Category Archives: Microsoft

My Love-Hate Thang with Ballmer’s Microsoft

Microsoft Kin One and Kin TwoToday (October 17) is the debut of the “real” Windows 8, thank goodness. And a perfect time for reflections on my love/hate affair with Microsoft.

I love Microsoft. I envy Steve Ballmer’s hairline. Microsoft Office is the greatest thing since the invention of the personal computer. I love Office so much I refuse to buy a tablet computer (iPad, Galaxy, Note, Surface RT) because almost none of those plastic/glass doo-dads will run my favorite programs – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher and OneNote. Microsoft employs 40,000 people in my hometown area of Seattle, which vastly improves the quality of life here. Microsofties leave the company to found their own startup companies which makes for a really exciting technology scene – just ask Todd Bishop or John Cook at Geekwire. I love the X-Box 360 and I love Microsoft Research with products like web-based translation. And the Kinect is leading us into the future of gesture-based computing.

I love Microsoft so much I say “bing it” when others say “google it”.

Ballmer

Steve Ballmer

I hate Microsoft. Steve Ballmer laughed at the first iPhone because it didn’t have a keyboard. His answer: the “Kin” twins which lasted one month. Microsoft completely missed the tablet revolution, until it finally, three years after the iPad, came out with the Surface RT with zero apps and almost complete incompatibility with everything else in tech.

Windows 8 and its Metro interface is a travesty.  What were Ballmer and his brain trust thinking when they rolled out Windows 8? They urinated off on every Enterprise and Enterprise desktop user of Windows, a billion or more users in all.

There is zero zip nada which is nice about Windows 8 and the #@%! “metro” interface for folks using a keyboard and mouse. I resisted buying a Windows 8 computer because I don’t have a touch screen and I knew it would be tough learning to use Win8, but I had no idea how bad until now, when I actually have to use it. Finding simple stuff like the control panel is a monstrous chore, as are other simple tasks such as closing a Metro window for Adobe reader. How the hell do you “swipe up” with a mouse? Half the time the “charms” never appear when using a mouse.

I could go on-and-on but I’m totally baffled why Microsoft would spend all this time and effort on a new, touch-screen optimized OS when their bread-and-butter is enterprise customers using desktop computers with no touchscreen.

Does Steve Ballmer have a death-wish for his company?

Even folks who use touchscreens spend little time in Metroland and most of their time on the “traditional” desktop interface, if they can find it. There are plenty of rants about this on the web of course, too, including ones on microsoft.com.

I could go back and forth all day with my love/hate of Microsoft and its products:

  • Love Windows Phone 8 smartphones.
  • Woulda bought one when I ditched my Blackberry in May, 2012, but only Windows Phone 7 was available and that hardware was NOT upgradeable to version 8. Had to get an iPhone instead, unfortunately.
  • Love all the apps available for Windows desktop computers.
  • Hate all the apps not available for the Surface and Windows Phone.
  • Love tablet computing – I used a Gateway tablet running Windows for years starting in about 2003, and my 3.75 year old kid uses a gen 1 iPad all the time.
  • Hate Ballmer and Microsoft’s failure of vision to miss the whole smartphone and tablet computer revolution. Especially since Microsoft partners HAD tablet computers using Windows XP and developed the Surface tabletop computer.
  • Love all the power of the Internet with websites, web apps, open data and all the rest.
  • Hate that Microsoft basically missed the whole Internet revolution, brought us stuff like Front Page and Silverlight and MSN, and is playing catch-up ever since.
  • Love that the entire world uses Windows desktop computers and Office as THE standard for productive computing. So much so that some of those cities and places which have converted to gmail and Google apps are regretting that decision (i.e. Los Angeles).
  • Hate Microsoft running after consumers with the ill-fated Zune and poor Windows 8 implementation, dissing their cash-cow livelihood: Enterprise customers.
Redmond sign - how about software?

Redmond sign – how about software?

So after all the harping and carping on my favorite hometown company (although Boeing and Amazon are actively competing for that “favorite” spot), do I have some advice for my friends and their new CEO in Redmond? You bet.

  • Keep your Enterprise friends happy. You do a good job serving corporate America, governments and businesses. Don’t screw them with crap like Windows 8. (Fingers crossed for a decent Windows 8.1).
  • Microsoft Research is great at innovating. Use them. For just one example, capitalize on Kinect gesture-based computing. Actively encourage people to link Kinect to all sorts of other tech from computers to TVs to cars.
  • Continue to develop the Xbox into the all-purpose home device for entertainment and personal business. · Concentrate on voice. Voice control of computers will leapfrog the touchscreen interface. I spend a lot of time in my car – I’d love it if my smartphone could read me my email and text messages allow me to compose tweets and Word documents, all by talking to it. Voice would allow my 3.75 year to say “I want to watch Caillou” and her tablet would start Netflix and ask her “Do you want Caillou the Chef” which it knows is her favorite.
  • Embrace the “internet of things”. Over the next 20 years, sensors will be deployed everywhere – electrical grid, roadways, autonomous vehicles, medical patients, appliances, even toilets and toasters. Myriad opportunities exist in this space, starting with just crunching and making sense of all that data.

Microsoft, I love you. I desperately want you to succeed. Please stop shooting yourself (and your customers) in the foot.

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Filed under future of technology, iPhone, Microsoft

– Microsoft vs Open Source

Microsoft Public Sector CIO Summit - click for moreThis week is the Microsoft Public Sector CIO summit in that village named Redmond “across the pond” from Seattle. It’s also a week of continuing rotten economic news for public and private sector alike. In this environment, it sure is tempting to chuck Microsoft’s Office and web products and their complicated Enterprise and Select Agreements in favor of open source equivalents.

But you know what, the City of Seattle is not going to do that. Why?

Regular readers of this blog – if there are any – know I’m from Seattle and most of you know I’m a serious supporter of Microsoft software and products.

Clearly, I’m prejudiced.

Microsoft provides 40,000 jobs in my area, we have hundreds of thousands of shareholders (many of whom are also constituents) living here. We benefit from the tremendous wealth which has flowed from the around the world into Puget Sound to literally thousands of people, institutions and non-profits in the region. That wealth flows elsewhere, of course, too. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing wonderful things for schools and libraries across the nation and around the world. Microsoft research and technology centers are at many locations outside of Puget Sound – indeed there are about 50,000 Microsoft jobs OUTSIDE of Washington State.

On the other hand, all governments have budget pains. I got my first official budget cut memo three weeks ago (we’ve been doing actual budget cutting for at least 9 months). In the past I’ve had to lay off people based almost solely on seniority (or, rather,”juniority”). And I’ll undoubtedly be doing it again at some time in the future, if my job isn’t cut first!

Microsoft’s licensing costs are a large part of our budget, as are the maintenance and licensing costs we pay to Oracle, IBM, ESRI, and many other vendors. We do need to examine alternatives and options.

But I’m somewhat baffled that any CIO of a large government would seriously consider using open source software for our mission critical systems and services. This seems a little bit like using cell phones to dispatch police officers and firefighters or outsourcing your help desk to India. It will save money in the short term and work pretty well “most” of the time …

What is the advantage of using software from Microsoft – or Oracle, or ESRI, or Peoplesoft, or Hansen or … any major software vendor?

No business large or small would seriously consider writing its own financial management system, even though, with web services, database software and a spreadsheet program we could probably do it. We could probably cobble together a computer-aided-dispatch system or work management system from similar components.

The advantage of off-the-shelf or “shrink wrap” is that it is pre-written for us, the bugs are fixed, the upgrades are provided and – of increasing importance – security issues are handled and addressed.

Sure, you’ll say, Microsoft software is really prone to security flaws and attacks. Why is that? Because it is the most popular and ubiquitous software in the world! Its logical that any software which reaches significant market share will become a target for teams of hackers employed by terrorist-nation-states and crime syndicates. And the software for open source is on the web and freely available for such hackers to view!

Now, I understand that open source is supported by a developer community, and that’s good. But this developer community is nebulous. It is a difficult place to find when something serious goes wrong. Governments now rely heavily upon technology to provide critical services and interact with constituents. CIOs are responsible to elected officials keep that technology reliable and available. To depend upon an amorphous “community” of developers with no direct stake in your mission is a risky proposition.

Few businesses -other than local governments – have technology systems so important that people’s lives are actually in jeopardy when those systems fail.’ Sorry, I don’t want a “nebulous” community supporting my public safety and utility system.

Next, in an open source world, what do we do about application integration? Gee, almost every vendor writes their software to work with Microsoft Office, Exchange/Outlook and similar products. Even hardware vendors such as Nortel or Avaya or Motorola will make sure their hardware/software integrates with Microsoft. If there is an issue with the way PeopleSoft HRIS or Government Financials works with e-mail software or office software, they will always fix the Microsoft integration first. When a hot new product comes out – like BlackBerrys – the vendor will make sure it works with Microsoft software right out-of-the-gate.

Believe me, I know this first hand, since the City of Seattle was (still is) a GroupWise e-mail user. I had department directors knocking down my door to get BlackBerrys but the GroupWise version was released FOUR YEARS behind the Exchange/Outlook BlackBerry.

Furthermore, many of our applications now vitally depend upon web services for their user interface. Most of those applications vendors will not be officially supporting open source versions of web services anytime soon.

So, if we – government CIOs – move to using open source software, how do we handle the support and integration?

Answer: like everything else, we hire smart people. Highly proficient technical people who understand the bits and bytes of how this stuff works and can make it happen. Managers who can develop networks of people in other jurisdictions and in the open source community to fix the bugs, get the new releases and work with the integration. Skilled “open source” employees who are dedicated to our mission of “making technology” work for our government and the people we serve.

Well, where is our budget pressure? Yes, it is in revenues and budget dollars. But it is also in FTE – headcount. How many times have each of us been told to reduce headcount? What is the one number (again, besides raw dollars) which newspapers, the public and elected officials always watch and measure? It is “Number of Government Employees”. There is constant pressure – even in good times – to hold the line on headcount, if not actually reduce it.

And when we do reduce headcount, what positions are cut and who is laid off? It is always the last hired, which are usually the youngest, tech-saavy (at least on new software or open-source software), most connected employees.

With open source not only will we have to increase headcount, we’ll become vitally depend upon those new hires and that additional headcount to make our most critical and important applications work.

By making us MORE reliant on headcount and FTE, I think a move to open source software actually exacerbates our budget problems.

On the other hand, elected officials and those with budget oversight are much more likely to accept payments to our software and hardware maintenance vendors as necessary requirements. They all have personal experience with technology, if only their cell phone and desktop computers. They all understand the need to maintain cars and buildings and computers.

But how much of our core and critical work can really be “crowd sourced”? Do we really want to open-source computer-aided dispatch systems or records management systems which have personally identifiable data or arrest/911 call information? And I’m very nervous about open sourcing any part of SCADA (utility control), or traffic management or other control systems which are vital to our governments and targets for attack and compromise.

In these high-pressure, budget-constrained, headcount-hunting times, use of open source software appears to be a high-risk, low-return proposition at best, and a “government fails” newspaper headline at worst.

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Filed under budget, economy, Microsoft, open source

– FUD in Pugetopolis: MS Layoffs

Microsoft Layoffs - click for moreMicrosoft’s announcement today of 5,000 job cuts – many of them layoffs here in the Puget Sound Region – will send waves of Fear Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) throughout the Region and the Industry. While Microsoft sneezes, Government here will catch a cold.

In a word (or three): Uncool. UnMicrosoft. Un-Seattle-like.

Microsoft – like the stock market – always expands, doesn’t it? Microsoft dominates any endeavor it undertakes. Web browser leaders Netscape and Mozilla fall to Internet Explorer. VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 wither away in front of Excel. WordPerfect evaporates in favor of Word. Personal computers running Windows – in a very real sense – transformed the very landscape of American society.

In terms of people this is a real psychological shift. Microsoft is THE place to work here in the Seattle area. Young employees, exciting projects, bright futures. Spin-off, start-up and creative companies in our Region bask (almost literally) in the glow of the Microsoft sun. Microsoft Research attracts Ph.D.’s and smart people from around the Globe. But not even Microsoft Research is immune to the cuts.

For local government, tax revenues will plunge further as consumers and businesses rein in their discretionary spending.

We have a regressive tax system, heavily dependent upon sales and property taxes, with no State or City income taxes. While the real amount of money and wages flowing into the Region may not change much as a result of these layoffs, the psychological effects will hurt government.

As people in the region see that even Microsoft is not immune to the present economic troubles, they will rein in their consumer spending. “If it can happen in Redmond, it can happen to me.” Property values (and therefore taxes) have suffered a bit here, but not as badly as elsewhere. Those values will drop a more because of this. People will be less willing to buy, more willing to sell.

Right now – today – Washington State has a $6 billion two-year budget deficit and King County an $80 million one. The City of Seattle’s general fund budget was basically unchanged – $920 million in 2009 compared to $926 million in 2008. (See page 13 of the budget document here. )

But every one of these government budgets will need re-evaluation in the months to come.

I’m convinced that Microsoft’s dominance will continue. The personal computer, Windows servers, netbooks running XP, Windows mobile devices will continue to dominate the industry. (Well, they could drop the Zune just like they dropped floppy disks!)

Computing hardware will continue to get faster and require more powerful and functional software from Microsoft. Technology innovation will continue and Microsoft will be in the forefront. The bloom is off the Rose, but the Rosebush in Redmond still lives and will blossom again.

Until that re-blossoming, however, the effects will be keenly felt here in Seattle.

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Filed under budget, economy, Microsoft

– WAMU and the City

The City and WAMU

The City and WAMU

A few hours ago WAMU (Washington Mutual Savings Bank) ceased to exist, seized by Federal regulators, and partially sold to J. P. Morgan. WAMU was a modern day success story, going from a small Seattle savings and loan to a national banking powerhouse headquartered in two gleaming new skyscrapers in downtown Seattle. Seattle is a center of 20th and 21st Century innovation, but, like the national economy, is stumbling just a bit. What are the effects of our current economic troubles on Seattle as a City, and upon its city government?

Seattle is a hotbed of innovation: examples abound. Weyerhaeuser and forest products, Boeing and jet planes, Amazon.com and e-tailing, Starbucks and coffee, Microsoft and software, WAMU and banking. One success story after another. There are a few recent setbacks, perhaps not so widely known. Boeing has employment of about 74,000 in the State, down from a peak of 106,000 in 1989, and is in the middle of a machinists’ strike. Weyerhauser and Starbucks have both recently announced significant layoffs. SAFECO Insurance has be acquired by an out-of-state company. And WAMU headquarters will dissolve away to New York City, its buildings probably going on the market and many employees laid off.

What effect will these changes – and the dire national economic news – have on the City government of Seattle and government in general?

Traditionally, in good times people expect more services from their government, just as they expect more services from private companies (banks, insurance, retailers).

In bad economic times… well … people expect more services from their government! Unemployment insurance, homeless shelters, Medicare, “the support net”. Oh yes – and demands for public safety, libraries and parks (inexpensive entertainment) all increase as well.

Washington State’s tax system is built on two legs – property tax and sales tax. We don’t have an income tax.

Cranes and the Needle

Cranes and the Needle

So what happens to us in tough times? First, the economy in the Seattle area is still strong – just look at all the cranes around downtown Seattle or Bellevue, and we have a lot of well-paying jobs and relatively low unemployment. Amazon.com, Google and Microsoft are going strong and hiring. Nevertheless, sales taxes plummet as people – even people with good jobs – look at the national economy and cut back on spending. And, although property values here are still relatively high (they’ve gone down a bit), property taxes are, at best, stable. So, without an income tax, overall resources available to government are dropping.

What does this mean to the City government of Seattle? Well, we’ll get a glimpse on Monday at 2:00 PM, when Mayor Nickels delivers his budget to the Seattle City Council. You can watch it live on the City’s version of YouTube, www.seattlechannel.org . And the whole budget document will be online at www.seattle.gov then as well.

What are the implications of these reduced revenues for technology in government?

Ideally, in tough times, businesses and governments continue their technology investments in order to improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Over the next few weeks and months I’ll tell you how Seattle has done that. I’ll include some of our shortcomings and warts, as I’ve done before in Bleeding Edge Government. And I’ll give you some hints about some interesting things coming down the pike.

But, for the time being, I weep for once-powerful WAMU, tighten my personal belt a bit, and am prepared to help the City government of Seattle weather the storm through wiser use of technology.

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Filed under economy, Microsoft, Uncategorized, WAMU

– Keeping up with the Gateses

A Fox keeps up with the Gateses

A Fox keeps up with the Gateses

Internet Explorer Version 8 Beta is released! So proclaim the headlines over the past 10 days on the Internet ether and in the tech trade rags and e-mail magazines (e-zines). You know what we use at the City of Seattle? IE Version 6. I personally think IE V7, with tabbed browsing, is the best thing since the invention of the first browser. I use it all the time(along with Firefox) at home. But at work in downtown Seattle, I’m an IE 6 user because that is the standard. The one I’ve set for the government.
Does anyone care about Microsoft Vista? Oh sure, if you buy a new computer for home or personal use, you get Vista as the operating system. Because you don’t have any choice! And you probably don’t care, as long as it works. But if you are a large corporation, Windows XP rules. Indeed, those corporations, including the City of Seattle, will receive a computer with Vista installed, wipe the hard drive, and install Windows XP. And XP works fine for us.

Office 2007 has been on the market since, well, before 2007. Yet at the City, the most advanced users use Office 2003. Most users use Office XP (aka 2002) or Office 2000. In fact, there are still those who long for Word Perfect. Even the most skilled power users probably use 1% of the commands and functions of Word. Office 2007 does change the format of documents, making them more interoperable with documents on the web and other document formats. But that’s a feature few corporate users care about at this time.
Why the heck can’t the City of Seattle keep up with the Gateses? Why are we (and, frankly, almost all other large Corporations) so far behind? Is this another case of sluggish bureaucratic inertia?

Actually, computer systems today are all “ecosystems”. Very few pieces of software stand on their own, independently of others.
For a specific example at the City of Seattle, we use PeopleSoft Government Financials Version 8.8, one of the very latest versions of a financial management system. But PeopleSoft has engineered it to use IE V6 as an interface for most users, to work under Windows XP, and to download data into spreadsheets in Office 2003 or earlier formats. PeopleSoft certifies that it will support these versions, but not newer versions, until they exhaustively test them. We – the City – cannot upgrade to a newer version of any software without losing PeopleSoft’s support.

Microsoft is a little better, at least for its own applications. It extensively tests software so that Microsoft XP works with Microsoft Exchange works with Microsoft Office works with Microsoft fill-in-the-blank. This testing makes it easier on corporate IT folks (and sells more software in the meantime).
At the City of Seattle, we complicate this a bit by using some non-Microsoft software such as Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail and Novell’s NetWare to save and print files. So we have to test those ourselves with new Microsoft software.

Even more complicated than this, any particular user’s computer will have dozens and dozens of different applications running on it. Not just Windows XP, Internet Explorer and Office, but also our GroupWise e-mail system, maybe the financial management system or the utility customer information system and perhaps Microsoft Visio, Adobe Photoshop, Virtual Private Networking, McAfee anti-virus and many more. Changing any one of the pieces of software – and especially core software such as Office, IE and Windows itself – could break any of the other applications. And then the employee can’t do their job.
To complicate this even further, each one of the City of Seattle’s 11,000+ desktop and laptop computers can have different applications from every other computer! Things are not this bad, of course – the computers installed in police vehicles are pretty standard, for example. But certainly computers in offices will vary from cubicle to cubicle.

These complex systems are now necessary to do the work of City government.

But it also makes it hard to keep up the latest versions emerging from the Gateses.

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Astronomy and the Geek

Photo of the Moon by Bill Schrier, 2 March 2004

Photo of the Moon by Bill Schrier, 2 March 2004

Original post:  14 May 2008

Microsoft occasionally does some pretty cool things, and their WorldWide Telescope is certainly right up there in the coolness and geekdom categories.   I’m an unabashed astronomy buff (that’s my moon photo on the right, but Havard/NASA’ssupernova photo on the left).  
Now, I have to admit that Seattle is not the best place in the world to “do” astronomy.   There are a few clouds here once in a while, for example, and just a bit of light pollution.   I’m a geek who built his own Newtonian reflector telescope in high school (no, I was NOT geeky enough to grind my own mirror).  And yes, I have a couple of fairly expensive telescopes languishing in my basement due to lack of deck space to set them up, the light pollution and an … ah … recent aversion to going out in the cold and rain (it can’t be my “age”, can it?).   Enter Microsoft, with their very cool offering of a downloadable program with access to more than 12 terabytes of astronomical imagery.  

Really new Supernova, image from the Chandra orbiting observatory, released May, 2008

Really new Supernova, image from the Chandra orbiting observatory, released May, 2008

A Seattle geek’s paradise.   Astronomy from your desktop … computer, that is.   And no matter what you think of Microsoft, it is pretty cool that they put some of those large profits into doing really beautiful, life-enriching, projects like WorldWide Telescope.   Thanks Bill (the “other” Bill, that is).

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