Rebooting Windows for a new era of computing

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.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

See also:

Editorial standards