For years, Microsoft was regarded as the elephant in the computer room. It was big, it was boring, and it was impossible to go one conversation without begrudgingly mentioning the computer behemoth. But now, with the meteoric rise of Apple, things look a little different – and possibly more favorable, for the world’s largest software company and its decisive push into hardware.
For nearly ten years, Apple has had a lock on hardware, creating gorgeous aluminum-and-round-edged devices that impressed techies and average users alike. Apple excelled at crafting dependable software that worked with – and only with – their devices. And in quick succession, Cupertino pushed out the iPod, iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad – each one not so much inventing a field as re-imagining it, tying it into Apple’s expanding, if heavily curated, ecosystem of music, TV, movies and apps.
Microsoft, it seemed, was always two steps behind on the hardware front. In the decades preceding the iPhone years, it had comfortable position as a simple software maker, shipping hundreds of millions of copies of Windows XP, Vista, and 7, as well as the dominant Office suite. But as mobile computing began to take off, users began to consume more content than they produced, and demanded devices that were fashionable, as well as functional; Microsoft found itself in a rut. Its profit margins were huge – there’s no production line for software – but its fragmentation within the hardware ecosystem was becoming problematic for users accustomed to Apple’s seamless experience.
To Redmond’s credit, Microsoft did a phenomenal job on the original XBOX in 2001, as well as the 360 several years later, and proved that it was capable of creating dependable, stylish devices that worked well with software, namely “Halo,” in this case. To round it off, Microsoft even made excellent computer peripherals – especially mice – that demonstrated that the company’s achievement could sometimes match its ambitions.
But on the mobile front, Microsoft struggled. It initially achieved reasonably effective market penetration with Windows Mobile, but failed to crush Palm and Blackberry as swiftly as Apple would. And moreover, like RIM, Microsoft did not seem to take Apple seriously, when, in June 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. Instead of going back to the drawing board and working to craft a phone as seamlessly integrated into the Office universe as the iPhone was with iTunes, Microsoft simply threw money at the problem and jumped on the social media train. It purchased Danger – the maker of the popular “Sidekick phones” – and developed the Kin, a “social media phone” so droll in design and limited in functionality that it was only on the market for one month before being pulled – at a development cost of $1 billion. Within five years, Apple would all but displace Microsoft in the smartphone market, and Google would assume the role as the anti-Apple.
But in recent months, Microsoft has begun to step up its game, especially on the hardware front. The Nokia Lumia is a gorgeous, if unappreciated offering that combines Microsoft’s spiffy new
Metro ”Square Theme” UI. The new Outlook is a reasonable competitor to the all but dominant GMail. And Microsoft’s cloud service, Skydrive, beats even Dropbox in bang-for-buck value when it comes to online storage.
Perhaps the biggest offering on Microsoft’s horizon is the new Surface tablet, a competitor to Apple’s industry-leading Macbook Air and iPad, as well as Intel’s Ultrabooks. The Surface’s biggest selling point is not only Microsoft’s new OS; it’s the keyboard-cover and light weight that effectively bridges the gap between tablet and laptop, and possibly, consumption and production. To this end, Microsoft also discretely made a $300 million investment in ailing retailer Barnes & Noble, perhaps to place a lock on B & N’s Nook app, or possibly to secure distribution channels in light of Redmond’s paucity of Apple store competitors.
In the coming months, Microsoft will certainly bounce the mobile ball more seriously. Whether the Surface will succeed like the XBOX or flop like the Kin is dependent on several factors:
1. The product itself. Apple has long built its reputation on high quality, gorgeous goods that make using technology an enjoyable, even fashionable, experience. The Surface must equal or exceed the iPad in sex appeal.
2. Apps. Microsoft’s app store must be up to spec by the launch date, otherwise, it will face the same sort chicken-and-egg problem that RIM now faces with its developers.
3. Services. Microsoft must develop customer service that does justice to its product, unlike another computer manufacturer known for second-rate service. This is, once again, an Apple strong point.
4. Sufficient distinction from existing phones, tablets, phablets and laptops. Windows 8 has a pleasant, defined, squared-off appeal that is the appropriate counterpoint to Apple’s sometimes-overused silver n’ rounded edges theme in Mac OS. This strategy is, at the very least, for legal reasons.
5. Apple’s product lineup is simple. Ergo, so should Microsoft’s. For reference, there’s the iPhone 3 and 3S. There’s the iPhone 4 and 4S. That’s it. In contrast, most Android phone names are a veritable orgy of alphanumeric nonsense coupled with arbitrary weather conditions and porn star-esque monikers. I own an HTC EVO 4G. Ben, co-writer of this blog, owns a Samsung Galaxy S II, Epic 4G Touch. There is a comma in that product name. Think about that. Motorola almost did well in reviving the RAZR brand of thin and light phones, but instead chose to dilute their brand by injecting a healthy dose of adult cinema, under the guise of saying “this phone has good battery life” – meet the Droid RAZR MAXX, playing at that corner theater near you. HTC took some proper steps in creating the One X and One S line of phones, but also maintained the idiot tradition in dubbing their newest Sprint offering the “HTC EVO 4G LTE.” iOS deserves to crush Android if only for the appalling idiocy of the latter’s marketing team.
Microsoft took good initial steps with the Nokia Lumia, which only comes in two numeric varieties. And guess what? The lower number indicates the lesser-level phone, and the higher number denotes the more upscale handset. Brilliance. However, Microsoft botched things in crafting two poorly defined types of Surfaces – an RT version that goes for a lower, tablet-like price point, and an ARM iteration that competes with Ultrabooks. Microsoft’s marketing team would be better off splitting the difference, or at least calling it the Surface 1 or Surface 2 or Big Surface and Little Surface – anything to distinguish it beyond overly technical acronyms.
We’ll all just have to hold our breaths for October, when the Surface (ARM or RT) hits the shelves. Windows just might offer a different view this time around.