And another thing 65

by Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball ends up vaguely optimistic about the progress Microsoft might make through 2015.

HardCopy Issue: 65 | Published: February 27, 2015

So Microsoft has finally unveiled its strategy for moving forward. On the one hand, I should be impressed that they have actually managed to do this, and to do so in a timeframe which, by Microsoft standards, is quite quick. We must always remember that Microsoft is like the apocryphal oil tanker – it takes time to turn or stop, simply due to the huge momentum of its internal processes.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the more we see from Satya Nadella, the clearer it becomes just how off course Microsoft was. And, as I have said before, I lay the blame for all of that at the feet of Steve Ballmer. Others will doubtless disagree, and I’m sure for good reasons, but I am clear that history will not look kindly on his term of stewardship at the helm of the Great Ship Of Redmond. And, to misquote Pooh Bear, the more you look the worse it seems.

Let’s get the hoo-hah about the 3D headset and virtual reality out of the way first. I refuse to call this “holography” until someone can provide me with a solid demonstration that this is true holography, and not just some jumped up marketing wheeze. Head tracking displays with audio are not new. Indeed, I wanted to do my final year university project on head tracking binaural extraction from B-format surround (see www.soundfield.com), and although the technology of the day made the task almost impossible at the time, it was almost 30 years ago.

Despite all the somewhat breathless descriptions I have read of the hands-on demonstrations, there is little here that makes me gasp. Yes, this is going to be incredibly useful for many niche areas, and they will be exactly the same areas that have made good use of VR over the last decades. I’m sure the Microsoft product will be better and most certainly cheaper than anything before, but I cannot see myself running Excel on this platform any time soon.

Which, I have to confess, is somewhat of a disappointment. The reality is that Windows has done a particularly terrible job of handling 3D and, in particular, Z-order on the desktop. The reality is that there is foreground, desktop, and a bunch of stuff in between which is so closely spaced you could barely slide a cigarette paper between them. So much could have been done to make this stunningly effective, especially given the ultra-high resolution screens and graphics coprocessors that we have today. But despite the abortive attempts over the years by third party tools such as Rooms, Microsoft has never explored 3D on the desktop in any meaningful way. I will discount Kinect at this point because it seems to be eternally wedded to mains power and the requirement for a relatively high voltage feed to run the various cameras, which is why there has been no meaningful place for Kinect on the desktop, and it has been wholly absent from any laptops.

Of course, history shows us that we are bound to repeat the same old mistakes, and I fear that the VR headset will fall down the same old Microsoft rabbit hole. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case as VR, and assisted reality, has a hugely important role to play. I had high hopes for Google Glass, but I knew right from the beginning that this was something that would ultimately fail, which it has. The inclusion of a camera was provocative to anyone with half a brain cell thinking about privacy issues, and entirely unnecessary to the core product. The bullish inclusion of the camera showed, in a microcosm, just how far out of touch with everyday life the Google Glass team were, and the seeds of their failure were obvious from the start of the project.

 

Moving on with Windows

So let’s move to Windows 10. I am genuinely excited by this forthcoming release, if only because it shows that Microsoft has pulled its head out of its collective rear and woken up to the fact that a decade of mostly failures, with the honourable exception of the 64 bit version of Windows 7, was not a recipe to keep them afloat in the future.

Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore shows off the Windows 10 Start menu.

The announcement that Windows 10 will be free for the first year for Windows 7 and 8 users is welcome, but entirely to be expected. It is absolutely imperative for Microsoft to steer its user base, both domestic and business, to a path that keeps them on a recent version of the operating system. I was reading that there is still more Windows XP out there than Windows 8, and that’s the sort of figure to make you shudder. And I know it brings terror to the heart of every developer too, who has to leap through hoops to get their products supported on a wide range of platforms.

I’m not quite sure what “free for the first year” will actually mean. Is there going to be a subscription service? Will this cover updates, which will only be available to paying customers? If so that’s a very dangerous route to go down. Or does it mean that you can pay a subscription and get an ongoing rolling service including upgrades, just like you get with Office 365? If so that’s considerably more interesting.

It does, of course, open the can of worms about how Windows is licensed. If you buy a new laptop, will the Windows licence be bundled for – say – one year? Or will it still be an in-perpetuity licence, just like today? If it is a change from historical practise, then will we see the retail cost of Windows devices come down as the bundled Windows is now effectively free? If so, can you buy (and activate support) on a per month as-needed basis, or will you need to pony up for a full twelve months?

I accept that there are many questions here, but once you start looking at Windows licensing for the home and small business user, then all cards have to be on the table.

Large corporates won’t care, of course – they are locked into their rolling licence plans and nothing changes on that front. They flatten and reimage devices to ensure that they are properly licensed, that they have the right security configuration and that apps are distributed using Active Directory registration or some other mechanism.

The news that Windows 10 is also going to be the platform for Windows Phone is significant too, because it does allow for a cleaner user (if not necessarily developer) experience for cross-platform apps. Again, there is a licensing question: if I buy something for my Windows tablet, will it be licensed for my phone too? Or is licensing going to be a per-device issue as in the past? Apple successfully confronted this matter, with the result that almost every significant app on iOS is licensed for both iPhone/iPod and iPad use. Some aren’t, but these are the exception in my experience. A move to this model would be very significant for the Windows ecosystem.

As indeed would a wholesale push towards Microsoft delivering OS patches and updates to the Windows 10 phone platform, taking the carriers out of the loop entirely. One utter masterstroke that Apple made with iOS was to ensure that the telecom service was not part of the delivery experience for the OS and features. That there is such lethargy in the Windows Phone world is a tragedy. It’s not as bad as Android where the fragmentation has taken on almost comical levels, but it is something that needs to be urgently addressed.

I have downloaded the current preview beta build, and it seems to work just fine. However, I will confess to containing it within the confines of a VMware virtual machine, just to be sure. My days of slapping mid-term betas onto real hardware are long gone unless I can justify putting aside a sacrificial lamb computer for such purposes. I know to my cost, and copious quantity of grey hair, just what can go wrong when you rely on something that is far from release quality. Heck, it’s often not that good even when it hits the shrink-wrap. My worst goof was putting an early beta of Exchange Server 4.5 (which became 5.0 before release, if I remember rightly) onto my production mail server the night before flying to America. I was still sorting out the mess at 5am the next morning, merely minutes before the taxi arrived to take me to Heathrow.

Has Microsoft turned the corner? Well, 2015 is going to be a most interesting year. The new Office offerings including the Android tablet version, Windows 10, and a further push on the Office 365 side. I sincerely hope that this is the year when Microsoft gets its mojo back. On the form shown so far, VR silliness aside, I think it might just manage it.

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