Monday, March 14, 2016

Week of 03/14/2016

Microsoft’s Macro-Problem
It’s hard to believe that twenty years ago, a certain software company in Redmond was considered one of the biggest success stories of the digital age, and now is pretty much a nuisance.
Back in the 1990’s Microsoft was king.  Forget Apple.  Screw Steve Jobs.  IBM was as outdated as HAL.  The world was starting to really run on computers, and a vast majority of those computers ran on Microsoft Windows.
Oh yes, there were Apple computers then.  Fruity little “iMacs” with cheap neon-colored plastic shells and their pompous, elitist commercials showing what they can do.  And they were tucked away in some corner of the computer store with the handful of software programs designed for the Mac.
Yes, it is hard to believe that twenty years ago there really were such things as “computer stores” that sold primarily computers and computer-related equipment.  Before cellphones took over the world.  Before iTunes took over the music scene.  Before Dr. Dre made overpriced and overhyped speakers.  Before flat-screen HDTVs became the “big thing”.
Twenty years ago, Microsoft was king... and Bill Gates was either a futurist guru or the spawn of Satan, depending on whether or not you owned a fruity little iMac and sold your soul to the cult of Jobs.
How the times have changed!
Today, Microsoft is far from being on top of the tech world.  Nowadays, when you think Microsoft, you think “nuisance”.  You think “annoying”.  You think “bloated tech company shoving ads down our gullets at every opportunity”.  You think the “watching” part of “Big Brother is watching you!”
Don’t get me wrong; Microsoft Windows is still the dominant operating system around the world.  But now they’re getting aggressive with getting the world to upgrade to their latest and supposedly “final” operating system, Windows 10.  And all for ego gratification, no less! 
Of course, I can understand why they would want everyone on the same operating system.  They don’t want to be providing support for outdated operating systems simply because little old ladies and money-grubbing office managers refuse to get with the times.  They’ve been at this ever since the days of Windows Vista, when they first tried to pull the plug on the ten-year-old Windows XP.  But resorting to using pop-up ads and banner ads hidden in so-called “critical updates” that you cannot remove once they’re installed?  That’s not “carrot-and-stick”; that’s police pepper-spraying people just for being there!
I’m one of those people that will fight anything that I’m told that I “have” to do.  The more that you cajole me to do something, the more entrenched I’ll become to not do it.  And I know I’m not the only one who does that.  Corporate IT people are the same way.  They don’t like upgrading anything that they can’t be 100% certain that it will work every time on every device and not cause a conflict with anything that their associates use to help the company make money.  They don’t care about whether or not Microsoft meets their phony “one billion devices” mark.  They care about whether or not their sales people can get to their email without hitting the Blue Screen of Death.
But that’s just symptomatic of a bigger problem Microsoft has.
Did you know that Microsoft went into the smartphone business?  You probably didn’t know that.  They bought the Lumina smartphone from Nokia back in 2013 and rolled out a series of smartphones that run on Windows 8 and Windows 10.  You want to know why developers made the stupid mistake of shelving the desktop and Start button from Windows 8?  That’s why.  It was about portability.  It was about the asinine presumption that the world would suddenly stop using desktop computers and run everything on smartphones and netbooks like their own Microsoft Surface.  (Thankfully they restored the Start button after people started hacking it back in.)
I’ll get back to Surface in a minute...
The tech world has been preparing for the expected obituary of the Windows phone almost from day one.  They see the sales numbers and are not impressed.  They see the mindless sheep that line up to buy the latest, greatest phone from the Cult of the Apple or from Samsung and they wonder why Microsoft has failed like it has.
How many of you have a Windows smartphone?  I have one.  It does what I need it to do, but not everything that I want it to do.
I can’t use Snapchat on my smartphone.  I can’t use the latest app from DC Comics.  I can’t download the app that lets me schedule my haircuts from Great Clips.  I hear the commercials for NextRadio, but I can’t download it and use it for my smartphone.  I have to buy a tablet that runs on Android to get and enjoy all of those things.  Spotify recently announced that they were also dropping support for Windows Phone.
Why?  Because the Windows Store that Windows users need to access stuff in is crap!  Even long-term developers have very little to say about Windows Store that is positive.  Developers don’t think Windows Phones when they think about apps.  They think iOS and they think Android, and that’s it.  Windows?  That’s a “desktop thing” to them.
Did you know I still have the original Xbox game console?  I thought about getting the latest version... until I saw the price tag and heard all about the DRM garbage that went with it.  Even though they killed the DRM plans, I still wouldn’t want to buy one.  And what about my old Xbox games?  I suppose those are just junk in the minds of Microsoft execs.
Oh, and speaking of Microsoft Surface...
Yes, I get that Microsoft wants us to ditch our desktops and our laptops for a Surface netbook.  I’ve noticed the subtle product placement through their sponsorships in CBS shows like “Hawaii Five-O” and “NCIS” and “NCIS Los Angeles”.  But I want you to really think about what that entails.  There’s just enough space on the device for the operating system to function.  No real hard drive space to store anything, so any files you want to access have to be “in the cloud”, where anyone (i.e. the United States Government) can access.  Remember when all of those celebrities had their personal photos leaked?  Where were they?  “In the cloud”!
And let’s not forget the price tag of the Microsoft Surface.  $500-$1000!  I bought an Acer laptop with 4GB RAM and 1TB hard drive for $200, and it is running Windows 10 without any problems.  So why should I pay five times that much for a glorified netbook?  Never mind one that can’t run all of the apps that I currently use on my Android tablet!
All of this is just part of the larger problem that Microsoft suffers from.
Let’s get brutally honest here... Microsoft seems to have a serious problem with vision.  It’s almost as if they don’t see where they are and where they see themselves in the future; or, if they do, they’re certainly not sharing that vision with the rest of the world.  You know, the very consumers that they need to help make that vision real.
Bill Gates shared his vision with the world in his book “The Road Ahead”.  It was an interesting read along with a multimedia presentation that showed just how that vision would be applied for ordinary people.  But when he left the company in the hands of CEO Steve Ballmer, it was almost as if his vision was retired along with him.  And now under CEO Satya Nadella, it seems to be even vaguer.
Don’t get me wrong, there are things that seem to work great for Microsoft.  Office 365, for instance, has a great subscription service that allows you to have the latest and most recent version of Office on up to five computers, each with one TB of cloud storage and free Skype minutes every month.  Given how previous Office packages cost $500 for each computer and for each version, paying $99 a year for five computers to always get the latest version is well worth the price.
It's a start, but it is still not enough for Microsoft to ride on.
They need to set aside the “One Billion Devices” goal until they can give the people a real reason to upgrade other than “because we said so”.  They need to make their Edge browser work like Internet Explorer and allow it to use apps and add-ons like Google’s Chrome browser before they can even think about retiring IE.  They need to encourage developers to actually develop apps that people can use for Windows Phone and Microsoft Surface and the desktops and laptops.  People like me are not going to give up our tablets and iPads if we can’t use them in the way that we want to use them.
Speaking of Windows Phones, why is it that I can buy all sorts of add-ons for Samsung Galaxy phones and Apple iPhones like custom shells and protective cases, but not for a Windows Phone?  The only thing that Microsoft offers for their own Lumia phones are neon-colored shells and matching neon-colored speakers that look like a child’s toy.  Come on, Microsoft!  Show us that you really have a horse in this smartphone race!
And why should we pay $500-$1000 for a Surface or Xbox One if we can buy a desktop computer or even a laptop for a fraction of that amount?  Maybe a better idea would be to transition the Xbox into the desktop instead of the other way around.  Then you can have that interconnected networking system that people can connect to their smartphones and netbooks to play games and also do business and school work.
Something else to consider: Google has a device called Chromecast that allows users to send stuff on their Chrome browsers or their Android tablets and phones to their HDTVs.  While Windows 10 supposedly has the support for something like this through a device called the Miracast, why haven’t we heard about this like we do for Chromecast and Roku?
That’s where having a vision that you can express to the masses comes in.  And it has to be a vision that people see themselves in, not just a vision of a corporation making money for their investors. 
Ballmer dropped the ball when he inherited the company from Gates.  Ballmer’s successor needs to make sure that he doesn’t make the same mistake, or else in twenty years from now, people will be asking what happened to a company called “Microsoft”.

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