Windows 10 and the Apps

I’ve been seeing a great deal of back and forth on the app gap, ‘Windows is dead’, and development for Windows 10. For most of the negative minded, Microsoft’s latest strategy is to admit defeat and become the back end for services. ‘That is what they’re doing’ and ‘Windows mobile is a failure, period’ is the common theme from these people.

For the Windows optimists, there is a lot of ‘this is what they needed to do all along’ and ‘Windows 10 is so fantastic it will solve everything’. I think the truth lies somewhere in between these as Microsoft refocuses to what it knows it can do in the face of the current market, hunker down and wait for the next big thing, and get all their ducks in a row for when the big thing hits. I think Windows Mobile becomes just another part of a much larger whole. Microsoft is good at platforms, and this may be finally their best strategy: Universal Apps. I tend to get more optimistic where the discussion is in the platform, especially when everyone else is gloomy.

‘Universal apps are pointless without mobile!’ they cry…’why would anyone do Universal apps for the desktop???’ Good points if you don’t actually look beyond the phone. Universal apps make a lot of sense, both on the desktop, mobile, web, console, IoT, etc. It’s more than the phone, it’s every endpoint a user might touch. For one, it’s a more modern development environment with better security, portability, and the big one everyone seems to ignore: The Store. Right now, if I want a little utility, I have to go to the web and hunt. I have to avoid the malware traps (even once safe sites like CNET’s Download.com are now adware infested hell holes). I have to trust the site, I have to scan the files to death. If it’s a paid app, I either need to trust them with my credit card or use PayPal (which has it’s own issues these days). It’s a nightmare.

Contrast this to the Windows Store. The biggest problems you face are the apps might not be there, or there’s some junk to sift through. But I’m generally never in danger–either through malware or credit card fraud. It’s safe. It’s a marketplace to peddle vetted software. For Windows desktop this could be a watershed play. Windows 10 Universal apps also get more API’s and services so they can be more sophisticated. Additionally Universal apps get things like settings portability between devices, license management, and a steady update mechanism. THAT is why Universal apps are useful on the desktop. For example, when I load up a new PC (and I seem to do this a lot these days during the Windows 10 insider program) I log in, then click my Tweetium or Nextgen Reader client and everything is there. No setup. None. I’m immediately productive. Programs like this simplify real things for me. And some Windows apps are so good they’re fine on the desktop–Nextgen Reader is always up on every device I own, either full screen or docked on Windows 8.x or in a window on Windows 10. The fact that my unread items or place marker in Twitter is synced to all devices and phones is a convenience I can no longer live without. This is the true promise of Universal apps.

And Windows 10 brings something I’ve only been able to scratch the surface on (mostly because all the pieces are not all finished yet). Cortana and syncing between devices. Reminders I set on my PC pop up on the phone when I get home or to the store, things I need to know move with me across devices. The possibilities here are tremendous. Apps integrated into this platform (say if mail alerts from just my inner circle could be announced on the device I’m on during quite hours) could possible make this a real differentiator. Continuum might make it so that I drop my phone on an NFC/wireless charging pad and it immediately lights up a monitor/keyboard to use as a computer. These kinds of futuristic scenarios are all built in to the products right now. I want them, and I suspect that if they do it right and actually communicate it to the world, a lot of other people will want them too. This makes for a really lucrative market for developers–on a platform that is potentially huge (desktop Windows users) with little penetration.

I suspect Microsoft may have had their Take Out the Trash Day last week in order to clear the decks for new strategy and the upcoming massive product cycle. Get the bad news completely out of the way for a few days before launch and prepare for the blitz. And actually, all the gloomy talk subsided pretty quickly when they pushed out a new build…then the WPC 2015 keynotes, and now RTM. Universal versions of Office day of Windows 10 release, the Mac 2016 Office release, Groove Music, new builds, GigJam (okay that one’s just weird) etc. are all hitting post bad news week to change the narrative. They are getting better at throwing us bright shiny objects right when everything looks depressing. They still are crap at communicating, but at least they’re learning.

The real test may be the first couple of month’s of Windows 10 release–do we see a lot of real Universal apps, things returning that left the environment, a surge in development? Or do we see the little bump and then nothing? If they’re smart, they have a lot of good news waiting–they’ll meter it out over the launch months, keep it building, and not drop another bombshell like last week. Oh, and a couple of cool surprises wouldn’t hurt either.

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The Strategy of Retreat?

I’m confused. Honestly. I have been using Microsoft products for almost 30 years, since the earliest days of Windows/286 and the DOS version of Word and Microsoft Mail, and I’m confused. I’ve grown up with MS products most of my professional life, and have gotten quite good at navigating the intricacies and nuances of their software from server products right down into my phone and I don’t quite know what to think.

Microsoft appears, desperately not to want to become the modern era’s IBM, and thank the maker for that. But after this week I’m confused. The signals that Microsoft seems to send out is they are retreating from consumer and end user and it’s all about ‘the cloud’ and ‘mobile first’. Yeah, okay, great. But here’s the thing, the cloud is boring and mobile first is consumer driven. The cloud is IBM…it’s really just another way to say Internet or Hosted or Mainframe. It’s deadly dull. Sure it provides the services and backend for all the cool gizmos and apps people use everyday, but it is the interface to services that drives our modern world. Instagram? Facebook? Snapchat? Really, just big databases and comm services with clever indices and slick consumer front ends. The UX or user experience is what the consumer interacts with, and what becomes the product for people. Microsoft seems intent to get out of that business. Either that or they’re comically bad at communicating their intent. I really don’t know.

Wednesday’s proclamation that they’re massively downsizing and writing off Windows Phone is one huge lurch in the strategy that comes exactly at the wrong time for this. All during the Windows 8 timeframe they’ve been shaping the message of Universal Apps and running everything all the way down to a phone. Now, on the eve of the launch of this platform they scale back. On the eve of the launch. What. The. F$%#.

I love Windows phone, but I am a realist–it has a tiny marketshare. But it did provide a showcase for their vision and Windows 10 promised to perhaps move the needle a bit with things like Continuum. It might even make a cool business platform. Or for some of us that just don’t like grids of icons, an alternative to the dominant players. Why on earth would they pick NOW to announce a drastic reduction in the platform? Before they even get to test the strategy? Are we seeing Satya Nadella’s revolution purge every idea from the last regime just to get it out?

Some of the new strategy makes great sense, reduce the number of products, get a damn flagship in the market, focus on business users, stop catering to the lowest of the low smartphone market, but again, we see them throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Change for change sake. Maybe they could have put the write off of Nokia out into 2016 to let the fledgling Windows 10 OS at least try to succeed. Instead all the headlines were ‘Windows Phone is Dead’. Microsoft seems genetically incapable of controlling their message and communicating a vision.

Witness today’s announcements of Microsoft abandoning Travel, Food & Drink and Health, all their MSN extras. Not necessarily heavily used apps, but really nicely done, showing developers that Windows is a decent platform to develop on. Microsoft has dumbed down the tablet UX on Windows 10 (see, well, just about all my other posts). They’ve been waffling on services. But a new release of SQL Server? They’re all over that. Microsoft seems to pay lip service to the front end, do a little work, then bail. So, as both a back end consumer of their ‘cloud’ products, and (at least for now) a user of their consumer products, I offer a few things I think they could do to shore up the ‘mobile first’ part of that company line they love saying.

  • Make some big moves in acquisition. If you really want to be in the consumer space, you need an ecosystem. Not the weak tea we have now. Xbox Groove Music is great. Buy Spotify or Rdio and integrate in. Buy a video service. Fill out the media offerings. In every conversation lately about streaming music services, Microsoft is not even mentioned when people list out the services. Groove is really good, make it better. Push it everywhere. Same for video, go big or go home. And don’t go home, you need this to build the ecosystem. You need music, video, books, magazines, games to be in the game. If you can’t build it, buy it. Then for the love of all that’s holy don’t quit after a year. Without the ecosystem you are not a player in mobile and you’ll never be anything meaningful to a consumer. Oh, and I think you can make money there too.
  • Build or buy a small set top box and do what you were going to do in the living room. It looks like Microsoft was going to have Xbox deep into media services, then of course, chickened out and now it’s all about games! Fine. You need a living room play that’s not $400.
  • Build your own Amazon Echo but for Cortana. Set Cortana free in her own device, tie it into services. I love my Echo, but it doesn’t connect to all my services, accounts, email, reminders. I want a Cortana device detecting when I get home, reminding me of things, playing music, controlling all those Internet of Things you guys keep talking about. You have mic array and sensors from Kinect, speakers from Nokia, wireless tech and services–build it!
  • Speaking of Cortana, ramp that up big time. Integrate it everywhere. I sometimes feel Microsoft is too sensitive on the privacy front. Yes, it’s critically important, but talk to Google people on why they love Google Now. It’s creepy but they love it. We’ll love it too.
  • Keep buying up those cool apps. One great way to get on to every platform and win is to just buy the cool stuff. If Microsoft can’t do it anymore, acquire it. They’ve been on a roll lately and should definitely keep going.
  • Build more apps, not less. Those Food, Health, Travel, etc. type apps are almost best in class in the Windows store. You need to build more, not less of these. Unless and until there are stellar selections of apps in the Windows store, Microsoft must play lead developer.
  • Band is cool, it’s almost a smartwatch. Make one of those too. This market’s still nascent, and amazingly, Apple’s entry is kind of landing with a thud. Pounce on it. Do that Internet of Things thing.
  • HoloLens. yes please, more of this everywhere. Don’t listen to the whiners of field of vision, improve and iterate!
  • Promote the hell out of Continuum for Windows Phone. There is an insane amount of desire built up to simply carry a pocket device, drop it down on a pad and have your whole environment unfold around you on large screens. It seems like the pieces are finally there, now tell everyone about it.

And finally, everyone at Microsoft needs to go to YouTube and watch those Microsoft Visions of the Future videos again. Look at those displays, interfaces, services, seamless integration and devices. Notice there’s not a desktop or Start Menu to be had in any of them. Get back a sense of wonder and vision and make things cool. You’ll win consumers every time.

In Star Trek, no one ever goes and visits the Enterprise’s server room and wonders at the amazing future of the cloud. It’s all about how you connect to the user, and the Android app for Word isn’t going to wow ’em in the modern mobile world.

So here we are…

While not having published anything in a little while, I have been seriously testing Windows 10 in all it’s various forms over the past six weeks or so. As anyone reading this blog knows, I’m on the fence about Windows 10 because of the various compromises in what I think were useful features in Windows 8.x, but pretty enthusiastic about it on the desktop.

It’s pretty much the eve of RTM, any day now Microsoft will sign off on the first shipping version of Windows 10, if that actually means anything in the ‘Windows as a Service’ world. The current build is 10166 for insiders. Has anything improved for the tablet user? A little, but not really enough.

The good news is that as the builds get closer to RTM, the stability has gone way up, so much so that I moved my work desktop to it a few builds back. I also have it on a home ‘guest pc’ desktop that’s an older unit, a touch based notebook, and on a Dell Venue Pro 8 which I use for tablet testing of the UI. The two desktop machines are now running perfectly. Seriously, no lie. Issues from the past seem to be gone, it’s fast (even on the old PC). Driver issues are gone, all our weird line of business apps work, even login to a domain is working faster now. I even slapped on a cheap fingerprint reader on my work PC to test Windows Hello! (that still seems like a Seinfeld joke to me). Smooth as silk. I love it on the desktop.

Let me say that again, I love it on the desktop. Got a desktop? Do the upgrade. Unless you have Media Center, then well, I feel you. I have one PC that won’t make the leap because it’s just too valuable as a TV. But everyone else? Do it!

The not so good news is that on a tablet, Microsoft seems to have conceded the market. It’s a tablet in form only. There is a taskbar that takes up space, clutters the interface, and has icons to small for anyone but my four year old niece can use. There’s the ‘what I consider broken’ task switcher, that makes it impossible to flip through applications like Windows 8.x. There is the Action/Notification thing that replaces Charms but provides no Windows button or has icons you can access with thumbs, and just accumulates status of new mail (I have yet to see a notification that wouldn’t have been better receiving another way). There are the new ‘universal’ apps that basically look like Android. And that’s the thing, Windows tablet mode is basically Android. I can’t hold the device on the sides and use it like before. Everything requires two hands, icons are small (too thin to see in some cases), washed out with too much white titlebar, and no attention to detail.

Is it a disaster?

No, it’s meh. Like Android. It’s dishwater dull. It’s not designed anymore, it’s whatever your app slaps on the interface and run. There’s no edge UI of any consequence (that used to be useful, now it’s just clunky). Everything tablet has been deprecated in favor of the desktop. That’s Microsoft basically throwing in the towel and giving up to the iPad (which, low and behold now has flip switching and snap multitasking like Windows used to).

Desktop great. Tablet meh.

Desktop great. Tablet meh.

Apple and Android are picking over the dead carcass of good ideas Microsoft had and incorporating them into their platform while Microsoft is busy adding a freaking taskbar to a tablet.

But is it good enough? Yeah, it’s okay. A solid 5 out of ten. Woot. And since all the new apps that will now flood onto the platform because it has a taskbar and start menu (yes I’m being facetious) well, I have to have something that will run them. So my strategy is to give it a go on one Surface Pro and see if I can stand it. The Dell might be too small and tainting my opinion. I’ll see if I can adjust, or at least not trash it all and buy an iPad. If that works I might use it on my brand new Surface 3 or even my beloved Toshiba Encore 2 Write. But only maybe. Now it depends on apps more than anything.

On Windows 8.x it was the experience of the OS, the fluidity, the ease of use, and cool factor that made me love the devices (and put up with the distinct lack of applications). It made me willing to embrace third party apps, pin websites, and do without some basic things other platforms had. It made me get my XBOX Music pass (which I love and never would have had before). It made me buy an Xbox One. It reaffirmed my love for Windows Phone. I was ‘all in’. Now all bets are off–they’ve taken away all the things I liked and made Windows a me-too tablet/desktop thing that’s middling at best (but again, simply GREAT on a desktop). Now it IS the apps that will make a difference, those will have to carry the value of Windows devices where Windows used to. Now I have a critical eye. Now there are no excuses.

Microsoft has turned this total fan into a much more on the fence guy. But that’s another post coming soon :-).