Microsoft’s Burning Platform: The fire has spread

Remember Nokia’s burning platform? Now it’s Microsoft’s.

Back in 2011, Nokia’s then CEO Stephen Elop sent his now infamous “Burning Platform” memo, highlighting the company’s need to evolve or be eaten by its new competitors, Google and Apple. After a strategic alliance with Microsoft, the firm was then acquired by its new partner in 2013 amidst a wave of optimism that the two companies, once dominant in their own industries, could work together to make great devices and services. 
I hate to be negative about a a company I admire, and grew up using it’s products, but it seems to me that three years on, Nokia’s burning platform has spread to Windows. The onetime workhorse of every business around the world is looking decidedly shaky. It saddens me that a once great product and brand is now a shadow of it’s former self. I first used Windows 3.11 as a child, and have used every version since. While those older versions were never perfect, they were in line with the readability expected from a young industry. These days, in the age of instant on, affordable Chromebooks and “it just works’ MacBooks, it’s difficult to see a purpose for Windows, except to run legacy software. ChromeOS is well suited to the low-end, commodity markets, and Macs seem to be doing well at the high-end where reliability and power are required. 

So what’s the problem? For me it can be summed up in two points: reliability and usability. 

Windows 10 is unreliable. It takes too much work to get it to work. These days I don’t want to have to spend time making my computer work. That should be automatic. If I set a long file transfer going, I shouldn’t come back to see a message warning me that the computer is going to reboot in 10 minutes unless I cancel it. I hunt around in settings to try and find a way to configure the machine to never reboot without me telling it to, and there isn’t one. I could see why Microsoft did this, to look after users and make sure they’ve got the latest security updates, no doubt – but where’s the intelligence? Can’t it see I’m doing something? Is there an auto-save API like there is on the Mac? No: Microsoft’s API story is another mess, but it basically boils down to this: proper applications use the ancient Win32 API, and mobile apps need to use the new ‘Modern’ Universal App API. Another instance of this lack of reliability is something that’s been an issue for years, yet still happened to me on a fresh install of Windows 10. The task bar for some reason stopped unifying all of the windows into one button for Outlook, which gets confusing. So I closed Outlook, thinking that restarting the application would solve things. I go to start it again, and of course there’s an error. It turns out that in 2016, closing an application and starting it again 5 seconds later is not something Microsoft expect you to do. I remember this happening with Outlook 2003. In the end I had to reboot my machine in order to get to my email. This are just two admittedly pedantic examples – but I could share so many more – Windows 10 feels like it gets in the way more than it helps. 
Usability is another disaster on Windows 10. For a start, there is no consistency between applications anymore. The long-held ideal that an operating system should provide a consistent user interface to make applications easy to use and learn has been well and truly thrown out of the window. Office uses it’s own file picker – how is this even allowed by internal UI guidelines? Dialogs are still modal – meaning if you choose “Share > By Email” in Excel, all other Excel documents are blocked until you send that email. There are two versions of Skype. Ask someone to Skype you, and they might assume you mean Skype. But no! – You meant “Skype – for business”. There are two control panels, the new one has a back button that doesn’t go back to the last screen, depending on what the last screen was. Context menus have a seemingly random style depending on at which point in the 30 year history of Windows they were implemented. Even more shockingly is Microsoft seem to have decided that the “Hamburger menu” should now be a mainstay for modern apps, despite it being almost universally derided by UX practitioners. Of course non-modern (antique?) apps still use menus, or sometimes a ribbon, or sometimes a menu that’s hidden behind a button depending on how antique they are. It’s very rare for an application to use the native window style – in fact I couldn’t tell you what the native style looked like in Windows 10. Mail, Skype, Word, Explorer – they all look different. I can’t help think these issues all accumulate and are part of the reason that cool new apps for Windows are far and few these days.
Microsoft is still a company I admire, their Azure and Machine Learning services are second to none; and surprisingly their iOS apps are of a very high quality. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure someone at Microsoft is aware of the state Windows is in, and I hope that they can overcome internal politics or whatever challenges there are to put it right. I have friends who work at the company and they are some of the smartest people I know. I just hope they hurry up and fix Windows before the world moves on, for good.

Apple just gave me a new smartwatch, for free

Well, not quite, but the latest update from Apple might as well be a new watch. The new operating system, watchOS 3 is one of the best operating system updates I’ve ever seen in the 18 years or so since I’ve been interested technology.

There was a time when a new OS update meant inevitable slowness until you finally succumbed to the marketing and upgraded by either stuffing more RAM into your PC, or shelling our for a brand new machine. This changed in the PC world with Windows 7, which famously had the same operating requirements as it’s then 2 year old predecessor, Windows Vista. Apple hasn’t always been so kind, with new versions of iOS regularly slowing down older hardware, though this hasn’t been so much of a problem since the 64-bit era (2013 iPhone 5S or newer), but even now an iPhone 6 doesn’t feel as snappy as it did 3 years ago.  So it was a nice surprise when Apple announced back in June that its latest incarnation of the operating system for the Apple Watch, watchOS would be focused on performance. This was long overdue. Apple Watch’s main failure was it’s slowness. Unlike a laptop or a phone, a slow smartwatch can be physically painful to use. So for the most part people didn’t it seemed – 3rd party apps were few and far between.

The new version of watchOS achieves this speediness by keeping apps in memory for as long as it can. You now get to choose your 10 favourite apps and place them in a ‘dock’, and they’ll be prioritised over other apps to not only stay in memory but also receive more frequent background updates. Frequent background updates also apply to ‘complications’ (widgets on the watch face). What is striking though is the amount of fit and finish that’s been applied to the system. Now apps do really launch instantly, for the most part. If like me you only use 4 -5 apps of a regular basis, then it’s likely those apps will always be in memory. This results in a much more usable device.

Siri, the voice controlled virtual assistant is now much more efficient at communicating its status as when you ask for something. Instead of having to watch your wrist to see if it managed to understand what you said, you can now drop your wrist and it will subtle tap you when it has your answer, or to tell you if it didn’t understand. A small change, but it makes a big difference to the usefulness of the feature.

You can now draw characters onto the screen to transcribe text. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s a nice way to quickly reply when your phone is out of reach. Reminders are now available on the watch, and stay on the screen for up to 8 minutes after you last used the app, so I can walk round the supermarket checking off my shopping list on my wrist. The watch now feels more useful then it did before, when I was only really using it for notifications and fitness tracking (which are still first class).

On my smaller 38mm machine battery life still isn’t great. It seems to be slightly worse than before. Where I would have previously been at 25% at the end of the day, I’m now at 10%. This may well be because I’m using it a lot more now. I’ve long been in the habit of a post-lunch charge at my desk, so it’s not an issue most of the time.

I’ve always been compelled by the idea of having a computer strapped to my wrist, accessible at any time. This ‘ambient computing’ experience is finally realised with watchOS 3. What is really needed now is a watch with it’s own cellular modem, so the phone truly becomes an optional extra.

First Day in San Francisco

On my first day In San Francisco I decided to visit as much as I could on foot, given my jet lagged body state and the uncompromising value of the pound to the dollar making taxis (even Uber) very expensive. I started off by taking a walk to the Coit Tower. It was only a fifteen minute walk away, but I was quickly astounded by how steep the roads in San Francisco are – some of them even have steps instead of pathways because it would be impossible to walk up. I would not want to drive a manual car over here. With thanks to walking directions on my Apple Watch, I found the tower with no trouble and paid $8 to ride up in the lift. As I’ve always found on my trips to anywhere in the USA, the guides who work at these types of attractions are brilliant – brimming with a genuine love of what they do. The lady looking after the queue was as friendly as ever and gave me plenty of tips for other places to visit after this one. Once at the top of the tower the views were breathtaking – it’s not the tallest building in SF, but nevertheless the view is stunning.

After spending a good 20 minutes taking in the view and getting some good photographs (I was paranoid about dropping my iPhone from the top – I wonder how many people actually do that?) I went back down and headed towards the bay, assuming there would be something interesting to see there. I was not wrong. Pier 39 was brimming with live music (I got a signed CD from a band called The Luck – I’m sure they will be huge one day), performers, shops and stalls selling donuts, cookies, pretzels and everything else you want to eat but know you shouldn’t.
After watching a show and some excellent music, I mooched around for a bit, soaking up the atmosphere, before walking on to Fishermans Wharf. From here I caught a tour boat that took us out under the Golden Gate Bridge and around the former prison island of Alcatraz. It was a really fun trip, and the audio narration was decent. It did start to get rather choppy as we got all the way out to the Golden Gate Bridge, but this only added to the sense of fun.

After this, feeling pretty exhausted (my body thought it was 3am still), I sat looking out over he bay and read a little on my Kindle, soaking up the sun (I am now bright red and have since picked up some some tan lotion from Walgreens!). After this I went and ordered some dinner in the Hard Rock Cafe on Pier 39. I have a thing about Hard Rock Cafe – wherever I see one I’ve not been before I like to visit it. So far I’ve been to about 5 around the world from Florida to Barcelona. I like the fact that they don’t jus pop up in any old place, even if the menu is a little limited. Now feeling tied, my body thinking it was 5am (the locally brewed larger probably didn’t help with the tiredness) I started the two mile walk back to my hotel, where I promptly fell asleep.