The Year Ahead: Microsoft

Microsoft: The new look needs refinement.

Microsoft: The new look needs refinement.

2012 was a huge year for Microsoft. Huge in terms of product launches and changes in directions. It was a year in which Microsoft threw everything they had and completely revamped the company. Windows went all touch based. ARM was embraced. Old web services made way for unified new ones. Office became a subscription service. The list goes on. Oh, Microsoft dumped it’s entire ‘Microsoft’ logo for a grid of 4 squares. Microsoft is no longer a software giant with an array of different software options. Microsoft is Windows and they want Windows to be on your PC, tablet, phone, TV and any screen you can find. Here is what Microsoft has on its hands in the year ahead and what they must do.

 

 

Windows 8 & RT

Necessary confusion: Is this 8 or RT?

Necessary confusion: Is this 8 or RT?

Windows 8 has gained some traction but is obviously not a hot seller due to confusion. Was Windows RT worth the confusion for Microsoft to push out on the same day as Windows 8? Microsoft purposefully did not want to highlight the key difference between the two. The result is that RT has got the nickname of a gimped Windows that runs a lot lesser ads. An accurate depiction but one that could have used better differentiation and marketing placement.

Microsoft has to take a close look at RT and clearly place the product well. Basic Windows 8 devices are already as cheap as RT devices, run the full range of Windows apps and are more powerful with similar battery life. Only misinformed customers will opt for an RT device. RT is an important step for Microsoft, but it means little to the consumer. RT allows Microsoft to not put all its eggs in the x86 market, it allows them to push new developers into focusing on cross platform apps first before continuing with the more weathered x86 trend. But does a consumer want RT when 8 is a strictly better option? No. There’s a lot to be done to resolve the Windows RT problem

Frankly, I always felt Windows RT was a dead product. It is more of a proof of concept rather than an actual device I will buy. But RT was a necessity for 2 things:

  1. It showed Intel that Microsoft won’t be bounded by one processor maker if they dropped the ball. This has largely worked. Intel has responded with pretty good Atom processors that handily beat ARM in nearly every category. Newer Ivy Bridge chips and upcoming Haswell variants are targeted at mobile computing which coincides with the touch based future that Microsoft is going on full throttle. The Wintel alliance is still alive but the alliance has always been a rocky one and Microsoft is playing its advantage here.
  2. Windows RT was pushed to entice developers to make metro apps. Imagine if Windows RT was never made. You get Windows 8 that can run Metro apps and x86/x64 traditional ones. What would happen? Everyone will continue developing traditional apps since they are the standard. Instead, this risky approach has seen the Metro app store climb.

 

To move forward, Microsoft has to drop the non touch interfaces and merge them with the touched based ones.

 

Windows 8 on its own has to be worked on as well. The OS is fast but can be a tad confusing not only because the start button has been replaced by a start screen. There are plenty of duplicated functions because there are basically two user interfaces on this system. Why are there two control panels? Why are there two taskbars? Why are there two points of references (Start Screen and traditional desktop)? To move forward, Microsoft has to drop the non touch interfaces and merge them with the touched based ones.

The Start Screen has to double up as the desktop. Have legacy programs run in re-sizable windows overlay-ed on the Start Screen. Keep the left sided Modern UI task bar and drop the legacy one. Pull all control panel functions into Modern UI’s settings screen. Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate. Yes this will piss off traditional desktop users but if they have already jumped on Windows 8, they are probably a more flexible bunch as compared to the rest.

 

 

Surface vs. OEMs

The Surface sparked a lot of excitement because everyone was washed away by Apple’s integrated hardware success. As I will cover in a ‘The Year Ahead’ for Apple in the coming weeks, the Apple model is great for new product categories but it has ridiculously low longevity. Great integration will buy you at most 8 years. Microsoft would be completely nuts to drop their OEMs and make Windows exclusive to Surface. Microsoft’s Surface is Google’s Nexus. It is made in small quantities for a reason. People hoping for big sales figures are kidding themselves. This is a signature product for OEMs to follow on. It is also a fail safe in the advent that OEMs bomb (which is not a very unrealistic future).

 

Microsoft’s Surface is Google’s Nexus. It is made in small quantities for a reason. People hoping for big sales figures are kidding themselves.

 

 

The Surface RT was hampered by Windows RT. The Surface Pro on the other hand is a signature product for the real full blown OS. It launches at the end of this year, again, in tiny quantities only in very few countries. Microsoft must get its execution right because this will be watched by tons of OEMs. OEMs are not making RT devices en masse but they do so for Windows 8.

The focus of marketing Windows has to be touch. Touch everything, make any Windows device that is non touch sound old and obsolete  This is the vision that Microsoft needs to push and shove its OEM partners towards. Show the world what computing is like with touch screen laptop or desktop. Start pushing the innovative touch screen desktops that can fold really low to simulate a comfortable desk like experience. This allows the consumers to understand what computing with Windows should be.

Surface Inspired: Lenovo's Horizon Table PC

Surface Inspired: Lenovo’s Horizon Table PC

CES 2013 has shown that manufacturers are waking up. They tried slapping Windows 8 on old form factors and obviously that will not do well. Plenty of new ones that made sense turned up in the first big event of the year. What Microsoft has to do is to aid this push and portray the superiority of such touch based systems. People already know what touch is like on phones and tablets. Show them how it makes laptops and desktops better given the right form factors. The OEMs must be told how to do this and the way to show it is via the Surface.

 

 

Windows Phone

Windows Phone is an easier product to double down on because it is already a well focused device. Microsoft has to get a pull down notification center akin to what Android was first to do. A quick pull down menu for quick settings is the minimum bar if the argument that live tiles are a notification center replacement holds true.

Obviously, the next big issue is apps. Windows Phone is getting more and more apps but it still has not gotten the important ones. If Microsoft has to dangle a cash stuffed carrot in front of key developers, do it. The phone needs apps and they were very late to the market. Make sure they are on WP8 before 2013 is done.

 

 

XBOX & Kinect

The XBOX has been consistently the dominant gaming console for the past year or two. With news that the XBOX 720 will be launched this year, the hardware end of things will obviously get a massive boost. The focus now should be the software and services experience. Microsoft has made deals that allows the XBOX to be an excellent cable cutter’s device. It needs to get more content deals so that the XBOX is not just a great gaming console but also the be-all-end-all TV solution you can get. There’s no one on the market that can do that. Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, Google TV, Roku, etc have all fallen short because content deals are very tough to make. Microsoft must make this their priority because they are the closest of all their competitors to come close to providing it all.

 

It needs to get more content deals so that the XBOX is not just a great gaming console but also the be-all-end-all TV solution you can get.

 

The XBOX also has to maintain the same user interface and functionality as Windows on desktops, laptops and tablets. A unified experience counts and pairing a TV with a improved Kinect is key to bringing touch to the TV. I am not particularly impressed with experiences with the Kinect. In fact, independent developer Leap Motion has done a far better job with smaller and cheaper device. The Kinect is Microsoft’s key to a unified Windows experience on all screens and they must get it right with the 720.

 

 

Office 365

Office 365: How will Microsoft differentiate this from Office 2013?

Office 365: How will Microsoft differentiate this from Office 2013?

Microsoft is pushing users to a subscription based version of Office. This is a right move for the company but the idea of a yearly subscription can put users off. Microsoft has to very clearly show how much they are saving and the comparisons between the new way of getting Office as compared to the old. It has to show off the number of devices one can use the subscription on (5) and also future availability on mobile platforms that will be exclusive to 365 users. What Microsoft is not good at doing is explaining its products. They have to nail it for Office 365 vs 2013  in a way that avoids the confusion of Windows 8 vs. RT.

 

What Microsoft is not good at doing is explaining its products. They have to nail it for Office 365 vs 2013  in a way that avoids the confusion of Windows 8 vs. RT.

 

Also, it is time Microsoft went full touch and allow a separate version of Office 365 that runs purely on metro. Similar to the desktop vs. metro Skype and SkyDrive apps, a full metro Office 365 app will allow Microsoft to lead by example in coaxing as many developers as possible to go full metro.

 

 

Web Services

If you thought that Microsoft was just about Windows, Office and the XBOX, you’re missing out a big chunk of what they are moving to. Google is going anti competitive on Microsoft early this year for a big reason – Microsoft is moving quickly into web services. Many web services were overhauled and integrated:

  1. Hotmail has been completely redesigned and improved with Outlook.com
  2. Windows Live Messenger has been dumped to push everyone to Skype, which represents the most popular online communication method (Microsoft owns Skype).
  3. SkyDrive has been heavily pushed and integrated into all of platforms in Windows including well designed apps for iOS and Android. While DropBox remains the best service in this category, Google Drive is no match for SkyDrive.
  4. In responding to Google+, Microsoft is not content to rest on its stake in Facebook. It has pushed its experimental social platform – so.cl.
  5. Microsoft has marketed Bing to new levels and have taken political-styled marketing campaigns against Google. This include ads like Scroogle and the older mail man commercials.
Hotmail's revamped to Outlook was just part of multiple changes

Hotmail’s revamped to Outlook was just part of multiple changes

The moves are in the right direction but they are far from complete. A big example is the calendar web app that shockingly still bears the ‘Windows Live’ brand. That brand has been killed but for some reason remains alive here. 2013 must see complete migration to the new metro styled web apps. It needs great integration between all web services and to also find a way to make Bing better than Google. Maybe, something better than instant search.

 

 

Enterprise

One of Microsoft’s biggest chunk of income comes from Enterprise solutions. While its enterprise space competitors remain rather constant (advancement is deliberately slow in the enterprise space), Google is a bright up and coming competitor entering a space dominated by Redmond. I do not see Google making much of a dent with their approach but Microsoft must use its unique position to bring innovation to reinforce its iron grip or risk losing it to more dynamic companies 4-5 years down the road.

 

 

Consolidate and Focus

The final quarter last year showed exactly what 2013 would be – a year of consolidation. Microsoft will have to find out what sticks and what doesn’t. It needs to gather data from across platforms and narrow the list of things to promote and work on.

Microsoft is an interesting company because it has a bit of everything. It covers more product categories than Google and Apple put together. It controls more screens and it has a mazy, complex set of products for both consumers and enterprise customers.

There is no doubt that the giant of the 1990s remains an equally large giant today but it has to take this refreshing change a step further. It is time to consolidate and focus. 2012 was a great year of innovation for Microsoft, 2013 must see proper execution.

 



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