Monthly Archives: April, 2007

Oxburgh Hall

A wonderful spot in Norfolk. Michael & Laura were there a couple of weeks ago. We went today, and had the same wonderful weather.

(Pictures here if you can’t see the slideshow.)

The slow death of Microsoft

The Microsoft research lab here in Cambridge has some of my best friends working for it, and many people for whom I have a great respect. I count myself lucky that there’s a great degree of overlap between those groups! Many of them are doing some very cool stuff.

And yet, I’ve felt for some time that Microsoft is a dying company. For a year or two I’ve been discussing this with friends and colleagues and there seems to be general consensus. MS has huge reserves of cash, and a monopoly position which means that its pulse will beat for a long time to come. But it beats ever more slowly, and despite good work by the researchers internally, frankly, nothing interesting has come out of Microsoft for a very, very long time.

There are three key problems that it faces.

The first is that operating systems are commodity items. It’s been more than 6 years since I’ve had a Windows machine and I haven’t missed it a bit. You can get capable operating systems from several sources, and nobody gets very excited about which one they have any more. In this respect, I think Microsoft is very like AT&T. They provide a useful service, so you hand over the money. But all the interesting stuff about phone calls comes from whom you contact and what you say to them, not from who provides the wires. The wires ceased to be a novelty some time ago.

The second problem is that Microsoft Office is becoming less and less relevant. Almost everything I write now ends up in electronic, not paper, form. On the rare occasions when I want to write a letter, I use Apple’s Pages, not Word. If I wanted to write a book, I would almost certainly use OpenOffice. Both are arguably better suited to those tasks. The only times I fire up Word nowadays are when somebody – usually a law firm – sends me something for which the ‘track changes’ feature is necessary. (Younger companies tend to use more up-to-date tools for collaboration). I also prefer Keynote to Powerpoint. Excel I do still use, but – here’s the important point – I wouldn’t part with any of my own money to upgrade any of these three-year-old programs. For me, and for many others, they have that word ‘legacy’ hanging around their necks.

The third, and most telling, nail in Microsoft’s coffin was highlighted for me in a talk given by a former Microsoft employee who had recently moved to Yahoo. I can’t remember his name, for which my apologies. But I remember very clearly what he said.

He had developed a new feature for Outlook/Exchange in 2004. It was a cool feature and was due to be incorporated in the next release, in 2007. But then it was deemed to be a little too aggressive to include it so quickly, so it was postponed until the following release, which will presumably be in 2009/10. Six years after he finished it! When he moved to Yahoo, he would implement a new feature and it was not unusual for someone to ask, “Could this go live this afternoon?”

That’s why Microsoft are almost certainly dead, at least in terms of having any real impact on the world’s future development.

Aha! While I was in the middle of writing this, I came across Paul Graham’s recent article saying just the same thing:

Microsoft’s biggest weakness is that they still don’t realize how much they suck. They still think they can write software in house. Maybe they can, by the standards of the desktop world. But that world ended a few years ago.

There is, I think, one caveat here.

Microsoft have never succeeded in anything that didn’t depend on the monopoly they established with Windows and Office, despite the huge subsidies they can and have thrown at each and every attempt. With one exception.

The XBox.

That seems to be going well for them, which may mean Microsoft has a bright future making games consoles. But it’s hardly the same company. The Microsoft era that we’ve known for the last 20 years is drawing to a gentle close. I can’t say I mourn their passing.

The sound of music

John has a post quoting some interesting stats about Apple’s iPod & other sales. More than 100M iPods sold, and going up fast!

Meanwhile, over on All About Symbian, Ewan Spence points out that 80M smartphones, capable of music and video, were sold in the last 12 months alone, half of them by Nokia. It may well be the case, I guess, that Nokia has sold more music-playing devices than Apple.

So the interesting question is why people don’t use their phones for that purpose? Because the sound quality isn’t so good? I doubt that’s always the case. Because they don’t come with stereo headphones? Because the Swiss Army knife approach to gadgets doesn’t really work? Because they’re not tied into iTunes and convenient syncing?

I’ve had several phones capable of playing MP3s but never even tried it. That is perhaps Apple’s greatest achievement.

Relativity

Michael set off from his native Lilliput and drove up North to Brobdingnag, where he parked his car next to one belonging to a native.

Nice picture.

Hg tips

I’m one of the very many people who find Quicksilver to be the most valuable utility on their Mac, though I’m far from being a power-user. There are some people who start almost every activity with a Quicksilver keystroke, while I, for a long time, used it simply as a quick way to fire up apps that weren’t quite important enough to go in my Dock.

Great though it is, however, it’s far from being self-explanatory, especially for some of the more esoteric features! Fortunately, there are lots of tutorials out there from various enthusiasts to get you up and running. Some of the ones on Lifehacker.com are full of useful tips. You could do worse than starting here and following the links in the first paragraph. Even experienced users will probably learn something.

Or explore some of the Quicksilver-related screencasts on The Apple Blog or elsewhere. A Google search will find lots for you, and you’ll soon be on your way to guruhood.

As everybody says, once you get used to it being on your Mac, you’ll really miss it on machines which don’t have it. And the best news? It’s free!

Coldfinger

He hurtled the powerful car over the crest and slung it through curves down the backslope, eyes scouring the valley floor. Bavarian fields barely greened by spring, dark wooden barns, and stands of poplar flashed by as he concentrated on the chase.

From a lovely piece in GPS World, written by somebody who clearly knows their Ian Fleming.

Many thanks to Alan Jones for the link.

Photoscam?

Adobe PhotoscamAs somebody who fires up a rather elderly copy of Photoshop at least once a day, I’ve been looking forward to the release of the new version – CS3 – and possibly to upgrading my entire package of Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. There are plenty of nice new features, and, importantly, the programs will now be native Intel binaries so I won’t be running them under emulation on my MacBook Pro. They’re great products.

However, Adobe packages have always been expensive, and this is really rather expensive – a copy of the full suite would set me back nearly 1500 even though I’m upgrading. Plus VAT. I really can’t justify that. Unfortunately, the package I bought came just before they started calling it ‘Creative Suite’ and so, even though I have all the apps, they’re treated as individual apps and I don’t get the ‘suite’ price for the upgrade.

So I started looking at alternatives – upgrading the individual apps rather than the whole suite, for example – and I can get most of what I need for rather less. But as I explored I discovered something sufficiently disconcerting that I didn’t quite believe it at first: upgrades in the US are half the price they are here in the UK. Sometimes even less. Now, we’re used to slight differential pricing here, but this is ridiculous.

Let me put it in perspective. If I want to buy a copy of CS3 Design Premium, I can just buy it here. Or I can go for a long weekend in New York next weekend, fly out on British Airways, stay three nights in a hotel on the upper west side, visit the Met, do a little shopping at Zabar’s, and come back with a copy of the software in my suitcase. The price would be about the same, and I’m an existing customer buying an upgrade, not even paying the full price!

Fortunately I go to the States quite a lot, so I’ll probably just buy a standalone upgrade to Photoshop while I’m over there. And Adobe, because of this daft policy, will fail to get quite a lot of my hard-earned cash. If only their business guys were as good as their software engineers.

See also this ZDnet report.

Desktop Tower Defense

I don’t play games much, but I’ve always admired simple ones that are also compelling. Desktop Tower Defense is in that category… small and simple – it’s a Flash app that just runs in your browser and is supported by advertising – but it’s fiendishly good fun.

Basically, the enemy is trying to cross your land and you have to defend yourself by building various sorts of gun turrets. But some of the guns don’t fire that fast so you need to give yourself the maximum time to defeat the dastardly invaders, which means building your gun turrets in the form of a maze…

Karen

John has a lovely post on his blog about Karen Spärck Jones, who died on Wednesday.

She was a good friend. We had a couple of arguments – no, not arguments, debates – which we both enjoyed greatly. She was right more often than I was; sometimes I knew this from the start but it was fun playing devil’s advocate with her.

Some loved her, some admired her, some found her infuriating. But whatever your viewpoint, the world is a duller place for her passing. And that’s not a bad epitaph for anybody.

 

Live for music

In just under three months, England will go smoke-free. No more smoking in public places. I, for one, can’t wait. But it raises a dashed sticky question…

In the past, many decent chaps were saved from dastardly bullets by having a cigarette case in their top pocket. If fewer of these chaps are in the habit of carrying such things, what is to become of England?

Fortunately, a new form of personal protection has arisen in the form of the iPod. Kevin Garrad (3rd Infantry Division) apparently had his life saved – or at least avoided a nasty injury – by carrying one of these newfangled devices.

Scotney Castle

Scotney Castle, Kent

Ightham Mote, Kent

Ightham Mote

Another beautiful National Trust property.

Ightham Mote, Kent

In case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced “item”!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser