How Microsoft can win in 2014, part 1

Love them or hate them, any fair observer of the tech industry has to admit that Microsoft -once the untouchable, intimidating, indomitable giant of tech- has stumbled badly in recent years. So before we ponder how they can win next year, let’s review 2013 and see where they succeeded and failed.

2013 was the nasty hangover from 2012

While 2012 was bad for Microsoft in the consumer space, I think 2013 was even worse. Debuting in 2012, Windows 8 flopped like no other Microsoft OS since Windows Me (yes worse even than Vista). Consumers disliked it, enterprises shied away from 8 (though not Server 2012; I welcomed that with gusto), and even technology pros were confused by it.

2013, as a result, was spent repairing the damage done by the (lukewarm/disastrous, take your pick) reception to Windows 8. By the middle of the year, I was personally overjoyed to see MS correcting some of the flaws of 8 with Windows 8.1 Pro; 8.1 (and 2012 R2) felt like what Microsoft should have pushed out in 2012.

Windows Phone – in worse shape?

On the phone side of things, 2013 wasn’t much better for Microsoft until Q3 & Q4. I ended 2012 by ditching my Windows phone Series 7 (or whatever it was called back then) HTC Trophy and embracing, once again, Android’s refreshed stack with a post-ICS Samsung Galaxy Note 2. I gave Microsoft a fair chance on WP7 yet it felt like they kicked me in the teeth: my Trophy would never run Windows Phone 8 (new NT Kernel apparently) so it felt, more than ever like I was using a dead platform. I’ve seen that movie before with BeOS & WebOS and I didn’t like the heartbreak all over again. No thank you.

But that’s just me. How about WP8 and the market?

Windows Phone 8 & the acquisition of Nokia weren’t big winners in the first half of 2013 for those who stayed loyal or were attracted to the platform. Sure Nokia brought some real credibility & design chops to WP8; but you still couldn’t run Instagram or even Pandora (which runs on just about anything with a transistor) for much of the year. And as 2013 progressed, the Asian phone OEMs stopped caring about Windows Phone. Today, I think Nokia is the only Windows phone maker, which is a pretty bad outcome for the Windows Phone team. But at least they got Instagram, Pandora and a few other apps, though their bruising & public fight with Google has crippled the platform in other ways they haven’t recovered from yet. Sorry Microsoft, but YouTube owns the online video space; you best suck up to Google in 2014 if you want people to think about your phones again.

ARM : The continuing disaster of Windows RT

All the marketing muscle in the world can't hide the fact that 2013 was about washing the bad taste out of your mouth that Windows 8 & Windows RT have left behind
All the marketing muscle in the world can’t hide the fact that 2013 was about washing the bad taste out of your mouth that Windows 8 & Windows RT left behind

Microsoft’s 2012 strategy to attack the lower power/high battery-life ARM computing space yielded terrible results in 2013. One year ago, you could, if you were feeling daring, purchase a Windows RT device from Samsung, Asus, Microsoft, and a few other OEMs.

But today, as a type this?

There are only two manufacturers of Windows RT arm devices. One is Microsoft itself (Surface 2), and the other is owned by Microsoft (Nokia).

In that same time-span, the Chrome Operating System has gained more OEM partners: Samsung (granted, they’ll build anything for anyone) has been joined by HP, Asus, LG, and most surprising- Dell in building cheap, almost-disposable Chromebooks. That’s four heavyweight OEMs (one of which -Dell- built its entire empire on Windows) jumping on board the Chrome bandwagon and ditching Microsoft’s low-power ARM-based loser, probably for good.

This is why Bill Gates cried
This is why Bill Gates cried

I think Windows RT is as good as dead. If there is to be a product in which you do Windows computing on an ARM device, it’s likely going to run Windows Phone 8.1, which debuts next spring. And that upsets me because I still see Best Buy guys pitching Surface 2 tablets to consumers who think it will run their Windows applications. Slinging a dead product that may not survive the winter? That’s bad karma Microsoft!

XBox One

I feel like Microsoft blew all the goodwill & positive feelings that it won shepherding the Xbox platform from long-shot to king of the consoles over the last ten years by mishandling the rollout of the One in 2013. It was a fumble so spectacular it almost calls to mind George W. Bush blowing the Clinton surplus in the space of a few years. Almost.

I’m not a console geek or gamer, but it’s hard to imagine Microsoft handling the XBox One as a story any worse than it did. Couple that with the NSA story and it’s no surprise the One started at a disadvantage behind the PS4.

But it’s not dead; far from it. More on the One tomorrow.

Enterprise – some major wins

Finally, in the enterprise space, 2013 was mixed for Microsoft. As a virtualization admin, I couldn’t wait to be freed of Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V’s limitations; I upgraded my enterprise to 2012 Hyper-V 3.0 in Spring 2013 and immediately enjoyed the benefits.

While SMB 3.0 was released in 2012, I think it went mainstream in the enterprise in 2013, and by Q3/Q4 & with further revisions courtesy of 2012 R2, it’s reached hero status. Not only is it Microsoft’s answer to NFS, it’s arguably superior to it. Indeed, by the latter half of the year, EMC –which owns VMWare!– was calling SMB 3.0 the future of storage. Don’t call it CIFS anymore! 

Click!!
Click!!

I think it’s fair to say that among Microsoft’s many product launches in the last 18 months, SMB 3.0 is the most underrated but game-changing product Redmond has pushed out. Yes, it’s that good.

And some meh

On the other hand: Some enterprises may be benefiting from Microsoft’s new & rapid release cycle and the much-hyped virtuous feedback loop whereby Microsoft actually uses its products at scale in Azure, then rolls fixes, updates and other goodies downstream to its enterprise customers. But I’m not sure where these enterprises are. Most of the enhancements to System Center VMM 2012 R2, for instance, would definitely appeal to me if I were running a hosting firm and needed to house the same two /24 subnets on my Hyper-V farm.

But guess what? I’m not in the hosting space. And probably most Hyper-V admins aren’t either. Yes I’m down with fabric management, private/hybrid cloud deployments, and bare-metal Hyper-V server provisioning, but is NVGRE all there is to the Microsoft software defined networking story? Do I have to buy a virtual Cisco Nexus switch to play with this and proof it out? The networking guys are gaga over Microsoft’s NVGRE and Layer 3 tech, but I’m not seeing the vision. How does this help me kill the MPLS and save my business money? Why do I still need a VPN to Azure or O365?

Speaking of System Center, I am more confused now about it than ever before. 2013 saw the debut and further refinement of core Microsoft technologies: Powershell 4.0 + Windows Management Framework 4.0. These are some kick-ass developments I’m eager to master. Coupled together, WMF & Powershell 4.0 make Windows more Unix-like, more agile, and faster to deploy if you believe no less an authority than Jeffrey Snover, father of Powershell and Microsoft Technology Fellow (really great interview). Snover and his team released Desired State Configuration -a document-based, declarative template system for Windows & other devices/operating systems- in 2013.

I haven’t tested it much yet, but DSC feels to me like it could be a big winner in 2014. In fact, if you drink the DSC kool-aid, you look around and wonder why you’d want System Center at all anymore. The Puppet & Chef guys don’t need a huge stack of virtual servers, database engines, and whatnot to configure & run their stack from switch to server to PC; why should us Windows guys? Puppet just needs documents; DSC says it can deliver the same type of simplicity to those of us on the MIcorosft stack, dare I say to those of us with the System Center blues (VMM excepted of course, I’m looking at SCOM & Config Manager primarily).

ADFS – the New Religion

If there’s one thing Microsoft enterprises learned in 2013 it’s the centrality of Active Directory Federation Services in the new regime. Whether you want to go to Office 365, Azure, or you’re in bed with other cloud providers who are Microsoft-centric, you need to bone up on your ADFS right quick son.

mmmm. You know you want some of this – squiggly lines and all- in your enterprise. Come get some.

I think ADFS’ elevation points to the importance of identity management in 2013, and especially going forward into 2014. With the NSA scandal, the extension of the cloud into the enterprise (or is it the enterprise into the cloud, sans firewall?), identity management & security are one of the biggest challenges facing IT. Who’s going to offer the best solution? Federating my workplace credentials to my cloud services feels like a half-measure when what I really want to do is just slap my Active Directory domains onto the internet, but ADFS is getting some momentum behind it, so what do I know?

Tomorrow I’ll opine a bit about how Microsoft can win in 2014 no matter which CEO wins the sweepstakes. I think they stand better-than-even odds in your living room, the one place more hotly-contested by the giants of tech than any other space.

The Lean Back Computing Manifesto of 2014

Some great discussion on This Week in Tech last Sunday. Essentially the panelists, including my man Fr. Robert Ballecar, the Digital Jesuit and host of the solid This Week in Enterprise Tech podcast, gave more than passing consideration to the challenges inherent in creating a cohesive and stupid-proof lean back computing experience in the living room way to consume the stuff you and your family want in the living room, without getting hassled by technology.

Ahh yeah. This is some fertile territory. Lean back computing, as I like to think of it, touches everything in tech: law, consumer technology, enterprise technology, cloud stuff, mobile, storage, everything! This is what Jobs “cracked” before he died; this is where the promise of high technology, it’s amazing potential, the Holodeck if you will, dies a sad and wretched death inside a rats nest of copper cables piled and twisted up behind your ikea entertainment center.

Your living room. Your stuff. Your family. The Holy Grail of tech.

As the TWiT crew pointed out, Google is rumored to release a NexusTV early next year, their third solid (fourth I guess, if you count the Nexus Q) assault on the standards-less, walled-off, crutch-dependent technology fortress that is the living room. Amazon supposedly is building a Roku-knockoff as well, hoping you’ll pony up $100 or so to get what most smart TVs come with already. The XBox One, what Nilay Patel has mockingly called the world’s greatest GoogleTV thanks to its HDMI pass-through feature, has sold 2 million units and of course, Apple is in the space as well.

And that’s before you get to the big network TV providers, not to mention the consumer TV makers, the wannabe disruptors (Aereo!) and the content makers.

"An IR Blaster! That's a great idea to solve this problem," said no one ever
“By Jove I’ve got it! We’ll invent an IR Blaster! Consumers will love it!” said no one ever

It’s as if your living room and your family’s digital stuff is the prom queen, all dolled up, with sweet perfume, rouge colored cheeks,  a knock ’em dead smile and a hot mother, while Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and TWC, Comcast and Rokus of the world are the high school starting QB, its captain of the basketball team, and the clutch swimmer on the 4×400 relay, and all of them are competing just to get into your stuff. The analogy goes even further: like teenage boys, they make stupid bone-headed mistakes in an attempt to impress you, to get you to surrender. A GoogleTV here, an IR blaster there, a rented SciAtlanta cable box with CIFS access here,…you know the drill. Just so many guys revving their IROC Camaros in the school parking lot, trying to impress you with the new shiny.

But it’s 2013 and we’ve been bitten many times by the shiny and we’re jaded now. Boys are all liars! Men suck and all that.

If you’re the household technologist, then you’re like me and you’ve been through some serious battles on this front and have thought a lot about it. And just as a virtuous prom queen on prom night can call the shots for her potential suitors, so too am I going to lay out the ground rules for the competition when it comes to winning the lean back computing space…for scoring on prom night as it were. This is my manifesto but you can use it too if you like.

What We Want: 

  • Single sign on & on-demand access to our on-prem media, our app-based subscription media (whether streamed live or stored in the cloud), and all other forms of content we legally are allowed access to from the couch
  • A comprehensible and consistent UI. Don’t ask me to jump in and out of different UIs, and don’t over-lay a nice XBox One or GoogleTV UI on top of a shitty Comcast DVR 8-bit color interface. Don’t piss on my leg and call it rain, in other words.
  • A f*(*#$  remote control that lasts. Sorry Microsoft, but my mother-in-law -64, speaks little English, cranky and paranoid (more on her later)- will never tell the XBox that she wants to watch HGTV. My wife will never lean back with a wireless Logitech keyboard either. My mom’s brain short-circuits if she has anything other than a Tivo remote. Do you hear me? Give the people what they want: A goddamned old fashioned normal clicker. The channel paradigm will not die; people still love to just lean back and ‘content-flip’ even today. The solution is not to hope such people die off, but to give them what they want.
  • Drop “HD” from everything. It’s not special anymore: There is no HD. There is only normal 1080p content and shitty, 20th century 480i content. I mean at some point we stopped talking about color tv right? You know what else was cool? Super VGA. How often do you think of Super VGA these days? You’re not fooling anyone Time Warner.
  • There is No TV or computer or tablet, there are only screens: Does it have pixels? Is it flat or slightly curved? Is it big and hung on the wall, medium and on a stand, or small and in my pocket? Does it emit light, have mass and require electricity? Is it matte plastic and warm, or cool and highly reflective? If yes to any of these, then I should be able to get to the content I want with no hassle or fuss on that screen. Just work baby, to borrow from Jobs & Al Davis
  • Fewer black boxes: My cell phone can do some amazing things. Take pictures. Record a video at 60 frames per second. Act as a flashlight. Show me my email. It can even talk to me and tell me where I’m at on the planet when I’m lost or confused. And guess what? It’s only a little bit taller than a deck of cards, and quite a bit thinner. It lasts all day on a battery and is discrete enough I can take it to the bathroom. It has no f$#$*( wires, which is still incredible to me. And as Louis CK said, it’s going to outer space.. It’s an amazing and wondrous device. So don’t expect me to be impressed by the eight pound metal box (whose volume is only 35% filled) and its four pound power brick that you’re trying to get me to put under my tv. I’m not. You know what gets me excited? Simplicity and fewer wires.

And because I’m a nice guy, here’s a helpful chart for Big Tech/Media/Last Mile providers to chew on as they role out their next bag of crap for us starting at CES 2014. Styled in an If This/Then That way, it’s designed to help Samsung or Google or Apple or Time Warner kill a lean back gadget while it’s still in its cradle so that you and I won’t have to deal with it when it drops into the living room, causing near-riotous conditions because the family hates switching inputs/doesn’t understand that concept:

leanback

 

Is this really too much to ask? I’m just about 85% towards realizing all these goals and avoiding all those pitfalls in the lists above, and I’m just an average-intelligence IT dork with a knack for finding open box items at Best Buy. I’m almost there…single pane of glass, single remote, single TV & box, no drama! I’ve got Windows Media Center + CableCARD + DVR for live TV, some goofy but earnest WMC plugins for Pandora, YouTube and such (no input switching finally!!!) I’ve got the family media on an SMB share on my little NAS which is indexed (rather poorly) by WMC, I’m putting together an OwnCloud instance for the mobile presentation of the same data, and I’ve got two mediums via which all this is moved to the end point device: good old Cat5e or 802.11n & ac on 2.4GhZ and 5GhZ respectively.

So close I can taste it. An end to the TV/VCR crutch. Just a few pieces out of place.

If I can do it with my limited resources -whilst building a lab across the same hardware mind you- why can’t these titans put something together?