Saturday, 25 June 2016

Is Microsoft's Hardware Retrenchment Going To Claim The Surface Line Next?


Microsoft has signaled the end for the Surface 3, informing prospective customers that manufacturing is coming to an end shortly. With no replacement in sight this would indicate that Microsoft is on its way out of the consumer hybrid hardware arena.

The Surface 3 is the third most popular Surface in existence, which is an impressive performance considering its high price against comparable entry-level or consumer devices. That many outlets have the device in constrained supply suggests that demand is not leveling off either. So surely that means a replacement is on its way? 

Not necessarily.

The Surface 3's Cherry Trail processor hasn't been updated since the Surface 3 came out, so there isn't a logical upgrade path. Microsoft could switch to a different processor family, but would be unlikely to be able to do so and retain its current price point. 

So why kill the Surface 3? Clearly there are a number of reasons why Microsoft may choose to do this. Firstly, its reason for getting into hardware was to deliver a quality Windows experience where OEM partners were failing to do so. The Surface 3 now has a wide range of very capable competitors, so this may be a sign of Microsoft making good on its promise to not compete with its partners.

Also Microsoft may have decided that, like it Lumia business, the non-Pro Surface is competing in a segment where Microsoft doesn't want to be. 

Or it may be a harbinger of Microsoft's exit from the PC hardware business completely, something that is consistent with the Nadella 'cloud first, mobile first' strategy.

Microsoft may be intending to be return to being the software business it always was. Unthinkable given the efforts Microsoft have made around Surface and Xbox, but consistent with the bloodbath that was once the Nokia mobile division.

Failure to replace the Surface 3 would be very suggestive of the next stage in the revolution at Microsoft.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Why Microsoft Was Wrong To Abandon The Smartphone Entry-Level

lumia520-03

Windows Phone was doing pretty well in some countries and in some smartphone market niches, in parts of Europe and South America it had overtaken iOS to be the second most popular platform behind Android. The growth was all about low-end and mid-range phones selling into markets where value for money and low-price were key differentiators.

Last year Satya Nadella decided that he didn’t want these customers any more and signalled a retrenchment that would see Microsoft all but abandon the manufacturing, design and sales capabilities it had acquired from Nokia and move in a new direction that relies on third-parties to deliver handsets, whilst Microsoft focuses on its platform.

Entry-level smartphones are a difficult market to manage. The profit margins available are razor thin and the ongoing cost of support and providing updates don’t add up to a sensible business proposition. Which is why Windows Phone did so well in this space.

Competing Android smartphones were generally pretty nasty, with low specs and lower performance, poor components and limited support; Windows Phones competing with them were. in the main, very good. Nokia had found the sweet spot where it was able to leverage its experience and close links with Microsoft to offer a much better phone and a much better ownership experience.

Now returns on investment in this area are low, but looked at as part of a wider picture these phones make plenty of sense for Microsoft.

Firstly, sales volume. Developers have avoided the Windows Phone platform because their opportunity to profit is restricted by the number of users on the platform. Growth of those numbers draws developers in, especially as competing app stores become so crowded and new apps harder to surface.

Secondly, entry-level users aren’t going to be entry-level users forever. Give them a great user experience, a device that performs above what its entry-level pricing would suggest and when it comes to upgrade time they’ll stick to what they know. Which means a more expensive, more profitable mid-range device.

When trying to break into an established duopoly these are the hard yards that need to be won. For all the bad press that Windows Phone received over the years there was no denying that once Microsoft and Nokia got together things were moving in the right direction. Just not very quickly.

In the year since Microsoft started to unwind its support for Windows Mobile what has happened? Sales have collapsed, with Windows Mobile users across the spectrum moving to Android. Has this happened because Android has got better? Emphatically not. The cheap handsets have proved to be as bad as ever, Google’s updates to users have been more delayed, and even promising new Android handsets at mid-range prices have proved to be disappointing as OEMs over promise and under deliver.

Short of a complete reversal of strategy – and its probably too late for that anyway – Microsoft has lost the smartphone game and with it the long term platform war. Windows 10 may be ‘everywhere’, but sales of PCs are falling, the Xbox is fighting a losing battle with Sony and Hololens has yet to demonstrate that it can provide a better reason for augmented reality than Google Glass did.

Without a strong mobile platform the market migrates to Chromebook and MacOS, driven by owners of Android and iPhones. particularly as the latter gains access to the Android app store and all the opportunities that provides.

For the want of a shoe the kingdom was lost. Right now Windows Phone looks like that missing shoe.

Brexit: Now The Fun Begins

london

Britain has decided, the EU gets the cold shoulder and the United Kingdom will forge its own future outside the union. I have no legal or financial insight into what happens next or how the will of the people gets enacted. Having left the country behind I shouldn’t really have an opinion one way or another. But I am an interested party, with financial and family commitments in the UK and young children who might now be denied the opportunity to live and work in Europe had that been in their future.

With the resignation of David Cameron, who shoulders the blame or shares the credit for the decision (depending on your viewpoint), the Conservative party needs to elect a new Prime Minister and a new cabinet that will take ownership of the exit negotiations.

That in itself will be a challenge.

Primary candidate is almost certainly going to be Boris Johnson. The former London mayor seems a most inappropriate person to lead the country at any time, never mind at such a pivotal one. And what of Nigel Farage, the man whose ambitions were realised so spectacularly last night? Will he not demand a position for the only UKIP MP in the new cabinet?

Aside from the negotiations around the mechanics of separation, there are the lives and livelihoods of the near five million people who either are either British and live in the rest of the EU, or are EU citizens plying their trade in the UK. Then there are the trade figures. 50% of UK trade (in each direction) is with the EU. Renegotiating trade agreements is going to require a steady and diplomatic hand on the wheel. So not Johnson. And especially not Farage.

The geographical split in voting may prove problematic too. Scotland and Northern Ireland were firmly in favour of staying in the EU and whilst the former may choose to leverage this into a second cessation referendum, the latter raises the possibility of messy, unpleasant and troublesome Irish re-unification demands. Never mind the loss of significant EU funding that has supported the Peace Process.

The UK’s exit from the EU has no precedent. In that respect the tales of woe and joy from those on either side of the argument should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Claims made by either side can be easily countered by claims from the other. Neither side of the argument has a crystal ball. What is important now is for politicians on both sides of the argument to accept that the people have spoken and that delivering a plan for this new future is what should occupy their efforts now.

There is no doubt that this outcome has been considered and planned for by all parties, and strategies have been formulated to ensure that the next couple of years do not end up being the crashing calamity that mismanagement could cause.

So whilst money markets and stock exchanges may veer all over the place in the next few weeks and months, it is the position two, five and ten years out that should be occupying our thoughts right now. Whatever the reasons, myths or lies that drove this decision, it has been made, and the real calamity would be to fail to make the best of the position the EU and the UK now find themselves in.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Microsoft And Opera Trade Blows On Browser Battery Usage, Google Trying To Ignore Issue

Any Windows user who takes a interest in the way their machine is performing will tell you the same thing: Google Chrome is a resource hog and your Windows PC works harder when it’s running. When your machine is a laptop that means churning away battery life.

Microsoft wanted to emphasise the effects of this particular Chrome problem  and also took the opportunity to take a potshot at Mozilla’s Firefox and Opera’s eponymous browser in the process. Hence the video above.

A fairly restricted test and no indications as to why this is a particularly valid comparison, but overall it hits its mark: Edge is the most battery efficient browser (on a Surface Book, streaming this particular video, YMMV).

Opera fired back, with its own test which showed that its new browser outlasted Edge (and Chrome, which was once more bottom of the pile).

All it requires now is for Mozilla to respond with its own video which also places Chrome at the bottom of the heap and we’ll have the full set.

Personally I’ve stopped using Chrome across the board – its particular poor behaviour on both Windows and Mac means I have dropped it into a class of software where its only peer is iTunes – and that’s a place no piece of software wants to be.

In the meantime, tests like this go very little of the way to telling us which is the most efficient browser and an awfully long way to telling us which should be avoided.

Opera Mini For Windows 10 Mobile

opera mini

Until now Microsoft’s Edge browser was the only option for Windows Mobile users and whilst its a big step over Internet Explorer for Windows Phone there are still some missing features that won’t be resolved until the anniversary update arrives for Windows 10.

Enter Opera Mini, almost unheralded. The new Windows 10 version of the mobile web browser integrates both Opera’s famous data saving technologies and an ad blocker – the things to have in the mobile market right now.

In use Opera turns out to be quite resource intensive. On my Lumia 640XL it ran at a crawl, proving to be all  but unusable. On the significantly more powerful Lumia 930 it was a little sluggish, but usable. Compared to the fluid performance of Edge on mobile though this is a definite downside. I did see a rise in operating temperatures of both phones when Opera Mini was running, suggesting it was working processors hard.

The usual Opera features are present – speed dial and a slick bookmarks interface, although for some reason there’s no option to connect your Opera user account so that these sync with other versions of the program you use.

Ad blocking works as advertised, no ads and no ad blocking detection either. Presumably a function of the way that Opera Mini assembles pages at Opera’s servers.

Data reduction is pretty impressive too, if you believe the figures the browser reports. During testing I saw a pretty regular 55-60% reduction in data transfers, which could be a real boon for users on limited or paid for data plans.

All in I’d say that Opera Mini is a good first run at a Windows 10 Mobile browser, but needs some optimisation. I’ll be keeping it on my phone for those times when I’m trying to eek the last few days of my data plan over the line.

Otherwise though, Edge remains the superior tool and I’d certainly be prepared to put up with ads in order to continue using it.

How Does The iPhone 5S Compete At Its New Budget Price?

iphone 5s

Apple has superseded the iPhone 5S on three separate occasions now, with the 6, 6S and now the SE. The older phone remains on sale though – and at a very attractive price. Kiwis can pick up the 16GB version for NZ$499 or the 32GB version for $599.

That’s not exactly a bargain basement price, but for a premium handset sporting Apple’s best industrial design, it’s quite an offer. By comparison the new SE sells for $749 – or a markup of around 70% and I’m not entirely sure it can back those numbers up.

The other interesting comparison is with the iPod Touch. The 32GB version sells for $449 and personally I’d happily trade 16GB of storage and $50 for the 4G radio and Touch ID.

I said at the launch of the iPhone SE that the smaller phone had made me realise what a bad turn Apple had made with the industrial design of the iPhone 6, nothing about the 5S is different in that respect. For the Apple only buyer, the 5S is something very much worth considering.

What about the smartphone world at large, for those potential customers who aren’t tied into one system or another? The Samsung Galaxy A3 can be had for around the same price and sports a bigger, brighter screen, expandable storage and better front and rear cameras. It also has a similarly premium build. Of course there’s the question of if and for how long Samsung will keep the A3 up to date.

Alternatively the Lumia 650 comes in at $150 less and sports most of the same advantages, although the limited availability of apps doesn’t really compensate for an upgrade path that should at least match the iPhone’s.

If you’re a Kiwi looking to spend around $500 on a smartphone one of these three phones probably looks like your best choice. Outside of its normal field of operations (the top of the premium market) Apple has never really been able to compete, but just at the moment the iPhone 5S is a mid-range phone that you could justify with bald facts or emotion.

Microsoft And Verizon Fix Lumia Icon Upgrade Faux Pas, Official Windows 10 Incoming

icon upgrade

One of the worst own goals Microsoft scored in the official release of Windows 10 Mobile as an upgrade for Windows Phone 8.1 devices was the Lumia Icon disaster. Despite clearly meeting the requirements to receive the upgrade the Icon was missing from the official list of supported devices.

That the virtually identical Lumia 930 did receive the upgrade did nothing to make the situation less vexing for Icon owners.

Verizon, for whom the Icon was an exclusive, was clearly the problem. So in the months since the release there has clearly been some behind the scenes manoeuvring and the outcome is that the Icon will indeed get the Windows 10 release after all.

Verizon has a web page detailing the update, so if you’re an Icon owner – who hasn’t trashed their device in frustration already – the good news is that you can get the upgrade by following the instructions here.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Is Samsung Planning For A Post-Smartphone World?

gs7

Samsung is the world’s number one smartphone manufacturer by volume and the world’s number two by profit, so when the company starts making moves that suggest it sees a change coming in the way that we buy phones, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

First of all an uncredited interview in the Korean Times, reported by Android Authority, suggests that Samsung is going to start backing away from the budget end of the market. That in itself is interesting. New competition from China has meant that Samsung has had to work disproportionately hard to keep its lower end handsets competitive. Even so, the growth of Huawei, ZTE and One+ along with a raft of less well known names, has created tough market conditions for Samsung.

Abandoning this low end market will improve Samsung’s profit margins, but the effect is likely to be a short-term panacea.

Recent phones from the same companies that have been making life difficult at the bottom end of the market, have shown that they can compete at the middle and even the premium end too. So whilst Samsung’s GS7 is far and away the best premium Android phone you can buy, the gap between it and the Huawei P9 is far smaller than the gap between the GS5 and the P6 ever was. And the GS5 was hardly a well received phone. For the GS8 and P10 those positions might actually be reversed.

This is where Samsung’s investment in new screen and memory fabs starts to make sense. Yes it will continue to build phones, and class leading premium ones at that. However now it will look to profit from component supply in order to make up for the revenue lost in handset sales.

The arrangement to sell AMOLED panels to Apple fits this plan perfectly. I’m sure that Apple would have loved to get Samsung’s panels into its flagship devices, there’s no question that they are the best available. The problem was twofold.

Firstly capacity, Samsung would not have had the capacity to manufacture its best panels in the volume that would support the Galaxy S and Note lines and provide for iPhone supply as well. Secondly, given that the iPhone and Galaxies were competing for the same customers, supplying Apple with panels would have been a self-harming move. And of course Apple would not have found second best palatable.

Now if Samsung is looking to a future where its smartphones are sold on the basis of premium features and a healthy profit it can be less concerned about competing with Apple and sell its best screens to Apple and rake in the profits there instead.

Where does this leave the rest of the market? It seems inevitable that Huawei is going to end up with the largest slice of the smartphone market, but like the PC and the tablet markets before, smartphones are inevitably going to hit the brick wall as global sales growth stalls.

In a market where iteration has replaced innovation, commoditisation of the smartphone and extended life cycles for the phones we do have, inevitably means that a smaller number of players can be accommodated. Cherry-picking profitable market segments and focussing on component supply seems to be a solid strategy.

In that aspect at least, the news coming out of Samsung makes perfect sense.

Microsoft Goes BOGOF On Lumia 950s Again


Kicking yourself that you didn't jump in on Microsoft's buy one get one free offer on the Lumia 950 and 950 XL earlier in the year? Well Microsoft has brought the offer back, for one week only and for US and Canadian buyers once more. 

It's a great offer for buyers, but suggests that Microsoft may be quite literally struggling to give its flagship device away, given the generosity of the offer it's hard to believe that stocks weren't wiped out in April. 

The other thing that is hard to believe is that the offer hasn't been extended to markets where Lumia has been selling well, like Europe and Central America. That would do a much better job of clearing down inventory and reward those customers who have been loyal to the platform. 

More evidence of Microsoft's overly North American focus? I would say so. 

Is That The Sound Of Windows 10 Mobile Missing The Boat?

hp x3

Microsoft came clean on its Tap to Pay solution for Windows 10 Mobile yesterday, there’s also evidence of a Handover-like service which will allow Windows 10 users to start a task on one device and finish it on another; and of course we already now that the Anniversary update will allow Windows 10 users to manage messages on their phones from the desktop.

We’re even starting to see the arrival of more and more Universal Apps and even apps converted from their iOS equivalents, reducing the app gap ever so slightly.

It’s all good, Microsoft finally realising that to realise the benefits of owning a mobile platform it needs to expend some effort to make that platform attractive to buyers rather than just enthusiasts.

However it all appears to be too little, too late.

Right now everything that Microsoft is bringing to the platform is available elsewhere. Where Nokia managed to build a niche (smartphone photography) that lead has been eroded.

There seems to be genuine excitement about the imminent release of the HP Elite X3, a 6” phablet that promises to become the platform’s range topper for the time being. There’s even a suggestion that a Surface Phone could make a success of things in the longer term.

The worry remains that Microsoft continues to equivocate on its commitment to Windows on phones. Understandably perhaps, it is bringing its new tools and services to iOS and Android first, because that’s where most users are. Sensible or not, that rather reinforces the message that Windows on phones is a platform without a future, because if Microsoft is unwilling to put in the hard yards building apps for its own platform first, how can it persuade others too.

And if Windows is the last platform to get new apps and services it means… well we already know what it means. Customers don’t buy and chasing volume at the lower end of the market becomes the only way out.

In a few weeks time we’ll start getting sales numbers for smartphones in Q2. I’m expecting them to make horrible reading for Windows Mobile. Just how horrible is the only thing that remains to be seen.