Thursday, August 30, 2012

Here's How Facebook Can Beat The Analysts


Over the past couple of weeks, stock analysts on the Internet have started writing stories about the demise of Facebook. They all sort of embodied the same ideas and the same principles that state what they believe are the flaws in Facebook. First off, I don't believe that some of the ideas that analysts have been presenting are completely rational or accurate. But also, Facebook still has a chance. I believe that one of the big flaws in the analysts' views were that they almost all agreed that Facebook had little chance to turn the tide in their favor. To me, it makes no sense to think that Facebook doesn't stand  a chance. All Facebook needs is a little coaching from the Internet. We've seen trends like Facebook before, and if history is any indication, that the expert advice from the few of us that contradict the popular opinion, our, being everyone against the analysts, is solid advice.

  One of Facebook's problems is of course getting into mobile. We've all seen the headlines lately that have been blasting Facebook for lacking a good set of mobile applications. That's very true. Facebook clearly needs to make mobile computing a priority for their future. And while Facebook has recently updated their mobile apps for Android and iOS, it still isn't enough. The update was largely insignificant and didn't put them on the path to beating the overall trend that analysts and investors have set. Facebook desperately needs to make mobile a priority. The biggest problem with the mobile versions of Facebook is the user interface. It is painfully slow and is complicated and a pain to use. The experience of using Facebook on a mobile device is terrible. But so is the desktop website. The desktop website needs a makeover too. The user experience overall on Facebook is bad. And so Facebook needs to make the user interface overall, both on the desktop and on mobile devices, a priority.

  Some have claimed that Facebook just needs to improve on selling ads to the user. And that's an easy thing to say, but I don't think that's the case. They're doing just fine with selling ads and there is no clear indication that ad sales will be dramatically slowing down in the coming months. While yes, Facebook isn't as skilled at selling ads as Google is (but frankly, no one can beat Google), Facebook is still performing up to a reasonable standard.

  The biggest issue for Facebook is finding a niche. This was a big realization for me. Facebook needs to find a niche in online services. Is it going to be the core social networking features, like Chat, posting pictures and sharing statuses, or will it be something else? I can point to lots of evidence of how finding a niche can really help prevent a big company from becoming irrelevant in the web era. Myspace hasn't become irrelevant because they found a niche. Myspace is primarily now the place for musicians to gather. It found a niche and stuck to it, and is now seeing the benefit of not becoming a ghost in the web 2.0 era.
On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that not finding a niche, and doing the opposite, essentially becoming an all-things-for-all-people kind of a service, can hurt the future of a web business by making it irrelevant. I'm afraid that Google is doing that with  Google+. Google isn't content with Google+ being for a niche market, or only serving a small purpose. But they forget that by trying to be an all-things-for-all-people kind of company, they make the risk of becoming irrelevant in the years ahead. Facebook can suffer from a similar fate of that of past web services if they fail to target a niche audience. So far, Facebook has targeted a way too large audience. As a result, we see that their user experience is cluttered and as a result makes it less attractive to users and makes Facebook a less enjoyable experience altogether.

  In their current strategy, Facebook is failing. But it's not too late to change. They can, and should, turn the trend in their favor. They need to make a better user experience overall, and on the mobile platforms, as well as finding a smaller, more dedicated audience (finding a niche), that will help Facebook ultimately stay relevant in the coming years.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Windows 8 Has RTM'd; What's The Bottom Line For Consumers?

   One of the hot topics of tech this year has no doubt been Microsoft's entry into the tablet space by launching Windows 8 and Windows RT, and more recently announcing their Surface tablet. It's been a long journey for Microsoft. After months and months of development, Windows 8 has finally RTM'd, or released to manufacturers. This essentially is a almost completely ready-to-ship version of Windows that OEMs (manufacturers) are now testing out on their hardware before Windows 8 goes on sale to the masses in late October.

   Windows 8 has stirred up a lot of controversy from the start. The controversy over the new Metro UI (I'll call it Metro despite the fact that Microsoft isn't calling it Metro [for legal reasons].) The new Metro UI focused around tablet computers. While the Metro UI has been praised by some, others have been extremely critical of it, saying that the new UI makes Windows no longer Windows as we think of it today.
Microsoft's biggest problem of course was that they should've made Metro a completely separate product, instead of trying to mix it in with the Windows brand. Instead, Microsoft tried to combine the Metro tablet experience with the traditional Windows desktop and behold, Windows 8 is born.

This is the "Metro UI' as Microsoft has been calling it, although they don't call it that anymore. At the heart of the user interface, which involves prominently displayed tiles that feature interactive content that helps you get the most out of your tablet, without ever entering an application.

Now despite the negative opinions of Windows 8, I'll try to explain it rationally. The case to be made for Windows 8 is quite simple, but just requires a little bit of a thorough explanation to ensure that the consumer really knows what they must sacrifice when they purchase a Windows 8 or Windows RT tablet.

1. The Metro UI
 The Metro user interface involves tiles that are capable of displaying personal information that will help you get the most out of the Metro interface. The benefits of these tiles is to display important information from the app on the Metro interface, instead of explicitly visiting the app. This interface was designed for touch enabled computers, like tablets and desktops with touch capabilities. Applications that run on the Metro UI can only be run on the Metro UI. In other words, these apps don't run on the desktop. They run in this interface.

2. Desktop Applications
  Unfortunately, one of the main areas of confusion around Windows 8 is the desktop. With Windows 8, you can have two types of devices. You can have the traditional x86 (Intel or AMD) based Windows 8 computer or tablet. Or you can have an ARM based tablet. The Intel or AMD based devices will run Windows 8, while the ARM based devices will run Windows RT, which is a special version of Windows 8 designed to take advantage of the features of the ARM platform. The important distinction is made around desktop functionality. Windows RT, or ARM based devices, can only run third-party, non Microsoft apps, in the Metro UI. So with Windows RT, third party apps can only run in the Metro environment. With a full Windows 8 device, you can run third party apps on the desktop. 

3. The Desktop Has Been Stripped Down
  One of the things that I find disappointing about Windows 8 is that the desktop has been stripped down. What do I mean by 'stripped down?' At least in my opinion, all the features that I fell in love with in Windows 7, all the UI improvements, such as the Aero visual effects, have been stripped down to bare bones in Windows 8. So if you're someone, that like me, loves the Windows 7 desktop, you'll likely hate the Windows 8 desktop, as Aero has been stripped down and the visuals of the desktop have been changed drastically. 
4. The Benefits of Windows 8, and yes, there's even benefits for desktop users.
  There are benefits to upgrading to Windows 8, even if you're using a desktop. Although primarily, upgrades would be helpful for those with existing Windows tablets. Windows 8 includes dramatically improved boot times, and overall, the OS does indeed feel snappier than Windows 7. And while those aren't the only features worth noting for desktop users, they are the big ones. The biggest benefit of Windows 8 is marketed at potential tablet customers. Those that are interested in tablets will probably receive the most benefit of waiting until Windows 8 releases to purchase a new tablet / laptop-hybrid. 

5. The Benefits of Purchasing a Windows RT Tablet
  So far, I've only spoke about the downsides of Windows RT. But the benefits of Windows RT, that is, choosing to buy an ARM based tablet, may almost outweigh the consequences. The big marketed factor of ARM based devices is efficiency. The architecture of ARM is designed around immensely higher processor efficiency, and therefore, much better battery life. And while that is the concept, we will have to wait and see whether the OEMs deliver on their promise that ARM based devices provide better battery life. 

So what does it mean for me?
  Windows 8 is ultimately centered around a multitouch experience. Windows 8 really shows off the potential of tablets, with showing the promises of the Metro UI. Microsoft has launched its own application store for 'Metro style' applications which should populate with more apps as we near the launch of Windows 8. My recommendation for you is to wait until we see a healthy variety of both RT and Windows 8 based devices to compare the pros and cons of each. Until then, just consider the trade offs of going the Windows 8 route versus the iPad route or the Android route. Each ecosystem has its own pros and cons, so consider each before making a solid decision. Right now, I'd recommend not making a final decision until, at the very least, Windows 8 releases. And if you're a desktop user interested in upgrading, I'd try to discourage you to the best of my abilities because the benefits of Windows 8 are pretty much entirely focused at tablets. This isn't much of an upgrade for desktops, but it sure is a big deal for potential tablet buyers. Windows 8 will be available to consumers on October 26 at the upgrade price of $40 for existing Windows users. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Apple's and Samsung's ridiculous "copycat" claims

   If you haven't been following the monstrosity that is the Apple vs. Samsung trial, then I'd recommend you catch up. There's a lot to catch up on! This trial highlights the problem with the way the legal system is setup in the United States, as well as the patent system. As I write this article, I'm trying my best to remain impartial, because frankly, both companies have made some ridiculous claims so far and I'm sure they'll continue to make ridiculous claims. Or at least Samsung will continue to after Apple wraps up their side of the story.

 Of course I could write a lengthy post about how the patent system is messed up and yes, the article would be very accurate, but I believe the point has been well made by practically every journalist now, even the Apple apologists. I could also write a lengthy post about how the legal system in the U.S is also messed up, but that point has also been presented quite well. The thing I'm convinced is that both Apple and Samsung have not owned up to what they have done.

 The whole Apple vs. Samsung battle has started more than a year ago now, with Apple suing Samsung over the trade dress of Samsung's Android based smartphones. Essentially, trade dress is the appearance of the phone in both the physical hardware and the UI. And you can't blame Google for the design of Android on Samsung's devices because Samsung puts their own proprietary user interface on their smartphones on top of the Android operating system. So at no point can Samsung nor Apple assign any blame on Google for the alleged trade dress infringement. But the lawsuit quickly evolved and Apple learned some interesting legal tactics that they could take to hurt the Android device manufacturers, and therefore, hurt the Android ecosystem. Apple would quickly start launching patent infringement lawsuits against Android OEMs and this would start Apple's epic war against Google and the Android ecosystem. The Apple versus Samsung trial is certainly the most widely covered one by far and the most interesting to cover.

  My issue with the whole lawsuit is that both Apple and Samsung have performed anti-competitive measures to destroy their opponent. And I'm not just referring to "copying" each other's products. However, the big debate is over whether or not Samsung copied from Apple's design of the iPhone and iPad. This is a huge lawsuit that covers a range of 17 different products including accusations that Samsung was inspired by Apple's iPad, and therefore made the Samsung Galaxy Tab series of tablets (the 7, 7.1 and 10 inch models) as well as the incredibly successful Galaxy S line of devices.

 There have been valid points made by tech pundits that defend both sides, however, the lawsuit isn't black and white. I'm sure that there is a case to be made that Samsung was inspired by Apple, but there's also a point to be made that Apple could be jealous of the success of Samsung and is being inspired by Samsung. I could see a lot of unique features that Samsung developed in their line of phones and tablets that are really unique and that Apple felt inspired enough to mimic the functionality of these unique set of features that Samsung developed. The Samsung S-Pen, which is essentially just a stylus, and the "Tectiles", which are essentially just NFC enabled tags that can be used to perform certain user defined actions.

I will wait with anticipation for Apple to launch their next generation iPhone to see what functionality resembles that of the feature set Samsung originally had in their phones. I would have to imagine that Apple will have been inspired by Samsung to a certain extent to mimic some of the hot features of Samsung's phones. It wouldn't surprise me at all.

I'm sure that Samsung did feel at least partially inspired by Apple to make their own smartphones that would attract existing iPhone lovers. There's no doubt in my mind that Samsung did feel pressure from Apple and decided to target some of the iPhone's features and implement them in their own way, or at least what Samsung would define as "in their own way."

But looking at the big picture, I don't see Apple's case that Samsung mimic'd Apple's iOS bit by bit. Comparing user interfaces on a surface level doesn't make a case for Apple or Samsung. I'm confident that even a typical user wouldn't be confused by the looks and appearances of the iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy S phones. There are at least a few noticeable differences and that unless a consumer is really not that observational, the differences could probably be distinguished and therefore that would diminish the value of Apple's case.

Overall, Apple's case is ridiculous. Being impartial, I believe both sides are not in the clear, and I feel that both companies have engaged in mimicking behavior to a certain degree, but not to a great degree, as Apple claims. But it all comes down to the judge's ruling. My true desire would be for both companies to stop litigating and to start innovating. Unfortunately, both parties have engaged in legal warfare and now there's no way out of it. We'll just have to sit back and watch. And I hope that the judge makes the right call by not declaring either side of the winner. Send both Apple and Samsung home...neither of them deserve to be called the winner.