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Don’t underestimate Microsoft

William Meisel, The Software Society blog

Microsoft is frequently criticized for being late in adapting to the smartphone/mobility trend. In some areas, Microsoft is suffering from success. The large installed base using both Windows and Office resist change, simply because change requires a new learning curve. But Microsoft is currently resisting the temptation to be held back by this inertia, and is positioned to do better than most expect, even rising to parity with Apple and Google in mobile devices and search.

Apple has shown the way in smartphones, of course, but in a way that has limitations. They have a separate smartphone and PC OS, and their focus with iOS has been on using Web information and services, not productivity applications. Google’s Android, like iOS, is limited to mobile devices, and Google’s support of PCs is largely through the Web browser with Web search. The limitation of this dual approach is that, ultimately, users will want as much of the functionality they enjoy on their PC always available on their mobile device, without a significant learning curve.

This desire will be further driven by companies increasingly supporting internal business applications through mobile devices, the “consumerization of IT.” Both Google and Apple have minimal experience supporting enterprise IT compared to Microsoft.

Today, Microsoft is leading the way toward the convergence of PC and mobile functions with an OS that is essentially the same on PCs and mobile devices. Microsoft.s being late to mobile has indirectly been an advantage, in that they are entering the fray at a point where the computing capabilities of the mobile devices have reached the point where they can support more complex operating systems, an option not possible when iOS and Android were launched. Microsoft also supports its market-leading productivity applications on mobile devices by strategies such as accessory keyboards tightly integrated with their tablets and the cloud-based Office 365.

Microsoft also has an entry in the search space through Bing, and Apple’s Siri defaults to Bing rather than Google when it can’t answer an inquiry directly. Microsoft is also expected to launch its own personal assistant application this year, supported by Bing. And the active tiles in Windows 8, with proactive notifications, are a less-intrusive competitor to Google Now.

Microsoft is coming from behind in mobility, but it is notable that they have an entry in all the key areas. Microsoft has invested for decades in technologies such as speech recognition and natural language understanding, and has the core technology to move ahead strongly in areas becoming increasingly important such as voice interaction in automobiles and with mobile devices. The company even has an early and strong entry in Smart TVs through its Xbox franchise, which it is turning into a full entertainment interface supporting both gesture and voice control.

Intelligent interfaces such as personal assistants could unify much of this diversity of devices, applications, and Web services. Microsoft not only has core capabilities in intelligent interfaces, but upper management has publicly endorsed such interfaces as strategic priorities under the heading of “machine learning.”

Microsoft may be coming from behind in some areas, but they have the horsepower and resources to catch up. Their unified approach to PCs and mobile devices and top-level endorsement of machine learning might even be categorized as showing leadership. If Microsoft’s long-term vision is the right one, we might be asking in a few years why Apple and Google didn’t see it.

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5 thoughts on “Don’t underestimate Microsoft

  • I think Microsoft is making big innovations and not only adapting but trying to make a lead in the technology world. Although I may not be a big fan of the new operating system, after learning about it more through a Microsoft boot camp program. I think a lot of their implications will be adopted by many other companies and gain more acceptance.

  • Bob says:

    I also think that people forget some of the things which Microsoft pushed previously that never caught on (surface computing before tablets, operating systems for phones or other ‘utility’ devices, Zune, etc.) and so think of them as ‘newcomers’ in certain technology areas rather than a company who saw the area coming early but just didn’t get it quite right either timing/technology/marketing wise. Which means that, as you say, they have the technology just waiting for their breakout (Xbox for example) in a lot of markets.

  • Skip Cave says:

    The OS isn’t going to be the next new ubiquitous platform – the browser is. All the apps that used to run on an OS, will now run in a browser – on ANY OS, anywhere. OS’es will be relegated to infrastructure tasks like file management, data connectivity, etc. Google Chrome is leading the way here.

    • Skip, I agree with you. The personal assistant functionality is a layer on the OS that makes the OS less relevant. Your Chrome example is a good one, since Chrome now supports what is essentially Google’s personal assistant, on any device that support the browser. The example Google gave in an announcement of using Chrome voice interaction was “OK Google, how many ounces are in one cup?” that you could ask while your hands are busy cooking. You can also say “OK Google, set a timer for 30 minutes.” The latter example makes it clear that the assistant doesn’t just perform search, but interacts with apps. Nevertheless, there are times when one must use the OS, and I believe that a consistent OS on all devices, including PCs, is at least a sensible goal.

  • Neel Gupta says:

    “Don’t underestimate Microsoft”
    Don’t underestimate Consumers, we WILL move on.
    Ubuntu 14.04 is launching this April.

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