How Microsoft is Trying to Shape the Future of Personal Computing
It’s been over three decades since Microsoft embarked on a journey to empower millions of devices with its software. From the MS-DOS genesis to Windows 10, their vision for revolutionizing personal computing has largely remained constant. Throughout this extensive journey, which involved a series of downfalls and attainments, the Redmond-based conglomerate underwent endless iterations and revisions to reach a point today many consider as a rebirth of an agonizing technology company.
“No matter where we work in the future, Microsoft will have a place in it.”, Satya Nadella mentioned in an interview with The Verge. And if you ponder upon that statement, you’ll realize how relevant that has become over the past year. Microsoft has made a place for their products and services everywhere, all the time. In a nutshell, that’s fundamentally what Nadella and his fellow comrades envision as the future of Microsoft and to be honest, their roadmap has been progressing astonishingly well, at least for now.
Playing Catch Up
Ever since the inception when Bill Gates had the front wheel, Microsoft was the leader in the most crucial line of technology, which was at that time, personal computing. Every innovation or a piece of tech went through PCs for reaching out to the masses and Microsoft ruled the majority of the market through its wildly popular operating system. But Gates left and so did his inceptive partner, Steve Ballmer. Between this period of uncertainty, the industry endured a revolution and primarily shifted its nucleus to the cloud and mobile, both fields where Microsoft lacked entirely and didn’t have a clue how to dominate before the world leaves them behind. Windows phones strived with a minuscule share and Microsoft’s presence in the cloud market was merely 10%.
While Microsoft wasn’t theoretically losing grounds at the moment, they were falling behind in sectors apart from the PC. Later in 2014, Satya Nadella stepped up as Microsoft’s new chief and brought in a slew of necessary changes. He established a critically newer direction for the company under the mantra of being “Cloud first, Mobile first”. And unlike previous attempts that were hell-bent for forcing people to use solely Microsoft’s hardware and software for utilizing their services, Nadella perceived the situations relatively well and pivoted the company’s goals to a different path.
Cloud First, Mobile First
Following that, Microsoft didn’t reckon mobile as smartphones and laptops with varying operating systems, they were merely mediums or facilitators to Microsoft’s global ambition of cloud-enabled computing. The actual computer doesn’t matter to Microsoft anymore unlike Apple who limits its services to just their own hardware. Microsoft obviously knew they had to let go personal choices in order to sustain the fast-paced industry and eventually, they did.
A crucial chunk of that is dependent on Microsoft Azure which itself has come a long way, from being recognized as a platform for running .NET applications to an open infrastructure service for enterprises. At their 2016 Build conference, Microsoft pushed a series of upgrades and new features for providing a scalable and versatile cloud service. With a skill set containing several functionalities for handling Saas and Paas enterprise applications, Azure has been moving closer to its rivals such as Amazon Web Services.
While the rest of Azure story can get technical, what’s more important is that all the effort Nadella forced upon, actually has some positive results to show for. Microsoft’s FY16 Q4 earnings reveal that Azure attained almost 102% revenue growth in the latest fiscal year and computing usage more than doubling year-over-year. Furthermore, their services are right behind Amazon now which stands at the first spot.
Microsoft has been continuously extending Azure integrations and building a complete developer and enterprise platforms. Moreover, they acquired Xamarin and have embellished a substantially powerful tool tightly attached with Microsoft’s services like Azure, Office 365, Visual Studio, and the Enterprise Mobility Suite.
Additionally, Microsoft has also partnered with a series of manufacturers for providing Microsoft apps out of the box. Leading names have gradually joined the list, including Samsung and Xiaomi which is indeed, commendable. It’s quite certain Microsoft is brilliantly accommodating the repercussions of their past and despite what most people think, this old chap isn’t dying under the modern world influence anytime soon. Satya Nadella’s cloud first, mobile first certainly seems to show growth in a relatively short time span and Microsoft hasn’t looked more promising in the last decade.
However, what matters now is the future and how well Microsoft manages to push their software in conjunction with the latest technology trends. Of course, their strategy shift of generalizing the target audience will play the most impacting role but above that, Microsoft is betting huge on artificial intelligence and its tight merger between all their services. More on that later.
Windows 10 as a Service
Microsoft is still predominantly known for its desktop operating system, Windows. The Redmond giant has also managed to amend the gloomy market image it acquired from Windows 8 and 8.1. With Windows 10, the company has finally seemed to figure out how tablets and traditional desktops can be concatenated without disappointing either of the sides. The latest version of Windows has moved to a service model meaning you won’t have to deal with version numbers and Microsoft will be able to push streams of updates continuously. Interestingly, it is highly possible that this is the last Windows number you’ll ever see. As of now, there’s no news whether Windows 10 users will ever have to pay for any future updates, but you never know.
By this approach, Microsoft will be ensuring that each and every user stays on the latest build and is using the most recent technologies they’ve implemented. In retrospective, formerly, users bought a PC which came with the latest Windows version, license for which was bought by the OEM. When Microsoft comes out with a new operating system, customers either had the option to buy it or live with an outdated system. In the majority of the cases, the latter happens and Microsoft is unable to transition its users to the newer technologies. Now, users will be able to jump on the new release as soon as Microsoft rolls it out.
Microsoft has meticulously balanced the flow for hybrid computers and made the transition from a desktop to the tablet interface utterly streamlined. OEMs have, as a result, launched a lot more 2-in-1 computers and customers too, have shown contentment for the same. While the overall PC market faced a decline, Windows 10 adoption numbers have grown rapidly reaching over 400 Million at the time of writing this article. It’s still, though, far from Microsoft’s vision to reach the Billion.
Windows’ future has been declared and its infinite state of being recognized as a service seems feasible. But Windows 10’s most crucial component lies in Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana, which has itself received several updates since the inception. Apart from setting reminders and adding calendar appointments, Cortana has evolved into a proficient platform that Microsoft is plugging into its other tools like Windows 10’s default browser, Microsoft Edge. And building upon their unified strategy further, Cortana can now even administer Android notifications. Cortana is the most compatible and complete digital assistant users can benefit from but it’s about to become considerably more omnipresent as Microsoft continues to extend its accessibility into various other platforms including their gaming ecosystem, Xbox.
The Surface lineup too plays an extremely important role in this as it represents what Microsoft thinks of laptops, convertibles, and even, all-in-one desktops. These products showcase the best of Windows 10 and the latest hardware featuring modern designs, hybrid setups, and most eminently, provide guidelines and inspirations to what other OEMs think of Windows computers. You see, Windows laptops weren’t always considered the best in terms of design and quality, customers had this standardized image which involved a thick machine that has an annoying fan noise and was basically, used to create spreadsheets. Microsoft has put an end to that and given some recent launches like Dell’s XPS or Lenovo’s Yoga series, Windows is at its paramount level today more than ever.
The future of Microsoft also involves a single operating system running across all their platforms whether it’s Xbox or desktops. Windows 10 represents what Microsoft envisions the future of personal computing and that matters a lot given how massive their user base is. It will combine the best of portability and productivity, all of which will be deeply tied with their almost three-year-old digital assistant. But it’s about to get much bigger than that.
But What About Mobile?
Ah, yes, Microsoft still has a smartphone division and its future seems to be hanging in the balance. Despite the company’s continuous efforts for attracting third-party developers, Windows 10 Mobile is still a mess hindered with bugs and efficiency issues. The scarcity of applications and hardware have led the system into a quicksand, escaping from which looks quite impossible for now. Microsoft did come up with sleek new features, most notably “Continuum”. However, it’s still far from perfect and to be honest, customers won’t buy it just for that.
All the eyes are currently, though, on the highly rumored Surface Phone. Nadella did mention that they’re working on the “ultimate mobile device” but unless they fix the software, launching the top-notch hardware won’t do good to anybody.
As aforementioned, Microsoft is no longer seeing mobile devices as smartphones running Windows 10. Their push in the market involves iOS and Android too, and in the process, I won’t surprised if they decide to abandon Windows 10 Mobile unless they suddenly regain popularity. The applications they’ve been devising under their Research division and by making Office available (which is by the way, far more superior than what they have for Windows 10 running phones) for every operating system surely have accentuated that agenda.
About that ultimate mobile device, Microsoft has recently announced that they’ve managed to implement the complete Windows 10 for PC on ARM processors which will essentially, allow you to run desktop applications on smartphones or tablets. This could most certainly usher an entirely new revolutionize in the industry, however, nothing can be said at the moment.
Okay, let’s address the elephant in the room and Microsoft’s most ambitious target right now, artificial intelligence.
Microsoft is a software company above everything else and AI and machine learning are the leading trends in the industry upon which, almost every big or small technology organization is building its products on. However, Microsoft is aiming at a significantly much wider level as I said before.
The first thing to know about Microsoft’s AI advancements is that they have a 5000-person team under the AI and Research division which also includes Cortana and Bing. Microsoft has a lot of products that are collecting and piling up data in their database and the company’s sole goal is to dynamically manipulate that content and fabricate an efficient environment that is capable of understanding what the user wants and delivering that without complicating other aspects. And for achieving it, Nadella is infusing AI into essentially, everything and everywhere. This encompasses Cognitive APIs for Cortana, Skype real-time translations, their bot platform, Office 365, Swiftkey’s keyboard, even little things like the spelling correction in Word, and more.
However, the main attraction in their wide ecosystem (that I promise won’t get any more complicated, maybe) is the Cortana Intelligence Suite.
Cortana Intelligence Suite is a gateway for developers to create applications through a rich variety of technologies including machine learning, big data, analytics, intelligent bots, all of which is based on Microsoft Azure. This will fundamentally allow creators to build enterprise solutions leveraging this extensive set of resources. It’s really fascinating how enormously powerful Microsoft has grown in the AI field in the recent years and with this platform, they will only get better from here. The bot framework can be used to create automated conversions for text/SMS, Office 365, Skype, even Slack, and more.
Leading players in the industry have already implemented features on top of this. Uber is now using the Cortana Cognitive Services’ face recognition tools to verify drivers and passengers’ identities. Furthermore, Microsoft is working with Volvo for creating an intelligent tool that can recognize when drivers are distracted and essentially, warm them when that happens. Pretty cool.
Microsoft wants to deliver AI to the masses and considering how they’re progressing right now, I won’t be surprised if they become the first one to create an artificially intelligent ecosystem capable of handling each and every platform, application, and more.
The another big word you’ll hear at every Microsoft conference is, of course, Productivity. From improving older products like the Office suite to introducing new ones like Microsoft Teams, have certainly made Microsoft into a productivity baron. Furthermore, this software has been steadily receiving updates for keeping up the competition such as adding AI algorithms to creating instant presentations in Powerpoint or the web applications which allow users to work entirely on the browser and collaborate with others. Additionally, they’ve executed a series of acquisitions for reaching the targets even quicker such as Wunderlist, Genee which is basically an artificial-intelligence-powered scheduling service, LinkedIn for integrating a professional social network, and a whole lot more.
Finally, let’s talk about the most phenomenal piece of technology Microsoft has ever come up with, HoloLens. It is the prospect everyone can visualize right now because it absolutely looks like the future. HoloLens is essentially a “mixed reality” headset which acts as a pathway to a virtual world where the user will be to augment digital objects in real life scenarios. It looks undoubtedly inspired from science fiction but isn’t a gimmick at all unlike what other companies have attempted to do.
Microsoft thinks Hololens will bring “Holograms to real life” but that’s not entirely true because you still need those goggles to see what’s going on. But it surely works allowing interactive 3D objects float midair, skype calls hovering in front of you, virtual screens, characters, and what not. It can detect where you are, what’s around you, your gestures, it creates a lifelike virtual environment around you. And no, it’s not virtual reality. VR puts a screen in front of your eyes but HoloLens is producing these graphics in your surroundings.
Microsoft thinks HoloLens can revolutionize the ways people collaborate, create, and explore new ideas and it really has the potential to do so. Microsoft’s perfect use case paradigm involves a group of people wearing HoloLens and working in a virtual world and given the level of accuracy they are able to achieve right now, I’m certain they’ll succeed once it becomes a little more accessible as currently, it costs $3000.
Microsoft’s vision of the future contains an impeccable productivity suite of applications and services that are accessible from anywhere. And there are no doubts that they’re going on the right path here. Their hardware and software both have been doing astonishingly well in the market but they’ll have to give up a bunch of things along the way which is pulling them back. Most notably, their mobile platform that seems to have lost its way completely. Although at the pace Nadella is pushing Microsoft’s boundaries, the Redmond giant is finally out of the muddle and off to a great journey.