Outdated, dull and difficult to use – all words that have been used to describe Microsoft products, but even if they were true once, are they anymore? In this post we look at the latest developments from the world’s largest software company and consider what they mean for consumers and enterprises.
The first main innovation of note is in the Windows 8 operating system. It is essentially a combination of two user interfaces: that of Windows 7 (which is similar to previous versions of Windows) and that of Windows Phone 7 (which although fundamentally different is a touch UI much more akin to the Apple mobile operating system, iOS). Windows 8 will allow users to combine these two interfaces, simultaneously on the same screen. Microsoft refer to it is a “reimaging of Windows” and state that “a Windows 8-based PC is really a new kind of device, one that scales from touch-only small screens through to large screens, with or without a keyboard and mouse.”
This is important because one of the major criticisms levelled at Apple is that whilst its operating system looks good and is easy to use, and is particularly strong in the creative industries, it’s not great for doing serious office productivity work (indeed the reverse is levelled at Microsoft). The long-term trend is towards device convergence and it will therefore be increasingly important for an operating system to be able to move seamlessly between these two modes. It also signifies that Microsoft is anticipating, and positioning itself for, the post-PC world. Microsoft expects to see the iPad’s dominance seriously challenged once Windows 8 launches at the end of 2012, and competing tablet manufacturers adopt it as standard.
Windows 8 will also feature the Windows app store, in a direct attempt to compete with Apple and Google. Microsoft thus hopes to attract developers who are currently building smart phone apps to create high quality apps for Windows, because ultimately it is the apps that drive consumer adoption and revenues to the platform owner.
However, Microsoft cannot feasibly expect to position itself as the tablet operating system of choice without cracking smart phones first. As it stands, sales of Windows Phone 7 mobile handsets are underwhelming – 1.6 million in Q1 2011 compared to 16.9 million Apple iPhones in the same period in a market (source: Gartner 2011). In order to rectify this, Microsoft has announced a partnership with Nokia, where the handset manufacturer will be a key decision maker in the future development of Windows Phone 7.
Head in the Clouds?
One common misconception about Microsoft is that they have been slow to offer any cloud-based services. In fact, Microsoft Hotmail provides the most web-based email accounts in the world and has done for a very long time since being acquired in 1998. However, it is true that Microsoft hasn’t ventured beyond email whilst competitors such as Google have made great strides in terms of cloud-based document sharing.
To combat this they are launching Microsoft Office 365 this month, which brings cloud services to the enterprise market, and includes the Microsoft Office suite of desktop applications in a software-as-a-service bundle. Microsoft’s cloud will offer all the functionality that users are familiar with, as well as allowing document collaboration, and will also include Microsoft’s recent acquisition, Skype.
It is different from other cloud based services in that Microsoft also offers options whereby it provides its market leading office productivity software as a bundle or users who already have licensed software can pay less for the cloud only, but in either case applications can be used without an internet connection (which is in marked contrast to Google’s enterprise cloud, Google Apps). Microsoft Office 365 marks an evolution in the company’s business model, where users pay for service provision and management, as well as for the software licence. Subscriptions are monthly and dependent on the amount of storage and the type of Microsoft apps required. Its real strength is its familiarity – Microsoft is the de facto standard for business documents; companies will be reluctant to use cloud-based services that don’t allow for the sharing and/or editing of Microsoft Office documents and Microsoft Office 365 ought to be amongst the amongst the best services to do so. Certainly this feature gives it a potential edge over Google Apps.
What does this all mean?
Microsoft is finally catching up with its competitors who have out-innovated it and its sheer size and dominance meets that it will be able to push adoption of innovations in mobile and in cloud based services to a mass market. Savvy media companies will already be meeting with Microsoft to work out how they can position themselves to make the most of Windows 8. However, Microsoft’s latest offerings appear more reactive than proactive and we can only wonder how long a strategy of being third mover in the fast moving technology market can be sustainable.