With the release of Windows 8.1 and the rapidly approaching Xbox One launch, I have been thinking more and more about moving completely into the Microsoft environment for all of my computing and entertainment needs. The idea of having one ecosystem that I can go to for movies, music, games and productivity has been a dream that has been formulating in the past few years as I have moved into what many may call my “grown-up” years. Sure, I am still rampaging through the streets of satirically created video game worlds and watching movies where scientific fumblings make food fall from the sky but many aspects of my life fall into the “grown-up” category. As I’ve moved into this life, technology has moved with me and I’ve identified three things that I need it to be; frictionless, platform agnostic and unified. I’ve dipped my feet into pretty much every ecosystem out there, spending money in each but I am drawn to the potential I see in Microsoft. The problem is the potential isn’t being realized as I would hope. I’m ready to make a commitment and I hope that, by taking the correct steps, Microsoft is soon up for the task.
That being said, here is what I feel Microsoft needs to accomplish for me to jump in head first. If you’re only interested in the key points, here’s a summary:
1. Make everything accessible everywhere
2. Make everything talk to other devices
3. Join RT with Windows Phone
4. Build app ecosystem
5. Embrace and expand the Surface brand
Music, Movies and Television
Anything purchased from a Microsoft store front must be accessible on any of their platforms and their competitors’ platforms. Microsoft is actually taking steps in this direction. Xbox Music initially launched on Windows Phone, Windows 8 and Xbox and has recently expanded to Android and iOS as well. Where they fall short is in the execution. The Android and iOS apps are a good start but aren’t feature complete. There are still features, namely offline listening, that have been left on the to do list. They have also been slowly moving their Xbox brand to other platforms by means of achievements linked to your gamertag.
Xbox video has no presence on Windows Phone platform, let alone other mobile OS’s. When it comes to services, being platform agnostic is essential to gaining and maintaining a customer base. If I subscribe to Xbox music, I want the complete experience on any device I pick up. The same applies to purchased movies and television shows.
Consumption on every screen
When Apple introduced Airplay and developers started building it into their apps, local media streaming became a key part of home entertainment. It has grown over the years to support screen mirroring and just about anything sporting an Apple logo. What is truly amazing is the lack of competition. There are other options but they feel fragmented and more of an one-off option rather than aiming for a standard. Microsoft is in an amazing position to make substantial strides in this area.
Just as nearly every screen you look at could be running an Apple OS, the same could be said of Microsoft. It has been confirmed that Miracast is going to be baked into the Xbox One and is already a part of Windows 8.1. The addition of Miracast to Windows Phone 8.1 (or whatever the next version may be) could make for a truly new way to use all of these devices together. Imagine plugging your Windows Phone in to charge, “casting” the screen to a snapped window on your Xbox One or Windows 8 device and being able to answer calls, respond to texts and everything else you can do on your phone. Samsung is already doing something similar to this between their Galaxy and ATIV laptop product lines. The real promise comes in when you fully explore the possibilities. Starting a movie on your Xbox and moving it to your phone, streaming audio from your Windows Phone to your Xbox One and most exciting to me, extremely low latency streaming from PC to TV for gaming. If Valve can master it, Microsoft can too. This all comes with one catch; it must be reliable and it must be simple and clear and most importantly, every Microsoft device must support it. No exceptions.
It’s difficult to talk about any new electronic without mentioning “the cloud”. Microsoft calls theirs Skydrive in the US and has been increasingly pushing the benefit of it. I agree with them. If you live in Microsoft-land, it’s extremely useful but there is so much more that could be done. The next step for Skydrive is to unify. Any data going to a Microsoft cloud should be going to same place. To my knowledge, this is currently the case with the exception of Xbox game saves. I may not be able to use them on a PC or my phone, but I’d like to know what’s there and have the ability to manage it from anywhere. This may seem like a trivial issue but consistency is key.
Anyone who has used a Windows Phone will most likely tell you they enjoy using the phone but the app selection is in dire need of attention. Having used a HTC Windows Phone 8x for some time, I can say that there are third-party solutions for most of the missing or subpar first-party apps but more often than not, they are paid. I think it’s great that developers are taking the time to make these apps and getting paid but not every service has an API or if they do, it may be limited so you’re not getting a full experience. Microsoft needs to address this issue rapidly and with some serious momentum. They need to pursue the creators of great iOS and Android apps and encourage them to develop on Windows Phone. I don’t know if that means subsidizing development costs or guaranteeing income but something needs to be done and done now.
The introduction of the Surface was a big deal. Microsoft decided they weren’t seeing the innovation they wanted and decided to do it themselves. This rubbed a lot of hardware partners the wrong way and the success of their venture is arguable. However, they introduced a hardware spec that was under their control, something their mobile platform could benefit from greatly. The Surface brand is something Microsoft isn’t shying away from and with the purchase of Nokia, makes perfect sense for the smaller form factor of phones.
The lack of interest from third-party phone manufacturers has also produced some less than inspired Windows Phones so removing those from the marketplace can only improve the platforms’ standing. Leveraging Nokia’s disturbing force in design and camera innovation with the financial muscle of Microsoft, could make a yearly Surface phone huge. Windows Phone would stop being the new feature phone OS and the Windows Phone build team could focus on optimizing for one hardware configuration. That focus would allow them to build in all of the other features to make living in Microsoft’s ecosystem really appealing.
Last but not least, Microsoft should admit their misstep and do away with Windows RT. It’s confusing to the average PC user and quite honestly should not be compared to full Windows 8. Here is what I propose: remove the traditional desktop from RT and join it with Windows Phone under one name, Surface OS. This would do a few things for Microsoft. First, it would remove any confusion between what it is and what Windows 8 is. Third-party PC manufactures could continue making Windows 8 machines as they have been, as many have discontinued RT based devices already. Second, with an admittedly large amount of work, the Windows Store would be unified across platforms. Buy an app on your Surface phone and it works on your main PC and Surface tablet. If you are invested at all in the iOS ecosystem, this should sound pretty familiar. Lastly, advertise, advertise, advertise. People don’t need to know why the change happened but they do need to know that something did change and it’s for the better.
Microsoft has gone through a significant transformation in the past few years and will continue changing as CEO Steve Ballmer fades away and a new face of the company steps in. There is a new company focus, emphasizing one Microsoft and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve been a fairly loyal supporter of Microsoft for over a decade but realizing the short comings of your chosen tech is the difference between fan and fanboy. The steps I’ve listed are what I believe to be some crucial stepping stones for Microsoft to gain market share in mobile, improve their standing as a services company and most importantly, offer the best package under one umbrella as possible. For now, I’m stuck in limbo between multiple ecosystems but remain ready to commit if things start to come together.