July 17, 2012
Some Thoughts On Technology Part One: Microsoft
There’s been a lot of movement in the technology world lately that affects the average user. I think the “average user” is just about everybody on the planet these days what with the increase in the number of gadgets we rely upon. Certainly more shocks have come from Microsoft than any other company in the last year. In order, there is the radical Windows 8 Metro interface. It’s radical in the sense that it revamps Windows for the touch environment of tablets and phones. That’s obviously where the market is going, though desktop computing still has a place for consumers and corporations. Windows 8 still maintains the desktop computing environment, though it is secondary to Metro.
Desktop users will still have to use part of the tile interface as a substitute for the Start Menu, and by either gesturing with a finger on a touch screen or mimicking the same action with a mouse. Working through the various previews, my expectation was to hate it. Now I simply tolerate Windows 8’s changes though I’m not enamored with them. I happen to live on the desktop more than I ever will with portable computing, simply because everywhere I am there is an available desktop machine I can use. That might change if my needs change, which leads me to Microsoft’s Surface tablet.
Microsoft’s announcement of the Surface made waves in the tech press. It’s a Microsoft hardware product. Obviously Microsoft manufactures computer peripherals such as mice, keyboards, and web cams. The Kinect motion sensor device is a successful product as is the Xbox. Let’s not speak of the Zune, though there is a vocal minority of people who love them. The Surface, however, is a break from tradition in that Microsoft is essentially building its own general use computing device. Is this competition with their software OEMs or is this an example of a Windows tablet to inspire other hardware manufacturers? The jury is out on that one. We’ll see when these products hit the distribution channels later this fall.
Microsoft’s history is that of a company that takes its inspiration from other companies more than anything it invents on its own. The aforementioned Zune was a reaction to the iPod. In the mid-90s it wanted to be Netscape and define the nascent Internet with Internet Explorer. It wanted to be AOL and became an Internet provider with the various iterations of MSN. Then Google came along and it wanted to be Google. Microsoft started scanning books and then abandoned that project. It started Bing to compete in search and grab a slice of the ad world. The company recently wrote off its purchase of aQuantive, an acquisition that was a reaction to Google’s purchase of DoubleClick. Bing has operated at a loss since its inception.
Then Apple came along with the iPhone and Microsoft got into the phone operating system game with mixed results. Windows made a few inroads in the phone market, but not enough to meet the same level of market success of iOS and Android. The Kin, Microsoft’s attempt at creating a social phone for younger consumers was killed weeks after it was released because no one wanted it. Verizon hobbled the device with an untenable contract. The Windows 7 phones from Nokia that followed generated a better buzz with consumers. Within six months after they were released Microsoft and Nokia announced they were not upgradable to Windows 8. The technically minded consumers were not happy with their adoption.
Let’s get back to the Surface for a moment. This is where Microsoft wants to be Apple again. There are two versions of the tablet: one that runs a Windows 8 Metro interface and a full desktop, which is based on Intel chips, and another called Windows RT based on ARM chips. The latter has a desktop that exists solely to run an included version of Microsoft Office and nothing else. This is especially where Microsoft wants to be Apple. It mimics the iPad in that all applications running on Metro must come from the Microsoft store. The hardware requirements for a Windows 8 machine are strict enough that they effectively lock out the option for other operating systems. Linux users are not happy, though there are other hardware alternatives they could use, just not with Windows 8 installed. I expect Microsoft to start selling books and other consumable media once Windows 8 hits the channel just like Apple.
Microsoft’s strategy is simple enough to understand: get the same operating system on all devices, tie it together with the cloud as a central place to manage files and content, and throw some social connectivity in the mix for the kids. I don’t know if this will work. Microsoft’s base in the enterprise is notoriously resistant to change. Windows XP is still on an awful lot of machines out there. The Windows 8 approach may work if tablets start to penetrate corporations in a way where they are must-have productivity devices. The potential is there. A lot hinges on whether the Windows 8 interface is conducive to the workflow in offices. There are no windows in Metro. One application in the foreground is all there is. Someone who uses multiple windows on a screen will not find the Metro interface appealing.
Microsoft’s moves in the last year are truly a gamble. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer likes to identify each dramatic choice as a “bet-the-farm” move. I think Vista was one of those, though the farm is still there in spite of itself. I think Microsoft is getting into the right game – tablets and mobile computing. I’m just not sure the strategy is the best one they could use.
Tomorrow: Google and the Nexus 7, Android, and Chrome. [MG]