Sunday, 3 February 2013

Opening new Windows: Revisiting the Consumer Stack Wars

Opening new windows

I took the plunge last weekend, and upgraded my two home machines (homebrew desktop and Alienware m11x to Windows 8). They've had three months now to iron out driver support and the imminent expiry of the £25 upgrade offer was a great incentive to take the plunge.

Very impressive.

Once you get your head round the idea that "Start Menu" has become "Start Screen", the big change in UI isn't that big a deal. Okay the parallel worlds of Desktop and Metro are a bit jarring, but given I flit daily between Android phone, iPad*, Windoze Desktop and Sony PS3 (and its BBC iPlayer client), I doubt one more UX paradigm will make my head explode. And yes irony of an OS called Windows doing its best to do away with windows hasn't been lost on me.

To me the biggest change though was Microsoft move from being a software vendor to a service provider.

What I mean is this: In the past Windows was what you called a "hygiene factor". You had to endure it to get anything done (Warren Buffet called it a “royalty on communication”) but once you'd fired up Word/Quark/Photoshop it did the best to get out of the way (save for a few cruddy DDE/OLE links). Most people used Windows in spite of the OS, not because of it.

In contrast while Windows 8 still does all that, what really stands out is the deep integration with Microsoft's array of online services... from Dropbox to Hotmail/Outlook to Bing Search and Bing Maps. And while these don't Google's level of pervasive awesomeness, you know what? They ain't bad.

What the OS becomes is a platform which helps plug these services into your day-to-day workflow. This means you use Windows because of the services.

Now that's not new. As I said, Google have long pioneered online services, and Apple has been increasingly weaving services like iCloud (and Facebook) into iOS and OSX. But I don't think anyone's managed to combine the two in a consistent desktop (and don't forget mobile) experience like Windows 8 does. Take the guy behind it and give him a medal folks.

Ulp, that would be Steve Sinofsky then. Oh well! :-x

Stack Wars - Consumer Edition

Now that all got me thinking about the current state of the consumer ecosystems. One thing that's struck me over the last year or so is how much the big consumer giants - Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon are converging from different directions. They each aspire to offer a consistent stack of applications and services which we use to run (or as a cynic say, which run) our lives. They are coming at it from different directions - Apple from a hardware world, Google by way of online services, Amazon from online retailing for example. But they are all getting to much the same place.

This reminds me a lot of how enterprise IT has evolved over the past ten years, with a fragmented landscape coalescing into a series of Oracle/ SAP / IBM -owned vertical stacks. Something I highlighted in this chart:

I wondered if you couldn't do the same exercise for consumer-land. Now as I’ve written about in the past, there are many differences between enterprise and consumer IT. The product offerings are far more fluid - whole categories can vanish overnight (HELLO FLIP VIDEO), something unlikely to happen in the hidebound world of the enterprise stack. Nonetheless I thought it would be a fun exercise.

Here's what I came up with (click on chart to zoom in):

This chart shows the consumer offerings of the big tech giants side-by-side:
  • Blue shows products developed in-house by the big guys.
  • Red are independently-owned solutions (in a separate bucket to the side, or  in the stack if a vendor has co-opted them into their ecosystem.
  • Darker shading show what I consider are the stronger or market-leading products (let's be clear this is a subjective ranking!). Lighter shading denotes weaker or nascent products.
  • I only use existing product categories (no social-media-enabled-context-aware-internet-fridges for example!), preferably ones where at least two of the stack giants have credible offerings.
  • I've probably missed out a bunch of stuff. And it'll be outdated by tomorrow I have no doubt.
  • One fault - gives equal weighting to all categories (for the truly nerdy there’s an even more comprehensive version here which lists some of the more obscure categories like RSS readers and ticketing apps). Underlying file is at this link.

How the Chips Fall

Anyhow despite the obvious deficiencies I think it’s quite a fun analysis (and one I haven’t seen in this form elsewhere). Here’s a few thoughts on how the biggies stack up.

APPLE have the strongest basic hardware/OS stack and only Amazon can match them in the range of Content Consumption offers they provide. However if you look at the middle category – mobile services – there is a yawning gap. Again and again they are depending on partners (TomTom, Facebook, Twitter, Wolfram Alpha) to fill gaps in their portfolio. In-house offerings like iMessage, Facetime and iAds suffer from being tied to Apple’s walled garden (the point of a mobile service is that you can access it anywhere, not just on a certain brand of silvery aluminium boxes).

Apple’s greatest Achilles heel, in my mind, is its reliance on the sale of hardware to monitise its products. This is particularly apparent now as its core hardware business comes under threat from fast-followers such as Samsung. As this revenue stream comes under threat it needs to up its game in services. But being reliant on partners restricts its ability to integrate and its flexibility to bring news offerings to market.

PS for a quick anecdote on how sucky Apple's cloud services really are see the footnote at the end of this article.

MICROSOFT in contrast surprised me by how strong they are in the online services layer. As I mentioned at the beginning the greatest strength of Windows 8 is how well it integrates online services throughout the OS (as opposed to Apple kludging Twitter and Facebook into ?Mountain Lion). For sure the hardware (at least on the mobile side) is incredibly weak (convertible-back-flipping-Windows-8-multi-touch detachable tablet anyone?) and the Content Consumption offerings remain underdeveloped (their Xbox Music Spotify clone is interesting though).

But the point is that for the last few years Microsoft have quietly been getting everything right in online services. If you want any more evidence of this, then Google’s recent (dare I say it, Slightly Evil) attempts to kill ActiveSync support and lack of Metro apps show how seriously they are taking this threat. Make no mistake, MSFT’s moves to herd Windows 8 / Office 2013 users into a / Skydrive driven online garden is the biggest challenge out there to Google’s online bear-hug.

GOOGLE still remain, of course, the one to beat in online services. I’ve writing this on Blogger having drafted early versions on my Android phone (a keyboard-equipped Xperia Mini Pro, thank goodness) and shuffled the Consumer Stack Chart in and out Google Drive and Google Docs for several weeks. Android is now the dominant hardware platform (as I wrote last year, Google are winning the battle for installed base war by a country mile).

However where they falter is in the Content Consumption market. Youtube is an everyday essential but other than that their music and video offerings come a poor third to the juggernauts of iTunes and Amazon. Their heart just doesn’t feel in it.

Not a charge that could be levelled at AMAZON of course. Jeff Bezos’ incredibly focus on Selling You Stuff shows in their incredibly strong position with music, video and e-books. But look further down the chart and you see there is a gaping hole on the online services side. Sure the whole point of the Kindle Fire is not to distract users from the essential job of Buying Stuff From Jeff, but my suspicion is that as the e-reader/media device evolves from an Appliance to a General Compute Device, this gap will become more and more evident.

FACEBOOK is the mirror image of Amazon (Hey! Let’s play Fantasy M&A! Wouldn’t it be a good idea of FB and AMZN merged? :-p). They are excellent at online services (as long as it’s within their walled garden) but sorely lacking must-buy content and utterly dependent any everyone else’s hardware platforms. Despite their much-hyped ventures into Graph Search and Open Graph, their app platform remains sorely underdeveloped.

To finish up a few more general/random points:

  • The basic app platform is the most competitive area: The area where most vendors have (or at least try to have) competitive offerings is the basic app platform – the OS and the shared services and APIs around them. Remember – the holy grail of any technology vendor is to own the platform; the current state of affairs reflects that. Of course, that’s bad news for anyone trying to break into the platform game – particularly if you don’t have the other bits of the ecosystem. Blackberry 10 springs to mind.
  • Disruptions – new categories: As I said I only use existing categories, so the current state of play is vulnerable to a new game-changing category (or one of the minor categories suddenly exploding). Obvious Smart TVs and Wearable Computing are the examples which fall into the latter bucket.
  • Disruptions – taking over existing categories: The other way the chart could be extended is if these stacks branch out into adjacent categories (as opposed to creating new, high growth ones). The area that obviously springs to mind is infrastructure – either data networks (Google Fiber) or physical fulfilment/logistics. They day any of these guys figure out same-day fulfilment of online orders is going to be a black day for the High Street.
  • M&A: The other thing this chart highlights is where are the gaps that need to be filled. Looking at the original enterprise stack the startling thing is the number of independent vendors who got bought out over the years. Looking at the consumer stack several areas stand out. Online movies is an area where Netflix looks like a valuable asset to anyone but Amazon (give or take whether studios will still licence content to it under new ownership). Mapping and location-based services are where Apple and to a lesser degree Amazon and Facebook need to up their game – I’ve already highlighted TomTom as a potential target. Location-based content – either imagery or listings – is another area where everyone apart from Google is playing catch-up. Part of Apple’s Maps problem is that they are relying on (unreliable) third parties for data.

Footnote: #Applecloudfail

My jailbroken, subtly reskinned and
crapware free iPad desktop...

* For anyone like me still stuck on the original iPad (or with a depreciated one lying around), I thoroughly recommend you take the plunge and jailbreak it. Given it no longer gets new versions of iOS there will no longer be an OS update which cuts off the jailbreak, and the ability to get rid of Apple's homescreen crapware (errr, empty Magazines folder anyone?) is worth the price of admission alone.

Interesting getting this screenshot off of my iPad onto my PC/Blogger was an epic in itself:
  1. Take screengrab.
  2. Go to iOS Photos App.
  3. Try to share via email. Email client doesn't load. Maybe this is cos I don't have my email set up on the (crappy) iOS Mail app and prefer to use the (excellent) GMail app instead.
  4. Try to copy and paste photo from iOS Photo App to iOS GMail app to email it. Email comes through blank.
  5. Try to sync to Photostream - go to PC. Run iCloud client. Wait for photo to sync to PC Photostream folder. Nothing happens.
  6. After a quick bit of Google realise that iCloud does not let you access photos on your photostream via the iCloud (or any other) website.
  7. After about twenty minutes of fruitless mucking around I resorted to Tweeting a (lower res) version of the screenshot and picking it up from the Twitter website at the other end.
Sorry, what sort of "cloud" service doesn't allow for web access??? Overall a massive #applecloudservicesfail and a great example of why Google are spanking them in the critical middle area of the stack.

(Now I appreciate there is probably a perfectly easy solution that I've missed, but the whole point is a good consumer offering should be so intuitive you don't "miss" the obvious steps. I thought that making things stupidly easy to work was supposed to be one of Apple's fortes?)

Maybe they should hire Steve Sinofsky! :-p

Disclaimer: The views, opinions, projections and / or forecasts expressed in this blog are personal to the author and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, projections or forecasts of any organisation the author is working for or associated with.


  1. Navteq is owned by Nokia so should be in red for digital map data, likewise Amazon have licensed Nokia to provide maps for it's Maps API that can be used on Kindle and Kindle Fire.

    1. Hullo mate good spot - I shall endeavour to get that fixed. Have you ever considered a career as a professional analyst? ;-)

      PS The new app looks good. When's the Android version out!?

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