Microsoft’s appearance at Apple’s press conference this week was perhaps the starkest reminder yet that the software giant is serious about “mobile first, cloud first.” But don’t lament failed strategies like “Windows only” or “Windows first,” because we’re in a better place now. You can think of it as “Windows best” if that helps. But really, it’s “Microsoft first.”
To be clear, I’m talking myself into this one as well. As I noted in Microsoft Appears in Supporting Role at Apple Press Conference, for long-time Microsoft watchers like myself—people who still have a hard time not thinking of Microsoft as “Windows plus this other stuff”—the ongoing de-emphasis of Windows as the prime driver of Microsoft’s success and public image has been, well, difficult. I think it’s understandable. After all, the software empire that Microsoft nurtured over the past few decades happened solely to support Windows, which was for a long time its key business.
The “Windows only” or “Windows first” strategies of the Ballmer era were thus understandable for the day, and all of the decisions Microsoft made during this time were channeled through these ideals. You could do whatever you wanted at Microsoft … as long as it didn’t harm Windows or, over time, other key businesses like Office and Server. But Windows was first. Until it wasn’t.
These strategies gave birth to some curious decisions, like the terribly-named “knife the baby” moment where Microsoft allowed third-party online services like AOL and CompuServe to share the Windows 95 desktop with MSN. These companies had been pursuing legal action against Microsoft bundling MSN with its dominant Windows product, so Microsoft did what it had to do: protect Windows (then its number one business). In doing so, it harmed MSN irreparably by not giving it an unfair (and potentially) illegal advantage.
The last time we could accurately measure such things—corporate restructuring has since made such determinations more difficult—Windows had fallen from being Microsoft’s biggest business to being just its third-biggest business, behind Office and Server. Today, Windows is still one of the three biggest computing platforms alongside Android and iOS, but it will soon slip to third place and has almost zero presence in the most important markets, for mobile devices. Put simply, the dominance of Windows is in the past, overall, though of course it will continue to be a big player in traditional PCs (which is the smallest of the personal computing markets). And even there it faces strong competition, from simpler Chromebooks and from Mac.
Under the “mobile first, cloud first” mantra, Microsoft continues to act as pragmatically as ever. And because the world has changed, it is correctly ensuring that its best and most differentiated products and services—not to mention new ones—work on the most popular computing platforms of the day. That means Android and iOS. And, yes, Windows.
Every single time Microsoft releases an app, or even updates an app, on other platforms, I hear from a chorus of complainers who would prefer to see the firm focus on Windows and Windows phone, or at least ensure that these solutions were updated on its own platforms as quickly as they are on Android and iOS. I understand their frustration, and I feel it too. But this is wrong-headed, on both of our parts. Microsoft really is doing the right thing.
And if it helps—and I think it does—Office on iPad Pro is a far cry from the functionality we get on the Windows desktop. Office on iPad is a collection of mobile apps that are not as powerful or full-featured as the desktop Office suite we can use. You can’t even write text—let alone have it be automatically stored and understood natively or searched—with the Apple Pencil, as you can with Surface Pen on Surface and with numerous other more powerful Windows tablets.
For those who worry about Windows or Surface, it’s important to remember that the pure Microsoft solutions are better, and will be for a long time to come. Perhaps forever. (On the flipside, the real danger here isn’t that iPad Pro will evolve into a Surface killer, but rather that its limited functionality will prove to be good enough for most users. This is the fear with Chromebook as well, of course.)
We’ll see what happens. But think of it this way. Where Windows 10 proves that Microsoft is serious about really improving Windows and keeping it up-to-date going forward, Office on iPad and other similar offerings prove that Microsoft is even more serious—and rightfully so—about ensuring that this company doesn’t just exist, but thrives, in the evolving world of personal computing. Maintaining the failed “Windows only” or “Windows first” strategies would have simply accelerated its decline.
That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway.