Happy holidays! Welcome to the end of 2015! I knew we’d make it. Take a deep breath. There’s no reason to feel the urge to throw a computer out the window for at least a couple of weeks.
It’s been an interesting year in technology, mostly good news but with occasional infuriating bits – which is actually the way it’s been for the last couple of decades, isn’t it?
Microsoft continues to be a fascinating company to watch. It successfully delivered Windows 10, the operating system that will define our desktop and laptop computing for the next 5-8 years, just as Windows XP and Windows 7 each defined their own eras. Although Windows 10 overall is excellent, the rollout of Windows 10 has not been completely smooth and there are rough edges that keep it from being universally loved. And Microsoft has not regained any ground in other areas where it once hoped to compete – its dreams for mobile devices running Windows Phone are dead, Xbox One is far behind PlayStation in sales and developer interest, and Google is the undisputed owner of web searches and mapping despite Microsoft’s best efforts, for example.
None of this is a surprise to Satya Nadella and the other Microsoft execs. Much of it is hidden from view but Microsoft is in the middle of another huge pivot to focus on its strengths in providing productivity solutions and cloud services. Azure, its cloud platform, keeps getting stronger and Microsoft is rapidly developing tools to integrate Azure into large enterprises, something it is uniquely qualified to do. It has brilliantly kept the Office programs alive by extending them to new platforms at a dizzying pace and it is adding innovative new programs to the Office family all the time, many of them aimed at large enterprises where the money is.
Fear not – we’ll still be dealing with Microsoft for many years. It will supply a big proportion of our ups and downs in 2016 as always, as we enjoy the top-notch Surface laptops and tablets, become more familiar with Windows 10, and wrestle with the awful consequences of Microsoft’s worst decision – to create separate business and personal accounts and then mix up the branding so there’s no way to understand how everything relates.
This is the year when laptop designs finally matured and gave us a selection of elegant designs that take advantage of all the latest technology – fast processors, extended battery life, light weight, and slim cases, in a variety of form factors, at reasonable prices. There is something for everyone, from high-end thin and light Ultrabooks to hybrid laptop/tablets like the Surface, from laptops with covers that can fold back 180 degrees like the Lenovo Yoga Pro to conventional laptops at absurdly cheap prices that are still good enough. It’s a pleasure to go laptop shopping for a change.
Smartphones matured in 2015 as well. Although there was nothing very new in them, Apple demonstrated that it continues to be at the top of its game in phones with the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, and developers made it even more obvious that iOS is the first and most important platform in town by a wide margin. There are many more high quality Android phones (although there are relatively few manufacturers making money from them) and Google continues to refine Android and develop services like Google Photos and Google Now that leverage its ability to give you creative and useful information if you allow it to know everything about you.
Meanwhile sales of tablets are down. It’s not as if tablet computing was a fad, but rather it’s a niche that many people are finding they can do without – we are carrying powerful computers in our pockets with large screens, big enough to take over many of the things we might have used a tablet to do a few years ago; and a tablet just isn’t as useful as a laptop when it’s time to do work. Apple seems to be unsure what to do to revive the iPad – making it bigger for the iPad Pro this year just made it more obvious that a Surface tablet is a better device for getting work done. Android tablets are in disarray, and Google does not seem very interested in making them anything more than really large Android phones that can’t make phone calls. Google’s new Pixel C, an expensive new Android tablet, landed with a thud, leaving reviewers cold and generating little interest. Amazon has the best Android tablet, the Kindle Fire, but that’s because it’s only fifty dollars, not because it’s very good.
In 2016 it will be even more obvious how quickly everything is moving to the cloud. Here’s a quick quiz for desktop enthusiasts: when was the last innovative program developed for desktop computers? It’s a trick question because you can’t think of any recently developed desktop programs. It’s not the Office programs or Adobe Photoshop, both approaching their 20th anniversaries. No developer is trying to bring any creativity or innovation to Windows or OS X. All the interesting work is being done for mobile devices and cloud-based services. Sales of desktop programs are plummeting; old-time line-of-business programs running from onsite servers are hanging on by a thread, and often falling apart because they can’t keep up with the changes in everything around them. (Anyone using Timeslips or Time Matters knows what I mean.) We think of Quicken as a staunch companion, but Intuit looks at it as a boat anchor and can’t wait to get rid of it.
My personal prediction is that it will very soon be possible for small businesses to eliminate the server in the closet entirely without giving up anything in manageability or security. Between Box.com and what I see being developed in Azure Active Directory, small businesses may be able to have all the advantages of the server in the closet combined with access to their data from anywhere with any device. It’s nearly here.
Three more trends to mention in passing:
• Self-driving cars are closer than you realize. It may be a while before a car will take you to work without any need to touch the wheel, but the innovations in assisted driving are coming fast.
• The bad guys are getting smarter and more aggressive. The wire transfer scam and the resurgence of Cryptolocker style viruses should have you paranoid and frozen with fear. It’s the right way to feel when you sit down at a computer, unfortunately.
• Virtual reality is about to become the big story. Get a Google Cardboard viewer for your phone! They cost next to nothing and I guarantee you’ll have a goofy smile on your face when you look at your first VR demos. There’s no killer application or great VR game yet, just demos and early efforts that barely skim the surface, but the promise is exhilarating and there will be a lot more to look at soon.
Things aren’t going to slow down. I thought I was running as fast as I could before to stay in the same place, but I’m still accelerating, trying my best to stay a step ahead of you. Sometimes it’s a small step! I’m learning from all of you, all the time. I am grateful beyond words for your continuing loyalty and support.
Oh, and the picture at the top – that will be me on the beach between Xmas and New Years, although possibly without a Santa suit. This will be the last article until next year. All of my best wishes for a joyous holiday season and a happy (and trouble-free) year in technology in 2016. Aloha!