Rebooting Windows for a new era of computing

Rebooting Windows for a new era of computing

Summary: The next couple of years will be crucial for Microsoft, but I believe that the company has what it takes to surprise us, and that it still has a good chance of transforming itself into a company that can rise to the challenges and changes thrown up by the post PC era.

TOPICS: Microsoft

Microsoft is undergoing a critical transition. The rapidly changing tech landscape is forcing its evolution from a company focused on the PC to a company that has to look to a future where post PC devices dominate.

No matter how you try to package that change, it represents a shift of tectonic proportions.

Contrary to what many people think, Microsoft has had its eye on a post PC future for over a decade. Back in November 2002 Microsoft released a Tablet PC Edition of Windows XP in an attempt to foster and support an embryonic PC tablet ecosystem and kick-start a new computing revolution. But the world wasn't ready for tablets back then, with consumers seeing them as too expensive and too clumsy.

Despite numerous attempts by Microsoft, this is a situation that wouldn't change until Apple released the iPad at the beginning of 2010.  

But nowadays tablets have become established in the mainstream culture as credible consumer and enterprise devices.

Microsoft is once again making a tablet push, but this time rather than trying to be the catalyst, it is instead attempting to gain a toehold in a space that has already exploded into maturity. Trying to do this has turned Windows on its head and transformed it into a touch-first platform (much to the annoyance of many Windows users still using the platform on non-touch devices such as desktops and notebooks), while on the hardware front it is aggressively pushing its new Surface tablets as notebook replacements.

The Redmond, Wash.-based devices and services giant also continues to plug away at the smartphone market following the takeover of Nokia, but in more than four years the market share of Windows Phone seems stubbornly stuck at 3 percent.

Microsoft's vision of computing is that everything is potentially a PC; all it needs to do is run Windows and Office. This has been Microsoft's strategy with the PC for decades, and it is the approach it took with smartphones (where the OS is called Windows Phone), and it is now Microsoft's tactic with tablets (where it wants the Surface to be a notebook replacement).

Everything comes back to Windows and Office, because these are brands that bring in the dollars.

"Despite dominating the PC market, Microsoft is finding it hard to take this advantage and translate it into success in these new markets."

Is it a winning formula? Well, the tech landscape as it currently stands would suggest it isn't. The PC sector has stalled, and according to OEM insiders Windows 8 has only made this problem worse. Meanwhile on the post-PC front, iPads, iPhones and a whole raft of Android devices are inundating the market, while Microsoft is scrabbling to make real headway.

Despite dominating the PC market, Microsoft is finding it hard to take this advantage and translate it into success in these new markets.

But that's the past. What about the future? Can Microsoft reboot (or at the very least reshape) Windows into a platform – or at least a brand – that can work in a post PC world?

I think it can.

First of all, let's start with Windows. There's no doubt that Windows 8 got off to a rocky start, but with Windows 8.1 Microsoft smoothed off a lot of the rough corners and the platform got a lot better for people using it on non-touch devices – in other words, the majority of Windows users. Unfortunately, the problem is that the reputation of Windows 8 is tarnished, and just as with Windows Vista, no amount of tweaking or updating can seem to get rid of that. This is a shame, but this seems to be how it works with operating systems, and Windows in particular. How it is received early on tends to stick for the lifespan of the platform. Windows XP and Windows 7 were both well loved, while Windows Vista and Windows 8 were veiled by a bad vibe that no amount of betterment in the form of service packs and updates could eradicate.

Fortunately for Microsoft, salvation is coming in the form of Windows 9. The follow-on to Windows 8 is now just around the corner, and my guess is that this will build on what Microsoft has learned that people want from the Windows platform in this post PC era, and that this will help it deliver a platform that can accommodate being driven both by the traditional keyboard and mouse, and touch. I can make this guess confidently because Microsoft suffered a serious stumble with Windows 8, and given the precarious position that the PC industry is in, it can't afford to gamble like it did with Windows 8.

Microsoft has to make Windows 9 what the users want, not what will further its post PC plans.

The desktop continues to be the dominant Windows platform, and there's no point in CEO Nadella or anyone else at Microsoft hoping or wishing otherwise. That's the position that Microsoft finds itself in, and acknowledging that gives it the best chance of success. Microsoft has suffered too many stumbles and setbacks lately, and many of these have been a result of trying to tell consumers what they want, rather than listening to them and giving them what they need.

I believe that Windows 9 will be closer in look and feel to Windows 7 than it will be to Windows 8, and that touch will coexist better with traditional input devices. Until touch is ubiquitous on the PC – and I don't see the desktop and notebook form factors ever being ideally suite to touch – then Windows has to put the keyboard, mouse, and trackpad first.

So where does the new Surface Pro 3 tablet fit into the equation?

My take on this is that Surface has less to do with selling tens of millions of tablets and more to do with priming the Windows tablet pump. From a hardware perspective the Surface Pro 3 is a nice bit of kit, but the price, especially at the upper end, is painfully high. While there will no doubt be interest in the Surface Pro 3, the real benefit to Microsoft will come where hardware OEMs make their own next-generation tablets, which will undoubtedly be cheaper and offer better value for the consumer.

Personally, I like the Surface Pro 3, and I could see myself getting a lot of work done with the Core i7, 512 GB model, but the idea of throwing $2,000 at a tablet, especially when the Surface Pro 2 was only out for eight months before being replaced, leaves me cold. At the very least I'd want a guarantee from Microsoft that this tablet will run Windows 9, and giving me that update free of charge would also help soften the blow of the initial cost. But I also know that, thanks to Microsoft and the Surface, by the time Windows 9 comes along there will be better and cheaper tablets on the market.

Will tablets ever replace desktops and notebooks? Perhaps one day they will, but we're a long way off from that day. Software makers across the whole industry need to figure out how to add touch to existing applications while still allowing them to work with the keyboard and mouse. This is quite a challenge, and one that not even Microsoft has managed to address with its software.

Microsoft still has a lot to do when it comes to mobile.

Not only is market share poor, but the developer ecosystem is too weak to draw new users to the platform. Apps are the cornerstone of all mobile platforms, and with Android and iOS being as dominant as they are, developers are reluctant to put in the effort on a new platform when there's so much lower hanging fruit to target. Both iOS and Android has the quality and quantity of apps to keep users interested, but despite years of trying, Microsoft has failed to achieve either of these. By seeming to ditch Windows RT, Microsoft has consolidated the Windows brand to two areas – PC and mobile – and this helps to keep developers more focused.

The next couple of years will be crucial for Microsoft, but I believe that the company has what it takes to surprise us, and that it still has a good chance of transforming itself into a company that can rise to the challenges and changes thrown up by the post-PC era. And one of the biggest challenges it has to address is how to make one brand work across all screens.

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Topic: Microsoft

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  • Post post PC...

    Satya Nadella says that we're already post "post PC"... and he's right. The mobile market (tablets & smartphones) is already maturing (as you point out in your article). Microsoft is already thinking 10 years down the road... which I'm assuming has a lot to do with "the cloud"--Azure, Bing, Skype, etc.

    While Microsoft missed the boat on the "first wave of mobile," I think they're still well-positioned for the second wave--this post "post PC" world, where the software is more important than the hardware. That simply means that the software that powers devices at both the low- and high-end will be the same. Both Windows & Android are being optimized to power even the lowest spec hardware... which basically means that the hardware is less significant.
    • You just described a perfect scenario from chromebooks

      Something that Microsoft recently laughed about and called it a "brick"... And I'm not at this moment taking sides.
      Another contradiction is that "devices and services" means that there is a lot about hardware, if the world is going in a direction where hardware is less important (and again I'm not saying here if I think it is or not) maybe Microsoft is doing the wrong thing.
      • Can You Imagine?

        Can you imagine what the monopoly regulators would do if 6 months before the first Chromebooks came out that Microsoft started to sell a version of the operating system that used Explorer as the only interface? Can you imagine how the desktop generation would scream if suddenly all they had to work with was a browser?
        • Microsoft had to be many ways wrong first

          I assume you making reference to the EU and Microsoft? You gotta have a monopoly first. If Microsoft thinks like that no wonder there in trouble that costs billions. I bet if someone said wait this will cost us billions he would be out the door in flames. No what was said was "We will try to lock everyone out." ...standing ovation that costs billions. The lesson is management counts and stupid don't work. So what if it costs billions when you want to keep you job. Well Google is making the system work.
          • cant compare the two

            Google is allowed to try chromebooks because there isn't a monopoly to worry about no is going to force them to have a browser ballot nor do place restrictions on what they can do, whenever something changes in windows regulator hop out of there seat to object....IE being just one example.
          • Not really true

            Google have a dominant position (in non-technical terms, a ‘monopoly’) in web/mobile advertising. The revenue model for Android and ChromeOS devices is based on tying them to Google’s dominant web/mobile advertising business, and arguably illegal -- a blatant case of leveraging dominance in one market to create (Android) or try to create (ChromeOS) dominance in others. There’s really no difference between what Microsoft did with their Windows business in the 1990s and what Google are doing with their web/mobile advertising business today. The response from competition authorities has differed primarily because the economic environment is different. When an economy is booming, political leaders are much more willing to give the go-ahead to intervene. In an economic crisis or poor economy generally, they have other things to worry about.
          • Dominant != Monopoly

            Google is dominant in search, but there's absolutely nothing illegal about leveraging one's dominance from one market to another unless you've been legally judged to be a monopoly. Google hasn't. You could complain that Apple leveraged their media player dominance into mobile phone dominance (for awhile), but that, too, is just dandy unless they are an officially recognized -- and thus regulated -- monopoly. It took control of 70% of oil distribution before Standard Oil was judged to be a monopoly. Microsoft had nearly 95% of the personal computer desktop (Apple wasn't doing so well in those years) before they were judged to be a monopoly.... and even at that, it was only for desktop/laptop x86 based PCs.

            Also, what Google did with Android and Chrome is somewhat different. Sure, Android conquered 70-80% of the mobile market, but Google isn't making money directly on either OS. Sure, the Play Store brings in a bit more than half the revenue of the iTunes store these days, ad it's growing. But the original plan was simply to keep Google's search available on mobile. At the time they bought Android, nearly all of mobile was controlled by Palm, Microsoft, RIM, and Nokia... four private companies could have kicked Google to a second class position overnight. And they correctly foresaw that much of search would move to mobile devices, even for PC users.
          • whose fault?

            Regulatory interest is the consequence of MSFT's past transgressions. AT&T and IBM had to get by under regulatory scrutiny for decades. MSFT's turn.
        • the problem in that argument .. "... all you had to work with ..."

          The problem in that argument is really the concept of "all they had to work with was a browser".

          Windows is not a Hyper Text Markup Language interpreter or rendering app. Windows is an operating system, the keys of which go much further than just displaying HTML.

          Chromebooks are running an OS too, not just a "browser". Its like saying your smart phone is only using a browser .. when it doesn't .. Android (their variant of linux) is the OS, and then the applications and ecosystem ride on top of the OS. Such as the vcard apps, games, and so much more.. these are all applications that run on top of the OS ... not just browsers.
          • There is a difference

            On Windows, there are a variety of different kinds of applications. Today, you're running on the NT kernel over either the Win32 or WinRT API, usually with some framework in-between. On Android, most apps run in the Android framework and API, which of course runs over top of the Linux kernel and various other Linux components.

            But on a Chromebook, all of the applications run within the browser's environment. Sure, that browser runs over a stripped down version of Linux, but apps have no way of using Linux (however, the browser does support Google's NaCl mechanism for running native code). FirefoxOS works much the same way... the whole thing is a browser running overtop a stripped down Linux (with some Android components), but applications live only in the browser, and in this case, they can only be HTML5 based (well, until Mozilla says otherwise).

            The thing about these systems is that they're not dependent on what's below. HTML5 apps will run on any properly written browser. At least 80% of Android apps will run on your choice of processor, not just ARM (it's actually higher on x86 because that's been a standard NDK target for several years). Android can even run over top non Linux operating systems, as BlackBerry has done with QNX.
        • Apple gets away with it

          As long as its clearly a Microsoft machine, at the right price, why not Explorer/Bing Book?
          Apple make you run their OS. applications & Safari because its their machine, whats the difference in this particular business plan (apart from copying!)
      • One way or another, the "work" has to be done somehwere.

        The tablet model does the simple things and the cloud (massive Windows - and Linux) servers.

        The ChomeBook does much less and is fully dependent upon the cloud (and those servers).
        M Wagner
        • Not FULLY dependent on the cloud anymore

          Google has been extending apps to run off-cloud, not only for Chromebooks but also for Windows PCs and Macs.

          Here is a good article about it:
          • Yes but the functionality

            is horribly lacking and there are still issues. Google has a LOOOOONG way to catch up with MS and Apple. The problem is Apple and MS are catching up to Google much quicker. It's easier to scale down than to rebuild UI/UX which Google SORELY needs.
      • Re: Something that Microsoft recently laughed about

        Seems like every time they do that the thing they laughed at rally takes off.
        • Oh yes

          Chrome has really taken off

          *rolls eyes*
          Michael Alan Goff
        • "Takes Off..."

          is a little strong. maybe crawling is better.
        • If your definition of taking off is Chromebook sales..

          Then Windows 8 is a massive colossal hit beyond imagination.

          You ABM guys have got to think a little more before you type.

          Im not going to tell you that CHromebooks are pure crap, they are not, they are just for a very restricted market, and sales of Chromebooks reflect that exactly.

          If you are going to be sitting around making posts trying to sound like Chromebooks have amounted to anything close to mentionable in market share your going to have to live with the empirical fact that Windows 8 has absolutely clobbered Chromebook sales.
      • Are you kidding me.

        Chromebooks are often compromised of hardware that could barely to run MS office (assuming it's ever the right architecture). Forget about even more demanding productivity software. It's a joke for anything other than the most basic needs.
    • Translation:

      We can't managed to make a successful "device" so the device is now less important. Back to software and services being the future. Tell Apple and many other successful hardware makers that software is more important.