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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.

If a tree falls in New Zealand’s tech forest…

A week ago Catalyst Cloud launched a low-cost storage service. Or to be accurate its Object Storage service. You can see the full press release at Scoop.

The story didn’t get a run in any reputable New Zealand media.

Contrast this with the extensive coverage Microsoft got the following day when it announced it was opening a New Zealand cloud region.

The Microsoft story was everywhere. It popped up at Stuff, RNZ and Reseller News among others. There were overseas runs at TechCrunch, CRN and Computerworld.

The prime minister even talked about it on TV.

Big run

My point here isn’t about New Zealand media giving the overseas company a bigger run than the local company. Although that could be a story in its own right – see Comparing the stories below.

What the contrast between two stories show is how much damage the lack of local technology coverage does to New Zealand’s home grown technology sector.

No-one here has the resources to file a story that is, by local standards, somewhat significant.

No one is watching, does anyone care?

We no longer have a native technology press. It’s a situation which, presumably, will be worse again if or when Stuff is no longer operating as a separate entity.

Last month Bauer Media closed its New Zealand operation shutting off Peter Griffin’s excellent regular features in the Listener.

The most visible remaining NZ tech title, Reseller News, is run out of Australia, with a part time local reporter. The Herald, Stuff, RNZ and Newsroom all have the occasional story, but it is mainly sporadic and far from comprehensive coverage.

An exception would be Juha Saarinen’s regular Herald columns.

This web site is also sporadic. There are stories here, but they are written in between my paying journalism work. That means it can’t be timely.

There are a couple of other outlets, but the big picture is that New Zealand can no longer sustain a commercial tech publishing sector with the resources to cover stories like the Catalyst Cloud storage launch.

Filling the vacuum are many overseas sites. Whatever their merits, they are not going to zoom in on the activities of a local cloud provider.

Comparing the stories

There’s no question the arrival of a New Zealand Microsoft cloud region is the bigger news story. Microsoft is the world’s second largest cloud operator, it has many customers here and there is a pent-up demand for a world-scale cloud operator to open shop in New Zealand.

In contrast, the Catalyst story, is, in effect, not much more than a feature update.

There are interesting angles to the Catalyst story. The cost of its Object Storage is on a par with costs for world scale cloud operators. It costs three cents a month to store a gigabyte.

The ‘everything is stored in New Zealand’ angle would be important, but then it’s also an important part of Microsoft’s story. And, no doubt, Microsoft could make the same claim about only using renewable energy.

Uphill battle

What this illustrates is the uphill battle a company like Catalyst has to be heard above the noise.

It must be galling for people at Catalyst and other New Zealand technology companies to do something innovative like introducing low cost cloud storage only to wake the following day and see a rival’s news splashed around the place.

Longer term it is a worry. Wikipedia says:

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a philosophical thought experiment that raises questions regarding observation and perception.

Tech companies need that observation and perception. New Zealand’s tech sector no longer has either.

Surface Book 3, Surface Go 2: Microsoft hardware refresh

Microsoft’s uses Surface to take the laptop fight to Apple. While it leaves mainstream Windows hardware to the likes of HP and Dell, its own brand adds an element of sophistication and a different take on innovation.

This week there was a new Surface Book and a new Surface Go.

Surface Go is Microsoft’s smallest and cheapest tablet. Local prices start at less than NZ$600. You can get cheaper tablets, but anything other than an iPad or Surface in that price range or lower is likely to disappoint.

More screen, less bezel

The new Surface Go 2 is the same size as the earlier model, but the screen size bumps from 10 to 10.5 inches. That’s thanks to smaller bezels, the edge around the screen. Surface Go 3 works with existing Go 3 accessories.

That kind of size increase might not sound much, in this case the screen resolution also increases to 1920 x 1280 pixel. The battery is bigger, Microsoft says you now get 10 hours.

There is also a new model with a faster Intel 8th Gen Core m3 processor. Yet the base model still comes with a Pentium Gold processor, that’s the same as the earlier Surface Go. You might want to avoid that.

Surface Book 3

It has been three years since the Surface Book 2. Longer since the first Surface Book. The models brought innovation and style to Windows, although at a high price.

The Surface Book 3 has a big speed bump, there are 10th generation Intel processors and updated NVIDIA graphics.

Sadly, there’s not much else to excite potential buyers. Physically the new laptops look much the same as the models they replace.

They still have the neat ability to unlock and remove the screen so it can be used as a large tablet. In my review of the earlier Surface Book I speculated that owners rarely use this feature. That appears to be correct.

Interesting hybrid

It still feels like the most interesting variation on the Windows 2-in–1 hybrid theme. Yet it would be nice if there was some fresh innovation in this department. When the first Surface Books appeared the design was well ahead of the curve, today other notebook models feel more up to date.

Microsoft hasn’t sent out review models in New Zealand to date. From the promotion material it looks as if the new Surface Book models continue the solid, well constructed design. Surface Books feel more robust than other mainstream PCs. Apparently it is heavy by laptop standards at about 1.5 kg for the 13.5-inch model.

The next comment will annoy many Windows fans, but the touch screen Windows 10 operating system doesn’t always feel right on 2-in–1 hybrids from other brands. Microsoft seems to have nailed this aspect of design in the past and there’s no reason why the Surface 3 doesn’t continue that legacy.

Windows 10 at five: Didn’t turn out as expected

On the fifth anniversary of Windows 10, we look back at what it was supposed to be and what it ultimately became. Almost nothing turned out as planned, and that’s OK.

Ed Bott brings the state of Windows 10 up to date at ZDNet with: Windows 10 turns five: Don’t get too comfortable, the rules will change again.

He writes:

I celebrated the occasion by upgrading a small data centre’s worth of Windows 10 devices to the new build and monitoring for glitches. This year, the process was refreshingly uneventful and almost shockingly fast. On newer PCs, almost everything happened in the background, and the wait after the final reboot was typically five minutes or less.

Five minutes seems incredible. There were early iterations of Windows 10 where you might need to set aside the best part of the day for an upgrade.

That was for the essential pre-upgrade back-up along with an hour or so for the upgrade itself. On top of that was time needed to familiarise yourself with the new reality.

Often things would go missing. In some cases key features would be dropped or change beyond recognition.

One lesson at that time was to never automate or customise Windows 10 because you’d never know if an update would break everything.

There were also times when an automatic upgrade might happen without warning and you’d wake up in unfamiliar territory.

It’s not clear to me how long it took Microsoft to get Windows 10 to the point where upgrading stopped being a risky venture.

Microsoft’s cunning plan

Ed Bott:

Back in 2015, Microsoft’s vision for Windows 10 was expansive. It would run on a dizzying assortment of devices: smartphones running Windows Mobile, small tablets like the 8-inch Dell Venue 8 Pro 5000 series, PCs in traditional and shape-shifting configurations, Xbox consoles, the gargantuan conference-room-sized Surface Hub, and the HoloLens virtual reality headset.

In 2020, that vision has been scaled back. Windows 10 Mobile is officially defunct, and small Windows 10 tablets have completely disappeared from the market. Of all those chips scattered across the craps table, only the 2-in-1 Windows device category appears to have paid off.

There was a time when Windows Mobile, or Windows Phone as it was called, beat the pants off Android and gave iOS a run for its money. Windows Phone 7 was great. It integrated neatly with everything else Windows and Office. For a while the Windows desktop and mobile combination was the most productive option.

Microsoft, being Microsoft, couldn’t resist tinkering with great, making life more complicated. Let’s face it, too complicated.

Windows Phone 8 may have had better features, but it was already on the path to clumsy and cluttered. From that point things kept getting worse.

Of course the real killer was that mighty Microsoft, once the world’s largest company and still among the biggest, couldn’t assemble a credible suite of phone apps.

Microsoft would have done better spending more of its capital seeding phone app developers than on other failed investments. Or maybe it was always a lost cause. It doesn’t matter because a reinvented Microsoft went on to greater things with Azure and enterprise products and services.

There are times when 2-in-1 Windows devices sparkle and shine, but for the most part non-Surface Windows PC hardware feels almost held back by Microsoft.

HP, Dell and others give every appearance of being capable of making great hardware. Yet they never quite reach the lofty heights. Ever so often something special appears, but you have to move fast and buy it at the time because the good stuff never gains traction.

Likewise Microsoft’s own-brand Surface products don’t always hit the target. There have been missed. Yet on the whole the Surface experience is fine even if product reliability isn’t up to scratch. And if you want to spend that much money, Apple can look relatively inexpensive by comparison.

On conspiracy theories

More Bott:

And then there were the dark scenarios that Microsoft skeptics spun out around the time of Windows 10’s debut.

The free upgrade offer was a trap, they insisted. After Microsoft had lured in a few hundred million suckers with that offer, they were going to start charging for subscriptions. Five years later, that still hasn’t happened. If Microsoft is running some sort of hustle here, it’s a very long con.

There’s more conspiracy coverage in the original story. As Bott says, it is all nonsense. The conspiracy theories looked daft at the time. They showed a lack of understanding about Microsoft’s direction and where Windows 10 fits in the big picture.

Windows 10 did the job it needed to do

As Bott puts it:

Despite the occasional twists and turns that Windows 10 has taken in the past five years, it has accomplished its two overarching goals.

First, it erased the memory of Windows 8 and its confusing interface. For the overwhelming majority of Microsoft’s customers who decided to skip Windows 8 and stick with Windows 7, the transition was reasonably smooth. Even the naming decision, to skip Windows 9 and go straight to 10 was, in hindsight, pretty smart.

Second, it offered an upgrade path to customers who were still deploying Windows 7 in businesses. That alternative became extremely important when we zoomed past the official end-of-support date for Windows 7 in January 2020.

It’s taken Microsoft eight years to recover from Windows 8. In some ways it still hasn’t fully recovered. It may never recover. Windows 8 was the point where Microsoft no longer dominated.

Yes, things happened elsewhere. There was a switch from PCs to phones. But the key point is that when Microsoft faced the first serious competition to its dominance, it released a terrible operating system. Or at least the wrong operating system to meet the challenge.

Windows 10 didn’t halt Microsoft’s OS decline

If anything Windows 8 accelerated Microsoft’s OS decline.

Stockholm syndrome means that many Windows fans couldn’t see how awful Windows 8 was. Switching from 7 to 8 was a horrible experience. People who could put off those upgrades and stayed with 7. Today about 20 percent of all OS users still have Windows 7, an operating system that is well past its sell by date. Microsoft no longer supports 7.

Other users switched to Apple, Linux or even ChromeOS. And there was a huge switch away from computers to phones.

Before Windows 8 Microsoft’s OS market share was around 90 percent. Today it is about 35 percent and comes in behind Android. Apple is about 8.5 percent.

Windows 10 offers a credible path for Windows 7 users. The fact that so many users, especially enterprise users, have stuck with 7 tells you how bad things were for Microsoft.

To a degree Microsoft has lost interest in Windows. It no longer makes rivers of gold from the operating system. At least not directly. It remains important as a gateway for business users to move to the company’s Azure cloud services. But the days when Windows called the shots are over.

Cloud computing more energy efficient than we thought 

The digital services churned out by the world’s computer centres are multiplying. Their energy use is not, thanks to cloud computing, a new study says.

Source: Cloud Computing Is Not the Energy Hog That Had Been Feared – The New York Times

The New York Times story refers to a study published in the journal Science: Recalibrating global data centre energy use estimates.

It starts:

Data centres represent the information backbone of an increasingly digitalised world. Demand for their services has been rising rapidly. Data-intensive technologies such as artificial intelligence, smart and connected energy systems, distributed manufacturing systems, and autonomous vehicles promise to increase demand further.

Given that data centres are energy-intensive enterprises, estimated to account for around 1 percent of worldwide electricity use, these trends have clear implications for global energy demand and must be analysed rigorously.

Efficient cloud computing

There’s a common belief that accelerating data processing means the energy used to power data centres is rising fast. It turns out it is not.

Data centres did six times as much computing work in 2018 as in 2010. Yet their power consumption increased only six percent.

There’s also evidence computing means less pollution and greenhouse gas than we feared.

The reason for the new optimism is the amount of work that has shifted to the cloud. And not just any old cloud. Most has moved to the bigger and more energy efficient services.

Low carbon

Cloud giants like AWS and Microsoft run huge data centres. Many place their data centres where they can use low carbon energy. Hydroelectricity and solar power are favourites. Some are located in naturally cold places. This means less need for air conditioning.

Big cloud companies use technologies that pack more computing and storage into ever smaller hardware. Small hardware is usually more efficient.

Energy efficiency is good for the environment. It’s also good for the cloud companies. Energy is often a significant cost. Cloud companies love to boast about their clean energy. It also helps them win business.

Why Microsoft’s ritzy Surface Laptop 3 costs a fortune

Mike Riversdale has a problem with the price of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3. He responded to my review of the Laptop on Twitter:

Soon after:

Then:

He has a good point. The Surface Laptop 3 is far more than expensive than similar laptops. Even if you shop around it is  $1000 or so more expensive than similar laptops. That makes it at least 50 percent more than the price of a 15-inch Windows laptop from HP, Dell or Lenovo. It is a whopping 80 percent more than Riversdale’s fancy new birthday laptop.

Premium laptop

Microsoft positions its Surface Laptops as premium models. It would be fair to say the build is top notch. The case is nicer than you’ll find on most commodity laptops. The keyboard is the best I’ve seen in any laptop. The screen ratio is more suited to writing than displays on consumer laptops optimised for video

All these things are nice. For many people who spend all day writing a first class keyboard is a must. It is well worth paying a few extra dollars for more comfortable, more productive typing.

Yet it’s still a struggle to justify a 50 or 80 percent premium.

And anyway, Microsoft does not sell its Surface Laptop 3 on these features. At the time of writing the marketing copy on Microsoft’s website makes that clear. It starts: “Make a powerful statement and get improved speed, performance, and all-day battery life”.

The $3100 review model might have improved speed compared with a second generation Surface Laptop. Yet it is no faster than those $1700 rival Windows laptops. We can concede the battery life is good, but not a lot better than those competing machines.

Tangible, intangible

If the tangible aspects can’t justify the higher price, does it come down to less tangible things?

And that’s where Microsoft’s price becomes more of a puzzle.

Apple can and does charge more for MacBooks than most Windows computer makers can get away with. There are people, I’m one of them, who are happy to pay more for Apple’s software and ecosystem. The fact that I can handoff between my phone, iPad and MacBook is worth paying a little extra for.

Some people swear there are productivity benefits from using a Mac. You don’t have to agree with this opinion. That’s not important. What is important is that many computer buyers believe they get better productivity from a Mac

Microsoft cannot make a similar claim. The version of Windows 10 on the Surface Laptop 3 is near identical to that on rival Windows laptops. There is no premium in the software. Unless you count the fact that Microsoft doesn’t load up its laptops with bloatware.

Microsoft Surface Laptop brand

Which only leaves another reason Microsoft thinks it can charge a premium; that the brand is more valuable. It can’t be that Microsoft computers are more reliable than competing devices. In 2017 the US Consumer Reports said that it would no longer recommend Microsoft’s Surface laptops and tablets because of “poor predicted reliability” compared to other brands.

That’s damning. Microsoft says it has fixed the problems. It may have done. But any laptop buyer with a memory or access to Google will doubt it is worth paying a quality premium.

It’s not going to cut much ice with buyers, yet scale is one reason Microsoft hardware is expensive. The company does not rate among the top five PC makers. HP, Dell, Lenovo, Apple and Acer account for 80 percent of personal computer sales. Acer is the smallest of the top 5 with a six percent share of the market. It’s no secret Acer is struggling.

The Surface range is a US$2 billion business for Microsoft. That puts it in the region of a little over one percent of the company. It’s healthy, but not essential to Microsoft’s future.

It’s not about you, it’s not about the laptop

So what is going on with Surface? Before Microsoft entered the market, the Windows laptop scene was in bad shape. There was as race to the bottom between computer makers. They still make tiny margins selling hardware, in some cases unsustainable margins.

Microsoft introduced the Surface to inject quality and excitement back into the market.

At the time Apple was almost the entire premium end of the PC market. That’s not something Microsoft could sit by and watch. Over time that would erode the Windows brand and create all sorts of tensions. There was no way Microsoft would leave the high ground to Apple.

You can see from the numbers and the market share, that Microsoft is not serious about winning the bulk of hardware customers. It doesn’t need to do that. It needs to establish a premium Windows computer brand that shines out as an alternative to Apple.

Having high prices is an important part of that strategy. A high price can be as much a marketing strategy as low, low prices. It also means Microsoft makes a tidy sum from the exercise.

If you, like Mike Riversdale, think the Surface Laptop 3 costs too much at NZ$3100, that’s fine. Shop elsewhere. It’s not for you. It is a message from Microsoft to let you know there is more to the PC business than getting a bargain.