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Microsoft’s Surface Studio

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Panos Panay, who runs Microsoft’s hardware team, has earned a reputation as the “M. Night Shyamalan” of tech presenters; there’s always a twist. Last year, the Surface Book’s detachable screen wasn’t unveiled until halfway through his explanation. This year, Panay introduced the Studio as an industrial-looking iMac competitor, then pivoted and revealed how the machine converts into a digital creator’s easel, controlled via touch, pen and an intriguing new accessory called the Surface Dial.

I could quibble (the event ran a half-hour too long), but it’s hard not to be impressed with the device and its carefully-orchestrated introduction. In the video above, when the music paused and the artist placed the Dial on the screen, my jaw dropped. I felt it in a visceral way.

Others seem to agree; Microsoft ruled nerd Twitter this afternoon.

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‘DigiGirlz try out HoloLens at developer education session’

Here, teenaged girls get a developer-track introduction to Microsoft’s augmented reality platform. Afterwards, several participants explain how the experience makes them determined to pursue a career in tech.

This is inspiring stuff; it’s hard to imagine anyone objecting to the “DigiGirlz” program that made this possible. …Until you read the YouTube comments, that is.[1] Many of the top-voted remarks repeat the same question: “’DigiGirlz?! What about ‘DigiBoyz’?”

(The answer, of course, is that we’ve had “DigiBoyz” for decades. It’s called “the tech industry.”)

  1. Never read the comments.  ↩
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The Pixel C’s intriguing keyboard case

Walt Mossberg on the $149 keyboard accessory for Google’s new Pixel C tablet:

It’s sturdy and heavy enough to form a fair base for lap typing. And it has a very clever, very strong, magnetic hinge, which allows you to tilt the screen smoothly but confidently at a wide variety of angles. Not only that, but, while the keyboard is Bluetooth, it charges inductively from the tablet, so you never have to plug it in.

Reviewers have panned the Pixel C’s software, but I’m more interested in its primary accessory: a premium keyboard that attaches via dedicated magnets housed in the tablet’s case.

After a few weeks with a keyboard cover for the iPad Air 2, I’ve grown bullish on the tablet-with-keyboard trend. But for tablets to truly replace laptops as our workhorse machines, we need more keyboard designs like the Pixel C’s[1]—and fewer like the iPad Pro’s “Smart” Keyboard. Apple’s fabricky cover relies on goofy origami folds to prop up the iPad. Like the Microsoft Surface’s Type Cover, this design proves top-heavy and unstable when used on your lap.

The iPad Pro and iOS 9 seem to indicate that Apple now takes tablet productivity more seriously. To keep the ball rolling, next year’s iPads should make keyboard support a primary hardware feature, rather rather than an accessorized afterthought.

Step one? Steal that nifty magnetic hinge.

  1. The Pixel C’s keyboard isn’t perfect. There are no dedicated function keys for things like volume controls or screen brightness.  ↩

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Fixing Skype’s “eye contact” problem

My extended family lives all over the country—from Vermont to Pennsylvania to Colorado to Oregon to Hawaii. That makes visiting relatives expensive—and, with a nine-month-old, nearly impossible. Video chat—services like Skype and FaceTime—are a godsend. Our daughter learns that she has a wider family who loves her; aunts, uncles, and grandparents can witness her cuteness first-hand.

Although we’re grateful that Skype exists, it’s still a poor substitute for sitting face-to-face. Physical touch can’t be digitized, and the stuttery, low-res video feed filters out key non-verbal communication.

But Skype feels impersonal for another, less obvious reason: there’s no eye contact. Because the front-facing camera is mounted above the screen, you can’t look at the camera and at your loved ones at the same time. Instead, you look past them, never quite meeting their gaze.

That’s a tricky technological problem to solve. One approach would be to place the camera behind the screen—laying the remote video feed on top of the image sensor. Back in 2007, Apple filed a patent application for a device that worked this way. It’s a clever idea that never became an actual product.

Apple’s recent acquisition of FaceShift got me thinking; could you solve the “look me in the eyes” problem with software instead of hardware? FaceShift enables “markerless” motion capture, in which a user’s facial movements drive a cartoon avatar’s live performance. The demos showcase everyday people, transformed into mutant warriors, killer clowns, and pug puppies—all in real-time.

That’s a fun parlor trick, but what if this tech were deployed more subtly, to achieve a more profound goal: meeting your loved one’s gaze? The software would still alter your image in real-time, but instead of dressing you up like Shrek, it would shift your perceived eyeline away from the screen and into the camera. FaceShift would detect your eye color, paint over your “real” eye with white, then redraw your pupil and iris so that they seemed to look at the camera. Imagine a video chat app that included the “fun” options (making you a pirate or a zombie), but whose default mode made just this slight tweak.

If the feature were implemented well,[1] users might not even notice that their own video feed was being altered. They’d simply sense a deeper, more personal connection to the person with whom they’re chatting. Ironically, the image would be artificially manipulated, but the conversation would feel more authentic.[2]

Pair some silly name (“FaceTime Presence” or “Skype Gaze”) with some schmaltzy copy (“Look into each’s others eyes, from anywhere”), and you’ve got a very marketable feature.

  1. Done poorly, this feature could prove hilarious—or terrifying. What would Grandma think if Little Susie suddenly became an eyeless demon child?  ↩

  2. This raises all sorts of philosophical questions. What makes a person’s representation “real”? Can an image be less accurate, yet more authentic? Is it problematic to “fix” an avatar that purportedly represents the “real you”? What if video chat software could remove your blemishes or take off ten pounds? Would you enable it?  ↩

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‘Microsoft spreads the spirit of the season on 5th Ave’

Microsoft’s holiday-themed commercial:

Cute idea, but I completely missed the point on first watch. It wasn’t clear to me exactly where the Microsoft crew was caroling. The ad offers only fleeting glimpses of the Apple logo outside the flagship 5th Avenue store. Maybe Microsoft was reluctant to showcase its rival—and celebrate an Apple Store pilgrimage?

Microsoft repurposes and recontextualizes the song (“Let There Be Peace on Earth”) here. On the one hand, the commercial excises the piece’s overtly religious lyrics (“With God as our Father / Brothers all are we”). That’s appropriate—and not unusual; marketers secularize Christmas carols every year. There’s a more troubling change, though: should a childrens’ peacemaking anthem be deployed as a calculated gesture of corporate solidarity?

Leaving aside religion and politics, the commercial demonstrates just how much the companies’ once-fierce animosity has cooled in recent years. The ‘Mac vs. PC’ war didn’t end, exactly. But mobile and cloud computing makes the desktop market somewhat of a sideshow. In fact, these days, the core businesses of Apple and Microsoft barely even overlap. Stated simply, Apple builds mobile hardware, mostly for consumers. Microsoft builds productivity software, mostly for businesses. It’s hard to maintain a spirited rivalry when your teams don’t really compete.

Another reason for these technology giants to reconcile? They’re so alike—in that they both have questionable fashion sense. Which uniform is uglier: Apple’s Christmas-red mock turtlenecks or Microsoft’s pastel fleece caps?

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Microsoft’s “convergence” vs. Apple’s “supersession”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook made headlines this week when he spurned suggestions that his company might merge its mobile and desktop operating systems:

We feel strongly that customers are not really looking for a converged Mac and iPad. … Neither experience would be as good as the customer wants. So we want to make the best tablet in the world and the best Mac in the world. And putting those two together would not achieve either. You’d begin to compromise in different ways.

Cook’s comments indirectly belittle Microsoft’s Surface line, which combines a mouse-first desktop environment with more touch-friendly elements.

To be fair, Windows 10 is a solid effort, the fullest expression yet of Microsoft’s computing vision. Unlike Windows 8’s ill-conceived “Frankenstein experiment,” Windows 10 converges interaction paradigms with a tempered, desktop-anchored approach.

Use the OS for long, however, and you’ll see the seams: legacy UI that can’t be easily navigated via touch. For example, the new, finger-friendly Settings app in Windows 10 almost (but not quite) replaces the legacy Control Panel, which demands a mouse cursor. Presumably, over time, Microsoft plans to root out such vestiges of the desktop era, replacing them with more consistent, touchable UI.

Tim Cook rejects Microsoft’s strategy, in which computing’s past slowly transforms into its future. By contrast, Apple started fresh when it launched the iPhone and its touch-friendly interface eight years ago.

If we call Microsoft’s approach “convergence”, we might label Apple’s strategy as “supersession.” Over time, the replacement platform (i.e., iOS) matures to the point that it can replace the legacy alternatives (including Mac OS) altogether—or, at least, for the vast majority of users.[1]

I had my doubts about supersession’s viability up till now. iOS felt too small, too hampered, too limited to ever replace a laptop. I’d often feel as if I were wrestling with iOS rather than hitting my “productivity zone.” Drafting a tablet to fight a PC’s battle felt silly. And the market seemed to agree; the iPad’s cratering sales—along with the Mac’s continued growth—cast doubt on Steve Job’s assertion that the “post-PC era” had arrived.

But more recently, Apple’s mobile platform has taken strides that make supersession more viable. iOS 9—with its improved keyboard shortcuts and multitasking support—makes it much easier to do work on the iPad. In fact, I now write most blog posts (including this one) on my iPad Air 2. I’ve enjoyed the experience enough that I just purchased a premium keyboard dock.

The iPad Pro, released just a few weeks ago, further demonstrates Apple’s commitment to mobile productivity. The Pro offers an improved typing experience (via an optional hardware keyboard), vast screen real estate (another mainstay of desktop machines) and a pressure-sensitive stylus (replacing PC drawing tablets). Can the iPad Pro replace your laptop now? For most power users, the answer is “No.” But suddenly it’s much easier to see how that might happen in the not-too-distant future.

Regardless of whether mobile OSes “converge” with the desktop or “supersede” it, one thing seems clear: most people will buy just one non-smartphone computer. It won’t make sense to own both a desktop-class computer (whether a Mac or a touchless Windows PC) and a tablet (whether an iPad, an Android slate, or a touch-enabled Windows option).

  1. In adopting these strategies, both Apple and Microsoft are constrained by their current market positions. It makes sense for Apple to pivot its popular mobile platform into a productivity powerhouse. The Mac, despite its recent growth, remains a minority desktop player. Meanwhile, Windows Phone has struggled to earn market share and developer support, Microsoft would be ill-advised to bet big on that platform. Desktop Windows remains dominant (at least in sheer number of users); it makes sense to start there instead.  ↩

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The podcast machine

If your favorite podcast is hosted by more than one person in more than one place, Skype probably makes that possible. Microsoft’s cross-platform communications service makes it easy to conduct high-fidelity conversations with people around the country or the globe.

But Skype doesn’t make recording those conversations easy. Right now, to capture Skype audio, podcast hosts rely on third-party Skype plugins and utilities. This software often proves tricky to use, and—because it’s not built by Microsoft—doesn’t integrate reliably when Skype gets upgraded. Plus, on sandboxed mobile platforms like iOS, third-party apps can’t access Skype’s audio output—that chains every podcaster to a traditional PC or Mac.

Microsoft could eliminate these janky add-ons altogether by adding record functionality to Skype itself. Users would no longer have to futz around with output channels, alternate mic inputs, or finicky background processed. And if the recording feature made its way to Skype’s mobile apps, phone and tablet users could join in on podcast sessions, too.

Even this dead-simple record feature would be welcome, but Microsoft could also do much more. For example, consider the “double-ender.” Right now, many podcasters eschew recording the Skype conversation itself, which may be riddled with compression artifacts or occasional audio drop-outs. Instead, each of the hosts records her own voice locally, then sends this isolated track to the show’s editor. That editor then re-assembles the component files into the final product and publishes the podcast episode. That’s a time-consuming workflow for amateur podcasters to follow week after week—and for many non-technical users, it’s almost impossibly complex.

What if Skype handled the double-ender automatically? For each podcast conversation, Skype could initiate local recordings on every machine on the call. Once recording stops, Skype would automatically upload each host’s track to a shared folder in the cloud (integration with Microsoft OneDrive makes sense here). Or, if Microsoft were really ambitious, Skype could sync up the tracks and spit out a multi-track file, ready for refinement and final publishing.

For those podcasters who don’t need meticulous control over the final edit, Skype could automate still more of this process. Imagine if Microsoft did the heavy auto-editing in the cloud, compressing, EQing, and leveling each track. Skype could tack on the podcasters’ preferred intro music and drop the final MP3 file into the podcast’s RSS feed. Suddenly, podcasting would be as simple as starting a Skype call.

I’d argue that this sort of all-in-one podcasting solution, done right, could at least break even, if not earn an outright profit. Microsoft could require Skype Premium (its paid option) for access to the podcast-friendly features. And OneDrive could serve as the podcast-hosting backend—again, for those users willing to pay. More importantly, such features would attract those creative, high-income users that Microsoft so covets.

So why doesn’t Microsoft go after the podcast market? Why haven’t they leveraged Skype’s central role in podcasting? I can think of at least two explanations. First, Microsoft might be worried about liability. Many countries have strict laws about recording phone conversations. In many US states, for example, all involved parties must be clearly notified when a call will be recorded—think of the automated disclaimer that you hear on most customer service hotlines. If Microsoft fears legal repercussions, Skype could implement a similar “auto-alert” function—notifying every user who joins a recorded call.[1] Or Skype could surface a consent dialog to every user before any recording could start.

There’s another potential reason Microsoft hasn’t augmented Skype for podcasters: maybe it thinks the market is too small to bother with. Compared with Skype’s vast user base, podcasting represents an infinitesimally tiny niche. But that’s a chicken-and-egg problem—which came first, the user-friendly tools or the customer base? Currently, technological hurdles make it difficult for non-technical users to leap into podcast production. Skype is uniquely positioned to lower that bar, grow the medium, and stake its claim at the center of the podcast universe.

  1. Skype for Business, Microsoft’s enterprise communication solution, already includes this feature.  ↩
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What can we learn from a logo?

I’m struck by the ways that a good logo can signal a company’s marketing priorities and customer culture.

Take the Microsoft logo, for example. It’s symmetrical and consistent. And that consistency is a key part of Microsoft’s brand; enterprise customers need predictable upgrade cycles, legacy interoperability, and clear vectors for support. Another visual element worth noting? The logo’s lines intersect at a single middle point, and Microsoft hopes to sit at the center of your business, delivering the software that ties together disparate systems.

Meanwhile, Apple’s logo, with its trademark missing bite, is very intentionally unsymmetrical. The imbalance implies some quirkiness—which appeals to the creative, “crazy ones” who make up its key market demographic. The logo also relies on an organic, natural symbol, rather than an abstract, precise polygon. This familiar shape distances Apple from the computer’s mathematical underpinnings and eases its brand toward the humanities. Note how often Apple’s executives discuss the intersection of technology and the liberal arts.

Of course, we could also analyze these logos less charitably. Microsoft’s logo is simple and unrelentingly… well, square. That slang term fits the company’s “tragically unhip” reputation. Steve Jobs once complained that Microsoft’s chief failure was its lack of taste. He compared it to McDonald’s—a restaurant that delivers a consistent experience but inspires no one. (Appropriately, McDonald’s golden arches are also symmetrical.)

Apple’s logo could be interpreted cynically, too. This symbol is concrete and unmistakable, and the apple’s “leaf” and “bite” both point in one stubborn direction. The implied message? Take it or leave it, it’s Apple’s ecosystem and they grip the reins tightly. If you want to ride along, Apple gets to drive. So, unlike Microsoft, Apple eschews cross-platform interoperability whenever it can. It limits users’ ability to customize its precisely-designed interfaces. App Store developers must play by Apple’s rules. iOS users can not set third-party app defaults for things like maps or email. Facetime never became that “open standard” that Steve Jobs promised.

Silly semiotics? Maybe so. A fun exercise? For sure.


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The underdog delusion

In the developing world, government transitions often turn ugly. After decades of persecution, a minority group finally overthrows the entrenched authorities. Then, over time, that minority becomes the ruling class. Revolutionary fervor festers into dictatorial malice, and the once-downtrodden minority exacts brutal revenge on its former oppressors.

Throughout the 1990s, fans of Apple Computer suffered. Mac loyalists watched in dismay as the Cupertino company squandered its early potential. Microsoft devoured the PC market, developers increasingly ignored the Mac, and Apple itself flirted with bankruptcy.

Still, Apple’s diehards remained fiercely loyal. They embraced the scrappy, underdog identity fostered by Apple itself, most memorably in its 1984-inspired commercial. Mac aficionados were the marginalized minority, struggling to survive under oppression.

Then, to fans’ delight, Steve Jobs righted the ship. The iPod became a cultural phenomenon. The iPhone’s explosive growth made Apple the largest corporation in history. The iPad defined an entire computing category. Mac sales continue their steady growth, even while the PC industry itself shrinks. Apple recently crept its way into the top five computer makers.[1] Operationally, Apple’s industrial design and supply chain outclass the entire industry. The company posts quarter after quarter of record-shattering profits.

And yet, despite this miraculous recovery, some of Apple’s most enthusiastic customers retain the wounded mindset of the perpetual underdog. They defensively belittle Apple’s competitors. They sneer at anyone who questions Apple’s superiority. They mock the “tasteless plebeians” who prefer other platforms. They loyally applaud Apple’s every move, no matter its merit.

All this smacks of insecurity, or, at the very least, poor sportsmanship. The truth? Apple won. The once-fledgling California firm now rules the tech roost. It’s the antithesis of an “underdog.” If anything, Apple is Big Brother. IBM dominated the 80s; Microsoft dominated the 90s; now, Apple dominates as the unrivaled, seemingly invincible market leader. This corporate behemoth doesn’t need loyal zealots to defend it.

Don’t get me wrong; Apple’s fans should savor this moment. They backed the right horse. But they should also be gracious. After all, there’s only one thing worse than a sore loser.

  1. Measured by units sold. Apple’s long been the most profitable PC maker.  ↩
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“Stop rooting for brands.”

Stop rooting for brands. Root for competition.

Joshua Topolsky, The Verge, via Twitter.

Apple fans should hope that Windows 8 tablets sell like mad. Android nerds should cheer when a hot new app debuts exclusively for iOS. Microsoft nuts (they do exist!) ought to celebrate if the iPad cannibalizes PC sales. The products, ecosystems, and devices we love will only get better if other products, ecosystems, and devices force them to.