Is Build 2013 Microsoft’s last chance to get it right?

BUILD 2013 headerDespite its history, money, and creative talent, Microsoft has whiffed on two of the most important consumer technologies of the last decade: smartphones and tablets. The failure to jump on these trends before competitors gained momentum has made Redmond the capital of a computing empire that seems destined to struggle on in the shadow of rivals it almost buried over a decade ago.

If Microsoft can fix the most serious issues … Windows 8 should prove easy to salvage.

Microsoft can’t be counted out yet, however, if for no other reason than tenacity. The hardcore corporate culture inspired by Bill Gates has softened a bit during Ballmer’s reign, but the company once known as an evil empire is still among technology’s most unforgiving combatants.

Build, a yearly conference of developers that work with Microsoft’s many products, is an example of this tenacity. Rather than give up, the company took a page out of Apple’s playbook to bring together support and refine its message. But this effort may prove too little, too late, if this year’s Build doesn’t show a rejuvenated Microsoft.

Windows 8 has launched, but can it reach orbit?

The secret is out: sales of Windows 8 started slow and have been in decline ever since. While Microsoft boasted of shifting 100 million units in May, which sounds like a lot, past versions of Windows have sold at a faster pace. The market share of Windows 8 is about half that of Vista eight months after each operating system’s release.

That’s a sobering fact, and while Windows is by no means in danger of losing its monopoly on the PC market in the short-term, poor sales only serve to weaken Microsoft’s long-term position. After years of dominance, Microsoft’s Windows division is finally seeing the downside of dominating a single platform: when that platform begins to shrink, everyone associated with it suffers.

BUILD 2013 Windows 8

While Windows 8.1 was announced at Computex, details remain limited. Build will provide us with our first in-depth look at the response to consumer criticism of Windows 8, and a developer preview version is slated to go live during the conference. The focus of the conference will also tell us more about how Windows 8 development and the app store will move forward. 

If Microsoft can fix the most serious issues, such as the inconsistent interface, Windows 8 should prove easy to salvage. Failure to resolve these complaints, however, could be a disaster, as it would presumably mean another year’s wait (or more) for solutions – and continued poor sales for Windows and the PC market. As goes Windows, so goes the PC.

Trailing the pack on services

This year’s WWDC saw the continuation of a long-standing trend: Apple’s expansion as a service company. While OS X Mavericks and iOS 7 dominated headlines, the introduction of iCloud Keychain and iTunes Radio were just as important.

Apple, like Google and other tech giants, understands that integrating a service into a core product provides value, even if the service is already available elsewhere. People don’t like to track down third-party solutions, and turning a service into a feature makes its use more likely.

Microsoft arguably understands this, as well, but has repeatedly fumbled execution. The Windows 8 app store was a chance to curate the Windows experience and guide users towards quality software; instead, the store became a cesspool. SkyDrive could be a wonderful addition to Windows 8, but many still find DropBox easier to use. Microsoft’s bundled antivirus could address security concerns, but it’s consistently scored poorly in tests. And so on.

BUILD 2013 SkyDrive

Microsoft’s response to its inability to execute on services has been to ignore the problem. The company has said little publically, and our attempts to probe problems we encountered with the Windows 8 app store were stone-walled by Redmond’s PR. Microsoft absolutely needs to change its tune by opening up development, listening to customer feedback, and providing at least an indication that it cares.

The Build conference would be the perfect platform for the company to admit past mistakes and detail a plan to move beyond them, though we’re not going to hold our breath.

The Xbox One is Microsoft’s trojan horse

Microsoft already missed out on smartphones and tablets, so it can’t afford to miss another new market for consumer technology. A new opportunity is found in the living room, where there’s a desire for convergence between streaming media, gaming, and traditional cable TV. Today’s home media centers place each source of entertainment in its own box, isolated from the others. Any company that can integrate the living room stands to make a tidy profit.

This time, Redmond is ready. The Xbox division, now thirteen years old, was founded to put Microsoft hardware in the living room after an attempt to provide Windows-based boxes to cable providers broke down in 1997.  The Xbox One is the realization of Microsoft’s dream: a living room device running a Windows kernel that can handle all forms of entertainment and be leveraged to build the Microsoft brand.

BUILD 2013 Xbox One

There’s no way to overstate the One’s importance. Failure wouldn’t just be a blow to the Xbox division, it would rob the company of momentum in yet another new technology and leave Microsoft with nothing to show for the billions spent on Xbox over the years.

Build has traditionally ignored Xbox, but the official Build teaser site includes Xbox in its list of platforms. We hope that Microsoft will use Build to further explain the Xbox One’s operating system and detail how developers can create apps for the console. There’s a lot of potential to be harnessed, but Microsoft needs to give developers a chance instead of locking down the platform.

Running out of runway

Microsoft is among the world’s largest technology companies – and also among the most profitable. There’s not much chance of it vanishing tomorrow, or next year, or even this decade, but we can’t help to but feel we’re watching a Boeing 787 barrel down a runway with just a few hundred feet of pavement left. There’s every reason to think it can, should, and will soar – yet it shows no sign of lift.

There’s still tarmac left, though, so there’s time to pull up. Windows 8 could turn around, services could be whipped into shape, and Xbox One could be fantastic. But if these products fail, there’s not much room left to hit the brakes. Build 2013 may be Microsoft’s last chance to prove it remembers how to fly.