Xamarin & Microsoft merger may yet prove useful to designers.

The .NET community has been fractured for quite some time when it comes to mobile development, and a large amount of hate debt has been banked as a result. Products like Xamarin have been given the appropriate amount of adoption because they have a more agnostic vision of how .NET could work in a truly x-platform / x-device arena.

However, the approach to date isn’t an easy stroll down success lane, as to develop a mobile app even with Xamarin you’re faced with two decisions to begin with. Xamarin “native” or Xamarin “Forms”, each having their own set of pro’s and con’s attached from a pure “developer-centric” perspective.

Next decision after that is how do you design for three platforms (*maybe two*) and still retain constancy – yes I said constancy, not consistency. On one hand designing apps to work inside iPhone is different to how they work in Android – but only up to a specific context (as tradeoffs and split thinking naturally then occurs).

In order to achieve this, you have to essentially begin the same set of compromises you would make with the web, forking your feature design/development vision to accommodate and absorb the various limitations imposed on each platform in accordance to the restraints Xamarin imposes on top (ie there’s an element of decay implied).

To compound issues further, you then have Xamarin not really adhering to the previous iterations of XAML (aka Avalon) and whilst it looks kind of like XAML, it’s really in many ways just XML with limitations (ie you can’t really animate with it using the same Storyboard composition as you once had with Silverlight/WPF and so on). Xamarin’s XAML is the panacea we want but isn’t the same.

Now you have to programmatically design your composition with either a designer’s comps on your second monitor as a guide or worse, the designer is over your shoulder offering feedback loop hell.

Xamarin failed thus abandon it?

Hell no, Xamarin has all the ingredients one would need to really get the .NET x-platform / x-device story going, in fact, I’m more frustrated at the post platform execution than its original foundation itself. The secondary parts above can easily be fixed provided there’s some stronger thinking imposed about how “creative influence” applies to the composition of design – that is to say, at what point does the designer have free control over composition without haggling with a developer on limitations artificially imposed due to what i can only guess at being resource allocation issues on Xamarin’s part.

This, in turn, means that one would need to approach the composition of a Xamarin vNext with the idea or intent of using XAML/C# marriage the way .NET gods intended. What that means to say is that if you took the same conceptual develop/design pipeline that .appx or .xap has today and applied this to Mobile development this, in turn, unites the developer & designer workflow under the one constancy based banner, which in return reduces less feature editing / design cut-aways.

Why is this important?

In 2007, we were faced with a mission to get Designers more engaged with Developers, and that’s why Silverlight/WPF was born. We had small amount of success but in truth, we were side-tracked on conflicting priorities and poor management to really dig in on that same set of problems. Today, the various technical platforms have shifted but the core fundamental issue hasn’t gone away, in fact, it’s gotten smarter about how the two worlds collide – sadly, Microsoft has never really gotten an invite to that discussion due to its retreat positioning.

Microsoft’s answer, in general, has been to remove the designer from the equation given its complexity, instead, they gave developers a cookie-cut style template titled “metro/modern UI design” (aka Paint by numbers developer art) thinking that if you reduce the composition of design to basic minimal aesthetics, you, in turn, reduce the burden or need to have a designer influence the creative process.

That strategy is an utter failure and I’d promote the theory that the reason why Windows Phone has failed as a product is solely due to the UI (given the phone hardware is perfect, development SDK is the easiest by far but the design integration .. too boring, too hard).

Xamarin merger with Microsoft now has the potential to reboot a company’s mobile strategy in a way that it needs more than ever before, however, if the two worlds continue to solely double down on “developers, developers, developers” that don’t factor in “designers, designers, designers” all we really have achieved now is a license model reduction, better Visual Studio support, stronger echo chamber but still a designer stalemate, resulting in continued “developer-only” circle jerk sessions.

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Creating a designer & developer workflow end to end.

 

When I was at Microsoft we had one mission really with the whole Silverlight & WPF platform(s) – create a developer & designer workflow that keeps both parties working productively. It was a mission that i look back on even to this day with annoyance, because we never even came close to scratching the surface of that potential. Today, the problem still even with Adobe and Microsoft competitive battles in peace-time hasn’t actually been solved – if anything it kind of got slightly compounded or fragmented more so.

Absorbing the failure and having to take a defensive posture over the past five years around how one manages to inject design into a code-base in the most minimal way possible, I’ve sort of settled into a pipeline of design that may hint at the potential of a solution (i say hint..).

The core problem.

Ever since I think 2004, I’ve never been able to get a stable process in place that enables a designer and developer to share & communicate their intended ideas in a way that ends up in production. Sure they end up something of a higher quality state but it was never really what they originally set out to build, it was simply a end result of compromises both technically and visually.

Today, its kind of still there lingering. I can come up with a design that works on all platforms and browsers but unless i sit inside the developer enclosure and curate my design through their agile process in a concentrated pixel for pixel way, it just simply ends up getting slightly mutated or off target.

The symptoms.

A common issue in the process happens soon after the design in either static form or in prototype form gets handed off to the developer or delivery team. They look at the design, dissect it in their minds back to whatever code base they are working on and start to iterate on transforming it from this piece of artwork into actual living interactive experience.

The less prescriptive I am in the design (discovery phase) the less likely i’ll end up with a result that fits the way i had initially imagined it to begin with. Given most teams are also in an Agile way of life the idea that I have time or luxury of doing a “big up front” design rarely ever presents itself these days. Instead the ask is to be iterative and to design in chunking formations with the hope that once i’ve done my part its handed off to delivery and then it will come out unscathed, on time and without regression built in.

Nope. I end up the designer paying the tax bill on compromise, i’m the guy usually sacrificing design quality in lieu of “complexity” or “time” derived excuses.

I can sit here as most UX`ers typically do and wave my fist at “You don’t get us UI and UX people” or argue about “You need to be around the right people” all i want but in truth this is a formula that gets repeated throughout the world. It’s actually the very reason why ASP.NET MVC, WPF and Silverlight exist really – how do we keep the designer and developer separated in the hope they can come together more cleanly in design & development.

The actual root cause for this entire issue is right back at the tooling stage. The talent is there, the optimism is there but when you have two sets of tooling philosophies all trying to do similar or close to similar things it tends to kind of breed this area of stupidity. If for example i’m in Photoshop drawing a button on canvas and using a font to do so, well at the back my mind i realise that the chances of that font displaying on that button within a browser is less likely to happen then inside the tool – so i make compromises.

If i’m using a grid setting that doesn’t match the CSS framework i’m working with, well, guess what one of us is about to have a bad day when it comes to the designer & developer convergence.

If i’m using 8px padding for my According Panel headers in WPF and the designs outside that aren’t sharing the same constancy – well, again, someone’s in for a bad day.

It’s all about grids.

Obviously when you design these days a grid is used to help figure out portion allocation(s) but the thing is unless the tooling from design to development all share the same settings or agreed settings then you open yourself up from the outset to failure. If my grid is 32×32 and your CSS grid uses 30% and we get into the design hand over, well, someone in that discussion has to give up some ground to make it work (“lets just stretch that control” or “nope its fixed, just align it left…” etc start to arise).

Using a grid even at the wireframing stage can even tease out the right attitude as you’re all thinking in terms of portion and sizing weights (t-shirt size everything). The wireframes should never be 1:1 pixel ready or whatever unit of measure you choose, they are simply there to give a “sense” of what this thing could look like, but it won’t hurt to at least use a similar grid pattern.

T-shirt size it all.

Once you settle on a grid setting (column, gutters and N number of columns) you then have to really reduce the complexity back to simplicity in design. Creating T-shirt sizes (small, medium, large etc) isn’t a new concept but have you even considered making that happen for spacing, padding, fonts, buttons, textinputs, icons etc etc.

Keeping things simple and being able to say to a developer “Actually try using a medium button there when we get to that resolution” is at the very least a vocabulary that you can all converse in and understand. Having the ability to say “well, maybe use small spacing between those two controls” is not a guessing game, its a simple instruction that empowers the designer to make an after-design adjustment whilst at the same time not causing code-headaches for the developer.

Color Palettes aren’t RGB or Hex.

Simplicity in the language doesn’t end with T-shirt sizing it also has to happen with the way we use colors. Naming colors like ClrPrimaryNormal, ClrPrimaryDark, ClrPrimaryDarker, ClrSecondaryNormal etc help reduce the dependency of getting bogged down into color specifics whilst at the same time giving the same adjustment potential as the T-shirt sizes had as well – “try using ClrBrandingDarker instead of ClrBrandingLight”. If the developer is also color blind as in no they are actually colorblind, this instruction also helps as well.

Tools need to be the answer.

Once you sort the typography sizing, color palette and grid settings well you’re now on your way to having a slight chance of coming out of this design pipeline unscathed but the problem hasn’t still been solved. All we have done really is created a “virtual” agreement between how we work and operate but nothing really reinforces this behavior and the tools still aren’t being nice with one another as much as they could be.

If i do a design in say Adobe tools I can upload them to their creative cloud quite quickly or maybe even dropbox if have it embedded into my OS. However my developer team uses Visual Studio’s way of life so now i’m at this DMZ style area of annoyance. On one hand i’m very keep to give the development team assets they need to have but at the same time i don’t want to share my source files and much the same way they have with code. We need to figure out a solution here that ticks each others boxes as sure i can make them come to my front door – cloud or dropbox. That will work i guess, but they are using github soon so i guess do i install some command line terminal solution that lets me “Push” artwork files into this developer world?

There is no real “bridge” and yet these two set of tools has been the dogma of a lot teams lives of the better part of 10 years, still no real bridge other then copy & paste files one by one.

For instance if you were to use the aforementioned workflow and you realize at the CSS end that the padding pixels won’t work then how do you ensure everyone see’s the latest version of the design(s)? it realises heavily on your own backwater bridge process.

My point is this – for the better part of 10 years i’ve been working hard to find a solution for this developer / designer workflow. I’ve been in the trenches, i’ve been in the strategy meetings and i’ve even been the guy evangelizing  but i’m still baffled as to how I can see this clear linear workflow but the might of Adobe, Microsoft, Google, Apple and Sun just can’t seem to get past the developer focused approach.

Developers aren’t ready for design because the tools assume the developer will teach the designer how to work with them. The designer won’t go to the developer tools because simply put they have low tolerance for solutions that have an overburden of cognitive load mixed with shitty experiences.

5 years ago had we made Blend an intuitive experience that built a bridge between us and Adobe we’d probably be in a different discussion about day to day development. Instead we competed head-on and sent the entire developer/designer workflow backwards as to this day i still see no signs of recovery.

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Windows 9 – replacing it with a triumvirate of products

This morning I saw a question posted to the local OzDotNet mailing list I subscribe to (i love me some DL action).  I thought I’d keep this response on my blog for two reasons – I love the sound of my own voice (dah) and this is starting to become a default response I keep giving over and over privately and in parts publicly?

I have noticed in a few places discussions comparing the UI and API of WinRT with Silverlight, and suggesting that it (WinRT) is preferable. Mostly, these were quite old posts (a series of 6 or more at SharpGIS was my first sense of this).  

It does raise the possibility that Windows / Microsoft will rebirth or rethink some technologies.

Related (in my eyes, anyway), apparently there is a wider discussion about Windows 9 (based on leaks and conjecture) suggesting that there is to be a complete rethink of Windows market segments in Windows 9 “Threshold”.

It’s summarised here in InfoWorld (December 2013) in an article by some bloke named Woody Leonhard.

He sets the tone in his first sentence:

“If independent leaks are to be believed, Windows chief Terry Myerson appears to be dismantling the Jekyll-and-Hyde monstrosity that is Windows 8, instead replacing it with a triumvirate of products that people and companies will actually want.”

I’ll be interested in Scott’s comments on the triumverate of products, including the quote that refers to Terry Myerson’s supposed intentions.

 

My thoughts/Reply

I don’t know much about the future of Microsoft because I suspect not many INSIDE Microsoft themselves have a clear definitive handle on that (not to sound jaded, i honestly do believe they are still haggling over how to raise the broken into fixable solutions).

I would say this, the company has built up enough equity in the past to make a full focused run at Consumer adoption for products that would typically sell reasonably if not better in enterprise/smallbiz but they in the end hit a wall. I think it was mainly they didn’t understand the consumers needs and were to busy trying to graph compete strategies they have used on Enterprise into the same space as consumers (Internally Microsoft can be quite aggressive and paralysed with fear around competitive events – its a huge weakness imho).

If you were to unpack Windows 8 today and really take a step back from it all, there’s not a lot of negativity associated with what they have done. I look at Windows 8 as the parity release between Silverlight/WPF and all the fixes customers (devs) wanted but it was delivered in a way that traumatised the base. It could have been delivered with a softer approach to change management in that instead of holding a gun to our collective heads with the intent of “upgrade or else” simple things like namespace / sdk related issues would have been enough to build confidence with the developer base around migration / roadmap. A developer would be fine with with Windows 7 WPF/Silverlight development today provided they know eventually with a Windows 8 upgrade the performance and scaleability issues would naturally resolve themselves (ie devs dont spend to much time haggling over the rendering pipeline).

If you then combine Windows Phone 8 (which is really still in many ways the Silverlight behaviour) you again then tick the other box around reach on mobility devices. You are still locking them down into a world called “windows” which doesn’t piss a lot of enterprise companies off, especially with the current turbulence in the device market we see today. Enterprise companies right now are a little paranoid or scared about their mobility adoption strategies because its one thing to say “I want breadth” and another to say “i want breadth and depth’ when it comes to User experiences that count. If a company wants to get their “mobility” story together, they often associate mobility with web because breadth is far more attractive story than a depth discussion. Breadth means HTML/JS because it means I don’t have to have specialist teams (Java, ObjectiveC, C#/Mono etc). Depth requires the opposite because you can only put off that problem for so long before someone within a team suddenly comes to work wearing his/her “Java Conference 1998” t-shirt and smells funny because they do Android development.

Microsoft had an opportunity to do a simple rinse/repeat on the “Embrace/Extend” model with Windows and like I said, Enterprise would likely have been fine to play in that sandpit (of course they’d keep pushing on the “make my C#/XAML apps work on all” angle every step of the way).

In keeping Enterprise bellies full that would have stabilised at the very least their largest piece of the profit share pie, in that they would have bought themselves another 2-5 years to focus on Consumer more without having to pay the tax on losing hearts/minds of business grade solutions. This would have also given them more adoption metrics around the mobility + desktop upgrade story because if a company buys 10-100 units of one piece of hardware because it was easier to develop against well thats 10-100 forced adoption(s) on users which after a while could turn into positive/negative evangelist for those products (Forced adoption is not a bad strategy …its just ethically horrid).

But.. sadly none of the above has happened, instead Sinofsky wen’t rogue, went aggressive not just internally but externally and let his own self-inflated arrogance steer the ship in a direction of aggressive change management which has backfired. Now the new heads of state have to figure out how to salvage what they have left into meaningful pieces that can essentially tap into the above behaviours.

The article is right, you have really three options – fade out you core business (enterprise) and go full retard on consumers adoption, reverse the namespace/SDK engines and build a bridge between old and new but lose what small foothold you have on consumers  – or – abandon consumer focus and retreat back to safety around enterprise/small business.

I’d place my money on the 2nd option, bridge building but that’s going to be filled with a lot of apologies and the only way they can even attempt to make that work is to ramp up their DPE practices beyond where it is today (that is a lot of people on a lot of planes, apologising and seeding a new/existing audience with solutions). The head of DPE (former CEO of Skype) is a business development numbers guy who clearly has no real passion for DPE, so i don’t see how even if they find a way to build that bridge can make that happen (it’s an attitude issue as well as a technical one).

Building a bridge between old and new is not as scary as one would assume (well i don’t anyway), there is a lot of positive work put into the Windows 8 SDK’s .. i don’t think anyone can say out-loud that Microsoft doesn’t get their shit together technically when given the chance, there is and has always been more positives in their technical abilities than negatives – it just always always always comes down to the way in which they deliver the message and react to developer/customer issues of the day.

Is it really a case of just refactoring Windows 8 namepsaces or proxy classes of some sort to convince Developers to continue on WPF/Silverlight path? … Is it a matter of just investing more in that “devigner” tooling problem (Expression Blend makes a comeback but with less reliance of “reflection” based property grids).

*shrug* .. i can personally see a way they could rebuild and get on with the Windows 9 approach and I don’t think it requires a radical overhaul but more architectural common sense.

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I refuse to believe that the entire planets best idea of the day is JavaScript.

There isn’t a day that goes by where I stumble into some random blog post, comment, remark, argument that involves JavaScript lately. It’s as if the entire quagmire of its existence is trying to ambush me with wave after wave of interpretation of why it’s important… i’m under JavaScript siege and now it’s time to go all Die Hard on it.

Here’s my notes

* Plugins were evil, JavaScript is the web’s future.
Plugins made a strong point to the interwebs, it said loudly “Hey browser’s stop trying to hijack developers to your greedy needs and if you want to sit around waiting for a committee to make a decision, fine, but me.. i’m going to give that guy over there HD porn…”

Fact is products like Java, Flash and Silverlight (the “evil three”) were the service pack the web needed, it needed to prove the point that developers aren’t getting their fill of API  / multimedia needs with the slow latency filled migration patterns we (sadly) still have today. It wasn’t until Silverlight and Flash punched each other to death and in turn created this competitive annoyance in the market both externally & internally – that is – internally inside Microsoft it reminded the Windows team that “plugins” could very well hijack the beloved desktop SDK’s if their pace is left unchecked (cannibalizing Windows potential offerings). Externally it also reminded the web that browsers haven’t being doing their jobs, the fact that these two brands duke it out so publicly was the fresh reminder “oh by the way browser, what the hell are you actually doing!”.

Google was the disruptor in that equation as well, Firefox made a good run at trying to keep rising with the demand tide but it wasn’t until Google got its hands in the mix that we started to see a change. Not only did they push the JavaScript angle loudly than any other company but they also baited Microsoft IE Team constantly to meet their needs, it was actually a beautiful thing to see how they worked that team like a puppet via the whole “You need to focus on fixing JavaScript runtime perf levels”.

So plugins are evil? without them you’d probably be still hacking away at some crappy codec or trying to find more hacks to get around memory issues in browser(s) – or worse – writing Java Applets (probably extreme).

* JavaScript is different than it was, its awesome!
Yeah, i’m calling bullshit. Majority of the frameworks today exist to abstract you from focusing on writing actual JavaScript because whatever reason. When you have a JavaScript framework as being the excuse as to why a language should be considered then that’s probably your first clue we’re dealing with a dumb ass response to a problem that needs attention.

Some might argue “well that’s the power of JavaScript, you can write frameworks to solve problems” which to me rides along the same logic as how painters in the old days use to make their own oil paints in order to paint… today you squeeze it out of a tube and you’re now focused on painting less about sourcing various ingredients to make “red”. Abstraction is fine if you are looking to allow a developer to feed instructions into a compiler that then gets distilled into another language (cross compile etc). I simply raise the bullshit flag when that same concept isn’t applied at the compiler but is instead this extra memory footprint at the actual runtime instance itself. As now you’re just putting extra layers of ductape over the corpse that which is JavaScript in order to hide its inherit stink.

* Yeah but JavaScript is what we have today, so we should just deal with it
You can’t really argue this point beyond “yeah but I’m overweight and I can’t stop eating, so just let me die of a horrible death”. I hate mediocrity with a passion and I find anyone who compromises with JavaScript as a solution to a problem they know at the deep core as being a bad idea to be “enablers”. If you are that person and you’re writing JavaScript to pay the bills, cool, but you’re also not helping the industry and if anything you feed the whole ecosystem with more crap to deem “acceptable”.

* Stop using JavaScript isn’t an option, we just have to wait and see what’s next
Which brings me to my next train of thought – what the fuck is taking so long with ECMA6 or whatever its replacement. At what point do we declare fail on these “committees” and rally behind the idea that this shit has to stop taking so stupidly long (are they meeting every 2 years? are they even still alive…are the 90 and need time to watch Matlock before energising the base around their decisions???).  TypeScript for me is “fine, lets just get on with it” or I’m open to anything that hints at being not freaking JavaScript.. i’ll write python in the client if I have to, but get this stuff sorted out and stop wading it down by this agonising death by democracy attitude. Break the web, its broken anyway at least this will be the event that freaks everyone out long enough to come up with a better idea than what we have today.

I refuse to believe that the entire planets best idea of the day is “JavaScript” (aka ECMA3). If that’s the case then the various education systems are teaching the wrong classes.

I have been doing this thing you kids call today “web development” since 1995, I’ve watched the entire internet move at an agnosing slow pace. I got hands on with VRML and watched that crash dive, I got hands on with Adobe Flash which then lead me to Adobe Flex and then later I as most know got hands on in Silverlight/WPF. I keep chasing the idea or potential that we as a human race have, in that we know that multimedia is a medium that can convey so much importance at a pace that’s exciting – when the technology platform allows it.

Today, by keeping JavaScript as being the “best” of the entire plugin wars as a solution, you have to be an absolute idiot if you believe that’s a step forward. It’s steps backwards not just small steps, but large steps.. steps that will take us another 3-5 years to recover from again. Look at the historical patterns around Prescriptive vs Descriptive design languages…

JavaScript is the digital age’s version of herpes, every time you think its gone a new outbreak occurs – DHTML, AJAX, “HTML5”

 

 

 

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I’m Scroogled no sir you’re Scroogled and you’re scroogled.

There are days when I arrive at work, drink my hot cup of coffee brew goodness and read what’s new “On the Line”. Most days they are often filled with moments of what I call “Microsoft LOL’s”. These moments are typically what I often use in my comedy routine with friends in the Microsoft business community whenever we get together to unpick “what just happened” – they are often filled with laughter + “..so..then…they not only did….but they decided to go back for more…” moments.

This morning I scanned my intertubes and saw Microsoft’s attempt at what I can only assume is humour. That is the Internet Explorer vs Google Chrome fight got a bit more bitter due to the company deciding it was a brilliant idea to make T-shirts and hat’s trashing their competitor’s efforts to make an alternative product to their own – Internet Explorer.

Some would say “Well this is how competitors work, its fair game” true, except I should point out that the very people who work on Google chrome used to also work at Microsoft so it’s not like Red vs Blue clones duking it out, it’s in many ways two parents fighting in front of their kids.

If you are in the role of “Evangelist” right now in Microsoft and you’ve been given metrics around Internet Explorer or HTML5 (which is nearly all of them) its moments like these that you really do need to think about updating your LinkedIn Profile to make sure its current. It’s also a good time to brush up on your way to make fun of the company you work for’s stupidity in the face of probably some very angry or agitated community groups who just don’t agree with this kind of tactics.

My goto line would be “You think the Scroogle thing was bad, imagine me right now and how Scroogled I am to be standing here…” or something to that affect. The best you can do from a reach standpoint is absorb the blow, pivot it to being a case of “Yeah you’re pissed, imagine how I feel” and hope to hell your community peer’s look at you with sympathy and not aggravation.

As I write this Frank Shaw the infamous fist waving anti-Google VP of Communications for Microsoft has gone quiet on the PR front. My only question for Microsoft is at what meeting and how much coke was snorted before this idea to put this on your store seemed like a “Funny idea” and should the company update its competitive obsession policies?

Broken ideas

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The Apple-Microsoft Energizer Bunny.

 

In 1989 Energizer hijacked the Duracell Bunny thus for most parts of the world hijacking the iconic toy from Duracell.

Today I saw a Microsoft`ee still praise the company for its efforts in Metro design style in the Windows Phone. Asserting that basically Apple has copied them and they (Microsoft) will soon be rewarded for such greatness.

The cautionary tale here for me is this. Apple are great …no…they are surgically brilliant at design, not just in their own marketing but it embodies everything they do and beyond.

Microsoft….well…don’t. They have moments but often you can automatically sense the hesitation in executing their design (as if to say they have design sugar rushes). Point in case is Windows 8, start screen is interesting, parts of the way in which you design applications are different but then …nothing… AppStore was a sad existence to stare at and the whole strategy around cultivating, nurturing, evangelising and so much more the design itself simply fell silent.

My point today is simple, Apple copying or not copying Microsoft – who cares – isn’t a point for the company to celebrate. It’s a pretty loud warning shot across the design bow, that simply says – step up and lead, or step aside but make  a choice.

 

 

 

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Surface 2 – The shotgun approach to marketing

Most people by now would have seen all the announcements surrounding the new Microsoft Surface 2. These announcements pretty much outline the new refined measures taken to make the tablet/laptops more compelling in the eyes of its targeted consumers.

That is essentially what I want to talk about today, the targeted consumers.

If you look at Microsoft Surface on its own in isolation outside the competing influences the product itself is reasonably well designed. It has the benefits of a laptop and tablet in one whilst at the same time runs all your Windows specific applications natively (assuming your not subscribed to ARM constraints).

The reality however it’s not looked at in this light from a consumer and retail mindset. The product today is positioned as a Tablet, meaning its job is to compete against products that iPad and Android occupy quite heavily which means the category itself is quite saturated and has consumers conditioned to approach a tablet as a middle ground between Mobile and Laptop (i.e. the spectrum between Mobile Device and Laptops were defined, tablets would probably sit neatly in the middle).

Furthermore, the Surface Pro also is often not associated as being different within retail stores from these competing tablet products and is often found on the same shelf space as their counterparts. The only real distinguishable difference between a Surface and other products on the shelf is the Windows 8 tile screen and maybe the blue/pink keyboard(s).

Once you acknowledge that the Surface Pro is now in a heated battle around gaining attention of consumers with other tablets they are also equally in a fierce competitive battle over price (which is slowly in many ways becoming a race to the price bottom given tablets are losing their social currency – i.e. nothing *really* new is happening in terms of points of difference).

Occupying the Tablet category is not easy challenge for any company but with Surface Pro it doesn’t end there. No, they also now have to compete equally in the Laptop category and given most retail channels like BestBuy prefer to position the products in the Tablet Category they also have to find ways to claw out of that and reposition the product also in the Laptop marketing category.

That’s where it also gets slightly difficult because those distinguishing signatures that I mentioned earlier around Windows 8 tile screen no longer are unique, as all competing hardware makers use that as well. So now you’re competing on brand loyalty, price and hardware specifications.

Competing on those fronts isn’t easy as not only do you as Microsoft now have skin in the hardware game you also have a smaller shelf space to occupy – much like Coke vs Pepsi in Super Market(s). Dell, Samsung, HP etc. all have maybe 3-4 products at any given point sitting on the shelf as well and can afford to keep pumping out different iterations faster given this is  their core business.

Hopefully I’ve painted a picture that will give you a moment of pause to think beyond the actual product itself and moreover how do you gain the attention of the potential consumer. As it’s not about “I have the best quality product of all” because in reality nobody can accurately say for sure that’s true. It’s the 2nd generation attempt at entering a market that the 1st generation has failed on. Moreover the pricing for the product(s) isn’t exactly a bliss point entry because should they become successful the competitors will find ways to undercut or fight more aggressively to retain relevance.

 Can all this be done though?

I think it could be done if the right ingredients were in place, first of all you’d need to find a way to frame the proposition you’re putting forward to your consumers in terms they understand – that is, you have to convince every user out there that having a tablet/laptop in one is what they need & want.

Secondly, you will need to find a way to separate your product from the herd in the retail channel because right now although the brand Microsoft and Windows are attached to the said product(s) it’s also attached to the competing brands as well (ie its over-used and saturated). Microsoft have to work their product line like Apple does, by having a separate table / shelf for their products to occupy and be distinguished from the rest.

Thirdly you have to find a way to become the circuit breaker for the taxonomy of online retail, by opening up a new category “both” as if you’re going to say the product on one hand is a tablet and a laptop then you need to find a way to position the products in that light. If you position in the tablet category (like today) then your $2,000 AUD Surface top of the range model will stand out as being insanely expensive for a tablet?

If you in turn occupy the Laptop then you’re $899 AUD tablet with low specs looks cheap but fails on hardware specifications – moreover you also run the risk of positioning the brand as a “cheap” solution thus potentially poisoning your own well (ie “Surface = Cheap crap” perception could easily run unmanaged).

The reality is Microsoft really haven’t got a structured story here with Surface Pro, it’s what I’d call a “shotgun” approach to competing with Apple/Google. In that it appears they are just collapsing the products for the sake of compete rather than actually trying to disrupt the behaviour we humans have around mobility.

The product itself isn’t a measured response, its just reactive and filled with a lot of panic around how to solve this problem. The entire thing could be handled much carefully and strategically by simply easing into the above categories with momentum behind them vs just trying to force their way into the mindset of consumers that all-in-one is the best strategy.

Lastly assuming they abandon these silly ads with people jumping around clicking keyboards and actually focus on “why” someone needs to buy the product they also face a very long entrenched campaign ahead.

If they are onto a winning formula and assuming that they sort their marketing talent out, then they also have to wait out the consumers who currently have laptop and tablet out which could be 1-2 years minimum.

Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but keep in mind Microsoft is about to get a brand new CEO with his/her own ideas about Surface Pro and if anything Microsoft’s marketing machine has shown that they can’t handle a controlled message beyond the life of a single campaign.

My prediction:

  •  Surface as a brand will undergo a split, they will likely retreat back to forking the tablet and laptop offerings.  There will likely be no technical difference between the two and price and category matching will likely influence it.
  • Surface will have poor sales for the next 1-2 years and the industry will remind them off this without mercy. There is to much aggravation in the hardware space for Microsoft to occupy and they not only have to compete on Consumer sales but also Enterprise pie will decay over time as a result of losing focus.  The failure in success over the 1-2 years will simply be the easy punch to the company’s kidneys.
  • Surface RT will evaporate as a laptop solution. If you’re a developer today targeting ARM and you’re thinking to yourself “this is fun” then you’re currently in a small cluster. Today to target Windows 8 ARM would mean you are happy to migrate your code-base over to the new Windows SDK and it isn’t a clean migration at the best of times. Moreover you have to also ignore the lack luster ubiquity metrics that will come out alongside any and all developer relation(s) resets that have occurred in the last 5 years. If you can absorb all of that and still think ARM is the vehicle of choice – then yeah, I just don’t see any upside here.

 

 

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I suspect Windows Phone team are chasing the wrong metrics.

I’ve had an interesting and insightful conversation with Steve Sinofsky the past 24hrs that has got me thinking about the concept of how we measure success. Firstly, I know its freaking me out how much I am learning from the one person that I honestly thought was the single point of failure at Microsoft – but – I was wrong! as I suspect he had more to offer than Microsoft was willing to absorb that or he was too busy trying to steer whatever ship(s) he was steering to discuss.

To the subject at hand.

When I think about Mobility and how we measure the success and failures, I automatically break open my OneNote file on where the numbers are currently at when it comes to Windows Phone 8, iPhone, Android etc. The first thing I often do is review what the market share looks like and then probably grow agitated at how slowly Windows Phone is moving (yay 50% growth, but they need 300% to break into the 3rd place category).

The problem with just tracking market share is the data has no soul, which leads me into the points I’ve been having with Sinofsky around how data is just a signal of behavior but it doesn’t tell you the entire picture accurately.

How do I mean accurately?

If you look at iPhone today you will no doubt see, it has a huge amount of the market share pie, but in all honesty, that doesn’t tell you much in the way of actual usage or replenishment rates. All it tells us is right now on planet earth there is just a very large amount of iPhones floating about the place and typically, many new customers are switching on iPhones for the first time each day we breathe oxygen.

If you however look to your left or right and ask your peers how often do they buy iPhones they may typically come back with an answer that resembles “one to two years” In that they aren’t the ones likely to retain parity with Apple’s release cycles anymore?

What happens to their existing phones when they fade it out? Is it relegated to the grandparents? Given to the kids as a gaming device? Sold on ebay?

That for me is the metric I want to know the most about, how many new phones are people adopting and lastly how long does it take between phone adoptions. Then if you can layer in operating system, form factor (sizes) and latency between adoptions that would probably give early signs of where movement between adoptions is happening.

Having that data set will also tell us all an open transparent story around how each mobile phone corporation in the race for success is able to sustain their adoption & life cycle. It also would give teams like the Windows Phone team a smarter metric to go after as if a typical iPhone customer today is taking 1-2 years before they migrate to a new phone or upgrade that in itself is the period in which you would need to strike aggressively.

How to navigate these waters with the right data is the key and focusing in on who has the biggest slice of the pie tells us an end total of who was smart enough to figure out the overall collective metrics. It doesn’t tell us a story around who’s strategy was successful and where?

For instance, which phone size right now is the bliss point in size? Which phone color is the best? Which phone feature seems to excite the most? And so on.

These are data points and many more like them that are quite hard to mine for given most companies will hide that as much as possible to save embarrassment or alert competitors of success. Which is fine it just sadly feeds the beast around “% marketshare = success” rhetoric.

You can boost your percentage if you just give phones away for free in China/India as sure, it will hurt your revenue model(s) but it would boost your confidence in the market level(s) and probably lighten the burden on your marketing budget as well. Clearly though that is a terrible strategy given it is going after the % and can’t sustain itself long term.

I guess my end point and the lesson of the week is basically, what the definition of success here is in our industry? Is it to have 40%+ market share for a particular brand which in turn influences our decision(s) to buy or are we being shaped / groomed into buying these devices because suppliers are assuming that having market share means an easier sale? Downside is we are probably buying a form factor or device because of noisy influence vs. the right fit.

Point and case – I bought the Nokia 920 because everyone I knew said it was the best of breed at the time for Windows Phone 8. I automatically forgave its size because I wanted to hear that story around it being the best. It took me a day before I developed buyer’s remorse solely on the size of the device as sure it had qualities that I liked about the phone but I really didn’t need to go above my iphone size?

I went into that purchase with two sets of bias and I allowed the bogus data to shape an outcome that I ultimately did not want. Stupid but interesting how I was influenced.

 

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Microsoft Surface Retail strategy in Australia is broken.

If you walk into a retail store such as Harvey Norman, Dick Smith or JB HIFI in Australia with the sole intent on buying a Microsoft Surface then you will be probably shocked to learn that it is likely to be buried amongst the “laptop meets tablet” mutations.

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The Surface Tablet is hidden amongst an array of competing brands that are usually higher in price whilst being presented as a “laptop” in its initial resting “display” setting. Is there an attempt to highlight its form factor? No and more to the point there is absolutely no attempt to profile the branding of “Microsoft Surface” other than a strange font, which is 10%, compared to the price tag that is clearly the most important focal point.

To me the entire Microsoft Surface marketing campaign in Australia seems to be a broken situation whereby it appears Microsoft Australia are clearly metric / goaled around “impressions” and less about “conversions”. I say that as if the two metrics were linked then getting people into the “stores” would be 30% of the battle as once they are in, soliciting the potential consumers into a purchase would be where the real energy needed to be spent.

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Today, in these same stores if you were to walk in and buy an Apple product you would immediately notice that they are separated from the horde of random brands but all accessories that are officially owned by Apple’s brand machine are also within reach. That is to say they are clearly spending a small sum of their retail channel delivery budget(s) on ensuring that resellers such as these brands are retaining the brand(s) needs (Meyer’s in Australia also acts as a conduit to Apple’s branding).

However, why should Microsoft spend on securing the Microsoft Surface segregation?

Microsoft should and needs to put pressure on retail chains like this to have Microsoft Surface separated from the horde for the following reasons.

  • Price pressure. Clearly, the other brands are opting for the Microsoft Surface Pro approach to tablet & Windows 8 bundling with a high “laptop-centric” price tag attached. That’s fine but in reality if Microsoft wants to invoke change in the OEM channels around price and industrial design then having the beacon of example (Surface) separated ensures that these guys have to compete harder to win hearts/minds more. If Microsoft can put pressure on price models with a “lead by example” model, they can in turn regain some much lost control over this entire cluster f***k of tablet/laptop sales pipeline.
  • Differentiation. Right now, the whole Surface RT in Australia is all you can buy so there is minimal confusion around what the brand “Microsoft Surface” represents. It is only after you introduce Microsoft Surface Pro into the mix that the confusion will start to fester, especially when retail chains like the one mentioned seemed to be preoccupied with price. Having a clear definitive marquee / in-store controlled visualizations of the matrix would help clear up potential buyer’s remorse going forward.Furthermore it would again encourage put pressure on other OEM providers to consider the RT route but I highly doubt that will occur given the current failings of RT today (perception and execution wise).

In Summary, the question in the room still remains unanswered, why did Microsoft enter the tablet space as a hardware provider & not just software. I have read and heard multiple accounts as to why, to which me distills down into simply the “lead by example” formula.

If Microsoft wishes to lead by example then they need to in my opinion work harder to continue to put pressure on hardware brands like Dell, HP, ASUS, and Samsung etc. in a way that forces the consumer to start to consider an actual comparison between the brands and Microsoft’s “best of breed”.

In doing this they would also start to build some muscle & discipline in helping hardware companies focus more on the industrial design of the said device(s) as opposed to just re-using patterns they have formed whilst making Laptops (i.e. look at Android’s screen resolution issues to date and avoid that from spilling over into Windows).

Simply put, I think the overall marketing / delivery service that’s in play today puts strong indicators around the fact that not only is Microsoft lacking hardware leadership they are really living and likely to die by their previous Zune strategies (Good idea, just badly executed).

 

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Microsoft needs reimagine Live to be alive.

Today, I thought I might spend a lunch time getting my brain wrapped around the idea of how Single Sign-On works within the Microsoft Live ethos.

Assuming you manage to get past the quagmire of deprecated documentation, installation, association loop holes & hurdles one can finally settle on getting a basic Authentication happening.

Once that was complete It’s now back to reality where you have to also decode the Privacy Guidelines / Settings used for applications that make use of this great ball of angry code.

Throughout this journey one thing has stood out the most. It’s as if someone within the Live “Team” (If there are any people left to call it a team) have not only given up but raised the standards of bad development & audience seeding to all time new high.

It’s easy to just throw Live under a bus, many have been doing it for years but it doesn’t really solely fall in their lap either. I look at you the Windows 8 team, as you clearly aren’t giving this entire scenario much attention – especially when you have devoted so much energy & time convincing us to use our “Live Id” to sign into Windows.

As far back as 2007, Live Id’s were an important metric in the Microsoft camp where the company would even pay large Enterprises kick backs to use Live ID instead of a Gmail/Google account (early stages of User Id meets cloud land grabs). It’s always in many ways held an area of importancebut despite all the fluff around “Windows reimagined” the basic(s) are still a tyre fire and clearly not as well thought out.

For instance, you log into Facebook and you agree to allow some random application access to your details. If later on you wish to retract that offer (not that it would matter) you’d in turn go to a specific area of the site and remove. The same goes with Apple, Twitter and countless other brands to name.

Not Microsoft.

Nope, you say yes to the Application but in from there on out you have to either ask someone or remember that buried deep within your Live ID account management online (via the web only) there’s an obscure link which lets you manage your privacy settings).

As a developer if you want to make use of the Live Id well, you have to abide by the guidelines within Microsoft and ensure you firstly build a “Settings” menu into your application, which then has preferably Permissions, About, Privacy & Account options (I did mention this was opt-in). That to me is a lot of extra work that is in reality not required per app, it should be something in which each developer has no control over. It’s not as if the developer is telling the AppStore what kind of access he/she needs from the said app upfront (oh wait..it is…via scopes).

Instead Microsoft plays the lazy route, makes the developer put together a URL of some sort which outlines their privacy statement(s) out loud (which is really just mother hood statements like “I won’t be evil with your data – said the Nigerian Prince”.

Sadly, this is a huge amount of unnecessary heavy lifiting to get something done which is basic and it’s likely due to yet again Microsoft internal culture spilling over into the various developer relation(s) that’s NOT going on right now. What I mean to say is Live has pretty much lost the bulk of its energy via staff leaving, fired, retrenched or simply given up.

If Live is a toxic cloud of developer stupidity then why would you as a developer target Windows 8 Application Development given the front door is broken.

Now to figure out how I can reset the “Allow this app to access your” permissions – despite removing the said App from my “online profile” it still seems to work. Yes….it’s potentially a bug in their privacy (Oh I wish I could say I made this up).

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