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Tag: Microsoft

How to Regulate Big Tech

There’s been a fair amount of talk lately about proactively regulating — and maybe even breaking up — the “Big Tech” companies.

Full disclosure: this post discusses regulating large tech companies. I own shares in several of these both directly (in the case of Facebook and Microsoft) and indirectly (through ETFs that own stakes in large companies)

(Image Credit: MIT Sloan)

Like many, I have become increasingly uneasy over the fact that a small handful of companies, with few credible competitors, have amassed so much power over our personal data and what information we see. As a startup investor and former product executive at a social media startup, I can especially sympathize with concerns that these large tech companies have created an unfair playing field for smaller companies.

At the same time, though, I’m mindful of all the benefits that the tech industry — including the “tech giants” — have brought: amazing products and services, broader and cheaper access to markets and information, and a tremendous wave of job and wealth creation vital to may local economies. For that reason, despite my concerns of “big tech”‘s growing power, I am wary of reaching for “quick fixes” that might change that.

As a result, I’ve been disappointed that much of the discussion has centered on knee-jerk proposals like imposing blanket stringent privacy regulations and forcefully breaking up large tech companies. These are policies which I fear are not only self-defeating but will potentially put into jeopardy the benefits of having a flourishing tech industry.

The Challenges with Regulating Tech

Technology is hard to regulate. The ability of software developers to collaborate and build on each other’s innovations means the tech industry moves far faster than standard regulatory / legislative cycles. As a result, many of the key laws on the books today that apply to tech date back decades — before Facebook or the iPhone even existed, making it important to remember that even well-intentioned laws and regulations governing tech can cement in place rules which don’t keep up when the companies and the social & technological forces involved change.

Another factor which complicates tech policy is that the traditional “big is bad” mentality ignores the benefits to having large platforms. While Amazon’s growth has hurt many brick & mortar retailers and eCommerce competitors, its extensive reach and infrastructure enabled businesses like Anker and Instant Pot to get to market in a way which would’ve been virtually impossible before. While the dominance of Google’s Android platform in smartphones raised concerns from European regulators, its hard to argue that the companies which built millions of mobile apps and tens of thousands of different types of devices running on Android would have found it much more difficult to build their businesses without such a unified software platform. Policy aimed at “Big Tech” should be wary of dismantling the platforms that so many current and future businesses rely on.

Its also important to remember that poorly crafted regulation in tech can be self-defeating. The most effective way to deal with the excesses of “Big Tech”, historically, has been creating opportunities for new market entrants. After all, many tech companies previously thought to be dominant (like Nokia, IBM, and Microsoft) lost their positions, not because of regulation or antitrust, but because new technology paradigms (i.e. smartphones, cloud), business models (i.e. subscription software, ad-sponsored), and market entrants (i.e. Google, Amazon) had the opportunity to flourish. Because rules (i.e. Article 13/GDPR) aimed at big tech companies generally fall hardest on small companies (who are least able to afford the infrastructure / people to manage it), its important to keep in mind how solutions for “Big Tech” problems affect smaller companies and new concepts as well.

Framework for Regulating “Big Tech”

If only it were so easy… (Image credit: XKCD)

To be 100% clear, I’m not saying that the tech industry and big platforms should be given a pass on rules and regulation. If anything, I believe that laws and regulation play a vital role in creating flourishing markets.

But, instead of treating “Big Tech” as just a problem to kill, I think we’d be better served by laws / regulations that recognize the limits of regulation on tech and, instead, focus on making sure emerging companies / technologies can compete with the tech giants on a level playing field. To that end, I hope to see more ideas that embrace the following four pillars:

I. Tiering regulation based on size of the company

Regulations on tech companies should be tiered based on size with the most stringent rules falling on the largest companies. Size should include traditional metrics like revenue but also, in this age of marketplace platforms and freemium/ad-sponsored business models, account for the number of users (i.e. Monthly Active Users) and third party partners.

In this way, the companies with the greatest potential for harm and the greatest ability to bear the costs face the brunt of regulation, leaving smaller companies & startups with greater flexibility to innovate and iterate.

II. Championing data portability

One of the reasons it’s so difficult for competitors to challenge the tech giants is the user lock-in that comes from their massive data advantage. After all, how does a rival social network compete when a user’s photos and contacts are locked away inside Facebook?

While Facebook (and, to their credit, some of the other tech giants) does offer ways to export user data and to delete user data from their systems, these tend to be unwieldy, manual processes that make it difficult for a user to bring their data to a competing service. Requiring the largest tech platforms to make this functionality easier to use (i.e., letting others import your contact list and photos with the ease in which you can login to many apps today using Facebook) would give users the ability to hold tech companies accountable for bad behavior or not innovating (by being able to walk away) and fosters competition by letting new companies compete not on data lock-in but on features and business model.

III. Preventing platforms from playing unfairly

3rd party platform participants (i.e., websites listed on Google, Android/iOS apps like Spotify, sellers on Amazon) are understandably nervous when the platform owners compete with their own offerings (i.e., Google Places, Apple Music, Amazon first party sales). As a result, some have even called for banning platform owners from offering their own products and services.

I believe that is an overreaction. Platform owners offering attractive products and services (i.e., Google offering turn-by-turn navigation on Android phones) can be a great thing for users (after all, most prominent platforms started by providing compelling first-party offerings) and for 3rd party participants if these offerings improve the attractiveness of the platform overall.

What is hard to justify is when platform owners stack the deck in their favor using anti-competitive moves such as banning or reducing the visibility of competitors, crippling third party offerings, making excessive demands on 3rd parties, etc. Its these sorts of actions by the largest tech platforms that pose a risk to consumer choice and competition and should face regulatory scrutiny. Not just the fact that a large platform exists or that the platform owner chooses to participate in it.

IV. Modernizing how anti-trust thinks about defensive acquisitions

The rise of the tech giants has led to many calls to unwind some of the pivotal mergers and acquisitions in the space. As much as I believe that anti-trust regulators made the wrong calls on some of these transactions, I am not convinced, beyond just wanting to punish “Big Tech” for being big, that the Pandora’s Box of legal and financial issues (for the participants, employees, users, and for the tech industry more broadly) that would be opened would be worthwhile relative to pursuing other paths to regulate bad behavior directly.

That being said, its become clear that anti-trust needs to move beyond narrow revenue share and pricing-based definitions of anti-competitiveness (which do not always apply to freemium/ad-sponsored business models). Anti-trust prosecutors and regulators need to become much more thoughtful and assertive around how some acquisitions are done simply to avoid competition (i.e., Google’s acquisition of Waze and Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp are two examples of landmark acquisitions which probably should have been evaluated more closely).

Wrap-Up

(Image Credit: OECD Forum Network)

This is hardly a complete set of rules and policies needed to approach growing concerns about “Big Tech”. Even within this framework, there are many details (i.e., who the specific regulators are, what specific auditing powers they have, the details of their mandate, the specific thresholds and number of tiers to be set, whether pre-installing an app counts as unfair, etc.) that need to be defined which could make or break the effort. But, I believe this is a good set of principles that balances both the need to foster a tech industry that will continue to grow and drive innovation as well as the need to respond to growing concerns about “Big Tech”.

Special thanks to Derek Yang and Anthony Phan for reading earlier versions and giving me helpful feedback!

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Why VR Could be as Big as the Smartphone Revolution

Technology in the 1990s and early 2000s marched to the beat of an Intel-and-Microsoft-led drum.

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via IT Portal

Intel would release new chips at a regular cadence: each cheaper, faster, and more energy efficient than the last. This would let Microsoft push out new, more performance-hungry software, which would, in turn, get customers to want Intel’s next, more awesome chip. Couple that virtuous cycle with the fact that millions of households were buying their first PCs and getting onto the Internet for the first time – and great opportunities were created to build businesses and products across software and hardware.

But, over time, that cycle broke down. By the mid-2000s, Intel’s technological progress bumped into the limits of what physics would allow with regards to chip performance and cost. Complacency from its enviable market share coupled with software bloat from its Windows and Office franchises had a similar effect on Microsoft. The result was that the Intel and Microsoft drum stopped beating as they became unable to give the mass market a compelling reason to upgrade to each subsequent generation of devices.

The result was a hollowing out of the hardware and semiconductor industries tied to the PC market that was only masked by the innovation stemming from the rise of the Internet and the dawn of a new technology cycle in the late 2000s in the form of Apple’s iPhone and its Android competitors: the smartphone.

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via Mashable

A new, but eerily familiar cycle began: like clockwork, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Apple (playing the part of Intel) would devise new, more awesome chips which would feed the creation of new performance-hungry software from Google and Apple (playing the part of Microsoft) which led to demand for the next generation of hardware. Just as with the PC cycle, new and lucrative software, hardware, and service businesses flourished.

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But, just as with the PC cycle, the smartphone cycle is starting to show signs of maturity. Apple’s recent slower than expected growth has already been blamed on smartphone market saturation. Users are beginning to see each new generation of smartphone as marginal improvements. There are also eery parallels between the growing complaints over Apple software quality from even Apple fans and the position Microsoft was in near the end of the PC cycle.

While its too early to call the end for Apple and Google, history suggests that we will eventually enter a similar phase with smartphones that the PC industry experienced. This begs the question: what’s next? Many of the traditional answers to this question – connected cars, the “Internet of Things”, Wearables, Digital TVs – have not yet proven themselves to be truly mass market, nor have they shown the virtuous technology upgrade cycle that characterized the PC and smartphone industries.

This brings us to Virtual Reality. With VR, we have a new technology paradigm that can (potentially) appeal to the mass market (new types of games, new ways of doing work, new ways of experiencing the world, etc.). It also has a high bar for hardware performance that will benefit dramatically from advances in technology, not dissimilar from what we saw with the PC and smartphone.

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via Forbes

The ultimate proof will be whether or not a compelling ecosystem of VR software and services emerges to make this technology more of a mainstream “must-have” (something that, admittedly, the high price of the first generation Facebook/Oculus, HTC/Valve, and Microsoft products may hinder).

As a tech enthusiast, its easy to get excited. Not only is VR just frickin’ cool (it is!), its probably the first thing since the smartphone with the mass appeal and virtuous upgrade cycle that can bring about the huge flourishing of products and companies that makes tech so dynamic to be involved with.

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A Few Months with the Chromebook

(Hello visitors, if you’re interested in this post, you may be interested to know that I have posted my impressions of the newer Chromebook Pixel here)

Last year, I had the chance to attend the New Game conference sponsored by Google to talk about the use of HTML5 in games. The conference itself was fascinating as it brought up many of the themes I’ve mentioned before on this blog about the rise of HTML5 as a tool to build compelling software, but one of the highlights was that Google gave every attendee a free Samsung Series 5 Chromebook to test out and use for development purposes.

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I’ve blogged a few times before about Chromebooks and how they represent the next logical step in Google’s belief in the web as the core platform for software delivery (seeing how they’re machines that are built almost entirely around the browser), and I jumped at the chance to test it out.

I initially tested out the Chromebook shortly after getting it for a week or two. To be completely honest, I was underwhelmed. While there were many cool things about the operating system (it always being up to date, the built in Google Talk experience, and the ability to use Google Docs as a scratchpad for starters), the machine just felt very slow (likely in part because of the low-end Intel Atom processor inside). The device never seemed to sync properly with my Google account, the lack of a desktop made this feel more like a browser with a keyboard than an operating system, and poor support for offline functionality and handling of peripherals made it feel very constraining. I meant to write up a review on the blog but I never got around to it and it faded from memory, collecting dust in storage…

Flash forward to May when Google unveiled a pretty bold re-vamp of the Chrome OS operating system that lies behind the Chromebook: Aura. Aura replaced what was formerly a within-one-browser-window experience with something which looks and feels a lot more like a traditional operating system with a taskbar, multiple windows (and hence true multi-tasking), a desktop background, a “system tray/control panel” to readily access system-wide settings (i.e. battery life, which WiFi network I’m connected to, screen brightness, etc), and an application launcher. My previous problems with syncing with my Google account are gone (and its support for tab syncing – where I can continue browsing a webpage I was reading on another device – make using this very natural). The experience also just feels faster – both the act of browsing as well as thinsg like how quickly the touchpad responds to commands. Chromebooks now also handle more file types natively (whether downloaded or from removable media), and, with the recently announced offline Google Drive integration, Chromebooks have gotten a lot more useful and have taken another step to achieve the “web file system” vision I blogged about before.

Much to my surprise, I’ve even found myself turning to my Chromebook regularly as a casual consumption device. It being instant-on, browser-centric, and ready support for multiple user accounts makes it a perfect device to watch TV epsiodes or movies from Google Play, Netflix, or Amazon Videos or to share interesting articles to my Tumblr (something that my touch-centric Galaxy Nexus and Motorola Xoom do less well at).

Realistically, there are a set of apps which I’ve found to work much better on Windows/Linux (mainly coding, using Microsoft Excel, and composing blog posts) and which prevent me from using a Chromebook for 100% of my computing needs. But, while important, these only take up a minority of my time on a computer — what actually stops me from using the Chromebook much more actively as a primary machine in my job and day-to-day are two far more pressing items:

  1. Evernote does not work. I am a very active user of Evernote for note-taking and note organization, and its unfailing ability to crash whatever tab is open to it on a Chromebook is a pretty major roadblock for me.
  2. Some web apps don’t play nice because they don’t recognize Chrome OS properly. The key culprit here for me is Microsoft Outlook. A conspiracy theorist might think this was some ploy by Microsoft to get people using Chrome OS to switch to Windows or by Google to get Outlook users to switch to Google Apps – but at the end of the day, Microsoft’s very nice, new Outlook Web App, which works beautifully on Chrome on my Windows 7 machine, treats the Chromebook as if it were a barely functioning computer running Internet Explorer 6 – leaving me with a crippled web experience for what is my corporate email lifeline. If Google made it possible to spoof the browser identification or found a way to convince Microsoft to give Chrome OS flying colors when it comes to serving up web apps, that would make me a MUCH happier camper.

These issues aside, there is no doubt in my mind that Chrome OS/Chromebooks are a concept worthy of consideration for people who are thinking about buying a new computer for themselves or their loved ones: if you spend most of your time on the computer on the web and don’t need to code or create/consume massive files, these machines are perfect (they boot fast, they update themselves, and they are built with the web in mind). I think this sort of model also will probably work quite well in quite a few enterprise/educational settings, given how easy they are to support and to share between multiple users. This feels to me like an increasingly real validation of my hypothesis of the web as software platform and, while there’s quite a few remaining rough spots, I was very impressed by the new Aura revision and look forward to more refreshes coming out from the Chrome team and more time with my Chromebook :-).

(Image credit – Chromebook – Google)

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Kinect for Science

(Cross posted to Bench Press)

kinect_heroWe’ve blogged before about applying gaming technology to science, but much of that has been about using games or gaming system chips. A recent Wired magazine article reveals another interesting use case: taking the capabilities of something like Microsoft’s Xbox360 Kinect system and applying it directly to science research!

Apparently, a number of groups have decided to try out the Kinect as a “poor man’s” LIDAR (a tool that can be used to see and measure where things are in three dimensions)/complicated 3D camera setups which are expensive and require sophisticated calibration/post-processing analysis.

Of course, the Kinect is not a panacea: it has much more limited range, requires researchers to build their own analytical software, and the Kinect can’t do high-speed video (yet). But, because of its much lower price, its size, and the availability of drivers because of the active Kinect hacking/DIY community (and the support that even Microsoft is providing for people using Kinect beyond gaming), a number of researchers have decided to embrace the Kinect as a scientific tool.

The article profiles two potential use cases which only begin to scratch the surface of what this technology could be capable of: mapping meltwater lakes that form on top of glaciers (see images below) and studying small body impacts in space.

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But, potentially the most valuable use of Kinect? As the Wired article puts it:

The Kinect’s best asset may be that it inspires students, Tedesco said. Rather than a daunting black box with convoluted cables and arcane software, the Kinect is something that many students are already familiar with.

“This creates a different mindset in students,” he said. “They’re not so scared about using the Kinect, and they can really get involved in learning and basic research.”

“I’m actually on my way to buy two of them right now,” he added.

(Image credit – Kinect) (Image credit – Kinect glacier map)

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Googorola

I would lose my tech commentator license if I didn’t weigh in on the news of Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility. So, without further ado, four quick thoughts on “Googorola”:

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  • This is a refreshingly bold move by Google. Frankly, I had expected Google to continue its fairly whiny, defensive path on this for some time as they and the rest of the Android ecosystem cobbled together a solution to the horrendous intellectual property situation they found themselves in. After all, while Android was strategically important to Google as a means of preventing another operating system (like Windows or iOS) from weakening their great influence on the mobile internet, one could argue that most of that strategic value came from just making Android available and keeping it updated. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me that it would make dollars-and-cents sense for Google to spend a lot of cash fighting battles that, frankly, Samsung, HTC, LG, and the others should have been prepared to fight on their own. That Google did this at all sends a powerful message to the ecosystem that the success of Android is critical to Google and that it will even go so far as to engage in “unnatural acts” (Google getting into the hardware business!?) to make it so.
  • It will be interesting to observe Google’s IP strategy going forward. Although its not perfect, Google has taken a fairly pro-open source stance when it comes to intellectual property. Case in point: after spending over $100M on video codec maker On2, Google moved to make On2’s VP8/WebM codec freely available for others to integrate as an alternative to the license-laden H.264 codec. Sadly, because of the importance of building up a patent armory in this business, I doubt Google will do something similar here – instead, Google will likely hold on to its patent arsenal and either use it as a legal deterrent to Microsoft/Apple/Nokia or find a smart way to license them to key partners to help bolster their legal cases. It will be interesting to see how Google changes its intellectual property practices and strategy now that its gone through this. I suspect we will see a shift away from the open-ness that so many of us loved about Google.
  • I don’t put much stock into speculation that Motorola’s hardware business will just be spun out again. This is true for a number of reasons:
    1. I’m unaware of any such precedent where a large company acquires another large one, strips it of its valuable intellectual property, and then spins it out. Not only do I think regulators/antitrust guys would not look too kindly on such a deal, but I think Google would have a miserable time trying to convince new investors/buyers that a company stripped of its most valuable assets could stand on its own.
    2. Having the Motorola business gives Google additional tools to build and influence the ecosystem. Other than the Google-designed Nexus devices and requirements Google imposes on its manufacturing partners to support the Android Market, Google actually has fairly little influence over the ecosystem and the specific product decisions that OEMs like Samsung and HTC make. Else, we wouldn’t see so many custom UI layers and bloatware bundled on new Android phones. Having Motorola in-house gives Google valuable hardware chops that it probably did not have before (which will be useful in building out new phones/tablets, new use cases like the Atrix’s (not very successful but still promising) webtop, its accessory development kit strategy, and Android@Home), and lets them always have a “backup option” to release a new service/feature if the other OEMs are not being cooperative.
    3. Motorola’s strong set-top box business is not to be underestimated. Its pretty commonly known that GoogleTV did not go the way that Google had hoped. While it was a bold vision and a true technical feat, I think this is another case of Google not focusing on the product management side of things. Post-acquisition, however, Google might be able leverage Motorola’s expertise in working with cable companies and content providers to create a GoogleTV that is more attuned to the interests/needs of both consumers and the cable/content guys. And, even if that is not in the cards, Motorola may be a powerful ally in helping to bring more internet video content, like the kind found on YouTube, to more TVs and devices.
  • There is a huge risk from Google mismanaging the ecosystem with this move. Although some of Google’s biggest partners have been quoted as being supportive of this deal, that could simply be politeness or relief that someone will be able to protect them from Apple/Microsoft that’s talking. Google has intelligently come out publicly to state that they intend to run Motorola as a separate business and don’t plan on making any changes to their Nexus phone strategy. But, while Google may believe that going into this (and I think they do), and while I believe that Android’s success will be in building a true horizontal platform rather than imitating Apple’s vertical model, the reality of the situation is that you can’t really maintain something as an independent business completely free of influence, and that the temptation will always be there to play favorites. My hope is that Google institutes some very real firewalls and processes to maintain that independence. As a “fandroid” and as someone who is a big believer in the big opportunities enabled by Android, I think the real potential lies in going beyond just what one company can do, even if its Google.

Regardless of what happens, we definitely live in interesting times :-).

(Image credits)

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Addendum to iPhone/DROID2

Having written a long treatise on how the DROID 2 and iPhone 4 stack up against one another, I thought it would be good to add another post on where I thought both phones were deficient in the hopes that folks from the smartphone industry would listen intently so that my next phone choice is more clear. Note: I’ve focused this list on things that I think are actually do-able, rather than far-off wishes which are probably beyond our current technology (e.g., week-long battery life, Star Trek-like voice commands, etc):

  • Usage profiles: One of the biggest pains with using smartphones is that they are a pain to customize. The limited screen real-estate and the difficulty of relying on keyboard shortcuts means that settings are buried under multiple menus. This is fine if you really only use your phone in one way, or if you only need to change one or two sets of settings. It is not useful if, like me, you want your phone to act a specific way at work but a fairly different way in the car, or in the home. In that case, both Android and iPhone are severely lacking. The Android Tasker app allows me to create numerous profiles (I’ve created a in-car, in-meeting, at home/office profile and separate profiles for weekends and weeknights with regards to notifications and email sync) – and so is well worth the $6 price – but it is not as elegant of a solution as if it were integrated into the OS, exposing additional functionality.
  • Seamless computer-to-phone: Because smartphones have small screens, weak processors, and semi-awkward input interfaces, there are some things (i.e., research, making presentations/documents, crunching, etc) which I prefer to do on a larger computer.  This doesn’t mean, however, that I want my smartphone to be a completely separate entity from my computer. Quite the opposite – what I really want to see happen is a more seamless integration of computer and phone. At the most basic level, it means I want my bookmarks/browser history/favorite music easily synced between phone and computer. On a more sophisticated level, it means I want to be able to read/edit the same material (from the same place I left off) regardless of where I am or what device I’m using. If I’m running an application on my PC, I want to be able to pick up where I left on in a reduced-screen version of that application on my phone. Google’s Chrome-to-Phone, Mozilla’s Firefox Sync, and applications like DropBox just barely scratch the surface of this – and if someone figured out a highly effective way to do this (it would probably be Apple, Google, or Microsoft), they’d instantly have my business.
  • Email functions: Honestly, guys. Why is it that I cannot: (a) sort my email oldest to newest or (b) create new folders/labels from within your mail application? Blackberry could at least do (a).
  • Every app/screen should support landscape mode: This is one of my biggest pet peeves (more so with the iPhone than the DROID). Why is it that the homescreen of these devices doesn’t support landscape view (the DROID2 does but only if I pull the keyboard out)? Why is it that the iPhone App Store, Yelp, and Maps apps don’t support landscape mode? And why is it that I can’t lock the iPhone in landscape mode, but only in portrait mode? Apple, how about, instead of reviewing iPhone apps for what you deem to be “inappropriate content”, you force developers to support both portrait and landscape mode?

(Image credit)

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QR^2?

When I was in Japan a few years ago, I was astounded by the abundance of square blocks of black dots (see below) on advertising and print which I later found out were called QR codes. The concept is actually quite ingenious. A standard barcode can only store so much information in the thickness and positioning of the barcode lines because its a one-dimensional code. But a two-dimensional QR code can store a ton more data. This makes it possible to store long web addresses, include error detection/correction methods, and even embed text information in more sophisticated languages (like Japanese).

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QR codes have slowly been increasing in adoption in the US and Europe as phone camera/image recognition technology has improved to meet their Japanese counterparts. But, Microsoft decided to take the technology one step further: instead of just being black and white blobs, why not introduce greater customization, tracking ability, and a little color?

Behold, Microsoft Tag (HT: Register). The main visual difference you’ll see are the availability of color and custom designs:

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Underneath the surface lies a bunch of other enhancements, including:

  • Support across most major phone brands
  • Tag manager to provide analytics information on how people are reading your tags
  • API to allow developers access to the tag manager
  • Allows you to change Tag behavior based on a user’s previous tag viewing history or even the user’s location
  • New error correction/color allow for smaller tags and better translation

The question is, will businesses use it? On a basic execution level, the Register brings up the potential problem of recognition. As ugly and clunky as “vanilla” QR codes are, they are very distinctive. Will it still be easy to identify Microsoft’s smaller, customized in-color boxes as codes to scan?

On a business-level, the biggest problem is that “Vanilla” QR codes do quite well in terms of functionality already. Microsoft will need to provide significant value-add in their tag manager/API/customization features to get businesses to switch to a format that Redmond has control over. Given Microsoft’s strengths in software, I’m also astonished they didn’t build in more functionality to make it an easier sell (such as the ability to embed more sophisticated instructions in the codes, or to run specific software/pass specific information when used in a certain context) – a future enhancement, perhaps?

With that said, those who rely on advertising to make a living may find it pretty easy to hand over the reins to a well-put-together Microsoft project as a hedge on their increasing dependence on Google and Apple for their livelihoods. In any event, there’s probably no harm in downloading the reader on your phone or checking out the Microsoft Tag website.

(Image credits – Microsoft Tag website)

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Microsoft surprise attack!

If you’ve been following the tech news, you’ll know that iPhone-purveyor Apple has launched a patent infringement lawsuit against HTC, one of the flagship (Taiwanese) phone manufacturers partnered up with Google and Microsoft to push Android and Windows phones. While HTC may be the company listed on the lawsuit, it was fairly clear that this was a blow against all iPhone imitators and especially against Google’s Android mobile phone (which was recently reported to have generated more mobile web traffic in the US than the iPhone).

But, as I’ve pointed out before, the lines between enemy and friend are murky in the technology strategy space. It would seem that Microsoft may have just thrown HTC (and hence the Android platform and other would-be iPhone-killers) a surprise lifeline:

REDMOND, Wash. — April 27, 2010 — Microsoft Corp. and HTC Corp. have signed a patent agreement that provides broad coverage under Microsoft’s patent portfolio for HTC’s mobile phones running the Android mobile platform. Under the terms of the agreement, Microsoft will receive royalties from HTC.

The agreement expands HTC’s long-standing business relationship with Microsoft.

“HTC and Microsoft have a long history of technical and commercial collaboration, and today’s agreement is an example of how industry leaders can reach commercial arrangements that address intellectual property,” said Horacio Gutierrez, corporate vice president and deputy general counsel of Intellectual Property and Licensing at Microsoft. “We are pleased to continue our collaboration with HTC.”

Why? I’d conjecture its a combination of three things:

  • Sizable royalty stream: Microsoft is an intellectual property giant. But, given Microsoft’s tenuous and potentially weakening position in mobile phones, they have probably been unable to fully monetize their own intellectual property. Why not test the waters with a company who is already friendly (HTC is a leading supplier of Windows Mobile phones), who desperately needs some intellectual property protection, and is churning out Android phones as if its life depended on it? And, if this works out, it opens the doorway for Microsoft to extract further royalties from other Android phone makers as well (and its even been suggested ominously that perhaps Microsoft is using this as an intellectual property ploy against all Linux systems as well).
  • The enemy of my enemy is my friend: Apple is the Goliath that Windows, Blackberry, Symbian, WebOS, and Android need to slay. Given Microsoft’s unique advantage from being the leading PC operating system, one potentially feasible strategy would be to simply stall its competitors from building a similar position in the mobile phone space (like by helping Android take on Apple) and, when Microsoft is nice and ready, win in mobile phones by moving the PC “software stack” into the mobile phone world and creating better ties between computers (which run Microsoft’s own Windows operating system) and the phone.
  • HTC probably made some fairly significant concessions to Microsoft: I’m willing to bet that HTC has either coughed up some extremely favorable intellectual property royalty/licensing terms or has promised to support Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 series in a very big way. Considering how quickly HTC embraced Android when it was formerly a Windows-Mobile-only shop, its probably not a stretch to believe that there were probably active discussions within HTC over whether or not to drop Microsoft’s faltering platform. An agreement from HTC to build a certain number of Windows phones or to align on roadmap would be a blessing for Microsoft who likely needs all the friends it can get to claw back smartphone market share.

Obviously, I could be completely wrong here (its unclear if Microsoft can even provide HTC with sufficient legal “air cover” against Apple), but the one thing that nobody can deny is that tech strategy is never boring.

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Keep your enemies closer

One of the most interesting things about technology strategy is that the lines of competition between different businesses is always blurry. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this, would anyone 10 years ago have predicted that:

I’m betting not too many people saw these coming. Well, a short while ago, the New York Times Tech Blog decided to chart some of this out, highlighting how the boundaries between some of the big tech giants out there (Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo) are blurring:

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Its an oversimplification of the complexity and the economics of each of these business moves, but its still a very useful depiction of how tech companies wage war: they keep their enemies so close that they eventually imitate their business models.

(Chart credit)

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Why smartphones are a big deal (Part 1)

image A cab driver the other day went off on me with a rant about how new smartphone users were all smug, arrogant gadget snobs for using phones that did more than just make phone calls. “Why you gotta need more than just the phone?”, he asked.

While he was probably right on the money with the “smug”, “arrogant”, and “snob” part of the description of smartphone users (at least it accurately describes yours truly), I do think he’s ignoring a lot of the important changes which the smartphone revolution has made in the technology industry and, consequently, why so many of the industry’s venture capitalists and technology companies are investing so heavily in this direction. This post will be the first of two posts looking at what I think are the four big impacts of smartphones like the Blackberry and the iPhone on the broader technology landscape:

  1. It’s the software, stupid
  2. Look ma, no <insert other device here>
  3. Putting the carriers in their place
  4. Contextuality

I. It’s the software, stupid!

You can find possibly the greatest impact of the smartphone revolution in the very definition of smartphone: phones which can run rich operating systems and actual applications. As my belligerent cab-driver pointed out, the cellular phone revolution was originally about being able to talk to other people on the go. People bought phones based on network coverage, call quality, the weight of a phone, and other concerns primarily motivated by call usability.

Smartphones, however, change that. Instead of just making phone calls, they also do plenty of other things. While a lot of consumers focus their attention on how their phones now have touchscreens, built-in cameras, GPS, and motion-sensors, the magic change that I see is the ability to actually run programs.

Why do I say this software thing more significant than the other features which have made their ways on to the phone? There are a number of reasons for this, but the big idea is that the ability to run software makes smartphones look like mobile computers. We have seen this pan out in a number of ways:

  • The potential uses for a mobile phone have exploded overnight. Whereas previously, they were pretty much limited to making phone calls, sending text messages/emails, playing music, and taking pictures, now they can be used to do things like play games, look up information, and even be used by doctors to help treat and diagnose patients. In the same way that a computer’s usefulness extends beyond what a manufacturer like Dell or HP or Apple have built into the hardware because of software, software opens up new possibilities for mobile phones in ways which we are only beginning to see.
  • Phones can now be “updated”. Before, phones were simply replaced when they became outdated. Now, some users expect that a phone that they buy will be maintained even after new models are released. Case in point: Users threw a fit when Samsung decided not to allow users to update their Samsung Galaxy’s operating system to a new version of the Android operating system. Can you imagine 10 years ago users getting up in arms if Samsung didn’t ship a new 2 MP mini-camera to anyone who owned an earlier version of the phone which only had a 1 MP camera?
  • An entire new software industry has emerged with its own standards and idiosyncrasies. About four decades ago, the rise of the computer created a brand new industry almost out of thin air. After all, think of all the wealth and enabled productivity that companies like Oracle, Microsoft, and Adobe have created over the past thirty years. There are early signs that a similar revolution is happening because of the rise of the smartphone. Entire fortunes have been created “out of thin air” as enterprising individuals and companies move to capture the potential software profits from creating software for the legions of iPhones and Android phones out there. What remains to be seen is whether or not the mobile software industry will end up looking more like the PC software industry, or whether or not the new operating systems and screen sizes and technologies will create something that looks more like a distant cousin of the first software revolution.

II. Look ma, no <insert other device here>

imageOne of the most amazing consequences of Moore’s Law is that devices can quickly take on a heckuva lot more functionality then they used to. The smartphone is a perfect example of this Swiss-army knife mentality. The typical high-end smartphone today can:

  • take pictures
  • use GPS
  • play movies
  • play songs
  • read articles/books
  • find what direction its being pointed in
  • sense motion
  • record sounds
  • run software

… not to mention receive and make phone calls and texts like a phone.

But, unlike cameras, GPS devices, portable media players, eReaders, compasses, Wii-motes, tape recorders, and computers, the phone is something you are likely to keep with you all day long. And, if you have a smartphone which can double as a camera, GPS, portable media player, eReaders, compass, Wii-mote, tape recorder, and computer all at once – tell me why you’re going to hold on to those other devices?

That is, of course, a dramatic oversimplification. After all, I have yet to see a phone which can match a dedicated camera’s image quality or a computer’s speed, screen size, and range of software, so there are definitely reasons you’d pick one of these devices over a smartphone. The point, however, isn’t that smartphones will make these other devices irrelevant, it is that they will disrupt these markets in exactly the way that Clayton Christensen described in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, making business a whole lot harder for companies who are heavily invested in these other device categories. And make no mistake: we’re already seeing this happen as GPS companies are seeing lower prices and demand as smartphones take on more and more sophisticated functionality (heck, GPS makers like Garmin are even trying to get into the mobile phone business!). I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon see similar declines in the market growth rates and profitability for all sorts of other devices.

(to be continued in Part 2)

(Image credit) (Image credit)

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What is with Microsoft’s consumer electronics strategy?

image Regardless of how you feel about Microsoft’s products, you have to appreciate the brilliance of their strategic “playbook”:

  1. Use the fact that Microsoft’s operating system/productivity software is used by almost everyone to identify key customer/partner needs
  2. Build a product which is usually only a second/third-best follower product but make sure it’s tied back to Microsoft’s products
  3. Take advantage of the time and market share that Microsoft’s channel influence, developer community, and product integration buys to invest in the new product with Microsoft’s massive budget until it achieves leadership
  4. If steps 1-3 fail to give Microsoft a dominant position, either exit (because the market is no longer important) or buy out a competitor
  5. Repeat

While the quality of Microsoft’s execution of each step can be called into question, I’d be hard pressed to find a better approach then this one, and I’m sure much of their success can be attributed to finding good ways to repeatedly follow this formula.

image It’s for that reason that I’m completely  bewildered by Microsoft’s consumer electronics business strategy. Instead of finding good ways to integrate the Zune, XBox, and Windows Mobile franchises together or with the Microsoft operating system “mothership” the way Microsoft did by integrating its enterprise software with Office or Internet Explorer with Windows, these three businesses largely stand apart from Microsoft’s home field (PC software) and even from each other.

This is problematic for two big reasons. First, because non-PC devices are outside of Microsoft’s usual playground, it’s not a surprise that Microsoft finds it difficult to expand into new territory. For Microsoft to succeed here, it needs to pull out all the stops and it’s shocking to me that a company with a stake in the ground in four key device areas (PCs, mobile phones, game consoles, and portable media players) would choose not to use one of the few advantages it has over its competitors.

The second and most obvious (to consumers at least) is that Apple has not made this mistake. Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch product lines are clear evolutions of their popular iPod MP3 players which integrate well with Apple’s iTunes computer software and iTunes online store. The entire Apple line-up, although each product is a unique entity, has a similar look and feel. The Safari browser that powers the Apple computer internet experience is, basically, the same that powers the iPhone and iPod Touch. Similarly, the same online store and software (iTunes) which lets iPods load themselves with music lets iPod Touches/iPhones load themselves with applications.

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That neat little integrated package not only makes it easier for Apple consumers to use a product, but the coherent experience across the different devices gives customers even more of a reason to use and/or buy other Apple products.

Contrast that approach with Microsoft’s. Not only are the user interfaces and product designs for the Zune, XBox, and Windows Mobile completely different from one another, they don’t play well together at all. Applications that run on one device (be it the Zune HD, on a Windows PC, on an XBox, or on Windows Mobile) are unlikely to be able to run on any other. While one might be able to forgive this if it was just PC applications which had trouble being “ported” to Microsoft’s other devices (after all, apps that run on an Apple computer don’t work on the iPhone and vice versa), the devices that one would expect this to work well with (i.e. the Zune HD and the XBox because they’re both billed as gaming platforms, or the Zune HD and Windows Mobile because they’re both portable products) don’t. Their application development process doesn’t line up well. And, as far as I’m aware, the devices have completely separate application and content stores!

While recreating the Windows PC experience on three other devices is definitely overkill, I think, were I in Ballmer’s shoes, I would recommend a few simple recommendations which I think would dramatically benefit all of Microsoft’s product lines (and I promise they aren’t the standard Apple/Linux fanboy’s “build something prettier” or “go open source”):

  1. Centralize all application/content “marketplaces” – Apple is no internet genius. Yet, they figured out how to do this. I fail to see why Microsoft can’t do the same.
  2. Invest in building a common application runtime across all the devices – Nobody’s expecting a low-end Windows Mobile phone or a Zune HD to run Microsoft Excel, but to expect that little widgets or games should be able to work across all of Microsoft’s devices is not unreasonable, and would go a long way towards encouraging developers to develop for Microsoft’s new device platforms (if a program can run on just the Zune HD, there’s only so much revenue that a developer can take in, but if it can also run on the XBox and all Windows Mobile phones, then the revenue potential becomes much greater) and towards encouraging consumers to buy more Microsoft gear
  3. Find better ways to link Windows to each device – This can be as simple as building something like iTunes to simplify device management and content streaming, but I have yet to meet anyone with a Microsoft device who hasn’t complained about how poorly the devices work with PCs.

(Image credit – Ballmer) (Image credit – Zune HD) (Image credit – Apple store)

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POWER trip

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I recently read The Race for a New Game Machine, a new book which details the trials and tribulations behind the creation of the chips (which run on the POWER architecture, hence the title of this post) which powered Microsoft’s Xbox360 and Sony’s Playstation 3 next-gen gaming consoles.

The interesting thing that the book reveals is that the same IBM team responsible for designing the Playstation 3 chip (the Cell) with support from partners Sony and Toshiba was asked halfway through the Cell design process to adapt the heart of the Playstation 3 chip for the chip which would go into Microsoft’s XBox360 (the Xenon)!

Ironically, even though work on the Xbox360 started way after work on the Playstation 3’s chip, due to manufacturing issues, Microsoft was able to actually have a test chip BEFORE Sony did.

As the book was written from the perspective of David Shippy and Mickie Phipps, two the engineering leads from IBM, the reader gets a first-hand account of what it was like to be on the engineering team. While the technical details are more watered down than I would have personally liked, the book dove a lot deeper into the business/organizational side of things than I thought IBM legal would allow.

Four big lessons stood out to me after reading this:

  • Organization is important. Although ex-IBM CEO Lou Gerstner engineered one of the most storied corporate turnarounds of all time, helping to transform IBM from a failing mainframe company into a successful and well-integrated “solutions” company, Shippy and Phipps’ account reveal a deeply dysfunctional organization. Corporate groups pursued more projects than the engineering teams could support, and rival product/engineering groups refused to work together in the name of marking territory. In my mind, the Cell chip failed in its vision of being used as the new architecture for all “smart electronic devices” in no small part because of this organizational dysfunction.
  • Know the competition. One thing which stood out to me as a good bestimage practice for competitive engineering projects was the effort described in an early chapter about IBM’s attempt to predict how Intel’s chips would perform during the timeframe of the product launch. I’m not sure if this is done often in engineering efforts, but the fact that IBM tried to understand (and not undersell) the capabilities of Intel’s chips during the launch window helped give the IBM team a clear goal and set of milestones for determining success. That their chip continues to have a remarkably high operating clock speed and computing performance is a testament to the success of that effort.
  • Morale is important. If there was one feeling that the authors were able to convey in the book, it was frustration. Frustration at the organizational dysfunction which plagued IBM. Frustration at not quite ethical shenanigans that IBM played in to deliver the same processing core to two competitors. Frustration at morale-shattering layoffs and hiring freezes. It’s no secret today that IBM’s chip-making division is not the most profitable division in IBM (although this is partly because IBM relies on the division not to make profits, but to give its server products a technology advantage). IBM is certainly not doing itself any favors, then, by working its engineers to the point of exhaustion. Seeing how both authors left IBM during or shortly after this project, I can only hope that IBM has changed things, or else the world may be short yet another talented chipmaker.
  • Move like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Why did Microsoft “get the jump” on Sony, despite the latter starting far far in advance? I trace it to two things. First, immediately upon seeing an excellent new chip technology (ironically, the core processor for the Playstation 3), they seized on the opportunity. They refused to take a different chip from what they wanted, they put their money where their mouth was, and they did it as fast as they could. Second, Microsoft set up a backup manufacturing line in Singapore (at a contract chip manufacturer called Chartered). This was expensive and risky, but Microsoft realized it would be good insurance against risk at IBM’s line and a good way to quickly ramp up production. This combination of betting big, but betting smart (with a way to cover their bet if it went wrong) is a hallmark of Microsoft’s business strategy. And, in this case, they made the right call. The Xbox 360, while not selling as well as Nintendo’s Wii (which incidentally runs an IBM chip as well), has been fairly successful for Microsoft (having the highest attach rate – games sold per machine – of any console), and they had the backup plan necessary to deal with the risk that IBM’s manufacturing process would run into problems (which it ultimately did).

If you’re interested in the tears and sweat that went into designing IBM’s “PB” processing core (it’s revealed in the book that PB stands for PlayBox – an in-joke by Shippy’s team about how the technology being designed was for both the PLAYstation 3 and the xBOX), some first-hand account of how difficult it is to design next-generation semiconductor products, or how IBM got away with designing the same product for two competitors, I’d highly recommend this book.

(Image credit – book cover) (Image – Cell chip)

Book: The Race for a New Game Machine (Amazonlink)

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Playing with Monopoly

imageWith the recent challenges to Google’s purchase of Doubleclick, Microsoft’s endless courtship of Yahoo, and the filing of more papers in the upcoming Intel/AMD case, the question of “why should the government break up monopolies?” becomes much more relevant.

This is a question that very few people ask, even though it is oftentimes taken for granted that the government should indeed engage in anti-trust activity.

The logic behind modern anti-trust efforts goes back to the era of the railroad, steel, and oil trusts of the Gilded Age, when massive and abusive firms engaged in collusion and anti-competitive behavior to fix prices and prevent new entrants from entering into the marketplace. As any economist will be quick to point out, one of the secrets to the success behind a market economy is competition – whether it be workers competing with workers to be more productive or firms competing with firms to deliver better and cheaper products to their customers. When you remove competition, there is no longer any pressing reason to guarantee quality or cost.

So – we should regulate all monopolies, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The logic that competition is always good is greatly oversimplified, as it glosses over 2 key things:

  1. It’s very difficult to determine what is a monopoly and what isn’t.
  2. Technology-driven industries oftentimes require large players to deliver value to the customer.

What’s a Monopoly?

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While we would all love monopolies to have clear and distinguishable characteristics – maybe an evil looking man dressed in all black laughing sinisterly as his diabolic plans destroy a pre-school? – the fact of the matter is that it is very difficult for an economist/businessperson to really tell what counts as a monopoly and what doesn’t, for four key reasons:

  1. Many of the complaints and lawsuits brought against “monopolies” are brought on by competitors. Who is trying to sue Intel? AMD. Who complained loudly about Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer into Windows? Netscape.
  2. “Market share” has no meaning. In a sense, there are a lot of monopolies out there. Orson Scott Card has a 100% market share in books pertaining to the Ender’s Game series. McDonald’s has a 100% market share in Big Macs. This may seem like I’m just playing with semantics, but this is actually a fairly serious problem in the business world. I would even venture that a majority of growth strategy consulting projects are due to the client being unable to correctly define the relevant market and relevant market share.
  3. What’s “monopoly-like” may just be good business. Some have argued that Microsoft and Intel are monopolies in that they are bullies to their customers, aggressively pushing PC manufacturers to only purchase from them. But, what is harder to discern is how this is any different from a company that offers aggressive volume discounts? Or that hires the best-trained negotiators? Or that knows how to produce the best products and demands a high price for them? Sure, Google is probably “forcing” its customers to pay more to advertise on Google, but if Google’s services and reach are the best, what’s wrong with that?
  4. “Victims” of monopolies may just be lousy at managing their business. AMD may argue that Intel’s monopoly power is hurting their bottom line, but at the end of the day, Intel isn’t directly to blame for AMD’s product roadmap mishaps, or its disastrous acquisition of ATI. Google isn’t directly to blame for Microsoft’s inability to compete online.

Big can be good?

This may come as a shock, but there are certain cases where large monolithic entities are actually good for the consumer. Most of these lie around technological innovation. Here are a few examples:

  • Semiconductors – The digital revolution would not have been possible without the fast, power-efficient, and tiny chips which act as their brains. What is not oftentimes understood, however, is the immense cost and time required to build new chips. It takes massive companies with huge budgets to build tomorrow’s chips. It’s for this reason that most chip companies don’t run their own manufacturing centers and are steadily slowing down their R&D/product roadmaps as it becomes increasingly costly to design and build out chips.
  • Pharmaceuticals – Just as with semiconductors, it is very costly, time-consuming, and risky to do drug development. Few of today’s biotech startups can actually even bring a drug to market — oftentimes hoping to stay alive just long enough to partner with or be bought by a larger company with the money and experience to jump through the necessary hoops to take a drug from benchside to bedside.
  • Software platforms – Everybody has a bone to pick with Microsoft’s shoddy Windows product line. But what few people recognize is how much the software industry benefited from the role that Microsoft played early on in the computer revolution. By quickly becoming the dominant operating system, Microsoft’s products made it easier for software companies to reach wide audiences. Instead of designing 20 versions of every application/game to run on 20 OS’s, Microsoft made it easy to only have to design one. This, of course, isn’t saying that we need a OS monopoly right now to build a software industry, but it is fair to say that Microsoft’s early “monopoly” was a boon to the technology industry.

The problem with today’s anti-trust rules and regulations is that they are legal rules and regulations, not economic ones. In that way, while they may protect against many of the abuses of the Gilded Age (by preventing firms from getting 64.585% market share and preventing them from monopolistic action 1 through 27), they also unfortunately act as deterrents to innovation and good business practice.

Instead, regulators need to try to take a broader, more holistic view of anti-trust. Instead of market share litmus tests and paying attention to sob stories from the Netscapes of the world, regulators need to really focus on first, determining if the offender in question is acting harmfully anticompetitive at all, and second if there is credible economic value in the institutions they seek to regulate.

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Power Toys for Windows XP

For those of you who use Windows, Microsoft offers a set of “Power Toys,” programs which are very useful addons to Windows (although be forewarned, Microsoft also provides no support for them). They can be found here.I’ve used TweakUI in the past to modify system attributes and was searching for a copy to put on my new laptop and stumbled on the rest. I’ve installed a few:

  1. Cleartype Tuner – Ok if you don’t want to install any of the other stuff, seriously consider installing this. Your eyes will thank you to no end. It activates the Cleartype Technology that comes with Windows but is never activated which will improve the anti-aliasing of your text and allows you to customize just how you want the text to look. It cuts down on eyestrain incredibly and just plain makes text look better. I can’t really describe how, you have to see it for yourself.
  2. Synctoy – is something that they should’ve put in Windows to begin with, but it essentially allows you to sync two folders or devices so that their files can be the same or that you can regularly push updates onto one or the other — or anything at all. Now I don’t have to manually keep my mp3 player in sync with my music folder 🙂
  3. Alt-Tab Replacement – I don’t often get Mac envy, but I seriously love Expose. This isn’t Expose, but it gives screenshots of the windows when you use the Alt-Tab shortcut to move between windows. It has a strange way of dealing with chat program windows, but other than that it makes it easier to navigate between say — Firefox windows
  4. TweakUI – Lets you modify almost anything that can be modified in Windows or Internet Explorer that you normally can’t touch. Want the Internet Explorer titlebar to say “Microsoft sucks”? You can do that. Want it to say “bow down to Ben”? You can do that too.
  5. Power Calculator – Not a very elegant tool, but it has basic symbolic manipulation and graphing calculator functionality. I don’t particularly like it (so I uninstalled it immediately) especially as you can get decent, hassle-free freeware graphing software like Graphmatica
  6. Open Command Window Here – I like the DOS command line. This gives me an easy way to get to the command prompt at a specific folder just by right-clicking.
  7. Virtual Desktop Manager – It is a pretty basic virtual desktop manager which lets you operate multiple desktops at once. I don’t like that there’s not a good hotkey to cycle between different desktops, nor is there a good way to transfer windows between desktops, so I uninstalled it and installed Virtual Dimension which does provide more of the functionality that I want.

There are a number of other Power Toys like Image Resizer (which allows you to resize multiple images at once) and HTML slideshow (which lets you create HTML slideshows of photos quickly) and Webcam timershot (has your webcam take pictures every given interval and stores them somewhere) which I just haven’t found to be particularly relevant or useful, but feel free to give them a try.

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