Musings on technology: Grand Theft Auto 5, Excel, and Chromebook

Microsoft and Xbox One
Recently I made three predictions about Microsoft, in an article titled “What’s wrong with Microsoft? As the old Meatloaf song goes, “two out of three ain’t bad”, but I did get one prediction completely wrong. First, I predicted that Microsoft would backtrack on their Xbox One rules, which prohibited selling or sharing disks and required logging into the Internet at least once a day. They backtracked in record time. I also pointed out that Steve Ballmer was the common denominator in many of Microsoft’s blunders, and sure enough, he announced his retirement and the stock soared…..I wish I could do that—quit a job, have the stock soar, and make a billion dollars in one day (this actually happened), but I don’t have enough shares of anything to have that happen. However, my third prediction, that Xbox One pre-sales would be below forecast, was wrong.

I noted that Xbox One was priced $100 higher than Sony’s PlayStation, so predicted that Microsoft’s pre-sales would miss their target and they’d have to lower their price to meet the competition. Instead, pre-sales have met projections and are 'sold out', and kids are clamoring for the game system. What was I missing?

First, it should be noted that Sony PS4 pre-sales have also soared, so both systems are doing well, and Microsoft is rumored to be having supply chain issues, resulting from them having to re-engineer some of their mistakes noted in the previous article, but more so due to other features that are causing delays--the Blu-ray drive and the Kinect’s camera module. So although their pre-sales are on track, their projected 4th quarter shipments are off about 10%, signaling supply chain problems.

However, the sales of both consoles aren't about the hardware. It's all about software, and what these games really are:

The concept I was missing is what Xbox One (or PS4) actually is. It’s not just a video game console. The way I see it now is that the Xbox One is the delivery system for software (games like GTA5) that are the male equivalent of Facebook--for adolescent boys and young men. Because you play this game on the Internet, linked up with your friends from school or around the world, it’s a social event, and because you are doing “missions”, it’s much like playing on a sports team--unfortunately for parents, minus the exercise. Men tend to be more solitary creatures than women, but historically they’ve bonded in war and on the playing field, and Xbox One games do such a good job simulating this that it accomplishes the same thing. While FB is visited proportionally more by women (although plenty of men too), sharing updates and photos of their lives, kids, and pets, and discussing local events, the boys are off saving the world from alien invaders, joining gangs, or fighting terrorists. I’m pretty sure Microsoft doesn’t know what it has, but that’s why boys and young adults are chucking out $500 plus $60 to play online—otherwise, they are left out of the action, and are the equivalent of the water boy or the 'kid who's picked last'. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but just that that’s how it is.

For the record, GTA5 (the new Grand Theft Auto) has incredible graphics, and despite being terrible at video games, I can see the allure. It's also sort of amazing how we are seeing movies and video games converging--video games of this caliber are becoming much like a 'make your own ending' movie....the game supplies the setting and the general plot, but it's up to you how it plays out. By this standard, which is how it has been treated in the press, GTA5 is the biggest movie of the year, by far.

The official trailer and some others can be seen here. Warning: R+ Rated. It's so well done it's too bad it doesn't convey a better message. Reminds me of Breaking Bad.

For a strategic or tactical look at your IT and operational needs, call Crow Hill Associates at 978-758-8516, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information.

Google's Chromebook meets the iPad
You can always tell a lumbering dinosaur of a company—they’re the company that devotes a lot of effort to come up with a five year plan for technology. Now there’s a hopeless task and a colossal waste of time, effort, and money. Five years ago Blackberries were cutting edge, iPads were unknown, and the battle between Blue Ray and ‘whatever that other brand was' (HD DVD) was being fought. Now iPads are being used in schools instead of PCs or books, movies are from Netflix, and Blackberries are back to being mainly a fruit. So we should all plan for this new world, now that that’s finally all settled, right?

Nope—I just had an epiphany a few days ago. One of my sons has an issue with ‘graphomotor skills’, which is a fancy term meaning he can’t write both clearly and fast at the same time. For this, it was recommended by a doctor that he use a device in class so he can type. We were a little reluctant about this, envisioning an iPad with a touch screen. He’s a good typist, but those touch screens don’t work as well if you are a trained QWERTY typist, and our school district had adopted iPads. We were in for a pleasant surprise, but one with far reaching implications.

When we went to a meeting with the school administrators, the principal and assistant principal were both raving about this new device the school district is probably adopting, and this district just happens to be the largest regional school district in Massachusetts, which is the leading state in terms of education in the United States. That’s right….yesterday’s darling, the iPad, is being sent packing and a new star is on the scene. The district is seriously considering adopting the Google Chromebook and ditching the iPad. And, after checking out the Chromebook, why not? It’s nearly a no brainer. It’s incredibly light and compact, we purchased one for $250 (before discounts) vs. $550 or so for an iPad, it runs completely out of the cloud on the school’s network, and it utilizes Google Docs, which are a free alternative to Microsoft Office. Since the school has set up and uses Google Docs accounts for each child in grade 3 and up, my son’s Chromebook was connected and ready for action from the first day he walked into school with it.  It has no hard drive, but plenty of USB ports, an HDMI port and folds out with a nice, easy to use keyboard. Our son can now take notes in class, save the file online, and when he gets home, it’s right there…he can access it at the same time he accesses his Learning Management System, Edmodo.

So what are the implications? First and foremost, don’t bet against Google, and the corollary is, don’t bet too much on Apple. This makes it really hard to decide where to put your content development, particularly if you are a publisher that isn’t too quick to market. If you are busy developing content for the iPad, you’d better hurry up. Right now it looks like Google is going to rule, but remember—things change in completely unexpected ways. Not that long ago Microsoft ruled the tech world, so much so that they were subject to an antitrust suit to break them up. That suit didn’t succeed, but Microsoft had better break itself up if it hopes to thrive. Then Apple became briefly dominant…..will they stay there or will Google/Android win out? My money is on Google, but I’ll also bet that something else will come next. We just don’t know what it is yet.

So back to the first statement--how do you plan for the next five years without being a 'lumbering dinosaur'? It's not just technology that's changing fast. Everything is, but technology is driving much of the change. The trick is to build an IT organization that is open to and ready for change, and if you are going to do a longer term plan, don't set it in stone. Do the opposite. Assume things will change, and constantly review your plan against what's happening in the world. Also, you need to go more the 'agile' route, doing things in smaller pieces and avoid the 'big bang' approach. You don't want to get stuck in the trap of spending years installing a new major business system, only to have it be out of date before you go live. This is a big reason for the drive to having software in the cloud......then it's not as much your problem to keep current as it is the software vendor's. Above all, keep in mind that each situation is unique. It's like those books on how to raise a baby. There is no absolutely best way, because so much depends on what your particular baby is like.

For a strategic or tactical look at your IT and operational needs, call Crow Hill Associates at 978-758-8516, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information.

Getting the most out of Excel
If there is one universally indispensable software program in the business world today, it’s Excel. Microsoft is under siege in a lot of areas, such as mobile devices, but Excel isn’t one of those areas. Even Google Docs can’t touch it, at least not yet. However, it’s also one of the most underutilized software programs in the world, and it’s a shame, because it’s a tremendous tool for analyzing your corporate information. Even Microsoft didn’t screw it up with their misguided ribbon, although they did make it slightly more complicated. For midsized companies, it’s even a great BI (business intelligence) tool and a whole lot easier to use than the typical BI program. Many managers don’t realize this, but 90% of the work in order to use a BI tool is done by a technical programmer, developing the backend to display the data, so that an analyst can then play with it.

That’s the problem with most BI programs--although the front ends are typically easy to use, to find correlations in your data you might not know about, they work a little like the Wizard of OZ….there’s a whole lot going on behind the curtain that controls what management sees on the front end. It generally takes a skilled programmer to set up a BI program so management can get at the data, and that usually isn’t easy. Plus, how the data is put together has a lot to do with what is seen by the analysts. The data analyst isn’t working with raw data.

Excel has two features that are not often used: MS Query, and Pivot tables. Unless your business has a reporting database, it’s best not to use MS Query, which is simply a wizard for writing SQL Queries against an appropriate database. It’s a handy tool to have, but NEVER run it against a live database. MS Query takes “record locking” to a whole new level—it not only locks the records it’s using, it locks the entire table(s), and it not only locks the table while the query is running—it locks the whole table the entire time MS Query is open (with the results showing). I often wonder how many companies have these unexplained computer freezes thanks to someone in finance pulling their own data with a tool like MS Query. If you have a database just for pulling reports, MS Query is fun and easy to use, but otherwise, have a programmer pull the data or be careful and use SSMS (SQL Server Management Studio).

Once you get the data, however, nothing beats a pivot table for analyzing the data. They are intimidating at first, but actually are quite easy to use, and if you use the “classic” view, it’s just drag and drop. The new “ribbon version” of Excel also complicated pivot tables, but under “options” you can just click ‘classic view’ and you are back to drag and drop.
Now, the pivot table allows you to create, in just minutes, a high level view of all the data in a table or group of tables. If your system has ‘views’ these are particularly useful. You’ll need to experiment with these a bit, but the general idea is that you put variables along the left hand side, variables along the top, and in the middle you place something that can be added or counted. As an example you might have sales territory and customer name along the left, and year along the top. In the middle you have sales. You drag them all into place, and you can then easily see sales by territory and sales by customer within territory, by year. Double clicking on the sales number brings up all the details. It’s like a poor man’s OLAP cube, and very easy to do—once you get the hang of it, it takes just a few minutes.

The nice thing about a pivot table is that it gives you, the analyst, the ability to manipulate the variables, and see what has actually happened. You know the data and how it was created, so it’s easier to separate ‘cause and effect’ from simple correlations. This differs from many BI tools, where the links behind the scenes are often done by the tool itself, or by the programmer developing the dataset. This makes for some interesting correlations, but you’ve got that extra layer or two (behind the curtain) between you and the data, which makes it harder to determine what’s random, what’s a correlation, what is just a result of the way the program was written, and what is really ‘cause and effect’.

For a strategic or tactical look at your IT and operational needs, call Crow Hill Associates at 978-758-8516, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information. Excel classes and private training at  beginner, intermediate, and expert levels are also available.