Windows 8 and Surface: Microsoft’s do or die moment?

! Warning: this post hasn't been updated in over three years and so may contain out of date information.

Microsoft SurfaceRecently I haven’t been blogging much as my career took a sudden change of direction and I found myself having to re-learn C# and .NET skills I’d not used for five years, as well as having to catch up with the changes to those technologies in that time. Whilst I like C# as a language, I have been feeling a sense of trepidation over finding myself using such technologies, for I couldn’t see how Microsoft could escape heading down Nokia’s path from dominance to oblivion. The announcement of the Microsoft Surface may have just changed that, but I’m not completely convinced.

Microsoft have a problem. Around 80-90% of desktop and laptop computers run Windows, but desktop and laptop computers are often forecast to be going the way of the VT100 terminal by becoming redundant technology as newer ways of obtaining computer power become available to us. People are no longer regularly replacing those laptop and desktop machines, as what they have is adequate for their needs. According to current technology, it is phones and tablets that are destined to replace those desktop and laptop computers. Microsoft’s problem is that they have near-zero presence in the phone market and have failed to generate interest in Windows tablet devices, despite twelve years of effort. Like Nokia, they failed to anticipate the huge disruptive market impact that capacitive touch screens would have on these two markets. Rather than bodging old user interface (UI) paradigms in to hand-held devices, Apple re-invented their UI to be completely touched based and stole the phone and tablet markets from under the noses of the established brands.

A declining hardware market is far from Microsoft’s only problem. Windows 8 has not been getting good press as most who try it, do so using a laptop or desktop PC with no touchscreen. The Metro (touch) interface intrudes too much in such situations and – having tried Windows 8 for a month or so – my personal experience is that Windows 8 feels like a backward step on a device without a touchscreen. Microsoft’s problems seem to be growing, such as with stories that Microsoft’s very business structure is causing its own downfall. Add to this the fact that they are kicking in the teeth the small number of people who have bought a “Windows Phone” (WP) phone by creating the WP8 OS, which will not work with any existing WP phone and it’s hard to see a rosy future for Microsoft and thus .NET, which I’ve found myself developing for.

All may not be lost though, for Apple have a problem too. This is typified by the iPad and MacBook AIR. Both are small, lightweight computing devices. The two devices are quite different from each other though as the first offers a passive, consumption-based experience and the latter offers an traditional active, productive, computer experience. The iPad is great for those that like to browse the web from their sofa. However it’s far from being a practical device for carrying out traditional computer-orientated office jobs for example. The iPad as it currently stands has set off down a technological dead-end as a replacement to the traditional PC.

The killer device that can replace the laptop and desktop machine cannot be an iPad-style tablet. What is needed is a device that can by turns work as a tablet and as a keyboard and mouse-based computer. The problem with this is that keyboard-orientated operating systems (OSs) do not offer a good touch experience (which is why Windows tablets have always failed to sell) and touch-based OSs do not offer a good keyboard and mouse experience. What is needed is an OS that can be good at both. Windows 8 is Microsoft’s attempt at providing such an OS, but as previously mentioned, it wasn’t making much sense to me until the announcement of the Microsoft Surface.

The surface is exactly the sort of device that I can see stealing the laptop and tablet markets as it is both a tablet in one box, so there is no need to buy two devices and no need to carry two devices around with you. Further, Windows 8 makes sense on such a devices as it switches between touch and keyboard paradigms as you switch between using it as a tablet and laptop respectively. Yet I am left with this nagging doubt that it may be too late for Microsoft.

Anyone old enough to remember the Betamax vs VHS video cassette wars will know that just offering the best features is not enough. VHS won because people could watch Hollywood films on the TV’s with VHS technology. It was content superiority, not technology superiority that determined the victor. The Surface will likely be seen by many as a tablet device that can also act as a laptop. This puts it in direct competition with the iPad and the very large number of high quality apps available for the latter. If the hardware – of both the Surface and hopefully a number of competitor devices from OEMs – is good enough and if enough people jump on the bandwagon and start buying it, then it just might succeed. If not, I’m still left unsure just how future-proof .NET can really be.

3 thoughts on “Windows 8 and Surface: Microsoft’s do or die moment?

  1. Interesting analysis (and I suspect MS’s continued withering will happen, which is a shame as they really seem to be trying new things just now), but I fundamentally disagree with one point: the iPad (or tablets in general) are simply not passive consumption devices.

    I have seen a great deal of content created on them, both from personal experience and the general web. However, almost all of that content is story/conversation text (to differentiate from technical texts), visual or musical. And there is a lot of it.

    What it really doesn’t seem to be good for are certain fairly technical endeavours (programming for example, or creating academic papers) which generally involve an expert or many experts who create their own very specific, and usually quite individualistic work flows. That’s something I suspect will never be replaced fully – I can’t think of many arts, crafts or industries where the tools used by the tradespeople are precisely the same as those used by people pursuing the same ends as a hobby.

    It’s quite easy to envision a future where most common tasks, both consumption and production, are taken over by a genus of computers quite distinct from the PCs of today, but where more modular (and likely more expensive) computers are still used by the likes of us to hack code out on.

  2. Boy, when you’re wrong you’re really wrong! But I doubt your C# career is in jeopardy – Microsoft might just end up as a server OS, DB server and productivity suite company. They should just cut their losses and release Office for iPad.

  3. I do think the content available will probably be a factor . Will vendors have the incentive to roll out all their apps to a 3rd platform?

    I can see the appeal of having a single device for all – but do not find having 2 devices a huge problem – especially when 2 in the house want to use it! So long as your phone / laptop / tablet / tv sync up certain data and/or talk to each other – you use the laptop for big tasks and writing documents and the tablet for everyday browsing and fun. But I do admit that if I did not already have a tablet then such a device would appeal.

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