The Empire Strikes Back

21 Jan 2015

I’ve been using a Mac at home for over a decade, and pretty much all of my professional work has targeted Linux (or has been platform-neutral). Since university, my only real contact with Windows has been a work-issued computer, and since I changed jobs I don’t even have that on my main machine. Yet, I find myself excited about the upcoming Windows 10. From the prosaic - unifying things both technically and presentationally across a wide range of devices - to the outlandish - Cortana, augmented reality - they seem to be nailing both the ideas and the details. How did this happen? When did Microsoft get interesting?

It didn’t happen all at once. The Metro Modern design language showed that they could come up with something good-looking and innovative without just aping Apple, and the Kinnect is one of the few consumer products in a long while that’s genuinely impressed me on a technical level. There have been changes in the way they interact with the rest of the tech world too; supporting other people’s platforms and languages on Azure, and open sourcing key components of their own. All of these trends seem to be coming together, and recently they really seem to be hitting their stride.

To someone who started paying serious attention to the technology world in the late nineties, this is a strange turn of events. Microsoft were to us what IBM was for the previous generation; the staid, standard choice that nobody got fired for buying. Moreover, they were evil, the 800lb gorilla that crushed all before them with questionably legal business practices, ruthless patent suits, and Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Noted philanthropist and campaigner Bill Gates was the most despicable person on the planet (Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school). Whole communities pretty much defined themselves as being not Microsoft (although they’d spell it with a $).

The main difference between then and now is, of course, power. In the nineties, Microsoft absolutely dominated the personal computing landscape. Apple were a has-been on the verge of bankruptcy, and IBM were floundering. The web was only just starting to emerge in earnest. Microsoft had an open field, and they exploited it to the full.

Today, the picture is very different. The web as a common medium has diluted their platform advantage, and mobile has opened up a new frontier. For a while, Microsoft floundered, slow to adapt and leaning ever more heavily on their existing cash cows, seemingly oblivious that the world was moving on.

This seems to have changed. Their new CEO has accelerated the process, but I think it started before that. In any case, they seem to be re-energised by the knowledge that they’re no longer top dog. It’s unlikely that they’ll regain their dominant position, but they’re back in the fight in a big way.

It’s early days for Windows 10, of course, so I could be completely wrong. Perhaps this is the last gasp of a dying giant. The only way to know is to watch it unfold. One way or the other, though, it won’t be boring.

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