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.

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Oh, The Things I Use.

After pretty much complaining non-stop about the new tablet experience of Windows 10 (it is truly awful on touch) I decided before going any further I would list a ‘What I Use’ in emulations of the greats of our industry. Plus it could be helpful for reference. I will change this and revise periodically as things change. I tend to use a lot of gadgets and PC’s to calm the inner geek voices in my head. This will be primarily my personal tech stash, I may do a ‘What We Use’ for work technologies since I run a medium size business IT infrastructure department.

PC’s/Tablets

I have a number of PC’s I use around the house. I lump PCs and tablets together, since basically I use them all for similar things–production or consumption of information and entertainment.

Main PC – This is a home built Sandy Bridge mini tower. 16GB Memory, Core-i5, 4 TB storage, 256GB SSD. The ‘workhorse’ PC I use the most. It also has a TV tuner I use with Windows Media Center in it (oh WMC, how I love you so). The current challenge is to upgrade this to the Ceton 6 tuner PCI cable card setup and get all the premium channels I get out in the living room. That’s it’s own whole story. I use this PC for work at home, personal computing, games, TV, you name it. I keep feeling like it may be time for a new build, but it runs everything I throw at it since I put in a new video card. Maybe next year…

Guest/Office PC – I have a PC in the little nook where the phone comes in next to the living room, it’s basically my last tower config with just a dual core, an SSD (can’t live without those) and 4GB RAM. It runs Windows 10 beautifully and fast and is great for visitors and family, Skype Calls, pizza ordering, Xbox music.

Surface/RT – I use an original Surface/RT for couch surfing, reading, Xbox SmartGlass, Twitter, etc. Basically it’s the walking around device.

Dell Venue Pro 8 – Until recently my main work/home tablet. The stylus quit working and I got a newer device, so I now use this as my test Windows 10 Tablet. It is a sad and sorry experience so far.

Toshiba Encore Write 2 – I just got this tablet last month, and it has turned out to be the best experience I’ve had with any tablet. It has a fantastic stylus perfect for OneNote, it’s fast and a joy to use. I use this mostly for work, I can do diagrams, notes, read, review documents, markup documents, read newfeeds, etc. It is my go-to must have device. And it’s nice and light, 8″ and 64GB storage. This is a must buy. It’s basically what I always wanted the Surface Mini to be.

Surface Pro 2 – I have an i5 Surface Pro 2 I use as my laptop when needed. I’ve found I don’t need a laptop all that much as I don’t travel often and have desktops or tablets when I need ‘on the go’ computing. But when I do, I really love the SP2, it’s fast and has a purple keyboard. Purple, enough said.

Phones

Lumia 1520 – I love the Windows Phone platform. There I said it. I truly believe that it’s more functional (for me) than any of the others, and I have tried them all. I started with the Samsung Focus, then Nokia 900, 920, 925, and 1520. Plus a 520 that was just too cheap to pass up I use for a remote control and music player. The 1520 is big, really big. But I love the screen and it’s a powerhouse phone. I guess I must not be much of an app person since I don’t really see the app gap here. But I don’t care about social media or putting crappy filters on the beautiful pictures my Lumia takes, so maybe I don’t see it. It seems like everything I need is there or has an app I need.

Applications – Windows 8.x

Office 365 Home and Office 365 Business Premium – I can’t say enough about how critical these are for me on a daily basis, mostly for work. When they brought out unlimited OneDrive storage and 5 installs per license (plus sharing of the Home license) this is a no brainer for $99/year. Google Docs, iWork, others simply do not hold a candle to the Office Suite. There is no comparison. Anyone telling you they get along just fine in these doesn’t do anything complex. And that’s great for them. But if you need serious tools these are those. It’s the difference between MS Paint and Photoshop. And our business relies on Lync, Exchange, Excel, Word and others for core functions.

OneNote – The Metro version of OneNote with a tablet PC is a killer note taking computer. I leave it running on my tablet, can walk into a meeting and be taking handwritten notes in seconds. I like it better than the desktop app. And this is something I find about a lot of Metro apps, the reduced ‘noise’ of the interface is much better when on a tablet. It’s clean. On the desktop I like the noise because that’s where all the power controls are. But on a tablet I want to focus on my data, or notes, or content without all the chrome.

IE/LastPass – I use both the desktop and Metro versions (yes, I will still call it Metro because you immediately know what I mean when I use that!). And with it is the indispensable LastPass password manager–a must have. Get the paid version, it’s cheap and these guys do it right.

Windows Mail – I love the Mail/Calendar/People client in Windows. It’s gotten so much better over time, and on tablets it’s a fully capable client for all my email accounts. For business email I use Outlook–it’s kind of complex these days, but for power managing email, tasks, calendar, contacts in an Exchange environment it’s pretty much the standard.

Nextgen Reader – Probably the most critical app I use, I pull in all my feedly news feeds in to this client for reading everything going on in the world. It let’s me keep up with hundreds of sites all integrated into a clean, touch friendly UI. Plus it syncs read stories across devices (Windows and Phone). I use it on the desktop and on tablets.

Tweetium – This is the best Twitter client out there, period. And it’s constantly being updated and improved.

Pushbullet – I use the desktop version for Windows and the PushPin client on the phone (these guys are great, and they ‘endorse’ multiple 3rd party phone apps since they don’t have a native client–that’s the way to do it).

I use a lot of the Microsoft services, OneDrive, SharePoint, OneNote, Outlook.com, Office 365, Azure (for active directory stuff for work), Music, Xbox Live, Video (rental only). Plus Amazon for shopping, Prime, Pantry and Kindle. I have various Outlook, Google email accounts I use. I also have a couple of Roku devices for the TV’s. I hate Facebook and rarely ever open it, I just don’t post like that or care to. Twitter I like because it’s news-ier, but social media is just not my thing for the most part. All the photo sharing apps leave me completely cold.

I use a lot of remote desktop and server management tools as well, they are a subject for another article.

Others: Insteon (home automation), Reading List (long form saved articles), Reader (PDF reader with pen markup!), Idea Sketch, Grapholite, Qool Autodesk Sketchbook (all good diagramming, sketching apps), News, Weather, Finance (MSN apps), Xbox music (with music pass, manages all my music and subscriptions), Netflix, Hulu, Comedy Central, Songza Kindle (entertainment apps). Various others, I like several cooking, shopping apps, and a varying little selection of games. For ‘big games’ those I get through Steam and vary, but since I suck at most of them I won’t detail them here. Sadly, I heavily use the Bank Of America app on both desktop and phone that is being discontinued, I find it short sighted of them.

Xbox One – The living room hosts the Xbox One, which I primarily use for it’s media capabilities (although I do try and fail at games often enough). There is nothing quite so cool as walking into the room, saying “Xbox turn on”, “Watch ABC” “Goto Netflix” or other commands. THAT is living in the future! Someday I will get better at the games…

That’s currently the high level view of stuff I use on a daily basis, it’s a mix of form factors–but because Windows syncs my apps and settings across devices, I find myself starting in one place and picking up where I left off in another. As more developers adopt this kind of behavior the devices will tend to fall into the background. I love the term ‘ambient computing’, meaning all the tech is wherever you want it, in the background, waiting for you rather than tied to devices and logins. It’s the Star Trek computer everyone wants and I like that all the big companies are trying to build it.