To say that Microsoft is in a bit of a transition would be the understatement of the decade. Over the past year and a half, we’ve see the Redmond software giant re-envision the Windows user experience with Windows 8, make it’s foray into the ‘Devices’ market with their Surface tablets, underwrite and eventually purchase its main Windows Phone partner, announce a major reorganization into a “Devices and Services” company, and begin the transition to a new CEO. And all of this is happening amidst — or perhaps more appropriately, in response to — a persistent decline in the Wintel PC market. Whether you’re a die-hard supporter, or gleefully anticipating their demise, it’s impossible not to have your eyes glued on Microsoft right now.
The Writing on the Wall
To me, it’s difficult to say whether the “devices” industry is amidst a transition, or whether it’s always been in a state of constant, perpetual churn. One thing is for sure, however: the introduction of the tablet device has helped throw the PC market into a tailspin. With the introduction of the iPad, consumers had a new alternative to pricier laptop or netbook devices. And with it, came along a thriving app ecosystem for users to latch on to. The proliferation of Android devices lowered prices further, making tablets affordable to everyone wanting a new mobile device.
In lock step with the adoption of iOS and Android devices is the adoption of the app-based software distribution model. Users now have a one-stop shop to find software to fit every need. Browsing retail shelves and scouring the web for installable applications has now been replaced with the speed and convenience of one-click app installs through an app marketplace.
Similarly, applications and services have been rapidly moving to the cloud. Email, productivity tools, and media services are all web-based with small app installs for front-end interaction. In recent years, there has even been a trend towards the streaming of Games. Suddenly, the need to locally store and process files on your device is nearly eliminated. Why store when you can stream?
Traditional PC Model: R.I.P.
With consumers abandoning the PC, I think we’re going to see continued decline in this market. With the exception of the enterprise (which will likely become the market’s last holdout), PC’s may become something of a niche market instead of the mainstream. Consumers simply do not need the power they once did.
PC software and hardware manufacturers have limited options if they wish to survive this transition. Every company in this industry MUST adopt the following mantra: Innovate or Die. And it wouldn’t hurt for them to recite this every morning. The status quo is no longer sufficient.
The Slow, Uphill Climb For Microsoft
Windows 7 was (and still is, by many) heralded as Microsoft’s greatest OS achievement. Its ability to run well on devices of varying capability made it the go-to OS of choice for PC manufacturers. However, it completely missed the boat in one key area: Touch-enabled devices. Windows 7 was NOT touch friendly. In fact, you could say it was touch hostile. Microsoft needed another option.
Fortunately, inspiration for a touch-friendly version of Windows was no further away than their own Windows Phone 7 device. Windows 8’s touch interface (initially dubbed “Metro”) incorporated WP7’s Live Tile concept to present the user with a bank of customizable, informational blocks. This was a very innovative step up from the grid of icons still used by iOS and Android. Despite several design and PR pitfalls, Microsoft was finally able to release Windows 8, but with one major cost: Time. Windows 8 was late to the game.
Considering the trend towards the tablet culture, it’s impossible not to view Windows 8 as a huge step forward — and a necessary one at that. But in light of the PC’s decline, Microsoft had two options: put the fate of Windows 8 (and perhaps the PC at large) in the hands of the OEMs and pray for the best, or roll up its sleeves and get to work realizing its own vision for what a Windows tablet should be. They chose the latter and in 2012 released the Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets.
The Surface Surfaces, Barely
The release of the Surface devices was not received without criticism. Hefty pricing, RT vs. Pro branding confusion, and low battery life were among the complaints lobbed at the tablets. The first iteration of the Surface tablets was far from commercial success — you’ve been under a rock if you hadn’t heard about the $900m write down. But with a striking design and innovative accessories, the Surface turned heads and succeeded in demonstrating what is possible for next-generation Windows tablets. And I think this is the most overlooked success story of the first-gen Surface. In its first attempt at manufacturing and marketing such a device, Microsoft was able to raise the bar and consumers expectations.
Did Microsoft’s OEM partners see the release as a friendly challenge or outright competition? Reactions varied. Perhaps the choice to price the Surface tablets in the ‘premium’ range will leave enough room for OEMs to be successful. And perhaps Microsoft will remain focused on tablets and away from other devices such as laptops, servers and workstations. Either way, the same “innovate or die” mantra strongly applies to other PC manufacturers. They would be wise to follow Microsoft’s example and become more visionary in their device design and engineering.
At present, we are standing on the cusp between Surface tablets. Just around the corner lies the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. This version improves upon many of those initial criticisms which befell the original. Except price. The Surface 2 and Pro 2 will be more successful than the first round. It is nearly impossible to NOT be. For Microsoft’s sake, I hope that the Surface concept can usher in a new breed of devices founded upon forward thinking innovation instead of “me too” rationale.
In many respects, Microsoft has its work cut out for them. One of those areas is its app ecosystem. The Windows app store has been slowly — very slowly — gaining ground. By all measures, the Windows app store falls behind iOS and Android, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Unlike iOS and Android, the Windows Phone and Windows 8 platforms utilize separate app stores. This does not play into MS’s favor in a couple of ways. First, MS takes a hit when comparing the total number of apps offered on each platform. Secondly, Microsoft has always allowed developers to package trial and full-version capabilities within the same app. For these reasons, it’s difficult to glean apples-to-apples numbers to make a solid comparison. Once these app stores are unified, this will provide users a bigger selection of apps and allow developers to code one app for release across Windows Phone and Windows 8 platforms.
Microsoft is embattled in a war to win over consumers while retaining their dominance within the enterprise market. If the tablet market is the battleground, then the Surface is the tip of the spear. Are PCs able to penetrate the crowded, competitive tablet market? Or will slighted OEMs abandon the cause and splinter the campaign? The best outcome for the market — and my preferred outcome — would be for the PC OEMs to adopt the same sort of vigor in their R&D efforts as Microsoft has displayed with their Surface development. More interesting devices will lure more interested consumers to the platform.
Personally, I have decided to preorder the Surface Pro 2. For years, I have been making due with a small Dell Inspiron Mini 9. While I have a distaste for the term “netbook”, the Dell is the embodiment of what such a device represents: portable and underpowered with a constant lack of storage space. It has served me well over the past many years, but recently it has not been capable enough to handle some of the tasks I have thrown at it. Web development, small chunks of audio conversion, and minimal gaming have been difficult due to its low screen resolution, middling specs and diminished battery capacity. The Surface Pro 2 fits perfectly into those requirements. Its high-end specs mean that I should enjoy the use of the device for years to come — or at least until the battery gives out.