Surface, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8: Has Microsoft pulled off its biggest reinvention ever?

Summary:The company's pulled off three big launches that aim to deliver one message - that Microsoft can compete with Apple and Google. But has it succeeded?

It's been a (re)defining few days for Microsoft, with the unveiling of three key products in less than a week — all aiming to deliver one message: that Microsoft is not only relevant but central to the post-PC world.

The near-simultaneous launches of Microsoft Surface, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 show Microsoft is mustering its armies for the battle of ecosystems with Apple and Google.

So what does each of these products add to Microsoft's strategy? Let's take a look at each element, one by one.

Windows 8 is a daring move for Microsoft, a company that has always been more comfortable with incremental updates rather than revolution. But with the Start Button banished and a new emphasis on touch for many uses, revolutionary is just what Windows 8 is.

For Microsoft, such a change in emphasis and a statement of intent was a necessity — the company needed to show that Windows could live on beyond the increasingly irrelevant PC, especially on tablets.

But the changes to the UI will take a long time for consumers and businesses to adapt to — so while in making this leap Microsoft may secure its long-term relevancy, it will take a hit in the short term when it comes to take-up of Windows 8.

Microsoft probably envisioned its Surface tablet as an arrow aimed directly at the heart of Apple, but mixed reviews probably means it's unlikely to hit that target.

ms-surface
The Surface tablet is part of Microsoft's new three-prong strategy.

Still, don't underestimate the power of an enormous install base: Apple desktops are still in the minority (and Chromebooks even more so) — meaning the vast majority of businesses and consumers will still be looking for a Windows-based device next time they upgrade.

The existence of Surface (and the Windows RT and Windows 8 devices on the way) will at least give those buyers an option for a Windows tablet that hasn't existed until now — in which case, it's done its job. And as I've pointed out elsewhere, hardware is a key way of owning the relationship with the consumer , so being in the hardware business with the Surface (and most likely Microsoft-built phones in future) is now essential. 

Windows Phone 8 is the third prong of the attack. Windows Phone 7 was acclaimed by some but bought by few. However, Windows Phone 8 could yet deliver the user experience and integration across devices (via SkyDrive and potentially via its support for NFC) that might give consumers and businesses a reason to make the jump to Microsoft's mobile OS.

To my mind, the Windows Phone UI has now overtaken iOS and Android in terms of elegance, and some of the hardware that runs the OS make the iPhone look positively dowdy. It's unlikely to unseat iOS or Android any time soon, but with more apps and enough marketing support, Windows Phone 8 stands a decent chance of improving Microsoft's standing in the smartphone world, with analyst predictions that it could be the number three mobile OS by 2017.

So has Microsoft pulled off a reinvention? In the short term, not quite — Windows 8 will take a lot of getting used to, Surface hasn't so far been the smash hit with reviewers Microsoft will have hoped for, and Windows Phone 8 is still building from a very low base.

But what Microsoft has done is set out a comprehensive strategy that encompasses touch, tablets and smartphones that is consistent and that Apple and Google will have to take seriously, and in that it has succeeded. But how Microsoft supports and delivers on this strategy over the next year will be key.

See also:

Topics: Microsoft, Enterprise Software, Mobility, Operating Systems, Windows, Windows 8

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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