Got another techie post for you today, after yday's Apple lawsuit discussion.
For more than a decade now, Microsoft has been a company that everybody loves to hate, and not without good reason. Whether it was the debacles that were Windows ME and Vista, the various antitrust suits, the horror of most versions of Internet Explorer, or just devices that were too little, too late like the Zune, and Windows Mobile, you wouldnt have to look too hard to find a reason to deride and vilify the corporate behemoth that was (and is) Microsoft. Even products that ended up being successful, like the Xbox (and Xbox 360) and Windows XP, were plagued with teething troubles that turned many customers away.
The New York Times ran a fascinating op-ed piece by Dick Brass, one of the former VP's at MS, where he presented an insider's view of the corporate culture that led to Microsoft's stagnation.
Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.For example, early in my tenure, our group of very clever graphics experts invented a way to display text on screen called ClearType. It worked by using the color dots of liquid crystal displays to make type much more readable on the screen. Although we built it to help sell e-books, it gave Microsoft a huge potential advantage for every device with a screen. But it also annoyed other Microsoft groups that felt threatened by our success.
His story tells of the internal warfare between various departments that delayed and killed off new technology and ideas before they even had a chance to reach consumers. It paints a sad picture, and goes a long way in explaining how one of the most powerful companies in computing seemed to get more and more marginalised in its own field. Of course, Windows and Office still ruled their fields, and were ubiquitous, but there was nothing NEW. All the innovation, all the breakthroughs went to competitors like Apple and Google, and with those, they captured the mind-space of consumers.
I think that all that though...is about to change.
It started last year, with the release of Windows 7. It was beautiful, powerful, and it even ran smoothly on older hardware. I can personally bear witness to that, because I used a pre-release version of it for a while on my 4 year old middle-of-the-range laptop, and I'd say it was actually faster on that than Windows XP, which is pretty damn impressive. In practically a single move, MS went a long way to erasing the disaster of Vista, and gave us the Windows we'd been waiting for.
Another, much quieter development last year, was the release of the Zune HD. Now, I've never even seen one in person- I'm not even sure if they're shipping them outside the US yet- and in any case, the iPod has a stranglehold on the media player market that no other pmp can realistically challenge. Still, from all reviews, the Zune HD is a brilliant little device, fast, powerful and responsive, and just look at it! Aside from the beautiful metallic bits, and that gorgeous, gorgeous OLED screen, the interface that MS used for its touchscreen is one of the best around. (And more on that in a bit)
Still, so far, so hum-drum.... Windows 7 is pretty and fast, but it'll take a long time to replace XP on the millions of pc's around, by which time it might be rendered obsolete by cloud computing, and new OS's designed to take advantage of it (like the Chrome OS that Google is working on, as well as MS's own Windows.next, rumours of which were leaked by an MS employee...who is now presumably an ex-employee). And as I said before, it doesn't really matter how good the Zune HD is, because while it's finally caught up to the iPod Touch, that ship has long sailed.
But those were last year's releases. This year...this year is when it gets REALLY interesting for MS, and that's because of 3 separate projects that are in the works...Windows Phone 7, Project Natal for the Xbox, and the Microsoft Courier.
Lets talk about the phone first, because that's probly going to be the first one to market. Before the release, the rumours were that MS was going to release its own phone to compete directly with Apple and Google, but it turned out that wasnt quite true. What they released was a new mobile OS called Windows phone 7, which like Google's Android, will be used on a number of different company's phones, but unlike Android, and previous versions of Windows Mobile, this time around MS will keep a much tighter control over exactly what kind of hardware platforms are used, to try to make sure that user experience as as seamless between hardware and software, as what you get on the iPhone. If they can deliver on the promise though, its going to be one hell of an experience too, because from the promos and reviews, Windows Phone 7 looks and feels like nothing else on the market. Personally, I love the simple style, and the basic 'flat' icons and text- very striking, and the interface seems to flow and work beautifully..cant wait for a chance to try it first hand.
Project Natal blew a lot of minds last year when Microsoft announced it at the E3 expo last year. Its essentially a motion controller for the Xbox 360, but unlike any other gaming consoles, microsoft is doing away with the controllers entirely, and using full body motion capture, to control the game..ie you do something, your character does something. It made my jaw drop when I watched the promo video...honestly, if it comes anywhere close to that, it'll make the Wiimote look like a child's plaything. Ok, that might have been a poor choice of words, since they'll both be children's playthings, but you get my point.
And finally, to my favourite of MS's coming products..the Courier tablet...or booklet rather... first, just scroll back up to the top of the page and look at it....its gorgeous... thats what the iPad should have been...instead of an oversized iPhone, with a silly name. When we first saw it last year, it was just a concept, and a mindblowing concept at that. More details have been tickling out steadily though, and all signs point to it being released near the end of this year. Check out the photos and videos here, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what the Courier is about. Interestingly, it looks like they're going REALLY hard at the creative community...practically every promo they've shown features designers and artists using the device, though I'm sure it doesnt take too much effort to think of useful things for everyone else to do with it. Two things that I personally love about it, is the face that its a booklet, with two screens, which automatically sets it up for a bit of multitasking action, and the fact that u can use either a stylus or ur fingers to use the multitouch, which means it'll make a kick-ass graphics tablet in addition to everything else. Seriously, I want this thing more than I've wanted any piece of tech in a long long loooong time. I can only hope it lives up to its promise.
So, is this gonna be Microsoft's year? The year when they go back to making some properly innovative things? The year when they can finally challenge Apple, Sony and all the rest for having the coolest new toys on the market? Call me an MS fanboy if you must, but I really really hope so.