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.

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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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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blogger

You have to hand it to Nuance. The latest Dragon Professional voice recognition software is impressive. So is its business model.

Dragon’s software is expensive by today’s standards. A single user licence for Dragon Professional version 6 costs US$300. You can buy a PC for less.

Keep in mind both Apple and Microsoft include voice recognition software as part of their operating systems. Neither application is free, but they are already paid for. So, in effect, Dragon is, asking people to pay again for something they already have.

That puts the business’s livelihood on the line. To make it work, Dragon has to offer something special. It does that. Dragon Professional version 6 performs far better than the alternatives from Apple and Microsoft. It uses something called deep learning to improve accuracy.

Dragon Professional more accurate than alternatives

Dragon claims this means the software has 99 percent recognition accuracy. There’s no easy way to verify the claim, but in testing the software does a near perfect job of turning spoken words into computer text.

What the numbers don’t tell you is that even a small improvement in voice recognition accuracy means a vast improvement in the experience. The difference between going back and correcting every tenth word, 90 percent accuracy, and every hundredth word, 99 percent accuracy is huge.

You can improve performance by training the software. If you’re committed to using Dragon, then investing some time makes sense. Yet in practice the software works so well out of the box you might decide to just get on with it.

It seems the software does some form of training when in use. Every so often there’s a message to say Dragon is updating your profile.

Integrated app

Dragon Professional isn’t a stand-alone application. It is integrated into the operating system. It works with other apps. Apple Pages and Microsoft Word are the obvious candidates, but any program using text input should work.

It works with almost every Mac app that uses keyboard input. In theory you can control less word-oriented apps such as image editors, but that doesn’t make practical sense. Having said that, Dragon Professional is excellent at performance everyday MacOS commands. It would be an ideal tool if you had access problems with your hands.

A small icon appears in the Mac’s menu bar, in much the same way as other system level apps. When the software is in use a small floating window opens on the screen with three more icons. There’s also a guidance window with help when you need it.

For most of the time the second window keeps out of the way. The main one is small enough to not be a distraction. The microphone icon shows green when it is on and red when it off, otherwise there’s not much to see.

If you like using the cursor you can switch between Dictation, Command, Spelling and Numbers mode using the main floating window.

There’s a transcription mode which allows you to turn audio files into text. It’s a lot more hit and miss than the normal dictation software. It manages to cope with a few minutes of audio where there is only one speaker, but chokes if you attempt to transcribe, say, an interview with two people talking.

A personal productivity note

While the technology in Dragon’s latest voice recognition software is impressive, it’s not for me. After forty years of touch typing, I write with my fingertips. Any attempt to compose faultless prose using my voice ends in an embarrassing mess.

That’s not to say I don’t make typing errors. Anyone who has read my tweets can see that. Yet the flow of my writing is so much better when I hit keys than when I speak. No doubt that would change if I spent thousands of hours improving my technique. Simple economics says I’m better off sticking with what I know.

Take this blog post as Illustrating how this works. I started out trying to use the Dragon Professional software to write the post.

It was a disaster. Although professional scribes are taught to ‘write like you talk’, that advice is not meant to be taken literally. When I gave up on voice recognition, I hit the ground running and finished the post in minutes.

There’s another problem that may affect some readers. I feel self-conscious and uncomfortable when dictating to a machine. There’s nothing worse than knowing people can hear you as you compose a story. That’s not an issue when I type.

While we are on the personal stuff I should mention another major plus for Dragon. Most voice recognition tools struggle with my accent. It’s a hybrid British-antipodean thing.

UK voice recognition settings don’t work for me. Nor do New Zealand ones. Oddly, Australian settings get me the best result on Apple equipment. Nothing seems to cope with my voice on Microsoft systems. Dragon Professional worked out of the box even though the settings are hard-wired to New Zealand.

Verdict

All the above leaves me in an odd position. I’m about to recommend a product that I wouldn’t normally use myself. So let’s run through the main points again. Dragon Professional version 6 does an excellent job of turning spoken words into text. The software is accurate and reliable. It also provides a great way to control a Mac when you can’t or don’t want to use hands.

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macbook pro keyboard

Marco Arment has a number of suggestions for Apple in Fixing the MacBook Pro. Arment’s post runs down a list of the things that are wrong with the 2016 MacBook Pros and offers suggestions for putting them right. It covers four areas, but the main one and the problem that bothers me personally is the new MacBook Pro keyboard.

Arment writes:

Butterfly key switches are a design failure that should be abandoned. They’ve been controversial, fatally unreliable, and expensive to repair since their introduction on the first 12” MacBook in early 2015. Their flaws were evident immediately, yet Apple brought them to the entire MacBook Pro lineup in late 2016.

The decision to use the butterfly key switch keyboard looked odd at the time. One reason people thought earlier MacBook Pro models were among the best-ever laptops was the solid keyboards. They were great. Dropping the earlier design looked and felt like a mistake at the time. Yet, as Arment points out, things only got worse when it emerged they were unreliable and required an expensive, fix.

He says:

After three significant revisions, Apple’s butterfly key switches remain as controversial and unreliable as ever. At best, they’re a compromise acceptable only on the ultra-thin 12” MacBook, and only if nothing else fits. They have no place in Apple’s mainstream or pro computers.

Maybe not. But here’s the strangest thing. I have a 12.9 inch iPad Pro with the Apple Smart Keyboard. It is great to type on. Yet it uses the same basic butterfly key switch.

I’m a touch typist and hammer keyboards because I learnt to type on manual typewriters. The Smart Keyboard may not be perfect, no portable keyboard is, but it is a far better experience than typing on a new MacBook or MacBook Pro.

When I wrote about the MacBook Pro keyboard before, I found it acceptable, but clearly preferred the keyboard on the Air.

Few options beyond MacBook Pro

My ageing MacBook Air is coming up for replacement. After looking at the MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards and deciding they are not for me, I’m thinking about the options for my next portable computer. At this stage the shortlist is go with the iPad Pro and get a desktop iMac for home, buy a new MacBook Air or wait until there’s a refurbished older Retina MacBook Pro in the local Apple Store.

While buying a refurbished machine is good for the planet, it doesn’t seem right. A new MacBook Air would be a productive choice. Yet I prefer Retina displays. The MacBook Air specification is old-fashioned by late 2017 standards.

Which means the most likely choice will be the iPad Pro and iMac. That’s remarkable as it means for the first time in years there isn’t a MacBook model that meets my needs. All because Apple doesn’t offer one with a decent keyboard.

Back to Arment:

The MacBook Pro must return to scissor key switches. If Apple only changes one thing about the next MacBook Pro, it should be this.

It needs to do this soon to get my business. I’m probably not alone. And yet it’s unlikely Apple will move because it seems the new MacBook Pros have been selling better than expected. If the market has spoken, whatever it said was not: “fix the MacBook Pro keyboard”.