Much of the last decade was defined by Microsoft missteps and outright mistakes.
The decade started with products like Mira and Tablet PC which were like the iPad but done badly, had failures like Media Center and Origami in the middle which were like AppleTV and the iPad again and still done badly, and capped by Windows Vista - the only product that made Windows ME look good.
Still, this is a new decade and the first product out of the gate was Windows 7 which is arguably the best version of Windows the company has ever done, easily exceeding Windows XP the previous champion in everything from security to ease of use and performance.
The second big move in IE9 and it is potentially even bigger than Windows 7 was and this will be followed by Xbox Kinect, and Windows Phone 7.
But Windows 7’s success is old news, so let’s talk about the other products.
This is actually one of the most impressive products Microsoft has ever done. I’m at the launch of the beta as I write this and it feels almost like an Apple event, there is excitement, applause at key points (over the last decade you could hear crickets chirp at some of these things), and the improvements seem to hit each of us where we live.
They have not only improved performance sharply they have provided tools to identify the stuff that slows down your browser experience (like plug ns) and turn them off. You’ll see faster, higher resolution video content, richer web sites, features that you’ll actually use to better navigate the web and get to where you want to go faster, and better Bing integration in a "take that" Google effort to showcase that yes Microsoft can couple too and has been doing it longer.
But the best may still be yet to come.
Windows Phone 7
If there was any true embarrassment for Microsoft it is that both Apple and Google have kicked their butt soundly on the phone.
This is particularly painful, because while Apple’s product by any measure (except the choice of AT&T) is truly excellent, Google’s offering really isn’t that good and seems to not get hit by the reality that it doesn’t make money for Google or app developers.
This is like getting your butt kicked by an underperformer and had to be particularly galling.
However, the application devs I’ve spoken to who are developing on all three platforms have indicated that with iPhone as the high bar, Windows Phone 7 comes closest to matching Apple in user experience and has the expected advantages in Windows integration.
Coupled with what is expected to be better carrier and device choice, the only real disadvantage that Apple enjoys, this platform could actually take the fight back to those two companies and while far from a knockout, particularly for Apple, it is for once a contender.
Granted, the device isn’t out yet and the launch hasn’t happened but if they do as well as they did with the IE9 launch both Apple and Google should stand warned that for the first time in a decade, Microsoft has come to play.
Microsoft has actually done reasonably well in this space but was first beat by Sony and then by Nintendo when Sony faltered.
When MS introduced the concept of Kinect, they drove both Sony and Nintendo to revisit their game interfaces and rethink how they did things. Nintendo sales then dropped like a rock and Xbox sales seemed to actually hold reasonably well with what was the oldest of the three platforms - and this is before Kinect actually launched.
In addition, they were the only ones to refresh their line and make it both more affordable and better looking than what came before (Sony’s refresh resulted in a cheaper looking product as well as better pricing) and that seemed to pay off as well.
But Kinect goes beyond the Xbox because features from it are expected in Windows 8 and may have us looking beyond touch, which hasn’t been that successful in the PC space, to something that doesn’t require replacing monitors s and has broader uses, such as video conferencing.
So, unlike Sony and Nintendo, Microsoft’s moves are much broader here and vastly more strategic and as they move them to the PC likely ahead of Apple and they don’t often lead Apple.
Wrapping Up: Windows 7 Embedded with Media Center
Windows 7 and IE9 Beta are both powerful examples that the Microsoft of this decade is playing differently than they did last decade and both Windows Phone 7 and Xbox Kinect appear to be capable of continuing that trend.
One product on the bubble is Windows 7 Embedded with Media Center which is what Media Center should have always been, but should have been named MicrosoftTV or WindowsTV in order to compete better with AppleTV and GoogleTV (Apple wanted iTV but that name was taken).
Microsoft has nearly a decade of interface work, content deals, and experience with this market. But because they had to put a full copy of Windows underneath the initial Media Center offering, they ended up coming to the market late with an appliance approach.
Even though they now have the right product they have a name that goes back to the bad practices of last decade, providing the one caution that as much as there are places in Microsoft that are ready to compete, there are still groups that haven’t gotten the memo.
In the end, at this launch, Microsoft is looking far better than they have in ages and this bodes well for the decade to come.
However, entropy is an ugly mistress and as Windows 7 embedded with Media Center showcases, there are still a number of folks there that likely need to be encouraged to go work for Google or Apple.