The Second Coming of Microsoft

For years, Microsoft was regarded as the elephant in the computer room.  It was big, it was boring, and it was impossible to go one conversation without begrudgingly mentioning the computer behemoth.  But now, with the meteoric rise of Apple, things look a little different – and possibly more favorable, for the world’s largest software company and its decisive push into hardware.
For nearly ten years, Apple has had a lock on hardware, creating gorgeous aluminum-and-round-edged devices that impressed techies and average users alike. Apple excelled at crafting dependable software that worked with – and only with – their devices.  And in quick succession, Cupertino pushed out the iPod, iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad – each one not so much inventing a field as re-imagining it, tying it into Apple’s expanding, if heavily curated, ecosystem of music, TV, movies and apps.

Microsoft, it seemed, was always two steps behind on the hardware front. In the decades preceding the iPhone years, it had comfortable position as a simple software maker, shipping hundreds of millions of copies of Windows XP, Vista, and 7, as well as the dominant Office suite.  But as mobile computing began to take off, users began to consume more content than they produced, and demanded devices that were fashionable, as well as functional; Microsoft found itself in a rut.  Its profit margins were huge – there’s no production line for software – but its fragmentation within the hardware ecosystem was becoming problematic for users accustomed to Apple’s seamless experience.

To Redmond’s credit, Microsoft did a phenomenal job on the original XBOX in 2001, as well as the 360 several years later, and proved that it was capable of creating dependable, stylish devices that worked well with software, namely “Halo,” in this case. To round it off, Microsoft even made excellent computer peripherals – especially mice – that demonstrated that the company’s achievement could sometimes match its ambitions.

But on the mobile front, Microsoft struggled. It initially achieved reasonably effective market penetration with Windows Mobile, but failed to crush Palm and Blackberry as swiftly as Apple would.  And moreover, like RIM, Microsoft did not seem to take Apple seriously, when, in June 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone.  Instead of going back to the drawing board and working to craft a phone as seamlessly integrated into the Office universe as the iPhone was with iTunes, Microsoft simply threw money at the problem and jumped on the social media train. It purchased Danger – the maker of the popular “Sidekick phones” – and developed the Kin, a “social media phone” so droll in design and limited in functionality that it was only on the market for one month before being pulled – at a development cost of $1 billion. Within five years, Apple would all but displace Microsoft in the smartphone market, and Google would assume the role as the anti-Apple.

But in recent months, Microsoft has begun to step up its game, especially on the hardware front.  The Nokia Lumia is a gorgeous, if unappreciated offering that combines Microsoft’s spiffy new Metro “Square Theme” UI.  The new Outlook is a reasonable competitor to the all but dominant GMail.  And Microsoft’s cloud service, Skydrive, beats even Dropbox in bang-for-buck value when it comes to online storage.

Perhaps the biggest offering on Microsoft’s horizon is the new Surface tablet, a competitor to Apple’s industry-leading Macbook Air and iPad, as well as Intel’s Ultrabooks.  The Surface’s biggest selling point is not only Microsoft’s new OS; it’s the keyboard-cover and light weight that effectively bridges the gap between tablet and laptop, and possibly, consumption and production.  To this end, Microsoft also discretely made a $300 million investment in ailing retailer Barnes & Noble, perhaps to place a lock on B & N’s Nook app, or possibly to secure distribution channels in light of Redmond’s paucity of Apple store competitors.

In the coming months, Microsoft will certainly bounce the mobile ball more seriously. Whether the Surface will succeed like the XBOX or flop like the Kin is dependent on several factors:

1. The product itself.  Apple has long built its reputation on high quality, gorgeous goods that make using technology an enjoyable, even fashionable, experience.  The Surface must equal or exceed the iPad in sex appeal.

2. Apps.  Microsoft’s app store must be up to spec by the launch date, otherwise, it will face the same sort chicken-and-egg problem that RIM now faces with its developers.

3. Services. Microsoft must develop customer service that does justice to its product, unlike another computer manufacturer known for second-rate service. This is, once again, an Apple strong point.

4. Sufficient distinction from existing phones, tablets, phablets and laptops.  Windows 8 has a pleasant, defined, squared-off appeal that is the appropriate counterpoint to Apple’s sometimes-overused silver n’ rounded edges theme in Mac OS.  This strategy is, at the very least, for legal reasons.

5.  Apple’s product lineup is simple. Ergo, so should Microsoft’s.  For reference, there’s the iPhone 3 and 3S. There’s the iPhone 4 and 4S. That’s it. In contrast, most Android phone names are a veritable orgy of alphanumeric nonsense coupled with arbitrary weather conditions and porn star-esque monikers.  I own an HTC EVO 4G. Ben, co-writer of this blog, owns a Samsung Galaxy S II, Epic 4G Touch. There is a comma in that product name. Think about that.  Motorola almost did well in reviving the RAZR brand of thin and light phones, but instead chose to dilute their brand by injecting a healthy dose of adult cinema, under the guise of saying “this phone has good battery life” – meet the Droid RAZR MAXX, playing at that corner theater near you. HTC took some proper steps in creating the One X and One S line of phones, but also maintained the idiot tradition in dubbing their newest Sprint offering the “HTC EVO 4G LTE.” iOS deserves to crush Android if only for the appalling idiocy of the latter’s marketing team.

Microsoft took good initial steps with the Nokia Lumia, which only comes in two numeric varieties. And guess what? The lower number indicates the lesser-level phone, and the higher number denotes the more upscale handset. Brilliance. However, Microsoft botched things in crafting two poorly defined types of Surfaces – an RT version that goes for a lower, tablet-like price point, and an ARM iteration that competes with Ultrabooks.  Microsoft’s marketing team would be better off splitting the difference, or at least calling it the Surface 1 or Surface 2 or Big Surface and Little Surface – anything to distinguish it beyond overly technical acronyms.

We’ll all just have to hold our breaths for October, when the Surface (ARM or RT) hits the shelves. Windows just might offer a different view this time around.

59 thoughts on “The Second Coming of Microsoft

    1. Definitely possible that they’re putting folks like Lenovo or Acer in an uncomfortable position, but they may try to temporarily reduce licensing fees so as to give other OEMs the ability to lower their own prices.

  1. I am so looking forward to the Surface…can’t wait to get my hands on one! great analysis…just having 2 variants of a product is the best strategy….sometimes I overturn my decision to buy something just because I get tired of deciding which version to buy.
    congrats on being freshly pressed :)

  2. Reblogged this on conedogers and commented:
    With Surface, Microsoft has finally figured out how important it is to control the hardware platform. Apple was the first company that successfully make the personal computer a consumer device. Apple owns every aspect of their design. That has been the key to their success. My MacBook Pro is one of the best laptops that I have run windows on. why? because the quality of the hardware and the quality of the driver packages is better than anything available in the PC laptop market because Apple controls every aspect of the design. While Microsoft has historically had to negotiate with their vendors, Apple just worked through the problem internally.
    Will Surface succeed? time will tell. Microsoft has to get rid of their current CEO, but that’s a topic for another post.

  3. Microsoft is once again playing catchup to Apple. Apple was the first to turn the PC into a consumer device.
    I have been a software professional for over 20 years, primarily developing code under windows. I have recently switched to the Mac and I find the OSX experience a little dated in some aspects, but overall the UI experience is more streamlined than with windows. It is the completeness of the PC product taken as a whole. You lose that experience with a windows product.

    My 3 year old macbook feels solid, built with high quality, it doesn’t feel like it is going to fall apart if I carry it for any length of time. My newest laptop that I recently bought for some contract work is a new HP pavilion. I can’t open the laptop without lifting the unit off the desk. The access panel to the memory and hard disks is so flimsy that I am afraid of breaking it each time I have opened the case. The touchpad drivers are the same bloated crap that does nothing except slow my machine down.

    I hope that surface addresses my latest windows purchasing experience. If not, then Microsoft has only succeeded in alienating their vendors.

    1. Yeah, Apple’s holistic approach to hardware and software is really incredible; I always wonder why other manufacturers have such difficulty crafting simple, easy to use devices.

  4. It’s possible that the Surface tablet could do well, but I think the Metro UI (or whatever they call it) is clunky and difficult to navigate on Windows 8. I tried a preview of it on two different computers and there’s no reason for it on a something that doesn’t have a touch screen. What’s bothered me most about Microsoft over the almost 2 decades I’ve been a user is that even after all those billions of dollars they’ve made, it just never seems to work right. One could make a case that Windows 7 is the best so far, but it’s still way too buggy. Every time I turn my computer off, I have to do a ‘force shut down’ or force restart. It’s always popping up messages even though I’ve gone in the settings and turned off everything I possibly can. It asks me if I’m sure I want to download something, EVEN IF IT’S FROM THE MICROSOFT WEBSITE. It’s insane. As soon as I get the money I’m getting another Apple product. They have their faults too, but at least they work most of the time.

    1. I’ve been a pretty happy Apple camper for about five years, and haven’t really looked back. That said, I’m hoping Microsoft irons out all the silly issues you mentioned.

  5. “Microcrap” is just that … Crap. I upgraded from Home and Student Office 2007 to 2010 ($150), hoping that it had ironed out the bugs in 2007. It hadn’t. Moreover, it absolutely refused to download on one of my machines. The successful downloads nearly destroyed a 119,000-word manuscript by deleting the spaces between words. Ergo, I went back to 2007–bugs and all.

    I damn Bill Gates to a hell of using his own products.

  6. I hadn’t heard of Surface before…does this mean there’ll be a third options in the smartphone/tablet competition? I can only imagine the lawsuits…But you’ve piqued my interest, I’m not planning on buying one but I definitely want to take a trip to Best Buy to check it out this fall.

  7. Microsoft is looking as promising as ever in either case. I don’t think we’ve seen this much innovation in ages, when compared to Apple’s products. Furthermore, now that Steve Jobs is gone (may he rest in piece) there’s a great chance Apple might hit an innovation wall.

  8. You’ve managed to put together a highly complex situation into a very readable, enjoyable story without losing the more important technical points. Colour me jealous, but this is what first-class informational writing should be.

    1. Thank you very much, that really means a lot; I’m glad to see my English Lit degree is coming in handy. Hope to have more equally good stuff up soon!

  9. It’s going to take a lot more than a new logo for Microsoft to right their ship. I hope they can do it, but I’m not overly optimistic. I don’t think they know who they are any more or what they do.

      1. As a former Microsoft MVP I think the industry is definitely in a better place when Microsoft is at least competitive. Sometimes, it feels like they aren’t even trying. Do you remember the Microsoft Kin?

  10. One thing that microsoft have done much better than apple is letting you personalise the theme without “jailbreaking” it first.
    windows 8’s gonna run on tablets as well as pcs, so maybe they’re taking a step towards integration
    i still like apple though

  11. Reblogged this on ithinkthereforeidigress and commented:
    The surface looks like a great product. However, I am a bit miffed by the way Windows has completely neglected putting any real love into their Windows 8 for desktops. I certainly believe that the tablet market and smartphones will make desktops and laptops fairly redundant in terms of company profits, but Microsoft has completely alienated many of its business partners by entering the tablet market and optimising windows 8 only for tablets. Some companies are even talking about shipping out PCs with Linux instead (which really wouldn’t be the end of the world for me – though for some people…)

  12. My head spins faster each year, just trying to keep on top of all this, and live life at the same time.
    I use some for my cartooning work (see blog) but don’t have much time for the rest of it.

  13. Microsoft is going for a high-risk/high-reward strategy with Windows 8 & Surface, and the new logo reflects their keeness to make a fresh start. If they can keep the Office/corporate market on board through these changes, they have a great chance of pulling it off. Good luck to them.

    I foresee several big, loosely-aligned tech alliances in the future based around Microsoft/Nokia, Google/Samsung, and Apple. How other companies (esp. Amazon, eBay and the chip manufacturers) interact with them will be interesting. We’ve been promised convergence since the 1980s, but the technology is finally here to properly unify hardware, software, entertainment, business and telecommunications. This decade will be interesting!

  14. Interesting article, I hope Apple are put in there place, it seems they have become ‘elites’ and even though they claim to be happy with competition they sue them and attempt to eradicate them altogether. Samsung immediately comes to mind. I look forward to seeing what Microsoft bring to the table.

  15. I have complete faith in Windows 8 when it launches this October. Sadly, the iPad stood uncontested in the tablet space, and there doesn’t seem to be any worthy Android contender, not even the Nexus 7. There is really something wrong with the way Android works on tablets.

    I’m not afraid to say that Windows 8 is an excellent OS for tablets, I liked the Metro interface due to its uniqueness and simplicity, the Windows brand may mean that it’s going to have a large app ecosystem and it’s an excellent move to showcase it with Microsoft’s own Surface. It was just disappointing that the Surface Pro won’t launch simultaneously with the WinRT one. I intend to get that.

    The problem would be on desktops. I find the Metro dashboard to be more of a distraction, and the disappearance of the Start menu is really damaging to the OS. There’ll be work-arounds for sure, like automatically showing the Desktop Mode, but if it doesn’t get fixed, I’ll stick with Windows 7 for the desktop.

    http://hxwf5.wordpress.com/2012/06/24/the-windows-8-experience/

  16. Good summary. Surface’s success will be dependent on the corporate market. If MSFT can successfully introduce a tablet w/ MS Office suite for business travelers it’ll be a home run. Now if they could only do something about that logo…

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