Microsoft’s TV white space broadband initiative is many things – a worthy effort to expand Internet access, a way of squeezing more useable bandwidth out of finite radio spectrum, a call to action for rural economic development and, as willingly acknowledged, a business opportunity.
It is also a foray into the market economics of free software. White space is the gaps between active television channels, which vary according to where you are in relation to whatever TV stations might be around. The proposed solution to this spectrum management problem is active management via databases run by private companies. Like Microsoft.
Or like Google. Which opened up its database to all comers four years ago. Microsoft’s answer, which is wrapped in a well articulated but completely ordinary white paper about rural broadband access, is to offer up its intellectual property in a similar manner…
Our Rural Airband Technology Program will make our U.S. patents available under a royalty-free license to all comers, including to our competitors, for any work they undertake to stimulate broadband access through TV white spaces. These patents help tackle common problems associated with TV white spaces in a variety of ways…
Microsoft’s database-driven TV white spaces technology has continuously been improved through the use of machine learning that populates, maintains, and improves the content of the database, and cloud-based analytics to respond to database queries that, for example, leverages prior spectrum assignments for particular devices.
Google went from a Silicon Valley garage start up to being (at times) the world’s most valuable company by amassing vast quantities of data, giving away software that can make efficient use of it and then making gigabucks as the resulting traffic passed through – and made detours into – its servers.
In that context, its open access white space venture was nothing remarkable. And from that perspective, neither is Microsoft’s. Except that, well, it’s Microsoft. Welcome to club.
Another big, transpacific fiber cable is now lit. Less than two years after it was announced, the FASTER consortium has completed construction of a link between Bandon, Oregon and two landing sites in Japan, with a further extension to Taiwan. The group’s membership includes Google as well as several Asian telecoms companies, including China Mobile International, China Telecom Global, Global Transit, KDDI and Singtel. NEC built it.
Google is taking one-sixth of the capacity, 10 terabits per second out of a total of 60 Tbps.
Ten terabits per second is a lot of bandwidth, but it’s consistent with Google’s current consumption. Companies with major web platforms are investing in transoceanic cables, as well as domestic middle fiber capacity, because their internal data transport needs are on the same scale as the big, common carrier telecoms players. Facebook, Microsoft and Telefonica are investors in the planned Marea cable between Spain and Virginia, which will have nearly three times the capacity of the FASTER link. Construction on that project is expected to begin in August.
The distinction between a web platform and a traditional telecoms company is becoming increasingly irrelevant – when you send a message via Gmail or respond to a Facebook post from the other side of the world, it’s transported primarily on internal networks.
It’s simple vertical integration. When a company’s needs scale up to a certain point, it makes economic sense to own a resource rather than buy it. It’s no different than car companies, like Ford, that jumped into the steel business a hundred years ago.
The’s more to mobility than moving around the conference room.
This week’s coming out party for Windows 10 confirmed Microsoft’s slow shift from a shrink wrapped products company to a service provider.
The company will not execute that strategy quickly enough or effectively. To be a universal platform for desktop and mobile computing means mobile telecoms carriers and manufacturers will have to make a major shift away Android and adopt the Windows operating system and all the cloud services that surround it.
It’s true that there’s grumbling about Android. Samsung continues to develop the open source Tizen operating system and is introducing it into product categories that are still in the early adopter stage and lack a market consensus on standards – smart TVs are a good example. But that discontent is driven by Google’s role in managing the open source Android platform, and not particularly by defects in the system.
If smart phone manufacturers or carriers are queasy about Google’s arm’s length control of Android, do you honestly believe they’re going to rush into Microsoft’s embrace? Even if Windows was the ultimate mobile operating system – and it’s not by a long shot – it’s still a closed, proprietary system owned and developed by a company with a poor record of playing well with others.
One of the (relative) innovations announced on Wednesday was a plan to provide Windows as a service – manage the operating system on user devices in real time, at least to the extent of pushing out updates. There’s no reason it would stop there, though. The concept works great for a vertically integrated company like Apple, but would be a nightmare for third party manufacturers.
Tying a world of cloud services to the OS is even more problematic. The pitch to carriers and manufacturers becomes: hey, if you put Windows on your phones, you won’t have to worry about the hassle of selling all those pesky add on services and upgrades. Right.
One stop shopping for computing services might appeal to the corporate and institutional IT managers with whom Microsoft already has a relationship. The Samsungs and T-Mobiles of the world won’t be interested.
Microsoft’s cloud platform – Azure – had a stormy week, but the silver lining is that the company isn’t shying away from the necessary pain involved in transforming itself from a shrink wrapped software hawker to a computing services provider.
The 11 hour outage was the result of a poorly done system update. At the risk of taking a cheap shot, that’s the kind of glitch that the Windows operating system – and its predecessors – have routinely experienced for more than 30 years. To a large extent, those past problems were unavoidable – information technology grew so explosively that every day was a step into the unknown. Like everyone else, Microsoft engineers had no choice but to make it up on the fly.
But Microsoft’s near-monopoly in the desk top world also played a role. There was nowhere else for system administrators to go and no choice but to plow through whatever problems came with the updates.
It’s a different world now. Cloud computing is, in most respects, a commodity service. The cost of switching from one platform to another isn’t zero, but it isn’t an insurmountable barrier, either. If Amazon and Google are up and running, Microsoft can’t afford to simply shrug its shoulders when the Blue Screen of Death stares out at millions of users all at once.
Slowly but surely, Microsoft is learning how to live in a competitive marketplace. Another encouraging sign is the decision to let Microsoft Garage – a semi-independent corporate hacker space – develop apps for any platform. If Microsoft wants to remain relevant, R&D has to respond to the demands of a competitive and heterogenous market, not serve the demands of Windows and Office. The message seems to be getting through.
Suit, check. Hair cut, check. Mojo, oops.
You have to give Microsoft credit for trying. It was a distant third (or fourth or fifth or worse, depending on how you count) in the mobile operating system and smart phone races coming into the CTIA trade show in Las Vegas. No matter what happened, it wouldn’t narrow the gap significantly leaving it.
But if it ever wants to matter in the mobile world it has to start changing perceptions, and CTIA is a good place to begin. So when Stephen Elop took the keynote stage yesterday, a few short hours after Apple’s iPhone 6/Apple Watch extravaganza, he needed to demonstrate, by example, that Microsoft can make and sell things consumers or, indeed, anyone other than an IT professional, want.
It’s hard not to look like a dweeb by comparison when you come on stage after an Apple mega-event, but Elop – Microsoft’s executive vice president in charge of devices, including Nokia products – would’ve done no better if he’d followed a Caterpillar tractor roll out.
His biggest clunker came while trying to explain Microsoft’s Digital Life positioning. The idea is to convince consumers to integrate Microsoft products and services into their daily, non-working lives like they have with iTunes and iPhones. The best example he could come up with was using Microsoft technology to have a “meeting” with a daughter who’s just gone off to college. At least he had the grace to look a little embarrassed and do the “air quotes” thing when he said “meeting”.
Microsoft has good products that fit well in an enterprise environment. Elop needed to explain why that’s a competitive advantage in the consumer world. He might have simply misread his audience: assumed he was talking to fellow IT guys rather than mobile execs who weave together phones, apps, content, services and networks into mass market selling propositions. Or it might just be the best Microsoft can do.
Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, has gotten it right. His 10 July 2014 email to Microsoft employees set out a clear path forward for the struggling giant and this week’s announced layoffs of 18,000 employees turned that vision from clear into ruthless. Which is the only way the company will survive as a major tech player in the 21st century.
Star legacy businesses – Windows OS, Office productivity software, Xbox – will survive, but primarily as stepping stones to cloud and mobile services, which are intended to reach customers regardless of whether they’re using Microsoft products…
All of these apps will be explicitly engineered so anybody can find, try and then buy them in friction-free ways. They will be built for other ecosystems so as people move from device to device, so will their content and the richness of their services – it’s one way we keep people, not devices, at the center. This transformation is well underway as we moved Office from the desktop to a service with Office 365 and our solutions from individual productivity to group productivity tools – both to the delight of our customers.
He seems to have adopted a two-pronged strategy: keep making Windows phones and tablets, and Xbox consoles, but ensure that any significant software, service or content that works on them will perform seamlessly and equally well on Apple, Android and other devices. He put his finger right on the key problem he’s faced with, which is that the scarcest resource is a customer’s attention span.
Apple’s strength is an ethos that says make it elegant, but first make it work. Nadella might or might not get around to making Microsoft elegant – a tall job, to put it most mildly – but he grasps that the “stuff” he sells has to work. Which means delivering maximum satisfaction with minimum differences and learning curves across a universe of platforms, devices and operating systems.
The Microsoft of 20 and 30 years ago had the youthful fire to take on a job like that. If Nadella can rekindle it, he will succeed. The job cuts he’s making shows that he intends to.
How much more popular do the descendants of OpenOffice need to be before they reache a tipping point? That is, the point at which open source productivity apps tip Microsoft Office into a terminal downhill market share slide.
The answer is not much. The Apache Software Foundation says that its child – Apache OpenOffice – has been downloaded more than 100 million times. That doesn’t represent the size of the user base by a long shot – the figure would include downloads of updates and browsing by the curious – but it’s not unreasonable to think it’s somewhere in the tens of millions range, albeit at the lower end.
LibreOffice also likely falls into that ball park. Its backers claim to have cornered the Linux market and report similar figures for full scale downloads and updates. The (distant) third sibling is NeoOffice, which is specifically for the Mac platform, and trails the other two in its development cycle.
Microsoft, on the other hand, claims that more than 1 billion people use MS Office – or, as it puts it, “1 in 7 people on the planet”. If you apply the same hype discount, its user base is probably somewhere in the hundreds of millions range.
That’s something like 10 times the combined market share of the OpenOffice family, not an insurmountable lead in a world where an order of magnitude improvement could be just clicks away.
The OpenOffice clan is functional and friendly enough to work for most MS Office users. Inertia is the last, big barrier to adoption, but progressively smoother interfaces are easing the learning curve for users and the continuing growth of thin client architectures in enterprises lower the work load for admins. Open source software is not free: it takes work to install and support it. But that cost is coming down.
The tipping point might not be that far away.
Most of the world’s personal computers run on Microsoft Windows. Gartner, a tech industry research group, says that the 280 million Windows boxes shipped last year swamped 12.5 million Macs and 2.9 million Chromebooks. But Gartner is also predicting that the Linux-based Chrome operating system will overtake the Mac OS by 2016.
According to a BBC story…
“There’s a couple of reasons – one is the number of vendors who are now pushing a [Chromebook] device,” explained Ranjit Atwal, research director at the firm.
“The second thing is the appeal they have in developing markets given their price points.
”You’re looking at large-screen notebooks for less than $200 with a good software ecosystem around them – that’s a compelling proposition. The only inhibiting factor is connectivity."
Because Chromebooks are essentially cloud computers that are centrally managed and maintained by Google, the comparative clunkiness of Linux user interfaces and the wonkiness required to install and upgrade software become non-issues.
It just works. If it has a sufficiently robust Internet connection. Which means broadband infrastructure initiatives in developing markets, such as South Africa, and edgy edge projects, like Facebook’s and Google’s drones and looney balloons could have as much bearing on Microsoft’s survival as continued refinement of Linux and associated open software applications.
Of course, Microsoft is moving toward a cloud-based model, too. But it’s stuck in the middle between Google’s purist approach and Apple’s tight OS-application-hardware-service integration. Premium priced Macs can never be an existential threat to Windows machines, but as Internet connectivity becomes ever more reliable and affordable across the planet, equally sleek and much cheaper Linux installations will.
In with a chance.
When the City of Los Angeles released its gigabit RFI earlier this week, it didn’t put the considerable broadband-relevant assets owned by its municipal electric utility on the table, but it did offer to throw in obsolete computers…
Due to the Microsoft end-of-support for its Windows XP Operating System on April 8, 2014, a mass computer replacement effort has been underway across the City. As a result, thousands of old computers will be salvaged through the City’s e-waste recycling. Under the guidance of the Offices of the Mayor, Council President and Innovation Technology and General Services Committee Chair, the City is working on the design and implementation of a digital inclusion pilot program to take advantage of these salvaged computers.
It’s an odd juxtaposition: asking for a city-wide fiber network on the one hand, and giving out thousands of computers that probably lack the horsepower to do very much with it. There’s a plan to work with non-profit outfits to refurbish the computers, though. It raises an interesting question: which operating system will be loaded in to replace Windows XP?
Some flavor of Linux is one potentially disruptive possibility. As libraries and schools have learned, the usability gap between open source software and shrink wrapped commercial packages has narrowed to the point that there’s little practical difference when it comes to basics like word processing, graphics and spreadsheets. It’s also an option for other public sector IT departments that lack the budget to upgrade immediately.
When Microsoft made the decision to pull the plug on XP, someone must have looked at the risk-benefit trade-off of creating a mass OS switching opportunity away from Windows. We’ll know if they didn’t, or if they miscalculated, if the next bold move out of Redmond is Office for Linux.
Winning depends on the pitch staying playable.
The launch of Microsoft Office apps – Excel, Word, Powerpoint – for the iPad has been hailed by some as a turning point for the company and a bold leadership stroke by new CEO Satya Nadella. If anything, the excitement is a fair measure of Microsoft’s problem: the best it can do is port thirty year old software to the market leader’s tablet.
Ironically, Excel and Powerpoint were originally developed for the Mac OS. Only Word began life on a Microsoft operating system – Xenix – and then later made its way to MS-DOS and Mac OS. The three eventually came together as the core of the Office package on Windows, but for the most part have also been a mainstay of OS X. In other words, Office is not a mere sub-set of Windows and has always been cross-platform software.
The strategic point of departure for Nadella is the requirement to buy an Office 365 subscription in order to use the apps on an iPad. You can download all three for free, but they’re just glorified read-only file viewers without the subscription – you can’t change anything or create new documents. The subscription price starts at $100 per year for home users and $150 for businesses (there’s a $60 annual Office 365 package, but it doesn’t include desktop or tablet apps).
Nadella’s strong suit is said to be cloud services, and that might be the rationale behind Office for iPad: forget about Surface tablets and Windows phones, and start selling software and add-on services for any user, on any operating system. It’s a great idea, as Google would have told you nearly ten years ago when they started doing the same thing, except they’re still giving it away for free to basic users, which are most of us.
Batting second is usually considered an advantage in cricket, Nadella’s game of choice. Google scored well in its innings, making it a long chase for Nadella, who has to hope the field of play doesn’t wash out from under him while he’s at it.