Alex Wilhelm, one of our friends over at TechGeist, made a post yesterday about the resurgence of Microsoft. Alex posits that there have been over the last few months and will be over the next few months many occurrences that, by themselves, look rather innocent; but, put together, are propelling Microsoft back to the top of the tech world. For the most part, I agree with him. I think Microsoft has made giant strides within the last year or so to improve its image among techies and non-techies alike.
To begin with, the laptop hunter ads have been extremely effective at pointing out the advantages of purchasing a Microsoft PC rather than a Mac. In addition, the Xbox 360, in spite of its technical difficulties (RROD, laser burn, etc.) has consistently dominated the Playstation 3. This fall, Microsoft will be releasing Windows 7, the Zune HD, multiple exclusive games for the Xbox 360 and will most likely begin revealing details about the new WinPhone (which is the term being used to replace Windows Mobile) operating system and devices. Really, though, Microsoft’s journey back toward the top of the heap (though, it’s debatable as to whether they were ever truly unseated) has been a fairly even mix of innovation and simply good marketing.
Windows 7, as I’ve mentioned before, is still little more than a service pack for Vista. In my opinion, less has changed between Vista and Win7 than did between Win95 and Win98. Still, it’s brilliant the way MS has turned all of the griping people did about Vista into positive energy (about many of the same features) for Win7. While it does include some nice new features (Netflix streaming directly into Windows Media Center, etc.), it also still contains many of the same annoyances that made people whinge about Vista (user level control, etc.). The pricing and upgrade structure for Windows 7 does seem very appealing, though.
The Zune HD, on the other hand, is a truly innovative piece of hardware. Although I see a lot of people trying to compare it to the iPod Touch, it is really a completely different animal. The major issue I have with the Zune HD, and the thing that I fear will keep it from being as big a seller as you predict, is the lack of a high-capacity model. We forgive the iPod Touch and iPhone for having lower capacity because they do so many other things, and because, for many of us, the content doesn’t actually have to reside on the device (as we stream a great deal). However, the Zune is a different kind of product. There are many of us that want to keep our entire collections on our PMPs. That’s why we buy PMPs; so that we don’t have to constantly manage our collections.
With the Zune HD also introducing the ability to store high-definition video content, I can’t imagine that 32 gigs is going to get us very far. Depending on the encoding, that might only hold three or four full-length HD movies or possibly a single season of an HD TV series. It seems short-sighted to me to be releasing a 32-gig model as the largest while also re-purposing the device as a “portable DVR” (which is something you hear quite often on the Zune Insider podcast).
The jury is obviously still out on Bing, but the marketing for the new engine is extremely effective. I’ve mentioned this before, but Bing has indexed some of my sites much more effectively and efficiently than Google. On other sites, however, Bing has fallen flat on its face. Only time will tell how well Bing will fare against Google.
Office 2010 is another brilliant innovation (though, not truly innovative, since it’s really a redevelopment of many things that have come before). The bottom line is, as well as products like OpenOffice, GoogleDocs, etc. have done, they are still missing some extremely fundamental features found in Microsoft Office. Although collaboration is supposed to be the main focus behind GoogleDocs, it’s still much less intuitive than the simplicity of the “tracked changes” feature that’s been built into MS Office for many years. OpenOffice hasn’t even begun to try to implement support for those features (well, they’ve attempted to support the “comments” feature from MS Office, but it’s currently a dismal failure). On top of all of that, MS Office is still the number one standard for the majority of corporations. When MS introduces the ability to store and edit Office documents securely online, anyone who can afford MS Office will have little use for offerings like GoogleDocs.
I am also very curious about the innovations MS will be making with WinPhone. I have heard rumors that the new WinPhone operating system will be based heavily on the operating system used within the Zune HD (which is, from what I’ve been able to see so far, a simple upgrade from the current Zune firmware). If this is true, it means that the WinPhone operating system will be much more intuitive, simple and fun to use than most other phones (smart or dumb) on the market.