And another thing 67

by Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball is actually quite impressed by what Microsoft had to say at its New York Windows 10 devices event.

HardCopy Issue: 67 | Published: November 6, 2015

So Microsoft has finally pulled its head out of its [expletive removed] and decided it’s time to get real. You might baulk at that description. But it is as clear as I can be when I think that the Beast Of Redmond has decided what it is going to do, and how it is going to do it. Of course, the big unknown is whether the customer base will agree and go along with the plan. But with no plan, there are no customers anyway.

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that this is the first time that Microsoft has had a coherent user/desktop/mobile/app/developer plan for the thick end of 15 years. Which co-incidentally is around the time when Gates gave up, no doubt frustrated by his inability to spend quality time with every single product group and to keep all their plans in his head at once as Microsoft ballooned in size and complexity. And when Gates gave up, he walked and installed his trusted sidekick Ballmer in place.

I know that it’s easy to be right after the event, but I still strongly believe that Ballmer was the wrong guy for the job. The efforts made to keep Microsoft in one piece were probably a bad idea, and he lorded over more than a decade of mismanagement. The only reason the Good Ship Microsoft kept sailing is because of momentum. Windows 2000 with Active Directory had just come out, and it solved real customer needs in the SMB and corporate space. This pushed Windows even more firmly to the desktop, and in their eyes a home user was just a pro user without a data centre.

Almost everything else they touched caused pain: the money poured into Xbox; the inability to keep Microsoft Research under control and to bring near and mid-term solutions to the foreground. Nothing Apple did with iPhone was magical, it was simply the bringing together of the right emerging technologies at the right time. Microsoft was wholly incapable of doing that then, and it is only now that it can move forward.

Why? Because Ballmer and his cohorts have gone, and Nadella is sweeping through the buildings, bringing a clarity, humility and enthusiasm to the place which was wholly lacking under Ballmer’s reign. I’m sure others will claim that Ballmer’s time was a high point, that he did all the right things. For myself, I cannot follow that line. There are way too many craters in the road recently travelled for that view to have any traction with me.

Safe Harbour

It was many years ago when Editor Nicholson and I first got our teeth into the web of lies, misinformation and sheer wishful thinking that surrounded Safe Harbour and other such fantasies peddled by the global American-based software and cloud services vendors. My favourite was the claim that my data held in the Microsoft Dublin datacentre would not be open to an attack by the US Government via the Patriot Act, a claim which was finally refuted to my face by the highest level of Microsoft executive one evening in a bar in Redmond, who told me, “Of course we would hand it over, we would have no choice.” The latest bombastic privacy concerns from Microsoft are all well and good, but my heart leapt when I heard that the European Supreme Court had decided that Safe Harbour wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. One small step in the right direction – hopefully TTIP won’t be six in the wrong.

So, to the announcements. This is a confident Microsoft, a Microsoft that now knows where it’s going and how it is going to get there. A Microsoft that has focus, and when Microsoft gets focus, it can be deadly. Just look at what it has done with virtualisation, for example. For the first few years it was like a drowning cat. Then it got its ideas together, all the ducks in a row, and the Hyper-V strategy has been a killer. Not enough to uproot VMware from everywhere, but good enough for most people most of the time.

And it has finally decided to do that with its desktop OS and development strategy. Up until now I have paid scant regard to the Windows Phone business. Back in the days of Windows CE, its phones were interesting if somewhat gawky products that relied too much on a toothpick. But they were ahead of their time. iPhone and Android pulled the rug out quite comprehensively and Microsoft’s answer under Ballmer was to flail around like a drowning fish. Windows Phone 8 and its variants were simply not enough, and the hardware was weak. Then Microsoft bought Nokia and all the partners walked away. Now in the Nadella era, it has finally decided why Windows on a phone is a good idea.

It’s not for software lock-in. It’s not to stop customers using iOS and Android, by ensuring Office would only be on Windows phones. That nonsense stopped dead in its tracks when Ballmer was shown the door. Now I can run Microsoft Office, in some form or another, on my iPhone, my iPad, my Android phone, my Android tablet, and on my Windows tablet. And now on my Windows phone as well.


Software magic

But that’s not enough. No, with Windows 10 Mobile (or whatever it ends up being called) I can plug in an interface box, and connect to that a desktop monitor, keyboard mouse and Ethernet cable. All of a sudden I have a full-featured phone on my desk and full screen Windows apps running on my desktop screen, independently of the phone which is still fully operational.

Suddenly the software magic behind ‘Continuum’ makes sense, and suddenly I see a way in which I could be simply carrying around a phone which I hot dock into a workstation framework both at home and at work, and my world travels with me. After all, a modern smartphone is more than capable of holding its own in terms of CPU and storage power against a workstation of a few years ago, and is probably light years ahead in terms of GPU capability. So why not use this as an engine for a simultaneous desktop experience?

If the business world agrees, this could become the killer Bring Your Own Device solution and the ultimate portable device for those on the move. Of course, the proof is in the pudding – just how well does a Nokia Lumia run a relatively full-featured Windows desktop on a 27-inch screen? Does it judder and fall apart at the seams when you make a phone call at the same time? How hot will it get when the CPU is pushed hard? All of these issues will need answers, but the underlying concepts are sound enough to make the effort worthwhile.

And this explains the work Microsoft has been doing with developers to help make self-resizing intelligent apps that allow the UI to move into different places and adapt to the size of the screen. What works on a 5-inch phone screen is not what you want on a 27-inch desktop, and what works well with touch on a phone isn’t the same as a mouse-centric desktop either. But the new world order of building ‘Metro’ apps brings all these questions to the foreground, and the new Windows 10 phones with their docking capabilities are the platform on which answers will be sought. For the first time in a very long time, I am actually enthused about Windows Phone.

The refresh of the Surface range into the Surface Pro 4 was entirely expected, including the use of the latest Intel chipsets. So nothing really new there. However the Surface Book does open Microsoft to new areas. After all, the high-end Windows laptop market is somewhat of a nuclear wasteland these days. The price of Windows laptop devices has continued to plummet, and there is really no margin left in them. Even the manufacturers of higher-end products like Samsung have withdrawn from the marketplace, although it is very hard to know how much of their pain was actually self-inflicted.

It could be argued that Microsoft has had no alternative but to do Surface Book, to try to establish that there still is a high-end laptop market for Windows 10, and that a well-considered and designed item could fulfil the roles of both laptop and tablet when required, in a way that the Surface Pro 4 cannot, despite its other strengths.

This two-tier approach, with the Lumia phones at the bottom, is certainly intriguing. However it wouldn’t have been a Microsoft event without some other bits and pieces, of course. The VR system appears to be getting better and better, although clear answers about the field of view in the real headset are still not easy to come by. The price is, however – some $3,000 for the HoloLens prototypes in the Spring of 2016, which is expensive enough to deter the dabbler and even the schools marketplace, and leave things to the hard core developers. That’s fine for a first wave, but first wave needs to become a much wider second wave as quickly as possible, otherwise it ends up looking like a niche product that no-one ever actually used, and history is littered with too many such corpses already.