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Microsoft Has Lost Its Marketing Mojo August 1, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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I am old enough to remember people standing in line outside of Best Buy at midnight before Windows 95 went on sale. We knew the RTM (release to manufacturing, another anachronism) date by heart, and our favorite PC manufacturers would give us hourly updates on GA (yes, general availability) for their products.

Today, we don’t even know that Windows 10 has been released (Microsoft has said that it may take several weeks to deliver on upgrades and new systems), yet we know the exact date that a new version of iOS hits our devices. I’m searching for a new laptop, and can’t even tell what edition of Windows 10 I might be able to obtain.

This is purely Microsoft’s fault, and it’s sad. It’s sad because the company actually has some very nice products, better than ever I think, yet is at a loss as to how to communicate that to its markets. Windows 10 has gotten some great reviews, and I am loving my Microsoft Band and the Microsoft Health app more each day. But millions of people who have bought the Apple SmartWatch don’t even know that the Band exists.

This failure falls squarely on Microsoft. I’m not entirely sure why Microsoft has failed so miserably, but unless it recognizes this failure and corrects it, there is no long term hope. I can only think that Microsoft believes it is so firmly entrenched in the enterprise that it doesn’t have to worry about any other markets.

I will date myself again, remembering all of the Unix variations and how they believed they were the only solution for enterprise computing. Today, no one is making money off of Unix (although Linux is alive and well, albeit nowhere near as profitable). Unix fundamentally died because of the sheer arrogance of DEC, HP, Sun, and other vendors who believed that the technology was unassailable. It was not, and if you believe otherwise you don’t know the history of your markets, which is yet another failure.

And it also means Microsoft has totally given up on the consumer. I fully expect that there will be no enhancements to the Band, and that it will end-of-life sometime in the foreseeable future. And that too is sad, because consumer tech is driving the industry today. Microsoft was always a participant there, but has given it up as a lost cause.

It’s not a failure of technology. Microsoft never had great technology (although I do believe today it is better than ever). It’s a failure of marketing, something that Microsoft has forgotten how to do.

The Microsoft Band Delivers – Mostly July 22, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I got a Microsoft Band. I was looking for my next step up in activity wearables, and liked what I read about it on the website. At $200, it is much more than an activity tracker. It includes a GPS, like more expensive sports watches, and integration with your phone provides for the ability to receive notification of calls, text messages, and other phone activity.

When I got it, my first (and pretty much only) disappointment was that it didn’t sync with my phone’s version of Android (4.1.3), supporting only 4.3 and above. My phone wouldn’t allow an upgrade to a supported version. Coincidentally (really), I bought a new phone later in the week, an LG G4, running Android 5.0 (Lollipop).

But the fact of the matter is that the system requirements weren’t clear or obvious, which is a drastic change from older PC-based software. I suppose that it is difficult to deliver or test all phones and OS versions, but this isn’t what I expect from software, even in the era of the smartphone.

But within a couple of days, I came to really like the Band. First, my first night, I received an Amber alert in my area. My phone buzzed, but the Band let me know about it, even including the text message. You can configure it to show incoming calls, texts, and even emails. It’s ease of configurability is really good, much better than most watches or other wearables.  I now depend on it as my first notification of calls if my phone isn’t physically on my person.

And the GPS-based activity tracker is remarkably easy to use and obtain data from. I didn’t read any documentation, yet was able to use it with my running routine within seconds. The results are displayed on the Microsoft Health app, and are exceptionally easy to understand and interpret.

One other minor annoyance – the touch panel simply doesn’t work with a sweaty finger. After a particularly humid run, I attempted to stop my run session, and it simply wouldn’t do so until I dried off my fingers. This limitation may be driven by pure physical reasons, but it makes me think that Microsoft’s user experience (UX) testing wasn’t as good as it could have been.

I find it disappointing that Microsoft can deliver a reasonably compelling product, yet not effectively market or promote it. Apple is rumored to have sold around five million iWatches in its first quarter, with very mixed reviews, yet the downloads for Microsoft Health (required to use the Band) in about a full year are under a hundred thousand, at least on Android. I’m not a Microsoft fanboy by any means, but I do acknowledge when it produces good products.

The Microsoft Band is a good product for people who are seeking the next level up from the Fitbit and other low-end devices, and would be useful to many more people than currently use it. I don’t know just when Microsoft ceased being a marketing monster, but it clearly fails with the Band. Make no mistake – the technology and products remain very good, even outside of the PC space, but Microsoft lost its marketing mojo at some point, and doesn’t seem interested in getting it back.

Microsoft, Phone Home July 12, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms.
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I found this article on Computerworld about Microsoft’s retrenchment from Nokia’s phone business a worthwhile read, because of the company’s clear acknowledgment that it should never have spent billions of dollars to be in the handset business. Or, at best, perhaps it should have been, but it didn’t have the will to make a declining acquired business into a successful one.

I was nonplussed at the vitriol spewed in the comments section, personally attacking Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols in more ways than I cared to see. In particular, I was expecting to find an intelligent debate on the merits of his article; instead, it was pretty much of a trashing of his take on the topic.

To be fair, I think I may have hired SJVN for his first freelance assignment, circa 1990. And while the effort over the years was entirely his own, I am proud of the way that he has developed himself into a good and technical journalist in an era where neither quality is respected. Yes, he is a lifelong Linux guy, but that doesn’t make him a bad guy.

And I have to pretty much agree with him. That’s not an anti-Microsoft bias. That’s simply an acknowledgement that, despite spending tens of billions of dollars over a period of well over ten years, Microsoft still seems to lack the ability to commercialize its mobile software technology.

I confess that at one level I don’t understand its problem. Microsoft is technically very good, and in particular I love Cortina. Microsoft does really cool stuff, but outside of the enterprise realm, seems to have lost the will to effectively market.

I will say that a part of the company’s problem is on its obsession with the same look and feel across all devices. Windows on the desktop should never have translated to Windows on the phone. I had the opportunity to use a Microsoft Surface for several months, and while I admire the hardware design, the look and feel is far too crowded for the screen real estate. You may argue that it was intended to use with an external monitor, but it’s mobile, and the UI just doesn’t work for its screen form factor.

But there’s more than that, and I think it is a corporate culture thing, rather than a technology thing. Microsoft as a 100,000+ employee company simply has desktop too embedded into its DNA to pivot to anything else. Perhaps Nadella can change that, over time.

Some of the commenters lump Embedded and CE and Pocket PC and Surface in the same category in an attempt to say that Microsoft has been enormously successful in mobile devices, but that’s at best disingenuous, and at worst delusional.

I’m getting ready to buy about my fifteenth Windows PC (mostly laptops) in the last 20 years. I have mixed opinions of Microsoft’s technology during that time, but it is a necessity for many users (mostly including me). I fully accept Microsoft and its role in computing, but I’m neither a cheerleader nor a detractor.

So, while SJVN’s biases are evident, it is still a worthwhile article. And while the commenters’ biases are even more evident, they do not in any way add to the debate.

A Road Less Taken January 26, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms.
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Among the best jobs that I had in my long and interesting career is the roles of technical evangelist. I’ve had that formal title three times, and have had related roles on other occasions.

As you might expect, a technical evangelist evangelizes, or enthusiastically promotes, a particular technology, product or solution to a wide range of people. They could be C-level executives, or industry thought leaders, managers, tech leads, or individual contributors.

This is done through a number of ways – through articles in industry publications (these days mostly websites), white papers, blog posts, webcasts, podcasts, and screencasts, as well as speaking at user groups and industry conferences.

What good is evangelism? Well, it can play a number of different but interrelated roles. In the places I was an evangelist, it was mostly about brand awareness, with some customer contact for demonstrations and consultation. In other roles, it could serve as a specialized technical resource to help customers solve difficult problems. In still others, it is primarily a technical sales function. The important thing to do is to understand what is expected of the role, and to deliver on those expectations. It sounds simple, but in reality it rarely is.

A little bit about me. I don’t consider myself to be especially outgoing, but I was a university professor for a number of years, and through interest and repetition became a very good public speaker. I learned the art of storytelling through trial and error, and found it to be an effective teaching technique.

I was fortunate enough to receive training in academic instruction through the Air Force, and found that I had a knack for relating to my audiences. I found that I loved the travel and interaction with experts, peers, and students of the field. I would like to think that I built brand awareness very well.

The downside of being an evangelist is that many technology companies are ambivalent about the role. I worked for a company that had twenty evangelists, then systematically dismantled the team in order to look attractive for an exit strategy. In doing so, they may have sacrificed long term growth for a short term balance sheet.

Yet it is an exciting and fulfilling role. I hope to be able to get back into it at some point.

Of Apps and Men December 18, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms, Software tools.
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Fair warning – I am eventually going to say more about Uber. The apps business is an interesting one, and some historical context is necessary to understand just why. In the PC era, we typically paid hundreds of dollars for individual applications. As a result, we would buy only a few of them. And we would use those applications only when we were seated in front of our computers. The software business was the application, and selling it made the business.

In the smartphone/tablet era, however, apps are essentially free, or at worst cost only a few bucks. People are using more apps, and using them for longer periods of time than we ever did on the PC.

But that still doesn’t quite make the bottom line sing. I mention Uber above because of its recent valuation of $41 billion, at a time when the entire annual taxi revenue of the US is $11 billion. The standard line by the VCs is that it will transform all of surface transportation as more and more people use Uber, even rather than their own cars.

I don’t buy that argument, but that is a tale for another day. But the message, I think, is fundamentally correct. The message is that you don’t build a business on an app. You will never make money, at least not sustainable money, from the app. Rather, the app is the connection to your business. You use the app simply as another connection to your products or services, or as a connection to an entirely new type of business.

But today, you are not going to use and app to build a business that was the standard fare of the software industry only a few years ago.

The corollary, of course, is that almost every business will need its own app, sooner or later.  That represents a boon for developers.

Can Radio Shack Be Saved? August 6, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Nothing that I can say or do will be the magic potion that rescues Radio Shack from oblivion. I certainly hold no influence over its financial or strategic direction, and of course any solution I might suggest could well be recognized by anyone else as pure hokey.

But I am sad to see the demise of an institution that represented its own brand of counterculture in my youth. That counterculture was embodied in the likes of Popular Science and other periodicals of the day that told us that the sky was the limit on our technological achievements. Radio Shack followed up that exhortation by telling us we could build it ourselves, and in many cases showing us how to do so.

If you walk into a Radio Shack today, you are bombarded with cell phones and subscriber plans that you can get in a dozen different stores within walking distance. The rest is a hodgepodge of electronic components, gadgets, and leftovers from a bygone era. My last purchase at a Radio Shack was a USB turntable, for which I had grandiose notions of using to convert my ancient LP trove into MP3s (the sound quality is terrible).

I wonder if it would be possible for Radio Shack to go back to its roots? What brings that to mind is my recent foray into Raspberry Pi, the small and inexpensive computer board that was developed and sold with the idea of promoting the teaching of computer science in schools. It’s probably marginally profitable (the Raspberry Pi Foundation is a non-profit), but for thought leadership it is pure gold.

But what if a small and focused engineering team at Radio Shack had developed something like this instead? And it was a headline promotion in every store? At one time there were people in Radio Shack who understood the technology sold by the company (Heath Kits, anyone?). Even the clerks were more nerds than sales people.

Granted, what I’m describing isn’t the enormous retail network that Radio Shack had become at its height. It’s not even clear that this could be a for-profit entity, at least in and of itself. But Radio Shack would once again stand for something, at least to get people in the door. It would certainly be no worse than anything else tried by the company over the last twenty years.

And products like this have the potential to excite the imagination of all people. We could build things with our own hands and understand how they work, rather than just take the technological complexity of our daily lives for granted. It may seem like a small thing, but people tend to better control that which they understand. And a little of that could benefit every one of us.

Just What is Silicon Valley Up To These Days? July 9, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I think a lot of us, both in and out of that geographical location and state of mind, wonder just the same thing. When we see fledging companies getting a million dollars or more to develop an app that lets you grab a parking space, or pay for an already-made restaurant reservation, something is clearly wrong.

The question is where is the innovation? The press seems to congregate around those startups that exploit an imaginative though trivial niche. And, to be fair, so do the venture capitalists.

Slate (I still don’t know why we pay any attention to these folks) claims that innovation is being done by established companies these days, rather than by the startups.

I seriously question large companies trying to encourage and fund true innovation. Google does moon shots; Intel throws billions of dollars at a next generation set of chips that may or may not succeed, true. But that’s what established companies do.

But there is little room for true, market-breaking innovation in Google, Intel, HP (especially!), and the rest. Established companies simply have too much invested in their existing products to enable an innovation that threatens a billion-dollar business. These companies did their innovation, and now they are just trying to hang on.

But the Slate article is completely wrong on several accounts. For example:

>> true startup companies like Apple and Microsoft, which lacked those ties to academia and government, innovated only in the consumer sector.

Um, no. That’s not how Apple and Microsoft succeeded. Both desperately pursued the business market, Apple with the LaserPrinter, and Microsoft with Office. Microsoft ultimately succeeded more, but at the expense of longer-term viability.

Academia has been irrelevant as an innovator for a long time. Those that see Xerox PARC as a part of academia are seriously mistaken; it was very much industry, without a way to commercialize. Same with AT&T (not the same AT&T today, you should be aware) Bell Labs.

I do believe that innovation occurs in waves. The fact that we see so many “me too” social interaction companies today says that we are in a period of consolidation, not innovation. Still, innovation will happen again, but the companies of today, even the leaders (are you listening, Facebook?) will not be the true innovators ten years from now.

Facebook and Foundations of Psychology Experimentation July 2, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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By now most of us are familiar with the study done by Facebook in 2012 in which about 700,000 users were unwittingly subject to more emotionally negative content in order to determine if that content had any influence on their moods (based on the published results, the answer seems to be “no”). This became public when Facebook published an academic paper on the topic, and the principal researcher expressed misgivings in a blog post.

One of the more notorious psychological experiments was conducted by Stanley Milgram, circa 1963. Milgram described it as a learning experiment in which purported subjects (actually confederates) were given fake electrical shocks by the actual subjects as punishment for incorrect answers. Under the urging of the experimenter, many of those administering the electric shock applied the maximum amount of voltage.

I would like to think I know something of psychology, with a couple of university degrees in the subject and my own (very modest) human experiments during that time. Many psychology studies use deception in order to measure aspects of behavior that the subject isn’t cognizant of. If subjects were aware of the true purpose of an experiment, that knowledge would almost certainly influence their behaviors, rendering any results useless.

But all subjects in all legitimate psychological studies are aware that they are part of an experiment with a defined beginning and end. That is truly where Facebook fell down. The catch-all Facebook terms of use is clearly inadequate in this regard; no one should expect that they can be an experimental subject at any time.

This means that at any time you are on Facebook, you are subject to being, well, a subject. Will that change how you interact with Facebook or other social media site? Well, maybe, and that could once again render any results useless.

Universities have ethics committees that evaluate prospective studies and determine whether or not they meet published ethics guidelines. While I won’t say that such committees make appropriate decisions in all cases, these processes are relatively transparent and well understood. It’s difficult to make the same case for any ethics decisions made by Facebook (my snark causes me to add “if any”).

Moreover, I have to ask what the purpose of such a study was. In academia (I was also a tenure-track academic for five years), researchers conduct experiments to generally advance the human body of knowledge (yes, and to get published, and obtain tenure, etc.). At Facebook, these studies must out of necessity be viewed with much more of a profit motive. Now there is truly an arresting thought.

Just what the heck is Facebook up to?

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