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Bill Bennett

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The world’s largest software company has repositioned for cloud computing offering software-as-a-service as well as cloud services. Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Office productivity software are important mainstays.

Digital Boost, Productivity Commission and living standards

On Tuesday small business minister Stuart Nash kicked off the Digital Boost Alliance. On Thursday a report from the Productivity Commission told us why business needs a digital shot in the arm.

The Digital Boost Alliance is a group of 20 companies. It was pulled together by Craig Young who heads Tuanz.

There are multinationals like Microsoft and AWS in the mix. You’d expect that.

Business support

The local companies in the alliance are more interesting.

Money, an important part of the digital equation, is represented by the five main banks operation here. Then come local tech companies: Datacom, Xero and, if we accept Australia as local, MYOB.

New Zealand’s telecommunications sector is represented by Spark, 2degrees and Chorus. Vodafone is a notable non-starter.

CertNZ and MBIE are in the mix. So is The Warehouse. While founder Sir Stephen Tindall is a keen personal supporter of initiatives like this, the Warehouse Group sells a lot of technology and supporting products to small business.

Mindlab is a member. It hosted the launch event.

Access and training

Alliance members aim to improve small business access to digital technology. More important they will help businesses get the training needed to make use of technology.

Each partner offers something different. There are offers of discounts of products and services, extra support, employee training and research.

It’s a big, ambitious goal.

World beating

Nash says he wants New Zealand to have the world’s most digitally-enabled small business sector.

We have been here before. Other initiatives have had similar goals. The difference this time is there is more money, broader industry support. It is a public-private joint venture.

Nash says the government kicked-in $44 million for digital training and advice in this year’s budget.

He singles out cloud computing. He says it has great potential. “A 20 percent increase in the uptake of cloud computing could be worth another $6 billion to the economy.”

Small business web sites

One industry speaker said only half of NZ small businesses have a web site. The implication being this is a measure of how much further we need to go.

Having a web site can help small businesses. It’s an efficient way of finding and retaining customers.

Yet it is not always appropriate. Many small businesses are subcontractors. They don’t need to sell themselves online. Nor do they need to spend money advertising with Google or Facebook.

Their digital needs are elsewhere.

Small business barriers to digital

MYOB surveyed small business owners. The results are revealing.

  • 41 percent say cost is the barrier to technology adoption.1
  • 22 percent say staff training is the barrier
  • 21 percent say a lack of knowledge is the issue.
  • 23 percent say the problem is the time taken to implement.

At the event I spoke to a couple of blokes from Innate Furniture, a Christchurch small business who flew up for the launch.

I assumed their story was going to be about how they built a website and sales took off. Instead they told me how last year they moved all their backend systems to the cloud and how that made a real difference to the business.

This is where there are huge benefits.

Why Digital Boost matters

First, New Zealand’s economy is more dependent on small business than many other economies. Small business accounts for a larger share of our GDP and a bigger proportion of jobs.

Larger companies can afford to have technology specialists on the team. With smaller firms responsibility might be with the owner. Most likely it will be with someone without training or experience.

Second, New Zealand small businesses are smaller than you find in other countries.

We’re talking about companies with a less than a couple of dozen employees and the majority are much smaller than that. In other countries these would be called micro-businesses.

Productivity gap

Third, our productivity lags other countries. Today’s Productivity Commission report says New Zealanders work longer hours than people in other rich-world countries and produce less in each hour they work.

  • 34.2 hours a week compared with a 31.9 hours average in the OECD.
  • $68 of output an hour compared with $85 average elsewhere in the OECD.

These numbers affect our living standards.

Innovation is key

Commission Chair Dr Ganesh Nana says: “Innovation is the key to unlocking New Zealand’s productivity. There are only so many hours in the day that people can work, so creating new technology and adopting new and better ways of working is critical to achieving effective change.”

Which means the Digital Boost project is timely.

If there’s one area both the Digital Boost project and the Productivity Commission agree on is that we need to do more than move people to digital tools.

Show how

The key here is to show people how they can use these tools.

There is an echo with cyber security. Many managers and business people think spending money on security products will solve the risks.

It can help, but without educating employees on how to think in more security conscious ways, that spending is wasted.

Spending money on new computers, software and services is a start. Yet it’s crucial to set aside part of the tech budget for training.

Skills essential for digital boost

Skills are essential to unlock the potential.

Likewise, it is important to use technology where it has the most benefits.

It’s no accident that Xero and MYOB are behind Digital Boost, moving to digital account keeping, tax paperwork and electronic invoicing can have an instant pay-off for a small business.

If Digital Boost delivers, Nash says it can be worth billions of dollars each year to the New Zealand economy.

That’s great, but meaningless to individuals, what matters more is that it has the power to lift everyone’s standard of living.

Google docs drops geared-for-print

Google has finally dropped the idea that the end goal of Google Docs is to print words on a sheet of paper.

It’s been a long time coming.

When personal computers were new, word processors were all about print.

But it is now years since everyone used computers to produce printed documents. We may not have the promised paperless offices, but there is a lot less paper in the modern workplace.

These days documents usually spend all their time in a pure digital format.

Yet, until now, editing tools remain geared to print.

Word processors

Take Microsoft Word. You can’t use it for long before seeing a page break. Yes, you can use the web layout view which doesn’t have breaks. But that’s ugly to read as you put down words. And the outline view is for specialist uses.

Likewise Apple’s Pages or the Writer section of LibreOffice. They all assume you want to print documents on paper.

Dive in deeper and you’ll find word processor settings for page headers and footers. Again, these features are print-oriented.

Text editors have a digital-first perspective. But they still nod to printed pages at times.

Google Docs has offered an option not to show pages for years. I wrote Word processor software still geared to print on the subject in 2014.

Google Docs part of Workspace refresh

This week Google announced sweeping changes to Workspace, a set of tools that includes Google Docs.

The big idea behind these changes is that you are no longer working to put words on paper. It’s a symbolic move. It’s a philosophical move and it’s also a practical move.

Instead, Google Docs becomes part of a bigger picture: dynamic, interactive documents that integrate with other tools. This includes embedding video, even links to video conference meetings.

The challenge for Google is that many customers liked Google Docs the way it was. They may not print much these days, but the concepts and workflows are familiar. There’s no discontinuity adapting to a fresh approach.

There’s a lot more coming from Google. More to write about here. Yet for now, Google has untethered its popular word processor from print.

That’s progress.

Apple M1: At least a generation ahead of Intel

Six months have past since Apple launched its first M1 based Macs. This week saw a slew of new Macs and an iPad Pro all using the same processor.

M1 is at least a generation ahead of anything Intel can offer. It is, in effect, an entire system on a chip. There’s no indication the chipmaker will close the gap any time soon. Intel is in trouble.

If you want the best battery performance and the most powerful everyday processor it’s Apple all the way.

M1 across the Apple range

Your M1 choices run from the NZ$1200 Mac Mini through the iMac range up to the NZ$2550 MacBook Pro. The same processor runs the iPad Pro (prices start at NZ$1350).

The M1 is nominally an eight-core processor. In practice it is more complicated. There are four high-performance cores and four low power, high-efficiency cores.

There’s something else going on.

The M1 changes how we think about the relationship between processors and computers.

Over the years we’ve been trained to see processors as the key component defining the difference between low-end and high-end computers.

Until now it always been the case.

Processor power

You spend more money to get a more powerful processor running at a faster speed. In many cases computer brands sell what amounts to the same laptop equipped with different processor combinations.

That extra money buys you more grunt to crush more numbers, render huge graphics files or kill virtual aliens faster.

It wasn’t always a linear relationship. There were sweet spots in the Intel line-up where you could buy the maximum bang for the minimum number of bucks.

None of this applies to Apple in 2020

No doubt there will be more powerful Apple Silicon processors in the months and years to come. But for now it is one chip to rule them all.

Or, to put it another way, unless you have specific needs, there’s no longer any need to worry about the processor part of a computer’s specification.

Where does M1 leave Windows and Intel?

There have been reports of Windows running faster on Apple Macs than on more expensive Intel-based computers. If you stick with MacOs, you’ll see even better speeds.

Apple’s price-performance advantage is stark. Yes, you can buy Windows laptops or desktops for less than Mac prices. In cases, a lot less. If you’re not looking for performance, that remains a plausible buying strategy.

Otherwise, it is becoming harder and harder to justify the prices of higher-end Intel-based laptops or desktops.

Price competitive

The old idea that Apple is an expensive option needs revisiting.

Take Microsoft Surface. The devices have a lot going for them. It’s hard to make direct comparisons and, at the time of writing, the market is muddied by a lot of aggressive discounting.

Yet there are cases where Microsoft asks for 40 percent more than Apple for computers with shorter battery life and less raw processing power.

It’s much the same when you look at HP, Dell or any other well-known PC brand.

Hard to ignore

There will always be computer buyers who convince themselves that Apple is not worthy of their business. As if HP, Acer or Lenovo are somehow morally superior.

This isn’t always irrational. Many people have a lot invested in Windows, although that is less of a barrier than it was.Running Windows on Mac may be easy, but it means compromises and extra spending.

For everyone else, it’s getting harder and harder to walk past Apple’s computers.

On a personal note, I’m concerned that this looks unbalanced. Perhaps I’ve swallowed the Apple propaganda. The advantage seems so extreme, there must be a catch somewhere. I’ve been over the numbers repeatedly and I don’t see it. Yes, you can find all kinds of reasons to not want an Apple computer, but, for now, the raw price-performance argument seems solid. 

A practical guide to writing on the iPad

The iPad is a great writing tool. For many professional and part-time writers it is better than a laptop.

In this feature we’ll look at why the iPad could be the best option for you. We’ll examine which iPad model to choose, explore keyboards and outline the best writing applications.

You don’t need a high-end iPad for writing. The standard NZ$569 (mid-2020 prices) iPad has everything you need. It’s powerful enough and has a screen you’ll have no trouble living with.

You can write on any iPad

From a computer point of view, writing is an undemanding application.

The word processors, editors and other writing tools barely skim the surface of what a computer or tablet can do.

All you need is enough computing power for the screen to keep up with your typing and to display crisp, readable text.

Every current iPad meets that standard. Indeed, every iPad from the last five years will do the job and do it in style.

Hide complexity

When I’m away from my desk, I use a top-of-the-range 12.9-inch iPad Pro for writing. It has far more power than I need to put down words. In my case I use the extra grunt to run other creative applications.

Apple could have designed the iPad with journalists like me in mind. They are more portable than even the slimmest, lightest laptop. Their batteries tend to last hours longer than most laptops. And they do a good job of hiding complexity.

It’s no trouble to pull out an iPad and work on in a cafe, on an airplane tray-table, or, at a pinch, on your lap. Sure this is true of a good laptop, but it is more so with the iPad.

If you want to push portability to the limit, use the iPad mini. It has everything you might need in a smaller package, 

Why is the iPad a great writing tool?

When Apple launched the first iPad it pitched the tablet as a media consumption device. It was clear early on that it could do more. Today’s iPads are often better than laptops for many creative tasks.

When it comes to writing the iPad has many advantages:

  • It has long battery life. Sure, you can find laptops that will go 12 hours between charges including the 2020 MacBook Air. Yet, measure-for-measure, an iPad will last longer between charges than a conventional computer.
  • Focus. While you can now open two or more side-by-side screens in iPadOS, the operating system lends itself to doing one thing at a time. It is uncluttered. With the iPad you can focus only on writing without other apps distracting you. Turning off notifications and concentrating is much easier.

    This is why I describe the iPad as the closest modern equivalent to a portable typewriter.

  • Portable. The iPad is more portable than any laptop. It can go places laptops don’t. There are fewer moving parts. Well actually there are no moving parts on the iPad itself. This makes it more robust. 
  • One aspect of the iPad’s portability is that you can work on it even when you are standing. It is possible to thumb type on the screen keyboard while your are standing. I’ve done this at press conferences. I’ve done this waiting in queues to board planes.
  • This means you can write in more places, more often. Yes, you can do that on a phone, but it’s not the best writing experience. It is not easy to write standing up with a laptop.
  • The same applies if, say, you are sitting cramped on a crowded flight. At a pinch you can tap out words holding the iPad in vertical or portrait orientation when there’s no room for a keyboard.
  • Being able to use the taller portrait orientation is an often overlooked bonus. There are subtle ergonomic problems with writing across a wide screen. This makes errors harder to spot. A narrow width is easier to proof-read. If you are writing words to print on paper, the screen orientation more closely mirrors how your words will appear on the finished document.
  • iPads have glorious, well-lit high resolution screens. Higher resolution means your eyes don’t tire as fast. You can work for longer stretches and concentrate for longer.
  • No waiting. An iPad is always ready to go the moment it is switched on. Yes, modern laptops can do the same, but you can always start writing in seconds on an iPad.

Pick an iPad, any iPad

iPads range in size. The smallest is the iPad mini, with a 7.9-inch display. That’s roughly 200 by 135mm. At the other end of the scale the 12.9-inch iPad Pro display measures 280 by 215mm. It has more than twice as much screen.

The Mini weighs 300g. That’s roughly the weight of two phones. The larger size iPad Pro is 640g, about half the weight of a laptop with the same size display.

Even when you add a keyboard, iPads are smaller, lighter and more portable than almost every laptop. Apple’s MacBook Air gets close. The nearest non-Apple competitor would be a Microsoft Surface tablet.  

If money is no object, you can choose the iPad that you find comfortable to read. If it is an object, pick the iPad you can afford.

Cellular or not?

Few writers need the Sim-card models that can use cellular phone technology to connect to the net.

You’ll find Wi-Fi is available in many of the places where you will want to write. Where it isn’t, you can tether your iPad to your phone and connect that way.

Tethering works with both iPhones and Android phones. The experience is better and smoother if you have an iPhone, but don’t get hung up on this point, it isn’t a deal breaker. Android phones will work perfectly well. 

Cellular adds around NZ$220 to the price of a Wi-Fi iPad. That money can be better spent elsewhere.

iPad storage

The other option that adds to the price of an iPad is storage.

While you don’t need a huge amount for storage for written documents, you may want to store music, other audio, photographs and video. These are all storage hungry.

The iPad Pro has a terabyte storage option. This adds NZ$900 to the price of the base 128GB model. It will be overkill for many readers. I have a huge music collection, store audio and video files and struggle to fill a 512GB iPad. That amount of storage will add roughly NZ$500 to the base price.

It’s easy to overbuy storage

The exact amount of storage you need should take into account what other devices you own. If you have a computer and an iPad, then you won’t need to splurge on a lot of storage. Likewise, if you can offload files that you don’t need all the time to an external drive, you can save money.

Remember it is near impossible to upgrade iPad storage. It’s a decision you need to get right before you buy.

Based on my experience, I’d suggest you should budget for at least 256GB of storage and consider buying 512GB. That’s the amount I have on my own iPad, it has enough headroom for me to never worry about running out of space.

iPad keyboard considerations

A keyboard isn’t essential if you own an iPad. You can do a lot without one and there is always the Apple Pencil and handwriting recognition. Apple’s new Scribble feature can change the way you think about your iPad

But this is all about writing on an iPad. A keyboard is always going to make that easier.

There is no shortage of iPad keyboards to choose from. Any iPad will work with any Bluetooth keyboard.

When you buy an iPad, chances are someone will attempt to sell you a keyboard as an add-on. Apple’s iPad keyboards are the most straightforward choice, although your choice should be down to what you find comfortable. That’s both from an ergonomic point of view and from a budget point of view.

Whether you choose an Apple-branded keyboard or one made by another company, take care to match the size and shape with your iPad. Keyboards serve as protective covers and the ones that fit neatly do a better protection job. 

Magic Keyboard

At NZ$550 a pop, Apple’s Magic Keyboard is an expensive, Rolls Royce option. It’s good. When you use it at a desk or on a flat surface it is little different from a laptop keyboard experience.

The $320 Apple Smart Keyboard Folio is less expensive. It’s the one I choose for when I’m on the move. It has the best balance of function and price. Again, it gives the iPad a laptop feel. Yet it is more flexible and feels less robust than the Magic Keyboard.

Then there’s the NZ$260 Apple Smart Keyboard.

Not all Apple keyboards are available for all iPads. One aspect of the Apple keyboards that you might see as a negative is that they flex more than you might expect if you are typing on your lap. When used this way they are not as solid as laptops.

Two third-party brands to consider are Logitech and Brydge. You can save a few dollars when compared to Apple prices. Brydge makes hard shell keyboards that turn your iPad into something resembling a conventional laptop.

When I last looked there were a dozen Logitech iPad keyboards. The range covers all iPad models. I’ve used a few, they are largely good. 

Protection

All the keyboards that are made to work with iPads offer a degree of protection. That’s important if you are mobile. The devices are not fragile, but once you start moving about the potential for dropping them or doing other damage increases.

Keyboards a matter of personal taste. I touch type and find there’s a huge variation in what works for me. The only way you can be certain is to have a quick test drive before buying. It may make sense to shop online for an iPad, I recommend you visit a physical store before choosing a keyboard.

Much of the time I use a first generation Apple Bluetooth keyboard and a mStand tablet from Rain Design to hold the iPad. It’s a simple and elegant approach. There are many other options. Any store that sells iPads will have a selection. 

Buying an Apple Pencil can be confusing. There are two models. The one you buy depends on your iPad model.

It’s not realistic to use a Pencil for long writing jobs. They are great for jotting quick notes when on the move. My regret is that I can’t use shorthand to write with an Apple Pencil.

File the Apple Pencil under nice to have rather than essential. Although there are people who say they can’t live without them. It’s a good thing to ask someone to buy you as a present.

Writing apps

There are iPad versions of two best-known writing apps: Microsoft Word and Google Docs. While they may be all you need, there are a wealth of alternatives that may suit your needs better than the juggernauts.

It’s controversial, but I argue Word is a better experience on the iPad than on a Windows or Mac computer. It’s stripped back and has an elegance that’s hidden on a conventional computer.

If your iPad has a screen smaller than 10.1-inches, Word is free.

Otherwise you can buy Word for the iPad as part of any Microsoft Office subscription. If you use the software at work, or on a computer, you may already have a licence.

A Microsoft Office licence costs around NZ$130 a year, although you can find deals.

Word on the Web

There is a web version of Microsoft Word, which is handy if you need the software in a hurry and don’t have the app loaded.

One Word drawback is that it doesn’t dovetail as neatly into the Apple-iPad world as many other writing tools. You are pushed towards using Microsoft OneDrive instead of iCloud or Dropbox. And you sometimes rub up against Microsoft’s this-is-how-we-do-things attitude.

Say you try to mail a Word document. The software assumes you want to send it using Outlook, not the stock iPad Mail app.

Google Docs

Google does something similar with Google Docs on the iPad. You can use the app in its familiar web-based version. When you open a document, say from Google Drive, there’s an option to download and install a Google Doc iPad app.

If you don’t choose to download, opt to open the document in Safari, a second pushier screen pops up asking you a second time. Never forget that installing a Google app gives the company permission to spy on your iPad.

Google Docs works fine on a browser on the iPad. I’m hard-pressed to see any difference in the user experience when compared with Docs on a laptop or desktop computer. If you are all in with Google, the app might make more sense. Otherwise, stick with the web version.

While Microsoft Word has collaboration features, Google Docs is a better choice if you work with others to build documents. Better, not foolproof. 

Apple Pages

Apple’s own Pages word processor is included as standard with every iPad. It could be all the word processor you need. It will open documents created with Word or Docs and you can send Pages documents in the Word format.

As the name hints Pages is more page design oriented that Word or Google Docs. This works better than you might expect on an iPad, although you will need a larger screen to make the most of it. Pages is ideal, a better bet than Word or Docs, if you plan to create Apple Books or PDFs.

There’s one Pages feature I love, even if it is not my first choice for writing on the iPad. Presenter Mode turns the iPad into an autocue. When I’m on a long radio broadcast, presenting live or doing similar work I use it as a prompt.

Every writer has their favourite apps. Different writing tools perform different functions. What works best for you depends on what writing you do and what you are familiar with.

iA Writer

For my everyday work the best writing app is iA Writer. It may not suit you. iA Writer is not a word processor, it is a text editor. That means it’s a barebones writing app with few features. You can download it from the App Store for NZ$30.

iA Writer uses Markdown. This is a way of formatting text without lifting your hands from the keyboard. It takes minutes to learn and can speed up writing.

Byword is a good NZ$6 alternative to iA Writer. The developers neglected the app for a while, but are now back on the job.

Collabora Office is a promising-looking free iPad version of LibreOffice. I’ll write more about this soon. 

Other writing apps

Two other apps worth considering are Scrivener and Ulysses. I’m not familiar with either beyond testing them both many years ago.

Scrivener, NZ$19 in the App Store, sells as a writing tool to help novelists. That means it has database features to help track characters and other novel elements.

Fans swear by the app. It goes in the opposite direction to where I want to go with writing on my iPad. That is, it adds complexity.

Ulysses has the same Markdown formatting as iA Writer and Byword, but adds a lot of word processor-like features. This sounds contradictory, but it marries a minimalist look and feel with background complexity. You’ll either love it or be bewildered by it.

Pricey subscription

The app is a free download, you can test it without paying. After that it costs NZ$11 a month or $92 a year to use. That makes it expensive if you don’t expect to tap into its complexity.

You aren’t restricted to using an app made solely for writing. Many general applications include editors that may serve your purposes.

There are iPad users who write everything in the Notes app that comes as part of the iPad operating system.

Tools like Evernote are popular with iPad writers. Bear is another app that comes up in conversations about writing on the iPad. It is more a note-taking app than a text editor, but it covers all the bases. Simplenote is a free alternative.

Microsoft Surface Duo a curiosity phone

Microsoft has a different take on a folding phone. While models from Samsung and Huawei have a folding screen, the Surface Duo has two side-by-side displays connected by hinges.

You will be able to buy a Duo next month. It won’t be cheap. The US price is US$1400. In normal times that would put the New Zealand price somewhere north of NZ$3000. Keep in mind that you can buy a decent Android phone for NZ$500 and a first class tablet with a better tablet operating system for NZ$600.

Surface Duo is a curious device on many levels. Above all, it is curious that Microsoft should get back into the phone business after being burnt by its Nokia experience.

Microsoft Surface Duo

Is it a phone, is it a tablet?

To be fair Microsoft isn’t calling the Surface Duo a phone. Although that word could be triggering for a Microsoft marketing executive.

Nor does it call the device a tablet. Yet there’s no question it fits somewhere between the two.

Another curiosity is that Microsoft uses the Surface brand name. The company previously said it uses the Surface name for products that highlight the potential of its Windows operating system. The Surface Duo is an Android phone.

And that’s another curiosity. Because an Android phone means Microsoft has to get into bed with Google, a company that is a rival in many markets.

Mobile productivity

Those curiosities keep on coming. Microsoft is pitching the Surface Duo as a mobile computing device at a time when demand for mobility has hit a pandemic-inflicted low point. Phone sales are down 30 percent. Meanwhile, demand for PCs, which are a Microsoft strength and Windows’ home turf, are riding at a ten year high.

The idea of productivity on the move was a potential winner before the world began working from home. Now, the Surface Duo is another device looking for a meaningful purpose.

There are two 5.6-inch OLED displays. You can run different apps in each or you can connect them for an 8.1-inch screen with a hinge down the centre. This format allows a more robust construction. The screens are made from Gorilla Glass and are less fragile than, say, the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

One screen good, two screens better

A promotional photo from Microsoft shows one screen used for text and the second as a on-screen keyboard with the device turned on its side. In this format it becomes a tiny laptop, albeit one that runs Android.

You’ll be able to run any Android app on the Surface Duo, although apps may be restricted to a single screen. There’s software that allows you to open an app on the other screen from the first one. Microsoft tweaked its own apps to take advantage of the larger display.

The idea behind the Surface Duo is sound enough. During more mobile times there was a healthy demand for devices that could keep you productive while on the run. A bigger screen, even if split in two, is better for reading.

Yet this is not the right product for August 2020.

Part of the problem is price. Upwards of NZ$3000 is a lot for a mobile productivity device if you’re not that mobile. Even if you are, it’s not clear what the Surface Duo brings to the productivity party that isn’t done adequately elsewhere. It could take off with people who have specific needs, but it was never made to be a mass market hit.