Microsoft: Success – and survival, by thinking outside of the beige box

Mike Elgan says that on April 3 everything will change and this will be because of the retail availability of Apple’s new iPad will arrive. Up until this point everything about the iPad has been for the most part supposition and speculation by tech bloggers as the only way you could get close to the iPad is by pre-ordering.

First the iPad and why it will be a rip roaring success

Now I will say that some of what Mike writes – especially that opening line – is great hyperbole and almost guaranteed to pull in the pageviews. The thing is after reading his post I can see exactly where he is coming from and for the most part I find myself <gasp> agreeing with him.

Pundits, bloggers and gadget enthusiasts are talking about the iPad like it’s just another device, on a par with other devices. My view is that the iPad is utterly unique.

I and the others part company because they’re looking at the device, for the most part, and I’m looking at the markets. That’s markets with an s. There are many of them.

The success of a consumer electronics product depends not on how powerful, functional or fully equipped something is, but entirely on the answer to a simple question: How many people will buy it? And how many individuals buy something depends on how many types of people buy it.

Normally, when we tech journalists or others consider a product, we have one type of person in mind: people like ourselves. When a new gadget comes out, pundits say “I want this, and therefore it’s going to be successful.” That’s just faulty reasoning.

As someone who writes about tech and the social web I totally agree with Mike on the fact that those of us in the industry actually work within a very narrow frame of reference. Mike goes on to give some solid reasoning to support his opinion but the short end of the story is that the iPad will appeal to demographics far beyond just the narrow little world of tech bloggers.

Just look to the incredible success of both the iPod and iPhone. It wasn’t the techies or the tech blogosphere that made either of those two game changers the success they are. It was the kids in the playground, the mother and business woman struggling to keep her day on track, the student finding just the perfect app. In other words it was everyone other than the techies that drove the success train for Apple.

The iPad is going to be no different except maybe it will appeal to even a wider spectrum of people than even the iPhone has. A perfect example of this is my wife, who contrary to the belief that the better half’s of tech oriented people are all just as techie doesn’t use a computer, hates cellphones and even despises the TV remote. However if the iPad even approaches all of the hype that surrounds it at this point I’ll seriously consider getting one for her – and it is things like that which should worry Microsoft.

A napkin history lesson about Microsoft

So how does Microsoft compete against this?

Well first we need to understand why Microsoft finds itself playing catch-up in so many areas. From the browser wars (and trust me they still exists) to the mobile world to even the operating system Microsoft has many people convinced that it is only a matter of time before they become just another archaic dinosaur best left to being a footnote in our history books.

Besides the fact that this would be a disastrous mistake to make the fact is that Microsoft has put itself in this position because its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. You see up until recently Microsoft has been a software developer for the corporate world and it has made the company insanely wealthy.

The consumer market has in some ways been a necessary evil even though in the early days of Windows it was the consumer market that drove the adoption of Microsoft products in the business world. Beyond that Microsoft has always driven to provide the best of bland corporate software that they could. After all we all know how much corporations love change and experimentation don’t we.

Microsoft was the king of beige box computing and as long as things stayed the same the company was more than happy to keep pumping out more of the same all the while collecting on those profitable corporate licenses. The problem is that the world doesn’t stay the same – at least the world outside of the beige box doesn’t. Apple proved this with the iPod then the iPhone and now they are proving it again with the iPad.

Getting kicked outside of the box and how Microsoft can find its mojo

Regardless of what Steve Ballmer might say about the iPhone, or how many he stomps on, or even how many chairs he might throw both he and Ray Ozzie know that the iPhone changed everything. It might not have been over night but at some point the complete blurring of mobile and desktop happened and Microsoft saw that it was being threatened to have its ass handed to it all across the board.

X marks the spot

The company’s first real effort to gain some relevance in this new consumer world was probably the XBox which they poured millions upon millions of dollars into. Fro the longest time they were the butt of pundit jokes and many in those early days proclaimed that the game console would be one of Microsoft’s most expensive mistakes to date.

Then at some point, hardware problems aside, something changed. With a game franchise like Halo the XBox became the game console to have only beaten out but the general family users instant love for the Wii. Even that could change when we look to the arrival of Project Natal for the XBox in the fall.

Name than Tune

During their struggle with gaining acceptance for the XBox Microsoft decided t hat it was time to go after the iPod market. This immediately brought rounds of unrestrained laughter to everyone in the tech industry. Microsoft – an iPod competitor oh please. It didn’t help matters that the first Zune was a disaster .. an unmitigated thick as a brick disaster.

It didn’t matter how cool Microsoft tried to make the Zune look nothing worked and the company looked to have a failure on its hands. Then came word that they were working on the second generation of the Zune and that it had a real chance of being a contender. This brought fresh gales of laughter and not so gentle suggestions that maybe Microsoft should just quit while it was ahead.

The only problem was that the Zune HD actually turned out to be a pretty sweet media player that didn’t look like someone had slapped an LCD screen on a brick. Not only did the brick actually look nice – shades of decent industrial design – but it was also sporting a whole new interface that caught just about everyone off-guard. Why? Well because it look great and worked beautifully.

In other words the Zune was out of the doghouse.

Ring-a-ding ding the future is calling

Another market that Microsoft held for a long time was the cellphone market bit in the early days and right up to the beginning of the smartphone era. Then Apple came a long and gave them a great big black eye, along with the mobile market in general. Not only had Apple changed the whole smartphone business in one fell swoop but they totally marginalized Microsoft’s Windows Mobile OS.

As a result many of the pundits in the tech and mobile world wrote Microsoft off, even to the point of suggesting that maybe they should leave the business for good. Except if there is one thing you can say about Microsoft it is that they won’t give up anything without a fight and once they settle into that mindset they can be incredible stubborn and tenacious.

So when it came to the smartphone market Microsoft did something totally unlike anything Microsoft had done in the past – they threw away the rule book and started fresh. Gone was the typical Windows experience of the dreaded file and folder with pretty icons for all your apps. Gone also was one of the major cornerstone that Microsoft had been built on – backwards compatibility.

Windows Phone 7 Series was a completely new beast dress in a really nice looking Armani suit going by the name of Metro UI.

The most incredible thing – people loved it. Seriously loved it. People who had weeks and months prior to the unveiling of Windows Phone 7 Series been calling for Microsoft to give it up and stick to doing what they do best – which in their minds wasn’t a smartphone.

And the upswing to all this – people are excited about Microsoft’s smartphone even to the point of calling it a real contender to the iPhone throne.

Travelling the Metro

So where is Microsoft headed?

Well for one they have shown that they are not a company to call down and out. It only pisses them off and they have too much brain power, talent, and money to walk away from any challenge. They have also shown that while they might have to throw a lot of money at a problem they are more than willing to do it and they have the patience to do it over a long period of time.

But more importantly three things that have happened in the last while that could herald a very interesting period at Microsoft.

The one that seems to be flying under the radar at the moment, except when being made the butt of jokes, is the fact that Microsoft is taking more of a hardline role when it comes to the hardware that its software is running on. This started with the XBox, then the Zune HD and now with the Windows Phone. In all cases Microsoft has had a big hand in defining the hardware specs.

The one other area that this is happening is with laptops as we saw with Microsoft branded machines when they opened their retail stores.

Then we have the Metro UI an idea and implementation full of possibilities. We first saw this on a wide scale with Zune HD but as Pierre from our Community Forums pointed out the other day in a post comment there is a lot of resemblance between it and Windows Media Center (WMC). I agree with Pierre up to a point but I think that the Metro UI we have today is a step beyond the WMC interface and that is a good thing in my opinion.

While we saw the full blown usage of the interface in Windows Phone 7 Series we are also starting to see it show up on the desktop as well in things like Zune Desktop and the Silverlight Facebook Client.

What we are seeing is Microsoft’s willingness to throw away the rule book from the past and finally look to what it can bring to the future but doing so today.

And the Future?

The last thing that I believe signals a fundamental shift in thinking at Microsoft is the fact that with the Windows Phone 7 Series they said no to backward compatibility. Excuse me .. but this is the company that built itself around that very core philosophy and yet – they threw it away. No-one seems to understand how important this shift is and yet I believe this is one of the most important changes the company has ever done.

One has to wonder then how does this bode for the future of Windows. Especially when you combine the apparent willingness to adopt the Metro UI by both developers and users and rumors of projects like Midori and MinWin – possible next generation versions of Windows.

Will Microsoft once more be willing to throw away the rule book with it comes to Windows and eschew backward compatibility for a fresh clean start. It might be interesting to note to that this could be aided by the fact that the next version of Windows is rumored to be strictly 64bit – 32bit being archaic and definitely a thing of the past.

Lessons Learned – or at least should be.

People, or rather should I say tech pundits in the blogosphere, are quick to write off Microsoft as they flit to each shiny new thing as it pops up.

That is a mistake.

Microsoft may not be a game changer – and I stress may not given their recent moves – like Apple but that doesn’t mean that the company can’t have a effect once it sets it’s mind on something.

To think otherwise is a mistake.

If anything, and so unlike the past, the future and Microsoft could prove to be exceedingly interesting.