As a poor student the last thing I wanted to pay for was software. Whilst the choice to pirate a base operating system is always questionable, it’s the foundation on which all your computing activities rely, it was either pay the high license cost or find an alternative. I’ve since found numerous, legitimate alternatives of course (thank you BizSpark) but not everyone is able to take advantage of them. Thus for many the choice to upgrade their copy of Windows typically comes with the purchase of a new computer, something which doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I believe that this is one factor that’s affected the Windows 8/8.1 adoption rates and it seems Microsoft might be willing to try something radical to change it.
Rumours have been making the rounds that Microsoft is potentially going to offer a low cost (or completely free) version of their operating system dubbed Windows 8.1 with Bing. Details as to what is and isn’t included are still somewhat scant but it seems like it will be a full version without any major strings attached. There’s even musings around some of Microsoft core applications, like Office, to be bundled in with the new version of Windows 8.1. This wouldn’t be unusual (they already do it with Office Core for the Surface) however it’s those consumer applications where Microsoft draws a lot of its revenue in this particular market segment so their inclusion would mean the revenue would have to be made up somewhere else.
Many are toting this release as being targeted mostly at Windows 7 users who are staving off making the switch to Windows 8. In terms of barriers to entry they are by far the lowest although they’re also the ones who have the least to gain from the upgrade. Depending on the timing of the release though this could also be a boon to those XP laggards who run out of support in just over a month. The transition from XP to Windows 8 is much more stark however, both in terms of technology and user experience, but there are numerous things Microsoft could do in order to smooth it over.
Whilst I like the idea there’s still the looming question of how Microsoft would monetize something like this as releasing something for free and making up the revenue elsewhere isn’t really their standard business model (at least not with Windows itself). The “With Bing” moniker seems to suggest that they’ll be relying heavily on browser based revenue, possibly by restricting users to only being able to use Internet Explorer. They’ve got into hot water for doing similar things in the past although they’d likely be able to argue that they no longer hold a monopoly on Internet connected devices like they once did. Regardless it will be interesting to see what the strategy is as the mere rumour of something like this is new territory for Microsoft.
It’s clear that Microsoft doesn’t want Windows 7 to become the next XP and is doing everything they can to make it attractive to get users to make the switch. They’re facing an uphill battle as there’s still a good 30% of Windows users who are still on XP, ones who are unlikely to change even in the face of imminent end of life. A free upgrade might be enough to coax some users across however Microsoft needs to start selling the transition from any of their previous version as a seamless affair, something that anyone can do on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Even then there will still be holdouts but at least it’d go a long way to pushing the other versions’ market share down into the single digits.
It’s no secret that my preferred gaming platform is the PC and the platform I run on top of that is Microsoft Windows. Whilst OSX and Linux might be gaining more momentum as of late they’re still quite far behind in terms of support from major titles, with the indie scene being the catalyst that’s driving them forward. With the introduction of SteamOS though Valve signalled that they had lost confidence in the Windows platform to deliver the same gaming experience as it had done for decades previously, predominately due to the changes that came in with Windows 8 and the WinRT platform. This is where I and Gabe Newell start to disagree and if the latest numbers are anything to go by so do a good chunk of his customers.
The Steam Hardware Survey is a monthly data collection that Valve does through Steam to give an overview of the current trends in PC gaming. The results are a great insight into what gamers are using to play their games and is a great source of information for developers and pundits alike. The December 2013 results show a trend that even I didn’t think would be possible: a staggering 20% of Steam’s user base is now on Windows 8 or 8.1 64 bit. Compared to wider PC adoption rates this is even more impressive as it’s less than half of that of Steam users. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far to say that these figures should change Gabe’s mind (and indeed I believe he should stay the course with SteamOS) it does call into question the reasoning behind his recent musings about Windows as a gaming platform.
Another interesting titbit of information buried in the survey is that the fastest growing platform by far is Windows 8.1. Whilst it’s arguable that this is likely due to the improvements made in 8.1 (like the return of the start bar and the straight to desktop mode) I think it’s far more likely because this is the first Windows update that’s been made freely available to end users. Indeed it’s kind of hard to avoid upgrading to it as Windows will nag you every so often about it and since the update is completely non-destructive there’s really no barrier to getting the upgrade past a few hours. Still a raw increase of 2.5% of market share in a month is quite impressive and shows that Microsoft has done something right with its release.
I think it’s clear that Windows is still a very viable platform for gaming, even with Microsoft’s big push for things to start going the WinRT way. I’ve always been of the stance that the traditional desktop isn’t going to go anywhere, even in the face of tablets and other touch devices taking a bigger slice of the market that PCs used to occupy, and it seems a good chunk of the gaming community agrees with that idea. I’m sure Microsoft is also keenly aware of how much revenue the gaming community brings to them and how much of that is due to Steam so it’d be very surprising to see them do anything to push them away from the Windows platform.
It’s no secret that I’m something of a fan of Windows 8 but then again my experience is somewhat biased by my extreme early adopter attitude. I haven’t yet had to support it in a production environment although I have installed it on varying levels of hardware that I have access to and I’ve yet to struggle with the issues that plagued me with previous Windows releases. The thing is though, whilst I’m a firm believer in Windows 8 and the features it brings, I’m of the opinion that it probably won’t see a high level of adoption in the enterprise space as the default desktop OS but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Despite the fact that Windows 7 has been out for a good 4 years at this point many enterprises are still in the midsts of deploying it within their organisation. This is wholly due to the initial disaster that Windows Vista was which caused the vast majority of organisations to not consider it as a possible upgrade to their Windows XP infrastructure. Past SP1 though Vista was a perfectly usable operating system and by that point many of the OEMs had caught up with their drivers which was the main cause of headaches for Vista users. Still it seemed the damage was done and Vista never managed to gain the market share it needed, leaving many organisations languishing on XP.
Not only was this bad for Microsoft in terms of sales it was worse for the organisations who stayed on it. Now systems that were designed for XP became far more entrenched and the rework required for applications to be Vista compatible got further delayed. Thus when it finally came time to move operating systems the cost of doing so (in both real terms and the effort required) was quite a lot higher and the larger the organisation the longer the transition it would take. Indeed the organisation I’m currently working for still has XP (using Netware for directory services no less) is only just getting around to rolling out Windows 7 this year due to the numerous number of applications that require remediation.
Whilst Microsoft will likely make good on their promise of delivering more updates, like they’re doing with the Windows Blue update this year, and major releases more frequently it’s likely that organisations are still reeling from their Windows 7 transition. Windows 9 is still a way off with estimates for a release dating anywhere from mid-2014 to somewhere in 2015 but that’s around the time when enterprises will be looking to upgrade in order to get the next set of killer features as Windows 7 starts to show its age. Now it’s entirely possible that with the frequent Blue style updates that Windows 8 will become far more attractive for enterprise before this date but if history has taught us anything the disruptive versions of Windows are usually the ones that end up being skipped, and Windows 8 certainly fits that bill.
There’s definitely potential for Windows 8 to make inroads into the enterprise space as the Surface would seem to be an ideal fit for the enterprise, even if most of the usability comes from the non-Metro side of it. Developing proper Metro applications for Microsoft’s enterprise products would go a long way to improving its market penetration and I know that IT admins at large would much prefer to maintain a fleet of Surfaces than a comparable fleet of iDevices. It’s clear that Metro was primarily consumer oriented but as we know many IT decisions a top driven in nature and if they want to get more people on board providing a better tablet experience to organizational executives could be the in that Windows 8 needs.
Still after 2 decades of watching Windows releases it won’t come as a surprise if Windows 8 gets passed over in favour of its next generation cousin. What we really need to avoid though is another decade of OS stagnation as whilst Windows 7 it has the potential to keep the mentality that developed with XP alive and that just makes change more painful than it needs to be. With Microsoft being committed to more releases more often we’re in a good position to avoid this and all that’s needed is for us to continue pushing our organisations in the right direction.
Microsoft’s flagship product, Windows, isn’t exactly known for it’s rapid release cycle. Sure for things like patches, security updates, etc. they’re probably one of the most responsive companies out there. The underlying operating system however is updated much less frequently with the base feature set being largely the same for the current 3 year product life cycle. In the past that was pretty much sufficient as the massive third party application market for Windows made up for anything that might have been lacking. Customers are increasingly looking for more fully featured platforms however and whilst Windows 8 is a step in the right direction it had the potential to start lagging behind its other, more frequently updated brethren.
Had Windows 8 stayed as a pure desktop OS this wouldn’t be a problem as the 3 year product cycle fit in perfectly with their largest customer base: the enterprise. Since Windows 8 will now form the basis of every Microsoft platform (or at least the core WinRT framework) they’re now playing in the same realm as iOS and Android. Platform updates for these two operating systems happen far more frequently and should Microsoft want to continue playing in this field they will have to adapt more rapidly. Up until recently I didn’t really know how Microsoft was planning to accomplish this but it seems they’ve had something in development for a while now.
Windows Blue is shaping up to be the first feature pack for Windows 8, scheduled for release sometimes toward the end of this year. It’s also the umbrella term for similar updates happening across the entire Microsoft platform around the same time including their online services like Outlook.com and SkyDrive. This will be the first release of what will become a yearly platform update that will bring new features to Windows and its surrounding ecosystem. It will not be in lieu of the traditional platform updates however as there are still plans to deliver Windows 9 on the same 3 year cycle that we’ve seen for the past 2 Windows releases.
Whilst much of the press has been around the leaked Blue build and what that means for the Windows platform it seems that this dedication to faster product cycles goes far deeper. Microsoft has shifted its development mentality away from it’s traditional iterative process to a continuous development process, a no small feat for a company of this magnitude. Thus we should expect the entire Microsoft ecosystem, not just Windows, to see a similarly rapid pace of development. They had already done this with their cloud offerings (as it seems to gain new features every year) and the success they saw there has been the catalyst for applying it to the rest of the their product suites.
Microsoft has remained largely unchallenged in the desktop PC space for the better part of 2 decades but the increasing power of mobile devices has begun to erode their core business. They have then made the smart move to start competing in that space with an unified architecture that will enable a seamless experience across all platforms. The missing piece of the puzzle was their ability to rapidly iterate on said platform like the majority of their rivals were, something which the Blue wave of products will begin to rectify. Whether it will be enough to pull up some of their worse performing platforms (Windows Phone) will remain to be seen however, but I’m sure we can agree that it will be beneficial, both for Microsoft and us as consumers.
I’ve been using Windows 8 for a good 6 months now and as someone who’s use all previous Windows versions going back to 3.1 it’s easy for me to say that it’s the best of the lot so far. Sure I don’t use the Metro interface a lot but that’s mostly because it’s not designed for the current platform I’m using it on (a PC that doesn’t have a touch interface). Still it seems I can’t go a day where someone, usually an executive from a large OEM, is bashing Windows 8 in one way or another. Considering that nearly everyone I talk to, including people who aren’t that technically inclined, seems to say the direct opposite of what they say I figured it was something worth looking into.
A lot of the criticisms seem to stem from the awkward launch that Windows 8 had. Now I’m not going to try and be an apologist for this as it’s well known that even Microsoft was disappointed with the initial release. For those of us who endured the Vista launch however it’s pretty obvious why this occurred as whenever a new Windows release deviates heavily from the previous one (whether in terms of interface or underlying architecture) the sales are always lackluster as their biggest customers, the enterprise buyers, don’t want to take the risk until all the teething issues have been sorted out. More crucially though is that whilst the launch might have been an all round disappointment it didn’t take long for Windows 8 to gain some significant steam, getting on par with Windows 7 after 90 days.
Several other high profile people have gone on record saying that the Surface is also seeing lackluster sales. This coming not long after many people have called the ultrabook market a failure (which is not unjustified) makes it look like Windows 8 ‘s introduction can’t have any impact on what looks like a declining PC market. Now I’m not going to argue against those numbers however if you look at past Windows releases, take 7 for instance which was released in Q4 of 2009, you’ll see that whilst there was a small boost (which wasn’t out of line with current trend growths) the previous quarter it was back to where it was before. What this means is that while you’d expect people to be buying a new computer in order to get the latest version of Windows many in fact don’t. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise as the system requirements between Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 aren’t that great and indeed any PC bought during the time that these operating systems has been available would be more than capable of running them. Indeed many computers have reached the level of good enough half a decade ago for the vast majority of the population so the lackluster growth isn’t surprising, nor is it anything to worry about in my point of view.
I think the reason for the backlash is due to two reasons, both of which the blame does actually lie with Microsoft. The first is a bit of speculation on my part as I think Microsoft promised a boost in PC sales to the various OEMs in order to get them on board early with Windows 8. This is pretty much par for course when you’re working with OEMs on a new and risky product as otherwise they’ll be waiting until the product catches on before they throw their hat in the ring. Now whilst Microsoft could probably handle Windows 8 not getting a lot of OEM support for a while it would have been likely that Windows 8 wouldn’t have caught up to 7’s sales in the first 90 day period, severely stunting its future growth. Whilst they wouldn’t have a Vista level disaster on their hands it would’ve been much worse than what they’re dealing with now.
Secondly I get the feeling that many of the OEMs aren’t too enthused about the Surface and I don’t blame them. I said a while back that Microsoft needed to keep their product in the premium range in order to not piss off their partners and they’ve done that to some extent however with the exorbitant license cost for OEMs it’s incredibly hard for them to make a comparable tablet for the same cost as the low end Surface RT. This has no doubt generated a bit of animosity towards Microsoft with many OEM executives bashing Surface at every chance they get despite it selling out almost immediately upon release. Whether Microsoft can repair this relationship remains to be seen however as the platform’s long term survivability will be made or broken by their OEMs, just like it has been in the past.
Microsoft took a risk with Windows 8 and by most accounts it appears to be paying off for them, unlike their previous experience with Vista. It might not be the saving grace of the PC industry nor might it be a runaway success in the tablet market however Microsoft is not a company that plays the short term game. Windows 8 is the beginning of a new direction for them and by all accounts it’s creating a solid foundation with which Microsoft can further build on. Future Microsoft releases will then be able to deliver even more capabilities on more platforms than any other ecosystem. This isn’t the first time they’ve been on the back foot and then managed to managed to dominate a market long after it has established itself (Xbox anyone?) and I’d be really surprised if they failed this time around.
I’ve been using Windows 8 as my main system for the better part of 2 months now and, whilst I’ll leave the in-depth impressions for the proper review, I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. Sure I wasn’t particularly happy with the way things were laid out initially but for the most part if you just blunder along like its Windows 7 you’re not going to struggle with it for very long. I might not use any of the modern styled applications, they don’t feel like they’re particularly well suited to the mouse/keyboard scenario if I’m honest, but everything else about it works as expected. Of course whilst Microsoft has already sold 40 million licenses of Windows 8 most people are focusing on Windows RT, care of the Surface tablet.
For the technically inclined the differences between the two are pretty stark and we’ve known for a long time that the Surface is essentially Microsoft’s answer to the iPad. The lines are a little bit more blurry between Surface/RT and the full version of Windows 8, thanks to the Modern Styled UI being shared between them, but the lack of a desktop made it pretty clear where the delineation lay. It seems however that there’s a feeling among some the bigger media outlets that Windows 8 is suffering from an identity crisis of sorts which has been perplexing me all morning:
What we’re seeing, I think, is Microsoft dancing around an uncomfortable reality: Windows RT just doesn’t have much to offer, so it’s hard to explain how it’s different from Windows 8 without making it look inferior.
The only distinct advantage for Windows RT is its support for “connected standby,” a power-saving mode that lets the device keep an eye on e-mail and other apps while it’s not in use. It’s a nice feature to have, but on its own it’s a tough sell compared to Windows 8′s wider software support. (UPDATE: As Eddie Yasi points out in the comments, the Atom-based chips that Windows 8 tablets are using, codenamed Clover Trail, support connected standby as well.)
The main thrust of the article, and another one it linked to, is that there’s been no real information from Microsoft about the differences between the fully fledged version of Windows 8 and its RT cousin. I’ll be fair to the article and not use anything past its publication date but for anyone so inclined I wrote about the differences between the two platforms well over a year ago and I was kind of late to the party on it too. Indeed the vast majority of the tech press surrounding the Surface release understood these differences quite clearly and it appears that both Time and The Verge were both being willingly ignorant simply to get a story.
Granted The Verge has something of a point that the retail representatives didn’t know the product but then again why were you asking in depth technical questions of a low wage retail worker? Most people who are looking for a Surface/iPad like device aren’t going to want to know if their legacy applications will run on it because, to them, they’re not the same thing. You could argue that the customer might have seen the Modern UI at home and then assumed that the Surface was exactly the same but I’d struggle to find someone who had installed Windows 8 this early in the piece and wasn’t aware that the Surface was a completely different beast.
Indeed the quote paragraphs above imply that Jared Newman (writer of the Time article) isn’t aware that the RT framework, the thing that powers the Modern UI, is the glue that will join all of Microsoft’s ecosystem together. Not only does it underpin Windows 8 but it’s also the framework for Windows Phone 8 and (I am speculating here but the writing is on the wall) the upcoming Xbox. What Windows RT devices offer you is the same experience that you’ll be able to get anywhere else Microsoft ecosystem but on low power devices. Newman makes the point that they could very well run them on Atom processors however anyone who’s actually used one can tell you that their performance is not up to scratch with their i3/5/7 line and is barely usable for desktop applications. They’re comparable in the low power space, meaning they would have made a decent replacement for ARM, but considering that 95% of the world’s portable devices run on the ARM it makes much more sense to go with the dominant platform rather than using something that’s guaranteed to give a sub-par experience.
I don’t like doing these kinds of take down posts, it usually feels like I’m shouting at a brick wall, but when there’s a fundamental lack of understanding or wilful ignorance of the facts I feel compelled to say something. The Windows8/RT distinctions are clear and, should you do even a small amount of research, the motives for doing so are also obvious. Thankfully most of the tech press was immune to this (although TechCrunch got swept up in this as well, tsk tsk) so there’s only a few bad apples that needed cleaning up.
If you were to believe what some games industry big wigs were saying you’d be lead to believe that Windows 8 was the beginning of the rapture for games on the Microsoft platform. At first it was just a couple developers, big ones in their own right (like Notch), but when someone like Gabe Newell chimes in you start to take notice as distributing games on the Windows platform is his bread and butter and he doesn’t say things like this lightly. However as someone who’s grown up on the Microsoft platform, from the old MS-DOS days until today where I’m running Windows 8 full time on my home PC, and has made his career on their products I still can’t help but feel that their concerns are misplaced as they seem to hinge on a fundamental miscalculation about Microsoft’s overall product strategy.
Those concerns are laid out in lengthy detail by Casey Muratori in his latest instalment of Critical Detail: The Next Twenty Years. In there he lays out the future of the Microsoft platform, drawing on the past few decades of Microsoft’s developments and using them to draw conclusions about what the Microsoft ecosystem will look like in 2032. In this world the future of games on Windows seems grim as all the current AAA titles don’t meet the requirements to be present on the Windows Store and the desktop interface is long gone, effectively destroying the games industry on any PC running their operating system.
It’s a grim future and the number of people worried about this coming to fruition seems to increase on a daily basis. However I believe that some of the assumptions made ignore critical facts that render all this doom and glooming moot, mostly because they ignore Microsoft’s larger strategies.
Before I dive into that however let me just acknowledge that yes the Windows Store doesn’t seem like it would be a great place for current games developers. Realistically it’s no different from Google Play or the iOS App Store as many of the requirements are identical. Indeed all of the platforms strive for the same “family friendly” environment that’s bereft of porn (or anything overtly sexual), violence and excessive profanity which does exclude a good number of games from making their debut on the platform. This hasn’t stopped countless numbers of companies from profiting on this platform but there is no denying that the traditional games industry, with its love of all those things these market places abhor, would struggle with these guidelines.
The fundamental misstep that many games developers appear to be making though is thinking that the Windows Store and the guidelines that come along with it will be the only platform available for them to release games onto the Windows operating system. Looking back to previous examples of Windows does show that Microsoft puts an end date on many technologies however I don’t believe that the desktop will be among them. Sure you might not be able to write a DOS game and have it run in Windows 8 but you can take a MFC app built in 1992 and run today (with the biggest challenge there possibly being recompiling it, but the same code will work).
The reason for the Metro (or Modern or whatever they’re calling it now) interface’s existence is not, as many believe, a direct reaction to the success of the iPad/Android devices and Microsoft’s failure to capitalize on it. The Metro interface, which is built upon the WinRT framework, exists primarily to provide a unified platform where applications can provide a unified experience across the three major screens which users interact with. The capabilities provided within that framework are a fairly comprehensive subset of the larger .NET framework but it’s not fully feature complete as the instruction set needed to be cut down in order for it to be usable on ARM based devices. Whilst it still has access to the goodies required to make games (you can get DirectX on it for example) it’s still not the default platform, is just another one which developers can target.
If the WinRT/Metro framework was Microsoft’s preferred direction for all application development then it wouldn’t be the bastard step-child of their main development technologies, it would become the new .NET. Whilst it is going to be the framework for cross platform applications it’s most definitely not going to be the platform for native development on Windows PCs. The argument can be made that Microsoft wants to transition everyone to WinRT as the default platform but I’ve seen no evidence to support that apart from the idea that because the Metro UI is front and centre that means it’s Microsoft’s main focus.
I find that hard to believe as whilst Metro is great on tablets and smart phones it unfortunately struggles in a mouse and keyboard environment as nearly every review of it has mentioned. Microsoft isn’t stupid, they’ve likely heard much of this feedback through other channels and will be integrating it into their future product strategies. To simply say that they’ll go “Nope, we know we’re going in the right direction and completely killing the desktop” is to be ignorant of the fact that Microsoft works extremely closely with their customers, especially the big organisations who have been the most vocal opponents of Metro-first design. They’re also a pretty big player in the games industry, what with that Xbox being so darn popular, so again I fail to see how they wouldn’t take the feedback on board, especially from such a dedicated audience like us PC gamers.
I’d lend some credence to the theory if the desktop environment hadn’t received much love in Windows 8 in lieu of all the work done on Metro but yet again I find myself coming up empty handed. The UI received a massive overhaul so that the styling would be in line with the rest of Microsoft’s products and there have been numerous improvements in functionality and usability. Why Microsoft would invest so heavily in something that will be slated to be removed within a couple generations of Windows releases is beyond me as most of their deprecated technologies receive no updates for decades prior to them being made obsolete.
And the applications, oh don’t get me started about Microsoft’s own applications.
Whilst Metro has some of the basic applications available in it (like Office and….yeah Office) all of Microsoft’s current catalogue received a revamp as desktop applications, not Metro apps. You’d think that if their future direction was going to be all Metro-esque that more of their staple application suites would have received that treatment, but they didn’t. In fact the amount of applications that are available on the desktop vs the ones available on Metro makes it look more like Metro was the afterthought of the desktop and not the other way around.
If Microsoft’s future is going to be all Windows Store and WinRT apps there’s really no evidence showing to show for it and this is the reason why I don’t feel sympathetic to those developers who are bellyaching about it. Sure if you take a really, really narrow view of the Microsoft ecosystem it looks like the end is nigh for the current utopia of game development that is Windows 7 but in doing so you’re ignoring the wealth of information that will prove you otherwise. The Windows Store might not be your distribution platform of choice (and it likely will never be) but don’t think that the traditional methods that you’ve been using are going anywhere because if Microsoft’s overall strategy is anything to go by they aren’t.
There’s no denying the success Apple has enjoyed thanks to their major shift in strategy under Steve Jobs’ reign. Before then they were seen as a direct competitor to Microsoft in almost every way: iMacs vs PCs, MacOS vs Windows and at pretty much every turn they were losing the battle save for a few dedicated niches that kept them afloat. That all changed when they got into the consumer electronics space and began bringing the sacred geek technology to the masses in a package that was highly desirable. There was one aspect of their business that suffered immensely because of this however: their enterprise sector.
Keen readers will note that this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned Apple’s less than stellar support of the enterprise market and nothing has really changed in the 8 months since I wrote that last post. Apple as a company is almost entirely dedicated to the consumer space with token efforts for enterprise integration thrown in to make it look like their products can play well in the enterprise space. Strangely enough it would seem that this token effort is somehow working to convince developers that Apple (well really iOS) is poised to take over the enterprise space:
In the largest survey of its kind, Appcelerator developers were asked what operating system is best positioned to win the enterprise market. Developers said iOS over Android by a 53% to 38% margin. Last year, in its second quarter survey, the two companies were in a dead heat for the enterprise market, tied at 44%.
In a surprise of sorts, Windows showed some life as 33% said they would be interested in developing apps on the Windows 8 tablet.
Now there is value in gauging developer’s sentiment regarding the various platforms, it gives you some insight into which ones they’d probably prefer to develop for, however that doesn’t really serve as an indicator as to what platform will win a particular market. I’d hazard a guess (one that’s based on previous trends) that the same developers will tell you that iOS is the platform to develop for even though it’s quite clear that Android is winning in the consumer space by a very wide margin. I believe there’s the same level of disjunct between what Appcelerator’s developers are saying and what the true reality is.
For starters any of the foothold that iOS has in the enterprise space is not born of any effort that Apple has made and all of it is to do with non-Apple products. For iOS to really make a dent in the enterprise market it will need some significant buy in from its corporate overlords and whilst there’s been some inroads to this (like with the Enterprise Distribution method for iOS applications) I’m just not seeing anything like that from Apple currently. All of their enterprise offerings are simplistic and token lacking many of the features that are required by enterprises today. They may have mindshare and numbers that will help drive people to create integration between iOS products and other enterprise applications but so does Android, meaning that’s really not an advantage at all.
What gets me is the (I’m paraphrasing) “sort of surprise” that developers were looking to Windows 8 for developing applications. Taken in the enterprise context the only real surprise is why there aren’t more developers looking at the platform as if there’s any platform that has chance at dominating this sector it is in fact Windows 8. There’s no doubting the challenges that the platform faces what with Apple dominating the tablet space that Microsoft is only just looking at getting into seriously but the leverage they have for integrating with all their enterprise applications simply can’t be ignored. They may not have the numbers yet but if developer mindshare is the key factor here then Microsoft wins hands down, but that won’t show up in a survey that doesn’t include Windows developers (Appcelerator’s survey is from its users only and currently does not support Windows Phone).
I’ve had my share of experience with iOS/Android integration with various enterprise applications and for what its worth none of them are really up to the same level as native platform applications are. Sure you can get your email and even VPN back in to a full desktop using your smartphone but that’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. The executives might be pushing hard to get their iPads/toy dujour on the enterprise systems but they won’t penetrate much further until those devices can provide some real value to those outside of the executive arena. Currently the only platform that has any chance of doing that well is Microsoft with Android coming in second.
None of this means that Apple/iOS can’t do well in the enterprise space, just that there are other players in this market far better positioned to do so. Should Apple put some focus on the enterprise market it’s quite likely they could capture some market share away from Microsoft and their other partners but their business models have been moving increasingly away from this sector ever since they first release the iPod over a decade ago. Returning to the enterprise world is not something I expect to see from Apple or its products any time soon and no developer sentiment is going to change that.
I have a confession to make: I never took the plunge and bought a Windows Phone 7 handset like I said I would. It’s not because I didn’t want one, new gadgets are something I have a hard time turning down, it’s just that my desire to get one was overcome by the notion of spending several hundred dollars on a handset I wouldn’t use every day. I still kept my eye on them thanks to several people I work with having them but even their raving reviews of it weren’t enough to pull me away from my now Ice Cream Sandwich blessed Galaxy S2. In all honesty I had pretty much given up on Microsoft’s mobile efforts as they didn’t look like they’d be able to retake the crown they’ve lost to Google and Apple.
News comes today however that Microsoft has announced their latest version of their mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8. Unlike Windows Phone 7 which was more of a preview of Windows 8 than anything else WP8 keeps the same aesthetic that’s won them significant praise whilst firmly bringing their mobile platform into the Three Screens vision. WP8 also brings all the other improvements we’ve come to expect from new release such as support for faster phones, bigger screens, NFC and an upgraded browser that. The biggest improvement, from my point of view at least, is that WP8 devices will be running the full WinRT framework essentially elminating the gap between their tablet/ARM devices and their mobile line.
Now this isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before, Apple has long had a similar level of platform ubiquity between their tablet and handset platforms. However WinRT does provide the capability for applications to run on desktops as well, something Apple (or anyone else for that matter) has yet to achieve. Whilst the 3rd screen, the TV, has yet to receive the WinRT treatment from any Microsoft product it would seem to be a safe bet that the next generation Xbox will feature the framework. This is of course wild speculation on my part however Microsoft would be foolish not to take advantage of the foothold they already have in the home entertainment space and I’m sure the people inside Microsoft think in the same way.
Interestingly enough the announcement of Windows Phone 8 comes hot off the heels of another announcement from Microsoft: that of their new Surface tablet. Now this isn’t to be confused with the original Surface table as that’s now been renamed to Microsoft PixelSense. No this tablet is a lining up to be a direct competitor to the iPad having very similar styling and identical use cases. The differences appear to be however that the Surface will come in two versions, one WinRT only and the other a full blown x86 PC. The delineation isn’t made lightly and it’s obvious that the x86 model is going to be aimed more at corporate users who need all their applications and the WinRT version will be meant for the consumers. It looks like a solid product however I can’t help but shake the feeling that it might not be the greatest step forward for Microsoft.
You see whilst Microsoft does need to do something about getting into the tablet space they’ve already done most of the legwork with Windows 8. They already have great relationships with OEMs and this is why you don’t see a whole bunch of Microsoft branded devices around the shop: they make the software and others provide the hardware. Getting into the tablet business means they’re kind of thumbing their nose at the OEMs, especially when each license for Windows 8 will cost them $85. As long as Microsoft makes their tablet a premium price range product though this won’t be so much of an issue but they could really do some damage to their OEM relationships if their tablets debut in the $200~$400 range. Since there’s not a whole bunch of information about it now I’ll have to play wait and see with this one as things could change significantly between now and launch day.
Microsoft’s mobile platform has been taking a battering from every side but with the unification between all of their platforms they might just be able to tempt people away from their Android and iPhone comfort zones. Certainly the unified platform provided by WinRT will be attractive to developers and that will hopefully see more killer applications find their way onto Windows Phone 8. The next year of Windows 8 related releases will be key for Microsoft’s future and will be telling if their vision for platform unification is the direction they need to be heading in.
I’ll be honest the bring your own device movement annoys the hell out of me as an IT administrator. I think this is mostly because the movement starts from higher up, usually when an executive discovers how wonderful it is to read personal email on his iPad and then wants the same thing for work. Queue a rushed, short term project that involves putting in all manner of hacks, poorly documented systems and as of yet unvetted devices being introduced into the network. I guess if you read inbetween the lines on that one I don’t really have a problem with the BYOD movement per se, just the way it’s weaselled its way into the environments I’ve been responsible for.
That being said I’m not one to stand in the way of inevitable change and every day it’s looking more and more like the BYOD movement is something that I’d rather embrace than struggle against. It’s still a nascent movement, with all the associated problems, but thankfully we have many companies that are taking notice of this movement and ensuring that these devices can be integrated seamlessly into corporate environments. The next version of Windows has some provisions in it for supporting BYOD but there’s an interesting delineation between those devices and your traditional corporate computing device.
Windows 8 brings with it a new control panel option that allows users to connect to the corporate network using their email address and a password. Once they’re authenticated their device then downloads a series of approved apps from the corporate network like the one shown in the picture above. You can also provide access to applications in the Microsoft Marketplace through an on-site cache. What’s missing here however is any control over the end device; you can’t enforce things like a password policy or on-device encryption should you use this method. Additionally Windows 8 devices on the ARM architecture are not able to be members of an Active Directory domain, a critical feature for most large enterprises.
What this means is that Microsoft, whilst embracing the BYOD movement with one hand, is drawing a clear line in the sand between where traditional corporate computing resources lie and what untrusted and unvetted have access to. It may seem like an odd line to draw as you’re basically relegating BYOD users to be second class citizens on your network but in reality granting users the ability to control the platform means you can’t trust it in the same way you trust something that’s under your control. This is probably the most happy compromise that Microsoft could come up with and to be honest it’s actually not that bad.
This kind of interoperability between unknown Windows 8 devices and trusted networks provides a lot of opportunities for innovation in the corporate app space. The applications delivered with the initial app package can be highly tailored towards a streamlined user experience, one that could be unique to the user’s requirements. Take for example the HR app, you could have different versions for HR staff, management and end users all available through the access portal. Reworking the interface to be friendly to these (most likely) touch centric devices would go a long way to improving the current state of corporate applications which most users loathe to use.
Microsoft had to draw the line somewhere and realistically I’m surprised at the level of functionality that they’re granting BYOD users. The traditional approach has been to provide a secure container on top of the device and then enabling full access to the corporate environment. Whilst this works in theory Windows 8, especially on ARM devices, was designed with a different user interface paradigm in mind, one that centers around user experience rather than iterating on the current desktop. Corporations will have to embrace this if they want to take BYOD seriously and I believe that those who don’t will have their (rather irate) users to contend with.