A lot of people have a lot to say about Microsoft these days, mostly negative. Their new operating system Windows 8 is supposedly a flop. Their CEO has blundered through the last decade, missing every significant technological development in the consumer market. In other words, Microsoft is at the end of its rope.
Honestly, this all seems a little premature to me. Sure, Microsoft is no longer dominating the personal computing world like it used to once upon a time, but it’s far from irrelevant. Just because the tech savvy elite in the blogosphere don’t use Office anymore doesn’t mean everybody else doesn’t.
Anywho, this is my oh so humble opinion on the software giant and why I think it still matters. Can’t wait for the Apple ninjas to show up.
Where Microsoft Stands
Microsoft is caught in the classic innovator’s dilemma: to respond to a changing market, a company has to kill its cash cow in favor of newer (and therefore unknown) products. Thanks to inertia (not to mention demands from shareholders, board of directors, etc.), most companies don’t succeed in making the transition.
In this area, I give Steve Ballmer props. He took a huge gamble with Windows 8. A touchscreen-based operating system for the desktop? Even Steve Jobs thought that was a lousy idea. But after looking at the meteoric success of the iPhone and Android phones, he gave the green light for it to happen. Mind you, Windows 8 started being developed in 2009. That’s a full year before the iPad debuted. Took a while, but you can’t say he didn’t see where the market was heading.
Fast forward to today. Windows 8 didn’t save the PC industry slump from continuing. And quite frankly, it can’t. Let’s be honest here: the PC industry is never going to recover to its peak from a few years ago. iPads and tablets fulfill most of the average consumer’s computing needs. Why get a full-on desktop that you’ll only ever use to 5% of its capability when you can get an iPad that’s a lot more convenient to use?
PCs Are Dying. What’s Next?
So what can Microsoft do from here? Well, the first thing it has to do is get away from is the idea that it can make its image ‘cool.’ Microsoft never has and never will be that. All the impressive dance choreography in the world isn’t going to change that.
Instead, Microsoft needs to play to its strengths: productivity. Ever since I got my Surface RT, I’ve been 10 times more productive in my personal projects. Why? All of a sudden, I can actually type for more than two sentences at a time and not get pissed at my iPad’s touchscreen keyboard. The split screen design for running multiple apps is fantastic for multitasking. Yes, the form factor took some getting used to from the iPad, but Microsoft has taken it in stride and ran with it as best it can.
Basically, Microsoft needs to sell a story to the public about why their tablets are such hot stuff. The Surface tablets are an engineering marvel. Ever played with one of their touch covers? It’s practically magic. No matter how much of an Apple disciple you might be, Microsoft put together an impressive piece of hardware.
What happened, then? Why didn’t the Surface succeed when it launched in last year? Three reasons, in my view.
- Marketing. Microsoft is trying too hard to be cool and hip like Apple. That’s never going to happen. Stop trying.
- Timing. The Surface RT tablets should have always been aimed at college students. It offers the productivity apps the average college student needs, while boasting good battery life and portability. Releasing it in October, after the school year started, was a timing blunder.
- Availability. Selling them exclusively through the handful of Microsoft Stores nationwide didn’t help. When Apple releases the latest version of the iPhone and iPad, they are EVERYWHERE. The Surface wasn’t.
So yes, I think Microsoft made some strategic errors when it came to rolling out their tablet. Does that mean the Surface is dead in the water? Not a chance. If there’s any lesson to learn from Redmond, it’s that they don’t quit iterating a product until it shines. Windows ME eventually produced Windows XP. Windows Vista paved the way to Windows 7. Even the Zune’s final model was a well-polished product. It came too little, too late, but the example holds.
My theory: Microsoft is in it for the long game. Sooner or later, computers are going to wear out and need replacing. When that happens, it’s going to be a touchscreen device that doubles as a tablet. Why? Because people will still need to be decently productive, but also want the portability and convenience of a tablet.
Microsoft is never going to get the kind of fanatical devotion that Apple has. The new Surface tablets, as nice as they’ll be, aren’t going to sell millions and millions of units when they get released. Work machines are a bigger investment than toys. We don’t go around replacing them until we absolutely have to.
Microsoft never has and never will be cool. They’ve just always been the cheapest deal in town. Apple already has the premium marker cornered. There will be a few diehards that will focus on the premium end of Microsoft products, but for Windows 8 to succeed they need to go the other direction. Stop trying to compete directly with Apple products. That’s a losing strategy. Take a page from Google and price the products as low as you can. $200-300 for a seven or eight inch tablet would be able to compete nicely with the iPad Mini, and bundling the full-size Surface with a keyboard for $400 would be more than competitive.
Adoption of Windows 8 and the touchscreen-centric design is inevitable. The fact that Microsoft will eventually discontinue support for the non-touch operating systems will see to that.