web analytics

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.

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, 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? ↩︎

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.

HP Chromebook EnterpriseSuddenly after years of decline personal computers are hot again. Sales are up and there are shortages of some models.

It may not last. Indeed the full year could still see an overall decline in sales. Yet for now, the PC has regained relevance.

After playing second fiddle to the phone, the focus is back on the PC. That mainly means laptops.

The move to working from home has seen an explosion in demand for hardware with a decent size screen and a proper keyboard.

It’s not just office workers setting up shop on the kitchen table, it’s also students logging on to remote lessons and many others turning to digital entertainment to fill the hole left when you can’t go out so much.

HP in a good place today

HP is in a good place to exploit the exploding demand. It is, after all, New Zealand’s best selling PC brand by a fair clip. It is the leader in many countries around the world and even where it doesn’t dominate, it is an important player.

Apple’s computer strategy may not be as laser focused today as it has been in recent years, but it focuses on a handful of product lines. Microsoft does something similar with its Surface hardware.

In contrast, HP takes the opposite approach. It throws a lot of ideas against the wall knowing full well that some will stick.

This week’s announcements in the US follow that approach. The company has focused on two distinct, non-mainstream PC sectors. At one extreme it has gone big with new Omen gaming PCs. At the other there are enterprise-focused Chromebooks.

The Omen announcements are grunty machines ideal for people who need lockdown entertainment. There is a large screen 27-inch gaming monitor with 165Hz refresh rate and 1ms response time.

HP Omen 27i Gaming Monitor
HP Omen 27i Gaming Monitor

The new Omen computers are built around high performance Intel i9 and AMD Ryzen 9 CPUs. They use Nvidia RTX 2080 or AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT graphics cards. Also in the mix are a fancy new case design, Cooler Master cooling components and HyperX high-speed Dram along with WD Black SSDs.

A good Omen

Gaming PCs have been a success story for HP. They are one of the few PC categories to experience growth and because the products tend to be premium throughout, margins are healthy. With people spending even more time at home, they are likely to continue selling well.

We don’t see them so much in New Zealand, but elsewhere in the world Chromebooks are very popular in education. HP makes plenty of affordable low-end Chromebooks to address this market. Now it is parlaying some of that expertise to meet a corporate need for low-cost cloud-based hardware.

The revived Enterprise 14 G6 Chromebook won’t win any prizes for performance. It doesn’t have to. It is as a solid cloud-based laptop with a 14-inch display. There are more swept up Chromebooks and one model comes in the 2-in-1 format.

There’s also a mobile thin client, which is, in effect, a laptop for people who use a virtual desktop, another trend which is more prevalent overseas than in New Zealand.

Elsewhere HP has a new laser printer for home users. Its sales pitch is that it comes with seven times as much toner as earlier laser printers.

 

 

 

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.

If I didn’t promise to help you out in the next sentence, you’d probably have to look up skeuomorphism in a dictionary.

In simple terms the word means something that resembles whatever it was that used to do the job.1

The word may be unfamiliar. The idea is not.

Take the old Macintosh Address Book app. Before Apple modernised its software, the Address Book app looked like a paper address book.

You might also remember when computer operating system desktops had waste paper bin or trash can icons to tell you this is where you throw things away.

Skeuomorph central

The smartphone is skeuomorph central. Every iPhone has icons showing a torch, a telephone handset, a camera and so on. What each of these does is obvious. The envelope icon isn’t quite so apparent, yet you don’t need a PhD to figure out it is for email. Android phones have similar skeuomorphs.

Skeuomorphs don’t have to be software. Houses might have cladding where manufacturers made the building material resemble wooden boards or brick.

Soon electric vehicles in Europe will have to make noises so that pedestrians and others get an audio cue to take care.

Understanding

The idea behind skeuomorphism is that it helps you to better understand what you are looking at. It’s a visual clue telling you the purpose of the object. You see something familiar and, bingo, you know what that thing is going to do.

There’s a special breed of skeuomorph idea where the visual cue lives on long after the original item has disappeared from use.

Mr flippy floppy

Perhaps the best known is the floppy disk icon you sometimes see used to indicate the save function.

It’s getting on for 20 years since computers had built-in floppy disk drives. An entire generation has entered the workforce without every having seen a floppy disk in action. And yet, everyone knows what that image is supposed to mean.

No doubt you have heard stories of young people encountering a real floppy disc for the first time. While they may not know what the item is, or how it is used. They often recognise it from the icon.

Time to put skeuomorphism to bed

While the thinking behind skeuomorphism makes sense, as far as software and operating systems go, it’s best days are in the past. Skeuomorphic designs are often fussy and ugly. They clutter things up. The images are often meaningless and what is represented is not always clear cut.

Yet there’s a Catch 22 here. I prefer minimalist design. It’s easier to focus on the job in hand when the software stays out of the way. I was about to say that when I’m writing, I prefer to start with a blank sheet of paper. Which is, of course, itself a skeuomorphism.


  1. 1 My Mac’s dictionary says: An object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material. ↩︎