During its Build 2014 conference, Microsoft has laid out a number of moves that will position it to better compete with Google and Apple, but also setup the company for a different computing future. Although desktops and laptops are here to stay, Microsoft is still trying hard to catch up on search, consumer web services, and mobile devices of course. There are some real success with web infrastructure – mostly in the enterprise space – but while Microsoft remains a formidable competitor, they are now the underdog in a number of sectors, so it’s time for real change.
"MOST RADICAL CHANGE IS A FREE WINDOWS OPERATING SYSTEM" The biggest and most radical change is a free Windows operating system for devices smaller than 9-inches, namely mobile phones and tablets. It is a critical move for Windows Phone and Windows 8.x because many device makers did not want to pay a Windows Phone OS license that was deemed too expensive. Since Windows is one of Microsoft’s “cash-cows” this is something that used to be taboo. Even Steve Balmer, Microsoft’s former CEO often said that his business model was to sell its Windows software. Now, Microsoft will have to make up for this with sales of services like One Drive or Office.
Ironically, Microsoft is making money off Android handset makers because it holds some key patents. Also, Android as you and I know it on our phones is not “free” to device makers. They need to license key apps and services (like Gmail, Google Maps, Android Market etc…) if they want to have a good Android experience. This would mean that Windows is now effectively cheaper than Android. This is not to be underestimated in a cut-throat industry.
However, let’s also keep in mind that the appeal of Android is not merely the cost, but also the possibility for OEMs to customize the software, access the source code and ultimately “differentiate”, for better or worse. This is something that Windows still does not offer, and it remains to be seen how OEMs will react to this.
"MOBILES CAN NOW BE MADE TO RUN ANDROID OR WINDOWS WITH EASE" Since Qualcomm and Microsoft have announced that the latest Qualcomm hardware platform can power Android or Windows phone with little changes, it should push OEMs to dip their toes by using a single hardware design to run on both operating systems. Admit it: who wouldn’t want to see a Windows Phone Galaxy Note or S5 instead of an ATIV which has last year’s specs? Everyone wins.
Secondly, Microsoft realizes that despite having one of the best software development kit and development tools (Visual Studio) out there, it is having a hard time to gain traction with developers. Of course there is some traction, but Microsoft needs more – much more, since Apps availability remains the main issue for Microsoft in the phone and tablet markets, and Microsoft knows that developers are key to success.
There are few reasons for this: today, Microsoft differentiates between Modern Design apps and classic Windows apps. For example, a Modern Design app cannot run in a window. This forces developers to compile and maintain two apps. It’s not the end of the world, but it creates enough friction to lose a number of developers along the way. If you take mobile into account, that’s one more app that needs to be packaged and maintained. Finally, there are small API differences today that forces developers to do small changes in their code when going from one target to the other."ONE APP PACKAGE FOR ALL MICROSOFT PLATFORMS"
Microsoft is addressing this by creating a single app package, which uses a single unified API so that developers will have only one project to manage. Differences in code and presentations will still exist but they will be contained in sub-folders within a single project. This will make things much easier and reduce friction dramatically. This is something that I previously said Microsoft should do.
Modern Design apps will also be allowed to run in a Window. I never understood why this wasn’t the case from the onset, but I’m really glad that Microsoft will let this happen. It just makes sense, and it will enable developers to focus on a single app instead of wasting time building two apps, just to support a windowed environment.
After exhausting all other possibilities, Microsoft is also bringing what people really want: a classic start menu. This is a somewhat amusing, but hotly passionate topic because people can get really mad when talking about this. In Windows 8, Microsoft had alienated its desktop users by removing the Start Menu which is a HUB for shortcuts and apps search. It was replaced by the search charm and the home screen, but the bottom-line is that it was received mostly with hostility.
In Windows 8.1, Microsoft put a Start Button back in, but it was merely a shortcut to the new home page. This alienated desktop users further. The third time’s the charm they say and this is probably true: a classic Start Menu will make its debut, and it will be improved by adding Live tiles in there. So far, this has been universally applauded.
Finally, there’s a whole realm of things that go beyond Windows. Microsoft has talked about the Internet of things and how the company could contribute in that space. It showed one of the old Intel prototype board (before Intel showed the SDcard-size update) that was used to build connected objects. Conceptually, Windows could run in one of those computers, but I’m having a hard time thinking that this would be the most efficient way to do this. Also, what happens for wearable objects that are 100X smaller? Should we have Windows in a necklace or a watch?
It’s more likely that Microsoft will benefit from this wave of connected device through its cloud infrastructure business, Azure. It is understandable that the company worries about not being in the device itself, but it looks like a primitive version of Android is better placed to succeed in that space. We’ll see what Microsoft has in mind and what it will show as examples of Windows-powered internet of things (IOT).
"MICROSOFT IS TAKING THE RIGHT DECISIONS" In the meantime, I think that Microsoft is taking the right decisions, and unfortunately there are no silver bullet, just hard work and focus. Windows development for all three platform (mobile, desktop, xbox/TV) is becoming ridiculously easy and more importantly, orthogonal, thanks to the unified API. Microsoft is right to focus on “market share” in whichever way possible and at the moment, this means mid-range or entry level mobile devices. It is not sexy, but it works and whether it is enough remains to be seen. However, this needs to convert to better business opportunity for developers.
Windows phone and windows for tablet continue to improve over time, and with the innovation on mobile starting to taper off, Microsoft will have its chance to catch up, compete and innovate down the road. This remains a “long game”, and remember that not so long ago Microsoft was thought to be unbeatable at the OS game, and that blackberry had a strangle hold on the Enterprise mobile business. With the fast refresh cycle of mobile devices, things can change faster than ever, and I would not underestimate Microsoft’s ability to adapt.