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Windows next: So what?

Mary Branscombe | Sept. 19, 2014
Speaking as someone who likes Windows 8 and whose touch PC you can take away when you pry it from my cold dead fingers, I'm surprisingly unexcited about the next version of Windows.

But that's changing as fast as Microsoft can manage it. Just as devices and services actually meant "not just Microsoft devices and not just Microsoft services," so Microsoft as a platform company doesn't just mean just Microsoft platforms, and certainly not just Windows (or even Azure or Xbox). It means Microsoft services and apps built on every platform people use.

What does that mean for Windows? Microsoft tried ambitious and ahead of the curve with Windows 8 and got a resounding "huh?" from the mainstream market. If the next version plays it safe, tones down the vision, and makes enterprises comfortable with the more secure and easier to mobilize WinRT runtime, while accommodating cheap tablets for people who don't want to pay for iPad and want something more powerful than Android, Microsoft can hold onto its 14% while it builds out cros- platform versions of its apps to take advantage of the services where it's actually doing something exciting — like Power BI and Project Spark and Skype Translator and Azure ML and lots of things that have nothing at all to do with Windows.

Because in this day and age, with HTML busy evolving into a web platform that can do everything from graphics to local storage to VoIP calls to asynchronous programming with Web Workers to controlling MIDI, it's not clear that an OS platform itself can be that exciting and innovative any more - especially if that's not what its most profitable audience seems to want. You don't have to accept Marc Andreessen's unkind quip from the days of Netscape, when his ambition was reducing Windows to "a poorly debugged set of device drivers," to believe that the role of the operating system is still important but less exciting these days.

W(h)ither Windows?

The centre of gravity inside Microsoft shifted away from Windows a long time ago. There are multiple billion dollar businesses at Microsoft, including Skype, Lync, Office 365, QQL Server, and several others (as well as Windows and Windows Server). More of those are built on top of Windows Server and — increasingly — Azure, than on Windows client, and the Microsoft products with the biggest opportunity for the future rely on Azure.

The opportunity for tablets and smartphones is a lot bigger than the Windows market too.

I spent six months this year using Windows RT on a Surface 2 as my main computer because it gives me the battery life and light weight I want, along with almost everything I need in the desktop and Office. Yes, I was making compromises and losing some convenience and flexibility to get that — no pen for hand writing notes, no clipboard manager to give me the ability to travel back a week in time and find an image I'd copied, no audio playback of my OneNote recordings made on my phone and no keyboard shortcuts for pausing and rewinding audio for transcribing recordings). Even so, I found I only needed to run full Windows a few times a month for specific things.


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