Bill Bennett

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How Google can seize Microsoft Office crown

As Microsoft refocuses to chase enterprise cloud opportunities, Google has an opportunity to lead the productivity software market. It has taken a decade, but now G-Suite can challenge Office.


Almost every office worker of my generation spent years working with Microsoft software.

For a while Windows was, in effect, a monopoly. Any other operating system was, in number terms, a freak show.

While Windows was the star of the show, it gave Microsoft leverage elsewhere. The most obvious example was with Office. Almost everyone used it. Most people had no choice.

Even people who chose a Mac over a Windows PC were more likely to use Office than Apple’s iWork.

Windows, Office everywhere you look

In the media companies where I worked, Office was the only option for over a generation. Today editors, publishers and designers still expect to receive Word documents.

Send them something else and they think you’re weird.

Or they don’t understand. Some get angry. Others make a private promise never to commission work from such an infidel again. Not using Word was a poor career move. It can still be.

When I use a non-Microsoft writing tool, nine times out of ten I still send the finished document in a Word format.

This keeps everyone happy. It keeps me in work. This is no exaggeration.

It doesn’t matter that often a plain text file might be a better option for everyone concerned.

Edit, review in Word

This works in reverse. People send me Word documents. They may need reviewing or editing. This has to be done in Word. The application borders on compulsory.

Sure, some alternative products can handle reviewing and editing functions as well as Word. At least they can most of the time. However, in practice the process is not always smooth or straightforward.

Which means, like it or not, it makes economic sense to pay the $160 or so each year for an Office subscription. It’s a bargain even if the software sits idle on the hard drive.

There’s an instant return on that investment the first time a piece of work arrives that you can only fix in Office. This is something that might happen a handful of times a year. It always happens sooner or later.

Apart from anything else, dealing with incomptabiliti takes time. For many of us time is money.

A $165 Office subscription is cheaper than spending half a day dealing with file formats.

The end of the Office era?

Windows, Office and Word are all still dominant. It may not stay that way much longer.

Before we go any further. Let’s deal with LibreOffice. This is an open source alternative to Microsoft Office.

While LibreOffice has its charms, it is Office for people who don’t like giving money to Microsoft. The user experience is similar. So is the workflow.

Your productivity is unlikely to change if you switch from one to the other. That is not the case with moving from Office to Google Docs.

Generation Docs

Many younger journalists and communications people prefer Google Docs. While I’m uneasy about privacy and security with Google, that’ not how other people see things.

I’ve worked for publications and editorial services where Docs is the tool of choice. Its collaboration features are great. Google Docs is easy to use.

It has flaws. Yet, flaws, privacy and security questions aside, Google Docs is better for journalists than Word.

That’s because it’s simple and pared back. Many of the heavy-duty features in Word are for lawyers or other specialist users. Most of us never fire up three-quarters of the program’s code.

The privacy and security questions about Google Docs are big ones. Especially in the light of recent revelations about how big technology companies snoop on customers.

Google can trawl through your Google Docs documents. It can collect data to help its customers target you with advertising. It can learn things about you. By now you should have figured out that with online services sometimes free can be too high a price.

Still, Google Docs does everything a journalist or communications professional might need.

Docs is good enough for most folk

In other words, Google Docs is at least a good enough alternative to Word. For many, if not all people, it is better.

There are reasons why it has yet to conquer Word. We’ve already looked at privacy and security. There’s also the question of inertia.

People might not love Word, but they are comfortable with it. The software took us a long time to master. A lot of people aren’t happy with discarding such an investment in time and effort. Of course this is an internal version of the sunk cost fallacy.

It’s easy to think about our personal productivity when we get to make our technology choices. Not everyone has that freedom. In large corporations Microsoft continues to hold a huge market share. Corporate IT departments tend to be comfortable with the devil they know.

And anyway, the security and privacy issues that worry individual users loom larger. Google Docs is often treated with suspicion by streetsmart IT professionals.

Exteral disruption

An external event could change the move from Word to Google Docs to switch from a trickle to a flood. One may be on the way.

Twenty years ago Windows accounted for about 19 in 20 personal computers. Today it is around four out of five and falling. Apple’s MacOS is now at about 12.5 percent of the market. Google’s Chrome OS is on the rise.

Computing is no longer restricted to personal computers. If we add tablets and phones to the mix, then Windows’ share has plummeted compared with its golden age in the 1990s. It may be around a third of the total today. Its share of new device sales is closer to 10 percent. So its influence is only going to drop.

Let’s not labour this point too much. After all phones are not great for writing tasks. The key here is that Windows no longer dominates. That, in turn, means the writing is on the wall for Office. It’s going to be less important in the future.

Windows and Office are under threat from two directions. In both cases the biggest threat is from Google.

Chromebook looms

At the low end, Google’s Chromebook hardware is winning hearts and minds in schools. For now this is more true in the USA than in places like New Zealand. It’s a real trend there.

Few young American students have ever seen Windows or Office. They use Chromebook, Android or iOS. In most cases they work with Google’s G-Suite, now the preferred name for Google Apps.

When those students graduate and start work they are going to take that experience with them. Where they have a choice they’ll pick G-Suite because that’s what they know best.

Many will find Office to be clunky, restrictive and old-fashioned. They will puzzle over the clumsy collaboration tools — clumsy compared to G-Suite.

More Chromebooks coming

There are reports that PC makers are looking at extending their Chromebook ranges. Microsoft’s move into own-brand hardware makes any decision here easier.

The word from the US is that by the end of the year the big PC brands will offer business-oriented Chromebooks. They’ll be cheaper than Windows PCs. Chromebooks have a lower total cost of ownership. What’s more bypass the infrastructure corporations need to make Windows and Office work.

This is happening at a time when Microsoft is in transition. The company has gone from being The PC Company, to a cloud and enterprise computing business. Windows is no longer central.

Office licence revenue remains strong. Yet defending this may soon be a distraction from Microsoft’s new corporate mission. The company seems to have lost interest in Windows or, at least, pushed it down the pecking order.

This leaves a vacuum. Apple isn’t going to fill the gap. It has its own mission, the brand will remain a niche up-market option. Google has its eyes on the bulk of the market.

None of this will happen overnight. Most likely we’ll see Google gain market share at Microsoft’s expense for a while. Then something else happens to change the dynamic. A possibility is for Microsoft to spin-off what, by then, will be the non-core business.

Either way, Windows’ dominance is over. Google has an opportunity to win customers.

European regulator wants to rein in tech

Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, says the government has to move fast to ensure that tech does not subvert society. Presumably, she means the European government.

“…as it becomes clearer how those companies were used to manipulate the 2016 U.S. elections, Vestager feels validated in her distrust of Silicon Valley’s power…”

The quotes come from a podcast interview. It shows Europe, or at least Europe’s competition regulator, is moving in a different direction to the USA and Asia. On the surface at least, these regions seem more comfortable with power being concentrated in fewer hands.

European market

“We want a free market, but we know that the paradox of a ‘free’ market is that sometimes you have to intervene. You have to make sure it’s not the law of the jungle, but the laws of democracy that works.”

Vestager said her commission will continue to focus on preventing large tech incumbents like Google from stifling competition from startups. She also has misgivings about the secrecy surrounding the algorithms that power much of the internet.

“I think some of these algorithms, they’ll have to go to law school before they’re let out. You cannot just say, ‘What happens in the black box stays in the black box.’ You have to teach your algorithm what it can do and what it cannot do, because otherwise there is a risk that the algorithms will learn the tricks of the old cartels.”

While it is easy to identify problems caused by tech companies, fixing them looks harder. Regulating for greater competition is a start, so is transparency, yet, for now, the tech giants have momentum.

Source: Europe’s chief regulator Margrethe Vestager on reining in tech: ‘This is the biggest wake-up call we’ve ever had’ – Recode

The case for RSS — MacSparky

For several years now, the trend among geeks has been to abandon the RSS format. RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a way to queue up and serve content from the internet.

Source: The Case for RSS — MacSparky

Geeks might not like RSS, but it’s an essential tool if you monitor news or need to stay up to date with developments in a subject area.

An RSS feed is a way of listing online material. There’s a feed for this site if you’re interested. It sends out a short headline and an extract for each new post. That way you can stay up to date with everything published here without needing to constantly revisit the site to check for updates.

Separate feeds

Some big sites break up their news rivers into separate feeds. At the New York Times or The Guardian you can choose to read the technology news feed. At ZDNet you can pick subject feeds or selected a feed for an individual journalist.

Sometimes you can also roll your own niche feeds from big sites by using a search term to get a list of all stories including a certain key word.

The beauty of RSS is that it is comprehensive. It misses nothing. If you go offline for a week you can pick up where you left off and catch up immediately.

RSS is comprehensive

The alternatives are social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. They are nothing like as comprehensive or as easy to manage. Tweets go flying past in a blur on Twitter.

All the main social media sites manage your feed. They decide what you see. This means you can miss important posts as they get pushed out of sight. That doesn’t happen with RSS.

In his story David Sparks says you need to be on Twitter all the time to catch news. Make that: you need to be on Twitter all the time AND staying more alert than most people can manage.

Universal feed

The other great thing about RSS is the format is so universal. It can be as simple as raw text. You can read it on your phone, tablet, computer or anywhere at any time. You can suck it out and place it on your own web site, for instance.

There are RSS readers built into browsers, mail clients like Outlook and other standard software. Or at least there were. I haven’t checked again lately. Feedly is one of the most popular readers. This is both a website and a series of free apps. You can pay a little extra to extra features such as an ability to search feeds, tools for integrating feeds into your workflows and so on.

Google opens door to New Zealand smart home

Nest, the smart thermostat maker Google acquired in 2014, is the world’s best-known home automation brand. The company is now selling its smart home products and services in New Zealand.

Smart home technology has been slow to take off around the world. It gets the attention from technology fetishists, but, despite years of hype and marketing, has yet to break into the mainstream. It remains a tiny niche.

Take Nest’s thermostats. They look good. They get rave reviews in technology publications. Users swear they can save hundreds on their power bills with them. Yet Google only sold 1.3 million in 2015.

To put things in perspective, Apple sold 6 million Watches in three months during the same year.

Nest performances disappointing

Some analysts report Google is disappointed with Nest’s performance to date. It looks a long way from recovering the US$3.2 billion it paid for Nest and the US$550 million it paid for Dropcam, which makes home security cameras. The two brands have since been merged.

That doesn’t mean Google’s investment will never pay off. Nest sits alongside Google’s Speaker and Chromecast.

All are part of a “connected home” strategy. The idea is that you can speak to tell Google to turn up the heat and get the devices to display your camera’s security images on your TV via Chromecast. On a good day, it all works.

Smart home still immature

Home automation is still in its infancy. About one in 20 US homes have one or more smart home components. Hardly any have a full suite.

The numbers will be far lower in New Zealand. Apart from anything else, few New Zealand homes have the kind of central heating system that can make full use of a Nest controller.

What’s more the Unisys Security Index shows we’re wary of the Internet of Things. There’s a huge potential for the Internet of Things to make smart home devices even smarter, but for now that’s not happening fast enough.

While companies are quick to embrace the IoT technology that uses sensors, communications, computing and automation to save money or speed processes, doing the same things at home feels like playing with toys.

Your idea of fun?

Make no mistake, home automation vendors are on to this, they often talk about their products being ‘fun’ or use similar language. They also like to use fear to sell. The curious press release from Google about Nest’s New Zealand launch is full of words like ‘worry’, ‘stolen’ and ‘safe’.

Not that there’s anything wrong with home security, but Google lays it on thick.

Nest gets around two of the biggest objections to home automation. First, most smart home products are too expensive to take seriously. Who in their right mind would spend more on an intelligent fridge than a new car?

There are three Nest cameras. With prices between $360 and $550 they are not cheap, you can buy cameras for a tenth of that. Likewise the $220 smoke alarm. You can buy an unconnected one in Mitre 10 for about $10. Yet, these are small investments to get started with home automation.

The second object is that home automation technology is too hard to use or install and the parts don’t tend to work well with each other. Nest gets around this.

Simple, needs to be simpler

When Google wraps the technology in with its Speaker and Chromecast things will be even simpler. Where this leaves households with Amazon or Apple technology is another question.

Perhaps a more pressing question is what are the consequences of huge technology giants like Google owning the home automation market? There will be privacy concerns and the problems associated with technology lock-in, switching from a Google smart home to, say, an Amazon one would be difficult.

Another issue is where is the business model here? Google didn’t spend the thick end of half a trillion dollars to flog home gadgets. It wants more back from Nest than hardware sales. How will that work for the company and, more to the point, how will that business model work for you?

Duck Duck Go versus Google juggernaut

Unlike other search engines, Duck Duck Go doesn’t track your searches. You’ll see advertising based on your search terms, but they don’t relate back to earlier searches. Nor are they based on your recent web activity elsewhere.

This is a different business model to Google which attempts to build profiles based on your activity. Google doesn’t just track your searches; its tentacles are everywhere. By some estimates three-quarters of all websites report your habits back to Google.

Stalker

This explains why some advertisements stalk you as you navigate the web. It can be surreal.

While a lot of people don’t care about privacy in this way, others are concerned.

The vast amounts of data Google collects are enough to identify an individual. Thanks to the ability to read most emails, Google knows where you live, what you do and can make assumptions about how much money you earn, what you spend and who you vote for.

Google reckons

Away from privacy, this approach has another advantage. Because Google thinks it knows about you and what you want, it uses your profile to send customised search results your way.

This can be useful. It can also be a problem. It means Google searches are not neutral. If two people search for a certain term, the may not both get the same answers.

This isn’t always helpful. You might want the best quality information, not what Google think’s you’d like to see. There’s no way of knowing that Google’s filters give you the best. With Duck Duck Go everyone would see the same result.

Duck Duck Go tricks

The search engine has a couple of help tricks up its sleeve. Let’s say you want to know more about someone you meet on Twitter. Type their address into the search bar and you get their profile.

If there is a weakness, sometimes there is not enough depth of coverage. In particular, it doesn’t do a great job of finding New Zealand-specific material.

This hasn’t changed, or if it has changed, it hasn’t changed enough. It can still be frustrating to use at times. You may need to switch back to Google to handle a specific search.

Away from New Zealand searches, Duck Duck Go does well enough. It is better than before.

Google often seems to be more interested in delivering users to sales outlets than information. Duck Duck Go doesn’t have a news filter, so a search can mean wading through lots of sales sites to find more independent information. It would be great if a news search was an option.

Bang Bing

What the search engine does have is something called bangs. This is a shorthand way of restricting a search to a single site or organisation. So, to look on Bloomberg for information about SDNs, type:

!blmb software defined networks 

This doesn’t always work. The search above drew a blank. Trying the same search using The Economist bang, the browser couldn’t open anything, not even a 404 page.

Duck Duck Go still isn’t the best choice for most searches, but it is a more private choice.

Don Christie: global IT giants all take, no give

Don Christie writes in the New Zealand Herald Global IT companies are taking profit here and putting nothing back:

An organisation I co-chair, NZRise, has been looking at the problem. We represent New Zealand owned digital companies who generate jobs and good incomes for tens of thousands of Kiwis. Our research shows Facebook, Google, Amazon and many other global digital companies are engaged in similar tax avoidance schemes to Apple.

Most revenues that accrue to those companies from New Zealand simply don’t get reported. They are the result of an online transaction and the money flies out of the country in the blink of an eye. No tax. No multiplier effect. No 41 per cent investment into our society.

From a business owner’s perspective it also represents a huge disincentive to invest in R&D, which is already at shockingly low levels by international standards. We find ourselves at a disadvantage to our multinational competitors.

Why create software and technical services in New Zealand when we will always be facing uneven tax playing field?

New Zealand has had a problem with multinational companies and transfer pricing for decades.

Yet the problem Christie writes about is on a different scale.

While the old multinational would shuffle money to minimise liabilities in New Zealand, they still paid some tax. They employed people, trained people and contributed to the economy in other ways. They funded university chairs, sports clubs and other worthy causes. If the new breed does any of that, it’s invisible.

Little contribution

The new multinationals pay next to no New Zealand tax. They employ next to no New Zealanders. They contribute little to the economy.

Sure, you can argue that Apple products make New Zealanders more productive and that’s a positive economic contribution. The net positive economic contribution may even be greater than Apple fails to contribute in more direct ways.

That is an argument against banning or boycotting Apple products. No-one is suggesting that.

It is not an argument against taxing Apple.

After all, our roads carry Apple products to market. Our schools give people the skills people need to use Apple products. Our health system keeps Apple’s customers alive and healthy. In some cases our tax dollars buy Apple products.

Google this!

You could argue something similar about Google. Some believe Google software makes workers more productive than they would be with other software. Maybe.

Some think that Google’s activities in the advertising sector has an economic benefit. Try saying that to a New Zealand journalist or someone who works in the media.

Again, these are not arguments against taxing Google.

Google is quite happy to sell its products and services to New Zealand government departments that it doesn’t help fund.

It’s harder to argue Facebook offers any economic benefits to New Zealand. If anything it undermines productivity. It is the digital equivalent of an all-sugar diet.

Christie has a good point

There’s little chance Apple, Facebook and Google will stop selling if we force them to pull their economic weight.

Until recently the problem was limited. Most of the non-contributors were technology companies. That’s changing with services like Uber muscling in on our markets. If things continue, the giants will hollow out our economy. Let’s not allow that to happen.

It’s been said that what the companies do is legal. That’s true. It doesn’t make it right. We have the power to change that. We have left this problem in the too hard basket for too long.