Monday, 22 November 2010

Musings and Microsofts

You know, some of my recent blog posts (here, here, and here, for example) probably make me look like a rabid Microsoft-hater.

But I'm not. Not any more.

Sure, I don't like their business methods, and never have. Their software products in general are heavily bloated and inexplicably resource-hungry. (MS SQL Server 2005 Express needs over 1.3GB of disk space! How can a SQL server possibly need that much disk space?) They produce a very small amount of genuinely innovative technology (Kinect), and a lot of mediocrity. They are constantly trying to shoot down Open Source, a battle they know they can never win.

There's a lot to like, or at least admire, about Microsoft
However - there's a lot to like, or at least admire, about MSFT. They have some very smart people indeed. I've worked alongside or for a number of them, in my career, and I can't think of one who didn't deserve respect. (Declaration of interest: MS tried to head-hunt me once. I took a rain check.) Microsoft are superbly good at owning and controlling a market - try to buy a PC without Windows from a major retailer, and you'll see what I mean. Their marketing is sometimes hilariously inept ("I'm a PC!" - what, you're beige inside and out? "Windows 7 - my idea!" Yeah? I bet you drive your Ferrari 430 everywhere in first gear), but it clearly works sufficiently well. Some of Microsoft's products are rather good: their keyboards and mice are largely bland, but solidly built and just keep working; their Visual Studio development environment is recognised as probably the best in the industry.

The thing is, we - all of us - need Microsoft. We need their products to set a certain performance and behaviour standard, so that its competition knows how far they have to extend to better them and distract the public eye. The haters need a bugbear they can fulminate against. The City folk need a bellwether for the health of the technology industries.

However much MSFT huffs and puffs, Open Source isn't going to blow down.
I used to hate Microsoft too, for stifling technological progress and competition, but I think their Big Bad Wolf has come up against the brick house at last, and it's called Open Source. However much MSFT huffs and puffs, that house isn't going to blow down. If it wants inside, Microsoft is going to have to put the teeth away, ask nicely, and try not to eat the occupants.

It used to be the case that big corporate and Governmental buyers would call in the Microsoft guy with the clipboard and the tick list, much as their predecessors did with IBM and their mainframe products. The adage always was, "You can't get sacked for buying [IBM, Microsoft]." But things have changed. After a ropey start, Open Source is now considered commercial-grade, enough to get the attention of the big buyers. For some time, we watched MS offer Government purchasers ludicrously low prices for Windows and MS Office licensing. You don't often see those stories now, and it's not clear why. I suspect it's because the buyers' attitudes have changed. Where once they would raise the spectre of Open Source, to force Microsoft to discount their pricing below cost, now they're just not interested in paying for MS products any more, so there's no point having the conversation.

I don't want Microsoft to fail: I want them to change their approach.
I don't want Microsoft to fail: I want them to change their approach. I can't see Windows or Office going Open Source, however much I might wish it, but I can envisage a Microsoft that is driven by its market, rather than vice-versa; a Microsoft that engages with open standards without a killer agenda; a Microsoft that collaborates, not competes. It sounds like a hippy agenda, but it's not. IBM switched to that model, and saved itself from destruction. Sun Microsystems tried, but it was too late, and didn't fit well with a business model dependent upon declining chip and system sales. I don't think MSFT can make that change with Steve Ballmer at the helm (although I hear he's handy at rearranging furniture), but I have my doubts that Ballmer will hold his tenure for much longer. Windows 7 has gone some way to recovering from the train wreck of Vista, but Open Source is hurting Microsoft, and the hurt's only going to get worse. Ballmer's combative style is looking more and more outdated in the face of the modern market.

Another thing I never thought I'd say: good luck, Microsoft.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Microsoft: Linux is at the end of its life-cycle. Oh really?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov, president of Microsoft Russia, has reportedly claimed that Linux is at the end of its life-cycle.

I think that comes under the category of, "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?"

There are a lot of companies that'd envy that kind of "end of life-cycle" product!
Linux works on just about every hardware platform bigger than a PIC, supports a mind-bogglingly large range of hardware, is used on everything from the smallest gadget to the world's most powerful supercomputers, and the average person in the street probably has at least five to ten times as many Linux OS licences as they have of Microsoft products. There are a lot of companies that'd envy that kind of "end of life-cycle" product!

ARM devices are squeezing Microsoft out from the bottom up, on embedded devices, and the top down: the new Cortex-A15 based chips will create Linux-friendly servers that should be hugely more power-efficient than the Intel/Microsoft combination manages - and Microsoft doesn't currently have mainline ARM products (Windows, Office) to defend its space - not yet, anyway. I blogged about the consequences earlier this month.

Pryanishnikov's comments form part of a recent FUD campaign Microsoft's been waging against Linux, and Open Source in general. (I blogged about more of it a month ago.) The campaign says more about Microsoft than Linux and Open Source Software (OSS).

The more Microsoft tries to chop off Open Source's Hydra heads, the bigger the problem they create.
The more frantically Microsoft tries to chop off Open Source's Hydra heads, the bigger the problem they create for themselves. Desperation is hard to hide; increasing desperation, even more so. The solution for MS, of course, is to accept Open Source, concede that MS doesn't have answers in a number of OSS's key markets, and probably never will now, and change the business model to work with OSS, rather than paying lip-service in public, and waving knives behind the scenes. I don't think Microsoft has the ability to make that change, though. It would involve admitting that revenues have peaked, which wouldn't please Wall Street one bit - but better restructure now than face a collapse later, which is where MSFT is heading without some creative thinking that has to happen now.

Ironically, conditions in both customer and stock markets could well mean that MS is closer to end-cycle than its competition.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Aww, a cute baby business-person!

What should you use for your forum "avatar" picture? Should you use your photo, a caricature, even a picture of you as a baby?

The more I think about them, the more I realise that the answers are completely different depending on whether they apply to business-to-business (B2B) sites like LinkedIn, or to informal social media sites (Facebook, etc.). I'll answer for B2B.

Linda Lee-Potter used a masthead photo from the 1960s. I always thought that a bit tragic.
It's not uncommon for photos to be a few years old, but it's daft to present one that's not clearly and recognisably you, now. For decades, the late Linda Lee-Potter, columnist for the Daily Mail, used a masthead photo from the 1960s, judging by the hair and the style. I always thought that was a bit tragic. B2B social media like LinkedIn can lead to personal meetings. Particularly for a businessperson, a really out-of-date photo can lead to an instantly negative reaction when the reader then meets them in person - which may carry over to their attitude to doing business with them

You want the in-person relationship with your counterpart to carry over naturally from your online discussions, you don't want to be jarred by meeting what appears to be your correspondent's Dad1! So, if you're planning to use a headshot, keep it recent and honest.

I don't see a problem with caricatures, provided they're recognisable - a good caricature is quite a neat way of presenting the "personal brand" with a bit of self-deprecating humour, particularly if the subject's a bit camera-shy. Whether it's appropriate depends largely on the writer's business sector. I guess the risk is that the cartoon eventually takes over as the "brand". When it becomes clearly out-of-date, replacing it with a new one means the "brand"'s starting again from scratch, as it'll be some while before the new picture's known, recognised and accepted by those who knew the old one. Photos don't have quite the same problem. Update them every few years, and the "brand" carries over to the new one seamlessly.

There's humour too in a photo of one's self as a child - I've a good friend who does this. It's perhaps not a great idea for a "brand", but fine for non-business networking or media-related sites. On the other hand, I don't think it's appropriate to use a family photo with kids as there are some inherent risks no parent should feel comfortable about. Even a picture with one's spouse is probably not a great idea on a B2B site, unless the spouse is a business partner too. Leaving aside personal risks, publishing a new picture of just the blogger alone could imply marriage (and therefore business) problems to canny readers.

I'm not convinced by the idea of using a non-personal picture/avatar of some sort on specifically B2B sites - it suggests that the person's hiding behind it, which raises the question - why? If they're going to be posting to forums on a B2B site, presumably they want to do business at some point. Being unwilling to admit to their appearance carries a host of negative connotations, and no positive ones, and makes first meetings awkward. There's a big exception to this: look for elephants later on in this post!

Photos are insidious. They create expectations in our minds.
I don't think there's a huge investment of readers' interest initially, but photos are insidious. They create subconscious relationships, associations and expectations in our minds. Not surprising when you realise how much of the human brain is devoted to sensing, recording and analysing images - nor that the first image the newborn brain learns to process accurately is their mother's face. We see faces everywhere, even where they're not. Readers will combine the picture with the person's online persona to form an expectation; it's how we're wired. And that means that the choice of picture is crucial.

However - there is an elephant in this room.

Unfortunately, if a businesswoman is attractive-looking, and publishes her photo, she will be likely to get unwanted attention from the knuckle-dragging2 contingent on the one hand, and short shrift from the Old Skool types on the other. Things are improving year on year, but however much the more enlightened males (and females) might abhor it, it still happens. Deflecting those issues by using an image that's not strictly a portrait - perhaps a company logo - or not using one at all, might suit her purposes better. It's all down to what works best for the individual. Martha Lane-Fox, Carly Fiorina and so on have used their images as her calling cards, and done terrifically well out of it, so there's no general rule.

Blimey, I'm sounding like an image consultant. Next stop, square red-framed glasses (*shudder*).

1 Particularly if they're female.
2 The Urban Dictionary defines "knuckle-dragger" as a racial epithet - which is not what I'd meant at all. I was referring to about the second image in the famous Ascent of Man image - an unreconstructed male of primordial mindset.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Desktop ARMs - and what they'll mean for Microsoft

[Background: the blog post I wrote on ARM's new Cortex-A15 MPCore processor core.]

If Apple finds that the ARM processors out-compete Intel on price and power consumption, and at least match x86 for performance, the choice to switch is going to be a no-brainer.

Apple has enough cash to buy every person in the world a McDonald's burger and fries.
Would Apple risk a legal challenge to any preferred-supplier lock-in agreement with Intel? Let's put it this way: at the time of writing, INTC market cap: $120bn, up 7.5% year-on-year and generally flat; AAPL market cap: $280bn, up 48% y-o-y and climbing consistently. Apple has around $26bn sitting around in the bank. That's an astonishing amount of cash. To put in context, that's enough to buy every man, woman and child in the world a burger and fries from McDonald's, and have change left over. Here's a statement I never thought I'd make: with a stock and cash exchange, Apple. Could. Buy. Intel.

Except Apple's got too much sense. If Apple switches to ARM for its MacOS products, Intel's stock will tank - while Apple's will go ballistic. And there's nothing Intel could afford to do about it, because Apple would buy them then, at the bottom of the market, just to shut them up and send their lawyers packing.

Will we see Windows and Office for ARM? Well, here's a bit of gossip: keep your eyes open in the next twelve months.

Microsoft knows that unless it raises its game, it'll be the meat in an iPad and Android sandwich.
Microsoft is not blind to ARM's incursion into desktop-grade computing, by way of Android and iOS tablets. With ARM's announcement of its Cortex-A15 MPCore architecture, Microsoft knows that unless it raises its game and is prepared to abandon positions entrenched for a quarter of a century, it's going to be the thin layer of meat in an iPad and Android sandwich, because for the first time since ... well, since the very emergence of the industry, corporate computing's got sexy.

And beige bricks aren't.

Once it's feasible to run MS products natively under MacOS's Boot Camp on an ARM, it'll complete Apple's business case for an ARM MacOS port, and the dominos start falling.

Let's look at the consequences if MS doesn't follow through on its internal projects. Documents To Go is already available for both iOS and Android. With the potential to take MS's market away from them, DataViz would be insane not to consolidate, add Open/LibreOffice support, and evolve their mobile application into a fully featured corporate-grade tool. QuickOffice is also available for both platforms, but to my mind isn't quite up there with DtG quite yet.

The fate of LibreOffice (as now is - daft name, but there you go) will be interesting. Based on C++, it's not in a great position to convert to ObjectiveC (iOS) or Java (Android). Of course, there is a development route for C++ into Android, via the Native Development Kit, but compared with the Java environment it's like pulling teeth, and it doesn't play nicely with Dalvik for now. LibreOffice may find itself the second layer of meat in that sandwich unless its developers can at least port to Android - ObjectiveC is probably too big an ask for now.

But anyone who's been around in the industry knows that Microsoft, whilst often slow to spot emerging markets, will adapt its products, marketing and spin to shut out competitors before they can cause too much damage. Microsoft is more vulnerable now than at any time in the past two decades, but it's still got teeth. It may yet be able to use them.

Friday, 12 November 2010

ARM's Cortex-A15 CPU, and how it will change your world

[From a discussion on LinkedIn (registration may be required to read it).]

Steve Liebson wrote a recent article on the ARM Cortex-A15 MPCore processor, launched at the ARM Technology Conference in Santa Clara on the 10th November 2010. It's a very interesting read.

ARM is closing in on the Big Iron server market, Intel's traditional home ground, with a processor capable of 2.5GHz operation, eight or even 16 cores per chip, and some smart interconnects and support to make them fly. It's an open secret that Amazon, Google and other intensely server-critical firms are keeping a watching brief, as the A15 promises remarkable improvements on their power consumption and heat dissipation problems. It's hard to believe that VMWare, Citrix1 and other cloud infrastructure providers don't have at least tentative roadmaps for rolling out their Type 1 hypervisor products to the A15.

What few people seem to be picking up upon, though, is how the A15 could change the corporate desktop market too.

Of course, it all depends upon the power figures, which, as Steve notes, ARM isn't yet publishing, but try this for size...

Put a dual-core 2.5GHz Cortex-A15 in a tablet and load Android 3. Make a desktop drop-in charge/kbd/mouse cradle for it - maybe inductive charging and Bluetooth inputs so it's contactless. Now you've a tool that will act as a touchscreen PC on your desk, or grab it from the cradle and bring it to meetings as a note-taking tablet. You've got the performance of an Apple desktop or mid-range PC product when you need it, and it should run a lot cooler than a laptop.

It's been a fair while coming but if the industry gets the right ideas, this could well be the processor that killed the PC and (with Android) stood up to Apple on its own ground.

So here's the real left-field question: given the power and BoM cost savings, how long now before Apple ditches Intel completely for ARM?

1 Since writing this article, the author has provided paid consultancy to Citrix. The comments made above are solely the author's own, were not made in the light of any "inside information" obtained from Citrix or its current or former staff, and have not been updated since the start of that consultancy, other than to add this footnote. Oh, and this footnote was added entirely from the author's free will - as a declaration of interests, not because of any lawyerly intervention or contractual obligation.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The East London Tech City: what will happen after the 2012 Olympics?

There was some interesting editorial on the "East London Tech City" on page 50 of Tuesday 9th November's London Evening Standard. (You can read it at for up to 28 days: select e-Edition; free registration required.)

There appears to be an expectation that, despite the apparent technology bias suggested by the name, the majority of businesses resident there will be focused upon solutions for the financial sector, rather than pure technology per se.

It's going to be a fascinating thing to watch. Normally, I'd suppose that that would have to be the overwhelming business sector, since the costs of renting relatively central London property for a company would be way beyond the pockets of any but the firms most benefiting from rich City clients. However, I can imagine a certain amount of desperation on behalf of the land owners to get units occupied however they can, as soon as the athletes move out. It may change the rules of the game, at least for a while.

Could East London be the next M4 Corridor? It's not impossible. But the difficulty of commuting into the area from affordable suburbs might just restrict its potential. In the end, it might just be the haunt for City-related businesses anyway - after all, even in a property slump, few others' employees can afford Docklands warehouse-conversion flats.