Microsoft is slowly becoming stronger than ever before

A long time ago Microsoft was a company that was young, attractive and exciting. Of course, those aren’t metrics that we could easily quantify but if you look at the company over the last ten years you’ll see that they became boring and increasingly comfortable with what they had and their position in the market despite everyone else accelerating away from them.

The Decline

If you examine the largest shift in mobile in the last decade — the iPhone, which launched in 2007 — and how Microsoft reacted to the device the picture becomes clear. Steve Ballmer laughed at the idea of an expensive phone that didn’t have a keyboard and that he never thought such a device would sell.

Microsoft only reacted to the iPhone three years later in 2010 with the announcement of Windows Phone 7. Today, the iPhone now sees more than one hundred million handsets sold every year.

They also missed the boat on other products such as the tablet PC, the rise of cloud computing as well as portable music but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Microsoft tried tablet PC’s back with Windows 7, there was even a special version of the OS for such devices but they weren’t exactly popular considering their weight and the stylus that was required to use them. Microsoft even tried competing with the iPod seven years after it was announced in 2001 by releasing the Zune. Unfortunately that didn’t pay off and was ultimately killed in 2012 as the company looked elsewhere.

Even some of the first touch mobile phones on the market were running Windows Mobile, but they were often riddled with lag and hard to use. Microsoft was repeatedly late to the market with devices that ultimately weren’t devices that consumers wanted to use and other companies were making Microsoft look like a dinosaur.

The rebirth

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If we jump back to the present it’s miraculous how far the company has come. As Microsoft has gone through their re-branding process they have been transforming the business into a devices and services company. This first came to fruition after the re-brand when the company launched the Surface, their first ever self-built PC.

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We spent the week at Tech Ed in New Zealand, a conference for IT Professionals and felt that for the first time in years people were excited about what the company is doing. There was a palpable buzz in the air. It’s perhaps the first time they’ve ever come to the fight fully prepared with products that look and feel fantastic to use.

With Windows 8.1, the vision of what Windows 8 started is finally showing fruit and hardware manufacturers are starting to get the vision. Microsoft managed to solve their stagnating ‘boring’ PC problem and their lack of a tablet PC competitor with one piece of software: Windows 8.

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This has sparked a change from manufacturers too, where just two years ago the PC market was filled with boring plastic laptops, little differentiation and poor keyboards there are now are hundreds of beautiful hardware options that all look at the way we interact with computers from different perspectives. Microsoft pushed them to create something different and they delivered (some of them with completely crazy takes on how a PC should look).

But that’s only part of the picture too now that Windows Phone 8 is available and the company has two products that look and work almost the same. The hardware ecosystem on Windows Phone — which is largely dominated by Nokia — is full of colorful devices that are extremely unique compared to anything else on the market.

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Even the Xbox One despite much criticism from the market seems to be exciting people and Microsoft had a playable Xbox One on the floor at Tech Ed. It looks and feels like the other products in their lineup with the Modern UI and even the ability to snap applications to the side, like on Windows 8. The Xbox One is an impressive console and in our play through of Forza we were wishing we already owned one. The new controller is amazing – it has vibration motors built into the triggers, so when you accelerate, you feel the acceleration.

The software side of the Microsoft ecosystem is coming together now that Skydrive has essentially become the default way to keep everything in sync. Much like Apple’s iCloud, you’re able to sign in on any Windows 8.1 (or 8) device and settings are pulled down from the cloud.

Much has been said about Apple’s ecosystem and the benefits of using their products exclusively because they all just work together. That is coming under threat now, though, as Microsoft is learning from their mistakes and rapidly moving forward. Skydrive is quickly catching up with iCloud and provided the synchronization features are added to other products such as the Xbox One and Windows Phone in the future it could be even more powerful.

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At Tech Ed, Microsoft showed that they were starting to understand that new ways to win consumers over by inspiring them them with what can be done using their technologies in a fun way. By going right to the edge of what’s possible right now.

Simple examples such as having 3D printers on the floor that use Kinect to make a 3D model of a person and then print that on a 3D printer or a robot that is built with Lego’s Mindstorm EV3 platform and a Surface Pro running Windows 8.1 called “SentryBot”, that tracks motion and reacts to people in the vicinity. You know, just for fun.

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Microsoft is back

We had lots of conversations with those at the conference and the general feeling was that this year, Microsoft finally has all of their products aligned and the company strategy seems to actually make sense to people. The company is very different today and is transforming itself to build not only software but devices to go with it, just like Apple.

This year has seen many significant historic moments in Microsoft history such as the launch of the Surface (and the impending launch of the Surface Pro 2), Steve Ballmer’s resignation and the purchase of Nokia’s devices and services division which all show how serious the company is about getting back in the game.

Microsoft is back and is growing stronger than ever before, but will it work in the long term? We’re excited to find out.