Monthly Archives: January 2015

What’s a Personal ‘Computer’? It’s Complicated. Changing Technology and Usage Upset PC Hegemony

By | January 19, 2015

Every quarter tech watchers and Wall Street traders pour over the latest shipment figures from the big technology analysis firms looking for signs of renewal in the moribund PC business. The latest numbers for Q4 2o14 show an industry coming off the ‘sugar high’ induced by upgrades from Windows XP refugees needing hardware capable of running a modern OS, with shipments about the same as in 2013.  IDC estimated that worldwide, PC shipments fell 2.4% from the prior year’s quarter while Gartner figures show a 1.0% increase. As I write in this column, the difference is almost surely due to the way each defines the term ‘PC’. Gartner includes Windows-based tablets — which could be anything from the $110, 7-inch Toshiba Encore Mini to the $1200+Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro — but IDC does not. The firms also differ in their treatment of Chromebooks, which typically borrow the physical design and innards of a low-end notebook but run Google’s  lean Chrome OS which uses browser-based cloud applications, not locally executed code and storage. In this case, IDC includes Chromebooks while Gartner doesn’t. Neither counts any device running iOS or Android, even something like the HP Slatebook, a 14-inch Android notebook that’s actually more expensive than many entry-level Windows products.

The spectrum of personal 'computers'

The spectrum of personal ‘computers’

The numbers reflect people’s post-PC work and life styles in which more and more of one’s routine communication, information and productivity needs can be handled by something other than a Windows-based laptop. As I wrote last year, more people are working mobile, making a smartphone and tablet the centerpiece of at least their out-of-office work lives. Indeed, the analyst firms’ PC definitions erroneously draw bright lines between device types where the reality is many shades of grey given that a well designed Bluetooth keyboard case turns an iPad or Android tablet into all the ‘PC’ some people need and a viable notebook replacement for many scenarios.

As the column illustrates, PCs are but one end of the personal device spectrum in which buyers trade off several factors based on usage scenario, application requirements and personal preference. These include:

  • device and screen size
  • OS and UI
  • local, remote or hybrid data storage and app execution
  • touch screen or keyboard

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Further eroding PC hegemony is the fact that choice of device is decreasingly a function of application exclusivity now that more titles and product categories are available as mobile apps and SaaS using cloud backends and storage to maintain application state, personal profiles and user data across devices. Thus, it’s trivial for users to start a task on one platform and finish it on another.

The column details the many factors behind the persistently lackluster PC business, notably the popularity of two device categories, tablets and Chromebooks, that are displacing PCs in many work and education scenarios. Although Chromebook sales are still but a tiny fraction of the PC total, they are growing at a 40% CAGR and are almost entirely displacing sales of new PCs. Although long derided as little more than a browser on steroids by the techno-elite, now that more people actually have experience using Chrome OS they understand what I wrote almost two years ago:

The real beauty of Chrome isn’t so much the UI (while lacking the polish of OS X or the novel look of Windows 8 or Ubuntu Unity, it is certainly not ugly), but its speed, stability and simplicity. The thing just works — fast and without software maintenance. Chrome OS updates download and install automatically, and the cloud-based apps are inherently auto-updating. There’s also no data maintenance, since, unless you make a conscious effort to store something locally, it’s all online, meaning there’s no need to worry about making copies of email attachments or to save documents you’re working on — Google Apps literally don’t have “save” functions. Chrome devices are also inherently self-replicating: your environment, settings, profile, apps, bookmarks and data are automatically synchronized to the cloud and show up on any Chrome device you happen to be using.

Chromebook Pixel Source: Google

Chromebook Pixel
Source: Google

A New Client Device Lexicon

Instead of using tired, antiquated metaphors to phones and typewriters, I  prefer to think of devices in terms of form factor and UI. In this light, today’s device landscape can be divided as follows:

  • one-handed, keyboard: feature phones
  • one-handed, touchscreen: smartphones
  • two-handed, touchscreen primary, keyboard secondary: tablets
  • two-handed, keyboard primary, touchscreen secondary: hybrids (e.g. Surface Pro)
  • laptop, keyboard primary: traditional Windows, Mac notebooks, Chromebooks

In this mobile, cloud era, choice of application is dictated by user, not device requirements. Using a variety cloud backend services and APIs, what IDC has coined 3rd platform apps can seamlessly, transparently maintain data, state and configuration consistency across application instances, whether using a mobile app, thick desktop application or browser-based SaaS.

The term ‘PC’ has now outlived its usefulness. When analysts of Intel’s earnings continue to fixate on PC sales, highlighting single-digit growth, they lose sight of the firm’s dramatic growth in data center infrastructure where sales increased 25% on a year-on-year basis with platform volumes up 15% and platform average selling prices up 10% over last year’s figures. As company execs like to remind skeptical analysts, every 600 new smartphones translates to demand for one new server. If smartphones are the new client, cloud services are the new server, so Intel’s sales increasingly shift from the front end to back, even as it builds the technological foundation for a new era of wearables, industrial sensors and smart devices.

The market for end-user computing and communication devices has never been more vibrant. Hoping to characterize the state of tech industry health using a single, restrictive metric was always unwise, but it’s now impossible.

 

 

Wi-Fi Integral to the In-Stadium Football Experience. Levi’s Raises the Bar

By | January 15, 2015

It wasn’t the best way to break in a shiny new home, with the San Francisco Forty-Niners missing the playoffs for the first time in four years, but that’s no reflection on the venue: Levi’s Stadium, set records for fan convenience and tech amenities. As I discuss in this column, nicer seats, more bathrooms and better food options were to be expected, but located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Levi’s also had to deliver top-notch technology, merging on field action with on-screen information, replays and mobile services. In today’s post-PC, smartphone-centric world that means deploying a custom app that facilitates a host of services like in seat food ordering and delivery, replays on demand, in stadium mapping and directions and mobile ticketing. What marketing professionals call mobile engagement rests on a host of wireless and application services including blanket Wi-Fi, near-field (Bluetooth Low Energy) and terrestrial (GPS) location services, proximity-aware mobile apps and associated APIs and SDKs.

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The column details how Levis built both blanket Wi-Fi coverage and a great cellular network. The first through a thin-AP design to a controllers on an overlay network integrated with the stadium’s wired backbone. Licensed cellular coverage is provided through a distributed antenna system (DAS) with the stadium brokering space and wired backhaul to each wireless carrier. The net is a system that can accommodate over 20,000 unique clients with plenty of bandwidth provided by the facility’s 40 Gbit Internet pipe.

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The more interesting story for fans is how the team uses this wireless infrastructure to provide a fan experience that’s far different from sitting at home in front of the flat screen. Via a custom app, Levi’s fans can review instant replays, live in-game stats, order food for ‘take out’ or delivery and even check the restroom lines. According Roger Hacker, the 49ers Senior Manager Corporate Communications, Levi’s delivers. “Fans love it,” he says. Although surveys show high satisfaction with wireless performance and the stadium app, actions speak louder than words. The stadium’s head of technology Anoop Nagwani. says that after a big play upwards of a thousand fans are viewing multi-angle replays via the app, which also supplies real-time stats and scores from other games. Who needs a jumbotron when you have an iPhone?

Levis App

Although the nuts and bolts of building a wireless LAN are important and difficult, particularly for large, crowded public venues like stadiums, airports and hospitals, of more significance is what businesses do with the wireless technology. Levi’s offers a great example in its mobile app — an app that will continue to gain features according to Hacker — and it demonstrates that creative use of mobile technology can be an important competitive differentiator. It’s imperative that businesses large and small consider how they can best exploit wireless connectivity and smartphone-toting customers to offer new services, improve customer service and enhance brand loyalty. What are your mobile plans this year?

 

Sony and the Beauties Of Cloud Distribution: The Interview, An Example For Enterprise IT

By | January 3, 2015

Movie fans and free speech advocates flocked to The Interview over the holiday weekend thanks to the power of cloud infrastructure. Although a few hundred independent theaters showed the movie, as I detail in this column the vast majority of viewers were in front of their big screens streaming the movie via Google Play, YouTube and Xbox Video. Indeed, online sales were over five times those of at the box office. Media watchers will debate the financial implications of this experiment in concurrent video-on-demand (VOD) availability for a first-run movie, however I argue that there’s a more important lesson for business and IT executives. The Interview and L’Affaire Sony serves as an example of the benefits of cloud infrastructure for the deployment and distribution of  enterprise applications and information.  In an era of increasingly potent and malicious cyber crime, the wide availability of inexpensive, reliable and scalable cloud services means the cloud should be the distribution platform of choice.

cloud-future

This represents a big change from the marginalized status of cloud services in most large enterprises. Public clouds, long appreciated for their convenience and flexibility, are still typically used for the development, test and the pilot release of new and unproven applications. But as the Sony hack demonstrates, services like AWS, Azure, Google Cloud and others are ready and able to take on mission critical, revenue producing applications. Indeed, cloud services will come to be valued more for their reliability, data security and central manageability than cost and convenience.

An examination of the Sony exploit reveals that the information loss was primarily due to poorly secured internal systems that were easily accessed once inside the corporate firewall. Once inside Sony’s infrastructure, the hackers had free rein to roam around for months trolling for interesting tidbits including those infamous emails from Exchange servers, HR records, financial spreadsheets, contract documents and movie video files.

The case for using cloud services stems from flaws in typical enterprise infrastructure design epitomized by Sony: like a box of chocolates, they’re hard on the outside and soft on the inside. By moving sensitive information off vulnerable internal PCs and servers, connected by internal networks that allow hackers to surreptitiously hopscotch between systems, to cloud services, enterprises can prevent, or at least mitigate, similar corporate data dumps and the accompanying embarrassment and financial loss.

Cloud Service Providers as Information Custodians

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In the column, I draw an analogy between banks as stewards and protectors of financial assets and cloud service providers (CSPs) as protectors of digital valuables. The common elements are the resources, expertise and sophistication required to protect said valuables from increasingly savvy, devious and malevolent threats. As in the financial realm, I contend that most enterprises are outmatched by today’s attackers and that CSPs are inherently better at cyber security and data protection. This realization should shift the debate between enterprise IT and C-level business managers about the speed and extent of cloud service adoption. The perception of public clouds will shift from ‘risky new technology’ to ‘the most secure, cost-effective means of delivering applications.’

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Andreessen Horowitz partner and former head of Microsoft’s Windows division, Steven Sinofsky also argues that the debate over on-premise versus cloud infrastructure is ending. In a column outlining Trends, Choices and Technologies for 2015, Sinofsky writes:

The most substantial development in 2015 will be enterprises defaulting to multi-tenant, public-cloud solutions recognizing that the perceived risks or performance and scale challenges are far less than any existing on-prem or hosted solution or upgrade of the same. The biggest drivers will prove to be the need for primarily mobile access, cross-enterprise collaboration and even security.

Among his other predictions, Sinofsky also contends that the days of using email as discussion and collaboration platform and bulky document attachments as a primary means of information distribution and collection must end. The over/misuse of email was the primary source of harmful and compromising leaks in the Sony case and I contend much of that information would have never left Sony’s control had it used centrally managed, cloud-based file sharing and collaboration platforms. As Sinofsky puts it:

Using cloud-based documents supports an organization knowing where the single, true copy resides, without concern that the asset will proliferate. Mobile devices can use more secure viewers to see, print and annotate documents, without making copies unnecessarily. The idea of having a local copy of attachments (or mail), or even just an inbox of attachments, is proving to be a security nightmare. [emphasis added]

Sony’s damages would have been greatly mitigated had it operated email on a cloud service like Google Apps or Office 365 where a compromised password only exposes information from a single account, not the entire company message database. The information loss would have been even smaller had the email repository not also been a treasure trove of document attachments. Instead enterprises should move collaborate and file sharing to more appropriate cloud services like Exo, Glip, Jive, Box, Dropbox and Syncplicity and instead adopted Sinofsky’s advice of saving “email for introduction, announcements and other one-to-many communications.”

Cloud services provide tightly managed, granular, role-based access controls that not only thwart massive document dumps from hackers that compromise an entire file server or email database, but also facilitate usage tracking, secure mobile access and a “single version of the truth“. Sinofsky cites several useful examples for business:

Services like DocSend can track usage of high-value documents. Textio can analyze cloud-based documents without having to extract them from a mail store, or try to locate them on file shares. Quip edits documents and basic spreadsheets, and integrates contextual messaging avoiding both mail and attachments while safely spanning org boundaries.

Perception Pivot: Clouds as the Secure Option

I agree with Sinofsky that security could be the most important factor behind a dramatic increase in cloud use by business this year. It’s ironic given the early FUD spread by incumbent IT vendors and entrenched IT pros about cloud services: that they are insecure, unreliable, beyond IT’s control and generally scary places to store your data and run applications. Despite the occasional (brief) outage and theoretical (if not actualized) security threat, the Sony incident underscores the chasm between the (lack of) security practices in many enterprises and those in place at the largest CSPs. Business execs must demand IT provide a complete and honest assessment of their cyber security, asking the question: do you seriously think you’re more secure and reliable than Amazon, Google and Microsoft? If so, prove it.

Cloud-and-Lock

After some due diligence, it will dawn on business executives that building private information fortresses and staffing an independent cyber security army is a losing proposition. Instead, security will be one more area where cloud economies of scale prove irresistibly compelling. Sinofsky nails the case:

If you use public cloud services on next-generation platforms you aren’t guaranteed security, but it is highly likely that the team has assembled more talent and has an existential focus on security that is very difficult for most enterprises to duplicate. If you use cloud services rather than local or LAN storage for documents, not only do you gain many features, but you gain a level of security you otherwise lack. Not only is this counterintuitive, it is challenging to internalize on many dimensions. It is also the only line of sight to a solution.

IT as API

Once IT becomes an API, whether to a data center like AWS or SaaS application like Salesforce, the barriers to using external infrastructure and applications become little more than configuration details.  As I conclude in the original column, The Interview won’t just be a seminal moment in the ascendance of video-on-demand as the primary means of movie distribution, but also in demonstrating the superiority of cloud infrastructure (IaaS) and ‘packaged’ software (SaaS) a means of buying and deploying enterprise applications.