By: Kirk Douglas
Microsoft is upping their software game on competing platforms in a big way.
There, I said it.
As a long time Apple enthusiast who’s built his primary-use technology collection around the beautiful hardware and cohesive software of OSX and iOS, it has been hard looking at Microsoft the last decade or more with any serious consideration. Admittedly, since making the switch to Mac I had all but turned a blind eye towards Microsoft until just the last few years.
My last day-to-day experience with Windows was nightmarish to say the least. Before then, I was an intermediate in building PC’s from basic off the shelf components. Like many, I used online guides and hit up the store reps at my local Fry’s Electronics to gain insight on parts that worked best together. I had built my own PC, assisted a friend in building one for his business and modified an HP laptop to my liking by switching out the hard drive and performing a RAM upgrade.
These modifications are basic by todays standards but I had fun in my limited run building low-cost PC’s. I mostly played it safe. I was a long-shot from someone who might be found soldering parts together or shopping for the perfect component for each task based on minute details. As a childhood tinkerer, building PC’s was just enough of a challenge to keep me wrapped up in something a few days or weeks long enough to feel a sense of accomplishment when I finally finished and got things to work.
The part I recall being most painstaking was always the same. Getting Windows to boot in full working order, encountering seemingly endless driver mismatches and the occasional .dll errors as a result of software changes I made; which were all par for the course. At the time, Microsoft Windows itself was the least of my worries; it was by my own hand the the software often seemed mangled or misdirected to work with my hardware.
The current version of the day was Windows XP (service pack 2 if memory serves) and it was stable enough and reliable to a point that most anything that wasn’t working was a direct result of my own lack of knowledge. As most do in that situation, I resorted to Google and a system of trial and error to finally get it right.
I ended up with several machines over the course of a couple of years that I was proud to say I had built or modified successfully. Occasionally a software update came out that broke something but generally speaking, I was a success.
That was of course until my Windows nightmare began. I boldly signed up for the Windows beta program shortly before the release of Vista and thought for sure that the promise of the bold new interface was merely a fresh coat of paint under which I’d explore a system I’d find to perform similar with my “Frankensteined” machines. I was wrong. Very wrong.
I literally referred to Windows Vista as “Windows Nightmare.”
Disenchanted, disappointed and confused by the lack of common drivers and inability to get even the most basic of hardware to work, I retired at least two machines awaiting a Golden Master (the public release version) so i’d have working machines again.
The Golden Master came and went; I clean-installed, found updated drivers and when I finally had things “working” it was a hobbled experience at best. I hated the “Aero” interface, the constant updates and the ongoing breaking and bricking of my hardware that came as a result. It was then that I turned to Apple and threw in the towel on my aspirations to build PC’s.
I made the switch and within months started touting the efficiencies and ease of use I found in my new platform of choice. I regularly bashed Windows Vista and discouraged everyone I knew from updating. By the time Windows 7 came out, (a much, much better designed and more reliable upgrade in my opinion), I was already so entrenched in my love affair with Apple that Windows was merely a name to me I had heard in some distant past. Like an estranged lover who had caused me some deep-seeded pain, I looked to Microsoft as if the company had left me and my technology disparaged.
Steve Ballmer, the then CEO didn’t help matters. Regularly dismissive of the new products I had grown to love and often showcasing his company’s efforts with a fury of flop sweat and corporate conviction, I couldn’t align with him or his company’s vision anymore. He was utterly ‘uncool’ to me. Steve Jobs was my technology god now. He was new to me, exciting even — remember, we are talking about a guy who came out on stage in jeans — and my first iPod purchase had sealed the deal easing my transition from PC to Mac just a couple of years prior.
Microsoft was beginning to look lame. If for no one else, than at least in my perception. I began to see the company as preserving the status quo. Leadership looked like the old guard. In my mind, they were corporate monkey’s playing it safe.
They didn’t seem to present things with genuine excitement. They didn’t have ‘the cool,’ as I call it. Their focus seemed to have turned from the consumers of the 90’s (families and schools for example) to a focus on corporate business licenses and network services. Microsoft Office had taken over Lotus 123 and Wordperfect more than a decade earlier and though it was the gold standard in offices across the world it was oh so stale and unexciting to me.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: That has definitely began to change.
Satya Nadella took over the company as CEO in early 2014. I can’t seem to pinpoint exactly when the positive change started to become apparent, but it was a bit before his takeover was made public. I am convinced to this day that there was a likely long-running transition up to his appointment as CEO. Speculation aside, the fact is that Microsoft has arguably been a lot more interesting since his induction.
Among the releases and refinements across Microsoft’s offerings in recent years (from shortly before Nadella to present day), the company has stepped foot into re-vamped hardware development with a new Xbox console, entirely new modern mobile devices, the Surface product line, and revamped cross-platform software.
I’d wager that last bit is the most important.
To this day I still prefer the Apple platform as my ecosystem of choice. My devices are synchronized and the ‘ease of use advantage’ is still apparent. I believe myself to be largely embroiled in the best combination of first-party and third-party software offerings; that hasn’t changed. But i’d be lying if I said my every need was met by Apple alone.
As a man in my 30’s whose taken on three different roles in my professional life, I can’t stress enough how Microsoft has become increasingly important to my day-to-day operations. The ways in which they have done so might not be evident to everyone but they are to me.
For one, they have successfully transitioned their Office suite to mobile devices including Android and iOS with great success. As an early adopter of Word on iPad just a month or so after Nadella’s takeover (March 2014), the very first version for Apple’s device included a completely touch-optimized interface that not even the Surface Pro offered at the time. This is a detail I believe many forget. The Surface tablet, announced in June of 2012, was designed as a direct competitor to the iPad, coming for the mobile market from more of a “2-in-1” approach. With removable keyboard and optional stylus, Microsoft believed they were poised to take a bite out of Apple’s then fast-growing iPad market.
They weren’t wrong. But in my opinion, they missed a few critical software details and one of them was considering touch as a main input method for their new device. I tried office on the Surface very early on and remember the frustration of trying to hit tiny touch targets that begged for a mouse and keyboard. It was almost immediately apparent that they hadn’t actually built their device with a “tablet first” mentality. It was, after all a full PC.
Strangely, they addressed this with the iPad version upon its very first release. Looks wise, Word was initially rather lackluster on the iPad but it did what it needed to do; it offered the format standards users could expect from Microsoft and tackled the interactivity of relying on a finger as an input method. On top of this, they made the software free to use so long as you weren’t relying on Microsoft cloud services for syncing features (OneDrive).
They have since released a plethora of touch-optimized iOS and Android software. From Outlook to Word, Powerpoint, Excel, OneDrive and OneNote (among others) it is now easy to live in a “Post-PC” world with all of your past PC favorites.
Most recently, Microsoft has expanded on functionality of these products leveraging Apple’s Pencil (on the iPad Pro) with features that even Apple has yet to incorporate. The new Draw function, for example has an excellent feature called “Draw with Touch.” It does exactly what it sounds like, letting the user draw with touch when they don’t have an Apple Pencil handy for drawing or markup. But the real magic happens when you turn this feature off. Disabling “Draw with Touch” allows the iPad to then recognize finger input separately from the Pencil. So if you are using both, you can effectively scroll or pinch and zoom with your fingers while reserving markup and annotations solely by way of the Pencil.
This may sound small, but it is a very big deal. They addressed an issue that didn’t really exist, with a solution that for me, is a welcome and well-implemented one. I spend a lot of my time writing and correcting, editing and refining my work. Being able to do so on my device of choice with my office software of choice in a natural and intuitive manner, has become mission critical at my daytime job in the marketing field.
Just two days ago, Microsoft released another example of this type of small but important innovation. In a rather quiet Monday release, blogs across the web noted that Word Flow keyboard for iOS made its debut in the iOS App Store. I was surprised to see that contrary to the lack of official press from Microsoft, the app’s placement was front and center on the top of the store. Furthermore, it was presented with an “editor’s choice” tag – an achievement in its own wright as this insignia doesn’t get awarded to every new app. It’s there to denote when Apple’s editors have found a gem. I downloaded it immediately and gave it a shot.
What is notable is the apps unique option to transition from a standard-wide keyboard to a radial keyboard docked on either side of your device. As an iPhone 6S Plus user, this is again seemingly small but potentially game-changing.
For any of you who own the device you may know that among its advantages in camera, screen size and battery life, its uniquely disadvantaged in its unwieldy nature when it comes to single-hand texting. I’ve looked at this beautiful 5.5” device with which I am very happy many times and wondered why Apple didn’t introduce a unique keyboard solution for it.
I’ve never known exactly what that solution might be but I think Microsoft just showed it to me in their Word Flow app.
If you look back at the Microsoft of the 90s, part of what made them so successful was borrowing from those before them and presenting a better option to the common consumer. They weren’t always the most innovative with hardware partners but their software was most certainly among some of the very best and most widely used. There was a time it was easy. There was a time it was intuitive.
If what we are seeing today is representative of what’s more to come, Microsoft could be making a very positive and welcome return to form as a true software leader. You need look no further than Apple’ s App Store or the Google Play store to find examples of Microsoft’s modern platform agnostic approach.
The Windows operating system on PC’s has changed in many positive ways but still feels a bit like the company is playing it safe. While slow and iterative changes might work best on their own desktop-first OS, it is among mobile devices I believe Microsoft is best poised to shine and this has largely gone unnoticed.
It is time to stop pledging our allegiance to our platform of choice and recognize there’s innovation elsewhere; in this case, among one of the largest tech and software companies to have ever been influential in modern computing. Cheers Microsoft, you’re onto something.