Sunday, April 27, 2008

Wikipedia, Live Search, Microsoft...

A conversation I had at the gym this evening made me head over to Wikipedia for some quick research. Whatever people say about Wikipedia entries, there haven't been many occasions when I have wanted to get some general information, and not found it on the site. Fine, the authenticity of the information can't be validated and the site can be used to push the personal agenda(s) of the author(s), but what information source today is 100% objective? Even the news isn't free of some form of bias and censorship - I don't see people abandoning the televised news broadcast...

The item of my interest this evening was ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), and as I started typing my search query, I was presented with a drop down box with potential results. The suggestions were surprisingly useful (my experience with most other websites' suggestions hasn't been that good); being the engineer that I am, I tried a few other queries to get a sense of how good the suggestions were, and when I found a suggestion for Wannabet, my nonplussed expression turned into a smile!

I really like Wikipedia for its continuously growing set of articles and the useful features they continue to add to the site. The tipping point for any product (or idea) is when a user wonders how they managed without the product at an earlier point in time. Microsoft Office, Google, the Blackberry and in my opinion, Wikipedia, are but a few examples of products (and brands) that have gone past that tipping point and are now invaluable to their customers. In the case of Wikipedia, by breaking down the barriers to information exchange, it has single handedly rendered sites like Encarta and Encyclopedia Brittanica irrelevant. The strength of Wikipedia is its simplicity; it is not encumbered by the "ill of integration" - the single feature that can ring the death knell for a great idea.  I wondered out loud then - could Microsoft pull off a Wikipedia? The findings of such a study might help fix some of the ailments of Windows Live.

I, like thousands of Microsoft employees, don't use Live Search. In my particular case, my earlier experiences with the product gave me no reason to switch away from Yahoo! search, my engine of choice. In the spirit of second chances, I decided to give Live search another go this past week. There has been forward progress, which is heartening; the search results were pretty relevant, the image results were good too, but the site did suffer from performance issues. The question is, would I start using Live as my search engine if they fixed the site's performance and some other low hanging issues?

Sadly, my current answer is no. People are creatures of habit, and unless something really compels them to change their ways, they aren't going to. The search results from Live were as good as Google and Yahoo!, but being "good enough" doesn't cut it any more. Live search doesn't have some basic features that its competitors have had for months. As an example, even Wikipedia has a search suggestion box, why can't Live? In order to effectively challenge an incumbent, the upstart has to go the extra mile - a great example of this idea in action is Firefox. This begs the question - are the Live guys aware of this facet of human behavior? If they are, why doesn't the team's stable of products reflect this understanding?

It couldn't be as simple as a disconnect between what the team knows and what it delivers, so I continued thinking about what was holding Windows Live back. Could the problem with Windows Live be in its DNA? Is it doomed to fail because it is suffering from Microsoftitis, and will it fare better if the entire division was spun off into an independent entity? Everything said and done though, buying Yahoo! doesn't seem like the right course of action to fix Windows Live. Or is it?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Real Threat of a Mac & Virtualization

The Back Story

Okay, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that I enjoy commenting on Apple's business strategy, marketing practices and products. You would think that I am guilty of heresy considering I work for Microsoft. Well, I lived with that burden for a few years until I found an entire "underground" community of fellow Mac enthusiasts at Microsoft - they're aptly called "the Mac Users Group". That an enthusiast group for a rival's products can exist at Microsoft should tell you something about the openness of this company. But I digress...

There is no denying that people, not just geeks, are simply enamored with the new Mac Laptops. There are unofficial numbers indicating the Mac's market share at a strong 21% of the Consumer market, and that number is trending on the up. Within Microsoft too, I've witnessed a steady increase in the number of my Microsoft cohorts requesting help with setting up their new MacBook Pro, more people extolling the virtues of Mac OS X. Till last year, these folks (and employees of other corporations) had to contend with owning two machines - while their Mac catered to activities in their down-time, they had to revert to their Windows machine for work-related commitments. They say, "Perception is everything", and this clear distinction between a Mac and a PC led to the Mac being dubbed a Hobbyist platform. Not very flattering if you ask me.

Virtualization - What?

The perception of what a Mac could do changed with the release of Mac OS 10.4, codenamed Tiger. A small company in Renton, WA released a virtualization solution for the Mac called Parallels that allowed users to run Windows in "parallel" to Mac OS X. Via virtualization, you can run Windows-only applications and games on a Mac. That's right - you can run Windows-only applications and games on a Mac via virtualization!

Parallels wasn't the first virtualization solution for the Mac - the other virtualization solution for the Mac was Virtual PC, an abysmally slow product and was taken off the shelves a few years after Microsoft acquired Virtual PC. Windows on a Mac via Parallels didn't run at breakneck speed, but for the first time, owning a Mac didn't come with the associated burden of owning a Windows PC in order to get work done.

In Fall 2007, Apple released the next version of their operating system - Mac OS 10.5, codenamed Leopard. A heralded feature of Leopard was Spaces, a feature that Unix desktops have had for as long as I can remember. Spaces is a way to organize currently opened applications into multiple desktops, and is touted to boost productivity. In my case, I tend to switch between 2 sets of applications that I would organize into 2 Spaces (if I had a Mac at work):
- a Work space with all the work related applications - Outlook, gVIM, Visio and Powerpoint
- a Personal space containing Firefox, Photoshop, Live Writer, etc

As Mac OS X started gaining momentum, the Parallels product for the Mac gained in popularity. VMWare, a big player in the Virtualization space, recognized that Parallels was on to something, and created a rival product called Fusion. VMWare's entry into this market was good news for everyone - it legitimized both the Mac platform and Parallels, it created competition for the incumbent product which made both products better, and it gave Mac owners a choice of virtualization software. The reviews are in for both products, and it's only good news. Barring the minor performance issues people have noticed, they are extremely happy with their Mac purchase, with Mac OSX, and with running Windows via Parallels or Fusion.

What's good for Apple is bad for Microsoft

I've talked about Mac OS X, Spaces, and the freedom customers now have to both work and play on their Macs via Virtualization and Leopard. The marriage of these ideas is what occurred to me last afternoon as I walked out of the office. Here's the scenario that prompted this post:
Roy works at a company that has made extensive IT investments in Microsoft technologies like Exchange and SQL. At work, Roy needs to use products that only work on Windows like Visual Studio and Visio. As his work demands more travel, Roy is given the option of buying either a Mac or a Dell/Lenovo laptop.
Till last year, Roy would almost certainly pick either Dell or Lenovo. Today, Apple is the other horse in this race, and unlike the other two, evokes a visceral response in its owners like no other technology product. If Roy chooses a Mac, he can set his computer up using Spaces so that his Work space has all his Windows-only applications running in, you got it right, a Fusion/Parallels powered Virtual Machine, and his Personal space can be powered by applications that are running natively on the Mac. Switching between the 2 completely disparate environments, hitherto impossible, is now akin to switching between applications via Alt+Tab (it's a different key combination but you get my point). Totally seamless!

The increasing market share of the Mac has 2 distinct repercussions on the Windows business:

1. OS Upgrades
The customer satisfaction numbers for Vista aren't pretty; under pressure from customers, Dell has restarted selling machines preloaded with Windows XP. All the line of business applications that run on Vista also run on Windows XP, so a lot of businesses don't see the need to upgrade to Vista. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Windows XP is cheaper to purchase than Vista is. As a corporate employee that owns a Mac, this tells me that I can continue using Windows XP installed in a Virtual Machine to get my work done.

2. OEM Sales and Windows Volume Licensing
Microsoft makes most of its money selling Windows to OEMs. The new PC you bought with Windows preinstalled sent some more money into Microsoft's coffers. Microsoft gets no money when a Mac is bought, so its bottom-line is affected every time a customer (consumer or corporate) decides to buy a Mac instead of a PC.

It could just be that Microsoft's losses on account of Mac's gains are but a drop in the ocean. Please feel free to drop me a line or post a comment if you have more insight into this.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

WannaBet - The silent weeks are coming to an end

There hasn't been much news worth writing about over the last few weeks. In the Technology World, Apple's brand is scaling new heights while Microsoft's image is in steady decline. The youth of America want to have nothing to do with the real problems that beset the rest of the country but can't get enough of the exploits of the idiots on MTV. The War in Iraq rages on, the credit crisis continues to threaten the financial well being of every American, I wish I was being paid in Euros (even Rupees) instead of the $$ - isn't the status quo comforting?

Speaking of the status quo, one thing that has definitely changed is my involvement in projects outside of work. No I am not talking about my antics on the squash court or at the local pub - come on now! Rajit, Nishant and I put a lot of our creative efforts into building a new Facebook application - it's called WannaBet? and as the name suggests, it gives wings to the casual better lurking within all of us. So how's this work?

First up, you need to get yourself a facebook account if you don't have one already. On a side note, if you don't have facebook account, have you been living under a rock? :)

Second, point your browser to WannaBet?

Third, think of the last time you had an argument with your pesky room-mate when you know you were right but he wouldn't back down. Create a bet with him, set the stakes, set an end date, invite your friends to vote on the bet and make him pay for his stubbornness. I wouldn't mind losing a bet to a girl, so creating a bet is out of the question when I disagree with a girl ;)

Fourth, let me know what you think including any feature requests.

Finally, have yourself a blast in whatever it is you do.