It used to be so easy; you were either a PC or a Mac kind of person. You chose your software, and then you picked your hardware. Sometimes it might not have been clear why you embraced a specific computing experience. At times it might have been a bit of a chicken and egg situation, whether you got there for the device first or the software. Maybe you came for the hardware and stayed for the software, either way, there were no identity crises you were either a PC or a Mac.
Then hardware changed shape. Vendors called the same device in so many different ways that you felt you no longer knew what was what, although, deep down, it all felt like we were talking about the same thing. You were still performing the same tasks as before, giving you a feeling that a leopard cannot change its spots even if you give it a new name.
I am not here to discuss what hardware is better but to underline that maybe our obsession with gadgets is leading us to miss what I see as a fundamental shift in the way users think about computing. Users have started to craft their own computing experience. A computing experience that might cross operating systems and ecosystems thanks to cloud and apps. A computing experience that might make the hardware feel like it is just along for the ride.
Our studies have shown that Millennials are all about being able to get to the applications they use every day. So do more engaged, experienced users. Both groups also embrace cloud services more eagerly. The combination of these two factors, apps and cloud, allows them to focus on the computing experience they want to have rather than focusing on the hardware they are using.
The Value Peg is Moving
Engaging with cloud and apps offers opportunities for users to be much more flexible with the kind of hardware they use. Let’s take Microsoft Office, still the most used productivity suite in the world. It used to be that you had Office on your PC but with Office 365, you can access Office from a PC, a Mac, an iPad, an iPhone, a Chromebook and an Android phone or tablet. When you use the cloud, all your content is also easily accessible from all the devices you want to use throughout your day. Most cloud solutions also work across operating systems which means that your flexibility is not ecosystem dependent.
This ability to use different devices creates less of a feeling of reliance on one device and builds a much more priority dependent pick and mix attitude. This means that jumping ship when it comes to an operating system is much easier than it was in the past. It also means that users might not see the underlying operating system as being the core of their computing experience. While I am sure, most of us still know what a computer is, agreeing on what can or cannot deliver a solid computing experience might be a topic of contention.
Modern Computing: Winners and Losers
The three main computing operating systems and the ecosystems that are associated with them seem to fare quite differently in this new computing experience driven by cloud and apps.
I love how far Windows 10 has come as an operating system, but its “verbiage” and its underlying construct make it feel overly complex and much less modern than it is. This is why I think that Windows 10 has the potential to lose out to Chrome, macOS and even iOS because Microsoft Office is now universally available thanks to 365 but also because Microsoft has been focusing on making other apps available across platforms from OneNote and OneDrive to Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Translator. So, over time, we might see increased engagement with Microsoft across the board thanks to other operating systems but a decreased engagement on Windows 10. Of course, Microsoft is in the fortunate position of having its Surface line where owning both hardware and software delivers a superior experience. The question is how much the concern of alienating OEM partners will push Microsoft to always keep the Surface team on a short leash when it comes to software differentiation on top of the OS.
I am not quite sure what the threat for Chrome is, to be honest, mostly because outside of education I have yet to see much interest. Microsoft hopes that Windows 10S devices could shift users from Chromebooks, but it is still very early days to be able to assess the full potential outside of education. Google’s apps are platform agnostic, so engagement with Google is strong across all computing and smartphone platforms, leaving not much of a risk for them.
For Apple, I see a risk for macOS to lose out to iOS. Of course, even in this scenario, Apple wins, which is usually just fine with them. If we want to call out specific hardware, I see Macs losing out to iPads as the latter is becoming as capable as the former but feels much more modern and agile.
Millennials and Gen Z will be the driving forces behind these potential operating system and ecosystem shifts. Driven by a love for flexibility, mobility and a focus on the task at hand while freed by legacy, these generations will be able to create computing experiences that work for them. The big trend of Bring Your Own Device that remained mostly limited to smartphones might finally expand to computing. Unlike smartphones though where BYOD was mostly driven by hardware first, with computing it is really an end to end experience rather than hardware alone that will drive this shift.