Four strategic reasons why Microsoft’s big bet will payoff

Did you notice the torrent of media reports on the tepid reception, contentious internal power struggle, and smothering UI design failures of the Windows 8 operating system? The new Windows UI has even been the object of ridicule for something as small and silly as Microsoft’s inability to settle on a name.

But think a little bit about Microsoft’s position. It’s not like it could have gotten any worse.

Every now and then, the tech world gets to observe how a mature iconic tech titan tries to rouse itself out of long term decline, brought about by long, slumbering years of fat, brand-driven, monopolistic profits. The company realizes it has lost its competitive edge, and tries to pull itself back from the verge of disaster.

Such a turnaround requires gutsy, painful, and extremely visionary strategy. The company’s inertia alone is enough to deal with, let alone trying to satisfy notoriously unforgiving tech customers.

Microsoft is trying to do exactly that — in the biggest, boldest, and riskiest move we have seen in years.

I do not want to repeat the chorus, but given how Microsoft has struggled to stay relevant in the last five years this is really impressive — they adopt a totally new, relatively untested UI paradigm, throw their support wholeheartedly behind touch screen computers, and really put their money where the mouth is.

Microsoft Windows 8

Image by Techspot.com

I remember a very similar moment about two years ago, in the tense anticipation of the release of the first tablet computer — the iPad. I wrote a blog post about how Apple was writing a new chapter in the world of computing. I predicted then that the true impact of the iPad was not about having yet another gorgeous entertainment device, but about ushering in an era of accessible, versatile touch-screen-based computing that would infiltrate even more of our lives than PCs, iPods, or mobile phones would. I thought Apple would stay at the forefront of this revolution for years to come, given their head start in hardware, software, and a thriving app ecosystem.

But now Microsoft is vying for leadership of the next stage with a fully touch-screen-optimized UI that cuts across mobile phones, tablets and desktop computers. There’s chance that Apple’s legacy just might be taken over by Microsoft.

In a sense, this is really Microsoft’s way of getting back into the game (or simply into the game). They were behind and now they’re attempting to seize back the competitive advantage.

In the 1980s, Microsoft struggled mightily for years to achieve UI parity with Apple, weathering a landmark intellectual property suit over things that we take for granted now such as the trashcan. They were late to the game of graphical, window-based (no pun intended) user interface, yet steadily held their course and improved over time — even as critics panned their efforts and the market (initially) looked away.

Do you see where that got them? By 1990s, they had built the extremely popular, functional Windows 3.1 (my first real introduction to graphical UI), and never looked back since. The 30-year reign of window-based graphical UI dominance has ended, and Microsoft has once again braved creative destruction to regain their mojo. I admire them for that.

Here are four other reasons why Microsoft’s move was a calculated gamble that I think will ultimately pay back handsomely:

1) An important idea in technology is the steep learning curve that a company has to climb when it introduces a new technology or tries to play catch up. Microsoft understands this game better than most companies — they have caught up not only on the GUI, but also the gaming console market, and (for a brief time, Internet browsers).

To get into the future, Microsoft is putting all of its weight (and its own future) into the new computing paradigm, as represented by a UI that is radically different from what any other competing desktop OS’s currently offer. By having to roll it out to hundred of millions of users, Microsoft is climbing up Mount Everest using the hardest, riskiest approach.

However, because they have to serve so many users, they will get a lot of experience quickly, and will be able to innovate and improve at a much faster rate than competitors will be able to.

2) Microsoft’s big gamble is also striving to recapture the all-important “end user,” whose experience, enjoyment, and happiness Microsoft has neglected for far too long. These users have drifted away into Apple’s interlocking ecosystems of sleek devices. Even as the corporate users were tied down to Microsoft’s Windows operating system, they reacted by refusing to upgrade to Window’s latest versions (until a few years ago more than 50% of computers were still running Windows XP. I was doing so until March of this year).

By giving up the traditional Windows and approaching the users from mobile devices, Microsoft is trying a bottom-up approach again to gain new users and recapture wayward ones. I would imagine they will get a totally new user to use Windows Mobile 8 first, on a phone, and then move them on to the tablet, before finally settling into the workhorse PC. Microsoft’s re-ingratiation with the user will be complete then. In addition, they get to sell their OS to us at least 3 times!

3) Microsoft is also trying to do something very unusual and bold with another important component of a modern OS: building a functional, vibrant app ecosystems by starting with desktop apps.

By offering the same operating system that spans all devices, Microsoft is offering mobile apps developers the promise of true one-size-fits-all development, not to mention immediate access to a gigantic market of existing PC users who are upgrading to Windows 8. This can potentially let them catch up very quickly to the scale and importance of the Apple Apps store, which, like the Google Android apps store, is still not yet fully cross platform (even between IOs and Mac, or different versions of Android).

4) While Apple has been extremely successful in building a mobile OS, and Google can be lauded for popularizing the open, flexible Android operating system, both have yet to crack the code on building workhorse OS’s like Windows, or even the different distribution of Linux.

Apple still maintains both Mac OS and iOS as related but not exactly identical OSes, while Google Chrome OS is still very much a niche player. That leaves Microsoft in the position to attempt to offer a truly single OS experience across devices again. Given Microsoft’s histories with antitrust issues, this might or might not be bad for innovation and user’s experience in the future, but as a strategic move, Microsoft is clearly aiming to leap ahead of both Apple and Google.

photo by: aaron_anderer

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