Getting to the Bottom of Windows 8 Is Nearly Impossible

Not to give away any trade secrets here or anything, but we're putting together a story for the November issue of Redmond on Windows 8. (By the way, if you'd like to contribute to the story with a comment or observation, e-mail [email protected]. But hurry -- the deadline is approaching very rapidly.)

Pulling this story together has meant taking a long, hard look at the forthcoming operating system and trying to get to the bottom of it somehow. What your editor has discovered, though, is that Windows 8 isn't just an OS. It's kind of a collection of OSes under one roof, and with it Microsoft might be trying to do too much and reach too many audiences. (Then again, Microsoft does a lot of that these days.) It is, metaphorically speaking, bottomless.

More than anything, it's confusing. You'll have to wait for the November issue of Redmond to get all the details (mainly because your editor doesn't know them all and other writers are still finishing the story...), but we can give you some idea here of why Windows 8 could and probably should be four or five separate products.

We at RCPU don't claim to be 100 percent sure of everything we're saying here. (And this time, we mean that more than we usually do.) We're trying to get it right, but this is slippery stuff. We're also stealing pretty liberally from works in progress by Keith Ward, Kurt Mackie and other Redmond Media Group reporters who are actually sorting this all out and will offer by Nov. 1 definitive answers to what are likely to be many questions. So, in the meantime, feel free to correct us (as always) if you see an error...or just float with us in our river of Microsoft vagueness.

First, there are the Windows 8 interfaces. Yes, plural. The touch-based tile, or "Metro," interface is a radical departure from any OS interface we've seen to date -- or from any interface of any kind, for that matter, except for the Windows Phone 7 UI, which Metro is designed to imitate. Metro will run on tablets and, in case you want your monitor or laptop screen to get really greasy and smeared, on standard PCs as well. It can, however, run either by touch or by mouse on PCs, in case you don't want to squeegee off your monitor every 20 minutes.

But Metro won't run x86 applications on ARM-based computers (essentially tablets). It will, however (we think -- this is where things get confusing) run x86 apps on PCs. But so will the Windows 8 "classic" interface, which won't look like Metro at all. The classic look will mostly be just like Windows 7, except with more of the vastly unloved ribbon interface shoved down users' throats. So, IT folks and users of heavy apps will probably use the classic interface, while the average office worker might -- but won't have to -- go the tile route on the PC.

Everybody will go the tile route on tablets, though, because tablets will only run Metro and will not run classic Windows 8. And while classic Windows 8 will run any Windows 7 application, Windows 8 won't run Windows 7 apps in Metro on tablets because Metro won't run Windows 7 apps at all -- as far as we can tell. We're just scratching the surface here, by the way. This stuff gets way more complicated—and most of the explanations Microsoft tries to give actually make it worse.

Confused? You won't be after this episode of SOAP. Actually, yes, you will. SOAP is a 30-year-old sitcom that has nothing to do with Windows 8 at all. We just thought it was a funny reference. But the bottom line here, if there is one, is that Windows 8 is confusing. It's kind of two operating systems with two-and-a-half interfaces (given that Metro will run via touch or mouse). And while it's meant to look, in part, like Windows Phone 7, it won't actually be Windows Phone 7, meaning Windows tablets and smart phones will technically run on two different operating systems. And PCs will be able to run on two different versions of Windows 8 in three different ways...we think.

This is post-Gates, 21st-century Microsoft at its very worst. Oh, sure, Windows 8 ought to be a great OS. The Metro interface looks fantastic, truly revolutionary and extremely attractive. And we're sure that Windows 8 classic will build on the stability and success of Windows 7. This isn't Vista. Vista was a disaster of a product that actually had some half-decent marketing and crystal-clear messaging.

No, this is the opposite of Vista. Windows 8 is a great set of products with lots of potential that Microsoft is likely to tank because it's trying to cram way too many disparate pieces into one box. Why not have a tablet OS, a PC OS and a smart phone OS? Or one that runs them all but comes in distinctly different flavors? Why try to cram two PC OSes and a tablet OS -- all of which to pretty notably different things and have pretty serious restrictions -- into one "product?" Software is supposed to be easy to use, not frustrating and confusing. This is slick 2010s software with overcomplicated 1980s marketing. It just doesn't make any sense.

The user, partner or IT professional who chooses to move to Windows 8 will likely sympathize with the parent who buys a bicycle for a kid, goes to put it together and finds that the instructions are only in Japanese. (Substitute some other foreign language if you actually speak Japanese...) Frustration is likely to be swift, heavy and completely unnecessary. And that's a shame because Microsoft really has something great here; it just doesn't know what to do with it -- and neither will most of its users.

Posted by Lee Pender on October 03, 201120 comments

Windows 8: Looks Great, But How Will It Go Over?

Legend has it that when Jimmy Page was forming a rock combo in the late '60s, he asked Keith Moon, then drummer for The Who, how he thought the band would go over with fans. "Like a lead balloon," Moon is said to have replied -- meaning not so well.

As it turns out, Led Zeppelin -- yes, that's where they got the name, or so the story goes -- went over pretty well after all. The band's sound was a pretty radical departure from a lot of what was popular at the time, but it worked. Zep remains one of the most influential bands in rock history, as anybody who's reading this probably knows very well.

Keith Moon, of course, isn't around today to pontificate on the prospects for Windows 8, and he probably wouldn't have much to say about it if he was. But his misguided prediction about the fate of Led Zeppelin is relevant to Microsoft's new operating system, which looks fantastic but faces an uncertain future.

Let's get this out of the way now: There are a lot of questions yet to be answered about Windows 8. But there's also, we already know, a lot to like about it. (For more than you could possibly endeavor to read about the new OS, go to RCPU's Windows 8 page here.) For us at RCPU, though, there's one thing that stands out above everything else: Windows 8 looks fantastic.

OK, so we still don't want to touch our PC screen, but other than that, the look of Windows 8 is magnificent. (And, yes, we feel that way about Windows Phone 7, too -- even though your editor doesn't have a WP7 device. More on that in a little bit.) Windows 8 offers a complete departure not just from previous Windows interfaces but from any OS interface we've ever seen. The tile concept is clean, crisp and simple, and it makes the old icon-and-file-folder environment look dated (which it is.)

From what we've seen of Windows 8, it's actually pretty. Not pretty good or pretty interesting -- just pretty, as in visually pleasant. It's pleasing to look at, almost like a Piet Mondrian painting or the Partridge Family bus. And looks do matter. Administration and security issues aside, the only way users will warm to a new interface is if it makes them feel welcome and comfortable. Windows 8 is a looker, to be sure -- but, like the cheerleader in high school that everybody was afraid to talk to, is it actually too good looking?

We've said in this space before that radical departures are dangerous in the technology industry. The upside (think iPod) is massive. But so is the downside. Microsoft was talking (and making) tablets back when the word still referred mainly to headache pills. That was a nonstarter at the time. Apple itself produced the Lisa, which was way ahead of its time -- too far ahead, as it turned out. The Lisa was a flop. And most readers here probably remember when the vaunted "cloud" was known as the ASP model (for Application Service Providers, of course), and mostly crashed and burned in the dot-com bust.

Windows 8 is that kind of risk. In fact, it's a much bigger risk than any of those examples. Microsoft is staking its whole future -- no small thing -- on a new concept for Windows. The company has always been fairly conservative, sometimes annoyingly so, with the interface for its money-spinning OS. Windows 7 might be structured very differently from Windows XP, but it doesn't look all that different. Nothing since maybe Windows 95 has looked all that different -- until now.

And that's the problem Windows 8 could face. As we've said here before about Windows Phone 7, the average user gets used to a paradigm (great '90s word; in the next entry, we'll try to work in "open the kimono") for computing and often has a hard time breaking away from it. Windows Phone 7 looks great, but it also looks unfamiliar. Android devices and iPhones are just what smartphones look like. They're familiar in the same way a wristwatch or a television or some other everyday item -- like a PC desktop -- is familiar. Is Windows Phone 7 better? Maybe, but it doesn't matter if it just doesn't look right.

For pretty much every Windows user -- and even Mac or Linux user, for that matter -- computing looks like icons and file folders. It has for a very long time. Oh, sure, there are varying levels of sophistication (yes, we hear you, Mac fans), but the differences are more like the difference between Scottish English and American English than they are like two totally different languages. Windows 8 is Greek compared to just about everything we've seen before. It'll certainly be foreign to the average office worker or consumer (who is, after all, the same person).  

The question, then, is whether beauty and form will triumph over familiarity. Windows 8 is beautiful, but will it make users feel welcome and comfortable? That's hard to say. Comfort is a funny thing; think about that old T-shirt from college compared to a crisp new shirt that looks better but might be a bit stiff and unfamiliar. Which one would you rather wear around the house every day?

That leads us to another question: Will users embrace a new Windows concept from Microsoft in the age of the iPad and smartphone? That's even harder to say. The PC is such a commodity now -- albeit still an important one -- that it's a little bit hard to imagine corporate IT buyers or consumers stopping in their tracks to gawk at (much less purchase in huge numbers) Windows 8. Look at how long XP continues to hang on. (Then again, XP isn't the radical departure that Windows 8 is. We're running in circles here.)

Windows launches used to be a big deal, but Apple stole Microsoft's thunder in that realm a long time ago. Now, it's Microsoft's turn to show off something innovative and revolutionary. But is it too little too late -- or too much too early? Is the PC-as-cool-device era over for good, or can Windows 8 revive it? Is the world ready for a completely new face of Microsoft? Will the world care, no matter how fantastic Window 8 might be? The old band is touring with brand-new material, and it's superb. But will the fans just want to hear the old hits?

It's not a perfect comparison, but this is a little like the brick-and-mortar bookstore trying to adapt to a digital world. Barnes & Noble did it; Borders didn't. Which one will Microsoft be with Windows 8? The company is taking a huge gamble. It has its groundbreaking OS in place. Windows 8 looks great. Now it's time to see whether Microsoft's balloon will be filled with helium or made of lead.

What's your take on how users will react to Windows 8? Leave a comment below or send it to [email protected].


Posted by Lee Pender on September 21, 20114 comments

Nokia and Yahoo Partnerships Put Microsoft's Future in Doubt

Once there was Wintel. In the days when "Seinfeld" was new every week, the Dallas Cowboys were Super Bowl contenders and people actually listened to Everclear on the radio (we can't explain everything), Microsoft and Intel ruled the world. Rarely has such a forceful and dominant partnership existed. Windows and Intel chips literally ran most of the planet's PCs. And PCs were just about all anybody had back then for computing.

These days, though, the nature of computing has changed, and so has the Wintel partnership, which is now trying to be more about mobile devices and less about crusty old PCs. It's not really even Wintel anymore, at least not in the sense it was 15 years ago, but it's still one of the best partnerships Microsoft has going.

And that's kind of sad. There's still plenty of power behind Wintel, even if it's a shadow of what it was in the '90s. (And, as we've said here before, the PC is very much alive; witness the hype surrounding Windows 8. Yet again, the punditsphere is wondering whether this will be the last great Microsoft OS. The same people asked the same questions five years ago with Vista and then a couple of years ago with Windows 7. Vista certainly wasn't great, but it didn't kill the Windows franchise. And Windows 7 wasn't the death knell, either. Neither will Windows 8 be. We figure the pundits will freak out again come Windows 9, or whatever it'll be called. And Windows will still be alive. But we digress, as we have a habit here of doing.)

Somewhere along the way, Microsoft lost its ability to forge dominant partnerships. We think we know why. Microsoft used to have clout. It used to be the doubles partner everybody wanted for the big tournament, the receiver every quarterback wanted to throw to (or vice versa), the teammate every batsman wanted to see standing at the other end of the pitch. (That's a cricket reference for those of you in the U.K., India and other such crickety places. You're welcome. And please don't complain if we messed that up -- it took quite a while just to come up with a cricket metaphor at all.)

But years of stagnant stock price performance, wobbly post-Bill Gates leadership, inconsistent innovation, seriously threatening competition and chronic uncoolness have left Microsoft stumbling around like a pro athlete in his twilight looking for one last gig. Microsoft is Willie Mays with the Mets, Johnny Unitas with the Chargers, Joe Namath with the Rams. (Hey, it's football season.) OK, to be fair, Microsoft isn't in its twilight the way those guys were. But a couple of its big partnerships these days smack of desperation rather than prowess.

Let's take Yahoo, which Microsoft tried to buy and then ultimately just sort of took over -- not officially, of course -- with the imposition of the Bing search engine. Yahoo is about as current as those "Seinfeld" episodes or Troy Aikman's Cowboys. Sure, those things evoke some pleasant memories (and aren't bad in reruns), but Yahoo is a big, clunky cell phone in a smartphone world.

And this is Microsoft's big Web "partnership"? Yahoo just axed its CEO. It's likely to sell at some point in the near future -- maybe even to Microsoft! -- and not for as much as it would have commanded even a few years ago. Nothing about having Yahoo as a partner says progress or innovation or caché. It says that Microsoft is hopelessly behind Google in consumer search and is hanging on to a once-familiar name in hopes of retaining a shred of credibility, which it doesn't really have.

And speaking of once-familiar names, what's Microsoft's other big alliance at the moment, the one in the burgeoning market where Apple and Google are killing the folks in Redmond? Oh, yes, it's that mobile tie-up with Nokia, another company that might not be long for this world and that left its best days behind it at least a decade ago.

The Nokia partnership is almost worse, given that it has a real blind-leading-the-blind feel to it and given that Nokia is now run by a former Microsoft executive. Nokia seems sort of like Guam now, more of a Microsoft protectorate than an independent partner. At least Guam brings in tourists, though; does Nokia actually do anything for Microsoft? Or is Microsoft trying to forge ahead with Windows Phone 7 despite having to drag Nokia's stone of shame behind it (which we don't anticipate turning into the stone of triumph any time soon)?

Microsoft-Nokia feels almost more like a charity case than a true partnership, but unfortunately for Microsoft the company isn't in a position to be helping anybody else out in the mobile space. That's Microsoft's lot in life these days, though -- the pretty girl that was once on everybody's dance card has had some bad plastic surgery and hasn't aged well, and Google and Apple (along with some other smaller, craftier vendors) are stealing all the most promising young lads at the cotillion. (Hey, at least it wasn't another football metaphor.)

It hurts Microsoft not to have more powerful and capable strategic partners in markets it wants to come from behind to dominate. It hurts because Microsoft can't rule everything anymore just by tying it to Windows and Office. It would be great for the Microsoft partner ecosystem and for the company itself if Microsoft could go into the brave new worlds of search and mobile with capable guides, but that's not the way things are playing out. That makes these new markets dark and confusing places indeed for the company that was once on top of the world.

What do you make of Microsoft's relationships with Nokia and Yahoo? Sound off at the comments section below or at [email protected].

Posted by Lee Pender on September 15, 20113 comments

Whatever Happened to Yahoo? Nothing, and That's the Problem

Not long ago, somebody mentioned the name Corel to your editor. "Corel," he thought. "Wait, is Corel still around? Surely not. It didn't survive the early 2000s bust, did it?"

Actually, it did. We're just not sure how. The predictions were so dire for the Canadian firm in the late '90s -- when times were still good -- that we at RCPU distinctly remember one very well-known and well-respected analyst telling your editor that Corel probably didn't have more than six months to live. That was in 1997, or maybe 1998. You get the point.

We haven't followed Corel (who has?) in recent, well, decades, so we're not sure how the company that nearly put itself out of business trying to take on Microsoft Office managed to remain both alive and, as far as we can tell, independent. But the company, once run by the never-dull and possibly not totally sane Michael Cowpland, must have made some adjustments somewhere. Because that's what good companies do: make adjustments to survive.

And so we come to Yahoo, which we still refuse to spell with an exclamation point. And really, why should we? The only thing exciting about Yahoo these days is the turmoil the company is in. Yahoo fired its CEO this week and now looks every bit as doomed as Corel did during the Clinton administration.

Somehow, Corel managed to find an audience and appeal to it -- to give it something it really wanted or couldn't live without. This is why we don't think Yahoo will survive the way Corel did: When is the last time Yahoo provided any sort of product or service that was indispensable, highly desirable or hard to replace? We're thinking 1997, maybe. It's a wonder Yahoo is still around.

Google has ripped consumer search and, in large part, Web-based e-mail away from everybody else in the market. That cut the heart out of Yahoo, which really never succeeded at becoming much more than a search engine and e-mail provider (and then pretty much turned search over to Microsoft and Bing). The Yahoo 360 social network -- actually slightly ahead of its time and way ahead of Google -- never went anywhere (because it was terrible and hard to use, in your editor's view). Even Yahoo Messenger is no longer a top-shelf instant-messaging client.

Microsoft will be Microsoft for many years to come because of the thousands (millions?) of companies that have invested in Microsoft infrastructure for years and have no desire, or possibly even ability, to rip it out. Sure, Microsoft might not survive as a 90,000-person battleship and probably shouldn't be engaging in its futile chase of Apple in the consumer space, but Microsoft provides products that are indispensible, hard to replace and, yes, even desirable. That's a great blueprint for survival.

Apple got back on its feet after the late '90s by coming up with the iPod, the product everybody had to have. After that, Apple had its hooks in everybody (because that's how the company works; it's the most proprietary technology company ever). Like your iPod? Use iTunes. Like iTunes? Hey, you might want to sync that on your iPhone, or iPad, or whatever. Apple makes not only cool stuff but stuff that people now think they can't live without. Even without Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple is set to be successful for a long time.

Even Google has managed to make itself seemingly indispensible, with a search engine that's still the brand-name default for millions of users and a Web-based e-mail platform that's so pervasive that people almost don't have to get past the "at" sign anymore when giving out their personal e-mail addresses. And that doesn't even touch on Android, Google's cloud services or the company's many other popular offerings.

Big and small, companies that survive and thrive do so by getting their hooks into enterprises and consumers. Yahoo never did that. Back in the late '90s, there was nothing cooler than setting up a "My Yahoo" portal (whatever happened to that word?) as a home page. Look, sports scores! News headlines! The weather! All in one place! What will they think of next?

Not much, actually, in Yahoo's case. Where has the innovation been? When did Yahoo ever adjust its business model for the 2000s, much less for the 2010s? What does Yahoo offer that we really want, absolutely need, or have and don't want to try to replace? Nothing -- nothing we can think of here at RCPU, anyway. Think of Amazon, another Web pioneer, and then think of Yahoo (or even of AOL). See the difference?

Standing pat is a great way to end up out of business, which is where it appears Yahoo is headed -- probably to be bought for much less than what Microsoft offered for the company a few years ago. It would be a sad story if it weren't so ridiculous. Corel is still alive, and Yahoo is circling the drain. Nobody would have predicted that 15 years ago -- but 15 years is centuries on the Web.

What's your take on Yahoo's chances for survival? Leave a comment below or send it to [email protected].


Posted by Lee Pender on September 09, 20113 comments

Google 'Buys' Zagat

Gah, we were all ready to do a mock Zagat review in response to this news, but apparently Google beat us to it. Newman! Uh, we mean, Google!

You know what? Let's do it, anyway.

A somewhat "scary" but "unquestionably successful" technology company has bought a "pretentious" but "fairly useful" restaurant guide. Google apparently plans to keep Zagat "alive" and add it to its "growing list" of consumer services. Zagat, meanwhile, should "clean up" from this deal and, by "joining" Google, should be able to use its new owner's "omniscient" and "terrifying" tracking software to know "exactly where customers are" and "exactly what they're doing" (or "where they're eating") at "any time of the day or night."

Posted by Lee Pender on September 08, 20110 comments and Social Networking at Work: Do We Have To?

With sincere apologies to Dana Carvey, it's time for the return of the Grumpy Old Blogger.

So, here's what I hate about social networking. Consider the following scenario, one I've experienced many times. I see a friend I haven't seen in, say, a month. Maybe two. And I ask how she's doing.

"Well," the reply snaps back, "if you ever looked at Facebook, you'd know that I went to California last month."

"Oh, really? Where in California?" I inquire with half-hearted interest.

"It was all on Facebook. I put up all of my pictures, and I had a link to my blog. You need to get on Facebook once in a while!"

Really? Do I? Or could we just have a pleasant conversation about this right now? Do I not get to hear about the trip to California because I wasn't compulsively combing Facebook every day, waiting with bated breath for updates and clicking through a bunch of fuzzy photos? Is that how it works now? We can only communicate virtually - - and usually one-to-many or many-to-one -- and any attempt to chat in person about something that happened more than two hours ago is just an annoyance. Get on Facebook, will you?

No, I won't. At least not very often. Back in my day, people chatted with each other face-to-face, or they talked on the phone, or they e-mailed. (Actually, back in my real day, we didn't have e-mail, either.) We didn't have fancy "social networking" with walls and Tweets and mobile apps. We could actually avoid each other if we wanted to and only communicate when we felt like it. And we liked it! We loved it!

Actually, other than talking on the phone (not my favorite pastime), I did love it. I'm still an e-mail guy, even though it's the 8-track cassette of communication. I love a long chat at the pub or in my living room (which, I suppose, would be vinyl). But I'm kind of ambivalent toward social media, with its weird unwritten rules and subtle pressures and little hashtag codes everywhere, and with its unabashed, childlike, look-at-me ethos. Hey, I told you I was grumpy.

At least there's the office, where I'm not supposed to look at Facebook, and where I only use Twitter when it's absolutely required. Work is a great excuse for ignoring people online. (Yes, I realize that most people use social networking to waste time at work, but again: grumpy.)

Now, though, apparently wants me, my employer and everybody else in the business world to embrace social work. Seriously? Apparently, outspoken -- and often hilarious -- CEO Marc Benioff has some sort of vision that involves companies embracing social networking (sensible enough) and employees forming social networks at work.

Oh, great. So, I'm going to have to check some sort of work Facebook now to know what's going on at 1105 Media? (Probably not, actually, as we don't use -- as far as I know.) Instead of just talking to a colleague or sending or receiving an e-mail about a project or a meeting or whatever, I'll have to check a "news feed" or somebody's "wall" or "Tweet stream"?

Brilliant. I'm very much looking forward to this technology becoming pervasive so that my boss can ask me where a story is and I can reply, "What story?" And he can say, "The one I assigned you on your work Facebook wall that you didn't check." To be fair, my actual boss wouldn't do that. But you see what I mean. is a great company in a lot of ways. Its pure-cloud approach is pretty innovative and definitely refreshing. It walks the cloud walk while most other companies just talk the talk -- and not even all that well, at that. Benioff is a quote machine, and his company executes superbly. There's a lot to admire about

But please, please,, spare me -- spare us all -- the tyranny of making social networking part of our everyday work experience. The curmudgeons among us will be forever grateful.

Do you want to mess with social networking at work? Say why or why not in the comments section below or at [email protected]


Posted by Lee Pender on August 31, 201111 comments

What If Apple Just Owns the Tablet Market Forever? HP Won't Care

Google and RIM are down. HP is out. Right now, Apple has a stranglehold on the tablet market not seen since...well, not seen since Microsoft took control of the market for PC operating systems, which it still has.

HP last week just surrendered to Apple and the iPad, killing the TouchPad (and thus bringing it to life for the first time, but we'll get to that) and announcing that it's done making devices with the webOS operating system on them.

In fact, it's done with webOS, period (mostly, although not entirely). Actually, what HP really said was that it doesn't even want to make computers anymore, which, of course, led to another round of speculation that the PC is dead or dying.

It isn't. Look, tablets and smartphones are popular. We get that. But in a world in which some organizations are still using Windows 2000 and lots are still running Windows XP, the PC still has plenty of life to live. Companies will upgrade their PCs to Windows 7 eventually -- and then possibly to Windows 8 -- because PCs are what they use for business.

They just are. Most IT departments aren't huge fans of revolutions or sudden paradigm shifts, to resurrect a phrase from the '90s. They don't keep the same schedule that vendors and innovators keep. They can't. Technology might move quickly, but enterprise technology adoption tends to happen glacially in a relative sense, for lots of reasons.

Let's put it this way: We're betting that probably 100 percent of people who start an office job today (if anybody's actually hiring) will get a standard-issue company PC. Maybe some of those people will get tablets; a good chunk will get smartphones. But how many will get just a smartphone, or just a tablet, or just a smartphone and a tablet but no PC? Our sincere guess is zero.

Maybe PCs won't sell the way they did five years ago (actually, we're pretty sure they won't). Maybe consumers really will lose some interest in them in a significant way -- although having an actual keyboard is still important to a lot of people. But in terms of function and familiarity, the PC will still be the base computer of business and probably consumers for some time to come. How long? A long time. Years, we're guessing. Double-digit. Check up on us in a decade and tell us if we were wrong.

Anyway, back to HP. The stock market pummeled HP after last week's kerfuffle, and all kinds of pundits expressed shock that the company would abandon webOS and the TouchPad after a relatively short period of time.

Of course, the funny part of this story is that after HP decided to discount the TouchPad heavily and sell the most basic version of it for about $100, the thing started flying off the shelves like candy at Halloween. The once unwanted, relatively unknown (despite Russell Brand's best efforts) device is suddenly a hot commodity.

(By the way, Russell, you're not fooling anybody. We know that, like the editor of this newsletter, you're a supporter of West Ham United, so you're not checking English Premier League scores on your TouchPad. No, you're watching the Championship after West Ham's relegation last season. Don't try to put a brave face on it. We're all struggling.)

The TouchPad fad won't last, as we all know, because the TouchPad is only big right now because it's cheap. HP knows that, too. And HP knows a lot more than that. It knows that "tablet" and "iPad" are nearly synonymous now. It knows that Apple, the world's most valuable company, owns the tablet market and is starting to crush its competitors in pretty much every market for consumer electronics it enters.

And HP knows that none of that matters, not to HP. Not anymore. Somebody there figured out that HP doesn't need to be one of the many pilot fish trying to pick morsels from Apple's shark teeth, at least not as far as tablets are concerned. (Getting out of the PC business altogether...well, that's probably a topic for another post entirely.)

HP wants to reinvent itself as an enterprise company. That's music to our ears, and Microsoft should be streaming the same song HP's singing. Microsoft's future -- and its partners' future -- lies in the enterprise, not in flailing around and failing to imitate Apple. Let Apple have the kids, the hipsters and the geeks. Shoot, let Apple have consumer computing. There's money to be made elsewhere.

Seriously, what would happen if Apple just ruled the tablet market forever and ever? If Microsoft never even came out with a tablet? If HP never sold another $100 TouchPad? For a reasonable facsimile of an answer, let's look at the market for desktop operating systems, the one Microsoft still owns with something of an iron grip.

Who were the main competitors -- the really big ones, not the small-time companies from the '70s -- Microsoft crushed en route to making Windows what it is today? IBM, Apple, maybe Linux? Those sound about right. And they're all in business and actually doing pretty well (or very well, in Apple's case).

Microsoft destroyed OS/2 pretty effectively, and, yeah, IBM suffered after that. But the company adapted, beefed up its consulting business, focused on the enterprise and eventually dropped almost all of its consumer presence nearly a decade ago when it sold of its PC arm to Lenovo. IBM lives on, even in a Windows-dominated world. IBM is doing fine.

Apple, of course, nearly did go out of business, but that was more a problem of leadership than a technology problem. Talk about adapting, though -- Steve Jobs came back (with Bill Gates' money in hand) and only managed to build the world's most valuable company on the foundation of some truly stunning innovation and some near-revolutionary marketing.

And how did Jobs send Apple rocketing past Microsoft? By winning the OS game and killing Windows with the Mac OS? Nah. He did it by moving into areas where nobody was doing anything particularly interesting and doing things that were massively interesting. Case in point: the iPad. And iPhone. And iPod (remember that?). The Mac is pretty much an afterthought these days.

As for Linux, it's very much alive and well, and plenty of Linux distributors remain active and profitable. Sure, Linux doesn't have a massive desktop presence, but it has huge market share as server software. It didn't kill Windows, and it didn't have to -- in fact, it didn't even have to compete all that effectively on the desktop (and doesn't).

Apple got the loot in the tablet market. At this point, it has no serious competition. Eventually, its would-be competitors, as HP has, will figure that out and give up trying to climb Mount iPad. That's what good companies do: They admit defeat when they have to, adapt and move on to something else. They carve out niches. They break new ground and listen to their customers and the market. They don't try to be everything to everybody or sink money into a product hole that's only going to get deeper.

HP is a good company. HP is doing the right thing in dumping the TouchPad. Short term, there will be some pain resulting from this decision. Long term (and isn't it nice when a company actually considers the long term?), it makes a lot of sense. Let Apple have the tablet market. HP is moving on.

What's your take on HP dumping the TouchPad and webOS? Leave a comment below or send it to [email protected].


Posted by Lee Pender on August 25, 20115 comments

Another Industry Legend Steps Down: Steve Jobs Retires

When I was in high school (in the early '90s; I'm not that old, no matter how grouchy I tend to be), I had to write an essay for a contest. The topic was as follows: "Agree or disagree: The world has changed more in the last 100 years than it did from the time of Christ until the end of the 19th century." I agreed. Wholeheartedly. 

I won't (and can't) reproduce the essay for you here. My guess is, given my disdain for brevity, I wrote a lot, and the judges didn't read all the way to the end of my ramblings. At some point, they probably gave up; in any case, I won the competition. There's a lesson in there somewhere: If you can't beat them (whoever "they" are), grind them down. (Also, growing up in a small town means that there are fewer competitors to beat in an essay competition.)

But I digress. A lot. The reason I thought of that essay tonight for the first time in 20 years is that Steve Jobs announced his retirement from Apple on Wednesday evening. That means that a lot of people are going to write over the next few days about Steve Jobs, the future of his company, his failing health and his legacy.

All of that will be appropriate, of course, but that's not what I want to write about tonight. I'm here simply to say that with the departure of Jobs from the industry -- he'll still stay on as Apple's chairman with Tim Cook coming in as CEO, but it seems pretty obvious that Jobs really is stepping away this time -- another of the great figures of technology is effectively ending his career as a mainstream executive.

And here's where that high school essay comes in. You'd better believe that the world has changed more in the last 111 years or so than it did in the couple thousand years before that. The automobile, the airplane and the microprocessor -- among many other inventions -- have seen to that. And we've just sort of gone on from there. People like Steve Jobs have led the way.

I don't need to tell you what Steve Jobs has meant to the technology industry. What we all should think about today is what he (along with Bill Gates, and Scott McNealy, and John Warnock, and Mitch Kapor, and many others -- maybe even Larry Ellison) has meant to the world. Steve Jobs has fundamentally changed the way we entertain ourselves, the way we communicate with each other, the way many of us do our jobs, and maybe even the way we think. And that goes for those who have iWhatevers and for those who don't.

He's one of the people whose picture will someday appear in textbooks (probably iTextbooks), if it doesn't already. He's a pioneer, a titan of industry, a luminous figure not just in technology or in our modern world but in all of human history. Oh, yes. They all are. All the big names are.

This generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, this first true "computer" generation -- these are our Washingtons and our Jeffersons, our Gutenburgs and our Wright brothers. Without these people, our lives would be radically different; for one thing, many people reading this wouldn't have jobs, or at least wouldn't have jobs as rewarding and interesting as the ones they have today. (Yeah, work can stink anywhere, but technology is generally a pretty darn cool industry.)

Of course, Steve Jobs is still with us, as are many of his generation, and this isn't meant to be an epitaph. These people will move on, continue to innovate, continue to influence others and maybe even save the world (thank you, Mr. Gates). They'll all still stay rich, too, so there's no need to thank them too much. They've had their well-deserved recompense.

No, this little blog entry is meant only to be a reminder for us all to step back from our harried lives, our stressful jobs and our light-speed industry to realize that we've living in a time unparalleled by any other in human history, a time of creativity, innovation and prosperity that for thousands of years our ancestors could never have imagined. And it's a little reminder to tip our caps to the people who got us here, one of whom is Steve Jobs. Good luck, Mr. Jobs, with whatever comes next.


Posted by Lee Pender on August 24, 20114 comments

Another Bad Day for the Cloud: Microsoft Office 365, Dynamics CRM Go Down

Darn it, Microsoft, you're going to ruin the whole thing. Well, you won't be alone -- after all, you're certainly not the only vendor to suffer an outage of cloud-based applications lately. But every time the sky falls and the cloud goes down, it hurts the whole cloud computing model.

This week's outage seems especially bad, not so much because of how long it lasted (although it was hours, apparently), but because of what actually went down. Office 365, Microsoft's long-awaited, almost-brand-new online productivity suite, was part of the crash. Office 365 is meant to be the successor to BPOS but only seemed to live up to the last three letters of its predecessor's name this week. Oh, and if you wanted to stay on BPOS and not move to Office 365, too bad. Office 365 is coming to BPOS users -- if Microsoft can keep it up and running.

The other piece of Microsoft's cloud that came down -- in an unrelated incident, apparently, although we can't decide if that's better or worse -- was Dynamics CRM Online. Now, granted, that might not be Microsoft's biggest hosted offering and it doesn't necessarily have the same impact as Office 365, but Dynamics CRM Online is one of the few facets of the (actually very good) Dynamics ERP and CRM offering that Microsoft actually seems to be actively trying to sell. While the ERP suites kind of gently rock along in Redmond, Microsoft is pushing Dynamics CRM big time.

And the hosted version, Dynamics CRM Online, is definitely one of the company's high-priority hosted products and is unquestionably the main attraction among hosted Dynamics applications. CRM is high-profile stuff by Dynamics' standards, and it looks bad when Microsoft can't manage to keep such a hard-sell hosted offering consistently available.

(As a side note, but not an unrelated one, a company called Nimbula had great timing in announcing this week its Nimbula Director 1.5 product, which lets administrators tie together geographically distributed clouds with a single set of permissions and policies. The infrastructure-as-a-service platform, as Nimbula calls it, is big with cloud service providers. Run by some ex-Amazon employees, Nimbula is already serving customers that want to be mini-Amazons.

"The interest has been heavy from service providers," Jay Judkowitz, director of product management at Nimbula, told RCPU last week. "They see what Amazon's doing and they say, 'We need to do that, too.' They're not saying we have to compete with Amazon. They want to do Amazon-like things but not compete with Amazon."

Of course, Amazon has had its share of problems with outages in the past, but what Nimbula is doing is pretty interesting nonetheless. End of digression.)

As is always the case, the anti-cloud hordes are hitting the blogs and message boards talking about how this latest hosted-software problem is just another reason why the cloud is a waste of time and money and doesn't really work. At this point, though, who's to say that they're wrong? OK, so the outages we read about might be drops in a bucket, maybe even a lake, compared to the hours and days and weeks in which cloud services run smoothly and work just fine. But drops make ripples nonetheless, and they make bigger ripples when they fall into high-profile cloud offerings. What these outages really do is show that cloud computing isn't ready to handle business-critical applications, and that in turn relegates the whole cloud model to fringe functionality within most organizations.

We at RCPU have always been supporters and proponents of the cloud. It promises cost savings to organizations and seems like a clean solution compared to the labyrinth of systems and applications that's often hiding inside corporate IT departments. We're starting to wonder why we like it so much, though. The cloud can be a real mess for partners who are trying to sell and make money off of it. It's a potential threat to IT professionals' jobs. Security and (obviously) reliability remain major concerns. And we can confirm that if your editor couldn't get to his e-mail or some other critical application for several hours during the workday, you'd hear the unprintable screaming coming all the way from Greater Boston, no matter where you are.

We in the punditsphere are always looking for the next big thing in technology (or the next big failure -- thank you, Windows Phone 7). As exciting as the industry can be, covering it every single day can actually get to be a grind. When a brand-new (actually old and repurposed, but that's another discussion) model like the cloud comes along, we tend to jump on it and hype it as much as we possibly can. Then, of course, we have to wait for it to fail a few times so that we can tear it down and talk about how it was nothing but a creation of hype, anyway, and really isn't all it's cracked up to be. Hey, it keeps people reading...we think.

And so we're in the tearing-down phase with the cloud -- although it's the service providers who are having the outages and providing those of us in the punditsphere with the fodder for destroying what we helped build. The truth about the cloud, of course -- as most partners and IT people already know -- is somewhere in the middle. Yes, it can be a cost saver. Yes, it's good for certain functions and applications. Yes, service-level agreements and choosing the right provider are massively important. And no, despite some of the success stories we've heard in recent years, it's probably not time to shift all of your business-critical applications to the cloud. It might never be. Maybe if we go years without an outage, if stories like this week's Microsoft blunders sort of fade away, the cloud will become the norm and nobody will think twice about outsourcing to it. But we're not there yet. Not even close.

How much do you trust the cloud computing model? What are you willing to outsource to the cloud? Tell your stories at [email protected] or leave a comment below.


Posted by Lee Pender on August 18, 20110 comments

Will Microsoft Snatch Motorola's Patents from Google?

Something just doesn't seem right here. We've long defended the importance of intellectual property and patents in this space, noting that IP is the lifeblood of capitalism. And we still believe that it is. But this is just weird.

Most of you know by now that Google's announced intention to buy Motorola for $12.5 billion isn't really about Motorola's hardware, manufacturing facilities or expertise in making smartphones. It's about patents -- pretty much entirely about patents. In fact, with Apple and Microsoft teaming up to try to whack Google with the patent stick and destroy Android, the whole smartphone business is now, apparently, about patents.

The idea is that if you're a smartphone maker and you're worried that you've violated a patent -- or if you're pretty sure that you have -- you can just buy a company that has a similar patent to the one you might have violated and then say, "See? We didn't do anything wrong. We own this patent. It's close enough." Or something along those lines.

It's that kind of patent-collecting frenzy that has one analyst -- who says he saw Googarola coming when nobody else did -- suggesting that Microsoft could actually swoop in and steal Motorola away from Google before the deal closes. OK, yeah, so it's just one guy giving his opinion. But apparently he's a dude who holds some sway because his story is growing legs.

At the same time, despite a fall from grace nearly worthy of Nevin Shapiro (seriously, check this guy out), Research In Motion doesn't have investors worried. Not really, anyway, because they figure that it's entirely possible that some other smartphone company will buy RIM...for the patents. So much for the supposed addictiveness of what was once called the CrackBerry.

Now, your editor is obviously not a patent lawyer (or a lawyer of any kind, for that matter), but something does seem amiss with this scenario. The reason we've always found patents important is because -- in the spirit of the law, we believe -- they encourage innovation and let companies protect hard-earned competitive advantages. In that sense, being able to buy up companies just for their patents, something we realize is hardly new, just seems to run counter to the purpose patents are supposed to serve.

OK, maybe Motorola isn't too upset about getting scooped up for a $12.5 billion price tag, and maybe its patents did serve the company well in the long run. But if Google really did violate Microsoft (and Apple, and Oracle) patents, it seems somehow unfair -- somehow counter to the idea of a patent, which we thought was supposed to be unique -- for Google to be able to cover itself by purchasing somebody else's inventions and then saying that the company is shielded from any sort of patent lawsuit with a sort of get-out-of-jail-free (or, in this case, for $12.5 billion) card. Rip off somebody else's stuff? No big deal. Just go buy some other company's IP and cover your Android. Suddenly, it was all your idea to begin with! (To be fair, we're not saying that Google did that. In fact, as a happy Android user, your editor really hopes that the company didn't. But the phrase "cover your Android" was just irresistible.)

The much bigger problem with patents, though, seems to be that companies can now patent just about any process, including tiny and mundane things that competitors almost wouldn't be able to help from "inventing" themselves at some point. ("Hey, what if we patented the process of dialing a phone number by pushing buttons!" OK, so that's not a real example, but evidently it's not too far off of how the patent process works.)

And here's where we're thinking that maybe Google might be mostly innocent, and that maybe the search giant's (or eventually Microsoft's) buyout of Motorola is kind of a necessary waste (to coin a phrase). If most of these patent-related legal actions amount in all practicality to annoyingly effective nuisance lawsuits, it seems unfortunate for the industry and maybe for the economy in general that any company would be compelled to spend double-digit billions of dollars just to fend them off.

We're guessing that patent lawsuits, if they really are just a hassle more than anything else, retard innovation rather than promote it, and we also suspect that they probably destroy more jobs than they create. Is that the purpose the lifeblood of capitalism is supposed to serve? It sure doesn't seem as though it should be.

What's your take on the patent wars in the smartphone industry? Leave a comment below or send your thoughts to [email protected].


Posted by Lee Pender on August 17, 20113 comments

Microsoft Keeps Talking About Speech Recognition in Windows

Many years ago -- well, back in the mid-'90s -- your editor slipped into a conference room where a demo of Office (or maybe even Windows 98) was taking place at a trade show. Somebody from Microsoft was showing how speech-recognition software would work integrated into Office and Windows.

Or not work, as the case was. The demo went about as well as those recent negotiations on the debt ceiling, and somebody in the audience asked when speech might actually be integrated into a release of Office or Windows. Not for quite a while, the Microsoft person said. It wasn't ready. Your editor strolled back to the press room and wrote a brief story on the whole deal -- and, for some reason, that little story got picked up all over the Web (such as it was back then). People were fascinated, we suppose, by the notion of speech recognition being native in an OS -- or even working at all.

Fast forward nearly 15 years, and...we're still waiting for speech recognition to really, actually, seriously work. Mary Jo Foley reported last week that Microsoft is trying to work all sort of speech capabilities into Windows 8, as well as into other offerings. Yes, Windows 7 handles some speech stuff, but not much.

We have a couple of problems with all of this, as you might imagine. First, although some people swear by speech software (and we do see its obvious application for blind people), your editor has never been able to get it to work. It's that simple. Beyond that, we're not sure we want to talk to our computers, TVs or whatever -- and we're pretty sure that we don't want everybody else in the office (or even at home) chatting away with the electronic devices. Typing (even on one of those little virtual keyboards) is fine, as is pointing a remote at the TV.

Microsoft wants us to touch our computer screens with Windows 8, something we find pretty bizarre (see "Windows 8: Put It on Tablets, Keep It Off PCs"), and now we're supposed to talk to our machines, too. We at RCPU say leave that stuff for spouses or pets or whatever. The day we start chatting with our PC is the day we realize we've finally reached the crest of insanity. Not that the speech-recognition software would work, anyway.

Posted by Lee Pender on August 15, 20111 comments

Apple Is the World's No. 1 Company

No, really. Apple is, for now, the biggest company in the world in terms of market value. What a turnaround this is from the dark days of 1997, when Bill Gates floated Steve Jobs a bundle of cash just to keep Apple alive and keep regulators away from Redmond.

Of course, Gates might have been better off letting Apple die. The Department of Justice came knocking on his door with papers, anyway, and now Apple has left Microsoft not just in its rearview mirror but in the dust created by its dust. So, what does this mean for Microsoft, once the Montreal Canadiens to Apple's Boston Bruins? (Yep, snuck another one in.)

Actually, nothing. Really, it doesn't mean anything. So Apple's bigger. The biggest. The best, No. 1. So? Microsoft still has boatloads of money and rakes in plenty of revenue. Microsoft still owns the enterprise in a way Apple likely never will. And Microsoft has a product line with massive breadth and depth. Why should Microsoft worry about losing ground to Apple when Apple makes most of its money these days from consumer devices?

Other than tablets, one important area where Microsoft really does seem lost, there's no reason for Microsoft to chase Apple in most of the markets where Apple rakes in the cash -- that is to say, markets for consumer devices. Windows is still the world's dominant operating system, at least on the desktop. Microsoft does need to solidify some sort of tablet strategy, but mobile? Personal media devices? Happy fun time computers? Microsoft has no business messing around with that stuff.

As we've said here before, Microsoft needs to focus on its business roots (even, or especially, with WP7) and leave the toys to the kids, no matter how much money the toymakers pull in.

Posted by Lee Pender on August 10, 20112 comments