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Apple is working with publishers to add a new and fast-loading news app to iOS.

The app, called Apple News, will show up on iPhone and iPad home pages when iOS 9 arrives later this year.

Apple News pulls in news feeds from different publishers. It displays them in a magazine-style format like Flipboard. Readers will be able to filter their feeds so they can get the subjects they care about most.

The idea is that you’ll be able to quickly read the material you consider important from a variety of sources without jumping from one app or website to another.

In some respects it’ll replace RSS readers. They never recovered from the death of Google Reader.

Because it comes from Apple there’s an emphasis on how things look. Apple News is prettier than Google Reader replacements like Feedly. Although they set a low bar to beat.

The app will format material for iOS devices and will adjust for screen size. Most likely there will be something for Apple Watch owners too.

Apple has signed up publishers — including my technology news site. I’m curious to see how the model might work for publishers and writers.

We need fresh ideas. Few existing online publishing models work except for publishers with material worth putting behind a paywall.

Apple News will include advertising. At the same time the iOS 9 Safari browser will include optional ad blocking.

You could see this as Apple making life hard for publishers operating out the in the wild while offering something cosy inside the walled garden.

There’s another way of looking at this: Online advertising is a mess. Few publishers make more than a pittance from running banner ads, Google ads or indeed any kind of advertising. Ad sales stopped on this site because the revenue didn’t cover administering ad sales let alone other costs.

Things are extra hard for publishers when it comes to earning money from mobile readers. That’s where the audience is, but mobile ads earn a fraction of the money earned by PC browser ads. A small percentage of bugger all is not worth the effort.

It’s unlikely Apple News will do much for income, but it’s a publishing channel and business model worth exploring.

Can Apple will make it pay? That’s not a given. Remember the old iOS newsstand wasn’t a rip-roaring success. Remember how excited news publishers like Rupert Murdoch were about the iPad’s potential to save their broken business models?

Xero Ipad

Xero IpadXero broke the mould when it put accounting software in the cloud. Now, thanks to the Xero iPad app released last month, tablet owners can get the most out of the software.

How did Xero break the mould?

First, it showed accounting works well in the cloud.

It turns out accounting software works better in the cloud than on a desktop app.

Every accounting software brand now in the cloud

The only proof you need is that every other accounting software company of note now also has cloud apps. For me the key is that cloud accounting frees me from needing to sit at my desk when dealing with the books. I can invoice a client on-site or check payments before a meeting.

Cloud also makes data sharing easier.

The second way Xero broke the mould was by taking small business along on the cloud computing journey.

Xero took small business to the cloud

That surprised many because when it comes to technology small business owners are often among the most conservative.

Go into any business area in New Zealand and you’ll find ancient computer hardware, Windows XP and even fax machines.

Small businesses are the main market for accounting software. They were quick to embrace Xero’s cloud software, at least they have been in New Zealand and Australia. And for that matter, they didn’t falter when it came to paying monthly for software instead of buying familiar boxed products.

The speed New Zealand small business picked up cloud accounting, using, what was for most of the people concerned, alien technology concepts, demonstrates Xero’s depth of vision. Normally small businesses are reluctant to swim away from the side of the technology pool.

Third, Xero proved it is possible to do something huge in the technology market from New Zealand.

Xero iPad

Last month Xero launched version 2.6 of its free iPad app. Free isn’t quite the right word here because while anyone can load the app on to an iPad without paying a penny, you need a Xero subscription to benefit from the software.

Before last month you could use the iOS app on an iPad, but Xero designed that version for the iPhone and was a touch clumsy on the bigger screen.

Until now if I wanted to use Xero from my iPad I would load up the full browser version. which was also clumsy, especially when it came to using the touchscreen. Maybe delicate accountant hands can drive the software that way. My fat fingers struggled.

The browser version of Xero has always been well designed. The company sells it as beautiful accounting software.

Beauty, not vanity

That’s not vanity. Form and function are always closely tied. Elegant software isn’t just a pleasure to use, it’s easier to use. Who would have thought beautiful would sell accounting software? That was Xero’s fourth breakthrough.

Earlier incarnations of Xero iPad weren’t beautiful. That’s been fixed. And that means iPad owners can get things done quickly and easily without needing to fire up a full-blown computer and a browser.

Xero iPad portrait landscape

 

 

The new iPad app works in landscape and portrait mode. It takes advantage of the larger screen and will work with TouchID if you have a newer iPad. In practice it works well for writing and reviewing invoices while on the move.

After a month with Xero on my iPad, I find I don’t use it that often. For every three or four sessions on a PC I might use Xero once on the iPad. When I do, I go there to do something specific in a hurry, then get out fast. It’s a time saver and a nice-to-have, not a make-or-break option.

Microsoft New Zealand chief marketing and operations officer Frazer Scott was a great person to interview for this week’s Microsoft after the iPhone for the NZ Herald.

In the Herald story Scott speaks frankly about how Apple’s iPhone knocked Microsoft off course and how it recovered.

It wasn’t just Microsoft. Apple’s iPhone wrong-footed the entire tech sector. The difference was Microsoft had further to fall.

When Microsoft was number one

In 2007 It was the world’s largest, most visible technology company. It still thought of itself as a software business.

The PC dominated computing. More than 95 percent of PCs ran Windows. Most also ran Office.

In the business world there were few organisations that didn’t have Microsoft software on servers.

Ballmer was boss

A popular narrative says former CEO Ballmer takes the blame for all the company’s post-iPhone stumbles. By extension that line of reasoning says replacing Ballmer with Satya Nadella fixed the company.

Although Ballmer made mistakes, sheeting all the problems back to him is lazy thinking. An organisation as large and complex as Microsoft is never just about one person. Or even two people.

Nadella became CEO in February 2014. Eight months later the company seems back on track. Simple maths tells you the reforms needed to make that happen must have started when Ballmer was still in charge.

Turning the supertanker

Microsoft is like a supertanker. Giant ships need to start turning and braking long before they reach port. Even turning a corner needs planning in advance. A fresh pilot can plot a new course, but there’s a hell of a lot of momentum to deal with.

About one month after Nadella took over, he launched iPad versions of Office apps. It was his first big public appearance as CEO.

Microsoft has smart developers and huge resources, it’s conceivable the company could have whacked out iOS code in a few weeks.

Conceivable but unlikely.

Office on iPad

Microsoft’s iPad Office apps were specially written from the ground up. When they first appeared they were polished, almost flawless. It took a lot of work to get these apps ready for market.

It’s possible Microsoft had sat on them. Perhaps Microsoft was waiting for a lucrative business model to emerge so it could continue to make the kind of software margins it enjoyed in the past.

It may be that Steve Ballmer stopped them from reaching the market and Nadella opened the door.

Either way, clearly those apps started life when Ballmer was CEO. They weren’t a skunk works project. Nadella might have signed off on the free download strategy but Ballmer’s hand had touched the tiller long before the supertanker reached that destination.

Azure

The same long-term planning applies to Microsoft’s massive cloud investment. Today Microsoft Azure is second only to Amazon in cloud. The company is ahead of Amazon when it comes to integrating software with the cloud.

That project started long before the Azure supertanker reached port. Nadella was responsible for Microsoft’s cloud strategy before his promotion, but Ballmer would have had a hand in the necessary investment. At some point he was have signed off on the spending.

This isn’t a paen to Ballmer or a dismissal of Nadella. It’s a reminder than a large, sprawling business is the sum of many parts.

For all its faults — and there are faults — the culture and organisation set up by Bill Gates and nurtured by Steve Ballmer proved resilient enough to weather the iPhone disruption.

Microsoft Surface 3 tablet

When Steve Jobs took the wraps off Apple’s first iPad, he showed a new class of device. The iPad was neither a new type of PC nor was it a giant smartphone. The iPad opened new territory.
Apple sold the original iPad as a personal digital media device. It stuck with that approach for the first three tablet generations.
 
It wasn’t until the iPad Air that Apple’s marketing bowed to the inevitable. The company admitted tablets are also useful for creating content and as business tools. Even now that’s not the main sales pitch.
 
Google doesn’t sell its own tablets. When partners began selling Android tablets they followed Apple’s lead. Samsung took pains to emphasis the entertainment and media aspects of its Galaxy Tab S. Business takes a back seat.
 

Microsoft Surface Pro — productivity tablet first

That’s not how Microsoft views tablets.
 
Even before CEO Satya Nadella told the world Microsoft is a ‘productivity and platform’ company, it called the Surface a business tool.
 
This explains why Surface evolved fast. It had three generations in 18 months and went from tablet to tablet-cum-laptop. Microsoft’s marketing says the new Surface Pro 3 is a “PC when you need it and a tablet when you want one”. That speaks volumes.
 
The message is “you need a laptop to do real work, but tablets have a place too. Here’s something covering both bases”. It’s no accident that almost every Surface buyer picks up a keyboard along with their tablet.
 
How does this play out?
 
You could argue the Surface, particularly the Surface Pro 3, is the tablet corporate technology buyers always wanted. That’s the market Microsoft wants.
 
And yet, Apple does a great job selling iPads to large companies. Walk into any CBD glass tower you’ll see people using iPads.
 
The iPad took root in business from the bottom up. People who bought iPads for personal use took them to the office and found new ways to be productive. In some cases using third-party add-ons and apps from the iTunes store.
 
Companies had little choice but to adapt to this trend. It explains hence all the hand-wringing you hear about BYOD, bring your own device. I’ve no evidence, but suspect companies buy most Surfaces. They give them to staff as productivity tools. The other market people committed to Microsoft products and services. I also suspect many Surfaces replaced PCs.
 

One device or two?

Microsoft thinks you need only one device to do two jobs. The Surface Pro 3 could be the best Windows laptop. It’s a good tablet, but not fabulous and it is expensive.
 
In Apple’s world, there are two jobs needing two tools. The tablet is a consumption device.
 
If you are serious about creating content, buy a MacBook. You are, of course, welcome to buy both. Apple is doing something right. While iPad sales have hiccupped, sales of Apple laptops continue to rise. Windows laptop sales are falling, attacked from above by Apple and from below by the Chromebook.

Apple’s Q3 2014 result showed iPad tablet sales dropped nine percent year-on-year while Mac sales were up by 18 percent.

That’s not the story industry analysts and commentators told us. This time last year research companies predicted rising tablet sales would eclipse the falling PC market.

The CEO of America’s largest electronics retailer says tablet sales “are crashing”. Re/code reports:

The tablets boomed and now are crashing. The volume has really gone down in the last several months.

Meanwhile, smartphones continue to sell.

I have a problem with commentators and analysts who view smartphones versus tablets versus PCs as a zero-sum game.

Sure there are iPad-only users, just as there are PC-only users and smartphone-only users. But the three device classes do not exist in isolation. Distinctions are blurry. A phone with a five-inch screen isn’t far from an iPad mini. Microsoft’s Surface range straddles the gulf between tablets and PCs.

And anyway many people own devices in two or three of these classes.

It’s possible the tech industry got it wrong. Hardware makers put too much effort into tablets and missed the real action in the phone market.

However, phones have something else going for them that tablets and PCs do not. Many, perhaps most, smartphones are sold on contract. That puts customers in an automatic two-year buying cycle. There’s little compelling need to refresh a two-year-old tablet or laptop. With the phone, it happens regardless.