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Microsoft’s plan is stronger than you think

The latest Microsoft ad for Xbox One has over two million views and has been shared all over my social streams from the last couple of days. But to me, there’s a much more interesting ad on UK channels at the moment — fewer robots in this one but take a look before we move on:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzHnjilILYg

I think this advert is a great summary of why Microsoft, though attracting stick from innumerable directions for almost all its current products, is executing in just about the only effective way it can in a world transitioning toward touch and mobile. Let me explain.

As Apple and Android’s touch-based revolution started to pick up steam, Microsoft found itself in a tricky position. Its first manifestation of a touch-based Windows device didn’t appear until October 2010, a full six months after the iPad and three and a half years after the iPhone. For many, this was too little, too late.

But here’s Microsoft’s situation:

Touch is a threat — Windows desktop software, including Office, owns 70% of the market and remains the main dynamic used around the world in the most ‘mission-critical’ situations, and it’s profitable.

But the desktop can’t do touch. Despite years of faffing around with tablet computing pre-iPad (and some painful options post-iPad), it’s clear that even if Microsoft’s desktop interface and software is ‘touch optional’, it’s not an option people want to take.

Mobile is a threat — Even after WindowsPhone’s late release, mobile computing on tablets and phones immediately threatens Microsoft’s position. You only have to look at the free release of Apple’s office suite and Android’s Google Drive apps to see the writing potentially on the wall for Microsoft’s cash cow.

Even Apps are a threat — The biggest issue for WindowsPhone and Surface tablets right now is the lack of a developer ecosystem for the new style of apps. But with many already reluctant to take the leap from iOS and get stuck in among Android’s fragmented platform, the appetite to then turn their attention to a small base of WindowsPhone users too is very small.


And here’s why their current strategy, even if it fails and becomes a footnote to history is the right path and the only one they could take:

Create the broadest consistent cross-platform experience across hardware, software and web services

Metro

Take the distinct, striking Metro design style that works across Lumia, Xbox, Surface and Windows 8 with consistency and a genuine alternative experience to iOS and Android. Some criticise the schizophrenic nature of Windows 8 including Metro and desktop interfaces (the only platform in the lineup with this UI clash) and this is fair and clearly undesirable.

But given the current situation and pressures, it’s an important choice. It means hundreds of millions of Windows users are being exposed to the Metro interface (a feather in Microsoft’s cap) and the experience of a new Microsoft touch experience, without having to give up access to their old desktop apps.

A current generation of users complains about this, as they did about Windows 7 and Windows XP before that. People don’t like change. But Microsoft isn’t forcing it upon them either — 90% of actions in Windows 8 can be achieved through the means users are familiar with. And they’ll only get more used to the new ways of working.


Solving the developer problem

Adding to this, how many developers write for WindowsPhone? Now how many write software that functions on Windows? Despite a few significant missteps, getting Windows developers to write for Metro becomes a lot more likely if they can reach the audience of desktop and Windows tablet users to start with. It’s a way for Microsoft to compete when it comes to developer ecosystem and using its biggest asset.

I’m not saying Microsoft is going to make the comeback of the century — but I am making the point that they aren’t as stupid as they look and I do believe they’re making the right kinds of decisions for their context. To me the fact they’re so often left out of the Apple/Google/Amazon comparisons shows how underrated they are right now.

In the ad, they talk about:

  • A browser built for touch
  • A search engine
  • A communications network
  • Cloud Storage
  • Gaming and social with Xbox

Available on Surface, PCs, phones


I think this is the clearest depiction of Microsoft’s consumer strategy to date — and a picture that has been missing from much of what I read about them. If they can pull it off competently for now, it might set the stage to build on that progress in the future. But I don’t see a better path open to them.