And another thing 56

by Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball contemplates the rise of Windows 8 and the collapse of Android.

HardCopy Issue: 56 | Published: May 1, 2012

If there is one thing you can say about this industry, it’s that there is a rarely a dull day. Windows 8 continues its path towards launch, with many (including myself) not entirely convinced that the Metro user interface is going to work well for the millions of business desktop users. Maybe Microsoft is just hoping that these users will move to Windows 7 64-bit, and that Microsoft can then claim them as ‘Windows 8 licenses’ because they are locked into rolling licensing contracts with Microsoft which includes upgrades to the latest version. And you’d want to be running the latest version, wouldn’t you?

Well, yes and no. I have come to really quite like Windows 7 64-bit for the professional desktop user. It works well, it’s pretty much debugged now, and it has excellent hardware driver support. And there is a myriad of applications, many natively 64-bit, which can run on it. It’s a snap to administer, with a wide range of tools available to help, including Microsoft’s new System Center suite. What’s not to like?

To Azure or not to Azure

In a fit of rebranding, Microsoft appears to have taken away the Azure name from its Azure service platform. Quite why this has happened is a mystery to most everyone. After all, you have to call it something. “That Microsoft cloud thingy, used to be called Azure” hardly trips off the tongue, does it?

I’m sure there are marketing wonks who believe that ‘Azure’ has run its course, that as a brand it has done its time, and that Marketing 101 says that we need a refresh. My reply to that would be that most marketing people are stupid, and just look how long Microsoft has clung onto the Windows brand. Do we think Microsoft would just walk away from ‘Office’ any time soon? And the Azure platform was, and is, and will continue to be, a geeks platform. It’s for developers, implementors, people who code for a living, and those of us who have to provide solutions to customers. We don’t care if it’s called Azure, Donkey or OrangePeel, but we do need a coherent name that we can use as a shorthand. There was nothing wrong with ‘Azure’, and replacing it with a void seems counterproductive. But what do I know? Or you?

As part of this big renaming and tidy up, Microsoft has taken the opportunity to clarify the licensing terms. Readers with long memories will recall how upset we got with the Microsoft legal team over the vague and incomplete wording about territoriality and EU data protection issues. The new licence is online at www.windowsazure.com/en-us/support/legal/privacy-statement/ and I will quote a few pieces:

“Microsoft will not transfer Customer Data outside the major geographic region you specify (for example, from Europe to US or from US to Asia) except: … (2) where necessary to provide customer support, to troubleshoot the service or to comply with legal requirements…”

which makes it clear that your data might move outside of Europe to comply with American legal requirements, namely the Patriot Act. It then goes on,

“Subject to the above restrictions, Customer Data that we process on your behalf may be transferred to, and stored and processed in, the United States or any other country in which Microsoft or its affiliates or subcontractors maintain facilities, and you appoint Microsoft to perform any such transfer of Customer Data to any such country and to store and process Customer Data in order to provide the Services. Microsoft abides by the EU Safe Harbor and the Swiss Safe Harbor frameworks as set forth by the U.S. Department of Commerce regarding the collection, use and retention of data from the European Union, the European Economic Area and Switzerland.”

At least it is clear now. Your data, under request of a US authority, can be transferred anywhere Microsoft so decides.

Well, along comes Windows 8 and its aspirations for the touch tablet market cannot be overlooked. And the big question for 2013 is how this market is going to work.

One thing I think is clear is that Apple is not going to back down and hand over sales to a rival. There is ample evidence, some apocryphal, some real, that developers do best when they target the iOS marketplace. Figures I have seen suggest that Android development has about one quarter of the ROI compared to the Apple platform, so there is no surprise that development houses are still looking hard at iOS first, with Android second. But what will happen with Windows 8? And that unknown child Windows Phone 8, codenamed ‘Apollo’?

Anyone who underestimates Microsoft’s ability to spend money on marketing is likely to find themselves in a whole heap of pain. Whether Microsoft will go quite as wild as they did with the launch of Windows 95 is not clear yet. For those with a short memory, the Windows 95 launch was epic. Microsoft even managed to persuade an elderly relative of mine to buy a boxed copy of Windows 95, despite the fact she had no computer. When I asked why, she said “it was all so exciting and she didn’t want to miss out.” I fear that such heights of consumer confusion will not be attainable this time around!

But the clear end result is that the market is going to dramatically change shape. When vendors like HP, Asus, Samsung, Toshiba and the other heavyweights get their tablet plans out in the open, it will be obvious that the market will grow dramatically in size, at the clear expense of smaller laptops. Even the new ‘ultrabooks’ are steering a path away from the choppy pricing waters of tablets, trying to keep themselves a few hundred dollars higher in cost.

If Microsoft really pushes hard, it could double the size of the tablet market. This would reduce the iOS market share to some 50 per cent, but their volumes will stay strong. I suspect that there will be few sales of Windows tablet which actually prevent a sale of an iOS device, but we will see. A doubling of the market size is a huge ambition – let’s scale it back to adding 50 per cent to the market size, with iOS taking 60 per cent, Windows 30 per cent and everything else taking 10 per cent.

You might think that allowing 10 per cent for everything else is being quite appallingly rude to the capabilities of the competitors. But I don’t think this is unreasonable. Android is hugely fragmented with, according to many reporting sites, only a small percentage running on the current 4.x operating system. The reasons for this slow upgrade are legion – poor upgrading via the telcos, confusion about which device will get upgraded at which point, and so forth. For a developer, a fragmented platform is the worst of all evils. It constricts what can be done with a common code base, it increases test costs considerably and makes support into even more of a nightmare than it usually is. No wonder the ROI is poor.

The arrival of Windows 8 might well grow the total market size, but is there any real likelihood that this will grow the volume of Android devices sold? I am far from convinced that this will happen.

If this turns out to be the case, then the best thing the biggest Android device manufacturers could do is to fragment the platform even further. That might sound particularly grotesque as a piece of logic, but consider this – would you rather work to a defined ‘Asus platform’ or an ill-defined generic?

And let’s not overlook the e-book reader space either. It’s very hard to know exactly what is happening here, because the various players don’t release meaningful sales results, but there is some suggestion that sales of Kindle have slowed somewhat dramatically this year. Maybe all those who wanted one now have one. Maybe those who do, or who are thinking of a Colour Kindle, are more likely to move to a 300dpi screen iPad for not much more money. The danger of being a fixed function platform is that you end up being a one-trick pony. And if I can mix my metaphors, one-trick-ponies can be a bright flash followed by a downward spiral. Kindle, the software, will continue of course – it is really rather nice, and a Retina display version for iPad ticks all the boxes.

So, what are we to make of the news that Microsoft has bought into the Barnes and Noble Nook project? This is a product which has seemingly negligible sales and even less public interest, and yet Microsoft is buying into it? Does Microsoft really think it can create a major surge of interest in the e-reader marketplace by putting Nook software onto Windows 8 ARM tablets? It seems a crazy idea to me, but maybe there is some magical twist to this story which is yet to be revealed.

And then there is the forthcoming Windows 8 phone platform, rumoured to be based on the same core platform as Windows 8 itself. Apps from WP7.5 will be upwards compatible, but WP8 apps won’t downgrade. And it is still unclear whether WP7.5 hardware will run WP8 when it is ready later this year. Will Microsoft get Metro to be the development platform of choice to rival the iOS platform from Apple? That’s a hard thing to call, but it might be possible, especially if Apple loses its way.

For developers, the choices are ever harder. If it was for money and I was developing for tablet, I would be looking at iOS first, of course. Then taking a long hard look at the benefits of being an early adopter on Windows 8. Would that leave room for Android? Hard to say, to be honest. Much would come down to developer support hand-outs from the major vendors. After all, there would be no harm in asking?

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