Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Quick thoughts on Microsoft's position

Today it was revealed that Microsoft spent $50 million more this year advertising the Surface/Windows 8 than it made selling the Surface (both RT and Pro). As I did spend my money on a new Windows 8 touch screen laptop recently, I have some thoughts to share.

Firstly, the biggest mistake Microsoft (and many other people) made was to misjudge why people wanted iPads. They thought people wanted iPads because they had a touch screen, or because they had an app store. This is a mistake in my opinion. By my judgement, people want iPads because they are easy to use, familiar, reliable, and of excellent quality. Let's dissect these four attributes further.

Windows 8 is not easy to use. This is immediately apparent the first time you have to restart your new machine and are faced with no fewer than six required actions (mouse to top right corner, mouse down to settings icon, click, mouse to power icon, click, restart). From what I can tell, they have basically succeeded in duplicating most, but (frustratingly) not all, of the Windows settings from the Desktop interface into the Metro interface. Therefore, sometimes with the OS to add a user you use the traditional Windows 7 "add user" window. Of course, you can also add a user using the new Metro interface as well. What is the difference here? I stopped caring about that before I started writing this sentence because I just want to add a user already. The same is true for other areas of the OS, such as network settings and UI.

Windows 8 is probably the most dramatic departure from what was "familiar" about Windows since Windows 95. However, given all the hoopla over the missing start button, the greater sin in my estimation is the Live Tiles. There is a reason no other OS uses such things: they are confusing and intimidating. Animated desktop wallpapers are beyond the comfort level of most users at this point, and Live Tiles are way, way, way beyond that.

Microsoft's biggest problem is the reliability issue. When I worked in a University computer lab I used to fume at people who claimed Macs were more reliable than PCs because I was forever force closing applications on Macs for people who got the Spinning Pinwheel of Death. However, the SPOD comes nowhere near the cultural zeitgeist level of the Blue Screen of Death. The BSOD is only the most infamous of Microsoft's laundry list of issues though: viruses, spyware, printing, popups, safe mode, control-alt-delete, Scandisc and Defrag, printing... Nobody ever told another person, "I come in, turn on my iPad, and get a cup of coffee while I wait for it to startup".

So yes, while the Surface may have been of excellent quality, it did nothing to address these other issues. When my parents, both fairly savvy tech users in their own rights, think about getting a Windows tablet they wonder if it will take longer and longer to start up each month they own it. They wonder if its battery will last 20 minutes in two years like the Dell's does. They ask about viruses and popups.

Probably the only reason they might consider such a device would be because it looks familiar, as both have used PCs for the last decade plus. Of course, with the Metro interface, that's no longer as much of a consideration. Sure, they might think the Surface looks nice, but there is no such thing as "sexier than an iDevice". The sexiest any piece of technology can hope to be is "as sexy as an iDevice".

Other thoughts:
Microsoft really screwed itself over by overestimating the appeal of actual Office and not releasing Office for iOS and Android years ago (QuickOffice and all the other Office impersonators are filling in quite well thank you very much). Seeing as how Office is more and more their cash cow, losing the mobile market is looking worse and worse.

Microsoft is about to get pinched even more on the Office front. Google Docs have been chipping away for years on the Cloud front, and all the little App Store solutions have proven that Office is less than mandatory on mobile, but now iWork for iCloud is coming out as well. With Windows 8, at least the company had a direction. It was a terrible direction, but it existed. What are they going to do to innovate in the Office arena that won't cut into their bottom line or push customers even more into the arms of competitors?

Microsoft's long term salvation lies in the custom solution consulting market. Call it the trail that IBM blazed. I remember vividly the day it was announced that IBM's consumer device division was being sold to Lenovo. I'd never even heard of Lenovo and thought it was a foolish decision. It makes sense to me now though. The quicker you recognize a losing hand, the sooner you should fold. Of course, it doesn't look like Microsoft agrees with me, what with their recent reorganization geared towards greater collaboration and integration across products. I'd prescribe the exact opposite: ditch Windows, spin off the Xbox and Office divisions into independent entities, and take the rest of the company down the IBM path of custom solutions.

Or they could double down on Metro and release Windows 9 to great acclaim. For the sake of my poor Asus laptop, I would be happy with this route too.