Windows 8 Metro Interface, The Wrong New Thing

Microsoft has been revealing more and more features about Windows 8, including the new Metro interface shown above. That is what the standard desktop interface is going to look like in Windows 8. You'll be able to click a 'Desktop' link to interact with older legacy applications (i.e. anything developed for Windows 7 or earlier) but clicking on the 'Start' menu is going to land you back in this tiled world. Microsoft is trying to add a breath of fresh air to their interface but I think they've simply introduced the wrong new thing.

Direction of Change

Introducing change to your UI is never a decision made lightly. Companies enter legal fights over 'look and feel' to make sure they have a unique design, something easily recognizable to anyone sitting down to use their product. Microsoft no doubt is hoping to make their UI memorable but I'm sure is nervous about how it will be received. In fact, they were so nervous about the upcoming changes to Windows Explorer in Windows 8 that they posted a blog entry about it. In it, they didn't just go into detail about the changes, they discussed the entire history of the interface, the commands most often used, and then ended with an attempt to convince us why we needed the new ribbon UI on a file and folder browser. Microsoft is anxiously trying to get the word out now before the product's release, likely to avoid any user backlash over getting used to the new way of doing things.

Part of their problem, though, is that they are introducing change in a way that most folks don't appreciate. Windows 8's Metro interface is essentially the Windows Phone 7 UI writ large. The problem is Windows Phone 7 hasn't been in use long enough nor by enough people for the interface to feel more at home to more people. In fact, Microsoft just recently announced plans to increase sales personnel to push additional sales. And now, before the public has really had a chance to become used to this new tiled way of doing things, they are attempting to push it into the new Windows 8 deployment.

At first blush, it would seem to be an attempt to steal a page from Apple's playbook. Recall Steve Jobs' "Back to the Mac" theme, where they discussed introducing iOS UI elements into OS X Lion? And in fact Launchpad is pretty much an iOS home screen with all of your apps and no groups. The difference is in the timing. Apple let the iOS experience percolate on iPhone, iPod Touch and then iPad before deciding to bring any elements back into the desktop. And even then, they didn't make a radical departure. Perhaps bigger changes are coming. In fact, I'm certain of it. But Apple made the right move by easing folks into the iOS way of doing things first before introducing similar changes to an interface OS X users are very familiar with. In any event, the Windows 8 Metro interface is going to receive some pretty critical pushback from their userbase.


AOL Yahoo Merger, Doing It Wrong Online

According to a Guardian post, an AOL Yahoo merger is being considered. Yahoo is worth $17 billion. AOL is valued at $1.68 billion. You can imagine, then, the chutzpah it takes to say they're doing it wrong online. But they are. I co-own a Houston based computer support company which you've probably never heard of. It isn't valued nearly as highly. So why call these two out? Simply, they deserve it.

Yahoo seems to be going through Kubler-Ross' stage 3, bargaining, staving off the end just a little bit longer. AOL has been in decline for what seems like forever. It's like an ant's view of watching a human tumble to the ground. It must seem like eternity. In any event, now the rumor mill has it that the two Internet giants are considering merging. It seems a feeble gesture somehow. The problem isn't that either of them needs what the other has. The problem is that neither is doing the right thing with what they've got.

Both companies provide a multitude of services to their viewers. Yahoo provides myriad social and information services including their mail service. AOL provides content from many sources which they have either developed or acquired over time, in addition to their mail service. In AOL's case, they don't need additional services to beckon readers into their content-laden maw. They need to improve their content by shooting for more quality and less quantity. I don't know that anyone drops by AOL because they have the hottest stories, best blogging or most ground breaking journalism. They go there because of inertia. And Yahoo doesn't need AOL either. Instead they need to take the multitude of services they provide now and streamline them, turning them into a single cohesive experience.

No, these two companies are strange bedfellows. They have overlap in areas where merging won't help and their differences aren't complementary areas. What we're seeing is one more stage of dying. Let's hope it's relatively painless.

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Google Docs Outage “Mea Culpa”

Google has made a blog post concerning the reasons for their Google Docs outage last week. In essence, a bug in their software was exposed when they added an enhancement, a bug that was only visible under heavier load than seen in the test environment. One of those "Wait, that didn't happen in the simulator" moments. I don't see this as an indictment against Google. Everyone makes mistakes and this is just that kind of ornery bug that is very hard to find without actually pushing your systems to max. But it still raises the question of how the cloud should be used.

Google's concept of cloud services, where not only is the data entirely stored remotely but the functionality is accessed there too, demands a full time connection to the remote server to work. While losing access to your stash of poetry or your grandmother's cache of recipes isn't likely to have caused you too much upset, being unable to grab the most recent copy of the contract on your way to the merger meeting might be a little more unsettling. Sure, you probably have a copy somewhere locally... right? The fact is, when you rely on this sort of arrangement, you are potentially putting some of your most critical digital possessions in the hands of another company. Even a company as well established as Google can fail. But surely it's more likely that your own machines would fail before Google's would. Okay, let's grant that. Google even outlined the steps they were taking to try to prevent this sort of problem (I hesitate to call it a disaster given what all is happening in the world these days, but some may feel the description fits) happening in the future. Are they going to also put into effect a plan that prevents a backhoe from severing my company's connection to the outside world and thus Google's servers? Will they also provide a plan that will prevent an accounting error from inadvertently shutting off my internet pipe? The fact is Google is not the only link in the chain between me and their servers and they're not even the weakest link. They are only one link and one part of the problem.

Apple's take, using the cloud as a form of automated storage, is a better bet. You get the convenience of local access plus the comforts of remote storage and availability. I won't care (as much) if my link to Apple gets cut because my Word document (or Pages for you purists) is resting peacefully in my Documents folder. Let the backhoes come and let destruction break forth upon my internet connection. I am prepared.

That's not to say that view isn't without its problems of course. It means my hardware purchases will still require more hard drive capacity which means greater expense. It means that I will be responsible for keeping my software up to date instead of simply hitting a website where the software is always up to date. But hard drives are getting cheaper for the most part. It's a downward trend for price, even for SSD devices. And the automatic update functionality for any major OS these days provides plenty of convenience for staying patched. For apps that I didn't get from an App Store, there are still options. Developers have been including update checks in their software for years. And of course, for those that don't, yes there will be a gap. The gap is shrinking over time.

The fact is that Google cannot guarantee that I will always be able to access my data and software anytime, from anywhere. They can hold up their end of things and frankly I trust them to do that. Not just because they have shown a penchant for being able to put together solid deployments but also because it's becoming their lifeblood. What they cannot do is ensure I will always be able to read my poetry at 3AM. And that's just unacceptable.


Flash on iOS, Adobe Throws in the Towel

Techcrunch reports that Adobe has changed their Flash Media Server to stream Flash based content to iOS devices by essentially removing the content from a Flash container and reformatting it on the fly to something palatable on iOS. Two quick comments.

First, the opening quote from Techcrunch:

Ardent iOS supporters have been clamoring for true Flash support for years

I would respectfully disagree with. Ardent iOS supporters probably haven't missed Flash support much, and even less so over time.

Second, this marks a potentially significant departure for Adobe from their stance of pushing their format across all platforms as the end-all be-all. This combined with their announcement of Adobe Edge, their tool to create content using HTML5, JavaScript and CSS instead of Flash, are indicators that Adobe seems to be pushing away from Flash and trying to stay on the lead of creating the tools developers will use going forward. I don't see this as a bad thing, frankly.


Mobile Ads, The Next Flash Killer

Recently, the Flurry Blog released a report indicating the sharp rise, both actual and anticipated, in spending on mobile ads. Of particular note, they pointed out, was the potential for mobile ad spending to dwarf other internet ad spending within the next year. As spending increases on mobile advertising we will see a concurrent increase in spending on the technologies needed to deliver that advertising in the mobile space. For any serious contender for mobile ad development, HTML5, not Flash, is the only reasonable path forward.

Flash is ubiquitous. It is used for a number of tasks on websites, from printer control, to copying text to the clipboard. It is also commonly used for the Flash based games you run across all over the net. And it is, of course, used for advertising. Flash provides a simple method of packaging animated multimedia content that can be seen by most viewers, and can be used to alter the viewer's experience enough to grab their attention and force them to view your ad, characteristics which advertisers naturally find desirable. While the Adobe Flash Player has been the source of many security holes and is reported by Apple to be a leading cause of crashes of their Safari browser, the experience has been "good enough" that most users end up installing it if it isn't already on their system. That's the desktop experience.

The mobile experience is quite different. First, iOS, one of the most popular mobile platforms today, does not currently support Flash and likely never will. There has been plenty of push and pull between Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen and former Apple CEO Steve Jobs concerning Flash's performance on mobile and that may have had something to do with the decision not to include it on iOS. If it wasn't the only reason it was certainly sufficient given the performance of Flash on the only other mobile platform currently poised to compete significantly with iOS... Android. To date, the Flash experience on Android has been, by most accounts, tolerable at best. In most cases, playback puts a serious strain on any mobile hardware that has the software capable of playing Flash content, such that any such content is essentially unusable. That's not something likely to be a major selling point for advertisers looking to take advantage of the mobile space.

iOS has a significant enough amount of the mobile market that no advertiser would dare consider giving up advertising on the platform. Even if they were willing to give up such a huge market, using Flash on Android is hardly going to be a positive experience either. As a result, the push for advertisers is going to be toward HTML5, not toward Flash. And as developers are tapped for increasing numbers of advertising engagements, they are going to be required to perform at least some of that engaging without using Flash. Speaking from experience, programmers like consistency in their environment. Reuse is more easily achievable when you're sticking to one development platform. Since Flash is out of the picture for at least part of these campaigns, you can look forward to a subsequent decrease in Flash usage in the desktop space, something I imagine many of us will be happy with.


You Are Twitter’s Product

From Techcrunch:

When asked about how an advertiser should view Twitter’s liberal pseudonym policy versus that of Google+ and Facebook, both of which require users to sign up with their real names, Costolo said that the primary difference between how the companies make money is that is that brands like Virgin America pay Twitter when someone, whether it be @bozo123 (his example) or @johnsmith clicks on a link. “We’re not wedded to pseudonyms. Other services are declaring that you have to use your real name, because it will help them monetize. We want to serve our users first.”

Just remember, the advertisers are the users. You are the product.

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Android Cut By The Splinters

So it seems Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, accidentally gave notice that Android 4.0, the next release of the search giant's mobile OS, will be released in the October/November timeframe. Of course, that may change but regardless it appears to be coming soon. Whether it comes soon or not, without major uptake by a lot of handset vendors and service providers, it's simply going to add to the growing pileup of currently deployed Android revisions, increasing the fragmentation even more.

Android 4.0, code named Ice Cream Sandwich, is intended to, among other things, refine the APIs with an effort to reduce fragmentation. Android 2.0 (Eclair) was released in October 2009, 2.2 (Froyo) was released in May 2010, while 2.3 (Gingerbread) came out in December 2010. 3.0, aka Honeycomb, was a tablet only version first released in February 2011. 2.2 (Froyo) is currently deployed on roughly 50% of Android devices with 2.3 (Gingerbread) installed on another 30% or so. Honeycomb, the tablet version, is only deployed to about 1.5% of Android devices, a fact which leads to its own conclusions, but that's for another time. The fact is, the APIs were originally supposed to be forward compatible. Something written to target an older revision of the OS should work on newer revisions, until a major release comes along which might break API compatibility. The API, therefore, is intended to provide shelter to developers hoping to deploy against the largest possible number of devices. The problem, though, isn't developer application support for various OS's. The problem is the hardware.

The handsets are targeted at a given revision of the OS and a lot of time and money is put into making sure the handset works as intended with that version of the OS. Even between minor releases, as evidenced by the already existing fragmentation, it has been difficult to get the various parties involved to consider revisiting existing handsets, some of which might not even be marketed any longer and therefore unlikely to provide further revenue through additional sales, in order to incorporate a new Android revision.

Android 4.0 is supposed to address this, allowing one OS to target both handsets as well as tablets. That's great, but realistically is not going to reduce fragmentation very quickly. To begin with, Android tablet sales have been something just shy of anemic but even then it is doubtful that without some potent new features unlocked with 4.0 any Android tablet manufacturer will want to revise the OS on tablets currently in the sales channel, much less those no longer being sold. As for handset developers, they're in a worse boat since many deployed devices are much older than any tablet currently out there. And it's not like current handsets will suddenly drop dead of electronic heart attacks now that 4.0 is available. They will continue to perform as they always have. So Android 4.0 is really only expected to solve fragmentation moving forward.

And yet, even with the release of 4.0 imminent, major manufacturers who must have had access to beta versions of Ice Cream Sandwich, have still elected to roll their own with forked older versions of Android (vis-a-vis the upcoming Kindle). Sure, eventually Android 4.0 will become the mainstream version rolled out on new devices. But by then Google might have already been working on Android 5.0, aka Monster Truck Rally (who knows?). Meanwhile, the Android ecosystem will be falling to pieces.


Motorola Facebook Phone?

I have to say that a Motorola Facebook phone (as reported by Techcrunch) was not something I expected to see. Given Google's recent purchase of Motorola Mobility and their launch of Google+ as competitor to Facebook, as well as the ongoing battle for ad revenue and I don't see a bright future for this device. Given the development cycle of these sorts of devices, it was likely in the pipeline well before Google's purchase which explains why it's even seeing what little light of day it is getting at this point. But I foresee a minimal effort to push these devices assuming they remain as currently designed.


Google, Red Handed and Red Faced

Now making the rounds are comments surrounding the internal Google documents revealed in the Oracle v Google case. The bits that seem to have everyone's interest aroused concern two things. The pertinent bullet points from the discovered document are as follows:

  • Do not develop in the open. Instead, make source code available after innovation is complete
  • Lead device concept: Give early access to the software to partners who build and distribute devices to our specification (ie, Motorola and Verizon). They get a non-contractual time to market advantage and in return they align to our standard.

A lot of time and attention is being given to these statements, making Google out to be hypocritical or as having less than savory business practices. The fact is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with either of these practices.

The first bullet point, concerning not developing in the open, is innocuous. There's nothing evil going on here. There's nothing about open source or openness in general that requires your code repository be visible 24x7 for all the world to see. If you want to stay in the coding cave and do your development (or innovate as Google puts it), only releasing the fruits of your labor when they are ripe and bursting with innovative goodness, that is your prerogative. I suspect it's the word choice that has folks up in arms here but conceptually this is the same thing as the guy working on a new device driver to tack onto the Linux kernel, not releasing it until it's feature complete. Really, it's just not a big deal.

The second bullet point, concerning early access to partners who abide by Google's standards, is a bit more interesting, but nonetheless does not rise to the level of being 'wrong'. Perhaps a bit embarrassing and maybe even damaging now that it's out in the open, but not wrong. If Google is developing a codebase and wants partners to adhere to their standards as a precondition of early access, isn't that their right? Is there anything indicating they absolutely must provide access to everyone, equally? Most open source licenses simply indicate what is involved in the relationship between the developer and the recipient of the code. It has nothing to do with any other relationships. Should Google have done this? Probably not from where they're sitting now, but at the time it was a calculated risk. Were they able to offer something in exchange for partners abiding by the vision Google had for the Android platform? What were the chances of it becoming public knowledge? How damaging would it be? Unfortunately for Google they may be about to find out. For my part? *meh*


HP’s Future Cloudy

HP has announced a 'private Cloud beta' to introduce developers to their new HP Cloud Services. This is broken into two actual named services, HP Cloud Compute and HP Cloud Object Storage. This breaks the cloud functionality up into the two traditional bits of cloud computing: putting stuff in the cloud (storage) and doing stuff in the cloud (computing). I just wonder if it's the right move, at the right time, done right.

With this announcement, HP is further declaring their shift to software services under CEO Apotheker. Moreover, these services are targeted squarely at developers and companies to build upon and deliver their own products with HP as the underpinning, again a shift away from HP as the provider of an end product for consumers. This isn't a bad thing, but it presents a problem: product differentiation. There are already cloud storage solutions available, Amazon S3 for example, though Google Storage is in Lab state and other competitors are around though perhaps not as well known. Why is HP entering what looks to be a pretty crowded field? If they have a long term plan, given the turmoil they've been suffering through, wouldn't it be a good idea to be as transparent as possible right about now?

If HP Cloud Object Storage and HP Cloud Compute are meant to integrate tightly, it makes a certain amount of sense. If you truly have a need for heavy computing, it's reasonable to levy HP's servers to get the job done perhaps at a fraction of the cost it would take to buy the hardware yourself. And their storage is right there waiting for you to use too. But one gets the impression that Object Storage is intended to be leveraged as a separate entity altogether. And as evidenced by yesterday's vanishing act with Google Docs, albeit temporary, the further your data is away from you, the more easily it can become out of reach when you need it the most.

Still, kudos to HP for announcing something they are actually going to offer. It must be nice not to have to constantly remind folks about the products they are killing off.

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