Windows may not be as crucial to Microsoft as it once was, but in some ways the future of the company is still bound to the PC.
That close relationship is something of a millstone around Microsoft’s neck, given the PC market has shrunk 25% over the past five years, according to estimates from analyst house Gartner.
With a vested interest in stimulating this moribund PC market, Microsoft has in recent years begun designing its own computers, from the laptop/tablet hybrid, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, through to the designer-focused Microsoft Surface Studio.
While these machines haven’t set PC sales alight, their influence was evident in the latest Windows 10 PCs and associated hardware on show at CES. From the Surface Pro-inspired Lenovo MiiX 720 to the Surface Studio-flavored Dell Canvas, the impact of Microsoft’s PC range was plain to see.
This copycat behavior by computer makers is exactly what Microsoft had hoped to inspire, said Ranjit Atwal, principal analyst with Gartner.
“This has been Microsoft’s aim all along. They needed to show the market the way forward in terms of design and functionality and any competitive designs are welcome,” he said, adding that Microsoft’s primary concern is to drive adoption of Windows 10.
Ovum’s principal research analyst Richard Edwards said after the failure of the ARM-based Surface RT tablet Microsoft had gone on to develop “an impressive stable of devices, including Surface Pro, Surface Hub, Surface Book, and Surface Studio. And let’s not forget that HoloLens is also waiting in the wings”.
Chrystelle Labesque, European director for personal computing devices at analyt IDC, believes the Surface Pro effectively created a new category of PC device, which has since been picked up by other hardware manufacturers.
“This idea of a Windows-based device that can be a tablet as well as notebook, what IDC qualifies as detachable, was first regarded as niche and it was difficult to convince end users,” she said.
“Today, with the fourth generation [Surface Pro], there’s no debate. Microsoft has established the category and all other major vendors offer similar designs.”
According to Ovum’s Edwards, as a software and services-focused company, it makes sense for Microsoft to let hardware manufacturers mass-produce these new systems.
“Having put its considerable R&D resources to good use, Microsoft is now looking to its OEM partners to drive broad market adoption and scale. Microsoft clearly wants its OEM partners to take inspiration from its designs and to go one better.”
That chimes with the message from Microsoft’s chief marketing officer, Chris Capossela, who told ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley that Microsoft wanted to create new categories of devices that can be built by its OEM partners.
However, regardless of Microsoft’s successes, the firm is still grappling with the broader shift away from Windows PCs and towards using mobile computing devices, even as PCs have got more portable, easier to use and enjoy longer battery life.
“The end user computing market is no longer dominated by the Windows PC, and Surface-inspired designs aren’t going to change that,” Ovum’s Edwards said.
“The hybrid tablet Surface/Surface Pro and convertible laptop Surface Book were undoubtedly developed by Microsoft in reaction to the success of the iPad and the threat posed by the Google Chromebook.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge to Windows’ continued relevance is the smartphone. About 1.89 billion phones will be shipped between 2016 and 2019, according to Gartner, dwarfing the 268 million PC shipments expected during the same period.
Unfortunately for Microsoft, despite repeated efforts to crack the mobile market, pretty much nobody uses Windows on their phone, with Microsoft’s OS dwarfed by widespread adoption of Android.
It remains to be seen whether Microsoft’s promise to bring the full Windows desktop and apps to smartphones or whether the forthcoming Surface Phone will give the OS a much-needed foothold in the mobile market. But ultimately cracking mobile may prove more important to Windows’ future than reinventing the PC.
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