Companies on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

This is basically a continuation of the previous post about the biggest software delusions of the last decade. In hindsight I would have set rather a different tone for what I wrote, less rant and more technical, but the problem is that I keep things on my mind for a long time and never care enough to write them down leaving them rotting until they come out as technological rants. Anyway, rants are always more fun to read, so let’s keep the style.

In this post I’m going to write about some things left out in the previous one and also comment some things which happened in the meanwhile. You might ask what I have to show for my big claims about complex issues? Very little indeed, but does this make them less true? You’ll be the judge. What I try to offer here is a different perspective on issues which are always analyzed from the marketing or business point of view. Trying to explain these things giving technical reasons, offer in my opinion much better explanations than those fished from the flavor-of-the-day marketing magic hat.

After the last post I was sent per email a “graphic that illustrates the 30 years of innovation at Microsoft and their failures along the way” to link on my blog. I don’t care really about the reasons to ask for a link-to. What I want to say is that this graphic made fun of Microsoft’s failures of the decade just by listing some of them. And this is more or less the usual approach I see taken on the subject even by technical blogs. Which means focusing on the facts, rather than trying to understand them.

Windows Phone

Can we say that Lumia/Windows 7 phones flopped or is it still too soon? I think that after some of the articles I’ve read here and there, we might say that. Lumia phones were pushed out by a big carrier in the US (AT&T) and have been subject of a massive marketing campaign, but still they sold less than the dropped and not advertized N9/MeeGo project.

Nokia is laughable for dropping MeeGo! It can’t be stressed enough, because that would’ve been their only chance to regain market share and they completely blew it.

But why? Surely many reasons stand in the background, but in the end of the day one has to consider what is better on the technical level. If your definition of a better phone is how shiny it looks, then important decisions in the mobile industry shouldn’t be left to you. Many think that Apple is leading the smartphone/table industry because of their marketing strategy. While Apple products are often appealing and polished, this can’t be farther from the truth. Take the desktop market. Is Apple leading there? No. Why? Aren’t the products as polished as their counterparts in the mobile market? Or does Apple strangely suck at marketing their desktop products? Sure, Apple computers are expensive, but so are iPhones!

The first rule here is that great products sell themselves. Clearly marketing helps, but no matter how much marketing money you spend on a product which people don’t want, it will not sell, especially in the long term.

Take MeeGo for instance. I don’t mean that this project would’ve rescued Nokia instantly. Probably they would’ve still to endure 1-2 years of losses along the road, but eventually it would’ve flourished. Of this I’m sure. And considering how many people still buy overpriced N9 phones on ebay, I have a point. The trick is that if you know you have a great project at hands, you invest in it, endure some losses in the strong belief that it will eventually succeed.

One might say that this is exactly what is happening to Nokia and Windows Phone, only that they are betting on the wrong horse. It would be an acceptable point of view if we don’t get hands down on the technology itself. MeeGo was a great project, in my opinion it would’ve been the most advanced OS on the mobile market. Compare this with a repackaged Windows Mobile (not based on NT technology) running Silverlight. Alone the fact that a developer is forced to write his apps in Silverlight or XNA, that alone, would be enough to say “case fuckin’ closed!”. Rumors say Windows Mobile 8 will feature a NT kernel and also that developers will be able to compile C++ code. Seems like after enormous pressure, Microsoft had to give in about C++ (wow, that was totally unexpected… except that I wrote it even a year ago and would’ve been clear to anyone which has even a yota of experience as a developer). Even if it’s true, this is totally messed up. Those developers who lost time to port their C++ code to C# for Windows Phone 7 because C++ would never be a part of the toolchain of that OS lost their time probably for nothing. Also, users which are running Windows Mobile 7 won’t get a free update to the next version, which is incredible since both iOS and Android update their OS even for older phones. It should be pretty clear that when you want to take away market share from the biggest in the game, you must offer at least in part something which is better. Now can someone tell me in what regard a Windows Mobile 7 is better than iOS or Android. Leaving out the hardware of Nokia (and I still think that a smartphone without front-camera is pretty silly nowadays) and just focus on the operating system itself. Is there any advantage? Both iOS and Android have many more apps and of higher quality than WP7. iOS is closed just like Windows Mobile 7, while Android is more easy to hack and play with. Both iOS and Android allow C++ to be compiled, while WP7 doesn’t.

Metro and Windows 8

I’m still calling it Metro, but what is it called now? Microsoft lost the brand to a very famous European wholesale chain store. As a friend of mine said, “I would fire the whole marketing team, if they even can’t come up with a brand name which is not already used”. And not only is it used, but it’s used by a very big chain. It’s like calling your new technology “Walmart”, at least google the name first! (maybe it’s because they were forced to use Bing…)

And enough with these flashy marketing names for development technologies! There’s no reason to pretentiously call something “Silverlight”, it makes it only much more ridiculous when it ends up in the shithouse (or silvershithouse). Use dumb prosaic names like Win32, MFC, Qt! It doesn’t fuckin’ matter! What matters is the code and only the code, and after a year or more of hearing about Metro I haven’t yet seen the code! Granted I don’t look for it, I don’t dig it up from some msdn showcase, I don’t go to conferences, but this isn’t a good enough reason. Just google “metro code snippet” or anything similar and it will be hard to come up with results (I’ve found a preview on msdn which is just a collection of small samples which I was too lazy to view all). The code in this case is like a big mistery waiting to be unveiled…

Except that nobody cares! Apart making fun of Metro, I have yet to see anybody waiting impatiently for Metro or even talking about it (apart making fun of the name etc.).

Microsoft got me personally annoyed to a point in which I don’t follow anything they do anymore. I will have to try sooner or later Windows 8 just to guarantee the stability of my own product, but that’s it. I won’t use it nor play with it. I will skip it completely. And all this is ok, because I think that everything Microsoft is doing is not here to stay. Bing, Silverlight, Windows Phone, WPF, Zune (R.I.P.) etc. And time is confirming my claims. Of course, I can’t predict the future, something might change and change the faith of one of these products as well. But with the current management this is very unlikely.

As for what I read about it, the whole new UI is just jaw-dropping stupid. It’s incredible how this trend of “simplifying UIs” got hold of so many projects. Seen what happened to Gnome 3? Seen what happened to Ubuntu when it came out with Unity? Why is Mint now so popular?

Sure people don’t want to learn again things they already can do, but the problem here is that there’s no damn reason to change something which is working perfectly well and put instead something which is just worse. While humans strive for harmony and unity, these concepts can’t be applied to everything. A desktop is a productivity device. It’s efficient, fast and advanced. While a tablet is a device for consumption, it is ideal to read, play games, browse the web. Having one application at a time visible in a desktop is not only a bad idea, it is idiotic beyond imagination. The key point of a desktop is that it allows complex applications to be used, which would be impossible to use on a tablet: Photoshop, Maya, LibreOffice, Premiere etc. And the whole concept of tiles, which to Microsoft is so brilliant is equally moronic. If Microsoft doesn’t drop the whole concept soon enough after the Windows 8 debacle, I will just drop Windows completely.

The complexity of window managers could be solved much more elegantly by providing a basic mode for users which are not technologically capable.

The betrayal

Developers have been “betrayed” by Microsoft numerous times. Like I mentioned in the previous post, Microsoft deprecated and dished out new technologies at a pace that no one could follow, deprecating in a matter of few years what they just claimed to be their newest direction. Hence confusing and frustrating developers who tried to keep up-to-date, while refusing to significantly update existing and widely used technologies.

Or in the case of Windows Phone 7 the few developers who ported their code to C# now read that Windows Phone 8 will allow C++ code to be compiled. Will they be satisfied by this? Same for the users who bought Windows Phone 7 devices: they will not be able to run applications compiled for Windows Phone 8. Well, at least they got the tiles…

Losing the ground

The one thing which differentiates one OS, apart their own intrinsic quality, from the other is the number of applications which run on it. But the quality of the OS increases once there’s enough interest in it, and that interest is again a result of the applications which run on it. So simple right? While Microsoft knows this rule, it did everything it could to annoy developers. Microsoft tried to bind developers to Windows not by pleasing them, but by dishing out ugly technologies which run only on Windows and using their market share to force developers to use them.

Developers, like anyone else, guard their own interests. Many lost faith in Microsoft completely and started looking for safer havens. This surely is true even for other experts, although I can speak only for my own kind.

For instance, how did Microsoft lose its IE market share? I can’t even start judging IE as a product, apart its history of lack of security, its history of ignoring standards making life hell for web developers, its appalling plugin technology. We’re talking about a product which in 2012 considers clicking on a URL such an important event to signal it emitting a click sound. IE lost its market share by being an inferior product. But do you think that users with no technical ability would’ve downloaded and installed Firefox on their own? No, it’s because more technical people advised them to do so. I did it many times. And this is true for many products which make a name for themselves among technical people and from there they get to the masses. By the way, I consider this the best path for a product, because it means it stands on solid ground.

And finally Valve is starting to sell games on Linux. It can’t be stressed enough how important this is, because if this works out and I can’t see why it shouldn’t, it will change everything. If Microsoft loses the game battle to Linux, then they will lose the OS battle. I think this could be the battle of Stalingrad for Microsoft, because once there are enough games on Linux, there’s no end to the ground which Microsoft can lose. At that point Valve could even come out with its own console and compete against XBox. And since the gaming industry is so powerful, it would mean an overwhelming cash and interest injection into Linux, which everybody involved in that OS could benefit from. Of course, I’m speculating here, but does Microsoft understand the potential here?

I don’t think management does. They are hopping from one technology to another: WinForms, no WPF, no Silverlight, no Metro (replace with the new still unknown name), C#, no HTML5+JS. The problem, in the end, is that if as a CEO you don’t know what you are dealing with, you can’t take informed decisions and you will surround yourself with people you can’t evaluate technically. Your decisions will then only be based upon the appearance, the flashy name, how pretentious the concept sounds or how many millions are spent on marketing. A technically capable CEO is not a guarantee for success, but an incapable one is a recipe for failure. Remember what the former CEO of Pepsi did to Apple? Look at what Elop is doing to Nokia or Ballmer to Microsoft.