Sunday, 30 June 2013


I watch a keynote from a conference and the audience goes wild. It is often said that the first two rows at these events are full of employees sitting there to scream and shout at any old mediocre announcement. it is now an established format a technology product launch. Then there are the carefully selected journalists who are allowed into a inner display area to view a new product and get those YouTube exclusives.

A lot of this is down to Steve Jobs. He raised the game in product announcements. He removed dry technical detail and made it a statement of design or fashion. He knew how to work the crowd like a market trader.

It could all be a bit of fun. After a while you will know which columnists will spin the tale that Apple can do no wrong, that Google is the nicest technology brand or that Microsoft is key to innovation. These hacks live in their own bubble as little more than an extension of the company PR machine rather than independent product reviewers.

It gets a bit silly when you get down to computer users who have made a choice and seem to want to justify some superior exclusive knowledge. You get the Apple Mac user who tells the Windows guy that his system never crashes and has no viruses. The Google fan tells me that he doesn't want all his data captured by big corporations like Microsoft and Apple. Then there is the Microsoft person who claims that open standards are pointless because Microsoft has created default industry standards.

It gets down to 'my choice is better than your choice'. Not a very adult debate.

My own choices are partly made for me. I work in an industry where 90% of desktop PCs run a Microsoft operating system. Most servers in business either run a Microsoft operating system or you need to understand Microsoft technology to use them. So to earn my living the choice of Windows is a no brainer. However to be fair most ordinary people don't choose either. Manufacturers bundle Windows on their PCs. You might argue that people should be able to choose their OS but the reality is delivering support for multiple OS systems to millions would make PCs much more expensive. Providing the 'free' Linux alternatives to the general population would be less cost effective then the semi-monopoly of Microsoft.

The 'free' cost of Google products is a trade off. Google is an advertising company. More than 90% of it's revenue comes from advertising and it knows how to advertise because of the information it trawls out of it's users. This is OK if you are prepared to accept an advertising driven model. You will never know if the search results on Google are the best results or the highest paid adverts. However just because you don't pay money to Google don't pretend it has better ethics or standards compared to Microsoft or Apple. They are all big corporations.

It is always slightly amusing when someone writes about Microsoft Office because there is always some comment from a slightly superior Linux troll saying "I don't pay for my software  you can use OpenOffice for free and it's just the same". Of course there are plenty of free alternatives but in the mainstream where businesses and government need to get problems resolved, need technical support, software updates etc there is a legitimate place for commercial software.

Fanbois - give it a rest.





Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Apple, Android, and Windowsphone

The next big shift in the mobile Internet is the move from smartphones being the preserve of the rich western world into the less prosperous world. The next billion smartphone owners will be earning significantly lower salaries than the first billion.

For each of the smartphone platforms this represents a challenge. Apple are the Gucci or Prada of the smartphone world made 'exclusive' by price. Iphones are often bought as a fashion and design icon than a piece of technology. However it is priced for first world wealth. At the moment Apple is beginning to flatline on sales. Apple is still selling millions of phones but the customers who can afford the premium price are getting rarer. Hence the company has an almost annual upgrade cycle to re-start the adoration that sells new Apple product. The question for Apple is do they produce a iphone junior at a lower price targeted at less prosperous markets or does it settle with the premium only strategy.

Android has a different problem. Only a few phones have the pure Google experience. The premium phone sector is dominated by Samsung and the dozens of other cheaper Android phones have no common interface, common specification or run the same version of Android. The market is fragmented and customers are getting a wide variety of smartphone experiences. The question for Google is can it unite the fragmented market and, with a 70%+ share, does it want to.

Windowsphone has a tiny world market share of 3%. The good news is that Nokia, as the largest player, has a range of phones that hit most price points. Outside the USA it has superb brand recognition. Plenty of potential to sell to the surging economies of the developing world.

People think the smartphone wars are all over with Android in first place, Apple in second and everyone else trailing behind. I think the next billion phone sales will really determine the winner and those customers may well choose very differently from the rich western world.





Friday, 14 June 2013

There can be only One (or Two)

The Xbox One is the all new console that is scheduled to be released in the autumn of 2013 in Microsoft's battle with Sony over the issue of the best games console.

In recent years Xbox has been the cool brand with Xbox Live being the online gaming membership of choice. When Sony launched the PS3 with the 'experimental' Blu-ray disc format and cell processor it was late, overpriced and clunky. However steady sales and 'free' multiplayer gaming have attracted gamers not willing to join the Microsoft ecosystem. This progress was slightly hampered by a serious security breach in their password system last year.

So Microsoft did not have to do too much to produce a next generation console. Sony had all the work to do. Earlier in the year Sony 'launched' their PS4 console without actually showing what it looked like.

Microsoft's successor to the Xbox 360 is to be called the Xbox One. The launch focus was that this is a device to make TV a better experience, have exclusive content, voice control, Skype video calling and gaming. In the weeks that followed up until E3 additional information came out describing the new concepts and new features.

Unfortunately Microsoft suffered from some kind of marketing process that firmly placed their feet in their mouth. Instead of showing new features and facilities as customer benefits it all became an exercise in damage control. In particular not being able to allow gamers the option of trading in old games for cash. A 22 second video highlighting the different approach from Sony with the PS3 went viral and simultaneously slammed the Microsoft marketing machine.

This really registered with me. Microsoft's bold changes in mobile, Windows, and now Xbox have been followed by much explanation and frequent backtracking. The world has changed since the last version of Windows, Windows Mobile and Xbox - we get this. However marketing hasn't changed that much. To sell to a customer you must make the benefits of being a customer seem real. Removing value from the customer is going to get a negative reaction.

The first problem MS had was context.The launch presentation was all about TV. My impression is that most viewing on an Xbox 360 is by gamers doing something else with a game console not a household buying an Xbox for entertainment. Most people have other set top box options. Apple do a reasonable job with the Apple TV, there are also smart tvs that run apps and a cheap Blu-ray player will normally include Internet connection and Youtube. I was trying to work out why Microsoft would persuade a consumer that it was a good idea to pay 5 times the cost of an Apple TV for a device to watch TV and movies.

To be fair the voice control and the gesture controls are great but the value proposition is poor.

Games played a smaller role than watching TV at the launch. The problem for Microsoft is that games are the 'trojan horse' that gets this device in the living room so you have to persuade people to buy it based first on the games. In the future it may become a central point of all entertainment but not right now.

At this point Microsoft decided to reveal that every 24 hours the console had to call home in order to work. We are in an Internet connected world but there are still plenty of people who just play single user games or don't have an Internet connection. There are also plenty of places that have such a slow Internet connection that online gaming is next to impossible. It's not a deal breaker but a pointless limitation.

The problem with the limitation of an 'always on' connection is that it feeds into the issue of rights management and trading in your old games for cash. Many people do buy second hand because of the cost of games. The argument form the other side is  that publishers loose out in this trade and if everyone bought new the cost of games would go down. The implication is that digital sales would tie your id to a game effectively removing swapping games, lending games or re-selling them.

My problem with this is there is no evidence on the Xbox platform that digital only sales have driven down prices. Buying videos and music digitally is often more expensive than getting the disc in the mail from Amazon. Very often things are not available to all markets digitally even when you can buy physical goods in that market. Until pricing is much better there is still space for the games store over a pure digital download.

All this plays into the idea that Microsoft is this big corporate entity working with games publishers to extract more cash from customers in a duplicitous way rather than provide a better value experience. In a sense they have damaged the 'cool' part of the Xbox name by overlaying a negative corporate marketing strategy.

You also require an Xbox Live subscription to make this product work. If you just want to rent movies and watch Netflix why do you need to be a subscriber to the Microsoft games features? This just makes it even less attractive as a pure entertainment hub. If you are going to subscribe to something then just subscribe directly to content providers. Some of them will even provide a free box to view content.

Of course there is the community that will buy the Xbox One because it is the next new thing. As an owner of 2 Xbox 360s (different rooms) I am trying to work out what the benefits are of buying this product. So far Microsoft seem to be advising me that I will loose features I currently value if I spend  a chunk of money on an Xbox One. Sony seem to be selling the idea that they are people who will keep gaming traditions alive with the PS4.


Thursday, 13 June 2013

Apple's New IOS 7 and other 'innovations'

I have owned quite a few Apple products over the years and there have been a number of real innovations. The iPod revolutionised personal music, the iPhone changed the paradigm of the smart phone and many other things have both excited and changed the world. Many pundits almost expect Apple to change the world and read volumes into situations when they don't. Apple fans are also not aware of the genuine innovation by other platforms and assuming something Apple does is new just because Apple are doing it.

In this context the new IOS7 operating system has been launched. A new 'flatter' and 'translucent' interface primarily aimed at the iPhone is extraordinarily conservative in it's scope but very necessary.

The necessary part of the problem is that the simulated leather and homely backgrounds of the iPhone going back to 2007 are now looking dated. The digital simulation of the very analogue world of leather note books, pages and post-it notes are something of a 'ye olde worlde' look. The result of the redesign is a flatter interface that used translucence to provide depth. No one has played with this yet but to many of us this seems very much the interface already available on the latter Android versions or Windowsphone. Not a copy as such but rather a homily to the opposition without actually mentioning them.

Then there is the little niggle over the iCloud being a service. Approximately 20 minutes of the WWDC keynote was editing documents in the cloud with iWork. Excuse me Apple have you not heard of Google Docs or Office Web Apps. The iCloud has been 'a disk in the sky' with a bit of email or calendar even though the late Steve Jobs claimed iCloud was much more. Adding IWork in the cloud seems to acknowledge that the iCould has been exactly a 'disk in the sky' whereas Google, Amazon and Microsoft have led the charge towards cloud services. The new 'IRadio' seems a response to music streaming services previously ignored by Apple.

Apple have been a key innovator over the years but in 2013 I detect a little catch-up. Some of the things seem to have been previously stopped from happening by the 'vision' of the company founder.

I happen to think the new announcements from Apple are welcome enhancements to products but on this occasion even Apple's greatest fans must surely acknowledge the 'innovation' is that Apple are now joining a party that has already started.
Link: Apple Event 2013



Wednesday, 5 June 2013

I am the three percent

Three percent is the market share for Windowsphone in the USA right now. Of that around seventy five percent is the share for Nokia. A big fish in a three percent pond. For Microsoft this is a reversal of position in a specific technology market it used to own. Microsoft dominated micro computing and mobile leaving pretty much every other manufacturer a long way back in a distant second place. Windows mobile was a leader just a few years ago.

My own phone is a Nokia Lumia 820. This makes me the owner of a device that is a minor player in the mobile space. If you want to know about it just check one the video reviews below.

I don't have the exact figures to hand but the mobile phone space is dominated by Google's Android operating system followed by a favourable showing by Apple in the 18-20% range and then the scraps of remaining sales are made up of Windowsphone and Blackberry. In the Android market itself the dominant player is Samsung with most other manufacturers trying to find space in a 'me too' phone market.

Of course it has to be said that making a phone call is one of the least likely activities you will probably perform on your smartphone. Listening to music, taking pictures and surfing the Internet are much more important. Looking back with hindsight it's easy to see that Windowsphone was late to the party and is still struggling. The history of mobile could leave you laughing at Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer who was very negative about the iPhone at launch only to see it become the fashion phone of choice.

Ballmer was right in many ways. When he made the comments Windows Mobile was the leading OS in the mobile space along with Blackberry. However it was focussed on the business user. The business user often had no choice in his or her device instead an IT department choose what worked best with enterprise software such as Exchange email. The iphone and Android experiences built on consumer services such as email, music, video and developed an 'ecosystem' of products that was already locking in customers. The iphone was the ipod that could make calls and Android was the Google experience on the move.

Microsoft was, at the time of the iphone launch, a failing online services brand. It's entertainment offerings were not in the mobile space and, more importantly, were tied to the Xbox brand associated with gaming. Hard core gaming is a significant but small market. The Microsoft attempts at selling music were problematic. The digital rights management to prevent piracy had led to cumbersome software and hardware that were not easy to use and came up with obscure error messages when customers copied music between their own devices. The 'plays for sure' logo had a number of problems of which perhaps the most significant was that devices made by partners were not interoperable and didn't actually play for sure. In contrast Apple and Google had gradually developed products that just worked for consumers.

One of the great Windowsphone advances is the belated admission that ecosystems are important. It is an admission that came from creating a better ecosystem via the Microsoft account id, cloud storage, etc all together with the hardware.  They still haven't got music and entertainment services right but perhaps that is coming.

Windowsphone itself may be saved by their OEM partner Nokia. Nokia have been carefully creating lots of Lumia devices at a variety of price points and they are not 'cheap looking' devices. With tiny proportions of people in many markets being able to afford the premium priced iPhone and with Nokia strong in markets outside the USA it might be that Windowsphone growth could now happen almost entirely outside the USA.

Apple could produce a cheaper iPhone for some markets but they have generally been unwilling to drop from a premium price. As long as Microsoft continually improve their new mobile OS and don't shoot themselves in the foot the Nokia link might be the thing that means that I may own a device that makes up more than three percent of the mobile market sometime in the future.