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Microsoft should grab Apple’s ‘Handoff’ for Office

Rival’s ‘Continuity’ feature would make a useful addition to Office on iOS and OS X, says analyst

There’s no good reason why Microsoft can’t adopt Apple’s “Handoff” technology in its iOS and OS X Office apps, an analyst said today.

“Office would be more useful if they did,” said Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. “I don’t see a good reason not to.”

Handoff, part of “Continuity,” a term that describes several new features slated to ship in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite this fall, lets users begin an activity — writing an email, browsing the Web, creating a document — and then resume it on another device. The feature relies on Bluetooth-powered proximity awareness to recognize Apple devices registered to the same iCloud account. Once that ad hoc recognition takes place, users can hand off in-progress tasks.

Apple will support Handoff on many of its own iOS apps and OS X applications bundled with iOS 8 and Yosemite, including the iWork troika of Pages, Numbers and Keynote. But it will also open up Handoff to third-party developers via several APIs (application programming interfaces), giving them a chance to bake the feature into their own software.

If Microsoft were to add Handoff support to its iOS apps — Office Mobile on the iPhone, Office for iPad on Apple’s tablet — and its desktop edition for OS X, a document begun on the iPad could be picked up on a MacBook Air at the point it was left when the two devices neared each other.

But Microsoft already has its own solution to the multi-device problem in Office, said Miller. “With OneDrive, Microsoft has ‘document continuity,” Miller said. “You can step away from one device and the document is saved in the background. Then you can open it on another device from OneDrive.”

There are differences: When Computerworld opened a Word 2013 document on the iPad — the document was last edited on a Windows 8.1 notebook — it was positioned with the cursor at the top, not at the location of the last edit. And neither OneDrive nor Office spawned an on-screen alert that pointed the user to the document-in-progress, as does Apple’s Handoff.

Microsoft’s desire to support Handoff in Office will largely depend on how the Redmond, Wash. company perceives its rival’s requirements. To use Handoff, an Apple device owner must have an iCloud ID, and be signed into that account on all hardware meant for content forwarding. (That’s how Handoff recognizes the devices owned by an individual.)

Naturally, Microsoft pushes its own identity system for accessing its services, ranging from Office 365 and OneDrive to and Skype.

There should be no concern in Redmond about document storage, even though Apple makes it much easier for developers who use iCloud as their apps’ document repositories. iCloud is not a requirement — as Microsoft’s own Office for iPad demonstrated — and Microsoft can continue to rely on OneDrive as Office’s default online storage service. There were no other obvious barriers in the limited amount of documentation that Apple’s published on the technology.

Microsoft would likely benefit in the public perception arena — or the subset composed of Mac, iPhone and iPad owners — said Miller. When Microsoft took nine months after Apple debuted a full-screen mode to add the feature to Office’s applications, some customers criticized the firm for not putting its shoulder behind the OS X wheel. By jumping on Handoff, Microsoft would shut up those critics.

The move would also let the company again demonstrate that it’s in the game with all players, not just those inside its own ecosystem, a point CEO Satya Nadella has made numerous times — notably when he introduced Office for iPad — since his February promotion. “They’re more open to being open,” said Miller, citing the new regime’s viewpoint as another factor that could tip the debate.

Miller expected Handoff to debut in Office, if it does at all, when Microsoft launches the next edition for the Mac. “I’d expect Office 365 to pick it up automatically, but I wouldn’t expect it on the Mac side until the back-to-school timeframe,” said Miller.

Microsoft would also have to revise Office for iPad and the iPhone version of Office Mobile, and if it decided to support Handoff between native and Web-based apps, modify the free online editions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.


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Chromebooks’ success punches Microsoft in the gut

Chromebooks’ success punches Microsoft in the gut
Amazon, NPD Group trumpet sales of the bare-bones laptops in 2013 to consumers and businesses
Chromebooks had a very good year, according to retailer and industry analysts.

And that’s bad news for Microsoft.

The pared-down laptops powered by Google’s browser-based Chrome OS have surfaced this year as a threat to “Wintel,” the Microsoft-Intel oligarchy that has dominated the personal-computer space for decades with Windows machines.

On Thursday, called out a pair of Chromebooks — one from Samsung, the other from Acer — as two of the three best-selling notebooks during the U.S. holiday season. The third: Asus’ Transformer Book, a Windows 8.1 “2-in-1” device that transforms from a 10.1-in. tablet to a keyboard-equipped laptop.

As of late Thursday, the trio retained their lock on the top three places on Amazon’s best-selling-laptop list in the order of Acer, Samsung and Asus. Another Acer Chromebook, one that sports 32GB of on-board storage space — double the 16GB of Acer’s lower-priced model — held the No. 7 spot on the retailer’s top 10.

Chromebooks’ holiday success at Amazon was duplicated elsewhere during the year, according to the NPD Group, which tracked U.S. PC sales to commercial buyers such as businesses, schools, government and other organizations.

By NPD’s tallies, Chromebooks accounted for 21% of all U.S. commercial notebook sales in 2013 through November, and 10% of all computers and tablets. Both shares were up massively from 2012; last year, Chromebooks accounted for an almost-invisible two-tenths of one percent of all computer and tablet sales.

Stephen Baker of NPD pointed out what others had said previously: Chromebooks have capitalized on Microsoft’s stumble with Windows 8. “Tepid Windows PC sales allowed brands with a focus on alternative form factors or operating systems, like Apple and Samsung, to capture significant share of a market traditionally dominated by Windows devices,” Baker said in a Monday statement.

Part of the attraction of Chromebooks is their low prices: The systems forgo high-resolution displays, rely on inexpensive graphics chipsets, include paltry amounts of RAM — often just 2GB — and get by with little local storage. And their operating system, Chrome OS, doesn’t cost computer makers a dime.

The 11.6-in. Acer C720 Chromebook, first on Amazon’s top-10 list Thursday, costs $199, while the Samsung Chromebook, at No. 2, runs $243. Amazon prices Acer’s 720P Chromebook, No. 7 on the chart, at $300.

The prices were significantly lower than those for the Windows notebooks on the retailer’s bestseller list. The average price of the seven Windows-powered laptops on Amazon’s top 10 was $359, while the median was $349. Meanwhile, the average price of the three Chromebooks was $247 and the median was $243, representing savings of 31% and 29%, respectively.

In many ways, Chromebooks are the successors to “netbooks,” the cheap, lightweight and underpowered Windows laptops that stormed into the market in 2007, peaked in 2009 as they captured about 20% of the portable PC market, then fell by the wayside in 2010 and 2011 as tablets assumed their roles and full-fledged notebooks closed in on netbook prices.

Chromebooks increasingly threaten Windows’ place in the personal computer market, particularly the laptop side, whose sales dominate those of the even older desktop form factor. Stalwart Microsoft partners, including Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, have all dipped toes into the Chromebook waters, for example.

“OEMs can’t sit back and depend on Wintel anymore,” said Baker in an interview earlier this month.

Microsoft has been concerned enough with Chromebooks’ popularity to target the devices with attack ads in its ongoing “Scroogled” campaign, arguing that they are not legitimate laptops.

Those ads are really Microsoft’s only possible response to Chromebooks, since the Redmond, Wash. company cannot do to them what it did to netbooks.

Although the first wave of netbooks were powered by Linux, Microsoft quickly shoved the open-source OS aside by extending the sales lifespan of Windows XP, then created deliberately-crippled and lower-priced “Starter” editions of Vista and Windows 7 to keep OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) on the Windows train.

But Microsoft has no browser-based OS to show Chromebook OEMs, and has no light-footprint operating system suitable for basement-priced laptops except for Windows RT, which is unsuitable for non-touch screens. And unlike Google, Microsoft can hardly afford to give away Windows.

But Microsoft’s biggest problem isn’t Chrome OS and the Chromebooks its ads have belittled: It’s tablets. Neither Microsoft or its web of partners have found much success in that market.

Baker’s data on commercial sales illustrated that better than a busload of analysts. While Windows notebooks accounted for 34% of all personal computers and tablets sold to commercial buyers in the first 11 months of 2013, that represented a 20% decline from 2012. During the same period, tablets’ share climbed by one-fifth to 27%, with Apple’s iPad accounting for the majority of the tablets.

“The market for personal computing devices in commercial markets continues to shift and change, said Baker. “It is no accident that we are seeing the fruits of this change in the commercial markets as business and institutional buyers exploit the flexibility inherent in the new range of choices now open to them.”

But when you’re at the top of the personal computing device heap — as Microsoft was as recently as 2011 — words like “change” and “choice” are not welcome. From the mountaintop, the only way is down.

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The Microsoft breakup that never happened

Thomas P. Jackson, the former federal judge who in 2000 ruled that Microsoft should be split into two companies as punishment for monopolistic business practices, died Saturday at his Maryland home. He was 76.

Jackson’s demand that Microsoft divide was overturned by a federal appeals court in 2001, in part because the panel believed public comments Jackson made during and after the trial portion of the Department of Justice’s antitrust case showed bias against Microsoft.

Jackson had compared Microsoft’s executives to “drug traffickers” and “gangland killers,” said Bill Gates had “a Napoleonic concept of himself,” and lashed out at what he called duplicitous testimony during the trial.

While Jackson’s findings that Microsoft abused its dominant market position went untouched at appeal, the change in administrations after President George W. Bush took office led to a settlement between the government and Microsoft in late 2001.

That settlement did not include Jackson’s solution: to separate the operating systems side of Microsoft from the rest of the firm to create a pair of corporations.

But what if? What if Jackson’s remedy had been put into place and a dozen years or so ago Microsoft splintered into parts?
Two better than one?

Industry and legal analysts who played along with the counter-factual believed that the collective parts would now be better off than the single entity is currently.

“The Baby Bells each became sharks, and innovated, innovated, innovated,” Robert Lande, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and director of the American Antitrust Institute, said about the antitrust-driven 1982 breakup of AT&T. “You could argue that we wouldn’t have the cellphone industry without the breakup. At the least, it sped that up by several years, because you had seven innovating rather than just one.”

Lande’s point was that the more companies, the more competition, and the more competition, the more likely innovation.

“What if, 13 years ago, Microsoft had been broken into two very formidable companies? Eventually they would have started to compete with each other,” Lande said. “In search, Microsoft was a day late and a dollar short. But with two Microsofts, maybe one of them would have pushed [into search], perfected the search engine, and now be serious competition for Google.”

A breakup would also have put at least one of the resulting mini-Microsofts in the hands of someone other than Bill Gates, in 2000 still at Microsoft as its chief software architect.

“Gates was focused on the ‘black box,'” Lande said. “He personified that part of the company.”

Without Gates, Lande argued, one of what he called the “Baby Bills” would have been more likely to push beyond the confines of Windows and Office, and be more aggressive in trying new markets than did the company in reality.

Others took a different tack to the “what if?” exercise.

“You could argue that a split of Microsoft in 2000, with a company that made Office [but not Windows], it would have supported the iPad from day one because they would have had no concern to protect the Windows client,” said Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC. Office might have made it to Linux in that counter-historical, Gillen added.

Sans the antitrust action, or assuming it happened but that Windows was the sole focus of one of the two (or more) spinoffs, Gillen also thought that the operating system would be different today.
Ruling led to caution

“Indirectly [the antitrust action] created a lot of second-guessing internally,” Gillen said. “They made decisions specifically to not trigger a review by Microsoft’s lawyers. That created a reduction in its agility.”

Gillen recounted examples of briefings a decade ago when he would ask why a feature had not been implemented, and got the impression that the extreme caution was motivated by even technical staff looking over shoulders. “They were always thinking, ‘Oh my God, we can’t do that, it’s bundling.’ If Microsoft had been allowed to act in a fully unregulated manner, they could have done more to increase the ‘stickiness’ of the client OSs.”

The judicial oversight, and the caution it prompted within Microsoft, would have likely been absent or dramatically decreased if the operating system division had been spun off from the rest of Microsoft’s portfolio, Gillen contended. And that, over the years, would probably have made the Baby Bills faster to react to industry changes, perhaps even resulted in, say, deals between the application-centric company and the current devil, Google. Or the Windows-only firm might have jumped sooner into tablets — considering its early interest in slates — either before Apple launched the iPad in 2010, or shortly after the iPad’s appearance.

On the other hand, Gillen said, it’s possible that a Windows-only Microsoft would be in an even tougher spot than it is now, as the traditional PC industry fades under assault from mobile platforms such as smartphones and tablets. “Not being allowed to increase the stickiness of the client OSs,” Gillen said, referring to even more focus on the desktop, “may have helped prevent Microsoft from being even more negatively impacted.”

Lande also wondered what might have been had Microsoft split. “[The Windows side] may have focused even more on the box,” he said, to its detriment today.
Split wouldn’t have mattered

Not everyone agreed with Lande and Gillen that it would have been better had Microsoft been rendered into multiple parts. “The split would have had less value than people expected,” said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

Cherry, who worked at Microsoft from 1994 to 2000, and in the last two years of that span was a program manager on the Windows team, wondered how the divided companies could have escaped the reputation of their ancestor. “How do you separate in the minds of people [these new firms] from Microsoft?” he asked. “If one had been called ‘Acme Software,’ but everyone knew it had been Microsoft, how would they have sold software to customers who didn’t want something from Microsoft?”

Cherry categorized any counter-factual as “a great pub discussion” over beers, but useless beyond that parlor game. “Sometimes I wonder what it might have been like, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking that. It’s only moderately interesting.”

Meanwhile, a Directions on Microsoft colleague of Cherry’s, Wes Miller, echoed Gillen. Like Cherry, Miller worked at the Redmond, Wash., developer — in his case, from 1997 to 2004.

“I think [the antitrust case] harmed Microsoft’s mojo,” Miller said. “That and the EU [antitrust action] harmed Microsoft. Policywise, internally, they created some policies and procedures that made development more complicated, slower and in some ways more ineffective.”

A separation in 2000, however, might have let the Baby Bills move on, Miller suggested, and better put the case and its ramifications in their rearview mirrors.

“Who knows what the [technology] world would look like now?” Lande said. “But I have to think that there would have been a lot more innovation once you had split up Microsoft.”

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