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Commentary: What Is Microsoft’s Future Going To Be Like?

Radford C. Jun 20, 2012 0

Microsoft Logo

It’s no surprise that I’m a Microsoft guy. But I’m also a Google and Apple guy. I use tools from each of those companies to build this site, write a blog and play my games. I’m also staunch critic. I like Microsoft but, even more so, I like competition. I can’t deny that Android has a strong grip in the marketplace with their phones nor can I deny Apple’s grip on the tablet market. Microsoft is playing catch-up yet again but this time the stakes are higher.

What Google and Apple are doing in the market is a direct threat to Microsoft’s future. Steve Jobs’ vision of a post-PC era is already here and there’s no turning back. Microsoft knows this and they’ve been hard at work trying to mount a recovery. And with Microsoft’s announcement of the Surface and Windows Phone 8, it looks to be that way. Microsoft is in I-don’t-give-a-shit mode at the moment because they’ve basically turned the page from what they used to be.

For a long time, Microsoft catered to their business partners. They made oodles of money from their licenses. But by catering to them, they have also suffered from it. Once upon a time, Microsoft owned a significant portion of of Apple’s equity at a time when the Cupertino-based company was nearly at its last leg – at about 150,000 shares of it. That was the time when Microsoft worked around the business requirements of many corporations that depended on their software and monopolized the desktop market for a long time. Apple nor Linux could put a dent on Microsoft. That monopoly left consumers a bad taste but people still communicated mostly through their PCs.

Then came the smartphone. When RIM made the Blackberry, businesses flocked to it but the PC desktop was still the core of how companies communicated. Then when the iPhone came along, consumerization came quickly. As more consumers slowly moved away from the PC, so did other common social functions.  Everyone and their mama had a new daily driver to communicate to their loved ones or present the latest slides at a meeting. Then  came the tablet and the rest, they say, is history.

Design Language Matters

One of the biggest problems Microsoft had was inconsistent products. Part of that inconsistency was no more apparent than their interface. Their products products never aligned. To Microsoft, they looked at Apple as the “flashy” one but what they didn’t realize with Apple was that the iOS players were trying to make their products synonymous with their interfaces. This is when Microsoft took the Metro route and realized how important the unification of the products were important and not just having consistent design boxes. Microsoft’s Design Lead Steve Kaneko speaks out on this:

The Smartphone World

With 100k apps and 3 of 4 carriers on board to push Windows Phone, Microsoft is completely committed to Windows Phone. They are betting the whole company. Every egg is in the basket – and it should be. Post-PC does not mean the PC is dead either. It’s simply going mobile and if Microsoft does not capture a significant enough market, they will have to downsize and resort to becoming app developers. Thinking of Windows becoming a niche product in the future sounds out of place, but it takes only months to see how big decisions from big companies realize these predictions – just ask RIM.

What I hope to see with Windows Phone 8 become the solution that is somewhere in the middle pack between iOS and Android. Android still deals with fragmentation and this can be an issue with security, enterprise and malware. iOS still too proprietary and differentiating between hardware comes down to buying different cases and skins. Windows Phone 7.x, despite all the great reviews from consumers and critics alike still seemed like a trial run, even with all money that was spent in marketing the deals, the developers, etc. But, Microsoft had to do something. They feared what would happen to their smartphone marketshare had they released later. Think about what would happen to the living room if Microsoft decided to release XBox 360 at the same time as the Playstation 3. That’s what was at stake.

Windows 8 and The NT Kernel – The Windows Core

Looking at the last two announcements, it’s now clear that Microsoft is reinforcing their commitment to a single Windows Core experience – and this is not just from a consumer standpoint but for developers as well. To date, developing for Apple still involves building something for OSX and/or iOS. Microsoft does not want this. They’re taking the Java write-once-work-everywhere route (but it’s a much nicer route) because they have control of their own software and can deal with QC and version control of their operating systems.

At first, Windows 8 did not make any sense to me. When you installed the Consumer Preview on the laptop you were relegated to gestures on the touchpad (if it supported multitouch). The OS felt like a tablet experience being forced onto the desktop. All of it didn’t make sense until they released the Microsoft Surface. When the company decided to enter the tablet game, they did so in a big way by introducing its own hardware to the market. It is designed to run Windows 8 (both ARM and x86 versions) but it was their magnetic covers that also do double duty as keyboards/touchpads that drew a more common vision of what a Windows 8 tablet should do.

If all future Windows 8 tablets will all come with touchpads and keyboards, Windows 8 makes more sense than anything. In essense, they’ve envisioned a more slimmed out PC that allows basic functions of a tablet but the tools of a desktop. If you have ever tried writing a real WordPress post on an iPad, you’ll know what I mean. Photoshop and Dreamweaver on Windows 8? Who knows?

The Desktop

I think Microsoft is safe in the enterprise market. I think Windows 7 is going to be the next XP. With Microsoft now echoing to businesses their last day of support for Windows XP, businesses will run Windows 7 while Windows 8 will front the attack in the consumer market. I don’t predict a massive adoption of Win8 on the desktop or laptop market but if Microsoft’s partners decide to manufacture more tablets with keyboard covers instead of laptops, this will definitely change with the pricing probably being the most important piece of the equation. But, just to let you know, I don’t think the PC desktop is going away at all, but I do believe that they’ve reached a peak. PC modders, gamers and business will still run PC until the end of time, I just think that the market has reached .

The Living Room

If Microsoft plays their cards right, the living room can play a much stronger role for the company. Microsoft was considered the black sheep when they entered the game console market after the Nintendo’s Gamecube and Sony’s PS2. But they had a vision. The XBox 360 seems to be a much more cohesive vision of being the single box under the TV, arguably even more so than the PS3 thanks to bevy of 3rd party apps. Consuming content through a variety of providers becomes more attractive but if they can make most (if not all) of Windows-based device have some sort easy interoperability. Right now, it’s just Windows Media Center and that still takes some setting up to do (i.e. choosing folders, entering codes, etc.) Hopefully, Smart Glass will change this and let tablets (or smartphones) play an accompanying part with the console experience. Maybe that vision will be realized in the XBox 720, who knows.

Overall

Microsoft has made some lofty promises in the last 3 days. Now the company needs to promote the hell out of this new Windows Core platform to developers and convince them there’s an opportunity to make money out of it. Quite simply, there’s no way to get new users to buy a Windows-based tablet at this stage without a stacked app catalog, and right now Microsoft has a huge uphill battle to fight against two entrenched players.

Every company says they make great stuff, but few actually do — and in case you’re keeping count, Microsoft has never made a tablet before.  Remember, this is the company that produced the failed Kin line of phones and killed off the promising Courier project. Hardware is not simple for any company, and making the Surface truly great will not be a cakewalk. But they did XBox. They trumped Netscape. Hopefully they can do the same in this very mobile centric era.