Spoiler alert: I think Microsoft is one of the tech giants.
When characterizing the technology wars of our age, I suspect many of us come up with the right wars. We think PC vs. Mac for home computers, we think Google and Apple for smartphones (though Microsoft is coming up in this area rather nicely), we think Google and…Bing? Well, we think Google for search, at least. Google pits itself against Firefox (and Microsoft is trying so hard with Internet Explorer 10) in the realm of web browsers. Tablets are primarily a war between, again, Apple and Google, though others have tried to break in, some with outright failure (HP Touchpad, Blackberry Playbook) and others with some success, and a lot of hope (Microsoft Surface).
Once upon a time, Microsoft was a seemingly undisputed leader in almost everything related to computer software: everything ran Windows, even mobile operating systems. RIM broke in and stole the mobile field, at least for business-minded-consumers, and Apple has kept Microsoft on their toes in the desktop OS arena. The giant from Redmond is getting smaller year by year, or so it seems. Their latest move, which is to introduce a whole new design for everything they make (from Office to Windows, from Xbox to Windows Phone), at times feels desperate, but it also feels intelligent. There’s something here to win hearts over, and something quite powerful.
Why, then, are they left out of technology war articles?
Take this article, over at The Economist. After describing the technology war as a Game of Thrones-esque battlefield, they have this to say about Microsoft:
And there is an ancient empire to contend with, too: Microsoft, which recently launched its first tablet computer, is trying hard to get back into the game, having been profitably preoccupied with PC software. But it is the battle between the big four that will have the greatest impact in future on the way people find information, consume content and purchase all kinds of stuff, and on who takes their money in return.
The article talks primarily about Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. While the focus is on content management and our intake of information, it still seems odd to include Amazon and Facebook. Don’t get me wrong: I use both of these services, and there are lots of things I love about each. Amazon single-handedly changed the way I shop online, and Facebook helps me keep in touch with people from all over the world. Amazon may have the power to strong-arm something in the future (they’ve got a market for a digital library rivaling Apple, and probably has a stronger movie catalog), but Facebook is a social media website, like Myspace or Google+. Granted, Facebook is doing extremely well; it’s so ubiquitous at this point, it’s shocking to find people who aren’t on it. My Grandma uses Facebook, for instance.
But Facebook is hardly a tech giant, any more than Tumblr or Twitter. Whether you’re posting pictures of your kids, reblogging an endless sea of memes, or microblogging just about anything you want, the web is a wide place with plenty of outlets for your information. Facebook is hardly unique on that front, even if it is the most populated. It does what it does well, and maybe even better than anyone else, but the main complaint with Google+ (as an example) is how empty it is.
So why does Facebook get included in the Great Tech Wars story, and Microsoft barely gets a mention? It’s an odd shift from the days of the Mac vs. PC commercials. Microsoft, in the eyes of many, was stagnating. No one really liked Windows Mobile, even if people are willing to admit that they love the new Windows Phone platform, save for a ‘lack of apps.’ Then there was that whole Vista debacle, which goes to show how much of an impact a poor launch can have on the long-standing value of a platform. Vista was actually a solid operating system, once it got through the first service pack. But, of course, Vista is one of the most hated editions of Windows.
But are Vista and Windows Mobile really enough to damage Microsoft as a contender in the world of tech? Is it now just an ancient empire, vying for years gone by?
In short, yes. Well, sort of.
Microsoft damaged itself, but it wowed the world with Windows 7. The shift from Vista to 7 was grand, in a lot of ways, and it really has paid off. But damage was done, and Apple worked their way in. Suddenly a stylish decision from Microsoft was surprising. Read any review of Windows Phone 7 when it was first released, or even the initial impressions of Windows 8, and you’ll find a tone of surprise: Microsoft did something cool. And this mentality has stuck: the iPhone is a symbol of ‘cool,’ an Android phone is a symbol of ‘not following the sheep who love Apple products,’ and Windows Phones are just ‘surprisingly cool,’ but mean little to many observers.
And so Microsoft has to fight an uphill battle that I’m not really sure they even should have to fight. They’re striving for perceptions, even though reality says they still hold the majority of desktop OSes, particularly in schools and businesses. The trick now is convincing users that they can run with the cool tech of today, with tablets and smartphones and peripherals. They’ve done that with Windows Phone, and most people who have used the platform agree on that front. The risk is on their home desktop, Windows 8. Time will tell if it will land Microsoft in a place of success or having to fight yet another battle.
But know this: the ancient empire is hardly squashed. It’s not even missing, it’s just not lit up quite as bright.