Posted by Martyn Casserly 23 June 2014
Why Microsoft - not Apple - is the most interesting company in the world right now
For the last few years the technology media has been somewhat obsessed by Apple. Predicting the next 'imaginoutionary' product from the California giant has become something of a science, with journalists now being familiar with the inner workings of the manufacturing chain. Many of the rumours that appear on the front pages stem from small far-eastern companies that make buttons for iPhones or the bottom left corners of iPads. Obviously we can’t turn to Apple for news, as it says almost nothing to the press at all. Why would it, when the absence of confirmation means that the rumours will continue to run and run?
Of course, all of this seemed justified when Steve Jobs helmed the big fruit, as his ruthless streak seemed to be enough to silence the various partners involved in the new products. The iPad was rumoured of course, but its arrival still caused an enormous stir, which is keenly felt today as PC sales continue to fall and tablets begin their inevitable quest to replace them. Lately though, things have been a little less ‘magical’. Each of the recent keynote announcements have been preceded by pretty much every detail being leaked online weeks before. The iPhone 5C's various coloured cases appeared on YouTube before its launch. This makes it harder for Apple to retain that sense of theatre that Jobs revelled in as he unleashed the verbal snake oil while caressing each new creation before enraptured audiences.
Apple still makes inordinate amounts of money, but since the iPad’s introduction things have become a bit boring. A new iPhone will appear each year, usually in the third financial quarter, and only a little bit better than the one before. The previous model will have its internal memory lessened to ensure that it isn’t useful enough to tempt would-be buyers of the top-tier models, while prices will still bring tears to the eyes. Advertisements will run with white backgrounds and levitating electronic devices, while an erudite voice makes copious use of adjectives to convince you that your life is an empty husk, without promise or potential, unless you have this slightly-better-than-last-year’s-but-entirely-revolutionary product. Thus is was, and thus it ever shall be, at least until the rumoured Apple TV or iWatch appear. Breath will be held in regards to those at least until grainy images of relevant components, shot by impoverished factory workers in China, appear on Gizmodo.
While Apple has been busy turning itself into a balance sheet and supply chain optimised snoozathon, something very strange thing has happened in the technology landscape - Microsoft has gone mental, making it the most interesting company in the world to watch. For the longest time now Redmond’s finest has been the very epitome of a corporate business. Products have been designed and built with more of an eye on the bottom line than the user experience, and this has been an extraordinarily successful way to do things. Then came Windows 8. Now, as almost anyone who has had to live with this new iteration will tell you, user experience wasn’t what you’d call exactly pleasant. Trying to navigate around the mystery that is Modern UI especially without a touchscreen, which would account for around 99.99999% of all users, is slightly less fun than having to sit through Brian Sewell reading the Twilight series aloud while scratching his fingernails down an enormous blackboard.
But, and this is important, at least Microsoft were trying something new. Insane and misguided yes, but new. It didn’t stop there though. To capitalise on the huge public outpouring of love for Windows 8, it decided to launch a tablet that featured a kneecapped version of the OS, although one cunning disguised to look completely identical to the full version. Stephen Sinofsky, then head of Windows, even had one converted into a skateboard that he rode about on to demonstrate how tough the device was. It made complete sense then that to advertise the product Microsoft’s marketing department zeroed in on the most important aspect of this new platform, the unique selling point which would cause the masses to ditch those oppressive iPads and move to the beat of a new drum. Yes, you guessed it, the magnet that attached the (not included) keyboard cover. Ho, you crazy guys.
Even the Xbox team, who had been the rockstars of the MS fraternity up until this point, managed to bungle the launch of the new Xbox One, by alienating gamers through a series of poorly executed presentations, an always-on internet connection requirement, and the forced inclusion of a Kinect system that meant the price was around £100 more than the Playstation 4. Sony couldn’t believe its luck, and promptly sold a couple of million more units in the first few months of both consoles’ release.
So, has Microsoft managed to bring about its own red ring of death? Has the sun finally set on the Seattle skyline? Not one bit. The last couple of years have been tough, that’s for sure, but rather than the last throws of the desperate dice, it could be the best thing to happen to the company in a long time. Apple built its marketplace power on a design-led ethos that allowed it to decide what people wanted and then stick firmly to its guns. This worked because there were excellent designers involved, and the company had a lot less customers to please. When the Windows team took the same bullish attitude to Windows 8 it made a complete hash of the interface, but underneath is an incredibly powerful and well engineered engine. Why is this important? Because one thing Microsoft is getting good at is listening to users, and then fixing problems. Subsequent updates have moved the OS closer to the one most people want, and upcoming patches will only continue to make things better.
The recent release of Office on the iPad also shows that the company is finally moving away from its Windows-centric past, while embracing the idea of cross platform applications. Office 365 itself is an excellent update to the way the suite works, with Onedrive integration making it again a very transferrable product. Even OneNote saw a release on Mac and iOS recently, which should bring greater attention to this truly fantastic application which has for some reason always lived in the shadows.
Taking chances with design and direction is a very unusual step for large corporations with hundreds of millions of customers, but Microsoft has been ambitious enough to have a go. It’s worth bearing in mind that even with the vitriolic response to Windows 8, worldwide the OS already has tens of millions more users than all of Apple’s OSX versions combined. While there have been some, frankly bonkers, choices made, you can guarantee that lessons have been learned quickly because of them. Where the future lies is still anybody’s guess, but the thought of Microsoft eschewing the safety of another graduated Windows release and instead swinging for the stands means that it should be a lot more interesting.
In the light of all this you can keep Apple and its sanitised version of reality, because the real action is happening at Microsoft these days. Admittedly it isn’t always pretty, and sometimes you’re left scratching your head in bewilderment, but at least it’s never going to be boring.