Opinions

Dumb and Dumber Singaporean Reactions to the Haze

Many logical & valid points but minus points for being too emotional.

sgthinker.wordpress.com

In times of crisis, how a country reacts speaks volumes about its people and its character. I am sad to say that many online reactions to the unprecedented haze does not bode well for the country’s future.

Why isn’t there a stop work order? Gahmen only care about economy and not its people!

This is the most common complaint, but there is a key piece of information missing in every complaint. Nobody backs up their complaint with how other countries react if the air quality is really bad. A quick online search tells us why:

  • On Wikipedia, there is only one case where a state of emergency is declared. If the API in Malaysia exceeds 500, then “non-essential government services are suspended, and…

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Opinions

Creative Technologies, missed opportunities or lost cause?

Ancient History

Update 1 27/2/2014: Thanks to Arthur for new info
Update 2 09/3/2016: New info/insights from FY15 financial report + clearer grammer. I’m still getting regular hits to this old and rushed article! What do you, the reader, hope to learn? Share with me in the comments!

Creative Technologies (CT) became famous for their SoundBlaster soundcards in the 1980s. They were the first company in the world to combine FM Synthesizer (MIDI music) & PCM Codec (Voice/Sound effects) + a MIDI/Game port in a single ISA peripheral card. The all-in-one card was sold at a price that basically undercut the competitions at that time. From my memory, their main competitors were Adlib card (also an ISA card) & Covox Speech Thing, which is an external device that plugs into the parallel (printer) port.

Perhaps more importantly, the driver support was open to all PC & games developers, who started the multimedia revolution. This got a huge kickstart when Microsoft announced plans for the Multimedia PC (MPC) and SoundBlaster was the only card in town to meet those specifications.

From there, enhancements were made rapidly as new components (Integrated Circuits) with new capabilities became available from chip suppliers. CT was also very smart in ensuring new hardware and drivers were 100% backward-compatible so every new generation of soundcards provided an almost irresistible urge for gamers and enthusiast to upgrade! Even if the games at that time didn’t yet support the new features.

There were many competitors from Singapore & abroad but an aggressive marketing campaign + aggressive product roadmap soon see them to the pole position. Needless to say, CT became a darling on NASDAQ & SGX. Every new product launch will see a corresponding spike in share price & a nice dividend payout.

They were doing very well in the Soundcard industry in the 90s, especially with the acquisition of E-MU & then Aureal, which turned their soundcards so powerful, it can be used in industrial applications due to the E-MU DSP. Games were specially written to take advantage of all these 3D positioning sounds as Aureal APIs allow game and multimedia developers to place sound/music at specific spatial locations relative to the listener. Games written for Aureal 3D sounded truly immersive!

For music/video playback, only QSound encoded audio sounded more convincing with distinctive sound playing in and around your head. SRS & CMSS-3D extracted audio cues while stereo audio is streamed so these algorithm only expanded the soundstage and was not suitable for gaming. Aureal 3D was not suitable for music/video playback because you have to tell the algorithm where to place the sound.

DirectSound actually heralded the downfall of CT’s dominance. Microsoft introduced DirectX for multimedia & game developers to standardise on the PC platform. Intel also released reference motherboard designs to OEMs to copy. Microsoft followed up with Direct3D & DirectSound3D which brings arcade level gaming to PCs.

Being in pole position for so long, CT became so big & bureaucratical that they fail to notice the development of inexpensive soundchips being built & integrated into motherboards. Granted these early generation soundchips sounded horrible due to multiple issues like the inability to play & record at the same time + grounding issues on motherboards causing all sorts of noise & interference on the audio output & unstable drivers causing crashes.

CT was still selling SoundBlasters like hotcakes & everyone would switch off the onboard sound. They didn’t realize that after just a few generations of soundchips, these ICs were gaining in capability fast, like the ability to support multiple DirectSound3D streams + 24bit sound output + 108db sound quality + 7.1 sound output.

With each generation being less than 9 months, motherboard makers quickly learnt from their mistakes by isolating the sound circuits with better grounding & by moving high noise data pathways from the North & South Bridge chipsets away from the soundchips.

Windows drivers also got much better with Microsoft support. DirectX was also rapidly improving in capabilities, so much so that in less than 3 years, integrated sound became good enough to compete with SoundBlaster! $0 vs $300+ for a high-end Audigy Gold card or $100+ for a AWE32.

Consumers flocked to the cheaper solution of course, driven not just by price but the irrelevance of the main feature of the AWE-32 & Audigy. That feature is wavetable-synthesized music. With the Audigy, you can get studio quality music from a PC Soundcard that cost $300+ versus a professional card/deck that cost thousands. CT was slow to respond to this trend, probably blindsided by the professional market so it wasn’t till it was too late that CT has integrated Soundblaster in a few select motherboards. But due to cost from integrating the much larger Soundblaster IC, most OEMs didn’t support it. The market just dried up and now the Taiwanese company, Realtek is the undisputed leader.

In the past, if you wanted music in your software or games, the only way was through FM synthesizers. These chips modulated a base frequency into a shape that somewhat resembles real instruments. The best early example is the Nintendo Entertainment System. A simple script called a MIDI file has information on when to play a note and for how long on a selected channel. Every MIDI file has multiple channels each assigned an instrument. When all these channels were played together, a surreal synthesized music is heard. The main advantage of MIDI is these files were extremely small so were favoured due to disk & memory constrains in the past.

With 16-bit CD quality sound becoming the norm, the music portion needed to keep up and Wavetable Synthesis was brought over from the professional audio equipment market. Instead of a frequency modulated waveform being generated, the note from the MIDI file being played actually comes from a pre-recorded sample from a real instrument, called a patch.

At that time, if you wanted the most compatibility for wavetable sound, you had to go for the SoundBlaster AWE-32. But if you wanted the BEST music, you got the Gravis Ultrasound, which also supported a newer even more powerful music scripting format called the MOD(ule). This allowed more reverb, variation, cross-channel mixing, patch manipulation and unlimited patch size.

In the past, Voice & Sound effects were stored in PCM wave format whose file size was huge in comparison to MIDI. As with all inventions, necessity was the main driver of innovation. People wanted to compress CD-quality wave files to make them easier to transport & work with in games & multimedia applications, especially over the new media called the Internet. MP3 was quickly adopted & formed the basis of all music in games, media & movies over the Internet. This basically spelt an end to all synthesized music (both MIDI & MOD) in the consumer realm, rendering all Soundblaster AWE/Audigy & competitor standalone cards overkill. The integrated soundchips with their ability to handle 64 channels of PCM sounds were all that’s needed by consumers. From my memory, the first local casualty of this was Aztech Singapore with their Sound Galaxy range.

Unfortunately, CT’s trouble didn’t end there. A few misstep along the way soon confounded their recover. First was the CD-ROM drive. In the 90s, there were quite a few companies in Singapore making CD-ROM drives. However, once again, cheaper alternatives from overseas (Taiwan mainly) soon convinced consumers to buy those white-box OEM drives instead of the nicely boxed CT drives, which always seem to be a generation slower than these white-box drives. Wearnes Technology was almost wiped out during that episode. CT had a much better balance sheet so they were able to secure Singapore government assistance in the ensuing write-off.

However, the assistance comes with unintended consequences. According to (unverified) insiders of the deal, the agreement was for the Singapore government investment branch, Temasek Holdings, to take over a majority stake of the equitable shares of CT basically nationalizing it, & Sim Wong Hoo in effect lost the company he fought so hard to build. It could be this reason that CT was forced to delist from NASDAQ. The fund was injected through the Economic Development Board of Singapore. Sim Wong Hoo did eventually bought back much of the shares but at great costs.

Now, we all know that government top-down bureaucratic management style doesn’t work in a hi-speed hi-tech industry & that may be what happened to CT, where bottom-line was the overwriting concern rather than taking risks by pumping millions of dollars into R&D to create new products.

CT did have a second-wind with their Zen MP3 players which looked nice, had different form factors/colours, supported all common music formats, can be expanded with external memory & had great software that can transcode one format to another easily. However, Apple came along & stole the thunder with the iPod. CT’s lawsuit against Apple only secured a lifeline, not a victory.

CT’s foray into the 3D graphics card industry also met with poor results. The 3D GPU industry moved at an even faster pace than the soundcard industry. I’m not sure why CT acquired 3Dlabs, but I doubt it’s for their PC potential since CT used nVidia chips before calling it quits.

CT bought Cambridge Soundworks in 1997 with the hopes that the resulting synergy can reinvigorate the company but the gaming surround speakers failed to take off & CT had to sell the division away.

Along the way, they also acquired some gaming peripheral companies which didn’t work out and had to be divested. At this point in the 2000s, CT was completely off my radar and I no longer tracked any of their product range.

In 2009, CT launched a well-publicized but poorly executed (in consumer-space at least) campaign for their (poorly-name) StemCell CPU with “a 100-fold increase in supercomputing power over current technology”. No one understood what the fuss was about. CT’s only real showcase of the technology was an Android powered tablet that few people had a chance to try & a backplane-like cascade of ZMS-05 modules doing 1-teraflop but rendering something rather mundane.

As far as I can tell, the ZMS-05 platform is simply a dual-core ARM-based CPU with 3DLabs GPU component capable of performing 100 concurrent streams. The only difference may be the development platform allows the GPU to handle general programming tasks rather than simply graphical tasks. This may be similar to OpenCL for PC GPU. At that time, this capability was not available for the ARM architecture.

Unfortunately, it was not marketed enough & competitors like Qualcomm (Snapdragon), Samsung (Exynos) & NVidia (Tegra) soon signed up all the tablet OEMs leaving very little for CT.

CT did have a design win when Intel acquired the Ziilabs team for the StemCell architecture in 2012, probably to bolster Intel’s inadequate GPU. I wonder if it was integrated in the new Haswell Core-i CPU thereby giving that CPU the graphics boost it demonstrated in 2011. Haswell chips were eventually released in 2013.

However, for CT, it may not be a good deal because all the best engineering minds from 3DLabs have gone to Intel. Even though CT still owns the IP & Intel is technically licensing it, an IP that doesn’t generate new IP and/or products will be obsoleted in just a few years.

Lastly, CT also have a “Hanz” line of Chinese language hardware platform & software education system but those didn’t really help the bottom-line as shown in the Financial Report 2015.

So what’s left?

Not much actually. They probably ODM certain products, ship the design to China for manufacture & probably rebrand China products for sales elsewhere. Their revenue and R&D spendings have been reducing YoY & they posted a USD $33m loss in FY2015. Their longtime Creative Store at Marina Square is gone. CT is still holding on to USD $99m in cash + cash equivalent down from USD $140m in FY2013.

Where did it go so horribly wrong?

Like the fall of Rome, the collapse did not happen overnight. There must have been many events that lead to disaster. We could point to the failed investments in the past or the lack of direction or even top-level mismanagement. Some may even blame the Singapore Government in meddling in the private section.

I think it’s because CEO Sim Wong Hoo is 61 this year. With no succession plan in place (that I heard of), there’s not likely to be any change in CT’s direction nor will there be a change in their fortune or share prices.

Whatever it is, CT is a pale shade of what it used to be.

Is it a lost cause?

It really depends on whether they have someone to succeed the CEO position and bring fresh perspective & fresh blood into a still pond. It’s currently trading at SGD$1 on SES.

They’re trying to sell a high-end soundbar called X-Fi Sonic Carrier, which admittedly looks good and support Dolby Atmos 15.2 sound but carries a $2800 Pre-order price tag and ships towards the end of 2016. Most sound-bars comes bundled with a mid-range SmartTV so I’m not sure how well this will sell, especially since the launch price is an eye-watering $7000! I believe I can get an LG 50+” OLED UHD SmartTV with sound-bar + sub-woofer for that price!

Is Creative trying to do high-end audiophile market like Bang & Olufsen?

What can they do now?

In 2013, I thought AV Receivers may be worth investing in. I don’t think so anymore, what with most young people abandoning huge TV for huge phones with hundreds dollar headphones. For older folks who still prefer huge TVs, the AV Receivers & box speakers are replaced with a SmartTV coupled to a multi-directional sound-bar with a powerful sub-woofer.

The only gadget trends that’s big right now, with sustained interest for the next 3 years, is Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) goggles and Internet of Things (IoT.)

I doubt they have the engineering talent left for VR/AR, so maybe CT can start with small IoT projects based off ZMS-05?

They have a lot of great IP which they seem unable to tap. Soundcards (both PCI-e & USB) are essentially dead. With ARM CPU makers integrating DSPs inside their SoC, the DSP cores from E-MU are no longer special.

Without an aggressive marketing strategy like Beats (Apple) or Sonos, I’m not sure how much the Sonic Carrier can add to the bottom-line, even if the sound is awesome. CT really needs to find a niche where they can sell/bundle truckloads of these sound-bars. Maybe small auditoriums or lecture halls?

With that in mind, I have always wonder why CT never went into the AV Receiver market. That’s a market that people are willing to spend on great sound & video, including speakers!

The 3DLabs GPU can be put to great use by upscaling lower res video source from RCA or Component and outputting through HDMI 1.4 for HDTV. The streaming engine can easily be programmed to do deblocking, de-interlacing, Motion interpolation & sharpening of digital video, or 3D-comb filtering, smoothing of TV & other analog signals. Then to top it all off, perform a 3D-conversion!

For Audio, just couple that ZMS-05 module with a ton of balanced Class-AB OP-AMPs and they’re good to go!

The Android OS can be used for onscreen navigation with integrated apps for things like YouTube, Vimeo, Netflicks etc., similar to media boxes from Western Digital & A.C. Ryan.

Conclusion

As a Singaporean, it’s sad to see CT fall from grace but at least they’re still around. I hope someone takes over CT or let CEO Sim Wong Hoo retire from daily running. CT definitely needs a direction so they can recover soon before the cash runs out.

Opinions

Has Star Trek’s Khan Noonien Singh been “whitewashed”?

I have a similar train of thoughts.

Cumberbatch is a fine menacing villain but if they want white (many North Indian men are light skinned), I’d rather they cast Tarkan.

When I was a child, the mere singular mention of the word “Sikh” on a television show only strengthened my bond with a science fiction franchise that I maintained through its incarnations in film and television for decades.

In 1967, the science fiction television show Star Trek introduced a new character named Khan Noonien Singh, who, according to Wikipedia, is “a genetically engineered superhuman from India who once controlled more than a quarter of the Earth during the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s.” This unusually named character — with a Muslim surname as his first name and a Sikh surname —  was identified by a historian during the episode as “probably” a Sikh man from northern India:

Other than his darker skin and last name, the only other evidence of this character’s ethnic origin that is presented to the audience to support the historian’s conclusion is a watercolor painting…

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Opinions

Why Microsoft shouldn’t release Office for other platforms

Updated (16/06/2013) – Scroll down for update

Overview

Yes, the general buzz among the press & some analyst is that Microsoft should release their Office suite for Android & iOS because it could make them an additional USD2.5 billion a year of revenue. PC is in decline with sharp YoY reduction in shipment & Windows will soon be irrelevant.

I disagree on all these points because I think the short-term gain will actually hurt the overall Microsoft eco-system & is a bad business decision all round. Wintel is in a transition of shifting to full-mobile with Microsoft betting on Windows 8, RT & WP8 and Intel betting on going low-power with minimal performance increase with Haswell & Bay Trail CPUs.

The world economy is also slowing down & more people are upgrading their current PCs than buying new ones because for the 2nd time in history, Windows 8 can run on lesser hardware than Windows 7, just like Windows 7 can run on lesser hardware then Windows Vista.

I’ve been upgrading my PC for more than 10 years with a motherboard/CPU/RAM change every 3-4 years & other peripherals as and when my PC games requires.

So why do I disagree with these analyst? Maybe because of hindsight…

Time for some history lesson

In 1996, Palm Pilot was launched as a simple organizer with a touchscreen + handwriting input. It was a hit very quickly due to its simplicity, small size & light weight, and it soon replaced many paper organizer. The PDA moniker was born.

Microsoft quickly realize that there was demand for a mobile version of Windows on small touchscreen devices & soon launched Pocket PC in 2000. Many professional soon realize the power of having Windows in the pocket. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy to use & it’s also impossible to use without a stylus so initial marketshare wasn’t very high.

Palm very quickly updated their OS capabilities & greatly improved the hardware on a yearly basis & very soon, they’re the dominant smart devices on the market. However, when the phone & Internet was introduced into the hardware, Palm started to struggle against more general-purpose operating systems like PocketPC & Symbian.

As the PDA & mobile phone converged allowing the convenience of wireless Internet access through GPRS data connectivity, Microsoft quickly secured many vendors to make Windows Mobile & Windows Mobile Phones & opened their development tools for free to encourage developers to make apps for it.

This resulted in some of the best apps coming to Windows Mobile first or exclusively. This on top of the capability of the OS being able to run on very underpowered ARM CPU of the time soon saw Windows Mobile surpass Palm as the dominant platform.

*Symbian is more of a smarter feature phone than general-purpose smartphone that we recognize today so I don’t regard Symbian as a true smartphone until late 2000 when it was too late*

One of the reasons is MS Office Mobile + the huge amount of free apps + some very high quality paid apps. For serious smartphone users of the day, the only platform to consider was Windows Mobile. It’s also well-known that many Palm users “graduated” to Windows Mobile as they found Palm too restrictive.

Unfortunately, Microsoft didn’t take iOS & Android seriously enough & Windows Mobile 6 was not a big change from Windows Mobile 5 resulting in 2 years of stalled development & lost of the market.

Current situation

So it’s well-known that Microsoft is trying to win back marketshare & mineshare with Windows RT, Windows Phone & Surface devices.

Many professionals have tried iPad & Android tablets for work & many are feeding back that these touch-devices should have many features that Windows 8 & RT already have for years like Windowing, robust Networking stack with Enterprise level encryption support for Active Directory, device management & Microsoft Office.

In fact, many professionals & students who are more savvy are putting aside their iPads & Android tablets for the new Microsoft Surface & Surface Pro because these are viable tablets AND laptop replacement devices that runs Microsoft Office!

One of my clients just picked up his Surface RT in Singapore soon after launch because after years of iPad & Android tablets, he hasn’t found a suitable replacement for Microsoft Office which he needed for work. He said that he can finally sell his iPad & Android tablet.

Besides the Microsoft Surface devices, there’re also pretty decent hybrids like the Lenovo Thinkpad 2, HP Envy X2, Acer Iconia W510/700 & Samsung ATIV Smart PC. If you like exotic flavours, there are the Asus Taichi & Dell Yoga to consider as well.

These devices running Windows 8 & to some extent Windows RT can already do more than iPads & Android tablets because they’re full OS & not stripped-down mobile OS. So in terms of entertainment, Windows tablets is already well covered. You can run VLC player or Media Player Classic which can play almost all known audio & video format & connect it to your Full HD TV for large screen goodness. Since there’s an HDMI connector in every Win 8/RT tablet, you can connect to your AV Receiver & replace your media boxes like WDTV & A.C. Ryan.

At the same time, you can get work done because these devices all support Microsoft Office. Windows RT even bundles it for free with the exception of Outlook.

The future

So we can see that Windows is intricately tied to Office & vice versa. Microsoft is trying to secure Windows future by going “Metro” or “Modern” or the Tile thing that flips all the time. It looks daunting & different and people are scared of change but trust me… It’s the right way forward. Icons are so 90s & Widgets can consume battery like crazy.

This means that for Microsoft to succeed in the future, Windows must succeed & for that to happen, people mindset must be change & this education/perception takes time. Once people have accepted & embraced Metro, Microsoft can think about releasing Office for other platforms, or not…

If Microsoft were to release Office for other platforms now, they would basically be shooting both feet off Windows 8/RT proverbial legs. This is similar to the situation now with Windows Phone 8.

Microsoft should strengthen WP8 by releasing more first-party Xbox games like Halo. They should also have released 1st-party apps like the fantastic Photosynth on WP first, instead of iOS. And don’t even get me started on Skype. After almost 1 year, the dream of free video calls or VoIP just like a normal phone call hasn’t been fulfilled. Skype should already be integrated into WP People & Message Hub by now!

Let’s hope Windows Blue brings all these together & don’t let Office leave the family. There’s no turning back once MS Office is outside Windows. It’s as good as losing control of your best property.

Update 1

On 14/6/2013, Microsoft announced Office Mobile for iPhone, which is very similar to what Windows Mobile had since 2003 and Windows Phone since 2010. You need an active Office 365 account to use Office for iOS and yes, editing is possible but clumsy on a small screen (same problem in Windows Mobile & Windows Phone). Office for iPad is still not available, which is a smart move.

I think Microsoft did the right thing. On one hand, they’ve shown that Office for iOS is 100% ready, to appease pesky institutional investors, but at the same time, they aren’t giving Office away (yet) to the iPad to solidify Apple’s growing foothold in the Enterprise market.

Microsoft have the responsibility to ensure that traditional PC ecosystem players from software houses & hardware OEM have figured out how to transition to a purely mobile PC platform before they allow Office to move to other platform (if ever, hopefully never.)

Opinions

Why Microsoft risk alienating 1Billion users by overhauling Windows 8?

Overview

If you’re reading my blog, you’d probably know Microsoft released Windows 8 & RT on 26th Oct 2012 & it looks nothing like any Windows before it. So why is Microsoft willing to risk causing computing mayhem & potential sales by making such a drastic change?

If you’re looking for tips on navigating the new Windows 8 Start Screen, come to my tutorial page to get up to speed.

Windows 8: A bigger more cheerful environment to work & play in

With the rise of Apple iOS & its simple uncluttered design philosophy for iPhones & iPads, consumers have been flocking to buy up every new version even though a typical iPhone/iPad cost as much as a netbook. The smooth & fluid transitions is both appealing to the eyes as well as help to mask the loading time of apps or webpages. iOS works because much attention has been paid to simplicity & emoting the senses.

Microsoft Windows on the other hand has always been about getting the job done in the fastest possible time & letting you get on with your work & personal life. Little effort was made to connect with the user on an emotional level.

Sure, Windows allowed tons of customisation. Windows Vista introduced a prettier shell called Aero with all its transparency but that was all just copying Mac OS X, which does connect to the user on an emotional level with tons of fancy animations.

Much debate has been made about a pretty interface versus getting the job done, and iOS has proven you can have both & feel good about it.

In the past, many Windows XP/Vista users would just revert to the classic shell because it was much faster, especially for older hardware. Microsoft didn’t make it a point to make the XP Luna & Vista Aero shell work faster even though the GPU supports it. Windows 7 changed that but the battle was already lost to OS X with many migrating to the Mac during the mess Vista made.

Many people are already drawing parallels between Vista & Windows 8 but as you’d read later, this isn’t the case at all.

Microsoft knew they screwed up with Vista

Microsoft knew way back then they screwed up big time with Longhorn (the codename for Vista). Some major features like WinFS had to be dropped & unpopular features like UAC introduced.

The minimum requirement was too high for hardware and the (perceived) improvements didn’t justify such a drastic increase in CPU & RAM. However, in the name of better security, these painful changes had to be implemented but it was poorly executed & explained despite the massive Beta programme.

During this whole time, Microsoft had been streamlining their kernel with the MinWin initiative to breakdown the Monolithic NT Kernel into a modified Microkernel platform to allow easier maintainance of code, with emphasis on security.

Windows 7 was the fruit of that labour & for the first time in Microsoft history, you could run Windows on LESS hardware than its predecessor.

One of the design goals of MinWin was to allow Microsoft to scale the NT kernel for less powerful CPU to super-high-power CPU clusters. On the low-power end, mobile was definitely a target ever since Bill Gates introduced the TabletPC in 2001.

Microsoft has been monitoring the situation closely & according to reports, Microsoft had to delay entering the Mobile market due to viruses & other malware targeting Windows. We’re all aware that using Windows without Antivirus & Firewall is suicidal if you’re online. Fortunately, according to this report, Microsoft products now much more secure than before. (Scroll to the bottom for the list).

Having said that, I wouldn’t advise you to uninstall your Antivirus software anytime soon.

Windows 8 Build on Windows 7 security strength

With Windows 8, Microsoft seek to make it even more secure by promoting their curated “Windows Store” to ensure that in future, most software (called App) must be checked by Microsoft before they’re published for download.

Microsoft has also built-in an Antivirus called Defender beside the Firewall that came bundled since XP SP2. Users of the free Security Essentials will feel right at home.

If that didn’t catch the virus, the Windows 8 Remove everything function will basically wipe out everything including your data & any viruses that may be present, thereby returning it to pristine condition.

After using Windows for a year or two in desktop mode, bloat & junk build up & slow Windows down. You can use the new Refresh function to wipe out all these unnecessary stuff without losing your data.

In theory, Apps should not have this problem because they exist in their own sandbox environment with no access to the underlying system except to save files.

Now that Microsoft has solved the most pressing issue with Windows in a mobile & hostile internet environment, the next step was to be competitive with new players like Apple’s iOS & Google’s Android.

Microsoft saw in iOS & Android the same tired icon interface that everyone has been using for the past 20 years. Granted, the resolutions are higher & the colour richer, but it’s still rows of static icons. They decided to adopt a design philosophy that has been extremely successful for public transport & road signs. It was called “Metro” after the subway train services across the world.

Changing for the Better

Many people are afraid of change. A lot of these people are very vocal about staying within their comfort zone. And yet, time & again, it’s change that drive growth, financially, philosophically & functionally.

Steve Jobs is the embodiment of how doing what’s right & needed in a timely fashion is what drives innovation & growth. Unfortunately, his death seems to have diminished the spark Apple had during its bull run.

Microsoft on the other hand, is just coming out of its Antitrust funk, with many good leaders coming out of that difficult time. Many of the current leaders are following Bill Gates aggressive way of doing technology, if not his business practise.

Microsoft knew there has been many calls to fix many of the shortcomings of the Windows interface, both functionally & aesthetically.

The Start Menu becomes a big mess after you install & uninstall many programs & games over time, and there was no obvious way to organise & clean it.

Many of the software are buried in levels of sub-menu & there was no description for what they do. Over time, your desktop will have so much useless files on it, it becomes unmanageable & you can’t find your programs or files anymore.

Vista introduced a Desktop search function but it was slow & clunky. Windows 7’s version was better but not by much.

According to usage data collected from millions of PCs around the world, Microsoft start to see an emerging trend. People like to pin stuff to the Taskbar & Windows 7 Live Preview were GUI hits that receive universal compliments.

On the mobile front, people were responding well to the new interface on the critically acclaimed Zune HD, which flopped commercially due to Apple’s entrenched iPod & iTunes. The final nail came after iPhones became a huge success.

TabletPCs were still doing poorly because as the resolution becomes higher, it becomes increasingly difficult to use Windows software with Touch, which was the next paradigm in user interaction.

So Microsoft started an experiment by putting an enhanced Zune interface on their next smartphone OS called Windows Phone 7.

Windows Phone 7 & Metro

WP7 launched to mixed reviews due to a lack of critical features & lack of apps but reviewers were mostly positive about the Metro interface because it was fresh & completely different from iOS & Android. It was also smooth & fluid even though the hardware was 3 years old.

The design philosophy lends itself well to the underlying message of sharing in a social context, things that happen to you & how you respond back.

It’s a level of emotion that’s both deep & personal because the idea is for you to connect to the people & things that are important to you while at the same time, not linger too long on the phone.

In & out of the phone and get on with life. This philosophy is completely different from iOS & Android, which wants you to stay with the phone for as long as possible, either to make you spend more money on apps & accessories, or to drive ad revenue.

With WP7, Microsoft was attempting to combine both emotion & productivity into a single expression. Currently, WP7 is hampered by inadequate hardware & legacy software since WP7 OS was descended from WinCE which shares many of the architectural features as the obsoleted Windows 95 16-bit operations.

Things like lack of multi-cpu support, cooperative multitasking, unprotected memory management, etc. prevented Microsoft from using the latest hardware available. Fortunately, the user experience was generally positive with high marks of user satisfaction on Amazon & other e-commerce portals.

Unfortunately, the blogging & Tech publications were unforgiving when comparing the hardware, citing WP7 single-core CPU as being obsoleted even though WP7 run smoother, faster & more stable than many dual-core Android phones & even iPhone 4 in some areas. This negativity has heavy leanings on sales staff who read them for information, because they can’t test every device they sell, which in turn result in poor sales because sales people are not willing to push WP7.

Extending WP7 experience to a larger screen

Lessons learnt from WP7 were directly transferred to Windows 8/RT. The pinable & sizeable Live Tiles, the tight integration of the various apps provided by the OS like People, Calender, Messaging, Email all sync to the cloud & popular social services like Facebook, MS Account (including XBox), Skype, LinkedIn & Twitter. The smooth & fluid interface that works well with Touch & Pen, as well as Keyboard & Mouse.

In terms of hardware, Microsoft never expected iPad to become the huge hit it was. So it was a shock when iPad quickly overtook TabletPC as the dominant tablet within less than a year in 2010. This was just after Windows 7 was launched. Something had to be done!

The answer was the Microsoft Surface & Surface Pro. After years of uninspiring hardware design from OEMs, Microsoft decided to build their own Tablet, answering the calls of TabletPC users worldwide. Granted part of the problem was the Intel x86 CPU but I believe more could be done by the OEM.

Now that Intel’s Clovertrail & Ivy Bridge CPUs are low-power but fast enough for Enterprise & Power users respectively, Microsoft can craft a desirable tablet that is actually productive. The next half of the equation is a desirable software platform to use it with.

The new Start Screen as your new “Desktop”

The Start Menu has been a mainstay since Windows 95 introduced it in 1995. That in itself was a big deal when icons & windows were all there was. Third-party shells like Central Point Desktop (part of PC-Tools for Windows 2.0) extended the Windows 3 Program Manager when power-users like me wanted a more extensible Shell with features like lists & Multi-desktops.

As more people started using Windows & more software becomes available, it’s painfully obvious Program Manager isn’t going to be able to keep up & provide the platform Microsoft wanted to take Windows.

It’s the same with Windows 8. With the number of things you can do with a PC + the usage scenario projected for the new Microsoft Surface, they needed a new Shell. But this time, there’s a new wrinkle… Capacitive Multi-Touch screens.

The Touch interface was inherently inaccurate with your finger covering most of the area you’re targeting. The Windows 7 Desktop interface was modified to compensate for this but it was still frustrating if your TabletPC was very small or has very high resolution.

Windows Phone 7 Tile Based Metro Interface neatly solves this problem & by extension, Windows 8’s as well. These Tiles aren’t useless squares and rectangles. They display Live information that are periodically downloaded from the Internet or corporate intranets so only updated information is presented.

The information is also relevant for the App so you don’t get useless information like Ad bombarding you all the time. However, this concept required traditional Windows developers to learn new skills. Something Microsoft has been pushing since WP7.

It is also the new “Desktop” because if you pick up a Windows RT tablet from November 2012 onwards, you can only run Windows Store app. Traditional Windows software cannot run on Windows RT at all except for a few Microsoft native software like Notepad, Paint & Office 2013.

The good news is, whatever App you bought from Windows Store can be installed on up to 5 devices, be it Windows RT or Windows 8 devices. Yes, Microsoft has made it possible to share apps on many different classes of devices irregardless of their CPU!

For developers, this is huge because if you write a Windows App from 2012 onwards, it can run on ARM, Intel & AMD CPUs! For consumers, they can select computing devices without too much consideration to the underlying CPU architecture. This has never happened before in computer history.

(Note that Windows RT is not compatible with every ARM licensee because each of them add certain features which are incompatible with other licensees, unlike Intel/AMD.)

Insurance against a shift in CPU architectural dominance from Intel x86

This is the future that Microsoft is envisioning & is a bet that eventually, all Windows software will become Apps & legacy desktop software is retired, allowing Microsoft to retire the Desktop for Windows RT completely.

Microsoft is also working with ARM directly to support 64-bit operations to allow for larger RAM & Storage for future Windows RT devices even as Intel is continuing to lower their power consumption while providing more processing power to these new generation of CPUs based on “Haswell”.

This is necessary to ensure the survival & proliferation of the Windows platform in general just in case the market moves towards ARM as the dominant CPU instead of Intel x86 since ALL competing tablets on the market currently are running on CPUs based on ARM.

Of course, for Power-users who need the Desktop for the foreseeable future to run information intensive tasks, we have Windows 8 which runs both legacy software & Windows Apps giving us the best of both worlds.

Seeing that Intel & AMD will always have the more powerful CPU/GPU, x86 isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

For naysayers of Windows RT, having Windows 8 support Windows Apps will ensure that whatever developer create for Windows 8 will (almost) automatically be available for Window RT creating a real Halo effect & ensure Windows RT will have a large number of Apps in the near future.

Windows App & Windows Store as the new preferred distribution channel

Apple iOS introduced the concept of a centralised location where you can download all your apps. For the user, it is much easier to discover useful software. For Apple, it is a huge revenue generator. For developer, the ability to tap the entire installed base of users was an enticing proposition!

In the Windows world, discovering software usually means a trip to the Search engine, which more often than not, throws up a huge list of webpages, some of which have questionable reputation.

Microsoft had success in courting many developers to the WP7 marketplace & they’re confident developers will do the same for Windows 8 & RT due to the humongous Windows installed base. Steve Ballmer recently announced 4 million Windows 8 Pro licenses bought within 4 days of launch. This number did not include Windows 8 licenses that were pre-installed on hardware already & Microsoft Surface 32GB being sold out everywhere. Not a bad start.

Customising YOUR Start Screen

Usability of the new Start Screen will require a new way of thinking but in terms of getting things done & getting to your software or apps, it’s faster than the Start Menu especially if you use Windows keyboard shortcuts a lot.

Management of the various software is also much faster. You can uninstall anything from the Start Screen. You can pin & unpin Software & Apps you use quickly to the Start Menu. You can Group them together so that you can see at a glance where everything is & if there are any updates on their Live Tiles if they’re Windows 8/RT Apps.

It’s also a full-screen affair so all your personal stuff are up front & ready for you to Touch/Click, creating a deep connection between yourself & your Start Screen. Even your name & Account Picture is displayed prominently on the top-right corner making your Start Screen uniquely yours.

You can change your Desktop wallpaper but the Start Screen background is restricted to specific design. Because the Live Tiles take up over 70% of screen real-estate, you can’t use your photos for the Start Screen’s background nor would you want to anyway.

Beyond the Start Screen

Your Start Screen is also synchronised with the Microsoft cloud called Skydrive, which allows you to have a familiar environment across any devices that you login to with your Microsoft Account. You’ll also automatically have 7GB of online cloud storage which you can easily access from your Windows 8 PC or using a browser on any platform.

Neat touches like Picture Password also adds a layer of personalization not common on other platforms.

The new Search also allow the Search bar to find not just Software, Apps, Settings and Files, but also any items within the Apps & its cached and online data.

For example, if you search for “Paris” & click the Weather App, the App will immediately show all cities named Paris & display their weather.

One of the issues with iOS & Android is you can’t copy & paste complex information between Apps. Windows 8/RT allows an app to share information in a pre-determined fashion, allowing users the flexibility of sharing information, not just to friends, but between Apps as well, negating the need to sync to the cloud & back with another app.

One of the things that most people take for granted is printing. iOS & Android printing is severely limited requiring compatible eco-system. Windows 8 naturally support any printers that ever existed with a Windows driver & Windows RT supports many of these same printers with Microsoft converting more printer class drivers for Windows RT as the platform matures.

Since Windows has the broadest peripheral support, you are insured against a piece of hardware not having a corresponding Windows driver. For Windows RT, driver support will hopefully come when the user base increase.

International support

Windows 8/RT also have much better International support versus Windows 7. You no longer need an “Ultimate” license to change Display language & you can even switch it on the fly!

You’d also get the multi-language IME including secondary touch/pen-based handwriting support free of charge for Windows 8 Pro. This used to be an expensive upgrade to the Ultimate version.

Bilingual people like me can finally use Chinese handwriting to input an unfamiliar Chinese word instead of using the much slower hand-stroke method. I assume this will work for many stroke-based writing like Japanese & Korean as well. Just install the Language Pack!

Conclusion

I think you can tell from my article that I’m pretty impressed with Windows 8 Pro. I’ve already upgraded my Fujitsu T4215 TabletPC & have not encountered any problems so far.

However, this TabletPC is 5 years old & lack a Touchscreen. This isn’t something I can upgrade unlike the CPU, RAM & SSD. So, I’m waiting for Microsoft Surface Pro to be launched next year.

There’re many Windows 8 tablets already launched but so far, only the Lenovo Thinkpad 2 excites me besides the uber-cool Surface Pro. Let’s see how Microsoft price the 64GB Surface Pro. If it’s priced too high, I might just buy my first Lenovo.

Opinions

How Microsoft should market Windows Phone 8

Windows Phone 8 looks like it’s good enough to take on iPhone 5 & Android Phones running Jelly Bean but it means nothing if Microsoft is not able to get it into people’s hands. In order to do that, they need to market, market, market WP8 phones with all their money! Here’s my opinion on how they can approach the market.

MS should do what Apple always does. Emphasize on the strong benefits of the OS. This kind of marketing CAN change people’s perspective. The important thing is not to belittle the competitors, just say we’re better. Emphasize on the BENEFITS (user scenario) as much as possible.

As an example. The #smokebywindowsphone strategy has work to a certain extend but MS should have made a big TV campaign that say that WP7 is single-core, so what? We’re still faster than a Quad-core smartphone (cue Nokia Lumia 800 overshadowing Samsung Galaxy S3 in capturing a FUN or embarrassing moment, then Tag the victim & upload it to Facebook). All done in 10 seconds before the victim even have a chance to stop you.

Then do another Ad that say WP8 has 100,000 apps while others have more than 600,000. So what? Our apps are actually useful & beautiful in bold “Windows 8” style that’s easy on your eyes, (cue HTC 8X’s camera app + CNN + Weave, in app & on Live Tiles, etc. then show Motorola RAZR HD succumb to a virus.)

And most importantly, something like WP7/8 connects you to your most important (anything), then show HTC 8S showing Me Hub, People Hub, Group updates, Picture Hub, Notification & What’s New filtered according to Facebook, Twitter or All. Ends with a tagline with the effect that WP8 helps you run your life, not be overrun by it. Then show Apple rows & columns of icons scrolling aimlessly.

These Ads should be designed to invoke desire & emotion. Make it look fun & easy. Show off the integration & speed, show people are able to get BACK to their important, their lives, their friends & family or their work made easier. No talking in these ad please! The “Really” campaign didn’t work because people don’t get it.

Getting celebrities to show off these phones is another great way to promote the platform. Jessica Alba was recently spotted with a Cyan Nokia Lumia 900. Why not get her to spearhead a North American or even Worldwide campaign? Do it with blitz & glamour like how they sell fashion or cars. It’s about the concept & association, not the product. You want WP8 to look cool when engaging Star power.

Nokia Lumia ads circa 2011-2012 are going in the right direction with everyday people using their phones for important parts of their everyday lives but it’s time to actually show how these features will benefit the average person, which will reduce the comparison with Android & iOS. Currently, most people still don’t “get” Live Tiles & Hubs.

Do mini-ads that emphasis on a particular hub like how Apple like to showcase their improvements in lovely ads even if it’s so minor, like a fifth row on their screen due to the longer form factor. Not a big deal you say? But it means more screen to show stuff & being able to watch movies in letterbox format.

For example, the Me Hub, introduce the individual function like FB Check-in, a central Notification for ALL communications associated with Me, the What’s New page showing what I’ve post on all the different social medias.

Or the People Hub that show all the things you could do with other People’s posts on all the different social medias including traditional calling/VoIP & SMS/IM + a integrated History page that shows you how you’ve interacted with this person all in 1 page.

There’s also the oft-overlooked Picture Hub & for businessmen & students, the Office Hub.

As for OEM specific stuff, things like the OIS camera on the Lumia 920, they should totally reshoot that girl on the bicycle with a Lumia 920 to shut all the critics up & put boldly in the Ad “Shot with Lumia 920” like those Canon DSLR ads. Nevermind if they have to NG 200 times… Then purposely zoom in when they pass by a mirror to show the guy holding the Lumia 920… sorta like giving the middle finger to all doubters. But I recommend a change of venue to one a couple will actually go to for a date, like a park or the beach. Not some dock…

The NFC? Samsung ad showing the SGS3 with the guy proposing to a girl thru glass using NFC to transfer his video proposal. Fantastic idea! MS or Nokia should totally ripoff this idea! Maybe get Samsung to do that with their ATIV S as well but maybe at a fancy restaurant to avoid confusion with the Galaxy S3. After the girl saw the vid, get the guy to flash the ring & the restaurant comes alive with confetti or something. Some good old fashion feel good vibe for the shy guys among us.

Wireless charging? Show a guy playing Angry Bird or a sports game at an Airport lounge with wireless charging built into the table until he misses his flight because his battery never dies. Make it funny, make him grow a beard & long hair with the clock racing in the back… When he finally finishes the game or when someone demolishes the lounge, he’s now in a space-port with spaceships rocketing by…

Make sure these ads are targetted at the correct audience in the correct media. This part, MS got it but they need to do more in each demography they’re targetting.

I could go on & on but end of the day, the ads that people remember are those that emote them & buyers buy based on emotion (with the saleperson being the final push). Or for the Japanese market, something so absurd, people will it remember as well.

I’m getting a sense that people are starting to notice WP, now we just need to swing them to our side of the pendulum.

Lastly, MS & their distribution channels must train the sales-force well enough so they can genuinely excited by the possibilities with WP8. And I’m talking worldwide here.

After Oct 26 2012, if there’re new integration of Windows 8, Windows RT & Xbox 360 with WP8, they should totally emphasize on that integration as well come Oct 29 2012 WP8 launch.

Opinions

Samsung losing patent case is Good for consumers!

So the jury has ruled that Samsung has lost the patent case against Apple.

Apple, as expected, is on the victory march & Samsung has come out with a sourpuss respond that “consumers will be hurt.” Samsung lawyers are obviously misguided.

Firstly, I’m for innovation & being paid for my ideas. I used to develop software with GUI meant for people with zero computer experience. Thus, I do admire iOS simplicity despite the fact that I wouldn’t develop for it. (That’s another story).

I remember a time when Linux advocates are criticising MS OS/software as bloated. Many of these developers probably aren’t programming for ease-of-use. It was extremely tedious to develop a software that is intelligent enough to accept inconsistent user input or to accept errors & NOT crash. It takes a lot of error checking & data shaping at the point of user input & MS software does this very well. It also takes a lot of thought into how the user will interact with the GUI to ensure it’s not annoying to use due to constant error prompts ruining the experience. Having lots of graphics also make software bigger & somewhat slower.

Of course, these days, all these checking are abstracted into the background & developers don’t have to spend time doing human input checking anymore. It’s all automatic in MS & Apple software. Smartphones are also more powerful & have more memory than PCs 15-20 years ago so program size is no longer any issue. But for Google’s software, the GUI is less mature due to its reliant on Open Source Software, where developers are still not as concern about writing software for end-users.

Secondly, the Koreans are very good at copying others’ success stories & make themselves successful. They are also very aggressive when their neck is at stake. Just look at Korean car makers. They are out-competing Japanese car-makers by making cheaper cars with more features which also happen to look nicer (or at least unique.) Granted, the designers of these cars are usually Germans but consumers gain by having cars with near Japanese quality with more features at a lower price!

This will be the likely scenario now that Samsung & other Android phones are found to infringe on the patents that makes iOS unique. Google will have to make Android more unique & eventually, consumers win. Android makers like Samsung, LG, HTC, Motorola will have to improve their customizations, which only means better user experiences for those phone.

Nokia has shown that it’s possible to create a smartphone with a compelling user experience without copying iOS. Apple lawyer even showed a Nokia Lumia at one point as proof, there are good smartphone OS GUI that don’t infringe on any Apple patents.

Let this be a wake-up call to Google to stop ripping off other people’s ideas. It’s ok to copy & improve on the design & value-add to the consumers. Make the new design your own instead of doing a poor job plagiarizing prior art.

Opinions

What Microsoft should bring to Windows Phone 7.8

Introduction

The bloggers & forum goers & tech journalists are still arguing over Microsoft’s announcement of all existing WP7 smartphones only being upgradable to Windows Phone 7.8 with only the new Start Screen as the only addition + that’s the end of the line for the WP7 line. Some have made-up their mind that’s the case, whether they’re fans of Windows Phone or not.

My opinion is more optimistic mixed with being realistic. But this article is not about that argument anymore. I’ve always argued that Microsoft hasn’t shown us ANY consumer features in the coming WP8 & by that line of reasoning, WP7.8.

So let us see where this line of argument takes us…

End of WP7? Maybe not…

According to this post from WPCentral, Senior Product Manager and Windows Phone team member Larry Lieberman has just given some indication that WP7.8 is not all it appears to be, just an additional Start Screen.

Towards the end of this video, Larry was evasive when asked if that’s all developers can expect of WP7.8, a new Start Screen. His words were carefully considered but it seems to indicate there’s more to come for consumers.

Greg Sullivan, Senior Product manager for Windows Phone has also told Pocket-lint, Microsoft has only shown a small portion of the consumer features at WP8 Summit in Jun 2012.

Let’s go back a few months & look at these news.

http://www.intomobile.com/2012/06/14/microsoft-helps-floundering-nokia-lower-prices-and-compete-against-android/

It’s speculated that these low-cost devices will run WP8 but if that’s the case, Microsoft can bring WP8 to all WP7 devices! Wouldn’t it be faster & cheaper to continue WP7.8 on single-core Qualcomm S2? So far, we’re hearing WP8 runs on Snapdragon S4 only.

Greg Sullivan had also confirm what many bloggers have suspected, that MS will not bring WP8 to WP7 due to time & manpower cost. It’s technically possible but it simply wouldn’t make it a great experience on current phones.

If Microsoft maintains WP7 & WP8, they owe it to WP7 users to ensure comparable features

Below is the list of stuff that should appear in WP7.8 that’s not hardware dependent:

  1. Screen capture (It’s possible because it’s already in most Custom ROMs)
  2. Custom sound for Notifications
  3. Support more Bluetooth profile like Contact transfer & file transfer
  4. User information backup/sync to Skydrive. Stuff like APP states (game progress), Message Thread, Video, Music, Podcast
  5. Skype Integration (Change its P2P operations to semi-P2P, super-node reside on servers rather than phones)
  6. Notification Center ala iOS 5 by swiping left or something
  7. A more full featured Network stack (OK, this one may be a stretch)
  8. Maps by Navteq with Nokia Drive
  9. Xbox Music (Everywhere)
  10. SmartGlass (if it doesn’t rely on DirectX)
  11. Graphics equalizer!
  12. IE10 (even if it’s without the Smartscreen feature)
  13. Like/Edit/Delete Comments/Pictures/whatever in Me/People Hub

What wouldn’t make the cut?

  1. Multi-threading (apps running in background)
  2. Integrated Skype (if they don’t get off their butt & re-engineer Skype network or do workaround in the client)
  3. Wallet (it’s only useful with NFC)
  4. DirectX for high performance gaming engine like Havok (Adreno 205 doesn’t cut it)
  5. Full IPv4/IPv6 network stack with VPN, IPSec, etc.

Microsoft will reveal all in the (rumoured) BUILD event coming end July, beginning August October, beginning November when they launch the new SDK for WP8.

What do you think? Comment below!

Opinions

No WP8 upgrade for current WP7 users. Are we being short-changed?

Intro

Microsoft has finally unveiled the Windows Phone 8 platform, codenamed “Apollo” on Wednesday 20th June 2012. WP8 is without question the right direction & Microsoft is also wise to withhold most information on user features in case Google copy from them next week.

Below is the Full summit if you’re interested. For most enthusiasts, the first 35 minutes are the most interesting, the rest are mostly for (ex)programmers like me.

In many forums around the world, users are up-in-arms about not being able to upgrade to WP8. These complainers are mainly recent buyers of the Nokia Lumia 900 & HTC Titan II. So are these complainers right to feel angry? Let’s look at the situation objectively.

Windows 8 Summit is meant for Developers, IT managers & CTO

What many of these people don’t realise is that, the WP8 Summit is meant for developers. It was never meant to announce any new consumer features. Joe clarified this when he started his presentation & many people who watched it didn’t seem to catch that.

Anyway, WP8 finally brings feature parity against iOS 6 & Android 4.0, while enhancing on the strength of the Metro design language. The fact that WP8 promises so much might be the reason recent buyers of WP7.5 phones were unhappy that they will not be able to upgrade to WP8 in roughly 6 months time, less than 1 year into their contract.

But is Microsoft really short-changing current supporters of WP7? Let’s find out.

Other platforms

For Android, it’s been frustrating for buyers of low to mid-end devices because more often that not, these devices are never prioritized for upgrades, if at all. Only Google Nexus-branded devices are consistently getting updates but these updates are almost always very late & buggy at first. (Reminds me of Windows Mobile 6)

For iOS, Apple makes it sound so fantastic that even iPhone 3GS can upgrade to iOS 6. What they fail to mention is, most of new features of iOS 6 are not available on the 3GS & the GUI (on iOS 5.1) is so laggy, only a grandma wouldn’t mind using it. Apple likes to emphasize their user experience, but if that’s the case, they should not allow iOS 5 on the iPhone 3GS!

Why is it like this? Long time PC users will know that as software get more capability, their CPU & memory usage increase. On the PC, you can always install more RAM and/or a faster HDD/SSD. On the phone, this isn’t possible, even if the phone supports microSD.

So with every new release of software, the hardware requirement goes up. Just look at Android & iOS devices. The only exception recently is Windows 8.

New platform features in WP8

Below is a list of new features in WP8 from a developer point-of-view. Note that Microsoft has NOT talk about new user features except for the new Start Screen & Skype Integration.

  1. Windows NT kernel + Full core support similar to Windows RT
  2. Multi-CPU (& likely multi-GPU) support (Both physical & logical cores ala Hyper-threading, CrossFire & SLI)
  3. Same development environment for WP7.5, WP8, Win RT & Win 8
  4. 2 new HD resolutions
  5. Removable microSD support
  6. IE 10
  7. C/C++ support + Middleware support
  8. DirectX 11
  9. NFC
  10. MS Wallet
  11. Navteq integration/replacement of Bing Maps (With offline maps)
  12. Nokia Navigation integration into Maps (Full SatNav replacement, bye bye Garmin)
  13. Full Enterprise security, management, in-house app deployment, & compliance
  14. Sizeable Tiles!!!

Now let’s match these new features & see which one requires hardware that current WP7 phones don’t have.

  1. Windows NT kernel + Core Stacks likely require 300-400MB of RAM to boot up. With current devices, maximum is 512MB of RAM, meaning after Win NT loads, you can’t run many other apps
  2. Multi-CPU – DirectX, IE 10, Enterprise security (encryption) all require Multi-CPU to run well
  3. New resolution of phone screen – Higher PPI on the phone allows more content to be displayed clearly especially for 4″ screens & above
  4. Removable microSD – Expandable storage allow users to upgrade their storage according to needs. Flash memory is not cheap.
  5. NFC – required for MS Wallet & Tap+Share

Without good DirectX support, gaming Middleware wouldn’t work very well. Without Multi-core, IE 10 will lose the browser war. WP7.5 is already very optimised & run faster than Android & iOS 5 on single-core devices. Going forward, Microsoft’s customers like me, are not going to be satisfied if WP8 devices are not faster than Android 4.0 & iOS5 devices!

So what are we left with?

  1. Same development environment
  2. C/C++ support
  3. Navteq powered maps + navigation
  4. Sizeable Tiles

Hey! Wait a minute, this sounds just like Windows Phone 7.8!

When we look at Microsoft’s position in the mobile arena, the length of time they spent doing WP8 (more than 1 year) & the innovations coming out of the new Microsoft, it’s almost inconceivable that they’d try to alienate existing customers, both end-users & OEMs by short-changing us. Losing end-users also gives OEMs less incentive to make smartphones running WP8. All bad bad situations for Microsoft’s already weak position.

Conclusion… Not short-changed!

In conclusion, with some concrete evidences & some extrapolations, I think we’re not short-changed at all & Microsoft hasn’t even announced their consumer features yet. (Although I will get upset if WP7.8 is just the Start Screen upgrade.)

It just doesn’t make sense to offer WP8 to existing users because our hardware simply cannot support the huge amount of stuff in WP8, & Microsoft is not going to sugarcoat it like Apple does. Unfortunately for Microsoft, users of Microsoft products typically identify the hardware more strongly than the software. This is a direct consequence of detaching the software from hardware in order to give consumer more choices.

Apple fans, when they find out Siri doesn’t work on iPhone 4, they go out & buy iPhone 4S almost immediately. Microsoft simply don’t have that kind of brand loyalty especially after their Anti-trust legal battles almost 10 years ago.

So if you own a Lumia 900 or Titan II, don’t sell yet! Wait a few weeks for Microsoft to announce what’s in WP7.8  & WP8 before making a decision whether Microsoft deserve your business!

Opinions

OEMs can’t do it, so Microsoft DID IT!

This is a follow-up for my previous post on What I think a Windows 8 Tablet should be like.

Intro

Finally, our prayers have been answered. While Computex showed some interesting Windows 8 tablet concepts. Most of it was just gimmicky (Asus Taichi) or rehash of a failure (Acer W510/W700) or plain uncomfortable (Lenovo Yoga).

Before Microsoft Surface

The Acer W700 looks like it may be the closest to my wishlist but then they added that huge useless stand. I sure they can squeeze a couple of Lithium cells in there.

The Acer W510 is interesting because the keyboard has an additional battery & based on the battery life it’s an Atom but is it dual-core? Acer isn’t saying.

Asus Taichi looks very impressive & I’m sure some people is going to love the dual-screen, but can you imagine the current draw on the battery? Even when the screen is off, there’s current leakage which can absolutely kill the battery!

Lenovo Yoga has a flip to the back 360° hinge, so in tablet mode, your hand is caressing the keyboard keys. Very nice if you’re an accordion player, not so nice for the rest of us.

The Future

What is Microsoft to do? Well, they did this!

The Microsoft Surface

Not to be confused with the Super-cool but super-expensive coffee table, the new Surface(s), one for Windows RT & one for Windows 8 Pro, is targeted at the iPad & Android tablet market & the TabletPC market respectively. (The coffee-table is now called PixelSense.)

Microsoft worked in secret for this tablet & the engineering effort shows in the precision in the whole thing. Unlike the iPad, the Surface is also easily repairable like all Microsoft hardware products. See the torx screws at the bottom?

The Fully magnesium-alloy chassis is also used in many hi-end tablets/Ultrabooks from Lenono Thinkpad X series to Fujitsu T & S series because of strength & toughness, but this is an expensive material to use & machine. In the Surface, it’s basically magnesium & Gorilla Glass 2.0 protecting the thing. So this thing is NOT going to be cheap. BOM cost is going to be high. So I’m hoping this is like the 1st-gen Xbox & Microsoft sell at or below cost to secure market share. (Me dreaming…)

Why is Microsoft doing this now?

Some bloggers & tech journalist mentioned threat to the Windows eco-system. What do they mean? Windows is installed in more than 1 billion PCs around the world. When you add up all the Macs + iPad, it’s only 300million. (Phones not included). What threat?

Well, Microsoft’s Windows is 1 of the pillars of profit. Over the years, it’s profitability has reduced slightly. One of the reason is iPad is good enough for many people’s needs + iPhones has 30+% of worldwide smartphone market. Many of these people still need a PC to connect & manage these devices. A big portion has chosen Mac OS to be THAT device. Granted, many of them still buy Windows licenses to run in Parallel, but that’s because they NEED to, not because they WANT to.

The soonest their work don’t need Windows, they wouldn’t even boot up or upgrade their Windows license. Microsoft knows this, hardware makers know this, Apple knows this & now, so does Google with their Chrome OS.

After the uninspiring show at Computex, Microsoft announced this ultra-secret press conference to salvage developers’ interest. Remember, without apps & hardware, the eco-system is dead. Just look at RIM, lotsa BB 10 demos but no devices yet. Developer interest is low.

Apple just finished their WWDC & Google is doing their thing next week. On Wednesday, Microsoft will share Windows Phone 8 Apollo with the rest of the world. Monday was the best time to drop the bomb.

Mostly good reception but doubters exist.

Some bloggers criticized Microsoft for always announcing things way before product availability unlike Apple. These bloggers must not have covered the tech industry for very long or they’re only covering Apple, who deal mostly with consumers.

Microsoft has to announce things early so that companies can set the direction & upgrade path for the next few quarters. CTOs cannot have disruption to their business because a vendor suddenly change or discontinue product lines, something Google is famous for, or new features which are incompatible with company infrastructure, Apple’s forte.

Yes, BYOD is on the rise. But in many industries, accountability & compliance is still paramount. Microsoft is successful because they do not disrupt their product lines like Apple do. Surface is the most logical way of moving forward & setting the bar for OEM to follow, just like how Intel set the Ultrabook reference design. Microsoft is also not withholding any special software features so OEMs can play on even ground when they get their acts together.

Another mitigating factor is, Surface is unlikely to be cheap (assuming Microsoft sell at a premium), so OEMs can differentiate themselves using price & features like the laptops & PC.

Research houses like Ovum pointed out a jarring & horrible user experience. Jarring maybe, horrible? Hardly. If you’re using Win RT, the chances of you dropping to Desktop is low & only for Office 15 which you’d use when you’re sitting down & working with the keyboard cum cover. I’d like to ask Ovum researchers, when you’re on the move, will you be formatting your text & checking grammar or generating numbers of Excel or Access, or will you be taking hand-written notes, audio notes & shooting the event with the camera?

For Surface Pro, a stylus is included so you can still use all your Enterprise software that uses ink. When used as a laptop, the keyboard/mouse is still used & Aero is still easy to navigate. When on the move, Metro takes center-stage. Jarring? Yes, but humans are adaptable.

Will Surface cannibalize OEM tablet sales? Just look at why Google came out with their Nexus series of phones. The OEMs can’t make it well. Look what happened to Samsung after helping Google? Their Galaxy line of smartphones benefitted greatly from getting frontline support from Google & Google’s vision.

In Microsoft case, Microsoft Hardware division designed the tablet in-house, according to Pinoys, the actual device is probably made in China by Pegatron. If we look at the hardware market for Mice & Keyboards, you still have a very healthy eco-system with Microsoft, Logitech & Razor on top, & tons of China/Taiwanese brands serving the mid-to-low end market.

Remember, we’re talking about Windows PCs here, which has more than 1 Billion physical devices. Right now, Microsoft has to grow this tablet market so that eventually these OEMs can rejoin at a later date with compelling products.

If cannibalization is the worry, I think the Surface (& subsequent OEM efforts) may wipe out the OEMs’ own Android tablets & overtake iPads. With a wide variety of Windows tablets to choose from, Microsoft’s vision is to beat the iPad the way they beat the MacIntosh 20 years ago.