Death of the PC: Pocket Edition book cover

The best industry content that I can find, delivered direct to your inbox each week.

Hi, my name is Matt Baxter-Reynolds (@mbrit)

I help CxOs and entrepreneurs understand what's happening to the computing industry, and society in general, as we transition to a post-PC world. (Learn about this transition...)

Because post-PC is about life and not about work, it's a shift that's as much about sociology as technology -- we all have to become "technology sociologists".

I write books, blog on this site and at ZDNet, run workshops, and consult. In the real-world, I live and work in the UK. In the digital world, like everyone, I'm global.

Get the best industry content that I can find, delivered to your inbox each week.

The case for the internet-connected fridge

Internet fridge

Perhaps the worst idea in the history of technology is the internet-connected fridge.

The idea, and it’s been around for at least a decade-and-a-half, is that your fridge will know what’s in it and be able to do things like order milk when you’re running low. Or, it’ll be able to suggest recipes based on what you happen to have sitting in it, slowly going off.

It’s madness. People don’t think, or work like that.

Anyway, on Wednesday last week I was at the a BLN’s “CEO Tales” talk on the Internet of Things and Big Data. One of the panelists — and I apologise for forgetting which one — came up with the only good reason for the internet connected fridge.

As we know, there are spikes in the use of electricity networks. For the past few decades these have been tied to television consumption, the typical example being that when a given popular show ends, people get up to make a cup of tea, and demand spikes. Power stations like Dinorwig in Wales switch on to cover that demand.

The panelist’s point was that an internet connected fridge could make a decision to turn off its compressor synchronised to that demand, creating an “anti-spike” that covers the spike, smoothing out demand.

And I hate to say it, that is a very clever idea.

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Posted in Consumerland, Crazy Questions

Come to the first CIO Innovators’ Forum — London, 26th March

Logo -- Blog OG Image

I’m pleased to announce that the first CIO Innovators’ Forum will be held at the Apex City of London Hotel on Wednesday 26th March at 6:30pm.

The principal aim of the CIO Innovators’ Forum is to bring CIOs together to talk about their projects and learn from one another.

Every CIO has a story to tell. A project that went well that want to share, or perhaps one that isn’t going so well that they want to seek advice for.

The focus is on how CIOs are enabling post-PC, mobile, and digital life innovation within their organisations.

Chris Airey will be giving the first talk. His topic will be “The Digital Ceiling”. After that, it’s as much time as we like in the hotel bar to network, and share stories.

The Digital Ceiling

Whilst ‘digital’ makes great strides in the consumer world, its adoption within a business context remains patchy. Chris Airey will give some thought provoking views as to why this maybe from his experience of working with different organisations in different sectors. The challenges he makes will cover topics such as Architecture, Legacy, Organisational Structures and People.

Chris Airey is a Digital CIO who has been working in Retail and multi-sector Business Services for over 20 years. He is currently the Head of Digital Transformation at Adrmin Re (Swiss Re), the regulated Life & Pensions and associated B2B services business.

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Posted in Events

QR codes on energy bills — aka “technologists make lousy decisions”

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 17.15.34

I’ll be honest with you — I’ve never understood the fine detail of my energy bills. They arrive, I’m surprised at how much I’m expected to pay, and then I pay it. Greater transparency on what these bills look like does need to happen.

Today we’ve learned that the government is going to mandate energy providers putting QR codes on energy bills.

The good side of this is that it’s opening up the data from the energy companies to the benefit of the end customers.

The bad side of this is that it’s being done in the most ridiculous way possible — namely the requirements that it’s being done with QR codes.

Given that the sector of society that has the greatest sensitivity to energy costs is that which is at the less affluent end of the spectrum, QR codes are a horrendously expensive barrier to entry for this information. Firstly, you need to have a smartphone, and either a cellular data contract or access to the internet. Secondly, you need to have a QR app, and such things are not a standard feature on any mobile OS platform. Thirdly, you have to know how to use it.

Fourthly, the fact this is being done with QR codes precludes PCs from having access to this information. Imagine you don’t have a smartphone and/or internet access, and you go into a library to use a PC. You can’t scan the QR code.

(My assumption would be that the energy companies print the underlying URL on the bill to obviate this last restriction.)

This whole thing smacks of a classic technologist-led decision making process that serves the end customer extremely badly. What was needed was a simple requirement for the energy companies to open up the data and provide a simple way of accessing it.

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Posted in Consumerland, Crazy Questions

Metro-style apps and the “dead end” effect

Dead end

Over the past week I’ve had a small flurry of newcomers to Windows 8 come to me for help. What seems to bamboozle users more than anything else is related to the Old Windows, New Windows mismatch — specifically that when you’re in an Old Windows application and end up jumping to a New Windows app, most non-technologist users get stuck.

A good example of this is opening an picture attachment within Outlook and ending up in the Metro-style photo app. When you do this, everything disappears but the image. You lose the globally available taskbar, but you also lose the previously ubiquitous “non-client” area around a popup window. This non-client area, available in all desktop GUIs since desktop GUIs were invented provides a title, a (normally) resizable border and, (crucially) a “close” button.

It’s this lack of “close” button that trips people up. They end up in a Metro-style app and have a) no idea of what’s happened to their desktop, and b) have no idea how to get out of it.

Metro-style apps can be closed with a gesture, or a key combination. Gestures typically suffer from a lack of discoverability. The key combination (Alt+F4 in this case) is only typically known to power users.

Where this situation gets extremely weird that both iOS and Android do not suffer from this dead-end effect, despite essentially the same approach. Apps on post-PC devices cannot be closed. There is no non-client area around apps. Users know that if they are stuck they can just hit the “home” button. On Android, they can click the “back” button to escape out of whatever modality they are in. Home buttons on post-PC devices act like reset buttons..

So why then would an individual who suffered from being “dead ended” on Windows 8 not have any problems at all with the same effect on their smartphone?

Arguably there is the same “reset button” on all Windows machines. When I spoke to one user who was struggling I said to them “press the Windows key on your keyboard”, to which they replies “which one is the Windows key?” Despite them having used a Windows computer daily for 20 years, it was as if they had never actually seen this key, or had any idea of its function. (The Windows key was introduced with Windows 95 along with the Start button and menu themselves.)

The problem, I believe, comes down to changing modalities. Windows is a polychronistic operating system — i.e. it is designed to let you work with many things at the same time. The power in a polychronistic approach comes from being able to let you achieve a level of “flow” in complex tasks. You can arrange windows and attendant data how you want and chop and change between at will. Post-PC operating systems are monochronistic — i.e. just one thing at a time.

The user is safe if they stay in one mode or another — polychronistic or monochronistic. Metro-style apps are designed to be monochronistic. The struggle comes from going from polychronistic mode in Old Windows to monochronistic mode in New Windows.

The fix to this would be to allow Metro-style apps to fit into the polychronistic model of Windows. Software like ModernMix fixes this problem in the immediate term. In the longer term, it’s rumoured that in the upcoming Windows 8.1 Update 1 there will be a non-client area on Metro-style apps.

What’s more baffling is that Microsoft, a company well known for testing products with normal people via usability testing, must have seen this happening yet did nothing about it.

Image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dead_End_(336588990).jpg

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Posted in Consumerland, Crazy Questions, Enterprise

Taking computers where you couldn’t previously take computers

Broadcasting House

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to talk about Sony ditching its VAIO brand on Radio 4′s The World Tonight.

Before I left, I took some notes in Evernote so that if needed I could refer to specific facts and figures. (The fact, by the way, that the presenter David Eades and the producer were bowled over by was that each PC sold by a major OEM only adds $15 to their operating profit.)

When I was driving down there, one thing occurred. If I had taken notes on a PC, I likely wouldn’t have been able to take the PC into the studio because of the potential noise of the fan. The iPad, because it has no fan, works ideally. (Providing I remembered to mute the speakers.)

Interestingly, the iPad is better than paper because paper rustles.

It struck me that there must be plenty more places where you can take post-PC devices, but previously couldn’t take PCs. Here for example is a company that makes sterile sleeves for iPads so that you can take them into operating theatres. Which is good, because there’s no way an iPad could cope with being put through an autoclave.

Another type of situation where tablets work better than PCs are ones where you want a closer interaction between two people without the PC getting in the way. Banks are a good example of this, as are other high stress environments where making the human connection is paramount. It’s much better to sit on a sofa discussing a mortgage application than to evoke the spirit of Little Britain’s Carol Beer.

Some other things that dropped out of the interview:

  • You’re not allowed to say “iPad”, you have to say “tablet”. #UndueProminence
  • In the studios they had a bunch of PCs, which was ironic seeing as they booked me because I was the author of Death of the PC and the presenter had to write an intro segment on a PC before starting the interview. I presume the base units were silenced in someway, or even located outside of the studio. (I should have checked.) The keyboards they used were Cherry Stream XT. I mention this because these are really fantastic keyboards for general use. I have four of them and use them everyday. Not too expensive, and with a great action.
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Posted in Consumerland, Crazy Questions, Enterprise

What does the term “customer-driven” mean to Apple, Microsoft, and Google

iPad 2

“Customer-driven”, “customer-focused”, and “customer-centric” are the sort of terms often bandied around, but often used without much weight. All business consider their customers, for the simple reason that a business that does not do this won’t be in business very long.

Being customer-driven is important, but in reality what most businesses aim for is being market-driven. Customer-driven only considers one dimension — i.e. the customer. Market-driven considers the customer, the business’s competition, and other environmental factors. (Environmental factors are things such as legislation.)

Where I’ve found this interesting is that if you look at Apple, Microsoft, and Google, because they are all very successful businesses they must by definition is market-driven for the simple reason that businesses that aren’t market-driven cannot be successful, yet they don’t often look like they are.

Apple has famously been not customer-driven. Steve Jobs once said “You can’t just ask customers what they want then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new”, and this view that Apple is right, and that the customer lacks sufficient vision permeates their product design. No one asked for a “Walkman 2.0″, yet that’s what the iPod was. No one asked for a tablet computer that was so dumb it could hardly do anything, yet it works profoundly well.

Perhaps it’s fair to say that Apple works to be “where the customer is driving too”, rather than trusting the customers to be out in fornt.

Appe also appears to ignore competition in a way other companies do not. Where is the large screen iPhone aping the high-end Samsung devices? Where are the cheap iPhones and iPad aping the low-end Android devices? There are none. Apple seems to study competitive behaviour and then ignore it completely. That’s because Apple understands that it’s far easier to hoover money out of a new market than to fight for scraps in an existing one.

Perhaps then Apple the exemplar of the most successful business that is not market-driven at all.

Microsoft is hugely customer-driven, despite the eyebrows that will raise should you posit such an idea. The Windows 8 misjudgment notwithstanding, here is a business whose whole success is based on following customers. That famous phenomenon of Microsoft’s whereby “the third product is always the good one” is deliberate. Their internal process and culture is based on sucking in customer feedback and tuning their products. That’s the mechanism that makes that v3 product the one everyone buys.

Similarly, they are profoundly good at understanding competitor behaviour, using understanding of those market factors to drive success, often with considerable aggression.

Finally, what about Google. Google’s entire operation is founded on one thing: relevance. If you approach a Google service, their objective is to put the thing you need top of the list. Google Now is designed to put you thing they need in the “zeroth ordinal” of any list — i.e. presenting it to you before you need it. In this sense, they are the most customer-driven of them all looking to make any interaction about you.

Competition-wise, does Google even have any competition? To me, they are unique, because of their approach. Google leads from way out in front allowing its engineers to produce products that change society. No one else operates like that. Everyone else wants to sell products — those guys want to mess with people’s heads (but in a good way). If they ever did end up with any real competition, I’m not sure how well they’d fare given how they’ve historically operated.

Image credit

Posted in Consumerland, Crazy Questions, Enterprise

Chromebooks are a glacier, not a fast moving locomotive

Chromebook

Personally, I find Chromebooks utterly fascinating. In June this year they’ll approach their third anniversary. In all that time, they’ve never managed to hit a point where they have been fundamentally appreciated en masse.

The funny thing about them is that they just amazing and fantastic machines. Just today my friend and ZDNet colleague David Gewirtz wrote a piece about how fantastic they are for normal people. Last year I wrote a piece about how much I liked them. Another friend and ZDNet colleague has written tons of bearish Chromebook articles, this being just one example.

If you can get past the fact that they are not PCs, they’re frankly hard not to love. The limitation that they are effectively a web browser with a keyboard attached turns out not to be that much of a limitation given what normal people normally do. I would love to solely use a Chromebook — the only reason why I use a MacBook is that I need a development environment and having one locally is the only way to that in a workable, practical fashion.

The reason why they don’t seem to be on anyone’s radar as a serious contender as a general replacement for PCs is that they are attacking PCs using a flanking maneuver. They are not coming at the problem head-on.

From one side of the flank, we see Chromebook making sense in enterprise-led niche scenarios that previously only PCs could win. Such as this example from social care, and this example from education. If you don’t need a full-on PC to do a job, use something simpler, and cheaper.

From the other side of the flank, we see punditry from people like myself, David Gewirtz, James Kendrick, and others who are extolling the virtues of these things. Some pundits (like myself) think Chromebooks make sense, and we’re going to keep on saying it.

The way I’m now thinking about Chromebooks is this. A tipping point will come where these things are everywhere, but it won’t be fast. Imagine one day waking up to find that a glacier is in your front garden because every day for years it’s been slowing moving into place, as opposed to a fast moving Intercity 125 annoucing its approach with sirens blaring.

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Posted in Consumerland, Crazy Questions, Enterprise

Why is Disney overrepresented in the Windows 8 app store charts?

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Yesterday, I wrote a ZDNet piece on how developers were shunning WinJS. In doing so, I noticed something interesting.

A lot of the apps in the top free charts for Windows 8 in the UK are produced by Disney. Of the top 30 apps, eight of them (i.e. about a quarter) are produced by Disney. They are “Monsters University”, “Wreck-it Ralph”, “Toy Story: Smash It”, Avengers Initiative”, “Where’s My Mickey XL”, “Where’s My Water”, “Where’s My Water? 2″, and “Where’s My Perry?”.

Some of those apps are pretty famous at this point, and you’d expect to see them over on the Apple App Store and Google Play. Yet on the Apple App Store, none of those apps chart in the top 25. Similarly on Google Play, nothing charts either.

What’s going on here? Who can say. My pet theory is that there are no particularly compelling third party Windows 8 apps out there that appeal to non-technologist users, and some good marketing on the part of Disney has led those who do install apps to choose those Disney ones.

Peculiar, though.

Update: Having discussed this on Twitter, one idea is that there’s something sociological going on with this. Perhaps the people most likely to install apps are technologists disposition who are of a certain age where they are likely to have young children. The user/parent will use the PC as a normal PC, but install apps for the kids to use.

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Posted in Consumerland, Crazy Questions

IAP in children’s apps can be done responsibly

Disney Princess Pets - 2

In-app purchasing (IAP) can be a big headache for parents. It’s very easy to end up with your kid buying hundreds of pounds worth of princess hairdos, rainbow pixie dust, and pony food.

Apple has recently been getting flak for a lack of protection in this regard, but in fairness what else can they do? ISVs have found a way to realize revenues against enormous development costs in IAP. This system works for everyone in a broad sense. It just needs a little adjustment to stop people getting bill shock.

I have though started to see examples of how IAP can be done in a more responsible manner. The problem on iOS is that once you authorise one payment against an Apple account (either with a password or Touch ID), you can make more purchases without reauthorisation within a fifteen minute window. This is where a lot of the “unauthorised” payments come from. Parent “buys” a free app, and opens up the App Store authorisation window. Child plays the game, and buys multiple ponies/fairies/whatever.

ISVs can block off the IAP portions of their software in the same way that one might build a child-resistant cap on a bottle of pills. Here’s an example of how Disney Palace Pets does it. Firstly, it presents a message to “go and find a parent”.

Disney Princess Pets - 1

Then, it has a kind of CAPTCHA test appears. (Or is this a “CAPTCPA” test — “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Children and Parents Apart”?)

Disney Princess Pets - 2

This works well because it reminds the child user that they’re supposed to check with a parent, and secondly it puts something sufficiently hard (or dull?) enough in the way that they will actually go and do that.

Personally, I’d like to see Apple force this kind of CAPTCPA test on apps aimed at a certain age range. It should also be an option within the iOS device settings to disable the fifteen minute payment authorisiation window.

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Posted in Consumerland, Crazy Questions

Windows 9 u-turns — some initial thoughts

Windows 9

The rumour runs that in Windows 9 (aka “Threshold”), the Start menu is coming back, and you’ll be able to run Metro-style apps in popup windows.

Really, you could file this one under “what else could they do?”

I’ve written a lot about Windows 8. I’ve covered being from being positive about it, to being negative about it, to everything in-between. What I’ve learned over the period is that that there is one one thing that matters: “people don’t like it”.

And if you’re in business, building something that people don’t like is not a good way of winning.

That said, it is a good way of winning if you operate in a monopoly. Which sort of implies that what you learn whilst operating in a monopoly doesn’t necessarily apply when you’re not operating in a monopoly.

Regardless, am I glad they’re bringing back the Start menu and allowing Metro-style apps to run in popup windows? Yes — but only because it’s a customer-centric view and one that shows an ability to be humble.

Personally, what I would like to see is Microsoft ditching the appalling Metro UI guidelines and go over to something that doesn’t look like it’s been designed by a six-year old with a set square. But, I think that’d be a reach given how I appear to be the only person in the world that doesn’t like Metro.

A final interesting point here is that this is being reported essentially as fact, rather than a rumour. This takes a lot of the power out of Microsoft’s hands, should they decide to keep Windows 9 behaviour more like Windows 8 than Windows 7. (One voice saying “Hey, we never said we’d bring the Start menu back” drowned out by a million saying they did.)

UPDATE: If you’re interested in what Windows 9 might look, Jay Machalani has done an outstanding mock-up of the possibilities.

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Posted in Consumerland, Crazy Questions, Enterprise