Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Is Microsoft asleep at the wheel?


A Multi-Hat Geek

Some of you reading this might think that I'm not a fan of Microsoft - I've been called an Apple fanboy before, but for the longest time I was a big-time believer in Microsoft and the good that they do.

I'm a huge fan of Microsoft Office - lets face it, Microsoft Word is the gold standard for writing in this day and age, and there are plenty of contenders out there who want to take Microsoft's business away on that front, and good luck.  Apple's Pages is pretty good for the price, and the price is pretty good for their iWork package, but it doesn't quite replace Word in my eyes - it's more like a replacement for expensive layout software like Quark Express, but not a day-to-day problem solving application.

The same applies to Excel, Powerpoint, Visio and their other tools.  If it wasn't for Visio, I probably wouldn't have even setup a Boot Camp windows install and Windows 7 on my Mac at all.  It was nice getting Skyrim to run there (see my previous discussions).

The reality is this - at the office I'm a multi-hat geek that knows enough about everything to be really useful when weird things happen.  And this is because I'm not just an Apple fan, or the first in my office to have an iPad, or even the first to buy a Surface tablet.  I'm a fanboy of tech - an omnibus nerd of sorts.  I've had tablets, laptops, desktops, servers and I've built hardware as well.

But this is about Microsoft and the sad state they're in.


Dark Clouds in the Windows 8 Future?



So the first signs of trouble appeared when a coworker started playing around with a Windows 8 preview edition on his MacBook Pro in a VM (non-bootcamp).  The results were less than spectacular.  The Windows tiled interface was bulky and weird, and he had troubles finding things and navigating the interface. But then, he didn't have a touchscreen, so maybe he was lacking the hardware.  He did eventually figure his way around, but the ads in some apps seemed hokey at best, and then the seeming bulkiness of the entire tiled interface started to grate on him.

Windows 8 Surface RT: A New Hope


A few weeks later we headed out to the Windows store as it's not far from my office.  The new Surface RT was out, and I was hoping that I could find a replacement for the MacBook Air and the iPad 3 I was carrying around.  What I saw was truly interesting - I mean, the storage to me wasn't that big a deal - I don't lug around huge song libraries or 500 movies - all I wanted was something that provided me the tools I need, with the portability and connectivity I need to be the nerd I am.

What I was was interesting - the Surface RT definitely had the weight factor down, and the type keyboard appealed to me was well.  The battery life was also interesting as Apple has always owned that department from phones through laptops, and seeing Microsoft try to compete was a nice change.  I liked what I saw, I knew that their market and closed architecture was new to them, and I realized that it was very likely that the market wouldn't have the apps I needed yet.  When I pressed the Windows Key+R, it flipped to my favorite Windows OS screen - looking very Windows 7 like, and presented me with a run dialog - so I typed cmd and pressed enter - and I had my favorite DOS window.

Now, at this point, I have to say, my curiosity was peaked.  You see, I'm one of those Windows guys who lives on the command line - and my command line on my Windows desktops has full Linux utilities attached - I have stuff like putty aliased to ssh, as well as scp and sftp - plus I have the full unxutils package loaded as well, so I have Linux command-line tools like sed, awk, grep, nmap and so forth, all available for my sysop nerd needs.  Seeing this window on the Surface RT sold me right there.  So I typed regedit - and I realized, Surface RT might be a closed garden, but you can still get in there an poke around at a pretty low level.  Cool!

My Surface RT Debacle Begins


About a month later, I figured the bugs were out, and the finances were aligned as well - so I went out and bought a Surface RT 32gig with the type cover.  The weight was nice, and the speed was okay - but then things started to tarnish the cool new luster right away.  I had to download some major updates and the update process was slower than Apple's by a long shot - I don't know if I was downloading a new 12 gigs of software, or what, all I know was that it said "updating" and sat there, charging the whole time, cooking away, slower than molasses.

Hours later the system was done updating, and then I started poking around with the OS, hoping to delve into it's secrets.  Along the way, exploring the Windows "classic" screen on the Surface, I noted that a familiar icon in the lower corned was beckoning me - one of the Windows Security notices was up - so I tapped, and a dialog appear that said that my system hasn't been scanned yet.  So I clicked on the ok/next button, and Windows Defender ran and scanned the system.

Windows RT had to scan my new system?!??

Now, by this point I know solidly that Microsoft had locked down their environment entirely - I mean, I couldn't run software that didn't come from their store at all - I couldn't even run Java on it, and I found that somewhat disappointing, as that was my way around their empty online app store.

So, as I watched, over the course of the next 5 minutes, my experience was once again delayed by this thing scanning it's storage - just like it was some Wal-mart bought HP loaded with Wild-Tangent scumware, toolbars and spyware at the factory.  At this point I'd downloaded 2-3 apps from Microsoft, and was in the process of getting the mail client setup with all my gmail and office exchange stuff.

After the system-scanning episode, I carried this on the train to work for a few days, and I used it - or tried to.  It linked to my corporate network easier than I'd ever seen before - for this was impressive it used my user certificate and authenticated with it automatically.  This was nice, however, the mail client is a HUGE weakness on the Surface.

Surface RT EMail is a Joke!


For starters, getting the mail client setup wasn't too painful, however, it did seem to have some issues setting up one of my accounts - it didn't like the idea of my using a non-Google domain with GMail mail hosting.  This is something that Apple supported simply for years without headache.  I worked at it and managed to make it happy, but this was needlessly painful I think.

Being an active tablet user, I'm always conscious about my experience being hit by background tasks, so I exercise my new Windows 8 knowledge and easily go into the sidebar and kill all the stuff running.  This is kind of a bad habit however, but it's one that I learned long ago - less programs running on your tablet, phone or PC, means more machine paying attention to me, and not other crap.  This habit however led me to my next discovery.

That next I realized that Metro at some point later said I had messages waiting - so I tapped on the mail box and discovered just how slow the Surface RT mail client is.  Now, when you're on a tablet, you just launch mail - it's there in a jiffy and once it's displayed, you'll see that the client is now getting messages and refreshing itself.

The slowness I experienced was the mail client loading - and in the case of the Surface RT, the mail client is SLOW.  It takes a long time to load - more than 20 seconds in my case.  Something you need to leave running if you want to have a more Apple-like experience.  What they don't show in the Microsoft commercial is the person running and loading each program in the background, then jumping into them already loaded quickly from the tile interface.  So here's a marketing lie for certain, but hey, you can't sue them for that.

I then noted later that there's no indication that the mail client is working - no indication at all.  While riding the train to work with my wireless AP on, I saw nothing happening until 20 messages appeared in my inbox all at once.  This behavior was the same for both GMail and Exchange mailboxes.  Very sad really, as it had notified me that I had mail when it got online, but it had to load the mail client when I tapped on it and then it had to download the messages - it was like the tile interface uses the mail client authentication info to know what's going on, but there's no actual integration between it and the OS - the mail client still has to be manually loaded and has to be running in order to download messages.  Note that the mail client does not run all the time like it does on an iPad - you have to start it, then background it and forget it's running for a smooth consistent mail experience.  And even then, your other mobile devices will notify and display your messages before the surface can show them to you.

One item I flew by earlier was the loading times.  The Surface RT boots up and runs just like windows, however, based on the performance I see and the way it launches software, you'd think you were running the OS off a USB2 memory stick.  Run this, run that, it all works - but the tiles are the only thing that moves fast on it.  The rest of the machine is fairly sluggish until the software has loaded, run and backgrounded.

No Java Support.  It does support Flash though...?!

I did go into the Microsoft App Store and downloaded some apps to make this thing usable - Netflix and so forth, and it did okay.  It wasn't great - I mean, it played the videos okay, and I was able to load the meager storage with more easily enough from an external hard disk, and I was able to connect to network shares in my house and office okay, but still, it played nicely with all the base OS things - however, the lack of software for this thing just kills it.  If there was an SSH client for it, I might have even kept it - but then, the lack of Java support was killing me.  I needed Chrome.  I needed more.

When I brought it back, the folks at the store asked why, and I said "lack of java support" and they said, helpfully, "It runs flash!"

Am I so Apple-ified that this sounds backwards to me??  I guess so.  The entire world is moving away from Flash where they can, and Microsoft instead decides to drop support for the largest base of software out there (java) and went ahead to embrace Flash - the language responsible for the single largest library of Internet crap there is - from the Fish in a blender to all levels of silly animated videos.

Conclusion: Surface RT is a Fail



All in all, I found the Surface RT full of great potential, but fails to deliver on many fronts.  The email client is insufficient.  Their support of common authoring the platform will kill it.  The backwards compatibility with Flash is just wrong.  The inability to run any software not signed by Microsoft isn't a deal killer, but they have to have an app store first.  Somehow I think HP's tablet has more software available for it than the Surface RT has now.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg...


Microsoft will be releasing the Surface 8 Pro tablets soon - and they'll cost $899 for the small one without a keyboard.  Wow.  Microsoft fails again.  Perhaps this version will solve many of the issues they have in the other environment, however, this tablet is more than half and inch thick, weighs near 2 pounds, and does all the things a full size laptop does, just without a keyboard.

I mean, honestly folks, has Microsoft truly lost their way?

Right now Microsoft is so far behind in the battle for consumer computing that the only leg they have to stand on is keeping the segment that can't afford Macintosh computers - so instead of appealing to that market with products they can afford, they charge higher prices.  Don't they realize that flat taxes don't work because the poor people pay more of their money in taxes that way?  Don't they realize that 10% tax on the poorest Americans still provides billions more dollars in tax revenue to the government than a 20% tax on the rich?

Microsoft should be coming up with ways to make Windows appealing to the broad base, and not marketing it to a small segment.  Sure, the Walmart's of the world might well be the place where most PC's running Windows are sold, along with Amazon and Dell, but I honestly can't believe that their stores would be profitable without XBox's being sold there.


It gets worse...

I've just read that Microsoft is now planning on increasing their pricing for all their server products - note that the landscape for Microsoft licensing is a slippery slope folks - there are people's who's entire careers focus on Microsoft licensing - that's how complex it can be.  And server managers have no time to worry about this BS, so they have to trust that vendors know and license them correctly - wow that's getting weird.

If Microsoft seems to think that they can keep on going in the direction they're going, they are doomed.  They have sanctioned companies to sell their product, but have lost control over the packaging - thus providing folks like HP, Acer and others to pre-load their precious Windows OS with all kinds of clutter and market systems positively clogged with crap through mass-market outlets.

If I had control of Microsoft, I'd run things differently.  First thing, Windows 9 would be skipped - it would be the "long term supported" version of Windows 8 without the stupid tile interface.  Windows 9 would look like Windows 7, and be the last OS that business will want for years.  It will be completely compatible with everything that's out there now.  And it would be the last you'd see of "windows" with DLL's and registries, forever.

The next Windows after that would be Windows on top of Linux, but it would be a Windows base that makes Apple look bad.  It would be fast.  I would support everything that everyone else does.  It would have integrated protection that folks would never see.  It would not be compatible with any software that's out there now, but it wouldn't restrict developers from recompiling their software to run on the new platform.  They would however have to change all their API's because all the old stuff is just not pared down enough.  It would be Microsoft's Opus.  The MS OSX.

One way that Apple shed their baby fat..

Apple did an amazing thing when they moved from their old OS to OSX - this move is what re-energized them - this move is what put air under their wings for the first time in years.

I remember in 2003 when folks starting talking about Apple again, and how cool the new OS was.  I really didn't realize how big a deal it was until the summer of 2004 when I went to my first DefCon, and in the lobby of the Alexa Park Hotel, there were a hundred hacker-types there, mostly with Mac's, chopping away.  That was huge.

Microsoft needs to do bold things to get back into it's sweet spot as the king of desktop computers.  They have the ability to do this, but they need to shed the fat of their legacy OS, drop the wayside all the old apps that have overgrown like the monster Akira becomes - they must stop being the Cartman Trapper-Keeper they are now and find a way to slim down.

I remember when Windows typed OS's worked on computers that topped out at 16 megs of ram.  When those days were upon us, computers were fast.  If we could have the computing power of today, with OS's that are slim like that, computers would be really amazingly fast tools again, and not the bloaded, lumbering monsters they are is today.  I know that realistically this won't be possible, I mean, is there an H.264 video decoder or encoder that uses less than 1 meg of ram?  And there's no way possible that we'll be free of DRM any time soon.  Imagine how fast anti-virus software would be if it only had 500 signatures...

I just think that folks have forgotten about the real start of computing, and where it all came from.  OS's have overgrown, and Microsoft has taken us there.  Everyone is guilty though.  With billions of bytes of code running in our computers, is it possible for us to know everything that's going on?  I think not.

A revolution in the computing world will be coming.  It will have to.  The question is, who will bring it?

Sleeping at the Wheel


Right now, Microsoft has fallen asleep.  If XBox wasn't around, it would be a solid hibernation.  Steve Ballmer is asleep at the wheel.  He lives in fantasy land.  If he thinks he can take on Apple where they live with an expensive tablet that's just a slightly changed version of the same old Windows, he's sorely mistaken.  If he thinks that a tablet that's more than a centimeter thick is going to redefine the Windows market, or even revitalize it, he's even more sorely mistaken.  I can't believe he thinks people will pay more for what is obviously less.

Microsoft needs to find someone with a clue, someone at the bottom, someone who wins the lottery if they succeed, and then challenge them to do better than Apple - and actually put resources under their control.  And don't worry about killing their existing business when the product comes out.  Apple does this, although, they hide it.  The fact is, they already did it with their iPad development - they built the product that's killing their own laptop sales.  Microsoft can start from zero and try to take on Apple - but they have to really start from something new and fresh - and not just take a 30 year old OS and change a few DLL's and call it new.

What they need to do is develop a product that is something more, something less and something new.  Right now it's not happening, and their problem is in their guidance.  And it needs to be priced with a loss leader consideration as well - if they want market penetration they'll need it.

From an architecture standpoint, the idea that RAM and Flash are separate needs to be revisited.  The entire architecture of how we use computers can stand for an upgrade now.  Apple gets it, and others do too.  Why doesn't Microsoft?

Windows 7 is a stepping stone to greatness for Microsoft.  It's windows in all it's revered greatness.  It should be good for at least 2-3 more years.  Windows 8 has arrived too soon and Surface RT and Pro are the rocks that flip over when you step on them  Now Microsoft has fallen into the abyss.  The safety net of XBox, Windows Server products, Microsoft Office and Windows 7 can only support so many of their failures before it affects the company - and after highly notable failures like Windows Vista and Windows 8 and the Surfaces, I worry for future of Microsoft.



3 comments:

Steve said...

I never heard of this 12Gig update.
And where on RT do you get update notifcation? I get all mine on the Metro UI, not on Desktop.

Yes, RT is locked down. For security, as is the iPad.
Java by any measure is old news on the desktop, I know your a *Nix nerd, but seriously - don't you get that?

RT underneath has an API (WinRT) covering good ol' Win32. Seriously cut down, for security sakes.
(Go look at apps like Steam Pin, where they say they can't call another application)

Just like the Apple store, store only downloads, plus Sandbox, plus limited API (plus UEFI, ELAM, ASLR) all work to make the device hard.
(This plays into BYOD or consumerisation which is the future, even if most IT departments are scared of data loss)

I do agree with the Mail App, its not feature rich enough. Definitely 1.0 material.

Pricewise, its a wash with an iPad its competitor (at least in the UK they are both 400 pounds, and the Surface has more RAM)

You then go on to rant about MS pricing as a whole, which is beyong what you are talking about.
But feel free to get a licence cost of Oracle vs SQL Server :) Really, if MS had competition in many spaces, they could charge what they do.

I don't agree with your assessment of Microsft. They have Office 365, Azure (Xbox as you mention), Office 2013, re-wrote Windows Phone on WinRT (which is massive)
WinRT core is a massive internal change to the MS codebase of Windows (its the hidden story) and its way more modern than the crap in OSX (and yes I have a Macbook)
Heck, even Hyper V is viable now. They are big, they can be slow, but when they do get there - they make decent product.
Love my Xbox, my Windows Phone, my Surface. And my Windows 8 PC running BF3, Guild Wars 2 and Skyrim is amazing :)
Microsoft code has enable me to work and play, and their income has been excellent of late (go read their financials) Its good times for MS, I hope they continue to evole at this new pace - they are making some great stuff.

Steve said...

I never heard of this 12Gig update.
And where on RT do you get update notifcation? I get all mine on the Metro UI, not on Desktop.

Yes, RT is locked down. For security, as is the iPad.
Java by any measure is old news on the desktop, I know your a *Nix nerd, but seriously - don't you get that?

RT underneath has an API (WinRT) covering good ol' Win32. Seriously cut down, for security sakes.
(Go look at apps like Steam Pin, where they say they can't call another application)

Just like the Apple store, store only downloads, plus Sandbox, plus limited API (plus UEFI, ELAM, ASLR) all work to make the device hard.
(This plays into BYOD or consumerisation which is the future, even if most IT departments are scared of data loss)

I do agree with the Mail App, its not feature rich enough. Definitely 1.0 material.

Pricewise, its a wash with an iPad its competitor (at least in the UK they are both 400 pounds, and the Surface has more RAM)

You then go on to rant about MS pricing as a whole, which is beyong what you are talking about.
But feel free to get a licence cost of Oracle vs SQL Server :) Really, if MS had competition in many spaces, they could charge what they do.

I don't agree with your assessment of Microsft. They have Office 365, Azure (Xbox as you mention), Office 2013, re-wrote Windows Phone on WinRT (which is massive)
WinRT core is a massive internal change to the MS codebase of Windows (its the hidden story) and its way more modern than the crap in OSX (and yes I have a Macbook)
Heck, even Hyper V is viable now. They are big, they can be slow, but when they do get there - they make decent product.
Love my Xbox, my Windows Phone, my Surface. And my Windows 8 PC running BF3, Guild Wars 2 and Skyrim is amazing :)
Microsoft code has enable me to work and play, and their income has been excellent of late (go read their financials) Its good times for MS, I hope they continue to evole at this new pace - they are making some great stuff.

John C. Silvia said...

Steve, I have to say that I never did see how large the update was - it just took forever to complete - annoying as it cut into my "new toy learning" time.

As for the lock down, that's not something to complain about - it's an expected. Even the new Google Nexus is more locked down than previous tablets - no longer can you simply browse the file systems on those things without rooting them first. What I found disappointing was the need for a complete system scan inside their garden - like their lock down wasn't enough.

The problem that Microsoft has its old kernel. When Apple created the iPhone, they started from scratch with a closed ecosystem and grew their environment inside an entirely new framework - and certainly that framework has limitations that are artificially imposed on it in order to maintain security and order, as well as to maintain Apple's overbearing control over the environment.

If I Microsoft really wanted to gain ground with their own tablet offering, they should have done something similar.

As for pricing, I think it's a mistake to expect folks to decide "Surface or iPad" on an equal financial footing and think that the balance shall tip in their favor when they've delivered a clearly unequal product. Pricing is a huge factor in a down economy, and if they want folks to spend money (and not just rich folks) then they have to offer up something that provides value to all segments - not just well paid techno-types like ourselves.

Had Microsoft built something less robust and $200 cheaper, perhaps even taken something of a loss leader, they could perhaps have enjoyed having a serious player. The money I spent on my Surface was not some minor drop in the bucket - for that some money I can buy two new desktop computer systems here in the USA, or a Mac Mini.

I think bitching at the price is perfectly significant in this context and folks wanting to get a tablet, when faced with "Microsoft or Apple" are going to choose Apple more often than not because price/value is still better with the Apple base behind it. I really wanted Microsoft to do good here - and I'm disappointed.

I'm not totally in Apple's corner here - they definitely have a large number of limitations on the iPad - the lack of USB connections, the lack of wifi hacking abilities, lack of bluetooth serial support and so forth.

I bought and returned a Surface, and a Google Nexus before breaking down and getting an iPad Mini, but even with it's lower screen resolution, the form factor, application base and frank coolness still beat the Surface without question.

I have to withhold judgement on the Windows phone - however, I do have to say that I don't get what all the hubbub is on both the iPhone 5 and the Nokia. I mean, sure the iPhone 5 is cool, and there appears to be an iPhone 5S coming soon enough (ugh), and it is a tiny sliver of a phone with barely any more real-estate - not enough for me to justify getting one on that basis (and changing my phone, bed-side clock, Etc.) - however, the Nokia 940 phones I handled at the Microsoft store were bulbous and huge, and seeing as I work in the cellular industry and follow handsets closely, and noting that Microsoft has publicly stated that Windows Phone 7 running devices will have no upgrade path to Windows Phone 8, well, lets just say that it's a rude call.

We could go round and round on this, and yes, Microsoft's server side of the house is phenomenal - no question they own the back office and most desktops and will continue to do so, and the office applications for most as well, however, those businesses are carrying this tablet mess and I don't think it's a good idea to burden their greater products with this crap.

As for xBox, yes, Microsoft owns the gaming market - at least until something better comes along.

Cheers!