When the ecosystem is broken, you gotta blame the platform

When the ecosystem is broken, you gotta blame the platform

Summary: Two of the biggest mobile platforms give a lot of latitude to partners to make things work properly. That's a convenient approach, but for customers, blame usually goes back to the platform when things go bad.

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(Image: CNET)

Most of us have experienced the following: The PC/phone/tablet starts throwing fits, and we enter the twilight zone. At least we might as well be there with Rod Serling as we research the problem, desperately looking for a solution, as we end up doing the "who's fault is it" shuffle.

It's not the platform we trust to keep us running that's causing our problem; we're told it might be the vendor of the device. The vendor says it's not its firmware causing the problem, so it might be one of the hardware component makers that hasn't got all the bugs out of its software driver that talks to the rest of the hardware. It's up to us to figure out the source of the problem and apply the proper solution to make it go away.

Far too many Windows users know this shuffle all too well. That's because the Windows ecosystem has been designed to put many system-level functions in the hands of the vendor or the system component maker (think Intel). Those functions require firmware or software drivers to make sure that every part of the system plays nice with every other part of the system.

When you step back and look at the platforms that work this way, and I'm looking at you, Microsoft and Google, it almost makes sense that the ecosystems that keep us running operate in just this manner. It seems logical that the hardware companies are in a better position to make the hardware work like it should. The problem is that for years, it hasn't worked well, and mainstream consumers bear the brunt of the way it works.

That such a catch-22 exists with two of the largest mobile platforms is proof positive the ecosystem is broken. Workarounds or not, users should not have to go on a quixotic quest to fix problems.

I'm not just picking on Microsoft for this less-than-ideal user experience, Google's Android works much the same way. Android phone and tablet users have probably experienced the same frustrations. Something stops working on the device, and it's time to get online to find out how to fix it. Often, the specified solution is to upgrade the device to the latest version of Android, which addresses the issue. Unfortunately, that may not even be possible.

Like the Windows scenario, the Android situation is not much better. Google tells the customer to install the latest version of system software as provided by the hardware vendor. The device vendor says you're running the latest version that is available to you. No entity can give you any idea when (or even if) the system software will be updated for your device. If a phone carrier is involved, even though a Google update is available as well as a vendor update for your device, the carrier has the final say on when or if an update will actually be forthcoming.

Those with experience with mobile devices know they must live with the system problems or go under the hood to get around the abysmal ecosystems described above. Given enough time, a component maker's hardware driver can be found outside the normal support system. While the device maker warns the user to apply such drivers at your own risk, savvy users know this is the only option to try to fix the problem.

Often, this works, but sometimes it fails, leaving the user with a device that still has the original problem, and now with system software that the device vendor and the platform maker are reluctant to support. This is because the user, who just wants the problem to go away, has installed hardware driver software that has not been approved by either the platform company or the device vendor.

That such a catch-22 exists with two of the largest mobile platforms is proof positive that the ecosystem is broken. Workarounds or not, users should not have to go on a quixotic quest to fix problems. No matter which company ends up getting the responsibility for fixing the customer's problem, it really should be the platform that has mechanisms in place to avoid support as stated above.

We can understand why Microsoft and Google designed the software support ecosystems the way they did. Hardware vendors know their systems better than anyone. But these systems have been fraught with problems for so long, with consumers bearing the brunt of it, that they'd better put in place some system to make sure that updates don't break the users' systems, and that solutions are in place when they do.

The huge mainstream consumer base that all companies desperately want to attract does not possess the technical savvy or the desire to jump through hoops to make their failing device work again. When they have a problem, they should be able to turn to the platform maker to get whatever software is required to make their user experience good again.

Savvy users may respond that such inexperienced users get what they deserve. They shouldn't play in the mobile space if they aren't willing to get their hands dirty in situations as described.

The platform makers should have a vastly different take on this. The mainstream market consisting of the Aunt Sallys and Uncle Billys (no disrespect intended, just names grabbed at random) is far bigger than the tiny segment of savvy users. The huge market of those who just want a good user experience cannot be ignored. How big is this market? Look no further than the half a billion+ customers (as of January 2013) who have credit cards on file with Apple's iTunes store.

All companies in the mobile space know very well how significant those customers would be to their business. That's why it's time for the platform makers to take control over this software support debacle and make it right. It's the only way to attract mainstream customers and keep them coming back. Customers deserve the extra effort from the platform makers.

The mobile space today, with the majority of customers who are not tech savvy, calls for a change to the ecosystem. Continuing the way it is currently, both in the Windows and Android ecosystem, is a recipe for disaster. The time to change is now, no matter how it upsets hardware partners. Once customers are lost due to the way things are, they will not come back. A great user experience is not a luxury, it is a requirement.

Win81 promotion

PS: As an owner of a Windows 8 device, yesterday I received an email from Microsoft (shown above) advising me that the pre-release of Windows 8.1 is available. Clicking the link took me to a web page with a video aimed squarely at the mainstream user I have described in this article. It's a nice video with snappy music and lots of cute animals that got me excited about installing Windows 8.1, even a preview release.

Before installing it, I visited this Microsoft blog announcing Windows 8.1. It all looked exciting until I hit this paragraph:

Please note: Some tablets and PCs running newer 32-bit Atom processors require updates to their graphics drivers before they can run the Windows 8.1 Preview. Those tablets and PCs include the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, Asus VivoTab TF810C, HP Envy X2, HP ElitePad 900, Samsung Ativ Smart PC, and Fujitsu Arrows Tab. We are working closely with Intel and OEM partners to deliver updated drivers that will allow you to install the Windows 8.1 Preview as soon as possible.

This is another aspect of the broken Windows ecosystem. Microsoft makes a big splash with consumers building up the availability of Windows 8.1 and enticing mainstream customers to install it. The warning above was buried in a blog post and nowhere near the promotional material pushing customers to install the pre-release version.

Microsoft apparently knew that hardware partners might not be ready to handle the new Windows, but released it anyway. There's no telling what will happen to owners of the devices listed above who install the new version, and I'm not going to find out, given the warning.

"Buyer beware" is always appropriate, but if you can't trust the platform maker, then who can you trust to watch your back?

In this writer's opinion, this is a clear example of Microsoft not putting the customer first and handling things in a way to guarantee a smooth experience. It's another instance of Microsoft releasing an update to its own product, yet not allowing partners to get ready for it so customers have no problems. In a way, this instance is even worse than usual, as it's obvious that given the warning statement above, Microsoft knew that owners of these popular devices should exert caution with the update installation.

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Google, Laptops, Microsoft, Smartphones, Tablets

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27 comments
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  • When the ecosystem is broken, you gotta blame the platform

    Great article James.
    daikon
    • You are just agreeing with James because you both have the same

      agenda of bashing Microsoft? I see James problem, he was Microsoft's MVP and was not able to keep it, so he has to let it out. What is you problem, paying money for the software? Probably plagiarism and piracy are just in the system there and thats why you bash Microsoft at every opportunity or approve anyone who criticizes Microsoft or its software blindly without putting your brain into it.
      Ram U
      • Fanboys everywhere, for every platform... Sad.

        Ram U, James was not just bashing MS. He speaks critically of Google as well. The truth is, he has a point. The platform vendor should have more control over any software/device issues. This is much harder said than done (and other vendors aren't much better), but something should be done.

        I'm more than willing to update my BIOS and install the newest nVidia driver if it means I'll be able to run Hyper-V to debug my WP8 apps and run Skyrim at the highest settings, but many people don't have the expertise to do that. Or, even worse, they'll install updates willy-nilly. A recent nVidia update caused BSOD's on tons of systems. I knew to avoid it, but the average consumer does not.

        The Win8.1 situation is especially bad. They promote Win 8.1, but don't have information on the risks of running preview software or the requirements on the main page. They bury the info under a link. Again, not a problem for you or me, but a serious issue for most consumers.
        Ndiaz.fuentes
      • Enlighten us

        Pray tell us, what is your excuse for Microsoft in situations like this?

        A variation of "but why you expect Microsoft can write software for all....". Still not seeing it?

        Would be interested to learn what piracy and plagiarism have something to do with the issue at hand.
        danbi
  • What do you know, James?

    8.1 is a *preview*. You complain that Microsoft "released it anyway" despite not all devices had drivers ready for it. What should they (Microsoft) had done? Waited? That's STUPID - it is a preview release intended for testing the waters. So what if some devices are not quite capable (yet).

    What you should be *asking* is what leverage does Microsoft have over the vendors when it comes to already shipped devices. Does the contract between Microsoft and OEMs stipulate that the latter must supply updated and working drivers as long as the OS is termed 8.x something? Maybe you should have researched that instead of just ranting about a frigging PREVIEW!

    For what it is worth, Microsoft really does seem to GET the ecosystem. They've learned their lesson with Windows Mobile. As a developer I can tell you that Windows Phone is strictly no compromise when it comes to protecting user experience. No prisoners taken.

    If your app goes into the background you have 5 (!) seconds to save what you need. After that your app does not get any CPU or network resources. Sometime after that - if the user does not reactivate your app - your process memory is also simply discarded. You as a developer need to take this strict regime into account. The OS protects user experience (not letting background processes eat CPU, network), battery/energy etc.

    You *can* get notifications to support live tiles, notofications/toasts etc. But you need to register for them and they are strictly managed by the OS. Your process is not available "in the background" - you register for the OS to execute small fragments of your code at given events.

    I've seen the effect of this regime first hand. I installed Skype on my Lumia and my colleague installed it on his Android so that we could text/talk while abroad (yes, attending Build 2013). The Android was sucked dry within 4 hours. My Lumia battery consumption wasn't affected in any noticeable way.

    So how can you claim that Microsoft does not manage the ecosystem when you havenøt done any research and only goes on your own speculation and a disclaimer for a PREVIEW build? All indications are that Microsoft actually "gets it". It is annoying as a developer, but I do see where they are coming from.
    honeymonster
    • Less than a month ago Microsoft.....

      Less than a month ago Microsoft pushed a critical update to machine that caused a blue screen event. Microsoft has always done a wonderful job of running their platform into the ground on a regular basis (to their credit they are good at fixing quickly afterward). It was so bad they release a patch to remove the patch, as another critical update. It make you dizzy thinking about it.
      alex_darkness
    • Very simple

      If Microsoft knows that a product is not ready for *consumers*, it should not push it to the *consumers* to install and "see how good it is".

      Except of course, if Microsoft does not threat their customers as free beta testers, that is.
      danbi
  • Not sure what you're getting at

    "Microsoft apparently knew that hardware partners might not be ready to handle the new Windows but released it anyway."

    So the OS vendor is being blamed for the fact that pre-existing hardware doesn't have drivers ready for the new release? And how long did they have to come up with something? 2 months, or 2 hours?

    And this is a preview release, and like every other one, some hardware isn't ready to view the preview release.

    But let's go your way, and have MS change THEIR entire schedule so that a single vendor can get drivers ready for their last 2 machines.

    How long should they wait? 3 months, 6 months? a year? This goes for Android, too. Should Google NOT release an update because HTC is dragging their feet? We've heard that this is a "change by the minute industry, [some company] better keep up". Well, these companies better keep up, agreed?

    Normally you write good articles, this time I have to say "Poor article, James".
    William Farrel
  • Preview...

    Also used to be called beta releases, and they have ALWAYS been "install at your own risk".
    The tech savvy user has historically been the ones that know that there may issues with beta software and know how to deal with it.
    If the mainstream user doesn't know what they are doing under the hood, they shouldn't install ANY previews or betas. That's what the final releases are for.
    JustWow2000
    • True, but...

      MS includes no such warnings on their 8.1 product page. The warnings are buried in the FAQ. Most consumers won't see that...
      Ndiaz.fuentes
    • Re: If the mainstream user doesn't know what they are doing

      Or might be, Microsoft should not be advertising beta software to mainstream users. Much less, pushing it out to them!

      As Microsoft is always copying Apple, they could just copy this as well: make pre-release software available only to registered developers.
      danbi
      • I wouldn't go that far...

        I do not want to have to pay ~$100 just to try beta software.
        Ndiaz.fuentes
        • Yes

          You would do work for Microsoft for free.
          danbi
          • Not sure what you meant...

            If you simply have to register as a dev, and downloading the preview software is free, then I'm all for your plan. BUT, if you have to pay registration fees, then your plan would suck. Why would I pay just to try beta software?
            Ndiaz.fuentes
  • What a bunch of nonsense

    It is just "a preview" and Microsoft already mentioned greatly that some of the existing systems as latest as Samsung ATIV S500T, HP Envyx2 etc. will not work because they are powered by 32 bit Atom processors. I think you forgot to read this http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-8/preview-faq, and this

    and just launch this in your system and you will know whether your is compatible or not, http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/compatibility/win8/CompatCenter/Home?Language=en-US
    Ram U
  • Balmer

    The Windows Ecosystem has ONE PROBLEM. Steve Balmer. Since he's been at the helm, things have steadily gone downhill for Windows, MS Office, Windows Phone, and the whole Tablet PC debacle. Balmer insists on imposing what HE THINKS users want only to have his assertions rejected in the market place. Late to the game with Windows Phone. Windows 8 with no start button. Overpriced Windows RT and Surface Tablets that aren't going to move because they're priced higher than iPads (A strategy that every Android OEM failed at already). Balmer lives in a reality distortion field that is more off base than Apple's reality distortion field. If MS doesn't get rid of Balmer, they will never recover from his blunders.
    Jorgen_Roth
  • not androids fault

    " the Android situation is not much better. Google tells the customer to install the latest version of system software as provided by the hardware vendor"

    Not a problem at least if you use the nexus devices, which I always have. So its not 'android's fault'. This is in fact why google is moving to push more of their own devices.
    Google generously uploaded the android development platform, tools and source code to public servers, free of charge. 100s of companies downloaded and used it. Again, not androids fault for what others do with it. Its not the same thing as with windows.
    drwong
    • Hmmm. why not

      I see both Microsoft and Google as for profit companies. Their source code sharing philosophy may be different. I see modern Microsoft as more open and transperant than new Google. Also how many of real android users really benefit from releasing the source other than OEMs and researchers/hacks? Could you please tell us, in percentages. I see that would be less than 0.0001% of total Android usage. Also most of the OEMs will never share their version of Android until later day of the year if they ever share. And if you don't know, Microsoft's OEMs have insight into Windows internals more than anyone out there. Finally I could say the same with Surfaces and the PCs sold from Microsoft store like you say about Nexus line. I see you are very good at shilling about Google, but most of the times you ignore to back up your assertions against Microsoft. Google must be paying you handsomely. Care to share.
      Ram U
    • I own a Samsung Galaxy Nexus...

      ...and it has had software and/or hardware related to software issues. Actually, I've owned 3 Android devices, and they've all had performance issues of some sort, to a much greater degree than the two iPhones or Windows Phone (or for that matter, the chromebook) I've owned.

      Not coincidentally, I do not intend to buy Android devices again in the future.

      P.S. I think James' article points towards the reason why Microsoft created Windows 8 RT. I have not used a Windows 8 RT device yet, but I have used a Windows Phone, and IMO the Windows Phone has generally performed much more smoothly than Microsoft's x86-based devices. (To be fair, Windows 7 is very, very solid, and Windows 8 isn't bad except for some transition-related technical issues with inadvertent switching between Metro/tile mode and desktop mode.) I think Microsoft is trying to get away from having a compromised operating system that is more susceptible to performance issues.
      CHIP72
  • Couldn't ignore this

    I won't bother rehashing what others have already stated about what a preview is.

    Perhaps you should stick to writing keyboard and bag reviews?
    mep01378