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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Dont be a clone, be different.

It’s been roughly a week or so now since I got my Windows Phone 8 iPhone clone – I mean, Nokia Lumia 920 (it was a joke, relax).

The phone itself is quite large, and that for me isn’t an issue except I find my thumbs don’t get as much surface coverage on either side of the phone. The battery life on the phone is nice but the overall user experience within the phone drives me mad.

The camera for instance was annoying because when it came to take a photo I had forgotten I had the setting on close up, so when I took my shot of choice it came out blurry.  It took a while for me to remember that the setting was changed as there was no visual indication that the said phone was in a particular setting – as if having an icon on display all the time was a failure Nokia wouldn’t tolerate (you failed me Nokia)

There are a lot of other settings that also drive me crazy and I could list the postives & negatives all day (Still trying to sort through my emotions on whether this phone will last or go).  However, the one and most crucial thing of all that I dislike about the experience is the App Store clones.

What I mean to say is, despite the various ups & downs that come with having the actual phone – which I can live with – the one piece to this equation is just how immature and terrible the applications that you have on offer are within the Microsoft store. It’s like all the other kids (iPhone/Android) are riding dirtbikes but your parents give you  a new bmx bike (Windows Phone 8) with a fake muffler attached.

I’m struggling even as I type this to come up with some examples of great apps, the ones you cannot live without. The only application that I find actually useful and fairly well designed was Skype. I found Twitter apps to be half-done, broken, prone to “an error has occurred” status messages or the worse offender of all – the official Facebook app (which feels like it was written by a first year programming intern). These are really two applications that a smartphone today must own in terms of unique experience, as these i’d argue are probably the most frequently used outside email (would it kill the design team to use “bold” font to indicate unread emails btw?? and text messaging + threads… really.. threads? what is this a texting forum?).

There is much I’d tolerate about owning this phone but looking at my iPhone apps that are sitting idle and then staring at my Windows Phone I can’t but help develop buyer’s remorse at the moment. I miss my instagram, twitter, flipboard, facebook (yes even iPhone Facebook app), games,  XBMC remote, ANZ Bank and the list goes on and on.

There are really only two applications within the Windows Phone 8 market place that stand out for me – Qantas and ZARA.  The Qantas app is still a bit flat but it looks different enough to give it a pass whilst the ZARA app (Fashion) looks quality elegant / tastefully done – even though I have zero use for it but can appreciate its design.

My underlying point is this. I want to keep using this phone, I want to get off the iPhone crack and try new things but if you keep rinse & repeating the same stupid template driven applications whilst touting “I’m being authentically digital” then you in turn are killing yourselves more than my experience.

If this phone has a chance of success it’s going to come down to development teams engaging a designer and throwing out the Windows Phone 8 “Design Guidelines” by Microsoft.

Microsoft have not a consistent coherent clue as to what good design is and have consistently shown they themselves can’t even lock onto the concept of what good design is. They rely heavily on design agencies, contractors and partners to do the majority of the actual design for solutions they “make”.

There are currently 90+ designers on the Windows Phone 8 “team” and I ask a simple question – What the f**K are you all doing? You’re not helping the community & marketplace that’s for sure.

So please hire a designer today.

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The Cost of Design.

It was the HTML generation that first gave mainstream hints that with a good designer in the cubicle you could in turn have a positive effect to business. That is to say by opening a simple browser, navigating to an address and interacting with “forms” that you in turn could begin taking consumerism to a new level of shop-less input(s0.

Fast forward today the cost of design has not only increased but has also gotten higher in its requirement in terms of automating the shop-less facade. User’s albeit consumers are targeted in a variety of device ridden channel delivery and the cost of having a traditional developer and designer team has not been reduced.

Specialised Teams

Cubicles of tomorrow aren’t going to be housed with team members who can write  and design for multiple devices at the same time. They will be broken into specialised teams and the more and more business(s) begin to consolidate their branding into the device market(s) the more they will look to simplifying their product portfolios and brands.

A team of .NET developers who write HTML and WPF client(s) will most likely need to include an iPhone/iPad, Android/Blackberry team(s) who mirror their offering. Companies will aggressively recruit and look for people who are agnostic in one or mediums but realistically given the complexity involved in all the current UX Platform(s) it just isn’t feasible to find that many people on the market waiting for a job call.

Browser Forking

Having a specialised team isn’t restricted to proprietary solutions, it will also factor into a more traditional medium of HTML development and design. As strange as this may sound to hear, the idea that HTML5 will bring the industry into a global position of unanimous parity of it’s implimentation amongst all browsers is simply not correct.

The only browser that i’d argue has a vested interest in remaining pure would be Google Chrome and that’ simply because having the entire globe of online consumers still accessing HTML work’s to the search engine and advertising model of Google.

Having a browser fork in API and extend beyond HTML/JS works to Apple, Google and Microsoft’s favor as well. In fact, I’d argue Microsoft are banking on the ye olde embrace / extend model it’s had in the past (with great success).

Diverse a Product Portfolio

Once companies have audited and forecasted what their internal current development team models will look like for the next 2-3 fiscals, they in turn will need to reflect on which bets to place in which markets that are dictated by their choice of development. It will depend on their choice but even then they still need to figure out how they can leverage an iPhone more than they can an Android (or substitute your own technology bet here). For every device you target brings a variety of constraints and expectations that you need to meet prior to even beginning development.

Diversity in choice will ultimately have an impact on a companies brand and consistency model in how they want to broadcast their personality to their respective users. If you target an iPhone for example you have a pretty prescriptive UI design to leverage so it pays to run with it and not against it, given it will reduce your time to market cost(s). Same applies with Android and especially with Windows Phone.

Problem with prescribed design isn’t its ability to convey a uniform user experience with an end user it’s core issue is the reduction of being able to stand out amongst your consumer(s). If you spend more you can overcome the prescribed approach but in doing so you also need to ensure you can leap beyond the baseline of expected behavior.

Metro-style could winout

Prescribed user interface design in turn will slowly become more and more weaponised in a way to again have a single designer rule many device(s). If you can invest in a smaller group of design professionals who have custodianship of a brand and the personality that comes with it, you in turn can reduce your costs on having less investment on design and more on engineering.

A company may prefer the model of having a centralised design team that works with 3-4 device teams as a way of offsetting cost’s associated with multi-targeting.

Metro-style design in turn plays a comfortable role as Android and Windows Phone 7 pretty much lend themselves well to this vision of the way design should be. iPhone/iPad however goes in the opposite way that is to say the composition found within these devices are much more detailed and focused in around theming the experience as much as it’s about enabling an input driven experience.

The design(s) to date using metro oppose the idea of having real-world objects embedded into the 2D design composition (less turning knobs, wooden textures etc). The cost for design here is hugely decreased as a result meaning in reality a design team need only wireframe the composition of what they want a particular screen to look like, layer in color and ensure it adhere’s to some basic principles that relate to consistency, minimalism and lastly shape driven pictography / typography (pattern recognition 101).

Having a metro-style solution going forward can work on all device(s) and whilst it may go against the iPhone/iPad design grain, it can still sit within and more to the point it would reduce a brand’s chance of inconsitency and personaltiy (closer to the one design on all belief).

Designers did this to themselves

Companies like Microsoft, Adobe, Google and even Apple have reacted to a problem that was created by designer(s). The problem started the day when designer’s went against the developer grain, that is they forked off onto their own technology stack which was designed for them (Apple).

In forking their work flow away from mainstream development this in turn created a workflow issue and in turn fueled companies like Microsoft to invest in a lot of tactical decisions around how to solve this said problem (WPF, Silverlight etc).

The forking also gave way to a different approach whereby companies like Adobe began to also invest not just in a x-platform tooling but also for a while there in a x-platform delivery that works with the said tools that designer(s) had grown to love (Flex, Flash).

Once Apple had also moved to an Intel chipset this in turn gave away to what I would call the “Apple Developer” generation where over time more and more of a developer centric foundation was being build to which a series of tools could also now target the designer(s) (amongst other creative professionals).

Design for the better part still remained in its own cut-off from the rest area and the more and more developer communities that didn’t have a dependency on Windows began to emerge, the more they instead crossed the divide and began to work on Apple with their designer sister & brother(s).

The developer defection to Apple created a huge amount of issues and problem(s) from within Microsoft as now they are facing a massive problem around having developers target Windows but also ensuring there are the right amount of designer(s) ready to support such developers. The more applications being built on Windows the more they sell Windows is the simplified formula.

Google also now posed an issue whereby they have no real dog in the fight, that is to say Apple or Windows it didn’t matter provided you targeted HTML and helped fuel their Advertising & Search revenue streams of tomorrow.

I won’t go further into the various competitive back and forth that has gone on suffice to say at the heart of this entire issue around choice lies the designer. The illusive designer who often costs a lot and produces what will soon become the main differentiator in a companies offering – user experience.

Function is no longer important form is

As the industry reacts to the competitive changes that are ongoing, much like a teenage boy does around the time of puberty – design in will start to become the focal point of such change.

A designer will feel suddenly more wanted, targeted and will be taunted and attracted with some quite lucrative offers. Developers will also see this and start or have began to shift career gears and start looking into ways of becoming a designer. Some will fail whilst others will discover a suppressed design gene within lurking and waiting to be unleashed.

The designer will however become the leader of the pack, so used to being the one at the back or considered replaceable, they in turn will now become the most sort after as in turn what is replaceable is engineering (the market optimised for function instead of form for over 20years).

Here in lies the issue, the designer isn’t really equipped to decide the outcome of a generation of computing, they will always prefer to take the right amount of time to do the right job in a way that adhere’s to their internal principles around how the world should look.

Winter’s not coming, a Fork is

A designer today hasn’t gone down in price or time to market, the time it takes to produce a design still takes just as much time and effort as it did last year and the year before that. It however got a little more complicated as the canvas now comes in not just a 1024×768 screen (or there abouts) it now comes in a whole host of screen sizes and operating system level imposed limitations.

Once the corporations that fork their design teams figure this out, styles like the metro-style will begin to emerge as they in turn can bypass the designer if in some fairly competent hands. As in reality the importance of User Experience Principles has become weaponised with the more specialised teams making their work public for all to borrow/steal.

Don’t be suprised if a team in the near future had a designer but now doesn’t and solutions that look like Microsoft Metro were being produced.

Google and Microsoft have began and in parts Adobe’s tooling also adhere’s to this as well.

Having real world objects in 2D design isn’t a bad or limiting thing, it’s an ongoing design evolution around trialing & erroring deeper design beyond flat monochrome wireframes that have or haven’t been colored in.

Don’t knock it as the alternative isn’t as deep in its composition.

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The Likes & Dislikes of Microsoft in 2011

The calendar increments by 1 year now and as it does I think about the last year and ponder what I liked and disliked in my sandbox that I call the Microsoft ethos

Windows Phone 7

  • I liked Nokias approach to branding the product; they really took what they saw and made it the focal point of what the experience for consumers should be. That is, they did what I asked at the start of the year; make the metro design your familiar face in the crowd.

  • I liked the WP7 Design contest; I rarely ever give an endorsement to contests as they are a desperate response to bad marketing, in this case though the designs that came back were actually tidy and immediately wanted you to explore the apps. Now to see if they make it into the appstore.
  • I disliked WP7 marketing from Microsoft, it was chaotic, it lacked depth and $500million in marketing spent later, I still can’t put my finger on one message that you could hang your hat on. Compare Apple iPhone / Android marketing to Wp7 and it baffles me as to what is going on in that team – I think they just carpet bomb SeaTac / LAX airports with it knowing that Microsoft Execs travel through there and hope that’s enough to convince them they are “everywhere” – reality is, Bus shelter ads aren’t putting the wp7 logo on the bottom of their “get our apps” signage – which is a fail.

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  • I disliked the WP7 app store pricing model, fact is they are charging the same rates as iPhone devs or there about and in the end you have a marketshare that Samsung is even beating. I agree with Laurence MoroneyReality check for two please and can we have that to go.
  • I disliked the compete b.s that came from Staffers at Microsoft around WP7, fight the internal metrics and rise above the whole “heh did you see that, Apple just copied us!” mentality. Its very weak and if you are to beat the competition then you need to stop watching their every move hoping and praying for a weakness to occur. If Apple copy you, great, internalize that victory but keep it internal and instead move the bar higher as the best way for people to absorb that reality is when someone who doesn’t have an MVP or Blue-badge says “Did Apple just copy Microsoft?”.

Windows 7 and 8

  • I liked the intent for Microsoft to bring balance to the UX force, which is a consistent looking brand / feel across all products from now on.
  • I disliked the execution of the consistent branding. I wished they would keep all design decisions in a central team, which is everything from website design to UI design(s) for products. Allowing individual teams within Microsoft to interpret Metro outside of the central team at this early critical stage is clearly not working. If you want to attract a design enriched audience that want to take inspiration from your work, stop farming it out to agencies who nickel/dime their way through design creation and instead double down on providing a central experience.

    Hate it when Microsoft gets a hold of a design concept..and then just sodomises it #badmetro #bldwin

  • I liked the energy that the Windows teams have around device development, we’ve asked for this way back in the days of Surface birth. I think that’s healthy for the industry and will put touch enabled devices into more and more people’s hands sooner rather than later.
  • I disliked the artificial inflation of the metrics (Windows and Wp7). Inside Microsoft you gauge success based on your ability to ignore qualitative data and instead focus on quantitative given it looks bigger. This often spills over into the marketing engine(s) at Microsoft resulting in just bad reality checks thus creating more distance between the ability to trust anything the brand states.

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  • I disliked the development experience required to get access to the touch enabled world. A friend of mine sent me this break down of tag trends over at Stackoverlow, basically if you are working with Silverlight and/or WPF the chances of you not using Stackoverflow in some form of way is next to zero. WPF and Silverlight dead? Can I have an extra order of reality check for team Sinofsky please?

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  • I liked the notion that Windows 7 is on the rise over Windows XP, the growth you have is great, and the sooner we can stomp on the neck of Windows XP the happier my development sandbox will be.
  • I disliked the fact that Windows 7 has a huge market share right now, today, that I can’t access and instead am told to “chill” until Windows 8 AppStore comes online via Windows 8. It’s like the Microsoft team decided “How else can I really fuck my customer base over” then some clown in the back puts his hand up and tells them of an idea to hold back AppStore whilst everyone just sits there nodding like he’s telling them that touch will be the future for Microsoft back in 2007 – oh wait… has anyone seen JJ Allard lately as that guys going places.

Silverlight / WPF.

  • I liked the fact we got some releases for these products, shows there is still someone within the company stoking that release fire.
  • I liked Silverlights new 3D capabilities, it hints at what could have been possible had we had it sooner. We back in the early days would often discuss how 3D would be our next frontier of innovation for the product and my hat goes off to the engineering efforts for pulling it off – they worked hard.
  • I dislike that Silverlight release was late and I especially disliked the way it was done. Microsoft phoned in the release, let it happen in the dark of night instead of the grandeur we’ve been used to in the past. That for me sent a clear signal to the developer base – it’s time to move on, finish up your creations and wait for next shiny object to come to a install near you.
  • I dislike WPF feature list, it was less than we were promised (technically it was more tease / flirt) and lastly the release itself was more of an internal upgrade spilled over onto external HDD’s – that is to say, the features were more derived from internal needs than external. MIC check, is this thing on, WPF is dead in the eyes of Microsoft but its far from dead in the eyes of your average .NET code jockey.
  • I dislike the energy spent on HTML5 is the future, I’m yet to meet a developer who uses Silverlight/WPF get excited at the idea of abandoning this for HTML5. It must be the other developers I don’t’ see who want it – well that’s what we may be assuming amongst each and everyone one of us “must be the other guy needs it” (ie “Pretty girl syndrome”).

Azure.

  • I liked the SDK experiences that come with this ….product? … I think it is much easier at times than people give it credit for. I’ve used Amazon quite extensively this year and often will grow impatient that its not like Azure.
  • I dislike the pricing models for Azure. I’m a fairly intelligent guy but even today I’d not say I can for certain grasp the pricing model needed for me to respond to a work order request from some of my clients (mining companies who pay very large sums of money may I add).
  • I dislike the fact Scott Guthrie is running this only. In the short time he’s been the custodian of this product its gotten better, great, but Scott should be a higher power across all products. Steve Sinofsky you suck the life out of Microsoft development.
  • I liked the way Bizspark program is breaking down the pricing barrier of entry for Azure, I was skeptical of this program when it first started (My office was near the creator of this program back in the day, wand watched its birth). I think this program is what stands between adoption and non-adoption but at the same time it has really piss poor marketing behind it so unless you know someone who knows someone, it needs more help (See Catherine Eibner in Microsoft Australia, she’s got her head screwed on tight around how this should work going forward. Promote her to lead the charge here).

Internet Explorer.

I liked the fact IE6 is hated in a more formal fashion at Microsoft, but overall I just wish this product in its entirety would just die. Everyone else is embracing Webkit, stop fighting the obvious and bend over accept you lost proprietary way of life and jump into the stagnant waters of Webkit FTW.

Other.

  • WCF team can rot in hell. I think there is enough issues around this product to simply state, stop what your doing and think about its effects on your audience. Until then, rot in hell.
  • Entity Framework team, make a decision and stick with it or at least promote the reasons why you change APIs and their pro’s / con’s.
  • Zune. Great idea, pitty it never left Redmond zip code.
  • Surface 2 – Great idea, pitty it never left Redmond zip code.
  • Bing. I googled Bing, enough said but the fact you didn’t have a Santa Tracker at Christmas – you are dead to me.

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Silverlight huh, bit of a …hot topic..wouldn’t you say?

So..

I did a bit of a video post on it; I think it was a balanced on what my thoughts where around how the current release was dumped in what West Wing used to call “Take out the Trash Day

It still leaves you wondering though, so what is it you are missing from this entire Silverlight story as surely by now you’ve read enough rants and blog posts that centre around the notion “..but you’re a .NET developer man…pull yourself together, you have skills, you have knowledge now get back out there and make something of this Windows 8 way of life…and don’t do it for me, don’t do it for your country, do it for that little orphan named Annie, the ginge, the one who dreamed about having a parent and sang that tear jerking song – the sun will come out tomorrow… Go get em tiger” *pant*

Ok, bit dramatic yes, but when I read these posts I can’t but help giggle at what I have dubbed the “orphan syndrome” whereby you have the author giving you similar speech above on how their father is going to come for them one day, you just wait and see.

The reality check.

Will you be able to take your skills to the new Windows way of life, sure, Microsoft are often lazy to execute if not at times paralyzed with fear of taking a risk – but they aren’t completely incompetent although I would favor mandatory drug testing on executives though.

The numbers rubbery, but approx. 6million .NET devs exist right now hitting “Tab dot Ship” via Visual Studio so that number is your army and for them to completely abandon them is out of the question. It’s not to say they won’t shelve them when it comes to marketing spend or evangelism efforts, but they won’t just cast them aside.

They will focus on HTML5, that IE 10 Metro crack needs addicts and they need to find them early and get them to double down on producing Glow in the Dark Twitter Applications that have Angry Birds built in for extra kudos. This needs to occur because this needs to entice the consumer to stop buying porn online with their credit card(s) and instead switch over to the Microsoft Windows 8 AppStore that works like ITunes AppStore but different (just like the phsycial stores but different, cause Microsoft use Oak wood instead of Birch).

C# skills transference though is never really be a dramatic issue, its akin to saying “Don’t worry guys, you know Winforms, here’s WPF, Go!” … oh wait, we did that to and yeah, didn’t quite work out that well.

We also tried ASP.NET with Silverlight, again, did not work out so well.

This time, though its different because you have more options to choose from and just for extra added confusion, Microsoft aren’t going to confirm or deny whether technologies you have today will be around – sure they show a few strong hints here and there but to actually come out and give a Caesar style “thumbs up” vs “thumbs down” death blow – no, forget about it.

Its not like they came out and formerly cancelled MIX either, the conference that let you all know what was coming out for the web and etc. etc. Sadly, Bob Mu former executive let it slip the last time that event was close by that “our strategy has changed” and then after that slip, he was never heard of again.

So what is all the fuss about?

Why is everyone getting all caught in knots about Silverlight being alive or dead, nobody’s really volunteered an exhaustive list of features that are missing right? Well maybe Uservoice but who listens to that stupid website anyway.. oops, did it again didn’t I.

I think real fuss is more about the concept of patronizing the developer base with yet another executive we probably care less about talking about a technology that we still haven’t figured out why it exists over the old whilst then asking the devleopers to “trust” them and yet not confirm or deny the pre-existing technology that they originally trusted them will continue to exist.

I think that’s the core fuss point, I think the PR folks are out to lunch most days and Microsoft probably need to rethink their relationship with WaggEd (the de-facto outsource PR firm) around how they are handling the messaging. In my experience, they can be quite conservative and treat the brand in many ways like it’s a Presidential campaign – cagey, artificial and lastly “good enough” but never quite “great”.

Windows team will eventually turn the lights out on the current permutation of Silverlight, specifically on the Windows Phone 7 as when there is a fairly high profile leadership change out, things aren’t good internally.

Something is going a miss and Andy Lee’s isn’t known internally imho for his brilliant strategic thinking, so for him to be swapped out and some other yet to be on stage for us all to ignore VP will now take his place.

That to me says one thing “We have a change in strategy..err I mean tactics..

Journos and bloggers will hold your hand and reassure you that Silverlight as you know it today will continue and sure, C# and XAML still has a future but its never really been about that its more and always has been about making applications, quickly and without performance or bugs.

What the fuss is all about now is do we have to re-pave an old road, where sure Silverlight/WPF have issues there’s no denying that but today, we all collectively have a fairly well rounded knowledge base in and around what they are and how to avoid them.

Does that all now have to be reset? Does that mean our Google searches for answers that often get a mix between Silverlight, WPF and CTP/Beta APIs that have breaking changes get that much more polluted resulting in extra hours of wading through rants to get answers?

Sadly yes.

I’m a programmer and designer, I have over 9 languages under my belt and can use majority of the 3D and 2D design tooling that the planet has managed to cough up. Personally my issue has never been around learning stuff, it’s always been about learning stuff to get stuff done. Nothing personally pisses me off more is having to go backwards when we should be going forwards.

Windows 8 going to HTML5.. really… that’s the answer? Does anyone not get the concept that if all browsers were equal then why make them? What’s the differentiation? Answer that question and now you are back in the game of circa late 90’s early 2000 where Browser wars an API forks were all the rage.

Oh wait most of the devs that use HTML today were probably dancing to Power Ranger Intros to notice.

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WP7 Developers! Developers! Devel…wtf is the designers?

I just noticed something about the overall Windows Phone 7 community outreach story. Well I’ve noticed a few things, but the main thing I noticed was the designer haven is non-existent. Looking at the Create.MSDN site which for me appears to be the front-door to “getting-started” with Windows Phone 7, there appears to be no upsell or solicitation in anyway for the “design” community to pay attention to Windows Phone 7.

Huge mistake firstly.

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The reason this is not a bright start to the phone, is if you look at all the successful apps on the iPhone and even Android market-places, there actual apps clearly have someone with design muscle flexing their wares proactively. Inside the Windows Phone 7 ethos, it’s admittedly paint by numbers style design (Metro) but still there is potential vein of richness here should you but show some bread-crumbs.

The major selling point for Windows Phone 7 is metro, folks inside the WP7 marketing team can flog “apps” all they like, but in my opinion I’d declare the phone having apps as hygiene (i.e. Well? I expected you to have them so what? you want a high five?..what else you got?). Metro is the differentiator, despite my grievances with User Interface experience(s) I do recognize that pushing these bitter points aside, the phone needs to focus on this and this alone when it comes to the consumers?

Sitting down and having designed a UI for this phone for an upcoming (reveled later) I’m a little frustrated at the amount of Googling (Yes, I said Google, not Bing. Bing is an ass backwards Search engine imho) I’ve had to spend in finding vector icons, inspiration (design stealing) and lastly techniques / resources others have framed when it comes to handling design related issues.

For instance, I’m not a fan of accent colors inside the phone – in that I like certain amount of colors but Red, Green and Orange are imho off-limits. The reason being is most situations that call for “state” often rely on a stop-light palette. If you have your entire UI Green and you have “You’re now connected” green highlight somewhere, well..it gets lost in the accent theme.

On top of that the dark/light auto-inversing is a funny beast to tackle. I get that it inverses the color palette’s in a fairly smart way at the same time it catches you a little off guard when you sit down to design. As now you have to keep that in the forefront of your mind whilst designing and at the same time accommodating for foreground and accent color adjustments as they occur.

To a developer this is simply state flipping in and out but for an average designer that’s a lot of conscious palette planning / thinking going on there and not a lot of resources around hinting at that either (Try googling that now, tell me what you find!).

These are the typical scenarios you’re likely to face as a designer, the techniques that go beyond “Look mah, I used the default color palette and I managed to ship! gimme my $1million app store sales now mkay!” moments.  It goes deeper and you can’t rely on external blogging threads to carry this workload. As they also have a habit of becoming out dated mixed with spam sites re-gurgitating your blog feeds as their own in order to sucker punch you with Google ads.

My point is simple, the designers are clearly not part of the conversation here and whilst developers, developers  and developers is the normal mantra of Microsoft it’s also the major reason you’re failing at the products. If you want proof, go check out he MSDN metrics around Expression sales and uptake of Silverlight solutions that go beyond the default theme(s) created by either Microsoft or Telerik, ComponentOne, Infragistics etc.

Paint by numbers gets you the default positioning of your product and nothing is wrong with prescribed UI. That is until you scope out the iPhone AppStore reviews long enough to see that your application now needs to do something beyond Tip Calculators / FlashLights and Twitter feeds. If you come up short on Function then you better at least deliver on Form.

Microsoft’s AppStore is filled with overloaded function it now needs personality and it needs more design focused bloodlines to underpin the Metro differentiation. If Microsoft can’t factor this into the outbound marketing today, then at least make a start as this will also set Microsoft up for a stronger position for when Windows 8 arrives (given Metro seems to be full steam ahead).

Point and case. Try for giggles, re-create the Office UI inside Wp7 today without leaving Create.MSDN.com and using the default Icons out of the directory found buried inside Program Files (which somehow we’re supposed to inherently know)?

How about Brandon  (Marketing Director for Wp7) take the $1k ransom for Scott Adams (Dilbert) and put that towards the funding for hiring a designer minded person to run the wp7 community outbound initiatives. There’s a lot of people who could lift that burden and if anyone in Microsoft want some recommendations, ping me, I’ve got a list of candidates.

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The mission to land a .NET developer on Jupiter.

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Ask not what Microsoft can do for you but what you can do for Microsoft. That’s really the inspiring quote that President of the new colonization group – aka Windows  – needs to say to the unwashed masses of tomorrow.

Microsoft is taking on a mission that looks to go beyond the moon, they want to land on Jupiter and it will be done with Apollo. Still confused?

If you’ve not paid attention to all the codenames flying about the place you’d be forgiven to be confused as there’s a space theme happening and with these code names its quite interesting to see how the objectives for the next generation of Microsoft is likely to shape up.

Jupiter is rumored to be the reset button to Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and Silverlight. A reset is the latest suspicion as just yesterday I found out that the XAML ethos within Microsoft has been disbanded and set to various corners of the company.  Some went to Internet Explorer team, some went to Windows teams and others went to Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Why disband the teams? It is time for pencils down folks, let us stop piling on code for the existing stuff but now let us set our sights for the future, let’s be bold. Let us be daring. Why land on the moon when you can land on Jupiter floating on a cloud of Azure? (Ok, I lost myself in that metaphor as well).

Ok fine, I have gone through the seven stages of Silverlight/WPF grief and I am at acceptance I think.

The Mission.

In order to better prepare for the mission ahead, let us think about the various things we need to account for prior to launch (September).

Replace Crew Members.

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Inside Microsoft there is a lot of toxic turmoil going due to internal re-orgs (which is fairly common) that fueled with how the Global Financial Crisis has affected employees etc. it’s no secret that Microsoft are losing some quite influential and dare I say, hard to replace staff to places like Google, Facebook, Amazon and so on. I personally know of three employees who have hated working for Microsoft for quite some time but have been stuck due to housing prices in Redmond etc not being ready enough for a resale – that is – until Google, Adobe, Facebook and soon Amazon have campuses of their own in Seattle.

Now the super geeks have alternative employment options. Microsoft is now on notice, treat me better or I will leave. The later choice has been winning in my opinion and the more the new found employees have sent me messages of "Omg, its way better over here than Microsoft" which has to be salt in some current employee’s wounds whom are likely staring down the barrel of uncertainty in the company given its end of year commitment scoring mixed with the demise of what we used to call the Silverlight/WPF & Blend ethos. What to do!.

Reaching Parity. 

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A gentleman and fellow .NET scholar Jose has done the best he could in reverse engineering Direct UI (rumored to be the leaked incarnation of Jupiter). He has some insights that are both great and disappointing at the same time. The great part is it could very well be the next iteration of what has to come in the landscape of C# and XAML for tomorrow’s UX Pioneers.

The downside is its 3-5 or maybe more steps backwards in the current feature parity you have all eagerly waited for over the past 4 years. There are some fundamentals in the room whilst there are concerns around some of the other features that may or may not make the cut for version one.

If I know Microsoft and I like to think I do, this is likely to be yet another one of those traditional "version 1" moments whereby the team(s) behind the product eventually stumble across the finish line, exhausted but barely breathing enough to shout "Give me feedback on what you want in version 2, it will be better I promise" followed by some metaphor about how it’s a marathon and not sprint to the finish line (We got great mileage out of that with Silverlight and I dare say you could get a few more products out of it yet).

The tooling is likely to be not in place during this version 1 lifecycle as my sources tell me that the Blend Team aren’t cranking out the vNext improved world of Microsoft. I know Steve Sinofsky has had a few ambitions about what the Tooling should look like in the perfect world of Windows vNext frontier and I am guessing he did not play well with others in the Devdiv team(s) to share such ambitions.

That being said, either there is a skunk works tooling team hidden in some random building in Microsoft that others do not know about or the tooling story behind this next frontier is unlikely to be in place before Sept or for whenever this next version of our beloved Silverlight/WPF ethos occurs.
What I mean to say is welcome all to Microsoft 2005. Hold onto your Winforms or ASP.NET MVC  for a little bit longer and for those of you in Silverlight/WPF investment land(s) – try to not focus on the future but the now (best to keep your code base as lean as possible and not to tightly wound in client-side logic).

Put vital organs into Escrow.

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Microsoft are quick to throw technology at a problem first and then ponder as to why the problem existed. I’ve often personally seen strategies – wait, that’s not correct, strategy requires forward thinking – tactical decisions (better) made around trying to grow developer audiences.

The assumption are

"ok, we’re not making our tech palatable enough, lets steal stuff from Ruby On Rails, Apple or Oracle to make it better".

The absolute harsh reality is often a lot of non-Microsoft customer(s) etc. just don’t like Microsoft (Ever liked a girl/guy and they don’t like you back? You try changing your clothes, hair, car etc. and still nothing. Welcome to the Microsoft Developer outreach program, you will fit right in).

The other side of this coin I guess is those of you who adore Microsoft for what they are. You spend thousands of your own dollars to go to various events to listen to Microsoft confuse the absolute crap out of you. The problem is lately, they seem to be a company you just cannot bet on for the future.

Grandiose plans to land on Jupiter may be bold, daring and exciting but is it dependable? Can this company commit to a master plan and is this a plan or just a tactical political brain dump mixed with a lot of Microsoft experimentation.

Is it a case now of not waiting for the next Service Pack but now waiting to see if a product can get past version 3 and 5 before you really consider it as a viable option of the future?

In order to prepare for this next mission, someone has to donate some good will to the fans of Microsoft technology. That means you cannot stick to the ye olde "need to know information" mentality. You got to bring your roadmap(s) for the future and you got to show us that you’re telling the truth that you want to aim for Jupiter and not some closer planet or worse – the unknown void beyond Jupiter.

Commit and stop being assclowns.

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Commit to us so that we may commit to you. No more lies, No more "I’ve got a secret, can you guess!" and lastly no more internal political child play spilling over and into the blogosphere. It’s time to be a big boy company and use big boy strategies with big boy plans mixed with a lot of big girl personality (somehow that did the ladies no favors).

If we are to take on this mission, it’s time for a smarter playbook around transparency and if Steve Sinofsky is willing to bring the "come to Jesus" moment for the company around consolidating the entire product lines into a consistent continuous experience across all devices with a developer/designer experience to boot. Great, I personally will print out a t-shirt that says "I’m back in team Steve" (heh my old team inside Microsoft was called Team Steve…Steve the manager though was a arrogant jerk, different story, different time).

Right now its just a case of me holding up a really sick puppy that others have kicked and telling you all about the neglect its owners have given it. (If I quote that metaphor I was given last night by a friend).

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Microsoft’s Behavioral Patterns.

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I’m often engaged in a variety of conversations regarding Microsoft, obviously because I’m opinionated about the company – more to the point, its almost become a niche thing I seem to tap into. In that, I could talk about Google or Adobe but often I get the “that’s your opinion” vibe. If I talk about Microsoft in the same way, i get the “Oh really?!!” interest vibe.

That’s often fueled allot of my soap boxing as i feed off that quite happily and its not that I want the 5sec of fame, its more that I feel I am adding an insight or value to a conversation around me, like I have this small pocket of information that enables someone beside me to unlock a pattern or compounding issue relating to Microsoft and its technology / culture. It’s hard to put into words, but in reality the more people I interact with the more I get this overwhelming sense of “yeah, you’re right, I couldn’t figure out how to say that but yes, that make sense now” moments.

Let me attempt to articulate the flaws I am seeing inside Microsoft as a brand that I personally have found reflected back at me via these conversations (you are feeding my addiction hehe).

Scarcity.

Often Microsoft when they launch a product alert the masses well in advance around what’s coming. They endeavor to flood the market as fast and aggressively as they can with the said product. It often gets to a point where they effectively buy there place in your memory through constant rinse/repeat approach to alerting you. If they don’t get you on the first pass, they’ll get you on the second or third etc. Its an old tactic and with the budgets that also get allocated to various teams that are enough to keep 5-6 startups a live for years, it often comes with a sketchy at best yield.

The problem with this tactic is we as consumers at times are great at ignoring this as we’ve spent a large amount of our adult lives watching this same formula repeat itself over and over. We often can predict its movements ahead of time and so when we see the pattern emerging its easy to then point out the flaws and faults (often allot of the tech journalist profit from this). Those who aren’t used to it see others doing this and go “wow, its like you’re able to see the future!!!” and so this in turn fuels the engine.

If you however, look across the skirmish lines to Apple or Google. They really often more than most, don’t do this. They are often associated with this sense of surprise effect and more to the point they give you this other sense that “while stocks last” or “you better hurry now and get it before others find out and no stock will be left” kind of moment(s) at launch / announcements.

Apple is by far the most effective in the way they announce “new”. Microsoft staff often see this and try a lot of the times to emulate that success but they do so in a way that’s inconsistent at times or often messy / half-done. Yet when ones do succeed (much like a group of tree’s all fighting for sunlight over one another, one will eventually emerge) the said success breeds more “see, it works” momentum and thus the cycle internally repeats itself.

Microsoft has this flaw, they tend to not comprehend that in order to win the masses over one needs to create the element of rarity, there’s no sense of prized ownership or differentiation in their approach. The only time I would argue this has come to the surface – hehe – is well with concepts like Microsoft Surface, XBOX and in many ways with Windows Phone 7 – although that funnily enough is a problem.

I digress, but with Windows Phone 7 I watched the launch with interest in that to me Microsoft was looking for ways to sell the vibe “while stocks last” and “get one now ahead of everyone else” momentum, and they almost had it but for some reason, it was a fizzle effect. They didn’t in a nutshell sustain that momentum, it was a sense or rarity and then it was gone just as fast as it came.

Commitment

If you’ve been a devoted customer for quite some time to Microsoft you’d be hard press to find the said customers to argue that Microsoft is always committed to one particular goal or idea. The reality is, it is often a company that abandons ideas faster at times than they were projected. It has to do with the culture within the company mostly which then spills over into the customer / product lines.

I often make remarks about Victory Emails and how they are so wrong for the company but I don’t articulate why. Here’s why.

Microsoft staff are like abused children in some parts, in that they seek affection / attention through what I would call “ACE” dropping. In that, abused children often do this as a copining mechanism to emulate affection or love given they have often had this part of their lives destroyed. What happens is the said child will wow everyone around them with the first ace up their sleeve and everyone suddenly goes “that’s amazing” and the said child then basks in the glow from this effect.

The effect however only lasts for so long and so they need to keep that momentum alive by dropping their second ACE and again, it happens again.. This pattern repeats itself for an average of 4-5 times at most before the said child starts making plans to abandon these sets of folks and seek out new people to wow / win over.

Inside Microsoft, this is a surprisingly consistent pattern I observed. You’d see these rising stars come in fast and hard, only to fizzle out around the first year maybe second year and then just as fast as they came they’ve left. Think of this like watching a bunch of fireworks come and go and then quietness follows. Its in the quiet times that you peel away the covers and start seeing staff ping / pong around teams via internal transfers and commitment calibrations etc.

There is never really a consistent holding pattern and when you do find that consistency its usually owned by a personality who’s found a way to just sustain the calm effect (under the radar) or is a complete jackass and dominates through power-politics – never really is there that spark of “Wow” in that seat.

If staff can’t commit to a set idea or goal over a large body of time, then how on earth can a product ever remain consistent and focused? If Microsoft were to announce tomorrow that staff transfers were to be put on hold for minimum 5 years – I’d wager you’d see a high exit rate of staff for one and secondly you’d see an entirely different marketing and engineering effort from within the company itself.

The reason being is the rising star’s can’t keep doing their 4 ACE pony tricks to wooo over others and as such you’d likely see a steady / calm growth from within around planning and focus. Victory emails themselves would have less of an effect as “congrats, you did a great job, but, you can either get a promotion or a pat on the back, either way you’re not moving out of this team buddy, sorry!” moments.

Internally until this is solved, Microsoft will always come across externally as a company that lacks depth in terms of commitment.

Clarity

I’m not going to beat on this drum to loudly, but I’d wager i’d be hard pressed to find a single person outside the company that would argue strongly that the company seems to have clear definitive goals around what they do (ie taps into commitment). The problem an internal one yes, but externally they don’t have a sense of clustering or grouping in that their pattern is inconsistent and often hard to parse.

If I were to put a bunch of XX’s on screen right now like this:

XX  XX  XX XX

You would typically see the X’s in groups of two? In that the clarity around that pattern is simple. It’s information if you will is broken into a consistent but clearly defined pattern.

If I were to take that same concept and apply this formatting to it:

XXxXxXXxx

The pattern isn’t as clear and for those of you paying close attention, you may also notice I added an extra “X” without others probably realizing it.  The point here is simple, Microsoft’s approach to product positioning and placement isn’t consistent and as a result you have the secondary effect vs.. the first. You can’t get behind the information as you’re too busy in your own mind, trying to separate the X’s into clusters that enable you to digest the information more closely.

This is how I would illustrate the massive amounts of bad information / inconsistent look of Microsoft’s entire approach to everything it does. There’s not really one person or person(s) being the gatekeepers of the said pattern in terms of how the company saturates the market with new information. It just seems to be a case of inconsistent X’s and at times some other letters mixed in.

Too many Options

I mentioned earlier that Victory Emails are a dangerous beast within. The other reason to this reason is the inherit concept of what success is or isn’t within the company. Popularity wins first, yield comes second is probably a pattern i’d argue as being “yup, that’s about right

If you were to look up research around how humans deal with options, you’d probably settle on the concept “less is more”. On one hand we humans are attracted to options, we all actively want more options than we can handle but in reality we rarely ever agree with the options and furthermore in a consumer driven situation – we often more than most don’t buy more as a result.

In that most research I’ve read on the subject highlights that if customers were given 100 items to choose from, the said customers who were initially attracted would be quite high. If the said situation was reduced to 30 items, the attraction would be much lower than the 100 but the purchasing or acquisition behavior would be actually significantly higher than the initial 100 🙂

Inside Microsoft I often would notice quantitative  analysis was often used as a metric of success “congrats, you’re popular!” where as if you were to peel away the word success here, and study the qualitative analysis of the said “success” you’d find the yield to me much lower.

An example:

“All the major journalists are talking about a products, they reach millions on our behalf, success is ours!”

In reality

“All the major journalists who reach majority of the same customers talked about our products but not in a really in-depth way and often more than none had a negative remark about us or two”

Inside Microsoft you have a PRIME score which keeps track of positive/negative PR, but the point here is that whilst yes you had the journalists from around the worlds full attention – the reality is what does that actually mean? you reached a larger customer base then say your random blog post? but what did that reach mean? and more to the point what effects has that reach on the purchasing or adoption behavior of your customers. Furthermore, how can you then map this against other products in the market and where is the overlaps occurring and lastly who’s really competing for attention – external companies or other teams internally?

Inside the company there’s really no conductor or movie style director who’s keeping a steady handle on how information flows in and out of the company. It often comes in large volumes and is spread far and wide with often no real data to support success or failure – more perception.

Summary.

The point to this post isn’t to beat the crap out of the brand – yet again – it’s more to clarify the patterns I personally see in the way the company approaches us, the consumer. It also taps into conversations I’ve had over the years (employee and ex-employee) with how the products and customers are bonding. The company itself has a large amount of problems that often just don’t seem to finding any hint of remorse or success in stemming the tide of failure.

What I am seeing is an exodus of some no-name on the blogsphere staff shifting over to Google or other. If you look at these staff leaving as isolated “oh, darn xyz left” then it’s not so bad. If you start adding them up and back tracking what they did for the company and more specifically the products they managed or ran, you start to see – well I do anyway – a pattern emerging of “oh wow, this is quite bad as the successors are def not as capable and what does that mean for that xyz work they were doing?”

Staff are important and the end final point I have to say is the above is simply a dump of patterns I see and how the on flow from the centre out is what is causing the most pain for the company. The products themselves will have a bumpy lifespan over time and sure the community surrounding the products will also share the same amount of turbulence. The actual cause of all these bumps though start with the above, these are the engines if you will producing the chaos.

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