Prisoner's dilemma: Microsoft can't break Windows out of its PC jail

Microsoft wants Windows to be for more than just PCs. A long list of failed spin-offs says the market isn’t buying it.

Microsoft this week finally threw in the towel on Windows 10X, its would-be competitor to ChromeOS. The announcement came roughly 18 months after an October 2019 event where the company showed off the dual-screen Surface Neo device that would have used this Windows spin-off as its operating system.

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The Surface Neo was going to be a small dual-screen device, very much unlike a conventional laptop PC. As my colleague, Mary Jo Foley noted at the time, "Microsoft is positioning Neo as being a new category. Officials want it to be seen as a device that blurs work and life usages." It was based on a near-mythical Microsoft device code-named Courier, which was under development a decade earlier; that lineage makes it one of the rare Microsoft devices that have been canceled twice. 

The COVID-19 pandemic that locked down workers and disrupted supply chains just as the Windows 10X development cycle was beginning no doubt had a lot to do with the project's demise. But there's a much larger, simpler explanation: The market has decided that Windows is for PCs, period.

See also: Microsoft's steady retreat from consumer products is nearly complete

For proof, just look at the long list of Windows spin-offs that have failed through the years. Even the one counter-example proves the point. Microsoft's Xbox hardware is basically a PC running Windows 10 with a game controller instead of a keyboard, and it's managed to survive and even thrive in its competitive niche thanks to PC gamers. But it's a rare example of Microsoft's success in breaking out of the PC prison.

Windows on a phone? No, thanks

The biggest case study is the decades-long effort to convince consumers and businesses to run Windows on their phone. The journey started with Windows Mobile and a handful of devices with physical keyboards and a tiny stylus that stood in for the mouse. That led to Windows Phone (which bore a remarkable resemblance to the ill-fated Zune music player), followed by Microsoft's purchase of Nokia. It all ended with the slick but doomed Windows 10 Mobile and a massive write-off.

What went wrong? The iPhone took Microsoft by surprise, obviously. But even with a head start, was Redmond going to convince consumers to trust a handheld device running Windows Vista? It wasn't the same code, of course, but the Windows brand name had been severely tarnished by three years of Vista horror stories when the Windows Phone launched in 2010, and Microsoft never really mounted a credible challenge to iPhone or Android.

Microsoft on your dashboard? Sorry, no

You might not remember Windows Embedded Automotive, which went through more name changes than Windows Phone (Microsoft Auto, Windows CE for Automotive, Windows Automotive, and Windows Mobile for Automotive) before sputtering out. The very idea of running Windows in a car inspired countless jokes built around the word "crash." Today, Android Auto, which has Google Maps as its biggest strategic asset, is probably the best bet if you're looking for a company that will fill that space going forward. 

Windows in the living room? No way

And then there was Windows Media Center Edition, which was truly a great product, as any Media Center enthusiast will tell you even today if you were willing to accept the idea of a dedicated PC in the living room. But Media Center, which relied on finicky CableCards and TV tuner hardware, was hitting its stride just as streaming services began to gather momentum. Why would you want something with the complexity of a PC when you could pay much less for a simple streaming device? R.I.P. Windows Media Center.

Windows tablet or iPad? The market decided

How much do I really need to say about Windows RT, which ran on the Arm-powered Surface RT? It was designed to be a competitor to Apple's iPad but wound up as another case study in product failure. Windows RT was Windows recompiled to run on the Arm architecture, and it managed to achieve the worst of both worlds, with a puny selection of apps for its tablet role and not enough horsepower to be a real PC. Nearly a decade later, with the Surface Pro X, Microsoft is still struggling with its strategy for Arm-based devices.

A server in the house? Why?

Finally, you could not ask for a better illustration of Microsoft's determination to move its PC operating system into unfamiliar environments than Windows Home Server. Its mission was to back up the multiple PCs in your home, stream music and videos, and allow remote access to your family network. It was a product made for IT pros who wanted to bring their work home, and its timing was spectacularly bad. It arrived just as people started using mobile devices for home computing, and most of its functionality became irrelevant as streaming music services and cloud storage took over. It did, however, leave behind an inspired bit of marketing literature in the form of a faux children's book called Mommy, Why is There a Server in the House?