2
Dec

Is it too late for Microsoft to establish a position in the smart car market?

In February, 2014, Ford announced its decision to terminate work on the Sync automobile mobile device controller system, which was a joint effort with Microsoft. Nonetheless, Microsoft has continued to aggressively compete for a share of the smart car market.

The work on the automobile segment of the mobile computing experience looks to be the province for Windows Embedded team and can be reviewed on a web site titled Connected Car Technology: Driving Innovation. The latest version of Windows Embedded, for this application, is Windows Embedded Automotive 7, which appears to be the same version included in the Sync project.

This writer has an interest in the other end of the mobile computing experience for consumers: how smart phones perform in vehicles. We own both Android and Windows Phone 8.1 devices and have recently tested both devices in a 2012 Acura TSX with the factory installed HandsfreeLink wireless mobile telephone voice control system.

We should also note we first tested just how Windows Phone devices performed with the system with Windows Phone 8. These early tests were very unproductive, especially with Nokia’s Here Maps app. The bluetooth audio control on the smart phone end of the connection was not synchronized with the HandsfreeLink system.

The result was what can only be referred to as an unsatisfactory experience for the driver. The HandsfreeLink computer voice system would consistently cut off the directions just short of presenting the driver with a very important piece of information, namely the street name where an approaching turn would need to be made.

With Windows Phone 8.1 Microsoft has corrected the computer voice problem. The audio messaging from the Windows Phone 8.1 Lumia 925 correctly synchronizes with the HandsfreeLink system and the Here maps program is, once again, a useful feature in our Acura.

But Cortana is, sadly to say, another story entirely. We cannot use Cortana while driving. Any attempt to pose questions in the vehicle, while in transit, is handled by HandsfreeLink (actually, in this writer’s opinion, this is a very good feature if, for no other reason, than how it forces drivers to use the hands free option and dispense with holding a cellular device to the ear while driving). But, once again, the audio messaging has NOT been synchronized. The conversation is cut off before the question can be delivered to the Cortana personal assistant.

Tellingly, one of Acura’s ads for its new TLX features a male driver commanding “Siri” to play a tune on the in-dash entertainment system. Acura is likely not alone in its decision to support the most popular mobile O/S, namely iOS in its vehicles. Perhaps Microsoft would do better to pass on the in-car mobile computing market altogether, unless they plan on releasing a really big new feature (hope hope).

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

28
Nov

A bump on the road to consumer tech heaven worth a mention

Anyone with a keen interest in consumer computer technology should quickly learn to study, carefully, the gap between what a manufacturer claims about a product and what is actually experienced. The point of the exercise is to develop a sober view about the likely performance of products they may introduce in the future, and, subsequently to at least save some time, if not some money.

Here’s a case in point:

  1. Solid State Drives (SSDs) and PCs with a Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID) managed by Intel Matrix Storage Manager

Consumer Grade SSDs and PC Software RAIDs don’t mix

We own a Dell T1500 Workstation, with 2 80 GB Samsung Drives in a RAID 0 configuration. The holidays are approaching. We thought we’d give ourselves a present and swap out the 2 Samsung Drives in this computer for a pair of Crucial (consumer brand for Micron) 500GB SSDs. This swap looked great on paper. We checked with Microsoft to ensure we wouldn’t experience problems backing up the current RAID architecture and restoring it to a RAID 1 (which would give us a Disaster Recovery option should one of the drives fail). We also checked with Dell (actually we downloaded their version of the PC Doctor diagnostic tool) and determined the BIOS for the T1500 was absolutely current.

But once we put our cash on the line and paid over $420 for the pair of Crucial SSDs, and physically received them, we learned the configuration wasn’t going to work. Crucial support let us know the consumer grade SSDs don’t get along well with the Intel Matrix Storage Manager at all, regardless of whether the SSDs are configured as a RAID or not.

Readers thinking of making a similar effort to “upgrade” older computers are advised to think otherwise. The only option, for the record, is to purchase the commercial grade version of these SSDs, which carry the Micron brand. But we can’t claim to have verified the accuracy of this option. The fact is we can’t reach Micron to confirm our assumption (in 2014 pre-sales support for a commodity product like SSDs is, apparently, not available from Micron).

Does all of the above give this writer cause for concern? Certainly. So we are thinking very carefully about how we will proceed on the renovation we have in mind, and may just end up purchasing a pair of old fashioned spindle driven WD hard disks (1 TB each) and simply configure them into the RAID we are after.

What’s the bottom line impact on the manufacturer vis a vis the consumer market? It would be better for the manufacturer’s marketing communication content to speak to the kind of configuration we had in mind, so consumers, like us, would have saved the time and thought otherwise before paying for the SSDs.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

19
Nov

Seamless access to all other personally important apps should be a mandatory feature of any high value personal assistant app

The differences I’ve noted between Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s competitive Google Now and OK Google, which I cited in the prior two posts to this blog and are important for me, are emblematic of my need for a Personal Assistant (PA) application to seamlessly interact with like applications on any mobile computing device I own. I imagine I’m not alone in this. So how do Windows Phone 8.1 and Android 4.1 KitKat compare on this point?

When I ask Cortana directions, the PA passes the request over to Bing Here maps. Once the handoff is complete, any voice interaction appears to be with the Bing Here app, and not with Cortana. In contrast, when I set Google Now and “OK Google” on the same task, the voice interaction is strictly with “OK Google”, which appears to manage the Google Map application for me.

This distinction is potentially a big deal if either PA is limited as to just what can be indexed when it comes to compiling a set of content for search. Let’s include Microsoft’s Delve Office 365 application into the discussion. I have added Delve to the Office 365 E3 plan I maintain for my business. But when I use Delve I don’t get much of anything at all. Why? I am a consultant and the only user on the Office 365 subscription I maintain for my business. As well, I am not making much use of One Drive for Business, but I am making a lot of use of the rest of SharePoint Online for an Enterprise Document Management (EDM) application.

Nevertheless, when I call up the Delve application, I am served with the following message: “Give Delve more to work with[:] Store and share your documents where Delve can get to them, such as in OneDrive for Business, and Delve will automatically bring you the most relevant content.” But why can’t Delve work with the content in the Document libraries I’ve set up in Office 365, or with the voluminous amount of email messaging I have available across my email accounts (I have more than 5 active email accounts)?

Unfortunately I haven’t an answer to share with readers on this question. But it may be helpful to consider why, and how product marketing at Microsoft opted to proceed careful with regards to just what information Delve would be permitted to parse, index, and then to serve up in response to queries. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which side of the Privacy debate a reader happens to choose) I suspect privacy concerns have limited how this potentially very helpful application can do.

Bottom line: I find Google Now, “OK Google” approach to a PA to be more useful right now. I’m genuinely excited about what a “manager of managers” kind of PA can do to help my personal daily productivity. Perhaps readers will share this enthusiasm.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

18
Nov

Continuing a Comparison of Cortana and OK Google for queries likely to be popular with mobile users

Getting driving directions is likely to be a very common need for mobile computing. I used Cortana and OK Google to put together driving directions with very different results. I picked a location forty miles from my home and simply asked each personal assistant to provide me with driving directions.

The response I received from Cortana was less than satisfactory for two reasons: 1) Cortana cut me off in mid query on two of my three attempts. Pauses appeared to be interpreted, incorrectly, as end-of-voice-query field delimiters. So the audible responses I received on both of these unsatisfactory results were wrong. The response to my third attempt to present the destination was even worse. Instead of receiving an audible reply, I was presented with a results page from Bing with a list of results, all of which were relevant to the location I was after, but, if I had been driving, would have been entirely useless. 2) When Cortana correctly understood my question, the app started the “Bing Here” mapping application, with its own voice response component. This is not necessarily a problem, but for the otherwise computer limited user (my wife is a good example of this type of person), the kind of seamlessly integrated response I received from “OK Google” to the same query would have been preferred.

It’s worth adding a bit to the above critique. There are likely to be a good set of voice commands sure to prompt Cortana to reply with an audible answer. I was not able to find them. When I attempted to start my direction query with “Navigate to” as per a command I found on the list at Cortana Commands List – Microsoft Voice Commands – Video, the reply I received was erroneous “navigate to 57th Street in Manhattan, between 6th and 7th Avenues” was intrepreted as “navigate 257th St. between sixth and 7th ave in Manhattan”. The results were served as a list of links, and, once again, Cortana wasn’t helping.

In contrast, “OK Google” correctly fielded a request phrased as “get directions to West 57th Street, Manhattan, NY” and replied, correctly, with an audible answer. What’s more, “OK Google” “spoke for” the Google Maps app in precisely the kind of seamless handshake needed for computer challenged users, as I mentioned above. As I will explore in the next post to this blog, the question of how best to serve up a seamless response to this type of query, and what a successful effort has to say about the usefulness of search across the set of apps someone happens be be using, is, in my opinion a big one.

Bottom line: I was better able to find a list of useful voice commands to produce the kind of audible reply I required for “OK Google” than was the case for Cortana. One would hope Microsoft will move to correct this issue and close the gap, at least as regards the list of commands one needs to use to elicit a desired audible response from Cortana.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

17
Nov

Comments on Cortana and Google Now (OK Google)

After a wait of seven months (five beyond an original expectation), I finally received an update to Windows Phone 8.1 for my Lumia 925 (T-Mobile is the cellular carrier) during the first week of November, 2014. Cortana, Microsoft’s “personal assistant” was included, despite rumors I had heard to the contrary from some contacts located internationally.

Around the same time of this update to my primary smartphone, I received an invitation from Google to take a look at their “inbox” email product. In order to participate, I needed to first add the “inbox” app to a mobile phone. So I decided to add a smartphone running Android O/S to my set of computing devices. I found an offer from T-Mobile for LG’s D-415 “Optimus L90”, running Android 4.1 KitKat. I could buy the mobile phone, outright, for $79.99 (included a $20 trade-in for an Apple iPhone 4S). I purchased the phone and, therefore, will comment here on some impressions on Google Now aka “OK Google”, as well.

Before jumping into my initial thoughts on both of these personal assistant apps, I would like to point readers back to the last post to this blog, Any meaningful feature gap between high end and low end smartphones has been obliterated. I based my positions, expressed in the post, on my initial opinion about the LG D-415. Bottom line: I think this phone represents an enormous bargain compared to smartphones at the high end. I’ve been using it for about two weeks to track a daily walk (complete with mapping via GPS) and can’t complain at all about its performance. When the purchase price is considered, along with the 27 months of $22.00 per month I will, altogether, end up paying T-Mobile for my Lumia 925, I can’t overstate the value of the LG smartphone.

Cortana

I was disappointed by my first few days using Cortana. Our family includes a member with a pronounced European accent. When she attempted to use Cortana, the results were far off. Cortana did not understand the questions asked and, worse, never offered my family member an opportunity to train for voice recognition. In all fairness, I need to note “OK Google” shares this disinterest in training for better voice recognition. Is this oversight the result of no charge for either personal assistant? Perhaps, though readers should understand I have no substantive information to support the notion.

Another annoying feature amounted to an apparently arbitrary process whereby Cortana, the personal assistant, served up responses audibly, or with a page of text results. Perhaps I’m missing something. Microsoft does provide some guidelines about the questions Cortana can, and will answer. But I would recommend they make the limitations on audible response clearer. My attraction (which I can’t help but think most users will share) is for all responses to be made audibly to questions asked.

Finally, Cortana appeared to be stumped by some questions Google Now, aka “OK Google” could answer. I personally was very disappointed at this result. I am a big fan of Microsoft and had high expectations of the “power” of Cortana given all of the content published about how this personal assistant app leverages “Office Graph”, Bing, etc. But, bottom line, I stumped Cortana a few times where, in all fairness, the app should have served up a valid answer.

OK Google

As just mentioned, “OK Google” (is the name “OK Google” or is it “Google Now”? This ambiguous branding should be corrected) adroitly answered questions about an upcoming European election correctly, and, even better, with an audible response. But I do need to note the difficulty I experienced (and continue to experience) simply locating the right app for the “OK Google” feature. In contrast, it’s hard to miss the button for Cortana on Windows Phone 8.1.

In the next post to this blog I’ll make some comments about how each of these personal assistants handled a likely common requirement — getting driving directions.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

16
Jul

Microsoft Publishes a Memo from Satya Nadella for Public Review

Satya Nadella sent a lengthy, detailed memo to all Microsoft employees on July 10, 2014 at 6 am PT. This memo has been published on Microsoft’s public web site. Anyone with an interest in Microsoft should take the time to read the memo, in its entirety.

The timing of the publication of this memo, 12 days prior to Microsoft’s scheduled date to report its earnings for the latest fiscal quarter, and approximately 2 weeks post Google’s Developer I/O 2014 Conference, appears to have some purpose to it. This writer listened to the entire web cast of the Google event and wrote several posts to this blog on related topics. In the last of these, we noted how Sundar Pichai, Senior Vice President, attempted to directly address a core theme of Satya Nadella’s own articulated vision — productivity.

So the importance of “productivity” to the memo under discussion in this post appears to be more than coincidental. In fact, “productivity”, along with the detail included about the sheer volume of computing resources available to anyone in what Nadella refers to as our “cloud first, mobile first” world, are cast in a very different light in this memo, at least as we have read it. Perhaps everything does come down to a critical balance, as Nadella seems to state: “We will build the solutions that address the productivity needs of groups and entire organizations as well as individuals by putting them at the center of their computing experiences.” (quoted from a memo from Satya Nadella to the staff at Microsoft, which was published on July 10, 2014. We have provided a link to the entire memo at the top of this post). On one side are the “computing experiences”, and on the other are “individuals”.

Perhaps Nadella is providing his audience with a glimpse of Microsoft’s unique niche in this new market where it competes directly, principally with Google and Apple. The bet seems to be on the importance of what we refer to as the “personalization” factor. In other words, tons of data are really great, but if the data isn’t tailored for my unique requirements as a consumer, it might just be too much for me to handle, and, therefore, not worth much at all.

Anyone using either Windows Phone, or the Surface tablet (and perhaps XBOX as well) is experiencing a different approach to computing, one which appears to be imbued with this “personalization” factor. It will certainly be interesting to see if our reading is accurate.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

8
May

Will Cortana Provide Windows Phone 8.1 with the Momentum Required to Win a Bigger Share of the Smart Phone Market?

Worldwide markets for what I collectively call small, smart mobile devices appear to be reaching a plateau. The progression of the high end smart phone market has shown signs of taking this direction over the last year and a half. Most recently, IDC’s report on first calendar quarter 2014 worldwide sales of tablets showed the same trend.

In my opinion, the tactic likely to be the most popular for competitors in, at least, the smart phone market, will be to cannibalize each others customers in an effort to continue to increase share of the market.

Consumers will continue to play the dominant role in purchase decisions. Price discounting should become prevalent. Trade-in offers will play their role, which will contribute to higher costs for channel partners and manufacturers.

A light in all of this darkness will be any new technological feature, well received by the public, which a competitor will be able to leverage to at least maintain price, if not margin. Cortana, the new “personal assistant” Microsoft® has announced for Windows Phone 8.1, looks to be this type of factor.

As I wrote earlier in this blog, there are many reasons for further potential in current smart phone technology around the notion of speech-to-computing features. To quickly restate my position, by definition, smart phones are mobile devices. For one reason, or another, consumers on the go cannot, and should not, be using screen or keyboard input devices to perform computing procedures. Cortana has received across-the-board positive review from popular press. This product has all of the features required to provide consumers with a voice activated method of processing computing tasks.

When technology increases the usefulness of a device like a smart phone, then manufactures have the tool needed to either justify holding a market price, or even increasing it. It doesn’t make sense for Microsoft to expect a price increase for its own handsets built on the Windows Phone 8.1 O/S once Cortana is released. But it does make sense to expect Microsoft to gain market share from competitors at the high end of the market for this new feature.

Disclaimer: I’m long Microsoft

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

15
Apr

With Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft Sees an Opportunity to Emphasize the Personal in the Consumer PC Experience

As Joe Belfiore, Corporate Vice President, Operating Systems Group (PC, Tablet and Phone) states at the start of his keynote presentation at Microsoft’s Build 2014 Conference, one of the drivers for the Windows Phone O/S was to produce an experience “a little bit less like technology, and a lot more about you”. Belfiore then claims “we think Windows Phone is the world’s most personal smart phone”.

This preamble leads up to the public debut of Cortana, Microsoft’s personal assistant feature, which will be a very prominent new feature of Windows Phone 8.1 when it is released to the user community this summer. As Belfiore demonstrated, Cortana represents a substantial enhancement to the voice-activated capabilities of Windows Phone. The added power of this personal assistant amounts to a combination of a presumably embedded Bing client, and a set of data collection and analytics features designed to quickly put together a richly featured profile of the owner of the Windows smart phone.

All of the above is very significant, but I want to use this post to illustrate an important component of the Microsoft® computing brand. As I wrote in 2012, in a post to this blog titled Microsoft Understands the Evolution of Personal Computing from Desktop Computers to Handheld Devices, consumers now refer to PCs, but rarely to “personal computers”.

This evolution of consumer awareness of the “personal computer” into simply the “PC” amounts to bad news for product marketers of PC products, applications, etc. In its ad for the SuperBowl, in 1984, Apple at once echoed a comparable emphasis on the personal, but combined it with a notion of the Macintosh as the computer of “the revolution”. The outcome of this marketing communication effort is history.

But Microsoft certainly has an opportunity to reclaim the personal. Belfiore’s presentation of Windows Phone 8.1 at Build 2014 continues the branding effort for Windows Phone as the Personal Smart Phone (synonymous, for me, with the notion of computer), which I picked up back in 2012. This is good news for the Windows Developer community. It would be helpful if the Marketing Communications team could come up with a better method of delivering the same message to consumers.

Ira Michael Blonder

© IMB Enterprises, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved