Microsoft's Mobile Strategy: The Windows 8 Infinite Loop

Microsoft is late to the mobile party. It's never going to make a dent in the tablet market. It will never figure out the new era of hardware and the Web. It will crumble beneath the behemoths that are Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. At least that is what the pundits have been yelling for more than a year. At this point, though, we know everything that Microsoft will do with Windows 8, and we can see more clearly what the company is up to. Microsoft has created a true cross-platform device strategy that will lead it into the next generation of computing.

What We Know About Windows 8

In recent months, Microsoft has been gradually releasing details about what Windows 8 and its iterations are going to entail. First came the user interface that will cross personal computers and tablets. Next came the developer and consumer previews. In the last week, we have seen Microsoft's plans for its own built and branded tablet, the Surface, as well as Windows Phone. 

It is pertinent that the next version of Windows is number 8. As a symbol, an 8 has no beginning. It also has no end. You trace the line of an eight and eventually you will end where you began. That is what Microsoft has done with Windows 8. 

We are now seeing the tangible benefits of all the time that it has taken Microsoft to develop its PC, tablet and smartphone strategies. And, taken as a whole, it is comprehensive, detailed and smart. But will it allow Microsoft to take off in the mobile era?

The biggest aspects of Windows 8 for users and developers are how Microsoft has constructed both the hardware and user interface for the platform. Microsoft for the first time is developing options for both x86 and ARM processors. It has traditionally built Windows to run only on x86, a processor standard that has struggled to find a foothold in the new mobile ecosystem. Yet, with ARM (the chip family upon which most smartphones and tablets are built), Microsoft offers a new opportunity to use Windows on mobile devices. 

Tablets built for Windows 8 can use either x86 or ARM (running what Microsoft calls Windows RT). Windows 8 tablets on x86 will run a version of the operating system very similar to that of Windows 8 PCs, while RT tablets on ARM will have more limited functionality. Yet, developers looking to create applications for Windows 8/RT will be able to build for tablets, smartphones and PCs by making minor changes in their code base. 

There are two reasons for that. First, Microsoft is introducing the new Metro user interface that is heavily informed by the design first seen in Windows Phone 7. No longer will Windows PC, tablets (yes, Windows tablets have existed before, running Windows 7) and smartphones all have different designs and interfaces. Through Metro, Microsoft is making it simpler to design an application once and deploy it to all flavors of Windows 8. This will encourage both developers and consumers to adopt the platform. 

The second reason is the new common core base. Microsoft announced the common core last week when it unveiled plans for Windows Phone 8. Common core will allow developers to write applications for Windows 8 and easily port them to Windows Phone 8. In addition, Windows Phone developers will be able to write apps in C++/C code bases in addition to Microsoft’s standard C# and Web-based HTML5 rendered through Internet Explorer 10. In short, Microsoft has opened up app development with the different versions of Windows 8 to make it easier to create true cross-platform and -device solutions for developers. 

The kicker with Windows Phone 8 is that, once again, it breaks Microsoft’s mobile platform. Windows smartphones running the latest version of Windows Phone (7.5) will not be upgradeable to Windows 8. That is the cost Microsoft has to pay for integrating Windows 8 design and functionality into Windows Phone. All apps that have been written for Windows Phone 7.5 will transfer to Windows 8, but users who have bought any current Windows Phone device will never see the tangible benefits presented from 7.5 to 8. This is the second time Microsoft has done such a thing to its mobile platform, as Windows Mobile CE was not upgradeable to Windows Phone 7. But it should not happen again, as Microsoft has worked to make all versions of its platform interoperable.  

Microsoft's Mobile Strategy Revealed

Taken as a whole, Microsoft has created a powerful ecosystem from both developer and consumer perspectives. Windows 8/RT/Phone devices will be cloud-connected with each other, have the same user interface and be compatible with just about every standard that Microsoft could reasonably accommodate in both the hardware and software environments. 

Windows 8 is like a snake biting its own tail. As a user, you can start from one end or the other and eventually be led around the loop back to where you began. At one end is the full-featured desktop version of Windows 8 running on x86 processors. At the other is Windows Phone 8 on ARM. Traditionally, those two classes of devices would be light years apart in how they functioned and what they looked like. With Windows 8, they are perhaps as close as they will ever get. 

The benefits are obvious. For Microsoft, this integrated platform will lead consumers to buy not just one device but a whole interoperable lineup. Microsoft will have desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones all running on the same system with the same interface and capabilities differentiated to suit the varying form factors. Tie it to the cloud and that becomes an extremely powerful marketing message. 

It was likely a painful decision for Microsoft to break Windows Phone yet again. But in the long run, it will prove beneficial. All aspects of Windows Mobile CE will have officially been abolished. The decisive shift clears the ground for the Windows 8 ecosystem to flourish as a whole. 

Microsoft also aligns itself with the industry trend of unifying desktop and mobile platforms. Apple has shown that it is willing to combine much of the functionality of its Mac OS X desktop operating system with iOS that runs on the iPhone and iPad. The idea is to get consumers (and businesses) into a platform ecosystem that they will have trouble escaping. If you own a Mac computer, it will be easier for you to integrate to an iPhone and iPad. Likewise, if you own a Windows 8 computer, it will behoove you to own a Surface tablet and a Windows Phone. Google would love nothing more than to have that type of cross-device integration between Android smartphones and tablets and its Chrome operating system on laptops. The industry giants hope to herd consumers onto a platform not just for one device, but all of their computing needs. Microsoft it taking its first steps toward that goal with Windows 8, and the strategy is compelling.

Whether or not it will be successful across device categories will be another question.