Microsoft is undergoing a critical transition. The rapidly changing tech landscape is forcing its evolution from a company focused on the PC to a company that has to look to a future where post PC devices dominate.
No matter how you try to package that change, it represents a shift of tectonic proportions.
Contrary to what many people think, Microsoft has had its eye on a post PC future for over a decade. Back in November 2002 Microsoft released a Tablet PC Edition of Windows XP in an attempt to foster and support an embryonic PC tablet ecosystem and kick-start a new computing revolution. But the world wasn't ready for tablets back then, with consumers seeing them as too expensive and too clumsy.
Despite numerous attempts by Microsoft, this is a situation that wouldn't change until Apple released the iPad at the beginning of 2010.
But nowadays tablets have become established in the mainstream culture as credible consumer and enterprise devices.
Microsoft is once again making a tablet push, but this time rather than trying to be the catalyst, it is instead attempting to gain a toehold in a space that has already exploded into maturity. Trying to do this has turned Windows on its head and transformed it into a touch-first platform (much to the annoyance of many Windows users still using the platform on non-touch devices such as desktops and notebooks), while on the hardware front it is aggressively pushing its new Surface tablets as notebook replacements.
The Redmond, Wash.-based devices and services giant also continues to plug away at the smartphone market following the takeover of Nokia, but in more than four years the market share of Windows Phone seems stubbornly stuck at 3 percent.
Microsoft's vision of computing is that everything is potentially a PC; all it needs to do is run Windows and Office. This has been Microsoft's strategy with the PC for decades, and it is the approach it took with smartphones (where the OS is called Windows Phone), and it is now Microsoft's tactic with tablets (where it wants the Surface to be a notebook replacement).
Everything comes back to Windows and Office, because these are brands that bring in the dollars.
Is it a winning formula? Well, the tech landscape as it currently stands would suggest it isn't. The PC sector has stalled, and according to OEM insiders Windows 8 has only made this problem worse. Meanwhile on the post-PC front, iPads, iPhones and a whole raft of Android devices are inundating the market, while Microsoft is scrabbling to make real headway.
Despite dominating the PC market, Microsoft is finding it hard to take this advantage and translate it into success in these new markets.
But that's the past. What about the future? Can Microsoft reboot (or at the very least reshape) Windows into a platform – or at least a brand – that can work in a post PC world?
I think it can.
First of all, let's start with Windows. There's no doubt that Windows 8 got off to a rocky start, but with Windows 8.1 Microsoft smoothed off a lot of the rough corners and the platform got a lot better for people using it on non-touch devices – in other words, the majority of Windows users. Unfortunately, the problem is that the reputation of Windows 8 is tarnished, and just as with Windows Vista, no amount of tweaking or updating can seem to get rid of that. This is a shame, but this seems to be how it works with operating systems, and Windows in particular. How it is received early on tends to stick for the lifespan of the platform. Windows XP and Windows 7 were both well loved, while Windows Vista and Windows 8 were veiled by a bad vibe that no amount of betterment in the form of service packs and updates could eradicate.