There was a time, just a few short years ago, when it looked like Microsoft's future was all in the past. It seemed the glory days were over.
But it wasn't just the inevitable entropy of a once aggressive giant slowing down with age. Microsoft had made some grievous mistakes.
Although Microsoft had produced Windows CE back before the turn of the century, it somehow missed the innovation cycle that took smartphones into the stratosphere. iPhone and Android were entrenched, and Microsoft was left behind. Windows Phone eventually came on the scene, but it was far too little, too late.
Microsoft also, somehow, missed the secret sauce that made the iPad a success. Yes, Microsoft had Windows XP Tablet Edition far before there was an iPad, but it was merely a curiosity, not a category killer. Once again, Microsoft was left behind.
To counter this, Microsoft took two actions that set the company on what, at the time, seemed to be a death spiral. It spent (and wasted) $8 billion on Nokia's phone business and, well, it did everything related to Windows 8.
The tech climate of 2012
To understand these mistakes, you need to look at the tech climate in 2012, when Windows 8 came out. At that time, the iPad was blasting through the roof in terms of sales. It looked like there was no end in sight. It also looked like the traditional world of desktop and laptop computing was on its way out.
Microsoft had missed most of that transition. In a bid to remain relevant, it attempted to force itself into the world of mobile and touch. The horror movie that was Windows 8 was the result. It was an operating system with a UI completely unusable by hordes of loyal Windows users. Instead of the Start menu, there was... nothing. Users had to guess their way to any sort of menu at all. The entire OS was aimed at forcing users to touch, when most were still using a mouse to do real work.
Then there was Windows RT. Microsoft was out there, selling inexpensive "Windows" machines to the masses that couldn't -- get this - run actual Windows software. Yeah, that turned out real well. Users were confused, baffled, and angry.
While Microsoft didn't cause the decline in desktop computing, they unquestionably and unwittingly pushed it over the edge with their epic Windows 8 miscalculations. We could spend days discussing the missteps, mistakes, and misreads Microsoft committed back in those days, but that's not the purpose of this article.
That was 2012. This is almost 2017. It's amazing what can happen in four years. Microsoft is back.
Webster defines "birthright" as "a right, privilege, or possession to which a person is entitled by birth." We all know the Microsoft origin story. Way back in the 1970s, Bill Gates and Paul Allen developed Altair BASIC. But when they sold MS-DOS, non-exclusively, to IBM, it spawned the leviathan that the company has become.
From 1980 to roughly 2010, Microsoft owned the desktop. Since the desktop (whether on a tower PC or a laptop) was pretty much the computing experience for everyone, Microsoft effectively owned the computing experience. The desktop computing experience is Microsoft's birthright.
As we are all very aware, the computing experience has greatly expanded beyond the desktop. The most prevalent computing access point is now the smartphone. Microsoft lost this war. Tablets also gained ground, to the point where, last year, Tim Cook asked, "Why would you buy a PC anymore?" He was touting the iPad Pro, ostensibly as a replacement for desktop and laptop computing.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the iPad Pro has all of 4GB RAM in it, and maxes as 256 GB of onboard storage. My iMac (essentially a PC) has 32 GB of RAM and 16 terabytes of RAID directly attached storage. I also have four screens with 1,120 square inches of screen real estate (not including bezel), compared to the 104 square inches (including bezel) of working space on the iPad Pro.
Since Windows-based PCs can be similarly configured, my answer to Tim is this: 8 times the RAM, 62.5 times the direct storage, and 10 times the physical screen real estate. Yes, you can do some real work on an iPad Pro, but you can't come close to the power of a serious desktop with a tablet. That's why.
All this brings us back to Microsoft. Microsoft was not able to hold onto the entire computing experience, because most consumers don't necessarily need powerful PCs. Microsoft was also not able to hold onto the entire enterprise computing experience, because some jobs don't require full PC capabilities.
Mobile smartphones became the next major computing market, and Microsoft was nearly completely shut out. But in their effort to grab onto whatever they could of the touch-based computing opportunity, Microsoft essentially abandoned all its loyal Windows users, which still made up the vast majority of the non-phone computing market. No one will argue that Windows 8 was bad.
While some folks jumped to Macs, and an even smaller group adopted Linux, most desktop and laptop PC users simply stayed using Windows -- Windows 7 and Windows XP. This made sense, because all those folks had jobs to do. They had entrenched applications. They had training, knowledge of Windows, and muscle memory. They were Windows users.
In 2012, Microsoft didn't seem to care about entrenched Windows users. In 2017, Microsoft is embracing them.
Windows 10 is an unqualified success. The company's launch with a year of free upgrades fueled adoption. As Net Market Share's chart shows, Windows 10 has been making reasonably steady inroads. Growth slowed after the free period ended, but it's still aiming itself upward and to the right.
Extrapolating those adoption lines, we can see that Windows 10 is on track to overtake Windows 7. While the December 2017 date shown in the graph might be a bit optimistic, there's no doubt that a year or so from now, the dominant desktop OS will be Windows 10, not Windows 7.
Microsoft no longer seems ashamed of its desktop users, and instead is providing amazing reference hardware, showing that there's a tremendous future in desktop computing. The Surface Book is simply an excellent piece of engineering. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the new Surface Studio is truly breathtaking, despite being a bit underpowered and pricey.
Firing on all cylinders
Of course, Windows isn't Microsoft's only recent triumph. The company has been firing on all cylinders. It has reclaimed the desktop and non-phone paradigm. It has mastered large scale cloud services, building out not only Azure as a compelling IaaS offering, but also Office 365 as one of the leading SaaS success stories.
Microsoft has also learned to embrace peaceful coexistence. It has developed exceptional versions of Office apps for iOS and Android, as well as a library of very nice, smaller iOS and Android apps that have proven popular with users.
In the gaming and education worlds, Xbox and Minecraft are beloved platforms. Lynda.com is a well-respected training resource. And, of course, with the LinkedIn acquisition, as I said in June, "Microsoft has essentially just bought itself a constantly updating map to the employees (and their working relationships) for pretty much every moderately relevant company on the planet."
Finally, there's Linux. Rather than Microsoft's old "embrace and extend" policy, where Microsoft would adopt and then smother a competitor, Microsoft has come to realize it needs Linux as much as it needs Windows, especially in the Azure world. Microsoft's membership in the Linux Foundation as a platinum member reinforces how seriously the company now takes partnering with the Linux world, rather than its earlier strategy of treating it as a disease that needs to be eradicated.
Going back over ZDNet editorial about Microsoft from around 2012, it's almost impossible to picture the renewed, confident, smart company we're seeing today. Microsoft has always been populated with very smart people, but in the past they used to march solely to the beat of their own drum.
Today, Microsoft has learned to coexist in an amazingly dynamic and vibrant market, listen to and work with its customers. The reward is clear. The company is back, once again a leader, and making some insanely great products.
Tim Cook, ol' buddy, ol' pal: this should be a wake-up call for you and your team.
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