Straight Talking 58

by Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson reports on two companies in transition.

HardCopy Issue: 58 | Published: November 1, 2012

Windows 8 is here. Surface is here. This is the formal launch of Microsoft’s reinvention of Windows. It is spending big too: I was in New York City for its launch, and saw adverts for Windows 8 and Surface everywhere. Microsoft cannot afford for this to fail.

Adobe’s quiet transformation

Microsoft is not the only technology company which has been forced to transform its product strategy. Adobe is another, which only a year ago seemed wedded to a dying multimedia runtime in Flash, and a business model based on driving a regular upgrade cycle for its Creative Suite products including Photoshop, InDesign and Dreamweaver.

Around November 2011 – a year ago as I write – Adobe shifted. It made little noise about it at the time, possibly because it was bad news for developers who invested their skills in Flash, Flex and AIR (the Flash runtime for desktop and mobile) as an application platform, but it was a decisive move. As developer evangelist Michael Chaize told me: “For the Flash part we decided to just focus on video games and premium video, and invest in HTML tooling and specifications with a team of engineers. It was synced with the decision to stop developing Flash in mobile.”

Alongside the move away from Flash, Adobe worked to migrate its software business away from perpetual licenses to a subscription model based on membership of Creative Cloud, which provides not only its classic software products but also services such as PhoneGap Build for compiling HTML applications into mobile apps.

Adobe also started work on a series of lightweight tools under the Edge name, obtainable mainly through its Creative Cloud service. Edge tools include Animate for motion graphics in HTML; Reflow for designing HTML layouts that can be scaled easily for different mobile devices; and Code which is a smart editor for HTML and JavaScript, based on the open source Brackets project.

Brackets (or Edge Code) is especially worth a look for developers, though be warned that it is still in preview. Those with long memories will remember HomeSite, an HTML editor created by a company called Allaire and acquired by Macromedia in 2001. Macromedia was later acquired by Adobe, and in due course HomeSite was discontinued in favour of Dreamweaver.

Dreamweaver is an excellent product in its own way, but I cannot be the only coder who missed HomeSite with its quick start-up, code-centric approach and helpful productivity features. Brackets is a return to that tradition. It is built using Google’s Chromium Embedded Framework which means that it uses the WebKit browser component and Google’s V8 JavaScript engine, giving excellent performance. The code editor is based on CodeMirror, an open source project for browser-hosted JavaScript editing. With Flex now under a shadow as Adobe retreats from Flash, Edge Code along with PhoneGap (with which it integrates) shows that the company is not entirely abandoning developers.

In its third quarter results, released in September 2012, Adobe announced over 200,000 Creative Cloud subscribers and 8,000 new subscriptions per week, compared to its own projection of 5,000 per week. Part of the reason is that Adobe has structured its pricing to favour subscribers in most cases, as well as adding cloud-only offerings so that those with old-style perpetual licenses miss out on some goodies.

While this is annoying for some customers, what impresses me is how well the company is managing a profound transition. It has focused on the core of its business, which is tools for design professionals, and adapted its offering to fit the new world of cloud and device. In the long term, Apple’s refusal to allow Flash to run on iOS may actually have been a benefit to Adobe.

The presumption is that client computing is changing. A laptop or PC is still a fantastically useful device, but has a bulk and complexity that few users need all the time, and that some users do not need at all. The device that has done most to exploit that fact is Apple’s iPad. Users tap between apps or browse the Web without thinking about the operating system. Long battery life and compact slate format make it easier to carry than a laptop. There is an argument that it is primarily for content consumption rather than creation, but it is an artificial distinction: some tasks need the greater power of a PC or MacBook, but the capability of iPad and browser apps is constantly increasing.

Windows 8 is the first version with a user interface designed for touch-first. In order to achieve this, Microsoft created a new platform loosely (very loosely) similar to what was done for Windows Phone 7. Compatibility with Windows 7 and earlier is achieved by a desktop mode which is essentially the operating system we know and love or hate, but with a few changes such as the contentious Start screen, which lives in the new world, in place of the old Start menu.

I am typing this on a Surface RT which runs not only Windows 8 but also its ARM variant, Windows RT (not to be confused with WinRT, which is the Windows Runtime found in all versions of Windows 8). The Surface is a device which is wonderful and frustrating in equal measure. The hardware is delightful; everything fits perfectly, and with its innovative Touch cover it includes a usable keyboard and trackpad while adding less bulk than most tablet covers, let alone those with built-in keyboards. It is lightweight, battery life is decent, and with Office 2013 Home and Student included goes some way towards fulfilling the promise of a tablet good enough to let you leave your laptop at home.

At the same time, even Surface is too closely tied to Microsoft’s past. Almost all of the Windows desktop is here; not only familiar applications like Paint and Notepad, but also utilities such as PowerShell, Registry Editor and the Windows Scripting Host. This makes Surface more powerful for Windows geeks, but makes you wonder why such things are included in a device that is intended to be failsafe and touch-friendly. It is even possible to get annoying old-style Windows errors while working in the Windows desktop.

The new ‘Modern’ environment is where the tablet environment makes sense, but it suffers from two problems. The bigger issue is the lack of compelling apps; there are some excellent ones, such as OneNote or even the Weather app, but others such as the built-in Mail client are less good, and most of the 5,000 or so apps in the Store are trivial or poor.

Next, performance is disappointing at times. Some simple tests show performance of JavaScript or C# code three to five times slower than on an Intel Core i5 at 1.6 GHz. A Google Nexus 7 with the same Nvidia Tegra 3 chipset is even slower, but whereas a Nexus running Android does not feel slow, the Surface sometimes does, suggesting that Windows 8 is more demanding and perhaps a little ambitious on a Tegra 3.

Microsoft Surface in Times Square

Despite these disappointments I cannot help liking the Surface RT. If you look at what it can do, rather than what it can’t, it adds up to an impressive device. It is also worth noting that we are at the very beginning of the evolution of both Windows RT and the new app platform. Both will improve, probably markedly so.

The underlying question though is this: can Microsoft successfully manage the transition to the era of lightweight mobile devices, or will it be forever be in the shadow of Apple and Android as desktop Windows gently declines? Surface RT illustrates why the company is finding this so difficult. The intent is there, even to the extent of risking the alienation of existing Windows users by bolting on a radically different user interface. In the end though, the desktop remains in Surface RT simply because Microsoft has not completed the work necessary to do without it.

It also seems to me that the inability to install new desktop applications, while annoying, is a strength that most observers have underplayed. Only the foolish would declare Windows RT to be immune from malware; but the fact that x86 executables will not run, combined with the sandboxing of new-style Windows 8 apps, must make a Surface RT less vulnerable than Intel-based Windows 8 machines.

It is only fair to add that, while Surface RT has received a mixed reception, there are other Microsoft initiatives that look in good health. Server 2012 is a strong release. The Azure cloud platform is much improved, with many welcome new features. Windows Phone 8, launched a few days after Windows 8, is built on the same kernel and has native code development enabled at last.

Microsoft is a company in transition, with cloud and device the new theme. The new Windows 8 app platform is version 1 and looks it, but there is a lot right about the overall direction.