Friday, 27 May 2016

Peter Thiel, Gawker Media And The Balance Of Power

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The future of Gawker Media hangs firmly in the balance this week, rocked first by its defeat at the hands of Hulk Hogan in the courts, secondly by the scale and target of the damages judgement and lastly by the news that Peter Thiel bankrolled Hogan’s court case.

The significance of the latter item can’t be over stated. Thiel was co-founder of PayPal, an early Facebook investor and currently fronts several financial funds. Thiel appears to have been using his considerable wealth to bankroll legal action against Gawker prior to the Hogan case.

The reason for Thiel’s pursuit of Gawker relates to a 2007 article that ‘outed’ him as gay. In fact in the article ‘Peter Thiel is totally gay, people’  author Owen Thomas (also gay apparently) appears to be publicising Thiel’s sexual preferences for political and personal advantage, rather than as an attempt to cause affront or report something that was in the public interest to know. Clearly an article that neither needed to be written nor published.

Given that it was, Thiel’s response has been to set out in search of revenge, although he is framing it as an attempt to deter similar articles from appearing. The end result will almost certainly be the death of Gawker, deprived of investment funds and on the end of a stream of well funded litigation that seeks to drive Gawker’s legal costs through the roof.

It’s hard not to take Thiel’s side here. Gawker played fast and loose with its position, not just in Thiel’s case or Hogan’s, but presumably in others too, playing the schoolyard bully in its search for clicks. I imagine that it put far too much store by the concept of free speech and not enough on public interest and as a result found it had woken a far bigger and more dangerous enemy than it was expecting.

If Thiel were to litigate Gawker out of existence it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing in itself, however the precedent it sets is dangerous. Legitimate investigation of powerful figures would die away as the media seeks to avoid confrontation with individuals or organisations with funding necessary to bring them to their knees.

A tough one to call, however it seems to me that the media needs to be protected from this kind of vindictive attack in the future. As a matter of balance, individuals should also be protected from this kind of intrusive reporting at the same time.

An individual should not have to be a billionaire to be able to defend their right to a private life.

Oracle Copyright Troll Shut Down, Jury Declares Android Fair Use

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Oracle’s attack on the future of software development and attempt to grab billions of dollars in unearned copyright fees from Google was well and truly shot down today. A jury ruled that Google’s use of Javi APIs in Android was protected under fair use, meaning that Oracle won’t be able to extract a single cent of the $9bn it was hoping to rake in.

The case has been on the block for six years now, pretty much since Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems. In 2012 the US District Court ruled APIs couldn’t be protected under copyright, a judgement that was overturned on appeal, directly leading to this month’s case and today’s verdict.

Given the sum of money involved it’s almost inevitable that Oracle will appeal, so unfortunately this won’t be the end of the matter. However, having twice lost the case it seems increasingly unlikely that Oracle will ever end up extorting anything from Google, although its unlikely to ever stop trying.

Continuum Is Not The Mobile Differentiator Microsoft Is Looking For

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Microsoft, HP and Acer have all announced – and in some cases shipped - Windows 10 Mobiles supporting Continuum. Microsoft is pushing this as Windows Mobile’s unique selling point as far as the enterprise is concerned.

It’s a good line – the phone that can replace your laptop – but even given the current state of Continuum, with limited support and erratic performance it’s more than a little distance from the truth.

However if we assume that Microsoft is able to make Continuum support ubiquitous and perform acceptably well (and given’s Intel’s cessation of the Atom mobile processor range that isn’t a given) does Continuum actually offer the flexibility and capability that would encourage broad enterprise adoption?

I don’t think it does.

Enterprise adoption on the basis of Continuum would suggest the replacement of another device, presumably a laptop. That doesn’t sound realistic at all. Yes we’ve seen journalists and bloggers with very limited use cases claiming the ability to work exclusively on an iPad, but for real world workers the flexibility and capability of a laptop is key. For that time that you need to update a document on the train or plane, is a smartphone – even the 6” screen of the HP Elite X3 – going to cut it? And once you’re carrying your laptop for these eventualities are you going to bother with your Continuum dock as well?

The niche set of use cases where a phone can replace a laptop are so narrow as to be pointless chasing. Otherwise you can be sure that at least one Android OEM would have been there first. Don’t forget that Android phones have had USB OTG and MHL for wired video out for years. Those features have been so ‘heavily’ used that most OEMs are removing them from new phones.

If Continuum is a dead end street, where is the value in Windows 10 Mobile? Actually its in the interface, the look and feel and the user experience. Windows Phones have historically been famous for their ability to make even the most inadequate of hardware perform beautifully. Which is why low end Lumias have sold so well. Android just can’t compete and Apple doesn’t even try.

Microsoft’s value proposition and choice were paying dividends up until the point where the company changed track. Phones may not have been profitable, but as a latecomer to the market trying to build market share against entrenched incumbents that’s hardly surprising. The plan was starting to see success and then Microsoft killed it.

The new plan is to sell fewer models of more profitable phones. That can only work if the negative noise about Windows Mobile’s app gap disappears. That can only work if users are keen to upgrade from lower end Windows handsets and that can only work if Microsoft is seen to be unequivocally behind its mobile platform.

None of those are true at the moment and the window of opportunity to make them true – especially the last one – is closing fast.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Why Apple Isn’t Anything Like Facebook and Google

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Pop quiz: Who buys product from Facebook and Google? Your answer should be advertisers. Who buys Apple products? Overwhelmingly consumers.

Perhaps the biggest, most important point of difference between the three companies.

For Google and Facebook the big question isn’t where’s their next product coming from, it’s how they can ensure that they see the next market disruption before it arrives. It’s why Facebook repeatedly buys up and coming services that seem to have caught the zeitgeist; and Google is continually launching and researching new services and products. Because if someone comes along who’s doing a better job of attracting consumer eyeballs, advertisers will jump ship faster than you can say ‘so, whatever happened to Friends Reunited?’

Apple faces a very different challenge. Right now it has found itself a very profitable position at the head of the smartphone table. Its a position that Nokia and Blackberry occupied a decade ago. Until Apple came along with a product that was so radically better than what was on offer, and so difficult for their inertia driven organisations to compete with that it drove both to the brink of bankruptcy.

How about Microsoft. It wasn’t a major player in the phone market when the iPhone arrived. However it managed to completely miss the link between smartphones and its core business.

Ever since the iPhone arrived it has been obvious that it would become the most important device in a consumer or enterprise’s armoury. HTC even ran a phenomenally successful campaign based on the very idea: the phone that gets you. A culture of arrogance, blindness or perhaps the delusional belief that Microsoft would continue to carry all before it, meant that Microsoft failed to respond to the iPhone and also failed to realise what its success was going to do to the PC and Office software markets.

Microsoft was just so used to winning that it lacked the corporate will and direction to handle losing.

Apple is currently like a pre-2007 Microsoft. King of the Hill and riding high on profits and revenues that almost defy belief. And entirely at risk of being blind-sided by the next iPhone-sized big thing.

I don’t think that next big thing has arrived yet. It’s certainly not the smartwatch or the tablet. When it does turn up though, I fancy Apple’s response will be somewhat more robust than any of those major players managed nearly ten years ago.

HP Spectre 13 x360 (2016) Review

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When HP released the original Spectre x360 last year it did so to enormous praise. The machine was developed in association with Microsoft in order to show case Windows and prove that OEMs could deliver machines every bit as good as Apple. In that respect it was an enormous success.

In the subsequent year much has happened, there has been an explosion in the number of manufacturers building flexible laptops – either detachable or flip screens – and we’ve had the arrival of Windows 10, Intel’s new Skylake sixth generation processors and Microsoft have entered the market with the Surface Book.

In response HP delivered an updated Spectre x360, with new processors and a new 15” screened version. The option of QuadHD screens and a new copper accented Ash Silver model round out the major updates.

Here I’m looking at the 13” model, with the i5-6200U processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. The screen is a beautiful 1080p IPS display with excellent brightness and colour reproduction. The screen is a touch screen, supporting ten point multi-touch. It also has an active digitiser from Synaptics, which means true stylus support, with palm rejection and hovering support.

As before the Spectre is well connected for an Ultrabook. It packs three USB 3 ports – all with device charging support, HDMI and Mini Display Port for video out and a full size SD card slot support SDXC cards up to a theoretical 2TB.

The main body of the Spectre is milled from a single piece of aluminium and has some very nice design touches. I love the way the back edges of the screen and body are circular, a design forced by the hinge but a beautiful detail none the less. The hinges themselves are worthy of mention. These aren’t the clutch based hinges used by other laptop manufacturers. Instead there is an exquisite gearing mechanism inside them which ensures they work together in unison and also hold the screen in exactly the position it’s put into,  and it stays there whether you’re interacting with touch or stylus.

WP_20160526_16_56_30_Pro_LIThe keyboard was rightly praised when the original Spectre x360 launched and HP has done nothing to change that opinion. It’s a full size, island style setup, with excellent travel. There has been some criticism of the silver key / black legend design although I can’t see why. It’s a perfectly legible setup and in darkened rooms the backlight enhances that legibility. The backlight control is via the F5 key, which stays permanently lit, you can disable this if you choose, although that requires a trip into the BIOS.

There are three keys spread around the side of the Spectre. The power key and Windows key are on the left and right sides respectively with the latter joined by the volume rocker. This arrangement ensures you can still use the Spectre when in one of its touch friendly modes.

Powering up the Spectre is a lesson in how optimisation can deliver a great experience. Boot time is around ten seconds. Wake from sleep is all but instant. Once you start using the Spectre in anger you’ll find another example of the excellent controls that HP has built in to this machine. In this case the trackpad – another Synaptics offering.

It is by far the largest trackpad I’ve come across and it works brilliantly, supplanting Apple’s own trackpad as the best on the market today. Even though it doesn’t support Microsoft’s Precision drivers, Synaptics own drivers deliver an experience that matches or surpasses the Windows 10 standard in every way. This is a laptop which won’t require the use of an external mouse unlike almost all of its competition.

Windows 10 runs very well on this configuration of the Spectre. This really is a great showcase for how the platform should be presented. HP has been very restrained about what it adds to the machine. Only the MacAfee AV package is incongruous, although its easily removed. Otherwise there are HP tools for, amongst other things, creating restore media and a one year subscription to the iPass Wi-Fi service.

Then there’s battery life. HP claims 12.5 hours for this particular machine. I’ve yet to reach that mark, however I’ve been able to repeatedly get ten hours or more in normal, day to day use without having to make any compromises to longevity. This machine will get you through a working day comfortably.

WP_20160526_16_57_21_Pro_LILastly, to the stylus. HP doesn’t supply this with the Spectre, however it is available if you are looking for the full inking experience. It works very well, with the only oddity being the spring loaded tip which I suspect helps with pressure sensitivity. Palm rejection works well and writing in OneNote or in the handwriting input panel feels very paper like. I’m no artist but I found that I was able to produce passable drawings in both Fresh Paint and Sketchbook.

The stylus has a flat arc to its circular profile, so you can put it down confident that he can’t roll away. There are also magnets embedded so you can park it on the lid of your Spectre. It’s the one strange decision in the design, as the magnets aren’t strong enough to hold the stylus in place except when the Spectre is closed on your desk. A bit pointless really.

So to sum up this is a machine that proves what the new Hewlett Packard can do. Over the last year, and since the separation from HP Enterprise, the device company has produced one hit laptop after another, to the point where it has one of the most varied and capable range of premium machines available.

For me the Spectre x360 manages to outdo all of the competition, either matching the best, for example in  build quality, or outdoing them, for example the keyboard and trackpad.

If a flexible machine is what you’re in the market for I can highly recommend the Spectre x360 even against the Surface Book and MacBook Pro. That’s very high praise indeed.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Microsoft Surface Unsurprisingly Outsold iPad Pro In UK Enterprise Market

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Canalys is reporting that Microsoft’s Surface Pro outsold the iPad Pro in the UK Enterprise sector for Q1 2016. Sales figures of 275,000 and 107,000 respectively, put Microsoft’s tablet well ahead of Apple’s.

Are you surprised? It seems to me to be a hugely obvious piece of news, given that the iPad, despite Apple’s hubris, is still not a device that can replace your laptop nor deliver an enterprise class experience for user, business or technology teams.

Yes, you do see iPads in use in enterprise, but generally they are in addition to, not instead of a laptop. A significant number are BYOD units owned by the end user. For some use cases there is a valid reason to choose an iPad, but the day where it is a true enterprise class device has yet to come.

To be honest, I think Apple has more to celebrate by selling 107,000 iPad Pros to UK enterprise than Microsoft has in shipping 275,000 Surfaces. Still, even the smallest glimmer of good news is something Microsoft should be grabbing right now.

PayPal Kills Windows Phone App

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More proof, as if it were needed, that Microsoft’s ambivalent messages about Windows Mobile are dragging the platform to a slow, drawn out and very painful death. This time it is PayPal, who will be killing its Windows Phone app, with no news of a Windows 10 replacement in the offing.

Paypal directs its customers to the mobile website, which is actually a pretty good alternative, however this isn’t how it will be seen by potential customers. To them it’s just more evidence that Windows Mobile isn’t a valid option when compared to Android or iOS.

You can hardly blame PayPal though, with Lumia sales collapsing and Windows share of the mobile market completely dependent on Lumia (conservatively 95% of all Windows Mobile sales) they would be putting development effort into an app that virtually nobody will ever use.

Windows Mobile has got itself into a vicious circle. There’s a well publicised app gap, which prevents customers from adopting the platform, which discourages developers from creating new apps or maintaining existing ones, which reinforces the app gap and round we go again.

Things were starting to look up for a while, sales were up and market share – particularly in Europe and Latin America – was beginning to start getting serious.

That’s when Satya Nadella dropped the bomb on Windows Phone and things have been downhill since there. Microsoft created a self fulfilling prophecy. Now it’s planning for a future where third party OEMs carry the weight of developing new Windows Mobile hardware. That’s going to be a difficult sell as customers melt away.

At a time when Windows 10 Mobile is close to as good as the Windows platform has ever been, I’m more pessimistic than ever about its short term future, never mind what will happen in the long term.

Microsoft Sinks Another Billion Dollars Into Exiting Phones

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Following last week’s sale of the feature phone division that it acquired from Nokia, Microsoft has completed another stage in its journey away from being a phone manufacturer. Today it announced another 1,000+ redundancies in its Finnish business, and with it a write off of another billion dollars.

I don’t know how many more nails there are to put into this particular coffin, but Lumia as we know it, is dead. If Windows Mobile is not to suffer the same fate Microsoft are going to be reliant on its OEM partners .

Windows 10 Recommended Upgrade: Dirty Trick Or Helping Users

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When Microsoft does something right it rarely makes the headlines. When it gets things wrong it always does. No wonder the company has such a poor reputation amongst the general populace. That said, knowing this to be the case you’d think the powers that be within Microsoft would do more to prevent some of the PR own goals that from the outside look completely avoidable.

Case in point, the Windows 10 upgrade for owners of Windows 7 and 8.x machines. Users who haven’t already upgraded have grown used to seeing the prompt telling them that an upgrade is available and we’ve all seen the videos of that pop-up disrupting news broadcasts and game streaming sessions.

Until now it was easy enough to be rid of the update by simply dismissing the pop-up, however in the last week Microsoft changed the behaviour of the dialog box so that dismissing the pop-up accepted the upgrade.

Unsurprisingly there has been uproar.

The fact that the most popular story on the BBC today was the story of this change and the way that it tricks users into upgrading to Windows 10 when they don’t want to be upgraded.

The dialogue box itself does present an option to prevent the upgrade, it just doesn’t make itself very obvious.

Microsoft’s response to the fuss is that the imminent cessation of its free Windows 10 upgrade offer means that many customers risk missing out. Sounds reasonable until you realise how much effort Microsoft has put into making sure that every user of an older version of Windows knows that there’s a free upgrade available.

If someone hasn’t upgraded to Windows 10 by now, chances are they just don’t want it. By being underhand (or giving the appearance of being underhand, which is just as bad) Microsoft is doing itself no good at all.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Car Makers Aligning With Ride Hailing Services

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Showing an impressive awareness of the challenges that auto makers will face as technology has a bigger bearing on their industry, we’re seeing big names begin to embrace the future by partnering or investing with new technology and service providers in order to ensure they retain relevance.

In the last few weeks we heard that FCA had come to an agreement with Google and prior to that GM’s investment in Lyft.

Now we hear that both Toyota and VW have been getting busy with ride hailing services. Toyota with a large investment in Uber and VW with European service Gett.

Perhaps the lessons of the smartphone market have been learned and the incumbent leaders of the auto manufacturing market won’t get caught with their pants down like Nokia, Palm, Blackberry and Microsoft did.