Microsoft, why do you bother with touch computing? You haven't helped produce an impressive tablet even with years of experience in touch-based software development. Even worse, you let Apple come in and steal the show without much of a fight. So why do you continue to push this Windows 7 operating system, which is primarily intended for traditional mouse and keyboard usage, to touch devices? It makes no sense!
When will Microsoft learn from the past? Everyone knows that previous attempts to put Windows on touch devices ended up, at best, mediocre. Admittedly, Microsoft did put in a lot of effort into making Windows 7 a better operating system for the touch-happy among us. But what has that resulted in? Not much.
After reviews of various touch-enabled Windows 7 devices hit the newswire, the general consensus appeared that the overall experience is decent — but decent isn't quite good enough in consumer's eyes.
Same Old Story
The reviewers have noted that the Windows 7 touch devices are decent, but not exceptional when it comes to touch responsiveness. This might be a result of the fact that Windows wasn't initially designed with touch in mind. When you look at the iPhone OS and Android, these systems have user interfaces that have been designed to use with fingers: featuring larger icons, bigger text, and intuitive navigation. These systems have the benefit of being created from scratch with touch interaction in mind — Windows isn't.
Another serious but expected point that has arisen in many reviews is that the applications developed for the Windows operating system do not necessarily translate well to touch interaction. Just as Windows itself isn't heavily integrated with touch, the applications are even worse in this regard. After all, when someone develops an application for an iPod Touch, they expect it to be used for touch, but when developing for Windows, developers can't invest the time and resources for touch-enabled applications just for the sake of it.
Toss in the fact that you now have many contenders wanting to get involved in touch-based devices, and you quickly realize that Microsoft could have a serious issue on their hands that needs to be resolved.
In truth, anything less than amazing from Microsoft should be highly disappointing, especially when considering that Microsoft has the Apple iPad and friends to compete with. This could end up as another market that Microsoft gets left behind, even though they have had all the opportunity in the world to create something magnificent.
Time For Change
But there is something Microsoft could do: Microsoft could create a dedicated operating system or user interface that runs on top of Windows 7 that is designed specifically for touch interaction. It would be a great move that gives developers a dedicated place to develop for while improving the user experience for consumers.
But it is easier said than done.
However, just look at Windows Phone 7 — it looks stunning, beautiful, unique, and, overall, amazing. Microsoft decided to tear down the walls and rebuild from within, and it looks like it could pay huge dividends in the future. The problem? It is coming several years late to the party. Where was this thing, say, three years ago?
So surely the tech giant can do the same for a touch-based operating system. But it would involve Microsoft investing millions of dollars to create a new platform that might not necessarily be a success.
Apple and Google, for the sake of comparison, migrated their mobile application marketplaces from mobile devices to tablet devices, giving th e touch devices a head start. Microsoft, on the other hand, doesn't really have a rich mobile application marketplace to build off of, especially when considering that Windows Phone 7 hasn't even come out yet — and there are no guarantees that this will be a success either.
So, in the end, Microsoft faces a huge conundrum that isn't easily resolved. Surely touch-based interfaces are going to be something that peaks consumer interest in the future, especially as the thought of carrying around a dedicated keyboard becomes more foreign to us. But Microsoft is not prepared to take the battle to Apple and Google.
It's intriguing when you think about it: Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 might be the product that makes or breaks Microsoft's future in touch devices, let alone mobile.
Have you heard of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 Series yet? If not, shame on you! Microsoft is betting its mobile future on this platform, and from the looks of things, it would appear that this has the potential to get people excited about Windows-powered smart phones. So let's take a look at what Microsoft has created.
Without a single blink of an eye, people who have experienced Windows Mobile 6.5 or earlier will immediately agree that Windows Phone 7 Series is a giant leap from its predecessors; they are nothing alike.
Microsoft finally got its act together and developed a user interface that — for the first time ever — is entirely finger-friendly. This is important because previous incarnations of Windows Mobile had interfaces slapped on them that made it easier to interact with by touch, but once you dove deeper into the menu dialogs, an old, tiny, difficult to operating interface was uncovered. But no longer is this an issue.
In addition to being finger-friendly, the interface for Windows Phone 7 Series is beautiful. Simply put, it is nothing like we have ever seen before on a smartphone. Interface elements appears to come alive as you observe the various on-screen displays — it is quite mesmerizing. And it is exactly what Microsoft needed to do in order to stand out amongst the intense competition.
It is also worth mentioning that the designers of the operating system have taken a few pages from the Microsoft Zune and Media Center user interfaces, which was a very smart idea. You can navigate the various sections by simply swiping your finger to reveal different options for navigation, similarly to how you navigate the homepage on iPhone and Android devices. The difference, however, is that Microsoft integrated this side-swiping interface throughout all of the applications that have been demonstrated. So it is a unified experience.
This is interesting because it makes us wonder how developers will implement this — is this navigation method a requirement? Will application developers do their own thing and break the flow of the operating system? That will be something to look out for.
However, this interface raises yet another question of whether it might be too much effort to be constantly swiping back and forth to reveal content. It is a constant back and forth, up and down, left and right motion that takes place on the system. It might be overwhelming to some users. With that in mind, until I get my hands on one, there is no way of knowing for sure. Regardless, I am very impressed with the design, at least from first impressions.
When it comes to the hardware, Microsoft appears to have it nailed. They are taking steps to ensure that all phones meet certain minimum specifications:
Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU
DirectX 9 graphics for gaming goodness
800 x 480 (WVGA) screen
Capacitive touch screen with up to four contact points
256MB of RAM or more
8GB or more of internal Flash storage
5-megapixel camera with flash
There are numerous other specifications, but those are the ones that stand out.
This is a huge change of mentality from previous incarnations of Windows Mobile: Microsoft wasn't nearly as strict previously with regards to hardware specifications. Therefore, with Microsoft ensuring that the hardware can handle the operating system, users should have a great experience — which lives up to performance expectations — no matter what Windows Phone 7 Series device they purchase.
And all that is fantastic, but there is one other key element that will play a large role (if not the largest) in determining the Windows Phone's odds of success. Care to guess what that key element is?
Steve Ballmer said it himself: "Developers, developers, developers!" They are the key to success for the company, and third-party developers are the key to success for Windows Phone 7 Series.
The iPhone and up-and-coming Android platforms are thriving because of those developers. They are pushing the platform to the limits. Without them, the platform — no matter how amazing it may be — is doomed to failure (just look at Palm's WebOS).
Make no mistake about it though, if this fails to boost Microsoft's sales in mobile Web devices, nothing will.
There are still plenty of questions about how this device will perform, whether it will be accessible to developers (it costs around $100 just to develop applications for it), and if anyone willing to purchase it.
Questions aside, my closing thoughts on the Windows Phone 7 Series is that it looks amazing. Honestly, I wasn't expecting this much of an improvement in the 7th iteration of Windows Mobile, but it appears that Microsoft has outdone themselves. The company deserves all the credit in the world for attempting something truly unique.
Remember Microsoft, the company that has its Windows operating system on nearly all the computers in the world? It would seem they would be doing well with netbook computers selling like hot-cakes these days, but, unfortunately for Microsoft, they haven't been able to capitalize on those sales.
As one would imagine, that is quite odd. After all, wasn't the news that computer sales were on the rise always good for Microsoft in the past? Yes, indeed it was. But, with competition on the rise, this is no longer the case.
Windows is no longer the automatic choice for the operating system in netbooks — they have Linux distributions to worry about now. And these are no pushovers. Some heavy hitters in the industry, like Intel, have started to support linux distributions, like Moblin, to compete with closed-source counterparts like Windows.
Interestingly, 30 percent of all netbooks are shipping with Linux, and this isn't good news for the boys in Redmond.
Less operating system sales and Office sales is bad enough in the short-term, but it also hurts them in the long-term as well: Microsoft's services, in general, will easily be overlooked for Web-based alternatives (like Google's products). Put simply, Microsoft has no control over this if their operating system isn't on the machine, and the long-term damage is growing as Microsoft's influence diminishes.
But it gets worse.
Of those netbooks that do ship with Microsoft products, Windows 7 Starter Edition is typically what comes pre-installed, but this also isn't particularly encouraging because Microsoft makes drastically less on sales on Starter Edition than they do Windows 7 Home Premium and Ultimate editions. As a result, if netbooks were selling well with only Microsoft products being installed on the systems, the profit margins would still be drastically less than they were in the past — Microsoft relies on desktop and laptop sales to generate the big bucks.
Honestly though, Windows 7 is no longer necessary on netbooks. This holds true for any particular operating system, especially with the Internet's constant expansion. The typical consumer will probably use the browser more than any other application on a computer. Once the browser is started, the operating system almost becomes invisible to the user.
This presents us with a vital question: if the operating system no longer matter, what happens to Microsoft?
But all hope is not lost. IDC has reported that they expect a resurgence in traditional laptop sales as consumers hopefully realize that there are better deals to be found with full-fledged laptop computers instead of their netbook counterparts. If true, then Microsoft should do well. After all, Windows 7 is a drastic improvement over Windows Vista (and the differences between Mac OS and Windows are practically nil).
Unfortunately, while short-term gains may return for the company in 2010, the long-term outlook is still somewhat grim.
The once highly visible Microsoft has been lacking in innovation. While the Windows Phone and Microsoft Courier look promising (the Windows Phone in particular), the company still needs to get its act together in the realm of cloud-based services. That, as I previously noted, is not going to be an easy task. Along with a lack of innovation, that is what could (and most likely would) spell the end of Microsoft in the future. But they can still turn it around.
While it would seem that Microsoft has fallen off the edge of a cliff when it comes to competing with Apple and Google, Steve Ballmer is still a smart man. He knows what the future entails. He knows that Google (and even Apple) has what Microsoft wants. But, most importantly, he knows that if Microsoft can't compete in cloud computing, the company's future will be grim.
"Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower." Take note: it was Steve Jobs — not Steve Ballmer — who said this, and it's clearly obvious who the leader and the follower is in the tech industry right now.
Each company has its strong suits: Apple is the leader in design, Google is the leader in cloud-based services and advertising — the area of technology that Microsoft wants to expand, and Microsoft is the leader in operating systems and productivity products, both of which are important but are not the future.
Mr. Ballmer knows this, and he is more determined than ever to expand Microsoft into the cloud. "I'd say, simply, the cloud fuels Microsoft and Microsoft fuels the cloud," said Mr. Ballmer in a speech about Microsoft's involvement with the cloud.
Well, he certainly takes an arrogant tone with cloud computing, acting as if Microsoft is the leader in cloud-based services. Is he being enthusiastic or ignorant? Who knows. But I guess you can take that tone without much repercussion when you are the CEO of a company like Microsoft.
Regardless, Microsoft has been making strides in this area: they have been developing Bing, Microsoft's search engine; Azure, a development environment in the cloud; Office Web Apps, Microsoft's popular Office applications on the Web; and a slew of products to move them to the cloud.
Sounds like a good start, right? But there is still a long way to go.
Products like Windows and Windows Mobile need to adapt to the future while new products like Azure, Windows Live, and Bing lead the way. They need to work cloud-based features into their products carefully but speedily, familiarizing their existing customers with the cloud while drawing in new customers of the future and lost customers of the past.
The biggest problem, however, is that Microsoft's products are not fully integrated with each other. It's somewhat like taking Flickr and combining it with YouTube. It sounds good in theory, but it would just end up a mess.
The overall experience isn't very user friendly. For example, when I am at Google, all their products are at my fingertips with a mouse click or two. With Microsoft, it's not quite that easy, and that is exactly what they need to achieve — a unified platform that is easily accessible and usable — to make it all work.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has a hard time with quick changes and improvements. For one, it isn't the Microsoft way of doing things, primarily because of corporate relationships. Another reason is that Microsoft has spread itself so thin with working on so many various projects; although this could be repaired, especially when looking at how Google operates. Finally, the company, while being involved on the Internet with MSN and Hotmail, really hasn't made much of an impact on the Internet. Sure, Bing isn't that bad, but is it a Google Search killer? Not even close.
So is it too late for Redmond? Of course it isn't! There is still plenty of time to innovate in the cloud. That said, there still hasn't been much innovation at Microsoft lately, at least those that catch the public's attention. It is time for that to change.
This has to be done. This is the future. Microsoft can't be left behind here.