Update 5/26/2015: So, Microsoft has made it official that Cortana will be available on Android and iOS. Does that change this equation? After all, Cortana was one of the value-added technologies that would have made Windows 10 Mobile unique on smartphones. My guess is that, in the and, Microsoft’s positions on phones, and maybe even on Windows itself, is that if it’s successful, excellent. If not, smartphones (and Windows) can’t and shouldn’t take down the entire company. Microsoft has to prepare for a world in which Windows is relegated to the enterprise and other companies dominate the mobile operating system. Positioning themselves as a cross-platform productivity solutions company is just such a strategy, and that necessarily means that Windows (and certainly smartphones) becomes much less vital. This is a good thing for Microsoft, and no so good a thing for Windows (and Windows smartphone) fans.
Oh, and: I shouldn’t forget to mention that putting an OS-limited version of Cortana on iOS and Android is really no different than Google’s putting Office Now on iOS. For Google it’s about protecting search and advertising on mobile, but otherwise it’s essentially the same.
I finished Monday’s post titled “Is Microsoft Giving Up on Smartphones?” this way:
We’ll find out more at this week’s Build 2015 event. If Microsoft continues to turn Windows 10 into a me-too smartphone platform while strengthening their cross-platform and cloud solutions, then I think it’s safe to at least consider that Windows 10 on phones is primarily an enterprise play. Dreams of killer Windows 10 flagship phones might be dashed, except where those phones are attractive to large companies and governments looking for highly secure and manageable devices.
What Microsoft showed instead during their keynote address is that any concerns about Microsoft giving up on any device format are unfounded, and indeed the company is positioning itself for long-term dominance everywhere through what appears to be sheer force of will. While Microsoft is certainly hedging their bets by making all of their productivity solutions available on every platform, including iOS and Android, they are by no means giving an inch when it comes to their own.
In short, Windows 10 on phones will not be Windows Phone, simply updated to run universal apps. Rather, Windows 10 on phones will become truly the best place to use Microsoft’s increasingly powerful and exciting cloud and productivity services, along with PCs, tablets, and hybrids. Indeed, Microsoft is making the smartphone OS fade away completely, until the smartphone itself becomes just another extension of the apps, data, and services that a user accesses and utilizes in the same familiar way on every possible device.
Time will tell how well Microsoft can implement this vision, and as always execution will be everything. But what Microsoft showed today was not pie-in-the-sky concepts, but mostly real stuff running on real hardware and accessing real data from real cloud services. Even the seemingly science-fiction futurism embodied by HoloLens is available at Build this in hundreds of units that developers and the press can try out for real.
There are hundreds of sites out there pouring over everything that Microsoft discussed today, and so I’m not going to try to cover everything here. I’ll just say that as someone who decided about a year ago to build a career on Microsoft productivity solutions, I couldn’t be more excited by what I saw today. Microsoft is rebuilding itself in a way that few companies ever manage, and we’re watching it unfold in real time and with amazing transparency on Microsoft’s part. I honestly feel like I’m part of something truly remarkable, and Microsoft deserves some tremendous accolades for making me feel that way.
Here are just a few areas where Microsoft answered my question about smartphones, and in ways that I wouldn’t ever have guessed.
Truly Universal Apps
So, yes, Microsoft is making Windows 10 look and act more like iOS and Android. And no, it’s not because they’ve given up on smartphones. The actual reason is suddenly clear, and it’s a good one: iOS and Android apps can now be relatively easily “ported” (although not exactly) to Windows 10 and available in the Windows Store. These apps will essentially retain their iOS and Android look and feel while utilizing Windows 10 resources like sensors and cameras and accessing Windows features like Cortana. and Xbox Live Thus, Windows 10 becomes a better canvas for supporting “standard” UI elements like hamburger menus than Windows Phone could ever be (while continuing to provide flexibility for Windows App design).
In fact, in a sense, Windows 10 becomes a potentially better place to run iOS and Android apps than iOS and Android devices themselves. Time will tell if the promise is realized, but if it is, how’s that for giving a pretty good reason to choose a Windows 10 smartphone?
Starting with new made-for-Windows 10 hardware, smartphones will be able to run a form of Continuum that turns them into the most portable full-fledged PCs available. Connect them them to a larger monitor or TV, add in a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and your Windows 10 smartphones transforms into a “real” PC. Only the interface changes to adjust to the new resources, and the smartphone itself remains usable–as a smartphone–while other things happen on the external monitor and using the keyboard and mouse. The apps and data remain exactly the same as exist on any device type, and the interface changes across all device type as necessary to optimize the experience.
So, users will be able to edit an Excel spreadsheet, for example, on a desktop, notebook, hybrid, dedicated tablet, and smartphone using exactly the same app accessing exactly the same data and with the best possible UI. Simply put, nobody–not Apple, not Google–comes anywhere close to even envisioning this kind of experience, let alone being a few OS builds away from realizing it.
In case anyone has wondered about the various competitive threats to Microsoft’s Office suite of productivity apps, the company has those concerns covered as well. Microsoft is implementing a new Office add-in architecture that works across all of their new versions of Office, and not just on the Microsoft platform. The OS X, iOS, Android, and web versions of Office will support the same add-ins, thus taking cross-platform support to an entirely new level. Office is cementing its place as the superior choice in productivity solutions.
Yes, I realize that sounds like advertising copy, but I really mean it.
A Dream, Realized
In essence–and I’m gushing now–Microsoft has painted a powerful vision of how technology can impact our lives, and we’re in the middle of experiencing its realization. The latest Windows 10 build on phones had me concerned–too much was removed from a mobile OS that I loved, and without this more complete vision it was easy to imagine that Microsoft was giving up on the notion of Windows everywhere.
It’s now obvious that they haven’t. What they’re doing instead is equalizing device types in terms of how completely they can enhance our productivity (and our fun). In fact, they’re rendering the device type itself irrelevant–it simply won’t matter when we leave the house or office whether we take with us a notebook, a hybrid, a tablet, or a smartphone. Grab any one and we’ll be able to get the same work (and play) accomplished the same way, only optimized for whatever device we happen to be using.
I’m finding it difficult to find precisely the right words to express this notion. I’m sure it’s giving Microsoft’s copywriters fits as well. In essence, it’s not that Microsoft is giving up on smartphones, but rather they’re turning our smartphone (and desktop, and notebook, and tablet, and hybrid, and HoloLens) into just another instance of a single virtual device. Sort of like one device that morphs into whatever form factor works best for a any given situation.
Short of Transformer-like technology, I can’t think of a better way to get that done. And only Microsoft is even close.