30 November 2005

How important is this?

Over at Ars Technica today are two interesting articles. The first is the usual high-quality review - this time of the XBox360 by Ben Kuchera.

The second article is a provocative piece by Ken "Caesar" Fisher on why Apple won't be producing a DVR anytime soon. There are a lot of comments on this piece too, should you be interested. Many of the comments give some interesting alternative views too or further back up Ken's take on it.

Now the latter is a subject I'll cover more soon (yawn) as anticipation builds up uncontrollably towards MacWorld 2005 in a little over 6 weeks time. On balance I agree with Ken at the moment on this, though I don't agree with all his reasons. But I particularly think the timing isn't right for a DVR built-in. Ken only considers US requirements which themselves are problematic (wait for CableCard 2.0 for instance). European and other markets have yet more options which makes it hard to satisfy everyone with one technology. (And, for those that want DVR, it is available via various 3rd party devices that will meet the needs of the differing standards/markets especially if FrontRow is extended to support/integrate with these).

But let's say that the other speculation (primarily from Think Secret) he refers to IS close to accurate - an Intel Macmini with FrontRow, and possibly the video-capable AirportExpress2. This will clearly be Apple's play for the living room and convergence. And that's why I linked to the other ARS article. Because the XBox360 is a key component of Microsoft's strategy for the same market.

Now it is clear that for the most part the XBox360 is getting pretty good reviews as a gaming machine and indeed the XBox Live features may turn out to be very compelling indeed for gamers. And, no doubt this will be a huge market. But, apart from the poor DVD playback and the aesthetics (which I personally find awful, though others don't), there is one key point I'm reading consistently about the XBox360 which makes me question it's suitability for the living room environment. It is clearly dealt with on page 5 of the review (wow, did you see the size of that power brick on page 1?). It is the heat and the commensurate cooling requirements of this machine. I wonder how many living room environments this will be suitable for?

On the other hand the mini (today) is so incredibly quiet and cool. Sure it won't do the things it needs to as a complete media centre hub (though I'm pretty happy with it as a single room device serving DVD's, Live TV, Recorded TV, Music, Photos and Web). It is equally at home on display or tucked away in relatively small cupboards. I would be surprised if Apple compromised these aspects of the mini with the Intel version.

And here's where I'm leading. On the one hand we have the XBox360, the first MS product built using the PowerPC architecture. On the other, we have the Mac mini, the first(?) Apple product to be built using Intel technology. A complete volte-face for MS AND for Apple. Now, the mini is as yet unannounced, and we have only conjecture. Is it a case of the grass looking greener for either vendor? I don't think so. But, it is becoming clearer to me by the day how important Steve's points about the performance per watt he made when announcing the Intel switch.

If you're a gamer, or you have family members in the house who are gamers, then perhaps the XBox360 is the right device. But if you're looking for the "iLife on your TV" experience (music, tv, videos, iPod integration, photos) then the mini is likely to be a product that can be more easily incorporated in many homes. If Apple can deliver on an "extender" product too (eg the VideoAirportExpress) - one each required for each TV in the house at a reasonable price point, this becomes a much more compelling argument for most people than hot XBox360's in every room.

Now, there are other factors, to which I'll return soon. Chief among them are price (remember the XBox is essentially subsidised by sales of content, the mac will not, so XBox will appear cheaper); MS intertia (MediaCenter sales alone exceed total Mac sales); and DRM/Content provision - limiting the scope of what can be done officially and unofficially with a media centre. These are pretty much stacked against Apple today.

But Apple's switch to Intel is starting to look like a truly inspired move.

28 November 2005

A Letter to my MP

I cannot begin to explain how strongly I am opposed to the news of the music industry pressuring the EU for modifications to data privacy laws to be enacted so that it can go after music "pirates". I have written the following letter to my MP today, and urge anyone else with strong views to write to their own MP.

Dear Martin
I have written to you before on a number of issues, and wanted to write to you again in response to the news I have read concerning the CMBA group's lobbying of MP's to ensure recently enacted laws supposedly for fighting terrorism are extended to help it eek out music pirates. An article on this can be seen at
However, this has been written up in many other publications.

I buy my CD's (and a few pieces of music online at legitimate sites). I oppose music piracy however it is done. Yet, I am vehemently opposed to this move, and trust that you will do your utmost to oppose such creeping 1984ism.

Apart from the fact that the music labels themselves cannot be relied on as honest corporate citizens (example: please witness Sony BMG's recent techniques which installed a serious security flaw onto honest peoples' personal computers - link available if you are not aware of this), the idea that our personal liberties which we value so highly can be given up to any corporation is outrageous. To piggyback it on legislation brought in ostensibly to fight terrorism is to undermine that entirely. Those of us who support such (anti-terrorism) legislation are made to look fools when our key defence of the loss of freedom is that the laws are only being changed for the most extreme reasons.

The labels are keen to make out that piracy and terrorism are somehow linked. And indeed in the CD pressing plants of Asia, there may very well be some financial links. But what the CDMA and it's sponsors are about has NOTHING to do with this at all.

The major music labels operate an effective cartel that under-delivers to the consumer given recent technology advances. They already seem to receive protection within the EU despite the single market laws (where is the single market in online music for instance?). Governments do not need to hand them down additional powers when the consumer would in fact benefit massively from a more open market in copyright material distribution. There are plenty of companies who would be willing to help out in this if they were not prevented from doing so by this heavy-handed cartel/oligopoly.

But irrespective of personal views on music labels, we must be vigilant that in the fight against terrorism we do not let things in through the back door that permanently undermine the freedoms we have taken so long to win. This is a prime and clear example of that. If we allowed the labels wishes - even with a good reason - then who else would we allow?

Please let me know what position you will be taking on such legislation.

Kind regards

I will be returning to the issue of DRM in this blog over the next few weeks with what I hope will be a series of in-depth articles. In the meantime, please make sure - if you're an EU citizen - that you voice your concern as loudly as you can with these attempts to hijack our freedoms.

23 November 2005

E=mc2 100 years old

Thanks to the BBC for pointing this out.

"No equation is anywhere near as recognisable as E=mc²"

I actually find it quite amazing it's a 100 years old, and in a way, it is questionable whether we've really (as the human race) built upon this in substantial ways. Obviously there have been the civilian and military nuclear developments either good/bad or bad/bad depending upon your point of view (well perhaps there are SOME who believe it's good/good!). But perhaps most disappointing IMHO is that I somehow imagined this as a foundation for space travel/exploration, and on that front we seem to have stalled (of course, some might say, the equation actually explicitly highlights the limits of what we can do rather than the potential of what we might do).

For those wondering why I post on this - well I am interested in this, and I named my company after it (despite a little skirmish with the bastard lawyers from a large enterprise storage company, who themselves were by no means the first).

Anyway, Cheers Albert.

21 November 2005

Hoar Frost - another neat nature trick

I came across an interesting specatacle at the weekend - a hoar frost. I think what I saw was a particularly good example. Unfortunately I had just my camera phone to snap it with, so the images are to say the least a little poor (but better than no phone at all!). The linked-to snaps though at least give you an impression of how amazing this is.

Apparently, a hoar frost is a result of particularly unusual circumstances - when the object of the frost is colder than the air temperature, but both below freezing (usually near freezing though). Essentially, as I understand it, what makes it unique is that the water goes straight from vapour to solid form rather than via the dew stage. It therefore has a much more crystalline appearance (needle-like in this case and all in one direction off each branch as if windswept).

As you can also possibly pick out, the crystals would form along the whole length of each branch - not just in spikes. This is shown particularly well on the shrub photo.

It was also quite a spectacle to see them falling from the trees later on - like snow falling off but more painful if hit - typically one large part of a tree at a time. We had perhaps a 2" layer of crystals below the trees which shows just how much ice had formed in such a comparatively short time. Interestingly you could go half a mile in any direction and the frost was not a hoar frost, so this was very, very localised. So we played Sunday tennis as usual when I would have expected that location to have an even more severe frost.

This photo shows the crystals after they had fallen from the trees onto a table. Some of the crystals were considerably longer than 1 inch (25mm), yet they came from a branch perhaps just 5mm in diameter!

17 November 2005

Why do you do these things, Apple?

I had been thinking about connecting my iPod to the tv set, but understood I needed a special cable. Being the mean bastard that I am, I didn't get one right away. Then I read about a tip that shows you can use almost any 3.5m to 3xRCA video cable - eg ones that come with many video camcorders. I had an old one, plugged it in to my tv via a scart converted (which also had a 2-way switch for some weird video setting), and it worked first time. The trick? You have to use the RED-ended cable into the video in on the TV, not the yellow-ended cable that is considered the standard for video. I'm assuming the yellow-ended cable is used for the right audio channel that the red-ended cable is usually used for (but haven't tried the audio out bit yet)!

This seems a bizarre design choice first of all (why not use the standard), and it also seems bizarre that they didn't advertise this fact if they did have a reason to design it that way. Do they really need revenue from the cables that badly? Some people have been put off by the need to buy an additional cable, yet possibly already have one in their kit!

Sorry I don't now have the original source for the tip, but there are plenty of them out there on places like apple discussion boards now.

It's these little things that get us all mad with Apple once in a while, but it's only a lovers' tiff!

iPod video impressions

Not going to do a full review here of the iPod 5G (video). But I did want to make a comment on something that had been troubling me before getting one. That is the video resolution - especially of the H.264 material as available on the iTMS. I had thought that 320 x 240 would be quite poor when presented on a TV. But in fact it is surprisingly good. And the file size is quite amazing - perhaps only 4 times the size of a music only file of the same length.

Personally, I prefer the larger resolution of mpeg-4. That's because I wish to use the compressed video on my Powerbook and Mac mini, sometimes connected to a projector or plasma screen. mpeg-4 specs for the iPod appear to allow resolutions such as 512 x 400, which scale better for the tv. They also can be created faster. The downside is the file size - perhaps 2-3 times bigger than a corresponding H.264 file (about 10MB per minute at that resolution and a 1200kbps bit rate).

So far I've bought one music video from the iTMS - and that is good quality both on iPod AND on a bigger screen. I've ripped a couple of music dvd's I own onto it. Takes a bit of time and some messing around,but once the settings are correct it seems to work quite well. Quality is also very good, though I've had problems with sound on one dvd when the soundtrack was type LPCM(?). That's a bug with the handbrake application I've tried for that (otherwise a great app). I've also converted a couple of TV shows from my EyeTV library. I had to convert these twice - once into DV, then into mpeg4 using ffmpegx (couldn't get H.264 to work on this). EyeTV does allow creation of iPod files (I also have a new beta version which makes the setup easier) but this doesn't work yet properly with H.264 files, and the mpeg 4 files are disappointing in quality. The episode of Extras (Les Dennis) I converted is just great (and very funny indeed). This is definitely fun, and we're only just at the start.

I'm pleased that my initial reaction to the resolution was overblown. Sure it would be nice to have full HD resolution at a file size of 20MB per 5 minutes too - and the music videos in that format for the same price. And I do wish the photos would show at higher res when connected to a TV. But we can't have everything (yet). If you haven't seen one yet, you really should!

Amsterdam - City of Bikes

I had the pleasure of a weekend in Amsterdam. It is a city I visited several times on business trips but never really SAW it. So, it was nice to get the real experience.

I have to say it is a pleasant city indeed - nothing as amazing as say London, Paris or New York, but a pleasant capital city nonetheless. Schiphol airport is quite efficient indeed, and the transport into the City quick and cheap. The City seemed safe, and very cosmopolitan - food from all over the world of all types on offer. Like Kyoto which I visited a couple of years ago, it is somewhere I could be quite happy living for a period of time. What it has in common with Kyoto is the bicycle (those who know me, know this as another of my interests which I should perhaps cover more here?).

I had never noticed the EXTREME of bicycle use on my business trips, but this time I did. It seems that a huge percentage of the population travel around the city by bike - generally low-tech bikes. Almost nobody wears a helmet including the many children cycling by themselves or on parents' bikes. The city has been designed with the bike in mind. Lots of proper cycle lanes, special lights which aid the cyclist rather than slow them down as in London. Rules which are meant to help the cyclist, not hinder. When cycle lanes are on pavements(sidewalks) they are done to make it faster for the cyclist not to get them out the way of the car as in the UK. And in doing all this they make the cars more alert to the cyclist - eg allowing cycling down one-way vehicle streets makes the cars a little bit more circumspect.

It's not perfect of course, and it's size and other features mean such methods may not transfer so easily to a place like London, but it was very encouraging to see. Contrast that with the attitude to biking here which is more and more rules to deter cycling, and to slow it down. Possible laws on helmet use are a true disgrace and show a complete lack of understanding of the situation. If helmets really helped safety, would we not see an outcry from the Dutch people about the high death rate from cycling there? What happens is that motorists see that cyclists have helmets and drive less carefully. And cyclists with helmets take more risks (I have to laugh at the cyclists who wear helmets AND iPods). When a driver opened a door onto my partner recently he shouted "I wouldn't have to worry if you'd been wearing a helmet" That sums it up as regards cycling in this country. In Holland, most people - cyclist, pedestrian AND motorist understand that cycling is a GOOD thing for all, and most people manage just to get on and treat each other with respect (and alertness). And of course, there seemed anecdotally to be less obese people.

So, I enjoyed Amsterdam as a city and for demonstrating to me that cycling can be a serious MAJORITY method of transport in a wealthy economy.

Oh, nice windmills too.

What about Google?

Tim commented on my post about Microsoft Live with
...but wanted to comment on your note on Google, given today's announcement of Google Base and a stock nearing $400/share. how long will it be before Google offers the same basic suite of products Microsoft offers, with more limited functionalit,y but completely integrated with your phone, email, music and videos?
i think their model will have a devastating effect on Microsoft, but will take some time. we are still at the early stages of advertising funded services and software products. i will enjoy the convergence of technology and consumer need/wants as companies like Google eat away at Microsoft's market share.

Indeed, I see Google has gone above $400 today giving it a market cap of $111 billion - still just over a 1/3 of MSFT, but astonishing nonetheless.

There have been lots of stories that it is Google that Microsoft fears most, from chair throwing by Ballmer, to lawsuits about employees being poached. And also, much of the coverage of the MS Live announcements was about it being primarily a response to Google. Clearly Bill is quite worked up about Google. Web 2.0 (whatever that actually is) and the advertising model are truly massive threats to the traditional MS business.

But, is it all going to go Google's way? I can't decide. Of course, I use Google, and it is hard to keep up with all their offerings. I saw today (Guardian) how a journalist uses GMail to actually write his stuff on the road these days rather than buying another Office license. Is this the way it can go? I personally don't like the ad model - I prefer my TV to be adless. And (as Tim well knows) I hate anyone having too much control (I'm as vehemently anti-Murdoch as I am anti-Microsoft). How long before Google gets in this position? And does it matter whether a few of us rail at it's powers? What worries me most about a Google dominance is that it not just has us by the short and curlies with a tightly integrated service (well not yet, but supposedly one day!), it actually has our DATA. With Murdoch we get HIS views rammed down our throats, but that's it. With Gates, we get his software forced on us (pretty much in business anyway), but that's it. With our data there (or perhaps more worryingly, data about us put there by someone else) the scope for abuse becomes much much bigger. What happens if the NSA/FBI/CIA has backdoors into it? There is scope here for a 1984 scenario. And there are other issues about privacy that are quite concerning.

And while I can make a choice and take my custom elsewhere with Murdoch and Gates, I can't really take my data away from Google - it's there, potentially indexed for ever. Even if I trust the Google mantra of doing no harm, I'm not sure I can trust their system not to let out this data, nor can I blindly trust that someone will not takeover Google and use it more nefariously.

So, it is for reasons such as this, I won't be putting a lot of my data on Google, though I can't necessarily stop other people putting data about me on it (a bit like Plaxo contact system which I avoid like the plague). But, my fellow citizens demonstrate I am in but a small minority with views like this and principles that I stick to (whether stupid or not). Lots of people have subscriptions to Sky and buy the Murdoch media. So, whether I do it or not, I may again just put myself in the position of denying myself something useful for a point!

But, it might only take a mistake or two in execution from Google to put this plan into jeopardy. If the trust element that Google has so strongly today is compromised, I'm not sure it can be as dominating. It can also start to lose that trust not through bad execution but through turning the screws on ads to please the never-ending financial growth projections, while slowly making the service less useful than it was.

If Google doesn't mess up, and doesn't push too hard, AND it can demonstrate to people that they SHOULD trust it, then Microsoft is stuffed. As I pointed out in the earlier article, I don't think they can maintain/transition a model of license fees, service fees, AND ad-based revenue without people just getting more and more suspicious. With Google you know where you stand - it's free and it's ads. But as MS goes through the transition, people will start to feel they're paying out multiple times for much the same thing, and will resent it. Also, I don't think they've got the innovation to WOW people. So, people will be less inclined to jump on the next MS thing.

But, I should also point out that my prediction of MS in it's last dying gasps is meant partly in jest, and that I don't expect MS to suddenly dry up and go bust. But it will become as irrelevant as, say, IBM is in setting the trends and dominating IT. Sure, it will still make money - probably from the Enterprise market which through it's conservative nature of upgrades etc will continue to stay with MS for far longer than it should. And also, MS is still a great friend of the developer community (at least for Corporate software), and this momentum will take a long time to slow down. So, as a consumer, I expect MS to lose its monopoly position anyway. Whether Google picks up the baton is partly up to its own execution and whether people in general will swallow the not-so-obvious downsides of a "free" service.

11 November 2005

Let the Rumours Begin...

News from Portal Player - supplier of much of the brains for most iPod models.

Basically they have postponed a new offering of shares as the price is not high enough for where they believe it should be. Tantalisingly they give among the reasons for their optimism "...we expect an additional major market segment for our products to be introduced in the first quarter of 2006"

Now, I don't know who they could be talking about, but there's not many players that can fall into the category of creating an immediate and substantial market. Perhaps a large cable company in the US? Microsoft has it's hands full with the XBox and other things. Otherwise, there's only one that I can think of for which such a suggestion could not be considered outrageous.

This will mark the serious kick off for the rumour sites about MacWorld in San Francisco, January 2006, for the "just one more thing..." section.

Just to get things going, my wild guess is that this will be part of the AirportExpress2 - video version with H.264 decoding built-in.

The Service Economy Gone Mad?

Another article from the Ars Technica folk about the man who has bought a Space Station for US$100,000. Sounds like a bargain, except that this is a virtual space station. It does not, of course, physically exist. Instead, it exists only in a parallel game universe - that of Project Entropia. Apparently this universe has a current annual GNP of about $150m.

Can any economist explain to me whether this is a good thing or not? It's not manufacturing certainly, but is it as valuable as some dry cleaning or a haircut? Or is it just robbing (dumb) Peter to pay (cleverer) Paul?

Sony comes to the rescue.

Completely unintentionally of course. But the rootkit row which Sony has started is likely to go down in history as one of the biggest corporate mistakes. Whereas Sony did so much to allow the consumer rights as regards taping video programming, it's looking like their unbelievably crass actions now they're on the other side of the fence could be THE catalyst for consumers rallying against unreasonable DRM.

This article at Ars Technica is a great resource for links to the background and the growing outrage about this - there are countless others. It has exploded from individual geeky ire to major lawsuits by authorities across the globe (note - these are not class action lawsuits). It has shown Sony to be anti-consumer by targeting not pirates but normal people who indeed may not have made any copies whatsoever. It has created a backlash which will lead to a boycott of their products. And it has made the average Joe wake up to what is happening. Far more people are likely to take positive action in response to unreasonable DRM tactics. The icing on the cake (except if you're directly affected that is) is the news - also in the Ars article - that there is already a nasty trojan in circulation that takes advantage of the security hole the Sony software has opened! I particularly hope a few affected Vaio owners make their feelings known about this!

I was also pleased to note this news (again carried in numerous places) about consumer groups starting to fight for DRM interoperability. Now, I'm not necessarily a believer in these types of groups getting things done, but at least I applaud their efforts.

That this issue is becoming mainstream is good news, and not before time. In the 70's there was enough momentum from hardware companies (ie those making VCR's) to ride roughshod over the objections of content companies, and lo and behold it all worked out well for all. If we don't have such fights now for the soul of this, it's all going to end in disappointment, piracy, and fat legal fees. Microsoft doesn't seem able or willing to stand up for it. Apple is the closest to a consumer champion in fighting at least for fair DRM (if not interoperable DRM). But while it could achieve a lot with content providers when all it had was an mp3 player that worked with 2% of the world's computers, it now provokes fear. What is needed is a few providers (hopefully including Apple) to just get on with it and prove that there is a pro-consumer middle ground that is both anti-piracy and anti-old guard (oh, and PLEASE, interoperable). They may have to take a few gambles and fight a few court battles along the way, but in the end the consumer will reward their actions by buying the gadgets that will be the 21st century equivalent of the VCR.

Finally, I would also make the observation that once again Sony's left arm has done something that hurts not just itself (though strangely it may eventually be a beneficiary) but it's whole. And this time it's very visible. The name of an organisation once synonymous with enjoying entertainment anywhere has been sullied once more as a killjoy. I'd love to know what reasons people can actually give for wanting to buy a Sony MP3 player for instance. Anyone?

09 November 2005

Loss of Creativity

I noticed the announcement of a new Creative MP3 player yesterday - the Creative Zen Sleek Photo. I like to see what the competition is doing to fight the iPod phenomenon. What struck me was how far they seem to have fallen behind the iPod. It's a 20GB player with a screen that can show photos (jpeg's only). It does have one or two extra features over the iPods in terms of FM tuner and built-in recording (though the iPod now has excellent recording features built-in if not directly usable). But the corresponding iPod now has a 30GB disk - 50% greater capacity. The Zen is 46% bigger in volume and is 16% heavier. It's screen is smaller. And, it doesn't do video. It's price is... well, the same as the 30GB iPod.

Now, I was about to blog just about this very item before I also came across this quote from chief executive Sim Wong Hoo at the recent post-result briefing. "We'd like to focus on the profitability and not market share". You can google this quote at many news sources. That was around the same time Creative announced a pretty dire set of results with the MP3 player business gouging their previously highly-profitable sound card business. And, the same time that Creative criticised Apple for locking up supplies of components (presumably at prices that Creative could not obtain). So, that accounts for why this is priced realistically rather than aggressively.

So, with Rio departed from the market, and Creative essentially in retreat, that leaves just a few big players around who have the deep pockets to make this a competitive environment. First to mind is of course, Sony. However, their deep pockets are also stretched on making the next-gen PS3 a success, which they hope to do by subsidising the players. A large company doing well financially may be able to have a few of these initiatives, but Sony is not performing, so I would doubt it could muster up another set of subsidies to make it's players more attractive. It certainly doesn't win it with features, and it certainly doesn't woo the customer with it's anti-consumer actions such as ATRAC, Sony Connect, and most recently the debacle with it's Copy Protection system on CD's that does nasty things to PC's. Perhaps Sanyo (with a range of cheap and cheerful players) or Samsung (with storage manufacturing capacity to allow it to price effectively) are the only other people who can realistically put up a fight. There is still iRiver of course, but they are facing the same issues as Creative.

The one other contender could be Microsoft. But even this company seems stretched in a number of areas (XBox, Vista, Office, Windows/Office Live, etc), and selling own-brand hardware for MP3 playing would be a tricky gamble that would risk alienating many of it's partners not just in the hardware business but also in the music sales area. They would also then be open to the one charge that Apple is vulnerable too - the complete control of a relatively closed eco-system. Microsoft may rue that it was not nimbler when the market was less mature, and had managed to get a range of decent players from it's partners and a range of music services that truly did "play for sure" while offering good value and fair DRM. Too little, and too late.

In the meantime, Apple will go from strength to strength in this area. It understands how people evaluate innovative products. It didn't tell people "heh, you need a video player" it gave people a compelling reason to try it out by offering the same as before in a smaller package with more features at the same price. Likewise with the nano - it offered essentially the same as a mini but in a MUCH smaller package that could be manhandled (scratching issues aside), so much more useful for the active market, again at the same price. The good thing for consumers is that a powerful supplier of hardware may be able to exert pressure on the already too powerful and oligopolistic content providers that in the end will break open the market. A similar thing happened with the VCR which the media companies were in the end unable to fight to the benefit of all. If the labels think there will be alternatives to Apple, then they may hold back, and spend the time bitching about 20cents per item here or there. But if they realise they'll have to play ball, then perhaps we'll get some innovation in digital content distribution and usage. At the same time, let's hope as consumers, that Apple doesn't get everything it's own way and become arrogant and unresponsive. I no longer can see Apple being brought down by competition in this market. It's reign can be ended by innovation/convergence in gadgets rendering the iPod useless (as Smartphones have done to PDA's). For reasons I've already blogged here, I'm not sure that will happen too soon. It's reign could be ended by it's own mistakes (e.g. arrogance, failure to integrate into the home environment). But in the end, I wonder if it will be the competition authorities that will have to intervene in a few years time to free the consumer from a system of content distribution in which one company sets the rules, sets the pricing, while selling the hardware, the software, AND the content too.

I'm not saying this is imminent or even the likely outcome - far from it. But it has become a realistic scenario for sometime around the turn of this decade.

03 November 2005

Microsoft Lives (or Dies)

My favourite monopoly announced two new services this week - Windows Live and Office Live. Depending upon your point of view, these are either re-hashed initiatives that will also fail, or a serious attempt to redefine the company and fight the challenges it is now facing from the likes of Google.

Apart from whether Microsoft can pull it off functionally, more in a minute, my basic question is whether users will ultimately be willing to become even more tightly dependent upon one behemoth that has in general treated them shabbily when it comes to security, and extracting money. More worryingly for them is that while a move to services - some of which may be free by being ad-supported - may indeed be THE way forward, there is going to be a LONG transition whereby customers are going to be paying for licenses, paying for services AND getting ads bombarded to them. Whether MS intends that or not, that will be the reality. And my gut feeling is that people will not like that. Whether you like Google or not (I generally do, though I'm becoming wary of an all-dominating Google), you know where you are with them. You can make your choices about whether you use their service(s) and how much you use it by whether it gives you benefits for the trade-offs in what they do with the information about you they pick up along the way. Because all the services (today) are free, it's a pretty easy decision. You also accept that Google has to make its money from somewhere, so as long as it's free to me, then I'll accept those trade-offs (until for me the service gets degraded by Google having to meet too strong demands from the advertisers)

But with Microsoft, it's not the same. Many people already resent them for making so much money on the back of very average, hard to use, insecure software. Everyone of us - even most Mac users - pay the MS tax every year for some part of our computing experience (well, ok, there are some Linux people and a few Mac users who manage to avoid it). Now, just how many of these people are going to welcome giving MS another revenue stream in services AND having ads thrown at us left, right and centre. It's a much harder decision to make. And, given that MS cannot really lock this stuff in without setting off down the road to the courthouse, people WILL have a choice this time around (or am I being too optimistic?).

And then there are the internal issues. The company cannot walk away from software licenses - indeed it needs them massively. Most of its employees are involved in that side of the business. There are therefore too many powerful internal forces at work to ensure that this is anything other than a permanent catching up exercise. By its very nature, it cannot do a "paradigm shift" even if its customers bought into its strategy.

There are other worrying signs too (for MS). The presentation was truly awful. Thanks to a few pointers from my usual sources for the link to this critique of the Powerpoint presentation used. These are basic mistakes. And, as usual, I hear the demo failed half way through when the wireless network went down. Plus ├ža change.

It was also the first time I'd got to see a photo of the XBox. It is ghastly - a typical "box" with no reason for it's shape and from what I could see of the colour, not something that you'd be wanting to put next to your new flat screen tv, even if the kids are happy with it in the bedroom. Now, I am not a gaming expert - indeed I am at the luddite end of the spectrum in this area. But I had briefly held the view this week (after reading this Ars Technica piece that out of the 3 protagonists (MS, Sony, Nintendo) MS would take the crown, with Nintendo taking the second place through pure gaming focus and price. Given the mistakes Sony seems to be making on everything it comes out with, maybe that's still the view, but I do think MS could have come up with something a bit better looking that people would be proud to use as a MCE (Media Center Extender) and make it the trojan horse into the living room.

What all these failings point to is that MS does not take DESIGN seriously. It does not design it's slides to communicate; it does not design it's products to be intuitive, and does not design it's boxes to be "must-have" gadgets.

Until it takes design more seriously (find and empower the next Jonathan Ive?), it will fail to wow people. If it can't wow people, then the resentment of paying license fees AND service fees AND being pestered with ads will surely drive an inexorable decline for the company. We had the years of conglomerates in business and they've pretty much been consigned to the graveyard of business theory. A conglomerate in software and services, even starting from a monopoly position, is just as doomed.

Microsoft's Lives are in fact its dying gasps.
(edit corrected spelling mistake!)