04.09.12

Can Microsoft Come Back? Dan Lyons’s Month Without Apple and Google

The iPhone was stowed, the Google Docs left unopened—Dan Lyons spent 30 days using nothing but Microsoft products to see whether the company could win consumers like him back. And they could pull it off, he says.

Could Microsoft ever be cool again? The company has been out of it for so long that a comeback is hard to imagine. But by some miracle this seems to be happening, and people are starting to take notice. “Suddenly Microsoft is the Hippest Tech Company Around,” says the Atlantic Wire in an article that claims recent stumbles by Apple (China labor woes) and Google (privacy concerns) make Microsoft seem like nice guys by comparison.

In an experiment I called “Month of Microsoft,” I’ve spent the past four weeks using nothing but Microsoft products—Windows computers, Windows phones, Xbox, Bing, Internet Explorer—instead of my usual lineup of Apple and Google products. It’s been six years since I used any Microsoft products on a regular basis. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The verdict? Microsoft is making some really nice products these days. What it still can’t do is tie all these products into a single, well-integrated ecosystem. Don’t worry; nobody else can either. But that’s where everyone is headed. If Microsoft can pull off this integration, it could very well give Apple a run for its money.

What everyone is after these days is a kind of single, unified experience where all content (music collection, movies owned or rented, plus home movies, photos, documents) is kept up on the Internet cloud, in a single place.

A series of devices—phone, tablet, laptop computer, desktop computer, TV—can fetch any of that content from the cloud. Watch a movie on the phone, then pause it and watch the rest of it on the TV. Edit a document on a work computer, store it to the cloud, work on it on a tablet during the train ride home, then work on it again with a laptop on the couch at night.

All this has to happen seamlessly. And it must be incredibly simple and easy to use.

So far, no tech company can deliver this. But Microsoft has all the pieces. It just needs to bring them together.

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PR News Foto / Microsoft Corp / AP Photo

To be sure, it’s tough to think of Microsoft as an underdog. Last quarter the company did $20.9 billion in revenue and cleared $6.6 billion in net profit. For the current fiscal year, which ends in June, analysts estimate Microsoft will generate $74 billion in revenue.

But most of that comes from sales of Windows, Office, Exchange, and other products to big corporate customers. In mobile phones and tablets, Microsoft can’t even be called an also-ran; it’s nowhere. In search it lags far behind Google.

In email and web browsers, Microsoft has big market share, but its products are seen as outdated, stuff used only by non-techies who don’t know any better.

Some of that is a bad rap, but it’s partly well-deserved, as Microsoft itself argues in a new self-effacing ad campaign for its Internet Explorer 9 Web browser called “The Browser You Love(d) to Hate.” One slogan goes like this: “Curious? It’s good now. No, really.”

There’s some truth to this campaign. I’d urge anyone to take a fresh look at Internet Explorer, as well as these other Microsoft products:

XBOX 360

Microsoft’s Xbox 360 started out as a game console, but has become much more, delivering TV shows, sports channels, access to Netflix and Hulu. You can stream your music from a Windows PC through your Xbox into your stereo. Or, here’s a cool thing—you can buy a Zune Music Pass ($10 per month, $100 per year) and listen to anything you want. This works on your PC and Windows phone, but I found it most useful on the Xbox. Feel like listening to some Coltrane? They’ve got more albums than I knew existed. There’s even a “Smart DJ” feature that will make playlists for you.

But the best thing is the Kinect controller, which is by far the most advanced user interface in the consumer market. It lets you flip through pages just by swiping your hand in the air, or change tasks or search for shows just by giving voice commands.

Kinect is amazing. It’s so good, in fact, that Farhad Manjoo in Slate recently wrote that Apple need not bother trying to “revolutionize” the TV market, since Microsoft has already taken care of that.

So, OK: in the living room, Microsoft rules. Or it could, if it did a better job of selling Xbox to regular folks like me, as opposed to hardcore gamers. One thing that might help would be for Microsoft to come up with a remote control other than the gamer joystick thing that Xbox comes with today. And maybe redo the user interface to make the TV applications more front-and-center, instead of being buried inside a menu system.

MOBILE

Next up is mobile, a space where Microsoft was an early participant with its Windows Mobile platform but then got blown out by Apple’s iPhone and later by Google’s Android operating system. Microsoft has fallen so far behind that a lot of people think there’s no way it can come back and that the mobile space is now a two-horse race between Apple and Google.

I’m not so sure. I’m a pretty hardcore Android fan, and I figured switching to Windows Phone would be a tough adjustment. But I’ve been using two Windows Phone devices—the HTC Titan, and the smaller Nokia Lumia 800—and I’ve been shocked by how quickly I adjusted.

The Lumia 800 is an especially nice device, with a modern, European design. Its big brother, the Lumia 900, will have a 4.3-inch screen, run on speedy 4G networks, and will cost only $100 through AT&T. That’s an incredible bargain.

Windows Phone uses Microsoft’s new Metro user interface, with big, colorful tiles that are easy to move around and arrange the way you like them. It’s really engaging and fresh.

To be sure, there are way fewer apps available on Windows Phone (70,000) than on Apple’s iOS (600,000) or Google’s Android (450,000) platforms. For some people that might be a problem, but most just people just need the basics—email, web browsing, Facebook—and for those people Windows Phone devices will be fine.

DESKTOP

This is Microsoft’s longtime stronghold, the one place where it still commands about 90 percent market share. It’s no surprise, then, that running the ultra-stable Windows 7 operating system on Lenovo’s powerful W520 laptop proved to be a smooth, wonderful experience. I hooked the W520 to a big 28-inch monitor and used a Microsoft Bluetooth keyboard and the Arc Touch Mouse.

As I raved on my personal blog at the time, if you haven’t tried out the Arc Touch mouse, you must. It’s this amazing, bendable slab of plastic that you can press flat when you’re not using it (the mouse shuts itself off when you do that) and then bend back into a mouse shape when you need it.

Microsoft’s designers won an award for this thing, and deservedly so. Here’s a video with one of them, discussing the project.

The Microsofties are equally proud of their new Touch Mouse, which is also a really nice piece of gear. But I found myself using the Arc Touch. Both of these products are part of a pretty impressive lineup of new Microsoft hardware that includes a hi-def web camera and headset for videoconferencing.

But the real treat is Windows 8, the next version of Windows, due out later this year. Microsoft loaned me a super-slim Lenovo U300 laptop running both Windows 7 and a consumer preview of Windows 8. One word: wow. This new operating system is a radical departure from anything ever seen on a desktop or laptop computer. It’s so good, in fact, that Steve Kovach, a reporter at Business Insider and longtime Apple fan, says it’s the first time in 11 years that he’s been excited to use a PC instead of a Mac.

Like Windows Phone, Windows 8 uses the Metro interface with the big, bright tiles. You can get to a more traditional Windows desktop by clicking on a “Desktop” tile, and on a laptop or desktop computer you might want to do that.

But the Metro interface really shines on a tablet, where you can flick through pages of tiles and tap on the one you want. Can this Windows 8 give the iPad a run for its money? A lot will depend on the kind of hardware that Microsoft’s OEM partners can come up with. One device I saw during a visit to Microsoft was the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, which is a slim laptop with a hinge that lets the screen flip all the way over, so the device becomes a tablet. It’s a knockout.

What both Microsoft and Apple are trying to do is create a unified experience across three platforms: phone, tablet, and computer. In Apple’s case, the iPhone and iPad are already running the same OS, called iOS, and the big project involves making the desktop operating system, OS X, look and feel more like iOS. At Microsoft, the computer and tablets will run Windows 8, and the big project will involve making Windows Phone more similar to Windows 8, meaning giving them all a common look and feel based on Metro.

BROWSER, MAIL, SEARCH

I’m a big user of Google software, relying on Google search, Gmail, the Chrome browser, and Google Docs. Switching to Microsoft was a mixed bag. Using Bing instead of Google for search? No problem. Same goes for using Hotmail instead of Gmail. Hotmail is a really nice product, and I didn’t miss Gmail at all. I especially didn’t miss the creepy ads that Gmail runs alongside Gmail, which are targeted based on keywords that Google spots in your email messages. Yes, I realize it’s just a computer scanning my mail, but it still feels creepy. I’m not sure I’ll go back to Gmail. I’m seriously in the market for an alternative that doesn’t spy on me, and it may end up being Hotmail.

Using Internet Explorer, on the other hand, never felt quite right to me. There were no huge glaring problems, and I did really love some features of IE, like being able to bundle tabs together and pin those bundles to the taskbar, so I can launch all of my favorite tech blogs at once, for example. Maybe I just needed more time for IE to start feeling familiar. But it always felt like I was wearing a pair of shoes that didn’t quite fit right.

Same thing for Google Docs versus Microsoft Word. I don’t like the interface on Word. It’s too cluttered. Google Docs is just a lot simpler to use. And everything I’ve written for the past three years is in Google Docs. Unless something really bad happens that makes me want to switch, I’m probably just going to stick with Google Docs.

SUMMING UP

So am I now going to switch from Mac to Windows, and from Android to Windows Phone? Well, no. Not right away, anyway. I have too much invested in a bunch of Macs just to scrap them all and buy a bunch of new Windows PCs. But later this year or early next, when Lenovo comes out with that slick Windows 8 tablet-slash-laptop, I might just buy one. That’s how change begins. That’s how Apple won people over, including me, over the past decade. It started with iTunes and an iPod. Then I got frustrated with Windows and tried out a low-end Mac Mini. That worked, so I made the leap to an iMac. Then an Apple TV box. Then a MacBook Pro. Then an iPhone. And on and on.

So that’s what Microsoft needs to do. Find a product that gives it a toehold and build from there.

The biggest problem Microsoft faces right now is that the company has lots of great products, but the products don’t feel like they come from the same company. Addressing that issue and trying to create more uniformity and more simplicity across all the products is key to Microsoft’s future, at least with consumers.

Microsoft still has too many product names, too many odds and ends hanging around. There are six versions of Windows. There’s Windows Live, Windows Live Essentials, and Windows Live Mesh; there used to be Windows Live Toolbar and Windows Live Sync. There’s Office 365 in three versions, and Office Web Apps, plus SkyDrive, which used to be called Windows Live Folders. There’s Hotmail, and Outlook, and Exchange. On the Xbox there’s Xbox Live, Xbox Live Gold, Xbox Live Family Pack.

The good news is, Microsoft gets this. It knows there’s a lot of redundancy and confusion, and it is working, slowly but surely, to streamline the products into a more coherent lineup.

People want simplicity. I’m convinced the reason the iPad has been such a hit is that for people like my tech-averse 77-year-old dad, who for years has been driving himself nuts trying to maintain a string of crusty Windows PCs, the iPad is like a breath of fresh air. Easy. Simple. Clean. No rebooting. No computer jargon or weird commands or funky blue screens of death. No malware, no anti-malware, no virus software updates and warnings.

People don’t want science projects. They also don’t want point products—not many people are looking for a Windows Phone just because it’s a Windows Phone. But if a Windows Phone is part of a larger ecosystem of Microsoft products that work together and make my life easier, that’s a different story. If I fall in love with a Windows 8 tablet, and then somehow a Windows Phone works well with that tablet, and both of them work well with the Zune Music Pass I bought for my Xbox—well, then you start getting momentum.

Surround me with simple solutions that make my life better, and I’m yours forever. Very few companies can even begin to deliver this. Microsoft is one of them.

I really don’t care if each product is, in itself, the best in class. I don’t care about processor speed or RAM statistics or even screen display resolution. You don’t have to have the latest and greatest hardware specs. Just make my life easier. Or please, at the very least, don’t make it more complicated. (For what it’s worth, Apple understands this “network effect,” in which each of its products becomes more valuable when used with other Apple products. An iPhone by itself is a cool phone, though by no means ahead of all other phones in terms of specs. But connect that iPhone with a Mac, an iPad, Apple TV, and iCloud, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.)

Microsoft has a huge opportunity here, and somehow I think it begins with the Xbox 360, which has a real stronghold in the living room. That may be Microsoft’s best product, with the coolest, most advanced user interface. Microsoft should keep pushing Xbox 360 beyond games and maybe even come out with a version that looks more like a piece of sexy hi-fi gear and less like something designed for teenage boys.

Start there, and then give me a simple place to keep all my stuff. Get me hooked on a service I can’t live without. Then give me a phone that is part of that too. Surround me with simple solutions that make my life better, and I’m yours forever. Very few companies can even begin to deliver this. Microsoft is one of them, and I think it is well on its way.