Whither Windows 10?

on January 20, 2015

On the eve of the launch preview of the next version of Microsoft’s operating system behemoth, there are numerous questions in the air about what Microsoft plans to do with Windows 10 and, more importantly, what impact it’s likely to have.

The company is expected to use the Windows 10 launch as an opportunity to bring all their disparate operating system efforts—Windows for desktop, Windows Mobile, Xbox and even the long forgotten Windows RT—into a structured, cohesive whole. The idea is by doing so, they can create a broader base of potential customers. Then, in turn, they can attract a wider array of application developers and create a virtuous circle that will drive both important improvements and growth to the platform.

While I believe there is some truth and logic to these arguments, I also think they’re only capturing part of the story. The problem is that much of this logic is based on traditional ways of thinking about platforms, developers, the number of apps, etc. Essentially the argument goes: “Whoever has the most apps wins”.

I’ve argued in the past and continue to believe, that the app ecosystem as we know it is not long for this world. I mean really — who can keep track of 1.5 million apps for each of the major platforms and expect the developers are going to keep feeding into a system that isn’t really paying the vast majority of them back?

Instead, I expect to see a bigger shift to web-based services that, while they may leverage a platform-specific app, aren’t necessarily dependent on a particular app, or a particular platform, or even a particular device. Nor do I believe these services will be completely dependent upon mobile devices.

In fact, in nearly everyone’s haste to describe the world as “mobile first,” they seem to forget that mobile first does not mean mobile only. The multiple devices per person reality we live in is only going to get more diverse and more complicated as wearables and other smart connected “things” come onto the scene. Just as no individual is constantly on the move all the time, so too can it be argued that people only need and will only use mobile devices a certain percentage of the time.[pullquote]In nearly everyone’s haste to describe the world as ‘mobile first,’ they seem to forget that mobile first does not mean mobile only.” [/pullquote]

Which brings me back to Windows 10. On a most basic level, I believe Windows 10 will have a positive impact on the less mobile PC industry and keep it important and relevant for many years to come. As we’ve seen with business in particular, PCs continue to play an extremely important and vital role in the lives of enormous numbers of people. I also expect Windows 10 can inspire more creative consumer-focused devices and help rejuvenate the still struggling consumer PC market.

The question remains however. What about mobile? There’s no question Windows will remain challenged if we purely look at it from a share of smart phones perspective. Even with Microsoft’s efforts to combine platforms (and whatever other tricks they pull from their sleeves later this week), it’s an enormous uphill battle to try and overcome the lead Android and iOS have over Windows Mobile. Do I think they can gain some market share? Yes, but not really enough to make a critical difference.

However, what I believe Microsoft will try to do with Windows 10 is position it as a platform that’s as friendly as possible to cloud-based services (the “cloud first” portion of their public strategy) on devices of all shapes and sizes. That’s where I think Microsoft’s real opportunity lies. The company has already shown a willingness to bring some of its cloud-based services—everything from OneDrive, Skype and even Office—to multiple platforms, so it’s clear they aren’t concerned about the traditional “walls” that have separated one platform from another in the past.

If Microsoft can entice cloud-based service creators to support Windows 10 by enabling easy hooks from their services either directly into the OS, or perhaps even into a layer that sits above the main OS (a concept I’ve written about in the past I call a “MetaOS”) but links down to the OS, then the whole “app gap” problem in mobile starts to look a lot less concerning.

Windows 10 clearly represents some huge opportunities and challenges for Microsoft, but looking at it solely through traditional metrics won’t give you the full story.