Microsoft's road ahead

I was wrong. Nokia has not been a game changer for Microsoft. The real issue has never been on the hardware side.  

Looking back (almost) a year, a report concluded that nobody cares about the Metro UI or what is now called the Windows 8 UI. I can’t help but wonder: just as lousy as the marketing efforts to rebrand Metro have been, so are the numbers that show the adoption rate of the new UI.

In many ways it is not surprising but then again, it is. Let me explain: Microsoft probably intended to jump on the “touch” bandwagon by leveraging its existing installed base of Personal Computers. That’s not a bad strategy at all - the problem is that nobody uses a personal computer the way people use touch on tablets and phones. As such, it doesn’t surprise that the uptake has gone badly. Microsoft has hurt itself in other ways too: forcing the user to start with the new UI was probably not the best way to introduce a brand new concept to its existing user base. Surprisingly, even Paul Thurrott laments the development of Windows 8.1 and wonders what the heck Microsoft is doing. His disagreement stems from the user experience mess that Microsoft has created with Windows 8 and tried to fix with Windows 8.1. It’s not just the missing start menu, as I experienced myself on several occasions, it’s the confusing back- and forth between the new UI and the old desktop. I guess that is what you get when you design by committee - it’s not a streamlined, clear vision that would come out of Apple (I still believe Apple has lost it - but they haven’t tried to force an iOS style touch input onto the desktop [yet]).  The reality for Microsoft is that people simply do not care about the new UI.

I’ve made the case that Google’s Android is becoming what Microsoft’s Windows was in the 90’s and the previous decade when observing market share and adoption rate. But the new devices are not really replacing the PC for now. That job falls more to the cloud providers that respond to cost structures that large organizations have to deal with (to maintain their fleets of PC’s). There are other forces that converge on the PC endpoint: Internet bandwidth keeps going up and the consumerization of IT. Which is another way of saying that things move rapidly and broadly into the cloud and what is left is pure UI experience for the end user that matters.

Let’s explore Microsoft’s mobile options between Android and new UI

Android:
There are some voices that call for Microsoft to enter Google’s space. Obviously, Microsoft would have to fork Android and split from Google as it also sees Google as a heavy competitor in other areas, such as cloud and more recently even the desktop. In other words, Microsoft would enter the Android space the same way Amazon has. It would require that Microsoft runs its own app store (which it already has), replace the Google cloud API’s with its own and Microsoft would still have to occasionally sync with Google’s source code which could potentially become a challenge down the road. It’s interesting to explore this as it reminds one of another runtime fork from the 90’s: Java. Microsoft managed to stop the Java onslaught in the 90’s partially by trying to make a Microsoft version of Java. Many lawsuits later, Microsoft somewhat succeeded with that approach. However, Microsoft simply isn’t the bully it had been in its heydays (long gone) and instead is more like the fading empire trying to muster all its resources for one last push. It is very unlikely that Microsoft could create a MS android version that would further fragment the Android space and give Microsoft a reuniting opening for its mobile OS strategy.  
Ars Technica laid out why Microsoft should not fork Android and it looks at all the different ways one could do so. I think two key points emerge from this: Kindle is not that compatible with Android (as is evident with some of the latest games not being available for Kindle) and developers simply do not care to make Amazon versions. But besides all that, Microsoft (probably) doesn't have the appetite to support someone else's ecosystem when it already built its own.

New UI:
I’m still in the camp that thinks Microsoft has for the first time ever created something that it (really) can call its own: the Metro UI. The premise of this new user interface is simplicity. Simplicity demands sacrifice and vision. All things Microsoft has lacked. In fact, I would go so far and say that Metro, from a product vision, is as close as Microsoft has even been to Apple. But there is also another reality for the company: this approach goes against committee decision making, revenue forecasts and market strategies. And it will require sacrifice - deep sacrifice. I’m not talking about the sort of convoluted desktop alignment strategy Microsoft has pursued with Mobile. I’m calling out for a radical split and separation between the old and the new. Microsoft’s Metro team has all along pursued this approach and it is evident in everything they’ve done on mobile. It’s the desktop team that tries to hold on to the old. That’s where the committee decision making still has its roots and the revenue models have been produced. Microsoft must recognize that the convoluted mess that is Windows 8 is not a viable strategy.
Nothing here is new; companies have to go through gut-wrenching decisions when disruption happens. Apple had to split the teams between Macintosh and Apple II, IBM had to abandon mainframe for micros and ultimately it go out of the PC business that it helped to start. Nokia started out as a paper mill. Microsoft is there now - and it has a pretty good base to start from.  

By now, it is apparent where I think Microsoft should be headed. But let’s bring it together and let me present my vision of Microsoft:

One of the most important things Microsoft can do now is to double down and make a clear split between old and new. By old, I mean leave the Desktop operating system in the form of Windows 7 (or Windows 7 Plus with some Windows 8 additions) and only invest in incremental upgrades. It might also make sense to take up rebranding the whole thing to make it clear to consumers what they’re getting. Call it “Microsoft Desktop operating system” for all I care. This would remain the ‘cash cow’ product it has been for corporate customers and consumers while it lasts. Ultimately, the goal would be to completely retire the desktop.
On the new side, focus all resources and investments on the Metro UI for mobile, PC and the cloud (cloud is the other half of the strategy which I will cover later). There should be a desktop emulator for PC: it should still be possible to run Microsoft windows applications in a ‘tile’ but the concept of desktop needs to be hidden away from the user so that there is no confusion between old windows app and new UI. This should be a different user experience altogether.  
But Microsoft needs more, and here is where some of the old concepts will converge: the mouse and keyboard are still relevant in the corporate setting but they are under threat because of touch and voice input. But how to enter text at a precise location if there is no keyboard or mouse. There is one input form that is still utterly lacking today on any tablet: the stylus.
Apple had the right vision with the Newton in the sense that everything on the screen should be writeable. Microsoft has tinkered with this notion for over 20 years and never once managed to get it right. At fault is software, algorithms, cluttered UI elements, the user’s inability to write neat and processing power. The first newton was not capable to translate the handwriting in real-time, it visibly took some time which diminished the user experience. Fast forward to 2012 when I tried a Windows 8 tablet with a stylus and came to the realization that the stylus has been sidestepped as input method. What I’ve noted two years ago is that for the stylus to become successful, it needs to work the same way it has worked for the last several thousand years. If there is a need to input text, it should happen where the text needs to go and not in a dedicated lower-third area of the screen.
When painters pick up a brush, when writers pick up a pen and when architects pick up a pencil it translates into creative expression. There is a certain element of ‘freedom’ when one writes with a pen that is not bounded by the way the notebook decides to render text. I believe this is the missing link where Microsoft could provide a killer OS by simply leveraging a stylus in a way that nobody has dared to do. Similar to the personal computer before this new "thing" would emphasize personality in the form of one’s own writing.
Touch will not go away and is equally crucial to the success of any mobile initiative - but touch is more akin to cave drawings and the first cave men whereas the stylus is what allowed Davinci to design a flying machine.
I have no doubt in my mind that this is even more relevant when considering where tablets are headed: as desktop replacements. We might drop a tablet into a docking station and get the keyboard and mouse - or we could just simply pick up a stylus and write.