I just read a mind-boggling story over at Business Insider (an arm of the respected British newspaper, The Guardian) entitled “The PC Business Isn’t Growing Anywhere, And It’s Really Scary for Microsoft.” The story is laden with interesting facts and figures about future growth for the PC industry, but the real point of the story might be best summarized as follows:
- The developing world (outside of North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim) is where the biggest growth potential for computing lives and works.
- The best the PC industry can hope for in the future is zero growth, as fewer buyers spend money on PCs (though a larger number of buyers overall will be participating in the market for computing devices of all kinds).
- The global market for PCs is shrinking not growing, because users everywhere turn first and foremost to smartphones (and second to tablets) to get online nowadays.
The inference worth drawing from this analysis is that PC vendors (and PC OS makers, like Microsoft) cannot expect the rising tide of technology purchases outside the developed world to keep their boats afloat, or to help them achieve incremental success outside their historical core markets. As is so often the case in the developing world, buyers simply short-circuit the traditional path of technology adoption, and skip to the inevitable conclusion — in this case, nearly universal adoption of smartphones as their primary computing platforms of choice.
The story goes further to observe that MS has done itself no favors with the feature set and UI behavior of Windows 8, and widespread lack of adoption of that operating system in the business world at any level of commerce (from Mom’n’Pop shops up to the largest enterprises). Pricing for more portable notebook PCs — the so-called “ultrabooks” — also imposes a barrier to buy-in for the products that might otherwise drive broader adoption and use of PC platforms. Though the hit won’t be huge or damaging for Microsoft (and other major PC players) at first, if these trends continue, all will have profound reasons for worry as the decade wears on.
FWIW, I agree with this analysis, and believe that unless a compelling and affordable tablet-based Windows computer (which the Surface Pro suggests, but fails to deliver on grounds of price, weight, and battery life) appears on the market soon, the PC era may well move to a close much sooner than many might believe possible. That’s not to say I think the need or market for workstation class machines will ever disappear; rather, I believe the bulk of personal and workplace computing will migrate to sufficiently powerful mobile device platforms that can run VMs resident in a data center somewhere, and only those who need to consume lots of computing resources in-place (3D modeling, CAD, heavy data analysis, and so forth) will need to stick to traditional desktop and notebook machines as we know them today.
One big component of the cost of PCs nowadays — especially those touchscreen notebooks, ultrabooks, and tablets most likely to play host to Windows 8 — is the fee from Microsoft for the OS license. That number may be declining soon, according to a report from Taiwanese publication DigiTimes entitled “Touchscreen notebooks to enjoy at least a 10% price cut after Windows 8 discount,” (note: I had to visit the Google cache to read the report, because the URL on the preceding link returned a 404 error). Their research indicates that touchscreen PC prices could drop by 10% whereas “some entry-level and mainstream models may even drop more than 20%.”
Will this be enough to prop up Windows 8’s lagging uptake (see Steven J Vaughan-Nichol’s excellent analysis in “Five reasons why Windows 8 has failed” on ZDNet)? Perhaps lower prices will encourage some improvements to Windows 8’s fortunes, but there’s a lot of ground to be made up (Vaughan-Nichol’s analysis shows that usage rates for Windows 8 are only just over half of Windows Vista’s at best, itself no paragon of marketing acceptance or product excellence).
To me what’s interesting about this revelation is that Microsoft is actually willing to reduce OEM licensing costs to add some momentum to Windows 8 purchases. Traditionally, their posture on pricing has been more inflexible, because OEM licensing has been and remains the primary engine for desktop operating system revenues. This testifies to Microsoft’s understanding that Windows 8 is in trouble (or at least, “failing to perform to its expectations”). Hopefully, the pricing changes will be enough to breathe more vigor into Windows 8 sales. That should make watching the sales numbers — and the corresponding usage rates (or as Net Applications calls them “market share”) over the next half year more than ordinarily interesting.
As I explained in my February 25 post “MS Office 2013 Licensing Follies,” MS updated its terms for an Office 2013 license to prohibit transfer from one PC to another, “so if you decommission an older PC running Office 2013, and seek to install the program on a newer replacement PC, you’d theoretically be required to purchase a new license for that replacement machine.” Apparently, the company decided that most buyers would pick the subscription model for Office 2013, where no transfer actually has some reasonable basis, and overlooked the fact that those who purchase retail — or for the readers of this blog, volume — licenses would scream bloody murder at what they’ve always considered an inalienable right for their precious Office licenses.
The screaming must have echoed loudly in the hallways of Redmond because Ed Bott reported this morning (see “Microsoft restores transfer rights for retail Office 2013 copies“) that Microsoft is restoring the same “perpetual license” terms that had applied to all three such versions of Office 2010 where Office 2013 is concerned. This means that those who purchase a retail license (rather than a subscription) or whose licenses depend on access to ISO downloads available through TechNet, MSDN, or volume license agreements and Software Assurance with Microsoft will get their apparently much-coveted transfer rights back.
If you enjoy reading Microsoft eat crow, here’s the verbatim text from an Office blog post where you can watch that bird make its way down their gullet:
Based on customer feedback we have changed the Office 2013 retail license agreement to allow customers to move the software from one computer to another. This means customers can transfer Office 2013 to a different computer if their device fails or they get a new one. Previously, customers could only transfer their Office 2013 software to a new device if their PC failed under warranty.
While the licensing agreement text accompanying Office 2013 software will be updated in future releases, this change is effective immediately and applies to Office Home and Student 2013, Office Home and Business 2013, Office Professional 2013 and the standalone Office 2013 applications. With this change, customers can move the software to another computer once every 90 days. These terms are identical to those found in the Office 2010 software.
For some time now, Microsoft’s radical redesign of the Windows 8 user interface has raised the question of whether the new operating system will fare more like Windows Vista (which is to say poorly) or like Windows XP or 7 (which is to say, like gangbusters). Microsoft’s relentless rah-rahs and never-ending hype to the contrary, the numbers make a case that Windows is moving into the market more like Vista than like those, more popular sibling versions of Windows. No sources for numbers for such discussions are more popular, or more frequently cited, than those from NetMarketShare, which shows the following breakdown for Internet users by percentages this morning for Desktop Operating System Market Share:
Paul Thurrott states this case very well in his recent WindowsITPro article “Windows 8 Sales: Hot or Not?” (where he also points out, quite correctly, that even though Net Applications labels these numbers as representing market share, they actually represent usage share because those numbers are drawn from an analysis of Internet users; all the copies of Windows 8 that have been sold but not yet installed or which aren’t being used aren’t counted by such measurement techniques). Usage rates for Windows 8 are climbing month to month, but very slowly which causes Thurrott to observe that Windows 8’s “… usage share after one quarter trails that of Windows Vista at a similar time after its 2007 launch.”
On the other hand, Microsoft continues to tout that Windows 8 has “sold 60 million copies” (though I’ve been seeing that number since late January, so one wonders why it’s not already 70 or 80 million). The company claims this is on part with Windows 7, which sold at a steady 20 million copies per month for nearly three years. And as Thurrott points out “…there are … questions about Microsoft’s numbers, which always represent sales to PC makers and into the channel and not sales to end users.”
Finally, Thurrott isn’t ready to call Windows 8 a “debacle” just yet, but he does confess to being worried, given that Windows 8 should have a much bigger sales base than Windows 7, because it covers mobile devices, especially tablets (and possibly even smartphones, if you buy the idea of Windows 8 Phone as just another version of Windows 8). And so far, that bigger potential mostly remains unrealized. Do I think this is cause for concern? Yes, I do, but I don’t think it’s a death knell for Microsoft, either.
In its own words (from the organization’s home page) the Open Data Center Alliance, aka ODCA, “… is working actively to shape the future of cloud computing — a future based on open, interoperable standards.” Their membership includes 300-plus companies, including Nokia, Rackspace, BMW, China Unicom, Deutsche Bank, Lockheed Martin, Motorola Mobility, and AT&T — in other words a mix of consumers and producers of cloud services and technologies. Does this sound like the kind of broad, all-embracing, standards-oriented effort to which Microsoft would voluntarily become a party? Well, hold on: believe it or not, Microsoft and ODCA announced its membership in the organization on February 27, 2013 (here’s a link to a Microsoft-News.com article entitled “Microsoft Joins Open Data Alliance to Shape The Future of Cloud“).
Microsoft’s angle into this move comes out of Windows Azure, the company’s cloud computing platform for building, deploying, and managing applications and services through Microsoft’s global network of data centers. In writing about the move, Slate‘s Nick Kolakowski says “Microsoft has spent the past several weeks pushing Office 365 Home Premium … even highlighting … how the cloud-based version is a better deal. That’s not a move by a company dabbling in the cloud, that’s one betting one of its biggest cash cows on it. …one can see why the company likes to say it’s ‘all in’ with regard to the cloud.” For MS to jump onto an open, standards-based approach to cloud computing is also a strong if tacit acknowledgement that the cloud is bigger than any single company’s platforms, frameworks, tools, and technologies. They already know they have to rub shoulders with the other players in the cloud space, but it’s refreshing and inspiring to see them do something to recognize the realities of the cloud (“it’s bigger than all of us put together” might make a supplementary mantra for the OCDA, should they be looking for further taglines or rhetorical justifications).
Any way you look at it, though, this is big news, and represents a major new approach to a major market for the colossus of Redmond. Frankly, I’m very interested to see this going down, and will be watching closely as the real import (and standards support and compliance) involved in ODCA membership manifests itself across the many cloud-related Microsoft platforms, frameworks, and products — and its various certification programs as well.
I just read a fascinating article in the Healthcare section of InformationWeek by Ken Terry entitled “Dell Targets Healthcare with Windows 8 Tablet.” The basic premise behind the story is that because the Latitude 10 offers some key security features and a lower TCO than an iPad, it stands some chance of competing head-to-head with that favorite of Apple devices.
According to Terry, the Latitude 10 offers some interesting advantages for potential healthcare adoptions:
- It can require use of either a fingerprint or smart card reader to employ dual-factor user authentication for login and access
- It already includes built-in encryption, and will add file-level encryption in an update scheduled for Q2 2013
- The device has a “20-hour battery life, which should be attractive to clinicians who work hospital shifts that can be 12 hours or longer” (while the iPad tops out at under 14 hours of modest use). Also, the Latitude 10 includes a user-replaceable battery, so users can swap out a dead battery for a charged one if needs must (the iPad battery is not user accessible)
- The device is simpler and more manageable than an iPad, and fits into existing Windows-based healthcare IT environments (including remote management, deployment, and maintenance tools, which Dell also offers to enterprise customers) both neatly and nicely
I like all of this information, and I even buy Dell’s contention that “…few EHR [Electronic Health Records] vendors have developed iPad-native versions of their applications…” My concerns about this platform are as follows:
- The Latitude 10 includes only a dual-core Atom Z2760 1.8 GHz CPU with 2 GB RAM (not expandable) — it does run either 32-bit Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro, however. I’m not sure that this will give healthcare professionals enough horsepower to do everything with their tablets that they might want.
- There’s no comparable cover/integrated keyboard device for the Latitude 10 like the Microsoft Type or Touch covers that both protect and extend the capabilities of these devices. [Note added 2/28/2013: In subsequent reading on bundles for corporate adoption, I’ve learned that Dell DOES offer an integrated cover and separate wireless keyboard for the Latitude 10. I think this successfully addresses my concerns on this issue (pricing is a little better than similar iPad offerings, in fact), and scotches this potential objection/gotcha.]
- There’s not a lot of EHR infrastructure for Windows machines yet, either, nor is there much emerging for the Windows 8 platform at the moment, either. Dell’s purported advantages do require application (and app) support to help further bolster their case.
- I don’t know anything about the planned aftermarket for the Latitude 10, so I also don’t know if there will be cases and covers available for these devices that will protect them from inevitable drops, falls, and minor abuse as they accompany medical professionals on their rounds. For the iPad, there are already plenty of options that offer everything from nicely integrated keyboards to near-invulnerability from physical abuse. Something along those lines will be essential for the Latitude 10 to compete on equal footing with the iPad. [Note added 2/28/2013: see previous note for the second item in this list, which refers to accessories available for this unit from Dell; online research indicates that a growing number of aftermarket offerings are popping up for this unit, too.]
All of this said, I find Terry’s case for the Latitude 10 as a possible healthcare tablet at least interesting, if not intriguing. I wonder if the IT and purchasing folks at any of the major healthcare providers are seriously pursuing this platform as an option…a detail that Terry’s story unfortunately fails to address. I presume the sales cycle for such a deal is underway, possibly at several providers, but methinks if any deals were done or in the offing they would have been mentioned here (or in some Dell press release somewhere).
[Note added 3/1/2013: Thanks to a shout-out to one of my Dell contacts, I’ve been connected to the Lat10 product manager, and am jumping through some hoops to see if I can get a review unit. I’d like to try one of these machines out to see how they behave, and hope to get one with 4GLTE WWAN capability to take them out and about with me as I drive around my local area, and make the occasional business trip. More on this as I make progress on this front…or not!]
One of my go-to guys for Windows-related news and analysis is Ed Bott, whose “Ed Bott Report” over at ZDNet is usually a goldmine of interesting and useful Windows information, particularly for IT professionals who work in enterprises and large organizations on Windows platforms. He’s been reporting on recent hoopla and consternation surrounding Microsoft Office 2013 licensing lately in a series of stories: first came “Big Changes in Office 2013 and Office 365 test Microsoft customers’ loyalty” on February 15, followed more recently by “Microsoft’s attempts to clarify Office licensing policies fall short” on February 23.
The source for the ongoing flap relates to what Bott describes as Microsoft “no transfer” policy for Office 2013 (which means that each license is associated with a particular PC, so if you decommission an older PC running Office 2013, and seek to install the program on a newer replacement PC, you’d theoretically be required to purchase a new license for that replacement machine). In fact, Bott cites information about a Los Angeles-based company that paid the BSA (Business Software Alliance, a software industry trade group that focuses on license compliance at US companies, and regularly floods major metro areas all over the country with demand letters requiring companies to prove all their licenses are fully paid-up, or make good on any shortfalls, oversights, or omissions) $137.5 K in 2012 to settle licensing issues for MS software — presumably, including Office — with that group.
Bott raises the spectre that an inability to prove that original Office licenses can’t be produced to prove coverage of earlier, less restrictive license coverage could lead to future liabilities, even for companies covered by volume purchase or enterprise licensing agreements (which would have to have expired at the time of enforcement for there to be any legal problems, because otherwise companies and organizations essentially pay for some maximum or arbitrary number of licenses and are covered for all machines and all users that fall under the agreement’s terms). This is potentially much more onerous to smaller companies or organizations that may not be covered by some kind of ongoing agreement with Microsoft, but still an interesting concern for even the biggest of Microsoft customers.
Sheesh, it’s always something, right?
Whoa! Talk about major miniaturization: I stumbled across some reviews of the new SANDisk Cruzer Fit USB drives last week, and was immediately struck by their amazing utility for extending storage on notebooks, laptops, and especially tablet PCs (at least, those equipped with accessible USB ports). They’re the same size and format as the ultra-compact wireless dongles for networking and USB that have been available for a few years now, as the following photo illustrates (SANDisk even includes a cap for the device, which is just about the same size as the device itself):
This USB drive is available only in USB 2.0 form right now, and comes in 8, 16, and 32 GB sizes (the 32 GB model is available from some online resellers for as little as $25-26, not including S&H or applicable taxes). I think it’s a great way to add storage to mobile PCs and tablets because the form factor is small enough that you can leave the drive plugged in all the time, even as you pull your mobile PC or tablet in and out of a traveling case or protective sleeve. The price is right, too!
The only other comparable storage options come on those devices (like the Surface Pro, and even the Barnes & Noble Nook) that support micro SD cards, or on laptops and notebooks with full-size SD card readers. Micro SD cards top out at 64 GB these days, and usually cost $1.00-2.00 per GB depending on speed. Full-size SD cards currently top out at 128 GB, and cost about the same per GB of storage.
Any of these options enables users to extend available storage — sometimes significantly — at a modest cost, without having to worry about accessing device internals to upgrade hard-to-get-at SSDs or hard disks (for tablets and ultrabooks, anyway). I’m already using 32 GB SD cards in my Lenovo T520 and X220 Tablet, and have a 64 GB miniature SD card on order for my son’s Nook HD. Should he succeed in persuading me to buy a Surface Pro (as he desperately desires me to do), I will acquire a 64 GB micro SD card for that device at the same time I order the Surface Pro itself. If I need more storage than that, I can add a SANDisk Cruzer Fit to the mix, too!
I’ve been working my way deeper and deeper into UEFI based Windows 8 installation and operation over the past few weeks. This weekend, I stumbled across a fab and free little utility called ISO to USB that can read any ISO formatted file and “burn” it to a USB-based target device of one’s choosing. For me, that usually tends to be a USB flash device (known as a UFD in Microsoft-speak). To act as a repository for any of the Windows 8 ISOs, it must be at least 4 GB in size or larger. For this blog, I grabbed my older and somewhat beat-up but still speedy and capable Corsair Survivor 8GB USB 2.0 model to do the job. Here’s a screen cap of the utility window, upon successfully building a bootable Windows 8 installer from the 64-bit Windows 8 Pro .ISO file (the trick is to format the UFD as FAT32, because that’s the only format that works for a UEFI install):
Sure, it’s easy to use diskpart to do the necessary set-up and drive formatting to get ready to copy the contents of a mounted ISO file in Windows 7 or Windows 8 to build a UEFI install UFD manually. But this free tool does the whole job in one step, as long as you can point to the ISO file you need and have a spare UFD ready to turn into your UEFI bootable installer. Given that using this tool is dead simple and pretty fast, why not take advantage of its capabilities? The price is right, too!
I’ve got over half a dozen different USB flash drives (UFDs, in Microsoft-speak) sitting on my desk right now, but that’s still not enough for me to keep resident all of the different bootable installers, UEFI shells, and diagnostic tools I also have on hand. I had been using Acronis True Image to keep a library of USB image snapshots, but yesterday afternoon I fired up the program and waited for it to complete backing up a 2 GB UFD … and waited … and waited … and waited some more. Then I jumped into Task Manager and killed the Acronis True Image process tree because the process was either hung, or taking waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long to complete.
That’s when I went poking around for a USB image backup utility, and more or less immediately found Alex (Beug) Page’s website called Alex’s Coding Playground. There, he’s got a free (donationware) download called the USB Image Tool that does a peachy job of finding and capturing USB drive images in their entirety. It will also let you restore images it has captured onto USB drives as well in the form of .img files. Here’s what the tool looks like (download link):
It finished my paltry drive image (of the Steve Gibson SpinRite stuff that I still use occasionally to diagnose and repair my old-fangled spinning hard disks) in under two minutes (and I couldn’t even get status information from True Image in under 10, after which I bailed on the program). I’ve now used the USB Image Tool to capture backups of all my install UFDs (for Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise, Windows 7 Professional, and Windows 7 Ultimate) and my various diagnostic tools (a Lenovo diagnostic that boots into the UEFI shell to run disk, PCI, and memory checks, a Linux boot environment that hosts a raft of forensic and diagnostic tools, and a Windows 8 PE set-up that lets me operate on otherwise inaccessible files and folders on Windows boot and system partitions). It’s a great tool, and one that I’m glad to have added to my toolbox. If you try it out yourself, you may feel the same way. I made a contribution of 5 € (Euro; $6.85 US) for the program this morning to express my appreciation and support; I hope you’ll feel inclined to do likewise after you try out this nice little tool.