Does Windows as a platform matter anymore?

The year is 2018 and for the last 25+ years Microsoft has been the undisputed king of the desktop PC, their Windows software has powered businesses and been the default choice of home users to be productive, play video games and learn relevant new technologies that help them when entering business. Those days are over.

I’m not suggesting that Microsoft will be fading away, far from it as their cloud business is making incredible gains every quarter and enterprise usage of Windows devices shows no sign of slowing. But the world of computing has changed, and they are (being forced) to change with it. Over the last decade tablets and mobile phones have become not only more powerful and capable but significantly cheaper, easier to use and easier to keep up to date and protected from malicious content/viruses on the internet.

Microsoft has done an excellent job in addressing that last point with Windows 10 (see article link) and there are excellent low-cost laptop options for those on a budget. Their recent alliance with ARM has also brought a solid push in “always connected” PCs with ARM chips for the same kind of instant-on and weeks of standby time that people are used to from iPads and other devices. Regardless of this, Windows devices are not the only option as they once were, in reality, these days they might be an afterthought for the average home user. The simple fact is that most people don’t *need* the complexity of a PC to get their basic work, home finance, emails, internet browsing done, Apple iPads are very capable at these types of “basic” things and Chrome books are not the joke they once were when first released. In fact, Chromebooks have evolved into the biggest threat to Windows with serious adoption in education that will surely start filtering through to business when these students start entering the workplace and demanding what they have been using their entire lives. The education market is important and each of the big three (Microsoft, Apple and Google) know this.

Microsoft 365

And yet… despite working to address this competition, Windows simply isn’t Microsoft’s focus anymore. Windows is no longer the centre of the computing world and Microsoft has taken steps to remove it from the centre of their world as well. In March 2018 Microsoft announced that Terry Myerson (The then Executive Vice President of the Windows and Devices Group) had been essentially fired from his role and that the Windows and Devices group was being split up and distributed between other teams. There are lots of details around this and the impact of this is still being announced months later, but the key point I’m looking at here is that for the first time ever in the history of Microsoft – there is no-one representing the Windows Team sitting on the Senior Leadership team (reporting directly to the CEO, Satya Nadella). This indicates that Windows is no longer a top-tier business for them and will essentially be made just one of the many parts of the new “Microsoft 365” offering.

Since Satya Nadella replaced Steve Ballmer in 2014 as Microsoft’s CEO he has made a huge impact. Gone is the old Microsoft that was known as a destroyer of companies and once called Linux “a Cancer”, it has been replaced by a forward thinking and open-arms company that has fully embraced open source by releasing key components such as .NET, PowerShell, Azure Service Fabric, Chakra JavaScript engine, AI components and more! It has also recently purchased GitHub to ensure they reach any developers that haven’t yet got the message that they are very different these days, serious about open source and the responsibilities that come with it. Looking back, it seems obvious Nadella saw the decline of the need for Windows clearly and has spent the past four years doing everything he could to put Microsoft’s first party applications on as many platforms as possible. This includes not only the big Office productivity apps, but everything ranging from client apps like OneDrive, Cortana, Skype, Teams and Xbox right the way through to business administration apps like SharePoint, Azure, Office365, OMS.

Software as a Service

Some people might say making these key staples of the Windows platform available on all other platforms will hasten the decline of the Windows business, but that seems short-sighted. They can either hold tightly onto a declining business while users move to other platforms and importantly, the apps and services that those platforms provide, or they can ensure that Microsoft’s services (where the real money is) remain accessible and front and centre to all users on all platforms.

A couple of years ago the message was that you would be able to extend your PC experience onto your mobile device with various companion technologies, this year at Build 2018 that message was turned on its head and the PC is now being pushed as a companion device for your mobile device. Without this push to get their services onto competing platforms, this could have been a problem for Microsoft having lost their own play for mobile with the exit from Windows Phone, but you can now purchase an Android phone and load it with literally all the Microsoft applications and services that you used to have on Windows Phone – when you apply extras such as the Microsoft launcher (a front end UI designed to highlight Microsoft services) on top of that you might be forgiven for thinking that you actually have a Microsoft Phone! The same is also true, albeit to a lesser extent with Apple iOS devices.

Progressive Web Apps (PWA)

It is these services and the ability to use them everywhere that is key. No matter what product a user purchases, be it an iPad, a Chromebook, a Mac or a Windows PC they can use the Microsoft services and former Windows exclusives regardless. This is good for Microsoft the consumers and businesses invested in their offerings. Further good news continues as it looks like the industry as a whole is embracing the multi-platform view and moving towards common formats in the form of Progressive Web Apps (PWA). This Internet-based application type is now supported by all the major platforms (even a reluctant Apple) and allows a single code base to be deployed to internet browsers, Windows UWP, Android, Chrome Book and iOS. To the user, these apps will be almost indistinguishable from platform native apps and will be available from each platform’s app store, but they have greatly reduced creation and maintenance costs due to the single code base vs different teams and different code for each platform.

Microsoft is leading the way with PWA support with their new Teams app written from the ground up as a PWA application that will support all platforms. Google has also announced that many of their key services such as YouTube, Maps, Mail, etc are all being released in PWA format and will enter the Windows Store for the first time. It is not unreasonable to think that as more apps start to support PWA and become available on all platforms Apple/Google’s dominance in the mobile sector and Microsoft’s dominance on the desktop may be put further into question as if all apps/services are available on all platforms – will it even matter which platform you use anymore? That includes Android, iOS and Mac as well as Windows!

Will it matter? Yes, but likely not in the same way. It could possibly end up with a more pronounced model of the “devices for purpose” we already see, where Windows PCs are used in Enterprises and Power User scenarios for their security and advanced capabilities outside the application level, while mobile devices using the simpler iOS/Android devices are used in mobile scenarios for their battery life and form factor. Microsoft has long been trying to scale their OS down to also compete in the mobile market and Google/Apple have equally been trying to scale their OS up to compete in the productivity/business markets – the outcome could be decided by who gets to the correct “sweet spot” first.

Project Andromeda

It is worth mentioning that Microsoft has said they believe we are in a “post-mobile” world (much like when Apple claimed we were in a “post-PC” world). As part of this, it has been widely reported that Microsoft is working on this post-mobile world with a “pocketable” device that merges the best of both PC and Mobile device types. The codename for this project is “Andromeda” and is expected to be formally announced around October. How successful this will be is yet to be seen, but depending how well PWA takes off it should at least have key applications available to it that were not available to Windows Phone…