Tuesday, 16 March 2010
Microsoft has never been a company I have liked. I have found most of their products and platforms quite frustrating and living in a Microsoft world, was forced to endure them on a daily basis. However with the many impressive product/platform launches recently, I find myself completely re-evaluating the company...
My first impressions of personal computing came from school. The school had a Macintosh Classic, which had a gorgeous hardware design and a simple and user friendly interface. This was also the beginning of my appreciation of Apple and the harmony between hardware & software.
After successfully negotiating a mac from my parents i had my first personal computer. Around the same time my friend had got his first personal computer, which became my first Microsoft experience.
I remember staring at this anonymous beige box running Windows 3.1 thinking 'What the hell is this?!?'
It seemed inconceivable to me that people would buy a system this clumsy, this reliant on command line and something that created frustration instead of encouraging productivity.
Since then I have never owned a Windows based computer, although used many for work. The only real temptation came when the Mac OS seemed very stale. Windows had come on along GUI wise and the Mac OS was starting to feel dated and in need of a drastic overhaul (you could literally halt the whole OS just by holding down the mouse button!!!) However with eventual OSX releases, Microsoft never managed to tempt me.
In the Browser space I was a Netscape user, eventually moving to IE 4.5/5 as Netscape became less relevant and Apple started to push IE as the default.
More recently I have been a Firefox user and now use Chrome as my go to browser.
In fact the only Microsoft product i have ever really been a fan of was Office, which is the de facto standard in the professional world. While I have always liked Powerpoint, Word et al, it was for the ruthless efficiency. This ruthless efficiency is how i would have characterised all of Microsofts offerings, they get the job done, they tick the boxes of what is needed, however seem to lack any real flare or emotion that made Apple's products so organic.
However recently Microsoft has had a string of hits which would make even the biggest Apple fanboy sit up and take notice:
Well for me my first flirtation with not hating on Microsoft was the Xbox. My friend bought the original, which really pioneered online gaming and had unique (at the time) features like hard disk storage. Although not a great commercial success, Microsoft had demonstrated real innovation in an arguably saturated market.
In 2006 I bought an Xbox 360 and hardware reliability aside, i have never looked back.The PS3 was expensive, the gaming catalogue just seemed less compelling and as i have discussed before the Wii forced me to look beyond Nintendo for gaming.
With an excellent gaming catalogue, evolving interface and the fantastic Xbox live, Microsoft has rightly become a real player in this market.
This was a biggie for me. As an Apple user you always had a certain smug satisfaction that while the rest of the world toiled in frustration with Windows, we got to come home to something that 'just worked'
With Windows 7 that all changed.
Now I still own a Mac, I am also very happy with OSX Snow Leopard (10.6) and still prefer it over 7,however while previously the idea of using Vista or XP over Tiger or Leopard would have bothered me, now, if I had to use Windows 7, I think i could survive and even learn to love some of the UI elements.
Windows 7 gave users a significant speed bump over the troubled Vista (and even XP in many tests) while really adding some nice GUI tweaks that are actually both attractive and functional.
You could argue that Microsoft didn't need to really innovate in this space as the desktop OS war was won a long time ago, with Windows claiming over 90% worldwide OS share. However, after the criticisms of Vista, they stepped up and delivered a polished and efficient product at a time when Apple released 10.6, an 'under the hood' update that many users struggle to notice any substantial difference between that and it's predecessor. Never before have the two OS's been largely comparable from an end user perspective.
I won't dwell too much on this one, however while this device isn't perfect it is largely accepted that it is an excellent device that actually competes with the iPod behemoth and competition is something the iPod hasn't had in a while. It's sleek hardware design and unique UI made it a notable alternative to the touch.
Windows Phone 7 Series:
The Zune HD's unique UI served as the foundation for the recently announced Windows Phone 7 Series. You can read more about it here from a previous post. Again this shows that Microsoft were able to look at the market and make the decision not to simply evolve a product line (Windows Mobile 6.5) instead completely re-design the whole experience, a gamble resulting in a very compelling product. Time will tell if this gamble has paid off.
As i mentioned I'm not a huge fan of motion-controls for the sake of it. However while my issues with Nintendo's implementation was largely due to the only advancement of the platform being in the controls, Project Natal seems to be going one step further than Nintendo without sacrificing HD or more traditional controller methods. It also looks to be a more organic (as well as technically superior) experience that doesn't require additional attachments to recognise movement. While the jury is still out on whether this will be a success or not, Microsoft has really taken notice of what Nintendo has achieved and ran with it.
Microsoft's 'Decision Engine' while still very much in the minority of Online search share (Google owns over 70%) is a very useable alternative. It has a great interface, produces fantastic results and with the Yahoo partnership is showing steady growth (9.7% as of Feb 2010) Rumours of iPhone using Bing as the default search engine should also help boost Microsofts share in this massive market.
(P.S. Searching Google for a Bing image yields some interesting results NSFW)
So what else does Microsoft have brewing??
So far all we know about the Courier comes from internal concept videos, which as yet do not show actual device footage running in real time. In fact we don't even know for certain that this product will ever exist. However looking at the video (below) you can't help but be impressed with the interface. Unlike the iPad which is very basic evolution of the iPhone this seems to be a genre busting product with immense potential. Some argue that the interface looks complicated and this is why the iPad will succeed, however real or not, success or not, it is more revolution than evolution.
IE has approximately 55% - 60% market share in the browser space, however this is a figure which is largely due to the OS monopoly Windows enjoys. Recently the EU ruled that all versions of Windows (within the EC) from March 2010 must provide users a Browser ballot Screen offering a choice of up to 12 browsers, a result which Opera is reporting has increased downloads of their browser 3 fold since the ballot appeared. IE has also had criticism over lack of supporting web standards and has suffered in many speed tests to Chrome, Safari, Opera and Firefox. With all this in mind Microsoft cant be ignoring the decline of its browser share and there is expected to be details on the forthcoming release of Internet Explorer 9 at Microsoft MIX 10 (March 15th - 17th) and I fully expect it to bring some pleasant surprises. Whether they bust out some amazing way of interacting with the web, amazing Bing interaction or just demonstrate amazing speeds, Microsoft are on a roll at the moment and with IE looking like the only failing product line I'm expecting big things.
In summary, Microsoft, despite being the largest software company in the world and having strong positions in almost every conceivable market have shown in the wake of renewed competition that they can still innovate and prove why they are such a force in the first place. (Arguably) More importantly they have managed to turn me around from a Microsoft hating Apple fanboy to a potential customer eagerly anticipating their next product announcement.