The last time Microsoft gave me something to talk about that wasn’t a wisecrack was back in 2007. The technological climate was begging for a revolution. The iPhone was on the brink of release and iPads were barely a rumor. Microsoft began to release promo videos for their new prototype, the “Surface.”
Microsoft engineers boasted about multi-touch computing, a new wave of interaction which would bring users a more (quite literally) hands-on approach to interacting with hardware. The surface promised a whole new set of tools, and a whole new way to interact with them. Surface was essentially an oversized table-top version of today’s popular tablet computers such as Apple’s iPad or Samsung’s Galaxy.
Microsoft tackles design
Since 2007, the focus of Microsoft’s computing revolution has shifted, from the Surface’s hardware to it’s latest operating system software, Windows 8 (due October 26th.) The Surface has been downsized from the table-top prototype into what many are calling the PC’s answer to the iPad. Windows 8 however, is an operating system that will run on both the Surface tablet and Windows desktops. Sam Moreau, the director of user experience at Microsoft tells FastCompany that Windows 8 is tackling the OS wars from a design-centric perspective, a field previously dominated by Apple. They call the interface “Metro,” and it’s a re-design of the Windows platform from a world of organizational toolbars and framed windows to a full-screen experience painted in grids of vibrantly colored tiles, each leading the user into a different digital space (see: games, weather, messaging, mail.)
This re-design is going to fundamentally change the way PC users interact with and consume their technologies. This is not simply a face-lift, but something more like an organ transplant. When PC users find their muscle memory directing their mice towards the ever-present Start Toolbar, they’ll come up empty-clicked. Instead, Internet Explorer is a square blue-tile sitting between a picture of your girlfriend and another tile showing real-time updates of the weather in your town. This is the type of organization familiar to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. It’s sleek. It’s clean. It’s simplified. It’s totally not Windows.
Isn’t design Apple’s territory?
It remains to be seen though whether PC users like developers, and data analysts will flock to or run from a Windows 8 operating system. The preference for PCs often comes from 1) The open ecosystem of software development in the Windows world which allows for the types of tools and software that developers and analysts prefer. 2) The highly transparent nature of the Windows environment that allows users to find, edit, and configure almost anything. Apple on the other hand, appeals to a fluid and aesthetically-appealing user experience ideal for designers. An operating system where many files are hidden so as to minimize a user’s chances of “messing up” anything. I often hear from Apple-haters, “I have work to do, I can’t just be looking at a pretty screen all day.” If Apple is the place where desktops bloom in flowers and morning dew, Microsoft is where cogs turn and command lines are bred.
It feels like Microsoft is trying to pick up where it left off when Apple re-joined the personal computing game as a competitor in 2002 with its OSX operating system (the sleek interface Mac users today have grown to love.) Back then, Apple held only a 2.9% of the personal computing market share under their belt. To re-invent the entire system would not off-put that many users, and felt more like a last resort move to either go big or go home. Today, Microsoft owns around 92% of the operating system market share. A number that is important when considering not only how many users have held out on the switch to Mac despite its cleaner, more modern interface, but also how many will be affected by Windows 8.
Apple & Microsoft share a common enemy: Google
Microsoft has maintained a sense of consistency in that its audience is loyal to its offerings. Gamers and developers use Microsoft, artists and designers use Apple. It feels like a sort of left-brain right-brain distinction we’ve made about the two brands over the years. But as the rise of Google as a common enemy has proven, both Microsoft and Apple are getting their toes stepped on. Google Maps has dominated a market Microsoft used to own, one that Apple is only beginning to respond to now (without much success.) Google’s free tools such as Gmail, Drive (formerly Docs) and Calendar are eliminating the need for and cost of Microsoft Office. Google’s Android platform for smartphones is constantly competing for a majority market share against Apple’s iPhone. It’s no secret that each of these huge companies have had their fair share of flops (Google+, Microsoft’s Zune, Apple’s iTunes Ping) which means nobody is safe from failure, and it could be anyone’s chance to step up and revolutionize the digital game once again. At least this is what Microsoft is hoping for.
Adapting to a New Windows
When any seemingly ubiquitous piece of software or platform changes, many users are up in arms. I remember the day Facebook introduced its signature “Newsfeed” feature as the summer of 2006 came to a close. My peers and I were furious, “What are these statuses about? We have away messages for that. I couldn’t care less about the shopping spree my best friend from third grade went on today.” But Facebook was about 10 steps ahead of us. They weren’t simply trying to replace the away message, they were elevating the facebook status to an interactive forum for conversation. They were changing the face of digital self-expression, where our personalities are often interpreted through our facebook activity, the camera always recording. They were developing a new environment in which we’ve all become voyeurs and exhibitionists, constantly viewing content (many times in silence) or narcissistically boasting our own activities and whereabouts. Facebook literally reinvented how we interact with our social networks from the digital realm to our real lives.
This seems to be the re-invention challenge Microsoft is looking to tackle with the release of Windows 8. They are well aware of the risks they are taking, as Moreau calls it “the ultimate design challenge. You’ve got 24 years of Windows behind you. There’s a responsibility to preserve it, but also to evolve–knowing that when you change something, you’re changing how computing works.” To me, this feels less like a computing revolution, and more like Microsoft’s attempt to “go big” and join the rest of us. The real question is what will happen to the toolbar-loving users they leave behind?