Essays on Technology and Culture

Microsoft Has a Big Problem Under its Surface

Microsoft just announced some neat new hardware, including the Surface Studio desktop computer, with it’s equally neat Surface Dial controller. Considering how weak-sauce Apple’s computer offerings have been lately, I’m glad to see Microsoft pushing the desktop, laptop, and tablet to strange new places. There isn’t much they showed off for the average user, but boy howdy are they making a push towards the creative market—a market that used to be the exclusive domain of Apple. Bare minimum, it’s a way cooler demo than the Magic Toolbar’s gonna be.

It used to be that Microsoft’s biggest strength was its dominance in the workplace. Even when the creatives loved their Macs at home (when nobody else did), creative apps had to become Windows-first apps, because that’s where the money was. People could get away with pirating Photoshop at home, because Adobe was making bank on site licenses to companies with thousands of Windows machines. Now, Macs are (slowly) becoming the new IT hotness, and Microsoft needs to get a thin edge of their wedge in somewhere. Why not Apple’s old market?

One thing Microsoft is great at is coming up with neat ideas for hardware and software. Under Satya Nadella, they’ve also been great at shipping them. But, there’s two big problems Microsoft needs to solve if they want to coax over the creative market from Apple. Problem one is Windows. It’s come a long way in the last few years, but Windows is still a clunky OS loaded with far too much legacy cruft. Microsoft needs make a clean break with the past, and pull a Mac OS X style new operating system. Maybe even give up the Windows brand entirely.

That still leaves the other, bigger problem. How does Microsoft win over creatives without apps? This is the essential chicken and egg problem. Microsoft can’t get users to switch without compelling apps for their platform. Microsoft went through this once before, with the Windows Phone saga. It got to the point where they were literally bribing companies to port their iOS and Android apps to Windows phone. After all, nobody wants to switch to a phone platform that doesn’t have the apps they use on their phone.

Whatever your complaints may be about the Mac and iOS ecosystem—and remember, Windows is also a Tablet OS—apps probably aren’t one of them. Well, maybe for iPad, but that drum’s being beaten a lot more quietly of late. Android and iOS are almost at parity when it comes to apps, at least on the phone, so switching between the two isn’t that painful. Switching to Windows Phone, on the other hand? If Microsoft hasn’t learned from that debacle, however cool the new Surface hardware platform is, it’s not going to go very far.

Without users who will buy apps, app developers aren’t going to make apps for Microsoft. A compelling new suite of hardware, a refreshed operating system, and cool new input methods will only get them so far. Microsoft’s suite of first party apps, like Paint 3D, and that Minecraft thing will help. It just remains to see how much. I hope they get some traction, if only because it might knock Apple out of their torpor and get us some cool, powerful, and feature-full hardware and software for the Mac and iOS. Without healthy competition, the tech industry goes nowhere. I’m excited to see things heat back up again.