We are just a few hours away from Build 2014, and the most important set of reveals for Microsoft’s Operating System business in a decade. Yes, more important than Windows 8. Or Windows Phone 7. Or whatever other seemingly, at the time, critical reveals Microsoft has had. The reason for that is simple, the Operating System business at Microsoft continues to struggle. Sure it had a temporary reprieve with Windows 7, in what now looks like a “dead cat bounce”. But otherwise Microsoft’s relevance for software that powers hardware has been, at best, in a holding pattern for a decade.
What gets announced and talked about this week won’t be the launch of totally revamped products that change the world but rather products that tell us if Microsoft is getting its OS mojo back. Hopefully we will learn where Microsoft sees its core Desktop OS efforts going the next few years, the very thing it all but mortally wounded with the release of Windows 8. This is about more than just some continuing tweaks to make Windows 8.x more appealing to desktop users, it is about sending them a message that they are important and will have optimized support going forward. And it is about reassuring Win32 and a.NET developers that they have a bright future as well.
Next up is eliminating the arbitrary discrepancy between Windows for Tablets and Windows for Phones. Of the three major ecosystems only Microsoft has this disparity. iOS and Android are the same, and most importantly have the same development model, on all slate form-factor devices. On Windows the discrepancy has caused the app stores for both Windows and Windows Phone to stall. Many apps are available on one platform but not the other as developers are forced to choose between supporting one #3 platform or having two separate efforts for two #3 platforms. This has been devastating. Based on leaks it appears certain that after this week developers will be able to focus on one app for both the phone and the tablet (and of course, all Windows form factors).
At the same time its critical that Microsoft bring its app model to parity with iOS and Android, eliminating barriers that have caused leading edge apps to skip the platform. It can no longer be the case that underlying platform capabilities are blocked by the lack of support in the new APIs. We can’t have the most interesting new app categories skipping Windows devices because, after all the evangelism is done, they simply can’t get their app to work on Windows. Nor can we have the situation where some of Microsoft’s own properties find it easier to implement new features on Android or iOS than on Windows.
It is also time that Microsoft dropped the excuse that it is playing catch-up in the mobile OS space. If Windows Phone can’t be competitive at the user feature level in 2014 then it just never will be. Oh I’m not saying it needs to leapfrog Android and iOS and leave them behind, as if it ever could really do that. I’m saying that as users we have to be able to see Windows Phone as every bit as leading edge as Android and iOS. It needs to be at parity on everything that is important to users, and continue to innovate in ways that set it apart. Windows Phone 8.1 must be the end of the line on “catch-up” if Microsoft wants end-users and developers to commit to the platform.
Following on from last week’s clear focus on the cloud we need to see how Windows is going to be the best OS to power cloud-connected devices over the next decade. We simply need to walk away from Build 2014 believing this. As a user of the entire Microsoft ecosystem I see and enjoy the promise on a regular basis. But if I were a 100% Apple user or 100% Google user then my experience wouldn’t be much different. I think this is a tall order for Microsoft as the world, and especially developers, have to believe two things. The first is that in a 100% Microsoft ecosystem Windows-powered devices have to offer a better cloud-connected experience than in 100% Apple or Google worlds. The second is that Microsoft has to show why Windows-powered devices will be the best end-points in a heterogeneous environment. And they have to do that despite Apple and Google not playing nice. Apple is not a surprise since with the exception of iTunes they ignore the Windows platform. Google is a bigger problem as they have explicitly avoided legitimizing Microsoft’s Phone and Tablet offerings with Windows Store apps.
Lastly, the “Internet of Things” is the next frontier for the OS business and Microsoft has been fairly absent in letting us know how they plan to address that market. Keep in mind that this is another area where Microsoft was early, way too early. Now it is faced with the problem of being leapfrogged by the competition, and Google in particular. Microsoft can not let this happen. It must give its remaining development community a reason to stick with it as this new gold rush begins.
Fortunately through leaks and through what little information it has released, like the schedule of Build sessions, we know that Microsoft will be addressing most if not all of these areas. Will it be enough? Will the messages resonate with the believers and bring some non-believers back? The technical details are one thing, what Microsoft executives say during the keynotes are far more important. If they paint a picture of a Windows world that users and developers really want to play in then a revival of the Windows business is possible. If they fail to excite then they probably relegate it to a legacy business. Either way Microsoft will survive and prosper. But its future is a lot brighter if at the end of this week the key stakeholders are a lot more positive about the future of Windows than they were at the end of last week.