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Monday, November 19, 2012

Thoughts on Windows 8 and the risk of "Ecosystem Creep"

I've just bought myself one of the new breed of convertible tablet/laptop things (A Sony Duo 11), running full-spec Windows 8. After dropping my mid-sized laptop & cracking the screen a few weeks ago, I'd been thinking through my personal "device strategy". I concluded that I needed something powerful but travel-suitable: I need MS Office, but I also wanted to have a tablet-style form for reading documents or doing email in economy seats on planes. (I'm not really bothered about "consuming content" generally, which is why a normal iPad or Android tablet has been unappealing). Hence the choice of a convertible - further constrained by what's available right now, as I'm going on a multi-stop trip on Thursday and didn't feel like lugging 3kg of "home laptop" around with me.

It's been an interesting experience that's given me a few insights into current trends in OS's, device form factors, computing use-cases and the evolution of technology "ecosystems".

Let's start with a controversial and far-too-sweeping generalisation: "Ecosystems suck". They're just another flavour of the age-old technology strategy of user lock-in, which almost always fails (in the end) when it competes with genuine user loyalty.

Looking around the industry, we see a number of such ecosystems - Apple, Microsoft, Google, plus arguably Facebook and Amazon, with Samsung, Sony and others looking tentatively at the space. I'm not going to rehash a million articles & analyst pieces, but they all have some combination of devices, appstores, messaging/email, content offers, maps, commerce engines, identity services and APIs. The business models vary, but the general idea is to get more of your overall online/computing/comms/content activities - and, critically, make it harder for you to churn to another ecosystem in future, typically by "cloudifying" a lot of this, or working on a rent-not-buy approach to apps and media.

Then there are telco efforts, which are generally fragmented, slow and bureaucratic - and undermined by the dying federation-type interconnection/interop model. Some specific operators - or perhaps smaller groups - might create local ecosystems in future (my money would be on DoCoMo, Verizon Wireless, China Mobile or perhaps Telefonica). But at the moment, I see less risk of being "owned" by Vodafone than by any of the IT/Internet players. There are pitches by the Mozilla team to allow operators to do "deep customisation" of Firefox OS handsets, but even there I doubt they would allow that much user control, and would give (probably) broad access to web resources.

The tendency to "ecosystem creep" is everywhere in the industry at the moment. I'm still using a clunky iPhone 3GS with iOS5 to avoid upgrading to Apple Maps rather than Google. I use a Nokia Lumia with WP7.5 for data as well, but because I had to register it with an MS Account, I don't use it for phone calls or SMS (and I certainly haven't entered a payment method for apps/content). I eschew Android because I use Google for search & this blog, and don't want my business life cross-linked to my personal existence in any major fashion. I still use Yahoo! for personal email (and I even pay for Mail Plus) - I'm not intending to switch to Gmail or Hotmail (or whatever it's called these days).

The most irritating aspect of all this is what I'll call "cloudification" - something that was drilled home my the Microsoft speaker at today's Guardian Mobile Business conference in London. This is the assumption that you want to have some form of cloud-based storage and identity, so you can have a consistent "multi-screen" experience.

That is the last thing I want.

If I want consistency, I'll use a browser & go on the web.

I don't want contacts, music, themes, apps or anything else magically interconnected between my various devices, especially by whoever is supplying the device or its OS (or the network connection). In particular I want my phone kept a million miles away from my computer. I don't have a game console or Internet TV but I wouldn't want them attached to each other, or my other products, either.

I've had to do a lot of work de-cloudifying Windows 8, and I'm now wondering if I would have been better off getting a cheap, remaindered Win7 ultrabook & forgoing the tablet experience. Let's leave aside the cludgy nature of Win8 & convertibles - I knew that the Metro/Desktop duality would be odd, and I've got the added UI fun of a touchscreen stylus, a weird touchpoint thingy instead of a pad, and a super-high resolution screen that makes icons in Office almost invisibly small.

The thing which annoyed me most was switching it on and being asked to register for an MS Account again. (Obviously I'm not going to use the same one as the one I was forced into for my Lumia). Apparently, it's needed to access the Windows Store for the Win8-specific apps that work with the Metro tiled UI.

Er, no thanks.

I want applications on my computer, not apps.

I don't want a curated appstore for my PC, and I certainly don't want ads or other forms of "brand engagement" on my device's home screen. (As threatened by the MS speaker at the Guardian event). I've had to get rid of all the useless icons for other MS functions & cloud services I don't want or need, and it's nigh-on impossible to get Firefox bookmarks pinned as tiles without some hacking around. (I don't care how good IE10 is, I'm not using it for now. When 10 or 20 non-techy friend extol its virtues, I might switch in a year or two).

In short, it's pretty irritating. I feel that I'm having ecosystems being forced down my throat, despite being the paying customer. Having chaired the ITU World panel session about "Battle of the Ecosystems" a few weeks ago, I think I'll suggest that next year's event changes it to "Battle against the Ecosystems".

I've had enough of my personal privacy and choice being collateral damage as Microsoft, Apple and Google slug it out.

What's the solution? I actually think that there are two paths that are less-intrusive:

a) The niche, vertically-integrated solution. Amazon does this well. I buy books, they send them to my Kindle. I could also do it for video or music. Fine - the Kindle isn't setting itself up as a general-purpose computer.
b) Samsung, Sony and to an extent Nokia seem to tread the fine line between helpful integration/compatibility and tyrannical ecosystemism quite well. I've had a variety of Samsung devices, and while they definitely play nicely with each other if you want them to, you're not strong-armed into it. Sony, too politely asks me to register the Viao, but doesn't make a big deal of it.

I'm wondering what the outcome of all this is with the wider population. For sure, some people will either be apathetic or enthusiastic fanboys, and will embrace one ecosystem with open arms. But the rest of the market is either going to end up as unhappy prisoners, or have to deal with multiple worlds and all the cost that entails.

As for Windows 8, I can understand why Microsoft wants/needs to extend its tentacles into the "app" space. But I don't want any part of it - I'll be mostly using my new device in Win7 desktop mode, as I found that you could register as a "local account" for the PC rather than setting up a Microsoft ID. It means you lose access to the Windows Store, but that's a small price to pay to escape from Ecosystem Hell.


Scott Barstow said...

I think your comments about ecosystem overload are spot on. I wrote about this very same thing with regard to Apple back in May of this year (If you care to read it my article is here: http://scottbarstow.com/post/22775605562/the-right-to-install-my-own-software). I HATE the App Store for OSX and all that it symbolizes.

I expect more content / experience control over a device like a Kindle or an iPad. It's a large part of why they are so successful. The experience is controlled and managed so that less goes wrong. A big-boy PC should not have all of this bloat and lack of flexibility. If I am buying a PC, I am buying extra flexibility and choosing to deal with some of the configuration and management which comes with it.

It seems Microsoft is really just playing "me-too" here instead of thinking about the problem in a new way. Just as Windows Phone 8 was a chance for them to do something to change the marketplace for the better (and they didn't), so it seems with Windows 8. They are getting pummeled, and yet continue to adhere to how they have always operated.

I fear the outcome will be more of a management of multiple ecosystems rather than someone taking a stand for open and flexible.

Anonymous said...

Dean, regarding your comment about Verizon Wireless; note they're closing their app store


AlanL said...

> Amazon does this well. I buy books, they send them to my Kindle.

Erm, you "buy" books? Which Amazon could/do remotely delete from "your" device whenever they feel like it?