Microsoft update: Flow app, Windows 10, UC… and irrelevance?

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In a highly significant year for Microsoft, Chris Middleton looks at its most recent announcements and is concerned that it may all be too little, too late…

2015 is shaping up to be a red-letter year for Microsoft, which has made a flurry of recent announcements. For example, the company is working on a new smartphone app, Flow, which turns emails into instant message style chat conversations, minus an email’s normal subject lines, greetings, or signatures, according to a leak.

The advantage of such an app would be being able to have chat-/IM-style exchanges with people via their email addresses, regardless of which kind of device – or IM apps – they are using, because the underlying technology will be email. Importantly, the app will filter out non-Flow conversations, so that the user’s wider inbox won’t appear within the app.

The move is the latest signal of a shift in policy and emphasis at Microsoft under Satya Nadella, towards a more open, inclusive culture and a lighter, more user-focused approach. It is not before time.

In a year of significant change for the company – perhaps the most significant in a generation – Microsoft has also signalled that it will soon be releasing the latest build (10122) of Windows 10 Insider Preview, despite frequent crashes of its new Edge browser on devices that use AMD GPUs. The problem will be documented in the release notes.

In an effort to make the latest version of Windows more attractive for smartphone app developers, Microsoft also recently announced that it would accept modified iOS and Android apps within Windows.

However, the strategy has hit a snag: lack of interest among mobile developers. At the moment, Microsoft is in a lose:lose situation, thanks to years of mishandling of its mobile strategy, and a deeply held perception that, as a result, it lags a long way behind Apple and Google in innovation and focus in the mobile space.

The selection of apps for Windows phones is poor compared to iOS and Android, which contributes to Windows phones’ lack of attractiveness. Also, handset manufacturers have failed to catch the eye of consumers in the same way as Apple has, along with Android handset makers, such as Samsung.

In a rapidly ‘consumerised’ business environment, in which we are all workers, consumers, and customers at the same time, that lack of user appeal is a serious drawback, and Microsoft has been losing momentum for a decade.

Harsh truths

The figures are stark. At present, Android-based devices account for roughly 81 per cent of the mobile market, and iOS roughly 15 per cent (bearing in mind that Apple also makes the hardware), leaving Microsoft with less than four per cent market share. This means that Microsoft is experiencing precisely what Apple went through on the desktop in the late Nineties and early Noughties: irrelevance for most developers, and mobile users.

In a world in which mobile devices are expected to outsell PCs by six to one, Microsoft is becoming overly reliant on Office, and on its cloud services for business and server software. At present, those lines represent a massive, growing business: Office is expected to account for $30 billion of revenue this year, against Windows’ $20 billion, for example.

Nevertheless, outside of its core of cloud-based business services, where it remains massively important in the enterprise space, Microsoft is fast becoming seen as irrelevant by millennials who have grown up in a very different world to the one that existed in the 1990s, where Microsoft held sway over more than 90 per cent of the desktop market.

Windows 10 – which puts unified communications, collaboration, and the cloud at its core – will be the cornerstone of Microsoft’s fightback, as it will be the first operating system to run across desktops, tablets, and phones. It will also be the last version of Windows to be released as a standalone iteration, so it must represent Microsoft’s best bet on the future.

In that collaborative, user-centric world that Microsoft now – belatedly – sees as being central to its survival, the company needs to get external developers onside if it doesn’t want to be left as an island in the middle of a much larger stream, gradually being eroded by networked-market forces that are now much more powerful than it is.

It also needs to get the CIO, the IT director, and senior IT managers and professionals onside as they consider what infrastructures they are building towards in their increasingly hybridised world.

A key question for IT professionals must be: Beyond the back end, why make a strategic bet on Microsoft if most people, in their own lives, no longer use its services – beyond the ingrained habit of opening a Word document or a spreadsheet?

At present, Nadella seems to be getting a lot of things right – despite his sometimes clumsy PR image. But if he fails to reposition Microsoft strongly enough for a UC-driven, collaborative future, then it will be because he has inherited a legacy of strategic mismanagement.

The noisy, aggressive Ballmer years may one day be seen as catastrophic for the company.

About Author

Chris Middleton

Chris Middleton is a widely respected business and technology journalist, author, and magazine editor. In recent years he has been Editor of Computing (where he remains Consulting Editor); co-founder and Managing Editor of Professional Outsourcing – a magazine he developed from scratch and grew to be the leading magazine in its field; Editor of CBR in its most successful year; and co-founder and launch Editor of Sourcingfocus.com. Today, he is co-Director of EastwoodMiddleton Publishing, and founder, designer, and Editor in Chief of Strategist magazine (UK), the boardroom magazine that provides strategic insight for business leaders, and of its mobile-first digital edition at www.iamtheStrategist.com. He is also co-founding Editor of Child Internet Safety magazine, and a contributing Editor of Diginomica.com. Over the years Chris has also written for, among many others, The Guardian, The Times, the BBC, and Computer Weekly. He is the author of several successful books on digital media, and a commissioning editor of more than 50 books.