When Microsoft began, it was focused like a laser on users and providing a set of tools that made users more productive. But, over time, it started to place enterprise buyers and IT at the heart of its efforts. Google and Apple then stepped into the gap and focused on users like a laser. Microsoft ended the 90s nearly untouchable, but the end of the last decade found it anything but that with respect to personal computing technology.
But CEO Satya Nadella is clearly moving Microsoft back to a user-focused company with the changes in Windows 10 showcasing a strong renewed focus on the user and on the PC OEMs that support much of Microsoft’s remaining desktop power.
The Mistake Microsoft Made
One of the biggest mistakes that Microsoft ever made was to try to address an IT demand that PCs be more like appliances and have up to a 10-year stable life even though, at best, they were only serviceable for half that time. More importantly, technology was evolving rapidly, often with core parts like processors, chipsets, and graphics systems changing several times a year. And most importantly, the PC market lived on churn, so putting in place a policy that reduced churn eventually put the PC market nearly on life support.
The result, rather than higher loyalty and satisfaction, was more breakage, higher security exposures, lower revenue to Microsoft partners, and a reduction in both customer loyalty and satisfaction. In effect, the policy not only had the exact opposite impact on the market, no one, and this included IT, really liked the result.
The Smartphone/Tablet Alternative
What really drove this mistake home was the rise of tablets and, particularly, smartphones. Apple had never provided the level of backwards compatibility that Microsoft did but when it came to its smartphones, it was even more aggressive at ensuring only current hardware got major upgrades. Smartphones were on a forced two-year upgrade cycle. This not only did wonderful things to Apple’s bottom line, it didn’t seem to hurt the company's customer satisfaction either.
Google let OS choices flow more aggressively to the carriers and the sheer number of Android versions in the market at any one time is daunting. While that has certainly had an adverse impact on smartphone margins and reliability, Android phones continue to lead the market.
Given the pressure these alternatives were putting on Microsoft and Windows, they finally came around to the idea that a past mistake needed to be addressed.
The result (you can read the policy here) is far closer to Apple’s model than Google’s, which speaks to the fact that the heart of Microsoft’s move isn’t just improved revenues but improved user satisfaction. The goal of its new policy is to move to a time when new hardware ships with new operating systems and the operating system will be tied as tightly to the PC as the smartphone operating system is tied to the smartphone. Initially, there is some wiggle room, but if you understand that the goal is to more aggressively support new hardware technology, improve reliability and security, and increase user satisfaction, you may want to get ahead of this policy and implement its eventual form before Microsoft mandates it.
The downside is that this ensures mixed environments, but you already have that with smartphones and tablets -- with Android, in particular -- in spades. This will be consistent with BYOD, which drives similar organizational technology mixes anyway and it should dramatically reduce both breakage and security vulnerabilities, which often result from deploying out-of-date platforms.
Granted, it will take time to wrap our heads around the idea that we can’t deploy a particular configuration over a 48- to 60-month window, but that was kind of a stupid idea anyway given that virtually every other high-tech product we buy ships with whatever the current OS is.
The idea of trying to allow large companies to deploy out-of-date operating systems on new hardware was ill-conceived and one of the symptoms of Microsoft’s unfortunate pivot away from users. Ironically, much of this was driven by ex-Digital folks after Digital failed.
The new Microsoft is far more focused on PC OEMs and users, and admittedly driven to respond to the threats that alternative platforms like iOS, Android and the Chrome OS represent. The result is a policy that will eventually remove the ability to deploy new hardware with old operating systems. While this will eliminate the ability for a homogeneous desktop OS environment, that environment died anyway with the birth of smartphones and the latest generations of tablets.
In the end, we are moving to a future that is much like the birth of the PC market, far more focused on the needs and requirements of the users and the PC OEMs. That’s where it always should have stayed.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+