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Google’s Digital Garage, hosted by UK City Councils

I have recently moved into a new area and noticed that my (now) local city council was running a Google Digital Garage:

Winchester City Council is very excited to be partnering up with The Digital Garage from Google – a digital skills training platform to assist you in growing your business, career and confidence, online. Furthermore, a Google digital expert is coming to teach you what is needed to gain a competitive advantage in the ever changing digital landscape, so come prepared to learn and ask questions, too.

I went along as a networking opportunity and learn more about Google’s strategy. The speaker was from Google partner Uplift Digital, “founded by Gori Yahaya, a digital and experiential marketer who had spent years working on behalf of Google, training and empowering thousands of SMEs, entrepreneurs, and young people up and down the country to use digital to grow their businesses and further their careers.”

I am not sure “digital garage” was the right name in this instance, as it was essentially a couple of presentations which not much interaction and no hands-on. The first session had three themes:

  • Understanding search
  • Manage your presence on Google
  • Get started with paid advertising

What we got was pretty much the official Google line on search: make sure your site performs well on mobile as well as desktop, use keywords sensibly, and leave the rest to Google’s algorithms. The second topic was mainly about Google’s local business directory called My Business. Part three introduced paid advertising, mainly covering Google AdWords. No mention of click fraud. Be wary of Facebook advertising, we were told, since advertising on Facebook may actually decrease your organic reach, it is rumoured. Don’t bother advertising on Twitter, said the speaker.

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Session two was about other ways to maintain a digital presence, mainly looking at social media, along with a (rather unsatisfactory) introduction to Google Analytics. The idea is to become an online authority in what you do, we were told. Good advice. YouTube is the second most popular search engine, we were told, and we should consider posting videos there. The speaker recommended the iOS app YouTube Director for Business, a free tool which I later discovered is discontinued from 1st December 2017; it is being replaced by Director Onsite which requires you to spend $150 on YouTube advertising in order to post a video.

Overall I thought the speaker did a good job on behalf of Google and there was plenty of common sense in what was presented. It was a Google-centric view of the world which considering that it is, as far as I can tell, entirely funded by Google is not surprising.

As you would also expect, the presentation was weak concerning Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. Facebook in particular seems to be critically important for many small businesses. One lady in the audience said she did not bother with a web site at all since her Facebook presence was already providing as many orders for her cake-making business as she could cope with.

We got a sanitised view of the online world which in reality is a pretty mucky place in many respects.

IT vendors have always been smart about presenting their marketing as training and it is an effective strategy.

The aspect that I find troubling is that this comes hosted and promoted by a publicly funded city council. Of course an independent presentation or a session with involvement from multiple companies with different perspectives would be much preferable; but I imagine the offer of free training and ticking the box for “doing something about digital” is too sweet to resist for hard-pressed councils, and turn a blind eye to Google’s ability to make big profits in the UK while paying little tax.

Google may have learned from Microsoft and its partners who once had great success in providing basic computer training which in reality was all about how to use Microsoft Office, cementing its near-monopoly.

Last thoughts on Windows Phone

Microsoft’s Windows Phone disaster lurched further towards oblivion last week, when Windows boss Terry Myerson emailed employees with the news that “Today I want to share that we are taking the additional step of streamlining our smartphone hardware business, and we anticipate this will impact up to 1,850 jobs worldwide, up to 1,350 of which are in Finland.”

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“Streamlining” is exec-speak for further withdrawal from the mobile phone business.

Microsoft is at times a dysfunctional company and nowhere is this better illustrated than in its mobile devices adventures. The failure of Windows Phone is a self-inflicted wound. Mis-steps include:

  • Aiming the first release of Windows Phone 7, in 2010, at the consumer market despite Windows core strength being in business computers
  • Launching Windows Phone while failing to do the spadework with operators and retailers to ensure that it was actually widely available
  • Using Silverlight as the development platform for Windows Phone and then abandoning Silverlight on Windows and releasing Windows 8 with a different and incompatible development platform
  • Promising that Windows Phone would be updated by Microsoft so users could stay up to date, while in fact leaving this to operators who did not care – this applied until April 2014 when the Developer Preview program kicked off, allowing users to update by signing up as developers, subject to hardware constraints
  • Long dormant periods while Microsoft went through one of its, “let’s pause while we make huge changes that will be great eventually” phases, such as before Windows Phone 8.0 which introduced the NT kernel and before Windows Mobile 10 which introduced the Universal Windows Platform

Despite all the above, the arrival of a former Microsoft executive at Nokia meant that Windows Phone was adopted by a company that actually understood how to develop and market smartphones. Visibility of Windows Phone at retail greatly improved and technology such as Nokia’s PureView photography gave it an edge in some areas. Windows Phone was also strong for turn by turn driving directions with Here maps.

It was an uphill battle against iPhone and Android, and with Microsoft’s too-slow platform development, but Nokia made some impact and built significant market share in certain territories, though in Europe rather than the USA.

Microsoft acquired Nokia’s devices business in 2014, along with CEO Stephen Elop, and it was here that everything went wrong. Specifically:

The transition period along with the coming Windows 10 resulted in not much happening in terms of new phones or announcements

Steve Ballmer was replaced as Microsoft CEO by Satya Nadella, before the acquisition completed. Ballmer had a strong belief in “Windows everywhere” and the importance of Microsoft not conceding the mobile space to competitors. Nadella came from a server background and believes everything will be fine as long as Microsoft’s server and cloud products are strong.

There was no consensus at Microsoft about whether Windows Phone was a key strategic asset or a waste of time and after running around in circles for a bit the inevitable happened: in June 2015 Nadella cut back the Windows Phone staff, cancelled some forthcoming devices, and parted company with Elop, who presumably had no appetite for presiding over the death of the business he had nurtured.

Myerson’s memo still presents the illusion that Windows Phone has some kind of future. “We’re scaling back, but we’re not out!” he writes. However you cannot be a little bit in the mobile phone business any more than you can be a little bit pregnant. The reason, as Elop announced when Nokia chose Windows Phone, is that you need an ecosystem. No, Continuum (the ability to use a phone like a desktop with an external display) is not an ecosystem. Maybe there will be some specialist business cases where a mobile device running Windows meets the need, but it will be a tiny niche.

This is also the reason why June 2015 was really the date that Windows Phone died, at least in public. Once it became obvious that Microsoft no longer believed in its own mobile platform, there was no hope, and sales suffered accordingly.

Could it have been different? Of course. The Nokia acquisition was not necessarily a bad idea: in theory it gave the hardware the backing of Microsoft’s deep pockets and brought to the company the skills that it lacked in how to make and market phones.

The saga has not been pretty to watch. In particular, the destruction of value in acquiring and then disposing of Nokia is distressing, as is the destruction of value in the Windows Phone operating system itself.

I have used a Windows Phone as my main mobile device for several years, and yes, it has a lot going for it. Navigation is easier than on Android or iOS, performance is good, and the integration with social media was for a while excellent. The camera on a Lumia 1020 remains superb. The development platform is strong, with Visual Studio and C#.

The subject of operating system design is another story; but there is another take on this narrative which looks like this:

Old world: Windows 7, Windows Mobile 6

Lurch towards mobile: Windows 8, Windows Phone 7

Lurch back towards desktop: Windows 10, Windows Mobile 10 with Continuum

Windows 10 is not as good as Windows 8.x on tablets, and Windows Mobile 10 is perhaps not as good as Windows Phone 8.x on mobile. I say perhaps because I don’t hate it; but there is a trade-off with performance and touch-friendliness worse while the capability of the operating system and its apps has improved.

In this way of reading Microsoft’s strategy, the death of Windows Phone is a consequence of the unravelling of former Windows boss Steven Sinofsky’s strategy to make Windows a secure and mobile-friendly platform.

The new Microsoft

That is it then; Microsoft is exiting mobile and trusting in server and cloud, plus a large but declining desktop Windows business, plus applications for other people’s mobile platforms. It is a software company after all.

It is too early though to say whether or not Ballmer was wrong and Nadella right in steering away from Windows everywhere. For sure Google will continue to do all it can to push Android users towards its own cloud services. Apple’s is a more open platform in this sense, because the company has no real equivalent to Office 365 or Azure, but Microsoft is vulnerable here as well. There is also Amazon Web Services to think about, the dominant cloud player, with its own offerings for email, cloud database and so on.

Still, this is the new Microsoft; and from a customer perspective there is good news in that both iOS and Android should be well supported for Microsoft’s services, and that Office 365 and Azure have to compete on technical merit, not just on the basis of integrating nicely with Windows.

Microsoft Financials: steady, but a turning point as on-premises server business declines

Microsoft has announced its latest financials, and I have made a quick table summarising the year-on-year comparison for the quarter. See the end of this post for what the confusing segment categories represent.

Quarter ending  March 31st 2016 vs quarter ending March 31st 2015, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 6522 +65 2994 -210
Intelligent Cloud 6096 +193 2188 -345
More Personal Computing 9458 +89 1645 +596
Corporate and Other -1545 -1545 -1544 -1352

A few observations.

Overall the figures are flat. That is not a bad result if you think of Microsoft as a PC company, considering that the PC is in decline; disappointing if you think of Microsoft as a cloud company. The answer is that one is offsetting the other, which is not too bad.

Microsoft says that revenue and income would be up, were it not for currency fluctuations. Of course there is that big hit in “Corporate and other” which is “net revenue deferral related to Windows 10 of $1.6 billion,” according to the earnings statement.

On-premises server business is in retreat. It is not possible to migrate customers to the cloud while at the same time growing on-premises business. That truth finally showed up in Microsoft’s figures. CFO Amy Hood referred to a “larger than expected decline in our transactional on premise server business” in the earnings call.

Margins are not so good in cloud. Selling software license is almost all profit, once you have developed it. Not so with cloud, which requires data centres, networking, and ongoing maintenance. “Our company gross margin percentage declined this quarter driven by our accelerating mix of cloud services in our Intelligent Cloud and Productivity and Business Processes segment offset by higher gross margin percentage performance from products within More Personal Computing,” said Hood.

Office 365 continues to grow. CEO Satya Nadella said that “Commercial Office 365 customers surpassed 70 million monthly active users and we grew seats by 57 percent” year on year. This is key to the company’s health. Customers in Office 365 are hooked to the platform and more likely to buy other services such as Dynamics CRM, Enterprise Mobility Services MDM (Mobile Device Management), or applications hosted on Azure. “Dynamics CRM Online seats more than doubled this quarter with over 80 percent of our new CRM customers deploying in the cloud,” said Nadella.

Windows 10 is being taken up. The nagware is working according to Nadella, who said that “The number of Windows 10 devices is twice that of Windows 7 over the same time period since launch.” Nevertheless I still hear a lot of caution out there, with people advising one another to stick with Windows 7. Windows 10 pushes users more strongly to Microsoft services than 7, with Cortana driven by Bing. “Over 35 percent of our search revenue last month came from Windows 10 devices,” said Nadella.

Windows Phone is dying fast. “For phone we expect year over year revenue declines to deepen in Q4 as we work through our Lumia channel position,” said Hood.

Linux is growing. Nadella made a few comments about SQL Server on Linux and Linux on Azure. Why SQL Server on Linux? “We look at that as an expansion opportunity,” he said. Over 20% of VMs on Azure are Linux, he added. Microsoft made Linux “first class” on Azure in order to be able to host an enterprise’s “entire data estate across Windows and Linux.” People don’t move between operating systems, he said, but “now they have a choice around database.”

I’d add that we are now seeing scenarios where Linux is ahead of Windows on Azure. The new Azure Container service is currently Linux only, for example, though a Windows option is planned.

What Microsoft does with Linux in the coming years will be interesting to see. Office on Linux? Microsoft Android?

A reminder of Microsoft’s segments:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, both commercial and consumer, including retail sales, volume licenses, Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Skype for Business, Skype consumer, OneDrive, Outlook.com. Microsoft Dynamics including Dynamics CRM, Dynamics ERP, both online and on-premises sales.

Intelligent Cloud: Server products not mentioned above, including Windows server, SQL Server, Visual Studio, System Center, as well as Microsoft Azure.

More Personal Computing: What a daft name, more than what? Still, this includes Windows in all its non-server forms, Windows Phone both hardware and licenses, Surface hardware, gaming including Xbox, Xbox Live, and search advertising.

Exploring David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”

“Life on Mars?” has always been a favourite among David Bowie’s songs, and even more so since his death in January. Many have performed it as a tribute, not least by Lorde at the Brits Bowie tribute, Rick Wakeman (the pianist on the original) and Sarah Blasko.

A great song then; but one characteristic it shares with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, another much-loved track, is that the lyrics are fantastically obscure, particularly in the second verse.

It’s a God awful small affair
To the girl with the mousey hair
But her mummy is yelling, "No!"
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is no where to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seats with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a sadd’ning bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors, Fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a sadd’ning bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on

Sailors …

Still, while Queen’s effort may veer towards pomp and nonsense I have nothing but respect for Bowie’s lyrical craftsmanship. I think we will struggle to make perfect narrative sense of the song but nevertheless there may be some insights to be had.

What does Bowie himself have to say about it? The back cover of Hunky Dory, the album from which the song comes, states “Inspired by Frankie”, a reference to Frank Sinatra. The contemporary advertisement for the album adds more handwritten notes on the song, this time “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”

Then there are the notes on the song for the 2008 iSelect compilation:

This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

Another key reference is this interview from around 2002, specifically about the making of “Life on Mars?”

In this interview, Bowie tells the story of how he was asked to write an English lyric for a French song, called Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, "As Usual").

The original song, entitled Pour Moi ("For Me") was written by Gilles Thibaut (lyrics) and Jacques Revaux (music) and offered to singer Claude François. The lyrics and music were adapted by all three, renamed Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, "As Usual"), and the song became a break-up song related to the ending of the relationship between François and the young Eurovision winner France Gall.

Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love, and you can hear a snippet of his version in the interview above, but François rejected his lyrics. (Bowie adds that it was “a godawful lyric. Dreadful).

Comme D’Habitude describes a relationship near is end; he is still in love but they see little of one another as he goes to work before she gets up ("Quietly I leave the house. Everything is grey outside. As usual") and is in bed before she returns. "All alone, I’ll go and lie down in this big cold bed, as usual". They make love but he is "playing at pretending".

Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love. His version is also about a relationship gone sour, but tells the whole story, about a man who is the life and soul of the party ("a fool"), meets a girl, falls in love ("a clown and an angel so much in love"), but the joke "turns stale" and the time when even a fool learns to love becomes a "sour time".

“The next time I heard it, it was My Way by Frank Sinatra,” says Bowie. François had rejected his lyrics, and Paul Anka had come up with My Way.

“I was really pissed off. It should have been my song. So I thought, OK I’ll write my own version. So it’s My Way on Mars,” says Bowie.

“Inspired? It was more revenge.”

"Life on Mars?", while not exactly a relationship song shares with Comme D’Habitude a sense of discontent with life and reflection upon it.

Actually the opening lines do suggest a relationship "a godawful small affair", one that is unacceptable to mum and dad. The girl goes out, like the man in Comme D’Habitude, into a grey and sad world. Her friend (boy or girl?) cannot be found.

Bowie’s song then departs from the script, exploding into a kaleidoscope of images as the mousy-haired girl stares at the cinema screen. Yet this does not rescue her: she sees clearly that the fantasy world of entertainment will do nothing to change the greyness of her world. Mickey Mouse is not a real friend; he grows up "a cow" and whatever that means it is not flattering.

The song becomes surreal as Bowie plays with reality.

The girl is watching the film. The girl is living the film. The girl’s life is a film. The girl, or the narrator, wrote the film. The film is being "writ again" as we are trapped in our humdrum lives. “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”

Is there Life on Mars? Wait a moment, how did Mars get into this song? Bowie is playing with us of course. Let’s look at a few shades of meaning:

2001 A Space Odyssey, part inspiration for Space Oddity, "look at those cavemen go", and note the little quote from Also Sprach Zarathustra as the song fades. The film’s central character goes to Jupiter not Mars, but hey, it’s all space; and like Space Oddity, inner space as much as outer space. Is there life there? Maybe, but it’s pretty desolate.

Life on Mars is a B movie too, cheap sci-fi. It’s escapism but not life, not real life.

Is there life on Mars? is a question of yearning, because there is no life on earth, or it seems that way in our most desolate moments.

Bowie tells us that this kind of interpretation is not too far off. In 1998 he was interviewed by Alan Yentob for the BBC, in a kind of follow-up to Yenton’s earlier documentary Cracked Actor.

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David Bowie telling Alan Yentob about Life on Mars

“She may be an ordinary girl,” says Yentob, “but isn’t she as alienated as any of your other characters?”

“I think she finds herself let down,” Bowie replies. “I think she finds herself disappointed by reality. I think she sees that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality she’s been told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it. It’s very hard to think back to one’s state of mind 25 years ago. I guess I would feel sorry for her now, I think I had empathy with her at the time. That’s probably the difference.”

When asked in the 2002 interview referenced above about whether the song is about alienation, he says:

“A lot of it is. One’s interior kind of isolation as well. It doesn’t just mean one’s social isolation, it can mean how you get in contact with your own feelings. It can be quite personal in that way.

“My subject matter hasn’t really changed over the years. I’m still in a way writing about life on Mars, all these years later. (Laughs). And the man who sold the world … the way that I present songs has changed a lot. And the style for each album has changed considerably. I’ll often try new rhythms and kinds of arrangements. It’s like, I want to keep writing about the same subject but my approach, it’s like I’m trying to get into it, like finding a different door each time I approach that same subject.”

Can we go further, and examine the lyrics with more precision? It is difficult because the song is deliberately surreal; yet there are intriguing connections which may or may not be intended. Is it Lennon (“Power to the People”) or Lenin who is on sale again? Bowie with his love of word play likely intended both meanings.

What about “The workers have struck for fame?” In 1941, there was a famous strike by Disney’s (“Mickey Mouse”) animators. One of their grievances was lack of credit for their work:

"To add insult to injury, the animators weren’t featured in the credits of the film, with all credit going to the owner of the studios himself, Walt Disney."

says this report.

Bowie however did not want to explain everything. Mick Rock, who worked with Bowie on a video for the song, says:

I would not be so presumptuous as to try and put any meaning on it. Certainly David Bowie never has as far as I know. I don’t know what it means. But it means a helluva lot to me, it’s like a poem by Rimbaud, say, what does it mean? Intellectually it is very hard to define. You can only say, I love it.

I would not go so far as Rock; Bowie has given plenty of clues about his intent in writing the song. At the same time, he enjoyed leaving room for the listener’s imagination and participation, referring to the French painter Marcel Duchamp and approving in this interview with Jeremy Paxman:

The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle.

However you look at it though, it is a pretty gloomy lyric. Why do we like it? Well, it is witty, it is evocative, it is mysterious; and the music absolutely soars, complete with unexpected key changes and a near-octave leap from "on" to "Mars". Like all the best music, it takes us out of ourselves to another place and makes our reality a little less grey than it was before.

Thanks to members of the Steve Hoffman Music Forum for assistance with puzzling out this song, and to author Nicholas Pegg for the source of the quote from the Yentob interview, which he also references in his book The Complete David Bowie.

Mobile World Congress 2015 round-up: MediaTek Helio, Samsung Galaxy S6, Boyd smell sensor, Jolla Sailfish 2.0, Alcatel OneTouch devices, ZTE eye scanning, and Ford’s electric bike

Finding time to write everything up is a struggle, so rather than risk not doing so at all, here is a quick-fire reflection on the event.

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Microsoft’s Windows 10 was part of it of course; I’ve covered this in a separate post.

I attended MediaTek’s press event. This Taiwan SoC company announced the Helio X10 64-bit 8-core chip and had some neat imaging demos. Helio is its new brand name. I was impressed with the company’s presentation; it seems to be moving quickly and delivering high-performance chips.

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Alcatel OneTouch showed me its latest range. The IDOL 3 smartphone includes a music mixing app which is good fun.

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There is also a watch of course:

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Despite using Android for its smartphones, Alcatel OneTouch says Android Wear is too heavyweight for its watches.

The Alcatel OneTouch range looks good value but availability in the UK is patchy. I was told in Barcelona that the company will address this with direct sales through its own ecommerce site, though currently this only sells accessories, and trying to get more retail presence as opposed to relying on carrier deals.

I attended Samsung’s launch of the Galaxy S6. Samsung is a special case at MWC. It has the largest exhibits and the biggest press launch (many partners attend too). It is not just about mobile devices but has a significant enterprise pitch with its Knox security piece.

So to the launch, which took place in the huge Centre de Convencions Internacional, unfortunately the other side of Barcelona from most of the other events.

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The S5 was launched at the same venue last year, and while it was not exactly a flop, sales disappointed. Will the S6 fare better?

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It’s a lovely phone, though there are a few things missing compared to the S5: no microSD slot, battery not replaceable, not water resistance. However the S6 is more powerful with its 8-core processor and 1440×2560 screen, vs quad-core and 1920×1080 in the S5. Samsung has also gone for a metal case with tough Gorilla Glass front and back, versus the plastic and glass construction of the S5, and most observers feel this gives a more premium feel to the newer smartphone.

I suspect that these details are unimportant relative to other factors. Samsung wants to compete with the iPhone, but it is hardly possible to do so, given the lock which the Apple brand and ecosystem holds on its customers. Samsung’s problem is that the cost of an excellent smartphone has come down and the perceived added value of a device at over £500 or $650 versus one for half the price is less than it was a couple of years ago. Although these prices get hidden to some extent in carrier deals, they still have an impact.

Of particular note at MWC were the signs that Samsung is falling out with Google. Evidence includes the fact that Samsung Knox, which Google and Samsung announced last year would be rolled into Android, is not in fact part of Android at Work, to the puzzlement of Samsung folk I talked to on the stand. More evidence is that Samsung is bundling Microsoft’s Office 365 with Knox, not what Google wants to see when it is promoting Google Apps.

Google owns Android and intends it to pull users towards its own services; the tension between the company and its largest OEM partner will be interesting to watch.

At MWC I also met with Imagination, which I’ve covered here.

Jolla showed its crowd-sourced tablet running Sailfish OS 2.0, which is based on the abandoned Nokia/Intel project called MeeGo. Most of its 128 employees are ex-Nokia.

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Jolla’s purpose is not so much to sell a tablet and phone, as to kick-start Sailfish which the company hopes will become a “leading digital content and m-commerce platform”. It is targeting government officials, businesses and “privacy-aware consumers”  with what it calls a “security strengthened mobile solution”. Its business model is not based on data collection, says the Jolla presentation, taking a swipe at Google, and it is both independent and European. Sailfish can run many Android apps thanks to Myriad’s Alien Dalvik runtime.

The tablet looks great and the project has merit, but what chance of success? The evidence, as far as I can tell, is that most users do not much object to their data being collected; or put another way, if they do care, it does not much affect their buying or app-using decisions. That means Sailfish will have a hard task winning customers.

China based ZTE is differentiating its smartphones with eye-scanning technology. The Grand S3 smartphone lets you unlock the device with Eyeprint ID, based on a biometric solution from EyeVerify.

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Senior Director Waiman Lam showed me the device. “It uses the retina characteristic of your eyes for authentication,” he said. “We believe eye-scanning technology is one of the most secure biometric ways. There are ways to get around fingerprint. It’s very very secure.”

Talking of sensors, I must also mention San Francisco based Boyd Sense, a startup, which has a smell sensor. I met with CEO Bruno Thuillier. “The idea we have is to bring gas technology to the mobile phone,” he said. Boyd Sense is using technology developed by partner Alpha MOS.

The image below shows a demo in which a prototype sensor is placed into a jar smelling of orange, which is detected and shown on the connected smartphone.

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What is the use of a smell sensor? What we think of as smell is actually the ability to detect tiny quantities of chemicals, so a smell sensor is a gas analyser. “You can measure your environment,” says Thuillier. “Think about air quality. You can measure food safety. You can measure beverage safety. You can also measure your breath and some types of medical condition. There are a lot of applications.”

Not all of these ideas will be implemented immediately. Measuring gas accurately is difficult, and vulnerable to the general environment. “The result depends on humidity, temperature, speed of diffusion, and many other things,” Thuillier told me.

Of course the first thing that comes to mind is testing your breath the morning after a heavy night out, to see if you are safe to drive. “This is not complicated, it is one gas which is ethanol,” says Thuillier. “This I can do easily”.

Analysing multiple gasses is more complex, but necessary for advanced features like detecting medical conditions. Thuillier says more work needs to be done to make this work in a cheap mobile device, rather than the equipment available in a laboratory.

I had always assumed that sampling blood is the best way to get insight into what is happening in your body, but apparently some believe breathe is as good or better, as well as being easier to get at.

For this to succeed, Boyd Sense needs to get the cost of the sensor low enough to appeal to smartphone vendors, and small enough not to spoil the design, as well as working on the analysis software.

It is an interesting idea though, and more innovative than most of what I saw on the MWC floor. Thuillier is hoping to bring something to the consumer market next year.

Finally, one of my favourite items at MWC this year was Ford’s electric bikes.

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Ford showed two powered bicycles at the show, both prototypes and the outcome of an internal competition. The idea, I was told, is that bikes are ideal for the last part of a journey, especially in today’s urban environments where parking is difficult. You can put your destination into an app, get directions to the car park nearest your destination, and then dock your phone to the bike for the handlebar by handlebar directions.

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I also saw a prototype delivery van with three bikes in the back. Aimed at delivery companies, this would let the driver park at a convenient spot for the next three deliveries, and have bikers zip off to drop the parcels.

Microsoft Surface 2: still a hard sell at retail

I am a fan of Microsoft’s Surface 2; but looking at the display at Dixons in Heathrow’s Terminal 3 it is obvious that Microsoft has work to do in terms of retail presence.

There are no clues here as to why anyone might want to buy a Surface, and no indication that Surface 2 runs anything other than standard Windows 8, other than the two letters RT which you can read on the spec summary.

Windows RT is both better and worse than Windows on Intel. It is worse because you cannot install new desktop applications, but it is better because it is locked down and less likely to suffer from viruses or annoying OEM add-ons and customisations that usually result in a worse user experience.

Why did Microsoft not come up with a distinctive brand name for RT, such as AppWindows or StoreWindows or WinBook? I am open to negotiation should Microsoft wish to use one of my brand ideas 🙂

Surface 2 has excellent performance, Microsoft Office is bundled including Outlook (though without the ability to run Visual Basic macros), and it is expandable using Micro SD cards or USB 3.0 devices, all features I miss when using an Apple iPad.

I do use the desktop a lot on Surface 2. Simple applications like Paint and Notepad are useful especially since they have, you know, cool resizable and overlapping windows so you can have multiple applications on view.

The Apple iPad is better displayed and I am sure its greater prominence is more than justified by relative sales.

 

Microsoft financials: nearly a $billion lost on Surface RT but prospering in server and cloud

Microsoft has reported fourth quarter and full year results for its financial year ending June 30th 2013.

I am in the habit of tracking the results quarter by quarter with a simple table:

Quarter ending June 30th 2013 vs quarter ending June 30th 2012, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Profit Change
Client (Windows + Live) 4411 +259 1099 -1323
Server and Tools 5502 +452 2325 +285
Online 804 +69 -372 +6300
Business (Office) 7213 +889 4873 +745
Entertainment and devices 1915 +134 -110 -142

What is notable in the figures? Windows profits are down, not so much due to declining PC sales but rather this:

These financial results include a $900 million charge, or a $0.07 per share impact, related to Surface RT inventory adjustments.

That said, Microsoft reports that after adjusting for deferred revenue, Windows client decreased 6% quarter on quarter and 1% for the full year, so the PC decline is having an impact.

Business, which includes Office, SharePoint and Office 365, is performing well and the company reports $1.5 billion annual revenue for Office 365.

Server and Tools (almost all Server) continues to shine:

Server & Tools revenue grew 9% for the fourth quarter and 9% for the full year, driven by double-digit percentage revenue growth in SQL Server and System Center.

Even Online, which is essentially Bing-related advertising income, is showing signs of life, despite yet another loss:

Online Services Division revenue grew 9% for the fourth quarter and 12% for the full year, driven by an increase in revenue per search and volume. Bing organic U.S. search market share was 17.9% for the month of June 2013, up 230 basis points from the prior year period.

Windows Phone is hidden in Entertainment and Devices, which reported a loss despite $1.9 billion revenue. Microsoft says:

Windows Phone revenue, reflecting patent licensing revenue and sales of Windows Phone licenses, increased $222 million.

This means that Xbox is slightly down but overall revenue slightly up thanks to Windows Phone.

Overall both revenue and profit are a little higher than the previous year.

Losing a billion dollars on Surface RT is careless. Put simply, Microsoft ordered far too many of its experimental new ARM-based version of Windows, at a time when few new-style apps were available. I do not regard this as proof that the entire concept was wrong, though it is a significant mis-step however you spin it. See further post coming shortly.

Make your iPhone a close-up or wide-angle camera with Olloclip

Here’s a gadget I came across at Mobile World Congress earlier this year. The Olloclip is a clip-on supplementary lens for the iPhone or iPod Touch, giving it three new modes: wide-angle, Fisheye, and Macro.

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In the box you get the reversible lens with covers for each end, an adapter clip for the slimmer iPod Touch, and a handy bag.

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The lens clips onto the corner of the iPhone, covering the on/off button. There are different models for the iPhone 4/4S and iPhone 5, which is a drawback. Every time you upgrade to a new iPhone, you will have to buy a new Olloclip, or do without it. You also lose use on the on/off button when the Olloclip is attached.

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Still, that is a small price to pay if you get amazing new photographic capabilities, and to some extent you do. I was particularly impressed by the macro mode. Here is my snap of a coin getting as close as I could quickly manage with the iPhone 4 alone:

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Snap on the Olloclip, and I can capture a world of detail that was previously unavailable.

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I also tried the wide-angle and fisheye modes, both of which work as advertised.

The twist here is that the Olloclip gives your iPhone camera features which your purpose-built compact camera may not have. If you want or need to take the kind of shots which the Olloclip enables, it is a great choice, spoilt a little by the inconvenience of clipping and unclipping the lens.

   

Windows Phone 8 enterprise security versus Blackberry 10 Balance and Samsung Knox

How good is Windows Phone 8 security? Actually, pretty good. The key features are described here [pdf]:

  • Trusted Boot prevents booting to an alternative operating system, using the UEFI secure boot standard.
  • Only signed operating system components and apps can run.
  • App sandboxing:

    No communication channels exist between apps on the phone other than through the cloud. Apps are isolated from each other and cannot access memory used or data stored by other applications, including the keyboard cache.

  • Private internal app distribution by businesses who register with Microsoft
  • Password policies set through Exchange ActiveSync (EAS)
  • Built-in device management client
  • Bitlocker encryption when set by EAS RequireDeviceEncryption policy. AES 128 encryption linked to UEFI Trusted Boot.
  • SD card data is not encrypted, but the OS only allows media files to be stored on SD cards.
  • Information Rights Management can prevent documents being edited, printed, or text copied (other than tricks like photographing the screen).
  • Remote Wipe

The security features in Windows Phone 8 are largely based on those in full Windows, since the core operating system is the same. However, devices are more secure since they are not afflicted by the legacy which makes desktop Windows hard to lock down without damaging usability.

While the above sounds good, note that in most cases a simple PIN will get you access to everything. On the other hand, unless the PIN is seen it is not all that insecure, since you can set policies that lock or wipe the phone after a few wrong attempts.

Does Microsoft therefore have a good story versus Blackberry 10 Balance and Samsung Knox, both of which feature secure containers that isolate business apps and data from personal? The approach is different. In Windows Phone the focus is on the whole device, whereas the other two have the concept of segmentation, letting users do what they like (including installation of games and so on) in one segment, while the business gets to control the other.

Windows Phone does in fact have a somewhat similar feature aimed at children. Kids Corner lets you create a "fun" segment containing specified apps and games, sandboxed from the main operating system. While this is currently designed for children borrowing your phone, you can see how it could be adapted to create a personal/business split if Microsoft chose to do so.

For the time being though, you might worry about the potential for users to install a malicious app or game that manages to exploit a bug in Windows Phone and compromise security.

Even if the business can lock down the device so that users cannot install apps, this impairs the user experience to the extent that most users will want another phone for personal use. The attraction of the Blackberry and Samsung approach is the way it combines user freedom with business security.

Is Microsoft doing a good job of articulating the enterprise features of Windows Phone 8? That is a hard question to answer; but my observation is that Nokia, the main Windows Phone vendor, seems to focus more on consumer features like the camera and music, or general features like maps and turn by turn navigation. Enterprise features are hardly mentioned on the Nokia stand here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, while Microsoft does not have a stand at all. On the other hand, you would think that the company’s strong partner ecosystem would be effective in communicating the presence of these features to enterprises.