It's no secret Microsoft's had a perception issue for the last decade. Ever since Apple launched the original iPod, Microsoft's main rival has been considered the forward-looking company in the technology industry.
Regardless of whether or not this perception is accurate, it's hard to argue the general consumer would consider Microsoft and Apple on a level playing field in terms of product and service offerings and the excitement derived from those offerings.
While some may argue the perception isn't a problem if Microsoft's quality isn't lacking, the statistics paint a very different picture. Apple products, including both its mobile devices and computers, are extremely popular with younger segments – segments that traditionally serve as an influence for older audiences, such as parents and grandparents. In a 2010 study, for instance, 47 percent of students surveyed planned on buying a Mac for college. This is a strikingly unusual percentage, given the sales of Windows-powered computers far outpace the sales of Macs.
There's been an ongoing debate on what will truly make Microsoft "cool again." While Apple's largely dominated the portable music player, smartphone and tablet industries, Microsoft has continued to focus on the decidedly unsexy areas of software and services in recent years, save Microsoft's wildly successful Xbox gaming console. As the company's proven this week, however, it appears Microsoft's willing to go the extra mile to appease consumers and change perception.
As Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer wrote in an internal memo earlier this week, the company is attempting to redefine itself through innovation.
"I love that we aren’t afraid to make big bold bets," Ballmer wrote, clearly referring – at least in part – to the overhaul of the traditional Windows design in Windows 8 and Windows RT.
But it hasn't merely been the events from this week that may change perception of Microsoft; the company has slowly changed itself from a software-driven company to a company that can succeed on multiple fronts.
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When Microsoft revealed its new Surface line on Monday, it struck a major blow at that common perception. The company proved it's willing to do whatever it takes to win the hearts and minds of consumers, even if it means ruffling the feathers of some of its hardware partners. And, to be blunt, those were feathers that needed ruffling: Microsoft's hardware partners have been severely lacking in original ideas for years; instead, they've essentially either relied on their own previous designs, copied Apple's design principles or made minor advances in their own philosophies.
Reaction to the new tablets has been nothing short of glowing. Even Joshua Topolsky of The Verge, a noted Apple enthusiast, is singing Microsoft's praises.
"After Microsoft's announcement yesterday, I can actually envision a situation where I'm not traveling with two devices, or sitting on my couch with two devices, or running to grab my laptop from my office upstairs," Topolsky wrote. "The Surface makes sense, and it drives home Microsoft's previously vague intentions with Windows 8."
Other major technology sites echoed Topolsky's opinions. Brooke Crothers of CNET wrote that Microsoft's new tablet may have "one-upped Apple" and showed that its main rival can be wrong. Mat Honan of Gizmodo was even more direct: "It's a super solid device and if Microsoft can deliver what it demoed, the iPad finally has a real competitor and Android has a big [freaking] problem." Neowin's own Brad Sams was just as complimentary, saying he's never felt a tablet as sturdy as Surface – the iPad included.
Microsoft's made a habit of either over-promising or being less than entertaining with its product announcements in recent years. The Windows 8 reveal last year, for instance, lacked excitement and emphasis.
While the event was clearly focused on developers, it was an odd way to reveal perhaps the most dramatic overhaul of the company's signature product since Windows 95. At the very least, Waggener Edstrom, the public relations agency in charge of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Phone lines, should be given credit for masterfully orchestrating the event and building up just enough hype and mystery to entice the press and general public.
Ironically, it appears software rather than hardware will be the biggest question for Microsoft's first tablets. It's hard to predict how the public will react to the new Metro interface in Windows RT and Windows 8. Microsoft's had issues with Metro's simplicity on the latest Xbox 360 dashboard, for instance, drawing criticism from both developers and users that navigation was unintuitive and highlighted advertisements rather than important game releases and similar content.
The new Metro interface and apps in the next generation of Windows has been divisive, to say the least. While the consumer and release previews have been downloaded millions of times, some users have made claims they dropped the new operating system in a matter of hours. Its success may ultimately hinge on how users adapt to using the new interface. Regardless of this issue, the reaction to Surface has been nothing short of spectacular.
While comparisons can surely be made to Microsoft's last two hardware ventures, the Zune HD and Kin, there's a key difference between their failures and Surface's release: an ecosystem.
Neither the Zune HD nor the Kin was made with the intention of supporting apps. This is noteworthy as consumers have come to expect apps from all their devices – be it phones, portable music players, game consoles, anything. Surface, however, will be supported as a Windows platform, giving it access to thousands of apps in a short amount of time due to the ease of development between Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows Phone 8.
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Joe Belfiore, senior vice-president at Microsoft and Windows Phone manager, specifically mentioned the shared graphics drivers and DirectX on the new platform, which will allow "killer games" to be developed for the Windows Phone platform, he said.
This is an important feature as games are traditionally some of the best-selling applications on smartphones, and the current crop of games available on Windows Phone devices aren't as good as the offerings on iOS and Android. One of the games confirmed to be making the move to Windows Phone 8 is N.O.V.A. 3, the latest installment in one of the most popular franchises on iOS and Android.
"The biggest effect that we think [native code] will have on Windows Phone 8 is we're going to see some freaking killer games this year," Belfiore said. "There are a whole lot of benefits that come out of a shared architecture between Windows on PCs and laptops and slates and Windows on the phone. They both share DirectX, they both share common graphics drivers. What this means is a game developer who authors an unbelievable, detailed, rich, immersive, compelling game experience for the PC has a super easy port of their native game to the phone."
The platform's new start screen also addressed many of the issues previously raised by allowing users to customize the interface to a far greater extent. Microsoft's always claimed Windows Phone has the quickest, easiest-to-use interface on a smartphone, and now it seems that claim may actually be true for more users. Now users can pin tiles of varying sizes on the Start screen without having to worry about scrolling through a long list of large tiles (if a user so chooses, at least).
With Windows Phone 8, Microsoft's addressed the two most frequent complaints of the platform: a lack of customization and a lack of quality software. It may seem presumptuous to say the latter issue has been solved, but it's hard to argue otherwise. Much like Windows RT, Windows Phone 8 will benefit from common programs through the aforementioned shared core.
Some users may be mad about the fact Windows Phone 8 won't come to current devices, it's a path the company needed to take in order to increase the volume and quality of apps available for its smartphone operating system. Refusing to dumb down the operating system for previous devices will also ensure it won't have the fragmentation issues facing Android.
Other complaints are also being addressed, such as Microsoft's plans for one of its recent acquisitions. Last year, Microsoft purchased Skype to much fanfare; since then, however, little has been known about how the new Microsoft division will be integrated in the company's product lines. This week, the company finally began revealing how it will make use of that transaction.
Skype will have a major role in Windows Phone 8, as it and other VoIP apps will have a deep integration with the operating system. Now VoIP apps will act like the native phone service in the operating system, with incoming VoIP calls appearing in the same manner standard calls do.
Microsoft and Skype have also made similar statements regarding Windows 8 and Windows RT, saying the Microsoft division will "double down" on the new operating system. If one thing's certain, it's that Microsoft will do whatever it takes to remove any competitive advantages Apple and Google have gained in the services space.
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If there's one man to thank for Microsoft's newfound innovation, it's none other than Ballmer, the same CEO who's been routinely criticized for Microsoft's direction since he took over the CEO position from Microsoft founder Bill Gates in 2000. Multiple shareholders have attempted to remove Ballmer from his executive position despite the fact that Microsoft's revenue and income has steadily increased since his promotion to CEO. Why have there been so many attempts to oust the CEO of a successful company? Perception.
While Microsoft's seen a steady increase in revenue and income, Apple has seen both its finances and its influence in the industry skyrocket. The company's quickly become the darling of the tech industry, and it has a rabid fanbase that eagerly anticipates the company's next product revision, regardless of whether or not competitor products are worthy of purchase consideration. Brand loyalty like that is hard to create, and Apple's done it in a harsh economic climate.
Yet at the same time Apple's seen its popularity skyrocket, Microsoft's been toiling away at truly innovative projects that for some reason analysts are unwilling to credit for their originality. Microsoft released Kinect in 2010, for instance. The peripheral has sold like an Apple product since its release, breaking records and helping the Xbox 360 dominate the U.S. console market for over a year. For the past seventeen months, the Xbox 360 has been the best-selling console in the United States, and it's no coincidence that Kinect launched just two months before this streak began.
Both the original Xbox and the Xbox 360 were released under Ballmer's tenure as CEO, although the gears behind the original clearly began while Gates was still head of the company. PixelSense (née Surface) also got its start under Ballmer, as did the entire Zune line. While some of these endeavors were commercial failures or proof-of-concept projects, they've all helped Microsoft get to the point it's at today. The Zune, for instance, was a commercial disaster, yet its interface could be considered the forefather to the Metro design language.
Ballmer's gotten a lot of criticism over the years. The fact that Windows Vista was the first major overhaul of Microsoft's prized operating with Ballmer's seal of approval certainly helped feed the angst-ridden fires of dismayed shareholders. But for all the misses Microsoft's made over his tenure – and there have been a number, such as Vista, the Zune line and the Kin, among others – the company's clearly headed down an innovative path. The only question that remains is whether or not standard consumers will give Microsoft a chance in a world where Apple's suddenly become the standard for positive consumer perception.