Over the last few years, Microsoft has worked hard to transform itself from a software giant into a devices and services company. While some of the changes have been controversial for technology enthusiasts, the company is headed in the right direction.
The biggest and most hotly-debated Microsoft product is, of course, Windows 8, the latest version of Microsoft’s desktop operating system. In a world where there is a large divide between traditional desktops/laptops and their more portable counterparts, tablets, Microsoft stands alone in working to bring the two device categories together.
After spending more than six months with a number of Windows 8 tablets, it’s obvious that this is the future. Unlike Android tablets and the iPad, Windows 8 and Windows RT manage to bring the best of both worlds, allowing you to use either the traditional Windows desktop or the new interface and Windows Store apps. I, for one, absolutely love this, since I’m not forced to trade portability for usability, or vice versa. The hardware isn’t perfect yet, but a number of devices are quite good and performance and battery life will only improve over time. And for all the doom and gloom reporting when it comes to sales, Windows 8 has reportedly managed to already garner 7.5% of the tablet market.
Of course, Microsoft’s OS is great on desktop and laptops too. I’ve been running Windows 8 on my primary desktop computer full-time for over a year, and I haven’t regretted it once. While Windows 8 truly shines with a touch screen, it’s certainly not necessary for an excellent experience. And the new features and performance enhancements make it well worth the upgrade on any computer.
On the software side, much has been made of Windows 8’s new interface and the lack of a Start menu. But to most people who use the OS regularly, it really isn’t a problem. Like anyone, I have a long list of OS tweaks and feature requests, but most if not all of them will be checked off when Windows 8.1 (codenamed “Blue”) is released later this year. Say what you will about Windows 8 and Windows RT, but it’s a great OS that’s only going to get better in the coming months.
Arguably one of Microsoft’s most underrated products, Windows Phone is a great phone OS that really nails it in every department, be it the user interface, performance, software, or hardware. Sales have been much lower than many had hoped, but those who own a Windows Phone genuinely love it. The Lumia 920, for example, recently received Engadget’s “Smartphone of the Year” award – a fact that the Windows Phone team touts in its new (and hilarious) commercial.
The transition from the Windows CE-based Windows Phone 7 to the Windows 8-based Windows Phone 8 was a little rocky, but Microsoft is now in a position to iterate much faster and provide more powerful hardware than ever before. The company is also reportedly trying to merge the Windows and Windows Phone Stores – or, at the very least, make it easier for developers to create apps for both platforms. A few high-profile apps are still missing (most notably Instagram, which has been rumored to be in the works for some time now), but almost all of the major ones are there. I’d like to see Microsoft iterate a little faster, but Windows Phone definitely has a great future ahead of it.
In recent years, Microsoft has worked hard to transform the Xbox brand from a core gaming platform to an all-encompassing entertainment service. In addition to blockbuster games, Xbox now boasts the Xbox Music and Xbox Video services, a wide range of entertainment apps, integration with numerous mobile platforms, and much more. Windows and Windows Phone both support Xbox LIVE-enabled games, and players can even unlock a few achievements on competing platforms like iOS. And while not many games have managed to take advantage of Xbox SmartGlass at this point, that will almost certainly change as developers have more time to integrate the multi-platform second screen experience into their games.
Of course, that’s just the current generation. On May 21, Microsoft is set to reveal the next Xbox, a console which is expected to take gaming and entertainment to the next level. The next Xbox is arguably one of Microsoft’s most anticipated product launches in history, and people around the world are waiting with baited breath to hear just what the company has in store for the “new generation of games, TV, and entertainment.”
A year ago, the only Surface people were familiar with was Microsoft’s enormous multi-touch table, which was aimed at hotels, restaurants, and various other businesses. Then, last June, Microsoft pulled a surprise announcement and unveiled the Surface line of tablets, garnering a lot of excitement. Well, in my experience, the Surface tablets have the best hardware I’ve ever seen, perfectly blending design, performance, and usability. It’s hard to believe that the Surface with Windows RT and the Surface with Windows 8 Pro were the first computers Microsoft ever made.
The company is reportedly working on a number of new devices and form factors, and I can’t wait to see what new devices the team will come up with. Will we get a Surface-esque twist on a traditional laptop? A desktop? An 8-inch tablet? More powerful RT and Pro devices? It couldn’t be a more exciting time.
Microsoft’s premiere productivity suite, Office, received a number of major cloud-centric features in the most recent release, making it even easier to collaborate on projects. Instead of keeping the applications and files locked to a single machine or mandating that people move to the cloud, the Office team managed to find the perfect balance of convenience, ease of use, and productivity, allowing you to sync directly to SkyDrive and collaborate with others regardless of whether they’re using a desktop application or web app. And the new Office 365 subscriptions make things even easier. While I’ve always been a big fan of Office, I’ve used it more in the last few months for my senior project than ever before. Looking ahead, Office is set to move into the app world with the rumored Gemini update and apps for Windows 8 and iOS.
One can’t discuss the future of Microsoft without bringing up services like Outlook.com, SkyDrive, and Skype. Outlook.com took the best aspects of Hotmail and blended it with a beautiful interface and great new features, making it the go-to destination for email. Outlook.com makes Gmail feel clunky and old by comparison, and the team has worked hard to deliver new features like an updated calendar, new Android app, two-step authentication, and Skype integration at an almost stunning rate.
Similarly, SkyDrive has grown by leaps and bounds over the last year or two, and it’s rapidly being integrated into all of Microsoft’s products and services. Office, Outlook.com, Windows Phone, and Windows 8 all feature SkyDrive integration, and it’s only going to get better. Windows “Blue” will reportedly take things a step further, allowing you to sync your entire SkyDrive account – or parts of it, if you so choose – to your computer without the need for the SkyDrive for Windows desktop application. And with the aforementioned built-in Office Web Apps, it couldn’t be easier to access your documents and collaborate with others.
Then there’s Skype, which Microsoft acquired in 2011 for $8.5 billion and is slowly incorporating into its current offering. The IM and VoIP service recently replaced Windows Live Messenger as Microsoft’s primary communication service. The transition hasn’t been quite as smooth as many would have liked, but things are starting to look up. Skype is a very useful and well-liked brand, so it’ll be interesting to see where Microsoft takes the service in the coming months and years.
This, of course, is just some of what Microsoft has to offer. Microsoft might be the underdog when it comes to tablets, smartphones, and services, but the company is on the right track. Where others are copying the same interfaces and hardware designs, Microsoft is forging ahead and pioneering new computing concepts and form-factors. I honestly believe that the future is bright for Microsoft, and I can’t wait to see what the company does next.
Disclaimer: I am a member of the SkyDrive and Outlook.com Insiders program.