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

24
Nov

Consumers should not be expected to deliver repeat buying opportunities for mobile operating systems in process

Android may be the leader in the mobile operating system popularity contest, but it shouldn’t take rooting a tablet or smart phone to migrate from JellyBean to KitKat or, most recently, Lollipop. Nevertheless, the only process this writer can find to upgrade a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2.1 from Android 4.1.2, JellyBean to KitKat is to root the device.

Perhaps it would help readers to better understand the point by mentioning why an upgrade makes sense for this Samsung device. The multi-tasking capabilities available with JellyBean pale in comparison with the advances Android has made and included with KitKat. Why should consumers have to pay for improvements to features already available in an older version of an operating system?

Apple, in contrast, consistently offers a free-of-charge upgrade to the latest version of their iOS operating system. Not all of these upgrades go smoothly, but, if nothing else, Apple iPhone and iPad customers are relieved of the necessity of simply “repeat buying” a tablet or a smart phone they already own, for what amounts to no more than an enhancement to features already offered to them.

If one follows the reasoning here it should be plausible to attribute some of the pace of deceleration in consumer appetite for smart phones and tablets to a pervasive dissatisfaction with “half baked” feature sets. Samsung, to cite merely one Android OEM, has recently reported on this deceleration, and received a lot of investor punishment as the result. But as long as consumers have no option but to engage in a complex procedure to decouple a piece of hardware from its original operating system, it’s very likely consumer dissatisfaction will continue to mount and sales will continue to plummet.

This is regrettable. In fact, the multi-tasking improvement in Android KitKat is substantial and likely to be well received by even average consumers of these devices. In turn, should these upgrades be made available without additional charge to existing customers, sales should pick up. Android OEMs will realize the financial benefit. Enterprise customers, with a clear need for multi-tasking will be more likely to purchase the hardware, rounding off the benefit for the whole Android ecosystem.

The message for early stage ISVs is to think long and hard about the upgrade path consumers will have to traverse as new features are rolled into existing, core, products. In this writer’s opinion, “Ready, Fire, Aim” cannot be used as an excuse to justify raising consumers costs when limitations with advertised features are merely corrected.

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

25
Aug

Has Microsoft Alerted Media As To Its Target Market And Its Niche for Windows Phone?

A recent review of a new HTC One, this one running the Windows Phone 8.1 O/S, points to more work for Microsoft Public Relations (PR).

The title of this review is HTC One for Windows: Another Great Phone You Probably Won’t Buy. The writer is Joanna Stern, and the publication is the online Wall Street Journal.

Readers unable to read the entire article are encouraged to watch the 3 minute video embedded in the article. Why the writer would choose Time Square as a fair location to collect a sample of public opinion as to the popularity of Windows Phone (or the lack of it) eludes this writer. But, to give Stern the benefit of the doubt, perhaps someone in Microsoft’s PR team has identified mass market smart phone consumers as the target market for the Windows Phone 8.1 O/S.

If this is the case (and one must ask, with so many of these “reviews” producing nothing more positive than “it’s a great phone, but no one will buy it”, over and over again) then someone at Microsoft should take corrective action to ensure PR communicates the right message to the media.

In this writer’s opinion, the target market for a comparatively expensive smart phone like the HTC One, with the Windows 8.1 O/S, is enterprise business users (inclusive of the “fringe” created by the consumerization of IT and the BYOD structures enterprise businesses have constructed to support it). After all, what’s a tourist in Times Square going to do with Office? Office 365? Enterprise Search (for which Cortana will play a big role)? Yammer?

One can argue these consumers will be attracted to the camera on the phone, but the camera is not one of the “mission critical” features of this smart phone. The Apps we just mentioned, and to name but one more, Remote Desktop Connection, make up the solution for the burning need this target market has for the Windows Phone. In this writer’s opinion, making the rounds of mass media every time a new feature is added to the Windows Phone O/S, or even to inform them about the debut of the Surface Pro 3, only serves to render Microsoft’s products something less than what they ought to be.

Ira Michael Blonder

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

14
Jul

Microsoft Starts Selling the First Smart Phone With Its Windows Phone 8.1 Operating System in Europe – Lumia 930

On July 7, 2014, Microsoft® announced it would begin selling the first smart phone built on its Windows 8.1 O/S – the Lumia 930 — in European markets. The announcement on Microsoft’s web site was written by Adam Fraser and titled Lumia 930: on sale this week.

There are a few points about this smart phone worth noting:

  • The hardware includes the same Qualcomm Snapdragon processor powering the Lumia 925
  • a 20 MP Carl Zeiss Lens is included with this device
  • Nokia’s SensorCore technology is incorporated into the Lumia 930

Nokia’s SensorCore technology purports to provide App developers with a better method of obtaining sensor data, with significantly lower demand on smart phone batteries. Microsoft has already developed and released Bing Health and Fitness, which is an example of an App designed to exploit the benefit of the SensorCore technology. Anyone choosing to use this App has the option of reposing the information collected by the App in yet another process — Microsoft’s HealthVault.

HealthVault is designed to act as a hub to networks of hardware (device) and software (Apps) ISVs. A quick review of some of the HealthVault partners revealed some prominent brands, including 148 App ISVs. Prominent among these are:

  • FitBit
  • New York Presbyterian Hospital
  • CVS Caremark
  • Quest Diagnostics
  • Aetna
  • Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centerr
  • American Cancer Society
  • American Diabetes Association
  • Managed Health Services for Indiana
  • and Buckeye Community Health Plan

On the hardware site, the HealthVault lists 233 devices. Hardware ISVs include:

  • A&D Medical
  • Bayer
  • BodyTel
  • Carematix
  • FitBit
  • Homedics
  • Sinovo
  • and Walgreens

But the new features of the Lumia 930 do not stop with SensorCore. Windows 8.1 also includes “Cortana”, Microsoft’s latest version of its speech technology. A lot has been written about “Cortana” already, but the important takeaway is this example of audible computing has already demonstrated the promise of a higher level of usefulness than its competitors, which, one would hope, is promising as a method of transitioning smart phone consumers from touch screen commands to the kind of hands free commands required to render mobile computing safer when consumers are located in vehicles.

With the Lumia 930 released for European markets, perhaps it won’t be long before Windows Phone 8.0 consumers in the U.S. will receive an upgrade to the new O/S.

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