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All in the FAMily

by Mark W. Hibben
9/19/11

Windows 8 Impresses at the Combined Financial Analyst Meeting and Developer Conference

This year Microsoft took some unusual steps which are in themselves revealing.  They delayed their Financial Analyst Meeting (FAM) normally held at the end of the fiscal year in July, combined it with the annual developers conference (called BUILD Windows), as well as held the combined event in Anaheim, California.  The messages that the analysts were meant to get are clear: 1) despite setbacks in phones and tablets, Microsoft still commands the largest base of users and developers on the planet, 2) Windows 8 and the new Visual Studio 11 development environment will excite developers and users alike and reinvigorate the Windows ecosystem, and 3) Silicon Valley isn’t necessarily the center of the tech universe.  All indications are that the analysts and tech media got the messages, albeit somewhat uncritically.  In this edition of Tech Chat, I’ll take an in depth look at what was presented at the BUILD and FAM conferences in order to better understand the significance of Win 8 for the industry as a whole.  Whatever one might think about Win 8, it is a significant move.

BUILD Keynote

Steven Sinofsky (VP of Windows and Windows Live) gave the keynote at the BUILD conference, dwelling at length on Windows 8 and Microsoft’s initiatives in developer tools and cloud services.  His presentation was perhaps more revealing than Microsoft intended.  Microsoft want very badly to show that they get it, but what they get is mostly old news. Sinofsky started off the presentation with a summary of the “changing world” of computing, that there are new form factors and user interaction models such as tablets with touch interfaces, that people actually want to use mobile devices on the move, that app developers need data connectivity between apps and cloud services.  Oh well.  Being a year behind the curve is probably an improvement for Microsoft.  But Microsoft want to do more than merely catch up.  Windows 8 is an attempt to get out in front of the trends with a leap ahead OS, which consists of four main thrusts:

1) Enlarging the platform base of Windows to include ARM based processors as well as Intel.

2) Implementing touch enabled devices not merely for tablets but for notebook and desktop computers as well.

3) Revamping the underlying API architecture to support the new features of Windows 8 while maintaining compatibility with Windows 7 apps.

4) Providing an innovative touch enabled interface called Metro, which is built into Windows 8 and available to all devices.

Microsoft have been revealing bits and pieces of this strategy for the past year, first with the Windows on ARM demonstration at CES in January ‘11 and then with the preview of Windows 8 at Computex in June ’11.  As I discussed in Microsoft Strikes Back, Microsoft’s strategy with respect to touch enabled devices is very different than Apple’s, despite the fact that Apple has been far more successful bringing touch devices to market, as I show in the accompanying diagrams.

Sinofsky was very clear that Microsoft believe that touch will be ubiquitous, with touch enabled desktop monitors, as well as touch enabled notebooks and tablets.  Thus, Microsoft have positioned Windows 8 with a touch-based interface (Metro) built in, while at the same time providing a traditional mouse and keyboard driven desktop UI for the devices or apps that need it.  Thus, the range of devices and form factors Win 8 must support is very broad, and one might well wonder if Windows 8 is not over-reaching.  This is in stark contrast to the Apple approach, which cleanly segregates touch enabled devices like the iPad and iPhone, which run iOS only on ARM processors, from the traditional Mac desktops and laptops that run Mac OS X on Intel processors.

Although Mac OS X doesn’t support touchscreen devices per se, it does incorporate much touch functionality in the latest OS X Lion version that was recently released.  However, the touch functionality, which includes multi-touch gestures and swiping, is implemented through a trackpad rather than on screen.  According to Jobs, this was completely deliberate.  Apple had done ergonomic studies on touchscreen enabled desktops and discovered, unsurprisingly, that people stop using the touchscreen after about a half hour as their arms get tired. 

Apple has also confined Mac OS X to Intel 64 bit processors, where the greater computational power of the processors supports OS X multitasking to good effect.  On the other hand, iOS runs only on the less powerful (and less power hungry) 32 bit ARM processors and focuses exclusively on the touchscreen interface. After seeing the demonstrations at the BUILD conference, I have to wonder if Apple haven’t missed something important.  Sure, you might not want to use a vertically mounted touch screen for an extended period, but for casually checking email or a calendar, it seems very convenient.  Plus, there’s nothing requiring that the screen be vertical, and one of the BUILD demonstrations showed a large screen touch enabled monitor from Acer that could be tilted horizontally.  Of course, there’s nothing stopping Apple from employing touch screens in Mac OS (especially for notebooks) in the future, but in their broad application of touch screen support, Microsoft have been successful in “leaping ahead”.

The porting of Windows to ARM processors is much more dubious, however.  Windows 8 drags along the baggage of having to support what amounts to an updated Win 7 desktop OS.  Although Microsoft have claimed, and Sinofsky reiterated, that this was no problem for the ARM devices they have tested, little supporting evidence has been offered. 

Although ARM based netbooks were shown at Computex, these were thankfully absent from the BUILD keynote, and there was no attempt whatsoever to show ARM systems running a Windows desktop in the keynote demo.  Only the Metro interface and some Metro apps were demonstrated, very briefly, and only on an nVidia Tegra 3 system.  The Tegra 3 is a quad core processor just entering production, and we can well believe that it is up to the requirements of running the Metro portion of Win 8.  Fortunately, ARM-based systems will probably be required to run the desktop UI portion of Win 8 rarely if at all, since no legacy (x86, x64) Intel apps will run on these machines anyway.  It’s still not clear to me that even quad core ARM processors will ever really be able to run Win 8 as well as Intel processors, and indications are that ARM Win 8 development is lagging Intel based development.  Except for the brief peak at the Tegra 3 machine, all the demos from the keynote were run on Intel processors. 

How Microsoft have managed to combine the new Metro touch interface with the traditional desktop interface becomes immediately obvious when one looks at the following diagram presented by Sinofsky as part of the developer tools portion of his keynote.

 

Sinofsky went to great lengths to make sure the developers understood that Metro is not layered on top of Windows, but is an integral part of Windows.  Okay, it’s not layered onto the desktop so much as grafted on next to it.  The diagram above confirms the impression one gets from using Win 8: you can switch back and forth between the two UIs, but there’s little integration between them, and they are effectively “stove-piped”.  Whereas Apple has taken an evolutionary approach to integrating touch functionality into Mac OS, Microsoft isn’t bothering.  Windows 8 is effectively two OS’s in one, a legacy OS for legacy desktop apps and systems and the new Metro OS for Metro apps and touch enabled systems.  And never the twain shall meet. 

In fact, making a clean break is something that Microsoft needed to do in order to support the large body of new Metro APIs, and this provides a way to do that while supporting the huge ‘verse of legacy software.  It’s savvy marketing as well as engineering.  At some point in the distant future, the desktop app portion of Windows X will finally be left behind. 

Sinofsky Keynote Part 1

Metro

Microsoft have suddenly become very fond of the buzz word “reimagine”, as in Windows 8 reimagines the OS, Metro reimagines the touch UI, etc.  For Metro, the buzz word is actually appropriate.  Metro carries forward the innovative tile approach debuted with Windows 7 Phone.  Tiles serve the same function of application launching that a normal app icon serves, but can be updated live with useful information.  Thus the Metro email tile informs the user of the number of emails that have come in, the calendar shows the current appointment, etc. 

Tiles can be rearranged and grouped at will.  Because the Metro Start screen can span multiple virtual display widths, there’s plenty of room for the tiles, so they’re big.  I’m glad to see someone (besides us at Technomicon) finally realize that touch based controls should be large areas rather than little buttons.  The use of color in Metro may be a little over the top for some people (I presume it will be customizable), but the fact is that Metro makes the traditional mouse driven desktop, be it Mac or Windows, seem just a little dowdy. 

The UI is very well thought out, with horizontal swiping allowing the user to move between different active apps and the Start screen(s), similar to the behavior of full screen apps in Mac OS X Lion.  Swiping from the right hand edge (across a single column of pixels dedicated for this purpose) brings up a context sensitive menu bar somewhat like the traditional Windows task bar. Swiping across a similarly dedicated row of pixels at the bottom of the screen brings up an application specific menu bar.  Metro style apps share the same sense of spacious layout present in the Start screen.  Seeing Metro in action leaves no doubt that it is the wave of the future, for Windows at least.

Sinofsky Keynote Part 2: Metro Demo

 

Windows 8 Developer Tools

Along with the developer preview of Windows 8 comes a developer preview of Visual Studio Express 11, Microsoft’s developer suite.  Given the new API architecture of Metro, a new development environment was essential to support it.  The new APIs provide for much built in data sharing among apps and between the apps and cloud services, simplifying the programmer’s job. 

As is the case with Windows Phone 7 apps, Metro apps can be substantially written in HTML5 and Javascript, with all application resources being bundled similarly to Mac OS apps.  This represents a significant departure from compiled high level languages (such as C# or Apple’s Objective C) and may serve to open up application development to the large number of Web developers, as well as make app construction easier in general.  Industrial strength apps may still need to use C# for raw speed, however, and it remains to be seen how broadly useful HTML5/Javascript will be, but it’s a nice option to have.  In the video that follows, the ease of building apps using HTML5 is demonstrated by Antoine Leblond in a live app building exercise that takes less than a half hour.

Sinofsky Keynote Part 3: App Building Demo

Windows 8 Hardware

The hardware demonstrations with Mike Angiulo were similar to what he showed at Computex in June: Windows 8 running on a variety of Intel and ARM based processors and in form factors ranging from desktop gaming rigs that consume 700 Watts to ultra low power ARM based tablets.  As I mentioned earlier in the article, the ARM systems were not extensively demonstrated.  Angiulo showed tablets based on the Qualcomm 8660 Snapdragon (dual ARM core), and the nVidia Tegra 3 ARM quad core.  Even the Tegra 3 demo was very brief and didn’t show much in the way of apps, mostly just swiping the Start screen.  The brevity of the ARM demos suggests strongly that Win 8 ARM development is lagging the Intel processors. A notable omission from Angiulo's demo was the ARM based netbooks shown at Computex.  We can only hope they stay gone.  They never made any sense.  ARM processors running a Win 8 desktop UI would struggle mightily under the load, while not being able to run any traditional desktop apps.   Who wants a legacy desktop UI with no legacy app compatibility?  Hopefully, Microsoft have realized the answer to this question.

Although suitable lip service was paid to ARM, it was the Intel systems that really shined.  Most were equipped with UEFI (Universal Extensible Firmware Interface) that provides for fast boot up (in seconds rather than minutes) and which dispenses finally with the DOS-style boot up screens.  In addition to the high performance desktops, we finally got to see some convincing Intel tablets, some running second gen Core i processors.  We even got a peak at a tablet based on a 32 nm process Atom, which looked suspiciously like a Cedar Trail (due in 2012, and a possible successor to Moorestown Oak Trail), but Angiulo wasn’t going into details.  Understandable.  If Moorestown lives up to the promise (or hype, if you will) of more than a year ago when it was announced, it could kill off ARM Win 8 systems before they even get started.  We’ll be watching this development closely. 

The hardware demo concluded with the announcement of the giveaway of 5000 Samsung tablets pre-loaded with Windows 8 and Visual Studio 11 to developers.  Not surprisingly, the tablet ran an Intel second generation Core i5 processor.

Sinofsky Keynote Part 4: Hardware Demo

 

Cloud Services

Both Microsoft and Apple continue to wax poetic about the wonderful things users and app developers can do with the cloud, and to some extent, I’m already using cloud services whenever I purchase an app or receive a push notification or email.  But social networking through the cloud?  Sharing any personal information through the cloud is about as smart as a politician sharing intimate photos on Twitter. 

Those of us familiar with the manifest ways the Internet can be abused by individuals, groups, and even governments can only find such a prospect unappetizing.  Using the cloud is fine, as long as you take assurances of privacy with a grain of salt.  As you will see in the following video, Microsoft (like Apple) is working very hard to make cloud services seamlessly integrated with the Win 8 OS and applications, and so automatic that most people will hardly notice the cloud in the background.  And therein lies the danger.  Many people will end up sharing personal information with a broader than intended audience without even realizing they’re doing it.  Just ask Anthony Weiner.

Sinofsky Keynote Part 5: Cloud Services Demo

FAM Ballmer Presentation

The FAM kicked off with a glossy summary of Microsoft’s fiscal year which was long on spin and short on specifics.  The reader desiring to understand where Microsoft is really at financially would be better served by reading my in depth article Microsoft Strikes Back in which I got a much clearer picture of Microsoft’s financial condition by going through their SEC filings.  And it’s not a pretty picture:

1) Overall, annual revenue was up 12% to US$ 69.9 B and annual operating income up 13% to US$ 27.2 B, respectable but not stellar numbers that obscure problems at the division level.

2) Windows and Windows Live Division suffered a 2.4% annual revenue decline and a 5.8% annual decline in operating income.

3) Online Services has been losing money for two years now, and suffered worsening operating losses in the fourth quarter.  For the year, Online Services lost US$ 2.56 B with the loss increasing compared to the previous year by 9.4%. 

4) Entertainment and Devices, home of Windows Phone and Xbox, suffered an operating loss in the fourth quarter, although it posted a profit for the year of US$ 1.32 B.  Since Xbox has been making buckets of money (US$ 8.72 B for the fiscal year), the only explanation for the division operating loss has to be losses due to Windows 7 Phone.  And no one at Microsoft is offering specific numbers on Win 7 Phone deliveries, clearly a bad sign. 

It is against this backdrop that one needs to evaluate the FAM, and especially the statements of Steve Ballmer and company.  Microsoft is a company in trouble.  Who would have imagined at the beginning of the millennium that a little over a decade later, Apple would be worth more, and make more money, than Microsoft?  Microsoft is desperate to reinvent itself.  (Or perhaps, reimagine itself?)  Windows 8 is its chosen vehicle for this.  

Thus it was when Steve Ballmer finally addressed the FAM, he began by asserting a very Windows centric view of the world, thereby reminding everyone that despite setbacks Microsoft still commands more OS market share than anyone, regardless of platform.  In this Windows centric world view, Microsoft provides everyone’s OS, consumer and enterprise alike, regardless of platform. Therefore Microsoft has to do phones and set top boxes, as well as desktops, laptops, tablets, and servers.  It’s a very broad portfolio of products, and Ballmer even noted that some have questioned whether it might be too broad in addressing both enterprise and consumer markets.  Ballmer simply asserted that it was a strength of Microsoft to be able to address both markets, more or less the usual synergy argument.  That synergy may exist, but Apple has done very well without it, not that Apple would mind a greater enterprise presence. 

Clearly, Windows 8 is Microsoft’s path forward to maintaining if not expanding that Windows centric world.  Windows 8 appears to be a worthy effort: Metro is innovative and just plain cool.  This may be a hasty prediction, but I expect Intel based Win 8 tablets to give Apple’s iPad genuine competition.  But competition is not conquest, and execution will be everything for Win 8.  Execution is where Microsoft has often fallen down when rolling out a new OS, and a leap-ahead OS such as Windows 8 could well become impaled on its own flaws.  Microsoft management certainly understand this, and appear to be moving very carefully in the OS roll-out by distributing seed systems to their developer community.    

Ballmer expressed the intention, clearly evident in the combined conference, to get out in front of technological trends in hardware and software rather than just follow.  Windows 8 is part of this, but by no means the only initiative.  Microsoft are also investing heavily in natural interface research (voice recognition, non-contact gesture recognition as in Kinect), cloud related server technologies, the Skype acquisition, and the partnership with Nokia for Win 7 Phone development.  In the first part of Ballmer’s presentation below, he reiterates that Nokia is “all in” on Windows Phone, but the lack of anything to show for it at the conference must have been a disappointment.  Ballmer reiterated Microsoft’s commitment to Windows Phone (they can hardly back out now) and promised more news on the Nokia partnership soon. 

Steve Ballmer FAM Presentation Part 1

 

Ballmer also talked at length about the Skype acquisition, asserting that it would enable various types of consumer social networking, as shown in the second part of Ballmer’s presentation below.  The presentation concluded on a positive note by focusing on Microsoft’s big success: Xbox and Kinect.  Ballmer knows that Xbox is a good example of Microsoft sticking with an innovative product until it becomes successful.  He wants to expand the audience of Xbox by offering more downloadable content (music, movies and TV shows, including live TV), some social networking, and Bing search. 

The presentation concluded with a live demonstration of new Xbox voice recognition and search capabilities, which was largely successful, but had a few hiccups.  Nevertheless, the point was well made:  Microsoft intends to substitute dynamic voice activated search for content rather than forcing consumers to navigate through menus or file systems.  This is a persuasive glimpse of a UI future in which consumers never bother with file systems or organizing their content.  Instead, they will just ask the computer to find it for them.

Steve Ballmer FAM Presentation Part 2

FAM Question and Answer Session

  • 1.
    FAMily
  • 2.
    BUILD Keynote
  • 3.
    All-in on Touch
  • 4.
    Apple Evolves
  • 5.
    Dubious Port
  • 6.
    Win 8 Structure
  • 7.
    Keynote Pt. 1
  • 8.
    Metro
  • 9.
    Keynote Pt. 2
  • 10.
    Keynote Pt. 3
  • 11.
    Win 8 Hardware
  • 12.
    Keynote Pt. 4
  • 13.
    Keynote Pt. 5
  • 14.
    Ballmer at FAM
  • 15.
    Windows Centric
  • 16.
    Ballmer FAM Pt. 1
  • 17.
    Ballmer FAM Pt. 2
  • 18.
    FAM QA
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