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Saturday, March 21, 2015

What Google Needs to Defeat Microsoft

Google and Microsoft are now going head to head in cloud based services. Each company has its own strengths.  Microsoft dominates the PC and laptop OS arena.  Android, has a more powerful presence with its Android OS on laptops and phones.  Google also has a powerful lead in free email. 

For this post, I'm ignoring third big competitor in the arena, Apple, since they do not seem to be pushing for dominant control of cloud services beyond users of their own phones, tablets, and laptops.

Google is seeking to expand its presence by pushing Google Drive, a host of applications that allow document creation and collaboration, among other things.  This puts them more and more into competition with Microsoft Office.  Microsoft has been moving its Office Suite to the cloud with MS Office 365.  While you can still download MS Office onto your hard drive, more and more work can be done directly in the cloud.  The subscription model further makes Microsoft look more like a service provider than a software seller.

Microsoft's strategy seems clear.  It wants to use its market dominance in the Office market, to move individuals and businesses into its cloud services.  It makes sense.  Businesses especially are so tied into the MS Office world that it is nearly impossible to collaborate with other businesses without having MS Office yourself.  If they can leverage that, as well as dominance in Outlook to draw users into its cloud storage and online email services, it becomes a major player in that field, and moves away from the collapsing market of selling software to PC users.

Google's strategy similarly reflects its desire to leverage its strengths in search and email to move people into its other cloud services.  Google encourages its Gmail users to use Google Drive, where they can create and share documents, spreadsheets, and other works.

Microsoft's greatest weakness is probably its recent reputation for overpriced buggy bloatware, for falling behind in the race to keep up fast paced technology trends, and for its tendency to gouge customers for maximum short term profit.  The fact that its solution is much more expensive than Google's only contributes to this preconception.

Google's greatest weakness is its lack of any reputation in the enterprise arena.  While businesses use its search services or other online free services such as Google Maps, they have been reluctant to move to Google's enterprise email offerings or use of Drive as the only way to create documents.  At best, businesses use them as a supplement for online collaboration, while still relying on MS Windows computers running MS Office for office work and MS Outlook connected to MS Exchange for email.

Microsoft has every incentive to tie Windows, Office, and Outlook into its cloud services and offer a smooth transition for businesses.  Microsoft has zero incentive to make it easier to access your Google Drive documents from MS Office or to integrate Windows into your Google cloud storage, or improve Outlook interoperability with Gmail.  If history is any guide, you will see MS create deliberate bugs that make interoperabliity with Google a real headache.

This makes Google's fight much harder.  Google will not capture the OS market any time soon.  Google Chrome will not replace Windows in the foreseeable future.  Android does not seem to be able to leap from tablets to laptops.  Therefore, Google has to focus on making its cloud services so much better and less expensive that people will go out of their way to use them.

To do this, Google must come up with a more powerful office suite.  Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides are ok for simple documents.  But they simply do not have the tools that professionals need to create more complex documents.  One great option would be a partnership with an open source Office suite like LibreOffice.  Another option would be to buy a dying competitor like WordPerfect Office.

Either way, Google could integrate the office application into Google.  It could allow subscribers to download the office suite, or make the suite itself cloud based.  Either way, users would have a much more powerful office suite with which to use Google's online document system.

Google has done well with individuals who want convenient free apps.  But if it wants to get the more profitable enterprises to get on board with Google, it needs to have a serious Office suite for business users.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A lesson from QWERTY

The traditional keyboard layout on virtually all computer keyboards today is a direct holdover of the layout on typewriters going back well into the 1800's.  The first practical typewriters were on the market in the 1860's.  By the 1870's almost everyone was using the standard QWERTY keyboard layout that we still use today.

Was there anything particularly wonderful about this layout?  Not really.  In fact, many have complained over the years that its layout is inefficient.  Heavily used letters are not keyed to fingers that can respond most quickly.  People have shown in many instances that a person trained on keyboards with keys optimized for speed can improve typing speeds considerably.  Why then, do we continue with the QWERTY standard?

The reason, of course, is that virtually all typists have trained for years on this standard.  Everyone knows it very well.  Changing the layout would cause great confusion and chaos for all professional typists.  The years of retraining and relearning typing far outweigh the small performance improvement that might eventually be of benefit.

Technology industry leaders seem to have forgotten this concept, or at least decided to ignore it.  Apple has often been a repeat offender, completely changing user interfaces and failing to support legacy applications.  Microsoft seems to have adopted this view with gusto in more recent years as well.  It's complete rewrites of the way the MS Office menus work, and it's disastrous release of Windows 8 with a completely new interface has angered users and scared off many long time customers, who either refuse to upgrade, or figure its time to look at competitors since they have to learn a whole new interface anyway.

In the age of cloud applications, this problem has only gotten worse.  When MS came out with an Office interface that no one wanted, users could stick with the old version for many years until they were eventually forced to get a new computer no longer compatible with the old software.  But with Cloud computing the manufacturer can change the interface on you without notice, forcing you to relearn tasks which you could do just fine yesterday.

Sure, sometimes these changes are arguably for the better (although often not).  Sometimes a new look may get customers to take a second look at your product.  It may also help give the illusion that the company is changing things and therefore remaining new and cutting edge.

But more and more, users are seeing technology as a tool to accomplish tasks, not a great new innovation that need to amaze and astound us every six months.  We want to get things done and we don't want to have to re-teach ourselves something we already knew how to do.  Many of of these changes simply cause a reduction in productivity until users are able to become accustomed to the new arrangement.

Technology leaders would be wise to take a queue from QWERTY.  Once something has become a standard, and most people have adopted it, don't change the setup unless there are very good reasons for doing so.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Galaxy S6 is a major disappointment.

I have been a fan of the Samsung Galaxy since the beginning.  I still have my original Samsung Galaxy S, although it's in a drawer now, having been replaced several times by its subsequent iterations.  I currently enjoy by Galaxy S5.  I am very happy with it.

I am in a fortunate position in that my employer pays for my phones.  I have both a Galaxy S5 and an iPhone 6 as I need to know how to support both inside and out to help company employees with their phones.  Since employees have a choice of either phone, I must be an expert in both.

The iPhone is fine for what it is.  But my preference for every day use it absolutely the Galaxy S5.  I have long been a big fan of the Android OS.  The iPhone is fine for users who are willing to pay through the nose for apps and hardware accessories, and for people who don't care to tinker with their phones and use them in new and creative ways.  But for those of us who see the phone purchase as a starting point for us to come up with new an interesting ways to use it, the iPhone simply does not allow the flexibility we crave.

As someone who is tasked with keeping phones running for many users, I am also focused on the ease of repairing phones or recovering data.  Apple has always been good at presenting a product that looks wonderful out of the box, but if you ever have any problem with it, repair is rarely an option.  Typically, your only solution is to buy a new one.  Most Android phones allow for some repairs or upgrades, which I find attractive in a phone that rarely looks pristine after its planned two year life span.

My next phone will almost certainly run Android OS.  However, it likely will not be a Samsung Galaxy.  Samsung has decided to become an echo of the iPhone 6.  If they continue down this path, they will likely lose their position as the preeminent Android phone.

The S6 has taken away several of the most important features that distinguish it from the iPhone.  The fact that the new model is no longer water proof does not concern me much.  But the loss of two other basic features are the main reason I've decided to end my relationship with Samsung.

I am very disappointed by the fact that, like the iPhone you cannot replace the battery in the S6. Batteries run down over time.  They simply don't hold a charge for as long, no matter how well you treat them.  After a year or two, you need to get a new battery if you want the length of charge to remain high.  You may also want to get a third party battery that can handle a larger capacity, giving you even more time between charges.  Many of us also like to carry a spare battery for those heavy use days when leaving the phone in a charger is not an option.  The S6, however, has decided to make the same mistake as the iPhone, sealing the battery into the body, making it impossible to replace.  This is pure and simple a step backward with no obvious benefit to the user.

An even greater disappointment is the removal of the MicroSD card reader.  This is what allows you to add extra memory to your phone when you need it, so you can keep your media with you at all times.  Samsung again has followed the path of the iPhone in taking away this option.  Instead, you can purchase a phone with more memory built in. If it were just the fact that users had to pay more for the extra memory, as opposed to buying a cheap MicroSD card, I might be able to accept that.  But the removable card offers so much more benefit:

  • First, I have had a number of phones where the USB charging port became damaged.  That made it virtually impossible to extract data from the phone other than by putting the data on a card and transferring it.  That option is now impossible.
  • Second, I have been able to use multiple cards holding different data in the past, such as different movies.  Since I could not possibly store my entire video collection on one drive, the ability to swap cards made transfers easy.  That also is now impossible.
  • Third, I have a genealogy project which I regularly update and like to have on my phone to show people.  The sync tool I use to sync changes requires I sync between two letter drives on my Windows computer.  Because I cannot assign a drive letter to my phone when connected to as USB cable, the easiest way to sync is to remove the card and plug it into my computer.  That option also disappears with the S6.
  • Fourth, there is data I sometimes want to access on my phone, but other times on my tablet.  I MicroSD card means it's just a quick swap of the card.  Again, I lose that ability.
  • Fifth, when I upgrade my phone, moving my media is as easy as popping out the card and into the new phone.  There will be no popping into the S6.
  • Sixth, I don't need to buy extra memory until I need it.  I was great with an 8 GB chip for years.  But when I needed a 32 GB chip a few years ago, it was no problem to upgrade.  Since memory costs fall over time, it was much cheaper to buy the memory when I needed it, not to have to buy it at the time I purchase the phone at a much higher price.  Money aside, I may not even know how much memory I will want or need a year or two from now. With the S6, keeping my options open is, well, no longer an option.

Some of these issues could be addressed by cloud storage or wireless transfers.  But options are more expensive and also much slower.  So while I could find ways to adapt, why must we take a step backward with no obvious countervailing benefit?

Where will I go next?  I remain a die hard Android fan.  I liked the Galaxy line, not only because it was a pretty good phone, but also because it had become a standard.  That made it easy to replace broken screens or buy cases.  Getting a non-standard phone makes getting accessories more difficult and usually more expensive.  So part of my choice will probably be defined by what other phone gives Galaxy a serious challenge for the top spot.

I suspect this will be the HTC One.  It seems to beat the Galaxy in many specs that I like.  It has long had a reputation for a better camera, which is something that has always been a disappointment to me in the Galaxy.  Low light pictures are just not an option with the Galaxy.  The HTC One has been runner up for many years now.  The Samsung's latest stumble, this could be the opportunity for HTC to take the lead.

This stumble is a serious one.  People who want an iPhone-like phone will buy an iPhone.  The only way to compete with the iPhone as an iPhone knock off is to be cheaper than the iPhone.  From what I have read, the S6 without a contract will actually be more expensive than an iPhone.  I just can't see the market for this: people who want an iPhone-like phone, but want to pay extra to get an iPhone knock off rather than the real thing?

Because the Galaxy uses Android, the same OS available to dozens of other phone makers, people can make the switch much more easily.  Moving from a different OS means learning a whole new system and having to repurchase all your apps.  Moving from one Android phone to another, is much easier and relatively seamless.  Many people will make the switch in droves.  Once Galaxy loses its lead in the Android market, it will find it very hard to get back.  For reasons already expressed, people have good reason to go with the industry leader.  Once another company has the lead, it remains their until they stumble.

Getting more manufacturers into the mix will ultimately be a good thing for consumers.  Phones need more competition.  A new phone out of contract will cost me more than my laptop.  It's also more than double what I would pay for a similarly built tablet.  Prices outside the US are considerably lower for smart phones that are almost as good.  Perhaps the Samsung stumble will lead to greater competition and a price war that should benefit us all.