An alternative history of Microsoft

Microsoft released their latest quarterly results two weeks ago, and the news was good for them. They beat analyst expectations for the third consecutive quarter, but perhaps the more important part was the cloud revenues. Up nearly 100%, Microsoft’s cloud business continues to get stronger. That’s very important for their future growth.

You could say things are going pretty well in the three years since Satya Nadella took the corner office. The market certainly seems to think so. Microsoft stock is up 68% since Nadella took the helm. This is compared to the 38% increase for the Nasdaq composite index. His predecessor Steve Ballmer had a less stellar record. In 14 years under Ballmer, Microsoft’s stock price fell 37%. He did have to deal with both the dot-com bubble burst and the Great Recession, but the Nasdaq managed to recover, up about a percent and a half over the same period.

Microsoft stock price under Ballmer

Microsoft stock price (blue) and Nasdaq composite (red) from January 2000 to February 2014.

Microsoft stock price under Nadella

Microsoft stock price (blue) and Nasdaq composite (red) from February 2014 to February 2017.

There’s more to a company than its stock price, of course. Ballmer oversaw a 215% increase in net income. During Ballmer’s tenure, Microsoft launched XBox and the enterprise business (e.g. Exchange and SQL Server). The Azure offering that is driving much of the Nadella-era growth started during Ballmer’s reign as well. Of course, the Ballmer era also saw failed attempts to enter markets: the Zune music player, Windows Phone — as an OS as well as the Nokia acquisition.

An alternate history

As an open source software enthusiast, the “new” Microsoft’s good-faith entry into the open source world is the most interesting change. Whereas Ballmer called the GPL a “cancer”, today’s Microsoft is embracing open source (albeit under permissive licenses). Microsoft has opened .NET, ported SQL Server and Powershell to Linux, and has partnered with Red Hat and Canonical on various efforts. So what if Ballmer never happened?

…After moving many of their products to an open core model, Microsoft saw its dominance continue. Apple gained a toehold in the desktop market with OS X, but was never able to make serious inroads. When the iPod became a runaway success, they got out of the computer business altogether. Meanwhile in the server market, Unix was giving way to Linux. Microsoft saw this trend and developed a new server operating system based on the Linux kernel. Some of the UI improvments made it back to the Linux ecosystem and 2005 was officially declared the Year of Linux on the Desktop. Seeing the success of the Microsoft-backed Linux, Mark Shuttleworth disbands his young company and focuses on returning to space. He eventually partners with Elon Musk to help fund early SpaceX efforts. By 2017, industry analysts begin seeing Amazon’s cloud offering as a serious competitor to Microsoft Azure…

Back to reality

Okay, so maybe that’s not how it would have played out. Maybe Microsoft would have come to dominate the smartphone and tablet instead of Apple. Maybe they’d have a terrible CEO who would drive the company off a cliff. Cynics would say that Microsoft is only embracing (without extending and extinguishing this time!) open source because they’re struggling to remain relevant as technology paradigms shift out from underneath them. Maybe the cynics are right. As with all counterfactuals, we’ll never know, but Microsoft’s investors have to wonder “what if?”

Google Voice lives!

I’ve been a big fan of Google Voice for years. I first started using it when my office was in a sub-basement. Google Voice was a way for me to text with my wife without having to play submarine by going topside every so often. It also made it so that I could give people one number that would catch me in my office or on my cell phone. The ability to make phone calls with my computer (on the rare occasion I make phone calls) was also appealing. But as time wore on, Google Voice got no love.

Over time, people began including me in group texts or sending me pictures. Google Voice didn’t handle that well. I got the pictures in my email, but the group texts were basically individual messages. As Google developed new communication tools and Voice got no love, I figured it was always going to be that way. I gave in and started using Hangouts for my Google Voice messages.

This got me the ability to use group messages and MMS, but it meant always leaving myself signed into Hangouts on my phone (I could have messages forwarded to my carrier number, but meh). I had avoided this because I didn’t want to always be available, but it turned out to not be that big of an issue. Then last month Google announced an update to Voice. Holy crap, it’s still alive!

Once the new app reached my phone, I switched back. I’ve been using it for a week or so and I have to say that I like it. The new UI looks great and the mobile app is much quicker than Hangouts to find the person or number I’m typing.

There are three main drawbacks. First, it turns out that I really liked having my SMS/MMS messages trated like IMs in my Gmail window, but that doesn’t work anymore. Second, when using voice commands to send a text, it still uses my carrier number instead of my Google Voice number. This is apparently just a missing feature (it was a problem in Hangouts, too), but I hope Google fixes it. I don’t usually speak to my phone, but if it behaved the way I wanted, I might use that feature more. Lastly, the widget disappeared. Not a big deal, but a minor annoyance.

The “classic” web interface for Google Voice.

The new web interface for Google Voice.

Google Voice is perhaps the most valuable of all Google services to me. I worried for years that they would give up on it. I worry less after this update. Hopefully they continue to put more effort into it as Hangouts becomes the abandoned project.

Maybe your tech conference needs less tech

My friend Ed runs a project called “Open Sourcing Mental Illness“, which seeks to change how the tech industry talks about mental health (to the extent we talk about it at all). Part of the work involves the publication of handbooks developed by mental health professionals, but a big part of it is Ed giving talks at conferences. Last month he shared some feedback on Twitter:

So I got feedback from a conf a while back where I did a keynote. A few people said they felt like it wasn’t right for a tech conf. It was the only keynote. Some felt it wasn’t appropriate for a programming conf. Time could’ve been spent on stuff that’d help career. Tonight a guy from a company that sponsored the conf said one of team members is going to seek help for anxiety about work bc of my talk. That’s why I do it. Maybe it didn’t mean much to you, but there are lots of hurting, scared people who need help. Ones you don’t see.

Cate Huston had similar feedback from a talk she gave in 2016:

the speaker kept talking about useless things like feelings

The tech industry as a whole, and some areas more than others, likes to imagine that it is as cool and rational as the computers it works with. Conferences should be full of pure technology. And yet we bemoan the fact that so many of our community are real jerks to work with.

I have a solution: maybe your tech conference needs less technology. After all, the only reason anyone pays us to do this stuff is because it (theoretically) solves problems for human beings. I’m biased, but I think the USENIX LISA conference does a great job of this. LISA has three core areas: architecture, engineering, and culture. You could look at it this way: designing, implementing, and making it so people will help you the next time around.

Culture is more than just sitting around asking “how does this make you feeeeeeeel?” It includes things like how to avoid burnout and how to train the next generation of practitioners. It also, of course, includes how to not be a insensitive jerk who inflicts harm on others with no regard for the impact they cause.

I enjoy good technical content, but I find that over the course of a multi-day conference I don’t retain very much of it. For a few brief hours in 2011, I understood SELinux and I was all set to get it going at home and work. Then I attended a dozen other sessions and by the time I got home, I forgot all of the details. My notes helped, but it wasn’t the same. On the other hand, the cultural talks tend to be the ones that stick with me. I might not remember the details, but the general principles are lasting and actionable.

Every conference is different, but I like having one-third of content be not-tech as a general starting point. We’re all humans participating in these communities, and it serves no one to pretend we aren’t.

The tradeoffs of Slack for community projects

When my employer adopted Slack, we saw benefit immediately. Conversations are searchable, file sharing is easy, and oh how I ? /giphy. It’s a great tool, but I don’t like it for open communities.

Slack was designed to be a company’s internal communication system. For that purpose, it’s great. It was not designed to be an open platform. For example, it is basically impossible for users to manage harassment.

Most people have one employer at a time. That’s not the case for hobby and interest communities. I have five unrelated rooms on Freenode IRC that I’m regularly in. For the most part, I manage that in one place. But each Slack instance I’m in might as well be a separate universe.

That’s not to say Slack is all bad. It is much easier to learn and use than most IRC clients. This is a significant benefit to non-technical communities. Creative Commons, for example, saw a large uptick in community participation after moving to Slack. Slack allows for a richness of community culture to develop in ways that text-only formats don’t.

But for me, particularly with open source communities, the less-than-public nature of Slack teams is a negative. People can’t join the communities they don’t know about. And if they can’t lurk quietly (by reading transcripts or joining the server anonymously), will they feel safe jumping in? There are lock-in considerations as well (my free software readers have probably been waiting for me to get to this point) that I think I’ll address in a later post.

Each community has to decide what is best for them. Like any other technology, Slack has pros and cons. The important thing is to weigh them before making a decision.

How not to code your bank website

When is a number not a number? When it is a PIN. Backstory: recently my bank overhauled its website. On the whole, it’s an improvement, but it hasn’t been entirely awesome. One of the changes was that special characters were no longer allowed in the security questions. As it turns out, that’s a good way to lock your users out. Me included.

Helpfully, if you lock yourself out, there’s a self-service unlock feature. You just need your Social Security Number and your PIN (and something else that I don’t recall at the moment). Like any good form, it validates the fields before proceeding. Except holy crap, if your PIN begins with 0, pressing “Submit” means the PIN field becomes three characters and you can never proceed. That’s right: it treats the PIN as an integer when really it should be a string.

I’ve made my share of dumb mistakes, so I try to be pretty forgiving. But bank websites need to be held to a very high standard, and this one clearly misses the mark. Breaking existing functionality and mistreating PINs are bad enough, but the final part that lead me to a polite-but-stern phone call was the fact that special characters are not allowed in the password field. This is 2016 and if your website can’t handle special characters, I have to assume you’re doing something terribly, terribly wrong.

In the meantime, I’ve changed my PIN.

Snapchat sunglasses? Why they could be successful

Snapchat’s founder announced on Friday that the company is working on a new, non-software product: sunglasses. Set to go on sale this fall, these sunglasses will include a camera that, when activated, will record 10 seconds of video. Presumably, this video will be posted to Snapchat by way of the user’s phone.

Some of the reaction I’ve seen so far is pretty predictable: “it’s like Google Glass, but less featured!” and “what a great way to announce that you’re a d-bag.” Haters gonna hate, as they say, and I’ll admit that the design is not my style. Still, there are reasons to believe Snapchat’s Spectacles will have the sort of wide consumer adoption that Google Glass never did:

  • Price. At less than one-tenth the price of Google Glass, it’s much more affordable. The price is in line with normal sunglasses, for those of us who don’t buy our sunglasses off the spinny rack at the drug store (full disclosure: I buy my sunglasses off the spinny rack at the drug store).
  • Branding. Oh sure, Google had great brand recognition when Glass launched. But Google’s brand is more about utility. Snapchat is about social. And this lines up well with the respective eyewear, but I think the fact that Snapchat is a social media platform, not a “know everything” platform helps in this case.
  • Obviousness. Both Google Glass and Spectacles are pretty obvious externally, but Spectacles will apparently have an LED light to indicate when it was recording. The fact that Spectacles are sunglasses, not a fixture on general-purpose glasses, means that some of the more obvious privacy concerns (particularly bathrooms) are avoided because people probably won’t be wearing them inside. Plus the limited duration shortens the window for privacy violations. It’s more “I have my camera ready to go” and less “I am recording your every move.”
  • Simplicity. Yes, Spectacles have very limited use, but that also means they’re really easy to use. I haven’t used Glass, so I can’t speak for the ease of use, but it’s hard to beat “push this button.”

None of this is any guarantee that Spectacles will be a success, of course. It will be interesting to see how this affects Snapchat usage. Anecdotally, while I have many friends of a variety of genders, ages, and interests on Snapchat, it’s a small group of mostly twenty-something women that post stories (perhaps there’s greater usage 1:1?). There’s a lot to be said for being able to share your experiences from your own point-of-view, so now we’ll have to see what Evan Spiegel and company can do.

Thoughts on the Wunderlist outage

For most of Wednesday and Thursday, the to-do list management service Wunderlist was unavailable. They haven’t published a public post mortem, though I’ve asked if they plan on it. It has to be a hell of a problem since it resulted in such a long outage.

I think they handled it fairly well, though. Logins were disabled in order to prevent further problems and regular updates were posted to the status page. I’d have preferred that the login page were redirected to the status site. I took a guess at the address and it was right, but I’m not sure all users would have done that. It might have saved their support team some effort.

The status page promised updates in various non-specific time frames. I’d have liked “we’ll provide another update at $specific_time”. When the specified time rolls around, if there’s nothing to say, just say “no new updates, we’ll update again at $blah”. And speaking of times, having the current time on the page is helpful for a global service, since not all users know what your time zone offset is.

On a more personal note, I was pleasantly surprised with how well I managed without my outsourced brain. Wunderlist has become a critical extension of my brain. Fortunately, I didn’t have much pressing due during the outage. But it did make me miss my old days of using TuDu running in a screen session.

Twitter doesn’t need read receipts

Not content to leave the potentially user-hostile decisions to Apple, Twitter announced last week that they were adding read receipts (among other features) to direct messages. Annoyingly, this is an opt-out feature. Twitter is once again adding a feature no one wants while ignoring the real problems of abuse on the platform.

I’m no product management expert, but I know there are times when you listen to your users and times when you don’t. “I want this thing” is a good time to not listen to your users. That’s not to say you ignore their wishes entirely, but you can build a product that people like even if they don’t realize that’s what they want at the time. Apple has had a fair amount of success with this approach.

“This thing is a problem” is absolutely something you listen to your users about. Particularly when prominent people end up abandoning the product. While Twitter has given lip service to the harassment problem, it does not appear to have taken any meaningful steps to address it. In fact, the read receipts can bolster harassment.

Before the addition of read receipts, harassers would have to guess if a direct message was read or not. With read receipts on, there’s the immediate satisfaction of knowing your message got through. Even setting harassment aside, read receipts just reinforce the cultural demand for immediacy. I’m fairly connected digitally, but I don’t see a benefit to read receipts. I’ll probably respond to a message quickly, but if I don’t then that’s my decision. I don’t need the platform insinuating that I’m ignoring someone when I’m really just trying to keep my children from tearing the house apart.

Instructions for disabling read receipts came out almost as quickly as the announcement.

Full disclosure: I own a small number of Twitter shares.

Slack and abuse

Recently, Sara Mauskopf asked how to block a user on Slack, the popular chat platform. Slack’s social media team replied: 


The response is not helpful. As Mauskopf pointed out, Slack is used in many environments. Communities have adopted Slack as an easy, cross-platform communication tool. Some may have governing bodies, and they should all have a code of conduct, but there’s often only an informal power structure. This means that abusers can go unchecked (and there’s no guarantee that a corporate HR department would be quick to act).

Slack’s self-reported diversity numbers are not as bad as many tech companies. Nonetheless, this strikes me as a failure to empathize with people who face abuse online. I don’t understand how a communication platform in 2016 can not have some kind of block feature. Even Twitter, which has a pretty lousy track record of dealing with abuse, has the ability to block users.

I can understand how some organizations might not want to allow users to block others, but that’s not a good reason to forego the feature entirely. Giving site administrators the option to allow blocking would be a big improvement. Until then, it’s hard to suggest Slack to open communities.

Twitter’s abuse problem

I’ve been an avid Twitter user for years. I’ve developed great friendships, made professional connections, learned, laughed, and generally had a good time. Of course, I also happen to be a relatively-anonymous white male, which means my direct exposure to abuse is fairly limited. I can’t say the same for some of my friends. Last week’s BuzzFeed article calling Twitter “a honeypot for assholes” didn’t seem all that shocking to me.

Twitter, of course, denied it in the most “that article is totally wrong, but we won’t tell you why because it’s actually spot on” way possible:

In response to today’s BuzzFeed story on safety, we were contacted just last night for comment and obviously had not seen any part of the story until we read it today. We feel there are inaccuracies in the details and unfair portrayals but rather than go back and forth with BuzzFeed, we are going to continue our work on making Twitter a safer place. There is a lot of work to do but please know we are committed, focused, and will have updates to share soon.

To it’s credit, Twitter has publicly admitted that it’s solution to harassment is woefully inadequate. It’s in a tough spot: balancing free expression and harassment prevention is not an easy task. Some have suggested the increased rollout of Verified status would help, but that’s harmful to some the people best served by anonymous free expression. I get that Twitter does not want to be in the business of moderating speech.

It’s important to distinguish speech, though, so I’m going to invent a word. There’s offensive speech and then there’s assaultive speech. Offensive speech might offend people or it might offend governments. Great social reform and obnoxious threadshitting both fall into this category. This is the free speech that we all argue for. Assaultive speech is less justifiable. It’s not merely being insulting, but it’s the aggressive attempt to squash someone’s participation.

I like to think of it as the difference between letting a person speak and forcing the audience to listen. I could write “Jack Dorsey sucks” on this blog every day and while it would be offensive, it is (and should be) protected. Even posting that on Twitter would fall into this category. If instead I tweeted “@jack you suck” every day, that’s still offensive but now it’s assaultive, too.

This, of course, is a in the context of a comany deciding what it will and won’t allow on its platform, not in the context of what should be legally permissible. And don’t mistake my position for “you can never say something mean to someone.” It’s more along the lines of “you can’t force someone to listen to you say mean things.” Blocks and mutes are woefully ineffective, especially against targeted attacks. It’s trivially easy to create a new Twitter account (and I have made several on a lark just because I could). But if the legal system can have Anti-SLAPP laws to prevent censorship-by-lawsuit, Twitter should be able to come up with a system of Anti-STAPP rules.

One suggestion I heard (I believe it was on a recent episode of “This Week in Tech”, but I don’t recall for sure) was the idea of a “jury of peers.” Instead of having Twitter staff review all of the harassment, spam, etc. complains, select some number of users to give it a first pass. Even if just a few hundred active accounts a day are selected for “jury duty”, this gives a scalable mechanism for actually looking at complaints and encouraging community norms.

Maybe this is a terrible idea, it’s clear that Twitter needs to do something effective if it wants to continue to attract (and retain!) users.

Full disclosure: I own a small number of shares of Twitter stock. It’s not going well for me.