It's tempting to think of Microsoft as some ageing dinosaur. But that's wrong. Change has been building for almost a year now. Yes Windows 8 was a mess, and the Xbox One's early days were embarrassing, but Microsoft's been sharpening its game with impressive deftness and speed. And now it is once again, hands down, the most exciting company in tech.
You've no doubt heard about the biggest beats in Microsoft's recent turn-around story. The Xbox One one is cheap and Kinect-free. Windows 10 is bringing back the Start Menu for real. There's a wacky faceputer on the horizon. But these aren't flukes, or just lucky shots in the dark. This is the crack of a well-aimed and confident swing for the fences.
After years of slipping and staggering with Surface and Windows 8 and Xbox One, Microsoft is really turning itself around.
Windows 8 Was the Future No One Wanted
Back in 2012, when we were on the verge of Windows 8 and flashy new Surface tablets, Microsoft was leaning into a obsession with being the future. The desktop giant had already mostly missed the boat on phones; Windows Phone 7 was reasonably competent, but it was only a shaky first step compared to far more established competitors. Microsoft wasn't about to make the same mistake again with Windows 8. So in a bid to compensate, it proceeded to start making a different mistake, over and over: using sheer force of will to become the Next Big Thing... that no one was asking for.
I mean just look at Windows 8. It wasn't completely crap, but it didn't reflect how people were using their Windows devices; it dictated how Microsoft thought they should. Microsoft handed down its vision of the PC of tomorrow, covered in touchscreens and powered by Metro apps that maybe didn't all quite exist yet. Instead of luring users in, letting us slowly and voluntarily trade away familiar Start Menus and windows in favor of something new and exciting, it just sort of dragged us all kicking and screaming to a half-baked endgame without so much as a tutorial.
Future's here, kids. Because I said so, that's why.
Then, in the face of backlash from users who were quite literally getting trapped inside Windows 8's new Metro apps, Microsoft laid down an even bigger slice of its blissfully arrogant and aggro future: The Xbox One.
It'll be the centre of your home, Microsoft said. It will replace your cable box. It will have a mandatory camera. It will require a constant internet connection and might not play used games. But hey, these changes were just the cost of moving forward, Microsoft (half-arsedly) explained. This is the price you pay for a disc-less, hands-free future with voice commands and gesture controls and shareable digital games (whether you want it or not). Meanwhile, over here in the real world, when Sony announced the PS4 would stick to the status quo on used games at E3, it was greeted with literal cheers.
And all the while, Microsoft's ambitious tablet-computer hybrids lurched on to no real success. The disappointing Surface RT was born with a foot in the grave, while the (genuinely interesting!) Surface Pro was proving a little too strange and too future to hit its mark. Yet another two products that suffered from an excess of vision and lack of grounding.
Still, it's easy to see how Microsoft got swept up in the grand ideas of the future it was trying so hard to hawk. And how it was easy for us tech nerds to get swept up in an idealistic future that all the normals were just too damn scared to accept and to lament Microsoft's inevitable, necessary, but profoundly defeated reversals. Microsoft's visions were all so tidy and exciting, in theory.
In practice, it was all one big clusterfuck.
Live and Learn to Cut your Losses
Just after the Xbox One DRM flip flop, Microsoft made a big change—not to its products or software, mind you, but to how the company itself was run. Then-CEO Steve Ballmer completely up-ended Microsoft's historically bellicose hierarchy, one in which many of the company's internal teams — sometimes working on the same product across different platforms — were directly at odds and in active competition. It had grown counterproductive to the point of parody, which is dangerous in a world where Microsoft couldn't rest on its laurels. This new Microsoft, One Microsoft, would work together for once. It would have to.
Microsoft's old org chart, according to Bonkers World.
Throughout the transition, Microsoft tossed and turned in the bed it had made for itself. The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 both came out, both better but not particularly different from their awkward predecessors. It bought Nokia for reasons that still aren't particularly clear. It dripped out two free upgrades for Windows 8, ones that made it an ever-so-slightly more welcoming experience for mouse and keyboard users. Minor improvements, sure. But small steps in the right direction.
Then in February of 2014, Ballmer stepped down from his post at Microsoft, making room for new CEO Satya Nadella, a cool-headed engineer who cut his teeth in Microsoft's enterprise wing—the Yin to Ballmer's Yang. And the real, tangible changes started to... Surface™.
In May, Xbox suddenly dropped the paywall for Netflix and streaming apps, axing a long-time gripe of casual gamers everywhere. What's more, the Xbox One finally became available to purchase without a Kinect — a choice I (foolishly) decried back then, but that makes cold, pragmatic sense in hindsight. These were the first hints of a new Microsoft, one that would cut its losses with an almost gleeful ferocity.
Remember the rumoured Surface Mini? Yet another version of a failing, flailing Windows RT tablet no one wanted, in a size that (at least now) is pretty clearly on its way out. CUT! By all accounts righteously smote by Nadella at the 11th hour, who also dealt a soon-fatal blow to the failing Windows RT.
Instead we got the Surface Pro 3 — a new, surprisingly handsome, version of the only truly interesting Surface. Microsoft's doomed dick-measuring competition with the ubiquitious iPad? CUT! The Surface Pro 3 instead took aim at woefully out of date MacBook Air with an impressive and pragmatic laser focus.
It all built to a righteous crescendo with Windows 10, which viciously cut the last unpleasant tethers to the failed Window 8 experiment, while still managing to not actually take a step backwards. For starters Windows 10 is Windows 10—because fuck Windows 8. It's exactly what so many of us needed to hear. That, combined with the triumphant return of the Start Menu and a Metro mode that is present but completely optional, makes the upcoming OS exactly what everyone has been wanting and asking for. It's a stark and welcome contrast of the take-it-or-leave-it-(lol-ok-we'll-leave-it!) gauntlet thrown down by Windows 8.
On top of that, it's free! For ages, Windows has been one of Microsoft's main money-makers. So while it might make all the sense in the world for Apple to offer up OS X Mavericks as a gift, for Microsoft it's a serious shift and a big bet that it's learned from its mistakes.
But most important, Microsoft's new Windows Insider program — in which just about anyone can use Windows 10 early and is encouraged to give feedback — is letting actual work-a-day Windows users have a say. Microsoft has learned from Windows 8 and Xbox One that legions of loud, shouty users need to get their way. And by bringing them into the fold from the start instead of pissing them off and flopping around, Microsoft is making their collective cries a strength, instead of a weakness.
Microsoft is Becoming So Much More Than Just Windows
But Microsoft's big turn has been so much more than abandoning sinking side-projects. The ever more cloud-focused giant has leapt to make itself a force outside of Windows and Windows Phone and Xbox with a series of smart acquisitions.
It started with Mojang—the Minecraft juggernaut—in which Microsoft snapped up a fiercely devoted and tech-savvy world of youngsters that it never could have cultivated on its own. It's a super valuable asset (so long as it doesn't blow it all up with an Xbox-exclusive Minecraft 2 or something). And though Minecraft runs on PlayStations and Macs and Linux boxes alike, this new Microsoft is way smarter than to shut that down.
In fact, it's smart enough to be branching out elsewhere as well. Microsoft is routinely putting out launchers for Android and some of the most awesome completely cross-platform apps you can find. Outlook is arguably the best app for Gmail on iPhone. Just think about that for a second.
If you've ever watched a livestream of a Microsoft event (nerd), you know Satya Nadella's "Mobile-first, cloud-first" mantra. In real talk, that means Microsoft wants to be making the best apps and services on the devices you're already using. And when they can't do it themselves, they'll buy the people who can. Microsoft bought the fantastic mail app Accompli in December, and the fantastic results showed up in January. A week ago it bought the fantastic calendar app Sunrise. You can probably see where this is going.
Old Accompli and new Outlook side by side.
The ultimate end-game? Who knows, but it's a damn sight better for all of us than if Microsoft was aiming the brunt of its phone firepower at Windows Phone or something, and the full force of its services catering to Microsoft-only fanboys. We all get better services and the benefits of more competition. Rumour has it that the new Galaxy S6 might come with (terrific) Microsoft services instead of (horrible) Samsung bloat. Maybe, just maybe, Cortana and Google Now wound up as competing choices on the same phone. At this rate, it's possible. And it would be great for everyone if it happened.
And that's to say nothing of the further off future. Microsoft just dumped a ton of money into CyanogenMod, the most well-known fork of Google's Android. Is there a Microsoft version of Android in the cards? It's way too early to tell, but it looks—it feels—like there could be. That would be weird! Nuts! But it would be exciting.
Of course, we're not quite there yet: Windows 10 proper is still months from release, and the culmination of Microsoft's cross-platform push is far from realised. It was easy to be excited about Windows 8 and the Surface. That was new and strange and exciting in plenty of the same ways. But it was a hulking, overconfident misstep. One Microsoft, after more than a few faceplants, seems to have learned from.
With a realistic vision of what it can do — and more importantly what it can't do — Microsoft is poised to shake up a world where competitors are moving slower and turning further inward. Not by taking over the world by force or by trying to lock you into Windows, but by making the best thing for whatever you want to do on whatever device you have.
I can't wait to see what else Microsoft has up its sleeves.