Move over, Windows; Google and Apple are movin’ in

Woody Leonhard

With nearly infinite and virtually free cloud storage available, and with archrivals Google and Apple offering big ecosystems ofapps and media, Microsoft seems to have the short end of the stick.

Will Windows be able to compete in this brave new world? Or has it already been relegated to the technological bench — by consumers and, increasingly, companies?

Missing a major shift in personal computing

Put down the tar and feathers; I’m not predicting the imminent demise of Windows, by any means. Even with the extraordinary pace of the tech industry, Windows has the inertia of a moving freight train, sufficient to carry it well into the next decade. That assumes it’s helped along by a re-envisioned Windows 9.

But given the current state of computing in general, I’m starting to worry that Windows 9 will be too little, too late. Forces outside Microsoft — particularly the convergence of proprietary hardware and content — could relegate Windows to niche applications. It could become the operating system of corporate drones and the platform for aged software.

I’m not worried about Microsoft’s survival as an ongoing enterprise. With Satya Nadella now firmly in command, I’m convinced Microsoft’s going to do fine. But will it do so with Windows?

Like it or not — believe it or not — both Apple and Google have assembled enormous ecosystems of interconnected applications and content. It can be argued that Microsoft has largely missed that shift in consumer computing, choosing to sit on its corporate-leaning laurels. There’s a huge demand for iOS and Android apps, and many of those apps are making tons of money for their authors. Similarly, there’s an unfulfilled demand for apps that run in the cloud, accessible to anyone with a browser, no matter what platform they’re using.

When was the last time you heard about a fabulous new Metro/Modern app — or new Windows desktop software? Possibly the last exciting MS software news was when OneNote went mobile — or when Microsoft made a viable version of Office for the iPad. (According to an InfoWorld article, IBM announced that it will help Apple deploy iPads and iPhone to enterprises.)

So Microsoft has inertia but doesn’t have momentum. It’s a problem that’s somewhat out of Redmond’s control. There’s a massive number of iOS and Android mobile devices, and the market continues to grow. According to a recent report, market research firm Gartner predicts that devices running Windows will make up less than 13 percent of all “computers” (phones, tablets, PCs, and similar digital devices) shipped in 2014.

App sales tell a similar story. According to an AppleInsider story, Apple’s App Store has paid out more than U.S. $15 billion to software authors in the past six years. And according to a Forbes report, about $10 billion was paid to software developers in just the past year. There are now 1.2 million iOS apps offered. Forbes also states that Google Play contributors have received about $5 billion in the past year.

I don’t have specific numbers for the Windows Store, but they’re paltry when compared to Apple and Google. (Moreover, many of the Windows Store apps seem poorly written.) So there’s pay dirt for iOS and Android software developers — and, for the most part, just dirt for authors of Windows-based apps. Small wonder that many Windows developers are moving to other platforms — including the cloud.

The strangling role of the walled garden

Microsoft, Google, and — most famously — Apple have each built walled gardens around their products and services. To a greater and lesser extent, each has made it easy to move among products in one garden but difficult to travel between gardens. For example, Microsoft’s OneDrive is well integrated with Office 2013, and Google’s Drive includes its own suite of online apps. But creating and editing files across platforms is kludgy at best. And it’s no easier connecting to Dropbox, Drop, or any of a dozen other online storage services. In fact, things are getting worse, not better. (Apple iCloud support on Windows really sucks.)

In a July 6 Ars Technica story, Andrew Cunningham took a detailed look at the future of the walled gardens. He notes:

“The lock-in wars … have become more intense as companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft try to get their software and services on more and more kinds of devices. The first battlegrounds were in application and media stores. If you had a bunch of songs from iTunes on your Mac, maybe you’d pick up an iPhone instead of something with Android. On the other hand, if you spent a couple of years amassing apps in Google Play, maybe you’d reach for an Android tablet instead of an iPad.

“The war eventually extended to include services — think iMessage and iCloud versus Hangouts and your Google account; Google Drive versus OneDrive; Chrome password sync[h]ing versus iCloud Keychain. To its credit, Google has made many of its services available to iOS devices through its apps, and Microsoft has been building out iOS and Android support bit-by-bit for the last couple of years. Apple has done nothing to make its services available on other platforms, though, and Google refuses to make official apps for its services available to Windows phones and tablets through the Windows Store.”

Currently, Microsoft simply can’t match the depth or breadth of either Apple or Google Play — in consumer apps, in media, or in reach.

Microsoft, of course, knows it has a lot of ground to make up. But publicly, its plan to recapture the consumer market remains vague. In a July 10 The Verge interview, new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said:

“I fundamentally believe that it’s most important to us to convince consumers [to buy Microsoft products]. You’re defining the market as ‘It’s already done, Apple and Google have won, because they won the consumer side.’ And I’m going to question that. I’m going to say ‘No, any thinking consumer should consider Microsoft because guess what, you’re not just a consumer. You’re also going to go to work, you’re also going to be productive and we can do a better job for you in there.’ And that’s what I want to appeal to.”

I leave it to you to decide whether that’s reassuring. It suggests that computer users will want Microsoft products for personal use because that’s what they use at work. But I think that train has already left the station — headed in the opposite direction. Most users are now comfortable using different platforms for personal and work applications.

Where the platform battle is really headed

Although neither company would admit to it, both Google and Apple have a discernible strategy. When discussing the future of smartphones, tech blogger Benedict Evans put it best in a July 3 post:

“Apple’s approach is about a dumb cloud enabling rich apps while Google’s is about devices as dumb glass that are endpoints of cloud services. That’s going to lead to rather different experiences, and to ever more complex discussions within companies as to what sort of features they create across the two platforms and where they place their priorities.”

And where is Microsoft in that spectrum? Evans doesn’t even mention Microsoft in his article, thus speaking volumes. But it’s apparent that Microsoft still hasn’t staked out any specific strategy — other than the Steven Sinofsky plan of Windows everywhere.

Yes, Windows will continue to dominate the business-machine market for the foreseeable future. But Android will ship 1.2 billion devices this year. And Apple, Google, and Amazon all offer rich computing and media ecosystems. Microsoft has barely left the gate.

Are we witnessing a long, slow death for Windows? I sincerely hope not. For decades, I’ve made a living with Windows and Office — and I bet you have, too. It would be very sad to see it go. But unless Microsoft makes sweeping changes in a very short time span, Windows is on the path to eventual irrelevance.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-07-17:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.