Windows next: So what?

Microsoft is a platform company, but Windows isn't the only platform it cares about any more.

Speaking as someone who likes Windows 8 and whose touch PC you can take away when you pry it from my cold dead fingers, I'm surprisingly unexcited about the next version of Windows.

Partly that's because Windows, like everything else at Microsoft, is shifting from big bang releases every few years to continuous updates and new features. We've seen that with Internet Explorer 11 getting WebGL gradually, and it's what the Mission Control team in Windows is there for.

According to this recent job advert, the plan is to "fundamentally change the way Windows is shipping" (especially for drivers, but also for OS features). "Online services are shipping every week," the ad points out; "why not client software? What would it take to modify the Windows start menu on every Windows user machine in less than a week?"

If I can have changes every week, a new Windows version is much like a service pack.

But my lack of excitement is also because the leaks we've seen do not show an ambitious-looking OS; it looks like the acceptable compromise for businesses. At this stage, all we've seen are leaks and thinking about the rapid improvements in the Windows 8 experience from the slightly clunky developer preview to the much sleeker Consumer Preview, so a lot could change before final release. But the first information Microsoft will reveal is targeted at enterprises. and that says something about what to expect from Windows next: It's the upgrade path from Windows 7 for businesses.

Slow and steady

The PC isn't dead. Both Lenovo and Dell say they're selling more PCs than ever, and that's more than just XP upgrades would account for. Businesses are still buying PCs -- just less often, and they're not the only things they buy. When you look at the whole device market, as Microsoft itself pointed out at its partner conference, Windows is just 14% of the opportunity.

When CEO Satya Nadella cleverly pivoted the question about Windows Phone's ability to scale into a discussion of cross platform potential recently, it was clear Microsoft still has huge ambitions (Microsoft icons on every screen means billions and billions of users). But despite his reclaiming the idea that Microsoft is about platforms, it's far from clear how big those ambitions are for Windows itself, in any of its device forms.

It's ludicrous to say that Microsoft services and apps are better on other platforms than they are on Windows; ask anyone who uses Outlook on a Mac, or would like to use OneNote for Business on a Mac. Despite lots of hard work, there are only a few outliers -- like OneNote for Android having pen support when OneNote on Windows phone doesn't even let you draw with your finger -- that put Microsoft's own platforms in second place for its apps today.

But that's changing as fast as Microsoft can manage it. Just as devices and services actually meant "not just Microsoft devices and not just Microsoft services," so Microsoft as a platform company doesn't just mean just Microsoft platforms, and certainly not just Windows (or even Azure or Xbox). It means Microsoft services and apps built on every platform people use.

What does that mean for Windows? Microsoft tried ambitious and ahead of the curve with Windows 8 and got a resounding "huh?" from the mainstream market. If the next version plays it safe, tones down the vision, and makes enterprises comfortable with the more secure and easier to mobilize WinRT runtime, while accommodating cheap tablets for people who don't want to pay for iPad and want something more powerful than Android, Microsoft can hold onto its 14% while it builds out cros- platform versions of its apps to take advantage of the services where it's actually doing something exciting -- like Power BI and Project Spark and Skype Translator and Azure ML and lots of things that have nothing at all to do with Windows.

Because in this day and age, with HTML busy evolving into a web platform that can do everything from graphics to local storage to VoIP calls to asynchronous programming with Web Workers to controlling MIDI, it's not clear that an OS platform itself can be that exciting and innovative any more - especially if that's not what its most profitable audience seems to want. You don't have to accept Marc Andreessen's unkind quip from the days of Netscape, when his ambition was reducing Windows to "a poorly debugged set of device drivers," to believe that the role of the operating system is still important but less exciting these days.

W(h)ither Windows?

The centre of gravity inside Microsoft shifted away from Windows a long time ago. There are multiple billion dollar businesses at Microsoft, including Skype, Lync, Office 365, QQL Server, and several others (as well as Windows and Windows Server). More of those are built on top of Windows Server and -- increasingly -- Azure, than on Windows client, and the Microsoft products with the biggest opportunity for the future rely on Azure.

The opportunity for tablets and smartphones is a lot bigger than the Windows market too.

I spent six months this year using Windows RT on a Surface 2 as my main computer because it gives me the battery life and light weight I want, along with almost everything I need in the desktop and Office. Yes, I was making compromises and losing some convenience and flexibility to get that -- no pen for hand writing notes, no clipboard manager to give me the ability to travel back a week in time and find an image I'd copied, no audio playback of my OneNote recordings made on my phone and no keyboard shortcuts for pausing and rewinding audio for transcribing recordings). Even so, I found I only needed to run full Windows a few times a month for specific things.

I've only shifted back to using full Windows full time because the Surface Pro 3 has good enough battery life, light enough weight, and a far better keyboard. In much the same way, some people will find the iPad powerful enough for a fair proportion of their daily tasks, especially when they run Office and make it more like a Surface by adding a keyboard.

In this world, Windows is still valuable and important. It's no more dead than the PC -- which is no more dead than the mainframe -- but is just one of the multiple devices everyone will use.

Microsoft can carry on making Windows better; more power efficient, more secure in particular, and better suited for running on a wider range of devices and form factors. But is it where we look for innovation and the bright, shiny future?

The next big milestone for Windows will be incorporating the operating system ideas from Microsoft Research, from projects like Midori, Drawbridge, and Singularity, that MSR head and long-time OS designer Rick Rashid joined the Windows team to work on. But at least initially, those will probably be most relevant to Windows Server and Azure.

In 2014, is a new version of Windows something we really get excited about any more? Nothing I've seen yet suggests that it is.

This story, "Windows next: So what?" was originally published by CITEworld.

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