Microsoft’s Windows Strategy: Can it Work?

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As I watched this new Windows 8.1 commercial yesterday, I was struck by how clearly it lays out the value of Microsoft’s “three screens and a cloud” strategy. I was also struck by how much sense this strategy makes to me.

 

Apparently, Ray Ozzie came up with this phrase all the way back in 2009 (see video below), meaning that Microsoft has been at this sort of strategy at least as long as anyone else—and probably longer. Apple is attempting something similar by slowly melding OS X into something akin to iOS (e.g., the full-screen apps introduced in Lion), and Google has relatively recently begun to adopt the strategy with the Chrome OS and Chromebooks.

 

I submit, though, that Microsoft is farther along than anyone. They sell four distinct platforms that, to one extent or another, share the same basic Windows 8 core: Windows Phone, Windows RT, Windows 8, and Xbox. Basically, developers can write apps for Windows 8 (using what used to be called the touch-based “Modern” UI, and which I’ll just call the Win 8 UI to distinguish it from the keyboard/mouse-based Win 7 and previous UI) and eventually they’ll run, appropriately scaled, on whatever Microsoft device you happen to be using. Just as important, they’ll be synced using the demonstrably robust Microsoft cloud.

Imagine that. Open a document on your Windows 8 PC in Word, edit it, then leave your office. Remember a change you forgot to make, grab your Windows Phone wherever you are, open the same document, and make your edit. Sit down at a coffee shop, pull out your RT or Windows 8 tablet (or hybrid, doesn’t matter), and again open the same document and continue working.

Your edits will appear, live, on every device, because you’re not just working on a copy of the document that’s syncing across platforms (as I do today using my Windows PCs, Macbook Air, iPad, Android tablets and phone, etc.). You’re working on the same document across all of those platforms, residing live in SkyDrive. That’s powerful stuff.

And for those who want to argue that people don’t use tablets primarily or even at all for productive work (which I think is untrue), fine, I’ll play along. Imagine that you open a game on your Xbox, play a few levels, then leave the house. Get to a family gathering, and pull out your Windows Phone. Open the same game and pick up exactly where you left off. Or, if you brought it with you, play on the larger screen of your Surface RT tablet. When you get home, the Xbox will be waiting for you with the updated game ready to go. Get the idea?

Nobody else is even nearly as close to creating a single environment that works on multiple devices wherever you happen to be or whatever you happen to be doing. Apple’s working on it, but they don’t really have all the pieces. Same with Google. The fact is, Microsoft laid the foundation years ago with Xbox, which placed Microsoft firmly in the living room, and despite Microsoft’s Vista distraction, they’ve made impressive progress.

Now, my intention here isn’t to waste bits rehashing analysis that’s been done by any number of other writers. Nothing I’ve said so far is all that profound. Rather, I wanted to discuss this strategy because so many people are focusing negative attention on the Surface RT’s market failure (so far) and Microsoft’s difficulty in getting people to accept the radical UI changes in Windows 8.

I’ve written about Windows 8 in some other posts, in particular my own adjustment to the Windows 8 UI. Today, I actually prefer it to Windows 7 (and OS X doesn’t even come close). I don’t have a Windows 8 tablet yet because I don’t see a need for it—Microsoft is still in that uncomfortable phase where not enough major developers have introduced enough popular apps to make the platform competitive on tablets.

It’s important to note here, however, that Android itself went through this phase on both phones and tablets and has come out the other side just fine. People seem to forget that there was a time when Android lacked the same apps that Windows Phone, RT, and Windows 8 are lacking, particularly Android tablets. Some might argue that Android tablets still aren’t competitive with the iPad in terms of quality optimized tablet apps, and in general they may have a point. And yet, Android tablets have continued to sell, particularly once the right mix of products and price points was achieved, and today more Android tablets are sold than are are iPads.

Windows Phone is only now starting to grow out of this phase. I submit that within some reasonable period of time RT and Windows 8 will catch up as well. Absent a complete meltdown on Microsoft’s part, I think that their “three (or X) screens and a cloud” strategy will start paying real dividends, and people will look at RT and/or Windows 8 tablets like they do iPads and Android tablets. Windows 8 will maintain dominance in desktop and notebooks, and the hybrid category, which probably deserves its own discussion, will become a real competitive advantage for the platform.

Some have argued that Microsoft should completely drop the “Windows” name, at least for its tablets, because Windows has a bad reputation among the public. I disagree. I don’t think “the public” (that is, the mainstream, non-geek consumer market) really gives that much thought to what operating system is on a device. It either does what they want, or it doesn’t. If Windows does have such a bad reputation, it’s nothing that Microsoft can’t fix—after all, they recovered from Vista by following it up with a strong Windows 7.

Some of those same people also seem to argue that Microsoft’s “work and play” argument for RT and Windows 8 tablets is ineffective. I disagree with this as well, and I find it interesting that some of them also argue about how an iPad can be used for productive work where it’s sometimes portrayed as just a consumption device. There’s a contradiction there—either people want to use their devices for both “work” (that is, things that require content creation, not just consumption) and “play,” or they don’t, whether it’s an iPad or a Windows device of some kind. I submit that many people want to use their mobile devices for both.

I wrote awhile ago that I wouldn’t be surprised if I was back to using exclusively Microsoft products by the end of 2013 (can’t find the link, sorry), referring to the days when my desktop and notebook computers all ran Windows and my PDA and phone both ran Windows Mobile or the equivalent. That hasn’t happened yet—I run Windows 8 on my desktop and notebook, but I use Android on my tablets (Nexus 7 and 10) and smartphone (Nexus 4).

However, I think Microsoft is much further along, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this prediction came true by the end of 2014. I won’t guarantee it, because Google is also doing some interesting things. What I will say for certain, though, is that I won’t be buying any new Apple devices—for me, Apple’s strategy is the least compelling. And I’ll go out on a limb here and say that by mid-2015 or so, the important race will be between Google and Microsoft, and Apple will return to where they were prior to the iPod—a niche player with high-margin, high-priced products that appeal to a core group of Apple fans.

So, what do you think about Microsoft’s strategy? Let me know in the comments.

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Comments

  1. I pretty much agree with everything you’ve written here. Rumor has it that the first major update to 8.1 in the spring (which will probably coincide with WP8.1) will unify the WP8 and W8 stores. I wonder if that’ll include the Xbox store as well? That would be a huge boon for the entire MS ecosystem. I’m excited to see if they pull it off successfully, and if they do, how Google and Apple will respond.

    • mark.coppock says:

      Great point, and yes, that will be huge. Once developers see that they’re reaching a large enough audience, they’ll start writing the apps. Android demonstrated that already. And the deeply integrated nature of the Windows ecosystem will be very, very compelling. I do hope MS executes better than they have…

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