Can Microsoft Play with the Tech Giants?

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.

Image via Microsoft.

Microsoft vs. Apple: Things Just Got Interesting

Okay, I admit the title is a bit misleading: the ‘war’ between these two tech giants has been interesting for years. The developments over the last week, however, warrant some commentary.

I’ve already argued that our mobile and desktop experiences would be converging, and it seems that Microsoft and Apple have both made big moves towards this just in the last week. Microsoft has unveiled what they are calling “SmartGlass,” which functions as an answer to both AppleTV and Nintendo’s Wii U tablet controller. Microsoft is fighting a battle on two fronts, in this case, but it gives them a unique chance to combine different services in an unprecedented way; if Microsoft can turn the Xbox 360 (or its follow up) into a competitor for Apple TV (such that it is used by non-gamers, as well), and then integrate both its Windows Phone 7 (and by this fall, WP8) and its Windows 8 Desktop platforms in a simple and useful way, then I can only see success.

But there is a trick to this, of course. You don’t want to force people to purchase an entire new ‘library’ of tech just to get some benefits. Including iOS connectivity with the SmartGlass is smart, and probably necessary at this point. Microsoft needs to leverage the fact that tons of people are using Windows on their desktops: if they can convince people that an Xbox will enhance the experience they are already having, in addition to giving them something new (gaming, streaming onto a TV, that sort of thing), then expect a different future.

Here’s the thing I find most fascinating: as someone gets more entrenched in a particular ecosystem, it seems less and less likely that they will make the switch. Once I’ve got a Windows 8 computer, perhaps a tablet, an Xbox, and a Windows Phone, anytime I go to upgrade, I’ll likely want to stay with what works well with the rest of my system. Of course, iOS integration for SmartGlass makes a difference here, since an iPhone could interact with this whole system, at least somewhat. We’ll see how comparable the experiences are, however, once the service comes out this fall.

My biggest takeaway from E3, however, is that I was underwhelmed with Sony. I’m hesitant about Nintendo’s Wii U, for a variety of reasons, but at least it is something I haven’t really seen before. Microsoft is pulling in their power from other markets, but Sony just seems to be coasting right now. Maybe that’s enough, since they can always fall back on television and other electronics sales; Nintendo is banking on gaming, and Microsoft is banking on a fully integrated digital system. I’m not really sure what Sony’s solution should be here, either. They’ve stepped it up in the mobile gaming world, yes, but I’m less convinced that they will have long term success. I hate to say it, but I actually am starting to think that world will be dominated by the likes of iOS, WP7/8, and Android. Lack of physical input aside, people are already carrying these devices. For everyone who has a smartphone (and kids are getting them younger and younger), this solution makes a lot of sense.

Apple held their WWDC conference yesterday, and we are seeing the combination of various iOS devices. If you own an iPad and an iPhone, they will connect seamlessly, which is a smart move. Further, OSX is beginning to look more like iOS, to the point where my previous sentence may apply to it, at least partially. Apple, too, is investing in their own cross-platform ecosystem. The price of entry is high (have you priced Apple’s computers?), but the integration has already proven powerful; we’ll see if Microsoft can match it this fall.

Image via Flickr.