Microsoft have been technology leaders for more than three decades, not only defining how personal computers are used but setting standards within the industry which others have sought to follow. Much of the criticism that the organization receives today is unfair given that many others within the technology arena have created their own products founded on Microsoft’s prior art. When talking about the computing era in general, it is pertinent to state that the industry is only where it is today because of Microsoft’s efforts, and for that alone the company should be commended.
Today however, Microsoft finds itself in an unfamiliar territory where competitors are able to create mass-adoption products in very short periods of time and technologies like cloud computing are changing the way in which software can be delivered. When Microsoft first started business in 1975 it was successful largely due to its ability to be agile compared to others within the industry and therefore it is of no surprise that today’s new technology companies today are succeeding by using the exact same principals.
Microsoft demonstrated this leadership in 1995 when the organization recognized the opportunities of the web and set about engraining it into their core products. In the years following, Microsoft provided client and server technologies, development tools, email software and instant messaging, therefore fundamentally shaping the way in which users interacted with the Internet.
Today in 2011 things are very different than they were just 6 years ago and the way in which users are interacting with computing devices is rapidly evolving. While desktop computing is still and will be for a long time prevalent, the speed at which mobile device development is moving is providing huge opportunities for technology providers to create new products and services and it is with this wave that today, Microsoft is demonstrating true and renewed focus.
The key to success within the technology industry is to create products that are sticky – that is, products that are difficult to live without. Apple has not been successful with products such as the iPad because of technical capabilities, but that they have succeeded in creating an alternate way of interacting with software and services thus weakened the stickiness of the personal computer. Whereas before, users would have had to use a desktop or laptop computer to read email or browse the web, today the same user can use an array of mobile devices without really having to touch a keyboard or mouse.
When Apple created the iPod, they learnt a very important lesson, which was that if you create a product that allows users to perform a common task in a different but exciting way, user adoption would follow. Apple didn’t invent the portable music player, or even the MP3 player, what they did was to create a device that changed the rules just enough that they became the game leaders. When Microsoft later released the Zune player, they didn’t see massive success, not because of the technology (the Zune player was actually more technically capable) but that they were playing by rules which had been defined by Apple.
Since the launch of the iPod, Apple has used the lessons they leant in almost every product they have created since. The iPhone was not the first smartphone the industry has seen yet by providing easy access to applications and a restricted but easy to use interface; they have changed the rules allowing them to become leaders – the same can be said for the iPad. What Apple do better than any other major technology company is to create products that stretch the imaginations of people just enough that with the right marketing, they can create a buzz.
Given the (now saturated) mobile device market the next logical technology to dominate is home entertainment and Microsoft and Apple most certainly will have their strategy in this area.
If Microsoft can succeed in filling the house with their products they have a profound opportunity to change the rules of almost every technology space. Consider a version of the Microsoft Xbox which was tightly integrated with the various cable providers; all of a sudden Microsoft would have the ability to expose a vast array of services to users including shopping, interactive content and social experiences. Once embedded, Microsoft could quickly expand this platform to encompass technology such as VoiP and video conferencing, content sharing and entertainment interaction such as music and movies.
Imagine for a second a single box in the entertainment cabinet that provided access to regular cable content yet is surrounded with an abundance of technology and services. Imagine being able to go to abc.com to read a review of a new series being aired then clicking on a send to my xbox button and having it automatically configure the Xbox DVR for recording. Imagine being able to pause a movie at a specific scene and being able to point to any item on screen only to be taken to a page where it can be purchased – it is these types on interactions that will change the mindset of the user.
Microsoft already has most of the technologies needed to quickly dominate this new space and the art is not in the creation but the architecture pulling them together. For example, the Xbox already has a vast array of media available through Live however the world still sees the Xbox as a gaming device and when coupled with still sub-quality internet access is many areas of the world, using the device as the single box is still not feasible – Microsoft will certainly change this. Now if a version of the Xbox was created with a built-in cable card and partnerships were formed with the various providers, it would fast become an accepted set-top box allowing Microsoft to penetrate audiences previously unavailable.
One of the most important factors responsible for engraining technology is user experience. Todays regular households posses a vast array of devices and as such operating systems and applications, users are simply oblivious to the fact. Consider that a normal DVR consists of some form of Linux operating system with the provider’s software installed and running on top of it and that new receiver in the cabinet runs a different variant, with different applications. In fact, an entertainment cabinet that houses a set-top box, modern sound management, an XBOX and an Apple TV is actually 4 computers running 2 variants of Linux, a variant of BSD and a modified Windows operating system; 4 devices that can easily be combined into 1.
The problem is not just limited to the entertainment cabinet either. In the same house, the desktop computer could be running Windows, the iPad running iOS, the cellphone running Android and that voice-over-IP landline, well that runs a variant of Linux too. If you start to look around at the various devices within the home, very quickly you can see the mass of different technologies that are used and each one has a very different user experience.
Microsoft have recently made massive strides to providing a consistent experience with the Metro UI making its way to the Windows Phone and XBOX and while things do take time I can’t help but feel that these efforts are rapidly accelerating. The thing that Microsoft will most certainly look to do is to make the technology they are seeing success with, front and center of the home.
Ultimately, regardless of technological advances that the various newer vendors in the technology space come up with, not a single organization understands the enterprise and consumer user like Microsoft and this is exceptionally powerful. While sometimes it may appear that Microsoft are sitting back and missing out on the action, what they can always do that nobody else can is simply change the rules of the game and saturate the market with their technology. Microsoft understands the market, they are not arrogant and the partner ecosystem love them and because of this they will continue to dominate technology for the foreseeable future.