Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft Is No Longer Windows First

Redmond is now strongly focused on making sure all your devices play nicely with one another, no matter where you are or what OS you're running.

I've lost count as to how many years I've heard that OSes are irrelevant and it's really the apps that matter. Despite that supposed truism, OS wars have continued to rage.

But this year, I'm starting to wonder whether we're finally approaching the point where the OS actually is irrelevant, at least on the device front.

Yes, Microsoft still has a sizeable team inside the company developing, launching and supporting various Windows-flavored OS releases. But the old adage of "first and best on Windows" doesn't seem to apply inside the new Microsoft these days.

The `Softies have been rolling out other new software and service features first (and sometimes, best, according to some users) on non-Windows platforms. The Microsoft Bing app for iOS and Android phones beat to market its Bing app for Windows Phone way back in 2011. In early 2013, Skype video messaging came first to iOS, Mac and Android, and only later to Windows, Windows 8 and Windows Phone.

A few months ago, Microsoft launched its touch-first Office for iPad suite. Next up, acording to sources, is the Android-tablet version. And last to market will be the touch-first Windows Office suite, code-named "Gemini." If Microsoft sticks to its latest plan, thetouch-first versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint may not debut until April 2015 --more than a year after the iPad version.

Increasingly, Microsoft is going where the mobile market share is. The "cloud first, mobile first" company is no longer holding back new software or service releases simply to give Windows and Microsoft hardware an edge. Microsoft's new mantra is that users of any of its products or services, regardless of the OS platform they're running, are just as much Microsoft customers as loyal Windows users.

"RIP, device operating systems," Bob O'Donnell, founder and chief analyst of Technalysis Research recently declared. O'Donnell expects device OSes to play a "vastly diminished role" in the not-so-distant future. Instead, a new set of core services -- music, movies, e-mail, mapping, search, shopping, news, messaging, social media -- is becoming a kind of "metaOS," O'Donnell notes.

In part, this shift can be attributed to the changing dynamics in the mobile-device market. As prices of smartphones and tablets fall, OEMs are less willing and able to pay premiums to license an OS from one company that provides many of the same core functions as does a free one from its competitor.

To try to shore up its position in the cheaper/lower end of the mobile market, Microsoft execs announced in April that the company would make Windows free to OEMs building devices with 9 inch or smaller screens. Microsoft's calculated bet is it will be able to sell users software or services on these devices in a way that will offset its loss of the tens of dollars it's believed to have been charging OEMs per device to license Windows.

The unknown piece of the new Microsoft equation is how, when and if it can continue to command a premium for any of its flavors of Windows. While Windows is now free on smaller phones and tablets, Microsoft might continue to try to charge (OEMs and customers) for Windows releases with more features, especially business-specific ones.

Some industry watchers have speculated Microsoft might be planning to charge for Windows with a desktop, allowing users to run legacy applications, for example. Others wonder whether Microsoft will make the long-rumored Gemini touch-first apps for Windows free as a bonus to keep Windows users loyal. Or maybe Microsoft will round out the Gemini suite with touch-first versions of Visio and Publisher that users on non-Windows plaforms won't get.

Under CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft is attempting to distance itself from its "Windows company" heritage. At this point, Windows isn't irrelevant to Microsoft's future. But if Nadella & Co. continues on its current path, Windows likely will matter a lot less to the company's bottom line and its customer base in the coming months and years.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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