At the opening keynote for Build, Microsoft’s annual developer conference in Seattle, we heard more about Starbucks than Windows. A ten-minute demo about how Starbuck’s ordering system interacts with Azure, Microsoft’s growing cloud-based computing platform, was a highlight of the event. This should tell you a little about the event itself. Build has never been the most exciting developer conference. Where Google, Apple, and even Facebook take a moment to show consumers a glimpse of the near future, Microsoft has always been focused firmly on its developers, with loads of coding on stage and weird demos meant to excite the enterprise set more than the rest of us.
This year was a little lighter on the consumer end than usual (really, that’s impressive given every other Build). Among the most significant news a normal person might care about was more information regarding Microsoft’s completely rebuilt cross-platform Edge browser built on Google Chromium, the latest instance of the company trying to play nice with competitors and consumers, rather than being stubborn about its platform. Microsoft’s embracing of Chromium could be a boon for most of us, even if you don’t end up using Edge. The company isn’t just basing Edge on Chromium. It’s contributing to open source project, which means tools it develops might end up on Chrome, Brave, and other browsers based on Chromium.
That’s wonderful and a great example of why Microsoft’s new philosophy of playing nice is good for consumers – even when they don’t use Microsoft products themselves. But if you’re like me, it’s also going to feel a little confusing. This is Microsoft we’re talking about. And historically the company hasn’t played well with others. In decades past Microsoft was notorious for its devastatingly monopolistic take on computing. This is the company at the heart of the antitrust lawsuit United States v. Microsoft, in which the company was taken to task for forcing Internet Explorer onto every machine that installed Windows.
Not too long ago, Microsoft wanted to be everywhere. It had Windows Phone for when you were mobile, and Windows proper for when you were sedentary. There was Cortana when you couldn’t be bothered to look at a screen, and Xbox when you wanted to watch TV or play a game. And if you wanted the experience to be os v everything needed to be Windows-based, from the phone to the computer to the digital assistant to the TV set-top box.
But then Microsoft got creamed. Windows Phone died a distant third place behind Android and iOS. Cortana, its computer-based digital assistant, isn’t as practical as Siri or Google, which work on your phone, or Alexa, which works on little speakers throughout your house. The Xbox One, which was a pricy attempt to be the centrepiece of your living room, lost to the cheaper and more focused PlayStation 4. And Windows... okay Windows has actually been pretty great, rapidly improving since Windows 10 launched in July 2015.
But as Joe Belfiore, VP in the Windows and Devices group, told me in a conversation at Build, the way we interact with technology has changed a lot in that last few years.
“What has happened in the world over ten years, roughly,” he said, “there used to be a world where the primary way technology was used was on the PC, and so we were very focused on that as a place to go add value, and as the world changed and it became heterogeneous, now everyone uses end devices. They typically do not come from the same company.” What he means is people use an iPhone or iPad at home and maybe a Windows PC at work, or a Chromebook at school. The device itself matters a lot less, because frequently, as cloud computing becomes more and more dominant, the information and technologies you use are increasingly platform agnostic. You do not need an all-in Microsoft system for a good experience. You can mix and match, and most people do.
And so Microsoft has adapted. We saw this last year when Windows 10 started working with Android and iOS – you can even text from your Android phone from Windows 10. And we’ve seen it again and again with Xbox One. Microsoft led the charge for cross-platform play for years. Last year it took advantage of Fortnite’s popularity to lean on its much more successful competitor, Sony. At E3 Phil Spencer, Executive President of Gaming at Microsoft, told Giant Bomb the following:
“If you bought your son, your child, an Xbox, and I bought my child a PlayStation – and I’m just a parent, it’s their birthday, whatever – and the kids want to go play Fortnite and they all of a sudden go home and can’t play with each other. It doesn’t feel like it helps the consumers.”
Sony ultimately acquiesced to cross-platform play demands. Late last year Sony allowed PS4 Fortnite players to play with those on other platforms, and it plans to add cross-platform support to other titles over the next few months.
We’ve also seen it with how Microsoft encourages software development. For a long time now the Mac has been a popular computer for devs because it could support not just Apple’s OS, but Windows and Linux as well. Many developers either reached for a Mac or they put Linux on their computer and forgot about Windows altogether. So Windows added support for Linux last year and this year introduced support for Docker, a popular OS-system level virtualisation program. The announcement of Docker support, by the way, earned one of the biggest cheers at Microsoft’s Build keynote.
According to Belfiore, increasing openness was a necessity born of Microsoft’s current situation. “Your priorities shift over time,” he said. “You’ll get different viewpoints on it from different people at Microsoft. My view is that there’s this combination of customer focus and realism, and willingness to prioritise customer needs over other things in the face of realism.”
Microsoft has lost the market share it maintained for decades in the face of these new forms of interaction with computers, and it no longer has the power to say “it’s my way or the highway.”
At least when it comes to gaming, developing, computers, and phones. Microsoft is playing nice at all the points where consumers like you and I interact with it. And while this is undoubtedly the pragmatic move of a company that needs to make money, it helps consumers, even if we never touch a Microsoft product.