Reflecting on 2013: the year of not the PC, no privacy, and the Internet of Things

In last year’s review I wrote “Android up, Apple down, Microsoft so near, so far”. Same again? The headline still rings true, though I would not write “Apple down” today. Android ended Apple’s chance of world domination in mobile, but the company continues to thrive. In some markets Apple is almost the only company that matters. Earlier this month I interviewed Gregor Lawson, the co-founder of Morphsuits, for the Guardian web site. Lawson told me about the company’s mobile app, which he regards as strategically important; it is a free app used for marketing. I did not have space to include this snippet, when I asked him whether he had plans to support Windows Phone alongside Apple iOS and Google Android:

“Oh no. We could almost get away without doing Android. For the business that we track, we have about 80% iOS.”

Simple market share figures do not tell you that. It is a matter of context.

So what did happen in 2013? Here are some headlines.

The year of not the PC

You can safely predict that 2014 will be another year of “The PC is dead” “Oh no it isn’t” exchanges, providing technical commentators with an enduring topic. The PC is not dead; it runs most businesses, it is still the best tool for Office-style productivity, it is an excellent games machine, and a fine open platform for running whatever you want. Its decline is unmistakeable though; for people who can do most of what they need on a tablet, a tablet is a better choice, removing many of the hassles associated with PC ownership and offering portability that a laptop cannot match. Sales figures show that trend and 2013 will be another year of decline for PCs and laptops.

Might that tablet run Windows 8? I will say some more about this in the Microsoft-specific section below; but in summary, there was not sign in 2013 of Windows encroaching in any meaningful way on the iOS/Android tablet market.

The shift away from the desktop is huge for the industry. It continues a trend towards cloud and device which has been obvious for several years, but of which people are now more conscious.

BlackBerry dwindles

I dug out my BlackBerry Playbook (launched in 2011) during my Christmas clear-out. It is a nice little tablet – and the QNX embedded OS on which it is based is great – but it failed in the market for all sorts of reasons, the chief one being that it is neither iOS nor Android. 2013 was the launch year for smartphones running BlackBerry 10 (also QNX based), the Z10 and the Q10, but sales have been equally disappointing. It is a shame as the company did many things right: the operating system is good, the developer evangelism and support before the launch was strong, and the handsets in my brief looks are worthy contenders; but the barriers in front of any company trying to launch a new mobile OS have so far proved too great. Those barriers are to do with app ecosystem, the de-facto lock-in among users who have already purchased apps for their current smartphone and want to carry them over, operator support and marketing, retail support and marketing, and the difficulty of competing against Apple, Google, Nokia and Microsoft. Enterprise security was meant to be the USP for BB10 devices, but there are strong mobile device management solutions for other platforms; in fact, the current wisdom is that BES 10, the BlackBerry mobile device management software which also supports iOS and Android, may now be the future of the company.

The year of no privacy

Humans are not logical creatures, which is the only way to make sense of the no-privacy story of 2013. There are two key sides to this.

One is Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing over the data capture practised by his former employer the NSA (National Security Agency), which according to his reports goes beyond what the public imagines that national security agencies do and caused much consternation and indignation around the world.

The other is the increasing amount of data captured for marketing purposes by Google, mobile operators, internet advertisers, retailers online and offline, and others, about which the public cares very little as far as I can tell. The question is: how much data are we willing to hand over in return for free services, and the answer seems to be, pretty much everything. One or two individuals care about this – Aral Balkan for example – but it is not an issue for most of the public.

I am one who is concerned about this, because data is power, and it strikes me as dangerous to put so much power in the hands of a few large corporations, which are only lightly regulated. How much it really matters is open to debate; we are sailing into the unknown.

Turning this around for a moment, for many businesses the ability to make intelligent use of what has become known as “big data” is now critical.

Wearable computing on the rise

A nod here to wearable computing, with the big story being the previews of Google Glass, embedded Android with camera, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi which is clipped to the side of your head and responds to voice control. It may or may not succeed in the market, and makes another bullet point for the Year of No Privacy, but it is a fascinating experiment with huge potential.

It is not just Google Glass. Devices like fitbit and Nike+ FuelBand monitor our movements for the purpose of fitness tracking and will become commonplace – more data, more possibilities, less privacy. Privacy aside, there is no doubting the potential of such devices to improve health, not only by encouraging exercise, but moving on into things like early warning of heart problems and better data on the effectiveness of different treatments.

The Internet of Things

Wearable computing is one facet of a wider field called the Internet of Things (IoT). I was fortunate to attend ThingMonk, a London event organised by analyst company RedMonk, which gave me several insights. 


Claire Rowland at talks UX for IoT at ThingMonk, next to an internet-connected coffee machine.

One is that IoT will change our lives, mostly in a good way. Ubiquitous small wi-fi enabled computers will get everywhere, talk to sensors, and connect with web services to make our lives mostly better. Home appliances will report service requirements to engineers before we know, moving maps on our SmartPhone will show where our bus has got to, luggage will phone home, and so on.

For businesses, IoT ability will be an important product differentiator, initially at the high end, but increasingly throughout the market in some sectors; motor vehicles is an example.

At the same time, it was evident from ThingMonk that the IoT world is full of ideas not all of which are practical and plenty of mistakes will be made.

It was also evident that lack of standards will hold back the IoT. Vendors will each prefer to use unpublished APIs and proprietary protocols, to protect their business, even though open standards and published APIs would enable more innovation and be a public benefit.

Microsoft in transition

2013 was the year Microsoft lost a CEO (Steve Ballmer announced his retirement) but failed to gain one (no successor has yet been announced). It is a difficult appointment: does Microsoft need an outsider with new ideas, or simply an insider with the ability to execute on the strategy that is already in place? My view is that the latter is likely to work out better. Oddly, the company announced strong financials despite the decline of the PC, which is why regard the tendency of the media to equate the decline of the Windows client with the decline of Microsoft puzzling at times.

Growth areas in the last set of figures were own-brand hardware (Xbox and Surface), server and tools, and cloud services including Office 365 and Azure.

It is possible that 2014 will be the year when Microsoft unveils a dreadful set of figures but I have been waiting for this a long time.

Nevertheless, Microsoft’s traditional software business is under threat, not only from PC decline but also from cloud computing. Weakness in mobile might help competitors (especially Google) promote rival cloud services.

Microsoft also needs to up its game in quality and performance. Bugs in SkyDrive on Windows 8.1 cost me data this year. I edited an article, saved it to SkyDrive, attached it to an email, but the recipient got an old version. It is extraordinary that Microsoft has yet to get sync right after so many years of trying. Another annoyance is the slowness of Microsoft web properties at times, including Bing.

As always, this will be a fascinating company to watch in 2013.

  • Can Microsoft continue to do whatever Nokia was doing right with Windows Phone, so that market share grows?
  • Will the Windows 8 “Metro” platform build some real momentum as market penetration improves?
  • What will the promised unification of phone and tablet platforms look like for developers?
  • How will Xbox One fare against PlayStation 4, given its higher price and lesser graphics power, but greater innovation with Kinect 2 and voice control?
  • At what point does growth in cloud computing mean that growth in on-premise server licenses will stall?

Twitter, Google, Facebook free services get worse

Twitter got worse in 2013. More sponsored posts and the appearance of inline images on the web site mean that for me the appeal of the controlled, short-form feed which made Twitter great has been diluted. Google search got worse in 2013, with more ads and more brand-driven results, and its insistence on putting Google+ at the centre of its services became an annoyance. Facebook too is increasingly commercial.

These are businesses after all. Overall though, it seemed that the web got more proprietary in 2013.

Social media: the good and the bad

During much of 2013 I edited a section on the Guardian web site focused on social media marketing. The opportunity to talk to many experts in the field has been illuminating. Social media is not a short-term fashion; rather, it has changed the way we interact with each other and made it richer and more public. It is also changing marketing, and not just marketing, but the way businesses engage with their customers and potential customers.

Speaking for myself, user reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor and Amazon are now a significant influence on my purchasing decisions. Despite the fact that such platforms are gamed by vendors, overall I believe I am making better decisions as a result. Whether or not I am right about that, the influence is real.

The positive aspect of social media is the opportunity it presents for businesses to be better informed and more responsive to customer needs, and the increasing power of customer opinion to influence others, resulting in better products and more responsible behaviour.

Negatively though, social media marketing means that our public interactions with friends are now invaded by brands looking for a marketing opportunity, enabled by social media platforms which are monetized by selling our personal data (though hopefully anonymized) and access to our social media feeds. When that vendor interaction is shallow and one-sided, it leaves a sour taste.

The good outweighs the bad in my opinion, though see again the note above on the Year of No Privacy.

Personal hopes for 2014

A few personal hopes for me to review this time next year:

  • A redesigned, probably on a new cloud platform, as time and funds allow
  • A converged device that works for me, so a smartphone can be good enough (for my specialised purposes) as phone, camera and recording device
  • Complete my Windows 8 game; I am working on it and will write up the experience in due course!

Happy New Year!

Something Microsoft has never fixed: why Windows is slow to start up

One of the most common complaints I hear about Windows is that it is slow to start up. Everything is fine when a machine is new (especially if it is a clean install or purchased from a Microsoft store, and therefore free from foistware), but as time goes on it gets slower and slower. Even a fast PC with lots of RAM does not fix it. Slow boot is one of many factors behind the drift away from PCs to tablets, and to some extent Macs.


As far as I can tell, the main reason PCs become slow to start is one that has been around since DOS days. Some may recall fussing about TSR – Terminate and Stay Resident – applications that would run at startup and stay in memory, possibly causing other applications to fail. Windows today is generally stable, but it is applications that run at startup that cause your PC to start slowly, as well as having some impact on performance later.

I install lots of software for testing so I suffer from this myself. This morning I took a look at what is slowing down my desktop PC. You can view them easily in Windows 8, in Task Manager – Startup tab. A few of the culprits:

  • Adobe: too much stuff, including Service Manager for Creative Suite, Creative Cloud connection, Acrobat utilities
  • Intel Desktop utilities – monitors motherboard sensors
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology – monitors on-board RAID
  • Sync applications including SkyDrive, Dropbox, SkyDrive Pro (Groove.exe)
  • Seagate Desktop, manage your Seagate NAS (network attached storage)
  • Google stuff: Google Music Manager, Google update, some Chrome updater
  • Plantronics headset updater
  • Realtek HD Audio Manager
  • Fitbit Connect client
  • SpotifyWebHelper
  • Microsoft Zune auto-launcher
  • Microsoft Lync, famously slow to start up and connect
  • Roccat Gaming mouse settings manager
  • Flexera “Common software manager” (InstallShield updater)

Many of these applications run in order to install a notification app – these are the things that run at bottom right, in the notification area of the taskbar. Some apps install their own schedulers, like the Seagate app which lets you schedule backup tasks. Some apps are there simply to check for updates and inform you of new versions.

You can speed up Windows startup by going through case by case and disabling startup items that you do not need. Here is a useful guide. It is an unsatisfactory business though. Users have no easy way to judge whether or not a specific app is doing an important or useful task. You might break something. When you next update the application, the startup app may reappear. It is a mess.

Microsoft should have addressed this problem aggressively, years ago. It did put great effort into making Windows boot faster, but never focussed on the harder task of bringing third-parties into line. A few points:

  • If Windows had a proper notification service, many of these apps would not need to exist. In Windows 8, it does, but that is little help since most applications need to support Windows 7 and even in many cases Windows XP.
  • The notification area should be reserved for high priority applications that need to make users aware of their status at all times. The network connection icon is a good case. Printer ink levels are a bad case, aside from reminding us of the iniquity of printer vendors selling tiny ink cartridges at profiteering prices. In all cases it should be easy to stop the notification app from running via a right-click preference. The Windows 7 idea of hiding the notification icons is counter-productive: it disguises the problem but does not fix it, therefore making it worse. I always set Windows to show all notifications.
  • Many tasks should be done on application startup, not on Windows startup. Then it is under the user’s control, and if the user never or rarely runs the application, no resources are grabbed. Why do I need to know about an update, if I am not running the application? Have the application check for updates each time it runs instead.
  • It is misguided to run a process on start-up in order to speed up the first launch of the application. It may not be needed.
  • If a background process is needed, such as for synchronisation services, why not use a Windows Service, which is designed for this?
  • Windows has a scheduler built in. It works. Why write your own?

Of course it is too late now for desktop Windows. Microsoft did rethink the matter for the “Metro” personality in Windows 8, which is one reason why Windows RT is such a pleasure to use. Apple does not allow apps to run on startup in iOS, though you can have apps respond to push notifications, and that strikes me as the best approach.

Update: I should mention a feature of Windows 8 called Fast Boot (I was reminded of this by a commenter – thanks Danny). Fast Boot does a hybrid shutdown and hibernation:

Essentially a Windows 8 shutdown consists of logging off all users and then hibernating.

This is almost another subject, though relevant. Microsoft has for years sought to address the problem of slow boot by designing Windows never to switch off. There are two basic approaches:

Sleep: the computer is still on, applications are in memory, but in a low power state with screen and hard drives off.

Hibernation: the computer writes the contents of its memory to disk storage, then powers off. On startup, it reads back the memory and resumes.

My own experience is that Sleep does not work reliably long-term. It sometimes works, but sooner or later it will fail to resume and you may lose data. Another issue on portables is that the “low-power state” is not as low power as it should be, and your battery drains. These factors have persuaded me to shut down rather than sleep.

My experience of hibernation is better, though not perfect. It usually works, but occasionally fails and again you lose data.

Fast boot is a clever solution that works for some, but it is a workaround that does not address the real issue which I have outlined above: third-party and Microsoft applications that insist on automatic start-up.

Do you miss manuals? Why and why not …

It’s that time of year. I keep more than I should, but now and again you have to clear things out. I don’t promise to dispose of all of these though: they remind me of another era, when software came in huge boxes packed with books.


If you purchased Microsoft Office, for example, you would get a guide describing every feature, as well as an Excel formula reference, a Visual Basic reference and so on.

If you purchased a development tool, you would get a complete language reference plus a guide to the IDE plus a developer guide.

The books that got most use in my experience were the references – convenient to work on a screen while using a book as reference, especially in the days before multiple displays – and the developer guides. You did not have to go the way the programmer’s guide suggested, but it did give you a clue about how the creators of the language or tool intended that it should be used.

Quality varied of course, but in Microsoft’s case the standard was high. When something new arrived, you could learn a lot by sitting down with just the books for a few hours.

What happened to manuals? Cost was one consideration, especially as many were never opened, being duplicates of what you had already. Obsolescence went deeper than that though. Manuals were always out of date before they printed, especially when update distribution was a download rather than a disk sent out by support (which means from the nineties onward).

Even without the internet, manuals would have died. Online help is cheaper to distribute and integrates with software – press F1 for help.

Then add the power of the web. Today’s references are online and have user comments. Further, the web is a vast knowledgebase which, while not wholly reliable, is far more productive than leafing through pages and pages trying to find the solution to some problem that might not even be referenced. In many cases you could post a question to StackOverflow and get an answer more quickly.

Software has bloated too. I am not sure what a full printed documentation set for Visual Studio 2013 would look like, but it would likely fill a bookshelf if not a room.

When software companies stopped sending out printed manuals, the same books were produced as online (that is, local, but disk-based) help. Then as the web took over more help went to the web, and F1 would either open the web browser or use a help viewer that displayed web content. There are still options for downloading help locally in many development tools.

Nothing to miss then? I am not so sure. It strikes me that the requirement to deliver comprehensive documentation was a valuable discipline. I wonder how many bugs were fixed because the documentation team raised a query about something that did not seem to work right or make sense?

Another inevitable problem is that since documentation no longer has to be in the box (or in the download), some software is delivered without adequate documentation. You are meant to figure it out via videos, blog posts, online forums, searches and questions.

A good documentation team takes the side of the user – whether end user, developer, or system administrator, depending on context. They write the guide by trying things out, and goad the internal developers to supply the information on what does and does not work as necessary. That can still happen today; but without the constraint of having to get books prepared it often does not.

Microsoft Project Siena: another go at the spirit of Visual Basic

Remember Visual Basic? By which I mean, not the current language that is a case-insensitive alternative to C# that does much the same thing, but the original rapid app development tool that democratised Windows development back in 1991. At the time, Windows development was a sought-after skill but rather difficult. VB meant anyone could create an application; pros could build excellent ones, amateurs something ugly and unmaintainable, but nevertheless something that worked. The transition to .NET brought many benefits, but also more complexity. The latest evolution of the Windows client, the Windows Runtime, is also challenging to get right (I am currently writing a simple C# game on the platform).

Microsoft has been looking for a new “VB” for years. 2007: Popfly (now abandoned). 2011: Lightswitch. Now we have Project Siena.


Siena is an app for building apps. An app is a Siena document with a .siena extension. Here is what Microsoft’s Bryan Group says:

Microsoft Project Siena (code name) is the beta release of a new technology for business experts, business analysts, consultants, and other app imagineers. Now, without any programming, you can create powerful apps for the device-first and cloud-connected world, with the potential to transform today’s business processes.

Building Siena apps is as easy as editing a document. Place some visuals on a canvas. Hook them up to your data. Customize how your app looks and works. Then, if you need special logic and intelligence, write Excel-like expressions. You can use your app immediately, or share it with colleagues or the world.

This sounds great to me. I installed it and set about building an app. I decided to create the same app I have used to try out dozens of programming tools over the years: a to-do list with the ability to add and remove tasks


Building the user interface went OK, but how do I add and remove items from the list? I have got as far as figuring out that I need to type the right magic into the OnSelect property of a button:


I will let you know when I have worked out what to do next. I will observe that the environment is geared towards data binding, rather than directly updating the user interface, and remote data, such as binding to tables in Azure Mobile Services, a REST API, an RSS feed or a SharePoint list. However you can also bind to an Excel spreadsheet for local data.

Unfortunately there is no “Run” button. You can preview your Siena app by pressing F5 or tapping the Run button in the top app bar.

To deploy your Siena app, you hit Publish:


This creates a package of files, including InstallApp.exe. Siena generates HTML and JavaScript so you can learn a lot about the environment by poking around in the generated files.


Run InstallApp.exe and the app installs into your local PC. Mine runs fine, it just does not work yet.

Siena, as is usual for this type of release, suffers from lack of documentation. There is a function reference and a few sketchy help topics. There are also some sample apps. Here is what the Personnel Manager has in the OnSelect of its Add button; perhaps this is a clue:

UpdateIf(Assoc,ID = ThisItem!ID,{AssignedTo:SelectedDepartment, Time:Now()}); RemoveIf(SelectedAssociates, ID = ThisItem!ID)

While it is great to have a genuinely easy visual interface builder, the development features of Visual Studio are greatly missed; the code editor as far as I can tell is limited to a single line in a text input field, though you do get a squiggly underline if you do it wrong, and a bit of code completion.

How is the average “business expert, business analyst, consultant, and other app imagineer” going to get on with Project Siena? That is the question; and in the current preview I’d guess they will be flummoxed and go straight back to Excel or Access, though I would love to be proved wrong.

It looks like a lot of work has gone into this though, and no doubt better documentation and enhanced features are on the way.

2013: the web gets more proprietary. So do operating systems, mobile, everything

There may yet be an ITWriting review of the year; but in the meantime, the trend that has struck me most this year has been the steady march of permission-based, fee-charged technology during the course of the year, even though it has continued trends that were already established.

The decline of Windows and rise of iOS and Android is a great win for Unix-like operating systems over Microsoft’s proprietary Windows; but how do you get apps onto the new mobile platforms? In general, you have to go through an app store and pay a fee to Apple or Google (or maybe Amazon) for the privilege of deployment, unless you are happy to give away your app. Of course there are ways round that through jailbreaks of various kinds, but in the mainstream it is app stores or nothing.

The desktop/laptop model may be an inferior experience for users, but it is more open, in that vendors can sell software to users without paying a fee to the operating system vendor.

Microsoft though is doing its best to drive Windows down the same path. Windows Phone uses the app store model, and so does the “Metro” personality in Windows 8 – hence the name, “Windows Store apps”.

What about the free and open internet? That too is becoming more proprietary. Of course there is still nothing to stop you putting up a web site and handing out the URL; but that is not, in general, how people navigate to sites. Rather, they enter terms into a search engine, and if the search engine does not list your site near the top, you get few visitors.

In this context, I was fascinated by remarks made by Morphsuits co-founder Gregor Lawson in an interview I did for the Guardian web site. His business makes party costumes and benefits from a strong trademarked brand name. Yet he finds that he has to pay for Google ads simply to ensure that a user who types “morphsuits” into a search engine finds his site:

Yes, it is galling, it really is galling," he says. "We are top of the organic search, but we also have to pay. The reason is that some people like organic, some people like to click on ads. Google, in their infinite wisdom, are giving more and more space to the ads because they get money for the ads. So I have to pay to be in it.

It is also worth noting that when you click a link on Google, whether it is a search result or an ad, it is not a direct link to the target site. Rather, it is a link which redirects to that site after storing a database record that you clicked that link. If you are logged into Google then the search giant knows who you are; if you are not logged in, it probably knows anyway thanks to cookies, IP numbers or other tracking techniques. It does this in order to serve you more relevant ads and make more money.

Of course there are other ways to drive traffic, such as posting on Facebook or Twitter – two more proprietary platforms. As this internet properties grow and become more powerful, they change the rules in their favour (which they are entitled to do) but it does raise the question of how this story will play out over time.

For example, Lawson complains in the same interview that if he posts a message on Facebook, it will not be seen by the majority of Morphsuits fans even though they have chosen to like his Facebook page. Only if he pays for a promoted post can he reach those fans.

The power of Facebook must not be understated. One comment I heard recently is that mobile users on average now spend more time in Facebook than browsing the web and by some margin.

Twitter is better in this respect, though there as well the platform is changing, with APIs withdrawn or metered, for example, to drive users to official Twitter clients or the web site so that the user experience is controlled, ads can be delivered and so on.

These are observations, not value judgements. Users appreciate the free services they get from platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter, and are happy to give up some freedom and share some personal data in return.

The question I suppose is how much power we are ceding to these corporations, who have the ability to make or break businesses and to favour their own businesses at the expense of others, and the potential abuse of that power at some future date.

I appreciate that most people do not seem to care much about these issues, and perhaps they are right not to care. I will give a shout out though to Aral Balkan who is aware of the issues and who created indiephone as a possible answer – an endeavour that has only small chance of success but which is at least worth noting.

Meanwhile, I expect the web, and mobile, and operating systems, to get even more proprietary in 2014 – for better or worse.

What next for Windows as Microsoft announces Build 2014?

Microsoft has announced Build 2014, its premier developer conference for Windows, April 2-4 in San Francisco.


In his blog post on the subject, developer evangelist Steve Guggenheimer mentions the Windows 8 app platform and Xbox One, and promises that Microsoft will talk about “what’s next for Windows, Windows Phone, Windows Azure, Windows Server, Visual Studio and much more.”

How is the buzz around Microsoft right now? Here are a few things that are not so good:

  • The Windows 8 app platform continues to struggle, despite picking up slightly from its dismal launch. Most of the conversation I hear around Windows 8 looks back to Windows 7 rather than forward to the new tablet platform: will the Start menu return?
  • The decline of the PC remains in full flow, while the non-Windows mobile platforms iOS and Android continue to grow
  • Xbox One, with its focus on Kinect and family entertainment, is falling behind Sony’s PlayStation 4 in terms of which console is most desired. Sony’s cheaper price and higher resolution on games like Call of Duty Ghosts make it a better for buy for gamers who can live without Kinect

On the other hand, a few positives:

  • Microsoft’s cloud platforms Office 365 and Windows Azure are growing fast, as far as I can tell
  • Server 2012 R2 is a solid upgrade to an already strong server product, and Hyper-V is making progress versus VMWare in virtualisation
  • Windows Phone 8 is making some progress in market share, though whether it will cross the point at which it becomes important enough for companies with apps to feel they have to support it remains an open question (currently they mostly do not)

What does that mean for Build? We may of course just see more of the same: improvements to Windows 8.x, further convergence with Windows Phone and Xbox platforms, new features for Windows Server and Azure, early previews of the next Visual Studio to support the new stuff.

I wonder though whether we may also see some new directions. Microsoft is supporting Xamarin for cross-platform mobile development and it would not surprise me to see more being made of this, or possibly some new approaches, to promote the use of Microsoft’s cloud services behind apps that run on iOS and Android.

Microsoft still intends for Windows 8/Windows Phone to be a major mobile platform alongside iOS and Android but its progress in reaching that point is slow. The task of building its cloud platform seems to be going better, despite competition from the likes of Amazon and Google, and in this context deep integration with the Windows client could be as much a liability as an advantage.

It may seem perverse; but it could pay Microsoft to focus on improving how well its server offerings (and Office) work with iOS and Android, rather than pushing for Windows everywhere as it has done in the past.

Google Compute Engine: good enough to take on Amazon?

A week ago, Google make its Compute Engine generally available. The service offers virtual machine instances as a cloud service, at prices from $0.114 per hour for a single-core VM with 3.75 GB RAM. In addition, you pay for outgoing network traffic and persistent storage. Reflecting the shortage of IP addresses, a static IP costs $0.01 per hour – but only if it is not in use. Linux is the only available operating system.

The service seems similar to Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), but there are a couple of reasons why Google has the potential to take on Amazon. One is that it has the scale: just as Amazon, prior to the launch of EC2, had datacenters already in place to run its ecommerce business, Google has them to run its search and advertising business, as well as services like the Android Play Store, Google Mail, Docs and other cloud services.

Second, Google can afford Amazon-like commodity pricing. It could even afford to lose money on cloud hosting for an extended period, thanks to its dominance in web advertising, if it needed to do so in order to win market share (though I am not suggesting that it is in that position).

Why though would anyone use Google rather than Amazon? A post on Quora highlights some of the reasons, including sub-hour billing, live migration of VMs (no downtime), persistent disks that can be mounted read-only by multiple VMs, more integrated virtual networking, and better network throughput. This last point is interesting: the suggestion is that Google can use its own private connections between datacenters, where Amazon is more dependent on the public internet.

Amazon also has advantages, including a larger portfolio of cloud computing infrastructure services thanks to its greater maturity. Unlike Google Compute Engine, Amazon supports Windows VMs, for example.

Some large customers will want to spread VMs across multiple cloud providers for resilience, and it will not surprise me if Amazon plus Google becomes a popular combination.

Toshiba ships DVD media with laptop without DVD drive

One day you will be able to buy a Windows device and have a smooth and delightful experience getting started.

To be fair, something like a Surface tablet can give offer a reasonable experience if you are lucky.

Not so a Toshiba Portege Z930 ultrabook – at least, not if you buy one with Windows 7 pre-installed, and want to run Windows 8, as a contact of mine has just done.

Why would you not buy one with Windows 8 pre-installed instead? With hindsight, that is what I would recommend; but since it says on the box, “This system is pre-installed with Windows 7 Pro software and also comes with a license and media for Windows 8 Pro software,” he did not think it much mattered.

The problem: The Z930 has no optical drive, but Windows 8 is supplied in the form of two recovery DVDs.


I thought that was pretty silly, but luckily I know all the tricks about creating a bootable USB drive from a DVD. I even spotted the note in the box that instructs you to go into the BIOS and change it from CSM Boot to UEFI Boot.

No go. It would not boot from the USB drive in UEFI mode, and in CSM mode (which is also meant to work for Windows 8, with a few limitations) it boots, starts a Toshiba recovery wizard, and then bombs out.

I spoke to support. The first thing they told me, unprompted, was to make Windows 7 recovery disks, since not everyone likes Windows 8.

Next, the support guy was surprised that a model without a DVD drive ships with DVDs. Had the machine been tampered with? Then he looked it up, and admitted that they are all like that.

After a little more investigation, he said there is no way it will work from a bootable USB drive, because it is coded to look for the DVD. The only way is to buy an external DVD drive and attach it via USB.

The behaviour began to make sense to me. The scripts must be hard-coded to look on the optical drive for the files. I’d guess you can fix it by modifying the scripts if you know where to look, but life is too short and I went out and bought a DVD drive.

Smooth after that? Not brilliant. Recover Windows 8, go to Store for Windows 8.1, remember that you have to apply updates before it appears, apply 80 Windows updates, remove McAfee trialware and a few other unwanted applications, back to Store, do large Windows 8.1 download, and done.

In an era where usability is king, it is remarkable that Toshiba thinks that shipping DVDs with a computer that cannot read them is a smart thing to do. That said, I have a few more observations.

  • If you got a product key for Windows 8 and could download the media from Microsoft, that would work. But OEM Windows 8 is now pre-pidded so you don’t get a key.
  • If Microsoft were not still making so much money from businesses paying for Windows licenses, it could give Windows away and offer users a more Apple-like upgrade experience.
  • If Microsoft had not come out with a Windows upgrade which many of its customers do not like, companies like Toshiba would not be selling so many laptops with Windows 7 pre-installed.

As for the Z930, it is a lovely light, fast laptop if you do not need touch. But when will Windows OEMs, and to some extent Microsoft itself, learn the importance of out-of-the-box user experience?

Qobuz lossless streaming and hi-res downloads available in the UK

The French music streaming and download service Qobuz went live in the UK this month.

Qobuz has some distinctive characteristics. One is that unlike most music services (including Apple iTunes, Amazon MP3, Spotify and Xbox Music) Qobuz offers an option for uncompressed music both for streaming and download. For streaming, you can choose 16/44 CD quality, while downloads are available up to 24 bits/176.4 kHz.

High resolutions like 24/176 appeal to audiophiles even though the audible benefit from them as a music delivery format may be hard to discern. See 24/192 Music Downloads … and why they make no sense. Getting true uncompressed CD quality is easier to defend; while it may still be hard to distinguish from MP3 at a high bitrate, at least it removes any anxiety that perhaps you may be missing the last degree of fidelity.

Despite the technical doubts, better-than-CD downloads may still be worth it, if they have a superior mastering or come from a better source. This seems to be the case for some of the selections on HDtracks, for example.

One complaint I have heard about some sites offering high resolution downloads is that some of the offerings are not what they appear to be, and may be upsampled from a lower resolution. This is the audio equivalent of padding a parcel with bubblewrap, and strikes me as bad practice even if you cannot hear the difference. Qobuz says it does no such thing:

Les albums vendus par Qobuz en qualité “Qobuz Studio Masters” nous sont fournis par les labels directement. Ils ne sont pas ré-encodés depuis des SACD et nous garantissons leur provenance directe. Nous nous interdisons, pour faire grossir plus vite cette offre, les tripatouillages suspects.

which roughly translates to

The albums sold by Qobuz ‘Qobuz Studio Masters’ are provided directly by the labels. They are not re-encoded from the SACD and we guarantee their direct origin. We refuse to accelerate the growth of our catalogue by accepting suspicious upsamples.

It strikes me as odd that Qobuz insist that their hi-res downloads are “not re-encoded from SACD” but that its highest resolution is 24/176.4 which is what you get if you convert an SACD to PCM, rather than 24/192 which is the logical format for audio captured directly to PCM.

Qobuz has mobile apps for Android and iOS, but not Windows Phone. There is a Windows 8 store app, but I could not find it, perhaps for regional reasons. There is also integration with Sonos home streaming equipment.

I had a quick look and signed up for a 7-day trial. If I want to subscribe, a Premium subscription (MP3) costs £9.99 per month, and a Hi-Fi subscription (16/44) is £19.99 per month.

Navigating the Qobuz site and applications is entertaining, and I was bounced regularly between UK and French sites, sometimes encountering other languages such as Dutch.

I installed the Windows desktop app is fine when it works, though a few searches seems to make it crash on my system. I soon found gaps in the selection available too. Most of David Bowie’s catalogue is missing, so too Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. You will not go short of music though; there are hundreds of thousands of tracks.


I also tried downloading. I installed the downloader, despite a confusing link in English and French that said “you are going to install the version for Macintosh.”


The downloader quietly downloads your selections in the background, just as well for those large 24/176 selections.


If you hate the idea of lossy compression, or want high-resolution downloads, Qobuz is worth a look. It would be good though if the site were less confusing for English users.

You can subscribe to Qobuz here.

Will Microsoft scrap Windows RT? Here’s why it might not matter

At the UBS Global Technology Conference (aimed at investors, since UBS is an investment bank), Windows Executive Vice President Julie Larson-Green was interviewed about the future of Windows, and Microsoft has helpfully posted the audio and full transcript.

Larson-Green was asked about the viability of the “dual track” for Windows, or put another way, does Windows RT have a future?

I will interject an anecdote here. A neighbour came to me this weekend with a Windows XP laptop. Internet Explorer 8 no longer worked, and as no other web browser was installed, she could no longer get to the web on that machine. Microsoft has advice on reinstalling IE8; you re-run setup. We downloaded the setup from another machine and re-ran setup. It made no difference.

The only clue was an icon in the notification area for secure search. What was it? My neighbour did not know. She mentioned that she had been offered a free backup service and had started installing it. The service informed her that her backup was too large and she would have to pay. She thought she had cancelled and uninstalled it successfully, but maybe this toolbar, which redirects all searches to, came along for the ride. Removing the toolbar from add/remove programs brought IE 8 back to life; if she is lucky, that will be end of the incident, if not, there could be other surprises.

It is just hopeless; and although later versions of Windows have improved security, users ultimately have full control of their machines and therefore the ability (with the help of unscrupulous third parties) to break them.

Now listen to Larson-Green’s description of Windows RT, evidence that Microsoft understands these issues very well:

Windows on ARM, or Windows RT, was our first go at creating that more closed, turnkey experience, where it doesn’t have all the flexibility of Windows, but it has the power of Office and then all the new style applications. So you could give it to your kid and he’s not going to load it up with a bunch of toolbars accidentally out of Internet Explorer and then come to you later and say, why am I getting all these pop-ups. It just isn’t capable of doing that by design.

That said, in its first year on the market Windows RT has largely failed. OEMs like Lenovo and Dell, who produced Windows RT tablets last year, have abandoned it. Microsoft is now the only Windows RT vendor, with Surface RT and Surface 2, other than Nokia with the Lumia 2520 – wait, that’s Microsoft too, following the Nokia acquisition.

Why has RT failed? Performance is an issue on most first generation devices (solved on Surface 2), users have been infuriated and/or flummoxed by the inability to install desktop applications, and even those (like myself) who understand and like the Windows RT concept run into functionality gaps, where there is no suitable Windows Store app and nothing built into the desktop that will do.

Nevertheless, something like Windows RT is necessary if Windows is to survive as a mainstream client operating system. What are Microsoft’s plans?

We have the Windows Phone OS. We have Windows RT and we have full Windows. We’re not going to have three. We do think there’s a world where there is a more mobile operating system that doesn’t have the risks to battery life, or the risks to security. But, it also comes at the cost of flexibility. So we believe in that vision and that direction and we’re continuing down that path.

You can read this as saying that Windows RT will be scrapped, to be replaced by Windows Phone OS adapted for larger form factors (which is what some of us thought Microsoft should have done three years ago). Some have drawn that conclusion, even in the mainstream press. However, this is not what Larson-Green said. Rather, she confirmed what has been strongly hinted for some time, that Windows Phone and Windows RT will converge. In fact, the company has already said that there will be a single development platform for Windows Store / Phone apps at some future date. Note that Windows Phone 8 is no longer built on Windows CE, the cut-down version of Windows, but uses the full Windows kernel, so some convergence has already taken place.

There are rumours of a battle within Microsoft: should Windows Phone adopt Windows RT, or vice versa? Windows Phone is increasing its market share, whereas Windows RT struggles, so from a marketing perspective the phone may be the winner here, though from a technical perspective it might be better to adapt Windows RT for the phone so that desktop Office remains possible on future devices.

If Microsoft gets this right, it will not matter to end users which way it goes. Here is what makes sense to me. Microsoft should converge the development platforms for Windows Phone and Windows Store apps so that both types of apps run on both platforms (though developers should be able to specify a minimum display size to avoid issues with apps designed for a larger screen), and a single project in Visual Studio should be able to target both platforms.

The most interesting question is the future of the desktop on Windows ARM tablets. I love having the desktop on Surface RT and Surface 2, because it greatly increases the utility of the devices; my perspective is that it’s great to have the Windows desktop and Office on a locked-down device, rather than lamenting the inability to install new desktop applications. However, it is a compromise that needs keyboard and trackpad or mouse for optimum operation, and means that Windows RT devices suffer from the same dual personality issues as full Windows 8.

If Microsoft managed to implement a decent version of Office as a Windows Store app, could we live without the desktop? Maybe, though I doubt it will be easy to match the full Windows version of Office (even without VBA) in the Windows Runtime environment.