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Bill Bennett

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Microsoft grew big on the back of Windows, its PC operating system and Office, the software people and businesses use to create written documents, crunch numbers and build presentations. Now the company is moving into hardware devices and cloud computing. For a while it looked as if Microsoft was losing relevance, but that seems to be changing.

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.

NZ Tech Podcast: New kit, Huawei chip woes, TCF report

I’m back on the NZ Tech Podcast with Paul Spain. We discuss the latest tech news including current geopolitical matters impacting Chinese firms and share thoughts on new devices including the Samsung Note 20 Ultra, Jabra Evolve2 65 bluetooth headset, Jabra Panacast conferencing camera, Microsoft Surface Go 2 – and a prerelease first look at Huawei’s newest laptop; the MateBook 13.

New tech – Samsung, Jabra, Microsoft and Huawei – NZ Tech Podcast

Surface Go 2 — Microsoft’s latest more ultraportable than tablet

Surface Go 2 is Microsoft’s second generation Windows 10 tablet. Like Apple’s iPad, the Surface Go 2 is a lovely device, Yet it has more in common with ultraportable Window laptops than the iPad.

Microsoft’s second Surface Go is a fraction larger than the first version. The screen is now 10.5 inches. It weighs 545g, that’s 22g more than the earlier model.

Measurements are 245 by 175 by 8.5mm give or take a tenth of a mm. It roughly the same size and weight as an iPad Air, although not the same shape. The Surface screen is wider and shallower than the more squarish iPad.

Ideal trade-off

You won’t notice any weight difference when carrying the hardware, but you will notice the bigger screen. Depending on your application (more about this later), it could be an ideal trade off between screen size and portability.

In practice it is small and light enough to slip into a briefcase or any kind of bag almost without noticing it is there. It isn’t going to cause problems with airplane carry on baggage.

Local prices for the Surface Go 2 start at NZ$629. That buys the Wi-fi model with 64GB of storage and an Intel Pentium 4425Y processor. Pay NZ$880 for 128GB of storage and the same processor. These models both have 4Gb of Ram. NZ$1200 gets the Ram bumped to 8Gb and a more powerful Intel Core m3 processor along with 128GB of storage and 4G mobile network connectivity.

There’s little question you will want the $220 Signature Type Cover.

Add the necessary keyboard and you’ll pay $850.

While you can buy laptops with similar power for these prices, this has a much more premium feel. It is the cheapest way of getting a Microsoft Surface device.

Surface Go 2 touch screen

Keyboard

Many iPad users get by without a keyboard. It is harder, although not impossible, to use a Surface that way. An iPad spends a lot of its life being used in the phone-like portrait orientation. Everything about the Surface Go assumes you will use it like a laptop. That means the screen will be landscape apart from the odd rare occasion.

Microsoft might call it a tablet. Technically Surface Go 2 is a tablet. Yet the Surface Go 2 will likely end up being used like an ultraportable laptop.

It is a mighty fine small, lightweight laptop. The touch screen is better than you’d find on similarly priced laptops. It looks bright and responds as you’d expect to touch. The kickstand is a nice touch. Everything is built to a high standard.

Enough power, not heaps of power

The review model came with a Pentium Gold processor. It won’t break any speed records, but it provides more than enough power for the kind of work you’d expect to throw at a small computer.

I found it ideal for my writing work. It handles all the online tasks without missing a beat. I’m not the kind of user who opens dozens of browser Windows.

When I attempted this in the name of science, I got bored long before the Windows Edge browser lost the plot.

If you are wedded to Windows, live in Microsoft Office and don’t need a big screen for creative work or grunt for huge calculations, this could be the only computer you need.

Great for Zoom meetings, Microsoft Teams

The Surface Go 2 is a stellar performer when it comes to video conferences. It has a better front camera than you’d normally find on a laptop selling for under $1000. It’s five megapixels and can shoot video in full HD quality. What’s more, it requires less light than a standard laptop camera which struggles with my home office.

Microsoft hasn’t skimped on the microphone and speakers. I found the mic works better than other Windows laptops for calls. It’s not noticeably better than the Apple equivalents.

The speakers are not up to the standard of the iPad Pro, but, again, are excellent by Windows laptop standards. They do OK with music, although the bass is missing in action. Yet they are great for video calls. I can hear everything at the other end. Better than that, the sound is clear enough for me to record conversations speaker-to-mike.

Other features

On the back there is an 8 megapixel camera that can shoot 1080p video. This is clumsy with the Surface Go 2 format, but can be useful at a pinch.

The Surface Go 2 Type Cover keyboard is much like the earlier Surface Go keyboard. It’s about 30mm smaller than a full-size keyboard in both dimensions. In part this is because the top row of function keys are all half size.

It looked like I might struggle with pudgy fingers on smaller keys. I’m a touch typist, which means it takes getting used to, but after 30 minutes I was back to full speed. In practice the keyboard is better than anything you might see on a laptop in this price range.

A few other points:

  • Microsoft equipped the Surface Go 2 with Wi-fi 6. If you have a suitable router you’ll have a better, more reliable wireless connection.
  • I’ve found Windows Hello face recognition to be unreliable on other recent laptops. It worked every time on the Surface Go 2.
  • Given that next to no-one leaves the store without the keyboard, it is not optional. Microsoft should bundle the two products together. Even if that doesn’t reduce price, it would reduce wasteful packaging and unnecessary stuffing around.
  • Microsoft says the battery is good for five hours. It’s longer than the original Surface go, but around half what you’d get with an iPad. You can eke out power longer by cranking down the brightness, but my old eyes struggle with this.

Surface Go 2 verdict

With the Surface Go 2, Microsoft has refined the laptop PC format into something modern and productive. You get access to a huge library of Windows apps, not all are full touch enabled, but they will work.

It’s a perfect choice for a second computer if you have, say, a desktop at home and need a light computer for the road. I’d recommend it for journalists or anyone who spends their working life in Microsoft Word or another word processor.

The Surface Go 2 is not the best machine to buy if your main need is media creation or media consumption. You would need to make compromises.

Above Avalon on Apple pulling away from competitors

Apple Installed Base (Number of Users)
Apple Installed Base (Number of Users)

For the second year in a row, Apple held a developers conference that should frighten its competitors. Relying on a nearly maniacal obsession with the user experience, Apple is removing oxygen from every market that it plays in.

At the same time, the tech landscape is riddled with increasingly bad bets, indifference, and a lack of vision. Apple is pulling away from the competition to a degree that we haven’t ever seen before.

Source: Above Avalon: Apple Is Pulling Away From the Competition

Above Avalon analyst Neil Cybart says Apple is stealing a march on other technology companies. He says the company has made long-term decisions that mean its rivals will struggle to catch up.

The story needs to be read through a careful filter. Cybart writes about the company both from an investment point of view and from a Silicon Valley perspective.

This doesn’t necessarily make his analysis biased or wrong, it isn’t,  but it can lack broader context.

Coherence

Cybart’s main idea is that Apple has pulled now all its strands together. The range of products and services has a new coherence and a clear direction.

This, according to Cybart, comes at a time when rivals are weakening.

Together these two trends have set up conditions that will move the company even further ahead of rivals over the next decade.

He makes a good case. Yet there are flaws in this line of thinking. Maybe flaw is too strong. Let’s say questions.

Samsung lack of vision

In the middle of the web post Cybart lists the ways Apple is beating key rival technology companies. He, rightly, notes that Samsung “remains rudderless from a product vision perspective.”

While that’s true, Samsung is a major component supplier to Apple and other hardware companies. If you look closely at Samsung’s financials, it’s clear the areas that compete with Apple are not central to Samsung’s profits.

The areas where the two companies co-operate are more important to Samsung.

Cybart correctly dismisses Google and Amazon as direct rivals. In the greater scheme of things their hardware products are inconsequential. Yet both remain on growth trajectories that could yet pose a threat to Apple.

Microsoft hardware

Microsoft’s hardware move has failed to alter the balance of power between Macs or iPads and Windows hardware. Cybart is right on the money when he says Surface mainly takes business away from Microsoft’s Windows partners.

Yet like Amazon and, to a lesser degree Google, Microsoft is powering ahead with cloud computing. These companies are building a significant digital world where Apple doesn’t play.

This is not a criticism of Cybart’s story. He is on the money as far as personal computer hardware and its immediate successor technologies are concerned. Apple does look set to dominate.

Beyond this there are parallel markets where Apple is, at best a bit player. These markets interact with Apple’s market. In the future they may interact in ways that are not yet clear.

Shorn of context, Apple is powering ahead. But let’s not forget Amazon and Microsoft are also powering ahead. Technology is not a simple zero-sum game.

Time to stop hating Microsoft

At this week’s NZ Tech Podcast host Paul Spain threw me a hospital pass: Is it time to stop hating Microsoft?

Younger readers may not remember, but at one time Microsoft was unpopular in many circles. Yes, there were even people who hated the company.

There were reasons for this. Pedants might argue Microsoft Windows was not a monopoly. Yet its 95 percent plus share of desktop operating systems sure felt like one.

Abusive monopoly

In effect Microsoft called all the shots. At times it abused its monopoly. It wasn’t always ethical1.

There are too many examples to mention. People have written books and doctrinal theses on the subject.

Microsoft attempted to parlay its desktop OS monopoly into other areas.

At one point it set out to win the desktop applications software market. Microsoft Word and Excel were up and coming challengers at the time.

The Lotus position

There are reports an internal message went to developers: “Dos ain’t done until Lotus won’t run”. In other words, bosses told them to build the operating system so a rival spreadsheet was useless.

That story may be a myth. Yet it explains why there was so much ill-will towards Microsoft. The accusations didn’t have to be true. They only had to feel true.

There are actual examples of bad behaviour. Some ended up in court.

The Internet Explorer antitrust action was a low point.

In those days critics suspected Microsoft’s motives even when it did good things.

In 1997 Apple was struggling and needed cash in a hurry. Microsoft came to the rescue. It agreed it would support a Mac version of Office for five years. It is still going today. Apple agreed to drop a law suit over Microsoft copying Apple’s OS look and feel.

Microsoft personalities

Microsoft’s key personalities did not help. Bill Gates’ rubbed people up the wrong way. Steve Ballmer took that to new levels.

Ballmer left Microsoft in 2014. While he was boss the company’s share price stagnated. So did its technology. And the company’s hardball attitude. Often Ballmer would sink innovative projects to protect the Windows and Office monopoly.

Some of that was baffling. Like the excellent iOS versions of Office apps which was held back from the market.

Nadella takes over

Early in 2014 Satya Nadella took over the reins. He moved the company into cloud computing. More to the point, Nadella stopped the aggressive defence posturing.

Today’s Microsoft is a different beast. It is still big, some of the time it is the world’s largest company by market capitalisation. It can still upset people. Every large corporation has its critics.

No doubt there will be those who continue to hate Microsoft. You don’t get to be number one without creating a few waves. Yet there is less to hate, less to object to.

Even, gasp, Microsoft Open Source

Today Microsoft has embraced open source. It is possibly the world’s largest provider of open source products. By some measures the company’s Azure cloud services uses more open source than proprietary software.

Windows is no longer a monopoly. It still runs on more computers than any other OS. But it now has to compete with ChromeOS, MacOS, iOS and Android. It doesn’t dominate.

Likewise while Office remains popular, it is not the only game in town.

You don’t have to love Microsoft. Actually that would be weird. There are still plenty of things to criticise. But if you carry a grudge from 20 years or so ago against a company that is now different in many ways, that seems like a waste of energy. Go and do something creative with it instead.


  1. What’s the point of building a monopoly if you don’t abuse it? ↩︎