Microsoft's future: part one

A new hope

The year 2009 has been an important one for Microsoft. Redemption is in reach again, after taking hits from increasingly hostile publicity, against its mishandled operating system Windows Vista; several corporate snafus also shone a bad light on their Redmond campus. Supposedly, the new decade bears hope of glory for Microsoft.

One big hurdle Microsoft faces still is inconsistency.

The Windows platform is dotted by inconsistent UI design, but also corporate decisions have caused much customer confusion. While Vista still had lot of old XP icons — some designers at Microsoft were too lazy or too complacent — as well as very ill-placed 'back' arrows in some applications such as the Windows DVD maker, or a necessary update to Internet Explorer that came too late. However, not merely the veneer of unassailability cracked; beneath it all, the Redmond leviathan feels the abundant jabs from nimble, incessant competitors.

Apple has become the incumbent leader on the music player market. Microsoft has followed suit with the Zune platform, but it hasn't really become a great success. Although a competent player, the Zune is only available in the U.S., with no international release in sight. That's an illogical decision, to say the least. It would certainly be much more successful in Europe, where the iPod is not the sole forerunner.

Another business sector where Microsoft seems to have a hard time gaining a foothold is smartphones. Windows Mobile has, so far, not been regarded as the companion to its desktop variant. Mostly it's touted as a compromised, overly simplified operating environment that only shares its name with the world's most-used desktop system. Maybe rightly so, but in any case, Microsoft has proven that it can develop quality products. Microsoft has some catching-up to do, in point of fact. Windows Mobile 7 promises to be that savior, just like Windows 7 turned out to be for the PC. First screenshots of its interface show a much more streamlined and consistent UI, which will definitely make it more user-friendly. It's also a drawback that Microsoft deploys its mobile OS on generic phones. Apple has a stranglehold over its iPhone and the apps that can be sold for use on it. Blackberry is another competitor that keeps much of the enterprise sector closed. Most of the road-warriors, ever in the air, use Blackberries to communicate with their office. It's a monopoly Microsoft aims to break.

Yet Steve Ballmer doesn't stand idle. Microsoft is undergoing a paradigm shift, with increasingly better and more astute quality control in its software releases. Windows 7 has received favorable reviews, and also suffers from fewer bugs than did Vista three years ago. The previous iteration of everybody's favorite OS has been the bane of Redmond, since the beginning of its troublesome development. Even I recall numerous BSOD when I first installed it.

Microsoft is a technology mongrel, and will never lose that status. Its tentacles are spread too widely. Yet no leviathan is invincible; it didn't take a prince in shining armor to wound it, but simply an economic crisis. As President Kennedy said in a speech on April 12th, 1959, though, "The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity." Steve Ballmer takes a rather reserved stance, when asked how it might be affecting Microsoft. For him, it's a different kind of recession, one that will reset the economy. Likewise, Microsoft is doing a lot of soul-searching.

There are three sectors Microsoft hopes to expand: cloud computing, enterprise computing and mobile computing. On top of that they are looking to grow ad revenue on Bing, and of course there is the Xbox 360 too. So, really, Microsoft has a strong presence in several key branches. At this year's D7 he told Walt Mossberg that the company is still investing aggressively in R&D. "We're investing in areas where there is room for improvement." Interesting euphemism, notes Mossberg. At that occasion Ballmer also gave a first look at the then-new Bing search engine. This is an area where Microsoft hopes to excel, but clearly not outdoing Google — who still is the singular king of the hill.

Some of that 'aggressive investment' went into seemingly irrelevant details such as the bootscreen and default background of Windows 7. There are two very informative videos on Channel 9, which illuminate the design process behind the look of Windows 7. What comes across very prominently is that the designers wanted something expansive and airy. They wanted to convey a sense of openness and possibility. This might sound inviting, when you're sitting in a cubicle farm, gazing time as it progresses toward your late-afternoon release. It means Microsoft finally realized that even a business-oriented product needs some culture; good taste has no relation to whether you work in a creative or industrial branch. Now it's crucial not to understand culture as being colorful, open-minded and outlandish. The candy-flavored XP seems to have sprung from a too simplistic mindset — even in the professional version it looked horrendously misplaced in an office environment. However, that seems to have been the thinking of the time, because even Mac OS X 10.0 was littered with kindergarten icons. Both systems have since matured.

There is something Microsoft is learning from its recent corporate history: deciding one's path to glory is paramount. Knowing how to get there is primordial wisdom — whoever is better than the competition, will triumph. This applies as much to a Fortune 500 company, as it does to a smaller technology firm. Yet, there are many ways to win. To be cultivated is one way, and that's the way Microsoft has chosen.

Read in the next part where this might lead the Redmond giant.

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