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3 Lessons Microsoft still needs to learn to remain relevant

Written by Rich Fiscus (Google+) @ 18 Oct 2012 13:35 User comments (6)

3 Lessons Microsoft still needs to learn to remain relevant Microsoft is a company very much used to the market changing around them rather than the other way around. As happens so often for companies in that position, their executives didn't realize they were out of step with the market until they saw a major competitor (Apple in this case) leading the market in another direction entirely. Like most companies finding themselves in that position they immediately dedicated themselves to major changes in their product line.
But also typical for such companies is that their changes are mostly superficial when the real problem is the fundamental understanding of the market itself. For all the obvious changes in Windows 8, Microsoft still hasn't learned some of the most important lessons about why they were so wrong or how to correct their course in the long term.

1. Windows and Office are not an ecosystem


Steve Ballmer has made it clear that he believes in the "Windows experience" but it would be more accurate to say he's selling the Microsoft experience. It is Microsoft as the arbiter of app availability and provider of the foundation for all software development in the form of the Windows Store and Windows Runtime API (WinRT) respectively. While Windows itself is certainly a foundation for modern Windows programs, it is far from the foundation.

If anything Windows' dominance in the home computer market over the last decade and a half was based, more than anything else, on the freedom third party developers had to expand on Microsoft's vision of computing. Much like the Surface RT tablet which was just announced is essentially Microsoft playing catch up with Apple (as Apple switches gears to jump into the mini tablet market), Microsoft typically) lags behind third party developers in recognizing the appeal and importance of developing technologies.

On one hand Microsoft embraces the effort (and by extension money) this saves them. For example they don't include an ereader with Windows 8. They do offer their own Reader app in the Windows Store (as of the Release Preview) but it only supports PDF and Microsoft's own XPS format. Notably missing is ePub, the only widely used ebook standard. That will obviously be changing with Microsoft now owning nearly 20% of Barnes & Noble's Nook eReader business but you can bet it will be B&N providing the app.

The larger point is that Microsoft's own support is still limited to an outdated standard generally considered inadequate for ebooks and their own proprietary equivalent to that standard. And of course standard, but not industry-driven, standards for music and video like FLAC or Matroska aren't supported by Microsoft apps either. In regular Windows 8 you can still install third party software like the Media Foundation FLAC Codec for Windows Media Player but don't expect it to help out in the Music app.

2. Mass market consumer software doesn't rate a premium pricetag


The price of Microsoft software has steadily risen during their tenure as the dominant and personal computer OS vendor but the market as a whole has gone the opposite direction. With the capabilities of different operating systems continue heading toward an equilibrium that trend has become irreversable.

Likewise Microsoft Office still commands a premium price despite being no more useful to the average consumer than free alternatives like OpenOffice / LibreOffice. The value remains much higher, at least for the moment, at the enterprise level thanks to the significant synergy between Office (especially Outlook) and Microsoft's various server products, but with the steady march toward cloud services it's only a matter of time before that too loses most of its value.

Microsoft's solution to this seems to be to focus on revenue generating apps. The Music and Video apps aren't aimed so much at playing media as selling it. And why do you suppose it is that Windows RT, like Windows Phone 7 before it, restricts app distribution to a Microsoft app store?
Steve Ballmer explains why the consumer business is all about the vendors
Shouldn't the customer be in the middle of this diagram?
Steve Ballmer made it extremely clear when he suddenly reversed course on his opinion of the iPhone and gushed over how much money was being generated by the iTunes store.

But the iPhone App Store isn't responsible for the iPhone's success. In fact Steve Jobs' vision was of a world where pure cloud services and webpages provided all the app functionality. The app store was simply a response to the app environment created by early jailbreakers and an acknowledgement that Apple had to compete with them. Where it added functionality to iOS, the Windows Store (at least on Windows RT) effectively removes features from Windows.

There's nothing wrong with revenue generating services. In fact it's fair to say Ballmer is right that they're absolutely necessary for Microsoft's future. The problem is that Microsoft's plan seems to be to give users no choice but to spend money in order to make Windows RT a full featured product as if they have no choice. They clearly do have a choice which is why Microsoft is scrambling to get into the tablet market in the first place.

3. Simplifying is more than a UI issue


With Windows 8 Microsoft set out to create an OS which can be all things to all people. It's a desktop OS, a tablet OS, a hybrid tablet/desktop OS, and even a phone OS. What seems at first like a much simpler UI than previous versions of Windows is actually significantly more complex as a result of having to meet so many competing, and often contradictory requirements.

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, an operating system's user interface should be as simple as possible but no simpler. Windows 8's dual UI fails the second part of this test. Many people have complained about the loss of the Start menu. While generally a good thing for tablets, it makes finding many familiar elements of Windows supremely difficult for most people. What's worse, though, is that the Start menu isn't really gone. It has simply had most of its contents removed and the rest simply dumped onto the Start screen.

Instead of a relatively neat menu with heirarchical organization for mass amounts of shortcuts there is simply an ever growing clump of shortcuts to desktop programs with no particular organization. Instead of a single Control Panel shortcut there are shortcuts to numerous individual Control Panel applets. When a program
Oops - Windows 8 Start screen disappearing shortcuts
And shortcuts may be missing entirely in the detailed view
installs with the option selected to create a Start menu shortcut (which most installers do by default) you end up with more and more shortcuts making cluttering up your Start screen. Or you can choose the view where all those shortcuts are available and the clutter gets exponentially worse.

And yet some standard programs which a lot of people consider core features of Windows are nowhere to be seen. Not that they aren't included in Windows - at least most of them. They are simply buried in other parts of the UI or their shortcuts have been removed entirely. If you know what you're looking for you can find it manually using the Search box and pin it to the taskbar after it opens. Or maybe you know the location and name of the executable file so you can manually create a desktop shortcut.

In fact it's fair to say that Windows 8 actually breaks compatibility with many programs simply because their installers were designed with the assumption that you could present users with shortcuts to things like user manuals and both online and offline help. Not only do these extra shortcuts get automatically excluded from being added to the Start screen (a good thing on balance), but there isn't a reasonable replacement for them anywhere in the desktop UI.

The good news for Microsoft is that the mobile market is still extremely immature. It will be in a state of flux for at least the next few years. While the changes to Windows 8 may be hit or miss, some of the hits are extremely significant and impressive. But to once again mutilate something Einstein may (or may not) have said, Microsoft's problems cannot be solved with the same thinking that created them.

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6 user comments

118.10.2012 13:55

Good article, saying many of the things that I've been fearing from MS...

Quote:
The larger point is that Microsoft's own support is still limited to an outdated standard generally considered inadequate for ebooks and their own proprietary equivalent to that standard. And of course standard, but not industry-driven, standards for music and video like FLAC or Matroska aren't supported by Microsoft apps either. In regular Windows 8 you can still install third party software like the Media Foundation FLAC Codec for Windows Media Player but don't expect it to help out in the Music app.

In the past, if MS was restricting you or if their apps sucked you simply got a new app.
It seems as if MS is moving away from that.

Oh, Im sorry... Did the middle of my sentence interrupt the beginning of yours?

218.10.2012 20:23

I think MS is trying too hard to become something they are not. Another way to look at it is too little too late to control/restrict the os. I fully believe MS is looking at the other company and seeing how much money they are worth and want a piece of it.

Also Google is a strong player that is making IE Chrome's little bit#$.

319.10.2012 20:28

Quote:
3. Simplifying is more than a UI issue

With Windows 8 Microsoft set out to create an OS which can be all things to all people. It's a desktop OS, a tablet OS, a hybrid tablet/desktop OS, and even a phone OS. What seems at first like a
I love the comment made by my favorite philosopher and it seems so appropriate here...

"When you try to become all things to all people, you quickly become nothing for everyone."

I'm thinking MS and windoze is going right down the path of irrelevancy, too bad most all my work is in this realm...
This message has been edited since its posting. Latest edit was made on 20 Oct 2012 @ 4:52

419.10.2012 20:51

In electronics, you generally either do one thing very well or many things very poorly. Android is a great phone/tablet OS, but the x86 version is downright useless on a desktop. Windows 7 has finally delivered on many of the promises made back in the days of Windows 95...but it would make a terrible phone OS.

If Microsoft could actually integrate the two versions of Windows 8, at least to the level that the x86 and x64 versions of Windows 7 are integrated, then making a "single" OS might make sense. Since they cannot/will not do this, making a "single" OS is rather pointless. About all they could claim as being a benefit is that people would only have to learn one OS...but most people already know windows (and probably iOS or Android as well). Making them learn a new OS with a gui more complex than any phone OS (with less functionality than Android) and less user friendly than Windows 7 is hardly going to make things easier.

Anyway, the best part of windows is the 3rd party apps, if these didn't exist most IT guys would have been able to steer their companies towards Linux workstations long ago and people wouldn't mind using Linux at home since they would be used to it (plus OEMs would be offering more ready-to-go Linux PCs at places like Best Buy). Since RT won't support most of the existing apps, what is the point?



520.10.2012 7:16

Actually the news here hasn't been good in washington state with windows 8 where microsoft is located it seems microsoft has ripped off the psvita's slide to unlock feature using it to switch between screens from the start menu to the desktop and worse still there rt version that is designed for tablets and laptop's doesn't run desktop windows software so world of warcraft is out of the question on laptops now great move micro dork

620.10.2012 12:33

You're a bit confused, megadunderhead.

First, Windows 8 RT *ONLY* runs on ARM processors, which leaves out nearly all laptops. I suppose you might be able to get it to run on one of the ARM-powered Chromebooks, if you were masochistic. Nearly all laptops (and netbooks) will run standard Windows 8, which will run WoW, if you're so inclined.

Second, the "slide to unlock" method has been around since smartphones, themselves, have existed; it's not some PS Vita exclusive feature.

Having tried out Win8 (the standard version), I have to say I don't like it at all, but getting all breathless and silly about it isn't going to help.

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