Company / division: Microsoft
What’s interesting here is that Microsoft is licensing patents rather than selling technology to Toyota – in other words, Toyota gets the right to use ideas patented by Microsoft, but not products or services built on top of them. That suggests that, while Microsoft has an impressive patent portfolio, it hasn’t necessarily built with those patents technology carmakers consider valuable. And that remains a big challenge for Microsoft in the connected car space – Windows and related technologies have been used in cars in the past, and Azure is being used as a cloud service behind some connected car services today, but Microsoft continues to struggle to build technologies carmakers actually want to use in cars, while other players continue to make headway in the space. I could certainly see Microsoft doing more deals like this – indeed, it describes this as a first for a new auto licensing program – but that doesn’t mean Microsoft is any closer to a stronger role in in-car technology.
The recent downtime for Microsoft’s various cloud services hasn’t got nearly the attention Amazon’s recent outage did, in part because it’s more of a brownout than the total blackout AWS experienced, and in part arguably also because fewer third party services rely on Azure and related services. But Microsoft has had a couple of recent issues, and as of right now they’re happening again. There will always be issues here and there with any large scale infrastructure, but that they’ve been lasting for hours and repeating at Microsoft recently is a little worrisome, and it’ll be good to see the explanation when Microsoft finally shares it.
The ANA represents 1000 large advertisers including many of the largest companies in the US, so what it says definitely counts for something when it comes to advertising policy. And in this case it’s saying that it wants other big tech companies to submit to outside audits alongside Facebook and Google, who have already committed to do so. Strangely, Instagram is on the list anyway, alongside other independent names like Twitter and Snapchat. There really seems to be increasing pressure from advertisers for transparency and consistency, and this was one of the themes of P&G exec Marc Pritchard’s talk a few weeks back in which he called on the ad industry to do better on several fronts.
With Project Torino, Microsoft creates a physical programming language inclusive of visually impaired children (Mar 15, 2017)
Technology has enormous power to provide opportunities to children and adults with disabilities which otherwise wouldn’t be open to them, but it can also exclude students in educational settings where tools are designed for those without disabilities or visual or other impairments. This Microsoft project is a great example of using technology to reinvent a concept – coding – in such a way that both those with normal vision and the visually impaired can participate together. It’s just a beta project on a very limited scale for now, but hopefully it will expand into something broader down the road. Even better, of course, is building accessibility technology into the devices and services we use every day, something Microsoft has long been committed to as well.
Apple Joins Group of Companies Supporting Google in Foreign Email Privacy Case – Mac Rumors (Mar 14, 2017)
Given the way other big tech companies had weighed in on the related Microsoft case over the past few years, it was a little odd that more hadn’t sprung to Google’s defense in this one, but it’s good to see that they are now doing so. These cases have far-reaching consequences not just for user privacy but for the ability of US companies to do business in overseas markets, and those companies need to defend themselves vigorously. The final outcome of both cases is therefore worth watching closely.
via Mac Rumors
Last week Google announced its Slack competitor, and this week Microsoft is announcing the availability of its previously announced entry in this space: Teams. One big difference versus Slack is that Teams will be baked into every Office 365 enterprise subscription rather than being a paid standalone product, which should almost immediately make it available to many more people than Slack. In addition, it will be integrated into other parts of Office more fully than Slack itself. The big question then becomes whose implementation of the concept is better, and also to some extent whether people keen to use something other than email to collaborate will look to a startup or the company that actually runs their email – Microsoft is making the argument that it isn’t actually trying to replace email but instead offer another way to collaborate when email doesn’t make sense. To some extent, that actually has more credibility to me than replacing email entirely, which has always seemed a slightly unrealistic goal for Slack.
Tim Cook is very fond of talking about Apple’s customer satisfaction ratings on earnings calls – he clearly believes these are both the best indicators of whether Apple is being successful and the best determinants of its future prospects. As such, reviews like this one, which focused on online and phone technical support and service for laptops across the top brands, are good news for Apple, given that it came top of the rankings. It’s also worth noting where others did and didn’t score well – Acer, Lenovo, and Microsoft took the next three spots, while Samsung came near the bottom.
Apple’s Siri learns Shanghainese as voice assistants race to cover languages – Reuters (Mar 9, 2017)
One of the things that’s often missed by US writers covering Amazon’s Alexa and its competitors is how limited it still is in language and geographic terms. It only speaks English and German and the Echo range is only available in a handful of countries. Siri, meanwhile, just got its 21st country and 36th language, which reflects a long-time strength of Apple’s: broad global support. Apple News is a notable exception, which is only available in a few countries and one language, but almost all of Apple’s other products are available in a very long list of countries and territories, often longer than for other competing services. The article here is also interesting for the insights it provides into how each company goes about the process of localization, which is quite a bit more involved than you might surmise.
The data center business at Intel accounts for almost a third of its revenues, has high margins, and has been growing considerably faster than its Client Computing segment (which includes PCs, tablets, and mobile phones). And it’s done well in large part because of commitments from big players like Microsoft to using its chips in their data center servers. But now Microsoft is saying it plans to switch to using ARM-based chips made by Qualcomm in its Azure server infrastructure instead, which could put a dent in Intel’s future growth and reduce its share from the 99% cited in this Bloomberg article. This isn’t imminent – it’s a step on a path Microsoft is committed to, but hasn’t been rolled out to any customer facing servers yet. But ARM-based chips have been cited as potential substitutes for Intel chips in server farms for some time now, so this could be the beginning of a dramatic shift in the next few years. That’s obviously terrible news for Intel, for which the data center business has been a useful source of growth and margins in recent years. Meanwhile, this is such a small business for Qualcomm today that it doesn’t even get mentioned in its quarterly earnings materials, but that could obviously change rapidly going forward.
The desktop PC is finally cool – The Verge (Mar 6, 2017)
I’m pretty sure this headline is using the term PC in its narrower sense, and it could therefore read more specifically: “The Windows desktop PC is finally cool” because I’d certainly argue iMacs have been cool from the beginning. But this also feels part of a broader shift in the fortunes of Windows PCs – for years they seemed the utilitarian counterparts to the various members of the Mac line: often uglier, bulkier, with shorter battery life, harder to use, and all the rest. But that’s really changed in the last couple of years: with help from Intel (and perhaps a bit of a nudge from Microsoft’s own Surface line) Windows PCs have finally started to be really competitive in pure hardware terms with the Mac. That’s a sea change, and it means the competition between Mac and PC is now as much philosophical as it is about performance – there’s no clear edge in hardware for either side, and which platform you choose will be about the respective approaches to subjects like platform integration, touch interaction, and services instead. But of course none of this is happening in a vacuum – this resurgence of the Windows PC is coming just at at time when Apple seems to have taken its foot off the gas for a while with regard to the Mac, and especially the non-iMac desktops. And that raises the stakes significantly. Apple has so far said lots about its commitment to the Mac, but only followed those words up with action in the MacBook Pro line on the hardware side and the professional apps on the software side. For now, it’s asking a lot of people to trust that more is coming, but I’d say the urgency for those changes and updates is growing all the time.
Microsoft has apparently renamed its Windows Holographic platform as Windows Mixed Reality, which seems to be a reflection of the broadening of the platform from its original narrow AR focus to something broader, including the release of a number of VR headsets that was announced a couple of months ago. At the time, I saw that as a concession that Microsoft’s original vision wasn’t coming to fruition fast enough or at big enough scale, and that it needed to broaden its scope to encompass the areas that are hotter in the short term, notably VR. That was particularly important for its OEM partners, most of whom were never going to build a HoloLens like headset but who likely wanted to build more accessible VR gear. This name change reinforces my sense that Microsoft is realizing that it needs to think more broadly if it wants to play a serious role here in the near term, and that probably also means building more first party VR gear for Xbox among other things.
Apple, tech leaders will side with transgender youth in upcoming Supreme Court case – Axios (Feb 24, 2017)
This is a nice scoop for Ina Fried, who just moved from Recode to Axios. But more importantly, the news itself is a significant escalation of the comments several tech companies made this week about the Trump administration’s policy on transgender students and bathrooms in schools. This would now be the second time in as many months that several major tech companies find themselves on the opposite side of a high profile legal case from the new administration. What a massive turnaround from those first weeks after the election, when tech companies seemed afraid to say anything negative about the new US government.
I’m linking to this piece from John Gruber rather than the source because he highlights the key point here, which is that for some creatives with high-end computing needs, the current Mac lineup isn’t cutting it anymore, and they’re switching to Windows. When the new MacBook Pros came out late last year, there was lots of complaining from the developer and creative communities about the computers being underpowered, with no recent updates to the Mac Pro either. I’ve written about this, and think there are two separate things going on: firstly, Apple’s base is about so much more than power users at this point, and it has to focus on the majority not the tiny minority; and secondly, it’s very hard to know how representative these one-off anecdotes are of the broader picture. Are lots of creatives really abandoning the Mac, or is it just a handful who are getting lots of attention because they reinforce a narrative? I wish someone would do some kind of representative survey here – I only have my own anecdotal evidence to go on, which is that most video creatives are sticking with Mac for now, but again it’s not representative.
via Daring Fireball
Microsoft launches Skype Lite Android app for India and other emerging markets – TechCrunch (Feb 22, 2017)
This looks like a great bit of innovation from Microsoft – both well customized for a local market and the first really compelling implementation of its bot strategy that I’ve seen. Facebook has been doing well for a while with its Lite offerings, which have expanded its reach in emerging markets, and this Skype version seems to offer some of the same benefits. The future integration with the government identity scheme sounds particularly interesting. There’s obviously strong competition in India for the services Skype provides, many of which already cater for users with limited bandwidth, and Microsoft continues to struggle to monetize its consumer efforts including Skype, but it’s great to see it innovating in this very localized way.
As usual, it would be great to understand in more detail the methodology behind this survey, but it’s not available. The Verge seems to have got the rankings wrong – from what I can tell, Samsung was 7th and not 3rd last year – but it’s also worth noting that Samsung’s score dropped from 80.44 to 75.17, which sounds a lot less dramatic than dropping from 3rd (or even 7th) to 49th. The fact is that there are a lot of companies clustered together between 75 and 87 points and so a small drop in the score produces a big drop in rankings. Since the survey was also conducted in November and December last year, when the Note7 debacle was still very fresh in people’s minds, I’m guessing it would score a lot better just a few months from now. Though the Verge picked up on Samsung’s drop as their headline, it’s worth noting where other tech companies sit too: Amazon is #1 (score 86.27), Apple #5 (82.07), Google #8 (82.00), Tesla #9 (81.70), Netflix #18 (79.86), and Microsoft #20 (79.29), all of which classify as either very good or excellent. It’s also worth noting that big cable companies like Comcast and Charter score in the low 60s, which qualifies as “poor”, while the major wireless carriers score 66-72 (“fair” to “good”), with T-Mobile top and Sprint bottom.
The article doesn’t mention Microsoft once, but talks about Google’s consumer products several times, which makes it feel like this is rather missing the point. This is an enterprise offering and therefore goes head on against various Microsoft products and services intended to achieve similar aims (as well as those from Box and other smaller, more specialized enterprise software and service providers). Both Google and Microsoft are focusing on their AI skills as a source of differentiation in enterprise file management, by promising to help employees find the files they need. Search is, of course, a core Google skill, but it operates very differently in an enterprise file system from on the open web, and Microsoft may actually be better placed here given its long history and the massive investment many companies have made in Microsoft tools in this setting.
Last week, Recode reported that several big tech companies were drafting a letter to the Trump administration on immigration, though I still can’t find confirmation that this letter has actually been sent. However, those tech companies and many others have now filed an official friend of the court brief in the lawsuit being brought against the administration by the states of Minnesota and Washington. This steps things up a notch, formally putting the 97 companies behind the brief on the other side of a court case from the administration. As with the early condemnations of the executive orders just over a week ago, Amazon is notable by its absence, as is Tesla (whose CEO Elon Musk has continued to sit on the advisory council Uber CEO Travis Kalanick vacated last week). Tesla’s absence is consistent with Musk’s overall stated strategy of trying to bring change from within, but Amazon’s absence may simply be due to the fact that it weighed in on the case separately earlier in the process (though Microsoft has participated at both stages).
Update: this tweet explains that Amazon was asked not to sign the amicus brief because it was a witness in the original case.
Leslie Miley, who has been director of engineering at Slack, is working with Venture for America to start a program that will take employees of coastal tech companies and place them for one year at a time in new locations in the US, especially in minority communities, with salaries paid by their employers. Yelp and LinkedIn have signed up already. The initiative aims to break down a couple of facets of the tech industry’s lack of diversity, opening up opportunities for those in the communities served who may come from underrepresented groups, but also hopefully exposing the Silicon Valley types who participate in the program to new ways of thinking and lifestyles. This seems like a great initiative which should benefit both groups, and we should also see more from coastal tech companies investing in non-traditional locations in the US by putting offices and employees there. There are already several smaller tech hubs outside the traditional ones (including where I live in Utah), and they’re often able to attract great employees who don’t want to put up with the cost and other downsides of a Silicon Valley lifestyle.
Silicon Valley’s responses to Trump’s immigration executive orders, from strongest to weakest – The Verge (Jan 28, 2017)
This is a good summary of the responses from the tech industry so far to President Trump’s executive orders on immigration from Friday. It also does a nice job sorting the responses by strength – there’s quite a range in the responses, from those focusing narrowly on the practical impacts on employees of each company to those issuing broader moral condemnations of the policy. This certainly won’t be the last we hear on this topic. It’s notable that as of right now Amazon is one of the major holdouts among the big consumer tech companies.
via The Verge
Apple Officially Joins Partnership on AI (Jan 27, 2017)
I commented on the reports that Apple was about to join the Partnership on AI yesterday, so I won’t revisit all of this today. Two notable things from today’s announcement, though: Apple’s representative will be Tom Gruber, who runs Siri at Apple, and that may be indicative of where Apple sees ownership of AI residing within the company (it has no formal head of AI); secondly, Apple has been involved with the Partnership from the outset, but hadn’t formalized its membership until today. That might signify that there were some details of Apple’s membership which needed to be worked out before it felt comfortable joining -I’d love to know what those were. Separately from Apple’s involvement, it’s worth noting that the board now has representatives from a number of other organizations beyond tech companies including several universities. So the Partnership won’t just be about driving the agenda of the tech industry here.