Microsoft’s R&D

PCWorld has a pretty interesting story on Microsoft’s R&D efforts. While Microsoft is viewed as an old technology company they aren’t done innovating. In many ways they remind me of AT&T in the Bell Labs days. It’s very possible some of the best research of the day is being done there, and we quite possibly won’t realize it for years to come, and will do so in some derived way.

The research and innovation methods of companies is always interesting. Big companies who invest big bucks with little guarantee of a payoff are the most interesting. We rarely hear/see much about them though.

Windows 8 Is Here

Windows 8 has launched, and it’s been quite silent. Not many seem to even care. Every media outlet has some coverage, but it’s hardly the buzz that Apple even got for their latest upgrade. Certainly not the buzz iOS 6 got. Sign of the times.

I’ve got 2 computers that currently run Windows 7. I think at least one will be upgrading to Windows 8 in the next week or two, I just haven’t decided which will be the one to go first. It’s not a bad OS in my experimentation, the UI takes some getting used to, but otherwise it’s really not bad. Do I “like” it? Not terribly much, but I didn’t “like” Windows 7 either.

Upgrading before January 31 is discounted to $40, worth taking advantage of if you can.

QOTD “Facebook is the Microsoft of social media”

Quote of the day goes to Paul Saffo for his opinion piece on Facebook:

Facebook is the Microsoft of social media; used by everyone but truly loved by few.

I’m not sure I 100% agree with the quote, however it does make a valid point about what not to be as a tech company with a huge chunk of the market share. You really want to be the Apple of social media, used by many who absolutely adore you and highly value your product. I’m not sure there’s anyone in social media yet who has achieved that. The closest so far might be Instagram who is now owned by Facebook. Twitter has its loyal users, but many are grumbling over their recent changes and the ever changing app ecosystem.

Paul goes on to say:

Facebook resembles Microsoft in other ways as well. Facebook’s interface is nearly as clunky and inelegant as Windows, and like Microsoft, Facebook is struggling to migrate off the desktop and follow its users onto mobile platforms like smartphones and tablets. Unfortunately, Facebook’s revenue model depends on ample screen real estate in order to please advertisers without annoying users. Ads that can be tolerated on a laptop become a major annoyance when hogging scarce and valuable space on a smartphone.

Facebook can solve for these problems. Facebook will need to move beyond advertising no matter what. Google’s been trying to figure out that problem for a while now. Advertising only gets you so far. Google’s experimented with things like SaaS (Software as a service) via Google Apps. Facebook could potentially bundle up it’s collaboration, authentication, pieces as an alternative to products like SharePoint and Google Groups. Facebook users generally use these things for personal uses, but Facebook apparently utilizes its own features for it’s own purposes all along. There’s not terribly much blocking them from making that a product itself. Facebook also has vast amounts of data and could make itself into a research platform. Both would be viable options and quite frankly could be killer products.

It’s an amazing thing regardless for a company as young as Facebook to be compared to Microsoft. Lets just hope they can avoid the pitfalls that have hit Microsoft in the past decade.

Microsoft Surface Pricing

Microsoft is apparently trying to quietly reinvent itself as an expensive software company to undercutting the competition. First it announced it will be making Windows 8 painless and affordable to upgrade to. Now apparently Microsoft is looking to make its tablet ultra affordable.

According to Engadget, Microsoft is looking at making its tablet $199, which would be a major shakeup to the tablet market. At that price even hardware partners can’t compete. Priced the same as the Kindle Fire it would run Windows RT. It looks pretty polished, more so than anything else in that price range.

Clearly Microsoft is trying a different route than it has in recent years. Given how late they are to the market, this is pretty much a requirement if they want to have a chance.

Windows 8 Pro Upgrade Is Surprisingly Cheap

In an interesting move Microsoft announced it will sell Windows 8 Pro upgrades for $39.99 at least initially. Windows 7 Pro upgrade is about $150. It’s a huge price cut. Also noteworthy is that you can upgrade from one of the more basic versions of Windows 7 to pro. Microsoft also reduced the number of editions down to 4.

Given Apple has been doing under $30 for upgrades, it was only a matter of time. However in Apple’s case, the software is an accessory to the hardware. In Microsoft’s case, they don’t sell hardware. My bet is they are hoping the OS will be the platform to which users engage with Microsoft services.

This is somewhat ironic given Windows 7 was a modest upgrade (technology wise) from Vista. Windows 8 is a complete rethinking and a much bigger investment. The pricing is inverted.

This is Microsoft’s big move to not be marginalized by the internet into the “expensive software that you don’t really need to run a web browser”. Microsoft just kept themselves relevant. The question however is can they make a business out of this strategy?

IE 10 To Ship With Flash?

Apparently Windows 8 Internet Explorer 10 will ship with Flash. Rather than put a nail in the coffin they are putting the corpse on the hood and driving around the neighborhood.

Flash is today what ActiveX was about 10 years ago. A proprietary insecure nuisance.

It’s worth noting even Adobe is doing some interesting HTML5 stuff these days. Adobe isn’t totally ignoring the future. Playing with Adobe Edge is somewhat high on my todo list.

Microsoft Goes Carbon Neutral

From the giant itself:

Beginning in fiscal year 2013 (which starts this July 1), Microsoft will be carbon neutral across all our direct operations including data centers, software development labs, air travel, and office buildings. We recognize that we are not the first company to commit to carbon neutrality, but we are hopeful that our decision will encourage other companies large and small to look at what they can do to address this important issue.

This is actually rather impressive as Microsoft is a rather large company with a large data center operation. Back in 2009 they were looking at hitting 300k servers. Now with Windows Azure and a larger cloud presence, presumably that’s climbed quite a bit.

I’m sure it’s not purely a good dead, Microsoft notes in their blog post:

  • A smarter buildings pilot on Microsoft’s Redmond campus that uses software solutions to make our buildings more energy efficient, projected to achieve energy savings of approximately $1.5 million dollars in fiscal year 2013, and earn back our investment in only 18 months.

Google has tried a power meter and failed. Microsoft is dogfooding it’s effort and is seemingly doing well. I could see Microsoft expanding beyond the PC in a larger effort than in the past with solutions for businesses and perhaps eventually homes. I suspect that’s what Microsoft is really doing here. Forcing themselves to to be ahead of the curve.

What Can You Get For $1 Billion Dollars?

A billion dollars is a lot of money for most people, even most companies. But what does it buy? In Microsoft’s case it buys patents and in Facebook’s case it buys a mobile startup.

AOL (Netscape) Patents

Microsoft spent $1 billion dollars on what seems like mostly Netscape patents. Presumably this is to declare war on Google, Apple, and the web at large, which is trivializing the Windows platform.

If this goes through and Microsoft gets this portfolio, it could be damaging to the web. Time will tell what happens here. It’s hard to say as patents, especially tech related are hardly clear what they refer to and are often used against anything that sounds vaguely similar.

This could be ugly.

Instagram

Facebook felt Instagram, a scrappy mobile photo startup was worth $1 billion dollars. Presumably the value was in a dozen employees who can create such a popular and scalable photo community in a short period of time. It’s also about squashing their biggest competitor. Most people don’t realize this but Facebook is a photo site. It’s the biggest photo site. Flickr is essentially dead in the water as Yahoo figures out it’s future. Google hasn’t figured out Picasa. Instagram was Facebook’s only substantial opponent in this space. For $1 billion dollars they bought their competitor.

Long term I don’t see the app surviving. It will be merged in and perhaps Facebook will integrate photo sharing with a few other sites (Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr), but within the Facebook platform. It just doesn’t make much sense to do otherwise. It’s a lot of duplication and the integration between Facebook and Instagram isn’t up to Facebook’s usual seamlessness standard.

Instagram as a business likely wasn’t worth $1 billion. But the benefits of it being Facebook owned likely are.

Microsoft Flight

I was curious about Microsoft Flight, since it was released today. It’s not really a simulator like Microsoft Fight Simulator was. It’s really just an arcade style game but of higher production quality. The graphics are not bad, it runs smoothly, however there’s not much to keep you playing with it. 30 minutes in and already bored. I personally don’t find it entertaining or challenging.

X-Plane 10 on the other hand is mindbogglingly complicated and I suspect I will never even get “OK” at it, much less good.

It’s a shame Microsoft didn’t just spin off or sell the MSFS product to someone. I bet it could have done fine on it’s own. It seemed to have a pretty dedicated community around it.

On Prefixing And Monobrowser Culture

I’ll say right off the bat that Daniel Glazman is right, and I fully support his message. The failure to alter the course of the web now will lead to headaches. Truthfully it’s already a headache, it’s just going to get worse. The IE Days were the dark ages of web development. I don’t want to go back to that.

In an ideal world, CSS prefixing wouldn’t be necessary. Browser vendors would spec things out, agree on a standard and implement it. That however is too rational, so CSS prefixing is an unfortunate reality. It outright won’t happen by the admission of Microsoft and Apple (pointed out by bz):

tantek (Mozilla): I think if you’re working on open standards, you should propose
your features before you implement them and discuss that here.
smfr (Apple): We can’t do that.
sylvaing (Microsoft): We can’t do that either.

Of course you can question if there’s really a legitimate need to work on standards in private. I’m personally skeptical a css property will leak the next iPhone.

It’s also worth noting Apple and Microsoft are both OS vendors and (cynically speaking) have interests that are explicitly contrary to the internet being a universal platform. Fragmenting the web and making it a more difficult platform to develop on is potentially in their interest. Not to different from their stance on h.264 of whom they are both licensors and thus haven’t implemented WebM.

I’m starting to second guess the permanence of prefixes. I personally think once there’s a standard the first release of a browser 12 months after standardization drops support for the prefix. Yes, this will break a few websites that never update. However it’s almost always an easy fix. I’d venture 95%+ of the time it could be done safely via a regex. Truth is you’re talking about 18-24 months from initial implementation in practice anyway. Possibly longer. A website that is so stale it can’t manage to deal with this in 1.5-2 years is in pretty poor shape to begin with. LESS and Sass can also be a big help in automating this. W3C CSS Validator already errors on prefixes. The tools to deal with this are in place today.

I should note dropping is unlikely to happen and thus wishful thinking.

A large part of this issue is how many websites are built these days, especially “mobile sites” which are typically separate sites bolted onto an API or even the backend database of a website. Often built by 3rd party vendors getting things passable and out the door is key. As a result every shortcut in the book is taken, including the absolute minimum in testing and compatibility.

For what it’s worth, this blog has only one prefix in use, and it’s coded as:

-moz-border-radius: 3px;
-khtml-border-radius: 3px;
-webkit-border-radius: 3px;
border-radius: 3px;

Which catches everyone. That takes all of 30 seconds at most to do.