Friday, 24 February 2017

Microsoft's Continuum Clone Increases Impact of Windows Phone Failure

Remember when Continuum was first trailed by Microsoft? Joe Belfiore gave a sneak preview in an early developers meeting and for a while Windows on phones seemed like something that was going to happen.

That was when Windows Phone was flying high, having passed iOS for second place in the mobile market in some territories and was delivering pretty good growth elsewhere, especially in Europe.

Since then Microsoft has knifed its own platform in the back, written off, sold off or sacked off its whole investment in Nokia. All that remains is the straggling rump, waiting to die.

The failure in mobile has the potential to damage much more than mobile market though. The focus on Continuum proves Microsoft knows it.

Samsung has had the ability to mimic a desktop for a while now. The Note 2 had a desktop dock specifically designed to give it access to a keyboard, mouse and external display. It didn't push the boundaries but it was surprisingly capable.

DisplayLink has subsequently added this same capability to any Android device with USB host capability and its now entirely possible to substitute a smartphone or tablet for a desktop for some users.

With the incoming Galaxy S8 it looks like Samsung is going to take this to a new level. The DeX dock will add the capability to drive an external screen operating as an extension of the phone's display rather than a mirror. Sound at all familiar?

For Microsoft this should be considered a real threat to its Windows business. Whilst neither an Android nor iOS device can properly replace a Windows PC, with each release Google and Apple are narrowing the gap. Adding edge-case functionality drives the utility of these devices and reduces the demand for PCs further, with the knock-on impact on Windows licenses.

Maybe Microsoft can afford to cede the consumer market, but SMEs and Enterprise customers aren't likely to be too far behind if there are savings to be made. From there it isn't too many steps from abandoning Windows on the desktop, moving apps to Android or iOS native, the end of Active Directory authentication, and the collapse of the server support infrastructure that sits behind it.

It may sound far-fetched, in the light of Microsoft's very strong position today. Look closely, however, and you'll find some big names arriving on the iPad (not the least of which is Microsoft Office) as well as a general push by specialist software providers to deliver their programs on mobile platforms.

If you don't believe it could happen consider the relative positions of Microsoft today and Nokia fifteen years ago; IBM thirty-five years ago.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

To Recover Its Position In Mobile, Microsoft Needs To Do The Fosbury Flop

Yesterday news broke that Panasonic was releasing a new Windows 10 Mobile phone. That's interesting only because the generally accepted position is that Windows Mobile is a dead platform and if / when Microsoft releases the Surface Phone it will be running a version of Windows 10.

Windows Mobile sales have all but disappeared and with it any reason for developers to continue to support the platform. Other than the Panasonic the only other reasonably up to date phones are other niche devices from Alcatel and HP.

Microsoft's defeat in mobile has been comprehensive and expensive. Yet it cannot afford to lie bloodied on the battlefield. Mobile is where the world is at today. A lack of a mobile platform puts Microsoft's future in the hands of Apple and Google.

That represents a significant long-term risk.

So Microsoft needs to get back into the mobile game and it can't do it by incrementally improving what it has done before, nor by refining what is already available from others.

It needs a new paradigm, one that changes the game to such an extent that it inverts the market. Microsoft needs to reset the parameters on the smartphone game in the same way that Dick Fosbury changed high jumping with his revision of high-jump technique - what became known as the Fosbury Flop.

Where that comes from I don't know. I'm pretty sure that the Surface Phone won't be it (although it has every chance of being a rather different kind of flop) and I don't believe that Hololens is it either.

This is based on the idea of Microsoft wanting to be part of a mobile first future, even if its actions over the last eighteen months don't strongly back that up. If it doesn't then what is in store for the company is very much in question. A question that won't be answered by big money purchases of services that don't make any money.

Netflix Needs Apple, The Reverse Isn't Necessarily True

Talk of Apple buying Netflix is in vogue once more. The general consensus being Apple desperately needs to turn Apple TV into something that boosts both its hardware and services income.

I believe Apple will make significant moves in the media / entertainment arena this year but not necessarily mean by acquisition and probably not by purchasing Netflix.

Netflix has a bigger problem right now and as a result the company needs the backing of a company of the scale and integration of Apple. 

Apple has made big money applications in the past, most obviously Beats.  The acquisition of Netflix would be a whole magnitude larger and not obviously better than growing Apple Music into film and TV.

So why do I think Netflix has a problem that can only be resolved by selling out to a big player? Amazon. Amazon Prime in particular.

Amazon is playing a really long game with its Prime service. The ultimate goal is to get customers signed up to the service to gain the benefit of free delivery. Free delivery removes a significant friction point for buying products from Amazon that are easily acquired on the High Street, or from other online retailers.

Amazon's goal is to be the single point of purchase  for its customers. Everything that it does is predicated on the idea that buying from Amazon should be a zero effort, zero thought, automatic action for Prime customers.

Dash buttons are a perfect example of this process in action. Their utility is enabled by, and adds value to, the Prime service.

The Prime Video service serves exactly the same function. Ease the decision on signing up for Prime membership and ease customers into an Amazon only mindset. Videos doesn't inherently  generate any income for Amazon.

Look at the value propositions of Netflix and Prime. The former will run you $8.99 per month and includes film and TV. Netflix subscriber growth has been booming outside of the US, but in the local market where it has to compete with Amazon growth has been flattening - and for the first three quarters of 2016 there was almost non-existent.

For $99 a year Amazon Prime gets you access to film and TV. You also get music streaming and access to the Kindle lending library. Just in terms of content that's already looking like a winning deal.

Prime's benefits don't stop there though. Unlimited photo backup with Amazon Cloud Drive and early or exclusive access to certain content.

That's before we talk about free delivery - one hour service in some regions, one day in most of the US and two day everywhere else.

Amazon stomps all over Netflix. Which means that right now Netflix is only really growing outside of the US. When Amazon starts to move its services into new territories its almost a given that Netflix will suffer.

Which is where Apple comes in. With deep integration into Apple's ecosystem, investment available to take the content war to Amazon and the strength of Apple's brand loyalty Netflix could have a future.

I'm just not convinced at its current $60bn market cap, Netflix makes any sense at all for Apple. Although given the war chest that Apple has amassed over the last decade this would not be a purchase to trouble Apple's accountants if it did go ahead. And it would be interesting to see how a Netflix purchase would stack up against other big buyouts.

Ultimately Apple's decsion will be based around whether it makes more sense to buy or build. Having failed to deliver on promises to shake up the media consumption industry, now is the time to make that decision.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Newspapers And Journalism In A Disrupted Market

It has been interesting to watch the increasingly desperate attempts by newspaper publishers to save their industry. Different methods have been employed - from asking readers to disable ad blockers through pay-walls and even pleading for donations.

Thing is, nobody seems to have it worked out. Not if they want to report actual news rather than chase viral page views with garbage articles like the Daily Mail or Buzz Feed.

The only model that seemed to briefly work for publishers was ad-supported, where they were able to convert large numbers of page views into an income stream.

As we all know, the quality and intrusion of advertising was not kept in check, giving rise to the ad-blocking Godzilla, which has stomped all over Fleet Street's online city.

The inability to derive revenue has destroyed the hoped for migration of the newspaper empires to the web. News sources are everywhere and in the main they don't have the weight of a legacy organisation to support.

As a result the past ability of newspapers to bundle together a mix of reporting, advertising and a political agenda is being wiped away. 

Without the checks and balances which kept newspaper reporting at least in the general vicinity of the truth, newer sites have been able to claim, report or fabricate whatever stories support their own agenda. Fake news, alternative facts? The root cause is right here.

So how does the traditional press reorganise to face a change in the market that has already bypassed them? Has the window of opportunity closed?

The subscription model may work for some of the larger names, but in general news reporting has lost its value. The internet not only killed printed news by its constant stream of up to date reporting but also killed the value of news itself. An almost infinite supply does that to products.

So the real value in the old publishing corporations is what they do outside of the news: commentary, long-form articles, investigative journalism, sociopolitical engineering. These key skills developed in the old media days haven't been picked up by new media companies in their rush for click throughs and page views.

This is where a subscription model could work. In the same way that the music industry came together to enable Spotify, the big newspaper publishers need to come together and create an offering which leverages their combined strengths.

Take the capability of the big names in news publishing around the world and centralise their non-news content into a subscription service which is priced below the point of resistance ($10 per month for example), distribute that revenue on a 'per play' basis and you have a model which is sustainable.

Because, whilst the potential market for a subscription to The Times or Washington Post is low, the global market isn't if it includes a subscription for The Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Bild, La Republica, and so on.

Whether the very diverse and often warring factions that form the newspaper empires can come together to do this remains very much in question. If they can't then a fate worse than the Daily Mail awaits them.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Apple Playing Identification Catch-up, Buys RealFace

Having been ahead of the game with the launch of TouchID on the iPhone 5S, Apple has been somewhat guilty of resting on its laurels. Others have caught and surpassed the fingerprint sensor on the iPhone and biometric authentication is available on just one Mac - the MBP with TouchBar.

In contrast Microsoft and its partners have been making all sorts of leaps ahead with biometric authentication. Windows laptops support fingerprint and facial recognition technology, Windows Mobiles use retinal scanning for authentication and Samsung and HP have both released devices with both fingerprint and retinal scanners.

The recent legal judgements that a defendant can be compelled to give up their fingerprint in order to unlock a device has raised the profile of the risks inherent in the technology. It may be more convenient and more likely to be used than a pass code, but the possibility of being forced to unlock a device (by law enforcement officers or worse) does reduce the inherent security of the solution.

Apple has clearly recognised this and rumours that the next iPhone will support facial recognition have been around for several weeks now. Evidence that these rumours are on the mark comes with the news that Apple has bought an Israeli startup specialising in facial recognition.

RealFace is a couple of years old and has been used in at least one existing iPhone app. It seems likely to me that Apple's purchase hasn't just happened and the two have been working together to develop and integrate the technology into the next major release of iOS.

It's unlikely that Apple will switch from fingerprint recognition to facial recognition unless it can achieve the same levels of accuracy - making the user experience worse isn't likely to be something that Apple would countenance.

However, given the age of RealFace, its success with iPhone apps and Apple's desire to catch-up in the authentication space I'd suggest that this will appear not only on the new iPhone, but new iPads and Macs in future too.

My iPad Is An Ornament

Yes, the industrial design of the iPad Air 2 is really very good, however nerdy-geeky as I am even I wouldn't suggest using technology for purely decorative purposes in the home. Nevertheless, that is the only role that my iPad plays right now.

My iPad usage has never been great, in fact having tried and failed to get on with the iPad 2 a few years back, buying a replacement in the shape of the iPad Air 2 was a a mistake in retrospect. 

After a brief honeymoon period I found that all the shortcomings that frustrated me with my previous iPad still existed.  In essence the iPad is only as good as the apps you use and my experience of iPad versions of the things I use has been poor.

That's not to say that great iPad apps don't exist, they do in abundance, but generally they are edge use case items - things that you don't normally do unless you are a) appearing in an Apple iPad advert or b) trying to show off your iPad to your friends.

Safari on the iPad doesn't deliver the whole internet. You can't use any other browser because Apple locks third parties into the Safari engine and what you end up with are Firefox or Chrome skinned versions of the default browser with all the same limitations.

So the iPad has been relegated to a few tasks around the home, tasks that it performed well. Bedtime stories with my children, the occasional YouTube video, nothing too taxing.

Except that in recently it hasn't been able to perform even those basic functions well.

First the YouTube app failed to complete an update and spent three or four weeks in a state of paralysis - not able to launch, not able to delete, not able to update. The options for dealing with this sort of thing are limited and I was left to the YouTube web page in Safari until it magically resolved itself.

Now the Overdrive Library app - which I  use to meet the demands of reading with each of my children for at least half an hour every evening - has begun to misbehave. Book downloading times are incredibly slow, much slower than any other version of Overdrive, including the iPhone, page turning is sluggish and chapter end markers are causing the app to pause for 30-40 seconds or miss the fnal page in each chapter completely.

As you can imagine that's not something that can be tolerated. 

Now the latter issue may be specific to the iPad app rather than the iPad itself, but the upshot is the same: I've stopped using the iPad for that task and short of any other use it sits on my bedside table, wrapped in its lovely red leather Surface Pad cover performing the task of landing pad for my phone, wallet and keys each night.

Friday, 17 February 2017

McDonalds Dings Apple's Hubris With Ad For New Straw

It's true that Apple has given us a slew of groundbreaking products over the twenty years. More recently however it has been delivering rather more humdrum new products and incremental upgrades and marketing them as the most incredible achievements ever.

The main medium for this self-congratulatory message has been the Jony Ive talking head video, in which even the most basic, re-hashed feature gets the full 'greatest feature ever' treatment.

This McDonalds parody is far from the best, but its very existence points to the fact that Apple's reality distortion self-promotion has become a mainstream figure of fun.

Kiwis Get First Run At 10GBps Home Fibre

As Chorus continues its roll out of Gigabit fibre to homes around New Zealand (my own connection upgrade is just a matter of days away) Northland based broadband wholesaler Northpower has completed the world's first live demonstration of 10GBps networking to retail and residential premises.

The technology, which uses multiwavelength signals to connect different customers on the same fibre, is technically compatible with the GPON standard used for Gigabit fibre currently rolling out as part of New Zealand's UFB programme. So a relatively straightforward upgrade path is on the cards when the NZ government decides to implement the next round of connectivity upgrades.

So much of Kiwi's business, large and small, is dependent on high quality, high speed networking that keeping the country near the top of the connection speed pack is vital. With new trunk connections to Australia due online soon New Zealand's geographic separation will continue to pose no barrier to Kiwi business.

There aren't many other countries that have taken as intelligent a long term position.

Windows Phone and Blackberry Hit 2003 Sales Levels

Gartner reported on the continuing slow, painful death of Windows Phone and Blackberry yesterday, with its view of 2016 Q4 sales. With Android and iOS together holding 99.6% of smartphone sales over the Christmas period we have really reached the point where there are only three categories to consider: Android, iOS and Other.

Nonetheless, Gartner estimated sales numbers for both Windows Phone and Blackberry. With Blackberry falling to just 200, 000 sales and Windows just breaking the million barrier.

These numbers all but match those for the same quarter in 2003, showing just how far things have wound back for the two companies. The difference being that in 2003 the total market in Q4 was 7m devices, in 2016 it was more than 350m.

Market leader in 2003 was Symbian, with Nokia selling more devices than anyone else. Second place was Palm. In fact of the top five vendors in 2003 only one (HP) has survived the arrival of the modern smartphone in anything resembling its original form.

With Blackberry phone sales heading towards zero in the very near future, only Microsoft will have survived through the first two epochs of smartphone history. The cost of this survival - if it ever gets accurately tallied up - would be beyond eye watering and even then only ever bought Microsoft a toehold in the market.

Future reporting of smartphone market performance promises to be quite boring, on the platform side anyway, and I'd like to see Gartner, Canalsys and Kantor switch to reporting Google Mobile Services and AOSP versions of Android as two seperate platforms.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

GPD Pocket Makes The Same Mistakes Of The Past

Small PCs of the past all followed a very similar lifecycle: breathless receptions from the specialist press, enthusiastic receptions from... well, enthusiasts who purchase launch units in sufficient numbers to briefly give the manufacturer hope and usually (but not always) deliver a follow up. And then things go rapidly south.

OQO, Libretto, Flipstart, Omnibook, VAIO, companies large and small have all fallen into the same trap.

Now GPD is following the same road with its Pocket computer. This 7" screened device roughly follows the path that Toshiba took with the Libretto. And if Toshiba couldn't make a viable business out of the Libretto in a time before smartphones and tablets, exactly how much of a chance does GPD have?

Perhaps the biggest warning flag is that the company is looking to fund development of this new machine on a popular crowd-funding website. Always a good sign that you'll get what you ordered. Or not.

Still GPD made a reasonable job of its Win gaming console, so this may actually get to market. Whether that market extends beyond the 1,500 or so backers who have bought into the idea remains to be seen.

History, however, would suggest it doesn't.