Joining the Dots to a Connected Car Future

connected carI’ve been prepping a new feature on the future of the connected car industry and one thing is pretty clear: things are moving faster than you think.

We’re currently working our way through three of the four stages of industry evolution mapped out by Gartner. It claimed in a December report that efforts to integrate mobile and cloud-based apps into the car are almost complete – that’s one stage down. Then, up until 2024 it’ll be all about “digital lifestyle convergence”.

The report explained:

“This convergence means that consumers want to be able to communicate with friends and family members, remain productive to their workplace, and to be entertained with the content that they also access outside of the automobile. Users will also expect an automotive connectivity experience that is similar to other device experiences they are increasingly accustomed to, such as remote, over-the-air software updates and content/services upgrades.”

Microsoft has a good chance to capitalise on this shifting focus, with its new Connected Vehicle Platform. One of the five main pillars outlined by EVP of business development, Peggy Johnson, at CES, is “improved in-car productivity” via tools like Cortana, Dynamics, Office 365, Power BI and Skype for Business.

“For instance, imagine that Cortana seamlessly connects you whether you’re at home or in your car,” she explained. “Let’s say you’re on your phone at home and tell Cortana to set up a meeting for you and your colleague the next morning at a coffee shop. The next time you get in your car, Cortana reminds you of the morning meeting and starts navigation to get you to that coffee shop.”

With its heritage in the office productivity space, Microsoft obviously has an edge in these scenarios over connected car rivals like Apple, Google and Amazon, although its Azure-powered platform will also cover predictive maintenance, advanced navigation, customer insights and autonomous capabilities.

The platform’s open, partnership-based approach could also play well with consumers who are sick of many current systems, according to Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom.

“Users are increasingly frustrated with in-car technology,” he told me. “Even new models tend to be based on old, proprietary technology; technology that is impossible to swap out and replace with something more up to date and flexible.”

The Redmond giant knows the industry better than most, continued IHS Markit principal analyst Egil Juliussen.

“The auto industry is among those global industries which adds numerous requirements for how connected cars are treated (i.e. privacy, data storage locations, etc.),” he told me via email. “All of these complexities make it expensive and time-consuming for any auto manufacturer (even the largest) to develop, update and maintain cloud and software platforms to manage their network of connected cars.”

Partners on board

And therein lies the opportunity for Microsoft and others. The firm has also announced partnerships with Volvo, Daimler, Nissan-Renault, BMW and Toyota which will see each use its cloud-based tech to create their own unique platforms. This ability to customise is another obvious benefit of its platform for carmakers.

So where are we headed? Well, autonomous vehicles of course. Gartner reckons that by 2030 self-driving tech might even have created a new car ownership model – where we simply “hire” on-demand driverless cars for our journeys rather than own a vehicle outright. Already a third of Americans the analyst surveyed said they’d forgo purchasing a new vehicle if they could pay for such a service.

Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto are certainly major contenders for the connected car crown, especially in terms of integrating the car into the whole mobile experience. But Microsoft’s cloud-based approach, which is flexible enough to incorporate new technologies as it goes, has a decent chance of winning more carmaker minds and driver hearts.

 


Minecraft: Microsoft’s Best Ever Acquisition?

minecraft logoConfession time: I’m one of the few people on the planet who hasn’t played Minecraft yet. But researching the digital Lego phenomenon for an upcoming feature yielded some interesting analyst insights I thought I’d share.

Minecraft hit 100 million users recently – not bad for a title many thought Microsoft was a little ill-advised to pay $2.5bn for two years ago.

For IDC gaming research director, Lewis Ward, the purchase was made with one eye on showing off the Windows 10 OS – then in development.

“The ulterior motive was the idea of Windows 10-based Universal Apps, and this idea of Xbox Play Anywhere (XPA) games on Windows 10,” he told me. “Minecraft is a living example of how Microsoft’s new OS can support apps with the same codebase that works on multiple terminals, including PCs, game consoles and mobile devices. So it’s become Microsoft’s poster child in gaming for these types of apps and I think that was a big part of what led Microsoft to buy the company.”

There’s also plenty of debate at the moment about the future of Minecraft. Redmond recently signed a deal with Netease to license its mobile and PC versions, which could increase the game’s user base exponentially. There are also major opportunities in the AR and VR space. The synergies with Microsoft’s HoloLens AR platform and its ambitions in the education sector are obvious, according to Ward.

“If Lego helped me learn as a kid how to build stuff with others while having fun and being creative, and I remember playing with Lego all the time in first grade and crying when my parents forced me to sell my big bag of Lego around fourth grade, then Minecraft is the modern day equivalent and has a place in early education,” he argued.

“It’s a very accessible game and one that stresses the positive things in life; one that has truly universal appeal. I’m sure there are lots of great minds up in Redmond thinking about how the franchise can be used in certain vertical markets and business-centric scenarios.”

Microsoft released an Education Edition of the game earlier this year – a statement of intent if ever there was one. Minecrafters will be watching eagerly to see what it’s next play will be.

 


Can Surface Rescue Microsoft’s Mobile Plans?

windows mobile handsetWhat is Microsoft’s future in the mobile space? It’s a question that’s generated more than a few column inches over recent years. Now with Redmond agreeing to sell the feature phone division to Foxconn and licence the Nokia name, things have perhaps started to get a little clearer.

First, the bad news. IDC is predicting Windows Phone’s market share for 2016 will stand at just 1.2% this year – that’s down from 2% last year, 2.7% the previous year, and 3.3% in 2013. The firm is clearly not getting any OEMs on board for future devices anytime soon, and there was no mention of new Lumias in the Foxconn announcement – just that it would support current devices. From this – and speaking to a few experts for an upcoming feature – I think the smart money’s on a Surface handset.

Surface has done pretty well in the tablet/laptop space – albeit after a few iterations. And a high-end Surface handset would show off the best features of Windows 10 Mobile, as Microsoft finally harmonises its OS across all platforms. It could have crack at competing with the Samsung Galaxy range and potentially the iPhone. Whether this is enough to prop up Microsoft’s mobile hardware business is unsure, however, and more job cuts could be on the way.

A Surface smartphone could appeal in particular to business executives and the like, according to IDC analyst Susana Santos. “It’s a strategy that makes sense, but it takes time. It’s too early to say if it’ll work or not. It certainly won’t help with its volumes. These devices are more expensive and not as easy to sell,” she told me.

With the business market set to rise only to 20% of the global smartphone market, according to IDC, this is also a concern if Microsoft can’t persuade those BYOD consumer/employees to migrate away from their iOS or Android handsets. It’s been said many times before, but Microsoft is in many ways still a victim of its lack of vision a decade ago, which let Apple and Google steal the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers.

And what of its chances of getting those sought-after OEMs on board?

“Of all companies, Microsoft knows the value of a developer and application ecosystems, but has been poor to drive this agenda in the mobile realm. I’d expect it to continue with Windows phone, but play mostly in the higher-end,” Quocirca’s Rob Bamforth told me by email. “The words it has used seem to indicate an interest in mobile computing devices, with telephony capabilities, rather than emphasis on ‘handsets’, so I think that means higher-end pricing and positioning – and perhaps a closer connection to Lync/Skype for Business and Skype Meeting. Perhaps we might be looking for a Skype Surface.”

The question is whether Redmond can maximise its IP and engineering talent in this space, “gluing the bits together in a way that Apple seems to mange elsewhere”, according to Bamforth. If it can, it’ll be the greatest comeback in the history of computing.


With Virtual Reality, the Future’s Closer than you Think

virtual reality headsetWhat does the future of virtual reality hold? I’ve got to say it’s not a question that has particularly bothered me from a corporate IT perspective – a feeling I’m sure shared by many CIOs out there. But the truth is that VR – and its slightly more sensible cousin, augmented reality – is already beginning to transform the way organisations work and engage with their customers.

Putting together a recent feature for IT Pro in Hong Kong, I spoke to several experts about the kind of use cases that VR and AR might best fit, and some of the key challenges facing manufacturers.

It’s pretty clear from most of the analysts I spoke to that those smartphone-based VR headsets like Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard are going to get end user traction much quicker than the high-end Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and others.

“Everyone has a smartphone so it makes the entry barrier for VR very low and affordable,” IDC European associate director, Chrystelle Labesque, told me. “Does it offer the best experience? Maybe not. But it does give people the chance to have their first VR experience.”

From a manufacturer’s point of view, each major player in the space – and virtually all of the world’s biggest tech companies have a stake in VR/AR – faces a difference set of challenges according to their commercial priorities, argued IHS Technology head of games research, Piers Harding-Rolls.

Samsung, for example is using VR to drive sales of its premium smartphones, he told me.

“We have already seen Samsung diversifying further with the Gear 360 camera to build of its VR ecosystem offer and to continue to differentiate as more and more smartphone vendors bring their own VR headsets to market,” Harding-Rolls added.

“Samsung is now using the Gear VR as a promotional and bundling tool to sell more phones, but the value of this offer may become diluted over time. So for Samsung the challenges centre on staying differentiated and building out the ecosystem successfully in the face of additional competition.”

As for those high-end players, it’s all about trying to drive down their prices to appeal to a broader market.

“Oculus has courted developers for over two years, but still does not have the scale of distribution and user base of Valve’s Steam or Sony’s PlayStation Network, so must build its own content and compete from a less established position,” he claimed. “As you can see the challenges differ from platform to platform.”

But this is talking about VR/AR from a consumer-focused perspective. The truth is that it’s already being used both inside companies and to create differentiated experiences for customers.

Labesque referenced a British Museum project last year that allowed visitors to experience the Bronze Age through Samsung Gear VR headsets, for example.

The Marriott hotel chain has also been an early adopter – using the power of Oculus Rift VR to transport users to far flung destinations, and in so doing build its brand and even drive potential sales.

When it comes to internal use cases, AR has the edge, according to the experts. Digital overlays can help with training, working to meet strict compliance requirements, and collaboration, among other things, Labesque explained.

On this front, Microsoft’s Hololens already has some impressive big name case studies to brag about.

So there you have it. If you’re a CIO and have the money and motivation – VR/AR is probably something you should be considering right now as part of a multi-year innovation project. If not, it won’t be long till your CEO is knocking at your door to find out why.


What to Expect from Giants of Console Gaming in 2015

gamer logoI’ve just finished a feature on the console gaming market which was just about as far out of my comfort zone as you can get.

Still, it’s always good learning about new areas of technology, so here’s what I have surmised over the past few days:

  • Sony and Microsoft rule the roost. Nintendo will never gain parity as long as its selection of third party titles is so poor.
  • Sony’s PS4 won 2014, but Xbox One hit back in the last two months of the year thanks to discounted pricing
  • Both of the big boys have copied each other’s strategy at times; in engaging with the gamer geek and “bedroom coder” community and in trying to tie up exclusive third party title deals.
  • There’s pretty much nothing to separate the two hardware wise, which is why there’ll be some increasingly aggressive deal-making going on with third party developers in the coming years.
  • As IDC Retail Insights head of Europe, Spencer Izard, told me, there are only two things gamers really care about: “how many of your friends are using my console and am I getting the best content.”
  • The future will eventually shift towards online downloads, although not until there’s a critical mass of users. Only then will the console giants feel they can take retailers on and undercut them on price with downloads.
  • In developing regions this shift will take far longer, as broadband infrastructure simply isn’t up to the hefty downloads necessary.
  • However, last year actually saw “a significant increase” in spending on digital transactions for games, according to IHS head of games, Piers Harding-Rolls. “Part of this is to do with the early adopters who are currently very active digitally on the latest consoles, part of this is to do with the day and date release of new releases alongside boxed product in the retail channels and part of it is to do with the ability to use more efficient monetisation models in the digital space,” he told me. “In this context we have seen more open ended spending opportunities emerge on consoles during the last few years driving up monetisation.”
  • The rise of smartphone and tablet-based gaming represents a real challenge to the console players
  • In China, like Korea, Sony and Microsoft have just been too late to make a difference. The market is either swamped with pirated clones or dominated by PC gaming. Regulators will also be hard to please in terms of software content.

And there you have it. All you need to know about console-based gaming in a few media friendly sound bites.


Keeping an eye on the coders: a new idea to eliminate flawed programs

codeHere’s an interesting new idea from Microsoft – a radical solution to the problem of buggy code.

The new paper, posed by Redmondian Andrew Begel and a group of Zurich university boffins, suggests managers monitor programmers via EEG, EDA and eye-tracking sensors. These will alert them when the individual is struggling and therefore likely to introduce flawed code.

Now, it sounds like a pretty good idea in theory, and in practice has apparently performed pretty well. But one security expert I spoke to had some major misgivings.

Imperva co-founder and CTO Amichai Shulman argued that it might stray outside the boundaries of what could be construed “reasonable”.

“I think constantly monitoring the psychological status and the physical conditions of programmers, seems tremendously intrusive and probably strays way off from what I consider to be ‘reasonable means’,” he told me.

“However, I think that even if we review this in the cold eyes of a software professional there are some doubts about the usefulness of this method in general and its application to security vulnerabilities in particular.”

The first doubt he had relates to the tremendous commercial pressure coders are under to release “more functionality in less time”.

“On their way to achieving higher rates of LOC/sec, programmers as well as their employers are willing to sacrifice other attributes of the code such as efficiency, readability and also correctness – assuming that some of these will be corrected later during testing cycles and some will not be critical enough to be ever fixed,” he explained.

“If we introduce a system that constantly holds back on programmers because they are stressed for some reason we will effectively introduce unbearable delays into the project which will of course put more pressure on those who perform the job when schedule becomes tight.”

This is not to mention the fact that programmers should, at times, be “over” challenged to keep them sharp and happy with their roles.

“Additionally, there’s a big question of whether we can have a system like that can make a distinction between making a critical mistake or a minor one, which again impacts its ability to have a positive effect on the software development process in general,” said Shulman.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of what kinds of flaws the system will root out.

“I think that most security related mistakes are introduced inadvertently as a consequence of the programmer not having the faintest idea regarding the potential implication of some implementation decision,” he argued. “This is the case with SQL injection, XSS, RFI and many more vulnerability types.”

So, bottom line: nice idea Microsoft, but it’s probably not going to solve the problem of poor coding anytime soon. Until something genuinely revolutionary comes along we’ll probably have to stick to the usual suspects to reduce risk: security tools, patching, better QA and testing.


No-IP? No idea. Why Microsoft faces an uphill battle to restore trust

big dataTo say this week was a bad news week for Microsoft would be putting it mildly.

First, its heavy handed decision to stop emailing security updates to users (in response to new Canadian anti-spam laws) was u-turned in a rather embarrassing manner.

Then came something much worse as Redmond’s Digital Crimes Unit (DCU) unilaterally sought a court injunction to seize control of 22 domains belonging to DNS firm No-IP.

It did this to arrest the spread of malicious activity on some of the domains, but with good reason commentators are already calling its strategy misjudged this time around:

  • No-IP was not informed of the take-down, nor was it working in collusion with the cyber criminals. It also pleaded that it has always co-operated with the authorities when asked on such matters previously.
  • Microsoft was unable to filter good traffic from bad, leading to millions of legitimate No-IP customers left without a service earlier this week.

Europol special advisor on internet security, Brian Honan, told me that the incident will further undermine the credibility of tech giants like Microsoft, which has already taking a pasting thanks to the NSA spying revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden.

He raised a number of valid concerns with me by email:

• If No-IP were not contacted by Microsoft DCU regarding the abuse of their services what right have Microsoft DCU got to determine how good or bad the No-IP abuse mechanisms were? Indeed, what is the criteria and standards that Microsoft used to determine how responsive the No-IP abuse desk is? Are all service providers, including Microsoft, now expected to meet the requirements and expectations of Microsoft DCU? And if not can they expect similar interruptions to their business?
• Microsoft DCU also showed they do not have the technical capabilities in managing Dynamic DNS services and subsequently have impacted many innocent users and businesses, how will Microsoft DCU ensure
• There are also concerns over Microsoft infringing on the privacy of No-Ip’s legitimate customers.  In effect Microsoft diverted all of these customers’ internet traffic via Microsoft’s systems. An action that could place No-Ip and Microsoft in breach of their own privacy policies and indeed various privacy laws and regulations
.

This is probably the first major mis-step by the Digital Crimes Unit, and it will need to re-examine its procedures and processes very carefully to avoid a repeat. Its loss of face in this incident will only benefit the cybercriminals if it makes Redmond and others more hesitant to take action in future cases.