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Under the Surface of Microsoft

One of the big tech announcements recently, that caught the world by surprise, was the new Microsoft Surface tablet. Although many people expected some sort of tablet annoucement, I don't think anyone thought that Microsoft would pull out a full-on iPad competitor, complete with massive innovations in design and functionality. My first impression of Surface is that it's a really great piece of technology, and things like the built-in kickstand, and the smart-cover-like touch keyboard are really inventive. Since I'm writing this on an iPad with a wireless keyboard, I know there are plenty of times when the marriage of an old-school physical keyboard input method with modern touch screen interfaces results in something even better :)

The thing I wanted to comment on though wasn't the introduction of new hardware, because I think that story is still evolving, and Microsoft's involvement with it's OEM's could be quite the fireworks show. What I want to ramble on about is Windows 8. In my opinion, this is either the beginning of the end for Micosoft, or the start of a resurgence. Lots of commentaries recently have pointed out that in the past couple of years, Apple has started to seriously catch up to Microsoft, more than at any point in the two companies histories. Although I doubt Apple will ever completely overtake Windows on the desktop, the continued surge of Mac OS X should trouble Microsoft, and in fact I think they're finally beginning to take it seriously. Microsoft needs a hail-mary to shake things up a bit, and that desperation play is Windows 8.

At first glance, Windows 8 (and Windows 7/8 Phone) looks nothing like traditional Windows. In fact it feels much more akin to the XBox 360. Considering that Microsoft started from nothing and is now massively entrenched in the gaming console market, this is probably a good strategy. Gone from the face of Windows 8 is the ubiquitious Start Menu in the lower left corner. Instead we have a completely different view of the operating system. A series of live-tiles present various aspects of our internet connected life with small thumbnails of recent updates. Most of the main applications are designed around the Metro theme with large squares of information, and smooth scrolling between panes of information, as well as a full-screen view by default. This is so unique for Windows that I don't think most people have gotten over the shock of the paradigm shift.

In fact, Microsoft is one-upping what Apple started a couple years ago, the marriage of the mobile iOS with Mac OS X. In the latest Mac OS X we got the Launchpad, which presents us with an iOS style listing of our applications. However, it's sort of half-baked at this point, and feels more like a work in progress than a full on paradigm shift. In Windows 8 however, the tile based UI is the default, and primary method of working with the system. I commend Microsoft for making this bold move. I think in the end it will benefit them, but it comes with risks.

First, they're forcing a lot of people to re-learn how they interact with Windows. That's a risk, but considering that they're thinking a couple of steps ahead, I think it's going to pay off. When we really get down to it, most of us use 5-6 apps on a computer most of the time anyway. Web browsing, e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets, music and movie management, and photo management come to mind as a solid half-dozen that most people use. Throw in a few games from time to time, and that's most people's needs met. This is why, for many people, even a device like an iPad can suffice. Since their integrating their mobile user experience, and game console experience, in to their computer operating system, I predict that most people will make the transition without too many problems.

Second, and perhaps the biggest risk, is that they need to go "all in". If they truly want to make this the future, they need to commit, fully and with lots of cash. Microsoft has the resources to do just that, but they need to not get cold feet and back out at the last minute. It also means that they need to be willing to shatter other, more entrenched paradigms, such as the way that Office functions. One of the biggest disappointments when looking at Windows 8 on the Surface tablet is that the Office apps are just the same old apps. Apple decided to embrace a new paradigm and created iWork for iOS that takes on a completely different user experience, that better suits a tablet environment. Yes, it means that people need to re-learn that app, and for the time being it means some features get cut until the UI and UX paradigms catch up, but it's the right move to make. I'd love to see Office for Windows 8, that looks nothing like Office for Windows 7. I think that would be a huge win for Micosoft.

So despite a couple risks, I think Microsoft has a chance. Despite being an Apple geek, I'm actually rooting for them in the smartphone market in particular. I love to see companies take things in a totally new direction, instead of just mimic-ing what's gone on before. WebOS tackled a new paradigm, and to this day I still love some of the features of that smartphone OS, and am sad that they didn't survive. Android is really only now starting to get it's innovation groove moving beyond small tweaks to already established iOS features. So that still leaves room for a number 3, that wants to be taken seriously, and can present a compelling case for something TRULY different. Windows 8 is certainly different from anything out there, so here's to hoping Microsoft can make it happen.

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