Metro Weekly

Happy Anniversary? Microsoft turns 40

As Microsoft looks ahead to its next forty years, Bill Gates ponders the company’s future

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Forty years ago, two men had an ambitious goal. In an era where computers were still in their infancy — and cost prohibitive amounts of money — Bill Gates and Paul Allen set themselves a simple challenge: “a computer on every desk and in every home.” And, in the four decades since, Microsoft has maintained that global, all-conquering attitude — for better or worse.

Indeed, those words of ubiquitous Microsoft products come from Gates himself, in a letter sent to the Redmond-based tech giant’s employees, celebrating the company’s fortieth anniversary on April 5th. The world’s richest man for sixteen of his company’s forty years — a title he held onto this year, with a net worth of almost $80 billion — has a lot to celebrate. Microsoft is a household name, not just in America, but on an international level. His products can be found in schools, hospitals, businesses, cars, at all levels of the government and, of course, in homes. Microsoft’s success enabled Gates to become one of the world’s most charitable people, too.

Of course, there have been missteps along the way. Windows, Microsoft’s cash cow, is by an incredible margin the world’s most used operating system, but latency, greed, mismanagement or overly ambitious desires have all played their parts in some of its most notably awful outings. Not to beat a long-dead horse, but we all remember Vista, and what about the horrible mess that was Windows ME? Internet Explorer became the world’s most popular browser thanks to its bundling with Windows, but it has since lost ground to Google Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox due to a reputation as being unsafe, slow and an acceptable punchline for lazy comedians. Of course, Microsoft has since worked hard to turn it into a surprisingly decent browser, but the damage to its name has been dealt.

There are other mistakes, too: the $900 million write-down on Surface inventory because nobody wanted Microsoft’s tablet, the truly awful Clippy, the company’s too-late attempt to rival the iPod with Zune, its Kin feature phones… Microsoft isn’t alone in failing as often as it has succeeded — but when millions, if not billions, of people use your products daily, the slightest mistake is infinitely amplified. It didn’t help that the company gained a reputation as a hulking beast, riddled with bureaucracy and intense competition between departments, which stifled growth and creativity. Plus, there are always Microsoft-loathing journalists waiting to break out their bats and go to town at the slightest hint of anything less than incredible success (and even then, they’ll still find flaws).

For Bill Gates, though, it doesn’t serve to dwell on the lower points of the last four decades. “I am thinking much more about Microsoft’s future than its past,” he wrote in his letter. “I believe computing will evolve faster in the next 10 years than it ever has before. We already live in a multi-platform world, and computing will become even more pervasive.” And what of Microsoft’s role in that world? “Under Satya [Nadella]’s leadership, Microsoft is better positioned than ever to lead these advances.”

It’s a confident statement, but how does it bear out in the real world? Gates has determined to take a much more hands-on approach in a company he gave up the reins to in 2008, but what can we expect from Microsoft over the next decade?

Windows, of course, will remain one of Microsoft’s biggest products. Windows 10 debuts this Fall, bringing a host of much needed changes. A better user-interface, faster interactions, the ability to scale from desktops down to smartphones and other devices — it’s a modern OS for modern devices. It’s what Microsoft needs to clear out any remaining Windows 8 negativity.

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However, as Apple beats its chest and proclaims rising sales of Mac devices, it’s important to remember just how popular Windows is. Windows 8 was maligned for its odd, schizophrenic appearance, which shoehorned a tablet interface into a desktop operating system and forced users to interact with both, regardless of device. Still, according to NetMarketShare, its latest update — Windows 8.1, which refined its duality and improved its usability — has more users than every version of Apple’s OS X combined. Including Windows 7, Vista, and those still clinging to XP, Microsoft powers nine-in-ten desktops and laptops.

It also dominates enterprise customers, even as Apple pushes to get businesses to adopt Macs and BlackBerry attempts to save itself with its enterprise solutions. Microsoft has nothing to worry about — businesses and governments run on Windows. That isn’t going to change any time soon.

Still, Windows does have an image problem. Look around any university, or Starbucks, or possibly even your office, and you’ll likely see an ever-increasing number of MacBooks. In the Metro Weekly offices, I’m the only writer who doesn’t use a Mac — I have a Dell all-in-one at my desk and use Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 3 everywhere else. Despite Windows’ ubiquity, I’m considered the odd one out.

Microsoft will continue to mop up low and mid-range consumers, who want a cheap, reliable laptop or desktop for a few hundred dollars — though Google is aggressively pushing its Chromebooks as viable alternatives. But it will take time to regain consumer trust at the premium end of the scale, those who have moved to Apple and see no reason to return. Microsoft will hope that Windows 10 and a bevy of beautifully made devices from HP, Dell and others — as well as Microsoft’s Surface devices — will offer a tantalizing reason to come back into the fold.

In terms of ecosystem, however, Microsoft has something of a mixed bag on its hands. Unlike Apple, which can offer computers, smartphones and tablets all running its own software, or Google, which can offer smartphones and tablets (and Chromebooks, to an extent) as well as desktop software to keep everything in sync, Microsoft has so far struggled to crack the market in the same way.

Windows tablets, according to IDC, comprise just five percent of the tablet market. Apple dominates, Google’s Android commands just under one-third. IDC is estimating (perhaps guessing would be more accurate) that Windows will rise to fourteen percent by 2019, which is modest, but Microsoft will have to offer compelling reasons as to why users should ditch their iPads and Android tablets for Windows devices. Similarly, and perhaps more crucially, Microsoft currently has nothing to back up tablet sales on the smartphone side of things.

Windows Phone came too late to save itself. Windows Mobile wreaked havoc for years, a customizable and powerful but painfully awkward and hamfisted smartphone operating system. When Microsoft finally released Windows Phone 7 in 2010, it was incredibly unique and refreshing, but riddled with flaws that Android and iOS had managed to mostly address by that point. Windows Phone 8 came two years later, but still Microsoft had failed to ignite the market. Nokia, which Microsoft would ultimately buy, was the only manufacturers making compelling devices, but even then users were faced with a paucity of apps and a lack of features that they were accustomed to on other smartphones.

Windows Phone 10 is intended to save Microsoft’s mobile ship, as apps can be written once and they’ll scale between phones, tablets and PCs. It’s a necessary simplicity, because Windows Phones aren’t selling in anywhere near enough numbers to justify the expense of building apps in addition to Android and iOS devices. Last year, IDC estimates that 35 million Windows Phones were sold around the world. Apple? Almost 200 million devices. Android? Over one billion. I’ve owned two Lumia devices, but even I wouldn’t harass a company to develop an app for Microsoft’s smartphones given how little they sell.

Microsoft Lumia 535

Microsoft Lumia 535

Windows 10 for phones launches this Fall, but for now the platform is essentially stagnant. We won’t see a headline grabbing flagship from Microsoft until Fall, while companies such as Samsung and HTC are focused on Android for their profit margins. By the time Windows 10 drops, the damage may already be fatal.

With regards to the rest of its ecosystem, though, there’s still a lot that Microsoft has to look forward to over the next decade. Under Satya Nadella, who took over from Steve Ballmer, it’s slowly transforming into a mobile-first, cloud-first company. Office, the venerable productivity suite, finally launched — to great reviews — on Android and iOS devices, after years of other developers releasing functionally similar apps. Office 365 and Microsoft’s cloud-based storage solution, OneDrive, work on every device imaginable, letting you keep work documents and personal content wherever you go (provided you have an internet connection, naturally). The company’s Outlook email app is considered one of the best available on smartphone — heck, I use it on my iPhone and it’s better for Gmail than Google’s own app.

Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-activated personal assistant, is making the jump from Windows Phone to PCs with Windows 10, which will make finding information and keeping track of daily life much easier. Its personality rivals that of Siri, but with the functionality of Google Now. Indeed, Cortana is everything Microsoft should be, something Apple has refined for years — it takes the best parts of its competitors and mixes it into something better. If Microsoft brings it to iOS and Android, as some rumors suggest, it’ll give even more compelling reasons to embrace the company’s products on devices from its competitors. Pulling its core components out of the walled garden of Windows, getting people invested in and committed to them whether they’re on a $100 Android phone or a $3,000 Mac, will be crucial to the Microsoft of the next decade.

Creativity, too, seems to be back. Microsoft Research is dedicated to giving engineers and developers room to test out ideas and future products. The Surface line proves that Microsoft can not only listen to criticism, but also craft products which rival Apple’s design prowess — seriously, pick up a Surface Pro 3 and try not to be impressed with how it feels. Skype, which was bought by Microsoft a few years ago, is previewing Skype Translator, which will translate calls in near real-time, including an auto-generated transcript, removing language as a barrier in conversations. HoloLens, debuted at a Windows event in January, is a headset that mixes holographs and virtual reality with the real world — an implementation which Microsoft views as useful for both work and leisure. Heck, look at Xbox, and the incredible things Microsoft has done with Kinect and Xbox Live, for an example of how the company can flourish when given room to do so.

 “We have accomplished a lot together during our first 40 years and empowered countless businesses and people to realize their full potential,” Gates wrote. It’s true. Microsoft really did bring computers into the home — their tactics may not have always been sound, their business practices not always honorable (hello, antitrust lawsuits), but Gates and company drove computers down to a price where owning one became an essential purchase, not an extravagant expenditure. Yes, it’s easy to hate on Microsoft, but it’s undeniable that they’ve helped shape our modern technological world.

“What matters most now is what we do next,” Gates concluded. It’s true, but if recent efforts are anything to go by, as Windows becomes more transparent, more accessible, more device agnostic, we look forward to the next decade and beyond.

Image Credit: ToddABishop / Flickr, Microsoft, Kārlis Dambrāns / Flickr

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Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's managing editor. He can be reached at rmarr@metroweekly.com.

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