Windows 11

I’m not sure Microsoft Windows will be around in a decade, and that makes me sad.

I used to pick Windows computers. I used to like the operating system and feel more productive on it. I’m sure the price point helped.
I still miss full-size arrow keys and having a functional text-selection model, but today I’m decidedly a Mac user. I like that the terminal is a Unix terminal, and I like that I can uninstall an app by throwing it in the trash.
My phone runs Android, and I like how sharing information between apps work, enough that I’m willing to put up with phones that are too big and cameras that aren’t great.
But there’s no longer a place in my life for Windows. Sure, I run it in a virtual machine to test things, but that hardly counts.

Although Windows 8 was a nightmare hellride to actually use, I really liked how starkly new it felt compared to how operating systems have looked and functioned for decades. The swiss design style1 is something I never thought we’d see in computer interfaces. Going all in with this on Windows 8 was a ballsy and rather couragous move, even though it obviously didn’t pan out. Turns out you can’t just throw out decades of interface paradigms between versions, who knew?
Windows 8 was a glorious failure, but it did include a new application runtime that’s shared with Windows Phone, and it looks like Windows 10 will be fixing the UI wonkiness. I’m still left wondering if it’ll be enough to turn things around.

I’ve been a big fan of new CEO Satya Nadella’s work in the past year. He seems to thinking what we’ve all been thinking for decades: it’s weird that Microsoft hasn’t been putting their apps on iOS and Android. Windows RT was stupid. No-one is using Windows Phone.

But that last one is disconcerting to me. While I’m a happy Android user and fan of iOS, a duopoly in smartphone platforms isn’t good for anyone. I would prefer Microsoft to have a semi-succesful presence in the mobile space, if only to keep Google and Apple on their toes. Most developers aren’t going to voluntarily maintain an app for a platform that only has 3% of the market, and without apps, no-one will adopt the platform. Recent news suggests Nadella understands this, and is giving their mobile efforts one final shot. The hope is that by making Windows 10 a free upgrade, app developers might have more incentive to use the new app runtime so their apps will run on desktop and mobile alike. I would think if this strategy fails, it’s likely Microsoft will more or less be conceding the smartphone form factor entirely.

On the one hand this seems like exactly the kind of tough choice a forward-looking CEO needs to make in order to ensure Microsoft has a future at all, but on the other hand it leaves an even bigger question of where that leaves Windows for PCs if Microsoft concedes defeat on smartphones. While in the near term Windows for desktops and laptops is probably safe, in the longer term there are growing threats from Chrome OS, a potential Android on laptops, and apps running in the cloud. Even if Windows marketshare survives past these challenges, the price and therefore revenue of selling operating systems has been converging on zero for a while now. It’s only a matter of time.

So what’s Nadella’s plan? When Windows revenue eventually drops to zero, and Microsoft has no platform (and therefore app store with a revenue cut) on smartphones, what will be their livelyhood? In order for Microsoft to stay in the consumer space and not become the next dull IBM, they’ll need a source of income that is not Windows, and it’s probably not hardware either, no matter how good the Surface Pro 3 was.

So what remains of Microsoft must be what Nadella bets on as the next source of income. So that’s Office, Xbox, various cloud services and new things.

Microsoft has always been good at new things, but bad at productizing them. It seems Nadella has some skills in that area, so this will be an exciting space to watch in the next few years, but like all new ideas it’s like buying a lottery ticket. You increase your chance of winning by buying a ticket, but you might still not win.

The rest is tricky. The problem is that without owning the platform it’ll be orders of magnitude harder for Microsoft to sell their services. Unlike Google, Microsoft has to broker deals in order to have their apps preinstalled on Android phones, and though Android is pretty open, since they don’t own the platform they’ll always be subject to changing terms and APIs. Apple is a closed country entirely: you’ll have to seek out and install their apps if you want them, and even if you do, Microsofts digital assistant will never be accessible from the home button. It’s a steep and uphill battle, but I really hope Microsoft finds new footing. Because like how birds do, if life in one ecosystem turns miserable, I want to be able to migrate to another one, ideally a flourishing one. Oh, and I want to see how Windows looks when Microsoft turns it up to eleven.

  1. I refuse to call it Flat Design™ because that’s a stupid term that suggests a flat sheet of color is somehow a recent invention.