Sunday, 20 January 2019

Microsoft goes wholesale



In a private press briefing this week Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella admitted that the Cortana AI was not really winning the personal assistant battle. It wasn’t even in second place. At launch, it was ahead of the competition but a failed mobile platform, stagnation in features and a limited global roll out have left the door for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant to rule. The Windows 10 update expected in March 2019 is likely to de-couple Cortana from search and potentially allow other personal assistants to live in Windows as equals.

The story of Cortana matches other failed Microsoft consumer technologies;

Zune music player – Never released globally.

Groove music – a service that was called Zune, Xbox Music and then Groove. Never released fully globally and never had a family plan to encourage the use.

WindowsPhone – Killed via constant reboots of the operating system and no consistent app ecosystem.

Band – the fitness band that was always being repaired by its owners. Never released outside the USA.

Windows RT tablets – took at $900 million write down. Discontinued.

For the first 30 years of its life, Microsoft wanted to offer products and services to everyone. Apple envy was felt as the iPod and iPhone were greeted with religious enthusiasm but Microsoft products were not regarded as cool and bombed. However, both Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, were CEOs that tried to keep Microsoft in every market. They were in the enterprise, small business and at home. They were “retail” CEOs wanting to sell to all.

When Satya Nadella became CEO the world changed at Microsoft. One aspect of this was what markets Microsoft would cease to address. Nadella quickly decided to kill WindowsPhone and gradually removed consumer services that were not making the profits he expected. The share price soared. One of the few pure consumer services left is the Xbox. Nadella published a book with the title “Hit Refresh” in which he discusses the change in culture in more depth.

The main thing I can see is the Microsoft is ending things it believes it’s competitors do better, partner with more people and seek to sell its services rather than things. Microsoft is now a wholesale business rather than a retail business. Consumers will see less of Microsoft and businesses will run on Microsoft services.

This is incredibly frustrating for tech enthusiasts that follow Microsoft. There is little to get excited about. This is the new normal for Microsoft. They will have premium laptops and devices under the Surface brand. They will have Xbox and games. What they won’t have is the broad consumer portfolio of products consumers bought a few years ago. It’s Microsoft going wholesale and letting other people make a consumer offer.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Digital Nomads



Technology has changed the way we travel and see the world. For some people, the intersection of travel and technology has actually created lifestyle choices in which permanent residence almost anywhere is no longer a factor in life.

Over recent years I have noticed a lot more activity promoting a nomadic life travelling. People working and travelling at the same time.  The existence of ultra-portable laptops (ultrabooks), mobile devices and service based applications.

With a "carry on" backpack, you can store a camera, laptop and pretty much all you need to work anywhere.  AirBnB seems to be the "hotel" of choice for the digital nomad. Sorelle Amore is an Australian YouTuber who promotes the nomadic lifestyle. There are videos of how to live out of a suitcase, how to find cheap flights, how to find cheap places to stay. In a world where us ordinary people are stuck on commuter trains, traffic jams and are paying mortgages or rent the global travel lifestyle seems a big contrast.

Other travel and lifestyle vloggers are all across Youtube too. Sorelle is not unique.

However, although anyone can become a mobile worker, the idealised opportunities for making money out of photography in Bali are not a mass industry. I am a little cynical about the real-life possibility of nomadic working being a mass movement or available to all. Questions like how you earn money are left hanging. You sometimes wonder if you are watching a pyramid marketing scheme where viewing the nomadic lifestyle on YouTube generates the advertising revenue which generates more clickbait videos to generate money. What is clear is that technology is constantly re-inventing work and how we define it.

So as we see Uber, Deliveroo, Amazon and the like generating uncertain work for people who want certainty, regular wages and a set career path we also see digital nomads seeking alternative insecure lifestyles. Technology creating new Victorian conditions where vast warehouses have workers monitored by artificially intelligent apps. Drivers controlled by requests on their mobile phone. However, for a self-selecting few, an international free-wheeling aspirational lifestyle of constant holiday and choice. The contrast is stark and is two worlds created by technology.


Thursday, 1 November 2018

IoT

Nest
As a technology consumer it was always tough to get my head around the Internet Of Things. I have never really seen the point of wifi lightbulbs, self-drawing curtains or an internet fridge. However, I recently took an IOT step.

For consumers the idea is simple. You start connecting stuff in your home to the Internet. To the world of AI, machine learning and potentially some benefit managing your home.

For me all this happened by accident. My old Honeywell combi boiler controller just stopped displaying properly from time to time. It was a wireless thermostat that required programming and adjusting periodically. It was pretty good 11 years ago when it was fitted but was getting old.

To replace this old technology would cost about £130. To get a new thermostat that connected to the Internet about £200. However, the latter option did include "learning" about me and having an idea about the outside temperature.

I chose a learning thermostat from Nest. The pack you buy includes a connector for your boiler. You need a professional installer to help with this. My gas fitter was left alone for 30 minutes and got it done.  There are basically two wireless connections running. One is from the boiler controller "heatlink" to your thermostat and the other is the wifi link from your thermostat to your wifi router.

You can program a schedule of on and off via the website and via an app on your phone. You tell the device what temperature you want, where it is located, what times you want it to work. Off it goes.

So far it keeps track of how long your heating works for. It keeps track of the outside temperature via the Internet. It also is quite easy to adjust. The termostat can also work with voice assistants like the Amazon Alexa device and the Google Assistant.

My first realisation that this was different was waking up early, leaning over the bed, picking up my phone and switching on the heating with an app. When I actually got out of bed it was warm.

This is very much a "first world" technology problem. My main hope is that the new device will control the efficiency of my home heating to save money and maybe even reduce my impact on the planet's resources through controlling my gas consumption.

One obvious issue is that every Internet connected device can be hacked. I am not sure if a smart thermostat is significant target. People could just have a laugh by increasing the heat or switching it off. I haven't yet investigated whether it can be controlled enough to allow access to other device. Its a concern.

So far so good. I think over time the "smart thermostat" will just become the thermostat everyone has. For now it's a bit of a novelty and something I am watching closely.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

HTTPS




I have switched on https proper on these minor pages in a remote part of the Internet. Google will love me for it. Secure your site with HTTPS is the title of their advice. Not only is it good advice the Google search algorithm now pushes your site up the queue if you use https.

Configuring the site to use https was easy here. I host the domain on Google itself so it just works. If you have your own small website you may have looked at using secure certificates. However, they normally cost money. If you just run a site for a club or yourself spending £60 a year for a certificate is more than you really want to spend.

The answer I have found is free ssl certificates. The site sslforfree.com will give you an ssl certificate for free if you can prove you own the site. An easy way is just to put a TXT record in your DNS that sslforfree.com recognises. The only downside I can see is that you need to renew the cert every three months. Not a problem for the amateur blogger.

Secure sites mean that people get end to end encryption, more privacy when they browse and Google gives you a higher ranking. SSL has been around for a while but now everyone can afford to encrypt.



Saturday, 4 August 2018

Messages

One of the ways many people use their mobile phones is text messaging. Apple “disguise” the differences between text messages and instant messages, that use the data network, is through their iMessage that uses either depending on your connection. However, text messaging has still some way to go yet.


If you use and Android phone then you are firmly in the Google messaging camp and iMessage doesn’t exist. One trick for android users is to get away from just using their phone keyboard when creating a text. You can go to Messages for Android located at; https://messages.android.com/ .


A number of people have done short YouTube videos to demonstrate how to do this. Search for “messages for web” on YouTube.



You need to be using the Google messages app for your texts. You also need to have a wifi connection connected to the phone and PC. After this go to the website and, from the messages app, click on the thrTee dots on the top right corner as if you changing settings. Then select “Messages for Web” to connect the website to your phone.


That’s it. You can now text from your PC!

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Andromeda

Surface_Phone_Concept_3
Andromeda is not just a galaxy far, far away. It is also a code word for new Microsoft products according to a number of well-known Microsoft bloggers and journalists. We don’t know what the product will look like but many of the bloggers are illustrating their articles with pictures of a possible two screen device with a digital pen.

Almost everything about Andromeda is speculation. However, it comes with a lot of anticipation because of the complete mess Microsoft made of the mobile phone market. Without a mobile device of some description, Microsoft is suffering from the fact that the mobile phone, running operating systems from Google or Apple, is dominating the market for personal technology. The switch to mobile phone usage as the primary computing device reduces the PC to a more minor position. Typically people now take a laptop out to do something that requires a keyboard – what we might call “real work” for want of a proper definition. Mobile is more than just a piece of hardware. It has become an ecosystem. Your mobile device becomes an entry point to music, books, films, banking and even paying for parking or bus tickets. Microsoft has effectively got no presence in a technology many consumers use daily.

Microsoft started in PC operating systems by having the bold ambition of putting a PC on every desk. It largely succeeded. In mobile, which is a PC in every pocket, it is almost nowhere. From 30% of the mobile market OS in about 2006 it now has effectively 0%. More than a decade of decline with a couple of blips in Windowsphone.

Many enthusiasts who used Windowsphone, including me, were forced off the platform as Microsoft simply abandoned the market. The only official word being a couple of tweets from Microsoft employees. Since 2016 Microsoft product enthusiasts have been wondering if Microsoft would try to get back into mobile.

Andromeda is apparently it. In a rather confusing name drop, the word Andromeda refers to both some possible hardware product and also some software.

The software looks to be something called Windows Core OS. It probably won’t have that name in the future but it is Windows 10. Strategically Microsoft wants to get rid of the sort of Windows that dates back almost 30+ years. The Microsoft Windows of today has been built on code that runs WIN32. The name for applications that most people associate with Windows for decades. These applications allow developers a lot of control over the PC and, as well as the powerful applications this allows, this also has let in the malware and viruses that have plagued Windows. Microsoft would like to move towards a mobile apps application model where people get software from an online store run by Microsoft. The apps would be touch-friendly and curated. The Microsoft Store on Windows 10 offers this but the model makesthe most sense in some future world where WIN32 traditional applications don’t exist. This brings us to Windows Core OS.

Windows Core OS is Windows 10. However, it’s Windows 10 that only runs these modern touch-friendly applications. It does have the ability to access WIN32 but in a controlled way. It has components so the operating system will include extra pieces that can add a function – like making phone calls. It is that last bit that people are getting excited about. Will Andromeda, the hardware device, be some kind of phone.

Microsoft has had some success in hardware making premium priced tablets and laptops under the “Surface” brand. A Surface is characterised by being an aspirational device deliberately highly priced to allow Microsoft hardware partners to innovate at a lower price. Microsoft fans have added rumours about Andromeda software to Andromeda hardware and called it the Surface Phone.

In reality, most informed journalists are talking about a dual screen mobile device running Windows Core OS and an ARM-based chipset. Whether it will really make calls or just have an internet connection is unclear. It is likely to be focused on note-taking, Continuum, and possibly mixed reality. It’s not certain to ever be released as a real product and if it does eventually become available for purchase if it contains the “Surface” name it will be way more expensive than a phone. Current opinion is we may see it in late 2019. This is also the date when Windowsphone support ends too.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Microsoft does Git



This week Microsoft announced it was buying GitHub for $7.5 billion. Many computer users won't have even heard of GitHub or know why Microsoft might want it. However, it's probably one of the most significant acquisitions made by CEO Satya Nadella because it genuinely breaks the link between his vision of Microsoft and his predecessors.
Git was originally a bit of software devised by Linus Torvalds the creator of Linux. He created it to manage version control in the Linux operating system. Version control is how software developers keep track of changes they make while creating software. It is also used elsewhere in areas of change management and during the life-cycle of documents. The idea is that if you make a change you need to document what the change is, who made it, when and also how to go back to a previous edition. Torvald's created Linux but many people wanted to contribute. So he created a tool called "Git". It has no specific meaning.
Git was open source. So anyone can create a version for themselves and use it within its license conditions. It was "free" in the sense of "freely usable". GitHub is one place where Git is used. A user of GitHub can create a repository of software that he is working on, manage changes, allow contributions from others and essentially run an entire software development project. Other services running on Git exist but GitHub is the largest.
Microsoft, when run by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, didn't like Linux. Ballmer famously referred to Linux as a "cancer". His objection was primarily because Microsoft made money from licensing software. People paid Microsoft a fee to use Windows. Windows that comes on a computer is not free. Someone paid for it and it's included in the price. The idea that people could download Linux, install it on a PC and pay nothing undermined that model. In practice few normal users would know how to install Linux or use it so the danger was tiny in a world that people expect help and support from their computer supplier. In the PC world the reality was that Linux was not much of a threat. Many servers ran Linux and Unix operating systems but Microsoft had 90% of the PC operating systems.
The world changed when applications were delivered over the web and the most popular mobile phones didn't run Windows. Developers of applications began to use more and more open source tools and use things that were not Windows. Their code was stored in places like GitHub. This was the very opposite of Microsoft wanting developers to run their tools and work on their services.
When Satya Nadella took over Microsoft started a journey towards recognizing the changes that meant Windows was now just one possible operating system that coders could choose. That journey included moving Windows own code to a private repository on GitHub.
The purchase of GitHub is really a bigger message. The message is that Windows is not the only game Microsoft plays. Microsoft is friendly to Linux, Android and anything else coders want to work with. The new Microsoft is not a Windows only Microsoft. They have just spent $7.5 billion to deliver that message to coders.