From Needing Windows to Loving Windows

on January 22, 2015

At yesterday’s Windows 10 event, Satya Nadella highlighted the theme I think encapsulated both what Microsoft is trying to do with the new operating system and what it needs to do more broadly as a company. In his closing remarks, Nadella said (I’m paraphrasing slightly in the absence of an official transcript):

  • “We want to go from users needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows”
  • “We want people to love Windows on a daily basis”
  • “We want to make Windows 10 the most loved release of Windows”

What these three phrases have in common is the use of the word “love” in relation to Windows. That’s strikingly new language for Microsoft and it’s a big departure from how I think many people view Microsoft and its products today. As with much Nadella has said over the past year, it’s also refreshingly honest in its recognition of Microsoft’s current status as the default option but not a chosen option (let alone a loved one). Microsoft thrived in the past on being the de facto standard in both operating systems and productivity suites (mostly in the absence of mass market, affordable alternatives) but it can no longer do so in a world where Apple is resurgent, Google increasingly dominant in certain categories, and free options in many categories abound. Microsoft now needs to return to getting customers to choose it, and that in turn means getting them to associate positive things with the brand and the products.

The big challenge: does anyone love operating systems?

As a goal, I think this is laudable and appropriate for Microsoft – it’s a great rallying cry internally, apart from anything else. But as it applies to Windows specifically, I think the biggest challenge is that no one loves their operating system. If people love an experience on a computing device, it’s usually associated with the device as a whole, and often times with the device maker rather than the software developer. Apple doesn’t have this problem as such, since it combines both in a single company. But for Microsoft (and for Google, as I’ve written before), the challenge is I suspect people associate positive computing experiences with the device much more than the operating system. This could change and, in the case of Windows, the core experiences are at least preserved more or less intact compared with the Android experience on many OEM devices, but I think it’s a fundamental challenge for this idea of “users loving Windows”.

The single operating system is not a consumer pitch

Another challenge is, despite the common naming, I’m not sure consumers will buy the idea of Windows 10 as a single operating system, or that this idea will even matter to them. As Microsoft has taken pains to point out, the OS is optimized for different form factors and so won’t even necessarily feel like the same OS on different devices, especially now Microsoft is rolling back some of the touch-centric UI stuff in Windows 8. These will feel like different operating systems in many respects, as they should (I wrote previously about the mistake Microsoft made with Windows 8 in making the two seem too similar). What I think is much more compelling is Microsoft’s concept of the “Mobility of Experiences”, which refers to the ability to carry over experiences from one device to another. It’s definitely an echo of Apple’s Continuity concept, something Microsoft is now clearly embracing wholeheartedly. Interestingly, Google has always focused its cross-device integration at the services layer, whereas Apple and Microsoft are now clearly baking it into the OS (something I first wrote about here). Many of those experiences will carry over between specific apps, some of them not even running on Windows, rather than between versions of Windows 10. Again, I’m not sure Windows 10 is the thing users will come to love even if this works well.

Need for OS loyalty above services

So, why is Microsoft even pushing the OS so strongly? The theme over the last few months has been one of cross-platform development and services which were agnostic to which device or OS they were running on. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s operating systems remain also-rans on the fastest growing device categories and it might be tempted to give up or dial back. Instead, Satya Nadella made an incredibly clear statement in his closing remarks at Wednesday’s event, to the effect that Microsoft will make its services and the application endpoints for them available everywhere, but Windows will be the home for the best Microsoft experiences. The flaw with the cross-platform mantra is it’s impossible for Microsoft to bake its services as deeply into Apple and Google’s operating systems as they are into its own and, at the same time, both Google and Apple are integrating their services ever more deeply into their OS’. In this world, Microsoft can at best run an “over the top” strategy which focuses on the application layer, but as integration of first party services into voice assistants, cloud storage and the like becomes ever more important, it will be tough for Microsoft to keep up as long as it’s reliant on third party operating systems for distribution. That – I believe – is the reason why Microsoft is still talking up and trying to gain share for its own operating systems, including Windows Phone, despite the seemingly overwhelming odds. As Nadella put it, Microsoft experiences and services will be “uniquely harmonized” in Windows in a way they can’t be anywhere else.

Building love beyond Windows

For all the reasons I’ve talked about, I think getting consumers to love Windows is a tall order and I don’t know if Microsoft will be successful in the way Nadella describes. But I do think getting customers to change their perceptions of Microsoft is critical if it’s to transform itself and grow in the future. However, that love (if it comes) can’t be centered in an operating system. It will be directed at key specific experiences that Microsoft creates. Getting consumers to engage with those experiences means changing their perceptions of what kind of company Microsoft has become. To that end, I think Wednesday’s unveiling of HoloLens and Windows Holographic is hugely important in building a narrative that Microsoft is a technology company that can truly innovate and bring new experiences to market. If Microsoft is to be successful in the consumer market, it does need to engender more than just a grudging acceptance of its products and get consumers to actively choose, and then enjoy using, its products. From what we saw Wednesday, Microsoft has a good start on doing this in gaming, but the rest is more up in the air.