What is Microsoft Really Doing with Windows 10?

While Microsoft is still basking in the glow of the nearly-universal positive reception to last week’s Windows 10 event, much of the focus so far has been on improvements for traditional PC users and, of course, starry-eyed reports about HoloLens, a product so forward-leaning that it can make us temporarily forget that the software giant is still losing big in the areas covered by its “mobile first, cloud first” mantra. So what will Windows 10 do to right the Microsoft ship and ensure that this year’s launch is nothing like the Windows 8 debacle?

To understand what Microsoft is doing, I think it makes sense to parse the words of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who capped last week’s Windows 10 event by aping my plea that the company adopt a “mobile first, cloud first, Windows best” strategy. And in doing so, he finally spoke the words so many in the Windows ecosystem wanted to hear: yes, Microsoft is pushing a cross-platform approach. But contrary to the events of last year–when the firm seemed to focus almost exclusively on Android and iOS in the mobile space–it will also work to ensure that those who stick with Windows will get the best experience.

This declaration was part of what Mr. Nadella said were three touchstones to Microsoft’s strategy for Windows 10: Windows as a service, Windows and mobility, and Windows and cross-platform. So let’s look at each of these in turn.

Windows as a service

Mr. Nadella referred to Windows as a service (WaaS) as a “profound change.” And while you may argue that businesses have been essentially licensing Windows as a service for years through Software Assurance and other volume licensing schemes, that’s only half of the story. WaaS–what the heck, we need another acronym–is also about Windows being constantly serviced and updated by the Redmond mothership, a situation that most enterprises and many other businesses will find untenable.

Nadella speaks to the advantages of this approach: he calls it “a continuous stream of innovation,” one that gives developers a common baseline to target instead of today’s world of mixed product versions. And it will… for consumers. Managed businesses will never buy into this scheme, and Microsoft knows this. And commensurate with allowing businesses to continue licensing Windows as they have for the past several versions, Microsoft will of course allow them to continue servicing Windows as before too.

I have to wonder if this will ever change. Certainly, moving consumers to a model where Windows is always updated makes sense, generally. And it could provide Windows with a patina of security and reliability–let’s call it “servicing theater”–that will make people feel less ill-at-ease about Windows’ problems, whether they’re real or imagined. But we’ve all experienced botched Windows Updates, and for this scheme to actually work, the updates Microsoft delivers will need to be both quick and reliable. And there’s little precedent for that.

Windows and mobility

As part of his ongoing redefining of “mobile first, cloud first,” Mr. Nadella last week spoke of “the mobility of experiences,” a phrase that seems to step away from mobile hardware created by Microsoft and perhaps even from hardware made by others that also runs Microsoft’s platforms. “That’s our world view,” he said. “When we talk about mobility, it is not about the mobility of any single device, but it is the mobility of the experiences across devices.

Windows 10 is being infused with productivity, gaming, and entertainment experiences, he said, and these experiences will “crossover across devices” as users move around at both home and work. To this point, little of what Nadella said had much to do with “Windows and mobility”–for all the praise he gets, I still find him to be overly nebulous when he speaks, emphasizing the high level over specifics–but he did finally turn to two areas that will impact Windows and Windows users directly.

First, the universal app platform that Microsoft is touting in Windows 10 (surprise: it dates back to pre-Windows 8 days, really) will further improve how developers can create solutions that target a vast variety of devices, PCs, and Xbox, and it’s a good plan.

And second, Microsoft and its partners are of course further innovating in the hardware space, too. Surface, Lumia, and Xbox are all well-known examples of Microsoft’s hardware platforms, but it is notable that the firm launched two new hardware platforms last week, too: the Surface Hub screen and the HoloLens. It is perhaps equally notable that neither is truly new: Surface Hub is really a next generation Perceptive Pixel device, while HoloLens, an augmented reality headset, was until six or nine months ago was a next-generation Kinect product aimed at the gaming market.

(As an aside, Surface Hub and HoloLens are both horrible and confusing product names. This speaks to Microsoft’s inability to create strong brands. But let’s move on.)

Windows and cross-platform

Finally, Mr. Nadella addressed the elephant in the room: In the year building up to the launch of Windows 10, Microsoft released an avalanche of new mobile apps for the competition–Android and iOS–and many of these solutions were dramatically better than what the firm makes available on Windows. Put simply, the natives are getting restless.

“Windows is the best place … it’s the home for the very best Microsoft experiences,” Mr. Nadella said. “We are going to have services everywhere. But when it comes to Windows, we’re not bolting on apps, we’re seamlessly harmonizing our experiences. The way Cortana is built-in, the way Microsoft account and Azure Active Directory are built into Windows. How OneDrive and the sync framework are built-in. How Skype and Outlook are built-in. How Xbox Live is built-in. This is just built as part of Windows, as a native experience. Where the scaffolding of the shell as well as the applications come together in the most seamless, delightful ways for users.”

In what I think was Nadella’s best moment at last week’s event–and perhaps ever–he said, “There’s nothing subtle about this strategy. It’s a practical approach which is customer first.”

I don’t take issue with any of this. Heck, I was one of many people calling for just this sort of declaration. But it is of course on Microsoft to show how “seamlessly harmonizing our experiences” in Windows is better than “bolting on apps” to access those experiences on competing platforms. And there was no concrete discussion about this topic at last week’s event, no side-by-side comparisons of how Windows plus any Microsoft service was better, faster, or more efficient in Windows 10 than on Android or iOS.

Looking ahead

Granted, there is plenty of time left. Microsoft will unveil its Windows 10 developer story at Build in late April, and its enterprise story at Ignite in May. But before the firm releases Windows 10–it’s due by the end of the summer–and makes the upgrade available for free to consumers with Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 PCs and Windows Phone 8.1 handsets, it needs to start thinking about being a bit more specific, to put the improvements in this version in perspective. In other words, it’s time for Microsoft to go on the offensive: the real story of Windows 10, alas, has yet to be told.