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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 29 November 2019, 4:00 pm

A safe pair of hands

This week we had a real leader in town, someone who has dealt head-on with controversy, who can steady the ship of state and make the difficult decisions about matters that can beset empires.

No, not Prince Charles. I'm talking of course about Satya Nadella who has grown into his role as Microsoft CEO and radically changed the company's direction.

Microsoft has been on the tech company roller coaster almost since its inception and under Steve Balmer, the prior CEO, was riding that downhill trajectory like there was no tomorrow.

All the major tech companies have done this it seems - they start out as darlings, become a powerhouse, an overnight success (usually after several years' hard graft), hit the mainstream consciousness, become market leader, get called for being too dominant, get pecked to death by consumer aggravation, get bloated, refuse to engage with politicians or consumers and then fall to their deaths, or manage to claw their way back.

Whether or not that was Ballmer's fault or just a timing issue remains to be seen but Nadella has turned a company that was becoming famous for the things it got wrong and the opportunities it shunned into one that's delivering shareholder value.

Ballmer will probably most be famous for riding a motorbike on stage and throwing chairs in meetings about Google, but in the tech space he should be remembered as the CEO who missed the move to mobile, derided the iPhone and its user base, introduced a solution that nobody asked for in the form of the Windows Phone (that famously would have the same tile-based GUI as the Surface tablet and as the fabulously unloved Windows 8 desktop operating system). He bought the handset division off Nokia, a move that could have seen Microsoft fight off Apple for supremacy, but instead of going with Android as the operating system (which admittedly would have been a very tough call for the company) he blew the whole thing by shoehorning the Windows Mobile OS into the phones and in essence killing off any chance of competing.

Nadella could not be more different, both in temperament and in delivery.

His first announcement - Microsoft would be releasing a version of Office for the iPad - set the tone. This Microsoft would work with rivals, offer products to customers regardless of the ecosystem they were engaged in and the company would win hearts and minds by delivering better solutions instead of by locking them in and it would grow value through leadership, not by walking backwards slowly fending off the enemy.

In his first five years at the helm, Nadella has overseen a company that has tripled its stock price, briefly becoming the world's most valuable company in the process.

Today's Microsoft is a far cry from the "fat Elvis" era of Ballmer, although it does still like to do some things the hard way. Its effort at matching productivity tools like Slack and Trello is called Teams and invokes more user rage than most products I've seen, but overall the days of Windows 8 and the Surface with its crazy "two versions of apps that store documents and data in two separate ways" appear to be long over.

As for Prince Charles, well let's just say Christmas dinner at the Windsors is going to be less convivial than usual this year.

CIO - Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella touts 'tech intensity' formula to Kiwi firms

NZ Herald - Microsoft boss' message for Kiwi tech industry

Reseller News - Microsoft launches te reo translator as Nadella touches down in NZ

MS Power User - Slack does the maths, says Teams still sucks



Project Creep and the Public Purse

The Otago Daily Times is reporting that the Dunedin City Council is to install a network of sensors mounted on poles around the city to monitor traffic flows.

Normally this kind of announcement usually invokes images of Big Brother, of CCTV cameras that grow like weeds in every nook and cranny of a city centre and of yet more state intervention in our lives.

But this one is different. This time the sensors aren't cameras, don't record your number plate or your facial features but instead just tracks your car's Bluetooth connectivity as you drive around the city. No user identifiable details are captured or stored - it's purely about vehicle movements.

Given the ease with which technology like facial recognition or number plate scanners are introduced it's nice to see a council opt for a better and at the same time less intrusive model. Of course, not every car or vehicle will have Bluetooth enabled devices in them but the vast bulk will and the council will soon get a picture of actual traffic movements, which should help with the planning for the future.

One thing they'll have to get used to, of course, is the move to public transport (hint: those big collections of multiple signals that are practically on top of each other? They're called "buses") but for some parts of the network it seems building a ticketing system that lets you on and off buses, combined with mapping and traffic updates and alerts about incidents is all too much.

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) has been working on a "national system of paying for public transport tickets virtually anywhere" - using cellphones, credit card or contactless payment methods, but the project is two years behind schedule because those pesky technologists keep introducing new things.

No, really.

Sadly the whole thing is now budgeted for $250 million, not the $30 million it was supposed to cost, and instead of being rolled out everywhere it'll only launch as a trial in Wellington.

Yes, once again Project Creep has taken the public purse and squeezed it as hard as it can, draining every last nickel, dime, pfennig, farthing and peso and leaving us with the distinct impression that we surely should have got more for our money than this thing.

We should probably get t-shirts printed up.

ODT - Network of sensors to monitor city traffic

RNZ - Nationwide transport ticketing project behind schedule by two years

RNZ - Raft of problems with IT systems overhaul revealed


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