The past few years have been a bit of a challenge for Microsoft, especially if you listen to the tech journalists writing about the company. From what many consider a failed Windows 8 launch to the plummeting sales of desktop computers, you might think the glory days for the company are well in the past.
However, it would be unwise to write off Microsoft. Ever since Satya Nadella replaced Steve Ballmer, the company seems to be reorienting itself into a very future-facing direction.
In this article, I'm going to look at ten reasons Microsoft is still very much a force in the industry and will remain one of the companies many of us continue to do business with for years to come.
1. Windows is back on the right path
Let's start with the Windows 10 launch that's just a few days away. Last week, I went back through some of my Windows 8 articles to see just how tough I'd been on the company. Windows 8 was a disaster because the company disregarded the actual needs of its enormous desktop user base in an attempt to recover lost ground in the mobile world.
By deleting the Start menu and adding an interface few could figure out, Microsoft either entrenched Windows 7 or convinced users to jump ship.
Windows 10 changes a lot of that. The user interface, while evolved, is something any Windows user will be able to navigate instantly.
Letting Windows be Windows is absolutely necessary for Microsoft and though the consumer desktop market is in decline, businesses need desktop computing and likely always will.
2. Vertically-integrated programming
Microsoft has come a very long way with its development environments (disclosure: I teach Microsoft programming at the UC Berkeley extension). Microsoft today promotes the ability to write one body of code and have that code run on everything from a full-grown PC to a phone.
This is huge because development is a very expensive process. While product developers (those developing applications and apps for sale) will benefit from this level of source verticalization, the real beneficiaries will be in-house developers. In-house developers, who build for far fewer people, but often need to build deeply complex and robust applications, will find their job vastly simplified as they're able to build using a single codebase and deploy to a wide range of platforms, from Windows to iOS and Android.
3. Willingness to be actively multiplatform in app delivery
One strong benefit of the ability to develop once and deploy to multiple platforms is Microsoft has been willing to deliver its own products to what could be considered competing platforms. The excellent iOS and Android versions of Microsoft Office is one example, while Microsoft Garage has been building experimental apps for iOS and Android.
In an industry environment where the big players often will not introduce their flagship products for competing platforms, Microsoft's nearly platform-agnostic approach is a breath of fresh air and may well provide it with a huge competitive advantage. We're entering a space where the OS is no longer a profit center, and if Microsoft is willing to develop for competing platforms, it is no longer putting all its eggs into its own basket.
4. Deep enterprise offerings and capabilities
Let's not forget that Microsoft is a (if not the) leader in enterprise software. From Windows Server to Exchange to SharePoint (and so many other enterprise offerings), Microsoft has been the go-to company for the software that drives data centers small and large.
Sure, there's Linux, but for highly supported, vertically-integrated, highly-compatible solutions at enterprise scale, Microsoft has major advantages.
5. Azure provides PaaS and hybrid services as well as basic cloud IaaS
I could write a book on Azure, Microsoft's cloud offering, but I've only got a paragraph. So let's look at it this way. One of the main themes of this article is Microsoft's end-to-end enterprise advantage in both development tools and server systems. Azure makes a lot of that possible, by tightly integrating all of the Microsoft elements, from office products to code to servers inside a very broad infrastructure.
Azure provides not only Infrastructure-as-a-Service capabilities, but also Platform-as-a-Service, in that those who have been building on Microsoft platforms for years can continue to do so in Azure. In addition, whenever you're looking at hybrid cloud (whether because you have on-premise security requirements or you're just staging your deployment), Azure is ideal.
This is a big-deal advantage for Microsoft that continues the vertical integration theme I've been exploring in this article.
One thing Ed Bott pointed out to me when he reviewed this article is that Azure is far from Microsoft-only. Azure offers a deep stack of Linux images, and offers tools that can provide server-side environments for completely non-Microsoft offerings. Jason Perlow also pointed out that the kernel is a Microsoft hypervisor optimized out of the box. There are no modules to install or compile. Azure supports 32-way SMP, dynamic memory, high speed networking, all the stuff that Windows Server supports from a compute and infrastructure perspective. VMs between Azure and Hyper-V are portable (and Azure runs on Hyper-V).
6. Office 365 and the Office applications
Let's not forget one of Microsoft's almost-universal strengths: Microsoft Office. No matter how many inroads cloud-based office suites like Google's Apps might make, nothing can beat the breadth, depth, and compatibility of Microsoft Office.
Office 365 in its many editions takes the Microsoft Office formula, adds a wide-range of cloud-based services like Exchange hosting and SharePoint, and makes it easy (and cost-effective) to use and license desktop, mobile, and Web-based versions of the classic Office apps.
Microsoft made a number of very smart moves here. In addition to building a best-of-breed mobile version of the Office apps, opening up consumer licensing for use on five machines instead of one or two recognizes that users no longer live on just one computer. After canceling Office 365 last year when I moved to Gmail, I subscribed again last week for access to the updated Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2016 versions for the Mac.
7. More realistic expectations for Windows Phone
Microsoft made an enormous investment in Windows phone, to very limited success. For a while, it looked like the company was going to put all its marbles into Windows Phone, regardless of the clear success of the iPhone and Android ecosystem.
While it's never easy to cut jobs, and dropping 12,500 jobs related to the Nokia acquisition had to be particularly difficult (some of my friends are in that group), it was a smart move by Microsoft. It is clear that the company has almost no chance of winning the smartphone OS wars, and making that the centerpiece of a "Hail Mary" strategy was unwise and unwarranted.
It does, however, make great sense for a company Microsoft's size to keep some skin in the game, particularly when it comes to offering top-to-bottom vertical integration to its enterprise customers. By keeping up development of Windows 10 on handsets, and by making sure that some best-of-breed hardware can run it, Microsoft is able to assure its biggest customers that they can, if they want, go all-in on a single mobile, on-premise, hybrid, cloud, desktop strategy from one end of the business to another.
8. Freeing Cortana from Windows Phone
While many of us have been reliant on Cortana for tactical advice since the late 1990s, it has only been relatively recently that the helpful AI made the jump from Master Chief's advisor to smartphone intelligent assistant.
While each of the intelligent assistants (Cortana, Siri, Alexa, and Okay Google) each have individual strengths and weaknesses, Cortana is the only one that will be available cross-platform and on the desktop. For those of us who jump between platforms all day, it may prove incredibly helpful to have an intelligent assistant that can navigate across the galactic divide that exists between today's platforms.
Whether freeing Cortana will prove to be a strategic advantage to Microsoft remains to be seen, but Microsoft's platform agnostic approach may prove compelling to many users and is another good sign showing why Microsoft has legs going into the future.
Microsoft owns two of the most compelling gaming platforms on the planet: Xbox and PC gaming. While a substantial jump away from some of the enterprise advantages we've talked about throughout this article, no one can say Microsoft doesn't get gaming.
Now, ask yourself this: what is the most popular category of apps used on mobile devices? If you answered gaming, you'd be right. While Microsoft today has only a few Xbox-related offerings on iOS and Android (mostly SmartGlass-related), one could speculate that Microsoft's gaming studios might extend game development to the iOS and Android mobile platforms.
It's not a strength the company is taking advantage of today, but it's definitely a hold card they could play at some time in the future.
10. Willingness to innovate and think outside the box
Finally, Microsoft has shown a willingness to innovate in interesting and novel ways. While the Minecraft purchase and its demonstrated use with its upcoming HoloLens is impressive (and yes, I want one), the business potential for HoloLens is fascinating. Windows 10 will also be the initial platform for Oculus Rift, Facebook's impressive entry into the virtual reality universe.
Another innovative product Microsoft is exploring is the Surface Hub, its pricey-yet-compelling interactive whiteboard product. While the Surface Hub seems expensive, the ability to handle multi-touch at such a scale can prove to be very helpful in certain meeting and conference situations (design reviews come to mind instantly).
In Halo 3, Cortana tells Master Chief, "I have walked the edge of the abyss. I have seen your future. And I have learned!"
Apparently, so has Microsoft.