Aug 17

A few thoughts on Windows 10 S…

A few months ago, before Microsoft announced their new Surface Laptop or Windows 10 S, I had several conversations with reporters and friends about what might be coming. In particular, some early reports had hinted that this might be a revision of Windows, something designed for robustness. Some thought it might be more Chromebook-like. Given the experiences of my daughters with Chromebooks, those last two sentences are oxymorons. But I digress. What arrived, Windows 10 S (AKA “Windows 10 Pro in S Mode”) wasn’t a revision or really much of a refinement. It was a nuanced iteration of Windows 10 Pro, with built-in Device Guard policies, and some carefully crafted changes to the underlying OS infrastructure.

Putting the Surface Laptop aside for now (it’s not my laptop, and I’m not its customer), Windows 10 S seems to me to be an OS full of peculiar compromises, with a narrow set of benefits for end users, at least at this time.

I saw this tweet go by on Twitter a bit ago, and several more followed, discussing the shortcomings of Windows 10 S.

In most conversations I’ve had with reporters recently about Windows, I’ve reemphasized my point that what most customers want isn’t “an OS that does <foo>”. They want a toaster.

What do I mean by that? Think about a typical four-slice toaster:

You use it Sunday morning. It toasts.
You use it Monday morning. It toasts.
You use it Wednesday morning. It toasts.

This is what a huge percentage of the populace wants. A toaster. Normals want it. Schools want it. Most IT workers want it. Frankly, I think a lot of IT wants it, because they’re constantly being asked to do more, and given less money to do it with.

The era of tinkering with PCs being fun for normals, and even some technical people, has passed.

So that in mind, what’s wrong with Windows 10 S? Nothing, I guess. In a way, It is at least a more toasterish model for Windows than we’ve seen before. It’s constrained, and attempts to put a perimeter around the Windows desktop OS to reduce the risk posed by the very features of the OS itself.

I encourage you to read Piotr’s thread, above, before reading further.

Windows 10 S is not:

  • A new edition of Windows (or version, for that matter). It’s effectively a specially configured installation of Windows 10 Pro
  • Redesigned for use with touch or tablets, any more than 10 itself is
  • Cloud-backup enabled or cloud recoverable (this one is a shame, IMHO)
  • Free of Win32 and the quirks and challenges that it brings.

Those last two are important. Consumers with iOS devices today are generally used to toaster-like experiences when it comes to backing up and recovering their devices (yes, exceptions exist) to iCloud ideally, or a Mac or PC in certain circumstances. The last one is important because most of the troublesome battery life issues that hit lightweight, low-energy Windows devices can be easily pointed back to the cumbersome baggage of Win32 itself, and Win32 applications engineered for a time when energy was cheap because PCs were plugged in all the time, and everything was about processor power.

So if Windows 10 S isn’t “all new”, what is it?

Technologically, Windows 10 S is designed for the future. Or at least the future Microsoft wants:

  • It offers almost all features of Pro, and can be easily “upgraded” to Pro
  • It natively supports Azure Active Directory domain join and authentication as Pro does, but does not support joining Active Directory at all
  • It supports Windows Store applications only (UWP, Desktop Bridge if crafted correctly, etc), otherwise, no use of Win32 applications not in-box and approved by Microsoft
  • Secure by default, at least in the sense that the previous objective and the implementation of Device Guard + policies built in can deliver.

So it’s an OS that supports the directory, app store, and legacy app distribution models of the future.

A question I’ve been asked several times was, “why no AD join?” – Initially I was just going with the “it’s the directory of the future” theory. But there’s more to it. From the day that AD and Group Policy came into Windows, there was an ongoing struggle in terms of performance and cost. Ask anyone who had a Windows 2000 PC how long they had to wait when they logged on every day. A giant chunk of that was Active Directory. Over time,  Windows added increasing amounts of messaging to tell you what the OS was doing during logon.

If you go back and look at the 10 S reveal, logon performance was a touted feature. I’ve even seen people on Twitter say that’s why they like 10 S better. Why is it better? I’m sure there are some other reasons as well, but by completely obliterating AD integration, I’m certain that a huge performance win was observed.

When I look at 10 S then, particularly the Device Guard-based security, the defenestration of Active Directory, and the use of Pro as an underlying OS rather than a new edition, 10 S feels… kind of like a science experiment that escaped the lab. Frankly, Device Guard always kind of looked that way to me too.

But there’s another angle here too, and it’s kind of a weird one.

I don’t know how much Microsoft is selling Windows 10 S to OEMs for, but price is clearly a factor here. Some have assumed that because it’s based on Pro, that 10 S costs the same, or even costs as much as Home. It is not clear whether that is actually the case.

When announced, Microsoft stated that it would ship on PCs starting at US$189. As I said, price is clearly a factor. Given the fact that a one-time upgrade from 10 S to Pro costs US$49, it seems pretty apparent to me that with 10 S, Microsoft has shifted some costs for Pro that used to be borne by OEMs to consumers. While this US$49 upgrade is basically moot for the remainder of this calendar year, eventually it must be considered, as consumers (and some businesses) will need to pay if they require Pro-only functionality.

So the net effect then is that Windows 10 S devices can be cheaper, at least up-front, than Windows 10 Pro devices (and maybe Home). Users who need Pro can “upgrade” to it.

Here’s where I think this gets really interesting. Before too long, we can expect to see ARM-based devices running Windows 10. I think that these devices could likely come with 10 S on them, resulting in lower purchase prices, as well as a reduced risk vector if users don’t actually need to run their own library of Win32 applications. In a way then, “Windows 10 S on ARM” offers most of the actual value that Windows RT ever delivered, but would offer far more, by supporting Desktop Bridge applications, and a complete upgrade to Pro with support for x86 Win32 applications.

Consumers could pay for the upgrade to Pro if they need to run full Win32, or need to upgrade the device to Enterprise for work. In this scenario, I imagine that Chrome will likely be the reason why a number of 10 S users pay for an upgrade.

Just as with the vaguely unannounced “Windows 10 Pro for Workstations”, there’s always a reason why these changes occur, and a strategic objective that Microsoft has planned. For me, I think that 10S, especially with a pilot launch on Microsoft’s own Surface Laptop hardware, is pretty clearly a sign of a few directions there the company wants to go.


May 14

Engage or die

I’m pretty lucky. For now, this is the view from my office window. You see all those boats? I get to look out at the water, and those boats, all the time (sun, rain, or snow). But those boats… honestly, I see most of those boats probably hundreds of days per year more than their owners do. I’d bet there’s a large number of them that haven’t moved in years.

IMG_0224The old adage goes “The two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys it, and the day he sells it.”

All too often, the tools that we acquire in order to solve our problems or “make our lives better” actually add new problems or new burdens to our lives instead. At least that’s what I have found. You buy the best hand mixer you can find, but the gearing breaks after a year and the beaters won’t stay in, so you have to buy a new one. You buy a new task-tracking application, but the act of changing your work process to accommodate it actually results in lower efficiency than simply using lined paper with a daily list of tasks. As a friend says about the whole Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, “All you have to do is change the way you work, and it will completely change the way you work.”

Perhaps that’s an unfair criticism of GTD, but the point stands for many tools or technologies. If the investment required to take advantage of, and maintain, a given tool exceeds the value returned by it (the efficiency it provides), it’s not really worth acquiring or using.

Technology promises you the world, but then winds up making the best part of using it when you cut yourself taking it out of the hermetically sealed package it was shipped in from China. Marketing will never tell you about the sharp edges, only the parts of the product that work within the narrow scenarios product management understood and defined.

Whether it’s software or hardware, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so working to eliminate tools that fail to make me more productive or reduce day-to-day friction in my work or personal life. Basically looking around, pondering, “how often do I use this tool?”, and discarding it if the answer isn’t “often” or “all the time.” Tangentially, if there’s a tool that I even use at all because it’s the best option, but rarely do so, I’ll keep it around. PaperKarma is a good example of this, because there’s honestly no other tool that does what it does.

However, a lot of software and hardware that I might’ve found indispensable at one point is open for consideration, and I’m tired of being a technology pack-rat. If a tool isn’t something that I really want to (or have to) use all the time, if there’s no reason to keep it around, then why should I keep it? If it’s taking up space on my phone, tablet, or computer, but I never use it, why would I keep it at all?

As technology moves forward at a breakneck pace, with new model smartphones, tablets, and related peripherals for both arriving at incredible speed and with amazing frequency, we all have to make considered choices about when to acquire technology, when to retire it, and when to replace it. Similarly, as software purveyors all move to make you part of their own walled app and content gardens and mimic or pass each other, they also must fight to maintain relevance in the mind of their users every day.

This is why we see Microsoft building applications for iOS and Android, along with Web-based Office applications – to try and address scenarios that Apple and Google already do. It’s why we saw Apple do a reset on the iWork applications, add Web-based versions (to give PC users something to work with). Finally, it’s why we see Google building Hangout plug-ins for Outlook. It’s trying to inject your tools into a workflow where you are a foreign player.

The problem with this is that it is well-intended, but can only be modestly successful at best. As with the comment about GTD, you have to organically become a part of a user’s workflow. You can’t assert yourself into the space with your own workflow and expect to succeed. Great examples of this include Apple’s iWork applications where users on Macs are trying to collaborate with Microsoft Office users on Windows or Mac. Pages won’t seamlessly interact with Word documents – it always wants to save as a Pages document. The end result is that users are constantly frustrated throwing the documents back and forth, and will usually wind up caving and simply using Office.

Tools, whether hardware, or more likely software, that want to succeed over the long run must follow the below “rules of engagement”:

  1. Solve an actual problem faced by your potential users
  2. Seamlessly inject yourself into the workflow of the user any any collaborators the user must work with to solve that problem
  3. Deliver enough value such that users must engage regularly with your application
  4. Don’t create more friction than you remove for your users.

For me, I find that games are easily dismissed. They never solve a real problem, and are an idle-time consumer. Entertain the user or be dismissed and discarded. I downloaded a few photo synchronization apps, in the hopes that one could solve my fundamental annoyances with iPhoto. Both claimed to synchronize all of your photos from your iOS devices to their cloud. The problems with this were two-fold.

  1. They didn’t reliably synchronize on their own in the background. Both regularly nagged me to open the app so it could sync
  2. They synchronized to a cloud service, when I’ve already made a significant investment in iPhoto.

In the end, I stopped using both apps. They didn’t help me with the task I wanted to accomplish, and in fact made it more burdensome for the little value they did provide.

My primary action item out of this post, then, is a call to action for product managers (or anybody designing app[lication]s):

Make your app easy to learn, easy to engage with, friction-free, and valuable. You may think that the scenario you’ve decided to solve is invaluable, but it may actually be nerd porn that most users could care less about. Nerd porn as I define it is features that geeks creating things add to their technology that most normal users never care about (or miss if they’re omitted).

Solving a real-world problem with a general-use application means doing so in a simple, trivial, non-technical manner, and doing it in a way that makes users fall in love with the tool. It makes them want to engage with it as a tool that feels irreplaceable – that they couldn’t live without. When you’re building a tool (app/hardware/software or other), make your tool truly engaging and frictionless, or prepare to watch users acquire it, attempt to use it, and abandon it – and your business potential going with it.

Jan 14

Bimodal tablets (Windows and Android). Remember them when they’re gone. Again.

I hope these rumors are wrong, but for some odd reason, the Web is full of rumors that this year’s CES will bring a glut of bimodal tablets; devices that are designed to run Windows 8.1, but also feature an integrated instance of Android. But why?

For years, Microsoft and Intel were seemingly the best of partners. While Microsoft had fleeting dalliances with other processor architectures, they always came back to Intel. There were clear lines in the sand;

  1. Intel made processors
  2. Microsoft made software
  3. Their mutual partners (ODMs and OEMs) made complete systems.

When Microsoft announced the Surface tablets, they crossed a line. Their partners (Intel and the device manufactures) were stuck in an odd place. Continue partnering just with Microsoft (now a competitor to manufacturers, and a direct purveyor of consumer devices with ARM processors), or find alternative counterpoints to ensure that they weren’t stuck in the event that Microsoft harmed their market.

For device manufacturers, this has meant what we might have thought unthinkable 3 years ago, with key manufacturers (now believing that their former partner is now also a competitor) building Android and Chrome OS devices. For Intel, it has meant looking even more broadly at what other operating systems they should ensure compatibility with, and evangelization of (predominantly Android).

While the Windows Store has grown in terms of app count, there are still some holes, and there isn’t really a gravitational pull of apps leading users to the platform. Yet.

So some OEMs, and seemingly Intel, have collaborated on this effort to glue together Windows 8.1 and Android on a single device, with the hopes that the two OSs combined in some way equate to “consumer value”. However, there’s really no clear sign that the consumer benefits from this approach, and in fact they really lose, as they’ve now got a Windows device with precious storage space consumed by an Android install of dubious value. If the consumer really wanted an Android device, they’re in the opposite conundrum.

Really, the OEMs and Intel have to be going into this strategy without any concern for consumers. It’s just about moving devices, and trying to ensure an ecosystem is there when they can’t (or don’t want to) bet on one platform exclusively. The end result is a device that instead of doing task A well, or task B well, does a really middling job with both of them, and results in a device that the user regrets buying (or worse, regrets being given).

BIOS manufacturers and OEMs have gone down this road several times before, usually trying to put Linux either in firmware or on disk as a rapid-boot dual use environment to “get online faster” or watch movies without waiting for Windows to boot/unhibernate. To my knowledge most devices that ever had these modes provided by the OEM were rarely actually used. Users hate rebooting, they get confused by where their Web bookmarks are (or aren’t) when they need them, etc.

These kinds of approaches rarely solve problems for users; in fact, they usually create problems instead, and are a huge nightmare in terms of management. Non-technical users are generally horrible about maintaining one OS. Give them two on a single device? This will turn out quite well, don’t you think? In the end, these devices, unless executed flawlessly, are damaging to both the Windows and Android ecosystems, the OEMs, and Intel. Any bad experiences will likely result in returns, or exchanges for iPads.

Apr 13

The PadFone is not the future

I’ve been pondering the existence of devices like the Asus PadFone and PadFone 2 recently.

Not really convertible devices, not really hybrid devices, they’re an electronic centaur. Like an Amphicar or a Taylor Aerocar, the PadFone devices compromise their ability to be one good device by instead being two less than great devices.

I haven’t found a good description of devices like the PadFone – I refer to them as “form integrated”. One device is a dumb terminal and relies on the brain of the other.

While a novel approach, the reality is that form integrated devices are a bit nonsensical. Imagine a phone that integrates with a tablet, or a tablet that integrates into a larger display. To really work well, the devices must be acquired together, and if one breaks, it kills the other (lose your Fone from the PadFone, and you’ve got a PadBrick).

You also wind up with devices where the phone must be overpowered in order to drive the tablet (wasting battery) or a weak phone that results in a gutless tablet when docked.

Rather than this “host/parasite” model of the form integrated approach, I would personally much rather see a smart pairing of devices. Pairing of my iPhone, iPad, and Mac, or pairing of a Windows Phone, Windows 8 tablet, and a Windows 8 desktop.

What do I mean by smart pairing? I sit down at my desktop, and it sees my phone automatically over Bluetooth or the like. No docking, no need to even remove it from my pocket. Pair it once, and see all the content on it. Search for “Rob”, and see email that isn’t even on the desktop. Search for “Windows Blue”, and it opens documents that are on the iPhone.

The Documents directory on my desktop should be browsable from my phone, too (when on the same network or if I elect to link them over the Internet).

Content, even if it is stored in application silos, as Windows Store applications and iOS/OS X applications do, should be available from any device.

I think it would also be ideal if applications could keep context wherever I go. Apple’s iCloud implementation begins to do this. You can take a document in Pages across the Mac, iPad, and iPhone, and access the document wherever you are. Where Asus is creating a hardware-based pairing between devices, Apple is creating a software-based pairing, through iCloud. It is still early, and rough, but I personally like that approach better.

My belief is that people don’t want to dock devices and have one device be the brain of another. They don’t want to overpay for a pair of devices that aren’t particularly good at either role and instead will pay a premium for two great devices, especially if they integrate together seamlessly and automatically.

Much as I believe the future of automotive electronics is in “smartphone software integrated” head units rather than overly-complex integrated computing built into the car, the future of ubiquitous computing lies in a fabric of smart devices that work together, with the smartphone most likely being the key “brain” among them. Not with its CPU driving everything else, but instead with it’s storage being pervasively available wherever you are, without needing to be docked or plugged in.

Feb 13

Microsoft Account – Bring Your Own Identity

When you start a new job, there’s only one you. You don’t get a new identity just because you started at a new company. You have the same Social Security number, you have the same fingerprints, same birthdate, same home town. You get a collection of credentials that give you access to company resources, but you don’t really get a new “identity”.

In fact, pretty much the only time you get a completely new identity is if you enter the Federal Witness Protection Program.

What does happen is, you go in to a new job, and you tell them who you are, you provide your actual identity cards/passport to them, and they established a pseudo-identity for you within the organization.

For some reason, along the way, it became normal to have your corporate identity be who you are. When we look at Active Directory (AD), and any other LDAP based directory over last decade or so, a lot of their growth is been around trying to make that the single identity that you use within the company, and have it even be federated out when you need to connect to external resources outside of the organization.
But again, when you leave that company, you take your identity with you. The email address, the AD access, the server access, the application access, the database access – it was all part of your role in the company, and ceases to be, the day you leave.

Last year when Microsoft announced Windows RT, a lot of us… well… kind of freaked out, because Windows RT didn’t include active directory membership, let alone any ability to manage the device through Group Policy (GP). After over 12 years, Microsoft was saying “no… no… no… you don’t have to use AD to manage this machine. In fact, it can’t even join AD“. It was Windows 9X all over again in terms of centralized management.

What’s most fascinating to me about Windows RT though, is that your identity, when you log on to that machine, is a Microsoft account; the thing we used to call Passport, Live ID, etc. Microsoft has made your personal Microsoft Account the central hub of everything you do now – from Windows, to SkyDrive, Outlook.com, Office, and the Windows Store – because the device is a personal device, which could possibly be used with work resources. Most importantly though, this account is yours. Your employer has no control over the account. Regrettably, that includes a lack of manageability for such things as password complexity, or how you handle data that crosses from company systems over the threshold of your device and out to the unmanaged SkyDrive service – or any cloud storage service.

A blog post I ran across a few weeks ago about “BYOI” caught my attention. That’s bring your own identity, for those of you keeping score of the acronyms at home. Microsoft hasn’t stated anything of the sort, but I have to look
at what’s in Windows RT, and wonder if BYOI isn’t indeed part of a bigger trend.

In many ways BYOI reflects the whole BYOD or COPE, or whatever we want to call it… the idea that IT doesn’t own or manage devices any longer, users do. And just as you never would’ve brought a home computer into your company and have it join AD then, why would you do that today? As I alluded to almost a year and a half ago in my post where I stated that hypervisors on phones were a bad idea, it’s not about managing devices anymore. At best, it’s about managing applications – and even more about managing access to data from within applications. Lose the device? Who cares. Brick it. Lose the application? Who cares – you didn’t lose the credentials. Lost the credentials? Nuke them and provide new ones to the user. We’ve lived in this world of device dictatorship not because it was the best way to create productive users, but because Windows was created as an “anything goes, all users are admin” world, with a common filesystem shared promiscuously by any code that can run on the system. We’re moving towards a world where data, not devices, are the hub – and identity, not devices, are the key that unlock access to that data.

The BYOI post that I mentioned earlier didn’t really talk about this aspect, it was kind of a different tangent – but my point is what if it doesn’t matter what set of credentials you use to log on to a device? Technologies like exchange ActiveSync and other mobile device management technologies give IT the ability to nuke a device from orbit if they want to. It’s not that AD Is dead, it’s just that Microsoft understands that AD isn’t an active part of users’ personal machines (those they personally acquired).

An iPad or iPhone never asks for credentials to log on to the device, but of course it never really establishes your identity either (there are as many as 1 users on any iOS device – they’re sharing a single identity across the OS – for better or worse). Instead, in iOS it really becomes the applications that hold your identity and authenticate you to assets of the company (or Apple, or Netflix, etc). An even better aspect of this is the fact that these applications then usually don’t hold much application state. What they do is allow authentication and state to be managed and secured by the application instead of by the operating system (just like Windows Store applications and many well-managed IT applications do). All iOS owns is the management and security of which applications are allowed to be installed and run on the device, and the secure storage of data. It also owns destruction of the operating system and all of the data on the device if the device is lost or compromised and the pass code is entered incorrectly or the device is forcibly wiped through Exchange or other device management software.

In a somewhat fascinating turn of events, even Office 2013/Office 365 do the same. While you can store data locally, your Microsoft Account or Office 365 account can be different than your AD account, and are used to license the software to you, and provide shared storage in the cloud (yes, an Office 365 account can be tied back to AD – but the point is that Office, not Windows, is providing that authentication gateway). Identity is moving up the stack, from an OS-level service to an application-level service, where you can just as easily bring your own identity – which can, but doesn’t have to be, a single directory used across a device for everything.

Feb 13

Task-Oriented Computing

Over the past six years, as the iPhone, then iPad, and similar devices have caused a ripple within the technology sector, the industry and pundits have struggled to define what these devices are.

From the beginning, they were always classified as “content consumption devices”. But this was a misnomer then, and it’s definitely wrong today. Whether we’re talking about Apple’s devices, Android phones or tablets, Blackberry’s new phones, or devices running Windows 8/RT and Windows Phone, calling them content consumption devices is just plain wrong.

A while ago, I wrote about hero apps and promiscuous apps. I didn’t say it then, but I’ll clarify it now. Promiscuous apps hit first not because they are standout applications for a device to run, but rather because they’re easy!

Friends who know me well know that I’m often comparing the auto industry of the early 1900’s with today’s computing/technology fields. When you consider Henry Ford at the sunrise of the auto industry, the Quadricycle was his first attempt to build a car. This wasn’t the car he made his name with. But it’s the car that got him started. This car featured no safety equipment, no windscreen – it didn’t even have a steering wheel, instead opting for the still common (at the time) tiller to control the vehicle.

Promiscuous applications show up on new platforms for the same reason that Henry’s Quadricycle didn’t feature rollover protection and side-impact beams. It’s easy to design the basics. It’s hard to a) think beyond what you’ve seen and b) build something complex without understanding the risks/benefits necessary to build it to begin with.

As a result, we see these content portals like Netflix, Skype, Dropbox, and Amazon Kindle Reader show up first because they have a clear and well understood workflow that honestly isn’t that hard to bring to new platforms so long as the platforms deliver certain fundamentals. Also, most mobile platforms are “close enough” that with a little work, these promiscuous apps can get their quickly.

But when we look out farther in the future – in fact, when we look at Windows RT and criticize it for a lack of best-of-breed apps that exploit the platform less than 4 months after the platform first released, it’s also easy to see why those apps aren’t on Windows RT or in the Windows Store (yet), and why they take a while to arrive on any new platform to begin with.

Developing great new apps on any platform is a combination of having the skills to exploit the platform while also intimately understanding the workflow of your potential end-users. Each of these takes time, together they can be a very complicated undertaking. As we look at apps like Tweetie (Twitter for iPhone now) and Sparrow (acquired by Google), the unique ways that they stepped back and examined the workflow requirements of their users, and built clean, constrained feature sets to meet those requirements – and often innovative interface approaches to deliver them – are key things that made them successful.

The iPad being (wrongfully, I believe) categorized as a content consumption device has everything to do with those applications that first arrived on the device (the easy ones). It took time to build applications that were both exploitative of the platform and met the requirements of their users in a way that would drive both the application adoption and platform adoption. People looked at the iPad as a consumption device from the beginning because it is easy to do so. “Look, it’s a giant screen. All it’s good for is reading books and watching cat videos.” Horsefeathers. The iPad, like Windows RT, is a “clean slate”. Given built-in WiFi and optional 3G+ connectivity, tablets become a means to perform workflow tasks in ways we’d never consider with a computer before. From Point of Service tasks to business workflow, anytime a human needs to be fed information and asked to provide a decision or input to a workflow, a tablet or a phone can make a suitable vehicle for performing that task. Rather than the monolithic Line of Business (LOB) apps we’ve become used to over the first 20 years of Windows’ life, instead we’re approaching a school where – although they take time to design and implement correctly – more finite task oriented applications are coming into vogue. Using what I refer to as “task-oriented computing”, where we focus less on the business requirements of the system, and more on what users need to get done during their workday, this new class of applications can be readily integrated into existing back-office systems, but offer a much easier and more constrained user workflow, faster iteration, and easier deployment when improving it versus classic “fat client” LOB apps of yore.

The key in task-oriented computing, of course, is understanding the workflow of your users (or your potential users, if this is a new application – whether inside or outside of a business), and distilling that workflow into the correct discrete steps necessary to result in an app that flows efficiently for the end users, and runs on the devices they need it to. A key tenet here is of course, “less is more” and when given the choice of throwing in a complex or cumbersome feature or workflow – jettisoning the feature until time and understanding enable it to be executed correctly. When we look at the world of ubiquitous computing before us, the role that task-oriented computing plays is quite clear. Rather than making users take hammers to drive in screws, smaller, task-oriented applications can enable them to process workflow that may have been cumbersome before and enable workers to perform other more critical tasks instead.

When talking about computing today in relation to the auto industry, I often bring up the electric starter. After the death of a friend in 1910 due a crank starter kicking back and injuring him, Henry Leland pushed to get electric starters in place on his vehicles, and opened up motoring to a populace that may have shunned motorcars before then, do to the physical strength necessary to start them, and potential for danger if something went wrong with the crank.

When we stand back and approach computing from the perspective of “what does the software need to do in order to accommodate the user” instead of “what does the user need to do in order to accommodate the software” as we have for the last 20 years, we can begin to remove much of the complexity that computing, still in its infancy, has shoved into the face of users.

Dec 12

100 Days – On Twitter and the virality of exclusive information.

Early Aug. 2012 – Short of information about how the Windows Store, the forthcoming home for Windows Store (nee Metro) applications was doing, I began exploring the store, trying to assess how many applications were actually there. I had heard rumblings of 400 or so applications. As I said late in Sept. 2012, my intentions were never malicious. I pondered whether there was any way to query the store programmatically. Here’s how it went down.

Aug. 15, 2012 – I had discussed an idea with a friend on how to query the Windows Store, and tried it. My initial results, after fiddling with my idea for a bit, resulted in a count of 534 applications available worldwide.

Aug. 28, 2012 – I registered winappupdate.com and created the Twitter account @WinAppUpdate, but let them sit dormant for a while.

I was still only polling the store on occasion. On Sept. 5, 2012, I saw the store pass 1,000 applications worldwide – on Sept. 10, 2011 I began polling it every day, and we posted a State of the Store article at Directions that sought to more broadly discuss the composition of the store, not just the count.

Sept. 16, 2012 – I posted the first blog post on WinAppUpdate.com, announcing that there were 1,749 applications worldwide, and linked to it from Twitter. I added myself and a few other people, but effectively I had no followers. As someone with a psychology and sociology background, the virality with which the statistics spread and followers of the Twitter account for @WinAppUpdate grew, I found it fascinating, and I was glad that people found the information and the numbers interesting and helpful.

Over the next two weeks, as Mary Jo Foley, Alex Wilhelm, and Charlie Kindel, among others, mentioned this site, my stats, and the Twitter account, it began to grow in followers significantly. I can tell you from having had it happen on getwired.com before, you do not want to get sent Mary Jo’s traffic when you are not ready. It does unpleasant things to your site.

Throughout September and October of 2012, stats that I posted on Twitter resonated pretty well, and the @WinAppUpdate account began to grow in followers. Anytime Mary Jo or Alex would mention the Twitter account or the site, I would gain several – or many – followers. What I found most fascinating was how many of these followers were Microsoft employees or partners. There was a genuine scarcity of information around Windows 8 throughout the preview process and both employees and partners, among everyone else, seemed to want to know what was going on with the Windows Store. Over the next almost 3 months, the @WinAppUpdate account grew slowly at first, but then quite dramatically.

There were, for the next two and a half months, only two sources of application counts – my site and this site, where he has diligently counted the number of apps using a different approach than me, and at first I didn’t think his methodology would work – but I think it does, and lucky for him, it can continue where mine may have hit the end of the line.

Oct. 26, 2012 – Windows 8 RTM – I noted that the store was at 9,029 applications, and as media coverage of Windows 8 increased, so did discussions of my counts, and the number of followers. Conversations with Mary Jo and Alex on Twitter, as well as mentions of the Twitter account in the news media surely helped to keep the count of followers growing, even as I both diligently tried to stop making “the count” the focus of discussion – and in particular the discussion on my @WinAppUpdate account. On the same day, I also posted on getwired.com The Turn, where I more or less bared all about how I collected my statistics.

Throughout this exercise, as I said, my intent was never malicious. I knew at some point, Microsoft could – nay, should figure out how I was doing it, and either ask me to stop or simply shut off the spigot (easier said than done, as it could affect the SEO of the Windows Store). That said, I have always felt that if Microsoft asked me, I would have stopped counting or discussing the content on the store. I was providing the numbers, and then the deeper analysis, to help people understand what was going on in the store. I did announce when the store had hit 10,000, and 20,000, applications worldwide, and when there appeared to be more apps in the China Windows Store than the US Windows Store.

After I announced how I did my counts, as I somewhat anticipated, a few people started emulating.

Nov. 30, 2012 – I was about a group of guys who have built a Web-based front-end to the Windows Store, now at http://metrostore.preweb.sk/.

Over the next week, that site got some publicity. I continued to shift discussion away from counts both on my blog and @WinAppUpdate. Though that Web-based Windows Store now included a count, I only handed out a vague “over 25K” answer when asked during the week of Dec. 3, 2012. I had spent the last month really trying to find and discuss apps that I found significant, rather than discussing counts.

Early on, the script that ran my counter did its work in the morning. I shifted it to the nighttime – at about 10PM PST, when the time that Microsoft would push out their sitemaps seemed to have reliably occurred.

Dec. 5, 2012 – The last successful polling of the Windows Store occurred from my app.

Dec. 6, 2012 – I checked my stats in the evening before going to bed. My Excel spreadsheet, which has grown from several KB to more than 7MB, was completely empty, save my Excel formulas that I inserted at build. I checked the sitemaps manually. The first part was there, and pointed to the second. The second part was there, and pointed to the actual sitemaps. The actual sitemaps… were dead. Search engines that hit the site manually are going to be confused. But if Microsoft has elected to do this on purpose, then that meant they are likely submitting the sitemaps directly to Bing, Google, and Yahoo.

Dec. 12, 2012 – So here we are. It was 100 days since from the day I first created the @WinAppUpdate account and registered  the domain name to when I lost the ability to investigate the store. The Twitter account now has 1,378 followers, after only 831 tweets. That works out to 1.65 followers per tweet, or 16.65 followers per day. When you compare that to my original @Getwired account on Twitter, which I created on May 31, 2008, it’s pretty astonishing. After an insane number of tweets (59,518) and 1,653 days on Twitter, I have only 2,513 followers. With @Getwired, I’ve found that breaking the news – finding a news source before anyone else (or saying something genuinely, uniquely witty or thoughtful) – really does help generate new followers and create tweets that resonate. Though @WinAppUpdate did not generate a massive number of tweets, nor a massive amount that resonated widely on Twitter (I think 13 or 20 RTs of one was the largest I saw, and I’ve seen better than that on @Getwired), the number of followers, and followers who recommended the account to others, speaks highly of the value people find in Twitter when the information is truly unique, and can’t be found through any other source.

As for me, for now (for obvious reasons) I’m standing down on counting apps or mining the store. I can’t be certain whether I was the reason, or someone else was the reason, as to why the sitemaps went offline – or if they went offline by accident. @WinAppUpdate has been an amazing ride, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the conversations I’ve had around the Windows Store over the last several months. I’m leaving the app counting to those who have other means to count than my methodology, and leaving analysis of the contents and quality of Windows Store apps to those who have the time to do such an exercise justice – given the need to dig through the store to find them now, I don’t have the time to carry on with it.

I plan to retire the @WinAppUpdate Twitter account shortly. The blog URL will most likely redirect to this site, or perhaps a partner site if I can find a relevant one. All of the blog contents have been moved to Getwired.com for posterity, under the account  at WinAppUpdate. To my followers on Twitter – I thank you all for joining me on this wild and crazy ride, and hope you’ll join me at @getwired as well, where I’m really just getting started with Windows 8.

Dec 12

Windows Store: Any Way to Figure out Who’s On First?

The recent statistics Microsoft handed out about regarding the Windows Store made me think a bit. Microsoft noted that some apps on the store have had significant numbers of downloads. The fact that several “parts of Windows 8 and Windows RT” are only available as a download from the Windows Store innately twists what “some apps have had millions of downloads from the Windows Store” can mean. Some third parties have claimed to have statistics on this as well. In general, only Microsoft can really know or reveal download statistics – I have no ability to see this information without Microsoft sharing it with me.

However, I can look at the data I do have and extrapolate from there…

I contend, however, that the submittal of feedback is a bit of very useful data. In particular, applications with significant numbers of ratings (“star”) submittals tend to reflect apps that have either incited positive or negative feedback from lots of users. So while lots of ratings submittals may not correlate exactly to the most downloaded apps, there is, I believe, a correlation indicating that lots of users have downloaded it, as only a percentage of users take the time to submit feedback (either the app was stellar and they say so, or it was crap and they don’t mince words). I’ve often noticed that there tends to be a vacuum of feedback in the middle of the feedback range (2-4 star), which I theorize is a bit of a “couch potato factor”. People are satiated enough with the app to not submit negative feedback, but not ecstatic enough to submit positive feedback.

Because I don’t poll every page for every app in every locale (I long ago changed this to try and be kind to Microsoft’s site), I can’t tell you the statistics across every locale – there could be some apps in some locales (in particular, I know there are in the China Windows Store) that have a very high count of ratings submittals as well). But I can tell you in the US Windows Store. So, what happens when I take a look at my entire list of apps, filtered down just to the US? Here’s the answer:

Out of the 30 apps with the most rating submittals, 19 are from Microsoft. Almost all of the Microsoft apps have also been on the store since August as well though – so the stats may be a bit confusing/misleading. What’s more interesting is that even with the barrage of Microsoft apps early on, prolific (promiscuous?) apps such as Skype, Netflix, Fruit Ninja, Cut The Rope, and Kindle have managed to eke their way into the list of apps with the most rating submittals. It’s also notable that an app from (what I believe is an) independent developer like Bernardo Zamora can both attract this volume of ratings submittals, and hold it’s review score as high as a 4.5! That isn’t easy to do.

So, while it isn’t possible for me to tell who the top downloaded Windows Store applications are, I think that this set of apps reflect a collection that lots of users are downloading.

Finally, while I probably shouldn’t really say anything here, it is notable that all of these apps in the top 30 support ARM. Um… Except two of them.


Nov 12

Windows Store: Developers, don’t stuff the store with clones!

Today while navigating the new Windows Store apps that arrived today, I ran across something that sort of broke my heart. I found dozens of copies of the same app from the same developer. Not identical, mind you. Subtle differences in how input boxes are laid out, as well as different names, colors, and application icons. Take a look at FlourMill here:

and then Personal Recipe Book here:

The developer, under the name LunaPlena, has submitted 118 apps in the last two weeks. Almost all but 3 of them (the three oldest) are effectively identical. They are the same “data input” application, with subtle design changes. It would be akin to Microsoft offering a version of Access for hair stylists, another for nail salons, etc. If you have a Windows 8 or Windows RT device, do a search for LunaPlena and you should see an innumerable number of Windows Store apps from the last week that are effectively identical.

This isn’t the only developer doing this, either – though the app is so similar, I have to wonder the relationship between the two. Developer Prafull Kelkar has 89 apps in the store. A few are actually an interesting “quiz-style” application like ADONetQuiz, but most of them are kindred spirits to MyProperties:

or GiftIsGot (which is of course ever so slightly different from GiftIsGave):

I guess in many ways, this isn’t that different from the cadre of developers I’ve seen submitting “quote” applications on the Windows Store (or the Apple App Store for that matter) where the engine of the app is identical, but one can choose a distinct app for each individual they want to find quotes for. Except here the engine is the same, and the candy shell for entering data changes. For what it’s worth, this also isn’t a problem unique to the Windows Store by any means. I’ve seen the same on the Apple store, and Microsoft even mentioned it in their Windows Phone Marketplace blog earlier this year, referring to it as “bulk publishing”, but not outright frowning on the process. I do distinctly recall Microsoft saying they frowned upon developers submitting multiple seemingly identical applications in the Windows Store, yet here we are, seeing exactly that.

Seeing developers do this is disappointing to me for a multitude of reasons. First, because it wastes time – Microsoft has to sort through a tedium of apps that will only ever be downloaded by a handful of users, when developers with a broader spectrum of consumer applicability get stuck in a queue behind them. Second, because it’s nonsensical. Customers with data entry needs would be better suited with one app that was more like Access, FileMaker (or even more likely, Bento), rather than almost 200 data entry apps that are subtly tweaked to each task. It shows a developer trying to flood the store, rather than one who truly crafts an application with broad appeal. Inundating the Windows Store with “fraternal twins” like this doesn’t help Windows 8/RT users find the applications that will make Windows 8/RT valuable to them, and it doesn’t help developers make money (heck – these are free apps we’re talking about here). Clusters of apps like this also make me feel even more that application counts – of anybody’s store are an emperor’s clothes comparison. Yet another reason why I have been de-emphasizing counts.

Nov 12

Why no news on winappupdate.com? I’ve been traveling!

Apologies for the lack of updates recently. While the Windows Store has been growing by ~500 apps per day worldwide, only a fraction of these are truly stellar apps, and filtering out the wheat is still a manual process – something I can only do when time allows. Similarly, my rollup reports of the store are a relatively manual process that I hope to automate someday. That day is not today. Given a subtle jab that might seem to infer a lack of news by me here is a lack of anything important in the Windows Store, I thought I’d clarify. I do try to check on on Twitter several times per day, but only do updates here when there is really major news or I’ve had time to do a major report.

This past month has been relatively insane for me, with Build, PASS Summit 2012, SharePoint Conference 2012, and vacation to the Internet-weak wilds of Wyoming for Thanksgiving with family last week. Real work has to come first for me, so that didn’t leave a lot of time for updates on the Windows Store. Combined with the lack of real huge news on the store (besides raw number growth, which I’m trying to move away from emphasizing, since it isn’t the most important metric by any means), there wasn’t much to post here, or time to post it. If you get lonely for updates here, please check Twitter!

I will be doing a rollup report this week, where I’ll discuss the state of the store, categories, which markets are strongest, and a few other details. Stay tuned.