For years Microsoft has been the de facto desktop operating system. Now Apple is using its mobile devices to steal market and mindshare.
Pundits have long expected Apple to integrate its desktop and mobile operating systems; however, recent announcements at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) show that the company is doing far more than borrowing user interface elements. After some tentative starts, Apple has embarked on a full-scale integration between the company's phone and desktop devices. With new releases of the software powering each, your laptop will soon be answering phone calls, and your phone will share text messages with your desktop, allowing you to fire off a missive from your MacBook to a colleague's Android smartphone using standard text messaging. While not totally unexpected, the depth of integration is fairly impressive, and doubly so since I couldn't help wondering during the announcements: why hadn't Microsoft done this?
A constantly unfinished puzzle
By nearly any metric, Microsoft was years ahead of Apple in the smartphone and tablet space. While Apple was restructuring a fractured business and "playing" with handheld devices in the form of the Newton, Microsoft had produced several generations of its own PDA, and eventually a full-fledged smartphone that was feature rich, but failed to build a compelling user interface around its advanced feature set. Over half a decade before the iPhone launched, a lifetime in mobile technology, Microsoft was introducing tablets, only to be wiped off the face of the map by the iPad. Microsoft's most obvious advantage in the mobile space was its dominance of the desktop.
If anyone built a mobile device that integrated tightly with the desktop, it should have been Microsoft.
Technology versus usability
While Microsoft may have missed a historic opportunity, more recently the company has been touting its merging of significant portions of its mobile and desktop code. Even user interface elements have begun to cross-pollinate, with the "modern" user interface that first appeared in Windows Phone featuring prominently on desktops and tablets. However, this technical integration is indicative of Microsoft's larger problem.
As a company, Microsoft's Achilles' heel has been an inability to fully integrate different elements of its computing empire, and to present a user experience tailored to the task at hand, not pounded into a contrived, pre-existing Windows metaphor. From the Start button and stylus on a mobile phone, to its most recent technical integration of its environments that completely lacks in end-user benefit, Microsoft is missing the boat on developing a holistic computing experience. Frankly, I don't care if my desktop and smartphone are running completely incompatible code from totally different vendors, as long as they'll share information and work seamlessly together.
The Switzerland of computing?
While Microsoft may have missed this opportunity for its own devices, it still represents a key player in the overall computing landscape, and the long-predicted "demise of Windows" is likely several years away, if it occurs at all. An integrated experience between Microsoft smartphones and Windows desktops won't meet with much excitement, primarily due to the limited market penetration of Windows phones. What would be interesting, however, is if Microsoft were to use its desktop dominance to integrate tightly with devices from Apple, Google, and others.
Such integration might seem far-fetched, but Microsoft already does this to an extent, with its Exchange server happily sharing mail, contacts, and calendars between everything from phones and tablets to laptops and web apps. Microsoft also has decades of experience integrating diverse hardware, and producing operating systems that run well on millions of combinations of hardware is no small feat. Just as Apple's original iPod hit its stride when the company made it available for PCs, Microsoft could accelerate its cloud services and desktop OS, and ultimately make a compelling case for Windows Phone by providing tight integration with several mobile vendors.
In the mid and long terms, "winning" the mobility wars is not going to be about who sells the most devices, especially as computing transitions away from single devices and into a multi-platform, multi-device world. Microsoft has a chance to regain lost ground by tightly integrating its desktop and cloud services with today's devices, allowing it to define tomorrow's computing experience.