Posts Tagged ‘Microsoft’

How Fast can You Change?

May 12, 2013

A friend asked me, “Brian, why has the economy seemingly stalled?” My spontaneous answer was, “Well, I don’t think that people can change their behavior fast enough to take advantage of the changes happening all around them. I think that people are overwhelmed today by the chaos. The consumer has been left behind.”

The puzzled look on my friend’s face told me immediately that he did not see the connection I was making at all. Rather than taking a step backward, or taking a second step forward hoping to see indications of understanding, I let the conversation take a different course. Let me peel the onion that I did not peel that afternoon – let me make a few observations…

1) Product innovation that is too rapid leaves the consumer behind. Have you ever stopped upgrading software because the new features were not obviously of any use to you? Still using Windows XP? Well, the product innovation left you behind.

Perhaps the new features were not well thought out, and they were in fact duplicative or of no practical use to you. Phewy – why spend money for something you can’t use and don’t need for anything? That’s not a problem with you – blame the product designer for the ridiculous.

Perhaps, though, those new features are so different from what is familiar that you don’t see how they are useful. Even if someone points out how the new features are significant improvements on what was – significantly better tools, you might reason that if you don’t need those new features for what you do today, then why learn how to use them – nope, pass the upgrade by. Maybe that IS a problem with you. But you, my friend, are not alone if you fall in this second camp of consumer.

In the case of Windows, product innovation has left the consumer behind for a combination of both of the above reasons. If you discount Windows OS sales associated with new computers purchase, consumer upgrades from XP to Vista to 7 to 8 has been lethargic and reluctant and even painful – and getting more so with each successive release of the OS – and terribly disappointing for Microsoft financial results. Windows OS product innovation has left the consumer behind. And the Windows economy has stalled.

2) Product innovation that suddenly presents too many alternative products to the consumer leaves less room for a runner-up to succeed, and a bubble may emerge. Or a monopoly may emerge. How many consumers do you imagine shop for a large screen TV because of the 3D feature? In the near term, a crowded market quickly turns into a price-competitive market that squeezes new entrants out of the marketplace before a product sells a threshold amount that justifies the next cycle of innovation. Truly good products can disappear from a crowded market for no rational reason visible to the consumer. Companies fail. Innovators lose confidence and backers. In the near term, the good products in a crowded market don’t always win unless one product in particular is a true standout (Apple’s iPod). In the near term, this kind of market may become a bubble that bursts.

In the long term, mediocre products may be the only survivors simply as a result of deeper pockets of cash with their manufacturer, and being perceived as the least risk choice for the consumer. Monopolies of lackluster products may develop, and monopolies are inefficient markets over time. Inefficient markets full of ineffective products are not “vibrant” by any measure, and those markets will eventually stall or become declining markets. Monopoly markets are incredibly hard to upset with exciting competing products – after all, how fast can the consumer actually change?

Back to the question: How fast can you change?

I am a technology product manager. Once I launch a new product – a challenge in itself, I immediately plan for the innovation path. The problem for me in a nutshell is to innovate fast enough to challenge and out do the community of competitors, but slowly enough for the consumer to be able to appreciate the coming innovation, desire the coming innovation, and be able to change their behavior to utilize the coming innovation.

Apple succeeds in no small measure through evangelists. Apple recruits evangelists from their consumer population by engaging the consumer. Apple hosts developers conferences, hosts user forums, offers training in their stores, offers personalized shopping experiences, offers one-on-one services, etc. Apple has “genius” evangelists at every store to explain product features by way of solving customer problems. At every turn, Apple is working to propel the consumer forward through evangelism faster than if the consumer was left to their own devices.

Apple succeeds in no small measure by taking small incremental steps with their software. How different is MacOSX 10.8 from 10.7? 10.7 from 10,6? If you look at the release notes for the OS releases, Apple consistently touts more than 200 or 250 new features, but only several are significant, and the rest are nuances and polish. Apple sells the value of so many new features, but genuinely challenges the consumer to change their behavior on just a few. And how much is that new OS? Just $30 most recently… Heck, why not! Apple takes small steps with their current products.

Apple succeeds in no small measure by selling entire ecosystems that are smoothly integrated and virtually flawless. MacOSX / IOS / App Store / iTunes Store / iTunes Match / AppleTV / AirPlay / Photoflow / Bonjour is just one ecosystem. Apple has a communicator ecosystem (the iPhone is part), a developer ecosystem, an office productivity ecosystem, a hobbyist AV ecosystem, a pro AV ecosystem, an enterprise ecosystem. Apple sells a range of outstanding hardware platforms to suit these ecosystems. Apple ecosystems are all almost flawless – “and it all just works.”

Microsoft, on the other hand fails on all these strategies. Transitioning from Windows 7 to Windows 8 has compatibility headaches, fractured ecosystems, radical user interface changes (and challenges), steep pricing, and there is no one to sell the “goodness” or pull the consumer gently forward.

When I look around me, I see market after market filled with “Microsofts”, and not “Apples”. The consumer sees what I see, though they may nor comprehend what they see in the same way I do. The consumer sees a dizzying range of confusing products and services they don’t understand, fail to appreciate, and can’t really afford, and they are keeping their money in their pockets. How much money will YOU spend on a “flash in the pan” gimmick (if that’s how you perceive it)?

And by the way, more and more consumers over the past decade in particular are keeping more and more money in their pockets for essentials like food, shelter, medical care and transportation that combined are more and more often exceeding their incomes… You can’t understate this factor.

So, in summary, my friend, the economy is stalling because the vast middle class faces shrinking disposable incomes and mind-numbing, confounding choices in the market. There are exceptions, of course: the 1% is doing quite well, and there are in fact some excellent products and services in the market. But the 99% is largely keeping what little disposable income they have in their pockets (and not expanding their consumption of credit) because there is not much that is compelling to purchase.

Well, that’s my view when I wear my product manager hat!

Update – a follow-up question: “What do you think about Windows 8?”

I think Windows 8 is the most innovative Windows release in many, many years. The ability to flip from app to app with a swipe and the constant updating of the summary display with notifications are all terrific innovations I wish my iPhone had. This user interface is not quite ready for the desktop; however. And this user interface is a huge leap that brings too many changes too fast for the majority of consumers. I like it!

How fast can you change? Most consumers want to change rather slowly…

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Where Next for My PC

August 25, 2010

I have been pondering this for quite some time:

Where is the PC going, and what substantial changes are likely for the operating system and for productivity software?

Keywords here for all of us: cloud, mobility and context.

Lately, Apple and Mac media has been asking, “What is Apple doing for Mac OSX 10.7? …for IOS 5?  Lately, Windows 7 has received some deservedly good press, and I wonder what is in store for Windows 8… Lately, there has been a lot of talk in the tech media about “thin clients” and “cloud apps” in lieu of locally executed productivity applications running on a “screamer” desktop PC. Hmmm… So, where is all this going? Well, I’ll tell you!

Minimal Local Storage – no petabytes, and probably not even terabytes. Here, the thin client pundits probably are on to something, but I don’t think they see the forrest for the trees just yet. What storage resources you have locally may really need to be quite small if you can utilize many devices and servers. The real evolution I expect to see will be with the file system…

Distributed File System – a combination of NAS and SAN functions with a substantial layer of security. I may have a folder of documents stored physically anywhere – on an Apple server, a Microsoft server, an AT&T server, a Google server, a Yahoo server, on my desktop hard drive, in flash in my iPhone – anywhere, and I don’t want to need to know where.

  • I need to be able to have instant access to my document files anywhere and anytime.
  • I need to be sure that I have exclusive access to my files.
  • I need to be sure that all my files are strongly encrypted to keep the server owner honest and to defeat the likely hacker.
  • I need to be able to share any file with anyone I designate.
  • I need to be able to define the organization of my documents and folders of documents without regard to the physical location of a file.
  • I need to have the same file organization presented to me regardless of which physical computing device I am using.
  • I need to be able to access certain files even when a local device is turned off or is not at hand (multiple device aware).
  • I need to be able to access certain files even in the event of a local computer failure (locally fault-tolerant).
  • I need to be able to access certain files even in the event of a remote server failure (remote fault-tolerant).
  • I need to be able to access certain files even in the event a network failure (network fault-tolerant).

Gesture-Based User Input System – gestures, but not necessarily touch or mouse. Here, I think that Apple is right on track. Mouse behavior has been exquisitely refined, touch interfaces are being diligently defined, cameras are being built into every display device. The next step is to extend type, point, click, touch and swipe to arbitrary surfaces and new hand gestures in the air. Any time, now… I’m waiting…

Agile Display System – my display “desktop” moves with me to the best display system that I have access to at any moment.  As I move from room to room, building to building or city to city, I want my work and my display desktop to follow me and be visible to me on the best display device I have access to wherever I am seamlessly and instantly at my command – with a gesture of some sort to cue and command the device and use it.

Contextual Environment Anticipates My Needs – community-aware, activity-aware, time-of-day-aware and location-aware. Who am I with with right now and who I am meeting with later in the day, what I was just doing and what is scheduled next on my calendar and what is queued on my To-Do List, what the time of day is and what do I usually do at this time of day and what is scheduled next, where am I now and where am I going next – all this has a direct bearing on what I want to do with my computer right now! I want my computer to anticipate my every move. This is a BIG effort to complete.

Unobtrusive Automatic Refinement – settings to accommodate the “cloud”, mobility and context should change automatically based upon limitations and failures encountered, additions to my community, appearances of new devices and services, and new collaborations.

Identification – this is key to secure sharing and hacker warfare. If your credentials are unknown, you don’t get in. How to assemble a set of trusted credentials? How to verify them unobtrusively? How to manage and maintain them? How to revoke them? How to detect spoofing and challenge the credential? Well, that requires some finesse, new standards and some user education.

If you ask me, this sounds like another decade of significant opportunity in this industry’s products and services – and a tremendous life cycle extension for the PC and its OS and applications.

Curses to Microsoft

April 20, 2010

May the fleas of a thousand camels infest… Oh, oh, I should be a little less vehement. Microsoft – please fix your Word application! (I said please…)

I am trying to write a book with Microsoft Word. Word has every feature I could ask for: extensive headers and footers, table of contents and indexing, caption numbering, footnoting, page numbering. The feature list is mind blowing!

But Word doesn’t work 99.9% of the time – more like 90% of the time. An example: I mark an index entry, and then immediately edit the hidden text entry in the document because I misspelled the index entry, and Word will crash. Or caption numbers will usually update correctly when I rearrange sections – but not always. These are awful flaws in the application. I suspect that these features are not used by 99.9% of Word users in their work day to day, so these features were not tested extensively by Microsoft – ever.

This brings to mind an interesting element of complex system usage I have observed again and again. It is really a skill that children learn very quickly today: avoid actions that break a complex system. I find this fascinating. I was asking a very experienced Windows user one day why he did a certain action that I thought was a little quirky and indirect, and the answer was, “If you do it this other way, it will crash the computer…”. I will crash a Windows computer fairly often, but my good friend (a Windows enthusiast) never crashes his computer because he has learned to avoid the dangerous flaws of the Windows OS.

There is psychology working on us, here. Here is what I think it amounts to:

By learning to work around the flaws of a complex system, you feel like you are its “Master”, and you have “triumphed” over something somewhat difficult. Your victory was not easily won, and and you have overcome a number of challenges. You derive a good sense of self-satisfaction.

Windows’ flaws are just obvious enough for the average person to overcome by trial and error, but not so challenging that they will resolutely defeat the user before they are learned and worked around.

You like your Microsoft Windows experience because you “conquered” it!  You have mastered its flaws, and that is a highly satisfying accomplishment in your otherwise less-that-satisfying world. You are “in control.” It was rough going for a time, but you have won! Anything new that comes along threatens your “in charge” status and demands that you climb another painful learning curve… You covet your “victory” no matter what the pain of actually living it – because the victory is your reward for your hard work.

For the record, Windows 7 is a terrific improvement in usability over its predecessor versions, and it is “pretty”, too. I give Windows 7 a humble “thumbs-up”. I think that Windows 7 is “2-9’s” 99% reliable, but my experience with Windows 7 surely demonstrates that it is not yet “3-9’s” 99.9% reliable.

Contrarily, I like my Apple experience because I don’t need to do anything in particular to finish what I am doing – unless I am writing a Word document… The last time my computer crashed was – well, I can’t remember when. The last time an Apple application crashed was  – well – never that I can recall since Apple offered the iLife and iWork application suites – never. It all works 99.9% of the time.

I am learning to avoid the flaws in Microsoft Word – lately, Word has not crashed! I have my fingers crossed that Word for the Mac 2011 will be a better product – that it will graduate from 90% reliable to – well, maybe 99% reliable – I doubt that Microsoft can ever achieve three-nines availability. That, or Apple Pages will get a few more features for headers and footers and indexing – Pages is pretty darned good and needs to “stretch”.

Microsoft agreed with me – no problem.

June 9, 2009

That was a Tweet!

My dispute with Microsoft has been resolved – they agree with me completely. No Problem – they are even sending me back some money (a very small amount)!

To my surprise, their registration records are now complete and correct, too. I sent a FAX of prior registration records, and someone added it all to my customer records. Also in the records is a note on what was done and why.

So, Microsoft responded to a customer issue correctly after some time and added context to their records. Good for them!

That’s the “story” – more than a tweet allows, isn’t it…

What the computer says “must be true”

May 31, 2009

To quote a recent Microsoft customer service rep, “Yes sir, that’s what my computer says, it must be true!” That’s dribble. Two errors were made by this customer rep: 1) my registration records were checked, but initially not the correct records; and 2) their records were incomplete – even when the correct records were found. The service rep had 100% confidence in inaccurate and incomplete records. This problem has been a common one for a very long time for many companies, and it persists to my great irritation – everywhere…

This post is another commentary on the value of context. My mentor many years ago drilled this meme into my head: “Just because you took a reading doesn’t mean you made a measurement.” In other words, don’t blindly believe what you see on the test equipment display – or on your computer display, for that matter. That engineer at Collins Radio Company was Bill Thompson who died of cancer not too long ago. I will miss him until my own death – he was a truly great engineer.

Bill’s message to me was to be sure I was measuring the correct signal with a properly configured test setup measuring the relevant characteristics that are necessary to answer the pertinent questions so that I draw a valid conclusion. Until I was certain of all of those considerations surrounding my test equipment reading, I had not made a measurement. I had to be careful to “think sufficiently” about my objectives and know enough about the context of what I was trying to do.

My conversation with Microsoft during the week failed to accomplish what I set out to do. Ultimately, their dataset was incomplete. Microsoft had acquired a software company, and that company’s old registration records were not completely incorporated into Microsoft’s own CRM systems. Microsoft provided no context to the customer support staff that registration data for my product might be incomplete. “Our records simply do not show that you are a registered user (you’ll have to convince us…).” They “took a reading, but they didn’t make a measurement”, and it is my problem to convince Microsoft to the contrary.

Well, this isn’t over, yet. I found my e-mail copy of the original purchase and the company’s confirmation of receipt of my registration information on my e-mail archive DVD! But is it worth two more hours of my time on the phone with those buggers at Microsoft?

U-verse runs Windows in the Set Top Box…

May 26, 2009

What a surprise – AT&T has put a Microsoft Windows product in my home… Well, that really shouldn’t have been a surprise. In my job, I have had some foreknowledge about AT&T U-verse service, and I knew that Microsoft was the major software supplier for the U-verse service offering. I didn’t know some of the “finer” details, though – not until I had some problems… 

AT&T U-verse service is a pure digital service. The video service is an IPTV over VDSL implementation that employs the standard AVC/H.264 codec in a set top box. I am a new U-verse customer this month! I am currently quite satisfied with U-verse and give it a “Rave” thumbs-up. The service had some initial hiccups, and the service techs who responded were happy to let me look (and look closely) over their shoulders. 

Calls to U-verse technical support were answered by folk in the Philippines who were polite and patient, and they all spoke English excellently. But none had any real technical knowledge aside from what their computer help screens told them. The first troubleshooting steps: restart the set top box, then power cycle the set top box, then power cycle the gateway box. I am thinking to myself that this is how I do battle with Microsoft Windows… And then it hit me – maybe the set top box IS running Windows – huh… Sure enough, a quick check of the System Information screen from the set top box shows it to be running Microsoft Windows CE 5.0. That should not have been a surprise to me, but it was. 

More surprises. The service was initially quite unreliable. After a short period of time (10 to 30 minutes) audio would begin to stutter and video would suffer pixelation defects and momentary image freezes until the stream was lost and I was left with a static image and an unresponsive set top box. The local service techs who were dispatched to my home can query the NOC and my residential gateway from their laptops, and they can see all the fault and performance monitoring statistics associated with my service. The NOC compiles the PM primitives and parameters that I helped to define many years ago at ITU-T and ANSI from the cabinet at the curb: ES, SES, UAS, LOSS, LOFS etc. The gateway box compiles CV and FEC counts and a host of other statistics. It was not clear what the standard for the FEC feature was – G.993.1 (2004/06) defines a VDSL FEC strategy, and I presume that it is employed with a low redundancy value or 2 or 4 by AT&T. G.775 (I participated in the drafting of this standard at ITU-T some years ago – it was fun!) with the “famous” annex provides a huge variety of alternative FEC strategies to employ – hardly a standard… I would be curious to know more about what AT&T is really doing for FEC in the U-verse TV service. 

I am happy to report that my U-verse service is currently stable and working very well for me, now – for almost exactly one week – with 2 ES, 0 SES, 0 UAS, 2700 corrected blocks and 7 uncorrectable blocks. I would like to see 0 uncorrectable blocks, though…

This was really quality time for me with the service techs. I am looking forward to my next service failure!

[Poster’s note: Windows, Windows CE and U-verse are trademarked products and services of Microsoft and AT&T respectively.]