It's been a big week for Microsoft. Three days in three cities, two operating systems, one device, a flagship conference — all adding up to one really big launch. New phones and tablets are great for consumers, and for enterprises, and a new OS opens up new possibilities for developers. But there's a bigger story behind it all.
That one big launch or, rather, relaunch, is the most interesting thing to come out of Microsoft's big week: the company's reinvention of itself as the home of a modern, user-centric platform that covers both software and hardware to deliver services to users — one that's ready to set the computing agenda for the next 10 years.
The result is a wholesale reinvention of Microsoft and an end to the internal rivalries that used to hold it back
So why the relaunch, and why now? There's a problem that faces all companies, a life-or-death moment that can mean a future of growth, or stagnation and eventual irrelevance. It's what Harvard professor Clayton Christensen called the innovator's dilemma. How can you reinvent a business on the fly, with no opportunity to hit a pause button?
IBM did it by allowing its Global Services consulting business to grow, turning the old IBM into a rump organisation that still makes money, but has stopped being the engine that drives the business.
Microsoft's changing environment
Microsoft's challenge is more complex. The environment in which the company operates is changing, from the way people buy and deploy technologies, to the underlying silicon that powers our world of software.
What can a company built on a set of core products do, especially when those products are at heart more than a decade old? You can't just rip them up and start again — but you have to change completely, and as quickly as possible while bringing along as many of your customers as possible.
The answer for Microsoft is two-fold. First, it's making a big bet on building a new business in its Azure cloud platform that could one day overshadow the rest of the organisation, while still building it on the structure of its current tools.
Secondly, it's reinventing — or as it reiterates, reimagining — its core products, replacing disparate, often incompatible, foundations with one single Windows everywhere, from phone, to tablet, to desktop, to server, from office, to home, to street, to car.
The result is a wholesale reinvention of Microsoft and an end to the internal rivalries that used to hold the company back. Reimagined and reinvigorated, the new Microsoft is a very different organisation. It all adds up to what the past week was all about: the delivery of a coherent vision that's been missing for much of the past decade.
Windows is the foundation of Microsoft's future, but it's a Windows that's very different from the Windows of old. Windows 8 puts natural user interfaces front and centre, much like the new Windows kernel-powered Windows Phone. With a variant of the same kernel in phone, tablet, desktop, server and cloud, Microsoft can now offer a single programming model that scales from pocket to Azure.
Apps that run on any Microsoft platform
Looking at the new Microsoft platform, it's clear that the transformation has been planned for some time. In the past few years Microsoft evangelists have been encouraging developers to work with modern design patterns, including the Model-View-Controller pattern that's at the heart of delivering applications that can run on any of the company's platforms.
Using the new portable libraries, core business logic can be wrapped to run on phone and PC, with separate user interfaces. Similarly, new tools in Azure allow services to be built that run on mobile devices, including iOS, and on desktop PCs and tablets.
The new Microsoft has its eyes clearly set on the future, aiming to define more than the next decade of computing, and providing in today's tools and technologies an inkling of the world we'll be inhabiting in 2032, two decades from now.
That's where another side to the reinvention of Microsoft comes in, one that takes advantage of new trends in machine learning, and in big data, and the fundamental work in computer science that's been pursued at Microsoft Research.
Despite all the work we've done over the years, and all the advances in technologies, computers and smartphones don't live up to their potential. They are devices that both measure and mediate our personal contexts. They're where we plan what we're doing, where we navigate to a destination. They know where we are, what we're doing, who we're doing it with — and as a result can be used to indicate what we might do in the future.
For an example of what is happening here, take a look at the new Local Scout service in Windows Phone 8. Instead of a dumb local search application, it's designed to learn your preferences, using your social networks and your history to generate results tailored to your tastes and filtered by the preferences of your friends.
It's an approach that uses advanced computer science to deliver a user-centred result. Sure, it's not perfect today, but this sort of deep personal analytics is the shape of things to come.
Windows 8 only a transition
Microsoft's sea change is the result of an acceptance of that future, and a realisation that the company has to change to build it. Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 are the public face of that change, but they are only a transition — a step away from the world of computing we've known, to a new one, powered by smart devices and cloud services, delivering context wherever we are, and whatever we're using.
It's a long way from the Microsoft that gave us Windows 95 and Office, but not so far from the one that's been quietly constructing a massive gaming network and designing the datacentres and software needed to keep it running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest, Miranda, suddenly exposed to a wider world than one island, cries out, "O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't."
Peel back the new user interface, plug into the new APIs, and there are many goodly creatures in the new Microsoft and in its relaunched platform. Now they're here, it's up to Microsoft's developers and the larger community of software engineers and computer scientists to use them and build the compelling user interfaces, applications and services that customers are demanding.
A brave new world indeed.