There's no doubt that Microsoft, after a slow couple of years, has now exploded in 2012. The launch of Windows 8 was expected to be a big deal, but until June of 2012 no one expected Microsoft to enter the PC hardware business head first with the Surface tablet. The launch of both products in late October has put a huge spotlight on the company for the first time in a long time.
Yet, 2012 may just be the prelude to what Microsoft has planned for 2013. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has already announced that the company has plans to launch even more hardware products. The upshot of all of this is that 2013 could be a year with multiple product launches across all of the company's brands and divisions that could make 2012's announcements seem almost tiny by comparison.
Let's take a look at what 2013 might bring for Microsoft, based on already announced plans as well as rumors and our own speculation:
Surface Windows 8 Pro
Microsoft has already announced its plans to launch a version of its own home grown Surface tablet that will run on Windows 8 Pro and an Intel processor. Microsoft has said it will launch about 90 days after the release of the Windows RT version of Surface, which means that, barring delays, it should be on its way sometime in late January.
We think the Surface for Windows 8 Pro could be an even bigger deal for Microsoft than the Surface for Windows RT. The company has already seen some success with that version in terms of sales, and that's with an operating system that can't run legacy Windows programs. There is evidence that many consumers, as well as large businesses, are waiting for the Windows 8 Pro-Intel version of Surface and we think that Microsoft will be hard pressed to keep up with the demand when it finally comes out. We hope they make enough of them to go around.
Office 2013 launch
Microsoft has already reached the RTM stage for Office 2013, which is perhaps the company's biggest software product besides Windows. The Windows 8 and Windows 7 versions should be commercially available very soon, perhaps as soon as late January. However, the even more exciting rumor is that Office could make its way to Android and iOS later in 2013.
While companies such as OnLive offer a way to access Office software on iOS and Android products via a streaming method from a cloud server, the truth is that most users would love to see a version of Office running natively on those mobile operating systems. Other productivity software products have failed to be as popular as Office and its launch on iOS and Android could be even bigger than the Windows launch for Microsoft in terms of sales.
If you believe the rumors, Microsoft is already testing its own Windows Phone design. We think that it is inevitable that the company will branch out and simply make its own smartphone hardware product. It has certainly learned quite a bit in the last couple of years from smartphone makers, particularly Nokia and HTC, which have supported Windows Phone since it launched in 2010.
We think that Microsoft will indeed launch a "Surface" smartphone product for mid-to-late 2013. However, entering this market will be even tougher than the company's move into the PC hardware business. Hopefully it will learn some lessons from the Surface tablet launch and put that experience into its smartphone.
Xbox Surface gaming tablet
The portable gaming industry has changed a lot in just a few years. Dedicated gaming consoles such as Nintendo's 3DS and Sony's new PS Vita seem to have fallen a little bit out of favor as smartphones have become more popular as gaming devices.
That's why it's a little odd to hear rumors that Microsoft is aiming to launch a seven inch tablet, called the Xbox Surface, that's being made specifically for gaming. The rumors claim that it will have a custom Windows OS, rather than Windows 8 or Windows RT. It's also rumored that this new tablet could be launched ahead of the successor to Microsoft's Xbox 360 console.
We do think that a tablet made for gaming is a good idea. Most tablet products don't come near the hardware specs that a notebook or desktop PC have and as a result can't handle graphically intensive games. Certainly, Razer believes that a high end gaming tablet is a good idea. However, we do hope that Microsoft makes some effort to improve the gaming controller experience on a tablet, which can be a tricky thing.
The biggest concern we have is that Microsoft may concentrate too much on the gaming features and not enough on other aspects, such as email, messaging, web surfing and media content. The Xbox 360 has evolved over the past seven years from a mere gaming machine into a true multimedia box. The Xbox Surface needs to have those kinds of features out of the gate, rather than wait to add them over a period of time.
The successor to the Xbox 360
Call it the Xbox 720. Call it Xbox Next. Heck, you can call it Cucamonga for all we care. But we know that Microsoft is working on the successor to the Xbox 360. The company's last console originally launched in 2005 and got a case design refresh in 2010. The hardware specs inside the console are now seven years old, so it's time for a true successor and we expect at least an official announcement around E3 2013 in June, and possibly a launch in late 2013.
As we mentioned previously, in the past seven years Microsoft has evolved the Xbox 360 from a mere gaming console to a hardware product that's designed to handle streaming video, music and more. It's Microsoft entry into the TV space that it has wanted for so long (WebTV, anyone?) and you can bet that its successor will have those kinds of features ready to go, with even more partners and features.
However, Microsoft knows that the next game console it makes has to have good games out of the box. The original Xbox had Halo but the launch of the Xbox 360 didn't have that stellar of a game launch line up. Microsoft needs to make sure that the first games for its next game console are killer.
Other possible product launches
Now we are getting purely into speculative territory. These are just our ideas and don't really come from rumor stories or inside information.
Big touch screen TVs for regular folks: The acquisition of Perceptive Pixel a few months ago means that Microsoft is making their massive touch screen TVs. While we won't be seeing an 82 inch touch screen television at Best Buy anytime soon, we think Microsoft could sell a 32-inch or 42-inch screen to regular consumers in 2013.
Surface All-in-one PCs: If Microsoft is making a tablet product, why doesn't it also come up with a PC made for the home office? The all-in-one PC market is taking off as many people and businesses don't want to deal with the normal desktop PC case that's hooked up to a monitor. It would seem a natural evolution for Microsoft to design and sell an all-in-one Surface PC in addition to its tablet, and we think they might be planning to do just that.
Non-gaming TV set top box: You like your Xbox 360 but you discovered that you really don't want to play games on it anymore. We know there are lots of Xbox 360 owners who simply use the console to stream or download videos or music. We think Microsoft knows this too. It wouldn't surprise us to learn that the company is working on an Xbox-like set top box that just has the media streaming features with no games.