Maybe it really is a new Microsoft—not just a kinder and gentler company under still-new CEO Satya Nadella, but also a smarter one.
Consider the way the company is unveiling Windows 10, the operating system version slated to replace the less-than-successful Windows 8 sometime in mod-2015. Not that long ago, Microsoft would have staged a big, brassy event featuring a series of Microsoft execs bellowing that while Windows 8 was GREAT, Windows 10 will be EVEN GREATER. Cue eye-rolling all around.
Not Your Ballmer’s Microsoft
Instead, on Microsoft invited a few dozen journalists to a “conversation” Tuesday about “Windows and the enterprise” at which it revealed many Windows 10 features for laptops and desktops, offered hands-on time with a preliminary version of the OS, and announced that it will make a preview version of Windows 10 available to everyone on Wednesday.
The executives in attendance, operating-system VPs Terry Myerson and Joe Belfiore, also acknowledged Windows 8’s shortcomings and repeatedly emphasized Microsoft’s desire to make the new version accessible to everyone—especially Windows 7 users. That’s a big deal, because Windows 8’s startling new touch-based interface and minimization of the traditional “desktop” apparently scared away vast numbers of users. (Windows 8 launched almost two years ago, yet the even older Windows 7 remains roughly four times more popular with users.)
Belfiore even likened Windows 7 users to Prius drivers who would get an unexpected boost when they upgrade. “On Windows 10, it’s not like they’ll have to learn something new, but suddenly they’ll find themselves driving a Tesla,” he bragged at the Windows 10 event Tuesday.
Microsoft’s Listening Tour
This humble, come-try-our-familiar-but-even-better-product approach could be a winning formula for Microsoft, not least because it cuts such a sharp contrast with the company’s traditional we-know-best arrogance. It’s a tacit recognition that Microsoft is operating in a new environment, one in which it no longer calls the shots and has a lot of ground to make up with shell-shocked customers and corporate buyers.
Think of it as Microsoft’s listening tour, one that could simultaneously mollify aggrieved customers, provide valuable feedback to the developers still refining Windows 10 code, and build word-of-mouth buzz for Windows 10 in the nine months or so prior to its official launch.
The company’s Windows Insider program, in which technically adventurous types can download the rough-and-ready preliminary version of Windows 10, is key to this effort. Microsoft officials take pains to emphasize that this preview version is not for everyone; if you take the plunge, you should be prepared for glitches, bugs and missing features at the very least. Participants will get a steady stream of updates as they’re made available.
Microsoft, of course, has made early versions of its OS software available in the past. Windows 8 itself saw three pre-release versions between September 2011 and May 2012; it officially launched that October. Apple does something similar with public betas of Mac OS X, though typically over a shorter time period.
The difference here is that Windows 10 is still so obviously unfinished, suggesting that Microsoft not only needs to crowdsource its debugging, but that it’s actively seeking input in order to tweak and even redesign features to best serve its users. For instance, yesterday’s demo still included the Windows 8 “charm bar,” an obnoxious touch-oriented pop-out menu, on the desktop; Belfiore admitted that “we expect the charm bar to change” without elaborating.
Similarly, the Windows 10 “Continuum” feature, in which the operating system can reconfigure itself from a keyboard-and-mouse oriented desktop to a touch-oriented set of tiles for tablets and phones, remains so rough that Belfiore wouldn’t even demo it on Tuesday. (He played a video instead.)
The closest parallel to the process Microsoft seems to be embracing might be Google’s development of its Chrome browser. The company puts out new versions at various stages of development via a variety of staggered release channels; these range from often unstable daily “canary” builds through dev and beta versions to the stable releases that most people are familiar with. The process allows Google to innovate quickly, pull in lots of feedback from techno-risk takers and yet still not break a product that millions of people rely on.
“Windows 10 will be our most collaborative OS project ever,” Myerson said Tuesday, adding that Microsoft will “make sure people have been heard and listened to.”
That hearing and listening may occur on several levels. Microsoft’s PR spokespeople note that “Microsoft will provide tools and information to help users provide feedback and shape the next version of Windows.” In addition, the technical preview may also feed detailed (though anonymous) user-behavior data back to Redmond so that it can tweak features or interfaces.
Microsoft’s reps had no comment on that possibility, but here’s what ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley reported on Monday:
I’ve heard Microsoft built a new real-time telemetry system codenamed “Asimov” (yes, another Halo-influenced codename) that lets the OS team see in near real-time what’s happening on users’ machines. This is how Microsoft may be able to measure how successful the features it “flights” with different user groups are. One of my contacts said Asimov is a system that the Xbox team originally built and used during its development process.
We’ll presumably know more later today when the technical preview launches, since Microsoft will almost certainly need user consent for such tracking.
Still, unless early versions are truly disastrous, the Windows 10 preview will most likely work to Microsoft’s advantage by keeping the operating system in the public eye for most of the next year. That could prove to be its own reward.
Still A Long Way To Go
None of which is to say that Microsoft’s new approach to Windows is going to solve all its problems. Consider just a few of the challenges Microsoft faces with Windows 10:
- Winning back existing Windows users and big business customers
- Unifying the Windows codebase across devices ranging from phones to high-powered desktops to servers
- Continuing to improve the touch-based Windows interface without alienating desktop users
- Start making some progress in mobile devices, where Microsoft has been stalled for years despite heavy investments in its Surface tablets and its purchase of Nokia
- Moving to smaller, continuous Windows updates instead of major releases every three years or so
- Consolidating all of these changes and exploiting new business opportunities
Microsoft’s traditional command-and-control approach wouldn’t get it very far on many, if any, of these fronts. Though that might not have stopped it in the past; this is, after all, the company that bulled ahead with two different versions of Windows 8, one of which wouldn’t run older Windows programs; scared some PC makers out of the Windows tablet market by launching its own rival Surface tablet; and spent $7.2 billion to acquire Nokia and turn itself into a smartphone maker that competes with its Windows phone partners.
By contrast, a more inclusive and collaborative Windows development approach holds some promise of pointing a way out of Microsoft’s current quagmire. At the very least, it can’t hurt to get users rallied behind Windows and its technical OS woes squared away. Getting Windows cleaned up might even free up enough attention and resources for Microsoft to address its glaring weakness in mobile, where its market share remains stuck at a dismal 2.5%.
It’s been some time since Microsoft’s reaction to crisis has held the prospect of making things better instead of worse. Even if you’ve long viewed Microsoft as the devil from Redmond, you almost have to wish it luck in this struggle.
Photos by David Hamilton for ReadWrite