Steve Ballmer's impending exit as Microsoft CEO creates a fantastic opportunity for his company to transform itself. Say goodbye to the stodgy establishment figure desperate to remain relevant; welcome a vibrant enterprise headed for the technological frontier! (Or, at least, a maker of things people actually want.) Simple, right?
Of course, just because it's simple doesn't mean it will be easy. Reinvention involves risk, and course-correcting requires humility—which does not come easily to anyone associated with Microsoft. But inflection points like this for big tech companies are few and far between, and Microsoft shouldn't waste this one. Here's what Microsoft should, and shouldn't, do if it wants to stand any chance of getting its mojo back.
DO Remember Your Users
See also: After Ballmer: One Microsoft Or Many?
For the past several years, the Xbox gaming console has stood as a successful, dynamic counterpoint to the dead hand of Microsoft's Windows and Office legacy. The only problem is, the company is still spinning its way out of a self-created quagmire with its latest incarnation, the Xbox One.
This console focused too heavily on streaming and other services at the expense of delivering value for its target audience of gamers. The company has since rethought its strategy and reversed game-lending restrictions, constant check-ins and region locks, but it was still a major misstep.
We'll have to see how it all plays out in the market, but so far the buzz on the Xbox One remains fairly dismal, all because Microsoft huffed its own vapors a little too much and lost sight of the features its core user base considered important. Microsoft can't let this happen again.
DON'T Pull Any More Ballmers
See also: Agony And Ecstasy: Steve Ballmer's Years At Microsoft
Whatever his merits, Steve Ballmer will always be remembered for his knack of getting important technology trends spectacularly wrong. Whether he meant them or not—and there's certainly a case to be made that he repeated some of these lines solely in hopes of stirring up FUD for Microsoft competitors—it's still hard to believe he could utter any of these lines with a straight face. To wit:
"Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches."
"Google’s not a real company. It’s a house of cards."
"There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance."
In the soon-to-be-former-exec's honor, let's agree to call statements like these "Ballmers." To pull a Ballmer, then is to make an observation so astonishing that it takes your audience's breath away, leaving most uncertain if you're lying or just stupid.
So, whoever ends up leading Microsoft's recovery: Tell it to the world straight. Don't pull any more Ballmers.
DO think like a startup
See also: The Best Bet For Microsoft's Next CEO Is Now Running Nokia
Microsoft is a large corporation, so it could make sense to split up the company to make it a leaner, more nimble operation. But there are other ways to invoke the creativity and energy of a nascent business.
Google employees devote 20% of their working hours on side projects. Apple executives are known for being extremely hands-on with software and hardware development and design. Microsoft would do well to cut through layers of bureaucracy wherever it can, and stay focused on innovating and differentiating.
DON'T bury your head in the sand
In many consumers' minds, Microsoft is synonymous with Windows. And although it's unquestionably a success—according to NetMarketShare, the various versions account for more than half of the desktop operating system market—PCs are dying.
See also: Ballmer's Microsoft: All MBA, No Developer Soul
Too bad the company hit the snooze button on mobile. What's even worse is that it actually had a leg up on the market before Apple or Google, thanks to Windows Mobile. But that branch of the company was largely ignored and then forgotten. Ballmer even scoffed at the Apple iPhone when it released in 2007.
Learning lesson: Stifle Microsoft's knee-jerk reaction to dismiss and deny emerging technologies.
DO court developers
By the time Microsoft caught onto mobile in 2010, it was too little, too late. I'm referring to the odd little social-oriented smartphone, the Microsoft Kin, which briefly blipped in and right back out of the market. It was followed by Windows Phone 7, but that went by the wayside too, in favor of Windows Phone 8.
Now Windows Phone 8 is finally starting to show some signs of life. But its rise to prominence is more like a limping walk. A big part of that has to do with apps. Had the company stuck to one mobile platform, Microsoft's app store might not be so sparse today.
Ballmer made a big deal about how the company was courting developers at the Windows Phone 8 launch last year. This summer, he even claimed the store has 160,000 entries, which sounds like a lot—but it's puny compared to Google Play and the Apple App Store, which each feature a million apps or so.
You could argue that Microsoft did what it could, from throwing cash incentives at developers to slashing the annual registration fee for WinPho devs, from $99 to $19. But what it needed to do was convince them that they'd stay profitable on this platform.
DON'T confuse the public
The Surface tablets are a case study on how disaster ensues when you confuse consumers.
Microsoft unveiled two different tablets with similar names—the Surface RT and the more powerful, laptop-worthy Surface Pro—with two different, similarly named Windows OSes, Windows 8 RT and Windows 8. Unfortunately, mainstream shoppers didn't understand the difference.
Samsung may be able to get away with a "pray and spray" approach to launching a vast array of different devices, but it's important to note that it only employs that strategy once it had bona fide hits on its hands. In the case of its Galaxy and Note lines, people latched onto one phone or tablet, and once they understood what that was, other versions followed.
The Microsoft Surface RT may be a casualty of poor planning here. Had it stood alone—and sold for an affordable price—it could have paved the way for the Surface Pro. Now, it's just an almost-billion-dollar footnote in the annals of Microsoft tech fails.
That may be a blessing in disguise. Microsoft can now focus on a single tablet, and if it can bring down the cost of the Surface Pro and market its features clearly and succinctly, it might be far more effective at attracting customers.
DON'T take potshots at competitors
Those ads slamming Apple don't make Microsoft look better. Ditto for the "Scroogled" campaigns against Google. Whatever ephemeral gains they offer aren't remotely offset by the effort it takes to produce them and the bad will they spread with some consumers. At the end of it all, those negative advertisements don't emphasize the features or usefulness of Microsoft products. They only serve to make the company look petty, mean ... and desperate.
DO take trends seriously
So the company missed the boat on mobile. That doesn't mean it's condemned to repeat history in other markets.
The trends on everyone's radar are wearable technology, in-car integration and even the Internet of Things. The last one should be particularly intriguing for Microsoft, considering it has been showcasing innovations in its "Home of the Future" for years now.
The model space is effectively one huge smart home, complete with interactive bedrooms, digital walls, sensors that can tell when plants need watering and kitchen surfaces that can call up and read recipes out loud. While we're still years—maybe decades—away from seeing these type of smart homes become mainstream, Microsoft does have a lot of experience in this space. That means it's well-positioned to usher in the early technologies that could make the Internet of Things a reality.
Microsoft doesn't lack for ambition or even innovation. What it doesn't have is vision and a willingness to play well with others. In the fast moving and ever-more heterogeneous world of technology—and particularly when you're cast in the come-from-behind role that Ballmer's stewardship has left Microsoft with—both are key.
Which may be why no one seems to be shedding many tears over Ballmer's upcoming departure. Perhaps that's because it's just what Microsoft needs to finally see the future clearly.
After spying on our personal online data from social networks to Internet providers, the National Security Agency might not currently be seen as the most trustworthy group, but when it comes to securing the privacy of personal computers, you bet the NSA knows what they are talking about.
The Atlantic highlighted a tip from an NSA document urging their employees to put tape over their iSight camera or just remove it entirely. The suggestion came from a document titled "Hardening Tips For Mac OS X", which definitely piqued our interest — if the agency tapping into our phones is taking these security precautions, maybe we should too!
If you intend on keeping the data on your computer confidential, heed this advice straight from the NSA for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard users to "harden" your system against hackers.
Safari—Select Safari > Preferences. Under the General tab, uncheck "Open safe files after downloading." This means that you will have to manually open newly downloaded files.
AirPort—If WiFi is not necessary, open System Preferences, click Network, and select "Turn Airport off." Then head to "Advanced" and click on the TCP/IP tab. Set "Configure IPv6" to "Off."
Software Update—According the NSA, "regularly applying system updates is extremely important." From System Preferences, open Software Update, click "Check for updates" and make sure it is set to "daily."
System Accounts—In System Preferences, select Accounts. Click on "Login options" and disable Automatic Login. Set login to display name and password. Disable the guest account and sharing by selecting "Guest Account" and unchecking "Allow Guest to log into this computer." However, if the Guest account is necessary, deslect "Allow guests to connect to select folders."
Security—In System Preferences, open the Security pane. In General, check the following: "Require password to wake this computer from sleep or screen saver"; "Disable automatic login"; "Use secure virtual memory"; "Disable remote control infrared receiver" for added peace of mind.
FileVault—Consider activating FireVault for your laptop, which can protect data if the computer is stolen. But be careful to read the warnings first! To enable FireVault, head to System Preferences > Security > Filevault.
Firewall—In System Preferences > Security > Firewall, select "Allow only essential services," click on "Advanced" and enable "Firewall Logging" and "Stealth Mode."
Yahoo has begun reassigning old, unused usernames to new users who placed requests on a Yahoo wishlist earlier this summer. Users will receive an email if they received one of their top five choices. If not, Yahoo will put them on a new watchlist for those who didn't get their preferred name choice but would like to in the future.
The watchlist allows users to monitor up to five preferred usernames for the next three years. It's free for people who signed up for the original wishlist, and costs $1.99 for new users.
RW: You described how the platform was built and how you could build your own proprietary software or use tools that were already available. How did you choose what to build and what to buy?
RA: There are certain things that we may not consider our key strand—that other people are amazing at—that we decide to buy. But there are many elements of this platform that we built. Stitching it all together is a huge building job.
For example, our dashboard. We could have gotten some standard off-the-shelf dashboard and thrown our data into it, but that wasn’t going to work. Our customers have very unique needs, and mobile was new and nobody built analytics for smartphone apps, so we needed to build our own dashboard and elements of that and interactions. But then for simple charts, other people have built simple charting libraries, so we don’t need to build our own charting libraries. So we’ll buy again on that.
It’s a process of understanding what’s out there that’s already good enough that you aren’t going to do better at. If that’s the case, why waste valuable engineering resources? Engineers are your most valuable resource as a startup. You have limited money to keep that focus, but then there are things (features and products) that are your differentiator. If it’s been done before, if you’re just repackaging the stuff, there’s not much differentiation there.
There are things that you’re doing that are unique and highly differentiated. You need to own those so that you can control them. You need to evolve those quickly and likely they haven’t been built before. It’s a process of selectively figuring out what you should build or what you should buy.
RW: As the platform grows and evolves, how often do you make that decision: buy and integrate or build yourselves?
RA: Very regularly. Sometimes small things, sometimes bigger things. Sometimes it’s not even a “buy,” per se, but there is an open source library that does this and there’s a trade off. We can get it done, we can integrate in a day if we do this, or we can take three days building something that will be a little more flexible for what we need to do. It’s just a trade off.
RW: I wrote a piece earlier this year that kind of pissed off the developer community that said, basically, developers are cheap bastards. They don’t like buying software, they don’t like buying tools. They’ll take a week to build their own tools as opposed to buying something they can integrate. Do you find that to be true?
RA: Engineers build. If they can build something and own it, then why pay for it?
So yes, regardless of the reasons, developers tend to look at the world a little differently. Not in a negative way, they are more focused on cost. They’re just conscious of that, that might make them seem like cheap bastards in some scenarios and it might encourage them to build in some scenarios. Part of that is cost, part of that is desire to control.
I know if that if I build this, I build it the way I want it. Given that leeway to choose, they’ll do it. I probably encourage our development team to look at ways to buy, because these people are a valuable resource and if someone else has done the work, we don’t want to be reinventing the wheel.
Apps Are Everywhere
RW: You were on the cusp of the app explosion. We are five years into that. What‘s next in the mobile world?
RA: So the world is becoming more “appified.” The user experience is so much greater in an app that the percent of people using apps is massively higher than people who access their service through the mobile Web.
Modern websites are built in that fashion more like an app. With Windows 8 apps, and OS X apps, there’s the return to apps. Apps are taking over another much bigger realm of things beyond what you typically think of your computer and your phone and tablet—any other devices that have any digital interface.
RW: So let’s go into the evolution of the product. What were the technical decisions you had to make at the beginning to create an engine that could track hundreds of thousands of apps? You guys tackle a lot of big data problems.
RA: One of the big decisions was, knowing we were going to be collecting a lot of data, what do we host this on? Do we buy our own hardware? Do we do it on the cloud? We ultimately decided, like many startups in that timeframe, to use Amazon Web Services because of the scalability and flexibility primarily.
As we have grown, our needs have become more sophisticated. So has Amazon Web Services. We still are primarily hosted on Amazon. That was an important decision made early on that has boded well for us.
Another decision related to that was, what is our core database going to be? When we had hardly any data, we started off with just a MySQL database and that worked great until one day after about a few hundred apps on board it started to seize up and we realized we needed to do something else because the way to scale MySQL is just to put on more and more boxes. That started to get very expensive. So we started to look at other database technologies. We decided to make our primary data store a column-based database, which was a newer concept, but they were much more optimized towards analytics purposes.
The column-based database aggregates data in a way that helps you access analytics data really quickly. We were able to do everything in real time and we still do. We were able to collect and maintain granular data and some of the things we are able to do we weren’t able to do a few years earlier.
Because of the technology available and the price of computing and the brains that [Localytics] has, we were able to collect and maintain granular user event level detail so that our customers could do any kind of ad hoc query and get answers to any kind of question they had. And they didn’t have to pre-define their questions well in advance.
RW: These questions are looking at how people are using these apps via the events [when somebody pushes a button or makes a swipe] within an app.
RA: These are unique questions that couldn’t otherwise be answered. Sometimes you don’t know what the questions are in advance. You’re suddenly able to ask any question of your users and get insightful data back.
So that was the data store piece that had technical decisions. As we grew in scale—now we’re collecting data on a billion unique devices—other things would break or bottleneck. The rate of data collection is enormous and we start to see thousands of data points a second. How do we scale that? We end up using different technologies on that side. For example, NoSQL databases for their ability to quickly process data and present to our primary data store. So those are some of the key technical decisions.
ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.
When Apple launched a little thing called the App Store in 2008, few people predicted the resulting explosion of mobile apps over the last five years. Raj Aggarwal is one of the few.
Aggarwal co-founded Boston-based mobile analytics company Localytics that same year to build the tools developers and marketers would later need to make sense of how people use apps. Sophisticated analytics engines have long been the bread and butter of the Web. Data produced by these tools helps developers and publishers make money, better serve their users and understand how people fundamentally interact with software.
The new era of mobile computing needed granular analytics centered not around the Web, but around the app. These days, the Apple App Store and Google Play store for Android feature roughly a million apps apiece. Every one of those apps generate data, from how many times a user opens it to what he or she does once it's running. The consequent data explosion demands interpretation and analysis.
And that's where Aggarwal and his co-founders, Henry Cipolla and Andrew Rollins, saw an opportunity—in a future in which the mobile app was everything. By providing an analytics engine for the mobile era, companies like Localytics and its rival Flurry laid down the infrastructure that help developers refine their work and produce new innovations. People like Aggarwal, Cipolla and Rollins are the builders that help other builders build.
I sat down with Aggarwal to discuss the explosion of the app economy, challenges in Big Data and whether to build your own software tools or to buy them.
Forecasting The App Explosion
ReadWrite: In 2009, the Apple App Store was a year old, the Android Market was just coming into being, and you happened to see an opportunity. So what drove you to start a mobile analytics company when it wasn’t clear that we would have this app explosion?
See also: A Blueprint For The Internet Of Things: Bump's David Lieb
Raj Aggarwal: In some ways we saw the app explosion coming, before the App Store or the very earliest days in the app store. I’ll give you a little bit of background. I was consulting to mobile companies for many years and worked directly with Apple and Steve Jobs to build the business model of the iPhone, built Disney Mobile in Japan and Virgin Mobile Canada.
So I was bullish on the space. I knew the smartphone would have a huge impact on the world, and apps provide so much stronger of a user experience that they would be the way that people would interact with their services on smart phones.
[W]e got very networked into the Boston mobile developer community and realized the tools and platforms that app developers and publishers would need didn’t yet exist. Analytics was something that was important to all of us, either as consumers or creators. We believed that the app space would be significant so we decided to go after building the axe and shovels for the space rather than going after the gold rush by building the next big app.
Instagram added a "straighten" function to its app, one that auto-corrects photos to the straight and narrow just as you'd expect. The same function also lets users manually rotate and adjust an image as they see fit.
To read more about how to use this new feature and how Instagram designed it specifically with an eye toward simplicity, read its blog post.
Image courtesy of Instagram