Windows 10Since taking over as Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella has remade the company. What was a PC giant is now a cloud and enterprise computing giant. And that has implications for Windows.

Microsoft’s latest financials underline the change. In the three months to December 2017 the company’s revenue was almost US$29 billion. Of that, what Microsoft calls Productivity and Business Processes was almost US$9 billion. Intelligent cloud made up almost US$8 billion.

The remainder, a little over US$12 billion, fell under the label of More personal computing. This unit includes Surface hardware, advertising and everything Xbox.

Given the gaming business brought in around US$4 billion, that means in round numbers, Windows accounts for only a quarter of today’s Microsoft.

That proportion is falling fast.

Windows stagnant as cloud, enterprise booms

Microsoft’s More personal computing business grew around one percent between the end of 2016 and the end of 2017. Intelligent cloud was up almost 15 percent. Productivity and Business Processes climbed 25 percent.

Draw a straight-line projection and Windows will be under 20 percent of Microsoft’s revenue by the end of this year. Within two to three years it will be less than 10 percent.

Microsoft’s accounting is hard to break down, but looks as if the operating system business is fading into the background.

Some parts of Windows have done more than fade. During the year Microsoft dropped Windows Phone. Then company admitted it failed to keep pace with iOS and Android.

You can’t dismiss the phone OS as a meaningless sideshow. Former CEO Steve Balmer spent close to US$10 billion on it. This figure includes the US$7.6 billion write-down of the Nokia acquisition.

Poor performance

It would be fair to say Microsoft’s Windows strategy hasn’t been right since Windows 7. Some less kind souls say it hasn’t been right since XP. That’s extreme, yet Windows 8 was clearly a flop.

Windows 10 stopped the immediate rot, but did nothing to recover Microsoft’s reputation with uncommitted users. It’s no accident that PC sales have stayed in free fall since 10 appeared. Nor is it an accident that Apple sales have climbed in that time. Likewise Chromebook sales rocketed.

Those users who can are bailing out.

Something else is going on. Writing at ZDNet Ed Bott says: “Microsoft’s steady retreat from consumer products is nearly complete.” Bott’s story looks at how Microsoft has shifted its focus from the consumer towards business.

What’s next to go?

Bott doesn’t say so, but you could read between the lines when looking at the financial numbers and conclude that Windows could be next. He writes about Microsoft: “…shifting resources to business units that are thriving: enterprise software and cloud services”.

Go back to the financials mentioned earlier: those thriving business units do not include Windows.

People who are heavily invested in Microsoft and its OS may argue otherwise, but if you use another operating system and make occasional visit back, there’s a feeling things are running down. Not a lot, but there is a sense Windows is past its prime.

There’s also a sense Microsoft no longer has a clear vision for its operating system. Or maybe any vision.

A year ago Microsoft introduced Windows 10 S. The company said it was a new edition. On paper it sounded good. 10 S boots faster, is more secure, offers better battery life and is more robust in the sense that its harder to corrupt files.

These positives are down to the fact that Windows 10 S is a cut-down, limited version of Windows 10.

10 S was a mess

Windows 10 S turned out to be a mess. Nobody outside Microsoft seemed to like it. Reviewers panned it. Consumers hated it. It is another shot-in-the-foot disaster on the scale of Windows 8.

At the time of the launch the idea was that users could pay US$50 to switch to Windows 10 Pro. Microsoft would pack 10 S with a new computer. Customers buying a new PC would then be hit up for an extra charge later to unlock all the features of the computer they purchased. Almost everyone would want to upgrade. At Redmond it looked like free money.

Let’s hope no-one at Microsoft wonders why Chromebook and MacBooks are selling so well.

Last week Microsoft backtracks on that madness. It said users can now upgrade to Windows 10 at no extra charge.

The10 S debacle tells us Microsoft no longer employs its best thinkers on its operating system software. It suggests Microsoft doesn’t really care about the product any longer. After all, it doesn’t make much money.

Microsoft has a huge cash cow. The software is still installed on most of the world’s traditional computers — although not the pocket computers people now use most often. There are ways it can and will continue to squeeze money out of its huge installed base.

Ring out the old, ring in the new

And yet you can’t help getting the impression Microsoft’s top brass are no longer interested. That’s the old world; a declining empire. Meanwhile there are exciting new opportunities to chase in the cloud and enterprise spaces.

One possible way out would be for Microsoft to hive off Windows into a seperate business and sell or otherwise demerge the operation. This worked for IBM’s PC business, although not for IBM. A similar approach also worked up to a point for HP.

More likely Microsoft will continue to manage down its Windows operation. Sooner or later even the most die-hard fans will realise they are neglected. Apple and Chromebooks loom. There’s an opportunity for Android or for a revival of desktop Linux.

We’ll soon be in a post-Windows world. It’s just that two-third of computer users don’t realise that yet.

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phone cameras

Every recent high-end phone launch has focused, sorry about that, on the device’s camera. Likewise, phone promotion or marketing always pushes cameras to the fore.

Samsung launched the Galaxy S9 in Auckland last month. The company invited journalists to an open plan restaurant. There, Samsung invited journalists to photograph the chef preparing food.

The menu included a dish with a viscous pour-on sauce. This was a clever way of highlighting the S9’s very slow motion video function. The results were impressive.

Samsung hired a video professional to take slow motion footage of bees entering a hive. Shown on a giant TV screen, the pictures were crystal clear and, at times, had stunning clarity.

When phone makers show journalists new devices, they devote at least half the time to cameras.

Apple and Huawei have the same emphasis on photography.

Phone makers with smaller budgets push camera features to the top of their press releases.

Camera talk

During technical presentations company insiders talk at great length about phone features. At least a third of allotted time is camera talk. You can come away with the impression that’s all they want to talk about.

Every phone maker mentioned so far and some others will tell you they have the best phone camera. In a limited sense most of them are right, although it depends on your terms of reference. No phone costing, say, $800 or more has a bad camera.

In the last year or so, every phone maker used the word ‘bokeh’ at least once in their launch presentation. It would not be hard to think up a cliché bingo card for phone launch attendees.

If this sounds like ‘me too’ market, well, it can be at times. Everyone seems to think a fashion parade is original.

Yet there are important difference. Each company’s best camera excels at something else. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 does well in low light and can do very slow motion video. Huawei’s Mate 10 is best for black and white photography.

Most phone makers can point at unique camera hardware features. They can all point at unique software.

The quality of still and moving pictures from high end phones is remarkable. If you know what you’re doing — we’ll come back to that point — you can achieve wonderful things. This is even more impressive when you consider how small the lenses are. Phone lenses are prone to finger smudges and camera shake is a given.

A point of difference

So why do phone makers put so much emphasis on cameras? An obvious reason is cameras differentiate what can otherwise be me-too products.

Telephony and connectivity are much the same on all phones including cheap ones. Screen resolution is higher than the human eye can perceive. Few high-end phones struggle with processing power. These days they all look alike.

While there is a huge and obvious software difference between Apple’s iPhone range and Android handsets, you couldn’t say the same for Android models. Phone makers add their own software skins to stock Android. In almost every case this detracts value, at least from the customer’s perspective.

This leaves cameras and camera software as a playground for creativity and innovation. Which, in turn, brings us to the second reason phone makers place so much emphasis on photography.

Phone hardware designs and specifications have stabilised. With the move to remove bezels, that is the borders around screens, there’s little left to tinker with. Samsung struggles deciding where to put its fingerprint scanner. Otherwise, physical phone design has reached a cul-de-sac, at least for now.

The Galaxy S9 looks so much like the S8. Samsung had to come up with a new case colour for people wanting to show off their new phone.

Room for improvement

Over the last few years phone makers found room for improvement in their camera hardware and software. It’s likely this will soon reach another dead end. The laws of physics mean there’s only so much you can do with a tiny lens and sensor array.

The last big innovation was the move to dual lens cameras. This hasn’t played out yet. Meanwhile, at least one phone maker, Huawei, is talking of a triple lens camera.

There’s a danger this could become like the disposable razor business. There, for a time, adding an extra blade gave the appearance of innovation to an otherwise evolved product. It could be like tail fins on 1950s American cars. In effect we’re talking innovation for the sake of having an innovation talking point.

Another danger is that customers are loosing interest in phone cameras. Or, more likely, customer interest in phone cameras is not in alignment with phone maker hype.

Take, again, the Samsung Galaxy S9 slow-motion video feature. As mentioned early, the results are impressive, but how many Galaxy S9 buyers will use it?

Or, more to the point, how many will continue to use it beyond playing around with it when they first get their phone?

You can ask the same question about many of the camera innovations phone makers promote. Is the beauty mode, which attempts to make people look better, anything more than passing fad. How many phone owners have taken more than a handful of bokeh shots with blurred backgrounds?

Are people buying cameras or phones?

Slow-motion video is nice-to-have, but it’s unlikely more than one phone buyer in 20 will use it often. Similar reasoning goes for all fancy high-end phone camera features.

The flip side of this logic is worth considering. High-end phones with fancy camera features sell at a considerable premium. You may pay NZ$500 extra to get that super camera in your hands. If you only use it a dozen or so times, that feature has cost you $40 a shot.

Skeptical readers might see the industry’s obsession with camera phones as a way of forcing up handset prices. It also repairs margins in a business where only Apple and Samsung make decent money.

Of course, you can use phone cameras for serious work. If you need to take pictures in your job, the extra cost can be a smart investment.

Yet, in general you can’t take pictures of the quality you’d get from a SLR or any decent camera with a much bigger lens and sensor array. Phone cameras are handy, we carry them with us all the time. And the quality is so good that at times it is hard to tell if an iPhone or a Canon took the shot.

Hard to use

One phone camera drawback is they are hard to use in a hurry. Sure, all the phone makers tell us how easy their products are to use. Even so, the software can be confusing.

Phone camera interfaces are often tiny and you need to hunt around to find controls. Almost everyone uses the default mode for every shot. What’s more, stabbing at controls on a phone screen is not the best way to steady your hand to take pictures. Adjusting and using a digital SLR is easy in comparison.

There is still some room for improvement with phone cameras. Among other things Huawei’s third lens could do the trick. There is scope for yet more innovation in the software and, yes, a better user interface.

No doubt other improvements are in the works. At best we may see one or two more cycles. In the meantime some phone makers are switching their marketing attention to what they call AI or artificial intelligence.

It’s questionable whether this is real AI in the sense that the software learns things from use. There’s also a big question over whether phone buyers give a toss for this approach. We’ll see.

End of the golden age

Phone makers face a far bigger problem than competition with each other. It appears phone sales have faltered and now may be about to end the same kind of fall that has plagued the PC sector.

People are hanging on to phone longer. Research companies like IDC and Gartner put this down to consumers not being so enchanted with new feature that they feel a need to upgrade.

Given the marketing emphasis phone makers put on cameras, that can be evidence they are out of sync with what customers want. Whatever that is, it’s unlikely to be a way of taking better photographs or videos.

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NZ phone shipments forecast 2018

IDC says New Zealand phone shipments dropped 14.5 percent in unit terms during 2017. This is the first year-on-year decline reported in this country. A total of 1.60 million phones shipped in 2017 compared with 1.87 million in 2016.

A phone shipment is not the same as a sale. Shipments count the number of phones sent from manufacturers’ warehouses to retail warehouse. Not all shipped phones are sold. To a degree shipments is a measure of the demand anticipated by phone makers and sellers.

Nevertheless, the fall in anticipated demand is substantial.

Chayse Gorton, IDC NZ market analyst says there are three reasons for the fall: market saturation, changing sales strategies and new features not persuading people to upgrade old phones.

All three are valid, but they are not equal.

Shipments down on saturation

On saturation, IDC says 79 percent of consumers owned a smartphone in 2017. This leaves only a few users hanging on to dumb phones – or feature phones in the industry’s jargon.

Even that number seems too high, you rarely see anything other than smart phones in the wild. I suspect there’s a counting problem with older phones being recycled through families and friends that doesn’t capture everything. It’s possible the carriers would know the approximate number of older, dumb phones on their networks because some are not able to connect to 4G.

Meanwhile phone companies spent 2017 focusing on profitability. In earlier years they were happy to shoot for high volumes and hope everything would be all right later. This change mean the average price of phones from the market leaders: Samsung and Apple, increased 14 percent in the year.

This is reflected in IDC’s graph which shows the value of the market flat or even climbing while numbers fall. Rising phone prices isn’t necessarily a form of inflation as more expensive phones offer more capability.

Little reason to upgrade

IDC doesn’t emphasis the point, but it seems the biggest reason for the drop in shipments is that users have little incentive to upgrade. If you look after a phone, it should work fine for three or four years.

There were no compelling new phone features in 2017. IDC says people only upgrade when they see a significant benefit from doing so. This point was underlined at Samsung’s Galaxy S9 launch earlier this week. The new phone resembles the S8, it has upgraded features including a slow-motion video mode, but that’s not enough to tempt the average user to bin or hand down, say, their S8 and spend $1400 plus.

Meanwhile rival research company Gartner reports international smartphone sales recorded their first ever decline in 2017.

Shipments tumble as NZ phone upgrades slow was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

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Oppo R11sOppo released the R11s, a low-cost Android phone about three months after Apple’s iPhone X emerged. On the surface, the R11s resembles the iPhone X., so that’s quite an achievement.

There’s no question what inspired Oppo’s engineers. The R11s has a similar physical design and a software overlay that makes Android look like Apple’s iOS. It’s not a knock-off, it’s more a homage to Apple.

There are many differences between the R11s and the iPhone X, but the one that matters most is the price. The R11s sells in New Zealand for NZ$800. That’s less than half the $1800 starting price for Apple’s phone. It also half the price of Samsung’s Galaxy S9+ which, once you get past the surface, is more like Oppo’s phone.

While the R11s is great value, its performance and user experience do not match what you’ll find on the more expensive phones from Apple, Samsung or Huawei. Oppo made a number of compromises to keep costs down.

What you make of the price-performance trade-offs are a matter of personal taste and needs. If brand matters to you, don’t buy an Oppo. If you’ve invested in Apple products and services, don’t buy it. If you think Samsung’s Bixby button is cool, don’t buy an Oppo.

Everyone else should at least consider the R11s.

R11s hardware

The R11s looks good, but so does almost every other modern handset. In fact, it looks a lot like almost every other modern handset. At more than a metre or two’s distance, an untrained eye would struggle to tell them apart.

Oppo opted for a wafer-thin design. Like today’s top phones the front is almost all-screen. There are no buttons on the front. Although the back is metal, the phone feels lighter than rival high-end models. It feels cheaper when you first hold it in the hand.

This impression is strengthened when you feel the point where the screen meets the case. On the best high-end phones the two surfaces merge smoothly into each other. On the R11s there’s a noticeable, distracting and slightly unnerving ridge. This is important if you spend a lot of time with your phone in one hand.

The Samsung Galaxy S9 has a similar ridge, but it’s not as pronounced. You wouldn’t cut yourself on either, but there more sharpness about the Oppo R11s.

Display

Oppo uses a 6-inch ultra-wide 18:9 OLED display. The ratio means the screen is longer and thinner than we are generally used to. It’s not to my taste, but this isn’t about me.

The 18:9 screen ratio means the phone can show higher resolution video. This works remarkably well.

Although the display is remarkable for an $800 phone, it doesn’t look as good as the display on the Samsung S9 or iPhone X. It manages to deliver on brightness, but colours are not as vibrant.

In practice this is only really clear when you compare two phones. You’d probably notice the difference if you moved from one of these phones to the Oppo, but that not going to happen often. For most people moving from an older Android handset, the Oppo will be a step up.

There’s a micro-USB port. That was the standard, but other phone makers are now moving towards using the Type-C port. This might bother some people, but again it’s only likely to grate if you come to the R11s from a more expensive modern phone. For just about everyone upgrading from an older handset, this would be business as usual and unremarkable.

Inside

We could talk about the phone’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor and 4GB of Ram. But in the real world these specifications border on meaningless. What you need to know is the R11s has enough power to do most things normal people ask of phones. The R11s boots fast and is snappy most of the time. Standard apps don’t slow it down.

It also has enough working memory. If you’re the kind of person who pushes phones harder, then it may not be enough, but, them, you probably won’t be considering the R11s anyway. The phone comes with 64Gb of storage. If that’s not enough you can more with a MicroSD card.

Oppo includes a 3200mAh battery. In practice you should get a couple of days light use from the phone between recharges. Even if you hammer it, there is enough to get you from an early morning start until mid-evening.

There is no NFC. While this could be a deal breaker for some people, in reality it is rarely used even when it is built-in. You’ll have to make your own decision about the importance of this.

Camera

Like every other phone maker, much of Oppo’s marketing effort has gone into telling potential buyers about the camera. It’s a solid camera,better than you’d expect in an NZ$800 phone. In technical terms there are cameras. One is 20MP, the other is 16MP.

There’s also a large dual f/1.7 aperture to let more light hit the sensors. You get crisp images and bright colours. Of course you do. It’s hard to find a high-profile phone that doesn’t manage that. That said, the camera is a long way behind what you’ll find in a Samsung Galaxy S9 or an iPhone 9 or X.

Oppo has included photo software that helps users get better quality shots. There’s also a ‘beauty’ mode, which looks weird to some western eyes but may go down well in Asian markets.

Niggles and verdict

As with any non-Google Android phone, the Oppo R11s is let down by the included software. For the most part, ColorOS skin does not add value. Although, to be fair, nor does it detract much. It’s no worse than other Android skins. ColorOS has a superficial resemblance to iOS, but anyone coming from Apple will be mystified by the way it works at times.

If the comments above read like less than fulsome praise, that’s because here we have compared the Oppo R11s with phones that cost twice as much. Take price into account and the story is quite different.

The R11s beats any rival at the same price by a country mile. It gives you most of what you’d get from an expensive phone. Nothing important is missing. Yet it leaves you with a sizeable amount of money in your pocket. Oppo has been here before. Most non-iphone people reading this should put it on their shortlist.

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Apple iPad Pro 2015
Apple iPad Pro

CEO Satya Nadella has turned Microsoft around. It is relevant again. Things didn’t look that way when he took over the company. His switch of focus to the cloud was timely and has been a huge success. Much of what he says and does is sensible.

Much, but not everything.

In November, Nadella made a playful, off-the-cuff remark about an Apple iPad not being a proper computer. The comment should not be taken too seriously. But as Sahil Mohan Gupta notes at Tech Radar, Nadella’s words speaks volume about where Microsoft is heading and how it views computing.

Real computers

No doubt Nadella thinks all computers made by Microsoft are real computers. Even if some of those computers share a lot with the iPad Pro. Microsoft’s Surface models have many good points. They also have well documented flaws and angry customers. Making too much of a comparison with iPads could backfire on Microsoft.

Nadella’s comments got me thinking about the iPad, especially the large 12.9-inch iPad Pro. I use one now as my main mobile computer.

As far as I’m concerned it is a proper computer. It seems the best computer for a technology writer on the move, although others may not agree with me. Apart from anything else I find writing long documents on the iPad Pro is at least as easy as working on a Mac. There’s something about iOS 11 that helps me focus more on the job in front of me.

iPad Pro ready for serious work

A year ago the iPad Pro was not ready for serious use. The software didn’t handle files outside of application silos. Moving text from, say, a word processor to a text processor or a web-based app was simple enough. But opening a document in a different app was often tricky.

Dealing with attachments that arrived through mail was just as hard. There were basic things the iPad could not do. My router needed a firmware update. The new software arrived as a zip file, needs unpacking and uploading. The old version of iOS couldn’t handle that. The new iOS 11 makes it all possible.

While there are still times I need to reach for the MacBook, those ‘need’ times are fewer and fewer. It’s already a real computer.

There is a Windows computer that is mainly used for games, for running digital audio workshop software and for testing Windows apps. Increasingly Windows looks old-fashioned and iOS looks like the future.

This isn’t everyone’s view, many people reading this will scoff at the idea.

Yet despite Nadella’s comments, Microsoft takes the iPad seriously enough to make sure its key productivity apps and OneDrive all work on the iOS hardware and stay bang-up-to-date. I’d argue that Word is better on the iPad Pro than on a Mac and possibly even better than on Windows. What could be more serious than that?

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