30
Nov 16

Tired Mac prose

Over the last several weeks, a Skylake full of ink has been spilled over this fall’s Apple crop. Actually, the press seems fascinated with three distinct topics:

  1. Insufficient magic in the 2016 MacBook Pros
  2. Apple “sticking it to pros” by offering limited RAM in the MBP
  3. Apple “sticking it to pros” by not updating the Mac Pro desktop since 2013.

Issue number 1: Beginning the next day after the announcement, I had non-technical friends asking me, “what’s the deal with poor, old, beleaguered Apple?”

Okay, I’m exaggerating. That’s not really what they asked. But they were underwhelmed. Tell you what? I was too. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was expecting a bit more. The Touch Bar is interesting, but hardly world-changing. The presence of Touch ID is also interesting, and frankly, more relevant, especially for business users of Macs. (Dare I say it, “Mac-using pros”.) But most relevant, IMHO, is the fact that it is thinner and lighter (both also useful to pros who remove it from their desks). The move to USB-C is perhaps annoying today, but in time, will not be a big deal, and potentially very useful in terms of Thunderbolt 3 extensibility.

So is it earth-shattering? No. But it’ll do just fine at filling the backlog of orders that came after Apple had let the MacBook Pro lay dormant for a good long time.

Issue number 2: Apple only provides up to 16GB of RAM (and they didn’t go full Kaby Lake). Last thing first, it’s just late 2016. Nobody goes full Kaby Lake. But to suggest that Apple missed the boat by skipping a secondary tock is wacky. Apple rarely takes a bullet for the industry. We’ll see Kaby Lake and beyond come to the MBP. But it makes no sense to rush it this year.

Now we come to the real meat of the outrage. There’s this fascination – dare I suggest it is a feedback loop, that Apple completely doomed the MBP by not enabling more than 16GB of RAM in any of the new devices. That these devices are (paraphrasing) “unsuitable for pros”.

Please.

I offer you a challenge. Using Google, or any tool you’d like, find links to the following three things:

  1. The US$15 burger on the McDonald’s menu
  2. The Tesla convertible
  3. The page on Microsoft’s site where I can build or configure a Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book with more than 16GB of RAM.

Too tongue in cheek? Seriously though… The first two would exist, if there was a large enough market for them. The third would as well, although Microsoft most likely chose to cap it at 16GB for many of the same reasons that Apple did (Spoiler alert: it was about a compromise of what most users need in terms of RAM, and battery life). You’ll note that every Mac you can plug in, short of the [somewhat] budget conscious Mac Mini, does offer options for configuring more than 16GB of RAM, if that is what a user needs.

I’m admittedly on the low-end of the “pro” user market anymore. I couldn’t readily make my living doing what I do without a Windows PC or a Mac. But I don’t ever run an IDE. Like a band saw, that is a thing I’m not qualified to do, and it’s in nobody’s best interest that I do it. I also am a firm believer for about 4 years now in not virtualizing diddly on my Mac. I cut my teeth on the Mac running VMware Fusion from the beginning. Frankly, licensing (Windows-based) stuff to run in VMs on a Mac is a hot mess that your org should be very careful about doing. But that’s not why I don’t do it. I don’t do it because it’s a hot mess of RAM and storage requirements, in an era when both are more limited than in desktop-class laptops of the past. For my needs, I’m better served by buying a laptop that focuses on being a kick-ass laptop (minimal CPU, the RAM and SSD I really need, and a battery that lasts for a delightfully long time, and running VMs in Azure, AWS, or on a desktop. (Or more desktop-like “laptop” that would probably burn my crotch if I really used it for that.) I’m not convinced that the top-tier MBP that Apple created still can’t meet the needs of many (most?) of those who truly need a laptop to do their work.

I feel like a lot of the issue here can be summed up by a tweet of mine from 2014…

untitled

There is a number, greater than 0, of business Mac users who truly need a laptop with more than 16GB of RAM, and would pay what it costs for Apple to build in the technology+battery needed to make it happen. I believe that if Apple saw that that number was significant enough, they would build it. That’s what they do. They built an oversized iPhone, when we all said they wouldn’t. They offered a stylus for the iPad, even though that would mean they blew it. If a market that is willing to pay a premium exists, Apple will build a thing to address it. (This also likely describes why Apple is letting their displays go fallow, and perhaps will even let them die completely. We will see if, perhaps, new displays arrive the next time we see an iMac refresh, likely in 2017.) But I honestly would love to see more detailed scenario descriptions where people need more than 16GB in a laptop day-to-day, where having a secondary desktop or using cloud-based virtualization wouldn’t meet or exceed their needs instead – especially in cases where people aren’t willing to pay the premium Apple would need to charge for an MBP that could meet those needs. Thoughts on that? Blog on what you do, what you need, and why those wouldn’t work, and post a link to my Twitter.

Issue number 3: Finally, we come to the Mac Pro and signs of life. It has been almost 1,100 days since the last update to the Mac Pro, a desktop high-end Mac that is, significantly, a) really expensive, and b) uniquely, assembled in Austin, TX.

As a result of a headline with a recent year stating, “New Mac Pro announced”, many have marked the line for death. Why shouldn’t they? Apple used to make servers. They don’t anymore. Apple used to make wireless routers. They don’t anymore. Apple used to make displays. Whoops, my bad. We’ll see in 2017, but that might be the case as well. I don’t know the stats on how many Mac Pros Apple sells annually, or what the ASP of those units is. It could potentially be a reasonably large chunk of cash, but even with the price of the units, is most likely a pittance of the actual revenue compared to what Apple makes on iPhones, or even on the rest of the mobile Mac+iMac lines. And for better or worse, Apple’s focus, as most companies of late, has been on shareholder value/returns. Apple gives what it gets. Like a “MacBook Pro Plus” (or whatever the ultimate nerd-spec MBP would be branded), the cost to address the market in a timely manner don’t likely mesh with more aggressive research spend to deliver it more rapidly than the cadence we’re seeing.

So will we see a new Mac Pro anytime? Perhaps.

But there seems to be a fair amount of rumors that say Apple would rather build a tier of iMac that could address some (but not all) of the scenarios the Mac Pro instead of building a new top-shelf desktop PC. Because we are at a reasonable plateau of display technology – of sorts, I could reasonably set aside my distaste for AIOs and say maybe that isn’t a horrible idea. Is it ideal? Not really. The Mac Pro is minimally extensible, and a (27″, Kaby Lake) iMac that addressed it’s space would need to rely completely upon external extensibility… not that the current Mac Pro doesn’t, outside of RAM or SSD). Any iMac would also be seriously challenged to address the caliber of GPU or CPU power possible with the Mac Pro. The replacement, or suggested replacement for a Mac Pro is, IMHO, very likely to arrive in 2017.

In terms of both the MBP and Mac Pro, I think Apple will try their best to continue to address the high-end pro market as best they can. But time will tell. In the end, some pros may find Apple’s innovations discouraging. Some will possibly switch to Windows-based PCs, but short of building their own PC, I think many will find the PC OEMs driving towards similar modularity and cost reductions, and feel constrained – if less so – when buying a PC of any kind.

There’s a whole other topic to discuss another day, which is the rumbling “Microsoft has stolen the creative mantle from Apple” theory. More on that later…


24
Jun 16

An iPad Pro is not a Mac

Last year, Christopher Mims wrote about how Apple should kill off the Mac. Just this week, Apple alumnus Michael Gartenberg wrote that the iPad Pro is the new Mac.

It’s human nature to try and match things up… to simplify, organize, and categorize data points. To say a thing is like another thing, or a thing can replace another thing. But I think doing so today only confuses normal users.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how you shouldn’t cross-shop the iPad Pro and Surface Pro (or Surface, for that matter) because people kept pondering the two as alternatives of each other.

Someday, we will arrive at the point that an iOS device will be able to meet the requirements of many, perhaps even most, macOS (nee OS X) users. This day is not that day, and this year is not that year.

I travel a fair amount. Almost every other month, I have to fly for work. While my old 15″ Retina MacBook Pro had served me well for some time, I was growing frustrated with three issues (in order):

  1. Battery life
  2. Heat
  3. Screen size.

My Mac’s battery was to the point where no matter what I did, unless I dialed every possible thing back that I could, it was less than 3 hours of battery life. I write a lot… and I like to write remote. Having to find AC power all the time gets really frustrating, and AC also isn’t always available.

I use my laptop as a… laptop. The i5 in my old MBP got hot. Not as bad as the i7 in my old ThinkPad, but toasty – limiting when and where I could <ahem/> comfortably use it.

Finally, with the great unbundling, coach class seating is now hostile to machines over 13″. I found that on Alaska’s planes, if the seat in front reclined on me, I wasn’t going to be working.

So I needed something smaller. Lighter. More efficient.

I’m not a developer. So I don’t need Xcode. I don’t work with Mac versions of most legacy multimedia software from Apple, Adobe, or others. I don’t even play games on my computers. But I work in Microsoft Office every single day. And there are things that I need there. There is the mobile version of the Office applications, and I have an E3 subscription that entitles me to using them.

So as I winnowed down my device options, I was seriously looking at the large iPad Pro. While I’m all thumbs when it comes to drawing (or hand-writing), the Smart Keyboard and iPad Pro make an acceptable (although compromising) combination.

In particular, as I pondered life with the iPad Pro, several caveats came up with the hardware, before I’d even considered the software capabilities.

  1. Not “lappable”
  2. Keyboard of great compromise
  3. Fixed position screen
  4. No secondary pointing device.

Lappability. I hate the term. But it is a thing. “Lappability”. The iPad Pro, like the Surface line (outside of the Surface Book, which is arguably somewhat lappable) is not lappable. It isn’t. If you have to care about where the device sits on your lap before it falls (or how long you can leave it on your lap before the kickstand feels like it is cutting into your flesh), it is not “lappable”.

Compromising keyboard. As I said earlier, I write a lot. I’ve really fallen in love with the keyboard on my old MBP. It is really pleasant to use. The iPad Pro’s keyboard, like Microsoft’s original Touch Covers for the Surface devices, is squishy and has strange key travel. For a writer, I just find the contraption too compromising to work well. I would imagine most developers would as well. Frankly, I’d love to see Apple try a Surface Book like approach for keyboard (sans the wacky GPU in the base).

Fixed screen. In terms of the screen, sure – the position is probably positioned pretty well. But the inflexibility drives me nuts. Sometimes you’re in a plane or conference center, and the sun is hitting the screen just right so you can’t work. Or your neck hurts, so you want to subtly reposition it. Good luck fixing that.

Touch only. Finally, the lack of a pointing device, and the requirement to smear your screen to navigate the device, while standard operating procedure with iOS, and acceptable with certain device use cases, makes me stabby on my daily use work device. I’m staring at Word, PowerPoint, the Web, and a handful of other things throughout the day. I don’t want to be cleaning my screen all day.

So if I’d been willing to compromise on those 4 (I wasn’t), the iPad Pro might’ve been capable of becoming my primary device. But then we hit the software caveats.

  1. Word on iOS is far from full-featured
  2. Working with files in iOS is still a bear
  3. Collaboration through SMB shares is unworkable
  4. Tools I use regularly for workflow are absent.

Word limits. Word on the iPad is very limited compared to Word on the desktop (even just comparing Word on the Mac, let alone Windows. I don’t even use VBA, so don’t care that that is missing. As I mentioned, I have Office 365 for work, so don’t need additional licensing. But the editing tools on iOS are very… constrained. Tables and outlining, for example, are things I use all the time in Word on the Mac and Windows. No go on iOS. I also find the document reviewing tools on iOS excruciatingly frustrating to use vs. desktop equivalents.

File handling. Much has been made of the lack of a Finder equivalent in iOS. iOS doesn’t need  a finder per se. But it does need the ability to share certain “universal” files in one location and have any other app be able to open them. Trying to open a PPTX file with rich content in PowerPoint on iOS is ugly. Basically have to copy the file. Need to make edits and save the file back for a colleague to read? Good luck. You’re gonna hurt yourself by the time you finish.

Legacy collaboration. Collaboration through old Windows shares is not workable on iOS. If your org has moved completely to Dropbox or OneDrive (which would be impressive), then you can make this work. Otherwise, you’re using kludgy apps that try to make SMB fit within the parameters of iOS, and create similar problems to the ones I just outlined. (Even Microsoft’s own Work Folders technology seems basically dead on the vine in favor of OneDrive for Business. iOS was designed to be standalone and not need file shares. Which is all well and good if you’re a sole proprietor, Web-only or your whole org is all-in on SaaS-based collaboration software. But most orgs aren’t.

Specialty software. I have several tools that I use regularly – notably BetterTouchTool, and Paw, for work. These don’t have equivalents. I could perhaps get used to not having them, or perhaps find alternatives, but I’d rather not.

Contrary to what you might think, I wouldn’t describe myself as a power user. I run terminal on OS X about as often as I ran regedit on Windows (and for the same duct tapey reasons). But in the end, I found that the iPad Pro and iOS would not, in terms of either hardware or software, meet my needs, without me needing a Mac in addition for certain things.

In the end, I wound up getting the new MacBook, consciously choosing the low end model with the Intel m3 processor. It feels like I see beachballs a little more than with my old MBP, but it isn’t that frequent. More importantly, I have a screen that works great on flights, it runs cool almost all the time (plus it has no fan!), and I can go an insane amount of time without needing my charger.

Apple will surely come out with more iPad Pro hardware/peripherals over time, which will enable new scenarios and flexibility. And iOS and macOS will continue to harmonize, while iOS moves upmarket, to enable more and more software scenarios that were previously exclusive to the Mac. It’s a delicate dance. Building a walled garden around macOS, while expanding the walled garden of iOS.

But the reality is also that there are certain scenarios people should not ever expect iOS to support, like SMB file shares in-box, or replacing built-in apps with third-party equivalents. I just believe that’s not the kind of things that you should expect Apple to do.

In several years, perhaps as few as 2, maybe as many as 5, iOS devices will likely be able to meet the needs of most people who use Macs or Windows PCs today. Some users will compromise their behavior or requirements early and go to iOS. Some will find that iOS just meets their needs, and switch. Some will continue to use Windows and macOS for the foreseeable future. Some scenarios, like developing fully-featured OS X and macOS apps (or developing for Windows clients or Linux server on Macs), will continue to require a Mac, even as Swift development tools likely gain capabilities on iOS.

In the meantime, I think that saying the Mac should go away, or that the iPad is workable for most normals who are knowledge workers, is a real stretch. Probably in time. It’s the direction. But we’re not there yet… not for some time.


03
Feb 16

Surface Pro and iPad Pro – incomparable

0.12 of a pound less in weight. 0.6 inches more in display area.

That’s all that separates the iPad Pro from the Surface Pro (lightest model of each). Add in the fact that both feature the modifier “Pro” in their name, and that they look kind of similar, and it’s hard to not invite comparisons, right? (Of course, what tablets in 2016 don’t look like tablets?)

Over the past few weeks, several reports have suggested that perhaps Apple’s Tablet Grande and Microsoft’s collection of tablet and tablet-like devices may have affected at holiday quarter sales of tablet-like devices from the other. Given what I’ve said above, I’ve surely even suggested that I might cross-shop one with the other when shopping. But man, that would be a mistake.

I’m not going to throw any more numbers at you to try and explain why the iPad Pro and Surface devices aren’t competitors, and shouldn’t be cross-shopped. Okay, only a few more; but it’ll be a minute. Before I do, let’s take a step back and consider the two product lines we’re dealing with.

The iPad Pro is physically Apple’s largest iOS device, by far. But that’s just it. It runs iOS, not OS X. It does not include a keyboard of any kind. It does not include a stylus of any kind. It can’t be used with an external pointing device, or almost any other traditional PC peripheral. (There are a handful of exceptions.)

The Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft’s most recent tablet. It is considered by many pundits to be a “detachable” tablet, which it is – if you buy the keyboard, which is not included. (As an aside, inventing a category called detachables when the brunt of devices in the category feature removable, but completely optional keyboards seems slightly sketchy to me.) Unlike the iPad Pro, the Surface Pro 4 does include the stylus for the device. You can also connect almost any traditional PC peripheral to a Surface Pro 4 (or Surface 3, or Surface Book.)

Again, at this point, you might say, “See, look how much they have in common. 1) A tablet. 2) A standardized keyboard peripheral. 3) A Stylus.”

Sure. That’s a few similarities, but certainly not enough to say they’re the same thing. A 120 volt light fixture for use in your home and a handheld flashlight also both offer a standard way to have a light source powered by electrical energy. But you wouldn’t jumble the two together as one category, as they aren’t interchangeable at all. You use them to perform completely different tasks.

The iPad Pro can’t run any legacy applications at all. None for Windows (of course), and none for OS X. There is it’s Achilles heel; it’s great at running iOS apps that have been tuned for it. But if the application you want to run isn’t there, or lacks features found in the Windows or OS X desktop variant you’d normally use (glares at you, Microsoft Word), you’re up the creek. (Here’s where someone will helpfully point out VDI, which is a bogus solution to running legacy business-critical applications that you need with any regularity.)

The Surface Pro offers a contrast at this point. It can run universal Windows platform (UWP) applications, AKA Windows Store apps, AKA Modern apps, AKA Metro apps. (Visualize my hand getting slapped here by platform fans for belaboring the name shifts.) And while the Surface Pro may have an even more constrained selection of platform-optimized UWP apps to choose from, if the one you want isn’t available in the Windows Store, you’ve got over two decades worth of Win32 applications that you can turn to.

Anybody who tells you that either the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro are “no compromise” devices is either lying to you, or they just don’t know that they’re lying to you. They’re both great devices for what they try to be. But both come with compromises.

Several people have also said that the iPad Pro is a “companion device”. But it depends upon the use case as to whether that is true or not. If you’re a hard-core Windows power user, then yes, the iPad Pro must be a companion device. If you regularly need features only offered by Outlook, Excel, Access, or similar Win32 apps of old, then the iPad Pro is not the device for you. But if every app you need is either available in the App Store, you can live within the confines of the limited versions of Microsoft Office for Office 365 on the iPad Pro, or your productivity tools are all Web accessible, then the iPad Pro might not only be a good device for you, but it might actually be the only device you need. It all comes down to your own requirements. Some PC using readers at this point will helpfully chime in that the user I’ve identified above doesn’t exist. Not true – they’re just not that user.

If a friend or family member came to me and said, “I’m trying to decide which one to buy – an iPad Pro or Surface Pro.”, I’d step them through several questions:

  1. What do you want to do with it?
  2. How much will you type on it? Will you use it on your lap?
  3. How much will you draw on it? Is this the main thing you see yourself using it for
  4. How important is running older applications to you?
  5. How important is battery life?
  6. Do you ever want to use it with a second monitor?
  7. Do you have old peripherals that you simply can’t live without? (And what are they?)
  8. Have you bought or ripped a lot of audio or video content in formats that Apple won’t let you easily use anymore? (And how important is that to you?)

These questions will each have a wide variety of answers – in particular question 1. (Question 2 is a trap, as the need to use the device as a true laptop will lead most away from either the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro.) But these questions can easily steer the conversation, and their decision, the right direction.

I mentioned that I would throw a few more numbers at you:

  • US$1,028.99 and
  • US$1,067.00

These are the base prices for a Surface Pro 4 (Core m3) and iPad Pro, respectively, equipped with a stylus and keyboard. Just a few cups of Starbucks apart from each other. The Surface Pro 4 can go wildly north of this price, depending upon CPU options (iPad Pro offers none) or storage options (iPad Pro only offers one). The iPad Pro also offers cellular connectivity for an additional charge in the premium storage model (not available in the Surface Pro). My point is, at this base price, they’re close to each other, but that is a matter of convenience. It invites comparisons, but deciding upon these devices based purely on price is a fool’s errand.

The more you want the Surface Pro 4 (or a Surface Book) to act like a workstation PC, the more you will pay. But there is the rub; it can be a workstation too – the iPad Pro can’t ever be. Conversely, the iPad Pro can be a great tablet, where it offers few compromises as a tablet – you could read on it, it has a phenomenal stylus experience for artists, and it’s a great, big, blank canvas for whatever you want to run on it (if you can run it). But it will never run legacy software.

The iPad Pro may be your ideal device if:

  1. You want a tablet that puts power optimization ahead of everything else
  2. Every application you need is available in the App Store
  3. The are available in an iPad Pro optimized form
  4. The available version of the app has all of the features you need
  5. All of your media content is in Apple formats or available through applications blessed by Apple.

The Surface Pro may be your ideal device if:

  1. You want a tablet that is a traditional Windows PC first and foremost
  2. Enough of the applications you want to run on it as a tablet are available in the Windows Store
  3. They support features like Snap and resizing when the app is running on the desktop
  4. You need to run more full-featured, older, or more power hungry applications, or applications that cannot live within the sandboxed confines of an “app store” platform
  5. You have media content (or apps) that are in formats or categories that Apple will not bless, but will run on Windows.

From the introduction of both devices last year, many people have been comparing and contrasting these two “Pro” devices. I think that doing so is a disservice. In general, a consumer who cross-shops the two devices and buys the wrong one will wind up sorely disappointed. It’s much better to figure out what you really want to do with the device, and buy the right option that will meet your personal requirements.


31
Oct 15

Simulated gambling in the App Store? The only winning move is not to play.

From the arrival of Apple’s iPhone App Store, they’ve elected to keep the platform, shall we say, “Family Friendly”.

While the guidelines for developers who elect to sell their software through the App Store are always evolving, they seem much more constant and consistent versus when the store first opened. In general, it’s still about keeping it a warm fuzzy place, while allowing some evolution so the App Store can grow and thrive. Apps which which violate terms include those that offer pornography, violence (simulated or other), targeted defamatory or offensive content at a given race, ethnicity, or or culture, or include objectionable content. What’s objectionable? Ask Apple, as they use the Potter Stewart school of content screening. Things like Metadata+ and Ephemeral+, which provide information unavailable anywhere else, but which could be found “unpleasant” by some, are not available on Apple’s platforms. Personally, the justification of that is ridiculous, but that’s a matter for another day.

Instead, I want to talk about “simulated gambling” games. This week, I found myself on the App Store search page, and noticed among the Trending Searches, the string “777”. As someone who flies regularly (but doesn’t gamble), I was curious what this even was. I clicked, and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. I clicked the link, and discovered an endless parade of “simulated” slot machine games.

What’s really both fascinating and terrifying to me is how much the Trending Searches space seems to include “simulated gambling” titles at night, and how many of the Top Grossing apps in the App Store are simulated gambling.

I really dislike that much of the iOS ecosystem has become overgrown by free-to-play (F2P) apps and games. I’ve started referring to these as free-to-p(l)ay instead, as because they generally require you to pay if you want to actually get to the most desirable content or levels in the title. I’ve only ever interacted with a handful of F2P games, and as a general rule, they are basically a Skinner box that conditions the user into paying for content in order to receive gratification.

Here’s where the problems begin, though. I believe there are basically two ways to classify titles in the App Store that offer in-app purchase (IAP):

  1. À la carte IAP
  2. Bottomless IAP.

À la carte IAP apps offer one price for entry (either free or some base currency), and then a set menu of items that can enable a set collection of functionality within or interconnected to the app. For example, a drawing app could offer a set of pens or brushes, or a range of colors. The point is, a given amount of currency will buy you a set piece of functionality. One could argue that you can IAP subscribe to services and that can be ongoing, but I contend that is still a set currency over time.

Bottomless IAP apps, on the other hand, have an almost endless supply of offers to exchange currency for downloadable content, “lives”, “coins” or other virtual (but financially worthless) tchotchkes to help you progress within the app (game). While the apps may have a cap on how much can be spent over time, many offer ridiculously expensive IAP items that can be repeatedly purchased, ideal for targeting and manipulating impressionable individuals. These are the IAP titles that we’ve all heard about, where people of all ages get duped into paying real dollars, without realizing how big the financial hole is that they’ve created for themselves. Many of these simulated gaming titles offer IAP items up to US$99!

I have two problems with “simulated gambling” apps in the store. In reverse priority order:

  1. They might be violating numerous gaming laws around the world
  2. They are preying upon people, including those dealing with real-world gambling addiction problems.

As a general rule, Apple’s guidelines on apps that include gambling state:

“Apps that offer real money gaming (e.g. sports betting, poker, casino games, horse racing) or lotteries must have necessary licensing and permissions in the locations where the App is used, must be restricted to those locations, and must be free on the App Store.”

and

“Apps that use IAP to purchase credit or currency to use in conjunction with real money gaming will be rejected”

So “gaming” apps like simulated slot machines are in an interesting wedge. They ride a fine line, seemingly all following the first guideline, and making themselves free for download, but with the opportunity for the consumer to bleed out significant cash through bottomless IAP. They can’t ever convert any winnings in the app to actual real-world winnings, or arguably they’d violate the second term.

Now here’s where things get interesting. Let’s take a look at that first term more closely. These apps are supposed to be licensed according to the location where they are used. This is a distinct problem to me. Though these are “simulated gaming”, I believe that since they are simulated slot machines (among other categories of gambling available in the App Store), they should follow the jurisdiction where they are used.

Thing is, there are very specific rules in many jurisdictions on what the payout must be for a given device used for a given category of game. For example, on the Las Vegas strip on the percentage of cash that must be paid out to gamblers, which ranges from 88.06% (penny slots) to 93.69% (US$1 slots). Arguably, the old line that “the house always wins” isn’t completely true. But statistically, it isn’t going to be you, either.

But these games are all “simulated”. There is literally no opportunity for payout. Any winnings are generally returned as an opportunity to play again. There are no winnings. None. Arguably, by being a “simulation”, these titles do not need to abide by payout terms within the locales they are being used. But as they aren’t real gaming, I personally feel Apple should reconsider having this category of title in the store at all.

Gambling addiction is a real thing. People get sucked in by the lure of easy money, and can quickly lose more than they had to begin with. The National Council on Problem Gambling has an interesting survey, the 2013 National Survey of Problem Gambling Services discusses how much money is spent on gambling addiction services across the U.S. The App Store lets consumers link credit cards to IAP. By offering bottomless IAP, these titles are effectively allowed to shake out the wallets of vulnerable consumers to an extent they cannot financially bear.

The problem with these “games”, is that they play upon the same emotions as real slot machines, luring the consumer into wasting untold dollars on a game that is completely unwinnable, financially. To quote the movie WarGames, “The only winning move is not to play.”

My contention is that if games offering simulated gambling must be allowed on the App Store at all, they should not be allowed to offer bottomless IAP, or perhaps even offer IAP at all. Take a look at this game review from a user of top-tier “simulated slot” game Slotomania from Playtika Games (A division of Caesars Interactive Entertainment):

Slotomania

That makes me so sad. These games offer no redeeming value (literally). From Playtika’s own Terms of Service (linked incorrectly within their App Store entry, by the way):

“The Service may include an opportunity to purchase virtual, in-game currency (“Coins”) that may require you to pay a fee using real money to obtain the Coins. Coins can never be redeemed for real money, goods, or any other item of monetary value from Playtika or any other party. You understand that you have no right or title in the virtual in-game items, spins or Coins.”

These titles are all about killing time while burning your wallet at the same time. They’re all about taking money from the easily impressionable – youth, adults, retirees… across the board. When I posted on Twitter about simulated gambling, a follower of mine replied back with the following:

“grandma uses her iPad 2 almost exclusively for slot apps. :*(“

If Apple is going to hold up the App Store as a family friendly place for commerce, with reasonable consumer protections, I think they need to re-examine what role, if any, simulated gambling apps with IAP are allowed to play there.


27
Sep 15

The Apple Watch is perfect. On paper.

This week, I’m doing something that I don’t remember ever actually doing before. I’m taking back an Apple device, for a refund.

After spending less than a week with the Apple Watch, I have to say, I’m disappointed. A bit in the device. But more in Apple. The software is simply not done. Perhaps it’s my use of a 5s as the host device for it. Perhaps my expectations are too high. Perhaps I’m right, that it’s not ready for prime time. Regardless, it’s definitely not worth the price of entry in the device’s current condition. As Nilay Patel said, “If you’ll like toys, you’ll like it.

As I checked out at a grocery this week, and performed my first Apple Pay transaction, the  following interchange happened between the cashier and myself:

Her: “Ooh. Is that it (the Watch)?”

Me: “Yes.”

Her: “How do you like it?”

Me: “It’s okay. I’ve only had it for about a day.”

Her: “What can it do?”

Me: <silence/>

I hesitated, struggling to really list out the things that the Watch could do that were relevant to me. It was in that moment that I think I switched from “I think I’ll return it.” to “I’m going to return it.” I understand that apparently most normals are quite happy with their Watches, and that only technophiles (if you can still call me that) like myself found all the foibles in the way the device works.

The Watch isn’t without positive attributes. I just don’t feel that they outweigh the negatives.

What’s good:

  • As a bauble, it is gorgeous. I bought the stainless Watch, with the new, more traditional Saddle Brown Classic Buckle. As a piece of jewelry, I think it looks really good. (Although my 14YO would tell you that my free opinions on style are worth what you pay me for them.)
  • As a watch, it’s pretty good. I mean, it keeps time, and the interchangeable faces are fun for a bit.
  • Given the space, the user interface works pretty well.
  • When it all works, there are some neat conveniences that you can’t do (or can’t do as easily) with an iPhone. Apple Pay and other Wallet (nee Passbook) features on your wrist are handy. But not “OMG!” useful.
  • There’s a pretty amazing supply of Apple Watch apps that already exist. (See caveat to this, below.)

I was really hoping I could come up with some more positive aspects here. But honestly, I’ve run out already.

So… what’s bad about Apple Watch? In no explicit order:

  • It is very expensive, for what it does. My mind boggles that Apple has sold any of the Watch Edition models.
  • Updating sucked. It took over an hour and a half to install the 500MB update from my iPhone. That is inexcusable.
  • It’s heavy. I’ve got tiny T-rex arms, but the weight of the Watch on my ulnar styloid (the bump of bone on the outside of your wrists) was painful after only a few minutes.
  • It’s slow. In tandem with my 5s, there are far too many beach balls waiting for apps to launch. This may get better over time as apps are updated for the new version of the OS. But I fear that it may be indicative of the real resource constraints on such a small device. Time will tell.
  • I had hope that Watch would make my Phone better. That is, it would add utility to my phone. Instead, because of the app model, it made my phone’s battery life horrible.
  • The version of the SpringBoard shell used by the Apple watch is atrocious. I have small fingers, so don’t have much trouble selecting apps. But the UI of the Watch comes the closest to being the “sea of icons” on iOS that Microsoft derided for so long. Doing anything rapidly on the watch with this UI is… complicated.
  • Too many app developers don’t seem to understand what the Watch is, and is not, ideal for. I guess that’s both a good and bad thing. But to the caveat I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of apps for the Watch – many of which aren’t even on Windows Phone. But there’s a lot of crap – it seems many developers are lost in the wilderness.
  • It shows every single fingerprint you place on the face.
  • The packaging for the Apple Watch is… overwhelming. There’s plastic on plastic on plastic. Wrapping device subcomponents in one-time use plastic is horrifically wasteful.

The former product manager (and former development manager) in me sees how we arrived at this point. The Apple Watch team was established long ago, and started on their project. At one point, pressure from above, from outside, from investors, who knows… forced Apple to push up a launch date. The hardware was reasonably ready. But the software was a hot mess.

Traditionally, Apple excelled when they discarded features that weren’t ready, even if competitors already did them in a half-assed way – winning over consumers by delivering those features later when they’re actually ready. Unfortunately, you often get a product manager in the mix that pushes for a feature, even if it can’t really be implemented well or reliably. The Apple Watch feels like this. It offers a mix of checkbox features that, yes, you can argue, kind of work. But they don’t have the finish that they should. The software doesn’t respect the hardware. In fact, it’s giving a middle finger to the hardware. Even WatchOS 2 fails to deliver adequate finish. The list of features that the Watch promises sound nifty. But actually living with the Watch is disappointing. It isn’t what it should be, given the Apple brand on the outside. I expect better from Apple. Maybe next time.


21
Aug 15

The curse of the second mover

When I lived in Alaska, there was an obnoxious shirt that I used to see all the time, with a group of sled dogs pictured on it. The cutesy saying on it was, “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” While driving home last night and considering multiple tech marketplaces today, it came to mind.

Consider the following. If you were:

  1. Building an application for phones and tablets today, whose OS would you build it for first?
  2. Building a peripheral device for smartphones, what device platform would you build it for?
  3. Selling music today, whose digital music store would you make sure it was in first?
  4. Selling a movie today, whose digital video store would you make sure it was in first?
  5. Publishing a book, whose digital book store would you make sure it was in first?

Unless you’ve got a lot of time or money on your hands, and feel like dealing with the bureaucracy of multiple stores, the answer to all of the above is going to be exactly the same.

Except that last one.

If you’re building apps, smartphone peripherals, or selling music or movies, you’re probably building for Apple first. If you’re publishing or self-publishing a book, you’re probably going to Amazon first. One could argue that you might go to Amazon with music or a movie – but I’m not sure that’s true – at least if you wanted to actually sell full-fare copies vs. getting them placed on Prime Music/Prime Instant Video.

In the list above, that doesn’t tell a great tale for second movers. If you’re building a marketplace, you’ve got to offer some form of exceptional value over Apple (or Amazon for 5) in order to dethrone them. You’ve also got to offer something to consumers to get them to use your technology, and content purveyors/device manufacturers to get them to invest in your platform(s).

For the first three, Apple won those markets through pure first mover advantage.

The early arrival of the iPhone and iOS, and the premium buyers who purchase them, ensure that 1 & 2 will be answered “Apple”. The early arrival of the iPod, iTunes, and “Steve’s compromise”, allowing iTunes on Windows – as horrible as the software was/is – ensures that iTunes Music is still the answer to 3.

Video is a squishy one – as the market is meandering between streaming content (Netflix/Hulu), over-the-top (OTT) video services like Amazon Instant Video, MLB At Bat, HBO Now, etc., and direct purchase video like iTunes or Google Play. But the wide availability of Apple TV devices, entrenchment of iTunes in the life of lots of music consumers, and disposable income mean that a video content purveyor is highly likely to hit iTunes first – as we often see happen with movies today.

The last one is the most interesting though.

If we look at eBooks, something interesting happened. Amazon wasn’t the first mover – not by a long shot. Microsoft made their Reader software available back in 2000. But their device strategy wasn’t harmonized with the ideas from the team building the software. It was all based around using your desktop (ew), chunky laptop (eventually chunky tablet), or Windows Pocket PC device for reading. Basically, it was trying to sell eBooks as a way to read content on Windows, not really trying to sell eBooks themselves. Amazon revealed their first Kindle in 2007. (This was the first in a line of devices that I personally loathe, because of the screen quality and flicker when you change pages.) Apple revealed the iPad, and rapidly launched iBooks in 2010, eventually taking it to the iPhone and OS X. But the first two generations of iPad were expensive, chunky device to try and read on, and iBooks not being available on the iPhone and OS X didn’t help. (Microsoft finally put down the Reader products in 2012, just ahead of the arrival of the best Windows tablets…<sigh/>) So even though Apple has a strong device story today, and a strong content play in so many other areas, they are (at least) the second fiddle in eBooks. They tout strong numbers of active iBooks users… but since every user of iOS and OS X can be an iBooks users, numbers mean little without book sales numbers behind them. Although Amazon’s value driven marketplace may not be the healthiest place for authors to publish their wares, it appears to be the number one place by far, without much potential for it to be displaced anytime soon.

If your platform isn’t in the leader for a specific type of content, pulling ahead from second place is going to be quite difficult, unless you’ve somehow found some silver bullet. If you’re in third, you have an incredible battle ahead.


18
Aug 15

Continuum vs. Continuity – Seven letters is all they have in common

It’s become apparent that there’s some confusion between Microsoft’s Continuum feature in Windows 10, and Apple’s Continuity feature in OS X. I’ve even heard technical people get them confused.

But to be honest, the letters comprising “Continu” are basically all they have in common. In addition to different (but confusingly similar) names, the two features are platform exclusive to their respective platform, and perform completely different tasks that are interesting to consider in light of how each company makes money.

Apple’s Continuity functionality, which arrived first, on OS X Yosemite late in 2014, allows you to hand off tasks between multiple Apple devices. Start a FaceTime call on your iPhone, finish it on your Mac. Start a Pages document on your Mac, finish it on your iPad. If they’re on the same Wi-Fi network, it “just works”. The Handoff feature that switches between the two devices works by showing an icon for the respective app you were using, that lets you begin using the app on the other device. Switching from iOS to OS X is easy. Going the other way is a pain in the butt, IMHO, largely because of how iOS presents the app icon on the iOS login screen.

Microsoft’s Continuum functionality, which arrived in one form with Windows 10 in July, and will arrive in a different (yet similar) form with Windows 10 Mobile later this year, lets the OS adapt to the use case of the device you’re on. On Windows 10 PC editions, you can switch Tablet Mode off and on, or if the hardware provides it, it can switch automatically if you allow it. Windows 10 in Tablet Mode is strikingly similar to, but different from, Windows 8.1. Tablet mode delivers a full screen Start screen, and full-screen applications by default. Turning tablet mode off results in a Start menu and windowed applications, much like Windows 7.

When Windows 10 Mobile arrives later this year, the included incarnation of Continuum will allow phones that support the feature to connect to external displays in a couple of ways. The user will see an experience that will look like Windows 10 with Tablet mode off, and windowed universal apps. While it won’t run legacy Windows applications, this means a Windows 10 Mobile device could act as a desktop PC for a user that can live within the constraints of the Universal application ecosystem.

Both of these pieces of functionality (I’m somewhat hesitant to call either of them “features”, but I digress) provide strategic value for Apple, and Microsoft, respectively. But the value that they provide is different, as I mentioned earlier.

Continuity is sold as a “convenience” feature. But it’s really a great vehicle for hardware lock-in and upsell. It only works with iOS and OS X devices, so it requires that you use Apple hardware and iCloud. In short: Continuity is intended to help sell you more Apple hardware. Shocker, I know.

Continuum, on the other hand, is designed to be more of a “flexibility” feature. It adds value to the device you’re on, even if that is the only Windows device you own. Yes, it’s designed to be a feature that could help sell PCs and phones too – but the value is delivered independently, on each device you own.

With Windows 8.x, your desktop PC had to have the tablet-based features of the OS, even if they worked against your workflow. Your tablet couldn’t adapt well if you plugged it into an external display and tried to use it as a desktop. Your phone was… well… a phone. Continuum is intended to help users make the most of any individual Windows device, however they use it. Want a phone or tablet to be a desktop and act like it? Sure. Want a desktop to deliver a desktop-like experience and a tablet to deliver a tablet-like experience? No problem. Like Continuity, Continuum is platform-specific, and features like Continuum for Windows 10 Mobile will require all-new hardware. I expect that this Fall’s hardware season will likely continue to bring many new convertibles that automatically switch, helping to make the most of the feature, and could help sell new hardware.

Software vendors made Continuity-like functionality before Apple did it, and that’ll surely continue. We’ll see more and more device to device bridging in Android and Windows. However, Apple has an advantage here, with their premium consumer, and owning their entire hardware and software stack.

People have asked me for years if I see Apple making features that look like Continuum. I don’t. At least not trying to make OS X into iOS. We may see Apple try and bridge the tablet and small laptop market here in a few weeks with an iOS device that can act like a laptop, but arguably that customer wouldn’t be a MacBook (Air) customer anyway. It’ll be interesting to see how the iPad evolves/collides into the low-end laptop market.

Hopefully if you were confused about these two features, that helps clarify what they are – and that they’re actually completely different things, designed to accomplish completely different things.


12
Feb 15

Bring your own stuff – Out of control?

The college I went to had very small cells… I mean dorm rooms. Two people to a small concrete walled-room, with a closet, bed, and desk that mounted to the walls. The RA on my floor (we’ll call him “Roy”) was a real stickler about making us obey the rules – no televisions or refrigerators unless they were rented from the overpriced facility in our dorm. After all, he didn’t want anybody creating a fire hazard.

But in his room? A large bench grinder and a sanding table, among other toys. Perhaps it was a double standard… but he was the boss of the floor – and nobody in the administration knew about it.

Inside of almost every company, there are several types of Roy, bringing in toys that could potentially harm the workplace. Most likely, the harm will come in the form of data loss or a breach, not a fire as it might if they brought in a bench grinder. But I’m really starting to get concerned that too many companies aren’t mindful of the volume of toys that their own Roys have been bringing in.

Basically, there are three types of things that employees are bringing in through rogue or personal purchasing:

  • Smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices (BYOD)
  • Standalone software as a service
  • Other cloud services

It’s obvious that we’ve moved to a world where employees are often using their own personal phones or tablets for work – whether it becomes their main device or not. But the level of auditing and manageability offered by these devices, and the level of controls that organizations are actively enforcing on them, all leave a lot to be desired. I can’t fathom the number of personal devices today, most of them likely equipped with no passcode or a weak one, that are currently storing documents that they shouldn’t be. That document that was supposed to be kept only on the server… That billing spreadsheet with employee salaries or patient SSNs… all stored on someone’s phone, with a horrible PIN if one at all, waiting for it to be lost or stolen.

Many “freemium” apps/services offer just enough rope for an employee to hang their employer with. Sign up with your work credentials and work with colleagues – but your management cannot do anything to manage them – without (often) paying.

Finally, we have developers and IT admins bringing in what we’ll call “rogue cloud”. Backing up servers to Azure… spinning up VMs in AWS… all with the convenience of a credit card. Employees with the best of intentions can smurf their way through, getting caught by internal procedures or accounting. A colleague tells a story about a CFO asking, “Why are your developers buying so many books?” The CFO was, of course, asking about Amazon Web Services, but had no idea, since the charges were small irregular amounts every month across different developers, from Amazon.com. I worry that the move towards “microservices” and cloud will result in stacks that nobody understands, that run from on-premises to one or more clouds – without an end-to-end design or security review around them.

Whether we’re talking about employees bringing devices, applications, or cloud services, the overarching problem here is the lack of oversight that so many businesses seem to have over these rapidly growing and evolving technologies, and the few working options they have to remediate them. In fact, many freemium services are feeding on this exact problem, and building business models around it. “I’m going to give your employees a tool that will solve a problem they’re having. But in order for you to solve the new problem that your employees will create by using it, you’ll need to buy yet another tool, likely for everybody.”

If you aren’t thinking about the devices, applications, and services that your employees are bringing in without you knowing, or without you managing them, you really might want to go take a look and see what kinds of remodeling they’ve been doing to your infrastructure without you noticing. Want to manage, secure, integrate, audit, review, or properly license the technology your employees are already using? You may need to get your wallet ready.


24
Dec 14

Mobile devices or cloud as a solution to the enterprise security pandemic? Half right.

This is a response to Steven Sinofsky’s blog post, “Why Sony’s Breach Matters”. While I agree with parts of his thesis – the parts about layers of complexity leaving us where we are, and secured, legacy-free mobile OS’s helping alleviate this on the client side, I’m not sure I agree with his points about the cloud being a path forward – at least in any near term, or to the degree of precision he alludes to.

The bad news is that the Sony breach is not unique. Not by a long shot. It’s not the limit. It’s really the beginning. It’s the shot across the bow for companies that will let them see one example of just how bad this can get. Of course, they should’ve been paying attention to Target, Home Depot, Michaels, and more by this point already.

Instead, the Sony breach is emblematic of the security breaking point that has become increasingly visible over the last 2 years. It would be the limit if the industry turned a corner tomorrow and treated security like their first objective. But it won’t. I believe what I’ve said before – the poor security practices demonstrated by Sony aren’t unique. They’re typical  of how too many organizations treat security. Instead of trying to secure systems, they grease the skids just well enough to meet their compliance bar, turning an eye to security that’s just “too hard”.

 

While the FBI has been making the Sony attack sound rather unique, the only unique aspect of this one, IMHO, is the scale of success it appears to have achieved. This same attack could be replayed pretty easily. A dab of social engineering… a selection of well-chosen exploits (they’re not that hard to get), and Windows’ own management infrastructure appears to have been used to distribute it.

 

I don’t necessarily see cloud computing yet as the holy grail that you do. Mobile? Perhaps.

 

The personal examples you discussed were all interesting examples, but indeed were indicative of more of a duct-tape approach, similar to what we had to do with some things in Windows XP during the security push that led up to XPSP2 after XPSP1 failed to fill the holes in the hull of the ship. A lot of really key efforts, like run as non-admin just couldn’t have been done in a short timeframe to work with XP – had to be pushed to Vista (where they honestly still hurt users) or Windows 7 where the effort could be taken to really make them work for users from the ground up. But again, much of this was building foundations around the Win32 legacy, which was getting a bit sickly in a world with ubiquitous networking and everyone running as admin.

 

I completely agree as well that we’re long past adding speed bumps. It is immediately apparent, based upon almost every breach I can recall over the past year, that management complexity as a security vector played a significant part in the breach.

If you can’t manage it, you can’t secure it. No matter how many compliance regs the government or your industry throws at you. It’s quite the Gordian knot. Fun stuff.

 

 

I think we also completely agree about how the surface area exposed by today’s systems is to blame for where we are today as well. See my recent Twitter posts. As I mentioned, “systems inherently grow to become so complex nobody understands them.” – whether you’re talking about programmers, PMs, sysadmins, or compliance auditors.

 

 

I’m inclined to agree with your point about social and the vulnerabilities of layer 8, and yet we also do live in a world where most adults know not to stick a fork into an AC outlet. (Children are another matter.)

Technology needs to be more resilient to user-error or malignant exploitation, until we can actually solve the dancing pigs problem where it begins. Mobile solves part of that problem.

 

When Microsoft was building UAC during Longhorn -> Vista, Mark Russinovich and I were both frustrated that Microsoft wasn’t really doing anything with Vista to really nail security down, and so we built a whitelisting app at Winternals to do this for Windows moving forward. (Unfortunately, Protection Manager was crushed for parts after our acquisition, and AppLocker was/is too cumbersome to accomplish this for Win32. Outside of the longshot of ditching the Intel processor architecture completely, whitelisting is the only thing that can save Win32 from the security mayhem it is experiencing at the moment.

 

I do agree that moving to hosted IaaS really does nothing for an organization, except perhaps drive them to reduce costs in a way that on-premises hosting can’t.

But I guess if there was one statement in particular that I would call out in your blog as something I heartily disagree with, it’s this part:

 

“Everyone has moved up the stack and as a result the surface area dramatically reduced and complexity removed. It is also a reality that the cloud companies are going to be security first in terms of everything they do and in their ability to hire and maintain the most sophisticated cyber security groups. With these companies, security is an existential quality of the whole company and that is felt by every single person in the entire company.”

 

This is a wonderful goal, and it’ll be great for startups that have no legacy codebase (and don’t bring in hundreds of open-source or shared libraries that none of their dev team understands down to the bottom of the stack). But most existing companies can’t do what they should, and cut back the overgrowth in their systems.

I believe pretty firmly that what I’ve seen in the industry over the last decade since I left Microsoft is also, unfortunately, the norm – that management – as demonstrated by Sony’s leadership in that interview, will all too often let costs win over security.

 

For organizations that can redesign for a PaaS world, the promise offered by Azure was indeed what you’ve suggested – that designing new services and new applications for a Web-first world can lead to much more well-designed, refined, manageable, and securable applications and systems overall. But the problem is that that model only works well for new applications – not applications that stack refinement over legacy goo that nobody understands. So really, clean room apps only.

The slow uptake of Azure’s PaaS offerings unfortunately demonstrates that this is the exception, and an ideal, not necessarily anything that we can expect to see become the norm in the near future.

 

Also, while Web developers may not be integrating random bits of executable code into their applications, the amount of code reuse across the Web threatens to do the same, although the security perimeter is winnowed down to the browser and PII shared within it. Web developers can and do grab shared .js libraries off the Web in a heartbeat.

Do they understand the perimeter of these files? Absolutely not. No way.

Are the risks here as big as those posed by an unsecured Win32 perimeter? Absolutely not – but I wouldn’t trivialize them either.

There are no more OS hooks, but I’m terrified about how JS is evolving to mimic many of the worst behaviors that Win32 picked up over the years. The surface has changed, as you said – but the risks – loss of personal information, loss of data, phishing, DDOS, are so strikingly similar, especially as we move to a “thicker”, more app-centric Web.

 

Overall, I think we are in for some changes, and I agree with what I believe you’ve said both in your blog and on Twitter, that modern mobile OS’s with a perimeter designed in them are the only safe path forward. The path towards a secure Web application perimeter seems less clear, far less immediate, and perhaps less explicit than your post seemed to allude to.

 

There is much that organizations can learn from the Sony breach.

 

But will they?

 


03
Dec 14

Shareholder Shackles

Recently, Michael Dell wrote about the after-effects of taking his company private. I think his words are quite telling:

“I’d say we got it right. Privatization has unleashed the passion of our team members who have the freedom to focus first on innovating for customers in a way that was not always possible when striving to meet the quarterly demands of Wall Street.”, and “The single most important thing a company can do is invest and innovate to help customers succeed…”

Early on in my career at Microsoft, executives would often exclaim “our employees are our best asset.” By the time I left in 2004, however, it was pointedly clear that “shareholder value!” was the priority of the day. Problem is, most underling employees aren’t significant shareholders. In essence, executive leadership’s number one priority wasn’t building great products or retaining great employees, but in making money for shareholders. That’s toxic.

I distinctly recall the day that SteveB held an all-hands meeting where the move to deliver a dividend was announced for the first time in 2003. He was ecstatic, as he should have been. It was a huge jab in the side of institutional investors that had been pushing him to pass on the cash hoard to them. Being the second most significant shareholder at the time, it of course was a windfall for him, financially.

But most employees? They held some stock, sure. But not massive quantities. So this was, in effect, taking the cash that employees had worked their asses off to earn, and chucking it out at shareholders, whose most significant investment had been cash to try and keep the stock, stuck in a dead calm for years (and for years after), moving up.

After Steve announced the dividend in the “town hall” meeting that day, he asked if there were any questions from the room full of employees physically present there. There were no questions. Literally zero questions. For some reason, he seemed surprised.

I was watching the event from my office with a colleague, now also separated from Microsoft. I turned to him and asked, “Do you know why there are no questions?” He replied “no”, and I stated, “because this change he just announced means effectively nothing to more than 95% of the people in that room.

I’m not a big fan of the stock market – especially on short-term investments. I’m okay with you getting a return on a longer-term investment that you’ve held while a company grows. I think market pressures can lead a company to prioritize and deemphasize the wrong things just to appease the vocal masses. Fire a CEO and lose their institutional knowledge? SURE! (Not that every CEO change is all good or all bad.) Give you the cash instead of investing it in new products, technologies, people and processes to grow the business? SURE! But I’m really not a fan of fair-weather shareholders coming along and pushing for cash back on an investment they just made. Employees sweat their asses off for years building the business in order to get equity that takes years again to vest, and shareholders get the cash for doing almost nothing. Alrighty then. That makes sense.

While Tim Cook has taken some steps to appease certain drive-by activist investors who bloviate about wanting more cash through more significant dividends or bigger buybacks, he has pushed back as well, and has also been explicitly outspoken when people challenge the company’s priorities.

One can argue that Microsoft’s flat stock price from 2001-2013 was the cause of the reprioritization and capitulation to investors, but one can also argue that significant holdings by executives could also have tainted the priorities to focus on shareholder innovation shareholder value.

While Microsoft’s financial results do generally continue to move in a positive direction, I personally worry that too much of that growth could be coming in part with price increases, not with net-new sales. It’s always hard to decode which is which, as prices have generally been rising, and underlying numbers generating them aren’t always terrifically clear to decode (I’m being kind).

As organizations grow, and sales get tight, you have two choices to make money. You 1) get new customers, or 2) charge your existing customers more.

The first position is easy, as long as you’re experiencing organic sales to new customers, or you’re adding new products and services that don’t completely replace, but can and likely do erode, prior products in order to deliver longer-term growth opportunities for the business as a whole.

Most companies, over time, plateau and move into the second position and have to tighten the belt. It just happens. There’s just only so far you can go in terms of obtaining new customers for your existing products and services or building new products and services that risk your existing lines. This is far from unique to Microsoft. It’s a common occurrence. As this article in The New Yorker shows, United is doing this as well (and they’re certainly not alone). Even JetBlue is facing the music and chopping up their previously equitable seating plans to accommodate a push for earnings growth.

Read that last section quoting Hayes very carefully again: “long-term plan to drive shareholder returns through new and existing initiatives.” and “We believe the plan laid out today benefits our three key stakeholders … It delivers improved, sustainable profitability for our investors, the best travel experience for our customers and ensures a strong, healthy company for our crewmembers.”

Just breathe in those priorities for a moment. It’s not about the customers that pay the bills (and he left out “our highest paying” in the statement about customers). It’s not about the employees that keep the planes flying and on time. Nope. It’s about shareholder value. Effectively all about shareholder value. I would argue those priorities are completely ass-backwards. I’m also not sure I concur that it ensures a strong, healthy company for the long term, either. JetBlue has many dedicated fliers due to the distinct premium, but price-conscious product it has delivered from the beginning. JetBlue will find themselves with great difficulty retaining existing customers. Sure, they’ll make money. But a lot of people who used to prefer JetBlue are now likely to not be so preferential.

My personal opinion is that Michael Dell is spot on – the benefit of being a private company is that, now that he survived the ordeal of re-privatizing his company, he can ignore the market at large, and do what’s best for the company. Rather than focusing on short-term goals quarter to quarter, and worrying about a certain year’s fourth quarter being slightly down over the previous year’s, he, his leadership team, and his employees can focus on building products and services that customers will buy because they solve a problem for them.

I worry about a world where the “effectiveness” of a CEO is in any way judged by the stock price. It’s a bullshit measurement. Price growth doesn’t gauge whether the company will be alive or dead in 5, 10, or 15 years. It doesn’t gauge whether a CEO is willing to put a product line on a funeral pyre so a new one can grow in it’s place. Most importantly, it doesn’t gauge whether a company’s sales pipeline is organically growing or not in any form.

When you focus on just pleasing the cacaphony of shareholders, you get hung up on driving earnings up at all costs. This is the price a public company faces.

When you focus on just driving earnings up at all costs, you get hung up on driving numbers that may well not be in line with the long-term goals of your company. This is the price a public company faces.

Build great products and services. Kick ass. Take names. Watch customers buy your tools to solve their problems. When shareholders with no immediate concern for your company other than how you’ll pad their wallet come knocking, as long as you’re making a profit, invest that cash in future growth for your company, and tell them you’re too busy building great things to talk.