Spend time using the Windows Phone OS and it can be hard to comprehend that it’s a Microsoft product. Not only is it a break from the past, it’s a break from anything else on the market.
This is not what we’ve come to expect from Microsoft – the last time they delivered a genuinely new computer user interface was Windows 95. All subsequent versions of desktop Windows have been evolutions of the same design with added eye candy – sometimes of questionable quality. Other successful products like Office were originally me-too applications designed to grab market share from almost-forgotten names like Lotus 123 and WordPerfect.
In recent years Microsoft seemed gripped by a bizarre paralysis, bogged down by a huge effort to untangle and modernise the desktop Windows architecture. Vista was a major let-down and allowed Apple and even Linux to entice users away. When the game-changing iPhone arrived in 2007 it took three years to respond.
Things are changing though – every recent release they’ve made has been excellent. Windows 7 was a huge step forward from Vista and is a very good desktop operating system. The new taskbar is much better for switching between applications and pinned app icons always appear in the same place removing the need to visually search across the taskbar for the program you want. Managing an app with multiple windows falls down a little compared to the Mac OS X equivalent, but it’s not far behind.
Microsoft’s entertainment division is also on a roll. The Xbox 360 has arguably been the best executed seventh generation console. The PS3’s supposed extra power almost never materialises during real-world in-game performance, and the 360 usually delivers better results on cross-platform titles. Against my initial judgement, the Kinect has apparently been a roaring success and after a having the opportunity to use it, it impressed me greatly.
Other products have continued in a similar vein. I installed the free Windows Live Essentials recently and was surprised at the capabilities of Live Writer and Photo Gallery. Live Writer is a native application for creating blog posts and supports a number of different blogging engines, including WordPress. Photo Gallery is an iPhoto equivalent and includes a good panorama creation facility which I’ve made use of in another post.
Visual Studio 2010 is another excellent release and provides massive performance increases over the previous release, and is generally much more pleasant to use. The supporting frameworks are well-designed with ASP.NET MVC in particular being a dream to develop for.
Microsoft has finally delivered a class-leading browser with IE9 which is currently top of the performance crown in benchmarks, even beating Google Chrome.
The key area of improvement we’re seeing with Microsoft is in delivery. They’ve been making huge investments in research for twenty years now and genius ideas have never been a problem, but the resulting products have sometimes failed to deliver on the vision. The tablet computer is a classic example – Windows tablets arrived on the market a full 6 years before the iPad, but the user interface wasn’t optimised for the devices and as a result no-one took any notice.
Over the years, stories of infighting between the different product teams have emerged and this is a good indication of why there’s been problems in delivery. Whoever is responsible for kicking Microsoft back into action has done an amazing job considering the size of the organisation. There are still big challenges ahead such as migrating the domination of Office into a web or cloud solution, and producing a top class tablet operating system, but if they continue to do a better job of getting products to market there could be some big rewards.
The unanswered question is whether or not Microsoft will once again leave products to languish after the objective of getting a majority market share is achieved, as they did with IE6 and Windows Mobile. Given that they are now paying the price for this and are on the back foot with declining IE market share and mobile competition from Android and iOS it would seem unlikely.