Showing all posts tagged tech:

More of Me

I have not been posting here nearly as much as I mean to, and I need to figure out a way to fix that.

In my defence, the reason is that I have been writing a lot lately, just not here. I have monthly columns at DevOps.com and IT Chronicles, as well as what I publish over at the Moogsoft blog. I aim for weekly blog posts, but that’s already three weekly slots out of four in each month taken up right there - plus I do a ton of other writing (white papers, web site copy, other collateral) that doesn’t get associated so directly with me.

As it happens, though, I am quite proud of my latest three pieces, so I’m going to link them here in case you’re interested. None of these are product pitches, not even the one on the company blog, more reflections on the IT industry and where it is going.

Do We Still Need the Datacenter? - a deliberately provocative title, I grant you, but it was itself provoked by a moment of cognitive dissonance when I was planning for the Gartner Data Center show while talking to IT practitioners who are busily getting rid of their data centers. Gartner themselves have recognised this shift, renaming the event to "IT Infrastructure, Operations Management & Data Center Summit" - a bit of a mouthful, but more descriptive.

Measure What’s Important: DevFinOps - a utopian piece, suggesting that we should embed financial data (cost and value) directly in IT infrastructure, to simplify impact calculation and rationalise decision making. I doubt this will ever come to pass, at least not like this, but it’s interesting to think about.

Is Premature Automation Holding IT Operations Back? - IT at some level is all about automation. The trick is knowing when to automate a task. At what point is premature automation considered not just wasteful, but actively harmful?


Photos by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

The curve points the way to our future

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Just a few days ago, I wrote a post about how technology and services do not stand still. Whatever model we can come up with based on how things are right now, it will soon be obsolete, unless our model can accomodate change.

One of the places where we can see that is with the adoption curve of Docker and other container architectures. Anyone who thought that there might be time to relax, having weathered the virtualisation and cloud storms, is in for a rude awakening.

Who is using Docker?

Sure, the latest Docker adoption survey still shows that most adoption is in development, with 47% of respondents classifying themselves as "Developer or Dev Mgr", and a further 15% as "DevOps or Release Eng". In comparison, only 12% of respondents were in "SysAdmin / Ops / SRE" roles.

Also, 56% of respondents are from companies with fewer than 100 employees. This makes sense: long-established companies have too much history to be able to adopt the hot new thing in a hurry, no matter what benefits it might promise.

What does happen is that small teams within those big companies start using the new cool tech in the lab or for skunkworks projects. Corporate IT can maybe ignore these science experiments for a while, but eventually, between the pressure of those research projects going into production, and new hires coming in from smaller startups that have been working with the new technology stack for some time, they will have to figure out how they are going to support it in production.

Shipping containers

If the teams in charge of production operations have not been paying attention, this can turn into Good news for Dev, bad news for Ops, as my colleague Sahil wrote on the official Moogsoft blog. When it comes to Docker specifically, one important factor for Ops is that containers tend to be very short-lived, continuing and accelerating the trend that VMs introduced. Where physical servers had a lifespan of years, VMs might last for months - but containers have been reported to have a lifespan four times shorter than VMs.

That’s a huge change in operational tempo. Given that shorter release cycles and faster scaling (up and down) in response to demand are among the main benefits that people are looking for from Docker adoption, this rapid churn of containers is likely to continue and even accelerate.

VMs were sometimes used for short-duration tasks, but far more often they were actually forklifted physical servers, and shoe-horned into that operational model. This meant that VMs could sometimes have a longer lifespan than physical servers, as it was possible for them simply to be forgotten.

Container-based architectures are sufficiently different that there is far less risk of this happening. Also, the combination of experience and generational turnover mean that IT people are far more comfortable with the cloud as an operational model, so there is less risk of backsliding.

The Bow Wave

The legacy enterprise IT departments that do not keep up with the new operational tempo will find themselves in the position of the military, struggling to adapt to new realities because of its organisational structure. Armed forces set up for Cold War battles of tanks, fighters and missiles struggle to deal with insurgents armed with cheap AK-47s and repurposed consumer technology such as mobile phones and drones.

In this analogy, shadow IT is the insurgency, able to pop up from nowhere and be just as effective as - if not more so than - the big, expensive technological solutions adopted by corporate. On top of that, the spiralling costs of supporting that technological legacy will force changes sooner or later. This is known as the "bow wave" of technological renewal:

"A modernization bow wave typically forms as the overall defense budget declines and modernization programs are delayed or stretched in the future," writes Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He continues: "As this happens the underlying assumption is that funding will become available to cover these deferred costs." These delays push costs into the future, like a ship’s bow pushes a wave forward at sea.

(from here)

What do we do?

The solution is not to throw out everything in the data centre, starting from the mainframe. Judiciously adapted, upgraded, and integrated, old tech can last a very long time. There are B-52 bombers that have hosted three generations from the same family. In the same way, ancient systems like SABRE have been running since the 1960s, and still (eventually) underpin every modern Web 3.0 travel-planning web site you care to name.

What is required is actually something much harder: thought and consideration.

Change is going to happen. It’s better to make plans up front that allow for change, so that we can surf the wave of change. Organisations that wipe out trying to handle (or worse, resist) change that they had not planned for may never surface again.

It’s Tough to be King

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So what’s it like to live with the AppleTV? Have any of my complaints been addressed?

In a word: no.

I still don’t have access to Siri, for no good reason that I can determine. A couple of attempts to get a response from @AppleSupport over Twitter did not go anywhere.

In fact, things got even worse, as a software update added "hold to dictate" prompts everywhere, which of course do nothing for me.

Subtle hint for Apple: if the system language is English, and Siri supports English, Siri should be enabled.

Apart from that, the thing has been - fine. It’s a substantial update from the Apple TV 2 which I had before. Even the new remote (despite having one button - the voice prompt - that is completely useless to me) is better than the previous one. People complain that it’s too easy to end up holding it upside down, because it’s symmetrical, but in my experience the combination of the rougher surface of the touch pad and the double-height volume control is enough to keep me oriented.

Text input is terrible, but that’s pretty much inevitable without a keyboard - and that’s when I turn to the Remote app on iOS. I think it’s a safe enough bet that Apple TV owners will also have at least one iOS device lying around.

I can’t really comment on the games; I tried out a few, but the sad fact of the matter is that I’m just not that much of a gamer any more. Sure, Alto’s Adventure is fun, but if I hadn’t already owned it for iOS, I doubt I’d have bothered. I tried out a few racing sims, and didn’t even finish the free levels.

This probably says more about me than about the Apple TV’s capabilities as a gaming console. I’ve never been a console gamer in the first place; I was always a PC guy, preferring big sprawling RTS and sim games. The problem I have is not that those don’t translate to iOS (or tvOS), it’s that they require hours-long play sessions, and I just don’t have plural hours to spend gaming any more.

For my purposes - streaming from my local iTunes library, from the iTunes Store, and from YouTube - the Apple TV is fine. Most of the exciting cord-cuttery stuff isn’t available in my geo, and there just aren’t that many other categories of apps that make sense on a TV as opposed to on a phone or a tablet.

So what are you saying?

It’s not a flop, it’s a very capable fourth-generation device. It’s not transformative, but not every device has to be.

I am also coming in with low expectations, because even if Apple had somehow negotiated deals with content owners, I am certain that I would not have access to them in Italy. Seriously - we don’t even have visual voicemail over here. Forget about HBO or any of that stuff. Even what we do have, like Netflix, is crippled.

Much like iTunes and Apple Music, it’s perfectly fine for what it does. Could it be better? Sure. Should we demand more from Apple? Absolutely. But calling it a flop, a failure, a mess, an embarrassment? That’s going too far.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some YouTube to watch on my Apple TV.

Quick Text Shortcuts

I tend to assume that things I know are obvious and widely known, and so I don’t often bother to document them. However, I noticed that a couple of different people did not know this particular very useful trick, so I thought I would share it here for anyone else who might find it useful.

The trick (I refuse to call it a “hack", or even worse, a “life hack") is useful if you often need to type the same snippets of text on an Apple device, whether it’s an iPhone, an iPad, or a Mac. You can do this using only built-in tools from Apple, with no need to install additional components or mess with anything under the hood.

On a Mac, go to System Preferences > Keyboard > Text. Here you can create the shortcuts that will be useful to you. You should have one defined already, which replaces “omw" with “On my way!".

Simply click the + button at the bottom of the window to add your own snippets. I have a couple for my phone number and email address, so that I can simply type “mynum" or “mygmail" to have those appear, with no fear of typos.

This is of course even more useful on an iPhone, where the small keyboard can make it frustrating to type when you can’t rely on autocorrect - and doubly frustrating to type phone numbers in the middle of other text. On an iPhone (or an iPad), go to Settings > General > Keyboard > Text Replacement, and then tap the + to enter your own snippets.

The cherry on the cake of usefulness is that the text snippets will sync over iCloud, so any snippets you set up on one of your devices should be available on all your other devices too.

Enjoy!

In which I make a Discovery

Everyone who cares probably knew this already, but I just discovered something cool with iOS multitasking.

If you have an iPad Air 2 or an iPad Pro, you can run two apps side by side on the screen. I was doing this so that I could listen to music via YouTube while twittering, because Apple in their wisdom mute Safari if it's backgrounded. You have to do proper multi-tasking, not just slide-over, which is why this only works on those two models.

I was already pretty happy with my solution, devoting untold amounts of innovation and computing horsepower to wasting time more efficiently than ever before - and then I clicked on a link in Twitter, and a whole new world of possibilities opened up to me.

Now normally if you click a link in Twitter for iOS when it's running in full-screen mode, the linked page opens in an embedded mini-browser, which is of course the Wrong Thing.

If on the other hand you click a link while Twitter is running side by side with Safari, the linked page opens directly in a new Safari tab!

Amazing, right? Right?

Okay, this is a pretty niche use case, but it makes me unreasonably happy. I hope this post is useful to someone else, too.

Uphill Both Ways

Is IT getting too easy?

I was listening to the latest episode of the excellent Exponent podcast, where the topic of PC gaming up. The hosts were discussing the rise of the Steam platform, and ascribed it primarily to convenience.

PC gamers used to build custom rigs, worrying about thermal profiles and harried by IRQ conflicts. They would then get their games - on physical media! in boxes! - and install them, then immediately patch the game, their video drivers, and possibly several other things. Because of all this, gaming was a demanding and niche pastime.

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With solutions like Steam and the decline of the custom-built PC in favour of self-contained laptops, the level of convenience rose enormously. Something like Steam could never have risen to be a $1.5B business twenty years ago. However, I do wonder if we are losing some necessary skills to convenience.

When Steam appeared on the scene, everyone knew what it was doing and enjoyed the convenience of not having to do it themselves. Very quickly though, new gamers came on the scene who had not experience the old ways. All they knew was downloading games from Steam and having everything taken care of for them, even including updates and patches as they became available. Even mods, which had always been tricky to install and always came with the exciting potential to blow away your install, became easy with Steam.

Of course the skills required to be a gamer are of limited macroeconomic utility. It could be argued that keeping gamers busy chasing down IRQ conflicts would prevent them from embarrassing themselves in public (ahem Gamergate ahem), but there is a wider point. The same choice of convenience over detail plays out in enterprise IT as well, where sysadmin skills are getting harder to find.

Gamers used to need to know the precise version of the driver of their graphics card. Now, many gamers barely know whether they have one. In the same way, sysadmins used to have deep knowledge of what was behind the door of their server room, while now all they know is the login to the corporate AWS account. Meanwhile, key bits of infrastructure are still running on obsolete operating systems that nobody knows how to operate any more.

So as the consumerisation of IT rolls inexorably on, will IT users at all levels turn into Eloi relying on a handful of BOfH Morlocks to keep everything running?

Or is this like vintage car people claiming carburettors added character to engines that was lost when electronic fuel injection made the whole thing too easy?


Image by MootCreative via morgueFile

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Apple Bottom Drawer

There has been a long-running complaint that equipping the entry-level iPhone with only 16GB of storage is not only cheap, but wrong-headed because owners will have a bad user experience. Most of the time, the example people bring up is operating system upgrades, with people forced to stay on older iOS releases because they don’t have enough free space to perform the upgrade1.

As per their usual tight-lipped policy, Apple has not said anything about precisely why it is that they continue to keep the 16GB models around. The general assumption has been that the idea is to offer a (relatively) low entry price for the iPhone range to get as many people as possible through the door.

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Today, though, I overheard a conversation that illustrated a different reason why Apple might want to increase the storage in that bottom-tier device sooner rather than later. Someone recommended an album, someone else searched for it on iTunes, hit “Buy" - and was told that they did not have enough space. When storage limits are preventing sales, this is a problem.

One obvious quibble would be to ask how many owners of entry-level devices spend significant sums in the iTunes Store (or would do if they had the free space available). This overlooks the fact that these days, a significant number of iPhones are actually corporate-owned or at least -funded. Because the owner is not the user, it is not possible to infer the user’s purchasing power or willingness based on the device they have. Companies may well opt for limited storage because that’s all that is required for work purposes, even though employees would be willing to fill additional space with personal data, given the chance.

Bottom line: it’s high time for the bottom storage tier to move up to 32GB. I would also argue that when they do this, Apple should eat the difference and not raise prices, because their margin is big enough and the parts cost is so small. The improvement in user experience would pay for itself in Tim Cook’s beloved “customer sat", without even allowing for increased revenue per user (ARPU) as people are able and willing to fill up some of that free space.


  1. Yes, I know that you can also upgrade by plugging into iTunes without needing the free space, but these days, many iPhone owners don’t come from the iPod experience and would not necessarily think of that. Many of them in fact don’t even have iTunes installed, or may not even own a PC or Mac in the first place. 

Apple TV Siri Annoyance

I finally got hold of my new Apple TV. The timing was not ideal, as it arrived on Monday - but I had left early on Monday morning for a week-long trip abroad, so I only got to set it up on Friday morning. I wasn’t exactly worried about spoilers, though, so I went ahead and read many of the early reaction reviews. My reaction was similar to what Michael Rockwell describes:

Reviews of the new Apple TV started showing up on Wednesday of last week with deliveries of the device starting to arrive on Friday. I wholeheartedly expected to see overwhelmingly positive reactions from reviewers and owners in my Twitter timeline. But what I saw instead was a barrage of complaints about what I'd consider to be relatively minuscule pain points about the experience.

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The complaints I have seen focus mainly on text input. The issue is that all the letters are on a single row, so you end up swiping left and right a lot to enter text. This is somewhat mitigated by the super-easy initial setup, where the Apple TV simply asks you to place your phone near it and picks up your Apple ID, wifi settings, and so on from the phone. Inexplicably, it made me enter my Apple ID password again to set up Home Sharing, though, and the input process was indeed mildly annoying. However, at least in password fields the numbers and punctuation marks appear on a second row, and you can go up and down between rows without having to scroll all the way to the end, so IMHO it’s no worse than any other on-screen text input method. Also, you don’t really enter a lot of text after the initial setup process, so the pain is pretty contained.

On the old Apple TV you could get around the pain by using the Remote app on iOS, which then let you use your iPhone, or even better, your iPad’s soft keyboard to enter text. Unfortunately, the Remote app has not yet been updated to support the new Apple TV.

My own complaint is different. No matter what I do, Siri remains stubbornly disabled.

It seems that Apple have only made Siri available on the Apple TV in certain countries. At time of writing, the list is as follows:

  • English (Australia, Canada, UK, US)

  • German (Germany)

  • French (France)

  • Spanish (Spain)

  • Japanese (Japan)

I gather that this limitation is because they want to train Siri to pronounce media titles and artists’ names correctly for each locale. However, the way they have implemented it is, as I stated in my hot reaction tweet above, bullshit1.

I spent some time attempting to fool the Apple TV into enabling Siri by setting language and region combos that were supported, disabling Location Services, and so on. Nothing I tried got past it - it seems to be going exclusively by the country of the iTunes Store account, so I can choose whether to have Siri or the Store, but not both.

Why can’t big companies understand that some people live in Region A, but want their media from Locale B? If I set everything up to be in en-GB, you don’t need to worry about Siri mangling anything, because it will be speaking the Queen’s English2.

Unfortunately Apple is not new to this particular brand of bullshit1. The iTunes Store forces users to register to the country where their credit card bills are sent. This means that all the catalogues, curated selections, promotional offers and whatnot are specific to that country. In my case, I consume most of my media - books, films, music, etc. - in English, and so the front page of the Italian iTunes Store is utterly useless to me.

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It gets worse, though. Sometimes something is not available to me for no apparent reason, even though it is in the UK or US iTunes Store, and available in Italy from other (legal) sources. There is of course never any explanation of why this might be. A few times I have asked writers if they could shed any light (thinking of ongoing international rights negotiations, that sort of thing), and none have yet had any answer - although all have been unfailingly polite and usually suggested alternatives.

The worst, though, is the subtle differences. Animation movies in general, and Pixar movies in particular, are often available in the iTunes Store with only one audio track, which is the Italian dub. If you buy the DVD you get the original English as well, but Apple in its wisdom will only sell you the dub - even though almost every other film in the Store has multiple audio tracks.

Just to be clear, this is not only Apple’s problem. Another recent offender is OpenTable. OpenTable does not operate in Italy, so reasonably enough, the app is not available in the Italian App Store. However, I spend a lot of time in regions where OpenTable is supported, and web apps on a phone are a faff, so I jumped the fence and got the app on my phone anyway. When I fired it up though, all it would do was to give me a snippy message about only being available in certain countries - despite the fact that I was standing in the middle of the capital city of one of those countries, within stone’s throw of a dozen restaurants that supported OpenTable.

I ended up eating at a restaurant that did not accept OpenTable, and enjoyed an excellent meal without their help.

Michael Rockwell is bullish about the software gremlins in the new Apple TV getting fixed soon:

I have high hopes, though. In a few short months, after Apple's shipped a software update or two, we'll no longer have quite as many criticisms to talk about. What we'll be left with is a well-crafted software platform that could revolutionize the way we think about our TVs, in much the same way the App Store has changed how we think about our telephone. As long as developers build incredible software and Apple continues to focus on improving the experience for users, this is going to be a big deal.

I wish I could be equally bullish about the bullshit1 regional policies being addressed equally soon, or indeed ever.


  1. Sorry about the swearing, but this really is bullshit. 

  2. Also known as “English (Traditional)" - as opposed to the “English (Simplified)" they have in the colonies… Don’t be afraid of the U, Americans - it won’t bite you! 

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Enterprise brand advertising

I've spent most of my career around enterprise IT sales. I have learned a lot from my colleagues on the sales side, which makes me much more effective in supporting them. After all, let's not forget - whatever your business card or your email sig say your particular role is, ultimately we're all in sales, or we're all out of a job.

One of the things I have learned, however, is that there is a very common misunderstanding of the role of marketing and advertising in enterprise IT sales.

The first thing to bear in mind is the difference between direct marketing and brand marketing. To quote Wikipedia,

Direct marketing is attractive to many marketers because its positive results can be measured directly. For example, if a marketer sends out 1,000 solicitations by mail and 100 respond to the promotion, the marketer can say with confidence that campaign led directly to 10% direct responses. This metric is known as the 'response rate,' and it is one of many clearly quantifiable success metrics employed by direct marketers. In contrast, general advertising uses indirect measurements, such as awareness or engagement, since there is no direct response from a consumer.

Measurement of results is a fundamental element in successful direct marketing. The Internet has made it easier for marketing managers to measure the results of a campaign. This is often achieved by using a specific website landing page directly relating to the promotional material. A call to action will ask the customer to visit the landing page, and the effectiveness of the campaign can be measured by taking the number of promotional messages distributed and dividing it into the number of responses. Another way to measure the results is to compare the projected sales or generated leads for a given term with the actual sales or leads after a direct advertising campaign.

Sales people tend to assume that all marketing should be direct marketing - that is, marketing that should trigger a measurable action. Each campaign must generate a certain number of leads, a certain percentage of which will turn into actual qualified opportunities, and with any luck some of those opportunities will eventually close.

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Coffee is for closers only

Of course this situation generates all sorts of fun conversations where sales people question the quality of those leads, while marketing answers back with barbed retorts about the number of opportunities that the sales team actually convert. Lost in the Sturm und Drang of the resulting blamestorm is the question of whether this model can even work at all.

On the other hand, straightforward brand advertising is ridiculed as a waste of money. Since it is hard to measure almost by definition, it doesn't fit into the usual opportunity conversion spreadsheets, and is therefore the first expense to be cut when Sales is driving the bus. In fact, the only way of measuring the impact of brand advertising is by looking at what happens when you stop doing it.

I would argue that for the sort of long-duration, big-ticket sales cycles that we have in enterprise IT, the expectations of direct marketing in the traditional sense are overinflated. On the other hand, the potential of brand advertising is vastly underestimated - including by marketing departments.

Brand advertising - what is it good for?

Very few people in this space will make or even consider a purchase based on a single campaign or targeted VITO letter, no matter how good. This idea plays into the heroic self-image of sales, but it is rarely true. In actual fact, before receiving that first formal sales approach, our prospect already has an opinion of what our company and products are like. This opinion is formed from various different sources, but the most important ones are personal experience and received opinion. If you can get personal experience right the first time you have generally bought yourself a customer for life, but that's a whole other topic. The way you can influence the frame of mind of your VITO is to work on that other axis: the received opinion that they already have of your product and/or company.

In turn, that received opinion is also determined by two main sources: word of mouth, and - yes - brand advertising. Brand advertising helps position your company as the sort of company that your VITO would want to do business with: innovative, customer-focused, stable & reliable, or whatever your particular values might be.

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A prospect reading a VITO letter

So far, so much like direct marketing, except without the all-important metrics. Where brand advertising pays off is in what happens next. What you want to happen after VITO reads their customised1 letter is that they run down the hallway, burst into their colleague's office or their team's open space, and announce excitedly that they have just read about a very cool-sounding product from your company.

Their willingness to do this - to expose themselves in this way - is going to be predicated on your company's credibility in the space where you operate. In 2015, anyone getting excited about a new offering from Blackberry would have to do a fair amount of explaining (sorry, Blackberry). Vice versa, nobody has to explain why they are planning to buy cloud services from Amazon, storage from EMC, networking gear from Cisco, or insert your own favoured example.

While no amount of brand advertising could save Blackberry at this point, Amazon, EMC, Cisco, et al got to where they are in no small part by working on their perception in the market. In other words, their brand advertising ensures that VITO will be excited, rather than embarrassed, to involve their colleagues in an evaluation and advocate for a new offering.

What advertising can and cannot do

None of this is to say that brand advertising alone is sufficient if the products themselves don't meet expectations around price, performance, support, or any other axis that is important to customers. However, brand advertising can help get to the point where those variables can come into play.

Ironically, this distrust of advertising is one of the very few things that sales people and engineers both agree on. Both are making a category error which is nicely explained in this episode of the excellent Exponent podcast, with Ben Thompson and James Allworth.

Bottom line, I think overlooking brand advertising is a false economy. If you’re a startup, of course, you can’t blanket airports and fill out business magazines like the big guys2, so figure out what you can do in that space. And if you are big company that doesn’t do brand advertising, know that prospects are asking themselves why that is - and this definitely feeds into the perception they have of your company.


  1. You are customising your VITO letters to each prospect, aren't you? 

  2. Startups should not waste resources trying to act like bigger, more established companies. Startups have a disruptive value of their own, and can play on that3

  3. Says the guy with the psychedelic cow logo on his business card. I mean, check out our website. Nobody will mistake us for a staid, established vendor - and that’s the point

DVDs: Dead Video Discs

It seems that Microsoft has not only removed Windows Media Center from Windows 10, but will charge users $15 to restore its functionality.

I think Ars Technica's theory that this is about offsetting DVD format licensing fees in a free upgrade is probably correct. Apple of course provides all its operating systems for free, but since none of its computers include optical drives any more, maybe it's not affected. Even when Macs did have DVD drives, I assume the license fee was covered by the hardware.

What is more significant to my mind how long it took after the release of Windows 10 for this to come to light. It's yet another sign of the death of physical media.