Category Archives: Technology

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 First Glance – a heart breaker and a deal breaker

As those that know me will know, I’m a big fan of Apple products. Some call me a fanboy – but my view is that I like them because they work. I’ve owned my Mid-2012 MacBook Pro 15″ since… Mid-2012, and have barely lost a day of productivity. The last time the MBP was out of action was when I dropped it on the corner onto granite, and dented it. Apple took it in and replaced nearly everything, a process which took a few days.

That said, 3 years is a long time in technology, and the MBP has seen better days. It’s out of warranty and some of the connectors have stopped working, and it’s getting a bit slow. It’s time for a replacement and the rumors are that Apple will have a new machine in Q1 of 2016.

And here it is that I find myself browsing the world of computers.

Why not the iPad Pro or MacBook?

I love the new MacBook, it looks great. But, for me it is underpowered and the keyboard is a little cramped, and I’m certain that it’s not well built enough to survive the pounding that anything I own will go through. I went through 3 MacBook Airs before I was smart enough to move to the Pro, and those light machines can’t handle it.

As for the iPad Pro… it’s just a big iPad. That will suit some people, and the screen and battery life are glorious, but I can’t download 20GB of email from Office 365 locally, or curate complex documents. A few of the reviews have said the same – the iPad Pro is an awesome consumer device, but it’s no laptop replacement.

A Mid-2015 MacBook Pro isn’t an option – it’s way too incremental an improvement over what I’ve already got. So Apple… you’re out!

Then it must be the Microsoft Surface Book?

The next logical device is the Microsoft Surface Book. On paper, it looks like it’s the ultimate laptop convertible. There seems to be no downside to this thing! It’s a laptop… it’s a tablet… with 12h battery life and no downside.

My take on the Surface Book is that it’s very much a first generation device. Is it the future of computing? Hard to tell. Certainly, it appears to offer the best of both worlds, but the battery as a tablet is very limited, for example, and it can’t charge from base station to tablet – you have to be plugged in. I also heard various problems with docking and undocking the base.

I walked into Best Buy and they admitted that whilst they did have Surface Books in stock, I couldn’t see one because their demo device didn’t power on any more and they were awaiting a replacement from Microsoft. That sealed the deal.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

And so it is that I find myself writing this on a Microsoft Surface Pro 4. I’m sat on the sofa, tapping away on the keyboard on my lap, with the kick stand propping up the screen. The keyboard case is remarkably stiff and I find myself typing remarkably quickly, though I’m still not quite used to the offset keyboard, so accuracy is off.

For the last week I’ve been traveling with both my SP4 and my trusty MacBook Pro, so I can be sure not to lose productivity. I’m not ready to make a final conclusion yet but I think you’ll find the initial findings interesting.

It is conceptually amazing

The concept of the SP4 is amazing. It’s light, it’s a tablet, and it has a detachable keyboard. It claims a 9 hour battery life and Windows 10 is convertible-friendly, so you can switch in between use cases on a dime.

The screen is fantastic – detailed and crisp with great colors, and the kick stand means you can get comfortable on any surface. Microsoft Edge is a good browser and is quite effective in tablet mode, which is very nice browsing on the sofa, where you can detach the keyboard and save all that weight.

I’ve got the i5 version so it’s not got the raw power of a MacBook Pro, but I find it responsive and speedy enough for my needs. I figured the i5 version would have better battery life, and it’s far less expensive. Office 2016 is also awesome, and can be downloaded via your Office 365 subscription.

It excels at some things

The SP4 absolutely excels at some things. For example I just ran an off-site, and I used OneNote with the pen to take notes, taking pictures of white boards with the camera, and it was awesome.

Same with being used for email in a café or train station – you can pull it out, and the keyboard is remarkably good to get out content quickly. I used the iPad Pro keyboard and was much less impressed. It can’t match a full size keyboard like the MacBook Pro, but it’s not far off.

It misses the mark in the real world

I’ve been trying to work with the SP4, but so far it’s not met my expectations. See, there are deal breakers.

First, the Wi-Fi is flakey. This is well documented on the web, and running all the updates in (which takes 4 reboots and over an hour) helps. But I still can’t access my iPhone hotspot, which means I get no internet on the go.

Second, the claimed 9 hour battery life is simply not true. In very modest use, it’s 3-4 hours of browsing and email. I don’t understand how a consumer product company is allowed to make statements like this. I guess you might be able to get 9 hours of video playback with the screen turned off.

Third, the usability is off. I put the SP4 down and then pick it up some while later and open the keyboard flap. It doesn’t turn on, you have to press the button for this. And depending on how deep it has gone to sleep, you have to wait several minutes for it to come to life. Or sometimes it doesn’t come to life at all and you have to hard reset.

I’ve taken a hard line – I must try to use the SP4 first, and use the MBP as a backup device, but too many times I’ve got frustrated with the SP4 because I had actual work to do, and pulled out the MacBook Pro.

Fourth, the tablet mode isn’t quite right. I had a Lenovo Yoga, and that converted automatically between tablet and PC mode when you flipped the keyboard. Not so with the SP4, you have to manually switch, which is frustrating. What’s more, many apps (Slack, for instance) aren’t tablet-enabled, so they aren’t responsive and the on-screen keyboard gets in the way. Slack is my primary messaging tool, so that’s another deal breaker.

And last, the so-called lapability factor of the SP4 is off. The kick stand means that the keyboard is 3″ closer to you than in the MacBook Pro, which means that the SP4 is horribly uncomfortable on an airplane or train, and because it doesn’t have a hinge, the keyboard and screen don’t support each other. On a flat surface, it’s awesome, but elsewhere, it’s really unpleasant.

Final Words

I’ll be traveling with the MBP and SP4 over the next few weeks and I’m hoping I come to like the SP4 more. Perhaps it will come into its own in situations I haven’t encountered yet.

But for a fourth generation device, the SP4 has too many deal breakers.

The ten reasons I still hate Microsoft Lync

Around two years ago, I wrote The ten reasons I hate Microsoft Lync the most. It’s either a sad reflection of my blog, or a sad reflection about what people think of Lync, but it’s the most popular article on here. Either way, I read a marketing blog on the SAP website about Lync and figured it was time to update this.

1) No improvements

In the last 2 years, there has been no discernible innovation in Lync. Microsoft released Lync 2013, but it didn’t make anything work any better. Despite the cries for help from customers, Microsoft haven’t done anything measurable to fix the product. Instead, they seem to have invested R&D in extending the product to create more broken features. Great.

2) Mobile is still unusable

In the last 2 years, mobile devices have become pervasive – I don’t know about you, but I do around 50% of my work on a tablet or smartphone. I did try installing Lync 2013 on my iPad and iPhone, but it’s unusable. In a world where the tiny startup Viber has produced an app that works on all my devices on any network, the fact that Microsoft can’t do the basics in mobile is sad.

3) Messages don’t sync across devices

When I get a Viber message, it appears on whatever device I’m on. When I read the message, it appears read on all devices, obviously. Not so with Lync. If I am desperate enough to sign into Lync on my iPad, I inevitably end up with a pile of messages that I find a few weeks later.

4) Notifications don’t work

Notifications don’t even work, either on Mac, iPad or iPhone, losing yet more messages. And whilst we’re there, if Lync signs you out, which happens every time you lose network connection, then it closes all the windows and you lose the messages.

5) Screen sharing and sending of files don’t work

I have a high-resolution screen, and Lync 2013 doesn’t scale, so if I can get screen sharing to work, I have to sit and squint at my screen to see what’s going on. Maybe Microsoft can make a line of magnifying glasses to hold in front of your screen? But then 2 minutes into the call, you lose screen sharing anyhow, and that’s the end of that. My solution – a subscription, which works great on any device and network.

6) Call quality

I’ve used plenty of other systems, and phone quality is never a problem. But with Lync it’s usually a problem. The most reliable way is to setup a call, and then dial in from my cellphone, but this has a lot of background noise. I’m unable to reliably join on a PC connection, despite having excellent Verizon FIOS internet at home. But I regularly talk to colleagues and friends in Europe and Asia on Viber and FaceTime Audio – even when driving on a cellphone.

7) Lync doesn’t work at all on Mac OS X Yosemite

Yeah, it just crashes.

8) No chat rooms

You can argue that Viber is a consumer app, but they have a tiny R&D budget and they have innovated way beyond what Microsoft has done. Probably my favorite feature of Viber (WhatsApp have this too) is the ability to create rooms, which work across devices. For projects this is great – we add a bunch of people to a Viber chat room, and everyone is up to date. And I just checked, and managed to send a picture just fine with Viber.

9) The increasing pervasiveness of Lync

Despite the user experience, Lync seems to be gaining ground in the market. This is horrible because it means that I get and send Lync meeting requests from other companies. Since it doesn’t work in my organization, the idea that joining meetings from other companies is comic.

10) The comments on my last blog

One of the things that disappointed me were the comments on my last blog. On the one hand, it was nice to know I wasn’t alone with Lync misery, but the sad things were the comments from what appear to be Lync administrators – mostly telling me that my company was doing it all wrong, some being plain abusive. But we have a pretty good IT team, and we employed a specialist consultancy for the implementation, and we’ve had it reviewed. I don’t believe it’s our implementation that’s the problem.

Final Words

It’s sad that two years on, Microsoft have done nothing to address any of the concerns I wrote about before, and it’s clear that many people feel the same way that I do – the comments below are testimony to this.

The only people that seem to think that Lync works well are the people who install and configure it. Many of them feel passionately that Lync is a good solution. To them, I suggest they listen to feedback from the people who use it.

Lync sucks.

Does Verizon Fios Quantum 300MB really exist?

I’ve had the need to download a large volume of data over this last week. I had the Verizon FIOS 50/25 service, which is now quite outdated and has been replaced by a 75/75 service for the same price. So, I thought I’d get upgraded.

As it turns out, the Motorola wall box that Verizon provided 5 years ago doesn’t support this, so Verizon kindly offered to upgrade me to a new wall box free of charge, the next working day (it normally costs $100 but they waived it, presumably due to being a long term customer). They also said they had to upgrade me to 300/300 and then downgrade me back to 75/75.

300/300 costs over $200/month, but I thought it would be fun to test: do you REALLY get 300/300 or is it just “theoretical”. What does $200/month get you?

Step 1 – 90Mbit

Two friendly Verizon engineers came by this morning to do the upgrade (precisely on schedule), and 60 minutes of downtime later, I went and retested the internet. I got 90Mbit both on wired and wireless connection. That’s a bit too convenient, and I suspected there might be a problem in the long wire that went from my Apple Time Capsule (3rd Generation) to the Verizon wall box.

So I moved the Time Capsule to a short 3m cable next to the Verizon box, in the hope it might get a Gigabit Ethernet connection.

Step 2 – 180Mbit

This made a dramatic difference, and even with the old Time Capsule I got 180Mbit wireless networking, which is quite amazing. At this point, my ThunderBolt Gigabit Ethernet adapter blew up, so I wasn’t able to test wired networking.

I also knew the Time Capsule was on its way out – it’s 3 years old and has a hard drive inside and gets extremely hot. Some redundancy is good at home so I thought I’d go and buy a new AirPort Extreme. Don’t bother with the Time Capsule… just attach a hard disk to the Airport and save $100.

Step 3 – 320-350Mbit

After I replaced the Time Capsule (802.11n) with the Airport Extreme (802.11ac) I now get the full 300-350Mbit, and it is more reliable with the ThunderBolt Gigabit Ethernet adapter (thanks to Apple for replacing this free of charge).

What’s real world performance like?

It’s pretty amazing. I’m getting a comfortable 60GB/hour of downloads going on, which I happen to need for a work project I’m working on under deadline. Ping time to is just 4ms and we can all browse the internet and watch movies even whilst downloading several threads at 60GB/hour.

Would I pay $200/month for the pleasure? No, I’m sorry but this is an excessive luxury that I can’t afford and don’t need. But, I am thinking of downgrading to the $129/month 150/150 rather than the $89/month 75/75.

Final Words

Just because you buy 300/300 internet, it doesn’t mean you will get it. You need devices, wireless adapters and wireless routers that can shift that sort of bandwidth and may have to invest some additional dollars to get what you paid for. And if you really want super-reliable internet, you do need to move to a wired connection – it reduces latency and improves browsing performance.

Either way, kudos to Verizon and Apple for awesome customer service and good quality products.

Now, I just need to find a database big enough to load the 18TB of data I just downloaded. More on that later!

Review: Bose QuietComfort 25 – The Silence is Deafening

It seems odd that there are no good reviews of the new Bose Quiet Comfort 25, or QC25, out there. I hope this helps you – I bought these on the first day they came out and have been living with them for a short while now.

I’ve always been an audio fanatic, right from my childhood. The audio world has changed enormously in the last 15 years. Gone are the days when I would frequently sit at a desk at home with a CD player and listen to music on wired headphones. Gone are the days when I frequently sit at a desk at home listening to music!

These days, I mostly listen to music when traveling, in inhospitable locations and carrying a heavy load. Back in 1998 I bought a pair of Sennheiser HD-600 headphones, which have exquisite sound quality. They’re useless in this post-modern age of commuter flights because they are open backed, which means your music leaks, and the world leaks into your ears.

My last pair of noise canceling headphones were lost and so in early September 2014, I walked through an airport terminal and spotted the QC25 on a shelf. They are understated, subtle, and very compact. I was immediately drawn to them.



Noise Canceling

I headed over to try them on and was somewhat underwhelmed – then I realize that the Active Noise Canceling (ANC) was switched off. I hit the switch and the world turned off. Gone was the loud terminal noise, and I was in a small quiet world of my own. Incredible. I listened to a few tracks of music and realized these would make my long weeks of travel much more pleasurable.

For that is where the QC25 excels: commuters, in planes and trains. It completely destroys hums and groans and aircraft engines and air conditioners. For people and voices, it’s not as strong, but no ANC headphone is. But it is better than any other headphone on the market at ANC. The silence is deafening.


I’ve never been a huge fan of the Bose sound and the QuietComfort25 is no surprise here. The music is “OK” – the saxophone on Dire Straits’ Your Latest Trick comes out nicely, and the coins clink melodically in Pink Floyd’s Money. Turn up the bass a little with Faithless’ God is a DJ and the Bose is in its comfort zone: HiFi, this is not.

But then you sit down in a seat of a plane and flip the switch, and the world turns off again. In that moment, you forgive the slightly brash mid-tones and slightly wooly base. This is a world of trade-offs and the QC25 delivers a wonderful balance.

The crucial point is because it is so quiet in your cocoon, you can turn the music down and hear details that you never hear from regular headphones. They sound much better than they have any right to sound when you are in a public place.

Living with the QC25

The packaging is exceptionally easy to live with, they fit into an 8.25″x5.75″x2″ box which fits nicely in a laptop bag, and it fits an airplane adapter and a spare AAA battery. Bose say it lasts 35 hours, but I’m not counting. One spare battery is enough for a week away from home.

The fit is sublime with a “protein leather” (an artificial, leather-like material that absorbs some sweat) covering. The 6.9oz cans fit comfortably on the head for long periods of time – say a 3-4 hour flight, or a noisy office day.

There’s a replaceable 4’8″ cable with a microphone for phone calls and a volume/call switch, which is useful if you want to listen to music on your iPhone and don’t want to switch cables when a call comes in. You can turn off the ANC during phone calls so your voice doesn’t sound weird.

Bose make a big deal about this because the headphone continues to run even after you run out of battery (unlike the QuietComfort15) but the audio kinda sucks without the ANC, so I’m not so certain how useful that is (unless you want to make a call!).

QuietComfort 15 Owners

I suspect a lot of people who own QC15s are wondering if they should upgrade. I’ve used both headphones – a lot of airlines provide QC15s on long haul flights, and they are most excellent. The QC25s are easier to live with – they are smaller and more comfortable – but if I had spent good money on QC15s, the difference between the two models is not worth the price of a new pair.


One negative I found was that sometimes the headphone can motorboat – it starts to make a weird noise in the right ear. This must be an unintentional side-effect of the ANC technology, and may be a teething problem with the first few pairs. If it continues, I’ll call Bose.

There’s also a slight air pressure thing going on when you wear them. ANC headphones change the air pressure around your ears, and that can be bothersome.


If you are a traveler, commuter, spend time on a plane, or in a loud office, or outside, then go and try these out. They are the gold standard in Noise Canceling Headphones. They trash Sennheiser, Beats (yuck), Parrot and everyone else in this respect.

You pay for that luxury with a slightly mediocre audio experience. But when you are basking in the silence that envelops you with the QC25 on your head, in your own private world where nothing can disturb you, you’ll put up with an average sound. Besides, I don’t know about you but I listen to music on an iPhone, not a $1000 CD player.

But if you listen to music in a quiet place and want audiophile quality headphones, then don’t waste your money on the Bose QuietComfort 25. They’re not for you.

Garmin Vivofit vs Fitbit One – which is the better wearable?

I think that my first sports computer was in 1995, with a CatEye cycle computer. It was great, the battery lasted forever. It was great until it, and me, ended up at the bottom of Broxbourne Lake.

Since then I’ve been through many personal fitness devices – from an orange phone which attached to my bike (even worked as a speakerphone whilst cycling) to the Garmin Forerunner 405 watch. Most of them ended up in a drawer when I got bored of charging them.

In fact, the only devices that I regularly charge are my iPhone and laptop. Most other things I have end up in a drawer. And so for fitness, I’ve been using the Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor, attached to my iPhone and using the Polar Beat app. I’ve had it a year and haven’t replaced the coin battery yet. Love it.

Anyhow, my other half was given a $100 Fitbit One as a gift from a project team she worked with, and it obviously didn’t get unpacked and sat in a drawer for a few months. I was working on a healthcare project at the time and I needed some personal health data, so I hooked up the Fitbit and started recording my data.

The great thing about the Fitbit is it’s super easy to use. You charge it up, power it on and there is a getting started button on their website that takes you through a few simple steps. If you install the Fitbit iPhone app, then it automatically syncs and uploads it to the website. Awesome.

The trouble is, the Fitbit is now powerless and sitting on the counter. The reason for this is that it’s a hassle to use in the real world. You have to remember to charge it once a week via a proprietary charger, and it needs to be in your pocket, which means you need to constantly move it around. Worse, if you want to record sleep patterns then you have to put a wrist band on at night and set the time you slept manually.

For your troubles you get a vibrating alarm, which doesn’t wake your other half up (unless you flail in shock and hit her in the nose), and some pretty cool analytics about the length and quality of your sleep. I don’t know how Fitbit do it, but it’s very clever. The web interface is great and you set step goals to meet.

Wearables was a big topic at the CES 2014 show, and so I was looking for something that would suit my needs better – maybe with a heart rate monitor and a wrist band, that didn’t look too ugly.

There’s a lot of choice! The Nike+ FuelBand (nice looking but just a glorified step counter with 4 days battery for $150), The Fitbit Force (ugly and since recalled for skin allergy problems), Jawbone UP24 (nice looking but no display) or the Withings Pulse (a slightly glorified Fitbit One). None of them really excited me.

Then I saw the Garmin vívofit (yes, it has a silly accent on the i). This looked like the perfect wearable for me. For a start, it has a coin battery that lasts a year! Wow! It syncs wirelessly to your phone via Bluetooth and it has a heart rate band for exercise. So you never need to take it off, and it’s made by Garmin so there are no allergy concerns (just made from plastic).

Unfortunately they were available for pre-order only, so I signed up for one right away, and it arrived a few weeks ago. I thought I’d use it for a while before penning a review. Here’s what they look like together, with the Fitbit begging for attention “WALK ME JOHN”, “LOVA YA JOHN”, “HELLO JOHN”.


First up, there are two interchangeable bands (one large, one small) so it’s pretty comfortable to wear 24/7. It’s waterproof to 50m so I don’t take it off in the shower, and I’ve had no problems so far. Garmin know how to make wearables.

In terms of style, it’s not bad. It’s not going to set you on fire, but it’s nicer than the Fitbit Force, if not as cool looking as the Nike or Jawbone. People notice it everywhere and ask about it.

In use it is very simple – just one button which cycles between Time, Date, Heart Rate, Steps Today, Steps Until Goal, Miles and Calories. That’s it! Hold down the button and it will Sync, hold it longer and it signals you are going to sleep. It figures out when you woke up based on movement.

Again, to save battery, there is no backlight and you can only see what’s on the screen with some light, but I just use my iPhone to light it up in the dark if needed. Also, if you sit still for 60 minutes, the vivofit has a red bar, which then prompts you to dance for a while. The bar grows then every 15 minutes, and I found this is a nice reminder to get up and be active during the working day.

I found the Mac software a disappointment, because I first installed Garmin ANT Agent, then Garmin Express before I got it to work. It’s not clear from the Garmin website how to set it up so I ended up in a muddle. And it requires a USB ANT+ stick, even though it has Bluetooth – I’m not sure why.

Fortunately the iPhone software is much better. Unlike other devices, you have to sync manually to save on battery life and it takes maybe 30 seconds. That’s an acceptable trade-off for the battery life as far as I’m concerned.

Unfortunately, I wasted an additional $40 on the Heart Rate Monitor, because I already have an ANT+ HRM from my old watch, and this is the same model! It’s horrible and plastic and unpleasant to wear compared to recent models, and you can buy the much better Garmin Heart Rate Monitor from Amazon for $50. I can only assume Garmin did this to keep the price down but it was a big mistake. Spend another $10 and get the better HRM.

What is great though is the HRM on the watch, you can set it to HRM and just keep an eye on the number as you train. I like to keep my heart rate below about 170 when running and that’s really helpful. Here’s what it looks like with me pushing hard up the last hill back to home! The number on the left is the “Zone”, which you can setup manually for your body.

Garmin Vivofit

Also unfortunately, the Garmin Connect App is nothing like as good as say Polar Beat, and it doesn’t use the iPhone GPS to plot where you are when you’re running and recalibrate the step. It has a badge system but it’s not very sophisticated. But then Garmin have never been great with software so this is to be expected. Here’s what it looks like, and yes, I was lazy on Friday :-)

Garmin Connect

The other thing I noticed is whilst Withings, Nike, Polar and Fitbit have APIs that allow you to build software, Garmin haven’t done this yet although someone has part-documented the API. It’s fair to say that Garmin are light years behind others in software.

So overall, I love the Garmin vivofit and I don’t think I’ll be returning it. It’s the first wearable device I’m happy to wear and leave on and the 1 year battery life is awesome. But, I am left feeling that the market hasn’t quite settled yet and there will be much better devices in 2015.


Why Amazon Prime isn’t worth $99 for me

Friend  Jarret Pazahanick called me out on why I wasn’t willing to pay $20 extra for Amazon Prime. I’m going to do my research and maybe change my mind!

In 2013, I was a reasonably heavy user of Amazon Prime, and I paid $79. I placed 54 orders – on average over one a week. It’s worth noting that I did make a bunch of those on similar days and I wasn’t careful to group orders together. In addition, because I had Prime, I did order a bunch of things that I wouldn’t have ordered if I did not.

The guaranteed 2-day shipping has worked every time in practice for me, and it was particularly appreciated around the Christmas period, when I was very busy. The service was excellent and I think only let me down once.

However I’m struggling with an increase in price to $99, because I was barely happy with $79. If Amazon want me to pay more, they want to offer more. They wrote me an email justifying their increase, so I may as well rebuke it. Here are the major elements:

Even as fuel and transportation costs have increased, the price of Prime has remained the same for nine years. Since 2005, the number of items eligible for unlimited free Two-Day Shipping has grown from one million to over 20 million.

Sure, but since your sales have increased massively, you also have massive economies of scale, and I’m sure a lot of Prime users don’t use it at all. I’m sure this more than offsets rising costs of transportation. In addition, Amazon has a bunch of local hubs for many items, so I’m certain the miles/delivery has gone down by an order of magnitude in the last 9 years.

We also added unlimited access to over 40,000 movies and TV episodes with Prime Instant Video

Yes, but I almost never use it because you don’t have recent movies or the TV shows that I like to watch – especially the most recent seasons. For this to work, you need to increase the catalog and get the rights to the latest movies. Netflix kills you on this and I see almost no value in Amazon Instant Video.

Also, whilst it works on an iPad well, it doesn’t work on the Apple TV or Chromecast, so it’s not usable on a big screen.

and a selection of over 500,000 books to borrow from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

Yes, but I don’t own a Kindle, and this doesn’t work on the Kindle app on the iPad, which is the device that I use to read. Therefore I have never borrowed a book from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

Amazon Cloud Drive

Amazon also have some cool services including Amazon Cloud Player and Cloud Drive, but these are not included in the Amazon Prime subscription. Why on earth not? This has almost zero cost to Amazon to include, but they instead want you to pay extra.

Instead, I use Google for this, which is much cheaper.

Amazon… if you want $99 from me next year

So if Amazon, you would like $99 from me when my subscription renews in 2015, then you need to make me an offer which has increased value. Here’s my suggestions:

  • Work on Amazon Instant Video so it has the latest releases and more seasons, plus HD
  • Build out Apple TV and Chromecast apps for Amazon Instant Video so it can be broadcast to the big screen
  • Provide the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library Books to iPad owners
  • Bundle Cloud Player Premium
  • Provide some extra Cloud Drive storage for Amazon Prime customers – 50GB would be great

If you did this, you would make Amazon Prime a no-brainer for me, and many others. Good Luck!

The evolution of Analytics with SAP HANA

I was recently sent a collection of analytical business questions by a customer. I can’t share the details of them of course, but I was surprised by the level of sophistication in the questions – they included product, time, demographic and geospatial dimensions.

The analytics team was trying to get answers to these questions for their executive team and they were encountering time-outs trying to get the data out of their existing data warehouse. The vendor will go unnamed but it is a traditional disk-based EDW platform.

The analytics team had heard we had built a SAP HANA system, which included some of the elements around which they were asking questions, and were interested to see if we could help answer them using SAP HANA.

In the meantime, I was reading Holger Mueller‘s interesting blog on Why is analytics so hard? Or: The holy grail. It’s an interesting read, come back here once you’ve read it. And following this, I had a bunch of thoughts:

What did we build in HANA?

Again I can’t share the specifics, but I can tell you what we did, generally. We loaded Point of Sale data (not a retail customer) and a collection of master data like Customer, Supplier, and also a bunch of reference data like Geospatial, Demographic.

What’s really cool about doing this in HANA is that we can use as many CPUs as we have available to process a question, and we have 160 cores in my test box. This means that we can answer a question like “Tell me about the average sale price by customer, and slice it by the age of the customer at time of transaction, and group it by political leaning”. And HANA returns the answer in 2-3 seconds. Any question you like. Keep asking questions.

Now we used both SAP’s Lumira tool and Tableau on top of this to do visualizations. Lumira is a little quicker, Tableau has a lot more features. And I came to some conclusions:

1) HANA brings structured analytics into Holger’s innovation “Phase 3 – A business user can – with appropriate, but affordable training – use the innovation”

You have to be able to formulate questions, and use a tool like Tableau/Lumira. I learnt how to use Tableau in a few hours with no training, and Lumira in a few minutes. But, you have to know what questions you want to ask, and they have to have meaning.

More specifically, we could answer some of the questions using the model we built, and he wouldn’t have timeout problems.

2) Data quality problems always lurk under the surface

It won’t surprise anyone who has worked in data warehousing, but data is a big challenge. It’s not possible to easily answer some of his questions because their category hierarchy doesn’t allow for it. They have categories A-E and his question wants to know about category F. Category F has business meaning but their system hasn’t been updated to know that category F exists.

This requires an update to how they process master data and assign categories to transactions. We can actually do this really easily in HANA. For instance, we could use publicly available reference data like SIC codes to process this and then reprocess the transactions. Because we never need to aggregate with HANA, we only have to do this once and we’re done.

3) The structured data we built so far is not enough

There are data elements that we didn’t include in the initial model which means that some of the questions being asked can’t be answered yet. But also, some of the business questions are sophisticated and based on the latest trends, so the model hasn’t evolved.

We can add this stuff into the structured model easily enough, or with Tableau you can join a HANA model with a Tableau model so you can load that stuff into your own Tableau software and then do analysis. But suddenly we’re in Innovation “Phase 2 – Through tools more trained professionals in the relevant technology can make the innovation happen”.

And with HANA, we have to be careful with our data model if we want sub-second performance on billions of records, which may push us into Innovation “Phase 1 – Only experts can apply the technique to make the innovation happen” if the structure change is substantial.

Conclusion – the Layered Structured Architecture

And this is where my mind is headed: we have to classify how we want information to be available and what sorts of extensions to the analytics model different types of people can do.

For example, Phase 3 users will quickly find they can do quite advanced analytics. For example with Tableau you can easily join against Outcode to do geospatial analysis. And it performs great when joined against customer data in HANA.

But if you want to include new transaction categories (data) then you’re in Phase 1, which means you need a process to regularly update your structured model to include the new things people are thinking about.

Good business people will keep asking for more, harder questions. I think with HANA we have a platform which facilitates this, rather than handcuffing us.

Sony Walkman W – Klout Perks Review

So I got my Sony Walkman W in the mail on Thursday – read my previous blog about how Klout Perks sent one to me for free.

Their competition for the best social media content ended the day after, on Friday, so I guess I missed out on that! I haven’t had much time to try them out, but here’s my analysis so far:

Sony Walkman W


To set the scene – I’m a runner, and I do hate running with headphones – the wires get in the way, they fall out the whole time and it’s just not very liberating. So I have an open mind here. This is the Sony Walkman W Meb Keflezighi model, who obviously likes Orange.

Good – It’s much more compatible than I had expected

So it doesn’t sync with iTunes, but I can get music on relatively easily. I create Genius Playlists on my iPhone, download them on my Mac (I use iTunes cloud so quite often the music isn’t on my Mac) and then I drag the downloaded content from iTunes onto the Sony Walkman, which appears as a USB disk on my Mac.

So in 5 minutes or so I have 100 songs on it, which is enough for a workout. Admittedly I do like the flexibility of iTunes Match on my iPhone, where I can dial in a Genius playlist for the exact mood I’m in, but I usually listen to the same stuff anyhow.

Good – Fit

The fit is much better than the device looks it ought to be, and not having cables everywhere is a big win. I focus more on running and less on not getting tangled, which is more fun.

Good – Sound Quality

It’s not at the top of my list for workout headphones, but the sound quality is surprisingly good. Better, I’d say, than Apple’s iPhone 5 headphones. Not as good as a high-end Sennheiser or Shure headphone, but I can’t say I really care when I’m pounding the pavement. Bass is pretty awesome, which is a really nice in a workout headphone, and mid-ranges and trebles have plenty of detail.

Good/Bad – Noise Canceling

These headphones give you a really surprising amount of noise canceling effect. It does mean that if you’re on the open road, you need to make sure you pay extra attention because you may not hear cars and cyclists around you.

Good/Bad – Controls

The controls are on the bottom of the ear-pads and take some getting used to because you have to navigate them by touch and they are close together. The Sony Lady barks commands at you like “Shuffle Play” in a sci-fi style, which is pretty funny. As you use the device, they become just fine but they’re fiddly on first attempt.

Not so Good – Music Choice

You can’t really choose what you listen to. Sony say you can drag and drop your iTunes playlists but I can’t get it to work.

Not so Good – You look like Cheburashka

Need I say more? I tried it in the office and felt like a nerd. This headwear is acceptable only for work-outs!


2) It’s not… integrated

I love the idea of sports headphones, but syncing music is sooooo last decade. I mean check out the Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor. That thing syncs with your iPhone via Bluetooth and takes a full ECG to your favorite Fitness App.

The Jabra Sport looks like it might be a very nice companion to a workout, as an alternative.


If Sony made a version of this that was a bit smaller on the ears, fitted slightly more comfortably, and worked with Bluetooth rather than using old-school USB technology, I think it would be way cooler.

Sony have done a great job of the Walkman W, and if you want a set of USB headphones without the wires, then these guys are just what you need.

It looks like they are positioning them against the iPod Shuffle and since I have one of those too, I’d say the Walkman W definitely wins.

The beginning of Apple’s slow demise has started

Let’s be clear: I’m a big Apple fan. I have been since I was a teenager and I was first exposed to the Macintosh Plus. I’ve been enthralled by their focus on both design and functionality, sometimes without concern to profit, and of the tale of a company that almost went bust, a few times – and then turned into the most valuable company in the world.

But what goes up must come down and I believe that 2012 signaled the beginning of the end for Apple. This won’t happen for some time yet, because they are producing by far the best consumer electronics in the world. But here’s 5 reasons – and countermeasures.

Apple products are just too good.

This sounds like a stupid thing to say, but I own an iPhone 5, iPad 3 and MacBook Pro and they are (almost) the only consumer electronics I use. Each of these devices is almost perfect. Each device is lighter, faster, has better screens and longer battery life than its predecessor.

I love the longer screen on the iPhone 5, the Retina display of all devices and the fact that Apple (finally) ditched the DVD drive. They work seamlessly together and I never leave home with a charger when I go out for the day. They almost never crash.

But with this operational perfection comes a lack of innovation and a lack of soul. I don’t care what the next new thing is, and I’m not sure that it’s NFC, but Apple should be creating it. Apple should be edgy and shouldn’t be afraid to have a product which isn’t perfect. Innovation means taking risks and means cannibalizing your own market.

Proliferation of product lines

I count 4 MacBook Airs, 8 MacBook Pros, 3 Mac Minis, 4 iMacs, 3 Mac Pros, 8 iPod Shuffles, 8 iPod nanos, 4 old iPod touches, 12 new iPod touches, 2 iPod classics, 2 iPhone 4s, 2 iPhone 4Ss, 6 iPhone 5s, 2 iPad 2s, 6 iPad Retinas and 6 iPad Minis. That’s a total of 80 models! And that’s not counting accessories and applications.

Let’s take a simple example of why this doesn’t make sense. In the iPhone5, the cost of 16GB is $10, 32GB is $20 and 64GB is $40. In addition, the cost of an iPhone 4/4S/5 is barely any different. So Apple has a total of 10 models with barely any variance in cost, and a huge variance in retail price.

This might be good for Apple’s coffers but it’s not good for customers. When Jobs came back to Apple he drew a matrix of 4 machines: one desktop, one laptop. One home, one professional. Apple should slash and simplify product lines and get back to where it came from.

Reliance on two aging Operating Systems – OS X and iOS

Apple just put user experience under Jony Ive, who has been charged with creating a unified experience between desktop and mobile systems. The benefit is clear and it’s great in many ways. With each release, the laptop, tablet and phone experience becomes more similar and more intuitive.

The problem is simple: Microsoft, in particular, has created a system which operates how people think, in Windows Phone 8. The live tiles and stream-of-consciousness feeling of Microsoft’s system is the way of the future, and Google’s Android has mimicked this with Google Now.

But Apple, especially with iOS, has a system which creates walled gardens of apps, which you have to switch between. Integration between apps is minimal and you have a sense of being in a hallway with rooms, rather than a stream of consciousness.

Based on the design of iOS and OS X, Apple will never (in my estimation) ever solve this. Instead, they should now start writing the replacement to these two systems, to be released in 5 years. Don’t wait until you’re Windows ME before you create real change.

To innovate you must look out, not in

I don’t believe Apple has really innovated in the last 3 years. Ever since the released of the iPad in 2010, Apple has been obsessively making what it has better. As I said before, this has turned into the best and most polished consumer products ever made.

But the iPad Mini is a horrible example of what happens when you start innovating based on your competitors. It is a defensive play against Google’s superior Nexus 7, and horrible. It’s an iPad 2 in a smaller case, and Apple is capable of so much more, with its purchasing power. I hope they throw it out and start again.

And it is the case with everything they released this year, down to the beautiful new iMac with its impossibly thin edge. Beautiful, better, but not innovative. Apple may prove me wrong by reinventing a new market like the consumption of media, and the Apple TV would be a good place to start.

Charity begins at home

America’s Fiscal Cliff has gained huge global attention, and I believe it will cause a change in taxpayers behavior over the next few years. There will be an understanding that outsourcing manufacturing to other countries (usually China, in Apple’s case) is outsourcing jobs that could be performed in the local market.

When you combine the need to reduce government spending, an increased national debt and Apple’s $41bn profit in fiscal year 2012, I believe that consumers will start to mount pressure to move jobs back into the USA.

There is a sense that Tim Cook knows this already, as he is moving iMac production back to the USA – which is no doubt an attempt to put his toe in the water. There is a sense that with the inflation rates in China, combined with worker productivity, this may be a great plan all around.

Final Words

You may notice that I didn’t moan about the Apple Maps debacle. Such mistakes are human and Apple Maps gets better each day. I’m sure that Tim Cook is already all over creating rich apps that can compete with the quality of Google’s content.

What Steve Jobs, Tim Cook and Jony Ive have done with Apple is amazing, but there are warning signals that Apple has become an amazing company for supply chain and operations rather than a true innovator. And if that is the case, they will fall to the same fate befell that Nokia and Motorola. Good luck Apple!

Disrupting the IT Services market: Consultancy 2.0

Some time ago I had dinner with SAP co-CEO Jim Snabe. Jim is a bright and talented individual and one of the topics we got into was the setting of unreasonable boundary conditions as a mechanism to get the best out of employees. The principle is that by asking for the unreasonable, you will cause people to come up with more creative, better solutions to problems. I was instantly fascinated.

However, it wasn’t until a late phone call with friend and mentor John Niland of VCO Global some weeks ago, that my thoughts started to finally mature on this. We discussed the topic of motivating contributors, and how you get the best out of those people who work for you.

I told Niland that my experience was that the best way to get more out of great employees is to ask more of them. As humans, we tend to be limited by what we believe is possible and this in turn restricts us. In an interesting twist, contributors are actually happiest, when pushed in this way. So I came up with an idea to test this theory:

The SI Smackdown

We took what would normally a 3-4 week SAP HANA technology project and I told a team of two that they had 2 days to complete it. Everyone thought it was crazy. To make it crazier, we orchestrated it to happen live, on a conference room floor, in front of 8000 people. And just to make it interesting, we used two Systems Integrators and turned it into a competition. Oh, and we used a real customer, Consumer Products giant ConAgra, with real data.

Because unreasonable boundary conditions – think back to the conversation with Snabe – were set, the SI Smackdown competitors found a way to make it happen. And then they blew my wildest expectations out the window by not just doing what was asked, but so much more. They demonstrated not just a better IT system running on SAP HANA, but radical ways to show ConAgra how they could change the was they run their business.

The thing that really interested me about this most was that the two participants from my team, once they had a few days off after the conference, were demanding when they could do it again. It turns out that they loved it.

Extreme Consultancy

And so it happened a few weeks ago that I was in a situation. We had committed to a UK conference to show a customer demo and we got the data 7 days before the conference to build the demo with. Worse, I had no resources that week spare to work on it and we had a good portion of our team out at another conference that week.

So, I wondered what would happen if we applied the two concepts above at the same time. Set unreasonable boundary conditions, and ask even more of our employees. So, I designed (OK… handwaved) a really cool solution based on the customer data, using technology that wasn’t available yet and would only be released the day before the conference. Note once again the importance of making the boundaries unreasonable.

Then, I emailed 5 very talented individuals, each of whom would bring an invaluable skill to the table, and asked them if they would be prepared to do the project in their spare time before the conference. Every one of them replied within an hour and agreed. They created the most amazing solution that showed how the customer, one of the largest Pharmaceutical companies in the world, how they could revolutionise their Integrated Business Planning process. Wow.

Managing Contributors

It’s worth jumping back to my conversation with Niland, because my second assertion is that if you want to get more out of your contributors then – I believe – you have to observe an interesting set of rules, which are even more important when setting unreasonable boundaries:

First, there has to be a purpose and you have to explain it. This becomes a shared vision for the contributors, who usually deeply care about actually making a difference. In both cases above, there was a customer scenario and a reason for creating the technology solution. Ensure there are unreasonable boundary conditions. If they think it’s possible, it won’t motivate them.

Second, you have to motivate them by providing them with what they want – and here’s a hint – it’s never about money. In both cases above, they got access to cool technology – a $400k appliance, plus access to software that wasn’t readily available and the request to do something that had never been done before. Be very mindful here because different things motivate different types of contributor.

Third, you have to give them other great contributors to work with, and clear the decks. Both by getting out the way yourself, but also by making sure they have access to get assistance when they need it – assistance from people they respect. Listen to what they need and provide for them.

Fourth, you have to look after their wellbeing because they will not. When you set unreasonable boundary conditions, I’ve often observed that contributors fail to manage their own wellbeing. Ensure they take a break when they need it, and they get days off after a high-pressure stint. But, don’t be confused into thinking that wellbeing is about a 37.5 hour week – that’s Eurobullshit. Happy people can work long hours. Stories of early Apple suggest 90 hour weeks were a regular occurrence and they were some of the most motivated workers I have ever read about.

Does the consultancy market need disrupting?

One of the things I lay in bed thinking about at night is the Consultancy business model. It was borne out of the large business process change and globalization models of the 70s and 80s and it made a lot of people at Accenture and IBM very rich, earning $2000 a day for poorly trained graduates. This got better after the markets crashed in 1999 and again after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the sorts of customers I deal with are very sensitive to getting value out of consulting projects. Many customers will now opt for fixed-price contracts, which is the right way to do consulting engagements.

But I still agonise every time I get a call saying “we need your help, XXX consultancy quoted this price to do this work and it’s way more than the customer will pay” – and I get a few of those every week. Surely there is a better way? Surely we don’t need 18 month projects that cripple business change and the ability to be agile? We have worked on ways – templates, agile methodologies and amazing people – to be cheaper, better and faster than our competitors but I don’t believe it is enough.

So, I’ve been working with friend and SAP Board Member Vishal Sikka, to try and challenge all of our assumptions about how we deliver consulting engagements (paradoxically, he helped me, by setting some unreasonable boundary conditions). Could it be that the consulting market is ready to be disrupted?

It’s cloudy out there

Cloud advocate Dennis Howlett often waxes that the solution is in the cloud, with companies like Salesforce and Workday offering much faster implementation times. This works great – even for integrated business processes, in the mid-market, but the processes that sit behind the Global 500 customers are so complex – with many languages, end-markets and integration points that if Workday and Salesforce do start to be able to offer a solution, it will probably be just as hard to implement as any other software product. And the consultancy gravy train will start afresh.

To add to this, there is no lever for Accenture or IBM to change – they have a lucrative model and while there is no alternative, they will continue to milk their cash cow. In most cases, I think the customers, particularly at the board level, are in any case not unhappy with the large consultancies and their business model.

Consultancy 2.0

So this is a call to action. Do you think Consultancy 2.0 needs to happen? Let me know your thoughts, publicly or in private. And if you work for a large consultancy, or if you are a board member of the sort of organisations I’m talking about and want to discuss this off the record, then let me know.

And equally, if you would like to help with this by co-innovating on a project together then let me know.

Thanks go to everyone I worked with on this, and particularly to Vishal, Jim, and John Niland for being the contributors and inspiration to this process and to Lloyd, Tristan, Anooj, Gary, DJ, Ollie and Brenton for being the contributors, unwitting guinea pigs and for creating unbelievably amazing solutions.