Microsoft is perhaps the most dominant company in the history of computing. It has ruled the PC world for two decades, cementing its Windows operating system as the only game in town outside of the minute marketshare of Apple and indie rumblings of Linux. However, the computing world is at an apex; things are beginning to change in big ways. Windows governs the PC world, but we’re fast entering a post-PC era.
Where the PC was the central hub of all things tech for 20 years, new devices have emerged that are shattering that monopoly. Microsoft, unfortunately, has tried too hard and too long to shove its increasingly bloated PC operating system into an ever-shrinking and changing slate of devices. Though it invented tablet PCs and was early to the smartphone game, users have largely rejected these Windows flavors in favor of newer, leaner platforms (iOS, Android, BB) built without the baggage of 20-plus years of PCs tugging on them.
Waking up from its daze, Microsoft went back to the drawing board a couple years back and created Windows Phone 7, a completely new and reinvented mobile OS, spawned from the company’s Zune line of MP3 players (much like iOS spawned from the iPod). Unfortunately, having a separate mobile OS and a PC platform (Windows 7) has lead to a big interface continuity problem; WP7 and W7 do not look or act alike, at all. And then there’s tablets. Microsoft has opted to push Windows 7 onto tablets, a device type it just isn’t made to run on. To complicate matters, early sales of Windows Phone 7, which launched last November, have been slow.
So where does Microsoft go from here? Does it have a chance in this new post-PC world, or will it thrive only in the diminishing market of non-touch, keyboarded PCs? In an earlier article, I gave five reasons why Windows dominance is coming to an end. Today, I’d like to explore seven bold ways that Windows 8 could help reignite the fire for Windows on all devices.
Microsoft knows that Windows 8 must bridge the huge interface gap between Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7. It needs to be an OS that is lean enough to run in some capacity on Nokia’s feature phones (per the new Nokia-Microsoft deal), but powerful enough to scale to smartphones, tablets, laptops, PCs, and televisions of all sizes. It needs to run on every screen — touch, 3D, or other — in a expected and elegant way. Microsoft is already on the right track with Windows Phone, Bing, and Xbox 360 — three creations that wouldn’t exist if Microsoft hadn’t encountered stiff competition in the smartphone, search, and videogame markets. When pushed by tough competition, the company has a remarkable ability to finally get creative and conjure up fantastic and consistent user experiences. They need to take that fear and place it on the PC Windows platform as well.
…and a cloud
Windows 8 needs to work on any size device, but it also should take cloud computing to a new level. While competitors like Google are completely cloud-based, Microsoft’s approach has been to create a dual-use experience, where items can be accessed locally and stored on the Web. This is the right approach. Many are (or will be) wary of storing things on the Web, so strategy that retains local storage but seamlessly allows cloud backup of anything and everything would be a very cool and very valuable service. Recent leaked images show Live ID integration into the taskbar.
Imagine if you get a virus, and Microsoft could instantly restore your PC to its former state in minutes after a crisis. All you would need is a Live ID. Pictures, videos, music, documents, and programs would be restored from a secure locker on the Web. Sharing pictures and data would also be much easier with heavy integration of services like Facebook (and other Web services) and a general blurring between offline and online services. Taking it a step further, imagine taking a picture on your Windows Phone and having it instantly appear in your pictures folder on your home desktop, netbook, or tablet. Theoretically, your whole family could share music and data between one another via a simple linking of online profiles. And I’m not even scratching the surface. Microsoft has shown that it understands cloud services with Windows Phone and earlier devices like the Kin line of phones. Hopefully the company’s engineers have much cooler ideas than I do.
Keep it simple, Steve
To move forward, Microsoft is going to have to move back and shed some of its baggage. Windows 7 nearly perfects the PC interface MS began with Windows 95, but since the mid 80s, Microsoft has tried to make Windows something for everyone. There are a thousand ways to do anything in Windows — some easy, some convoluted. In this respect, Windows needs to take a cue from iOS and Android (to a lesser degree). Say what you will about Apple, but Steve Jobs is willing to kill what doesn’t work. Microsoft has strived to make Windows the OS for everything, but that goal is precisely what has bogged it down in recent years and prevented the company from more quickly adapting to the changing computing market. Hell, even Bill Gates complained about his own OS some years back. Windows 8 must, by default, rid itself of the clutter of options and icons that have filled Windows the last 15 years. Some users will be irritated, but sometimes to jump a canyon, you gotta drop your pack. In the end, a better product will spur the masses to change.
Windows 8 should take the best elements of Windows Phone, Xbox, and Windows 7 and roll them into one complete package. Hopefully the end result will have more Windows Phone than anything else. It is Microsoft’s most beautiful and simple OS to date.
Keeping it simple extends to OS versions as well. Microsoft launched six versions of Windows 7: Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate. A seventh version, Thin PC, will soon be available. Without a chart, I challenge anyone to explain the differences between them all. Windows 8 needs to be much simpler than this. Microsoft isn’t going to give up its enterprise profits, but at most there should be two versions of Windows 8: Home and Business (and Embedded for odd devices). There can be two versions of Office as well.