this multi-modal interface solution.

Will PC Manufacturers Spend an Extra Dollar?

Unfortunately for PC makers over the last few years, Apple has run away with the premium-priced notebook and premium-priced all in one market. Ultrabooks could change this, but we won’t know until after the holiday selling season. Ironically, some Ultrabooks still come with cheap touchpads and uninteresting keyboards.

I believe that many PC makers will quickly adopt these Synaptics technologies to differentiate themselves from Apple and from each other, and some will even drive them across mid-range product lines, too. Unfortunately, some OEMs will continue to count pennies as they lose dollars, as the price between high quality touchpads and mediocre quality is around one dollar. When Apple comes out with their next generation of HCI, they will wish they had invested that dollar.

Deciphering Microsoft’s Latest Windows Blog on Windows RT

For over 20 years, I worked with Microsoft as a customer or a technology partner. Microsoft has a huge job in guiding their enormous Windows ecosystem down certain paths, and over those two decades I have seen many flavors of communication styles. For Windows 8, Microsoft has adopted a significantly different way of communicating with the ecosystem versus prior OS releases. For the broad ecosystem, Microsoft is communicating with their main “Building Windows 8” Blog, which appears as a direct link to the engineering team. Their latest blog on Windows RT truly is an interesting one. While not that significant on the surface, if you dig deep with context, it is actually saying a lot, providing deep insights to Windows RT.  It also highlights the amount of pacification Microsoft is doing to the financial community and the OEMs.

It is helpful to put some context around Windows 8 and Windows RT. As I’ve written about previously, Windows 8 truly is the biggest risk Microsoft has ever taken. Microsoft is risking over 50% of their operating profits by deprioritizing the Windows desktop and leading with the “UI formerly known as Metro”. If Metro is a hit, it greatly increases Microsoft’s probability of success in tablets and phones. If not, they’ve risked a huge part of their company profits and reputation. Along the path, Microsoft has to keep multiple constituents aligned, many who are at odds, particularly when it comes to Windows RT where it’s truly X86 versus ARM. And this is where the latest blog gets interesting in what it says and doesn’t say.

“Surface Didn’t Kill Other Consumer Windows RT Tablets, Really”

With Surface, Microsoft is competing head-to-head with their customers. Whether we want to sugar coat it with phrases like “priming the pumps” the end result is still the same in that OEMs will be competing for mindshare and market share with companies like Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer and Samsung. Microsoft has not once said that if a certain threshold was achieved, then they would stand down or pull back. I don’t want to open the debate yet on whether Microsoft needed to do this or not as I will save that for a future column. One of the biggest things Microsoft is trying to say here is that even post-Surface, OEMs are still very interested in Windows RT tablets. So in the blog, Microsoft pointed out with exuberance that in addition to its own Surface, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, Acer, and Asus will launch ARM-based Windows RT devices. Why did Microsoft do this? It was primarily to pacify investors who were concerned with the potential beginning of a crumbling of Windows as a platform.

“Acer May Be Upset, But Not That Upset” (UPDATED)

Acer’s CEO JT Wang has really been coming after Microsoft lately over by making some very caustic comments about Surface. They are veiled threats in a way, almost as if it’s a negotiation in the public forum. Wang is basically saying that Microsoft has no business doing hardware and they should leave it to the OEMs or risk mass defection and big hardware headaches they aren’t ready to take on. He may be right long-term, but OEMs really don’t have a viable option short term other than Android. Android for 4-7” devices may be doing well, but there are still less than 500 Android tablets apps available after a year and a half. Microsoft’s statement in their blog about OEMs leads with ASUS and it’s not just about alphabetical order, either, as ASUS gets their own, special hyperlink to their product, unlike the other OEMs. The blog says, “If you are following Windows RT, perhaps you have taken note of the Asus Tablet 600 (Windows RT) announcement or Microsoft’s own Surface RT™ news.” I love this part. It literally binds ASUS and Surface together as if to say, “Everything’s OK with Acer, really.”  ASUS isn’t Acer but they compete heavily in Asia and Europe.

“Dell Doing a Work Tablet, Like Lenovo, But with ARM-based Design”

Only one OEM got a quote in Microsoft’s latest Windows RT blog, and that was Dell. The rumor mill had been swirling for weeks on whether “Microsoft would allow Dell” to make to make a Windows RT tablet. This was a bizarre rumor in that it really wasn’t Microsoft’s decision on who does the first tablets; it was primarily Dell’s and the silicon provider’s choice which then needs to be approved by Microsoft because they are investing resources, too. Sam Burd, Dell’s VP of the PC Product Group says in the blog, “Dell’s tablet for Windows RT is going to take advantage of the capabilities the new ecosystem offers to help customers do more at work and home. We’re excited to be Microsoft’s strategic partner, and look forward to sharing more soon.” Note he leads with “work” and follows with “home”. This is in direct response to Lenovo’s Intel-based business tablet entry last week, which, interestingly enough, was cited in a Windows RT blog. Microsoft also intends this to counter Lenovo’s slides that show Windows RT as a lousy corporate client.

“Where Are the Web Browsing Battery Life Figures?”

Like others, I was glad to see the Windows RT battery life figures. The HD playback numbers make sense as video playback is limited to a very small part of the SOC and in some cases can do it without even lighting up the CPU or GPU. The connected standby is also a very impressive number, but I am curious about the variables around it like the type and persistence of the connection. One figure though that was glaringly absent was the lack of a web browsing battery life figure. This one is real important as it is also an indication of how well Metro apps will do as many are based on web technologies. Their absence probably means that the numbers aren’t great or inconsistent and they are still tweaking drivers.

“Windows RT Does Deliver a Differentiated Experience, Really”

Microsoft starts their Windows RT blog with a tip of the hat to both Intel and AMD. The industry was surprised when Intel provided OEMs low power silicon with acceptable performance and I think how well AMD’s Trinity does, too. Intel downplayed their achievements on Medfield, too, which makes sense as they lost  mobile credibility on Menlow and Moorestown. Microsoft’s tone in their blog is as if they are saying, “OK, Intel does have competitive silicon that works with the full-featured Windows 8, but there is value in Windows RT, too.”

And what is Microsoft saying about the incremental value? Essentially, they are parroting exactly what NVIDIA’s CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said months ago, and that it’s about consistency of experience. Microsoft talks about consistency in battery life, graphics, gestures, and even physical characteristics.

Microsoft may have a point here in that the focus and options are much more dialed in on Windows RT than on Windows 8. For example, because Windows RT cannot install Windows 7 apps, there’s no way that a consumer will install BattleField 3 and have a lousy experience. Also, the touchpad experience on Windows 8 is crucial, and according to the blog, all Windows RT tablets will support the side-swipes and swipe-up/down. Does this mean that you cannot find these features on X86-based Windows 8 tablets? No, but it doesn’t mean all of them will have it either.

Where is Toshiba?

One of the biggest missing OEMs from the blog was Toshiba. Toshiba and Texas Instruments both were showing off Windows RT tablets at Computex, but they were nowhere to be found in the Microsoft blog. Shara Tibken at the Wall Street Journal cleared up any ambiguity with her article. Toshiba will not do a Windows RT-based tablet now and place focus on Intel and AMD-based tablets. This does not bode well for TI, who has significantly lagged NVIDIA and Qualcomm on drivers for the Windows RT platform. While I have personally used NVIDIA and Qualcomm-based RT tablets, I haven’t been able to actually try out on based on TI silicon yet, so all I can comment on what I have heard from developers. With TI’s focus primarily on Android, it makes sense they would prioritize that development over Windows, even with the direct help they are receiving from Microsoft. I believe the future of TI-based Window RT devices is in question now, at least for launch.

Conclusion

Microsoft felt the need to pacify their OEM customers and investors and used this latest blog to do it. They came under attack of late for launching Surface with Windows RT that cast doubt on the future of any other RT tablets being successful. Ironically, with Intel-based Windows 8 tablets being announced as well by Lenovo that look very compelling, Microsoft needed to reiterate why Windows RT is incrementally valuable and different. Will the blog be enough to sway what people think in the ecosystem? I don’t think so, as what people really want to know is how many well-known, high quality Metro-based applications will be available at launch, as this will be the true decider of how well Windows RT will fair, at least in the short term. We should know more tomorrow, August 15, as the doors to the paid Windows 8 store opens up.  As we learned from the Blackberry PlayBook and the webOS-based Touchpad, first impressions do matter and I hope Microsoft has heeded that history.