Having been the boring, suffocating monolith of world business for so long Microsoft these days is more of a plucky pretender in many of its areas of business, especially mobile.
With the taste of its massive Nokia write-off still lingering, Microsoft gamely proceeded with the official launch of what could be the most important version of its operating system: Windows 10. This is, in theory at least, the first Grand Unifiying OS that encompasses all types of devices, including PCs, tablets and smartphones.
Microsoft likes to manage expectations for a new OS by launching a rubbish one a couple of years earlier. Windows XP’s success was born of the near impossibility of it being worse than Windows ME, while Microsoft spent six years ensuring Vista would be sufficiently odious to ensure Windows 7 would be well received.
By the turn of the decade Microsoft had finally realised that merely shrinking its desktop OS and then giving people a little pokey stylus to navigate the tiny drop down menus wasn’t going to work on mobile. The Informer had the misfortune to acquire an HTC Tytn II around this time as a first foray into the smartphone world and, while the device itself was fine, the stylus-led UI was infuriating and prompted an undisciplined retreat into the reassuring arms of a Sony Ericsson feature phone for a while.
Windows Phone was the product of this period of frank introspection during which Microsoft had belatedly got the memo that people want to use their fingers to navigate a smartphone touch screen. The resulting primary coloured squares were a distinct improvement and the likes of HTC and Samsung were soon on board. The problem, as is so often the case in tech, is that it arrived a couple of years too late and Android had already acquired irresistible momentum.
There was also the fact that vendors had to pay for it, while Android was ostensibly free. Persuading vendors to persist with an expensive OS for which there was little demand was beyond Microsoft, so it decided to buy one instead and we all know how that turned out.
So then Microsoft thought “I know what will make people go for Windows Phone – let’s stick the same UI on the next version of Windows and then everyone will get addicted to it. It’s quite possible that few people at Microsoft actually believed in this strategy, but thought that since it was time to launch a rubbish version its inevitable failure would get the job done nicely. But just in case, they thought, let’s also get rid of the Start button to make sure everyone hates it.
The result was Windows 8, which made long suffering PC users reminisce fondly about the delights of Vista. When the rubbish version strategy looked to be working too well and baying, torch-wielding mobs threatened to descend on Redmond, Microsoft realised it had overdone it a bit and quickly restored the Start button in Windows 8.1.
After a couple more years of suffering Microsoft has now decided the world is ready for its proper attempt to converge Windows and Windows phone. Windows 10 is receiving mostly positive reviews, albeit with a distinct ‘at least it’s not Windows 8’ undertone, so job done there. It is also being given away for free to existing Windows users, resulting in 14 million downloads in its first 24 hours of availability.
While it would never formally announce it, Microsoft has given up on being a significant smartphone platform player. Maybe it might establish some niches in certain industry segments or get some success from bundling Windows Phones with PC, but it will never make money from mobile OS licenses, and it’s quite rightly refocusing on selling products like Office on mobile devices.
The tablet situation, however, it quite different. Microsoft had been plugging away with tablets for decades before Apple redefined the category with the iPad in 2010. At the time it wasn’t obvious to everyone why an oversized iPhone that you can’t make calls on would be a success, but it turned out that a good touch UI was just as appealing on a larger screen.
And the way in which tablets are used is quite different to smartphones. Apart from their phone functionality, smartphones have the key feature of being pocket-sized, so are available at all times. Due to their lesser portability tablets have come to be mainly media consumption devices in the home or ultra-portable productivity tools.
This is where Microsoft’s mobile opportunity still lies. Recent data reveals the company is gaining share in the tablet market, while Apple is struggling. It could be that one day the tablet will replace the laptop as the main enterprise productivity device and it would be a disaster for Microsoft if it wasn’t the main player in that segment.
So while it made for some pretty messy Q2 numbers Microsoft is right to draw a line under its abortive smartphone expedition and refocus on tablets and other nascent technology trends that have yet to be dominated by the likes of Apple and Google. Windows 10 remains unproven, but we can be pretty confident it will be the best OS Microsoft produces for a while.
On that note it’s time for the Informer to spend his customary August bathed in sunshine and Pinot Noir. See you in a month.