05
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.


04
Nov 13

Plan on profiting off of Windows XP holdouts? There’s no gold left in them thar hills.

A few times over the last year, I’ve had conversations with people about Windows XP holdouts. That is, that as Windows XP’s impending doom rapidly approaches next April, businesses and consumers holding out on Windows XP will readily flock to something new, such as – ideally for Microsoft, Windows 8.1 – or Windows 7.

I’m not so sure.

To start, let’s consider why a business or consumer would still be running Windows XP today. Most likely, it’s a combination of all of the following:

  1. It’s paid for (the OS and hardware)
  2. It runs on the hardware they have
  3. Applications they have won’t run, or aren’t supported, on anything newer
  4. It requires no user retraining
  5. They don’t see  a compelling reason to move beyond XP
  6. They don’t realize the risks of sticking with XP after next April.

You can split those reasons into two categories. Items 1-3 are largely due to financial impediment, while 4-6 are generally due to “static quo” – XP meets their business needs and 8.1 or 7 doesn’t provide the necessary pull to motivate them to move off of XP.

It’s not that 7, 8, or 8.1 did anything wrong, necessarily. I was there when XP shipped, and I’ll tell you I heard many business customers complain about numerous things. They hated the theme and felt it was toy-like. They wanted to be able to take off Movie Maker, Internet Mail & News, or other consumer niblets of the OS, but couldn’t. Frankly, some of them just felt it was a warmed over Windows 2000 (obviously none of those customers had ever tried to undock a hibernated Windows 2000 laptop). For many customers, it took until XP had been effectively re-released as XPSP2 for them to really fall for it. When Vista shipped, reasons 4 & 5 above largely doomed it. Vista had a completely nebulous value proposition for most consumers and almost every business, leading to Windows XP becoming even more deeply engrained into many businesses.

Many people describe Windows 7 as “a better Windows XP”, which I think is actually an insult to both operating systems. But frankly, unless a business understands item number 6 (which Microsoft just grabbed a drum and started beating really hard – albeit very, very late), the rest don’t matter.

I’ve talked to several businesses about Windows XP over the past several years. For better or worse, most of them are happy with the hardware and software investments they made over the last 12 years, and many don’t feel like spending money for new hardware (especially new touch-centric form factors with value that they don’t see clearly yet).

Even more important though, is the number of times we have run into businesses – especially small businesses like dental, medical, or other independent practices – which during the past decade either bought commercial software packages or hired consultants to build them custom software. As a result, many of them hit item number 3 – “Applications they have won’t run, or aren’t supported, on anything newer”. I kid you not, there are a lot of small businesses with a lot of applications that honestly have no path forward. They cannot stay on XP – they cannot be secure. They cannot move off, as they either cannot find a replacement of one or more of their key applications, cannot move that key existing application, or in some cases, simply cannot afford to move to a replacement (in case you haven’t noticed, we’re still not in a great economic climate). They are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Move off of XP and throw away working systems your employees already know for new systems with unknown features or functionality. To boot, any of these new solutions are primarily still targeting Windows 7 (the desktop), not the Windows 8+ “modern UI” – diminishing some of the key value in acquiring tablet or touch-centric devices running 8, if the system is, for the time being (and likely for the foreseeable future) stuck on the desktop. Since Windows 8+ doesn’t include Windows XP Mode, unless a customer has appropriate enterprise licensing with Microsoft, they can’t even run Windows XP in a VM on Windows 8+ (and I have a hard time believing that customers who spend that kind of money are the kind of customers who are holding out).

There are still many organizations that are using XP (and likely Office 2003) and appear to have no exit strategy or plan to leave XP behind. It appears a lot of organizations don’t realize (or don’t care) now porous Windows XP will become after it ceases being patched in April. It isn’t a war-hardened OS, as some customers believe. It’s a U.S.S. Constitution in an era of metal battleships. I hate to sound like a shill, but XP systems will be ripe for an ass-kicking beginning next spring, and they can, and will, be taken advantage of. I also don’t believe Microsoft will do any favors for businesses that stay on XP (and don’t pay the hefty costs for custom support agreements with a locked and loaded exit plan in place).

XP is dying. But I believe lots of organizations are simply unclear about what kind of threat it poses to them. As a result, they’re sitting on the investment they’ve already made.

I also think that a lot of organizations that are still sitting on XP today may even be aware of (some of the) potential risks that XP poses to their organization after April, but simply don’t have the budget to escape in time, even if they had the motivation (which lots of them don’t appear to have). Even if a company pulls the trigger today, if they have any significant number of XP systems and XP dependent applications, they’ll be lucky to be off of XP by April.

There’s a belief that a lot of these customers had budget sitting there, had no app blockers, and might have even wanted to go to 7, 8 or just “something new”, but were just lackadaisical and for some reason will now get a fire lit under them, generating a windfall of sorts for Microsoft, PC OEMs, and partners over the next 5 months. Instead of that easy opportunity, I believe where you run across XP in the majority of organizations at this point, a better analogy is a set of four fully impacted wisdom teeth in a patient with no dental coverage.


30
Oct 13

Windows Server on ARM processors? I don’t think so.

It’s hard to believe that almost three years have passed since I wrote my first blog entry discussing Windows running on the ARM processor. Over that time, we’ve seen an increasing onslaught of client devices (tablets and phones) running on ARM, and we’ve watched Windows expand to several Windows RT-based devices, and retract back to the Surface RT and Surface 2 being the only ARM-based Windows tablets, and now with the impending Nokia 2520 being the only non-Microsoft (and the only non-Nvidia) Windows RT tablets – that is, for as long as Nokia isn’t a part of Microsoft.

Before I dive in to the topic of Windows on ARM servers, I think it is important to take a step back and assess Windows RT.

Windows RT 8.1 likely shows the way that Microsoft’s non-x64 tablets will go – with less and less emphasis on the desktop over time, specifically as we see more touch-friendly Office applications in the modern shell. In essence, the strength that Microsoft has been promoting Windows RT upon (Office! The desktop you know!) is also it’s Achilles heel, due to the bifurcated roles of the desktop and modern UIs. But that’s the client – where, if Microsoft succeeds, the desktop becomes less important over time, and the modern interface becomes more important. A completely different direction than servers.

Microsoft will surely tell you that Windows RT, like the Windows Store and Surface, are investments in the long term. They aren’t short-term bets. That said, I think you’d have to really question anybody who tells you “Windows RT is doing really well.” Many partners kicking Windows RT’s tires ahead of launch bolted before the OS arrived, and every other ODM/OEM building or selling Windows RT devices has abandoned the platform in favor of low-cost Intel silicon instead. The Windows Store may be growing in some aspects, but until it is healthy and standing on its own, Windows RT is a second fiddle to Windows 8.x, where the desktop can be available to run “old software”, as much as that may be uninspiring on a tablet.

For some odd reason, people are fascinated with the idea of ARM-based servers. I’ve wound up in several debates/discussions with people on Twitter about Windows on ARM servers. I hope it never happens, and I don’t believe it will. Moreover, if it does, I believe it will fail.

ARM is ideal for a client platform – especially a clean client platform with no legacy baggage (Android, iOS, etc). It is low-power and highly customizable silicon. Certainly, when you look at data centers, the first thing you’ll notice is the energy consumption. Sure, it’d be great if we could conceptually reduce that by using ARM. But I’m really not sure replacing systems running one instruction set with systems running another is really a)viable or b)the most cost effective way to go about making the infrastructure more energy efficient.

Windows RT is, in effect, a power-optimized version of Windows 8, targeted to Nvidia and Qualcomm SoCs. It cannot run (most) troublesome desktop applications, and as a result doesn’t suffer from decades of Win32 development bad habits, with applications constantly pushing, pulling, polling and waiting… Instead, Windows RT is predominantly based around WinRT, a new, tightly marshaled API set intended to (in addition to favoring touch) minimize power consumption of non-foreground applications (you’ll note, the complete opposite of what servers do). Many people contemplating ARM-based Windows servers don’t seem to understand how horribly this model (WinRT) would translate to Windows server.

I talked earlier this year about the fork in the road ahead of Windows Server and the Windows client. I feel that it is very important to understand this fork, as Windows Server and client are headed in totally different directions in terms of how you interact with them and how they fulfill their expected role:

  • Windows client shell is Start screen/modern/Explorer first. Focuses on low-power, foreground-led applications, ARM and x86/x64, predominantly emphasizing WinRT.
  • Windows Server shell is increasingly PowerShell first. Focuses on virtualization, storage, and networking, efficient use of background processes, x64 only, predominantly emphasizing .NET and ASP.NET.

For years, Microsoft fought Linux tooth and nail to be the OS of choice for hosters. There’s really not much money to be made at that low end when you’re fighting against free and can’t charge for client access licenses, where Microsoft loves to make bread and butter. Microsoft offered low-end variants of Windows Server to try and break into this market. Cheaper prices mixed with hamstrung feature capabilities, etc. In time the custom edition was dropped in favor of less restrictive licensing of the regular editions of Windows Server 2012. But this isn’t a licensing piece, so I digress.

It is my sincere hope that there are enough people left at Microsoft who can still remember the Itanium. We’ll never know how much money ($MM? $BB?) was wasted on trying to make Windows Server and a few other workloads successful on the Itanium processor. Microsoft spent considerable time and money getting Windows (initially client and server, eventually just server) and select server applications/workloads ported to Itanium. Not much in terms of software ever actually made it over. Now it is dead – like every other architecture Windows NT has been ported to other than x64 (technically a port, but quite different) and, for now, ARM.

That in mind, I invite you to ponder what it would take to get a Windows Server ecosystem running on ARM processors, doing the things servers need to do. You’d need:

  1. 64-bit ARM processors from Nvidia or Qualcomm (SoCs already supported by Windows, but in 64-bit forms)
  2. Server hardware built around these processors – likely blade servers
  3. Server workloads for Windows built around these processors – likely IIS and a select other range of roles such as a Hadoop node, etc.
  4. .NET framework and other third-party/dev dependencies (many of these in place due to Windows RT, but are likely 32-bit, not 64-bit)
  5. Your code, running on ARM. Many things might just work, lots of things just won’t.

That’s just the technical side. It isn’t to say you couldn’t do it – or that part of it might not already be done within Microsoft already, but otherwise it would be a fairly large amount of work with likely a very, very low payoff for Microsoft, which leads us, briefly, to the licensing side. You think ARM-based clients are scraping the bottom of the pricing barrel? I don’t think Microsoft could charge nearly the price they do for Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard on an ARM-based server and have it be commercially viable (when going up against free operating systems). Charge less than Windows Server on x64, and you’re cannibalizing your own platform – something Microsoft doesn’t like to do.

Of course, the biggest argument against Windows Server on ARM processors is this: www.windowsazure.com. Any role that you would likely find an ARM server well-suited for, Microsoft would be happy to sublet you time on Windows Azure to accomplish the same task. Web hosting, Web application, task node, Hadoop node, etc. Sure, it isn’t on-premises, but if your primary consideration is cost, using Azure instead of building out a new ARM-based data center is probably a more financially viable direction, and is what Microsoft would much rather see going forward. The energy efficiency is explicit – you likely pay fractions of what you might for the same fixed hardware workload on premises running on x64 Windows, and you pay “nothing” when the workload is off in Azure – you can also expand or contract your scale as you need to, without investing in more hardware (but you run the same code you would on-premises – not the same as ARM would need). Microsoft, being a Devices and Services company now, would much rather sell you a steady supply of Windows Azure-based services instead of Windows Server licenses that might never be updated again.

Certainly, anything is possible. We could see Windows Server on ARM processors. We could even see Microsoft-branded server hardware (please no, Microsoft). But I don’t believe Microsoft sees either of those as a path forward. For on-premises, the future of energy efficiency with Windows Server lies in virtualization and consolidation on top of Hyper-V and Windows Server 2012+. For off-premises, the future of energy efficiency with Windows Server appears rather Azure. I certainly don’t expect to see an ARM-based Windows Server anytime soon. If I do, I’d really like to see the economic model that justifies it, and what the OS would sell for.


13
Sep 13

Make them fall in love

A friend was telling me the other day about his new Mac. He bought it, took it home, and said it was like Christmas; opening it up, the ease of getting started, and the look and feel of the hardware, as well as the software. Normally a buyer of PCs, he decided to buy a Mac. A few months before, another friend said the same about buying his first iPhone. What’s unusual is that these two, like me, are ex-Microsoft employees.

I’ve heard some people recently mention that Apple is a “prestige” brand. I guess you can call it that, but to me it’s more than that. I just bought a new printer. It’s a Brother. I’ve had an Epson, a Canon, an HP (all a few years ago, to be fair), and now this. Frankly, they all sucked. None had an experience that made you feel good about your purchase when you opened the box, all of them were painful to set up, and all (we’ll see about the Brother, if I keep it) required care and feeding in terms of constant ink upkeep. Starved by the margins of their disposable devices with overpriced cartridges, manufacturers always skimped on the cables (whether parallel or USB), and now can’t seem to spend the money to build a point and shoot Wi-Fi setup that works regardless of your network. Printers could be so much more, but like the fax machine, they’re a technology teetering on the edge of death due to their hostility to consumers – mocked almost 15 years ago in Office Space, yet never improved.

I’m going to tell you a secret here. Most human beings don’t want to buy hardware. They don’t really want to buy software, either. They have things they need to do, and want tools to help them do those things, faster and easier than they could otherwise do.

Many people cynically look at the iPad, iPhone, or similar Android devices, and say that these are only consumption devices. Bull. If a user (consumer or business) can get the tasks done that they need to in their home or work life, it’s not a consumption only device. It’s a productivity device. The iPad was so great and so unique because it created a blank slate for whatever task the user wanted to work on, and enabled users to get work done anywhere. iOS developers have created innumerable apps that help consumers and businesspeople get tasks done – and some of them have walked away from PCs as a result, though certainly lots of users can’t, and probably shouldn’t.

Microsoft historically had a unique problem; it made software, and others made hardware. The hardware purveyors owned the final task of gluing the software in, and frankly many of them never did that great of a job. Conversely, Microsoft never did, and still sometimes struggles with, integrating the hardware into the software – or at least consistently exposing it. Trying to find a device which is exploitative of all of the multimedia, security, or other features of Windows 8.x can be an exercise in frustration. There’s no logo that tells you that a device supports Miracast, no logo that says, “this device has a TPM and supports measured boot” (though I contend in a world of BYOD, consumers don’t care a whit about measured boot, or most security features unless work mandates them through NAP or other means). Again, a user doesn’t care. All they care about is, “Can I do the things on this device that I need to get done?” Sometimes that will mean using Microsoft Office. Sometimes – especially if Office isn’t available there, users will find other tools to get their tasks done instead.

To me, Apple isn’t a prestige brand, it’s a respect brand. I don’t mean what you likely think; I don’t mean cachet in the “I’m better than you” sense at all. I mean when a consumer buys an Apple device, they get the feeling that Apple respects them, their time, their lack of desire to make the sausage, and their desire to simply get things done. When you buy so many devices, even today, you get them home and get a tinge of regret (what I have now about this new printer). “Did I buy the right thing? Should I have bought the 5510 instead of the 5500? Should I take it back?” Apple is famous not for pushing out new technology – frankly they’re often not really that innovative at all. But what they do, and do quite well, is take technology that others shipped when it wasn’t quite ready, fix it, remove the sharp edges, and deliver experiences that just work, from end-to-end.

No, Apple isn’t perfect. But my point is that they fuss the details in a way that so many other companies don’t. When you fuss the details, you get happy consumers. You get repeat consumers. You get consumers who go out of their way to tell other people that they should buy the device(s) as well. That’s not a prestige brand. It’s just the way things should be if you want your business to have continuous, sustainable profits. If PC OEMs (or Android/Chromebook OEMs, for that matter) want to rock and roll the sluggish PC market, they need to dump the crappy cut-rate hardware – there’s this huge battle for the bottom end of the market that is going to end up in mass consolidation of, and likely demise of, some OEMs. We’re moving from a world where IT bought truckloads of the same PC and doled it out to employees, to a world where employees are choosing the devices they want, and the devices that help them complete the tasks they need to.  Instead, OEMs need to remove the sharp edges, sweat the details, and start building experiences that users fall in love with from the moment they open the box.


06
Jul 13

The iWatch – boom or bust?

In my wife’s family, there is a term used to describe how many people can comfortably work in a kitchen at the same time. The measurement is described in “butts”, as in “this is a one-butt kitchen”, or the common, but not very helpful “1.5 butt kitchen”. Most American kitchens aren’t more than 2 butts. But I digress.

I bring this up for the following reason. There is a certain level of utility that you can exploit in a kitchen as it exists, and no more. You cannot take the typical American kitchen and shove 4 grown adults in it and expect them to be productive simultaneously. You also cannot take a single oven, with two racks or not, and roast two turkeys – it just doesn’t work.

It’s my firm belief that this idea – the idea of a “canvas size” applies to almost any work surface we come across. From a kitchen or appliances therein, and beyond. But there is one place that I find it applies incredibly well – to modern digital devices.

The other day, I took out four of my Apple devices, and sat them side-by-side in increasing size order, and pondered a bit.

  • First was my old-school Nano; the older square design without a click-wheel that everyone loved the idea of making a watch out of.
  • Second was my iPhone 5.
  • Third, my iPad 2.
  • Finally, My 13″ Retina Macbook Pro.

It’s really fascinating when you stop to look at tactile surfaces sorted like this. While the MacBook Pro has a massively larger screen than the iPhone 5, the touch-surface of the TrackPad is only marginally larger than that of the iPhone. I’ve discussed touch and digits before, but the recent discussion of the “iWatch” has me pondering this yet again.

While many people are bullish on Google Glass (disregarding the high-end price that is sure to come down someday) or see the appeal of an Apple “iWatch”, I’m not so sure at this point. For some reason, the idea of a smart watch (aside from as a token peripheral), or an augmented reality headset like Glass doesn’t fly for me.

That generation iPod Nano was a neat device, and worked alright – but not great – as a watch. Among the key problems the original iOS Nano had when strapped down as a watch?

  1. It was huge – in the same ungainly manner as Microsoft’s SPOT watches, Suunto watches, or (the king of schlock), Swatch Pop watches.
  2. It had no WiFi or Bluetooth, so couldn’t easily be synched to any other media collection.

Outside of use as a watch, for as huge as it was, the UI was hamstrung in terms of touch. I believe navigation of this model was unintuitive and clumsy – one of the reasons I think Apple went back to a larger display on the current Nano.

I feel like many people who get excited about Google Glass or the “iWatch” are in love with the idea of wearables, without thinking about the state of technology and – more importantly, simple physical limitations. Let’s discard Google Glass for a bit, and focus on the iWatch.

I mentioned how the Nano model used as a watch was big, for its size (stay with me). But simply because of screen real-estate, it was limited to one-finger input. Navigating the UI of this model can get rather frustrating, so it’s handy that it doesn’t matter which finger you use. <rimshot/>

Because of their physical canvas size available for touch, each of the devices I mentioned above has different bounds of what kinds of gestures it can support:

  • iPod Nano – Single finger (generally index, while holding with other index/thumb)
  • iPhone 5 – Two fingers (generally index and thumb, while holding with other hand)
  • iPad 2 – Up to five fingers for gesturing, up to 8/10 for typing if your hands are small enough.
  • MacBook Pro – Up to five fingers for gesturing (though the 5-finger “pinch” gesture works with only 4 as well).

I don’t have an iPad Mini, but for a long time I was cynical about the device for anything but an e-reader due to the fact that it can’t be used with two-hands for typing. Apparently there are enough people just using it as an e-reader or typing with thumbs that they don’t mind the limitations.

So if we look at the size constraints of the Nano and ponder an “iWatch”, just what kind of I/O could it even offer? The tiny Nano wasn’t designed first as a watch – so the bezel was overly large, it featured a clip on the back, it needed a 30-pin connector and headphone jack… You could eliminate all of those with work – though the headphone jack would likely need to stay for now. But even with a slightly larger display, an “iWatch” would still be limited to the following types of input:

  1. A single finger (or a stylus – not likely from Apple).
  2. Voice (both through a direct microphone and through the phone, like Glass).

Though it could support other Bluetooth peripherals, I expect that they’ll pair to the iPhone or iPod Touch, rather than the watch itself – and the input would be monitoring, not keyboard/mouse/touchpad. The idea of watching someone try to type significant text on a smart watch screen with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard is rather amusing, frankly. Even more critically, I imagine that an “iWatch” would use Bluetooth Low Energy in order to not require charging every single day. It’d limit what it could connect to, but that’s pretty much a required tradeoff in my book.

In terms of output, it would again be limited to a screen about the same size as the old Nano, or smaller. AirPlay in or out isn’t likely.

My cynicism about the “iWatch” is based primarily around the limited utility I see for the device. In many ways if Apple makes the device, I see it being largely limited to a status indicator for the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad that it is “paired” with. Likely serving to provide push notifications for mail/messaging/phone calls, or very simple I/O control for certain apps on the phone. For example, taking Siri commands, play/pause/forward for Pandora or Spotify, tracking your calendar, tasks, or mapping directions, etc. But as I’ve discussed before, and above, the “iWatch” would likely be a poor candidate for either long-form text entry whether typed or dictated. (Dictate a blog post or book through Siri? I’ll poke my eyes with a sharp stick instead, thanks.) For some reason, some people are fascinated by the Dick Tracy approach of issuing commands to your watch (or your glasses, or your shoe phone). But the small screen of the “iWatch” means it will be good for very narrow input, and very limited output. I like Siri a lot, and use it for some very specific tasks. But it will be a while before it or any other voice command is suitable for anything but short-form command-response tasks. Looking back at Glass, Google’s voice command in Glass may be nominally better, but again, will likely be most useful as an augmented reality heads-up-display/recorder.

Perhaps the low interest I have in the “iWatch”, Pebble Watch, or Google Glass can be traced back to my post discussing live tiles a few weeks ago. While I think there is some value to be had with an interconnected watch – or smartphone command peripherals like this, I think people are so in love with the idea that they’re not necessarily seeing how constrained the utility actually will be. One finger. Voice command. Perhaps a couple of buttons – but not many. Possibly pulse and pedometer. It’s not a smartphone on your wrist, it’s a remote control (and a constrained remote display) for your phone. I believe it’ll be handy for some scenarios, but it certainly won’t replace smartphones themselves anytime soon, nor will it become a device used by the general populace – not unless it comes free in the box with each iPhone (it won’t).

I think we’re in the early dawn of how we interact with devices and the world around us. I’m not trying to be overly cynical – I think we’ll see massive innovation over time, and see computing become more ubiquitous and spread throughout a network of devices around and on us.

For now, I don’t believe that any “iWatch” will be a stellar success – at least in the short run – but it could as it evolves over time to provide interfaces we can’t fathom today.


12
Jun 13

Content, not the chrome. Apps, not the phone.

Ahead of WWDC 2013, many people were still expecting Apple to add live tiles, and possibly widgets to iOS 7. I didn’t expect either, and as a result wasn’t terribly disappointed to see them not included (that might be an understatement on my part).

At first glance, live tiles may seem like a no-brainer in any operating system. Tiles that provide you information from within an app… How could this go wrong?

Here’s the problems that I have with live tiles in Windows 8, and why I think they wouldn’t make sense on iOS (either):

  1. They’re overused.
  2. Often, they aren’t that useful.
  3. They are distracting.
  4. They’re hardly ever in view.

Let me explain each a bit.

They’re overused. Why do I say this? Because Microsoft has focused on live tiles in their messaging for app developers as if apps that don’t feature a live tile should be shamed. Not the case. I believe live tiles should only be used when there is something actionable to present to the user (ex: new mail) and that actionable item can succinctly be presented though the live tile (ex: subject of the mail). Unfortunately, even just the built-in applications from Microsoft abuse the live tile concept. Too many feature live tiles, and too many of those live tiles are of very limited utility or are too repetitive. Having one or two live tiles is fine, especially if they’re useful -like Mail and Weather, and perhaps Calendar.

But if you add too many live tiles, Windows 8 stops looking like this:

Windows Start screen

And instead starts looking like this:

Times Square

What I’m saying is that there is a point where the utility of live tiles starts to become a problem, not a benefit, if you’re shoving too much dynamic information in the user’s face while providing very little value.

Often, they aren’t that useful. Much like a well-designed app, the utility of a live tile is only as useful as the content it is set to display. iOS has featured notification badges (the red overlay on Mail that constantly indicates you’re not at inbox zero) for many years. Many people bash the badges as being stupid or useless, but they serve as an action indicator where often, not much more is needed, and even more often, not much more can be done. A notification (or live tile) on a badge should instantly provide an indicator of status if that’s all it is to do (ex: You have new mail), and a deeper summary if that is possible (your iOS line-of-business app that tracks new tasks for your helpdesk has 32 new tasks). In iOS, the icon for Calendar has, in effect, always been a live tile. The date you see on the icon is the actual date. Though of limited utility (given that there is already a clock at the top of the screen in the iOS shell, and the icon is tiny), the icon for the clock app in iOS 7 is now a live tile in the same sense – it features the correct time, including a sweeping second hand.

But I don’t believe a live tile should always be live, and even when it is, if it isn’t actionable, it’s no better than After Dark. It ceases to have utility, it’s just there for entertainment value. Applications that do have a concrete reason for offering a live tile absolutely should. If they don’t, they shouldn’t. Don’t provide one just because “you’re supposed to”.

They are distracting. As I noted above, if you’re looking at the Start screen to find a particular application, and you have very many live tiles, it starts to become distracting, and not helpful, that they application is trying to provide you more information than you actually need at that moment. The start screen isn’t an app, it’s a shell. The primary reason for it to exist is to run applications. Rotating pictures of people, or of your own collection of photos (both of which repeat) are novel and cute for a bit, but rapidly become tiring to me.

It’s like going into Best Buy to look around, and getting inundated with salespeople. You know what you’re looking for, and otherwise it’s just a distraction.

They’re hardly ever in view. The Start screen is a shell, It’s not even like the Explorer shell or the gadgets in Vista where it could be set to always in view. If you’re not actively launching an app (or using multimon), the Start screen isn’t in view. So why the emphasis on adding interactivity (or infinite customizability) to a thing that’s basically just a launchpad?

This gets us full circle back to why I don’t think it’s a big deal that iOS doesn’t have live tiles, or even widgets. I’ve mentioned before that Microsoft employees seem to like using the expression “(just) a sea of icons” to describe the iOS app launcher. Well, yeah. That’s kind of the point? It’s a brutally simplified shell that gets you in to the apps. The iPhone (or any iOS device) isn’t about the platform, and it isn’t about the shell. It’s about the apps. Mobile devices exist to be view portals into the functionality provided by applications – including those built-in to the device.

When using a mobile device, users don’t sit there staring longingly at the shell, waiting for it to do something. They’re in apps, responding to notifications from other apps through the shell, and jumping between apps using the sharing verbs available between apps (monikers or direct APIs). On stage when first revealing Windows 8, Steven Sinofsky highlighted the focus of Windows 8 on (with a not-so-subtle jab at the browser of the same name), “content, not the chrome”. To that I add, “It’s the apps, not the phone”. Yes, shells need to evolve and grow. But rarely should they be the center of attention – as that’s rarely where the user actually spends most of their time.


08
May 13

Tools to optimize working on the Mac

A few weeks ago I wrote about gestures on the Mac vs. Windows 8. By and large, I’ve shifted to using my Mac with most apps in full-screen, and really making the most of the gestures included in OS X 10.8. It isn’t always easy, as certain apps (looking at you, Word 2011), don’t optimally use full-screen. Word has Focus mode (its own full-screen model) and now supports OS X’s full-screen mode – but not together. Meaning if you shift to Focus mode, gestures don’t work as well as they could, since Word is on the desktop. More importantly, when working on a project, I often need two or more windows open at once. For this, full-screen doesn’t work, but something like Windows 7 Snap is ideal.

I’ve found quite a few tools over the past few weeks that have made working on the Mac an enjoyable experience. Some of these (Pages, and Office for Mac 2011) I’ve owned for a while. But most are things I’ve purchased since I bought my 13″ Retina MBP. In alphabetical order, here’s the list:

  • BetterSnapTool (US$1.99) – Elegantly snaps windows to a quarter, half, or maximized screen on the desktop (or custom sizes/layouts, using the cursor, keyboard shortcuts, or by overloading OS X’s native window control buttons. This is an incredibly well done app, and I would have paid far more than US$1.99 for it. (BetterSnapTool does not interact with OS X’s full-screen model, unfortunately, but that’s a minor thing.)
  • ForkLift (US$19.99) – Okay, OS X’s Finder kind of stinks. It works fine for the limited needs of most users, and honestly it really seems that Apple is keen to largely kill off the Finder in due time. (Try to get to the root of a Mac’s HDD on Mountain Lion. Just try it.) Regardless, Finder doesn’t flex very far to meet the needs of power users. For this, I’ve turned to ForkLift, which provides a multi-pane file browser. Our workflow has me working with local files, an SMB server, and a hosted SharePoint 2007 server. Though I have found a few small glitches – especially with SharePoint – ForkLift lets me move files through our workflow with little special hoop jumping necessary for any given step.
  • FormatMatch (Free) – One of the most annoying things in Word is its insistence on asking you how you want to paste in text. There was a better way to configure this in earlier versions of Word, but in 2011, the so-called “smart cut and paste” is more annoying than smart. FormatMatch effectively strips out formatting  when you cut so it receives destination formatting when you paste. A configurable shortcut enables you to turn it off when you actually do want formatting to stay applied when you paste. Not perfect, but it was free.
  • Jump Desktop ($US29.99) – In my opinion, the best tool to RDP to a Windows PC or VNC to a Mac (or other system). I’ve used the iOS client for years. Very full-featured client, supports Microsoft’s latest operating systems as well as features like Remote Desktop gateways and folder sharing. Because there is no Visio application for the Mac, and frankly no equivalent (I mean that in both the good and bad sense of it), I use “Physical Desktop Infrastructure”, and RDP to my Samsung Slate in order to edit Visio documents, which I sync using SkyDrive. (Disclaimer: I won a free copy of Jump Desktop – but already owned it for iOS, so I would have surely bought for OS X in time.)
  • Lock Me Now (Free) – Says what it does, does what it says. At Microsoft, you learn to lock your desktop or face the wrath of peers (who send email to management telling them how good you are about locking your desktop!) For this reason, I got in the habit of hitting Windows Key+L as I walked away from my computer, beginning with Windows XP, when it was first added. OS X has no such feature, locking your computer generally requires you to use the mouse, or find some shortcutting tool or script to lock the desktop. With an easily configured shortcut, this app can lock your desktop (I use the logical Cmd+L).
  • Office 2011 (US$219) – I’ll start by saying I’m not a fan of Outlook 2011. I use the mail, contacts, and calendaring features built into the Mac, and appreciate that they play better with Time Machine, which I use to back up all of my Macs. But as to the rest of the applications, there is no alternative for an organization that has a workflow that revolves around Microsoft Office format documents – there really isn’t. While Office 2011 has some thoughtful features that even Office 2013 and Office 2010 are lacking, at 2 years old, it’s starting to feel a bit dated, as it fails to take advantage of native OS X functionality (or do so optimally, as I noted). I expect an update to Office for Mac in 2014, so we’ll see how far that goes to catch up to where OS X (well into 10.9 by then) takes us. I’m a bit concerned, but not surprised, that the new crop of business intelligence features (both those built into Excel 2013 today and those in preview for it) are Windows only, and there only on the enterprise licensed/Office 365 variants of the suite). I don’t expect that to change – but there again is another reason why Jump Desktop is worth so much to me.
  • Pages (US$19.99) – Yeah, go ahead, say it. I bought Pages for one reason (I own both the iOS and OS X versions of all iWork apps, FWIW, but primarily use Pages). That reason? The ability to easily write in Pages and export to ePub in a reliable way. I’ve also recently decided that the value I got out of Evernote (I rarely used the search functionality, but was paying for a note synchronization service with search) was surpassed by the better UI offered by Pages, which syncs between OS X and iOS devices. I can create groups of files that are visible to all devices through iCloud. It just works. If I had a PC I used regularly, or I needed search, it wouldn’t work, and Evernote would be the more logical choice. But that isn’t the case. A follower on Twitter asked why I don’t use OneNote instead – this is pretty easy to answer. OneNote is overpowered on Windows, underpowered on every Apple platform it is available on, and not available on the Mac. So it doesn’t fit my workflow at all.
  • Pomodoro (US$2.99) – Gimmicky user interface that really should be cleaned up and simplified, but does what it infers – it’s a Pomodoro timer that tracks work sessions and breaks. 
  • Scribe (US$12.99) – I love this tool. Way overpriced for what it does, but I couldn’t find a tool that did what I wanted any better than this. I have found a few nits that cause it to crash, but overall, the simplest, most pleasant outliner I’ve found. Great for brainstorming and organizing thoughts. You might be looking at this and my earlier mention of Visio and wondering why I don’t buy the OmniGroup’s tools for outlining and mind mapping. Because I think they’re tragically overpriced and overrated for what they provide.
  • SkyDrive (Free) – Use it to sync a queue of Office documents I’ve got in progress between my Macs, Windows 8 Samsung Slate, and my iOS devices. I can’t tell you how much I love having everything synchronized and being able to open docs in the Office Web Apps when I need to.
  • Streambox (US$4.99) – Exceptional Pandora client for OS X that runs in the main Menu of your Mac, and provides configurable shortcuts for interacting with the service.
  • VirtualBox (Free) – I was a fan of VMware for years. I used Workstation at Microsoft, Winternals, and CoreTrace extensively, and was a beta tester of VMware Fusion from the very beginning. But the product has gotten so expensive, and required almost annual upgrades that seemed to diminish in value to me over time. I no longer use virtualization as a key component of my workflow, but do need to fire up a virtual machine once in a while. So VirtualBox meets my needs perfectly. It’s not the prettiest virtualization solution for the Mac, but it is the cheapest, and it works fine for what I need.
  • Voila (US$29.99) – I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this tool that does an amazing job with screenshots, screen captures, audio, and more. It’s already proven quite useful for a few personal and work projects, though. Need to spend more time with it, but really like what I’ve seen so far.

16
Apr 13

Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion – separated at birth?


Alright – shake out the giggles from the title, and let me show you why I said that.

Until recently I had been using Windows 8 every day – and recently switched to a Mac (running 10.8 Mountain Lion) as my primary computing device. The more I have used Mountain Lion – especially with apps in full-screen mode – the more certain things felt subtly similar to Windows 8.

I believe that Mountain Lion is yet another step in Apple’s gradual (some might say slow) rhythm to converge the iOS and OS X platforms, as iOS devices become more capable and OS X becomes more touch friendly, but Apple is doing it in a very cautious way – slowly building a visual and functional perimeter around Mac applications to make them behave much more like iOS applications. I have a thesis around that, which I’ll try to discuss in another post soon. But the main point is that Apple and Microsoft are both shooting for relatively common goals – immersive applications available from an application marketplace that they control for their platforms – with an increasing emphasis on touch – or at least on gestures. I’m not going to say who cloned whom, as many of these are simply examples of multiple discovery, where Apple and Microsoft, largely now chasing common goals, implement similar features in order to achieve them. Let’s take a look at a few similarities.

Pervasive Cloud Storage

From the first time you sign on to Windows 8 or Mountain Lion, the similarities begin. On Windows 8, it tries the hard sell to get you to use a Microsoft Account for your identity – not linking it to a local account as you can do with an Active Directory account, but making your Microsoft Account a local account, and enabling you to synchronize settings (but currently not applications and the Start screen) between two or more computers.

Windows SkyDrive Sync

Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t embed iCloud quite as in-your-face, and doesn’t use it to synchronize most settings (or Dock items - unlike its predecessor, MobileMe) but does embed it all over the operating system with several built-in features (such as Safari tab synching across OS X and iOS) Photo Stream, Notes, and Reminders, with applications also able to hook in on their own for storage. Unlike SkyDrive, iCloud (like the file system on iOS) is opaque, and not user navigable – only exposed through applications and operating system features that elect to hook into iCloud. Speaking of hooking into iCloud, some apps like TextEdit ask if you want to save new or existing documents locally or in iCloud (with a dialog that is, honestly, un-Apple-like).

iCloud Sync

Heads-up Application Launcher

Both Windows 8 and Mountain Lion provide a “heads-up” approach to launching applications. With Windows 8, this is the Start screen. With OS X, it is Launchpad, first introduced with OS X Lion in 2011. Windows 8′s Start screen (love it or hate it), is a full-screen (usually multi-screen, continuously scrolling) launcher. This launcher can feature notifications and additional information from the applications themselves. Applications can be grouped, and “tiles” can be resized, but not combined into collapsible folders, and are somewhat fussy about placement. Windows does provide interactivity through the Start screen, in the form of Live tiles. See the Weather app below for an example of a Live tile, and Productivity as an example of a group. To my point about fussiness – note the Remote Desktop tile, and the two to its left. Remote Desktop cannot currently be placed underneath CalcTrek in that column – the Start screen always wants columns of a set width (one wide column or two double-width columns), not a single-width column.

Windows Start screen

Since OS X Lion (10.7, almost two years ago), Apple has included Launchpad, which is a feature that presents a (drum-roll, please) full-screen (usually multi-screen, individually paged, as in iOS) application launcher. Unlike the Start screen, Launchpad does not feature any sort of status for applications. They are a static “sea of icons” as Microsoft likes to say about iOS. Instead, notifications now use the Apple Notification Center, which is integrated into the shell. Launchpad application icons don’t ever have notification “badges”, say for reminders or new mail. Instead, notifications are available for applications that are in the OS X Dock or in Notification Center. One or more application icons in Launchpad can be grouped together into a folder, which can be named – just as in iOS. Here is Launchpad:

Launchpad

Intriguingly, OS X Mountain Lion added a much needed feature to Launchpad (which Windows 8 featured from the first day the public saw it), type to search the list of applications. Here is Windows 8 app search, and here is the same feature in OS X.

Application Store

File under “obvious comparison point”. Beginning with OS X Lion in 2011, the Mac App Store offered a limited selection of applications for free download or purchase. In Lion, these were effectively just Mac Apps that were willing to forego 30% of their sales revenue to be in the store (they didn’t have to live within tight constraints). In Mountain Lion, apps were forced to live within the confines of a sandbox, much like applications on iOS – where the damage one app can do to others, the operating system, or user data, is limited. Windows Store applications (WinRT applications) by definition must live within a very strict sandbox – in many ways more strict than the rules required beginning with Mountain Lion.

The Windows Store follows the same design paradigms as other Windows 8 applications. In general, the design of the Windows Store and the App Store on OS X are remarkably similar. A significant difference is that Windows Store applications can be – at the developer’s discretion – provided as trials. No such feature is explicitly available in the App Store, though some developers do achieve a similar goal by providing a free simplified or limited version of the application that is unlocked through an in-app purchase.

Here is the Windows Store:
Windows Store

Here is the App Store on OS X (running windowed, though it can of course run full-screen too):
App Store on OS X

Immersive Applications

Windows Store applications, by definition, are immersive. The full-screen user interface is designed to remove window chrome and let the application itself shine through. Windows Store applications must be either full-screen, snapped, or backgrounded. The next release of Windows is expected to add more window modes for Windows Store applications, but will still not add (back) overlapping windows – in other words, it will still be more like Windows 2.0 than Windows 3.0.

Here is an example of a Windows Store application, the immersive mode of Internet Explorer – which is only capable of being run full-screen or snapped with another app, not in a standalone window:

Modern IE

Here is an example of a full-screen application on OS X Mountain Lion. Note that not all applications can run full-screen. However all applications that can be can also be run windowed. Here is an example of Pages running full-screen on Mountain Lion:

Here is Pages with that same document in a window. The full-screen models of both Mountain Lion and Windows 8 feature hidden menus. The Windows 8 App bar as implemented for Windows Store applications is hidden off the screen to the top or bottom of the application, and can be implemented in wildly varying implementations by developers. The menus for full-screen applications in Mountain Lion are effectively the same Apple Menu-based menu that would normally appear when it was running not in full-screen. The main difference is that the Apple Menu in non Full-screen mode is detached – like Mac applications have always been. In full-screen mode, the menu behaves much more like a Windows application, stuck to the application running full-screen. The menu is hidden until the cursor is hovered over an area a few pixels tall across the top of the screen. Similarly, the Dock is always hidden when applications are running full-screen, until the cursor hovers over a similar bar of space across the bottom of the screen.

What is kind of fascinating to consider here is that Internet Explorer 10 in Windows 8 is, in many ways, mirroring the functionality provided by a Lion/Mountain Lion full-screen application. It is one binary, with two modes – Windowed Win32, and full-screen immersive – just as Pages is displaying in the images shown and linked earlier.

Gesture-friendly

In “desktop mode”, both Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion focus more on gestures than previous releases of both. With a touch-screen or trackpad, Windows 8 is very usable (I believe more usable than it is with a mouse), once you have mastered the gestures included. Both have aspects of the shell and many applications that recognize now common gestures such as pull to refresh, pinch to zoom, and rotation with two fingers.

Windows 8 provides a single, single-finger in from the left, gesture to switch applications one at a time, which can be expanded to show a selection of previously run applications to be available, but also includes the desktop. Though I feel Windows 8′s app switching gesture to be limited, it works, and could be expanded in the future to be more powerful. Here you can see Windows 8′s application switcher.

I have used gestures in iOS for the iPad since they first arrived in a preview form that required you to enable them through Xcode. The funny thing about these gestures is, while they aren’t necessary to use on the iPad, they are pretty easy to learn, and can make navigating around the OS much easier. When I started using my rMBP with its built-in trackpad and a Magic Trackpad at my desk, I quickly realized that knowing those gestures immediately translated to OS X. While you don’t need to know them there either, they make getting around much easier. Key gestures are common between iOS on the iPad and on OS X:

  1. 5-finger pinch – iOS: “closes” application and goes to shell application launcher – OS X: Goes to Launchpad
  2. 4 finger-swipe left or right – navigates up or down the application stack of iOS applications/OS X full-screen applications, desktop, & Dashboard (which I disable, as I don’t find it useful).
  3. 4 finger swipe up (or double-press of home button) – on iOS, shows you the list of recent applications from most recent  to least (left to right). Swiping left moves you down the stack. Swiping right moves you up the stack (see 2, above). On OS X, this shows you “Mission Control”, which is effectively the same thing as iOS, just with desktop and full-screen applications included
  4. 3 or 2 finger swipe to the left while on the desktop exposes OS X’s Notification Center.
  5. 2-finger swipe in many OS X applications is used to navigate backwards or forwards, including Safari and the App Store. Regrettably, two-fingered navigation back and forth is not available in the Finder (a weird oversight, but perhaps a sign of the importance Apple feels about the Finder).

Here is OS X’s Mission Control feature, exposing two full-screen applications (iTunes and Pages) and three applications on the desktop (Reminders, Safari, and Mail):

Mission Control

The most fascinating thing here is that, while Windows 8 has been maligned for it’s forced duality of immersive-land and the legacy desktop, the Mac is actually doing the same thing – it just isn’t forcing applications to be full-screen (yet). Legacy applications run on the desktop, and new applications written to the latest APIs run full-screen and support gestures. Quick – was that sentence about Windows 8, or Mountain Lion? It applies equally to both!

I think it’s very interesting to take a step back and see where Apple has very gradually moved forward over the last several instances of OS X, towards a more touch and immersive model, where Microsoft took the plunge with both feet, focusing first on touch, while leaving the Win32 desktop in place – but seemingly as a second-class citizen in priority to WinRT and Windows Store applications.

The next several years will be quite interesting to watch, as I think Apple and Microsoft will wind up at a similar place – just taking very different steps, and very different timeframes, to get there.


14
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.


10
Apr 13

Windows XP – Hitting the Wall

Just under one year from now, on April 8, 2014, Windows XP leaves Extended Support.

There are three key questions I’ve been asked a lot during the past week, related to this milestone:

  1. What even happens when Windows XP leaves Extended Support?
  2. Will Microsoft balk, and continue to support Windows XP after that date?
  3. What will happen to systems running Windows XP after that date?

All important questions.

The first question can be exceedingly complex to answer. But for all intents and purposes, the end of Extended Support means that you will receive absolutely no updates – including security updates – after that date. While there are some paid support options for Windows XP after 4/8/2014, however as we understand it they will be very tightly time limited, very expensive, and implemented with a contractual, date-driven expectation for a retirement of the organization’s remaining Windows XP desktops. There’s no “get out of jail” card, let alone a “get out of jail free” card. If you have Windows XP desktops today, you have work to do, and it will cost you money to migrate away.

If you want to look for yourself, you can go to Microsoft’s downloads site and look – but Windows XP still receives patches for both Windows itself or Internet Explorer (generally 6,7, and 8 all get patched) every month. From April 2012 to April 2013, every month saw security updates to either Windows XP or IE on it – and 8 of the 13 months saw both. Many of these are not pretty vulnerabilities, and if left unpatched, could leave targeted organizations exceedingly vulnerable after that date.

This leads us to the second question. In a game of chicken, will Microsoft turn and offer support after 4/8/2013?

Why are you asking? Seriously. Why? I was on the team that shipped Windows XP. I wish that, like a work of art, Windows XP could be timeless and run forever. But it can’t (honestly, that theme is starting to get rather long in the tooth too). It’s a piece of machinery – and machinery needs maintenance (and after a time, it usually needs replacement). Windows 2000 received it’s last patch the month before it left Extended Support. So, while 4/8/2014 is technically a Patch Tuesday, and Microsoft might give you one last free cup of joe, I’d put a good wager down that if you want patches after that day, you’d better plan your migration, get on the phone to Microsoft relatively soon, get a paid support contract in place, and be prepared to pay for the privilege of support while you migrate away.

Companies that are running Windows XP today – especially in any sort of mission critical or infrastructure scenario – especially if connected to the Internet, need to have a migration plan away to a supported operating system.

At a security startup I used to work at (not that long ago), it shocked me how many of our prospects had Windows 2000, Windows NT, or even older versions of NT or 9x, in production (and often connected to networks or the Internet. Even more terrifying, many of these were mission critical systems.

And this segues us to the third question. What happens to systems running after 4/8/2014? You can quote Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character, “Do I feel lucky? Well do you?” It’s not a good bet to make. Again, we’ve seen some nasty bugs patched in IE 6,7, and 8, and Windows XP itself over the last year. While one would hope an OS 12 years out would be battle-hardened to the point of being bulletproof, that is not the case. Windows XP isn’t bulletproof. It’s weary. It’s ready to be retired. Organizations with critical infrastructure roles still running Windows XP will have giant targets on them after next April, and no way to defend those systems.

A common thread I’ve also seen is a belief that a wave of Windows XP migrations over the next 12 months will mean anything, economically. It really isn’t likely to. While we will likely see a good chunk of organizations move away from Windows XP over the next year, doing so may mean finding budget to replace 5+ year old PCs, and patch, update, or purchase replacement Windows, Java, and Web applications that can run on newer operating systems. Most of the easy lifting has already been done. The last customers remaining are likely extremely hard, extremely “financially challenged”, or both. It may be unfortunate, but this time next year (and likely the year after that, and years after that), there will still be Windows XP systems out there, some of them running in highly critical infrastructure. Dangerous, but unfortunately, likely to be the case.