And another thing 64

by Jon Honeyball

Has Microsoft got it right at last? Jon Honeyball celebrates the belated appearance of Windows 10.

HardCopy Issue: 64 | Published: October 30, 2014

The problem with making a set of monumental mistakes is that you are committed to them for a period of time, even if you know you are going down the wrong path. It’s like turning a supertanker. You can put the engines to reverse, throw out all the anchors, and it still takes eight miles before the thing comes to a standstill. You can turn the rudder, and it will have an effect, but this is not the same as paddling in a dingy, or even controlling a superyacht.

Microsoft is such a supertanker. It is often difficult to remember the enormity of the process involved in bringing out a release of Windows. And the amount of work that has to go into testing, support for languages, support for third-party drivers, and then there is the entire app story on top. And that can be fraught with difficulty, with the Office team having its own set of priorities that don’t necessarily align with what the Windows team is trying to do.

You could argue, with considerable merit, that it should have been allowed to get into this mess. But when you have the entirety of the marketplace by the short and curlies, when the hardware vendors effectively have no other choice to play with, it becomes very easy to keep doing the same thing and taking the money.

And it has been immensely profitable for Microsoft with the Windows and Office teams generating billions of dollars year after year.

When things do go wrong, they tend to do so in a quite spectacular fashion. The whole merging of the Win9x and NT codebase to make XP, which in its domestic targeted versions were wide open for every sort of security and malware scam known to mankind. A business platform that the corporate world loved and didn’t want to move from. Its replacement was without focus, confused and only delivering a fraction of the promise. You would have thought they would have learnt the lesson and done a base version for business and a quasi-experimental “leading edge” version for those who wanted more. But no. Then along came Windows 7 which became the new darling of the corporate user. Home users were fairly satisfied with it too, because it was essentially more of the same.

Wearables

The market for wearables has received a huge push by the announcement from Apple about its impending Watch product. They are still keeping things very close to their chest with regard to the SDK and development process for third parties, but this is to be expected and is totally in line with previous releases of this type – the first iPhone had no third party tools either.

What is good is that the public’s attention is being brought to devices other than smartphones, tablets and desktops. Suddenly potential customers are realising that devices can, and indeed should, talk to each other and that there is considerable potential here for “2+2=5”, as we call it here.

The privacy and security hurdles are going to be immense, of course, and mere arm waving and promises will not be enough. It is good, however, to see companies like Microsoft lining up to challenge the right of the American government to have supreme control and access to user data, even if it is held overseas. Long term readers will remember us championing exactly this point some years ago, and how Microsoft was happy to spout forth its weasel words with the best of them. The times have changed, the supertankers have started to change direction, and Microsoft knows that privacy is something that really matters to its customers.

Will the Apple Watch succeed? Of course it will. There is simply too much momentum behind it for it to trip and fall. Developers are already lining up to support it. Whether it will be what you want or need is, of course, an entirely different question. But companies like Pebble have shown that there is a place for many types of devices. The future is indeed looking bright.

Then the ship ran into the ground. Windows 8 was an utterly stupid mistake, which was obvious from the very beginning. A new user interface that no one wanted or needed, a lashed together developer story that annoyed everyone and rewarded no one. A tablet experience that let it sit down in a meagre third place behind iOS and Android. Even more embarrassment came with the billion dollar write-downs for the Microsoft own-brand hardware that simply refused to sell.

Shortly after the launch, the knives were out. Sinofsky left, and there was significant reorganisation. But this was, and still is, a supertanker. 8.1 improved on this, and the next release was better still. Nevertheless, this was, and is, a period which did untold damage to Microsoft’s reputation. Worse still, the public noticed that tablets were cute and useful, and came with iOS or Android. Windows was becoming the fat kid left out of the game in the school yard.

Even more action was required. Today, with the release of the Windows 10 first preview, we can see a Microsoft that has listened and acted. That it has taken this long to even publicly release a beta of something that won’t ship for another year is a scandal by any measure. But remember the supertanker analogy. They have probably moved as quickly as possible, once the previous captain had been thrown overboard and someone leant hard enough on the rudder.

The initial build of Windows 10 shows what Windows 8 should have been from the beginning. If they had delivered what 10 promises, then they would be in a far happier place today. It’s hard to know whether sales of laptops would have still tanked as badly as they did, but it is clear that it is going to be an immensely more usable desktop platform than the disgrace which is Windows 8 and 8.1.

For tablet users, it is going to be far nicer too. And for those who have a convertible style device, it will properly understand which mode the hardware is in and adjust accordingly.

The Microsoft Apologista have already started crowing that 10 is just part of the ongoing journey which started with 8 and that it was obvious that we would get to this point in time. I disagree: 10 is a dumper-truck sized piece of humble pie. Just watch the keynote speeches and listen to the language.

Microsoft has been deeply bruised by the whole Windows 8 experience, and a whole heap of chickens have come home to roost. It no longer controls the home space in any meaningful way, with the rise of iOS and Android on the one hand and smart TVs on the other leaving them in a whole world of pain and hurt.

10 also brings some sort of coherent developer story too which goes from small Windows devices through to full fat devices. There is a coherent Windows Store strategy at last, although there will be an element of smoke and mirrors involved in the underlying code base for some time.

So has the supertanker turned? The initial impressions are that, yes indeed, it has done so. I am actually quite excited by what I see in the Windows 10 preview, despite it being buggy and incomplete. A release quality product cannot come soon enough. And the strategy after the release of 10 has to be made clear too – lots of small incremental improvements. The nightmare of endless dozens of updates swarming around your machine like flies around a corpse has to stop too. Monthly incremental roll-ups are the only way forward.

Maybe the sister supertanker of the Office group has also turned. The world has moved on from what I describe as “Office plus five”, where any computing problem for anyone, whether business or home, can be solved by a copy of Microsoft Office and five other apps of your choice.

The numbers are stark: home users are buying this new wave of ultra-cheap apps by the dozen. The corporate space has turned on its head over the last few years, with huge pushes towards cloud technologies, outsourcing and so forth. Office has delivered apps for iOS, and it’s coming for Android. This is far from being pain free, but it is a start.

I could be persuaded that the tankers are turning, and that there are some truly interesting times ahead. What is clear that the future direction looks vastly more positive today than it did just a few years ago. And I wasn’t really sure at the time I would ever get to say that.

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